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4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42: Numbers that tell a story

What are 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42? The neighborhood gate code? The best pages in “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland”? On their own, these numbers don't say much. In context, however, the numbers begin to tell the story of plane crash survivors who land on a mysterious island in 2004. The title of their television narrative is “Lost.”

Proposal budgets can hold similar mystery. When budgets are read in isolation, reviewers can feel lost. Despite this, GPA, Foundation Center, and publisher Jossey-Bass all note that reviewers often read the budget before reading anything else in the proposal. Developing a clear and comprehensive budget can help lessen that mystery.
Every Story has a Genre – Follow the Guidelines
Every element of a proposal, from the attachments to the submission date, lend to your story. Even the piece that often doesn't include full sentences: the budget. Each foundation has their own preference for the budget format. Regardless of your preferred template, it will work against you if it does not align with the foundation's requirements. Draft the budget early in the proposal development process so that you have time to get more details, rearrange what is included in each line item, or make other adjustments based on the foundation's interests. 
A Television Show is More than the Actors - Imagine a Day in the Life of the Program
I am a visual learner. I often close my eyes while I am typing, so that I can picture what I am writing about (even if that creates more typos to correct). Who walks in the door first? Do they flip on the lights, or open a gate? Do they wave hello to security staff who were working the night before? Who is their first appointment with? Does that appointment require going to a park? How do they get there?
This process is laborious to type, but I can see each step clearly as I visualize the day. Each element will track back to a part of the program. From there, I can make sure that all expenses are accounted for in the budget, and explained in the narrative.
If you have a different learning style, find your way to go through the day, such as writing it on a white board, observing people walking into the office, or making an hourly schedule. Guiding questions might include: What is happening? Where are they? Who is involved? What are they using? Who is providing “behind the scenes” support (i.e.: finance, human resources, insurance, maintenance)?
Who Else is Watching? - Show Support
Just like people seek reviews - created by critics and friends - before investing time in a new series, funders look at the list of foundations, that have committed to the program, to evaluate the organization's credibility. If a well-known foundation has already vetted and funded your organization, other foundations might follow their lead and accept their grant award as an unofficial seal of approval. The budget should show that individuals, corporations, and other foundations believe in the program, and are willing to support it financially.
There seems to be a shift, within our profession's terminology, from “writer” to “proposal developer.” GPA is ahead of the curve; they have used the term “grant professionals” since 1998, and the GPCI Competencies include much more than writing. By building your competency in these areas, your reader will have a better understanding of your organization, and will feel less like a character on “Lost.”
Review a budget that you submitted many years ago. Without looking at the narrative, can you tell what story the program is telling?

Jen Hurst, M.A. has developed programs and strategies for nonprofits since middle school, when she and a few friends started their philanthropic work by raising $150 for the local animal shelter.



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