The Key to a Compelling Proposal? Writing That’s Clear, Concise, and Complete


Member Interview with Martha Carlson-Bradley

The Key to a Compelling Proposal?

One way GrantStation aims to help organizations is by gathering their insights on grantseeking. Martha Carlson-Bradley is from Strawbery Banke Museum, which has been a Member since 2012. She spoke to us about her path as a grantwriter and the key to writing a compelling proposal.

David: Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts about and passion for your work when you reached out to renew your Membership. I’d like to learn more about your museum.

Martha: I feel extraordinarily fortunate to work at Strawbery Banke Museum! This is a living-history museum in Portsmouth, NH, that preserves Puddle Dock, an entire seaport neighborhood that was first settled by Europeans in 1630. The grounds include 32 historic buildings, and more than 100,000 visitors come to the Museum each year. It preserves and interprets local history from the 1600s through 1954. One of the houses on the tour represents, for example, an 18th-century shop, while another is a Victorian-era mansion, another the 1919 home of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, yet another a 1943 home and corner store, and so on. A 2019 pilot program, People of the Dawnland, has allowed the Museum to interpret life on this site much earlier than 1630, as experienced by the Wabanaki and Abenaki peoples.

In addition to self-guided tours facilitated by interpreters and role players, the Museum offers educational programs for adults and children, school programs, and summer camps.  Our History Within Reach program provides scholarships that enables economically underserved K-12 schools to send their students to the Museum for workshops: both admission and transportation costs are covered.

Every winter, the Museum offers ice skating at the LaBrie Family Skate, and we partner with Northeast Passage to offer accessible skating to people with physical disabilities.

The Museum also hosts its own special events, such as a Fourth of July naturalization ceremony for new citizens, and community events like the city PRIDE festival. As you can see, I have many projects to write grants for!

David: You certainly do! How did you get started in grantseeking?

Martha: Although I have a few degrees, including a PhD in English, none of my formal education was in grants or nonprofit work. I became a grantwriter as an apprentice, on the job.

David: That’s true for many of our Members. How did you learn?

Martha: I first wrote grants when I worked with Patty Scholz-Cohen at the New Hampshire Writers’ Project several years ago. As a mentor, she encouraged me to set high standards, which have served me and the organizations I’ve worked for well.

David: It’s great to have a mentor when getting started with this work. What did you learn from her?

Martha: Patty was director of the entire organization, but we had a tiny staff, so she was very hands-on. I read through several drafts of previous proposals, especially successful ones, to learn how they were put together. Patty and I would discuss the current needs of the organization, and then I would research which foundations were most likely to fund that kind of project. I would read through Patty’s proposals and make suggestions, since I had previous editing experience, and I also drafted proposals. Her example of truthfulness and transparency inspired me to make sure I had my facts straight in all my proposals. Our efforts were all about genuinely having a worthwhile project that needed support from a foundation invested in the kind of work we did, rather than simply “sounding like” the project was worthwhile or a good match for the foundation.

David: Those are fantastic values to get early on in the process. What else did you learn while you were there?

Martha: I learned to use the research chops I first acquired in graduate school to find potential grantors and analyze their giving habits, as revealed, for example, in their 990s. Over the years, I also volunteered to write or edit grant applications for the Fuller Public Library in Hillsborough, NH. We received grants from the NH Humanities Council as well as the American Library Association and the Modern Poetry Association.

As a creative writer, I’ve received grants and fellowships and then have been invited to review applications in subsequent years. These were wonderful opportunities to view proposals from the other side of the table.

David: Reviewing applications is a great way to learn what good looks like, and the opposite as well. What did you glean from that experience?

Martha: It reinforced for me how a foundation’s mission is of paramount importance in determining how money is awarded. As an applicant, you can write a wonderful proposal, but if your project doesn’t match the foundation’s mission, you’re not going to be successful. Doing preliminary research on potential grantors is an important way not to waste your time. When you read the mission of a foundation and the purpose of a specific grant, you should have that click of recognition that this is a perfect opportunity for the project you’re hoping to fund. You shouldn’t have just a “well, this is pretty close” reaction.

David: Indeed, you don’t want to just throw darts at grantmakers. You need to find a real match.

Paying attention to the foundation’s mission also gives you a better track record as a grantwriter, because you’re more likely to succeed if you choose your opportunities wisely. -Martha Carlson-Bradley

Martha: Paying attention to the foundation’s mission also gives you a better track record as a grantwriter, because you’re more likely to succeed if you choose your opportunities wisely.

David: Can you tell me about some of the grants you have received for the Museum?

Martha: Two private foundations gave us support for the restoration and rehabilitation of Penhallow House, which is a c. 1750 house that will be interpreted as the 1950s home of Kenneth Richardson, an entrepreneur and the first African American supervisor at the nearby Portsmouth Navy Shipyard -- his story will add more diversity and accuracy to the history that the Museum interprets.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded us a grant to create an immersive exhibit in the Captain Walsh House, with reproductions so that visitors can touch and completely explore all furnishings and household goods of the sea captain’s family in 1802. I did format and electronically submit that application, though most of it was written by a hired consultant. I'm in the process now of learning how to request advances of funds and online reporting for a government agency.

The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation gave us a generous grant for operating funds to support our strategic plan over the next three years.

David: Ah, operating funds – the holy grail of grantseeking! How did you secure that?

Martha: Well, to be honest, I didn’t write a successful concept paper the first time I tried, which was very disappointing. I took advantage of the offer to have a phone conversation with the grant administrator, who kindly let me know that the section I included on the strategic plan didn’t align exactly with the specific goals I had listed for the three-year grant period. Because this kind of grant is so competitive, that’s all it took not to make it to the next round. So this past year, I started planning for this grant well in advance of the deadline. I sat down with our Director of Development and President to put together a list of the top strategic-plan goals that would be a priority over the next three years. Then I made sure that the concept-paper objectives were a clear match with the strategic plan. I think I may have worked longer on the concept paper than on the full proposal! But, of course, putting all that time into clarifying our priorities and objectives made it easier to write the proposal.

David: Exactly. When we have extremely effective building blocks for our proposal, it comes together quickly and naturally. Sounds like lessons were learned in the process with this grantmaker.

Martha: Yes, including taking advantage of any offers of help that come from a foundation. If foundation staff offer to read your initial draft before you submit the proposal, take them up on their offer. If a foundation offers to give you feedback on why your proposal was declined, make that phone call. Sometimes the problem will be a flaw in your proposal writing, but other times you’ll discover that a foundation has a particular focus or preference you weren’t aware of. So you can then decide if the foundation simply isn’t a good match for what your organization does or if a different project would be a better choice the next time you apply. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. Grantors want to see successful proposals, and if they offer help, they genuinely want to give you guidance.

David: And even if they don’t offer, there’s no harm in asking them for the feedback! What other grants have you received?

Martha: A private foundation gave us support for a sea-level rise exhibit, which will be launched in the spring of 2020.

David: That sounds interesting and timely. Tell me more.

Martha: Sea-level rise is an issue for many historic cities and institutions on the East Coast, since so many early European settlers established communities near rivers and the ocean. This exhibit is a first step toward a more comprehensive strategy to cope with flooding and rising ground water at the Museum.

A key part of the exhibit will help visitors learn about the issue through virtual reality – water levels in the past, present, and future – and share how their own communities are experiencing sea-level rise. Our facilities team did extensive research on virtual reality technical equipment and additional kinds of presentations that will share extensive information in a graphic, accessible way. The budget that our intern Mark Kaplan created was a thing of beauty: He described the purpose of each piece of equipment, gave its unit price, and the number of units the exhibit would need.

David: Wow, the power of a compelling budget.

Martha: It was so detailed that you almost didn’t need to read the proposal! Another important aspect of the exhibit is that the University of New Hampshire installed sensors at the Museum site and surrounding area to measure rising sea and ground water. So the Museum’s exhibit will have live data from the sensors, and this same data will be shared with the City of Portsmouth and the State of New Hampshire to guide adaptation strategies. It will be a true collaboration across the region. We are grateful to the Roger R. and Theresa S. Thompson Endowment Fund for supporting the exhibit. I’m also actively researching additional foundations for the next phase of the initiative.

David: Since you have such extensive experience in writing, could you share some advice? We try to tell Members that they don’t have to have a degree in English to be successful, and yet you do!

Martha: I’ve taught composition, business writing, and copyediting on the college level. What they all have in common is an emphasis on language that is clear, concise, and complete. Our President is great at reminding me to be concise, particularly by not repeating myself! As long as you’re backing up your proposal with facts and details, it’s almost impossible to be too direct. Being clear is much more important than “sounding smart.”  Yes, it’s good to use the jargon or buzzwords of the field occasionally, to show that you are up to date on recent trends and research, but repeating buzzwords alone doesn’t make a compelling proposal.

David: Clarity is key, especially when grantmakers are reading many proposals, and you don’t want their eyes to glaze over.

Martha: Exactly. All our old English-class lessons on being less wordy are helpful in writing proposals. Cutting back on wordiness allows essential ideas and facts to stand out clearly. Conciseness also helps you stay within word limits, the bugaboo of grantwriters everywhere. If you need a refresher course on writing well, many universities have online writing centers for their students that are accessible to the public. Here’s advice on writing concisely from the writing center at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill:

Here’s one of my favorite ways to reduce bureaucratic language. Look through your proposal for any form of “be” + abstract adjective + “of the fact that.” When you find this construction, transform the adjective into its verb form: “These results are illustrative of the fact that” becomes “These results illustrate that.” Or “High attendance is suggestive of the fact that” becomes “High attendance suggests that.” Not only are the revisions more concise, but they also sound more confident.

David: I’ve been guilty of writing the “before” version! With those tight word counts on applications, we just can’t afford such flowery language, and like you said, it’s not as compelling. What are some of your other practices?

Martha: Something that creative writers do all the time is to imagine other people’s points of view: what is important to characters and what motivates them to act? This is a skill you can use in grantwriting. Instead of fictional characters, imagine the people on the foundation review panel and what they’re really looking for to be sure that every dollar of grant funding is put to the best use. What do they want to fund? A compelling, achievable project. Impact on a group of people they care about. A realistic, detailed budget.

What do they want to fund?
A compelling, achievable project. -Martha Carlson-Bradley

I also try to put a human face to the data. For example, Bekki Coppola, who directs our History Within Reach program, can provide me with the numbers of students who participated in the program in any given year and their scores in pre- and post-testing. But a potential grantor should also know that many of these children have never been on a school trip, never been to a museum, and sometimes never traveled beyond their hometowns before going on this school trip. In proposals I often quote a child’s response to the trip, and in grant reports I include copies of thank-you notes from these students.

David: That is such a great way to convey the emotional impact of the work that you do, which sounds very compelling. Thank you for telling us about it and sharing all of your effective practices!


Martha Carlson-Bradley has been writing grants for twenty years for cultural nonprofits, including the New Hampshire Writers’ Project and, currently, Strawbery Banke Museum. She has also served on review panels for the American Antiquarian Society and the Maine Arts Commission. In addition to writing grants, she’s an editor of fiction and creative nonfiction, and a published poet.