Less May Be More

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Great writers agree: it’s harder to write short than write long. Mark Twain said “a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. . .a five-minute speech will take two weeks to prepare.” Thoreau said “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”


Just because a foundation says “write a proposal” doesn’t mean you have to stuff the document with everything you can think of. Consider that reviewers might have hundreds of proposals to read and evaluate—sometimes that many in a few weeks. What are some ways to economize on words and maximize impact?


Start with the spine of the case. You might focus on the essential elements of (a) what needs to be done, (b) how you plan to do it, (c) why your nonprofit is best equipped to do it and (d) what it will take to get it done. Proposal requirements differ in terms of the order of these items but they are almost always at the heart of the case for support.


Choose your supporting information carefully. Is it really important to unspool the founder’s fascinating personal story? Only if it speaks directly to the current need, plan and budget. Is it necessary to elaborate on the organization’s mission and values? Maybe, but perhaps it’s more useful to say how your work aligns with the funder’s values. In your draft, give the dominant ideas most of the space and be very strategic about how you use subordinate information.


Words matter. In your proposal draft, use words that are specific, concrete, vivid and vibrant. Short sentences often succeed. Pick dynamic verbs. “The man walked into the room” is not as powerful as “the man stumbled / danced / burst into the room.” Don’t hesitate to visit the thesaurus.


Finally and unavoidably, write and rewrite. Start with a long draft and boil it down. Thoreau was right that it takes time to make it short, but it’s time well spent if the result is a crisp, compelling proposal that catches attention—and gets you one step closer to securing funding!


Thomas Boyd is Chief Editorial Consultant for The Grantsmanship Center

and an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations.



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