The Why and How of It
Receiving a grant is good. It’s good to get the support and fantastic to get the recognition. But the process of writing gives you something more. Writing a grant proposal helps you think about your goals. It’s the time to ask yourself how the work you have in mind will further your career and to think about how to stretch your skills beyond today.
These seven rules will help you understand what to do when applying for a grant.
Set your goals. Ask yourself, “If I get this grant and complete the work, what will I be able to do next?” A grant proposal should be the beginning of a story—a narrative that moves you from where you are to where you want to be...next year and the year after that.
Consider your grant application, no matter how polished, as a draft of the next grant you’ll write. Writing a grant proposal provides the practice we need to explain our goals—to ourselves and others. It is a skill you can learn. But it does require practice. Writing a grant proposal provides that practice.
LISTEN to what the grantor tells you. Every grantor will publish a “request for proposals” (RFP). Look at the RFP carefully. What are the keywords and themes used in the RFP? What has the grantor already funded? Learn about the grantor by reading the bios of the judges and the staff. To learn more, search the web for advice, grant opportunities, and proposals that have been funded.
Think like a reviewer. Reviewers are skeptical so read your proposal as though you are one of those skeptical reviewers. Ask questions like, “What has this applicant done?” (Reviewers will want to know what you’ve undertaken outside of class assignments.) “What is this applicant doing now?” (Reviewers will want to know that there’s a pattern of ongoing creative work.) How does the applicant’s proposed work relate to the work being proposed?” What a reviewer wants to see is how your proposed work leads to the next phase of your career or your talents. And don’t forget to connect the budget to the narrative: if you mention an item that requires money, be sure to list it in the budget, and if you list it in the budget, explain it in your narrative.
Think like a funder. Naturally enough, when you write a proposal, you’re thinking about how the grant will benefit you, but remember to think about how your work can be of value to your funder. As you read the RFP and the grantor’s website, you’ll see that they are promoting a value. Perhaps it’s a social cause, an innovative strategy, a new approach to education, creative use of a medium, a way to develop a community or some form of social or creative change. Connect your idea to the values you find.
Think like a writer. Make your proposal an interesting read. It should tell a story that supports your application and your goals—what’s your plot, the challenge, the impact your project will have on you, your discipline, or your community. Avoid exaggeration. Don’t say, “What I have in mind is going to be cutting edge, innovative, unique, exciting... etc.” At the same time, avoid the overly modest and conditional. (“I hope to do... “ “This should be…”) Sound confident: you can and will do what you are proposing. Good writing makes for easy reading. Avoid jargon. Write as though your reviewers are not experts. They’ll appreciate it. Try to write at a seventh-grade or eighth-grade reading level so that the reviewers will be able to understand what you have to say without spending time decoding your prose. (This blog is written at seventh-grade reading level.) Reviewers will usually spend no more than five minutes on a first, quick read of a proposal. Remember, they will be reviewing a stack of proposals.
Know the rules. RFPs will tell you what you must submit—the length of a proposal, budget (money needed plus resources available), number of samples, background, references, etc. Don’t assume the reviewers will give you a bit of slack if you go beyond the number of samples or the length. Reviewers will likely discard your proposal without reading it.
Writing fundable proposals requires persistence, paying attention to the RFP, and a willingness to revise. About one-third of grantors fund about 50% of the proposals they receive. (Not bad odds.) The odds improve when you apply to small grantors, who receive fewer proposals. They are even better when you revise a “failed” proposal and submit it to another grantor.
Don’t Overpromise and Underperform. Often a grant will require that you provide some form of metrics—how you demonstrate that you did what you said you’d do. Think about the promises you’re making, and then, even before you start your project, develop a scheme for “measuring” what you’re doing so you’ll be ready to write the summary report, normally required before you get your final payment.
For more detail, take a look at Quick Guide on Grants which includes links to supplementary readings and lists of grant opportunities. If you’d like to talk about your grant proposal, register for an Office Hour.