The quick guide to effective & easy proposals.
A winning structure, positioning best practices & other pro tips for social ventures to improve close rates
KEVIN L. BROWN
A proposal is the single most critical tool in your sales or fundraising funnel. A pitch deck simply starts the conversation.
Better yet, with good positioning, you don’t need a pitch deck at all. Because a strong brand, compelling thought leadership, and personal referrals allow you to command the high ground with buyers and funders before you even meet.
So why do we spend the most precious time on top-of-the-funnel sales materials, like PowerPoints and annual reports?
For NGOs submitting a grant application or social enterprises seeking a big sale, a proposal meets the moment when the prospect says yes or no. You can close many deals without a deck, but rarely without a proposal.
Then why are we guilty of last-minute, all-nighter application submissions? Digging through old emails to find the latest proposal version, and copying/pasting legacy content? Or worse, tasking an intern with Googling the best template?
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
This month, we’ve been working with an international impact investor to help dozens of their grant seekers position their applications. Game-changing COVID-19 emergency funding is on the table. And we have to say, it’s been a mix of pleasure and pain. So many incredible changemakers doing incredible grassroots work. But many incredibly weak proposals.
The good news is that proposals can be effective and easy. There’s a formula and best practices do exist. This stuff has been studied and proven. So it’s time to develop your playbook, and master this art and science.
“When we look back at the proposals we have written and we consider the income we have won, we can easily conclude that it was rarely the written document that secured the business.”
WIN WITHOUT PITCHING MANIFESTO
First, what is a proposal?
A proposal is a sales tool, not an information packet. It should be the result of numerous discussions with the prospective funder or buyer. Meaning, there should be no surprises — either with money or the strategy you’re suggesting. Instead, it should be seen as a written review of your conversations.
Here’s a great maxim to follow: the proposal is the words that come out of your mouth. The document is the contract. The paper is the place to sign, not the place for convincing.
In other words, a great proposal by itself seldom wins a deal, but a bad proposal can definitely lose one.
And don’t forget: a proposal should represent an offer to solve an important problem, made between relative equals. The funder or buyer might be a lot bigger than your organization, but they’re the ones with a problem (even if the ‘problem’ is too much money to give away!). You’re the one with the solution. So it’s balanced, even with investors.
The NOSE structure.
Years ago, our own proposals were radically shifted through the teachings of Tom Sant in Persuasive Business Proposals. If you’re a nonprofit, don’t let the title fool you — funders are still buyers and you’re still a business. So this advice applies to all.
According to Sant, there are common ‘exits’ that avoid the hard work of writing a buyer-centered, persuasive proposal. Like the data dump (information overload). Talking about what we know and love the most. And burying the deal (selling small easy ones instead of the big push).
And he highlights the seven deadly sins of proposal writing:
1. No focus on the buyer’s problems and payoff.
2. No persuasive structure — the proposal is an ‘information dump.’
3. No clear differentiation of you compared to others.
4. No compelling value proposition.
5. No impact, no highlighting — key points are buried.
6. Overuse of jargon, too long, or too technical.
7. No credibility — misspellings and mistakes.
Information doesn’t create momentum towards a decision. Persuasion does. So what is the proposal structure that overcomes these deadly sins? Sant guides that the most effective pattern for persuasion can be remembered with the acronym NOSE.
“Focus on their pain to get their attention. Focus on their gain to get their commitment.”
TOM SANT, PERSUASIVE BUSINESS PROPOSALS
First, show that you understand the buyer’s business and their key issues or problems. Keep this first part all about your prospect — never lead with your organization. Another way to think of this section is ‘the situation’.
Second, focus on the results your buyer or funder wants to achieve. Paint a picture of their desired future state (or that of the community you serve). But don’t yet prescribe exact recommendations. This can also be called ‘the opportunity’.
Third, highlight a solution that will solve the problems and deliver the results. You can title this something like ‘products and programs.’ And include in this section budget and deliverable options (more on that below).
And finally, provide proof you can deliver that solution on time and on budget. Some proposals call this section ‘our model.’ Here, you include a bit more about your mission, experience or case studies, impact, and testimonials. This is the only place you’re talking about yourself — everything else above is about them.
That’s it. Four sections to a proposal. A page per section is plenty. Nobody has time to read 30 pages. It’s better to send 1–2 pages of targeted text than scramble together 5–10 pages of general bla-bla.
Per Sant’s survey of thousands of proposal evaluators, the #1 answer to what they hate is “proposals that are too wordy.” In a real-world experiment with a table full of documents, every single evaluator reached for the smallest proposal first.
It’s worth repeating, a proposal is a summary of your conversation. Not the place to be convincing.
Proposal positioning best practices.
Show that you know your own company, competitors, collaborators & customers.
Say what makes you unique. These factors should be authentic, provable & important to constituents.
Narrow your products/programs & target audiences. Anything is possible, but everything is not.
Make the need more about those you serve than about yourself. Tell how this income will impact your communities.
Highlight your history, leadership, partners, evidence of impact & financial rigor. Make the buyer feel confident.
Paint a bright picture of your org’s future. People like betting on winners.
BREVITY & ACCURACY
Pro tips and bonus points.
If you master the NOSE structure and positioning best practices above, your proposals will improve tremendously. As will your close rates. But if you want the cherry-on-top pro tips, read on.
Always review the proposal with the prospective buyer or funder. Don’t just send it over email and hope for a response. Instead, state that it’s a requirement: when a buyer requests a proposal, schedule a meeting to review the information. If she can’t commit to this, you shouldn’t spend your time crafting this document.
Share your successes through the writing. But avoid placing your own awesomeness at the heart of the proposal. Instead, show off how well your organization understands your buyer’s needs. Invest more word count into them and your beneficiaries than yourself. Count the number of times your company’s name appears. It ought to be a 3:1 ratio in favor of the buyer and community you serve.
Too often the buyer asks, “What time is it?” Please do not respond with how to build a watch. Instead, explain how good their life will be when they show up to places on time.
Use plain language. Write the way you speak. Avoid jargon. Let yourself connect with your reader the same way you would if you were face-to-face. Relax. Go on a word diet. A confused mind always says no.
When you’re delivering a donor proposal or customer quote, always give three options. Because three options increase your win rate from 50% to 75%. And don’t forget to anchor high — you’ll increase revenue by at least 20%.
The proposal’s appearance can be as important as content. Make it look good.
And finally, if you’re a larger organization with many contributors and proposal versions, it might be time to invest in a tech solution. If collaborating via Google Docs just won’t cut it, consider tools like Proposify or PandaDoc to streamline the workflow.
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