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!

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