Principles in Practice
Making Your Communications Courteous and Collegial
How Your Tone Can Affect the Response You Get from Your Communications
By Tony Proscio
Effective writing, whatever your field, shares some basic characteristics. It is Clear and Concrete, Courteous and Collegial, Current and Consistent, and Concise. We call these the seven C’s of effective writing. See Communicating Effectively With Applicants and Grantees.
This article looks at how your tone can affect the response you get from your communications. The second two C’s of effective writing, Courteous and Collegial can make sure your message gets a friendly response.
Amid the pressures and deadlines of a busy grant program, it can be easy to forget that much of what we do ultimately makes work for other people — sometimes burdensome work, and often work that is not directly related to their mission or field of expertise. Worse, the “other people” in question are apt to be thinly staffed nonprofit organizations whose success at their regular jobs is vital to our own mission.
In that light, it might seem obvious that a friendly, polite, even sympathetic tone is the best way to encourage compliance with application and grant requirements without accidentally inspiring resentment and resistance. Yet, too often, correspondence with applicants and grantees ends up sounding like this (yes, it’s excerpted from a real letter about reporting requirements):
The Project Leader must submit periodic status reports which are tied to significant project milestones, as defined by the Project Leader in the grant proposal and agreed to by the Foundation Grants Committee. … Such reports shall be submitted with adequate frequency and timeliness.
This isn’t aggressively rude. It’s not hostile. But it is unintentionally cold and imperious. It sets forth demands and mandates, with no hint that the people who have to satisfy these demands are overworked allies and friends. Subtly, subliminally, it creates a relationship more like the one between masters and servants than between peers and partners. In that kind of relationship, the first thing to disappear will be the grantees’ enthusiasm, and a close second will be their imagination, as they grudgingly go about satisfying the requirements. That’s hardly the result any funder would want to achieve.
Here are three ways to detect these unintentional slights and revise them so they strengthen alliances and inspire cooperativeness, rather than turn people off. Start by scanning what you’ve written and finding every sentence that gives an instruction or makes a demand. Then ask yourself:
- Would I say this to a colleague? Does this section also include language — such as “we ask that,” “as we agreed,” or “we need your help” — that softens the tone of the command? If not, see if there is a way to add a word or two to humanize the sentence. It can sometimes be as simple as saying “please” or “don’t forget.” It helps to adopt the same tone that you would use if you were addressing a co-worker or your counterpart at another foundation.
- Is it clear why I need this? Does this requirement or instruction offer some explanation of why the request is important — like “this information will help us to learn from your work,” or “we need this information to help us build support for this field”? It isn’t necessary, of course, to explain every single requirement in the document. That would quickly become repetitive. But a general statement early in the piece might acknowledge that reporting takes time and trouble, and that you’ve taken care to avoid creating unnecessary work. Nonetheless, the information you’re requesting produces real value, which you can describe briefly. For example, the Brainerd Foundation, a northwestern U.S. family foundation, has included this collegial language in its reporting requirements: The process of reporting and evaluating often holds negative connotations. At the Brainerd Foundation, we truly see such reporting as an opportunity to learn from our grantees about the successes and challenges we all face.
- Are we making this seem hard? Some instructions, especially very formal ones, can sound more burdensome than they really are. It may be valuable to suggest easy ways of meeting a requirement (for example: “This need not be a long report. Just two or three paragraphs to give us the highlights of the year would be sufficient.”) This approach not only shows readers that you respect their time, but it might even save you from receiving dozens of pages when all you wanted was a brief summary.
Sure, most grantees are so grateful for the support that they wouldn’t think of complaining when correspondence is haughty or condescending. But almost unavoidably, the tendency of some funders to take a command-and-control approach — no matter how unintentional it is — undermines the trust and candor on which the best funding relationships are based. When that happens, both sides of the relationship suffer.
This isn’t just conjecture. The original report on Project Streamline (“Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose,” 2007) found widespread grantee discomfort with the tone of the correspondence they receive from foundations. “Simply put,” the report concluded, “many nonprofits believe that foundations do not trust them.” A seasoned development officer from an eminent grantee organization told the Project Streamline researchers, “Sometimes I feel like program officers look at me … like I’m smarmy.”
Imagine if the funder who was quoted earlier had written this instead:
We ask that Project Leaders submit status reports regularly, in a way that corresponds to the project milestones we agreed on at the beginning of the grant. This will make it possible for us to review and understand the reports you send, and to give you a thoughtful response before too much time has passed.
Same requirements. Same information. But this time, the tone suggests trust, cooperation, and mutual responsibility. Those things are, in fact, exactly what most funders feel and want to express. So it’s worth the effort to make certain, every so often, that we haven’t slipped by accident into a tone that’s very different from the one we intend.
In conclusion, in order to assure that you have a successful relationship with your grantees and that your communications receive a positive response, you should use a friendly, polite or even sympathetic tone. You should review every communication that includes an instruction or demand and make sure that: (1) the communication is something you would say to a colleague; (2) it is clear why you need the item; and (3) you don’t make any requests seem too hard. These simple steps will help you get the results you want from your communications.