Stay Safe AND Dream Big – on Promises to Grant Funders

You want to impress potential funders with what you can accomplish if funded, and you want to aim high because you are doing this work to radically improve the world – but you don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver, then risk not getting your grant renewed for a second year. So what do you do? Will funders be understanding if you don’t reach the high standards you set?

Generally, funders want to know what you will achieve with their support, not what you hope for, but may not reach. I have created a system I use with many of my clients to balance their internal aspirations with their promises to funders.

Before explaining it, I’ll define the usual grant terms for those who don’t know them, and those who do can skip this list.

  • Objectives are measurable promises to funders about what your organization will do by the end of the grant period, like how many people you will serve.
  • Outcomes are measurable promises to funders about what will change for those you serve because of the work you did by the end of the grant period, like improvements in their health.
  • Indicators or benchmarks of success are measures that will show your work was successful by the end of the grant period; it is best for them to be a mix of objectives and outcomes.
  • Funders who ask for indicators or benchmarks of success generally use them instead of objectives or outcomes. Some funders ask only for objectives and use the term to include outcomes or ask only for outcomes and use the term to include objectives. You only need to consider the difference between the terms if they ask for both, otherwise, it is best to include a mix of objectives and outcomes under whatever term they use.

 So how high should you aim in your objectives/outcomes/indicators of success section?

I recommend 10-15% below what you expect to achieve. This way, if everything goes as planned, you can report to funders how fabulously you succeeded, exceeding your promises. If obstacles come up, you are likely to still be able to say you achieved what you promised to do.

And what about your big dreams? Anything you are not extremely confident you can achieve, set as an aspiration. This is not official grant lingo, but an additional term I created. Agree within your organization on the top aspirations, so anyone who has a chance can work toward them, and you will be more likely to achieve them. Do not include your aspirations in grant proposals or donor materials, since you do not want to have to report that they were not accomplished. However, if they are achieved, absolutely do add them to your grant reports, annual report, appeals, etc.

This system of working with promises and aspirations supports you to both stay safe with funders and achieve your big dreams about how you want to change the world.

We are Not Islands – the Importance of Describing Life Context

If you aren’t careful in your writing, most American readers will read it through the lens of our individualistic culture, the over-simplified paradigm that individuals alone are responsible for what we make of our lives. This predominant paradigm doesn’t take into account the social systems that give some people fewer choices, resources, and opportunities, as well as more risks, barriers to success, stress, health issues, and trauma.

People from oppressed groups are far more likely to have grown up aware of the truth – that people’s lives are shaped by how other people and social systems treat them, by what choices this context and their natures give them in response, and only then by what choices they make. Still, chances are that your readers will have the individualistic view to some degree programmed into their thinking by our culture, even if they have been working to reprogram it in themselves, and especially if they have had access to privilege. It is therefore important for mission-based writing to explicitly describe the systems that shape people’s lives. In addition to helping organizations address the barriers caused by these systems, this makes a critical difference to readers in the following three ways:

1. It Helps Shift Culture to Address Systemic Injustice

One of the first steps for addressing systemic injustice is to get it out in the open and develop a culture where we all explicitly acknowledge and talk about it. That means making a regular practice of intentionally countering the dominant individualistic paradigm. The more of us do this, and the more often we do it, the more thoroughly we will reprogram our own thinking, help others reprogram theirs, and influence others to continue explicitly contextualizing people’s lives within systems of oppression or privilege. Helping to make this thinking common practice helps shift US culture to a more accurate view that factors in both what is in an individual’s control and what is not. This culture change is necessary for both addressing the harms of injustice and ultimately eliminating it, and we are all responsible for being part of this change.

2. It Helps Shift Culture to Stop Blaming People for the Impacts of their Oppression

Describing life context fosters compassion by enabling people to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes and not judge them. For example, many people would judge a woman described as a high school dropout who has not been able to hold down a job, has three children by three different men who are not helping at all, and is struggling to get by on Welfare. But what if they knew that her mother struggled with addiction and due to racial bias, was sent to jail instead of rehab, and she was placed in foster care, where she was never left in the same place more than a few months before being moved again, so she developed a “tough girl” persona, and her life was peppered with racist microaggressions from foster parents, teachers, and social workers who didn’t think she’d amount to much? It’s no surprise then that she wasn’t motivated in school, and her need to be accepted, coupled with her lack of access to birth control, led to pregnancy by the age of 14. Stories like this are not uncommon, and once we unpack all the oppression so many people are up against, we can eradicate the trend of blaming them and instead admire their resilience, offer them support, and work to change the systems that are truly to blame for their situations.

3. It Portrays the Context and Impact of Your Work

Showing what the people you work with are up against makes the importance and difficulty of your work crystal clear, and it shows how deeply people can improve their lives by participating in your programming, or what a deep difference the systemic changes you strive for or achieve will make.

This draws donors and funders to support you and makes constituents feel more comfortable receiving your help, since they know you won’t blame them or look down on them in pity. It also helps donors and funders adjust their expectations. For instance, it could show them that if you are working with people struggling for survival amidst oppression, you cannot be expected to quickly solve all of their problems or mold them all into organizing leaders – but what you can do is invaluable.

Stand Out Amongst Similar Groups –
Without Making Them Look Bad

You want to show how positively your work stands out among similar groups, but it can be hard to do that without making someone else look bad. It can seem like you have to choose between saying something negative about another, or avoiding the real truth and not getting to show something positive about your organization. Revealing this positive aspect of your organization might make all the difference in getting the clients, customers, participants, donations, or grants you are seeking. It may be absolutely necessary to describe how you compare favorably with others, so your reader knows to choose you amongst all of the options. Yet if you make someone else look bad, then instead of readers seeing your excellence in comparison, they might just see you as having a negative attitude, at best, or as downright vain, gossipy, and mean, at worst. So how do you make yourself look good without making anyone else look bad?

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Writing with Confidence that’s Contagious to Your Reader

How confident should mission-based writing be? You need to make your reader feel confident in your work and in you, even when you may be writing about things you are unsure of, like what you can do with funding you’re not at all sure you will be awarded. How do you balance your fear of over-promising with the need to promise enough to entice participation and support? Does it sound like vain assumption to write like you are sure your work will be funded, or does it sound insecure to write like you’re not sure? If you come off either too insecure or too vain, then no matter how well you demonstrate the merits of your work, you will turn people off and won’t be successful.

Let’s start by thinking about what it looks like to write too humbly. How many words or phrases do you see in the example below that express uncertainty?

Birch Park is just a small wildlife refuge with a few educational programs, but we believe that if you decide to fund us, we should be able to maintain our paths and clean up litter every week or so. We will also try to start keeping records of some of the species in the park, so that we might be able to tell if their populations decline, and then see if we can help them.

Click to page 2 below to see the answer and keep reading the article.

How Do You Want Your Readers to Feel?
The 4 C’s

To be successful in your mission-based writing, you must carefully consider how you want your readers to feel. Most of the time, you are aiming to elicit four different responses simultaneously, which I call the four C’s. Miss any one of them, and you will not get the results you want.

How You Want to Make Readers Feel: the 4 C’s
  • Concerned about the problem
  • Compassionate toward the constituents (including themselves, if you are trying to engage them in services)
  • Confident in your ability to address the problem
  • Captivated by your story of real or potential impact, so they will remember you


A helpful exercise is to take a piece of writing and assess how well it addresses the 4 C’s.

Here is an example from a need statement that has major problems with all 4 C’s:

There is little that can be done to stop the arts from disappearing from schools, and economically disadvantaged families usually cannot afford the time or money to go to museums, performances, or art classes. Many low income people do not appreciate the arts, so it is a challenge to fill our programs. Those who do attend usually come only once. Still, Silver Arts Center continues to offer exhibits, performances, and art classes, hoping that through us, at least some of the urban underprivileged will become involved in the arts.

How Does it Address the 4 C’s?
  • Concerned: The passage talks about the arts disappearing without discussing the value of what is dying out. It depicts people with low incomes as not being interested in the arts and does not show how they are missing out on something that would be of value to them. The issue also sounds more depressing than concerning. When concerned, people are motivated to want a solution to a problem; when depressed, we just feel down about it. This passage makes the situation appear so hopeless that the reader just wants to move on to something else and not think about this seemingly unsolvable problem.
  • Compassionate: The passage paints the constituents as ignorant, unappreciative, uncultured, and inferior to those working at the arts center. This judgmental attitude blocks compassion for the constituents – or leads readers to feel compassion for their plight in having to deal with such a judgmental, superior nonprofit, rather than feeling compassion for their lack of access to the arts.
  • Confident: While the passage shows the nonprofit’s superior attitude, it does not make the reader feel at all confident in the organization’s ability to do their work. On the contrary, the classicism it exhibits shows a huge obstacles to successful engagement of the constituents. It also explicitly states that the arts center has trouble filling their programs and getting repeat attendees, and the reader suspects this may have more to do with the organization’s classicism than with the constituents’ lack of appreciation for the arts.
  • Captivated: Far from being captivated by this organization’s story or impact, the reader is left either wanting to forget what was written, or remembering it only because its classicism sparks a sense of righteous indignation against the organization.


In contrast, here is an example that describes the same arts center using the four C’s:

Our schools are giving away their pianos and replacing their walls of student watercolors with walls of standardized test scores. The arts are being erased from schools, and families with low incomes have difficulty affording museums, performances, or art classes. People struggling to make a living without access to the arts often do not even have a chance to learn the value creative pursuits could add to their lives. At Silver Arts Center, we believe that creative expression is a vital part of human life and should be available to all, so we offer free exhibits, performances, and art classes in the bustling heart of downtown. We highlight local talent and locally relevant topics, stimulating the art lover – and the artist – innate in each person.


How Does it Address the 4 C’s?
  • Concerned: The passage discusses the value of the arts and paints a picture of what it means for students and adults with low incomes to live without them. It makes the problem sound solvable through the organization’s work.
  • Compassionate: The passage describes the constituents in a way that anyone could relate to; instead of judging them for not appreciating the arts, it shows how their circumstances prevent them from even getting to see what they are missing. It paints the constituents as no different than the writer or the reader, except for their situation. It affirms the artist in every person and makes the reader feel for constituents and want them to have access to the arts.
  • Confident: The passage makes the arts center sound like they are part of the community, responsive to the community’s needs, and genuinely appreciative of and connected to the people they serve.
  • Captivated: The organization sounds inspiring and warm. The passage makes the reader imagine how the arts center must be filled with struggling people who have found that its classes uplift them and transform their lives through enabling them to discover the joy of creating art.


While these examples are extreme, you may find on examination that your writing is strong on two or three of the C’s, but omits or is weak on the other one or two. Make sure it is strong in all four, and your readers will respond.

Mission-Based Writing as Creative Writing

Many people see grant writing and copywriting as necessarily dry and boring, but they’re actually most effective if you use your creative writing skills. The more you can bring your work to life, the more persuasive and memorable your writing will be. And one of the best ways to bring your work to life is to use sensory language that makes readers imagine what it looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels like.

Here’s an example of a purely factual description:

Suzie’s House provides beds, meals, and fun activities for youth experiencing homelessness. We have adult mentors facilitate the group activities, and the youth and mentors cook and eat all meals together. We even have a foosball table.

And here’s another description that’s about the same length, but feels completely different:

Suzie’s House finds youth sleeping on hard park benches in the cold, and brings them inside for cozy beds, foosball, and laughter. Youth and adult mentors connect while cooking and eating favorite meals together, such as pizza and spaghetti.


Try looking at your writing and thinking of where you can add sensory details that will make your readers imagine the challenges you address, how wonderful it feels to participate in your work, and how much better life can be afterward.


How to Bring Your Work to Life with Participants’ Stories

Whether you are seeking new clients, participants, donors, funders, or volunteers, you need your writing to bring your work vividly to life so they will imagine what it is like and want to receive it or help you provide it. Quotations and stories are the best way to illustrate what your work truly feels like to real people … but only if you use them effectively.

The last Flight Log explored what makes a quotation strong, how to fit them when you have very little space to work with, and how to collect good ones. Now let’s talk about how to effectively use participant stories.

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How to Bring Your Work to Life with Participants’ Words

You need potential participants or clients to see why they should jump up and run to you, and you need potential donors and funders to see why they should give as much as they can. You can describe all of the benefits in perfect detail, but that won’t make readers imagine what it feels like to receive them. So what will?

Quotations! Never underestimate the power of a real person’s words. Direct quotations from participants bring in human voices that the reader can hear and can’t help relating to, voices that sound like people they know.

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How to Organize Your Writing: Quick Tips
that Illustrate Their Own Points

Most people probably don’t think very deeply about this topic, but the choice you make will affect your readers’ experience of your writing. Whether you want to organize complex items or emphasize simple ones, and whether you want your reader to pay attention to every one of a long list of items or to compound them all together, your choice of when and how to use lists will either aid or thwart the impression you actually want to make. The following quick guide includes a bullet list to describe when you might want to use a list, a numbered list to illustrate when you might want to use a bullet or numbered list, a sentence-form list to explore when you might want to use one of those, and a non-list paragraph to discuss when you might be best off not using a list at all.

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Be Concise and Show All
the Positive Impact You Make

You want all of the people who benefit from or assist work – or who might do either one – to understand the full positive impact of all you do. It is crucial to quickly and effectively impart this understanding to your actual and potential clients, constituents, referral sources, staff, volunteers, donors, funders, investors, and promoters. If they all know how great the work is, you will get more and better suited recipients, more and better quality volunteer and staff work, more and larger financial and in-kind contributions, and more and better quality promotion.

Yet all too often nonprofits and mission-based businesses express only the most basic and obvious ways that they make a difference, and don’t paint a vivid picture of the depth and breadth of benefit they provide. Frequently this omission is in the name of conciseness, yet it is possible to concisely describe each level of impact, and it is very worth the space, for it may be the most powerful way to inspire people to come receive or give as much as they can. A concise bullet or numbered list of every level of impact is an excellent piece to use in websites, brochures, donor solicitation letters, social media posts, grant proposals, and more. It is quick and easy to read, and the list format emphasizes that there are many levels of positive impact that people might not immediately see.

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