Writing Winning Proposals : The Golden Thread Principle

‘…And Senor Picasso, what are you going to do with that lump of stone over there?’

Apparently, the visitor had seen the rock and was curious what the great artist could possibly use it for.

‘I will turn that’, pronounced the great artist ‘into the sculpture of a lion’.

‘How will you do that?’ asks the curious visitor.

‘Simple’, says Picasso, ‘I will start chipping away, and I will remove everything that does not look like a lion.’

One of the hardest skills is leaving things out

There is something about this strange story which hugely helped me as a fundraiser. The problem I had really struggled with, was how do you keep your proposal or pitch focused only on what the donor cares about? Because I’ve found that unless you are ruthless in applying focus, your proposal / pitch will inadvertently end up diluted with lots of other information which you / your charity cares about but which are of little interest to the donor.

I’ve found this is incredibly easy to do – through my courses I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of pitches and proposals fall into this trap. And all that extraneous detail smothers the persuasive life out of your communication, because the one or two things that would have helped the donor say ‘YES’, get completely lost.

But when I heard Picasso’s lion story, it somehow strengthened my resolve to be ruthless in only keeping things in my proposal or pitch that I knew to connect with what the donor cared about.

‘If it does not look like a lion (ie the few things that matter to the donor/ partner), you must leave it out’, became my mantra.

Charly’s successful proposal – how she did it

I was moved to write this blog today because this morning I spoke to an excellent corporate partnerships fundraiser called Charly who took part in this summer’s Corporate Mastery Programme. I was congratulating her on the success of her recent proposal to a very well-known company.

She said that one of the valuable techniques from the Mastery Programme that had helped her win over this partner, was what we call the Principle of the Golden Thread…

I’ve found that when most fundraisers draft their proposals, they presume that the partner / donor will diligently read through the entire document from start to finish. Sorry, but the truth is, however interested your potential partner / donor seemed in the meeting, they probably won’t read through your whole document. There’s a strong chance they’ll glance at the front, the back, and then flick through to get the gist. But if you only mention your most important point once or twice, on page three or four, after you’ve logically set the scene the donor may never even get to the interesting bit.

So Charly said a crucial part of her success came from doing two things:

  1. Stripping out anything that was interesting but not persuasive,
  2. And critically, AMPING UP what was important (in terms of the partner’s motivators).


So how do you amp up the bits that help them say YES?

Decide to make the few key ideas (or information that backs up those ideas) pop out at the reader on every single page, like a golden thread running all the way through.

And what makes up this golden thread? Well how do magazine layout designers use different tactics to bring to life the key ideas in an article? For a start they vary the font type and size, and they search high and low for relevant images and relevant quotes. And most of all they work at choosing titles that connect with the reader’s interests and subheadings to make the key messages clearer, whether you read the whole article or not.

The copy-writing expert Peter Thomson asserts that 70% of the customers’ willingness to buy gets decided at the headline. Yet most fundraising proposals I am shown waste the persuasive potential of the headline by simply repeating the name of the project they want the donor to fund. For example, ‘The Therapeutic and Counselling Service’. Like Charly, your results will improve if you replace these dull charity-focused titles and instead signal you can help them solve a problem they care about – e.g. ‘Your chance to help 200 children rebuild their childhoods’.


There are a few places left for the Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme and Major Gifts Mastery Programme 2017. We have run 9 of these programmes before, and every single one has SOLD OUT, so if you’re interested, find out more today.