Holding Up Your End

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It’s not uncommon: a nonprofit’s program staff or its executive director get excited about funding opportunities and ask the proposal writer or development people “put something together and go after that grant! The XYZ Foundation says it’s interested in what we do, there’s a deadline coming up in a week, so write it up and submit it.”


Sure enough, the XYZ Foundation is calling for proposals. The proposal writer opens the application and learns what the proposal needs to contain: specific program objectives, tasks and timelines, a budget and a narrative that match, an evaluation plan. Only the program staff is too busy to provide any of that - “just tell them what we do, we’ll figure that stuff out after you get us the grant.”


Time out. The person who writes the proposal should not be put in the position of improvising the details of a program because the program staff is too busy. What’s at stake is much more than just losing a grant award: the organization might WIN the grant and then be unable to do the promised work; the proposal writer might badly misstate the methods or techniques used by the agency; without current and contemporary input, the proposal might carry worn-out statistics and outmoded methods.


Good practice suggests that the development of the proposal become a collaboration among appropriate program staff, budgets or accounting people, representatives of the target population (the clients) and the writer whose job it will be to tell the story and persuade the funder to pay for it.


One way might be for the development writer to pose a hypothetical to the program staff: “What if we could secure a $50,000 grant from the XYZ Foundation for our summer high school prep program for middle school kids?” Ask staff what they’d spend the money for—not just “that would cover it,” but how would it be used, exactly—Salaries, equipment, transportation, outside vendors, facilities, what else? Then, with those specifics in hand, the writer can go to work shaping the proposal so it accurately and fully describes how the grant will help the nonprofit prepare kids for high school.


Development should be embedded in the governance and management of nonprofits and not relegated to a last-minute frenzy of hunting and gathering. Program staff need to be transparent and proactive about what they need so proposal writers can be effective advocates for the work.


Thomas Boyd is Chief Editorial Consultant for The Grantsmanship Center
and an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations.

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