It’s just emotion that’s taken me over … Tied up in sorrow, lost in my soul

October 9, 2009

(With apologies to the Bee Gees …)

For six years I worked for a regional private family foundation.

It was an amazing learning experience on so many levels, including teaching me how donors respond.

In a recent post on Kivi’s Nonprofit Marketing Blog, Kivi notes that people’s hearts tend to overrule their heads.

She raises a number of good points, backed by sound research.

Yet still, nonprofit organizations have a strong propensity for the dry, didactic prose that sets no ones heart aflame.

Whenever I’ve had an annual campaign to write, I’ve always put myself in the shoes of a donor. And usually that donor is standing over the trash, opening her mail. Will the standard “Dear friend: We are writing you today to seek your support blah blah blah” letter make her pause, walk away from the trash can and pull out her checkbook? Hardly.

So I write and rewrite and write some more.

The resulting letter will be something that will make the reader either think – “It could happen to me.” “This organization deserves my support!” “Wow; they’re doing amazing things – I’m going to add this group to the charities I support” – or cry, or, hopefully both.

And then there are those otherwise savvy development folk, who have mastered the art of bringing emotion to their development writing – their annual campaign, their thank you letters, their web copy and brochures – and yet completely toss it all aside when it comes to a grant proposal.

Foundation funders are people too.

Imagine yourself as a program officer with a stack of fifteen grant proposals before you, every last one of them starting out with “We are pleased for the opportunity to submit our grant request to the XYZ Foundation in support of our youth mentoring program/mental health clinic/afterschool program/community arts organization, etc., etc.”


I well recall one faith-based organization that was funded by my foundation on a regular basis. Every time a proposal came in from this organization both of our vice presidents and the entire program staff couldn’t wait to read it. Their proposals were filled with emotion, passion and, yes, always new stories. They read like a never-ending novel of hope.

I’m sure it didn’t hurt their cause any that they’d had the same executive director for going on twenty years and her passion has never waned.

But you, too, can bring that passion and emotion, those stories, to your development writing, and – not to be forgotten – to your grant proposal writing.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Matthew Bregman October 11, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Without a doubt, proposal language should be fresh and vivid – if we’re bored with our work, then we won’t inspire anyone. But I’d caution neophyte fundraisers from trying to win over funders with the same kind of heart rending appeals common in direct mail.

Why? Because foundation funders are already committed to providing funds to nonprofit organizations — and if they are considering your request, they probably are already interested in your cause. Unlike the direct mail donor at the recycling bin, they probably don’t need to be convinced that the problem is a problem. The question is: will you do a good job of addressing that problem?

One other thought: perhaps the worst way to communicate passion is to overload your prose with adjectives and boasts.

I maintain that

“ABC Charity provides hot meals to 100 homebound seniors every day”

is a more effective sentence than:

“A unique resource for our community, energetically changing the world one person at a time, ABC Charity provides delicious and nutritious meals each and every day, rain or shine, to impoverished homebound seniors who often welcome these meals with effusive gratitude, as it not only fills their stomachs but provides them with a vital sense of human connection as well.”

What do others think?

Pamela Grow October 12, 2009 at 7:37 am

Great post Matthew and I wholeheartedly agree. My general modus operandi when drafting a standard grant proposal is to review all of the hard numbers first – 46% of our kids will be the first in their families to graduate from college – and use storytelling to complement those statistics. In the case of ABC Charity, I would certainly tell the story of one of those homebound seniors, and what that hot meal means to him/her.

I’ll never forgot reading over a proposal with the vice president of programming from the foundation I worked for for 6 years, finding a truly outstanding mission, everything in keeping with the grant application guidelines, etc., and the VP remarking “it’s a good proposal but it’s not very compelling, is it?”

Emotion and storytelling really make a good proposal great.

Laura Kaplus August 31, 2011 at 7:54 am

I work for a private foundation, and I agree with some of the points you make, Pamela, and I also totally agree with Matthew. There’s a line between using real stories to make your grant request more compelling, and transparently trying to tug at the grantmaker’s heartstrings. I think the key is to know what the people reading your proposal want. Like you say, Foundation funders are people, and they (we) each react differently.

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