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Breaking the Chains of Boring and Predictability in Proposal Writing

Systemic… Innovative… Critical… Capacity… Strategic… Collaborative… Intentional

How many of these buzz words are you sick of hearing? I could write a million grants and never, ever use the word sustainable again. I cringe when I read normal grant speak style language. Yet, we have to do it.

How do you answer the sustainability question without mentioning it, or talk about partnerships without saying collaboration? And while some of it is unavoidable, the reality is we can be more creative and more engaging with just a tiny bit of effort.
I write how I like to read. And that's tough, because we want to impress these fancy foundation folks with our big words and vast knowledge of the English language. And it seems like talking about how our program will bring critical, systemic change to the community is the way to get the point across. And maybe sometimes it is. But I know when I read that myself, my eyes roll. It seems insincere, trite, and naïve.
So then, how do we catch the reader's eye and keep them engaged throughout the proposal, when they likely have 20 or 30 more proposals to read? Here are my hard and fast rules for ensuring your proposal gets the attention your programs deserve:

  1. Incorporate success stories throughout the proposal. This is hard when you have very limited character spaces, but there are often times when you have a few filler sentences that could be eliminated for a line or two about a program participant that achieved success. Put a face on the project, let the funder see the humanity in the investment you are asking her to make. 
  2. Use interesting sentence structure. Let me preface this by saying, I am a big fan of short, easy to read sentences. I prefer my narratives be clear, to the point, and  easily digested. But that doesn't mean they need to follow the same format as my fifth grader's essays of subject-verb-object (“Thomas Jefferson was our third president. He lived in France. Some say he was a coward, but I liked him.” -direct quote from a 10 year old history fan).
a. Mix up objects and subjects: Thomas Jefferson was our third president. Our third president was Thomas Jefferson.
b. Use semicolons to combine sentences in the same train of thought: Thomas Jefferson was our third president; he lived in France.
c. Add quotes: Thomas Jefferson is my favorite president because of his elegant use of language, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
d. Utilize appropriate literacy devices such as alliteration, colloquialism, and metaphors/similes. 
  1. Use active voice, unless you have a specific reason to switch it up and it does NOT make the sentence awkward or clunky. If you are not a seasoned writer, avoid passive altogether.
  1. Get rid of fillers and make concrete statements. You do not need to say, “This program is focused on improving .” Just say “This program improves .” And for Pete's sake, stop using future continuous grammar: This program will be serving 80 youth. versus This program serves 80 youth.
We are trained in school to fill pages; often we do not realize how many unnecessary words plague our writing. All of that distracts the funder from understanding the program that needs funding.
What tips do you have to bring life to your grant proposals?
April Koske has 15 years of experience working for nonprofits in Omaha, Nebraska and is currently a senior grant writing consultant with Vic Gutman & Associates.

GPC Competency: 04. Effective Grant Applications


By: Barbara Gorzinski
On: 06/11/2019 19:03:07
"And for Pete's sake, stop using future continuous grammar..." I love that directive most of all. I will embroider it on a pillow or something.

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