Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during December 2000, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Quick: What’s the difference between a goal and an objective? If you’re stumbling over the answer, you are not alone. If I had a dollar for every time I heard even experienced nonprofit and foundation professionals debate the difference, I could have started my own foundation by now.
Yet describing goals and objectives is considered a necessary part of a grant proposal. Almost every guide to proposal writing and almost every foundation’s guidelines instruct applicants to write about goals and objectives, needs assessments, anticipated outcomes, work plans, timelines, evaluation, etc.
In ten years of grant-making, I’ve probably read nearly 1,000 proposals and have written dozens myself. And they’ve all followed the recommended formats: sections on needs assessments, goals and objectives, etc. Yet some of these proposals have been more powerful, more eloquent, and more persuasive than others. What is it about these proposals, I’ve wondered, that makes them so good?
I’ve come to realize that the best and most readable proposals basically tell a good story and tell it in a fairly simple and organized manner. And by story I don’t mean an anecdote, or history of the organization, or a warm and fuzzy tale about a client. I’m talking about the basic story of the organization and its work: What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who are you doing it with? How do you know you’re doing the right thing?
A basic rule in journalism is that a good news story has to answer some basic questions — the five W’s: Who? What? Where? When? Why? In the same spirit, I’m suggesting that a good proposal has to answer a basic set of questions. I am a bit embarrassed that I’ve come up with more than five questions and they are somewhat longer and more involved than the five W’s. But for someone who asks questions for a living, maybe it’s not so bad.
I doubt that I’m going to tell you anything you don’t already know about proposal writing. There are many excellent guides out there, written by folks with years of experience who have successfully raised money from foundations. Read them. Use them. Read them again. They will tell you almost everything you need to know to write a good proposal.
Telling the Story with the Seven W’s and Five H’s
What I’m offering here is a way to take a fresh look at what you’re writing in your proposals. My hope is that it will help you get to the stripped-down, basic truth of your organization and its work. So, without further delay, I present the Seven W’s and Five H’s that a good proposal should answer.
1. What’s the problem? I know, I know, it’s a negative way to put it, but it’s the simplest way to say it. What is it that isn’t right in the world or in your community that you want to change? What conditions do you want to improve? What conditions do you want to eliminate? What is the ultimate purpose of your work?
2. How do you know it’s a problem? Of course the answer to this question is very obvious to you. You’ve devoted your time and resources to solving this problem and you have perhaps lived closely with it. But not everyone will understand this as clearly as you. You might want to spell it out. How many people does it affect? Exactly how does it affect their lives? What are the many ways this problem hurts your community? Who has told you that this is a problem? What is the long-term impact of this problem? What is the impact of the problem beyond your community? How did you get your information on the problem: surveys, community meetings, focus groups?
3. What needs to be done about the problem? Talk about the “big picture” solution to the problem and your organization’s role in that solution. What are both the immediate and long-term solutions? What are the various entities — community residents, legislators, local businesses — that must change or must be in creating the solution?
4. How do you know it’s the right thing to do? What process led your organization to this response, this solution? Did you conduct surveys? Focus groups? Was it developed by the organization’s membership? By the organization’s leaders? What input did your community have in crafting this solution? Has the solution been tried elsewhere? Is it working?
5. Why is your organization the right organization to do it? This is where you should highlight your organization’s history and accomplishments. What successes have you had in the past that suggest you will succeed here? What resources does your organization have (people, experience, knowledge, contacts, etc.) to tackle this problem? Don’t be modest in touting your accomplishments and expertise. However, curb any tendencies to exaggerate. Be especially carefully about claiming to be “the only organization” that is doing this work or that can do this work. If you’re going to claim this distinction, be certain that it’s true. I’ve found that it very rarely is.
6. What specific things will you do? Spell out your action steps here. Use bullet points, numbers, or any other tricks to present them in a clearly organized way. Take your reader from point A to Z in your solution. What are the components of your solution? What are all of the steps in carrying out the solution? What are all of the different program activities? How do they all come together in an effective solution? 7.
To whom, for whom, and with whom will you do it? Be very specific here. Who will conduct the activities? Who will participate in them? How many people will participate? How many people will be affected? Try to differentiate between the number of people participating and the number who will be affected. Saying that your program will reach all 25,000 people in your community is a little misleading if what you’re really doing is training 25 people who will then conduct presentations open to the general public. There is a difference between those directly participating and those who will be affected.
8. How many times, how often, and in what time frame will you do it? Again, be as specific as you can here. It’s important to give a sense of the scope of your activities. How many workshops will you offer? How many meetings will you have? When will you start your action steps? When will you complete them? I understand that sometimes it’s hard to give exact numbers and dates. If you can’t do that at this point, try to give a range of numbers and dates.
9. What will it cost? You should have a separate project and organization budget as an attachment. You should, however, include an explanation of the budget in your proposal. This is often called a “budget narrative” or “budget detail.” This is especially useful if you have some very large line items, like “consultants” or “equipment,” that may raise some questions.
10. How will all the costs be covered? Your budget should show both income and expenses. If you’re not asking for the full budget, you should explain where the rest of the money is coming from. If you list other foundation grants, explain whether those grants are received, confirmed or still pending.
11. How will you know your solution is working, and that you’re doing the right thing? This is how I word that pesky evaluation question. In case you haven’t noticed, there is increasing pressure on nonprofits to show the impact of their work, and more and more foundations are expecting nonprofits to pay serious attention to evaluation. I understand that this is tricky, especially for advocacy and organizing work. You can’t measure social change in the way you can measure increased attendance at a museum or improved grades at a school. As frustrating as it may be, you really must take time in your planning and program development to figure out how you will know you’re doing what you should be doing.
12. Why is this request a good fit for the ______ Foundation? Unfortunately, it’s just not enough that your organization is doing good and important work. Most organizations out there are doing good and important work in some way. You should spell out why your work fits with the mission and priorities of this particular foundation. In addition to understanding the foundation’s priorities and guidelines, take a look at the foundation’s grants list. Does your work complement or expand upon the work of other grantees? Is your program in a community in the foundation’s service area, but where the foundation has not made any grants to date?
Using the Answers
There are a number of ways you can use these questions to help you write a better proposal. Some suggestions:
1. Take out your current general operating proposal as well as any project-specific proposals. Can you find the answers to each of these questions in the proposal? If not, write out the answers and work them into your proposal.
2. Have other staff members or board members do the same exercise.
3. Better yet, bring in a family member, friend or neighbor who isn’t involved with your work and maybe doesn’t even understand it. Ask them to read your proposal. Then hand them the 12 questions presented here and see if they can answer all of them from what they read in your proposal. This is a great way to find out if you’re losing your story in the convoluted “proposal-speak” that we all fall victim to sometimes. If your Aunt Bessie or your neighbor Pat can answer the above questions, it’s a good sign that you’re telling your story in a clear, simple and organized fashion.
4. Write a new proposal from scratch. Use the 12 questions as your section headings, instead of the standard headings of history, mission, needs assessment, goals and objectives, etc. Once you’ve written out the full answers to all of the questions, go back and change those section headings from the questions to something shorter and snappier, like oh, goals and objectives, needs assessment, evaluation.
Over the years, proposal writing has developed its own language, rules, regulations, dogma and mythology. These can be intimidating and confusing to new grant seekers and distracting and confining to experienced grant seekers. Put them aside for a while. Underneath all of that stuff is the story of how you’re changing your community. Tell it.