Lionel Trilling once said, “Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.” According to Joseph Barbato and Danielle Furlich’s Writing for a Good Cause, the same applies to grant writing: you have to watch how others do it, and do the same.
The writers of this book, grant writers themselves, are fundamentally writers who first “learned by doing” and “just stumbled into their jobs,” as most development officers do. They recognize that writing is hard work and that good writers are idiosyncratic. In order to get into the mood of writing, Barbato wears his Pulp Fiction or Duke baseball cap, and Danielle points a figurine of a man with two guns in his hands at her head. “Getting black on white,“ as Joe likes to say (with a nod to Guy de Maupassant), ”is crucial. But making sense of that brain dump—whittling, cutting, shaping, honing it—so that it forcefully conveys your meaning—that’s writing.”
The authors also understand that while it can be incredibly rewarding, grant writing for nonprofits can sometimes be just as frustrating. They spill the beans on some of the more unseemly elements of the craft, such as creating programs out of whole cloth. “The development office was asked one day to create an institute of war and peace . . . . Together with a young assistant professor of politics, a development writer created the institute. You may rest assured that no other entity known to man was ever better designed to improve East-West relations. The institute’s purpose, its programs and conferences and publications—everything was created in an afternoon. Whole-cloth city.”
Writing for a Good Cause is therapy for grant writers. There are the nifty tips for surviving the everyday incompetence and bureaucracy of meddlers and last-minute assignments. “Get good at your work. Get very good. That will earn you the respect of colleagues. You’ll be surprised what they will let you get away with.” There’s also good advice for beginners on how to learn the ropes and find a mentor. “Read successful proposals. Write the lousy drafts . . . . You are learning; you are trying. That’s all that matters. Repeat after Danielle: Trying is all that matters.”
This book is also a good primer for Proposal Writing 101. It takes you back to the basics: how to research, what the parts of a proposal are and how to make them sing, and how to package the proposal. It’s easy to navigate. There are lots of sidebars with examples of what they’re talking about and “hot tips” pulled out in bold from each section. And just in case you don’t have time to read the whole book (which you will because it is thoroughly enjoyable), there’s a “down-and-dirty proposal kit” highlighted in the back. The Appendix lists the “must haves” for every grant writer’s shelf and includes a handy glossary of design and printing terms.
“Why a glossary of design and printing terms?” you ask. Simple: Joe and Danielle know that grant writers often get stuck developing other fund raising materials, such as newsletters, Web sites, and case statements. And though nonprofits are supposed to lay this out in their strategic plan—accountability being the domain of the executive and the board of directors—very few do a decent job of it. The grant writer inevitably finds himself in the precarious position of answering to everyone: the board, the president, the program staff, and, most importantly, the donors.
But before you slit your wrists worrying about the fate of the entire organization being in your hands, go do your yoga like Danielle and take the advice of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, whom she quotes: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”
Live in the present and know that the ultimate reason you are writing grants at all, and why the authors so aptly titled their book Writing for a Good Cause, is that you have a gift and you want to use that gift to help make the world a better place. “So remember the passion and honesty of the angry letter,” suggest the authors. “Do that and you will have worked wonders with words.”
Mary Siddall is a grant writer for a school choice group and executive director of America’s Future Foundation, a group of emerging conservative and libertarian leaders.