The Covenant at Sinai and Greek Rhetoric – A Proposal Writer’s Credo

by Geoffrey Clarfield (August 2013)

I am a development anthropologist and project manager who has spent much of his professional life writing and implementing fundable research and development proposals. From this experience I have developed what I have come to call “A Proposal Writer’s Credo” which describes how and with whom I work. Having read numerous books and articles on this topic I have yet to come across anything as simple and direct as what I am about to describe in this short piece. For those who write proposals, or who are considering writing one, I hope that this credo will help you succeed in your task.

Fundable project proposals are acts of persuasion. In that capacity they are as ancient as Greek rhetoric. If you read Herodotus or Thucydides you will hear of the assembled citizens of Athens listening to, accepting and rejecting proposals (as often as not about war and peace). Today a fundable proposal is a well-written document that a writer and a team prepare interactively. It is used to persuade a donor to give your project money. Proposals have a standard format that include a statement of need, how this need will be addressed by the project, why the project may be unique, how it will be carried out, by whom and with what resources and, how and what kind of results can be expected from its successful implementation. This is a necessary but not sufficient part of proposal development, for successful proposals are more than that.

Successful proposals are reflections of insightful social or technical analysis.

Given the optimism and hope that permeates North American societies (because Canada and the United States are liberal democracies based on Athenian and Biblical principles) there are never enough resources to support all the projects that could and should be funded in order to make the world a better place. It is therefore necessary to make sure that your proposal looks at both the problem and the solution that it tries to solve, in a creative and unique way.

Creativity means thinking outside of the box. The Maltese thinker Edward De Bono has made a career out of teaching people how to think outside of the box, what he calls “Lateral Thinking.” Lateral thinking draws on right brain experience, insight and intuition. Writers, musicians, dancers, painters and filmmakers all think with the right side of their brain.

I develop proposals by using the right side of the brain and triggering my colleagues’ and clients’ creativity through the establishment of a non-critical working environment that encourages experimentation and that does not punish “mistakes.” Given the competition, deadlines and anxieties that are inevitably part and parcel of the proposal development process it is easy to become negative, to put down other peoples’ ideas, to scold them or belittle them or even threaten their jobs, especially when you feel that you are at a dead end. Threats, aggression, impossible demands and expectations (as well as the kind of negative nitpicking which takes the “wind out of your sails” ) are often the result of unclear thinking and emotional frustration, or to put it simply, they are the responses to fear – the fear of failure. Success depends on open communication, letting those creative juices flow and a gentle parent or spouse like encouragement that is more effective than even the most “constructive “ criticism. “Suggestions” are a better translation for this oxymoron.

All of this is essential to the process of proposal development for though the end result is a linear and logical proposal, the way to get there is almost never linear. One must create one’s own fellowship and partners and allow everyone to take advantage of the associative thoughts that both plague and bless the creative process.

Proposals mean speaking as well as writing (again think of those ancient Athenians arguing in the agora). Donors will rarely approve a proposal on its written merit alone. This is when the proposal becomes the basis for a conversation. These conversations can include formal verbal presentations to the donor, informal exchanges or revisions of “your” proposal based on “their” input. This is when you get to listen to the donor to make sure you agree on the proposal that they will fund.  Do not neglect that neglected art, informed conversation and dialogue with your donor. It started in ancient Athens and despite indications to the contrary, it will not go away.

Proposals are contracts or covenants and so they also imply management plans. In this respect their origins lie in the ancient contracts of Mesopotamia and which provided the model for that improved and long lasting covenant, the one God gave the children of Israel in the Desert of the Exodus and is the underlying principle of Western contract law. Bearing this mind proposals are not only a legal trust but also a sacred trust and must be designed with the highest ethical standards in mind. This does not mean that you should promise the moon. On the contrary, proposals must be restricted to do what is humanly possible. We are not Gods and the proposal should remind us of the very human nature of what it is we are trying to carry out.

Not all proposals can be implemented and there is much “routinized failure” in the proposal world where unconsciously, people (often in large organizations) develop proposals or send out RFPs (request for proposals) knowing full well that they cannot be implemented but, knowing full well that they can then eventually blame whoever takes them on for not doing so. In that sense they follow the archetype of the hero’s impossible journey and inevitably imitate one of those ancient Greek inventions, tragedy – for there is something tragic about trying to solve a social problem with a plan that is bound to fail. It reminds one of Odysseus’ doomed voyage. The project manager may survive to tell the tale, but the people hired to implement it will have fallen by the wayside.

Proposals are a combination of art and science, but above all, they are a contract and contain an embryonic management plan. They are more like a covenant in that they are based on common moral principles that you and the donor have worked out and so reports have to reflect this. A proposal is only as good as the work that was done and the reports that it enables and that can be written to truly reflect this work. A good proposal allows for successful management. And above all, a proposal is the expression of intuition, art and science.

A reasonable reader will want to know how I learnt this and why I suggest it with such apparent confidence, for we live in a new age of snake oil salesmen. Cheap advice is as common as excuses for not getting things done. So, let me tell you in the shortest space possible how I came across this expertise, for it has been a long, hard, but ultimately satisfying journey.

I wrote my first fundable proposal in 1987 for the Conservatoire in Nairobi, Kenya and shortly thereafter was approached by archaeologist Dr. Richard Leakey of the National Museums of Kenya to write one for them. When that proposal was funded I was asked to manage it for two and a half years. I then wrote the proposal for the strategic plan for the National Museums of Kenya, funded by the Ford Foundation and participated in the process. Eventually, I was asked to work for the Rockefeller Foundation evaluating scores of proposals for a pan African research program.

In Israel I was hired by the Technion to write proposals for their more than twenty departments, including their medical school. It was here that I worked out a method for developing proposals that combined academic research with journalism and the psychology of fund raising described above. I wrote over forty proposals and the Hewlett Packard Foundation funded one of them for more than two million dollars.

An invitation from the Canadian government brought me to Tanzania where I finalized a major rural development proposal, which I was then hired to implement. For four years a good part of my work there was coaching organizations and communities in proposal writing, evaluating their proposals and then monitoring their implementation. I remember reading more than five hundred proposals directed to our developmen fund. As I read each one with the help of my bilingual staff, I felt a moral obligation to evaluate its feasibility to the absolute best of my ability. This was a challenging and exacting task.

After nearly twenty years of living and working in developing countries I returned to Canada. Hired as the Executive Director of an expanding NGO, for five years I developed their mission statement, strategic plan, taught junior staff the art of proposal writing and supervised all projects at home, South America and in Sub Saharan Africa. I wrote cases for support and proposals of various kinds. This was followed by three years in Manhattan developing proposals and implementing them for the Association for Cultural Equity (the Alan Lomax Archive). There I submitted successful proposals to various foundations and twice (successfully) to the National Endowment for the Arts. Yet the hardest proposals have been those demanded by private donors with personal fortunes. They often end up in the form of a one page letter. They are the hardest to write.

Writing proposals involves a continuous engagement with the world and the written word as reader and writer. One must become, as I have become over the years, a voracious consumer of books, magazines, newspapers, documentaries and films. And, one must develop a taste for non-fiction with the emotional motivation of someone who loves literature or pulp fiction. The need to know how the world is and how it is changing must become linked to your libido, otherwise you will feel that everyday is ground hog day.

When I turned fifty I began writing articles for newspapers and magazines for as an “anthropologist at large” I feel that our discipline needs to better communicate its counter intuitive discoveries and insights to a democratic readership. To my delight I have discovered that when communicating with editors you more often than not have to write a pitch, a short version of the longer piece that you want to write. You can imagine my satisfaction when I came to realize that this is just another kind of…proposal.


Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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