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The key to a good proposal is readability. Do the hard work for your reader to avoid confusion and help them catch the gist on a quick skim.

Last week, my colleague Austin Detwiler took to these electronic pages to discuss ways to take your foundation proposal to the next level. The TL;DR is to look for a cohesive narrative; make sure the key sections shine; proofread.

I’m not looking to second-say any of those points, per se. But I do want to offer a handful of specific editorial practices that should prove valuable in moving your proposal from “rough draft” to “damn fine.”

Here are three tips to help you achieve that. The first two are “big picture” and then one more granular in focus.

ONE: Make sure your headings tell the big story.

You know the big story: What is the problem, how you propose to solve it, why (and how) the foundation’s support will improve things. That’s the story you’re telling in your introduction, programs, and conclusion section.

And you need to tell that story for your typical reader—that is to say, for the skimming reader. You need this story to pop off the page, and the best way to do that is to put the basic plot points in the headings.

Cut out the dry, glossary-style headings like, “Problem Statement,” “Our Programs,” and “Impact.” Try instead “Hungry Bellies and Empty Lives,” “Meals That Make a Lifelong Difference,” and “The Families You’ll Save.” The former set might give you an outline, but not much more—and they certainly don’t delight or engage your reader.

With your skimming reader in mind, consider also ways in which you can make your story shine out from the pages of your proposal. Maybe with some judiciously placed pull quotes, for example, or neat and simple numbered lists, bullet points, and so on. You may need long prose to tell the story well, but see if you can enhance with other engaging content that pops off the page.

TWO: Spell out the transitions.

When people talk about “clear organization” and “logical flow,” what they really mean is, “I understand how and why point B relates to point A.” And the best way to give them that comforting, well-shepherded feeling is to tell them. Every time you move from one section to the next (even from one paragraph to the next), have a sentence that begins with the previous point and ends with the next.

Say, for example, you’ve established the problem of malnourished children, and now you’re heading into your in-school programming. You might say, “Malnutrition directly harms children’s academic performance, so we integrate tutoring with nutrition in our ‘Math and Healthy Snacks’ program.” Each step of the way, you include a sentence which shows your reader how what comes next relates to what was just said.

If you find it very difficult to articulate what Y has to do with X, you probably have a cohesion problem, and you need to reconsider your proposal’s organization. (Conversely, if you can wave your writerly wand and make them seem connected, it will likely fool all but your most careful and wary reader into thinking they do in fact cohere.)

Those are your bigger-picture editorial priorities. Here’s the line-editing one. . .

THREE: Don’t ask yourself, “Does this make sense?” Instead, ask yourself, “Could this possibly be misunderstood?”

Needless to say, I’m not original in this piece of advice, but it’s crucial for proposal writing. The key insight is that you should not edit with your ideal reader in mind, but rather with for your slowest, most ignorant, most suspicious reader in mind. Write for the person who doesn’t understand the field, who doesn’t see how it all fits together, who doesn’t remember the point you made 2 minutes ago.

Why edit this way? Because it forces you to write simply, and it forces you to make your thinking crystal clear. It also forces you to do the hard work of communication, thereby lifting the burden from your reader.

Readers love that! And if you’re asking your reader for a sizable donation, it behooves you to treat him or her with consideration. By doing the thinking for them, you’re increasing your chances of success, and you’re acting generously toward your reader.

There’s another good reason to edit in this way: It helps you avoid the curse of knowledge. Your reader probably doesn’t “see how it all fits together” the way you do, so when you force yourself to spell it out, you actually make your case far more compelling.

Here’s a bonus tip for simplicity: Run your proposal through the Hemingway Editor. It’s free, and it will give your prose a “grade level” for readability (as well as highlighting sentences that are hard to read). Shoot for Grade 9 or lower on your proposals. If it gives you 12th grade or post-graduate, you need simply must simplify.

Convoluted organization and complex prose will bog down the effectiveness of your proposal.

If you want to raise money, write simply—and show your reader exactly how it all fits together.

1 thought on “Revising foundation proposals: comprehension for the skimming reader”

  1. Whitney says:

    Love the tip: “could this possibly be misunderstood?”

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