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Making Your Grant Proposal Persuasive

October 2004
By: Peggy Hartshorn
Editor's note: The "Parts of the Proposal" mentioned in this article are defined and discussed in "Speaking the Language of Grant Proposals" in At the Center, volume 5, number 2, Spring/Summer 2004. You can read it by clicking here.

A grant proposal is a piece of persuasion. That is, the writer tries to convince the reader that he has a project that matches the purposes of the funder, that it is worthy of being funded, and that it is even more worthy than many of the competing projects proposed by others! A person (or group) will read every grant proposal. Many are evaluated against "rating sheets" and given points for each part. Whether or not the evaluators find it persuasive is an important factor in how the proposal is rated and whether it gets funded.

What do we know about how people respond to persuasion? What makes some pieces of writing more convincing than others? For centuries people have been studying how humans try to be convincing and how others respond.

Aristotle, who lived nearly four hundred years before Christ, was a most astute observer of human behavior. He studied the statesmen and citizens of his time as they tried to convince their fellow Greeks of one position or another. His Art of Persuasion is still the basis for almost all current courses on persuasion because the principles he set forth have proven to be true through the ages. Aristotle writes that successful persuaders know how to use the logical, emotional, and ethical appeals. All three must be used well if you want to be successful in any persuasive task, including writing a grant proposal.

Using the logical appeal, the writer appeals to the reader's sense of what is reasonable and logical. A proposal will seem reasonable to the reader if all the parts fit together and if each part flows logically into the next. For example, if the Needs Statement gives evidence that there is a need in the community for pregnancy prevention among unmarried youth, the Goals and Objectives of the proposal must be to reduce pregnancy among unmarried youth. The Methods (i.e., the activities in your program) must seem likely to produce that effect, and the Budget must contain all the components (at a reasonable cost) to carry out your program.

However, if the need is not compelling, if the components of your program do not look like they will be effective in achieving the goal, or if the budget seems unrealistically low to fund the activities, the evaluator will not be convinced that money given to you will be well spent. All of the parts of the proposal must logically fit together to be persuasive.

Most people are persuaded by evidence which indicates that a particular argument or point of view is true. Applicable facts, figures, statistics, authorities, and expert testimony can appeal to the logic of the reader. You may use statistics to show the seriousness of the problem in your Needs Statement and use percentages to show how much you are planning to reduce the problem in your list of Objectives. You may quote from or cite experts in your Needs Statement (e.g., studies and leaders in the community), and you may ask respected authorities (e.g., your Department of Health or local legislative representative) to write letters of support, which you may include in an Appendix.

Another way of making your proposal sound logical to the reader is to echo words, phrases, and expressions from the RFP (request for proposal) or of the funders themselves. If a foundation's written documents indicate that it seeks projects that meet the needs of "at risk youth" or organizations that "serve a wide geographical area," make sure you use those exact terms in your proposal.

As a part of being logical, your proposal must be free of logical fallacies. Even if the grant readers cannot pinpoint the fallacy immediately, something seems odd or unconvincing to good readers when they come across one of the following blunders in logic. Don't make hasty generalizations, i.e., coming to conclusions without having and/or giving enough facts and figures to support them. Watch out for faulty causation statements, such as asserting that something is a cause simply because it preceded the problem. Avoid ad hominem (literally, "to the man") arguments. For example, don't blame persons or organizations like Planned Parenthood or sex educators for the problem.

Even Spock, once he got to know Captain Kirk, realized that people are not convinced solely through logic. The emotional appeal is also important. Grant readers, however, are often using rating forms and giving numerical scores, and they consider themselves objective. So, your emotional appeal must be subtle. Your goal should be to move the reader to feel the urgency of the problem, to see the issues more clearly, and to respond with openness to your approach. A short, personal interest story or a real client's personal testimony may fit into the Needs Statement or into a letter of support.

When appropriate use terms with positive emotional connotations, e.g., young mothers instead of clients, fathers instead of sexual partners, health instead of STDs, and mom and baby classroom instead of meeting room. If you can give a personal presentation to a grant-making board, use actual pictures (but don't include them in a written proposal unless it is requested—this would seem to be an attempt to manipulate the feelings of the grant readers).

Finally, be sure to include the ethical appeal, perhaps better translated as the "character appeal." In your proposal the character of the organization or writer should come across as trustworthy, believable, and even likeable. How can your grant proposal convey this kind of appeal? A strong logical appeal and a subtle emotional appeal will help you and your organization seem trustworthy. Including good letters of support and a list of trustworthy collaborative partners will demonstrate that others in your field have faith in you and your organization. Names and positions of Board members and Advisory Board members (if respected in the community) also add to ethical appeal. The section of every grant proposal called the "Introduction" (of the organization) or "Agency Description" is the place to reveal your organization's credentials and accomplishments, including the names of other funders. All of these will enhance your credibility.

You may be able to communicate personally with the funder before or after the submission of the proposal. If your proposal is not funded, you may ask for the comments of readers and for suggestions about how to improve your applications in the future. Be sure you take these opportunities to be professional and likeable and build character appeal for your organization.

Nearly all winning proposals use the three persuasive appeals. Once you learn to use them skillfully, you will be more successful in any persuasive task, be it a fundraising letter, letter to the editor, or public presentation of any kind.

Peggy Hartshorn, Ph.D., is the President of Heartbeat International in Columbus, Ohio. Web site:

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