“Life, friends,” the great American poet John Berryman wrote, “is boring.” Perhaps we object to the sentiment; the poet’s own mother declares that to confess boredom bespeaks a lack of “Inner Resources.” But anyone who has ever had to read the fine print of legal disclosures, endure corporate training on microaggressions in the workplace, or sit through a longwinded story from a child not one’s own, knows the feeling.

In our writing, we avoid inflicting boredom on our unsuspecting readers by carefully curating the crude stuff of life. Spare me the details? Absolutely. We’ve all been there. Spare me the big picture and the bottom line? Never.

Speaking of big picture and bottom line, our subject today is not boredom but foundation proposals—and the two are not to be confused. The tedious labor that goes into a grant proposal’s construction must never be visible upon its shimmering surface. And that requires equal parts prudence and artistry.

What follows is not an inch-by-inch synopsis of the moving parts of a grant application. That would be, not to put too fine a point on it, boring. Instead, I have a big picture and a bottom line to show you.


Congratulations! You have fired off a winsome Letter of Inquiry (and/or successfully downloaded grant proposal instructions). Before you lies the main event: getting your proposal accepted. 

Last week we touched on how program officers are busy. Let’s emphasize another characteristic about them here: they’re also human. I suppose it’s possible that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation uses cutting edge algorithms and Cortana to make funding decisions, but pretty much any proposal you put together will ultimately come down to a living, breathing human, making a moral judgment about your organization’s work.

Let’s emphasize that point: for all the rhetoric of “investment” in philanthropy, what lies at the heart of funding decisions is moral judgment, not rational calculation. So whether your organization is deemed worthy of funding has a lot more to do with why your work matters than it does with how efficiently you budget or how diamond-encrusted is your history of success.

And as Jonathan Haidt persuasively points out in The Righteous Mind, moral instincts precede moral reasoning. That is, moral judgments are formed primarily through “gut reaction” from our instincts, habits, preconceptions, etc. … for which our conscious mind then builds and furnishes reasons. In other words, we arrive at moral judgments quickly and instinctually, and then look around for rational confirmation subsequently.

How does this insight apply to your proposal? It means that, in all probability, the person reading it will have a strong sense of whether she wants to fund it right off the bat—after reading the executive summary, maybe skimming the problem statement and program narrative. All that other detailed stuff—budget, outcomes, outputs, leadership, etc.—is just fodder for the post-facto rationalization. The details provide justification for the decision that’s already being reached, in other words. They don’t make the case.


All well and good, you might be saying. But how can I make the crucial parts of the proposal appeal directly to someone’s moral instincts?

This is my dictum: A foundation proposal is a story masquerading as a spreadsheet. A fable disguised as facts. But let me be clear: I am not implying that there is anything spurious or deceptive about a proposal—far from it. But rather I mean that a good proposal simplifies the raw data of existence and synthesizes it into an intelligible and compelling story.

There must be a pattern. It must be intelligible. That pattern is the story of your proposal, and it probably goes like this:

Once there was a bad problem, which threatened human flourishing. Our organization has arisen to solve that problem, and our work will improve people’s lives and make the world better in years to come. All we need in order to accomplish this is your money, which we will put to excellent use.

That story can be baked right into the main sections of a proposal—Executive Summary, Problem Statement, Project Narrative, Conclusion. It’s a story you tell through concrete language, not through abstractions, and not through reams of data.

But I’m starting to repeat myself. And that, friends, is boring.

If you'd like to learn more about crafting winning grant proposals, join Iain Bernhoft, along with American Philanthropic founding partner, Jeff Cain, for an "In the Trenches" master class on Thursday, March 11th from 1:00-4:00 Eastern. Register here and use the code CIVILSOCIETY for a 20% discount!