Four Suggestions that Helen Gurley Brown Would Have for Grant Proposal Writers

Alternative title: If Helen Gurley Brown had been a Fundraiser, Cosmopolitan Wouldn't Exist but Grant Proposals Would be More Exciting

Earlier this week, I was captivated by an NPR story on the life of Helen Gurley Brown, longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. (#DrivewayMoment!)

Nothing was handed to Helen Gurley Brown. She held 17 secretarial jobs before becoming an advertising copywriter, an author, and eventually, a high-profile magazine editor.

As she wrote in the introduction to her first book, "I grew up in a small town. I didn't go to college. My family was, and is, desperately poor, and I have always helped support them. I'm an introvert, and I'm sometimes mean and cranky."

Helen Gurley Brown made up a word to describe women like herself: mouseburgers. As explained by her biographer Jennifer Scanlon, "Many of the legion of articles published on Helen Gurley Brown refer to her as a 'mouseburger,' a term she invented to describe a young woman of average looks, with some intelligence, more likely working in a job than pursuing a career. The mouseburger receives little assistance in making her way through life but doggedly perseveres. The mouseburger demonstrates characteristics that bode well for success: an instinctive drive, a willingness to work hard at any task, and a determination to support herself and attain independence."

At heart, Helen Gurley Brown was motivated by women's need for economic freedom. As NPR notes, "she told her readers constantly that the way to get what you want from life is not through your man, but through your work."

Given that she seems to have things figured out, I got to wondering what Helen Gurley Brown would tell a grantwriter to do.

To get some directives, I skimmed Scanlon's biography, Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown(Thank goodness for the Cape May County libraries -- they have everything!)

Here's the advice that I believe Helen Gurley Brown would have for us grantwriting mouseburgers:

1. Write grant proposals in plain, direct language.

Helen Gurley Brown was a great writer. She wrote clear, catchy prose that made her target audience feel that she was speaking to them directly and that she understood what they cared about.

You can do the same in grant proposals -- if you remember that there is a real person behind the foundation's door.

As Pamela Grow (a fundraising expert and top-notch trainer, who previously worked at a foundation for seven years) recently emailed me, "I come from the foundation world myself. It's amazing how dry, didactic and lifeless 90 percent of the proposals that come in are."

I know that there's a lot of pressure from your nonprofit peers to use acronyms and technical terms -- but please don't write proposals using words that can only be understood by the people who work in your organization or field.

Foundations themselves helped to drive us towards ever more jargon-laden language, but they are also calling for relief. Check out these resources from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation for some pointers towards how to write in "plain language."

Also, be sure to read the classic Elements of Style by Strunk and White, which Gurley Brown routinely gave to her Cosmopolitan writers.

2. Enjoy your job -- and if you don't like the organization you're working for, switch to a different nonprofit.

Helen Gurley Brown believed that work is the fundamental road to self-identity. "A job can be your love, your happy pill, your means of finding out who you are and what you can do, your playpen, your family, your entree to a good social life... the most reliable escape from loneliness and your means of participating," she said.

Moreover, she instructed, "a job is where you have to be at a certain time, where people are depending on you to do certain things -- it's great discipline and it gets you out of you."

Although a strong believer that work can be the single best way to get a life, she was not a doormat. In her earlier working years, Gurley Brown job-hopped often, leaving organizations that weren't paying her enough or didn't provide interesting enough tasks.

If you live in a community with a robust nonprofit sector, and you're a good grantwriter, then there are many professional possibilities open to you. Helen Gurley Brown would definitely counsel that you shouldn't let your career stagnate by staying at an organization that no longer resonates with you.

3. Work harder than anyone else does. 

Reflecting on Gurley Brown, biographer Scanlon writes, "she believed above all in work -- hard work. She urged all women, whether they worked as secretaries, flight attendants, or corporate executives, to consider themselves professionals and to set professional goals. After all, as she stated repeatedly in one way or another, 'Nothing is as much fun as achieving.'"

Or, in other words, "You can have almost anything you want out of life if you work like a wharf-rat at everything you take on." (Helen Gurley Brown said that too.)

The best fundraisers spend hours getting a grant proposal right -- from researching the foundation's interests to creating a coherent and compelling proposal, project budget and support documents. As competition for grant dollars gets ever more intense, the quality of your proposals matters greatly.

Furthermore, as you do all this hard work, be mindful of where it can take you.  

As Scanlon writes, "Helen Gurley Brown, having herself moved from secretary to executive secretary to copywriter, wanted her readers to know that job or career advancement was available to women in all sorts of occupations."

Career ladder jobs for grant proposal writers include Development Director, Executive Director or consultant. From grantwriting, you can also move into marketing and program management. To learn more, check out Caroline Reeder's grant development career information.

4. Get thee to therapy.

Helen Gurley Brown was an early adopter of self-help resources, including psychotherapy. Her childhood was difficult (her father died in an elevator accident when she was still in elementary school; as a teenager, her sister became permanently paralyzed due to contracting polio; and her mother was "terminally sad.") Therapy helped Gurley Brown to understand how her past impacted and informed her current actions, and how to feel better about her life.

Not many people talk about this, but nonprofits can be deeply dysfunctional, in part because they can be a high-stress place to work, and in part because they attract a lot of codependent people as staff. (In other words, as Woodie Guthrie sang, "Maybe if I hadn't seen so much hard feelings, I might not could've felt other people's").

Mazarine Treyz and Dan Pallotta have blogged in this rich vein recently.

Probably a lot of people that you work with could use therapy. Maybe you're one of them.

I'm going to write more about the need for an emotionally healthy approach to working in nonprofit fundraising in upcoming months, by the way.


  • It strikes me that the "mouseburger" roots and career trajectory of Mad Men's Peggy Olson is lifted almost directly from Helen Gurley Brown's days as an advertising copywriter. Does this mean that Peggy is going to get a great new job in Season 6?


Does your nonprofit think it's a tiger -- when it is actually a really awesome kitten?



Do your nonprofit's grant proposals accurately communicate the unique core value that the organization delivers? 

In other words... Does your nonprofit think it's a tiger -- when it is actually a really awesome kitten?

Consider these examples of proposals that miss the mark:

  • A farmers' market network submits applications to support markets in low-income communities -- while the organization's real value is that it assists food entrepreneurs in developing sustainable businesses.
  • A zoo submits applications to build a family fitness trail -- while the zoo's real value is that it educates its visitors about world geography and conservation issues.
  • An afterschool program submits applications to raise kids' reading and math test scores through tutoring -- while the program's real value is that it builds positive feelings and attitudes about school among the kids who participate.

The truth is, it can be hard for nonprofits to have an objective view of what they actually contribute to a community or cause.

They may have been doing what they do for so long that they've become locked into narrow definitions of who they are. Nose-to-the-grindstone staffers deliver on their job descriptions but may not have the time or perspective to see the bigger picture. At the same time, well-meaning board members or executive directors may be reinforcing old identities and turf at the expense of newer opportunities for greater impact.

So what can we do about this dilemma? The good news is that you, as a grant professional, can be the change agent who helps a nonprofit to recognize and capitalize on its core value proposition.

Grant professionals can take the lead on facilitating a series of conversations with people on the inside and outside of an organization -- stakeholders including staff and board members, clients, donors, community partners, and even local politicians and reporters. The conversations can be structured as focus groups with someone serving as facilitator and someone else as "scribe" (note-taker).

The point of this process is to learn from your constituents what they count on you to deliver.

If the process reveals that your organization is out of touch with its core value proposition, there are two courses of action for the nonprofit's leaders -- either to change how it describes its programs, or modify the programs themselves. 

Grant development expert Marti Fischer introduced me to these powerful ideas at this year's Grant Professionals Association MidAtlantic Grants Conference, through her workshop on changing the role of the grantwriter. I'm looking forward to seeing Marti's future writings on this topic, which will build on the already extensive research she's done.  


Do you hear the sound of scissors snipping and tape taping across America?

I have a feeling that many people who develop grant proposals for a living are printing and posting this on their office doors today!

This clever montage has been making its way around grants development-related LinkedIn groups, with lots of enthusiastic responses. It was posted on, but with no credit, so I'm not sure who the creator is. (If it's you, Mr., big props to you!)

I think it's hilarious, but I don't really agree with the "what my boss thinks I do" segment. All of the folks I've reported to have shown tremendous respect for grant writing as a profession -- they know how much work goes into the craft because they've done this work themselves.

A good boss (i.e., director of development or executive director) allocates the resources needed for grants development within their organization, and makes grant writers feel valued.

On the other hand, I definitely agree with the "what my mom thinks I do" segment (thanks, Mom -- I know you're reading this!).

And we should perhaps listen to our mothers on this one. The closer we get to feeling the impact of our grant development work on the communities we serve, the more motivated we are to continue doing it well. Word counts and all.