Has this ever happened to you? You’ve got a terrific project that you think is a can’t-miss prospect for funding. Yet time and again, you receive letters from prospective funders turning down your requests for money.
What gives? Maybe it’s not your project–it’s your writing style. How you write a grant proposal is as important as what you write, according to the experts. The reason? Grant making is a simple numbers game: too many proposals, not enough time to read through each one carefully.
To make your proposal stand out from the crowd, your writing has to pack a punch. Dr. Michael Gershowitz, a successful grantwriting consultant who personally has raised more than $80 million for school technology programs during the past 20 years, shares these words of wisdom for using words to win money for your schools:
1. Tell a good story
To interest a reader in your project, you’ve got to write compellingly. If you have a background in journalism, now’s the time to draw upon that experience. Think of your proposal as a story–you want to spark the reader’s curiosity as you bring your project to his or her attention.
Talk about people. Case studies are interesting; statistics are not. To engage the reader immediately, consider starting your proposal with a description of the people–the students, teachers, parents, or administrators–who will benefit from the grant. Feel free to use names, though not necessarily the people’s real names. This will bring your project to life and create an identity for the reader to grasp as he or she reads through the rest of your proposal.
Compare the following two opening paragraphs of a proposal. Which one grabs the reader’s attention and makes him want to read on?
“This project is designed to serve the needs of economically disadvantaged children in the inner-city neighborhoods of Chicago. Access to technology in the home is scarce in these neighborhoods, so we propose to build a technology center where students can come after school to get the technology training they need to succeed in the 21st century.”
“This project is designed to serve the needs of students like 12-year-old Jose, a bright and inquisitive sixth-grader who lives with his mother and four sisters in a subsidized one-bedroom apartment in Chicago. While some of Jose’s classmates use home computers to create PowerPoint presentations for their homework, Jose is lucky if he has enough light to read by at night, never mind a computer. To ensure that students like Jose have an equal chance to succeedin the 21st century, we propose to build a technology center where students can come after school to get the technology training they need.”
2. Make statistics interesting
To demonstrate a need for your project, you’ll have to cite statistics eventually. When you do, don’t overwhelm the reader; instead, use only the most startling or dramatic ones.
A few well-chosen facts and figures can punctuate the conditions you’ve described. But throwing too many figures at the reader will most likely weaken your case, since no one wants to sift through countless numbers. Compare the readability of the following two sections of a proposal:
“The counties to be served by this project, and their respective populations, are as follows: Banner, 894; Sioux, 905; Sheridan, 2,850; Box Butte, 3,197; Morrill, 3,265; Dawes, 6,243; and Scotts Bluff, 24,439. From these figures, it can be seen that the total population of the area to be served is 41,793. The counties involved with the project encompass 32,251 square miles. Therefore, the population density of the region to be served is 1.29 persons per square mile.”
“Think about this: Alaska’s population density (Anchorage excepted) is about two people per square mile. That’s sparse. Now think about this: The population density of the Nebraska panhandle is just one person per square mile–half the density of Alaska! We don’t usually think of the Midwest as being that remote or sparsely populated. But the statistics say otherwise.”
3. Write concisely
Most people who write grant proposals write so densely that the reader has to work to understand the proposal. The minute a reader has to struggle to understand what you’re saying, you’ve lost his full attention–and most likely the grant as well.
Keep your sentences short. Keep your words short. And keep your paragraphs short.
Simplify what you’re saying as much as possible. Avoid falling into the false, official-sounding language we have a tendency to use when we’re trying to impress someone, or when we want to sound like an authority. Have someone proofread your proposal to weed out sentences and paragraphs like the following:
“At the start of the second phase of the project, it will be necessary to bring all members of the instructional staff together at a central point for a meeting, to be addressed by the key district administrators including the Superintendent, Director of Technology, and Director of Media Services. At this session, the instructional staff will be informed regarding the requisite measures to be initiated in order to achieve maximum effectiveness of the project outcomes.”
Why can’t that paragraph be rewritten to read as follows?
“We think it would be a good idea to bring teachers and administrators together about two months after the project’s start date. This face-to-face session will allow open give-and-take about the project’s perceived impact. It will also let teachers and administrators decide on steps to ensure that the project meets its intended goals.”
4. Slow the reader down
When you’ve got 25 proposals to read in a weekend, your natural tendency after reading the first few–particularly if the intended projects are all similar in nature–is to start skimming through the remainder.
As a grant writer, you want to slow the reader down to make sure he or she considers your proposal carefully. To do this, you can use verbal cues to make the reader stop and think about what you’ve written. Cues can be simple phrases, like:
“Did you know…”
“Think about this:”
“Keep this in mind:”
Another way to slow the reader down is to use bullets to highlight important points. Generally, you’re limited in terms of the space that you have to make your case for a grant; but writing in a lean style will give you the space to use bullets sparingly to accent your key points.
5. Use an active, conversational voice
Many people think grant writing should be done in a formal, third-person, passive voice. But this will most likely put the reader to sleep and won’t establish a connection. If you really want to connect with the reader, you can do it much better by writing in the first person and using a conversational tone.
The National Science Foundation and certain other federal agencies discourage this–but for nine out of 10 proposals, it’s okay to write like this.
An active voice brings action–and your proposal–to life. Consider the following alternatives:
“The teachers will be trained by the Professional Development Coordinator, utilizing materials supplied by the publisher of the software. The effectiveness of the training will be measured by pre-post surveys of the trainees. The data collected in these surveys will be analyzed by the external evaluator and the project director will be provided with the results.”
“The software publisher has created and will provide training materials. The Professional Development Coordinator will use them to train the teachers. Pre-post surveys will measure the impact of the training. The external evaluator will analyze the data and report the results to the project director.”
Similarly, a conversational tone will make your proposal easier to read and will help establish a connection to your reader.
Instead of writing, “Current users of these materials have stated their satisfaction with the results,” why not write, “We spoke with three districts that have been using these materials for at least a year, and all three spoke highly of their experience.”
With the constraints put on grant readers, they don’t have time to sift through a densely written proposal to discover your terrific project. How you write a proposal is just as important as what you write. Your goal should be to make the proposal as reader-friendly and engaging as possible.