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Book Review: Inside the Mystical World of Grantwriting

By Tom Watson on January 24, 2007No Comment
Book Review

Book Review: Inside the Mystical World of Grantwriting
By Kate Golden, 1/24/2007

As anyone who has toiled in the time-intensive process of grantwriting can attest, a “no” from a foundation is incredibly disheartening…especially when that no comes in the form of a stock rejection letter.  And while nonprofit professionals are accustomed to rejection – not every potential donor can say yes – it is safe to assume that they’d like to hear as few of them as possible.

One way to achieve this is to better understand the grantseeking process – from identifying possible foundations to the packaging of the proposal and everything in between.  Cheryl A. Clarke and Susan P. Fox detail and deconstruct this complicated process in their book, Grant Proposal Makeover:  Transform Your Request from No to Yes.

The authors begin by making an important point, and they do this in the form of an analogy – that of a grant proposal to a resume.  They explain that both are an integral step in a larger progression of steps.  While foundations have funded nonprofits based solely on the strength of their grant requests, they are more likely to fund those with whom they have met or spoken, whose mission and programs they know and understand.

A-job seeker will find that sending out a generic cover letter and resume is not the most effective way to become employed, no matter how many envelopes he or she puts in the mail.  Instead, the savvy applicant will tailor each letter to each company, explaining why he or she is the perfect fit for the job.  Sending out blanket proposals to every foundation in the surrounding community will garner about as many approvals as the generic cover letter did for the job seeker.  Of course, the resume is the first step in a long process.  Once it is submitted, the best candidates are brought in for interviews.  It is not normally the resume itself that gets the applicant hired. 

This is not to understate the importance of the proposal, as the authors make clear.  A grant proposal is a tangible product; one that others will read to make decisions about the effectiveness of the nonprofit’s programs.  It is critical that the proposal is articulate, well-written, and error-free, especially when only one out of every ten grant requests receives foundation funding.

Because Grant Proposal Makeover incorporates helpful tips and quotes from foundation program officers and others from the funding community, readers of the book will hear exactly what foundations think of poorly written proposals.  As one foundation officer reported, a disorganized proposal “raises a red flag about the ability of the organization to carry out the project.”  And the chances of a foundation contacting an organization like this to learn more about its project are probably slimmer than those of the organization who submitted a solid proposal. The ways to build a solid proposal make up the remainder of the book.  

The makeover theme is integrated into every chapter, as the authors present an “ugly” proposal and demonstrate how, through tips, illustrations, and explanations, each can be transformed into a “beautiful” one.  What marks an “ugly” proposal?  Common pitfalls include both those of structure and those of style.  Clarke and Fox specifically detail, among others, proposals packed with irrelevant statistics; proposals obviously written by more than one or two people; and proposals with confusing or unclear budgets. 

Clarke and Fox insist that while many books and workshops provide assistance in grantwriting, Grant Proposal Makeover is unique in that it shows readers “how to successfully remodel a flawed proposal.”  While this is true, and surely helpful to those who work best with examples and concrete illustrations (as well as those who have mediocre proposals that need revamping), I personally found that the most useful aspect of the book were the quotes peppered through each chapter by funders themselves.  These observations and anecdotes provide entry to foundation offices across the country, allowing readers to see what actually goes on behind closed doors at decision-making time. 

As the authors write in the concluding chapter of their book, “Generally, the funders determine the rules of the grantmaking game, and playing by the rules will keep you in the game and give you the best chance of winning.”  Each foundation is unique, with its own nuances and personalities, and the likelihood of each and every one agreeing on the rules of grantmaking is small.  But understanding the process, and knowing generally what foundations seem to like and dislike, will surely help your chances of grant approval.

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