Writing successful proposals: the Program Description

Ah, the program description. It's the heart of the proposal, the longest section, your chance to sell what it is you're so good at. This post is the fourth and final entry in my series "Writing Successful Proposals." Earlier entries in the series are Picking a Funder, Proposal Basics, and Organizational Background and Capacity.

The Program Description can be a challenging section to write, particularly when you are trying to persuade a foundation that what you do is aligned with what the foundation wants to fund. (This is an area where you can make use of Stephen Johnson's concept of "the adjacent possible.") If you're responding to an RFP, it can be a little easier. For any kind of proposal:

   * Take advantage of the structure of the RFP or foundation format and make it your game plan. First, use it for yourself, and make sure you have covered everything that is requested. Second, use it for your prospective readers. Take the RFP headings, and use them or paraphrase them as section headers in your proposal. That way, you point the readers (that is, the people who will be evaluating your proposal) to exactly the information they are looking for.

   * Before you begin to describe your program, take it apart a little. Think through how the program will look to a client passing through it. Who will they encounter when? What will their experience of intake be? How will they contact the staff serving them? Then think it through from the perspective of line staff. What information will they need when? How will it get to them? What training will they need? Supervision and support? You may not need to write your proposal with this level of detail, but knowing it will inform what you write, making for a stronger proposal.

   * Have a metaphor in mind for your program. It might be a web of services, a snapshot in time. You may or may not choose to use it explicitly in your proposal. Again, it will inform your writing and make your proposal stronger.

   * Never, ever use the passive voice. If you find yourself drifting into it, it's because you don't understand what you are writing about well enough to describe it. You need to specify who in your program will be doing what. Similarly, avoid the indefinite article "this." It's a signal that you are fudging something. If that something is a basic requirement of the funder, your proposal's score will be lowered.

These suggestions are mostly common sense, and several of them are standard advice about writing. But you'd be surprised how much of a difference they will make in the quality of your proposals.

I will be on vacation and then doing some traveling on family business for the next three weeks, so probably not be posting for a while. See you in September!


Mapping the humanities

The NY Times has an interesting article today about using Geographic Information System technology to map historical data. The reporter provides General Lee's view at Gettysburg, the spread of witchcraft accusations in Massachusetts in 1692, and the construction at Auschwitz as examples. The technology is similar to the one used by Eric Sanderson when he was writing Mannahatta, which I described in an earlier post, here.

It's a great article, and the links are worth clicking on. Here's a screenshot of the map of Boston's North Shore as of August 29, 1692, by which time there had been more than 120 accusations of witchcraft.



Tracking the Tour de France

It's all over save for the ceremonial ride into Paris tomorrow. I've been reading about the race in the New York Times (though the Guardian's liveblog is much better at describing the race). Yesterday's Times report on the 19th stage included a completely useless graphic (scroll down to the multimedia heading) showing the difference in placement after each stage among the riders the paper described as the top four riders, as if that's what the race is about. If you're at all interested in the tactics and strategy of this most complex sporting event, read this excellent article explaining how HTC-Highroad works to get its sprinter, Mark Cavendish, to the front and position him for all those stage wins.


Baseball - and other sport - infographics

Run, don't walk, over to Craig Robinson's wonderful infographics site Flip Flop Fly Ball. (No, he's not related to the president, he's an English artist living in Mexico.) Here's a screen shot of one reason to take a look:

and another:
There's lots more there, mostly but not entirely about baseball. Slate, where I learned about this guy, (though I did see his graphics in the NY Times Magazine a week or so ago) calls it "the greatest baseball infographics ever made." I think it's probably the best sports infographics ever. Check out the graph of marathon times run at the pace of shorter distances. Or the dimensions of different kinds of football fields. Or of different kinds of balls (that one is too wide to fit into a screen shot). And hunt around for the key to the site's logo, it's worth finding. Let me know your favorites, and why, in the comments.

Craig Robinson has just produced a book, "Flip Flop Fly Ball." More to come.


Bikes vs Planes

I saw a photo of cyclists on the closed I-405 over the weekend, but until I read this piece in Slate, I didn't know that there was a challenge afoot: some cyclists bet they could beat a Jet Blue flight from Burbank to LAX. You'll have to read the piece to see who won, and by how much. (See? There are some metrics in this story.) Feel free to comment on bike vs. other transit options in your area.
Photo from the


Reading studies critically

Despite what you may have seen recently in the press, more here and here, it turns out that men don't really like cuddling all that much, and a few other results from a new Kinsey Institute study needed a closer look too. All too often, journalists read the press release and don't go to the full study. Bravo to William Saletan of for his further research. All studies should be this interesting.


Numbers - It's all in what we make of them

Today's New York Times brings three stories showing, once again, that statistics are what we make of them.

First, continuing the theme of statistics and medical news, a front page story about how a promising gene-based approach to treating lung cancer turned out to be, in the stark words of the story, "wrong. [The] gene-based tests proved worthless, and the research behind them was discredited." The errors were found by a pair of statisticians who found that researchers had moved a row or column of data over by one in a spreadsheet. The story is on the front page of the print edition.

Second is an Op-Ed, "What Does '3,000 Hits' Really Mean?" telling a story about the kind of consistent production, year after year, Derek Jeter needed to even approach 3,000 hits. Only 27 players in all of recorded history have done that. The Op-Ed takes the numbers and turns them into a narrative, and it's a pretty nice tale.

Last but by no means least is a sports column about the Atlanta pitcher Jair Jurrjens, who has produced an ERA much lower than his statistics would predict. You can't model the entire world, or even what happens in a baseball game. Neil Paine, the author, floats a theory that Jurrjens success is "smoke and mirrors," by which I assume he means it's a statistical fluke that won't hold up when he's pitched more innings. But Paine also raises the possibility that hitters can't hit Jurrjens' pitches hard--and maybe the statheads will come up with another measure to account for it. Any thoughts? Post them in the comments.


More on health data

Readers who were interested in my earlier post on Overdiagnosed will enjoy reading today's New York Times Op-Ed by two of that book's authors, Steven Woloshin and Lisa M. Schwartz. In it, they argue that federal regulators should require drug manufacturers to provide understandable information about effectiveness and side effects on outside packaging. If we can do it for sunscreen, they argue, why not for prescription drugs?

Here's a screenshot of the accompanying graphic using Abilify, an anti-psychotic, as an example:

Indoor composting in New York City

Since March, GrowNYC has been running a program collecting compost at various Greenmarkets, including mine, from New Yorkers who don't have outdoor space or heart to operate a counter-top worm composting bin (yes, they exist). The program, originally intended to run through June, has now been extended through December.

That's because it's been so successful. Through June 24, GrowNYC reports collecting a cumulative 116,265 pounds of compost. That's a lot of compost:

I know, because I carry ours three blocks over to the Greenmarket every Saturday. And we could contribute a lot more, if GrowNYC collected the compost more than once a week. Note, though, that the amounts collected each month have started declining from the high in April. That might be because the novelty has worn off. Or it might be that residents are eating more meals out in the warmer months, or spending time outside of the City.

Participating has generated a fair amount of debate in our household, partly on the smell issue, but more generally on the relative friendliness to the environment of putting the vegetable scraps into NYC's waste stream versus using the refrigerator to store and cool what is, well, garbage. We've compromised: once we fill our 1.8 gallon cylinder, recycling is done for the week. (So we're still putting a lot of watermelon rinds in the garbage). What do you think?

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