Despite every crisp greeting card’s cheery promise of joy this season, the holidays can feel stressful as a grant professional. As end-of-year reports and funding requests pile onto annual appeals and holiday shopping lists, the last thing we (or our reviewers) need is to be overwhelmed by a sloppy grant proposal. Instead, we strive for clear proposals that inform and inspire—proposals that spark joy.
Marie Kondo is the master of extracting joy from overwhelm. Like many Netflixers around New Year’s 2019, I became infatuated with the declutter queen and her genius plan to rid America’s homes of anything and everything that does not “spark joy.” As a compulsive organizer, I fancy myself to be the Marie Kondo of grants, and few things in life bring me greater satisfaction than writing and reading text that is clear, tidy, and yes—joyful!
When used thoughtfully, the Kondo mindset of cleaning out the clutter can be helpful in crafting clear, concise grant proposals. A few of my favorite Kondoizing tips are listed below.
Carefully cut information that isn’t serving you or your reviewers.
As grant professionals, we are always working to extract precious details from program staff to give reviewers a full picture of the work to be funded. In the words of grant royalty Cheryl Kester, “More detailed proposals get funded.”
Yet tight length limits often leave us with the tough decision of which details are important, and which to leave out. Aly’s brilliant blog post “Of Chainsaws and Bonsai Sheers” is a helpful (and hilarious) read if you’re looking to trim your proposal. When you’ve exhausted all your tricks, it’s time to consider whether any content is worth leaving out. Leave in information that is explicitly requested in the proposal guidance, worth points (if a scoring rubric is provided), and/or critical to understanding the program. Everything else is optional and could even be cluttering your proposal!
Leave out any jargon that is not explained, confusing language internal to your organization, details that place tight limitations on program staff, and other information that does not meet grant criteria, earn you points, and promote understanding. You may be proud of the catchy title your board came up with for your organization’s five-year strategy, but if it doesn’t mean something to the reviewer, it’s likely not worth including. (If you must include, be sure it’s fully explained!)
Replace fiddly constructions with strong verbs.
Fed up with the Foreign Office secretary’s rigid grammar corrections, Winston Churchill supposedly protested, “This is the kind of pedantic nonsense up with which I will not put!”
Let’s be honest: verb-preposition combos are almost always clunky no matter how you order them. My solution? Avoid them. Instead, use strong verbs to replace multiple words:
- Instead of “put up with,” use “tolerate.”
- Instead of “take the place of,” use “replace.”
- Instead of “turns into,” use “becomes.”
Use your thesaurus! Thesaurus.com can typically offer synonyms for common constructions. This is my secret weapon. I highly recommend you start using these strong verbs—you’ll be amazed at how much smarter, clearer, and more concise your writing is with this one simple trick.
“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” (Mark Twain)
This tip is the antidote to the last one. Yes, use strong vocabulary when it promotes clarity, but don’t waste your reviewer’s time with trying to sound academic or elevated. Think about it—the purpose of writing is to communicate. Pedantic language can make your meaning harder to understand, especially considering that the average American reads at only the 7th– to 8th-grade level. We like to think of our reviewers as being above average, but still, think about all the proposals they have to wade through! Take it easy on them, simplifying language when possible.
Decide when to include details that spark joy.
When deciding what to leave in and what to cut, consider examples, client stories/anecdotes, quotes, or other details that elicit an emotional response, help reviewers picture your program, and make your proposal more memorable. The funder’s style, proposal guidance, and review team (mothers or scientists?) should play a role in deciding when to include these little touches.
For example (see what I did there?), we recently wrote a proposal to a hunger relief funder, helping feed families experiencing homelessness. Length limits were tight. Should we mention that the program provides a small cake to each child on their birthday? On one hand, cakes do not really alleviate hunger and could even be seen as frivolous, and we weren’t requesting funding specifically for that component of the program. On the other hand, birthday cakes are such a beautiful and central part of the organization’s philosophy to not only fulfill families’ basic needs but also promote dignity. Plus, this funder seemed to be relatively touchy-feely, rather than purely interested in metrics. That mental image of the kid with the birthday cake would hopefully be etched in reviewers’ brains.
We made some formatting changes (thank you, bullet points!) to save room for cake, and the proposal was funded.
And so, I leave you with this wintery blessing: may these tools infuse a bit of joy into your workday, tame the clutter, and focus on what’s truly important this season. Whether it’s making sure families have enough to eat over the holidays, providing educational activities to keep kids’ minds active during winter break, or creating art to inspire, may your organization’s work shine through a proposal that is clear and bright.
Contact: Laurel Meister Schmuck, Resource Development Officer II, firstname.lastname@example.org
This post was filed under: Grant Writing