"What Not to Wear" When You're Writing a Grant Proposal

One of my favorite books for grant seekers is Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal, by Martin Teitel, published in 2006.

Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal is the What Not to Wear of the grantseeking world. Grab the popcorn and let's watch them both:

  • What Not to Wear -- "Stacy London and Clinton Kelly help the frumpy by giving them life-changing fashion makeovers and fashion advice."
  • Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal -- "Martin Teitel helps the hapless nonprofits by giving them organization-changing proposal makeovers and funder cultivation advice."

In the style of What Not to Wear, here's a sampling of Mr. Teitel's best advice.  Buy the book for the complete set of instructions!

What Not to Do:

  • Don't neglect to connect the line items in the budget with project objectives and activities. All budget line items should be noted/explained in the proposal narrative.  "Budgets that don't add up" are a top reason for proposal rejections (p. 120).
  • Don't show up to funder meetings/visits empty-handed -- make sure to bring a folder of information about your organization and your business card (p. 74). Don't take this too far, though. Due to  power balance issues, funders can't accept gifts from potential grantees, so avoid bringing promotional items of any real dollar value. If it's a calendar, it's probably fine; if it's gold-plated, it's not.
  • Don't submit grant reports that ignore the reporting guidelines, or arrive late, or don't arrive at all. "The group that is late or fails to comply with reporting guidelines will be on shaky ground for renewal funding" (p. 95).

What Not to Write:

  • Don't write that your project/organization is "unique," "innovative" or any other vague and superlative word. As Mr. Teitel advises, "avoid the sticky pit of buzzwords" (p. 38).
  • Don't populate the proposal's evaluation section with "nonsensical self-referencing metrics, along the lines of, 'we will measure our success using standard means of success measurements'" (p. 67).
  • Don't write the word "lobbying" in connection to your organization's work--it is an automatic red flag (p. 53). Policy-influencing nonprofits get grants every day by describing their work as "policy development," "policy education" and "policy research"--never as "lobbying."

And What You Should Do:

  • Craft your project summary and needs statement so you are inviting the funder to join in your organization's excellent, exciting work -- rather than cajoling them to avert an awful catastrophe such as your nonprofit going out of business (p. 47).
  • Start in-person meetings with funders by deftly giving them a sense of control over the flow of the conversation. The question to ask is, "Do you have some things you'd like to cover about our proposal, or would you like me to start with a few brief remarks about our work?" This will focus the meeting, and honors the funder's needs above your own (p. 74).
  • Directly ask the funder for a reasonable grant range for your project. In the course of conversation about the proposed project , you can figure out how much money to request by stating the grant size you have in mind, then simply asking the program officer, "Do you think I'm asking for the right amount of money?" (p. 134).

And What You Should Write:

  • Write the funder's key words into your project's summary, as appropriate (p. 53).
  • Write a brief explanation of why your organization's issue is important to its board members and/or founding and key staff (p. 55). This can be included within the background or needs statement, and it can really help a funder understand the relevance of your mission.
  • Write a simple letter inviting the funder to visit your organization/project site, especially if the funder has invited a full proposal as a result of your letter of inquiry (p. 79).

If you are submitting proposals to family foundations with professional staff, this book will be a great addition to your reference shelf! (And when you land a meeting with a funder by following the book's advice, go here to find out what to wear.)