Proposal Writing and Grantseeking

A Classical Approach to Grant Proposals

Before campaign advisors, spin doctors, influencers or ad men, there was the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. His treatise, The Rhetoric, laid out a durable blueprint for creating persuasive arguments and the elements he described are as useful today as they were in 4th century BC Greece. As proposal writers, we sometimes get lost in the weeds of data, logic models, detailed methods and other granular stuff. Preparing persuasive proposals can benefit from reviewing these classical principles.

Chop This Year’s Wood for Next Year’s Fire

One of the inescapable truths about proposal writing and grants funding is the time it sometimes takes for a funder to make up its mind. Weeks, months – many months – can go by without a word. Funders work on a variety of timetables: some wait for a regular board meeting; some review proposals as they are submitted; some put requests through a series of screens and determinations, each one setting the stage for the next one.


Hardly anybody remembers John Venn, a British mathematician from the late 1800s. But everybody has heard of Venn diagrams, maybe used them in charts to explain how one group of characteristics “overlaps” another, and to name and define the stuff in the place where the groups overlap. Circle A represents tall people, circle B represents athletes. When we overlap the circles we’ve got tall people who aren’t athletes, and athletes who aren’t tall—but in the overlap, we’ve got tall athletes.

Proposal Writing Skills: Transferable?

Let’s say you’re an experienced development staffer, or a consultant, and you’ve been submitting grant proposals to support the organization’s mission. Let’s also say you’ve gotten good at it and have helped your organization win funding. But you’ve lately gotten very interested in a different field (arts, environment, housing, e.g.) and you think maybe you can take your skills to a nonprofit in that new field that will be glad to have you. Can you? Will they?

What to Do with Leftovers

It’s not common, but sometimes a nonprofit comes to the end of a program grant with some money that is unspent. This might happen if the program didn’t start on time, or the nonprofit has raised money from other sources (e.g. individual contributions) and uses that money for part of the program, or things didn’t cost as much as you thought they would—unlikely but sure, it could happen.

Handling Rejection

You’ve done your research and submitted a very well-written, well-documented proposal for a grant. You’ve prepared a reasonable budget, attached all the required forms, asked for the right amount of money and submitted well before the deadline. In short, you’ve done exactly and fully what is necessary to win the grant. But you don’t.