Many bloggers write about how to connect with online readers. It turns out that many of the bloggers' views on what it takes to be a successful blogger apply equally well to grant writing.
Below are four common messages from the blogging world about how to find success and build an audience. Included in the list are suggestions of how each approach can be applied to grant writing.
Lessons from Bloggers on How to be a Success
Successful bloggers emphasize the importance of being true to who you are. You do this by talking and writing in your own voice and sharing information and ideas that are genuinely meaningful to you. The bloggers who have found success writing blogs full-time don't sound like everyone else because they allow their unique style of communicating to come through. They have large readerships because they write about topics from their viewpoint, which gives their writing an original perspective. They also share information on topics they are truly interested and invested in, and this enthusiasm shows in their writing.
The successful bloggers illustrate the value of knowing yourself well--your unique combination of interests, skills, and strengths--and speaking from your experience.
So how does the principle of authenticity translate to the nonprofit world and grant writing? In two ways, first by using an authentic voice and second by being true to your interests.
One of the pitfalls of grant writing is that you are usually faced with a short turnaround to create your proposal. Given this time constraint, it is very tempting, and sometimes even feels like a necessity, to recycle language from other grant proposals or documents, possibly grant proposals written years earlier by someone no longer at the organization. The downside of doing this is that there is not only a very real risk that the content will be out of date, but also that what was written earlier will not reflect the spirit of your organization as it is today. Additionally, if you mix language that you have cut-and-pasted from another proposal with newly drafted language, your proposal will be a patchwork of styles unless you edit it to create a uniform voice. Finally, if you cut and paste heavily from earlier documents (again, particularly those written in some earlier time by prior employees) your proposal may come across as flat and lacking in energy. Just like fashion, writing styles change over time. Something written even a few years ago can sound dated to a contemporary reader.
The second way being authentic applies to grant writing is in the search for funding. Organizations can convince themselves to apply to grants they know are not a good fit. The scopes of work may be outside of their expertise, their missions, and interests. An example is a nonprofit with a mission to work with homeless youth that applies for a grant to provide after-school services for low-income children. While the after-school project may benefit the community and the organization may even have the staff to do the work, the project could pull the organization and its resources away from serving its target population and core mission.
Even if an organization needs money, applying for a grant that is not in alignment with its mission can be problematic. When you say "yes" to one project, you have to say "no" to other projects. Do you want your "yes" to be something that pulls you away from your mission or something that helps you achieve it? Being authentic in this context means staying true to your mission and seeking opportunities that match your organizational strengths. If you do decide to go for a grant that will take your organization in a different direction, make the decision intentionally by re-evaluating your mission and deciding whether this new direction is where your organization wants and needs to go.
Successful bloggers post when they have something to say that they think meets the needs of their readers. They don't just go through the motions of posting content. They publish a post when they have something to communicate and work hard at articulating their message so it can be understood.
This practice of communicating only when one has something to communicate counters advice that bloggers should just commit to a posting schedule and post something--no matter how useful or useless--to maintain that schedule. While the successful bloggers do post regularly, they also articulate the desire not to waste their readers' time, so they post often, but not mechanically. When they publish a post, it is because they sincerely believe the post's content can serve a need of their readers.
In the grant proposal context, communicating purposefully includes prioritizing clear writing over pedantic prose that may sound impressive but doesn't say anything. Communicating with purpose during the grant process means writing persuasively, but not excessively. The donor needs and wants to know about your organization's capacity and intended approach to the proposed work. The donor does not need "filler" text that tells them what they already know (e.g. language copied from the RFA) or that fails to give them a true picture of your resources, ability to do the work, and manage grant funds. The donor will not hold it against you if your grant proposal comes in under the page limits. If you can say what you need to say in fewer words than you are technically "allowed," do that. Your goal should be to write a responsive grant proposal that clearly and persuasively communicates to the donor how you can solve their problem. Reaching this goal could require using every single page you are allotted, but it may not.
Continue to Learn
Bloggers who seem to have the largest and most engaged audiences are avid readers and lifelong learners. They read books related to and outside of their professional fields, and they take as many (or more) courses than they teach. In addition to taking online courses, they also regularly attend conferences, not only to learn new ideas and skills but also to network with others in their field. What they learn, they share, so as their skills expand their readers' skills expand as well.
It can be hard once you are out of school to find the time to read regularly. And while there are many free resources on the Web, most courses do cost something, so a habit of lifelong learning takes discipline in terms of time as well as financial resources. However, dedicating time and resources to your continued education is important not only for your professional growth but also for your well being. If you are lucky, your job provides opportunities to learn new skills. If it does not, challenging yourself outside of work through reading and continuing education can make an unhappy situation more manageable and increase your marketability so you can eventually get a better job.
For grant writers, continuing to learn includes continuing to perfect your grant writing skills and your knowledge of the grant-making process. It means expanding your skills, such as learning Excel or a project management tool that can help you do your job. It may also mean becoming a technical expert in an area that your organization works in so that you can complement your proposal skills with subject matter expertise.
New blogs are going up every day. The successful bloggers know they may lose readers to someone else's blog and that to keep their readers they need to deliver high-quality, original content that serves their readers. However, one of the interesting things about the blogging community is that many of the successful bloggers have embraced the idea of "better together." In other words, they support one another and instead of seeing someone who works in a similar online space (e.g. website design) as a competitor to be beaten, they acknowledge and even refer their readers to other bloggers who write about similar content. While it seems like the blogging community does this mostly out of altruistic purposes and a genuine desire to help fellow bloggers, doing so also helps to grow readership. When one blogger refers her readers to someone else's blog, the blogger on the receiving end of the referral will most likely return the favor.
By referring readers to one another and calling attention to others' talents, the bloggers are rejecting the scarcity idea that "if someone else gains, I lose." Rather than seeing the success of others as a threat, many bloggers treat someone else's success as inspiration: If she can do it, maybe I can too.
Outside of the blogging world, the idea of embracing the competition can encourage collaboration. For grant writers and nonprofits, embracing the competition can take the form of being open to new partnership opportunities and accepting that another organization may be in a better position to lead a particular project.
Approaching the grant process with the perspective that other organizations are potential partners can reduce the competition mindset of "win/lose." Are there enough resources for every organization to survive and thrive? Maybe not. But seeing other organizations as a threat to your survival doesn't increase the likelihood of your organization winning the next grant. In fact, the opposite may be true. Instead of asking, How can we beat our competitors and win this grant? How are we better than they are? What about asking: Are there other organizations who can join us on this project to achieve our shared goals? or, What can we learn from other organizations' successes to make our proposals and projects stronger?
A Final Lesson from Reading Blogs
Look for Inspiration Outside of Work
Blogs also reinforce another idea relevant to grant writing, which is that looking outside of your area of work can lead to new ways of thinking about and approaching projects. Reading books outside of your field or engaging in creative activities outside of work may help you approach your next grant proposal differently and with greater success. It's possible that the one thing that will have the greatest impact on your grant writing in 2016 will have nothing at all to do with grants, donors, or the kind of work you do.