GrantsMagic U

The Best Grant Proposal Advice I Ever Got: 4 Words That Changed Everything

Catch a grumpy grantmaker at the end of a tough week and you never know what you’ll learn. Years ago, a four-word plea from a beleaguered Federal program officer changed how I thought about grantwriting … for good. It can do the same for you!


One Friday afternoon not too far into my grantwriting career (we’re talking pre-Internet), I was plugging away at a Federal proposal for my municipal social services agency. After scouring all the fine-print how-to-apply detail posted in the lengthy Federal Register notice, I realized there were still three specific questions about the proposal requirements that needed clarification before I could move forward.

Now I may still have been new to this grants thing. But already I’d learned that, when it comes to clarifying funder-specific questions about writing and submitting a successful proposal, there are a few things that definitely do not work:

  • Second-guessing what the funder means or wants; or
  • Assuming anything about what the funder means or wants; or
  • Trying to figure out on your own what the funder means or wants; or
  • Asking the person in the next cubicle what they think the funder means or wants; or
  • Deciding to just ignore the whole thing.

In fact, the only reliable way to get the information you need is to contact the funder/grantmaker/program officer directly – and ask. (See 3 Things I’m Glad I Didn’t Know Before Writing – and Winning! – My First Grant.)

A late-Friday afternoon phone call

So I dug up the name and phone number of the Federal program contact in Washington, DC (let’s call him Frank Ruiz) and placed a call. As soon as the phone rang I realized it was already 4:30 on the East Coast – on a Friday afternoon. Too late to reach anyone, I thought, and was about to hang up, when I heard a brusque but not unfriendly “Frank Ruiz here.”

A little startled, I introduced myself, told him the organization I represented, and explained I had three specific questions about the program guidelines. Could he spare a few minutes?

Yes, but he was just heading out the door for the weekend so I’d have to make it quick.

I put my questions to him and he gave me the details I needed. I thanked him for his time and was about to hang up when he said, “Hold on, before you go – I want you to do something for me.”

He heaved a deep sigh – of frustration, it sounded like.

Uh-oh, I thought. What …? Why …?

He said: “I’ve just spent the last three days plowing through proposal … after proposal … proposal for another one of our funding programs. And I’m tired. Just … tired.”

He sighed again. “Please – for the sake of all that’s true and good – please do not send me yet another deadly … dull … boring … dry-as-dust proposal. Please –“

And then came the words that changed my grants life forever:

“Please, I beg you – make your proposal sing.”

I sputtered: “What … I’m not sure I … how …?” but he broke in, “Sorry, gotta go.” And before I could say another word he’d hung up, leaving his heartfelt (one might even say tortured) plea ringing in my ears.

Make your proposal sing

I couldn’t know it at the time, but in that brief late Friday afternoon phone call, Mr. Frank Ruiz, hard-working Federal program officer, gave me what I’ve come to think of as the greatest gift a dedicated grantseeker can ever receive:

A behind-the-scenes peek into the real world of the Real Grantmaker.

(At GrantsMagic U we call this The Grantmaker’s Black Box – that mysterious place where proposals disappear after we push “submit,” where they languish for days, weeks, months, sometimes even forever – before (hopefully) emerging on the other side with a “Funded” or “Not Funded” notification.)

The gift Mr. Ruiz gave me that day was twofold:

  • First, I got to see that the people Inside the Grantmaker’s Black Box – the review team members, the program officers, the grantmaking decision-makers – are real, living, breathing human beings just like the rest of us. They struggle. They work hard. They get bored and tired. They love doing what they do. They love leaving for the weekend. They want to do a good job.

After that conversation with Mr. Ruiz, I never doubted or questioned that Real Grantmakers are real people too. So I’ve never been scared of or intimidated by folks on the grantmaking side. That natural, unquestioned understanding served me well over my grantseeking years. And since joining the ranks of grantmaking program officers myself in 2005, I’ve taken it on as a personal mission to stand as the friendly, natural, helpful, sometimes goofy, sometimes grumpy, always-real-person face of the Real Grantmaker, to help others (like you?) see that you don’t need to be scared or intimidated by us either.

  • And second, those four memorable words – Make your proposal sing – became my core mantra for every grant proposal I ever wrote going forward – $42 million worth, in fact, over the next 10 years. For me, those words told me the most important thing I needed to know about what “real life” is like for Real Grantmakers.

Ready? Here it is:

Real Grantmakers not only want to do a good job, they want to do a good job without working harder than they need to.

Just like the rest of us.

Thank you, Mr. Frank Ruiz

Mr. Ruiz’s message was that deadly dull, boring, dry-as-dust proposals make Real Grantmakers work too hard.  They make Real Grantmakers tired, frustrated, even grumpy. His message – encoded in the words Make your proposal sing – was a plea for us as grantseekers to bring our proposals to life.

To make our ideas come alive on the page.

To show real people working on real solutions to real challenges.

To give our carefully crafted plans shape and reality and substance in the minds of the readers, reviewers, decision-makers.

To back our proposals up with stories as well as statistics.

To use language that’s clear and vivid.

To infuse our words with energy, enthusiasm, excitement.

In other words, to make it as easy as possible for the hard-working Real Grantmaker to fall in love with our proposal – and say an enthusiastic and unequivocal “Yes!”

Which happens, my friend, to be exactly the response I wish for your proposals.

Thank you, Mr. Frank Ruiz – and happy grantseeking!


Want to learn exactly how to write so your proposals always “sing”? There’s a whole toolbox full of tips and hacks you can put to work right away in our five-star mini-course, Power Writing for Grants – and More: Fast and Easy Tools for Writing that Gets the Results You Want! (Use the coupon code PW7 to enroll for just $7 – a saving of $30.) For more great grants tips and training from GrantsMagic U, please visit us at And as always, we love it when you share!



  1. Mark Haberman on March 19, 2019 at 8:01 am

    I very much appreciate this article, thank you! It makes absolute sense and, as a professional musician for more than forty years, I wholeheartedly understand the metaphor. Thanks again!

  2. Mickey Lofgren on March 19, 2019 at 9:03 am

    Thank you, Maryn… That is a great idea… I have always felt the grantmakers wanted the grants dry and to the point without embellishments. I am interested to see what your suggestions are.

  3. Craig Perbeck on March 19, 2019 at 9:33 am

    Love this idea and approach. In the past I was part of a team that reviewed grant requests for non-profits requesting local government funding. Some where short and incomplete others very long and incomplete. We all loved the short, to the point and as you said made the proposal sing. One would think reading over good and bad grant requests would help me but it is a different story when you are the one writing the book.

  4. Lisa Pearce on March 21, 2019 at 6:18 am

    Thank you, Maryn for the encouragement and good advice. Often, I think we get caught up in the vocabulary and technical terms that must be mind-numbing to repetitively read.

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