This guest post is from Dana Textoris, Executive Consultant, Grants Plus
If you're reading this with eyes as bleary as mine, then you know something big happened last night.
I'm not just talking about the Cleveland Cavaliers' stunning victory in the NBA Finals. I'm talking about something even bigger. Last night, Cleveland changed its story.
For decades Cleveland's been unable to shake itself free of a powerful and dispiriting narrative: Cleveland the underdog, the chump, the perpetual loser, the Mistake on the Lake, the ("insert from long list of unfortunate monikers"), the actual holder of the title "Most Miserable City."
That Cleveland's been the butt of jokes so often and so long is significant in the contrast to a very different story about Cleveland that’s just as old: Cleveland, once one of the largest and richest cities in the country; Cleveland, birthplace of the world's first community foundation; Cleveland, home today to the nation's largest performing arts center outside of NYC and internationally renowned cultural institutions.
How can these Clevelands exist simultaneously? How can Cleveland maintain both these identities? Because narrative has such tremendous power.
Then last night, the story of "Cleveland the loser" was smashed as a city erupted and a new story of "Cleveland the champion" was born.
What can your nonprofit learn from Cleveland and the Cavaliers? That there’s a powerful narrative that exists about your organization—whether you are actively writing it or not—and that you can take better hold of that story, in part by how you shape your grant proposals.
What story are you telling to grant funders about your organization’s impact? Are you keeping the ball in your court—or has the narrative about your nonprofit taken on a life of its own? It’s time to be MVP in your organization, seize control, and find out: Is your grant writing #AllIn?
In this post and a sequel coming soon, we’re taking a page from the Cavs winning playbook to help you make sure your grant proposals are a slam dunk. Today we’ll focus on writing from the point of view of the reader. In our next post in this series, we’ll give you our pointers on pumping up your proposals by hanging your story on the most powerful narrative framework.
Do it for the fans: Write from the perspective of the reader
It can be dangerous to be too close to the story. When you're in the work of your organization every day, your grant writing can go on autopilot, resulting in proposals that are dull to read, difficult to understand, or woefully underwhelming.
In the process of writing or editing your proposal, it’s important to actively remind yourself that a human reader is on the other side. You have options: your proposal can be the one that inspires a concentration headache and a nap—or it can be the one a program officer can’t put down. Some people think grant writing is inherently bone dry and that what matters is just the importance of the subject matter, not the quality of the writing. But at its best, a grant proposal should be a lively, persuasive document that is enjoyable to read and easy to follow, that will motivate someone to action—specifically, motivate a program officer to advocate for your organization and slam a big stamp of approval on your grant request.
Like basketball or anything else, writing improves with discipline, focus, and practice. It’s important to step back from your grant writing process and see where your game may be off. We advise that you look closely at an existing grant proposal (or one you are working on now!) and check it against the following criteria:
1. Is your grant proposal PERSUASIVE? Use this checklist to determine if you are persuading the reader that your organization or project is needed, credible, achievable, and unique:
- The idea addresses a need
- The need is urgent—funding is critical now
- Your organization and its staff are qualified
- The goals are achievable and measurable
- The activities and methods are well planned
- The proposal budget is reasonable and matches the narrative
- The organization or project is unique and better than similar organizations/projects
2. Is your grant proposal CLEAR? It’s time to be your own harsh critic or, if your ego can handle it, ask someone else to give your grant proposal a fair review. Is your document overrun with jargon, longwinded sentences, or dense passages? Are descriptions that should be simple way too complicated? Sometimes in an attempt to impress the reader, we end up confusing them instead. Don’t let your writing get in the way of the reader’s understanding. Simple, clear writing is what they need to get our meaning. Make it a part of your grant writing discipline to practice expressing even complex ideas as simply as possible. Grammar Girl has a page of great tips on writing simpler sentences and we’ll also leave you with some of our own:
- Think before you write. Be clear about the idea you want to convey, then write.
- Use familiar, concrete words. Avoid pretension and unhelpful jargon (or explain it).
- Limit each sentence to a single idea. Aim for several short sentences over a single overly complex one.
- Write in active voice (where the subject of the sentence performs the action—for example, “The Board approved the request,” not “The request was approved by the Board”), except where there is good reason to write in passive voice.
- Don’t bury your points: Construct your sentences and paragraphs so that main ideas are emphasized and clear.
3. Is your grant proposal LOGICAL? As we’ve already pointed out, your most important responsibility as a writer is to help your reader understand. Using familiar words and writing simple sentences is half the game, but also key to clarity is sequencing ideas so that they follow logically. As a reader, have you ever found yourself going back a page because you’ve lost track of what the writer is trying to say? You don’t want a busy program officer to set aside your grant proposal and move on to the next one because you’ve lost them in the weeds. Instead, you want them to get lost in the writing because it’s so easy (and pleasant) to follow. Before you put words to the page, think through both of these layers:
- Angle: What does the reader need to hear to make this case compelling? (This is about content—what information and ideas you include.)
- Arc: How do ideas need to be shaped and order to compel the reader? (This is about structure—what ideas are introduced when, so the reader’s understanding can develop in a gradual and logical order.)
Remember: the job of the reader should be easy. The hard work is on your end, to plan, shape, and execute the grant proposal so that it is compelling, clear, and logical to understand. Review your grant writing to see how you match up to these criteria, then practice the drill every day. Over time, you can be just like King James, who makes the game look so easy, we forget just how hard Cleveland worked to get here. #BelieveLand
Don’t forget to check back for our second post in this series, to find out how to write a winning narrative for your organization.
Dana Textoris, Executive Consultant, Grants Plus, has led development initiatives for major institutions, grassroots organizations, and political campaigns in California and Ohio. Dana is a member of the Board of Directors of FrontLine Service and is active with the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Cleveland Chapter. She holds a BA with distinction in Women’s Studies from The Ohio State University.