Ask Dr. Streamline: Language Audit

Dear Dr. Streamline,

I wanted to ask if you know of any foundations that have conducted language audits of the documents they regularly send to grantees to maximize clarity, user friendliness and overall respect? We’re going to do one and I wanted to see if there were any models we could emulate.

Cindy Rizzo
Vice President, Organizational Learning & Grants Management
Arcus Foundation / New York


Dear Cindy,

I haven’t seen any written methodology for this (but what a good idea… I’ll get right on it!)  A quick dive into the Project Streamline blog archives uncovered this terrific post by Tony Proscio called “Making Your Communications Courteous and Collegial.” In this blog and in a Project Streamline newsletter article, Tony describes the “seven Cs” of effective writing: clear and concrete, courteous and collegial, current and consistent, and concise.

When I have needed to diagnose issues related to clarity, user friendliness, and respect in the past, I have used a combination of strategies:

  • Surveys/interviews of grantees asking about the wording of specific questions
  • Interviews of staff to learn where they do or do NOT get the information they intend
  • Reviewing each section of the application and reporting forms and asking at each point:  1) what are you trying to learn from this question?  2) do you get what you are looking for (and if not, what do you get instead)?  3) how is this information used in decision-making?

For a review of all documents sent to grantees, my recommendation would be a similar set of questions:

  • What does this communication intend to convey (substantively)?
  • Does it accurately and efficiently convey this information? (for this, you might need to turn to grantees for information).
  • Does the language and tone of this communication convey our respect for grantees?  Why/why not?

But first… begin with a discussion, if you haven’t had it before, of what your organization would like its tone and tenor toward grantees to be. What are the adjectives that describe the partner you aspire to be?  Then move to a conversation about what this looks like in its ideal form. Find a piece of writing or two that everyone agrees exemplifies this ideal tone.

Readers – how have you gone about assessing your communications?  Do you know of resources that Cindy should consider?

Dr. Streamline

Dr. Streamline is also known as Jessica Bearman. She, along with her colleague Streamlining Surgeon Alice Cottingham, and a cohort of Streamlining Interns, are available to answer all of your streamlining questions. Together, they diagnose the good, the bad, and the mystifying, and prescribe cures for your streamlining woes.If you have a question about your own grantmaking process, or one that you’ve encountered, please write to Dr. Streamline at for a useful (and possibly entertaining) Rx.