Proposal Writing: Before, During, and After
by Mary Boo, assistant director of NACAC
Proposal writing is more than simply sitting down at your computer and constructing a readable, compelling statement about your goals and ideas. It is part of a complete fundraising processófrom planning the program to identifying funders, and from writing to editing and following up with grant makers.
Gather relevant research, articles, letters, and other supporting materialsIt is often helpful to keep an ongoing file with adoption statistics, articles about your organization or the population you serve, and other resources related to your cause. By gathering these materials as you find them, you create a resource that is ready to use the day you begin writing your proposal. These materials can help you make your case to funders, and demonstrate the importance of your proposed program.
Do your researchOne of the hardest things about finding a grant is identifying a funding organization that meets your needs and provides grants in your area. For more information about this important function, see the article on locating grant makers.
Request funding guidelines from potential fundersOnce you have identified a grant maker that may fit your needs, you should call, write, or e-mail to request funding guidelines. These guidelines often provide critical information that can affect the results of your request, including the types of grants made, the geographical area covered, deadlines for submissions, and requirements for proposals. When you receive the guidelines, review them to be sure your group is eligible.
Talk with representatives from the best prospectsAs in all fundraising efforts, relationships are crucial to proposal writing success. Whenever possible, you should talk to the people involved in making funding decisions. At larger foundations, this might be the program officer who focuses on families or childrenís issues. In a corporation, it might be the director of public relations or community affairs. You should know, however, that some funders do not want to receive phone calls, usually because they have no staff or too small a staff to handle individual requests for information. Again, the best way to know how to approach the funder is through its funding guidelines or other information it provides to potential grantees.
Select one or more funders to targetGenerally, it is a good idea to limit the number of funders to whom you send a proposal. Choose only those funding organizations whose guidelines encompass your program. Feel free to interpret the guidelines broadly, but do not ignore them. For example, if a foundation supports health care programs, they may well be interested in helping children who have special needs. Similarly, an organization that focuses on womenís issues might be willing to fund programs to support single adoptive mothers. On the other hand, if an organization specifically states that it does not fund conferences, do not send an application to fund an educational seminar. If you serve only children and families in the state of Georgia, you should not send a proposal to a funder that gives grants only in the western United States. If you are in doubt about whether your program fits, call the funding organization or send a preliminary letter before you send a complete proposal.
While you can choose to send a generic proposal to a large list of potential funders, this is usually a waste of your time and the funders'. Foundation program officer Ilene Mack explains, "It is more efficient and in the end more beneficial to send appropriate requests to fewer organizations than to send a shower of appeals in the hopes that one may land in the right place. While you may not receive an approval or even a hearing on the first attempt, if the appeal has been well thought out and is indeed within the guidelines of the foundation, the impression left is a positive one and the next time you try, you may be more successful."
Submit a letter of intentAs you review grant makers' requirements, note whether or not they require a phone call or letter of intent. Many larger funding organizations ask for a one- or two-page description of your program before you submit a proposal. Mary Hall, the author of Getting Funded: A Complete Guide to Proposal Writing suggests writing a letter of inquiry in almost every case. This helps to ensure that you have a chance of getting funded before you invest a lot of time in writing a full proposal.
Once you have selected one or more funders, it's time to write the proposal (or modify a proposal you have submitted before).
Review the guidelinesFunding guidelines provide information about the types of programs funded, but also provide additional information about the proposal's content, length, format, and organization. As you outline your proposal, tailor the information to meet the funder's requirements. Some fundersparticularly government agencieshave detailed formatting and organizing rules that, if ignored, can result in a rejection of funding.
Some funders also give you the criteria that will be used to judge a proposal. For example, they may say the Approach section will be judged by how well you describe the population to be served, the specific services you will provide, any partnering organizations, and an evaluation plan. If you have criteria such as this, you can create a checklist to use as you write. Once you have finished a draft of the proposal, review it with the check list in hand to be sure you have covered everything the funder requires.
Organize the proposalIf there are no specific guidelines about how to organize your proposal, consider using the following categories or others like them:
- Purpose: The purpose section should include both a description of the organization's overall mission and goals, as well as specific information about the program's objectives and desired outcomes. Outcomes should include specific impacts on the people served, such as 25 families will have the respite care they need, 20 children will be placed with adoptive families, 15 children will have a reduction in difficulties at school, etc.
- Need: In this section, explain the community's needs, related statistics, personal stories, and other details that present a compelling picture of why your program is necessary. If possible, include information gathered during meetings with clients and other members of the community you serve to demonstrate the need that your program aims to meet.
- Approach/Procedures: This portion of the proposal should identify the services to be offeredhow, when, and to whomand why these services will achieve the outcomes described above. You can include information about how the program fits with your other services, and how and why you chose this particular approach.
- Evaluation: Write a summary of how you will judge the success of your program, including evaluation activities such as surveys, interviews, or focus groups that can help you make ongoing changes in the program while you operate it, and other activities to determine overall outcomes for the people you serve. State how you will show the funder that the program is an effective use of its money.
- Qualifications: This section allows you to describe your group and its ability to offer this program. You can include lists of similar successful programs operated by your organization, staff job descriptions and experience, and information about any partnering organizationís role and qualifications.
- Budget: There are two elements to a proposal's budget: a detailed line-item budget and a budget narrative. The line-item budget should include categories such as salaries, benefits, travel, consultants/contractors, supplies, equipment, printing, overhead or administration, etc. The budget narrative explains your categories and how you arrived at the line items. (For example, "Travel costs for the educational retreat include mileage reimbursement for four trainers and three staff members, lodging for all 35 participants, and a per diem of $45 for trainers and staff members."). This section should also include information about other current and potential sources of funding, as well as how you will continue the program into the future. All volunteer time may be priced out and used as matching funds.
- Attachments: Review funding guidelines to determine what types of attachments to the proposal are required or allowed. Some funders request IRS 990s, IRS letters showing 501(c)(3) status, audits, letters from partnering organizations, resumes, and job descriptions. Many funders discourage the inclusion of videos, brochures, or other extraneous materials that they will never have time to review.
Explain why your program is necessaryIt is critical that you explain why your program is important. Some things that seem basic to you may not be obvious to others. For example, the renewed calls for orphanages each year show that not everyone understands why children even need a family of their own. Your proposal must explicitly state why children need families, what in particular makes adoptive families more vulnerable and more in need of services, and how and why your services will meet these families' special needs. Never assume that your proposal readers already think the way that you doyou have to help them see the world from your point of view.
Write using simple language aimed at an intelligent, yet potentially uninformed audienceIn most cases, proposal reviewers have significant knowledge about social issues and worthy causes, and understand nonprofit organizations. They may not, however, know a lot about special needs adoption or the types of services you want to offer, so you should avoid the use of jargon. Phrases such as ADHD, fetal alcohol, home study, etc., may be part of your everyday language, but they are not necessarily familiar to those outside the adoption community. An excellent way to check for the use of jargon is to ask a friend or family member to read the proposal and note anything they do not understand.
Use a variety of techniques to make your caseWhenever possible, use a combination of statistics and stories to paint a detailed picture. Some proposal writers rely exclusively on numbers to make their points: "More than 117,000 children need a family." Others tell only stories about children or families they serve: "Jimmy is an outgoing, smiling child of eight who needs a family of his own." The best proposals use both: "Jimmy is a happy child in spite of the years he has spent in foster care and the abuse he suffered in his young life. He needs a loving family of his own to help him heal his past wounds and grow into a successful, secure adult. Unfortunately, Jimmy is not alone. In the United States today, more than 117,000 children wait in foster care for a permanent adoptive family." A combination of stories and statistics stimulate emotions while showing the magnitude of the need.
Format the documentWhile your program design and the selection of the potential grant maker are the most important elements of grant making, formatting the proposal matters more than you might think. Documents that are hard to read or unattractive can diminish a powerful idea. The easiest-to-read proposals include a lot of white space, use of a serif font such as Times Roman, page numbers, and ragged right-hand margins. Bullet lists and subheadings also make long proposals easier to read. Finally, keep the proposal as short as possible. While federal or other government agencies may want 40- to 60-page proposals, foundations often want only 2 to 10 pages.
Edit the proposalThe person who writes the proposal should probably do the first edit as well, re-reading it for clarity and consistency, and to check for adherence to the funding guidelines. Next, another person with detailed information about the program should review the document and suggest additions, clarifications, and other changes. Finally, someone with a writing and editing background should be enlisted to edit the documentóaddressing issues of word choice, grammar, overall structure, clarity, effectiveness, and more. One thing to look for in editing is the use of the passive voice. While fine from time to time, the active voice is much more persuasive in a grant request. For example, an editor might replace "Parents will receive resources from staff," with "Our volunteer group of foster and adoptive parents will provide emotional support, information, and resources to parents in need."
Proofread the documentAfter the writer has incorporated the suggestions made during the editing process, someone should proofread the proposal for typos, bad page breaks, formatting inconsistencies, and the like.
After you have submitted your proposal, you may want to check in with the grant maker to learn more about the decision making process. Larger funders often have board meetings or committee meetings during which the proposals will be reviewed. In some cases, the funder may request additional information, schedule a site visit, or otherwise follow up on your proposals. In others, however, you will hear nothing until the decision has been made.
Once you have received the final decision, there are several things you can do to build a continuing relationship with the funding source. If you receive the funds, you should send a thank you letter along with any letters of commitment, contracts, or other requested documentation. Be careful to note the funder's guidelines related to payment terms, required interim and final reports, and any restrictions on the funding. You should also call your contact to learn why the program was funded (which is useful for future submissions), and to see what the funderís role will be as you move forward. Some funders want to play an active role in your program, while others simply want to be sure that the funds are used responsibility and as proposed.
If your proposal was rejected, you should try to find out why. Call the funding organization and ask if they can give you specific reasons for the rejection. It is extremely useful to know if the program did not fit the organization's priorities, or if there was a flaw in the proposal, budget, or program design that bothered the decision makers. The more information you gather, the better your next proposal will be. If you use each proposal submission as a learning experience, proposal writing can help you build better programs, offer improved services to children and families, and make your organization stronger.