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Joseph Barbato

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Writing Knockout Proposals

Excerpt from How to Write Knockout Proposals: What You Must Know (and Say) to Win Funding Every Time

Ours is the land of fundraising opportunity. Anyone, and everyone, can write a proposal. If you doubt it, visit a local foundation and behold the reviewer's desk, if it hasn't buckled under already.

But precious few people can write a "knockout" proposal, a document of such force it catapults the funder down the hall. I exaggerate—but you get the point. To help you enhance your own proposals, here are three tips.

Avoid Pointy-Headed Prose

Your proposal may involve the vagaries of anything from the law to health to archaeology to rocket science. Moreover, you're probably working with program officers who have a deep understanding of their fields.

Still, as a general rule, your proposal should be written in layman's language. That means plain English of the kind used in a well-written daily newspaper.

How would the New York Times describe your project? A Times writer would probably avoid jargon and explain complex concepts (without "dumbing it down" completely).

In a medical story, he would explain the meaning of the word "aneurysm" in the first reference. In describing a conservation project, he would define "bioreserve"—or avoid the term completely.

In other words, assume your reader is a well-educated individual without training in the field you're writing about. How would you describe the project to a bright neighbor or friend? That's how technical you should get.

If you work in an institution brimming with jargon-jabbering experts, you may find those specialists don't want you to write in English. They'll insist anything other than a precise technical term will be incorrect. That's nonsense. Remind them that you're writing for non-experts.

Ah, but the foundation officer who will read my proposal is a health specialist, you say. He knows how the cardiovascular system works, so I can be technical in describing our new therapeutic approach.

Be careful! Other staff members at the foundation who don't know a ventricle from a ventilator may read your proposal. They shouldn't find it as challenging as  Ulysses.

Consider attaching a technical summary of your project in an appendix. You can reference it in your text, and keep the specialists happy. When the money comes in, they'll be delighted that you insisted on communicating clearly with the funder.

What Funders Want

Now and then, someone will ask funders what they dislike in the hundreds of proposals they receive each year. The responses seldom vary. Most funders complain about long-winded, vague, poorly conceived submissions.

Their urgent advice: Communicate clearly what you want, who you are, and why we should support you. Be concise. Be sure your project fits the guidelines. Do your homework. Marshal your facts. Make perfect sense. Read what you've written several times. Show your draft to someone outside your field. Make sure you've thought out your budget and plans for future funding.

Several foundation heads responding to my own survey not long ago said the quality of proposals has been getting better in recent years. Maybe, given increasing competition, that's not so surprising. But it does make your work even harder, for only proposals of the highest quality are going to be seriously considered.

Time and again, funders emphasize three things: Guidelines. Guidelines. Guidelines. Like everyone else, these individuals maintain a discard pile. The proposals given serious consideration form a much smaller stack at the other end of the desk. What makes them special? Hard facts, a passionate belief in the project, and writing that is strong, clear, and easy to read.

Write that kind of proposal, send it to the right place, and you stand a good chance of winning support.

Where the Devil Lurks

Give your donor just enough detail on your program—nothing more. Use your best judgment. When the guidelines say, "Give a brief description of how you will raise other funding for your project," you want to be brief. Generally speaking, less really is more.

A succinct, concrete, fact-filled description of your other fundraising plans is what the donor wants.

If you find yourself blathering on and on, offering vague promises of your intention to find other funding sources, and never nailing down a handful of strong possibilities, you'd best work on your funding plans. Chances are, you don't have any. The funder, having aced the second grade, will notice.

Give your funder solid information. If you think a bit of detail will strengthen a section of your proposal, by all means write on. If you sense the funder might want more explanation, but you feel unsure, put the information in an appendix, which you can reference in the text.

I've added several appendices to proposals many times. They lend credibility, they're a convenient way to elaborate on a point in the text, and they're out of the way for someone trying to give your proposal a quick read. But please—be sure the appendices themselves are succinct.

If a program officer gives you a 15-page technical description, cut it down to 10 pages. If you're given staff résumés with page upon page of publication listings, consider dropping all but the most significant. Even in the appendix, you must maintain editorial standards.

The last thing you want to do is stymie the reader—and interrupt the flow of your text—with unwanted detail.

Joseph Barbato © 2004. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Joseph Barbato is the author or coauthor of several books, two of which were featured on the Today Show. The book from which this article is excerpted, How to Write Knockout Proposals: What You Must Know (and Say) to Win Funding Every Time,  won a coveted Starred Review from Publishers Weekly.

What Is Your Organization's "Elevator Message"?

Excerpt from Attracting the Attention Your Cause Deserves

When I first heard the phrase "elevator message," I wondered what was so important about delivering a message while rising to the 15th floor. Then someone explained the idea was to be able to describe an organization's work to an outsider in the short space of an elevator ride. I've been a confirmed elevator man ever since.

I've known several masters of the elevator message. Each knew how to sound a few simple and powerful notes about his organization in such a way that every visitor left with an understanding of why the group mattered.

There is a knack to honing a simple message. The more tightly focused your niche, the easier it is to express who you are—witness groups from a local hospice to Habitat for Humanity. But even the sharpest niche can be subverted if you insist on saying too much in your message.

Given about 90 seconds, what would you say if asked, "What does Save Our Families do?"

You'll need to be direct and focused, answering just the basic questions:

  • What does our organization do?
  • Where is it heading?
  • Why should anyone care?
The fact is, your time with reporters and visitors is fleeting. You want to impart key bits of memorable information that characterize your work.

Maybe you're a "camp for sick kids" that "transforms lives" by allowing youngsters to "play and be themselves for the first time." There is much more that leaders of the Hole in the Wall Gang Camps would want you to know. But, as I learned in working with the group, it is the beauty of allowing kids to be just kids that lies at the heart of the program.

Rest assured that Paul Newman, who founded the camps, could speak at length about the numbers of campers served, the careful medical management of the camps, the wonderful facilities that have been created for the kids, and the important respite that the kids' going away to camp offers stressed-out parents.

But you have to restrain yourself in the elevator—offering just enough to convey who you are and what's special about what you do, and no more.

Another way to think about an elevator message is to imagine a friend standing a hundred yards away on the other side of a river, and you have to shout for her to hear. What are the few declarative sentences you would be sure to get out if you were describing your organization? In the case of the Hole in the Wall Gang Camps, it would be:

We have camps for sick kids!
The experience transforms their lives!
The kids can play and be themselves—for the first time!

What do you want to shout for the world to hear? Figure that out, and you have the tight, focused message that will inform all of your publicity efforts.

Telling Your Story

Once you've polished your elevator message, it's time to tell your story.

Amid the chaos of life, nothing gives order and meaning as much as a well-told story. More to the point, stories grab people. Give a reporter a tale about a 75-year-old grandmother graduating from your business college, and he'll go for it every time.

You don't have to be a great storyteller to pitch a story to reporters. Just be sure you know all the facts—no surprises, please—and can provide the outline of why the story will make a great feature or broadcast segment.

Let's say yours is a community hospital with new outreach programs for inner-city families. Greater visibility will help boost patient numbers and perhaps scare up some new donors to meet the high costs of additional staff and facilities.

What is going on in your organization that is newsworthy? Sure, outstanding doctors and nurses are counseling families on drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, and other issues. But they just sit still in rented office space talking across tables.

That is the lackluster setting. But what is the story dying to be told? You won't know until you contact the outreach staff and learn how the program is making a difference.

When you hear that 11-year-old Johnny's life was saved through counseling and rehab treatment that helped him break a cocaine habit, you're onto something. In fact, Johnny is bright and charming. He and the staff got along so well that Johnny and his family have invited doctors to their home to celebrate the boy's twelfth birthday.

I suspect you've already whipped out your cell phone to invite Channel 4 news to cover the party, which will be held in a neighborhood project right smack in the middle of an area served by the outreach program.

Amid the birthday cake, the smiling faces, and the banter between Johnny and a nurse, it becomes clear how important your outreach program is in helping families come back from the nightmare of addiction.

Your organization is filled with stories, no matter what your field. The challenge is to find them. And that's not as hard as you may think. Your program directors and specialists are on the front lines every day. They see remarkable things they probably take for granted.

Joseph Barbato
© 2005. Excerpted from Attracting the Attention Your Cause Deserves. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Joseph Barbato is the author or coauthor of several books, two of which were featured on the Today Show. One of his previous books, How to Write Knockout Proposals, won a coveted Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. This article is excerpted from his latest work, Attracting the Attention Your Cause Deserves.