The power of a touché….

How many of you have heard or memorized this line?

“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

From the Princess Bride, one of the best movies ever, this statement always precedes a sword fight.

One of the things I do besides grantwriting and university teaching is the sport of fencing.  Like any combat sport, there is a lot to be learned that goes far beyond the physical activity of fencing.

Let me share you a story and then relate it to grantwriting.

Getting to go to the National Fencing Championships is the goal of my exercise and training.  I work all year, about 10-15 hours a week, sweating and sometimes being yelled at by my coach, attending other tournaments, and so on.

At the National Championships you have initial rounds and then direct elimination bouts.  After the initial rounds, the lowest 20% of fencers are cut.  They’re done.  No matter how many hours of practice they attended, no matter how much sweat they exuded, no matter how much money they spent on equipment, they are done for the year.

No one wants to be in that group.  The “did not make the cut” group.

In July 2013, I was at the National Championships. My overall goal was to advance to the direct elimination rounds, and possibly win one of those bouts.  In the initial rounds I did not do as well as I had hoped but I thought I would make the cut.  It would be close, I knew, but, still, there was hope.  As it turns out, I didn’t make the cut.  It was close—but, I did not make the cut by one (1) touché (or touch, as we’d say in English) .

For 52 weeks, I had spent at least an average of 10 hours per week (520 hours, or the equivalent of 65 work days, or about 13 weeks at a full-time job).  And the result?  By one touch, I didn’t move forward.

Is it possible that I would have worked a bit harder, been a bit tougher, put myself out there just a bit more during the initial rounds if I had known it was going to be one touch that separated me from my goal to make the direct elimination rounds?

Fast forward one year, to July 2014.  National Championships.  Same event, many of the same opponents.  Same set up.  Same goals.  In the initial round—again, I didn’t do as well as I hoped for.  Was I going to make the cut or lose out for the second year?

I replayed the previous year in my mind—was it going to be the same story?  Finally the results came out.  This time, I had made the cut—by one touch.  I looked at the name of the next person on the list who was eliminated and remembered how that felt.  I was glad it wasn’t me.

I went on to in the direct elimination round and fenced hard.  I really wanted to achieve my goal of winning in this part of the tournament.  I ended up losing this bout, by–guess how much?–one touch, with a final score of 9-10.  Was I disappointed overall?  Sure, but it was a good bout and well fought.  It truly could have gone either way.  I had made part of my goal for the tournament, and, after some prodding, I ended up feeling like I had made progress.

So what’s the connection with grantwriting?

There are three lessons I see.

  1. Every point counts.  When your proposal is being scored, every single point counts.  Some proposals will be funded and some won’t.  Having a higher score is always a good thing.  If you knew that you were going to be one point short of being funded, wouldn’t you work just a bit harder, spend a bit more time, find a way to get one more fact to support your case?  You never know what the score is you’ll need to receive to make the cut to be funded, but you surely understand that more points are to your advantage, right?
  2. Keep learning as you go—don’t give up.  In a fencing tournament, it’s easy to tell when you’re doing well and when you’re not against a particular opponent.  You’re scoring or being scored on.  Your tactics are working or they’re not.  You’re winning or you’re losing.  And what works in one situation won’t necessarily work in another.  You have to be flexible and change as needed.  In grantwriting, it’s the same thing.  Each proposal you write is a new contest.  Afterwards, you’ll know how you did—whether you won or lost.  And what works (or doesn’t work) in any particular grant competition may or may not work the next time.  You’ve got to learn from each experience.  If you receive comments from reviewers, be sure to read them carefully.
  3. Measure your progress, not your disappointment.  I still haven’t won the National Championships.  In fact, it’s quite likely I never will.  My initial thought when I lost in the direct elimination round this year was that I hadn’t learned anything during a year’s worth of hard work and effort.  It took a friend to point out that I had done better than the year before.  I was so busy looking at the fact that I didn’t do as well as I wanted that I forgot to notice the level of improvement.  As you write grants, focus on how much closer you’re getting to being funded.  Especially in this Age of Scarcity, writing successful grants is becoming more difficult and the competition is fiercer than ever.  Look for the areas of improvement and congratulate yourself on those as well as looking at what can be improved.  A combined view will keep you motivated and pushing forward, and should lead to success.

As you’re working to achieve excellence for nonprofits, keep these lessons in mind.  You may not be a swordfighter, but you surely have other activities that you can draw upon for lessons in grantwriting.  Post them in the comments below so we can all learn from you!

Of course, it also helps to stay up on the latest trends and information.  I’ll be presenting webinars to assist both new and experienced grantwriters do their jobs better.  My webinars will focus on how to deal with the constant pressure to find and win grants, dealing with tight deadlines and the sometimes ridiculous requirements of funders.

These webinars will help you “read funders’ minds”—you’ll be able to crack the code of what funders are looking for and what they’re really saying.  By applying these principles, you’ll be able to write grants that support the missions important to you and receive deep appreciation from organizations you work for.

Sign up at  to ensure you are notified when these webinars are being presented.

Thanks for all you do!

Richard Hoefer

Excellence for Nonprofits!


The Top 5 Ways for Understanding What Grantmakers Want

Putting together a competitive grant proposal is challenging.  Still–it’s sad but true–as grant seekers we often make the process more difficult than it needs to be.

Take the first step–finding appropriate grant opportunities.  With the tens of thousands of foundations in the US and the multiple levels of government, each with untold numbers of requests for proposals at any one time, beginning grant proposal writers can feel overwhelmed.  To help you quickly and easily narrow your focus, use these top 5 ways to understand what grantmakers want.

#1:  Scour Websites

Foundations frequently post on their website the types of ideas that they want to give attention (and money) to.  Foundation staff don’t want you to waste your
time (or theirs!).  Be sure to read everything on a foundation’s website to get a sense of what they espouse, sympathize with and support.

For example, if you are working with people who are substance abusing and homeless, and you want to implement a “housing first” model, you’ll probably be wasting your time if you don’t find some positive mention of this approach on the foundation’s website.

#2:  Read Strategic Plans

Most government agencies develop strategic plans that indicate what they are interested in supporting and the directions they want to follow in the next few years.  If you wish to apply for funding from a particular government body, you can use the information to seem like a mind reader.

To take one example, the federal agency, in April 2013, within the larger Department of Health and Human Services, the Administration for Children and Families released a strategic planning document (which you can view here).   Among other important information, you will learn that ACF’s overarching vision is that:

“Children, youth, families, individuals and communities are resilient, safe, healthy, and economically secure.”

Does your agency understand what these terms mean?  Do any of your programs promote resilient children and youth?  Do you have an idea for bringing economic security to families?  Can you think of ways to change individual lifestyles to make them healthier?

The chances are you can begin to incorporate such concepts into your current programming to build a case in future grant proposals that your agency is already on board with these strategic directions.

#3:  Know What’s Been Funded

You can often gain access to at least synopses of recently awarded grants which provide you with hard data on the decision-making outcomes of a foundation or government agency.

Foundations, if they make these available, usually have a section of their website devoted to this information so this is another reason to become very familiar with the target foundation’s website.  Other sources for this information may include the Foundation Directory or Guidestar.

All successful proposals funded by the federal government are available through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request (there may be a charge for this information).  Some agencies post successful proposals in their entirety already (click here, for an example of the successful application of the Latin American Youth Center’s Street Outreach Program).

When you take the time to see what is being funded be sure to note the details of a successful proposal–how the different sections are addressed, the level of depth of the information, and how technical details are described.

#4:  Attend Conferences

Professionals in your field talk about new ideas and promising practices at conferences.

Listen to the keynote speakers at the plenary sessions.  Their ideas are cutting edge and may hold the secret to your next successful grant proposal if you adapt them to your context.

Attend sessions throughout the conference to learn what other organizations are doing and the latest research on effective and evidence-based programs.  You may get some ideas that you can implement in your agency.  Ask about funding sources when talking with representatives of successful programs in your area–sources that have given once are more likely to give again.

#5:  Get More Training

All of us like to think we’re educated enough.  But how can you ever know too much about your job?  Advanced continuing education can inspire fresh ideas and also help you remember basics you’ve forgotten.  Look for professional education opportunities to keep you sharp and up-to-date.

Your next step

I will be leading training webinars on this and other topics starting September 2014.  Be sure to sign up to receive notice about these trainings by signing up at