A holiday story starring a grant proposal writer!

NoraNora Gallagher, a nonprofit grant writer, has been having a very bad day.  She got rejected for a grant, her boss yelled at her and her long-time boyfriend informed he would not be spending Christmas with her.   Are you hooked yet?

Nora is the heroine of "Certain Poor Shepherds, A Christmas Tale," a radio show performed by staff of Philadelphia's public radio station WHYY. (Yes, you read correctly -- a grant writer as main character and heroine! Today, WHYY; tomorrow, Hollywood!)

You can listen to all of the serial episodes here! (They were aired on the radio on Dec. 23, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.)

Thanks, WHYY, for honoring the profession of grant proposal writers in such a nice way!

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?