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Let Them Say It For You! The Secret To Grant Proposal Writing Success

May 25, 2008
In my position working in programming for one of the country's major foundations, I reviewed many many grant proposals. And, while I loved the opportunity to become acquainted with the regions many nonprofit organizations, I was also dismayed by how dry and tedious so many of the proposals seeking funding were. It was a rare proposal - perhaps one out of fifty - that reached out and grabbed you.

And, yet, the secret to writing a compelling, funded grant proposal - or indeed any nonprofit piece, including your membership appeal or your website copy - can be distilled into one simple sentence. Let THEM say it for you!

Nothing makes a proposal more compelling than testimonials from the people your organization serves. Testimonials show why your donors keep coming back, year after year, and why your staff is so dedicated to your mission. Telling the story of your program through testimonials lets you bring a diversity of voices to your proposal in a way that numbers can't and helps your application stand apart from the rest, long after the numbers have been forgotten.

Where do I find testimonials?

Testimonials are all around you. They are in the thank you cards your program receives, the messages on the machine in your office, in emails, conversations, and in speeches at recognition events. If your program isn't in the habit of collecting testimonials, make it a top priority! Actively seek them out by sending surveys to your clients and donors. Get in the habit of keeping a tape recorder handy, and set up a comment page on your website.

What makes a good testimonial?

A good testimonial tells a story and presents a slice of life - it's specific and real, alive and full of voice. Consider the following testimonial:

"The XYZ organization is truly wonderful. Their program really helped me get my family back on the right track." -- Mary Harper

The enthusiasm is clear here, but how did the XYZ organization help, and who is Mary Harper? See the difference here:

"XYZ's after school science program gave my son a safe place to go when I started my new job, and it gave me some valuable peace of mind."

- Mary Harper, single mother of three, was a pilot member of the XYZ program.

Even this brief, one sentence testimonial tells a story, and the byline adds to the story by providing useful context.

You can recruit stronger testimonials by asking specific questions in your surveys. Instead of asking questions like, "How was your experience in the program?" (- "It was great!"), ask: "What aspects of the program were most valuable to you? And why?" If you don't get the specific response you're looking for in a testimonial, don't hesitate to contact your client, colleague, donor or board member. Thank them for their response and tell them that you have a few follow up questions. Ask permission to record their response and share their testimonial. You will find most people enthusiastic to lend their voices, but it's a good idea to combine a thank you note with a simple permission form as well.

Lastly, don't ever try to polish the language in your testimonials. Outside of basic spelling and punctuation corrections, let your subject's voice remain authentic, true, and distinct.

Create a testimonial inventory

Make testimonial gathering an active, ongoing process, and encourage other members of your organization to keep an eye out for testimonial opportunities. Keeping a centralized inventory of testimonials will make each grant proposal process easier - and will allow you to use specific examples of your program's work to match the goals and missions of foundations. But why stop there? Use your testimonials to recruit individual donors and new staff, and to spread the word about the good work of your program.
About the Author
Pamela has worked in the nonprofit arena since 1995. Since 2003 she has had her own private consultancy, assisting nonprofit organizations with proposal development, prospect research, annual appeal strategies and communication planning. Pamela is the author of "Five Days to Foundation Grants" and publishes a weekly blog, "Towards Effective Nonprofit Writing" - http://writegrantproposals.blogspot.com/.
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