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To Importune or Not

Good writing skills are essential in many occupations, including fundraising. While the best-written solicitation letter or proposal may not be the deciding factor involved in obtaining a grant, few things will turn off a foundation officer or individual donor more quickly than materials that are poorly written, sloppy or just plain boring. Fiction writing is an art, which may or may not be possible to teach, but development writing is a craft, and it can be taught.

Good development writing should always be conversational and matter-of-fact. By conversational, I do not mean that you should employ slang or street talk. No one is going to take seriously a solicitation letter that opens with “Yo dog” as opposed to “Dear Mr. Jones.” But, by the same token, proposals written in the style of an 18th century fop asking his king for a land grant can be equally irritating.

Here are a few pointers to consider:

1. Never use the word utilize. Use the word use.

2. Never use the word prioritize. You may set priorities, but you do not prioritize.

3. Do not call every thing you do “unique.” If you call something unique, you better be sure that it is actually one-of-a-kind.

4. Remember the difference between directions and quantities. Do not say your program serves over 500 clients. Over is a direction. Instead, say your program serves more than 500 clients. More than is a quantity.

5. Do not use antiquated words because you think they sound “classy.” Some examples of these kinds of words are amongst, amidst, betwixt, and behooves. These are real words and they may have their place in some writing, but not in proposals and solicitation letters.

6. Learn the difference between which and that, and do not use which all the time because you think it sounds classier.

7. Beware of enriching and enhancing. We all like to think that our programs enrich and enhance peoples’ lives but these two words are seriously overused. My rule is that when you find yourself using words like enrich and enhance in your everyday conversation, it’s time to drop them from your proposal writing.

8. Don’t use more words than you need and try to keep your sentences in the active, present tense. Instead of saying that “The Program to Rid the World of Pretentiousness was implemented by the Committee for the Good in January 2000,” say “The Committee for the Good began the Program to Rid the World of Pretentiousness in January 2000.”

9. Try to avoid jargon of all kinds. I don’t know how the rest of you feel, but I really hate the words “paradigm” and “modality” and I don’t think either should ever be seen or heard again.

10. Get to the point! I used to really dislike funders who asked me to describe a program is three sentences or 500 words, but I am beginning to appreciate more the discipline it requires to weed out the extraneous and get to the heart of the matter quickly. Even if there is no word limit on what you are writing, it can be a good idea to set your own limit. Always remember that the people reading your proposal have to wade through hundreds of these requests. If your funder remembers your proposal because it is the longest one he or she has ever read, that is not necessarily a plus.

11. Don’t whine. Don’t plead. Don’t beg. Use the facts to make your case and let your case speak for itself. Do not clutter up your proposal with hearts and flowers and violin music. If your program can’t sell itself, maybe the problem is not the proposal but the program.

12. Don’t, go, comma, crazy, but on the other hand do not be afraid to insert commas where they are needed and don’t confuse commas with semi-colons.

13. The title of this essay is “To Importune or Not.” Never importune. Just ask.

About the Contributor: Shelley Uva

Shelley Uva has worked in development for 30 years as a grant writer, prospect researcher, consultant and Director of Development.

Shelley began her career as a grant writer at New York University in 1979. She also served as Manager of Prospect Research at NYU.

From 1983 to 2001, Shelley worked as a consultant for a wide variety of non-profit organizations, including schools, colleges and universities, social service organizations, museums, arts groups, medical schools, hospitals and historical restorations. For these clients, she wrote grant proposals, ranging in size from $1,000 to more than $1,000,000, as well as newsletters, brochures, annual fund letters, citations, speeches, event journals, case statements and annual reports.

In 2001, Shelley became Director of Development for Project FIND, an agency serving low-income seniors on Manhattan’s West Side. From 2005 to 2007, she was Assistant Director for Development Communications at New York Law School.

In 2007, Shelley became Director of Development at the Ackerman Institute for the Family. Founded in 1960, Ackerman is one of the premier institutions for family therapy and one of the best-known and most highly regarded training facilities for family therapists in the United States.

In March 2010, Shelley began a new job as Manager of Campaign Communications for the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower Campaign at Hadassah. Located in Jerusalem, the new Tower is dedicated to uniting advanced medical technologies with a profound spirit of healing.

Shelley also is the co-author of an American history textbook and the author of two books of short stories.


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