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Just Answer the Questions and Other Tips for an Award-Winning Proposal

Truth be told, our President/CEO really likes to win awards. My first tasks when I arrived two years ago were to submit our organization for three local honors. I didn’t know how much to brag, how much to bluster and how much to try to overwhelm the judges with facts and figures. We did okay, winning finalist designations on all three submission, but no prize.

The Mother of All Awards
Then came the mother of all awards. Your organization probably has a mother of all awards. It comes from a national association or other body that speaks and/or acts for all organizations with a similar purpose. For food banks it is the America’s Second Harvest Affiliate of the Year award, honoring the nation’s top food bank. Our submission in 2002, like all previous years, fell on unimpressed ears. What could I do to help make it happen in 2003? What tower of phraseological genius could finally move the judges to acknowledge our food banking brilliance?

We were, after all, an outstanding food bank. We were sure we deserved the award, in our humble opinion. If only the making of our case could rise to the level of our organizational excellence.

I spent much of a week writing and re-writing, testing phrases and then condensing overlong sections of text into the relative few words allowed by the judges. Still, there was no peace — no certainty that what needed to be said was said. It did not escape me or others that this had not been a good year for fundraising. Winning this award would make us all feel better, and look better, too.

While pondering the first draft, the phone rang. It was our president, calling from her cell phone at an out-of-state conference. She wanted me to hear the advice of a previous award-winner concerning our nomination. “Of course I want to hear,” I said while crumpling the just-completed draft between white knuckles. She handed the phone to the executive director of a food bank that won the national award in a previous year. Okay, maybe I didn’t really want to hear. I spent the biggest part of a week, after all, on a very fine oration. But the good grants writer stuffs pride in the trash can when there is a chance our case for a grant or award can be improved.

The advice I then heard set the composition and presentation of our award nomination on a new and much better course. Believe me, two months later when I received word that we had been named 2003 Affiliate of the Year, I was glad I listened. Here is the advice I received:

1. Make it look nice.
2. No B.S.
3. Just answer the questions.

Make it look nice
The first bit of advice pushed me out of the box. Words and numbers still tell a story, but when judges who review grant proposals and award nominations into the night find the endless lines of text running together, they tend to lose the message. Use borders. Use graphics or photos. Add section titles and bullets. Let your main points pop off the page to pry open those sleepy eyes. Use color, if the situation allows. I did all of the above, fashioning the eight-page nomination into a newsletter-style, three-column document.

No B.S.
No B.S. was a hard one to swallow. First, I had to admit that a certain amount of what I had drafted was, well, not untruthful, but an over-gurgitation of fact. Then I had to re-write the facts so they both told the story and passed the smell test — no B.S.

Just answer the questions
Finally came the tip that set my mind at ease and really freed me to focus on what the judges want to hear: Just answer the questions. Judges and grant reviewers work from basically the same list of questions that we find on a request for proposals. The quicker they can find the answers to those questions, the better chance a proposal has for approval. Reviewers don’t want to play needle-in-the-haystack in the midst of a late night marathon with 50 proposals spread across the bed.

I segmented the nomination so that every block of text was preceded with a heading that corresponded to one of the official questions. If a block of text did not answer a question that had to be answered, then it was ruthlessly deleted.

What I finally submitted was not as poetic and not as heartrending as I envisioned earlier and which might be appropriate for certain situations. The final award nomination, however, looked fashionable, passed the smell test and helped the judges to tick off the required answers, one, two, three.

Your organization, too, is the very best at something. People may just not yet realize it. You can get your message across by following the advice that made the difference for us.

Bill Smith

About the Contributor: Bill Smith

Bill Smith began his career as a newspaper reporter, but fear of starvation drove him to HR management, where he finally attained certification as Senior Professional in Human Resources the same year he decided to return to writing. Following five years in business and technical communication, Bill and grant writing struck up an enduring romance in 2002 that plays out to the benefit of hunger relief and various other causes.

His combined HR and writing career wound its way through government, manufacturing, construction and technology sectors before settling into nonprofit fundraising. He and his wife served six years overseas helping refugees and aiding the post-communist recovery of East Europeans. The Smiths also co-authored books  and articles on child training.

Bill served in various volunteer capacities with Grant Professionals Association, including founding the Tennessee Chapter in Nashville, chairing the national marketing committee and serving six years on the national board, including Board President in 2010. Bill returned to the Board in 2017.

He served on five panels through the years developing and refining the Grant Professionals Certification (GPC).

By night, Bill has been a volunteer over the past decade, assisting with the communication, financial and technology needs of his wife’s organization, which provides care to local victims of human trafficking.

After years of interaction and joint projects with CharityChannel, joining the editing team at CharityChannel Press was a natural outcome. Bill would say his best long-distance friend is CharityChannel Founder Stephen Nill. Stephen might agree, but would wryly add, “Just as long as it remains long distance.” Update: Stephen moved 2,000 miles to live near Bill. Now they hardly speak…without laughing.

Bill Smith and his wife live near Nashville on a quiet hill shared by turkeys, deer, coyotes, and semi-colons.

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