Some Advice about Credibility

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One of the most important elements in a persuasive proposal is the “qualifications and credentials” of the organization and its people who will actually carry out the work. It’s also one of the easiest to get wrong, or just wrong enough to derail the application. These are some of the mistakes nonprofits have made and some ways to avoid them.

Confusing longevity with efficacy. “Well, we’ve been doing this work since 1997 so that proves we’re good at it.” No, it doesn’t. Simply being in business for a number of years does not automatically communicate impact. It might be the result of one donor’s loyalty or the absence of any other organizations in the field or a habit of sacrificial staff work—not necessarily bad things, just not the same thing as evidence of results.

Mismatching staff backgrounds with program requirements. Your proposal offers an opportunity to be sure that the people who will do the job have experience doing such jobs. A master’s degree in Romance Languages is a wonderful thing but a questionable credential for leading a neighborhood housing campaign (an actual example). The project is complex and requires coordinating a lot of moving parts—has the project director ever managed a comparable carnival? Or is it a senior staffer who “just seems so good for the proposal?”

Blowing one’s own horn. The nonprofit that makes a lot of claims about its own excellence (a) had better be able to back them up, and (b) would probably be better off if a lot of other people and “outsiders” said good things about its work. Sometimes nonprofit websites feature grateful quotes from clients—move those quotes, and the facts of the stories, into the body of the proposal and use them to illustrate your impact. (And while you’re at it, don’t assume a proposal reviewer will ever get to the attachments or websites. Put the important stuff in the main document).

Letting your “mission creep” show. Nonprofits are created and chartered and granted tax-exempt status to accomplish specific things in a defined field. A grant-making foundation is similarly dedicated to certain defined purposes. A proposal from an animal welfare organization asking for funding to do “community needs assessments” (an actual example) might raise eyebrows—but not grant dollars—from a foundation that has been involved in community research. There might be a case to be made for such an assessment, but maybe the nonprofit could partner with a better-credentialed organization.

There is no point decrying the age of specialization. We’re in it. The work now is to be sure our nonprofit skill sets and record of impact speak directly and persuasively to the work we want to do next.


Thomas Boyd is Chief Editorial Consultant for The Grantsmanship Center
and an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations.

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