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Be concise and get to the point with your grant proposal

As a writer, editor and trainer for the nonprofit sector for more than 20 years, I've answered my share of tough questions! A few inquiries on keeping grantwriting concise appear below, along with my answers.

I'm frustrated with the brevity that funders often require of us. Can you offer any guidelines?

We know that funders are time-pressed and will probably only skim your work the first time around. So we need to write for that reading style. That means we have to keep it short, simple and skimmable (the acronym is KISSS).

Concise statements are powerful. Accessible words and phrases get read. Your challenge is to keep your piece as brief as possible, without compromising your meaning. See how tight you can write.

As Mark Twain once said, "I didn't have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead." He knew how much work it can be to really hone your words.

A rule of thumb is to keep your sentences to no more than about 20 words. Most newspapers aim for a sentence length of about 14 words. So should you. Also, the more complex your subject, the shorter the sentences need to be to attain clarity.

Remember that short, simple words and paragraphs are better than longer, more complicated ones. Avoid run-on sentences. Try using words with three syllables or fewer.

What key information should be conveyed in a letter of inquiry?

A great example of the need for conciseness is the one- to three-page letter of inquiry or letter of intent (aka LOI) that many funders request before a full proposal. They may tell you what to include in your LOI; if they do, please make sure you follow their advice. If you don't find any specific guidelines, include the basics of what they will want to know:

  • Who you are and what you do (and perhaps your track record)
  • Importance of the issue you address
  • What community need you address and/or the context you work in
  • Your organization's unique capacity or skills to address that need
  • Your overall goals (long-term)
  • Specific objectives (short-term, feasible, measurable) tied to specific outcomes or results
  • A snapshot of what your actual services look like
  • How your project fits into one of their priority areas
  • How much money you're seeking
  • Any other funders already on board

How much budget information should be in the letter of inquiry?

Most funders do not ask for detailed budget information at the letter of inquiry stage. You can just include the total organization and project budgets, how much you are requesting and a general idea of what that money will pay for. For example, you might be raising funds for program staff compensation, supplies or equipment, field trips, events, etc.

Is using bullet points helpful for clarity and conciseness?

In a word, yes! Bullets, numbered lists, subheadings, and select bold and italics for keywords can help a lot. In digital submissions, you often will not be able to use formatting. In that case, you can still use numbered lists or just type in hyphens to act as bullets.

Could you give examples of sentences with what you call "freeloading words," and how to correct them?

Every word should work. Stray words or phrases clutter up your meaning. Check to see if any words leave your reader wondering, "So what? Did I really need to read those words?"

I came across some wise advice a while ago: Pretend you have to pay for each word in your piece โ€” as if it were a classified ad. Are you getting your money's worth?

For example:

Original: I had the opportunity to interact with the youth and understand different issues they were facing within their lives as well as to observe different aspects of the correctional facility and how that environment affected them.

Suggested revision: I interacted with the youth and understood their unique life challenges. I also observed how the environment at the correctional facility affected them.

Original: She is a person who focuses on the minute details that each of our programs is comprised of.

Suggested revision: She focuses on each of our programs' minute details.

Other freeloaders include introductory phrases that add little or nothing to your sentences. For example:

  • It has been found that ...
  • It is a fact that ...
  • It can be said that ...
  • It is evident that ...

For more tips from Dalya Massachi, visit Writing to Make a Difference.

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MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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Writer, editor, and writing coach dedicated to inspiring and equipping changemakers to use their writing to make a difference in the world