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.

The Very Best of the Activist’s Muse

As I started submitting fewer and fewer posts to The Activist’s Muse, a blog I published through The Fruition Coalition for about  year, I also started to think about preserving what I had written so that I would have a way to recant those moments in my old age. So with a bit of sadness for what has ended, at least for now, but also with great optimism for what is to come in the future, I have put together The Best of The Activist’s Muse, an archive of the blog’s highlights from 2012 to 2013.

I Was Happier When I Was Depressed

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I sometimes think that I was happier when I was depressed. I recently found a journal from 2006 and 2008, with an almost two-year gap in-between. The pages contained subtle and not so subtle expressions of sadness, rage, loss, obsession, and shame. While I read my desperate words with compassion for the promising young woman who couldn’t see past her, my, immediate challenges, I also felt a sense of loss for the person I once was. Who knew that I would someday long for those dreary days with a sense of sentimental pride.

At the time, I knew exactly who I was — or so it appears on the page. My mental health diagnosis was enmeshed with my identity. It was who I was; it explained why I felt what I felt and did what I did. I defined myself through my diagnosis with religious rigor. Resistance to recovery is often rooted in attachment to our sense of self at a particular time in our lives — a self that we have, necessarily so, learned to understand, manage, and control.

But I really only knew one part of myself, and now I have opened up to so many other possibilities for my life. I am happy, or I should say happier, but not consistently so. And that is unquestionably good. But at the same time, I feel that my writing, a reflection of how I feel about life at the moment, has become, at times, fake, sterile, and dull despite moments of restless rumination. I fear that if I do not suffer, then my art will on my behalf.

I didn’t originally have the opportunity to self-identify as a person who experiences mental illness, pervasive emotional distress. From a young age, I was told you’re this. You’re that. I was medicated. I received harmful treatment that fractured my already fragile self-esteem and identity. Without realizing it, I conformed to those various labels that were attached to me and implicitly complied with the related assumptions about my feelings and behavior. In my heart of hearts, I never fully accepted other people’s interpretations of me, particularly those that were based on a simplistic diagnosis — because I am a unique, complex, dynamic human being— as we all are.

No, I really don’t want to go back to those more difficult days, but I wouldn’t change them either. I am grateful for what they, both at the time and in retrospect, have revealed and taught me about myself and about life. They have made me a stronger, more empathetic, and more resilient person.

The Lonely Life of a Writer

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Writing is a solitary enterprise and that, overall, suits me just fine. After a day at work surrounded by other people, love them though I may, I long for some time alone where I can think, reflect, and just be without interruption or diversion.

To be a writer is to selflessly shed the blood of one’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, along with otherwise underutilized charm and wit, only to, for the most part, suffer the subtle rejection of silence. It is to always be on the verge of the unknown, to throw out ideas and not to know where they may land.

Reading too is a solitary endeavor. Readers sit in blessed silence, submerging themselves into another world that opens them up — intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally — and enlivens them. It makes their daily existence in the tangible material world even more meaningful as the two worlds become forever intertwined through the conscience of the reader.

But writing is also a conversation between writer and reader — and one in which the reader too often remains silent. Written text is a private conversation that takes place in a hidden world full of secrets that neither reader nor writer will ever fully visualize or understand. Each retains their own perception of the text and the vivid worlds they have created together remain distinct in many ways. The world of the author and reader too often do not connect in authentic or purposeful ways.

Readers unfortunately most often respond to the writer (at least to this writer) when they are in disagreement, when what has been written somehow violates the social, cultural, economic, political, intellectual, and/or emotional arrangements they have made for the world in which they live. Like when a reader responded to my kind offer to share a copy of Ashley and Tiana by writing a long-winded, scathing review in a way that only a bitter middle-age man could. The world I created did not in any way intersect with his — and in addition to that, I had the nerve to use an en dash instead of an em dash.

Several years ago, Public Enemy engaged their fans in the process of writing a song. While I chose not to participate at the time, and rap music historians thank me, I really appreciated both the intent of this project and the process that surely unfolded. But opening yourself up in such a way as an artist also brings a great deal of risk — especially of destroying the sacred pristine expression of all that is good and true to you. It takes a lot of courage to co-create with others, particularly when those others are able to self-select.

Yes, vanity likes on social media are nice, and validation of my ideas is also sincerely valued. It is heartwarming to know that there are other people in the world who notice, understand, and appreciate my perspective. But it seems shallow to not desire more, like provocation of life-changing self-realizations and inspiration of ideas that positively transform the world. Or maybe that is just selfish.

All of Me

I have been writing online in one form or another since 1998. I recall developing my first website in my West Philadelphia apartment. It was simply and aptly titled ‘Utopia.’ Having long harboured the dream of publishing a magazine, online media presented an opportunity for me to share my ideas without the resources that would be necessary to publish well in print.

Since then, I have started, and failed to maintain, three blogs — all focused on one specific topic, one particular aspect of my interests and ideations. The most successful of these was The Activist’s Muse which I published, both regularly and sporadically, for about three years. More recently I published the Whole Happy and Healthy blog, which focused on emotional wellness.

And now, I am going to publish everything in one place — right here! It makes sense to simplify and streamline my work, particularly because I have not succeeded in maintaining my prior blogs as steadfastly as I had aspired. But more importantly, it is also indicative of my maturation and realization that I can and should exist, both offline and on, as a whole person — all of me — rather than sharing one piece here and another, somewhat separate piece there.

This blog will be a place for me to share all of my future writing, that which doesn’t quite fit thematically into other established channels, and that which is personal, unfinished, raw, and unapologetic. I will also use this space to share those polished pieces that appear elsewhere on the net, as well as to update readers on other projects in which I am involved.

Thank you for being here with me, for listening to me, and for sharing this small piece of the planet with me.