I’ve been working in the nonprofit sector (eek!) for nearly 30 years; writing grant proposals and creating foundation relations strategies for nearly as long. I’ve crafted proposals that have brought in six- and seven-figure gifts. I’ve crafted proposals that have come *this close* to being funded, but ultimately were not. And I’ve written plenty of proposals that landed in the black hole of funding requests, never to be heard from again. 

There are so many factors that determine whether or not a proposal gets funded. Most of them are out of the control of the proposal writer. Some of them, like fancy language and wordsmithing, don’t actually mean as much as you may think they mean. It’s definitely not all about showing that you can do more with less funding. However, there are a few key strategies that will help any proposal you write float to the top of the pile:

The request meets the demand and interest. Are you submitting a proposal for something the funder is actually interested in? Something that is a demonstrated and documented need in the community? It’s not enough to write about something your organization wants to do, or even something that your community says it needs. You have to submit a proposal that matches the interests of the funders and for which you can document a need (not just a preference — a problem to be solved, a service gap to be filled, etc.)

The funder knows the proposal is coming. If you’ve been in touch with the funder in advance, and the funder is expecting your proposal (and maybe even has given you some advice on how to frame the request), that is ideal. It’s not always possible to pull this off. But it’s ALWAYS possible for you to make an effort to reach out to the funder in advance of submitting the proposal.

You follow directions. When a funder says that the proposal can’t be longer than five pages, they mean it. When the funder lists a specific set of questions you need to answer, you actually need to answer those questions. READ the questions, and make sure you are answering them. I’ve reviewed approximately 50 bajillion grant proposals that simply do not answer the questions that are being asked.

You show that your organization is a respected team player. Talk about an impactful partnership with another organization, preferably another organization that the funder is funding (i.e. our work elevates and extends the impact of their existing giving). Funders also like to hear about other funders who are supporting the organization or the program. No one wants to be the only kid playing in the sandbox, and investments from other funders show your organization is a good bet. 

Community voices speak louder than your organization’s voice. Powerful testimonials from clients or community members help make your proposal more memorable, which is critically important in a crowded fundraising marketplace. You can tell the funder how much your program means to a client, or you can have your clients tell the funder, by including testimonial quotes in your proposal. If funders will allow you to submit links to videos, that’s great! Do it! They don’t have to be fancy videos; you can just film something on a smartphone. Anything you can do to add authentic community voices and create an emotional response to your proposal will serve you well. 

For your own mental health: Remember that sometimes, even the best proposals just don’t get funded. There’s so much that goes on behind closed doors when foundation trustees are making decisions. Don’t let a few “no’s” hold you back. Keep at it!

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