How to Be Innovative When Writing Proposals

Question: I’m working on a proposal related to drug and substance abuse that will benefit women, youth, and girls. I need innovative methods to add to what I already have. Where can I find this information?

That’s a great question! Grant proposals always challenge us to do our very best in terms of program delivery and to articulate the most innovative aspects of our work in writing. While the requirements of funders can sometimes seem oppressive, they do seem to get us focused on improving what we offer to our communities.

Proposals should reflect the best of what your organization has done in the past as well as what you hope to do and achieve in the future. In terms of the future, there are several questions you should ask yourself to inform your thinking:

1. What has worked well in the past that we should continue to do or expand? Because you have experience working with the community, you already have a good sense of what has worked well. Identify these activities and continue to refine them. This is what distinguishes your organization from all of the others, making you more competitive as you apply for funding.

2. What have we done in the past that can be improved? As an experienced organization, you probably also have a lot of knowledge about what doesn’t work, or what could be done differently. Take time to identify, reflect upon, and discuss these areas so that they can be improved.

3. What needs does my community have that are not being met? As a nonprofit, you have an obligation to have first-hand knowledge of community needs and to address those needs as effectively as possible. This means you need to be present in the opportunity, ask questions, conduct formal assessments every so often, and listen to the people you are serving and your partners on an ongoing basis.

4. What feedback has the community given us about what we are doing well or not so well? Whether or not you have asked, I am sure that some of the people you are serving have given you positive or negative feedback – or even suggestions for improvement. Develop a system to keep track of this feedback and review it periodically to improve your programs.

5. What trends are impacting the field? Your presence in the community will help you understand not only what the people being served think and feel about what you are offering, but the whole of what is going on in their lives and in their community. Be aware of any type of change or activity in your community that might impact the people you are serving or your ability to provide service to people.

6. What innovative practices could be replicated by my organization to better meet the needs of my community? I believe this might be at the heart of your question! There are a lot of ways you can research innovative practice not just when writing proposals but throughout the year. Some sources of information include professional associations, trade journals, networking groups, and government resources. Stay in touch with your colleagues to know what they are doing. Make some calls to public officials or even funders to ask them what ideas they can share from other communities. Attend conferences, read, and imagine what could be possible!

Keep in mind that what is innovative and works in one community may not necessarily be effective in your community. As you come across ideas, share them with your coworkers and/or the people you serve to see if it might work. Keep in mind that you are serving complete people, even though your program may only impact a part of their lives. All of those other parts of their lives will impact their needs and what will work well as you interact with them. This also means that you should focus not just on addressing problems, but on preventing them while also creating a more positive environment.

7. What does my organization and program have the capacity to deliver? My philosophy is always to underpromise and overdeliver (hopefully you have noticed!). I often see nonprofit organizations promising the world in a proposal when there is no possible way that they could actually do what is being proposed. Only propose to do what is possible given the time, money, facilities, and other resources available to the organization. But never stop dreaming big; always be thinking about what additional things your organization could be doing if more funding became available.

To answer these questions, your organization needs to assess needs and capacity to address those needs on an ongoing basis – not just when it is time to write proposals. That way, you will be prepared to take action when you become aware of unexpected opportunities for funding or partnership.