How graphics can enhance a nonprofit organization's proposal for a grant


At the request of readers last year, I plan in 1994 to occasionally cover the issue of seeking grants to augment a nonprofit organization's revenue. Having visited the topic periodically in 1992, I think its absence in 1993 has made the topic grow fonder.

Over the past decade, the sluggish economy has placed nonprofit finances in a vise, and prospects for 1994 are not much brighter. Charities are competing for grant awards from government, foundations and corporations at an unprecedented rate.

Some people are surprised to learn that most nonprofit-organization revenue (51 percent) still comes from fees or charges for services, according to the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations. For their remaining funding needs, nonprofits depend on private donations, grants from foundations and corporations and contracts or competitive grants from government entities.

Applying for competitive grants is an already modest and growing business in America. There are for-profit businesses like the Taft Group (Detroit) that provide print and electronic materials to help newcomers learn the ropes of grant writing and teach new tricks to experienced practitioners. The Foundation Center (New York City) and the Grantmanship Center (Los Angeles) are two of many nonprofit groups that help writers with grants to improve skills through print materials and workshops. In Central Maryland, United Way, the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers and the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations offer workshops and seminars on the same topic.

In previous columns, I have discussed how critical it is to meet with a funding-agency representative before the writing process. It still amazes me that a nonprofit grant-writing team will spend hundreds of hours developing a proposal without first talking with the funding agency.

That said, let's assume that you've met with the funding agency, your proposed program is squarely in line with their funding mission and you've already written the basic text of your grant to the federal agency. A question we get asked with every major grant application is, "Should we include graphics in the proposal?"

Whether to include figures, tables, graphs, time lines, illustrations or even photographs in your proposal depends entirely on the answer to this question: Will the graphic help the reader understand your proposal?

If you decide that the graphic will help clarify a complex program, by all means include it. Be sure that the graphic is clear, simple and easy to understand at a glance. If it requires reviewers to stop and spend minutes orienting themselves, forget it.

As a matter of course, it's a good idea to include a graphical time line in every request for funding, whether responding to a Request For Proposals from a federal agency or initiating a proposal to a private foundation.

Tables and graphs are used most effectively to summarize or help the reader visualize confusing data. They are also great to reinforce major trends. There is nothing quite so persuasive as seeing a graph line showing client numbers rise steadily.

If other agencies will be involved in service delivery, a concise graphic that illustrates the role of each agency, along with their relationships to each other, is an excellent use of space. In a recent multimillion-dollar health-care proposal to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that we developed for a client, we included a time line and graphic organizers to clarify the complex relationships between service delivery agencies. The use of such graphics helps the requesting agency discipline its thinking. We believe the grant was awarded, in part, because of the commitment to making the proposal as easy to understand as possible.

Proposals to federal agencies, in particular, are reviewed by committees of experts who are frequently sequestered for several days in a hotel room, with a knee-high stack of submissions and, by the end of the stint, a rotten disposition.

Anything you can do to make that reviewer's job easier will help your proposal rise to the top. A $7 million proposal we received two years ago for a client from the prestigious National Science Foundation included several comments from reviewers about how helpful the graphics were.

The use of graphics must always be balanced with the space you have available within the narrative. If you are pressed, see if you can refer the reader to graphics in appendixes. Or, better yet, see if you can edit your writing to squeeze in the graphic. And, finally, always have a few people who know nothing about your agency review the proposal for clarity.

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