Five proposal writing tips – straight from the donor’s mouth

Proposal writing is an alchemy of art and science, requiring endurance, attention to detail and expert storytelling finesse. Securing a major gift fundamentally comes down to relationship building – but if you don’t have the writing to back this up, you remain at the bottom of the pile.

So how can fundraisers stand out in a written context? Here are five tips straight from donors themselves, as heard on I.G. Advisors’ podcast, What Donors Want.


#1: Don’t try to make the shoe fit (when it’s clearly never going to fit)

“The first variable to determine whether a grant is effective is strategic alignment,” (Alfonsina Peñaloza, Hewlett Foundation), so you must “read that you’re eligible before going through the [proposal] process,” (Adam Askew, Comic Relief).

Foundations typically score proposals with pre-set criteria so there is no disguising of square pegs in round holes. Donors can always tell when you’ve manipulated your mission to align with their funding priorities, and it comes off as inauthentic and frustrating.


#2: Make information easily digestible

Behind the scenes at foundations, proposals are typically read first by junior staff members who shortlist piles and summarise these to senior decision-makers. To get past this first gate, you need to communicate simply and specifically, and “[have key information jump off the page]. It makes life as an assessor and as an application reader much more straightforward,” (Adam Askew, Comic Relief).

Think about that junior staff member summarising your proposal, and make sure they can do this easily during an afternoon sugar crash.


#3 Frame prospects as partners – not donors

“The healthy way to have a relationship with a programme officer is to see them as much as possible as a partner rather than a donor,” (Alfonsina Peñaloza, Hewlett Foundation). This is particularly true of major donors who require highly bespoke cultivation and messaging, and “get a buzz [from] the involvement,” (Lynne Smitham, Kiawah Trust).

This partnership approach must be reflected in your proposals through language that makes donors feel their value transcends cash. Be sure to use phrases like in partnership, and always use the word support instead of funding or contribution.


#4 Tell brilliant stories

Good storytelling is essential to effective proposal writing (in fact, the terms are close to a euphemism). In contrast to procurement processes, “[private philanthropic donors want to be] inspired and want [you to tell them] a compelling and brilliant story,” (Adam Askew, Comic Relief).

This is also a fantastic opportunity to centre the perspectives of your beneficiaries in your proposal, and demonstrate how you include them as valued stakeholders in your work.


#5 Let your personality shine

I’ve now officially outed myself as a North American, but “passion for issues is not to be undermined,” (Alfonsina Peñaloza, Hewlett Foundation). Your proposal must have personality and give the donor a sense of the people behind the mission they are investing in. “[You need to demonstrate] passion, energy, focus and competence,” (Lynne Smitham, Kiawah Trust), and avoid jargon and technical phrases that feel dry and uninspiring. Remember, people ultimately – and always – give to people.

During our interview in Episode 3, Adam Askew (Comic Relief) lamented on the frustration of knowing a charity is brilliant but not being able to convince ultimate decision-makers of this brilliance because it doesn’t translate on paper.

You heard it from the donor first – strong written communication is utterly essential. Don’t let this stop you from securing the funding you need.


For more proposal writing and cultivation tips, subscribe to What Donors Want on iTunes (and hear them straight from the donor’s mouth).


This post was written by Rachel Stephenson Sheff from I.G. Advisors – a London-based, social impact strategy and management consultancy specialising in philanthropy, corporate impact and fundraising advice. Rachel is also the producer of What Donors Want.

Charities, Fundraising, Newsletter