Persistence, active listening and firm grip of facts are key to winning proposals


January 10, 1994|By LESTER A. PICKER

The secrets to successful proposal writing, of course, are really not secrets at all. They are common sense, mixed with a liberal dose of experience. Last week we briefly looked at some ** of the initial tasks needed to get a proposal on the desk of a likely funding source.

Strange as it may seem, one of the keys to strategic proposal development is simply to be yourself. Let me explain.

You are the person, whether staff or volunteer, that helps keep the agency humming. You know best -- or should -- your environment, your clients, what are the best ways to effect change. Your funding source relies on those perspectives -- or should -- to make wise funding decisions. If either of these sides of the equation is missing, a long-term relationship is unlikely.

The next major secret to proposal success is to keep funders, and prospective funders, informed and involved in what your agency is doing and has accomplished. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a nonprofit take the money and run, so to speak. The funder doesn't hear from them again until it's time for the next request for money.

Include funders on committees or study groups. Be sure they are on your mailing list for newsletters and special events. Recognize their role in effecting change in your clients (while respecting the privacy wishes of those who wish to remain anonymous).

Send handwritten notes to funders on special occasions. Invite them -- and their children or grandchildren -- to events that address their interests. Visit when you are in their neighborhoods, even if that means you have to go a little out of your way to do so. During those visits, do not ask for money, and do listen.

Be prepared for your contacts with funding sources if your proposal development efforts are to bear fruit. Know facts and figures on how your agency has made a difference in the lives of your clients. Have your organization's priorities at the tip of your finger. Keep abreast of philanthropy in your local area, by joining such helpful groups as the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations (410-727-6367).

One thing most of us are guilty of is not listening. Corporate sales departments today pay millions to train their sales forces to listen to the client. We are collectively trained by the media to listen in 30-second sound bites.

An immediate advantage you will have over the competition is to train yourself to listen -- to clients, to vendors, to funders. When a defensive comment rises from your gut to throat, do as Archie Bunker advised: Stifle. You may actually learn something from the interchange. And don't be afraid to ask for a clarification or to probe further if you are unsure of a comment. Follow-up questions sometimes produce richer data than the initial query or comment.

Finally, what separates proposal winners from losers is sheer, unadulterated persistence. In our society you do not have to be ** brilliant to succeed. You do not have to be the head of a top-name nonprofit. You do need to be persistent.

In proposal development, persistence manifests best after rejection. Do you know that most -- the overwhelming majority -- rejected proposers never contact the funding source for follow-up? If not, you've just wasted an awful lot of valuable time.

Request reviewers' comments. Try to arrange a debriefing with the program officer, cast in the light of learning from the experience. Be positive. Which proposals were funded? What made those proposals so strong? Take that knowledge back to your agency so future proposal development efforts can be improved.

Use the rejection as a reason to keep up your relationship with the funder. If you submitted based on an invitation from the funding source (the only way to fly), keep in touch. As your program plans develop or change, get back in touch with the funding source to discuss other funding opportunities.

Successful proposals are a win-win match between your organization's needs and those of the funding source. Keeping that in mind will make your proposal development process more successful and enjoyable.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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