Years ago, Lisa Rudy, our grant writing specialist, taught classes on how to write grant proposals. Occasionally, she says, students would turn in assignments with statements like these:
- This project is worthy and will succeed.
- We will reach and teach families across America.
- Our project will improve community awareness of the importance of art and culture.
- The YMCA will develop and present an online training program for physical and occupational therapists.
- The program will run in community locations.
- Our organization started up in September, and plans to house 500 homeless families by February.
What’s wrong with these statements?
Imagine you’re reviewing a stack of proposals. Each comes from a legitimate non-profit, each was submitted on time, and each includes the right paperwork, signatures, and budget. Which will your foundation fund? Each of the statements above represents an opportunity to improve your self-presentation, and increase your likelihood of winning.
1. Be specific about the purpose and goals of your project
When a reviewer reads a sentence like “This project is worthy and will succeed,” she is likely to wonder “why is the writer bothering to make such a general and unsubstantiated statement?” If you, the proposer, don’t believe your project is worthy and likely to succeed, you shouldn’t be bothering to write the proposal. And if you know your project IS worthy and important, you should be providing specific information about HOW and WHY this is the case. Even when you’re writing short proposals, you’ll be more successful if you are specific about what you plan to do and why you believe you will succeed. Better statements might be:
- This project builds on prior success and will have a significant positive impact on the quality of childcare in family settings across the community.
- This program addresses a 30% dropout rate in the local high school through carefully crafted mentorship and tutoring activities.
2. Set achievable goals
No one – not Google, not the New York Times, not Oprah – can reach “families across America. Every outreach method has its limits, and every project should have a target audience. When you make a statement like “we will reach families across America,” you are letting your reviewer know that (1) you don’t who your target is, and (2) you don’t understand what it would take to actually achieve your stated goal.
Rather than making grandiose assertions that you can’t possibly support, figure out what you really want to do, and then describe your plans. For example:
- We will use direct mail, online marketing, and radio ads to reach families with school-aged children in the Denver area.
3. Have measurable objectives
A statement like “Our project will improve community awareness of the importance of art and culture” immediately raises the question “how the heck will you measure that?” If your answer is “gee, I don’t know, but I’m sure that our project WILL raise awareness,” you’re not ready to submit a proposal.
It is possible to measure things like awareness and public attitudes, but the process isn’t simple – and it’s rarely cheap. You’ll need to conduct interviews, do case studies, and otherwise collect data, both before and after, to find out what impact you’ve had. Do you really want to do that? If not, you may
want to reconsider or reword your statement. For example:
- Project participants will expand their knowledge of artistic and cultural resources in the area, and will have a fuller understanding of how and why they might choose to participate in the arts.
4. Be qualified for the project you’re describing
“The YMCA will develop and present an online training program for physical and occupational therapists.”
A statement like this one implies that the YMCA has on its payroll professors of physical and occupational therapists, instructional designers, computer technicians, videographers, and web designers. A reviewer will, quite reasonably, assume that the YMCA has none of these people on its payroll, and that it is therefore completely
unqualified to take on this type of project.
If you really want to take on a project that is beyond your usual day to day work or mission, the best way to get funded is to show that you have established a solid, verifiable collaboration with another organization that is qualified to put the project together and help you to run it. For example, the Y might say:
- The Big City YMCA is collaborating with Big City University to develop an online training program. Staff from Big City will train Y staff to manage enrollment and troubleshoot online issues; Y staff will work with Big City to provide on-site opportunities to work with members in its fitness and wellness facilities.
5. Have a clear, specific plan
All too often, grant proposals include statements like “The program will run in community locations.” A statement like this begs the questions “WHICH community locations? How will people get there? Are they big enough? Do they have the resources you need to run your program? Do you have an agreement in place to make use of
these locations, or are you just hoping for the best?”
If you really do know where and how your program will run, say so. If you don’t, stop and figure it out before submitting a proposal. A better statement might be:
- Our program will run at the library and community center on Saturday and Sunday afternoons during the months of January and June. Both locations are free for non-profit use, and both offer wireless Internet, sufficient seating, and on-site parking.
6. Have a reasonable, believable timeline
“Our organization started up in September, and plans to house 500 homeless families by February.”
Unlikely. Unless your startup just bought a hotel, complete with sheets, towels, staff, and many more resources, there is no way in the world you are going to hit your deadline. And your reviewer knows that.
You’d be much better off figuring out how long it will REALLY take you to get up and running, how long it will take to hire and train staff, how you will reach out and bring in homeless families, and how you serve them. Then build that realistic timeline into your proposal. If it will take more than a year to complete the project,
ask for a grant over multiple years, or build phases into your project plan. For example:
In phase one, we will use a combination of loans and grants to purchase 151 Elm Street and renovate the property according to code. Plans include new HVAC, renovation of kitchen and dining facilities, and construction of ramps and other ADA-compliant elements. This project will begin in September, and is expected to be complete by the following August.
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