Joseph Barbato's book How to Write Knockout Proposals is a quick, fun read chock full of seasoned advice that will improve your proposal-writing prowess.
As inspired by the book, I suggest the following ten knockout punches that will make you a proposal-winning prizefighter.
Knockout Punch 1: Ask for money for what your organization already does well.
This is an elegantly simple, but sadly overlooked, guiding concept.
At the end of the day, funders want to invest in strategies that they believe work well and will have an impact.
It's easy to make modifications and updates to well-functioning programs. It's harder, and often less effective, to create new niches and programs.
Knockout Punch 2: Stay away from projects that aren’t ready for proposals.
Mr. Barbato cautions us to be leery of developing proposals with nonprofit program directors who haven’t yet gotten their project to “gel” (a concept you’ll be familiar with if you like to make jam).
In this scenario, the program director knows that he or she wants funding, but hasn't figured out the details of the program (how much it will cost, how it will be staffed, etc.).
There's no point to using valuable agency time to write a proposal (and wasting a funder's time too) until the director is clear on the goals and expected outcomes of the project.
Knockout Punch 3: Meet with the funder before you write the proposal.
When the funder is a co-architect of the proposal, it is so much more likely to be funded.
Sure, a meeting could result in you being discouraged from submitting a proposal--but in my experience, that is pretty rare.
More often, the program officer or donor will listen to you describe your concept, then make some suggestions about highlighting a certain aspect of the project, or even not mentioning a specific aspect of the project, that will put your proposal at the top of the pile.
Knockout Punch 4: Pretend you are a reporter for The New York Times.
So many nonprofiteers use big words and jargon, and don’t even try to make their writing accessible to non-specialists.
But you shouldn't really do this.
Take some cues from journalists: tell a good story; explain a technical term the first time it is used; and don’t shy away from complexity when it is warranted.
Knockout Punch 5: Don't make stuff up.
I am so bummed to have to write this because “making stuff up” for a proposal is unethical and unacceptable. But I know that people sometimes do it.
Anyone who tells me they have simply invented information about a program--and blames a pressing deadline or uncooperative program staffer--goes on my short list of people who are not credible development professionals.
Barbato explains this well on page 54, stating, "good information isn't somebody's notion, or a number someone cooked up. Good information is accurate, credible and bankable. It's what you're asking a donor to invest in, so it had better be the real thing."
Knockout Punch 6: After you've gathered the information you'll need for the proposal, write a simple outline.
I find that when I have a basic outline in place, the proposal practically writes itself. (I just have to show up at the keyboard.)
An outline is a time-saver and a sanity-saver.
With an outline, your mental energy isn't diverted by questions about how to organize the sequence of information; you’ve already given yourself a scaffolding (and plugged in any text that you already have on hand into the right places). Barbaro does caution not to get carried away with this and create a super-elaborate detailed outline.
Knockout Punch 7: Create an appendix of information to include with the proposal.
The appendix allows you to add information to a proposal without clogging the narrative with lots of text.
Barbato recommends appeasing a staff member subject matter expert who wants to include technical information in the proposal by putting this into a special appendix.
You can also use the appendix to address an area that you know is of special interest to the funder.
Knockout Punch 8: Format the proposal with charts, pull quotes and headings/subheadings.
Barbato advises us to assume that at least one board member will only skim your proposal (not read it).
Make the skimming a worthwhile experience by writing substantive and engaging proposal titles, headings and subheadings, and other text that will jump out at a glance.
I recently saw a Boys and Girls Club proposal that made good use of this idea. They added two simple text boxes to the 3-page proposal narrative, one with a quote from a teacher about how the program had improved a student’s life, and another with strong statistics about program effectiveness.
Knockout Punch 9: Make the proposal meticulously neat.
Once you've written crisp, compelling text, it's now your job to format it so the proposal pops.
This is about putting page breaks between paragraphs and proposal sections as appropriate, adding page numbers and other elements that make the proposal easier to read, and being meticulous about attachments. If you can't make an attachment such as a copy of a newspaper article look really nice on the page, don't include it.
Knockout Punch 10: Make no assumptions about the funding decision until you have a check in hand.
Typically, no single person has total control over how grant funds are allocated.
For example, the philanthropy program officer for a corporation may seem to be the powerful gatekeeper, but ultimately all submitted proposals will be reviewed by a committee of five corporate staffers, who may not choose the program officer’s favored proposal for funding due to their own beliefs about what should be supported.
I enthusiastically recommend How to Write Knockout Proposals.
Just one caveat: In his Amazon review of the book, Michael Wyland notes that How to Write Knockout Proposals doesn't include strategies for government applications. I noticed the same issue. Barbato’s advice is best for those writing proposals to major donors and family foundations. Some of his suggestions regarding presentation of the proposal and funder communication wouldn't fly for federal, state or county proposals, which don’t allow for much creativity in such items as attachments and may limit contact with the program officer.
That limitation aside, this is still a great book. As Joel Orosz (who worked as a grantmaker for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation) notes in the forward, "there is no shortage of books that offer to help you through the proposal-writing maze, but most fall into one of two traps. They are either windy tomes that bewilder you with complex details, or glib strings of simplistic platitudes that leave you no smarter after you've read them than you were before."
Knockout punches are more fun, but I also recommend keeping at least one of the better windy tomes on your bookshelf. Because they are formatted like reference books or textbooks, you can turn to them for guidance on tricky situations such as how to calculate and justify overhead expenses in a budget. In a future post I will recommend a couple of my favorite windy tomes.