Choosing A Theme

Choosing A Theme

The proposal theme is a statement, an idea, or a claim that identifies whatever is unique to you and appeals to your grantor. It should be derived from your understanding of what the grantor wants which is based on the discriminators. And it should define your capabilities. It's developed after the discriminators have been identified and it normally arises from the first four or five.

The theme is a simple, provable statement which is the underlying foundation for your proposal. Every part of the proposal echoes the theme, so it must be chosen carefully. You must be able to hang the entire proposal on it. There should be words in every section and on every page that remind the reader of it and of your commitment to it. It appears on the cover and in the art work as well. And when the evaluators are finished reading your proposal, the. theme should stick with them. it should leave them with the impression that you are the only logical choice for the work, no other bidder has what you have.

Coming Up Withal a Unique Theme
You can work on identifying a theme at the same time as you identify your discriminators, but choosing the theme should come only after you have identified the discriminators. A successful theme meets the following criteria:

It's Unique
This means that the theme points up something about you or your service that, in the eyes of the grantor, is not available from anyone else. Therefore, it places you above the competition. Generalities like "I'll work harder for you," or "Our people are the most dedicated" won't "fly" unless you know that they go directly to the heart of the grantor's problem, that the grantor has expressed some concern about how the recipient is prepared to work hard, or worried about having "moochers" on the payroll.

A grantor (especially government agencies) may deliberately issue guidelines intended to "level the playing field." In such cases you'll have to look even harder at yourself. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine where you might be unique:

    • Do I have more experience than other applicants?
    • Does my proposal provide more depth (i.e. people with more varied skills, more diversity, more different kinds of experience.
    • Do I have any special skills that are unique to the work I'm proposing?
    • Do I have access to any special resources?
    • Am I offering a better location for the work?
    • Do I have a better reputation than other applicants?
    • Do I provide stronger management; better financial control?
    • Do I produce a higher quality of work?
    • Do I have access to a special capability?
    • Do I have access to any kind of special equipment?

Any of these can be turned into a benefit to the grantor and become part of your theme, but remember that these must be provable. It's not enough to say "I have more experience." You have to prove it. The grantor will want to see hard evidence of it. But if you don't have anything unique, you're no better than the competition and your chances of winning aren't any better either.

It Benefits the Grantor
The service you perform must be of some direct advantage to the grantor. The grantor must see the value of it. Yours might be the best drug rehab team in the world, but that's meaningless to a grantor who is dedicated to funding programs to help the poor get jobs..

And be careful; don't confuse a benefit with a feature. A benefit directly helps the grantor; it's something the grantor wants. A feature is something YOU have. Features are worthless if they don't get results for the grantor. If you have years of experience working with drug addicts, that's a benefit, but those years of experience are irrelevant to the grantor. They're of no value whatsoever in proposal being submitted to get funds to set up a food collection program. (Of course, when you submit a proposal to a foundation looking to expand drug rehab to prisons next month, they'll be very useful.)

It's important (nontrivial)
The only thing that's important is what the grantor feels is important. The greatest mistake you can make is to trivialize something that the grantor values. The claim you make in your theme must be important to the grantor. It must clearly make a difference to them. He must be able to see how your service can help promote the foundation's goals or meet the aims defined by the discriminators.

Don't reuse a theme.
Each theme is specific to one proposal.
No matter how clever, cute, or successful a theme was before,
for someone else or for you, it won't work a second time.

It's Provable
You must be able to prove the theme and, of course, everything else you say in your proposal. All claims must be supported by clear, irrefutable proof. If you can't do this, your credibility is zero and no one will seriously consider your proposal.

Characteristics of a Good Theme Statement
The best time to develop a theme statement is usually at the same time as you define the discriminators, using the five criteria detailed above. If others are involved with you, everyone should have input to the statement. Use a board or a pad to write out your ideas, amending and changing them as you go. And keep the following guidelines in mind:

The Shorter the Theme Statement, the Better
A single, all inclusive phrase is best. The longer the statement, the less likely it is to be memorable. And if you can slip in some onomatopoeia (remember that word?) it's even better.

Themes Don't Have to be Sentences
Phrases often make good themes; a familiar phrase that lets the reader fill in the blank is an excellent way to hook the grantor. For example, "A Stitch in Time" might be a good theme for a grantor who believes that a rapid solution is needed.

"Catchy" themes are Preferable
A theme that uses a catchy phrase is easier for the grantor to remember. If it's a good theme, the grantor will have a "hook" on which he can hang his impressions, and you'll have something to hang your words on.

Be cautious with themes that are open to interpretation.
Make sure your theme can't be taken another way.
For example, "Kill Off the Amusement Park" isn't the best way to sell a grantor on your objective.

A Case Study
The following case study provides some information concerning a hypothetical project. Read it over and then see if you can write a theme idea for it.

You are interested in getting funds to do an environmental impact study (EIS) of the land surrounding Bald Mountain where a developer is considering building an amusement park. The study requires the collection of information about the plants and animals in the area as well as the effect of paving (which is likely to produce runoff) on surrounding areas. Such studies have been funded before by the Andy Panda Foundation, which has as its goal supporting of the maintenance of the country's natural resources.

Mrs. Panda, the Foundation's director, has expressed a special interest in this sort of thing. She's also the director of the Pacific Northwest Wildflower Foundation, which is dedicated to maintaining the various wildflowers that are indigenous to the area.Your major reason for wanting to conduct the environmental study is to slow down the approval of the park construction at least until after the next election (next April). You have a good working relationship with an environmental analyst who has an excellent performance record and a reputation for being fair and objective. 1heir assessments are noted for being "ironclad" and they are also know for providing clear and precise presentations at public hearings. (They received a letter of commendation from the State Department of Natural Resources.) You, on the other hand, have a reputation as an activist and agitator, but also for managing projects well, meeting schedules, and keeping costs within the budget.

What might you use as a theme for this proposal?

Here's an example of the first draft of a theme for this proposal.

    "The completion of an Environmental Impact Study for the Bald Mountain area will assure that construction which damages endangered species and "at risk" regional flaura and fauna does no proceed; we have the support of analysts with superior environmental analytical skills and a demonstrated ability to manage this kind of program in accordance with the schedule and budget.

Let's see if this statement meets the five major criteria. How would you answer these questions?

  • Is it unique to us?
  • Does it benefit the grantor?
  • Is it important (nontrivial)?
  • Is it specific?
  • Can we prove it?
You should have answered yes, which shows that our theme is on target. But the statement is too long, it's not catchy or memorable. So we need to shorten it, to mold it into something that will "grab" the grantor. How's this sound?

    "Completing a Bald Mountain Environmental Impact Study assures the safety of endangered species and "at risk" regional flaura and fauna; we have superior analysts and the ability to manage such a program."

But this is still too complex. We need a short phrase or statement that is easier to remember. How's about?

    "We can create a responsible environmental program which secures the destiny of Bald Mountain's flaura and fauna through solid analysis and strong management."

That's better, especially because it focuses on what we know about Mrs. Panda's interests. The study will cover all "bugs and bunnies" but we'll emphasize the wildflowers. Now, we just need to add a "zinger," something that will make it stick. And we can forget about making it a complete sentence.

    "Securing the Fate of Bald Mountain's Flaura and Fauna"

Or maybe we can shorten it even further.

    "Securing Bald Mountain's flaura and fauna"

That's good. It has the necessary elements and best of all, it's a slogan everyone can remember. It's short, reads well, and speaks to the primary issue. When it's stated on every page of the proposal, no one is likely to forget it, and anything the opposing forces do short of this will be forgotten.

Of course, the steps in the evolution of a theme depend on the people workng on it, but whatever you come up with you must make sure it's short, succinct, provable, and suitable for the proposal cover. It must appeal to the decision maker, it must make him or her proud.

Once you've established your theme, you should write it on a large sheet of paper and hang it where you can always see it. If you're doing the proposal by yourself, hang it in front of your desk so you're sure not to lose sight of it. And if others are involved, it should be placed in front of each one of them. Anyone providing input for the proposal needs to be reminded of it constantly. It's the responsibility of everyone--proposal manager, writers, artists, editors, etc.--to assure that the theme is incorporated into every aspect of the proposal.

And yes. You may very well get sick of it. That's OK (You're going to be exposed to it for a lot longer than the grantor Even great magic tricks get old after awhile.) The theme is going to become part of the storyboards and it will be the headline for the proposal. You may even decide to use a running footer with the theme on iL

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