10 Steps to Persuasive Proposals

A few years ago, The Heritage Foundation received a grant from a foundation, and the gift was much larger than we had expected. When we called to thank the program officer, we asked why the foundation had increased its support. It was not because our project was deemed more effective or that our proposal was more persuasive. The reason was simply that we had turned our proposal in on time, complete with all the attachments, and many other requestors had not. So, in the end, the foundation rejected a number of proposals and had more money to give to fewer organizations—and we benefitted.

We learned a lesson from that experience about the importance of following guidelines and meeting deadlines. But we also knew that we had built a solid case for support in our proposal. Here are 10 tips to make proposal writing easier and your proposals more effective:

1. Understand your organization. Start with your organization’s needs and then research foundations that will help support them. Don’t start with the foundation’s interests and try to make your project fit into them. That means that you should know your mission and adhere to it without ignoring the foundation’s interests. In addition, understand how you receive your funding. For example, be prepared to answer if asked what other sources of income you hope to receive for a project.

2. Do the research. There is a large quantity of information available on philanthropic foundations through the Internet. Guidestar (www.guidestar.org) and The Foundation Directory at the Foundation Center (fconline.fdncenter.org) are two examples. The latter is a free service, and both offer access to foundation IRS-990 forms, which provide a wealth of information including an itemized list of all grants during a given year, a list of trustees, and application guidelines.

Another quick way to scan for information about a given foundation is to do both a Web search (www.google.com) and a news search on Google, which also allows you to sign up for e-mail alerts on a particular search whenever it returns a new hit. For example, you can save the search “XYZ Foundation education grant” and ask the Google news alert to e-mail you every time a new news item matches the search.

Finally, a subscription to the Chronicle of Philanthropy provides access to their Web site (philanthropy.com) with archives going back over 10 years. This can be particularly helpful as the Chronicle often summarizes grant guidelines and areas of interest when foundations issue their annual reports.

3. Build the relationship. People—not organizations—give grants. Try to establish a relationship with staff at the foundation. Also, consider the foundation a partner. You will need to invest time and energy in this relationship to make it work.

4. Be able to answer “Why?” One of the most important sections—if not the most important section—of a proposal is the statement of need. Before explaining how you will accomplish the project, establish why it’s important or necessary. Moreover, make sure you establish motivation before you describe action: not just your organization’s motivation, but also the donor’s. How will this project meet the donor’s needs and interests?

5. Become a storyteller. Stories will make your proposal more persuasive. Why? Because people remember stories and understand and relate to them easily. One example of a story we have used is our intern program, which teaches college students about conservative principles and trains them to be leaders. We build our case for support by using good storytelling elements. We discuss the villain (today’s liberal education system), the victim (the students subjected to this system), and the hero (The Heritage Foundation and the donors who support our intern program). We believe that what we do will make our country better for people today and in future generations. We are passionate about this, and so are our donors. Stories help convey our passion in our proposals.

6. Follow the guidelines. Unless you have been given other direction from the foundation, the proposal should be limited to 10 pages or less. If the foundation does not have specific guidelines, here are basic components of a proposal: Executive Summary (1 page or less); Statement of Need (1–2 pages); Project Description (2–3 pages); Conclusion (less than a page); Organization information (1 page); Budget (1 page).

Attachments can include your 501(c)(3) letter or the “IRS determination letter”; a list of your board of trustees with professional affiliation; your organization’s annual budget; and an audited financial statement.

If the foundation offers specific guidelines, follow them carefully.

7. Meet the deadline. Remember: Many foundations don’t accept proposals delivered overnight by UPS or FedEx. Plan accordingly so that your proposal can arrive in time by mail.

8. Keep it simple. Most proposals are photocopied and distributed at board meetings. The best presentation is “black ink on white paper.” Don’t use colors or fancy bindings.

9. Provide contact information. Make sure that the name, address, and phone number of the contact from your organization appear on the proposal—not just on the cover letter. Sometimes these two documents can get separated. Don’t make the program officers do extra work if they need to contact you.

10. Follow up. Call the program officer or other contact at the foundation a couple of days after sending the proposal to make sure it was received. If you subsequently get the gift, write a thank-you note promptly—ideally within 48 hours. If you don’t get a gift, call to thank the foundation for reviewing your request and find out why it was rejected. (This could be useful information when preparing future requests and will help build a relationship.)

There are also a number of good books that offer advice on grant writing. A basic resource is The Foundation’s Center Guide to Proposal Writing by Jane C. Greever and Patricia McNeill. Another helpful guide is Storytelling for Grantseekers: The Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising by Cheryl A. Clarke.

Having said all of this, the best proposal in the world does nothing if the foundation doesn’t know your organization. Collecting research and crafting proposals—even following this brilliant outline—will not by themselves bring in much money. First, you need to visit the potential grantee and learn their interest in your organization and what project (if any) they might be interested in funding. Or at least have a telephone conversation. Then write the proposal that follows on the conversation and meets these guidelines. Don’t assume that just because s foundation gives to Heritage, Cato, and State Policy Network, they will also give to you. And at all costs avoid the entitlement mentality. No foundation “owes” you a grant.

Good luck!

Ms. Klucsarits is director of development at The Heritage Foundation.