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Writing For A Good Cause

The Complete Guide to Crafting Proposals and Other Persuasive Pieces for Nonprofits

About The Book

Filled with tips and survival skills from writers and fund-raising officers at nonprofits of all sizes, Writing for a Good Cause is the first book to explain how to use words well to win your cause the money it needs. Whether you work for a storefront social action agency or a leading university, the authors' knowledgeable, practical advice will help you:

Write the perfect proposal—from the initial research and interviews to the final product

Draft, revise, and polish a "beguiling, exciting, can't-put-it-down and surely can't-turn-it-down" request for funds

Create case statements and other big money materials—also write, design, and print newsletters, and use the World Wide Web effectively

Survive last-minute proposals and other crises—with the Down-and-Dirty Proposal Kit!

Writing for a Good Cause provides everything fund raisers, volunteers, staff writers, freelancers, and program directors need to know to win funds from individual, foundation, and corporate donors.


Chapter One: What Is Fund Raising, Anyway?

The ABCs of the Nonprofit World

Once, it was called begging. In 1641 a group of clergymen representing Harvard College went to England in search of funds. That was the beginning of fund raising in America.

Small wonder that fund raising still bears a stigma.

"Is there a seamy side to fund raising?" asked The New York Times Magazine in a 1997 interview with Vartan Gregorian, noted for his fund-raising successes as head of the New York Public Library and Brown University.

"Not for a good cause," said Gregorian.

The fact is, many people think it unseemly to ask other people for money -- no matter what the cause. Gregorian himself noted that he has found it hard having "to please a donor by suppressing your own views," as well he might.

Fund raising is about pleasing donors. A pleased donor gives money. A displeased one does not.

The donor is always right.

If all of this is so, why do people become fund raisers and fund-raising writers? It lies in the satisfaction of having helped bring money to a good cause.

Fund raising has given us literacy, open-heart surgery, Ronald McDonald House, churches to go to on Sunday, public-radio programming, and a restored Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It has saved lives, built monuments, cured diseases, fostered artistic careers, nurtured children, advanced scholarship, discovered planets, conserved natural areas, and encouraged social change.

The Council on Foundations once listed the foundation-funded projects that ultimately touched the lives of most Americans. They found that foundation money jump-started Emergency 911, public libraries, the Pap smear, Sesame Street, vaccines against yellow fever and polio, the invention of rocketry, the hospice movement, and the white lines on the shoulders of highways.

Because people have been begging on its behalf since 1641, Harvard is now one of the preeminent universities in the nation and the world. Did money make it so? Yep. If Harvard had much less money, would it make a difference? Yep.

Here is the rule of thumb: Money attracts excellence, and excellence attracts excellence. At universities, this means money attracts an excellent faculty, who in turn attract excellent students. With a 1998 endowment of about $13 billion, Harvard can afford excellence. Period.

And they are still begging! Harvard employs 271 men and women on its fund-raising staff for its current $2.1 billion fund-raising campaign. Why so many? After all, you might think that as some have said, "Any fool can raise money for Harvard, and many do." Yet even a cash cow has to be milked.


Each year, Americans give about $150 billion to good causes, that is, charitable organizations. Where does the money go? Let's look at the three biggest gifts of 1998.

According to the 1998 Slate 60, which lists the year's largest donations, James and Virginia Stowers came in first with a gift of $327 million to create a medical-research facility in their hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. The Stowers, both cancer survivors, own a major family of no-load mutual funds, American Century Cos. They plan to bequeath most of their other assets to the institute.

In the same year, Martha Ingram, chairman of Ingram Industries, gave $300 million to Vanderbilt University, putting her right up there with founding father Cornelius Vanderbilt. The funds will go into athletics, health care, research, teaching, and other programs at the school, which is the alma mater of Mrs. Ingram's ex-husband and three of her kids.

Coming in third, David and Cheryl Duffield, who made their fortune in software, pledged $200 million toward finding a home for every stray or abandoned dog and cat in America. The Duffields want to end the euthanasia of homeless animals. They were inspired to make the gift by their affection for Maddie, a miniature schnauzer.

Fund raisers prompt gifts like these. They do so by communicating the good that an organization does, cultivating prospective donors who indicate an interest in the cause, and finally, asking the prospect for a donation.

There are all kinds of ways to do these things.

On a mass scale involving modest sums, Girl Scouts sell cookies door-to-door every year, and the Salvation Army places bell-ringing Santas at every shopping mall each holiday season. Similarly, direct mail is used to pitch everything from Easter seals to improved programming at the local PBS station. They may attract small gifts, but these are significant fund-raising programs: The famous March of Dimes, which literally invited Americans to send in dimes, underwrote the development of the Salk vaccine against polio. Girl Scout cookies bring in several hundred million dollars each year.

Alas, you cannot go door-to-door looking for million-dollar gifts. Few people can afford to make such major contributions. And once you know who can afford to give $1 million or more, you have to know whether they care about your cause, you have to establish contact with them, you have to cultivate them over time, and you have to convince them that making a gift to your good cause will satisfy their needs.


They didn't have PCs, scanners, and laser printers, but Americans have been writing fund-raising copy for generations.

The first fund-raising piece, "New England's First Fruits," was written at the request of the three clergymen who went to England in 1641 to raise money for Harvard. The threesome -- Hugh Peter of Salem, Thomas Weld of Roxbury, and William Hibbens of Boston -- needed "literature" describing the "selling points" of New England.

Talk about making the case for a college:

After God had carried us safe to New England, and had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God's worship, and settled the civil government: one of the next things we longed for, and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.

In 1853 another classic fund-raising missive was written by Ann Pamela Cunningham after her mother made a trip down the Potomac River and found Mount Vernon -- the beloved Virginia estate of George Washington -- in ruins, with its roof collapsing, its portico propped up by unsightly supports, and its grounds overgrown.

Moved to act, she wrote a letter urging the "Ladies of the South" to raise enough money "to secure and retain the home and grave" of Washington "as a sacred spot for all coming time!" As published in the Charleston Mercury and other newspapers, the letter began:

A descendant of Virginia, and now a daughter of Carolina, moved by feelings of reverence for departed greatness and goodness, by patriotism and a sense of national, and above all, of Southern honor, ventures to appeal to you in behalf of the "home and grave" of Washington.

Ladies of the South, of a region of warm, generous, enthusiastic hearts, where there still lingers some unselfish love of country and country's honor, some chivalric feelings yet untouched by that "national spirit," so rapidly overshading the moral of our beloved land -- a moral blight, fatal to man's noblest attributes, and which love of money and speculation alone seems to survive -- to you we turn, you, who retain some reverence for the noble dead, some admiration and remembrance of exalted worth and service even where they are no more! Of you we ask: Will you, can you, look on passively and behold the home and grave of the matchless patriot, who is so completely identified with your land, sold as a possession to speculative machinists, without such a feeling of indignation firing your souls as shall cause you to rush with one heart and spirit to the rescue?

To seek such major gifts (the phrase generally refers to donations of $100,000 or more, although in smaller organizations $10,000 may be deemed major), nonprofit organizations maintain fund-raising offices. Only the offices are rarely called "fund raising." Rather, fund raisers have come up with a bevy of other names for the fund-raising office. Chief among them:

Development Office

Office of Institutional Advancement

Office of Resource Development

Resources Office

Sounds like something that should be based in Langley, Virginia, and involve covert activity, huh? Not really. "Development" is just a bit less direct than "fund raising." Even so, it may not be indirect enough. In her book Effective Fund-Raising Management, Kathleen S. Kelley identifies several euphemistic development job titles: public-support associate for the Louisiana Capital Area Chapter of the American Red Cross, scientific-resources manager for the Missouri Botanical Garden, and donor-acquisition officer for the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center in New York City.

We've seen people given the title "deputy director" of a program rather than "director of development" just to soften the sell.


The history of fund raising in America is filled with wonderful stories about idealists, religious zealots, marketers, businessmen, and charlatans. We won't tell any here. (See Scott M. Cutlip's one-of-a-kind history, Fund Raising in the United States, if you want the full scoop.)

What we will tell you is that not much has changed over the years. Oh, the techniques differ. Until the 20th century, most fund raising was done by personal solicitation, by passing the church plate, by staging church suppers or bazaars, and by writing "begging letters." Now we're a bit better organized, thanks to computers and other technology, but don't we still solicit personally, stage events, and write letters?

Ben Franklin, who said something about everything, told fund raisers: "In the first place I advise you to apply to all those whom you know will give something; next, to those whom you are uncertain whether they will give anything or not, and show them the list of those who have given; and lastly, do not neglect those whom you are sure will give nothing, for in some of them you may be mistaken."

In others words, keep A, B, and C lists of prospects. Thanks for the tip, Ben.

0 The organized fund drive has its roots in the early 1900s when two pioneers, Charles Sumner Ward and Lyman L. Pierce, began raising large amounts of money for Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) buildings. Both Y officials, they laid the groundwork for short, intensive campaigns. Soon others engaged in massive organized solicitations of the public to fund hospitals, churches, and colleges as well as civic, health, and welfare associations.

By the end of World War I, a number of for-profit fund-raising firms had emerged. This was the beginning of fund raising as we know it today. Arnaud Marts and George Lundy created the fund-raising firm Marts & Lundy; John Price Jones, a former Washington Post reporter, set up what is now Brakeley, John Price Jones Inc. In 1919 the Ketchum brothers set up Ketchum, Inc., in Pittsburgh. These and other pros were brought in to manage fund-raising campaigns for good causes. By the 1950s, major nonprofits began hiring internal fund raisers of their own.

How many fund raisers are there in the country today? Nobody knows. The U.S. Department of Labor batches fund raisers with other kinds of workers, so they are not much help. Kathleen S. Kelley offers what is probably the best estimate. Kelley's "informed guess" is that 80,000 people are employed as full-time fund raisers, either as staff members or consultants to nonprofits. They work for about 150,000 nonprofits. The leading employers: educational and health organizations.

In 1992 the National Society of Fund Raising Executives (NSFRE) surveyed members to find out where fund raisers work. The survey showed the main employers of fund raisers, in declining order, were education (25.3 percent); health, hospitals, and medical centers (19.4); human services (13.5); arts, culture, and humanities (7.7); youth (6.6); religion (4.2); environment and conservation (1.7); and retirement communities (1.6). The remaining members were consultants (4.6), not employed (.4), or not classified (15).


On a Tuesday in mid-April 1997 the grand poo-bahs of America's good causes gathered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to signal the arrival of the nonprofit sector. They included leaders from the Ford and MacArthur foundations, the Urban Institute and Save the Children Federation, and scores of other institutions. The occasion was the opening of Harvard University's Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, itself the result of an act of philanthropy -- a $10 million gift -- from two New Yorkers, Rita and Gustave Hauser.

"Nonprofits used to be a synonym for groups that had neither money nor power," Sara L. Engelhardt, president of the Foundation Center, told a reporter from the New York Times. "Increasingly this sector has both. If Harvard is opening a center on this scale, the nonprofit sector has clearly arrived."

The nonprofit sector goes by many names -- the "nonprofit," "nongovernmental," "independent," "voluntary," "social," or "third" sector. Call it what you will, it is the part of our society that acts voluntarily to help solve important social problems. It is not the private sector, in which commercial companies sell things to make a profit. It is not government, which provides services paid for by taxes.

The nonprofit sector is the rest: churches, hospitals, schools and colleges, museums, youth groups, civic leagues, community-development organizations, dance companies, philanthropic foundations, public-policy think tanks, small literary publishers, day-care centers, and advocacy organizations, among many others. All are recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as charitable institutions. All rely on fund raising to do their work.

The nonprofit sector has been important since America's colonial period, but never as much so as today. As the crème de la crème of the nonprofit world gathered in Cambridge that spring day, good causes had become the fastest-growing sector in our society, with 1.4 million nonprofit organizations. Harvard, with its popelike blessing, had now joined more than 30 colleges, with schools, departments, or programs of teaching and research dedicated to nonprofits.

As the country enters a new century, nonprofits are growing faster than either government or business. According to the Independent Sector, a group devoted to the field, in 1994 some 16.4 million people worked in, or volunteered for, some 1.4 million nonprofit groups, as opposed to 101.3 million people working at some 23 million businesses and 25 million people employed by 87,000 governmental organizations. The figures -- the latest available -- show a remarkable one-third growth in the nonprofit sector since 1982. This is opposed to a 25 percent growth in the numbers for government and business.


The strong economy of the 1990s made the richest 20 percent of Americans richer. Suddenly, wealthy people found themselves with extraordinary new wealth. Following their own instincts -- altruism, egotism, tax write-offism, or maybe old-fashioned Andrew Carnegie-ism ("He who dies rich dies thus disgraced") -- the rich began giving as never before.

Ted Turner, vice chairman of Time Warner, stunned guests at a black-tie UN Association dinner in New York and pledged to donate $1 billion -- $100 million a year for ten years -- to a new foundation benefiting the United Nations. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, and his wife, Melinda, took more than $17 billion and created a private foundation -- the wealthiest in the country -- devoted to diverse causes.

This was new money -- from booms in technology, entertainment, and the stock market -- and alongside the fortunes of aging benefactors like Paul Mellon and Walter Annenberg, it spelled an enormous boost in philanthropic dollars. By the end of the century, there were 94 billionaires in the United States and about 60,000 households with annual incomes of $1 million or more.

At the same time, there began an enormous transfer of wealth; baby boomers would inherit an estimated $5.6 trillion from their parents over the next several decades, two Cornell University economists reported in the early 1990s. In their planned giving departments, many nonprofits had tax-advantageous ways to help structure estates so that transfers occurred in ways that benefited everyone.

The growth of philanthropy (the word comes from the Greek for "love of humankind") in the period spurred action everywhere. Foundations and other organizations began holding workshops and field trips aimed at helping the wealthy -- especially "the really extremely wealthy," as one provider remarked -- learn how to give their money away.

More than 75 graduate schools -- about five times more than in 1990 -- offered advanced degrees in philanthropy for students interested in managing nonprofits or raising money for them. Not surprisingly, nonprofits expanded their development operations to go after the new wealth.

In the late 1970s, Joe worked as senior development writer on a capital campaign at New York University whose goal was $111 million. That was a major dollar goal at the time. By the 1990s leading universities were launching campaigns of more than $1 billion.

Even public universities, increasingly forced to rely on private funding, entered the big-dollar fray. The University of Michigan, for instance, involved 100 staffers in its development office plus another 100 in individual schools and institutes in a successful $1 billion campaign. Other public institutions conducting campaigns -- each for $1 billion -- included the University of Virginia, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By then, Harvard had raised the bar with a $2-billion-plus campaign.

In 1999, facing tight post-cold war defense budgeting, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point weighed in with a $175 million Bicentennial Campaign, the first major private fund-raising effort in the history of the service academies.

From storefront social-action agencies with no paid staff to multimillion-dollar institutions like New York's Museum of Natural History, nonprofits are on a roll. They seem destined to stay there well into the 2000s.

Copyright © 2000 by Joseph Barbato and Danielle S. Furlich


Both of us stumbled into fund-raising writing. Danielle had done virtually no proposal writing before taking her job at The Nature Conservancy in 1994. When she sat down to write her first piece, she was terrified.

Joe wrote his first proposal years ago at New York University. He had little idea what a development office was until he joined the staff there. His boss, a Harvard graduate and friend of James Baldwin and W. H. Auden, was a gifted writer who had learned his craft in fund-raising offices at Princeton and Cornell.

Together we will use our different vantages in Writing for a Good Cause to help you produce more persuasive fund-raising pieces.

Most of the time, we will speak in one voice. And the first thing we want to say is this: There is no such thing as proposal writing. There are proposals, and there is writing. The same is true of case statements, brochures, and newsletters. They are all fund-raising material in different formats, and they all require solid craftsman-like writing.

To write proposals successfully, you must know two things: what to put into a proposal and how to write well. This book addresses both matters, with the emphasis on the latter.

Why? Because you can find lots of advice elsewhere on how to determine which funders are interested in your cause, how to plan and develop a proposal for a particular program, how to work up a budget, etc. What you won't find anywhere else is how to take all that information and shape it into a knockout, beguiling, exciting, can't-put-it-down, and surely can't-turn-it-down fund-raising proposal.

Are we exaggerating? Of course. That is one of the early lessons we will teach you. Controlled hyperbole is a high art. But then we assume that, like our book, your program is worth shouting about from the rooftops. If you don't believe in it, if you don't call attention to it, why should anyone else notice or care?

But wait. Before we go any further, let's deal with an assumption that pervades most fund-raising offices. It is this: Anyone can write. The gobbledygook we all encounter in office memos every day gives the lie to those three words. Yet the notion that anyone can write, and presumably write well, persists. The personal computer, which allows us to move words, paragraphs, and sections any which way and to remove and add words with great ease, has given even more power to the idea that we are all writers.

Interestingly, it is an assumption made only outside the world of professional writing: Editors of newspapers and magazines and at book publishing houses are well aware that not everyone can write. Indeed, they spend each day trying to improve the writing of people who actually can write. Writing is their product, and they cannot publish material written by just anyone who thinks he or she can write.

Now, of course you can write. You do it all the time, and you give about as much thought to it as you do to other things you do all the time: breathing, eating, walking, watching television, driving to work. The only problem is, most of your writing is for people who know you or care greatly about what you are writing about. Your Aunt Sally is terribly interested in your family, so a run-on sentence or two or a boring paragraph won't keep her from reading your letter. And your boss really does want to know what happened during your call on an important prospect, so he or she will take the time to puzzle out your trip report.

You pay a lot more attention to your conversation when you are with someone you don't know well that you want to impress, don't you? You should. The same goes for writing that is intended to woo.

Or perhaps you know people at the Ford Foundation who care about you and your work to the same degree that Aunt Sally does. If so, congratulations! You don't need this book.

Well, you get the point. Stringing words together with an occasional period is not writing no matter how pretty it looks when it comes out of a laser printer. The people working at Time magazine know this; if they published the prose turned out in the typical American office, they would soon be out of business.

All of this is compounded in fund-raising offices because those doing the writing of persuasive pieces are generally neophyte writers or experienced fund raisers harried by a thousand concerns other than writing the proposal at hand. In fact, the writing of the proposal is deemed a necessary evil, a chore, an unfortunate task that is often put off and put off until finally the foundation deadline is upon us and -- Well, let's get the thing written and out. Thank God for FedEx!

The result is delivered by ten o'clock the next morning to funding officers around the country, and it ain't pretty. Often, it is illogical, unreadable, and boring. And the typos -- Well, at least they break up the tedium of stirring the mud with the eyeballs.

On the other hand, we know that some of you considered crawling under your desks as you read the above because you know you can't write. You just spent an hour looking at a blank computer screen. You reworked the same opening sentence 68 times. You highlighted your outline in three different colors but don't have a scrap of writing to show for it.

Worse, your colleagues have been slowly piecing together how unqualified you really are, and when they get this first draft, they'll know for sure: You are a hoax. You can't write to save your life. You are doomed.

Believe us, we've been there. And we hereby guarantee that you will not only survive but you will conquer.

What is to be done? It is time to think about how to write for a good cause. Let's take the writing itself as seriously as we hope funders will take our proposals. Let's take a deep breath and begin.

In his classes on proposal writing, Joe has found that most men and women realize they must spend more time thinking about the writing in proposal writing. Most have a fairly strong idea of the information that must go into a proposal. It is the writing that concerns them, for they are not writers.

They wonder:

  • Can you give us an outline for a basic proposal? (Yes.)

  • How long should my proposal be? (Long enough to secure funding.)

  • How do I find time to write? (You don't find time to write. You make time to write.)

  • Does my proposal have to look fancy? (Depends on who's reading it.)

  • Isn't there an easy way to do this? (No.)

  • What's the best advice you have? (Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.)

  • What's the second-best advice you have? (Read everything you can get your hands on.)

We're going to address all of that and more in Writing for a Good Cause. We're going to offer the best advice we have about the experience of writing in the context of fund raising. And we are going to offer thoughts related to fund-raising writing from a wide range of people and places.

We collared colleagues -- fund raisers and writers -- and persuaded them to tell the stories of their work at disparate nonprofits: from the Consumer Federation of America to the Wilderness Society; from the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts to the University of California at Davis; from Borealis Community Land Trust in Alaska to WETA, a public television and radio station serving Washington, D.C. We surveyed program officers at the 100 top foundations; we demanded hot tips from photo, design, printing, and Web site gurus; and we nearly ransacked libraries at the National Society of Fund Raising Executives and other national groups.

We also garnered advice from writers, both living and dead, ranging from Chekhov ("Take out adjectives and adverbs wherever you can") to the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jonathan Yardley, who has been writing persuasively for many years and who reminded us about the string that must run from the beginning of a piece to the end: "If the string breaks, you lose the reader," he says.

"Put the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair," Rex Stout used to say when asked how he got his writing done. He was writing Nero Wolfe mystery novels. How does that relate to your work? Plenty. Nothing ever got written without putting seat to seat. (Hemingway was the exception; he'd often write while standing, with his pad on the top of a refrigerator; when we become Hemingway, we will do that, too.)

We found some of our advice in unlikely places. Zen masters like Thich Nhat Hanh have much to tell us about writing. When doing the dishes, do the dishes, they tell us. When eating, eat. When writing, write!

We're looking forward to spending some time with you aimed at strengthening your writing for the finest causes in this country. We're going to learn a thing or two ourselves as we move ahead. Despite our harsh words about much that gets written, we both remain humble and a bit insecure when it comes to writing well. Writing is hard work; never let anyone tell you otherwise. The more you grow as a writer, the more you will be grateful for those moments when you get the words right.

We're going to toss in a bit of poetry now and again. We're going to show you how accomplished writers lure readers by using plain English for complex subjects. And we're going to describe at least ten wonderful things that enrich our lives every day that would not have existed if someone hadn't written a fund-raising proposal.

We will do our best to be empowering, realistic, down-to-earth, lucid, motivating, sympathetic, and amusing.

In Writing for a Good Cause, we'll show you how to use words well to win the support of funders.

Copyright © 2000 by Joseph Barbato and Danielle S. Furlich

About The Authors

Joseph Barbato is president of Barbato Associates, which provides writing and design services to the fund-raising programs of nonprofits. He has worked with dozens of nonprofits, including New York University, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, and The United Nations Foundation.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (July 19, 2000)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684857404

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Raves and Reviews

John Sawhill President and CEO, The Nature Conservancy The best guide I've ever read for developing effective and persuasive fund-raising materials.

Richard Moe, President National Trust for Historic Preservation Certain to become the definitive word, and an essential tool, for those who seek to write persuasive proposals.

Andy Robinson author of Grassroots Grants: An Activist's Guide to Proposal Writing Practical, hands-on advice leavened with humor and attitude. The final section -- how to get your proposal out the door in a hurry -- will be warmly welcomed by all the procrastinators among us. Take heart, help is on the way.

Betty J. Marmon Director of Development, Philadelphia Museum of Art Barbato and Furlich are superb -- a dynamic development duo! They have finally managed to demystify the purpose and process of development writing. Newcomers and seasoned professionals alike can benefit from their candor and the behind-the-scenes insights found in Writing for a Good Cause.

Allan Luks Executive Director, Big Brothers/ Big Sisters of New York City How do you convince an individual or organization not only to feel comfortable or good donating to your cause -- but eager to do it? Writing for a Good Cause shows you the essential communication and human steps that lead to this goal.

Peggy Dean Glenn Associate Dean for External Affairs, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University A rare find -- filled with winning strategies, practical ideas and clear examples. I am recommending it to my entire staff.

Eric Graham President and CEO, Children's Express Worldwide This book is packed with gems about what's at the heart of fundraising -- sincerity, humor, perseverance. It should be required reading for anyone entering this field.

Sheila Dennis Director of Development, Union of Concerned Scientists Told from the trenches in a very entertaining style, Writing for a Good Cause is a terrific resource for fundraising veterans and newcomers. I laughed out loud reading it! For those of us who spend every day working to make the world a better place, this guide will help make your proposals stand out.

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