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Michelle Shiffer Payne

About Michelle

What Funders Really Want in a Proposal

In general, an invitation to submit a full proposal is an indication that the project has made it past the first round of cuts. The invitation, however, should not be taken as a guarantee that the project is going to be funded. There are still several opportunities for a program officer to turn down a request after a proposal has been invited. At this stage, the grantwriter’s job is to present the project with a balance of eye-catching and entertaining language and practical information that the program officer can use in his argument for support.

That’s right – the program officer will most likely have to argue the case for support on your behalf. It is extremely rare that a program officer can unilaterally determine which projects will be funded, and must be prepared to argue the case for each and every project he brings forward and recommends for funding. It is our job as grantwriters to ensure that our proposals are drafted in such a way as to provide the fuel the program officer will need for these internal arguments.

If an LOI has been written, it will provide an outline, in combination with notes from conversations with the program officer to begin the drafting of the proposal. In some rare cases, program officers will use the LOI in lieu of a full proposal, and the grantwriter can relax at this stage.

Every donor is a bit different, and therefore it is essential that the grantwriter listen closely when the program officer requests specific pieces of information or specific timelines. If there are no readily available published guidelines for the donor, be sure to ask if they have preferences for the way a proposal is presented and the information it contains. Some program officers will tell you they don’t care, but most will at least give you a general sense of the key pieces of information that you should include. In general, the information to highlight in a proposal will be similar to that of an LOI, with the arguments more fully fleshed out so that the program officer has limited, if any, additional research to conduct as he constructs an argument.

Your proposal, or some summary form of it, will be presented to others within the foundation during the review process. This means that all pertinent information to the request must be included in this single document. Supplementary information can be included as attachments (so long as the donor’s guidelines do not specifically prohibit them), but the full story must be included in the proposal itself. If the program officer has to read through multiple attachments with dozens or even hundreds of pages in order to fully construct an argument, it is more likely that the proposal will be rejected. In my experience, the essential parts of an argument for the program officer can be included in five sections:

  • A shortened summary of the entire request. This introduction can be as short as a single paragraph, or can be a more elaborate executive summary, depending on the size and scope of the proposal. Even when the guidelines do not specifically request it, I generally include a summary. It forces the grantwriter to concisely describe the request, the project, the need, and the final outcome. I think of it as the written version of the “elevator speech.” This is the draw that will make the program officer – or his skeptical Board member – want to learn more about the project. In many cases it can be copied and pasted from the original LOI, with minor tweaks based on subsequent conversations with the donor. The ultimate hope is that this portion of the proposal can be lifted whole by the program officer and inserted into the written arguments he must construct for his Board.
  • A needs statement. This portion of the proposal can be the easiest, and at the same time the hardest part to write. It is the easiest, because it’s often the information that is at your fingertips and what drove you to develop the project in the first place. The danger is that it will become the center of the proposal rather than the project that needs support. The needs statement is important to show the program officer that you know what you are doing, and it also helps fill in the gaps in the program officer’s personal knowledge when he is not an expert in the area. Striking a balance between enough, but not too much, information in this section of the proposal is difficult. It should be tailored based on the understanding of where the program officer’s expertise lies, and also should take into account the mission and interests of the donor. For example, the needs statement for an animal shelter would be written one way for a donor that wishes to reduce the nuisance of stray animals and a very different way for a donor interested in helping disadvantaged children experience the joy of pets.
  • The project description. The project description is the most important written part of the proposal. It should provide detailed information about your plans, and specify the goals and how you will meet them. Program officers are required to be accountable for the use of the grants they recommend. Providing a solid description of how work will be measured and what the ultimate outcome of the project will be lessens the anxiety over supporting a project. Key questions that should be answered in a project description are things such as:
  • Where will the project take place?
  • Who will benefit from the project activities?
  • What will the project accomplish/what are the goals?
  • What are the steps you will undertake to reach the goals?
  • When will the project be completed?
  • How will you know the project has been successful?

This is the section you should expect the program officer to read most carefully, and where you should spend the majority of your time. Whenever possible project steps should be quantified and also tied to a timeline so the program officer can easily understand what you will accomplish and when.

  • Qualifications. As in the LOI, the qualifications section will show the donor what makes your staff or your organization the right group to undertake the proposed work. If your organization is complex and individual staff undertake multiple projects, be sure the information described is tailored to the project. As with the needs statement, be careful to include enough, but not too much information in this section. The main focus should be on the project description and the budget.
  • The budget. Take the budget and any narrative or justification that accompanies it seriously. It is very likely to be scrutinized in much more detail than the proposal itself. Many program officers have told me they look at the budget first, and sometimes reject proposals based on the numbers without ever looking at the narrative. As a grantwriter, you must understand nonprofit budgeting in a general sense, and also the specifics of how your organization deals with finances and budgets. A proposal budget should be as detailed as possible, breaking out the salary costs, specific costs for the project, and also the overhead or administrative costs to support the organization. The budget must clearly be tied to the proposal request so that the program officer can easily understand the costs associated with each part of the project. Be sure to include any specific pieces of financial information requested by the donor. To the extent possible specify which expenses you anticipate the proposed grant will cover, and show other support that will be provided.

The proposal should provide the program officer with enough detail to fully understand your project, and be able to craft a much shorter internal document that will be presented to the Board or other review committee along with his recommendation for funding. It is another step in the ongoing conversation between a nonprofit and a donor. If possible, it should be approached from the perspective of limiting the time and effort that the program officer will need to spend in getting it ready for approval. A well written proposal and budget can lay the groundwork for approaches to other funders, and can help provide internal clarity regarding project plans and goals. In my next article, I will discuss what funders really want in progress reports.



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