We are into the swing of things in 2023 as February comes to a close. Last year’s tax receipts are out the door and foundation proposals are ramping up. Maybe you’ve submitted a couple already this year, or you’ve got some coming up fast . . . and maybe you’re wondering how you can improve—daresay, perfect—your proposal.
Preparing a foundation proposal has three main steps:
- Have an idea or decide what you’re requesting funding for.
- Draft the proposal from start to finish (this is the most labor-intensive part).
- Review the complete draft and make a finished product.
Each of those steps has countless pieces building into it, but you can encapsulate the proposal writing process into those key parts—and the last part can be the most confusing. What do you do with a complete draft? How do you determine if this draft is good, beyond checking for grammar and typos?
Let’s look at how to do step three—that is, how to review and improve a complete draft.
EYES ON THE PRIZE: COHESION
When you’re reviewing a full draft of a proposal, the first thing you’re looking at is the overall cohesion of the whole product. The last thing you’re looking at (at this point) is grammar and conventions.
Your goal right now is to make sure that the proposal “hangs together” as a cohesive product. By and large, that means two things: first, does it progress logically, and second, is that progression clear.
One way to achieve this goal is to think about the proposal like a “table of contents.” What are the main sections and subsections of this proposal? Does one lead to another? Do the sections capture everything? Is the movement from section to section logical? Most importantly: is there a clear overarching structure apparent when you take a bird’s-eye-view look at the table of contents? And, of course, does the executive summary capture the “gist” of the whole proposal?
Chances are, the answers to most of these questions are “no.” That’s okay! When you’re in the weeds writing a proposal, you aren’t taking that bird’s-eye-view–perspective. Sections emerge and subsections manifest . . . headings proliferate, and how one thing ties into another is not entirely obvious when you take a step back. That’s why this review is essential.
After you’ve taken this step back and made necessary adjustments, the final product should work so that the headings walk the reader through the proposal. The distribution of subheadings should be logical—based on the programs you are presenting—and if you skim the headings you should get a feel for what it’s all about.
WHAT ARE THE KEY SECTIONS?
Each proposal is unique—even when you’re working off of a template—but at the highest level and in general, a proposal needs the following three sections:
- Executive Summary
- Programs (this is the meat of your proposal and may be many sections)
Needless to say, this leaves out several sections that are often—maybe even usually—included, such as:
- Organizational History
- Problem Statement
- Anticipated Outcomes
- Anticipated Obstacles
- Budget & Budget Narrative
- Funding Opportunity
- And countless others!
Many of these sections should be added to a strong and comprehensive proposal, but the Summary-Programs-Conclusion trifecta is essential. Without that, you simply don’t have a full proposal. While a problem statement, organizational history, and budget are important to include, neglecting them doesn’t necessarily remove the logical cohesion of your proposal.
So here’s a quick summary of those three sections.
Executive Summary. Your proposal should open with an executive summary that does three things: (1) states the problem and the need, (2) states your mission, and what you’ll do about the problem to meet the need, and (3) makes an explicit ask for support.
There are countless ways to produce an executive summary, but if you haven’t done those things, you haven’t created an executive summary, because you haven’t told me about your organization and this proposal.
Programs. The bulk of the proposal is the programs section. Ideally this is preceded by a problem statement that preempts what you’re about to pitch, but this section needs to explain in detail what you are going to do with the foundation’s support. That’s the key. You may also mention what you’ve done, and you may reiterate why it’s important. But the essential part of the programs section is what you are doing with the funding.
Conclusion. This part speaks for itself. Tie it all together, make the ask again—and make it punchy!—and say thank you. The conclusion should reiterate three things: what you want, what you’ll do, and why it matters.
When you are reviewing for “cohesion”—or what I call the overarching logic of the proposal—you are asking yourself two questions: what is it? and is it here?
When you get beyond cohesion, you are asking, is it good?
If the whole thing hangs together—if you have a cohesive whole that both compels and makes sense to the reader—then now you need to make sure you have no blunders or errors and that it’s well done.
There are two key parts to this final review: (1) design and layout, and (2) grammar and conventions.
Lookin’ good, kid. You eat with your eyes first. Some organizations take this insight very seriously and create heavily designed proposals. That may or may not describe your approach, but even if your proposal is more modest in its layout and design, you still need to make a final pass for layout. Is there a good cover page? Is the spacing worked out? Are there any pictures, and are they well-placed?
Here’s a crucial one: having reviewed the headings, are they all set correctly? That is, do corresponding headings and subheadings look the same throughout the proposal? (This is where logic and layout meet, so to speak.)
Conventions and grammar. At long last, we are back to grammar. Now it’s time for a finishing touch.
You have a nice cover page, followed by a well-written, clear, and compelling executive summary. That leads into a robust set of sections on various programs, each one better than the next and all of them tied together into a cohesive whole. And finally, a conclusion puts a bow on it and makes and ask you can’t refuse!
That’s the whole package, right? Almost.
Don’t froget to fix teh tpyos.
Here’s the thing: “A” may lead to “B” beautifully in your proposal, but bad writing will disrupt that logical progression. You might answer all of your reader’s questions, but too many typos can lose trust.
So the last thing to do is copyedit and proofread. Are there typos? Are sentences phrased well? Do you follow proper conventions and use good grammar? Your reader may eat with their eyes first, but they’ll look with a discriminating eye next, and you don’t want a stray misteak to turn them off.
For your last hurrah, check two things: (1) Is the foundation’s name spelled correctly every time? (2) Did you spell correctly the name of the person the letter is addressed to? Those are two all-too-common mistakes—and I have it straight from the horse’s mouth that it’s a big ding in your review to make that sloppy mistake!
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