Proposal Writing Basics

Learning Outcomes

  • Apply and adapt professional and technical writing conventions, including genre, tone, and style for particular writing situations.
  • Identify professional and technical genres, organization strategies, and appropriate tone and style
  • Analyze audience while creating various professional/technical documents with a sophisticated awareness of audience as a reader and writer
  • Identify some habits of successful proposal writers
  • Analyze how and why audience awareness is a key component for successful writers

Proposal Writing: The Basics

Proposals–colloquially called grants–are technical documents that appeal for resources such as money, space, and equipment. A proposal serves as a formal appeal to a grantmaking organization, or the organization that offers competitively pursued resources to qualified and exceptional candidates. Most often, proposals are written to pursue monetary resources, but they can serve as requests for any number of needed resources. Proposal writing is, then, at its most basic, writing for resources. Grant writing is the colloquial term for proposal writing. As Karsh and Fox aptly note, “we often use the term ‘grant writing’ as a term in common usage, strictly speaking, [for] one doesn’t write grants, one writes proposals in order to win grant; grants are a reward for excellent proposal writing (xiii).”

More so, perhaps, than other technical and professional writing endeavors, proposal writing has immediate funding opportunities directly attached to the document a writer creates. The promise of needed resources can make proposal writing a high stakes endeavor. This means that proven expertise in proposal writing can be a marketable asset. Moreover, the skills successful proposal writers typically possess directly impact their ability to be effective communicators in most facets of professional and technical communication, and in written communication more generally.

Proposal writers can use their skills to support a number of project and goals, including their own. Often, proposals are written primarily on behalf of nonprofit and government agencies, but practiced characteristics such as effective verbal and written interpersonal communication, heightened audience awareness, research expertise, and clear writing make for both successful federal grant proposals and personal scholarship applications. Viewing the skill of proposal writing in this way implies that proposal writers are able to identify and balance key components of rhetorical situations–such as kairos, logos, ethos, and pathos–and use knowledge, networks, and technical writing skills to their advantage.

Sometimes, organizations have departments or groups that focus on resource development, fundraising, or grant seeking. Proposal writers may or may not have the title of “grant writer” and may instead be serving in a different capacity at their organization. Volunteers at grassroots organizations can serve as proposal writers, and proposals can even be “ghost written” by consultants with expertise in proposal writing. Regardless of who is doing the writing, a successful grant application typically rests on a number of actions that take place before the organization can submit a final proposal.

Though this list is not exhaustive, here are some considerations of successful proposal writers as they move through the process of proposal writing:

  1. Am I following the guidelines/requirements from the grantmaking agency?
  2. Are my organization and the funding organization well-matched (do we have similar goals, advocates, and support)?
  3. Have I started a conversation with this potential funder? Is our relationship amicable?
  4. Have I proofread?
  5. Is my proposal well, and clearly, written?
  6. Have I supplied required and relevant information?
  7. Does this proposal have a unique voice specific to my organization?
  8. Make a clear and concise request
  9. Indicate why the funder is best suited to support the need
  10. Anticipate questions about how, when, why, where the resources will be used and who will use them
  11. Provide a budget and assessment plan for the project
    1. Find an outside reader, someone who doesn’t know your organization, and who you know will give you helpful feedback.
    2. Break the writing down into chunks. Look at the subsections, or write down expected subsections, for the proposal and write each piece, one at a time.
    3. If you can, and are comfortable, delegate sections of the proposal to others in your organization who are more familiar with a specific portion.
    4. Be sure to have the head fundraiser and resource developer, your CEO/Executive Director/Director, review the proposal before it goes out.

What does this look like in practice, then?

It may seem obvious, but submitted proposals that do not follow guidelines typically are tossed out. Think of it this way: when a grantmaking organization wants to offer resources, they must craft a document and set of standards for applicants to adhere to. They have, then, done a specific sort of technical and professional writing that demands a specific response, usually from a pre-determined audience. In this way, a funder’s well-considered and technically crafted document requires as similarly well-considered and technically crafted response.

Let’s put it this way: it doesn’t even matter how excellent your ideas are, or how novel your organization, proposals that don’t follow the rules will not be considered alongside those that do. Following the guidelines means things as basic as submitting by the deadline and making sure you’ve not written past the page limit. If you have questions about the guidelines, or they don’t seem to exist, always ask the grantmaking organization. This means that in addition to reading with careful attention and good comprehension, successful proposal writers are typically comfortable with interpersonal communication, making introductions, and networking. This all happens before the actual “grant writing” even starts.

Once they’ve done their homework on the potential funder, are well versed on the project to be implemented, and understand the fiscal management of the funds, proposal writers are ready to sit down and write. At this point, the project should come together; proposal writers are required to integrate past, present, and future in to one complete and coherent document! This may sound difficult. If it is difficult at the time they begin to write, it usually means the proposal writer doesn’t have all the information they need. If this is the case, they should think about/research the long-term plans for these funds (future). Then, they can also look at how funds and projects (similar ones, if at all possible) have been built and sustained in earlier years (past). Proposal writers then can also write about what is happening now at their organization, and how those initiatives are related to the funds they are requesting (present). In fact, having institutional histories of their organization, as well as detailed plans for upcoming initiatives, helps proposal writers develop a more cohesive and well-developed argument, in most cases.

Tips and Tricks

So, you’ve determined a need for resources in your organization. What’s your next step? Ideally, you’ll be communicating regularly with professional societies via listservs, newsletters, and email. Often, calls, or requests, for proposals (CFPs or RFPs, colloquially) will pop up in these spaces. You should be sure to keep track of funding opportunities that regularly release CFPs. Federal and private organizations typically state their regular funding cycles on their websites. If you are a student, often you can also utilize foundation databases through your academic institution. Once grant seekers identify a funding source, they should communicate with the funder in a meaningful way. Successful proposal writers often start by writing cover letters, if necessary, for certain proposals. They also write technical emails and letters that serve as evidence to the funder that they and their organization are considerate, thoughtful, and serious about the projects they need funded. It doesn’t matter the amount of funding, either. Effective proposal writers treat every grantmaking organization, whether they are the Gates Foundation or a local PTA, with recognition that the funding organization has something the proposal writer needs. It may be money, space, technology, or a new playground set, but these are all resources that your organization may need, and with the appropriate proposal, you may receive.

So, considering these resources are something you need, your grant proposal, therefore, will typically be required to do, at minimum, the following:

Wizened and successful proposal writers talk most about networks, and while it is true that connections can breed funding opportunities, it is important to remember that unsolicited proposals are funded. You have to start somewhere! As you begin to write, remember that funding organizations don’t know your organization as well as you. This means you must be cognizant of the jargon and technical narratives specific to your organization. Here are some tips to mitigate and navigate these concerns:

Finally, remember to continue researching other funding opportunities, even after you submit a final proposal. Once you have the materials gathered and the content developed, you should have a pretty sound understanding of how to approach a different funder with a new request!

Reflection + Implementation Exercise

Have you ever applied for a scholarship?

  • If you have, pull up that application and, if possible, match it up against the requirements for submission. Consider the following questions:
    • Did you meet all the requirements for the application?
    • If you received the scholarship, why do you think you did?
    • Did you contact the funding organization? If not, why not? If so, how did that conversation go? How could it have gone better?
    • What sort of organization was offering the scholarship? What was their mission, vision, and strategic plan?
    • Did what you have to say fit into the organization’s goals?
    • Looking back at the document you submitted, how do you think you could have framed your application differently, especially if there was a personal statement involved?
  • If you haven’t, now would be a good time to put your new knowledge to good use! Pull out your CV or resume and peruse your institution’s scholarship database for a good match. Once you’ve found a scholarship that looks like a good fit, consider the following questions as your take a look at your materials:
    • Do you meet all the requirements for the application?
    • If you were to receive the scholarship, why do you think you would?
    • Would you contact the funding organization? Why or why not? What sort of questions would you ask the funding organization?
    • What sort of organization is offering the scholarship? What is their mission, vision, and strategic plan?
    • Did what you have to say fit into the organization’s goals?
    • Looking back at the document you’ve created, how could you frame your application differently, especially if there was a personal statement involved?

Recommended Reading

  1. Johnson-Sheehan, Richard. Writing Proposals. 2nd Edition. 2008. ISBN: 978-0-205-58314-0
  2. Karsh, E. and Fox, A. S. The Only Grant Writing Book You’ll Ever Need. 4th edition, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-465-05893-8