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.

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Hoong Yee

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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.

What a Cakebox Can Teach You About Getting a Grant

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A mentsch is a nice person.

Everybody should aspire to be one.

For many reasons.  One of which is, people will like you.

And some of those people will actually fund you because they like what you do and – they like you.

An artist, leaning defiantly against her easel, asked me, “Why does this matter?  My art speaks for itself and that is what people will buy.”

I suppose that may be true if you happen to be the only artist within a hundred mile radius of barren nothingness and people are dying for something to smack them out of oppressive boredom.

However, here in Queens and New York City, people will step on your art to get closer to the person who not only speaks for their art, but adds unexpected value.

What is unexpected value?

As my dear Jewish mother-in-law, Mildred Phyllis Krakauer would say, clutching her pearls gazing upwards:

“Never show up without a cake box in your hand.”

Think about it.

What can a cake box do?

Well, it speaks volumes about the person bringing it:

  • that they thought about it
  • that they took the time to get it
  • that, if my mother-in-law had anything to do with it, it was probably the hostess’s favorite and from the nut-free bakery in New Rochelle, God forbid anyone has a terrible allergic reaction
  • and if my mother-in-law did indeed bring the cake, it was from the Harbor Bakery in Rockaway Beach – home of the most amazing chocolate meltaway cake and guaranteed to make the hostess look like a rock star!

So tremendous unexpected value has been built here – for everyone.

Who wouldn’t want Mildred on their guest list?

How you can add value in your grantwriting

“But what can I do to add value to a funder?”  wailed the artist with the talking painting.

I get this question a lot.

You are a creative person, you can come up with ways to amaze, delight and help people.  You know what to do.

Actually, the question you should be focusing on is:  Why should you add value to a funder?

Do not underestimate the power of a generous spirit.  Adding value is one of the primary power strategies I truly believe in and teach in THE GRANTWINNING BOOTCAMP.  You can get your hands on my FREE MASTER GRANT STRATEGY WORKSHEET to get you started in getting grants to get your work out into the world.

But I suggest you start by adding value.

Clearly, this requires a different kind of cakebox.

Here’s how one of our grantees did it:

Recently, as I was leaving a packed must-be-there must-be-seen event, a woman waved me over to a camera and asked me if I could say a few words about the arts in Queens.  She captured a quick soundbyte with me and bounded over to her next interviewee.

Was this her event?  No.

What was she doing this for?

All of the interviews would eventually be edited down into a tight little video for the organizers of the event to use in their marketing, on their website, and to share with their audience.

Who wouldn’t love to have someone do that for them?  To actually shoot the footage, edit and make everyone look good?  As a gift of added value.

Who do you think becomes instantly top of mind for people?

katha-kooky-at-the-step-and-repeat 2

Check out Katha Cato and the Queens World Film Festival, one of our 2016 Queens Art Fund grantees and definitely top of mind for me.

She is a mentsch to be reckoned with.

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Hoong Yee

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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.

 

 

 

How To Create A Get-To-Yes Grant Budget

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He looked familiar but I wasn’t sure why.

Did I meet him at an art opening, maybe a recent reception?  Why couldn’t I place him in my memory?

His eyes landed on my puzzled brow and he broke into a huge smile, the kind that can light up a room.  “Your ratios!  Your percentages!  They changed everything for me.”

If you are one of those people who inevitably chides people like me who possess less than a photographic memory for remembering everybody I have ever met, you might try this little technique of mine:

To put a name with a face, use an equation.  Numbers don’t lie.

With those magic words, I remembered immediately who he was.

Ratios?

Really?

For some people, especially people who are artists trying to build their creative careers and get their work out there, the process of getting grants is not at the top of their list of gratifying artistic activities.  It can be an extremely frustrating and mystifying process. How do some artists get those grants that boost them to the next level bringing them cash awards, recognition and prestige?  Do they have connections, the right words, were they let in on the secret handshake?

What about you?

Foundations give away over $4 billion dollars a year.  They exist to do exactly that – give away money.  There are many successful artists who write grants so they can afford to spend more time creating their work, practicing their craft and building up their careers by leveraging the recognition and prestige that comes with each award.  There has never been a better time than now for you to be one of them.

Narrative, budget, work samples, criteria…  It seems like a daunting task to make sense of all of it.

What do funders want to see?  What are the right catch phrases to use?  And what really happens once you Hail Mary your grant proposal out into that black hole?  It all seems so mysterious when you don’t know how it all works.

Let me pull back the curtain and give you a peek at what goes on once your proposal lands on the table to give you an insight that can help you Get To Yes with your grant budget.

Like ratios.

OK, enough teasing.  I am going to tell you exactly what ratios are and how they can be game changers for you.

 

 

The Positioning Behind A GET TO YES Grant Project

Before you pick up your pen, pick your positioning

 

I like to teach artists a powerful strategy I call positioning.  It is one of 3 cornerstone mindsets of grantwriting concepts I teach in my Grantwriting Roundup course to set them up for success.  Your grant budget is one of the most important components of your proposal.  It is the structure that supports your project and it is here where grant reviewers can see your proposal’s strengths and weaknesses.

Here’s how positioning works:

It’s Saturday night and you are looking for a great place to have dinner.  You drive around and you see a restaurant that looks interesting.  However, there are no cars in the parking lot and there are hardly any customers inside.

Across the street is another restaurant.  Business is booming, the tables are full.

Which place would you go to?

People are influenced by something called social proof.  We will follow the wisdom of the crowd, in this case – the busier restaurant.  Think about it: who wants to be the guinea pig, or take a risk being the only customer in a sea of empty tables?

Grant reviewers are no different.  We want to see who else is on board in your project and we don’t want to be the only funder.  In fact, we prefer being the last dollar in, not the first.

In most cases, funders will not fund more than 50% of your project.

You want to find other sources of funding to support your project so that your grant request is less than half of your budget expenses.

Example:

Project income

1,500       Donation from a local bank

3,000       Kickstarter

2,700       Sale of artwork

    500       Community grant

7,700       SUBTOTAL 

2,300       Grant request      

10,000       TOTAL

 

The grant request of $2,300 is 23%, way below 50%.

 

And if you have some overhead in your project, you want to show that you are spending at least 65% of your money on your programming and 35% on your administrative costs.

This is one of the most common mistakes artists make in their grant budgets.  It sends up a red flag and that can be a deal breaker.

You can do this.

Ratios

Two simple ratios:

50:50

65:35

If you can keep those ratios in mind as you create your budget, you will be way ahead of the others in the applicant pool.

Position yourself as someone like a busy restaurant with lots of customers.  Like a winner with lots of supporters.

What do funders want?

They want to be confident in you to put money into your project.  You can easily reverse engineer your proposal to give funders what they need to green light your grant proposal if your budget aligns with these 2 ratios.

 

Need help remembering this?

  • Position yourself like a popular restaurant  Everyone likes to hang out with the good news and be where the buzz is.
  • 50:50  Show you have other money, other supporters, other raving fans.  At least over 50%.  I can already see some of you pursing your lips and thinking, “At least over?  How much is that percentage?  You know what I mean – enough to be able to say, “Hop on the bandwagon!”
  • 65:35  There is no reward in grant heaven for martyrs.  Are you asking us to believe that you can write your play, cast it, sew costumes for the cast, paint the sets, and sell tickets?  The opposite is true.  You will gain more respect by building in line items for people to do these very necessary things at 35% so you can do what you are best at doing at 65%.
  • Sell confidence   What are grant reviewers really looking to fund?  The best artist?  The best written proposal?   The answer is:  Funders want to fund the best candidate for the grant, someone who they are confident can deliver what they propose to do.

 

So there you have it.

Add these strategies to your grantwriting skill set to create a powerful and persuasive budget.  Numbers don’t lie.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Most Powerful Question You Need To Answer To Get A Grant

 

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Why?

A million words must be shed.

Countless coffee urns and late afternoon cookie trays must be filled.

Hundreds of donuts, glazed like the eyes of the people plodding through a sea of grant applications, will be munched on until all that is left is a communal sugar buzz.

Many artists want to know how to write a rocking proposal that gets a grant and ask, “What can I do to impress a grant panel?”

Good question.

You always want to know how to stand out in a competitive field.

Are there phrases, preferences, passions or priorities you need to be focusing on?

Really good question.

But honestly, you would know all of this because you’ve already done your research, right?

There is a better question.

This is the most important question you need to get right because if you don’t, nothing else will matter.

Answer this question

What is the transformation my art will make for my audience?

This is the question Why?

Why are you making this piece of art?

This question is not about how many paintings you will make, or the materials you will be using for your sculpture or how many musicians will be performing.

Most artists default to answers like that without truly answering the far more important question – Why?

Before a funder will give you money for your project, they need to be convinced of the benefit of your project, the impact it will have on the people they care about.

If you are aligned with your funder’s mission, passion and audience, this will be easy for you.

In other words, sell Paris, not the plane.

Two artists, two answers to Why?

In a recent small group workshop, 2 artists brought proposals to work on.

The first artist described her project in great detail:  the number of paintings, how they would be installed, the subject matter and how it related to the history of the community.

“OK, that tells me what you will be doing,”  I said.  “Now tell me why.”

She paused for a moment, “Well, I am obsessed by a beautiful tree in my neighborhood and I want to capture it in a  series of paintings.”

The sentence hung in the air.

I asked my famous question,” What is the unique transformation your art will provide for your audience?”

I asked this question several times until she came to the answer – I created these paintings of this tree to remind people to experience joy and wonder in the beauty that exists in their everyday life.

She said that a few times and said, “It seems so bold somehow, but that’s exactly what I feel inside.  Can I really just say that?”

Be bold, be bigger

How can it be that artists, the cool people who take big, bold risks in their art, are so timid about telling people stuff like this?

This is exactly what I want to know before I know anything else.

Be bold, be big or go home

Here’s a hot tip: Grant reviewers are people.  And like anyone else, we long to be delighted and amazed.  

If I am not sold on the Why?, then What you do does not interest me.

The second artist had a project that had been turned down but she had called for panel comments so she knew where her proposal fell short.

“I did not show how my project would include this specific community,” she said.  “So I will use all locally found materials and place my finished art pieces in specific locations throughout this particular neighborhood.”

Again, I asked my famous question, “What is the unique transformation you art will provide for your audience?”

Her answer, after drilling down with this question several more times, was this:  My art project asks people to think about how they place value in things, what they keep, what they discard, and what they replace.

Nothing is more impressive than an artist who can square their shoulders with a light in their eyes and tell you why their art will rock your world.

All you have to do is answer the question.

 

Let’s do this!

 

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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.