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4 Best Practices For Spicing Up The Need Section With Data

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It’s true. Most people don’t think of data as “spicy,” or of adding any real interest. Data can be intimidating, hard to find, and seem heartless. The Need section is often the only part of a proposal where we get the chance to paint a picture of the real people in our community we will serve with the grant we are requesting. 

But actual data, sprinkled sparingly in appropriate places, can be extremely effective in driving home an important point. Backing up your assertions of need with carefully selected facts demonstrates to the funder that you’ve done your homework.

Here are four best practices for sprinkling the spice of data into your foundation proposal recipes.

1. Facts Enhance The Meat of Your Content

Spices are usually subtle. They work in the background. The same goes for data in our proposals. We sprinkle them about when it makes sense and when specific facts can be effective.

We frequently say such things as “many people in our community live below the poverty line” as justification for our proposed services. Or “the schools in XYZ neighborhood serve high numbers of at-risk students.” We know this about our community. Our clinic or food pantry may be overwhelmed by demand. However, the funder may not know the community as well as you do. Besides, how do you quantify “many” or “high numbers?”

It only takes a few moments to access the Census Bureau and be able to say, “18% of individuals and 25% of families with children in XYZ Town live below the poverty line.” You’d have to go to another source for the student data, but most states report free/reduced lunch rates by school. So you can say, “85% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.”

These are numbers reviewers can understand and quantify in their minds. You don’t have to get fancy with your citations, especially if you are limited to 1,000 characters. All you have to say is “according to the U.S. Census” or use an in-line citation in parentheses, such as “(Census, 2014).” Sometimes if space is really at a premium (500 characters anyone?), I leave off the citation.

If your community has a unique characteristic you want to highlight, data can help you do that. Is there a large population of non-English speakers? That’s why you are asking for bilingual materials in your budget. Despite the Affordable Care Act, do many in your town still lack health insurance? That’s why your clinic still meets an essential community need. Will you be serving refugees who lack transportation? That’s why your services or meetings need to be held in the neighborhoods where those you wish to serve live and work.

2. Fresh Data is the Spiciest

Spices that are old lose their punch. Data is the same. Every year when we are writing proposals for our local free health clinic, we head off to that glorious spice cabinet known as the U.S. Census and pull out fresh versions of our favorites. We don’t depend on last year’s numbers, even though we know they have not changed dramatically. Did you know that the Census is updated annually? It’s called the American Community Survey. The ACS is much more current than the 2010 decennial Census. That’s why you are able to use a citation that says “(Census, 2014).” (The newest data will be released September 15.)

For this clinic we need to know how many people in two counties earn less than 200% of the Federal Poverty Line, because that is the income cut-off for people to receive services at this clinic. Because most of our funders ask us for some basic demographic information about those we serve, we also update information about the racial and ethnic make-up of our service area. All of that is available from the Census.

If it is important for making our case, we can compare the percentage of ethnic minorities in the general population with the percentage of ethnic minorities among those we serve.

3. Use the Right Spice for the Desired Flavor

Simply opening the spice cabinet and picking something green and dumping it into your creation won’t have the desired effect. You wouldn’t use garlic in place of saffron, would you? If you are requesting a grant to serve patients with dementia, then data quantifying diabetes and heart disease are irrelevant. If you are requesting a grant to serve patients managing their diabetes, then of about diabetes, how many fruits and vegetables people eat, how much physical activity they engage in, and rates of obesity are all relevant. And all are typically available from your state’s county-level health data.

If your project will serve at-risk fifth-grade students, get the most current information on how many are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Bonus if you can find a report or can get the school to tell you the average GPA of all fifth graders.

4. Shop Locally, Think Globally

Data for your proposals should be as local as you can get it. Unless you are the American Heart Association working on a national-level project, don’t quote national levels of heart disease. Find out the levels of heart disease in your county, if possible. Find out what percentage of the patients you serve have been diagnosed with cardiovascular issues.

But, you want that state and national data, too. You want to make comparisons and point out that unemployment is higher in your neighborhood or access to the arts is lower. Whenever any item of data you are using is worse among your target population than it is somewhere else, make a big deal about this. If poverty is higher in your county than both the state and national average, say that, give the numbers, and maybe even quantify the gap between them.

We frequently use per capita income because how much money someone earns in a year is something everyone can understand. If per capita income in your county trails the national average by thousands of dollars, point out the cumulative effects of earning that much less than the national average every single year of someone’s working career.

Your type of organization and the project you are trying to get funded will determine where you should look for data. Aside from the sources already mentioned here, you can use community needs assessments, your local United Way, surveys of your own clients/patients/students, or a number of white papers and website, such as the Kids Count Databook.

Start sprinkling a little as you go along, and soon you won’t even have to consult the cookbook. What are some of your favorite sites for data and statistics? Tell us in the comments below.


Learn to identify credible sources of research as Cheryl shares winning strategies for citing research in your proposals. Watch the recorded webinar, “Making the Case: How to Position Research in Your Proposal.” 



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CHERYL KESTER (CRFE), is Principal of the Kester Group and co-author of Writing to Win Federal Grants: A Must Have for Your Fundraising Tool Box and its companion workbook (forthcoming). She has more than 30 years of experience in the nonprofit sector and has been a grants professional since 1999.

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