The following post is adapted from “All Thumbs?: How Nonverbal and Verbal Skills Can Make All the Difference with Donors — and Why Young Fundraisers Should Care,” by Paul Lagasse and Mary Ellen Collins, Advancing Philanthropy, v17n4, July-August 2010 (reprinted with permission) You can read the whole article here.
Accurate, clear and persuasive written communication is essential for successful fundraising, particularly for grant proposals, says Diane M. Gedeon-Martin, president of The Write Source LLC, a grant-writing consultancy based in Glastonbury, Conn. She believes that proposal writing is becoming a lost art in part because technologies that were developed to help people communicate more quickly have instead made it easier for people to communicate more frequently, with a resulting loss in quality amid the density. “Proposal writing is something we must champion because grant makers often look unfavorably on proposals that are poorly written,” she explains. “Grant makers are very savvy these days, and if there’s a similar proposal that articulates the need and project description well, they may place a higher priority on the one that they can fully grasp the concept of.”
Gedeon-Martin, who is on the faculty of the Fund Raising School at Indiana University, recently completed a two-day basic grant-proposal writing course that exemplifies the dilemma. “Here were 50 people in my session, with one-half of them under the age of 30,” she recalls. “I spent a lot of time educating them on proper grammar, style and voice.”
Those basics can make or break a grant proposal and, by extension, the nonprofit that needs the money. “Poor writing skills suggest an inability of organizations and their personnel to manage funds,” Gedeon-Martin stresses.
Perhaps ironically, the trend toward ever-shorter communications spurred by text messaging and email has affected grant proposals, too, as more corporate and larger foundation grant makers switch to online-only submissions that place a cap on the number of characters allowed and reduce or eliminate altogether opportunities for face-to-face or telephone meetings. This compression has made it harder for grant seekers, as they try to write persuasive case statements in 2,000 characters or less. “The day of 12- or 15-page grant proposals to foundations and corporations are long gone,” Gedeon-Martin explains. “The attention span of reviewers is compromised when they have to read 20 to 30 proposals in a day. How can we keep their attention? We have to write differently by getting to our point quickly. We need to keep them reading.”
At a time when more and more nonprofits are seeking grants just to be able to keep their doors open, the attention-grabbing power of words is that much more important. “You’re not just writing a grant proposal,” Gedeon-Martin emphasizes. “You’re writing an introduction to your whole organization. It might be the only thing they see from you, so it needs to be the best thing you’ve ever written.”
To make sure it is, the writing must do the following:
- Be persuasive. Get the reviewer to see your point of view, convince them that you can achieve the outcomes, focusing on how you will achieve the grant maker’s mission.
- Speak in terms of quantity and quality. Discuss current and future target populations in detail, provide numbers and highlight the distinctiveness of your program.
- Demonstrate program competence. Discuss the accomplishments of past and current programs, and provide a detailed schedule for the program for which you’re seeking funds.
- Be punchy. Use small paragraphs made up of small sentences and use active voice to grab the reader’s attention.
An assessment of the writing skills of more than 165,000 eighth- and twelfth-graders conducted in 2007 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that while students’ writing scores had been improving slightly overall, only 33 percent of eighth graders and 24 percent of twelfth graders were writing at or above grade-level proficiency. So will we soon reach a point where we have to teach basic writing skills to fundraisers? Probably not. Instead, strong mentor relationships can go a long way toward correcting deficiencies in nonverbal and written communications skills. By working closely with people older and more experienced than themselves — accompanying them on solicitation visits, drafting correspondence, attending meetings — young fundraisers can absorb a lot just by watching and listening.