The Insider’s Guide to Writing a Winning Proposal

I have a secret I’m going to share with you — one that could mean the difference between hundreds of thousands of dollars and zero. I’ve just gotten a glimpse into the other side of the proposal process, and I have learned some very important lessons from it.

As a consultant, a substantial chunk of my time goes to writing proposals to get new business. Quite often, the proposals are in response to a request for proposals (RFP) from a government agency at the Federal, State or local level. Nonprofit organizations also have to spend time on grantwriting to find funding to provide their services.

This week and last, I have been a member of a Federal grant review panel for a Dept. of Health & Human Services agency. This means that I am on a team that reads stacks of grant applications that have been submitted by nonprofits in response to an announcement requesting proposals for funding. I read each proposal and score it according to the evaluation criteria set forth in the announcement, and when the many teams are done reading and scoring, the agency will offer funding to the organizations who scored highest. The difference between those who are funded and those who are not can be a matter of a point or two.

While I’m not allowed to say anything specific about the grant and applications I am reviewing now, I can give you some guidelines I’ve learned in the process that will make the people like me want to give you a high score.

Here then are my insider tips for how to write your proposals to increase your chances of success when responding to an RFP or grant announcement:

  1. Read the RFP and then read it again (and again). Most RFPs that are put out by government agencies are full of details and requirements. Make sure you get both the big picture of what they are asking for and the details of how they want it. Highlight the relevant sections. Make notes to yourself on it. Know the document inside out and backwards before you start to write your proposal.
  2. Choose well. Deciding which RFPs to respond to takes judgment and a willingness to wait for the right fit. Writing a proposal is a time-consuming process, and you should not jump into it without being sure that you have a good chance of being selected. If your organization has an annual operating budget of $100,000, you will probably not be seen as appropriate for receiving a grant of $1.5 million. Likewise, if the RFP requires specific experience or capabilities that you don’t have, you probably won’t be able to fudge that. Knowing your strengths and limitations going in makes it more likely that you will go for projects that are appropriate and thus get funded.
  3. Follow their directions to the word. Most RFPs put out by government agencies (and often those by other organizations as well) include a section that lays out the evaluation criteria that will be used to score the proposals. As a reviewer, I have to measure how closely a given proposal meets the criteria. Therefore, if the RFP requires that you discuss how you will bring in community partners to participate in the project, you’d darn well better talk about that in the proposal. If it says that you need to put a picture of a purple triangle at the bottom of page 28, you’d better do that too, even if you think it’s ridiculous. So often in the proposals I reviewed, they were missing a requirement that could have been met by the inclusion of a single sentence, but because they did not include it, I had to deduct points.
  4. Don’t send the reviewer on a scavenger hunt. Make the structure of the proposal as clear and easy to read as possible. This means following the same structure and order that the RFP used, even if you think it would be more logically presented another way. As I was reviewing a proposal, the closer it was to the sections in the evaluation criteria, the easier it was for me to score. Believe me, you don’t want to make me search through your 60-page proposal to see if you meet all the criteria because if I miss something that’s hidden in a different section, you don’t get the points. I had to get through ten thick proposals that each took several hours to complete so I had no patience for playing hide and seek.
  5. Speak the same language as the RFP. As I said, the RFP required specific points to be discussed in order to meet the evaluation criteria. By presenting your project using the same language as the funder–even if it’s not exactly how you usually talk about your work–you will make sure that you receive the points you deserve. If the RFP says to describe your experience in providing “capacity building,” use that term even if your organization usually calls it “improving nonprofit effectiveness.”
  6. Spell it all out. Agencies purposefully select people from a broad range of backgrounds to act as grant reviewers. Some are experts in the subject matter, but others are brought on because they understand program design or process. When you write your proposal, don’t assume that the person reading it knows the subject well. One proposal I read used the acronym PYD throughout the project description and never defined it; maybe that’s a common abbreviation in that field, but I had no idea what they were talking about. And make sure you write clearly without assuming what you mean is obvious — I may not be able to read between the lines.
  7. Give substance, not fluff. Sometimes a proposal can look good on the first read-through, with bells and whistles, impressive big words, long explanations and fancy charts. But when I compared the proposal against the evaluation criteria, it was completely nonresponsive. They had a lot of information in there, but there was not enough of what they needed to have. The project you are proposing must be substantive and sound, based on fundamental principles of an effective program. Without that, the proposal is just a bunch of hot air. The reviewer will figure that out pretty quickly.
  8. Put up or shut up. If you say you have particular skills and experience, you need to back that up with specifics. You can’t say things like “Our organization has extensive experience in providing such and such a service” without detailing what exactly you did, when and for whom. Pulling claims out of thin air in order to meet the criteria required in the RFP without providing documentation or details will not get you the points. As a reviewer, I have to provide specific reasons–good and bad–why I gave a certain number of points for each criterion, and I can’t use your unsupported claims as evidence.
  9. Partner up or down. Government agencies love seeing partnerships, especially with other community-based or faith-based organizations. It always gets you extra brownie points (or even real, actual points). So, if you can, build partnerships with other organizations that complement your own skills or have access to the audience you need to reach. If you are a large organization, look for partners to augment what you are offering. If you are a small organization, particularly if you have not had the specific experience required in the RFP, you can let a larger partner know about the RFP and offer to be a subcontractor doing the portions of the project that are your specialty.
  10. Read your proposal and then read it again (and again). I know that most proposals are rushed out the door as soon as the final period is typed so you can Fedex it in for the next day’s deadline. I do that too. But if you have time it is critical that you read over what you have written and compare it with the evaluation criteria to make sure you haven’t left anything out. One of the proposals I read had two whole sections missing except for a few sentence fragments. Clearly, the writer meant to go back and fill in that section but either forgot or just didn’t have time. I had to give them a zero for each section. Also, make sure that you don’t have any typos and use correct grammar. Although I couldn’t deduct points for those sorts of errors, they do affect the reviewer’s perception of the competence and capabilities of that organization and may be reflected in other scores.

Being on the other side of the grant review process has been a huge learning opportunity for me, and I have identified some things I will do differently the next time I write a proposal. I hope it’s been helpful for you too. Good luck!

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