Writing general operating support grants doesn’t need to be a repetitive struggle.
Ask any nonprofit which kind of grants they need the most and love the best, and there’s but one answer:
General operating support.
Ask any nonprofit which type of grant can be surprisingly difficult to write, and again, there’s a common answer:
General operating support.
The rub about writing general operating support grants, especially to loyal, repeat funders year after year, is that they cover the essentials of your organization, and the essentials of your organization don’t typically change very much year to year.
So how do you write a general operating support proposal that sounds refreshed when the bulk of your content is stable and evergreen to your nonprofit’s mission and work?
At Thread, we do a lot of grant writing in collaboration with our partners. The above question is one we run into constantly, and based on our experience, we deploy four useful tactics for breathing fresh air into gen ops grant writing:
1. Define This Year’s Priority Moves
2. Be Current in Your Statement of Need
3. Let Your People Speak for Themselves
4. Shorten your Style
#1: Define This Year’s Priority Moves.
Running a nonprofit is like playing chess. You’re playing this larger game and working toward a stated end-goal, but that long game is made up of smaller, discrete moves, some of which make sense to do before others.
This analogy applies to your nonprofit. You know your goal, and you’re always working with the same pieces and constraints. But in a given year, you may choose to move your knight before your rook.
In your general operating support grants, then, define what this year’s priority moves are. It may help to think of them in buckets:
1. Your core programming: the moves you have to make because it’s your mission and purpose.
2. Something operational or programmatic that speaks to your organization’s efforts to improve in the near-term.
3. Something visionary or strategic that proves your organization is thinking about the future and what doing better looks like for you.
What does this look like in real writing? Here’s an example:
“An investment from the Example Foundation will equip Great Nonprofit with the stability and flexibility needed to advance three organizational priorities this year.
First, it will equip us with the resources necessary to continue our successful model of quick description of programming that helps # of clients to quick description of goal/outcomes.
Second, it will help us to complete quick description of an operational priority: enhancing a system, hiring a new staff person, having a clean audit, something that proves you are a healthy organization concerned with solid operations.
Finally, support from the Example Foundation will help Great Nonprofit to accomplish something visionary or strategic, a goal from your strategic plan, something that proves you’re looking to the future.”
If your organization can’t specify this year’s priority moves, then push back on your leadership. As your nonprofit’s development professional, you need these priorities to keep funders interested.
#2: Be Current in Your Statement of Need
We all live in the real world where life happens quickly and current events really matter (looking at you, 2020).
However, because the statement of need section is a place where we often rely on statistics, which are very largely based on past conditions, it often doesn’t actually read with a ton of currency or relevancy.
Thread is not advocating that you abandon statistics; they are incredibly important and substantiating to the problem your nonprofit exists to overcome.
Rather, our tip is not to be afraid of mentioning current events as a complement to statistics. By highlighting current events and reporting from reputable news sources, you can invigorate your core statistics and show how they are impacting real lives, every day.
And don’t worry if there’s no local reporting on your given problem. Regional or national news works fine, because the point is to show that your work does not happen in a vacuum of time or place.
#3 Let Your People Speak for Themselves
Grant writing sits in this funny space between academic writing, which is very formal and objective, and creative writing, which is particular and intimate.
On the whole, grants tend to lean toward the more academic voice, which depending on the grant is totally appropriate. But for many gen ops grants, there’s an opportunity to incorporate more of that creative style into your writing. One really meaningful way to do that is by adding more first-person testimonials from your people into your writing.
In your statement of need section, consider complementing a statistic with a testimonial from one of your clients.
When describing an operational need, go ahead and quote your ED or another leadership position as to why a certain action or priority is so important to pursue.
When discussing your outcomes, pair an outcome measure with a testimonial of someone who really experienced that change.
Especially at this moment in time and history, the nonprofit sector is looking for opportunities to meaningful amplify the voices of everyone who is involved with and benefits from our collective work.
And here at Thread we encourage you to see grant writing as one overlooked but very special way to let your people speak for themselves as to why your work matters.
#4 Shorten Your Style
There’s a lot of testing and experimentation that happens in the world of direct mail as to how donors read and resonate with appeal narratives. Now of course grant writing is not direct mail, but there are still lessons we can apply.
The most important one is that length matters, and short and snappy is more effective than long and thorough. We’re seeing more and more one to two-sentence paragraphs in direct mail writing, as well as really short sentences.
Moreover, excellent direct mail letters read at the 5th to 8th grade level. They are skimmable and invite you to keep reading by giving your eye lots of white space and rest.
Now, we are NOT suggesting you write your grants as if they’re direct mail pieces. Just to be clear, don’t do that.
What you can do, though, is be aware of:
Are your sentences extremely long with lots of complex syntax to connect multiple ideas? Do you need to breath more than once to finish a sentence? Reread your grants out loud and everywhere you see a semi-colon, a preposition, or a conjunction, experiment with making it a period. You’re not losing or altering any content. You’re editing for style and actually making it easier for the foundation personnel to read your application because you’re aiming to have one big idea per sentence.
Big, dense paragraphs are daunting, even to foundation personnel who know to expect them. Yet even then, it’s not a pleasant reading experience. So again, revisit your writing and see if you can break up those big paragraphs into shorter ones. You likely will need to pay special attention to your transitions and topic sentences to keep the flow, but no reader was ever mad about more white space on the page.
Lists and bullets
We love lists and bullets. They are so reader-friendly and a great mechanism for breaking up big paragraphs. Is there opportunity to use more of them in your writing? The only thing to be conscious of here is that some online grant applications go a little funky if you cut/paste in a list, so absolutely make sure to double-check your formatting in the actual application.
We all know the advice to avoid jargon when grant writing. And it’s such important advice, I want to say it again. Really pay attention to your word choice, and if there’s simpler vocabulary to use, use it.
Want Thread to help you refresh your grant writing? Give us a shout and we’ll be happy to help! Send us a line at [email protected] and we can talk about what you help you need to make those grant proposals zippy and fresh again.