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Tell an Effective Story in a Twitter Grant Proposal

Resource Center - Foundation

By Cheryl A. Clarke

This story also appears in the latest issue of Advancing Philanthropy magazine. Read that issue and more in digital format by clicking here.

(Dec. 22, 2009) Everyone loves a good story and enjoys telling a good story. For years funders told fundraisers just that: Tell us your story! They complied. Then the way proposal stories are delivered to funders changed-dramatically-with the use of online submissions.

The new technology and the major change in submitting proposals necessitated a new way of telling the proposal story. Submitting online rarely means writing a narrative in word-processing software and sending it via email. Rather, grant makers using electronic submissions most often rely on application forms with a prescribed set of questions that limit the length of responses by either word or, in some cases, character count.

Think of them as "Twitter proposals."

Today, about 25 percent of the nation's grant makers use electronic application systems. In some cases, that percentage may be closer to 50 percent using online application forms. However, many grant seekers believe that the use of online application forms makes telling an organization's story a lot harder.

"Responding to an online form often means you're telling the funder's story, not yours," says fundraising consultant Susan P. Fox, CFRE, in San Francisco. "Fitting every organization into a form can be very frustrating and can make for repetition as well."

Grants consultant Judy Kunofsky with Zimmerman Lehman in San Francisco (, echoes this sentiment. "The questions don't always provide an obvious place to tell all the pieces of a story. I prefer electronic application systems with a section called ‘Additional Comments' so I can add anything the specific questions did not address."

Even some grant makers, including those who use online forms themselves, are not convinced they are the best solution. Mary Lowrey Gregory, vice president/senior program staff at Pacific Foundation Services in San Francisco (, agrees that online applications can be "inflexible." She says one of the main drawbacks with them is that they can be uninteresting to read when all of the information in every proposal is in exactly the same place. "I want to see some of the agency's personality in the submission," she says.

According to Gregory, an agency's personality is conveyed not only through language used in a proposal, but also by the organization's letterhead, its logo and the occasional photo, none of which can be imported easily into an online application form.

Nevertheless, many grant makers defend their use of online application forms, most often citing this method as a more efficient way to handle the huge volume of submissions, coupled with a desire to go paperless. Some do not see effective storytelling impeded at all.

"We want applicants to take responsibility for their own storytelling," says Lisa Villarreal, education program officer at The San Francisco Foundation (, which started using online applications exclusively in May 2009. Villarreal goes on to explain that when The San Francisco Foundation relied on paper submissions, foundation staff spent considerable time re-entering, and sometimes rewriting, information into foundation computers for data storage and reporting. "The online form provides a permanent record for us," she says, "and we are no longer rewriting their story."

Storytelling certainly cannot be declared "dead" in online application forms, although some attributes of traditional paper proposals are lost, such as the writer's ability to control the story's narrative flow; the use of section headings; the choice to use bold, italics, underlining and other style features; and the occasional inclusion of tables, photographs and other graphics.

Online application forms require new skills and present new challenges for today's grant writer. Among those are the practical technical skills needed to be comfortable working on a computer, manipulating an online form and filling in the boxes. Beyond these basics, Gregory says, "the writing becomes even more important. It is critical to inject some emotional content."

Here are some tips for writing successful online submissions and telling a persuasive story.

• Be concise. Given the strict word or character count limits of most electronic applications, writers must write leaner sentences. When in doubt, take it out! Eliminate extraneous characters, such as bullets and dashes, which are included in character counts toward the maximum limit.

• Be precise. Make each word count. Choose words carefully for their factual accuracy and emotional impact. For example, "We would like to replace one of our old vans by the end of the next fiscal year" is sharper when rewritten to, "It is essential that we replace our oldest van immediately."

• Show, do not tell. This is a maxim in all good storytelling. Claiming that a program is "unique and innovative" rings false without demonstrable evidence. Instead of relying solely on this well-worn catch phrase to make your case, show the funder. For example, "Our after-school music program places percussion instruments-cymbals, drums, bells-into the hands of young children for truly hands-on learning" paints a lively visual picture and succinctly shows what is special about this program.

• Use proper grammar and punctuation. Just because the allotted space is short does not mean that it is OK to use the abbreviations commonly used in text messages and Tweets. An online application is a formal request for funding, and applicants must refrain from being too casual simply because of the way the information is being transmitted. Use proper grammar and punctuation and avoid acronyms unless they are first spelled out completely.

• Proof, proof and proof. Though text messages and Tweets are rarely, if ever, proofed, online submissions must be. Run spell and grammar check. Villarreal reports that between 10 and 20 percent of the online submissions she receives contain some sort of "glaring error." One of the most common errors is having unfinished sentences in response boxes, which she believes are likely the result of the writer being called away in midthought and not remembering where he or she stopped when returning to the application.

In a "sound bite" age, proposal writers are compelled to write "low-fat proposals" when using electronic application forms. The key to successful writing is knowing not only what to trim, but also what to include so that the final result is a well-sculpted tale. Everyone loves a good story and enjoys telling a good story. With care and practice, good stories can be told effectively in online submissions.

Cheryl A. Clarke is a fundraising consultant in Mill Valley, Calif.; author of Storytelling for Grantseekers: A Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising, Second Edition (Jossey-Bass, 2009); and co-author with Susan P. Fox, CFRE, of Grant Proposal Makeover: Transform Your Request from No to Yes (Jossey-Bass, 2006). Her books are available in the AFP Bookstore.

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