by Heather Stombaugh, MBA, CFRE, GPC, HUB Philanthropic Solutions, Grants Consultant
True story: Last year, I reviewed a federal proposal that was written as a screenplay. While interesting (if only because I was curious as to why someone thought that was appropriate), the writer completely missed the point. The application was for a health grant, and it did not score well. Throughout the review, everyone wondered why the author thought health reviewers would want to see the request in a screenplay format. It’s creative, sure, and I give them props for trying something new, but the writer forgot a fundamental rule of writing: write for your audience.
That’s a pretty stark example. But it makes clear my Tip #1: in order to write for your audience, you must know your audience. For private and corporate requests, do your homework to learn about the program officers, board members, donors, and family (as appropriate). For government requests, find out all you can about the program officers and the type of review panel(s) you should expect. Who are they? Where do they live? What are they interested in? Read the bio pages on websites to try to decipher why they are affiliated with the funder. And essentially, learn about your potential reviewer’s academic background. That’s an important one, because education and reading level are intertwined—in most cases, you’re not going to send a doctoral thesis to a family foundation for the same reason you’re not going to send a three-page letter in response to a state Request for Proposals. It wouldn’t be appropriate to the audience. Also, don’t assume anything about a reviewer’s politics, interests, religion or anything based on what you read about them – that’s why grant maker cultivation is so necessary.
Tip #2: Keep your voice, or your writing will seem phony. Authenticity is essential in fundraising. Writing for your audience is not about mission drift or completely reworking your program to bend to the will of a funder. Quite the contrary. Be true to your organization’s mission, vision, and culture, but use the funder’s words against them when you can. For example, I once worked on a proposal for a nursing program in Texas. The targeted funder supported only nursing programs, but they called nurses caregivers. Nowhere in their literature was the word “nursing”, except in the names of the programs they funded. It was easy to use Word’s find/replace funding to change the work “nurses” to “caregivers” throughout the proposal. Otherwise, the request remained faithful to the organization and the project. We just used a word that made the funder more comfortable.
Tip #3: It’s not about you. In far too many grants I’ve reviewed, the organization can’t stop talking about itself, such as “XYZ Organization provided shelter for 200 people last night” or “ABC Nonprofit provided 25,000 health care visits last year.” To the reviewer, this language comes across as self-serving. It’s not about your organization. It’s about the beneficiaries of your programs. Nonprofits are conduits for good work, so we should remove ourselves to some extent from this language. We could revise those two examples to “Two hundred people in need in our community found a safe, comfortable bed at XYZ Organization last night” or Last year, X number of people had access to affordable healthcare at ABC Nonprofit.” In these examples, we turn the focus back to the people who benefit from your work – the group the funder wants to hear about the most.
How do you write for your audience?