Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Win With Tailored Appeals

Cloudlancer Writing Services (http://www.cloudlancerwriting.com) writes or edits dozens of business proposals, grant narratives and business plans each year. Presumably, people hire me to craft those documents with the goal of succeeding in winning the contract, grant, investor or loan they are pursuing. So why do they sabotage their own chances of winning?

Time after time, clients present me with boilerplate they have submitted previously, with an admonition to “be sure the document contains this approved language”.  I have had clients send me files with “board-approved language”, “marketing department talking points” or even text copied from a proposal submitted by a competitor.
Some things are redundant for any business. Obviously, your core mission, product or service can only be described uniquely so many times. Your identifying information probably doesn’t change much, unless your physical address or contact names change.

What changes is the audience. Even if you have approached the funding entity or customer in the past, surely there is something new and fresh you can include. Did you expand a product line, improve a process, or reach out to new target populations? Is the information in the document so new that it differs from that on your website?

Nonprofits are particularly prone to recycling content. They restate their core mission and offer the same descriptive copy repeatedly. Once, when working as a grant reviewer, I was handed a proposal with a handwritten sticky note saying, “Just check for mathematical accuracy-they submit the same proposal every year”. The problem was that the foundation had changed its focus emphasis, so the old worn-out proposal didn’t match the new focus. The proposal was rejected for incompatibility with the new focus, as well as for citing stale results.

People and focuses within an organization change. Perhaps last year, the foundation board was comprised of people whose personal interests revolved around scholarships, while this year, a majority of the board is backing social impact goals in the housing sector. You might want to emphasize how your education-based nonprofit can increase the ability of the home buyer to understand contracts or to secure good jobs to pay for better housing. If your old “board-approved language” fails to stay current with the donor’s goals, it may not receive even a cursory review. Addressing the proposal to someone who hasn't been with the organization for three years isn't a good idea either. 

Business proposals are also likely to ignore the basic premise of successful sales. You always want to answer the question “Why is my product or service better for YOU?” If all your proposals contain a long-winded company history, the same list of users of your product/service from 20 years ago, and the same dry cost figures, and stretches out to 800 pages, don’t be surprised if your prospect’s eyes glaze over and they go elsewhere. 

Exclusive of technical items such as engineering, architectural or mechanical drawings and the verbal descriptions of same, if you can’t tell the prospect why your product will solve THEIR problem in 50 pages, you are probably just padding the proposal with meaningless fluff. This is NOT the place to include every sales brochure and sales award your company ever received. Restate the customer’s problem, and as succinctly as possible, show them how you will solve it. Believe it or not, in their eyes, it’s about them and their needs, not your company history. One Gantt chart can take the place of ten pages of prose to illustrate your installation or construction timeline.

The purpose of responding to Request for Proposals (RFP's) is to win the requesting party's support. Make it about them and their needs or goals, and you are already way ahead of the game.

©2012 Rebecca Lee Baisch     All rights reserved

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tips For Preparing Online Grant Applications

It seems since everyone is online, everyone knows how to communicate online.  As a grant writer, researcher and consultant (www.cloudlancerwriting.com), I deal with nonprofit organizations throughout the United States. Surprisingly, I find that many of them are unprepared for online applications and some even avoid them. That’s like refusing a bottle of fine wine or turning down a pot of money because you don’t like the package.

As organizations of all types downsize to control costs, the online grant process is becoming more common. Unfortunately, there is no nationwide standard for formatting an online application. Some foundations simply turn their paper application into a pdf file and expect you to print it and submit it via snail mail or in person, while others have every step painstakingly (and sometimes painfully) detailed online. Some allow unlimited text entries in the narrative section, while others barely allow enough room to enter a headline for your entire mission or program. In short, if you have created a standard or boilerplate application packet, it may not work online. Here are some hints to make the process less stressful.

Make everything “attachable”
In nearly every case, the application will ask you to attach a file when submitting online. Convert your determination letter, audited financial statements, most recent 990, and your annual report to e-files. Unless your accountant is still using a 1953 Royal typewriter, all of your financial information resides in their server or on a disc somewhere. Ask them to send you a copy. If the information is original to your computer system, I recommend saving a copy as a pdf file. Convert your determination letter to a pdf if it is in paper format.

Do a dry run
If possible (and it usually is) download the application outline and create the responses as word docs that you can cut and paste. That gives you the chance to monitor word and character count to be sure that information is not left out because there is an automatic end to the field. Some online applications will warn you when you are exceeding the limits of the text field (box), but many will not. Be as brief as you can without losing the impact of the narrative. That can be tough, since many nonprofits have board-approved language, but brevity is a virtue online. What works in a 2000-word brochure or five-page hard copy application won’t always work online. Thoughtful editing is a must.

Proofread and update your web site
Many applications will ask you for your URL. Be sure that your website looks and reads professionally, and has accurate hard data available. Be sure that links work, and the language on the web corresponds with the language in your application. Your contact information should be up-to-date, as should board lists if you provide them online. It goes without saying that if you don’t have a website it is definitely time to put one up. Your website should feature your mission statement on the home page, and a brief overview of your current programs, successes, and contact information on successive pages. A Facebook page is nice to have, but websites allow for the inclusion of more informative dialogue, and many reviewers will use the content to verify or expand upon things in your application. Your web site is also a sales tool, so be sure it is performing that function. 

Proofread the application
Most online applications do not allow you to edit a submitted application. Before hitting “submit”, proofread the application and if possible, have someone who did not enter the original information proofread it too. Some online applications do not allow you to save and return to the application later, so allow enough time for the proofreading, and be sure all of the attachments are at hand before starting.

©2012 Rebecca Lee Baisch and Cloudlancer Writing Services

Friday, November 16, 2012

So, What Happens Now?

Many of my nonprofit clients are having minor to major meltdowns since the election. Everyone is asking the same question; where do nonprofits go from here?  Will foundations stop giving out grants because their dividend and interest income is  too low?  Will individual donors quit supporting their favorite cause? Will corporations adjust or eliminate their philanthropic goals?  Will the Feds have more or less money available for grants? Will all Federal money only be given out in block grants? What causes will the government support? Will all the grant money go overseas now? Will states take away sales or other tax exemptions for nonprofits? These are only a few of the questions NPO boards are asking.

I would say we have to wait and see. There is no doubt that this administration is going to try to maximize its cash inflows from the people and companies it defines as “wealthy”. This president is consistent in his message. He truly believes that an economically classless society is the best thing for America and that the government should be the source of, or at least in control of, economic activity. The country re-elected him, so it is logical to assume that he now feels that he has “more freedom” to advance that ideology. Whether you agree or disagree with his vision for America, he will push it as far as he possibly can. If that strategy results in only a minor correction in the economy and doesn’t produce the dire results predicted, it will produce one set of realities, and if the opposite effect occurs, perhaps there will be a course correction at some point in the future. Unfortunately, none of us can accurately predict the future.

The one thing I can say with certainty is it is time to be sure your nonprofit is operating efficiently, and that you need to have a definitive organizational and fundraising plan. You may need to adjust your strategic plan, or develop one if you have been “flying by the seat of your pants”.

Analysis of your costs and effectiveness is the key to survival now. If your nonprofit is spread out over many areas, trying to be all things to all people, it is time to focus on those programs that have a positive return on investment. Let go of those programs that you’ve never quite been able to fund completely. At this point, you still have control over that aspect of your organization. If you wait until the money dries up (if it does), the decisions will be made for you. For those of you in the social impact arena, it might be time to look at some of the crowd-funding options. For those of you that have felt that advertising or marketing was somehow crass or unnecessary, you need to get on the public radar in your field of interest.

You may not be able to control the economic realities facing the country, but you can control your specific organizational plan. If you need help, drop us a line at granthelp@ida.net.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Think Small to Win Big!

My website, (http://www.cloudlancerwriting.com), gets numerous requests that begin something like this: “We need $250K for our (insert mission here). We would like you to find us a big grant so we can proceed with our goals”.  

Everyone wants to hit the jackpot or win the lottery. Nonprofits, particularly newer ones, see that one “big” grant as their winning ticket to success. 

There are several reasons to “think small”. Successful requests to local agencies build relationships that may lead to larger donors.  Local support shows regional and national donors that your community supports your mission. (After all, if your local community foundation doesn’t support you, why would someone out of your immediate area do so?). Local or smaller grants can be used as matching funds for larger donations.

Receiving smaller but more numerous grants minimizes the risk that losing a funder will close down your program. Ten grants for $2500.00 equal $25,000. Lose one, and you still have 90% of the funding you need. Pinning the success of your program to one grant for $25K means that the program simply doesn’t exist if you don’t receive that one big check.

Many grant applications have a section requesting that you list other funders that support you. Almost all of them have a section that asks how the program will continue if you do not receive their support.  Small grants, particularly if you have a history of receiving them year over year, shows new funders that you are capable of forming and maintaining relationships with other funding sources. In other words, it shows that other donors have confidence in both your nonprofit and your mission. When the time comes to expand the size and scope of your programs, you will have developed a base of support that enhances your credibility with new funders.  

Big isn’t always better. Seek out and win those little grants and the bigger ones will follow.

©2012 Rebecca Lee Baisch   All rights reserved

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Avoiding Last-minute Grant Writing

It is human nature to procrastinate, particularly if you don’t want to do something.  In many nonprofit cultures, there seems to be a pattern of waiting until the last possible minute to write grant applications. 

There are many times where assembling the application and writing the narrative DOES come up at the last minute. Perhaps a previous funder sends out an invitation late, or you stumble upon the perfect funding opportunity two days before the application or LOI is due. Those are the acceptable reasons to apply at the last minute.

However, if you have a list of organizations that you apply to on a regular basis, why are you waiting until the last minute? When you do that, it leaves you no time to answer queries from the funder, and it certainly doesn’t leave a window to act upon those unavoidable “rush jobs”.

Even if your organization does not maintain a formal process for keeping track of grant application due dates, you can at least use your browser’s calendar to enter a reminder.  A quick note with the funder's name and a reminder to check on their current grant cycles 90 days out, with a follow-up to write and submit the application or LOI at least 30 days before the due date will significantly reduce your stress level.

There are many advantages to developing the habit of being proactive in your application process. It leaves time for the funder to contact you, and allows for a window of opportunity to address those “new” opportunities that materialize. If the funder does not normally let you know when applications open, you won’t miss an opportunity to apply.  If the funders’ goals have changed, you won’t find yourself having to develop a completely new narrative and possibly even a new program focus in 24 to 36 hours. If you utilize a service such as ours, you won’t be competing for our time with other procrastinators. More importantly, your application will be better crafted and more likely to receive consideration for funding. 

Although I don't have statistics, my “gut feeling” is that bombarding the funder with last minute applications also leaves the impression that perhaps you are not as organized as possible. Someone at the organization does see your application before the applications are formally reviewed. If you are there in advance of the last day rush, it could produce a more favorable view of your organization. I know of at least one foundation that times stamps all the applications when received. Does being early help?  I don’t know, but it sure couldn’t hurt.

Here at Cloudlancer Writing Services, we try to remind you of upcoming grant cycles when possible, but in many cases, we may not have a complete list of your previous donors. Take a few minutes this year and make a note of when you apply to a funder, and their open cycle dates. Enter it in your browser’s calendar and make your life more relaxed next time.