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Winning Over the Foundation: Three Tips for Reaching Hearts and Minds

When appealing to foundations for grant money, success depends on a considered mix of art and science. As an art, it requires telling a story so vividly that, as it’s read, it evokes a storyboard of images and an emotional connection. As a science, it requires an evidence-based case for your organization as a win/win investment: aiding the community while making sound economic sense.

Balancing the art and science of grant proposals means the perfect combination of pulling at the heart strings and making a forceful intellectual argument, putting readers in the shoes of the beneficiary while offering a return-on-investment proposition that makes saying yes a no-brainer.

Here are a few tips I use to reach that balance. (Note that the approaches suggested here are for foundation proposals only: Government proposal writing is very different.)
 

Tip #1: Writing is an art, and art is about expression.

When we view a painting, we rarely think about what could have been done better. Instead, we accept it as a product of the artist’s personal expression. Grant writing is no different.

One of the biggest challenges to writing grant narratives is the pressure—often internal—to say everything “the right way.” This leads us to think too hard about how to state a point. The right way, of course, is relative—and I propose that grant proposal narratives should be more conversational than you probably think.

In my classes, I ask people to tell me about their work. Their responses are typically full of passion; everyone in the room feels it. Once we get to the class exercise, however, they get caught up trying to describe their work on paper. My solution, every time: “Write down what you just told us.”

If conversational language is okay when speaking with a donor face-to-face, why not use it when writing? When we engage donors, our primary intention is to make them comfortable.

If conversational language is okay when speaking with a donor face-to-face, why not use it when writing? A grant narrative doesn’t have to be like an academic paper: It can side-step boundaries of perfect grammar or exact quotation; it can even incorporate slang and colloquialism. When we engage donors, our primary intention is to make them comfortable. The grant proposal is the same thing: engaging donors, just on paper.
 

Tip #2: Back up expression with assessment.

Despite the label, nonprofits are businesses, and should operate as such; the days of winning grants with zero accountability are over. The organizations that win the most grants are those with the strongest business strategies. Funders want to see us operating with surpluses, that we’ll survive even without the grant, and that our services can produce a real return on investment.

Funders want to see us operating with surpluses, that we’ll survive even without the grant, and that our services can produce a real return on investment.

To let funders know we operate strategically, a grant proposal should communicate our organization’s SWOTs: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. By demonstrating that we are paying attention to all the factors affecting our work, we prove ourselves aware, able to plan effectively, and ready to adapt.
 

Tip #3: Honesty is the best policy.

Using the grant proposal as an open door, we want to invite the funder to tour our world. If we have strong programs and the data to back it up, we might think we’re on our way to a successful proposal. That’s a good start, but we also need to be up-front about the challenges we face—and the plans we have to meet them.

Being transparent about challenges pays off because every enterprise faces them. The ability to anticipate and overcome adversity is another sign of strength, and further proves your case as a smart investment.

Being transparent about challenges pays off because every enterprise faces them.

Of course, there are many ways to write a grant proposal. It is my hope that these points can help you realize greater success with your own approach to grant-writing. To learn more of these tactics, attend my next Writing Winning Grants clinic at GCN’s Nonprofit University, offered four times a year.

Chataun Denis is a business coach, grant writer, and trainer, as well as founder and chief consultant at Grant Source.

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