This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.
I knew it was time for me to jump through the hoop.
The consultant power posed alongside the last slide of his presentation with the customary upward chin tilt that read,
“Impressive, don’t you think? Now here’s what we need from you.”
As the art person at a table full of suits, I often get the sense that people walk on eggshells around me, or peer at me the way you would look at a new species of a goldfish. Curious, even cautious – you never know about artists and those unpredictable temperaments.
In this case, the suits actually needed input from artists to help make their proposal more compelling. They needed to rise above the stiff competition to win the bid to put up a new building development in a community that lost hundreds of working artists to growing gentrification.
Their vision was to create spaces for different categories of people in the community. Something for everyone. After figuring out what the spaces were, they started filling them until someone told them they needed an art expert to tweak their plan, give it a local spin.
This is what they told me when they first called. Now, they were all looking to me for my answer.
What I told them was not what they expected.
What a grant reviewer can teach you about getting funding
My background is in art and funding artists. However, I have also reviewed proposals for real estate, fellowships, radio, education, disaster relief, small business and technology over the past decade. Enough variety and range to see patterns emerge that appear in the proposals and more importantly, in how they are judged.
So much time and effort goes into preparing proposals. There is never enough money to fund every worthy proposal and that ratchets up the competitive environment for everyone. Your project may be outstanding in your world but will it elbow its way past a stack of equally worthy projects to get funded? Did you do your best in creating a winning case for your project? For people who depend on winning bids, grants and funding awards to grow their businesses and careers, mastering the art of proposal writing is crucial.
3 common and unremarkable ways to answer a question
The most common and bewildering thing people do is this: they don’t read.
And to make things worse, they don’t answer the questions. What I often see are answers that make me hunt through a sea of text to find the information I need, eventually making me cranky and annoyed because it takes so much time and I always have a huge stack of proposals to go through.
Many people use the questions as a place to get up on a soapbox and talk about the following:
‘Here’s my passion.”
“Here’s what I can do.”
“Here’s what it will look like.”
Why this is a bad idea
This is not about you.
It does not matter how much you love what you do.
It does not matter how eloquently you write.
To emerge from a competitive environment as the winning proposal, it is a given that the basics are done well, including the above. But that is not what you lead with.
What turns the grant reviewers into your passionate advocates is something else.
Proposal writing is a confidence game.
People fund people. Grant reviewers are people, too. Your challenge is not to convince them you are the best developer or the best artist for the grant because of your talent or expertise. You need to boost their confidence that you are the best candidate for the grant because you will deliver a specific experience that promises a better version of the world.
This is about other people.
How do you create a proposal that does that?
Imagine your proposal is the one being read.
In your mind’s eye, everyone suddenly sits up, their eyes light up and the discussion becomes animated and alive. “I love the vision, I can see myself in it, I can feel the difference….” They are united in nominating you for the award.
There are things we can control like creating a vision, research, writing, team building.
And there are things we cannot control.
For example, your proposal could be the first one, the last one, or the one that gets reviewed when the coffee runs out. Maybe they funded a similar project in the last cycle and want to move on to something different. What if the proposal before yours was for a similar project or in the same area? There may be an internal preference – politics.
In my situation, the consultant had done research and figured out what the needs of the neighborhood were. Armed with these answers, they put together a plan that included a place for everyone.
Which is exactly what every other applicant did. This proposal, without a deeper and clearer vision about their impact upon the community, would be no different from the others.
They asked the right questions, which everyone did. But they stopped once they got the quick and easy answers. They have to keep asking and keep listening for what is not revealed until that particular impact or value is revealed to them. The transformative outcome that they uniquely are positioned to deliver.
The most powerful question
One very simple but extremely way to do this is to ask yourself and your team,
“Why is this important?”
The consultant I was working with answered, “Because it will fill some pressing needs in the community.”
I asked the question again, “Why is that important?”
Pause. Then he said, “Because we will have the spaces for groups.”
Getting there. This process is like opening those Russian nesting dolls to get to the center doll at the core.
I recommend you ask this question at least 5 times. Unexpected insights will pop up as you are forced to think more deeply.
Done right, you will find the answer will not be about what you can do, but what you can do for other people.
This process of asking that same question continued a few more times until everyone realized there was a greater potential for change and transformation they could provide. What excited them was seeing that they were uniquely positioned to deliver these outcomes.
That passion is what a proposal needs to transmit to the people reading it in order to turn them into passionate advocates for your proposal.
With this knowledge, you can sell people on a journey to a destination. Something they can see instantly, feel and want to be a part of.
Sell Paris, not the airbus
Once people are hooked on the vision of roaming the streets of the City of Light at twilight, all they will want is to be confident that you will take them there. Now you can talk about what you are going to do, how you are going to do it.
The consultant and his team got a set of Russian nesting dolls. Now it is up to them.