How to Add Zip to Your Nonprofit Proposals!

Whether your proposal is being evaluated by a foundation, corporate contributions program, or government agency, reviewers rely on a mental toolbox of rapid and simple techniques to score your application.  To help them gather information quickly and effortlessly, I recommend three steps to make your proposals as persuasive as possible.

First, use the principles of good information design to help reviewers quickly find the information that interests them by doing the following:

  • Create interest by breaking the expected rectangular design of your proposal page with a ragged right justification, lists and graphics, tables, headings that stand out, visuals, and headers and footers.
  • Meet expectations by organizing your proposal to reflect the grant guidelines or the evaluation criteria and by using the vocabulary of the grant guidelines to label proposal sections and headings.
  • Reveal structure by including an Executive Summary, a Table of Contents, a frequent headings, and topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs.
  • Facilitate navigation with page and section numbers and letters, headers and footers, and chapter and section titles.
  • Create manageable chunks of information by breaking your proposal narrative into small units and by grouping related information together.
  • Prioritize information by using different font sizes, font weights, indentation, and numbering systems.
  • Differentiate information types with themes, section summaries, lists, captions, sidebars, and visuals.

Second, use good visuals to improve learning and retention and reduce the amount of time reviewers need to grasp complex ideas.  Good visuals – charts, graphs, tables, and pictures – promote understanding and help sustain interest.

And third, use the most common decision-making approach – recognition – to organize your proposal’s structure and content.  Recognition is a powerful decision-making tool because it relies on recognizing cues and makes fewer demands on memory and computational skills than other kinds of decision-making.  To promote recognition, do the following with your proposal narrative:

  • Organize information by (1) structuring the proposal according to the grant guidelines; (2) discussing major points in decreasing order of importance; (3) summarizing major points and benefits throughout the proposal; and (4) focusing on the needs and mission of the government agency.
  • Ensure that all major theme statements have solutions, benefits, and proof.
  • Write the Executive Summary for non-technical reviewers.
  • Write simply and clearly. Use short sentences and paragraphs. Use plenty of white space. Use the active voice.
  • Use plenty of bulleted and numbered lists to make important points.
  • Use headings with the exact wording from the grant guidelines.
  • Use visuals to emphasize benefits, features, and major themes.

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