How to Write a Proposal that Gets to YES

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

She stared at the envelope in her hand.

With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and slowly pulled out the letter.

Her fingers told her the paper had a nice weight to it, a linen finish, 2 or 3 paragraphs of text, an embossed logo.  Impressive.

Her instincts told her nothing.  They were wrestling with conflicting outcomes, each one invested with tremendous emotions.

If I get the grant, my life and career as an artist will be successfully transformed.  If I don’t get the grant, I will be crushed, dejected and consumed with self doubt.

If you are an artist who has written grants for your work, chances are you have been in this moment of truth situation. Anyone who has put together proposals or pitches knows that this is simply part of the territory of fundraising and awareness building of who you are.

Getting grants is important for more than just the cash award that comes with it.  A certain validation and recognition comes with grant awards. Some artists have developed long lasting relationships with their funders who have grown into loyal fans and collectors.  And in some cases, getting your first grant can open the doors to getting grants from larger funders.

This was actually my path to becoming a grant supported artist in the beginning of my career. Now, after spending over a decade in the arts as a grantmaker in Queens, NY, a grantwriter and a grant reviewer for many foundations and corporate philanthropies,  I know that the ability to put together a clear and well written proposal is the most powerful skill an artist needs to build a successful career.

 

Rejection is tough.

No one likes spending a lot of time and effort putting a proposal together that gets shot down and feeling that your work isn’t worthy of funding. This is the time all those pesky demons start coming around to fill your head with self doubt and thoughts of giving up.  But you keep wondering, “How do other artists get grants?  What are they doing that I’m not doing?”

Here’s what you may be thinking

“I’m an artist, not a writer.”

Yes and no. This is an excuse. Being an artist does not exempt you from being to communicate clearly whether it is about your work or directions to your studio.  That knowledge, insights and a deeper understanding will emerge when you spend some time asking yourself clarifying questions about your work.  You can write with confidence once you know what it is you want to say.

“My art can speak for itself.”

This is the second part of the first excuse.  The only thing your art will do is open up a million reactions, none of which you will have any control over.  People are drawn to the back story of the art as well as the actual piece.  In a grant proposal, it is the story that is important.   The art illuminates your artistic process and thinking.

“I don’t know where to begin.”

You start by asking yourself some important basic questions to understand the why, what and how of your project.  The answers will help you understand why your work deserves to exist.  In a grant environment, this is what builds passion and support for a proposal to be funded.

Mastering the art of proposal writing will give you a powerful tool to benefit all parts of your creative career.  These skills impact how you talk to people about your work, how you pitch your projects to funders and donors, what you say in your elevator speech or while you are waiting on line at the bar during a reception.

Most proposals are written close to the vest.  Just you, your project and your computer.  You are the best person to give life to this project and at the same time, that closeness can make it hard for you to communicate that in a compelling way that rises to the top in a competitive grant review process.

After spending over a decade around grants as a grantmaker, a grantwriter and a grant reviewer for foundations and corporate philanthropies around the country, I have seen certain things that grantwinners do that reflect a distinct mindset and focus.

There are some things you can control and some things that you cannot control.

You don’t know how your proposal will land.  Your proposal may be the first one out of the gate to be read, it could be the one after the morning coffee wears off, it could be the last one of the day.  This is something you cannot control.

There is something that can be your superpower if you use it well, or your worst nightmare if you don’t.  This is something you engage when you think about how your proposal lands.

You need to write as if you are going on after the Beatles.

How do you do that?

By engaging your superpower: Readability

This is your most powerful weapon against panelist fatigue, panelist rage (yes, this can happen, but I will show you how to turn around to work in your favor), and will position you ahead of your competition.

I have 6 time tested strategies to sharpen your readability skills:

  • White space
  • Shorter sentences and text blocks
  • Bullets
  • Consistency
  • Clarity
  • Kill your darlings

White space

MASTER MINDSET: YOUR EYES NEED AIR

When I am faced with a stack of proposals that look like walls of text, I can feel overwhelmed and less than ecstatic about trudging through them.  I get tired and frustrated when I have to dig further or navigate through a seemingly endless sea of sentences to find the answers.  My eyes seek places to land and anchor myself.

With e grants and their specific word counts, writing becomes a challenge for you to distill your thoughts into a highly skimmable and readable form, not a place to dump everything you want to say.

Use shorter sentences.  Choose a simple word over a ten dollar word. Avoid jargon.

This is a place where you can turn every answer to the questions into a compelling reason why you are the best candidate for the grant.

Many fiction writing teachers tell their students that each sentence they write must exist to do one thing – to move the story.  In a grant, the purpose of every sentence is not to present yourself as the best artist, but to position you as the best candidate for the grant by answering the questions.

Answer the questions.

If you do this well, you will be way ahead of the game.  The narrative is not a soapbox for your artistic statement or vision.  It is not a place to present yourself as the best artist but as the best candidate.

Your eyes have to come up for air. White space around text has this curious effect of compressing importance and urgency into a space that we can focus our attention on.

When you section off your responses, you make it easier to find the information we are looking for. It makes things look less daunting, less confusing.  The breaks in your text, which I love, set the pace for an easy to read, clear and balanced flow of information.  It gives our brain a moment to absorb what we have just read and retain what you want us to remember.

E grants often have set word counts and other limits.  You will be doing yourself a big favor by using white space in your narrative where ever possible.

Bullets

MASTER MINDSET: BULLETS ROCK

They don’t call these things bullets for nothing.

Bullets make your data pop. Bullets make you look professional.

They make it easy to take in and remember key points.  Use bullets to highlight important data that support your answers.

I have heard other grant panelists easily make a case in support of a proposal by simply rattling off bullet points to support their opinion.

Consistency

MASTER MINDSET: CONSISTENCY IS ATTRACTIVE

The mind loves patterns.

Patterns make it easier to navigate and remember information.

To be memorable, be consistent.

If you are using numbers i.e. “2”, be sure you do not spell out “two” somewhere else in your narrative.  If you are using the third person voice, maintain that voice throughout your writing.  If you capitalize your captions, capitalize all of them.

E grants offer limited formatting options, sometimes you will only be able to capitalize or use numbers. Still, strive to create a pattern of consistency in your writing with what you are given to help grant panelists read and retain information.  They will remember you for that.

Clarity

MASTER MINDSET: DON’T MAKE ME WONDER

Write as if the person reading your proposal does not know who you are.  Chances are, they don’t.

If you are writing about an organization with a long name, identify it with an acronym the first time you mention it.

For example, Queens Council on the Arts (QCA)

Focus on answering the questions.

If the question is really several questions, you can set off each response to make it easier to find the answers.

Remove anything else that does not support positioning you as the best candidate for the grant.  Unless specifically requested, remove quotes and testimonials.

Kill your darlings

MASTER MINDSET: GIVE ME ONLY WHAT I NEED

Be brave.

This is your next best step.  Be ready to kill your darlings.

Grant writing is best done with many eyes.

Write your first draft and let it sit.  Ask other people to review your work and be a ruthless editor.

To avoid writing that is weak and ineffective, be ready to, as Stephen King famously said to aspiring writers, “Kill your darlings.”

This way, you deliver exactly what a grant panelists needs, that and only that.   Take out whatever doesn’t clearly answer the questions so that you are left with a proposal that is well written, lean and powerful.

Follow these 6 strategies to write a proposal that places you in the top 10% of the field and delivers what a grant panel needs to know to say YES to your proposal.

Deploy readability, your superpower, to avoid panelist fatigue, panelist rage and to position yourself as the best candidate for the grant.

2015-03-28-22-09-37-1024x577-2-copy-2

 

 

 

 

Hoong Yee

20140603_142704

About the Author: Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer helps artists & creative people grow their careers with great grant writing strategies & mindsets she has developed over 15 years as an veteran grant panelist, grant maker & grant writer. Get her FREE Master Grant Strategy Worksheet and a weekly dose of insights from a grant reviewer’s point of view.

Grantwriting, Fundraising & Driver’s Ed

You ask me about how to write a grant.

You ask about fundraising.

My question to you is: Can you drive a car with no gas?

You have something that you are passionate about, something you believe deeply in.  It may be something you feel you were meant to do and share with the world.  

It can be a series of paintings, a book, a play, a desire to make the world a better, a more beautiful place.  Something you are uniquely positioned to do.

Maybe you are building your practice, you may be in a MFA program or both.

The most important question you have is: How will you create a life around making art or your passion project that can sustain you?

Which brings me to grantwriting and fundraising.

Learning how to write a grant that gets funded or creating ways for people to donate money to you is like learning how to drive a car to get someplace.  It is understanding how to navigate the world of foundations, philanthropy and donors.  Conceptually, it is not too different from mastering the rules of the road behind the wheel of a car.

Picture yourself in the driver’s seat after you have just learned how to drive.  You will need a few things before you get going:

  • A destination – do you know where you are going?
  • Directions – what is the best way to get there?
  • Gas – have you got what you need to power your car?

The same is true in grantwriting.  Knowing how to put together a competitive proposal is only part of the process.  To turn that proposal into a successful grant award you will need to do a few other things:

  • Give the funder what they want

Think of it this way: You want something, they want something.  A grant, like most human interactions, is a fair exchange between people. Give funders what they want first before you start asking.  Do your homework. Answer the questions clearly.  Respect word limits. Address the criteria. Granting an award to someone is like saying yes to the right partnership. Understanding what is important to a funder and positioning yourself as the one who can deliver that is what you give in exchange for a grant award. Make it about them.

Tip: Always give first.

  • Give the funder a place to jump in

Why just ask for money?  If you create an experience where you can invite the funder to see themselves as a part of beyond funding it, you will open up the door for so many other ways you can work together.  

Tip: Give something bigger.

  • Give the funder confidence

What do you need before you invest your money or your time into something?  You will probably do some research and talk to people you trust.  

A grant review panel is no different.  They will be looking closely at your background, your letters of reference.  They will scrutinize your budget to see if your numbers reflect fair market values. You need to give them everything they need to give them the confidence to invest grant dollars in you.  

Tip: Create trust

Approach your grantwriting and fundraising efforts with these mindsets and you will get much more than success and confidence in achieving your grantwriting goals.  Get to your destination and enjoy the ride.

The Most Valuable Thing You Keep Forgetting You Possess

“But I ‘m no expert.”

Funny how people go into instant confidence annihilation as soon as opportunity knocks.

And here’s more ammo:

“Who is going to listen to me?”

“There are so many other people out there doing this already.”

“What if I fail?”

“I have to go back to school.”

At a recent New York literary event, I was talking to the woman who put everything, and I mean everything, together.

This room was filled with best selling, award winning authors, their friends, family, a Nobel Laureate, philanthropists, screenwriters, producers and people who love literature.

Hors d’oeuvres were passed.

Drinks were clinked.

Money was raised.

Great buzz. Great event.

And yet, she was worried.

“I’m thinking of going back to graduate school.  I really need to learn more about grant writing and fundraising,”  she confided.  “What do you think?”

I put my drink down before I dropped it in disbelief.

Should I put a gun in her hand and tell her to shoot herself in the foot?

That is so not me.

My right brain was ready to explode with reasons why this was not a good idea:

  • You will learn theory, not practice
  • Nobody gets hired because they know theory
  • Nobody deserves your valuable time and money without giving you a job in return
  • Nobody gets hired because they have a fancy diploma

But true insight comes from self awareness.

She needed to arrive at the answer herself.

So I said, “Do you need to go into debt to learn how to beg for money?”

Then I leaned in with a meaningful wink, “Bad idea.  Bad for you skin.”

 

She took a moment before she answered me.

“Let me get you another drink and introduce you to someone I think you will love talking to,”  she smiled and we did a shoulder samba over to a young French filmmaker with soulful eyes sipping a flute of Veuve Cliquot.

Confidence is the only pedigree you need.

You go grasshopper!

How To Get A Grant In Literature

lip books

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A GRANTS PANELIST

Bowed by the heat of August, and somewhat intimidated by the willowy and unspeakably beautiful models wafting into the elevator, matchsticks stemming out of stilettos, maybe a hundred or so per elevator car, I emerged, ego crushed, onto the tenth floor of 300 park avenue south where I would spend the next two days poring over literature grant applications at the New York State Council on the Arts, seeking  coffee and people who looked, and thought and talked more or less like, well, me.

I spend a lot of time around grants, grants panels, grantmakers conferences.  big, small, national, regional, family foundations as well as my own council grantmaking activities. At the end of the day, after every rating has been entered, every comment logged, every cookie eaten, there is always that sigh that rushes through the group that wishes the applicants could have done this better, or avoided doing that, we grumble about the bigger picture, the smaller pool of money, we long for more time to talk about what we just went through, call it a policy discussion, a debriefing or simply going out for drinks around the corner.

For those of you who want to surf on that collective sigh as one of the bright spots, one riding the crest of the next ratings sheet, here are my comments on this panel:

NUTS & BOLTS

To give you an idea of what an actual day of panel is like,  I list a few of my own personal criteria.  Why is this important?  Panelists are human beings too, and the distinction in this case is that we have already spent hours reading and reviewing pages upon pages of grant applications and are about to confer the almighty rating to determine their funding status. Be nice to us.

    1. Care of panelists
      1. food:  Fresh fruit, homemade cookies, lovely berries.  Coffee available upon arrival.
      2. egrant interface:  Wonky at first, who knew you had to send in an affiliation statement?  I would have preferred having all applications and work sample materials available in one place.  Not two screens.  What about prescoring?  That would save some time and provide a place to start from.  It is also really interesting to see if panelists change their scores upon discussion.
      3. panel experience:  In these literature panels, we are daytrippers, dipping our toes into poetry, unleashing flashes of philosophy, self deprecating humor, bookish, fierce, loving.  We opened  our first day with a reading of a poem by Jorge Valente entitled, “Song” followed by a metaphor by one fellow panelist about how being in the lobby of a modeling agency immersed among throngs of the most beautiful people on the planet reminded him of what Billy Joel said as he was standing next to Christie Brinkley, his ex wife and gorgeous person, “I feel like a slab of bacon.”  Another voice piped in quickly, “But people love bacon!”
    2. number of applicants:  27
    3. amount of money to be granted: Unknown, but last year I hear it was about $960,000.00

WHAT CAN HELP YOU GET YOUR NEXT GRANT

The Most Common Mistakes

BUDGET NOTES:

I think most of us are willing to fund an organization showing a deficit, possibly a string of them, as long as there is an explanation about it and they are thoughtful about describing their plans to address it.

SELECTION PROCESS: 

We want to know your strategy for making choices.  How are schools and artists chosen? Can you explain your curation process?

TYPOS:

Are you kidding? This is a literature panel.  You will not be punished for bad grammar, misspelling and typos.  You will be crucified.

 

THINGS THAT MAKE A PANEL LOVE YOU

UNABASHED COMMITMENT:

Care and feeding of writers and all their needs including laundering their linen.  This is the philosophy of a small and dedicated organization, passionate to its dyed hair roots, serving up literature, at its very, loving best.

 

HONESTY:

Be fearless and honest about stating your challenges.  We will sooner sympathize and rally around a sinner than a whitewashed prayer. We appreciate honesty and actually see glimpses of growth in your challenge areas.

 

RAPID RE-INVENTION:

Project funding is rapidly sinking in the rearview mirror of the program funding roadster hugging the curves of economic development.  I love how some groups embrace the new reality by being proactive in working with the big guns in establishing their internal capitalization structure, creating risk capital and pointing their navigators forward into a wider range of future partnerships.

Hmmm, that sounded really clunky, way too much jargon.

Let me say that in English:  Be creative about making the new economic realities work for your bottom line.

 

SOLVE A REAL PROBLEM

Seize a problem and do something about it.  Like a project that seeds a group of diverse interns in the white publishing industry.  (Grumbling point:  This application could have been more specific about the backgrounds of the interns).

What a political statement, an unapologetic shot across the bow of the publishing industry!

FROM THE WATERCOOLER

Looking back over my notes, these are the topics that kept coming up throughout our review. I think they are illuminating and can help guide your thinking as you write your next grant.

    1. EXPECTATIONS, UNEXPLORED POTENTIAL & INNOVATION:  Expectations shift with every group. What is acceptable for a small group in a remote rural area is not acceptable for an organization immersed in urban density because of the difference in  unexplored potential. So, is potential, unexplored or not, a criteria on the list?  Going forward, what are you doing that is new and innovative?  This is a benchmark question that only two or three groups answered successfully by stepping into the discomfort of being different and defining what success looks like, talks like and behaves like in their own particular universes.  The key here is to create a set of finite local successes that not only address immediate problems but resonate deeply in the universe of human experience.
    2. MULTIYEAR FUNDING:  How do you give and manage multiyear funding to organizations in flux and change?
    3. DIVERSITY, RACE & THE UNDERSERVED:  This goes beyond the easily pencilled in categroies of white, black, hispanic and asian.  How do you define these in your practice and community?  Are the developmentally disabled, queer, aging, youth at risk, jail spouses, foster children, migrant workers, deaf and refugee populations included in your definition of diversity or underserved?  aAre the underserved the same as marginalized?  Is it about access and opportunity?  Who are the gatekeepers?

 TWO PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS

    1. There is great interest in the idea of reinvention. For example, Joyce Carol Oates reclaiming the gothic novel as a feminist novel, a feminist press reconfiguring women in pulp novels from the 50’s that were originally anti feminist in tone, indie presses reinventing the independent book store as an Amazon model of niche, curated ebook sites.   This lead to the the question:  How hard is it to reinvent oneself, to keep the verve and vibrant energy of more youthful years, in an organization for so many years?
    2. Great panelist comment about an idiosyncratic, yet successful, applicant: “They will never be world class, but they will be classy in their own world”

I think that people who need to have their passion for literature funded should start asking themselves it the things they do really, I mean really, deserve to exist.  Clearly, people want literature to make life unapologetically rich, full and open to unexpected fullness.

Who doesn’t want that?

I hope that my punch list of observations, tips, hints at greatness and fiercely held preferences guide you in writing the great american novel of grant applications.

To your success!

Can a Poem Save the World?

 

We are all in love with the written word

The annual LitTAP convening draws people out of their insular silos and into a space where we are startled by the presence of so many others just like us – lovers of the written word.

Actually, I am hopping around in the space where text, image and  restless thought live at the center of the Venn diagram of my life.  I wrestle with each demon that fights for center stage.

 

It is a stage as gracious as the head of a pin.

This recent convening took place on another kind of stage. A sound stage at Kaufman Astoria Studios at the intersection of creative industry, Queens Council on the Arts, fabulous food, the Museum of the Moving Image and the flagship performing high school created by the Sinatra family and Tony Bennett, Astoria’s home boy.

A perfect place to make visual how one board member’s passion for the work of the Queens Council on the Arts became the site of a statewide discussion on how we and our board members can be better champions of the literary world. H

Here are some things I heard that stuck with me:

  • Mission gives you the power to say no.
  • Don’t be afraid to make the ask. Think of it as a chance for someone to invest in something they care about.
  • “No” is often code for “not yet”.
  • Say “Thank you” a lot.
  • I don’t know what to do first. Maybe I should eat this cookie.

 

Love those Poets in Unexpected Places!

I captured what I could with my Flip video camera.  Watch the magic here!

 

Subscribe and get a little Wow! every day

Check out Getting to Wow! to feel good, do good and look good

See what’s going on at Nonprofit Knitwear for all things nonprofit and knit

Get some very cool Style Notes from me, your artspy

Hoong Yee

 IMG_0076