November, 2009

A New Kind of Headache: Fitting a Winning Proposal into Those Tiny Text Boxes

More funding sources – foundation, local, state and federal – are moving to online proposal submission.  For a while, this has meant filling out a few info boxes and uploading a Word document with the proposal narrative.  For those of us from the old school of proposal writing, this purely functional conveyance of information eliminated little opportunities to shine.  Tricks like classy/creative footers and headers, color charts, and even word placement have to be shelved with this kind of ‘just the facts, ma’am” proposal writing.

Pity.  I really love all those ways to play positive mind games with funders – maybe a reflection of my unfulfilled interest in retail marketing.

Anyway, the next phase in this minimalist movement is funders’ use of little text boxes with draconian word and/or character limits as in:  “Explain your organization’s capacity to implement this project” in 2500 characters (spaces included).  Goodbye charts, graphics, organizational charts, proposal beauty.  Welcome to the world of texting your proposal.

I just finished Exhibit 1 for the Milwaukee Continuum of Care’s annual $12 million Supportive Housing Program application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Exhibit 1 is basically the annual plan/proposal – the document that explains how funding will be used in the coming year.

Last year, I really struggled with the text box limits.  This year, I did a lot better.  Here are some tips I have to share:

  1. Write your responses in a Word document and upload to the online format.  Then you can go a quick word/character/character including spaces count by using the utility at the bottom of the Word document page.  Beats counting them by hand.  Don’t laugh.  I really did that last year.  Word will also catch your typos while the online format probably won’t.
  2. Tighten up your prose!  This sounds self-evident.  Obviously, if you have a limited number of characters, you’re going to write less.  But the key is to write cleaner, more concisely, and more efficiently.  Get rid of the adjectives (a rule from the old school that really applies to text writing).  Just answer the question that is asked.  Clear, focused, but, yes, still punchy.
  3. Crunch.  Don’t dispense with normal conventions of writing.  Just tweak them a little.  Abbreviate everything; convert names to acronyms. Forget paragraphs and double spacing between sentences. And watch the words you choose – there’s always a shorter one than the one you want to use.
  4. Have a better product.  When you have such limited space to write, you have to really stick with the facts.  And you have to make sure the facts are a) accurate; and b) impressive.  With no opportunity for fancy weaving or wordsmithing, the proposal writer will have to dig deeper into the organization and, in some cases, help the organization improve its performance and capabilities throughout the year to get ready for big proposal submissions.
  5. Check it a thousand times.  Save, save, save and then check, check, check.  Electronic formats have a way of losing revisions, reverting to earlier versions, and disappearing altogether.  Take nothing for granted!

I’ll learn more about haiku proposal writing as the funding world continues to evolve – stay tuned.

Wash Your Face and Change Your Shirt: An Essay about Mentoring

These days you can’t cross the street without someone talking about mentoring. It’s everywhere.  At least the word is.  Actual mentoring, I think, is a different matter.

Most people think of mentoring as instruction – someone who is older and wiser reaching down to instruct and guide the young one coming up.  The mentor provides his/her wisdom and knowledge, the mentee gratefully soaks it up.  The mentee has questions, the mentor the answers.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think this kind of mentoring is really important.  It’s how people learn their trade – whether they’re doctors or community planners.

But true mentoring to me isn’t about instruction.  It’s about handing over the keys.

I can tell you the one conversation that transformed me from a smart worker bee into a professional.

Many years ago I worked at the Social Development Commission as a researcher.  Asked to pull together stats for the director’s speech that evening to a large disability advocacy group protesting state budget cuts, I scoured the census and other sources to put together the most thorough paper ever on the potential impact of the cuts.   I took the document to the director’s office, only to be told that he couldn’t attend the meeting and that the Planning Director would have to attend in his stead.  But, oh no, the Planning Director was out.  Now really worried, I flew down the hall to Tony Maggiore’s office – SDC’s Director of Programs.

Tony Maggiore – intense, inscrutable, demanding, and totally, 24 hours a day, non-stop committed to poor people – was the single most intimidating person in an agency loaded with powerhouses and he was the last person I wanted to talk to.  But he was the only brass left in the shop.  He had to go to the meeting and make the speech.

“Can’t do it,” he said.  “Then who can do it?” I asked.

“I guess you’ll have to.  You wrote the speech.  Go give it,” he said, barely looking up from his papers.

“I can’t.”

“Of course, you can.  Do what I do – go home, wash your face and change your shirt.  Then go give the speech.”

And I did.  Well, I didn’t do the ‘change your shirt’ part but I did wash my face and put on fresh make-up and then drove to the Sacred Heart Hospital auditorium so ill from fear that I thought I would faint.  I sat in a folding chair waiting my turn and eying the door.  But I didn’t flee or faint.  Tony Maggiore had sent me and I couldn’t crap out.  I got up, stood at a podium with TV station microphones clipped on the side, looked at the audience filled with anxious and angry advocates and gave my speech.

Tony Maggiore didn’t mentor me in the traditional sense. He couldn’t be bothered spending time teaching me what was what.  What he did was trust me.  It changed everything.

To me, good mentoring is all about knowing when to say, “of course you can.”

10 Steps to Successful Collaboration

1.  Have one when you need one.  Is there a pressing need?  Is a collaborative effort the best way to respond?  If the cause is too small, people won’t participate for long.
2.  Start where you are.  Use what you have.  Do what you can.  Don’t wait for perfection.  Action creates action. Don’t underestimate the power of a group of committed, talented people.
3.  Remember that three people make a circle.  Three people/organizations can change how business is done. Each has to have the authority to commit agency resources.  Each has to be willing to invest time, money, and credibility.
4.  Come through on small things.  Return phone calls. Provide information.  Coordinate schedules. Be honest. Be fully present and participating. Work on your relationships with people – in and out of the collaborative.
5.  Meet with a purpose.  Set a clear goal. Bring your organization’s value to the collaborative. Organize meetings to move toward the goal. People’s time is precious. Focus on getting traction for the next step.  Keep records. Consolidate gains and move on.
6.  Share leadership.  Every member speaks.  Every member has homework. Every member invests something. Every member votes.
7.  Create meaningful products.  Products can be proposals, policies, resources, research.  Collaborative owns the product, not individual members.  Focus on win/win products. No organization should be put in a lesser position because of its decision to collaborate.
8.  Seize opportunities to grow.  Collaboration makes big projects possible. Consider less money, better odds on funding proposals.  Work with the group to  jump ‘out of the box.’ Make the collaborative the force to deal with on your issue.
9.  Welcome new people as equals.  Make newcomers into oldtimers by giving them important work to do. Be aware of core group/fringe group issues.  Explain, explain, explain and then listen, listen, listen.  What was isn’t what will be. New people bring new value to the group.
10.  Commit to shared outcomes.  The happiest marriages start in a ‘new house.’  Focus on the outcomes that really matter to the collaborative.  Invest in shared measurement and reporting.  Welcome the community’s reaction, criticism, support, and investment.