For those of us who work with private foundations, grant writer has become a bit of a misnomer. Outside of some select circumstances, robust proposals can be rarities. Your initial introduction to funders is likely to take the form of a few 200-word text boxes. Yes, it takes skillful writing to take a complex program and chisel it into those pithy narratives, but with so few words, the content of that text becomes even more important than the quality.
If there’s something to be said for the online, abbreviated age of grant writing, it is that fluff is out. A plainspoken proposal with simple, short words and sentences is likely to win the day. Although basic business writing skills are not as ubiquitous as most of us would like, they do exist in most nonprofit offices. The question that vexes my clients these days is this: with so little space to make our case, what should we include, and what do we omit?
Grant writers are giving way to a more diverse set of roles. These are three of the most core skill sets in modern grant officers’ jobs:
- Analyst. A grant professional’s job is to understand what a specific foundation prioritizes. So, although your organization might have some terrific attributes, which of them will matter to this funder at this time? A grant professional no longer has the luxury of including all of the gems about their organization and its programs. They must have a keen awareness of priority and relevance.
- Advocate. Maybe the least-appreciated skill is one of recognizing that your organization does not possess the requisite relevance for a particular foundation—and vocalizing it. Not all workplaces are open enough to build on this feedback: “We might not be ready for this now,” or “Here’s what we can do to make ourselves more competitive.” A smart nonprofit will absorb that input, both for efficiency’s sake (it enables focus on more promising proposals) and better positioning for future grants. Most of the elements that stand to improve one proposal will strengthen them all.
- Writer. Yes, in part, it’s still about the writing. There’s just less of it to do. I recently walked a client through an initial submission to a sizable foundation that required just 800 characters—including spaces—to describe a large, national project. That took three people about an hour to finalize. Let’s be clear: it’s not easy to write succinctly, but the bulk of the work takes place in the lead-up to the writing phase and focuses heavily on the previous two roles.
When you sharpen the skills that lead to the absolute key points you want funders to know, you’ll be in a very good position to perfect that succinct online application.
If you’d like to learn how to engage with large funders, I’ll be leading “The Big Fish: Launching, Growing, or Propelling Your Major Grants Program” at Candid’s Washington, D.C., office on April 14. Register now