All For a Song: Lessons from the World of Songwriting

Great grant writing lessons from song writing.


Pain is pain, hunger is hunger, joy is joy and to call them anything other in the hopes of making your story seem to be more important may well be putting your reader on the outside rather than bringing him or her inside.  Great songwriters overcome this challenge and, from them, we can learn some valuable lessons about writing.

In some recent posts, I have explored the idea that when it comes to writing a proposal, fewer, well-chosen words can be the most powerful way to convey an idea or information.  Certainly, Tony Proscio touches upon this idea more than once in his treatise “In Other Words” (see my prior blog post about Mr. Proscio’s work) where jargon tends to obscure rather than clarify.  And certainly, repetition and long-winded narrative does too; writing this brings to mind Martin Teitel’s wonderful acronym that is banded about foundation halls — MEAGO, which…

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Donations Barely Rose Last Year

Girded Loins

Girded Loins

The Chronicle of Philanthropy tells us that donations from individuals are still down. And at this rate it could take 5 or 6 years for donations to recover to their pre-2007 level.

What do we learn? That fundraising is a competitive sport. We are all fighting for a limited number of donor dollars.

So gird your loins and get in the game.

Ask better. Ask more people. Ask more often. And pray for 2018 to get here quick.

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Serious Art Deadlines


This is SO TRUE! by Rebecca Chaperon


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Your Proposal Is Rejected. Now What?

When some nonprofits get the rejection notice, the staff takes it as — well, rejection.

They get depressed or angry. They curse the funder. They rail at the cosmos. They feel personally rejected.

Simmer down, people.

Savvy fundraisers can use rejection to their advantage. Here’s how.

  1. Once you finish weeping, call the funder. Thank them for considering your proposal.
  2. Funders like giving money to nonprofits. I have been on many panels. They want to fund every group. But there isn’t enough money. The funder will probably feel bad that you got rejected, and WANT you to do better next time. So…
  3. Ask for panel notes. These are detailed notes taken during the closed-door meeting, when your proposal was discussed. Most funders are happy to go over these notes with you. You get good feedback on your project, budget, grantsmanship, and any other thing that went awry. Take these notes to heart: they will make your next proposal better.
  4. Befriend the funder. Now that you have established a phone relationship with them, you have an “in.” Leverage it. Send them updates about your projects. Invite them to an event. Make them remember you come proposal time.
  5. Always be nice. 
  6. Call the funder before you write the proposal. That’s right — before you write it. Go over your project with them, and explore how it fits their funding guidelines. They will ask questions, and give you valuable feedback. When they finish — TAH-DAH! — they will have told you how to write the proposal. All you have to do type it out. How easy is that?
  7. Repeat, if necessary. But let’s hope not.
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Another Observation on Giving USA Foundation Giving Data

News on foundation giving


According to the summary report (still waiting to diving into the details), giving  by community foundations grew 9.1 percent last year, which helped to bolster total foundation giving to a 4.4 percent increase.  The report notes that operating and independent foundations increased grant making by 3.5 percent and 3.9 percent, respectively.

While these are good numbers (and in this economy, any number in the black is a good number), my key concern is that the real growth in foundation giving was felt among foundations where philanthropy is donor-driven/donor-designated.  While many community foundations have robust competitive grants programs, I suspect that these programs likely grew at the same rate as operating and independent foundations.

So, when it comes to competitive grants — that is, those grants where you can openly apply for a gift — it looks like we are dealing with a 3.5/4.0% growth rate in giving.  More than respectable…

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Four Resources So Your Writing Doesn’t Suck

Sucky writing is easy. Anyone can do it. I was on a plane yesterday. The only reading material were trade magazines left by an insurance agent. I got a snootful of  sucky writing.

To be fair, the writers were salesmen (literally), not professional writers. And they tended to be long-winded.

The real culprits were the editors. Articles meandered pointlessly all over the page. Sentences were convoluted. The Chicago Manual of Style was nowhere to be found. Naughty, bad insurance editors! You need a spanking!

I don’t mean to rag on these people. God knows, they’re stuck with a boring subject. But I find other subjects more boring: knitting, fashion design, baseball, a serialized history of tea. But I have read exciting articles on all these subjects. They are written by hard-working writers, who wrote and rewrote, and obviously care about their craft.

It got me thinking about grant proposals. Grant writers are the luckiest people in the world. We have crazy exciting subjects. Yet most grant writing is dull and dreary. It’s stilted. Basic rules of grammar and punctuation run amok. And when grantors reads these messes, they can’t make sense of it, and your grant goes into the old circular file.

I think most grant writers (including myself) struggle to make our proposals sing — to express the organization, its mission, personality, and uniqueness. So here are some resources I use to help keep my writing from sucking (as badly as it could).

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White Elements of Style

Strunk & White is my bible. I keep a copy next to my bed. It is heavily marked. The pages are yellow and stained with coffee and wine. It was originally written in 1918, and still gives great advice.

It’s also a great example of how to make a boring subject very funny. It was edited by E.B. White, the great American humorist who wrote Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Is Sex Necessary?

Yes, some of the material is outdated. But who cares? A smart writer still pays attention to these two masters.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser On Writing Well

Zinsser is my new discovery. Non-fiction writers must own this book. Zinsser helps journalists, cookbook writers, travel writers, sports writers, memoirists. And grant writers can find plenty of treasure.

  • “Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.”
  • “Fighting clutter [in your writing] is like fighting weeds — the writer is always slightly behind.”
  • “Beware of creeping nounism. This is an American disease that strings two or three nouns together when one noun — or better yet, one verb — will do.” Grant proposals are RIFE with this sin. I’m looking at you, “geographic information system.” I think you’re a map.

Why Knot? by Philippe Petit Why Knot

This is not a book about writing. It is a book about knots. Yawn…

But look at Petit’s writing. It’s astonishing. This guy is passionate about knots, of all things. Why? Because knots save lives every day. He writes about people who use knots, where they use them, and how they use them. And he writes about SPECIFIC people, in SPECIFIC places, who need SPECIFIC knots. You actually hear Petit speak, telling you how to tie these knots and when to use them. He even gives you a ROPE with the book, so you can start tying knots right away.

Why Knot? is the perfect grant package.

Now, we don’t write about knots. We write about compelling things — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick. We write about educating children in poor schools. We write about artists creating new plays, symphonies, dances, community events, and more. We write about projects that protect battered women, abused children, and homeless teens. So why is this book about knots more interesting than most of our proposals?

I’m not suggesting that you write like Petit. Grant proposals are business documents, after all. You must use the voice of your organization. But find Petit’s passion in your program. It is there, and it is your job to express it in writing.

Readability Tests

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — readability tests help you write better. They let you know how hard, or easy, it is to read your proposal. I sound like a broken record. If you want to know more about readability tests, go here.

Now get out there and excite some grantors!

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Thank Your Donors Now


Danke! Gracias! Obrigado! Kiitos!

We have all done it. We forgot to send out thank you notes. The mail merge screwed up and sent letters to the wrong donors. And how much do stamps cost these days?

Thanks to Vanessa Chase, you now have a checklist of 10 Mistakes to Avoid when thanking donors. Print it out and put it next to your list of thank you notes.

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Nonprofit Boards Make Me Crazy!

235/365 Hair pulling stress

They want to sponsor a golf tournament!

Nonprofit boards, bless their little souls. They are filled with well-meaning, intelligent people. They try their best to help the organization. But the one thing we need them to do, the biggest item on the agenda at every meeting, is fundraising. And they DON’T DO IT!

I don’t get it. I had a financial guy on a client’s board once — he ran a hedge fund. He wore full-length fur coats in the winter. He had a vacation home in the Hamptons. But he never raised a dime for the organization, no matter how many times he promised he would. He never made a donation himself. He just liked to give advice. (To add insult to injury, he pledged $500 that he never paid.)

I have attended board development workshops hosted by major foundations. I learned about board responsibility, getting members involved in raising donations, etc. I applied their suggestions and techniques, which are very sound. But nothing ever worked because they don’t feel comfortable asking for money. ARGH!

Now comes this interesting article about getting board members to raise money without traditional fundraising. It’s very smart, well written, and you better pay attention if you have a crappy board.

I have tried all these suggestions at one time or another. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But it’s nice to see them all gathered together, for easy reference. Thanks, Nell

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How To Ask For Donations, Without Pain

And fork over all your dough...

Look deep into my eyes. (Photo credit: Mourner)

OK. Let’s admit it. It’s hard to ask for money. No one likes to do it. Our parents rear us to never ask for money. It’s called begging. Dogs do it.

And who wants to be a schnorrer?

On the other hand, you work for a nonprofit organization. It’s proper that you ask for money. Heck, it’s your job to ask for money. So how do you do it without making a boob of yourself?

I will tell you the secret now. Come closer.

Use three magic words. Will. You. Consider. Not, “will you donate $5 million?” Rather, “will you consider donating $5 million?”

That is so much easier to say, and to hear. Why? Because you are not asking for money — at least not now. You are asking for consideration. You are asking that they go home, check out your website, talk it over with their spouse, sleep on it, and then get back to you. No pressure. It’s so much nicer, don’t you think?

I use this phrase in all my individual solicitations — online, offline and by snail mail. It is my mantra. I breathe it.

And even if you don’t get a financial contribution, they still give you something valuable: their time and their attention. They give your organization some real thought. They don’t blow you off.

And that, my friend, is how relationships begin. Will you consider using this phrase?

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Nonprofits Make Money In The Salon Biz?

The IRS wants to know if a dance company “receive(d) any payments for indoor tanning services during the year.” (Form 990EZ, Line 44c, for all your wonks out there. You know who you are.)

I mean, I know there is a new excise tax on indoor tanning. But how many nonprofits offer tanning services? How about manicures? French tips? And I have a knot right behind my left shoulder blade…

Does this actually apply to anyone out there? 

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