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

by Geoffrey Clarfield (August 2013)

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.

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.

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.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.

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