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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How to Draft an Effective Nonprofit Proposal

The bottom line may not be the driving goal behind nonprofit work, but, let’s face it, we all need money. Except for the lucky few organizations with large endowments or patrons with deep pockets, finding new funding sources and asking for money are key functions of charitable and advocacy organizations. This means every proposal or appeal you write has a lot of competition. The good part is, there are a few things you can do to make sure your proposal stands out from the pack. Here are a few principles that can help you show your cause merits investment:

Know your audience and speak their language

The first and most important thing is to understand who you’re talking to. The pitch you use to a large foundation likely isn’t the same that you’d send in an individual email appeal to an interested supporter or make in-person to a major donor. Before you even start your proposal, do some research on the potential investor. You want to understand their goals, constraints and processes so your proposal can match their needs and meet their expectations. You may not think about your work in terms of return on investment, but often people want to see not just what their money is buying, but how far it’s stretched. The more you can talk about your work in the potential funder’s framework, the better chance you have to connect with them.

This applies to how you use your language too. Like all fields, there’s a lot of jargon in the nonprofit world both around organizational management and specific issue areas. But instead of making you sound informed and authoritative, heavy jargon use can be off-putting or, worse, fail to get your message across. You’re not dumbing down your ideas by reframing them. Rather, you’re recognizing and respecting the funder’s starting point. Are they already active on your cause or is this a new issue for them? Are they seasoned philanthropists or will this be their first major gift? Are they familiar with your organization and its place within the movement or will this be an introduction to your organization? Tailor your language based on the answers to these questions.

Don’t bury the lead

The folks you’re reaching out to are busy people. You not only want to be respectful of their time, but also ensure the moments you get with them count. Sure, you may have a perfect slow build that gets your audience salivating waiting for your big punchline, but if your meeting is cut short or the potential funder only has a few minutes to scan your proposal, you don’t want to leave your potential investor or partner wondering why you came to them in the first place.

Start with what you want. That could be fewer malaria deaths, a local climate action plan or to make your local animal shelter no-kill. If they cut you off there, you know that your priorities aren’t aligned and you can move forward. If they don’t, you now have the space to make your case.

Make the case for your idea and for YOU

Once you have folks hooked on a common goal, it’s easy to get lost in the details of your strategy. For example, we know that using mosquito nets can prevent the spread of malaria and save millions of lives. In the U.S., we can make the case for local jurisdictions to plan for a future with climate change and make investments in resilience and ways to offset their carbon footprint that match the particular threats they face. Or, really, who is in favor of euthanizing puppies? Whatever your issue, the details of your particular approach matter.

Sure, all these things require money, but chances are, if you’ve targeted the right funders best aligned with your cause, your proposal isn’t the only one they’ve heard on the issue. In addition to selling the idea, you have to sell yourself and your organization. They should give you money to fund malaria nets because you have a network of well-utilized health clinics operating in the affected countries that would be effective distribution points. You are most likely to get a climate plan passed because your organization has relationships with city council members on both sides of the aisle and lots of local supporters you can mobilize to show up at offices and meetings. Since your shelter is required to take in all animals, the volume makes it particularly difficult to house and save them all. Funding an expansion or foster program can save the most animals possible.

Be passionate

There’s a reason you work for a nonprofit. You care, and that passion can be contagious. Yes, you want to tailor your proposal to your specific funder, be clear and concise, and focus on the details about why your solution is a step above the rest. But, truth be told, all good proposals will do the same. Your voice, conviction and story can set you apart. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable about why you chose to devote your career to this issue. People support good ideas, but they really support good ideas from people they like. Sharing a bit of yourself and your drive can be the icing on the cake that makes your proposal the best of the lot. 

Eric is the Vice President of Business Development at Care2 and the ThePetitionSite where he advises on donor lead acquisition and multichannel conversion strategies. He has contributed to integrated conversion efforts on behalf of nonprofits in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and over 100 other countries.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog