Making it Sing: Tuning Tips for Proposal Writing

“Does it sing and dance?”

With a piercing glance, my first editor asked the question every time I handed him an initial draft of a story. Strong reporting, extensive research, and factual accuracy were mere table stakes, the basic price of entry for a journalist.  He expected more.  He wanted copy that was memorable, even lyrical, with little gems pulling readers through, making them think, compelling them to care.

1952: Actor Gene Kelly performs song “Singin’ In The Rain” (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Nearly 30 years later, his question still echoes.  When writing fundraising proposals, his voice rises in my head to a deafening din. The table stakes have doubled.

The reason?  Proposals are deeply personal.  Most often, they’re highly specific appeals to an individual, a couple, or a family.  Whether a nonprofit is seeking $100,000 or $100 million, the proposal must not only articulate a compelling need, but also it must speak directly to the donor – respectfully, and striking just the right chord for that individual.

The core elements of a proposal are not complicated:  a nod to the recipient, a problem or opportunity statement, a solution, the ask, and gratitude.

The art of proposal writing, however, is anything but simple.  A truly fine proposal elevates heart rates, inspires confidence, transforms data into insights, provokes rich conversations, elicits tears, and drives giving.  Creating anything truly fine is a maddening pursuit – insomnia-inducing, joyous, and deeply gratifying.  Here are a few thoughts for proposal writers welcoming the chase.

Start Right, or Start Again

Proposal writers operate in a sacred space. They are the bridge between nonprofits that work on behalf of the public good and individuals whose hard-won resources can greatly accelerate those efforts.  The responsibility to be an honest broker carries with it a requirement for absolute accuracy.  Guessing, assuming, and making things up break the covenant.

Accuracy encompasses the obvious points of a proposal – details of budgets, timelines, and giving opportunities – but it also includes crystal-clear description of the funding idea and its impact.

Too often, the philanthropic concept comes to a writer ill-defined – an amorphous mess to be “wordsmithed” into something worthy of investment.  Innumerable rounds of revisions later, the fallacy is laid bare: no one has defined the central notion.  It’s a cruel, syntactic shell game, with only air and empty spaces.

This is the moment to start over.  Scrap the previous drafts, and gather the experts and the gift officers around a table.  Ask them two critical questions: “What are we asking for money for?  What will we accomplish?”  Keep them there until a clear, ennobling vision emerges, something that can be taken away, described in a single paragraph, and agreed to.  Now, the proposal writing can begin.

Get in the Donor’s Head

Channel a conversation with the recipients.  Who are the humans on the other end of this?  What do they need to read so they know you know them, appreciate who they are, and share their values and interests?  For some, the pitch might be equal parts civic duty and personal passion to solve a problem.  For others, it’s about family legacy and the desire to preserve what they cherish for future generations.  For everyone, it’s something different.

In my experience, philanthropists give because of emotion, and they seek facts to substantiate their decisions.  Proposals have to balance head and heart; here again, the calculus hinges on the recipient.

Gift officers are essential partners for proposal writers in ensuring the personal approach is pitch perfect.  One efficient way to move in the right direction is to interview the gift officers – critical nuances come from a two-way conversation, not from two-dimensional stewardship reports on a computer screen.

Spot the Tells:  Signs You’ve Gone Astray

Here again, certain words or phrases often betray either a lack of vision or lazy writing.  Assuming the vision is sound – the organization has set its sights on a significant problem to solve or opportunity to seize and has a well-reasoned plan of action – the problem rests with the writing.

One narrative tell that I most love to hate – the word “continue” – sends my blood pressure spiking.  If a philanthropic proposition is significant enough to warrant a proposal, then it’s not about keeping the lights on.  Even if, for example, a proposal is to fund a small food bank’s basic operations for a year, the proposition is not to “continue” the organization’s work.  It’s to stabilize hundreds of families of the brink of homelessness, free up budgets of the working poor to buy essential medicine, and send tens of thousands of children to school with full bellies, ready to learn.

Remember, the objective is to right a wrong, extend opportunity, enrich lives.  The status quo is not a philanthropic proposition.  Be clear about your purpose, make it sing and dance, and aim to make the reader cry.


GG+A provides proposal-writing services, seminars, and coaching.  Need help creating proposals or want to give your team a writing tune-up?  Give us a call, and let’s see how we can help.

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