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Hallmarks of Effective Grant Writing
Part 1: Tailoring the Proposal

There’s a saying in the world of grant seeking: “If you’ve met one funder, you’ve met one funder.”

Part of what makes grant seeking challenging is that every funder wants something different. The essence of what they want is the same—what do you propose to do, what difference will it make, and where do we, the funder, fit in?—but the narrative configurations, space limits, and formats in which they want this information varies greatly.

This means there is no one-size-fits-all approach to requesting grant dollars. To stand a chance of cutting through the competition and getting a grant, it is necessary to tailor a proposal to each funder.

There are two levels of tailoring a grant application: first, tailoring the format to meet every specification of the application guidelines and process. And secondly, tailoring the message to the unique interests and priorities of the funder.

1. Tailoring the format

Completing a grant application can feel like a game of jumping through hoops. You may need to squeeze complex answers into painfully few characters…provide letters of support, a logic model, and executive summary…then mail it to the funder, three-copies-double-spaced-paper-clipped-not-stapled.

Coming across a grant maker with no specified format can feel like a dream, especially since they can be far and few between.

While there is momentum in some regions of the country for funders to accept a Common Grant Application, for now following strict application instructions is a reality of grant seeking.

Keep in mind that you have choices. If a funder’s specifications strike you as too onerous or time-consuming, step back and weigh whether it’s worth the time and risk to apply. Sometimes, it’s reasonable to calculate that the opportunity cost of applying to a funder exceeds the potential gain.

If you decide to go for it, commit to making sure that your application follows every guideline and instruction. Don’t be tempted to believe that your organization’s relationship to the funder is so solid, or your program so unique, that you can cut corners. Not following directions could land your application straight in the reject pile.

2. Tailoring the message

It’s not enough just to adhere to instructions and fit your standard narrative into a funder’s format. Writing a truly compelling proposal requires tailoring your content and message too.

What’s important to keep in mind is that funders don’t exist to fund your organization’s mission. They exist to fulfill their own missions by investing in organizations and projects that bring their priorities and beliefs alive in the world. Grant makers are looking for proposals that they can take to their boards or trustees and say: “This—this project, this idea—is what we are looking to accomplish.”

Tailoring content to a grant maker doesn’t mean you should distort the truth, alter your deliverables, or design a project just to please a funder. Rather, it is the work of good writing to consider the reader’s point of view (in this case, the funder’s mission and interests) and to place emphasis on aspects that will excite and activate what the reader cares most about.

Following below are four practical tips for tailoring the message of the proposal to the funder:

Align: Before you write, think. As part of your pre-writing process, brainstorm the unique alignment between your organization’s mission, or the project you’re proposing, and the mission and interests of that funder. This means you should find different alignment for the same project with different funders.

For example, for a proposal written by a food pantry about its community food distribution service:

  • To a funder whose primary interest is the well-being of children, the alignment is in showing how distributing food benefits families and, ultimately, children. The proposal might emphasize stories about families or highlight statistics about child hunger.
  • To a funder whose primary interest is ending poverty, the alignment is in showing how addressing food insecurity helps lift people out of poverty. The proposal might include evidence about how this has worked in other communities.

Activate: Once you’ve identified this alignment, articulate it in key places of the application, especially the cover letter and introductory and concluding sections of the narrative. You may literally refer to the funder (e.g. “Like the XYZ Foundation, the ABC Organization believes that no child in our community should be hungry…”) or you may not name them, but “speak to their mission” by using words and ideas that match or imitate the funder’s own word choices and priorities.

Acknowledge: Demonstrate that the grantee understands and appreciates the funder’s vision by acknowledging their leadership and impact. For example: “The ABC Organization is deeply grateful that the XYZ Foundation has been a champion for improving access to healthy, fresh food in Cleveland’s inner city neighborhoods.” Showing gratitude can go a long way.

Attribute: Literally write the funder into the solution that you propose to help them envision your partnership. Attribute future success to them, should they decide to invest in your organization, in key places of the document: “With generous funding from the XYZ Foundation, ABC Organization will ensure that these children start the school day with a hot, nutritious meal so that they can learn and grow towards better futures.”

Tailoring your proposal format and message is the first step in showing a funder that your organization can be trusted and counted on—and put you one step closer to getting the grant.

Explore Our Entire Hallmarks of Effective Grantwriting Series

Hallmarks Part 1: Tailoring the Proposal

Hallmarks Part 2: Be Clear

Hallmarks Part 3: Conveying the Core Compelling Idea

Hallmarks Part 4: Write to Persuade


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