Friday, June 25, 2010

The Detail Dilemma of Grant Writing

There are many things that make grant writing a challenging endeavor.  One of those things is something I call the "detail dilemma." Knowing how much detail to include about your need, your project design, your activities and your evaluation is not always obvious.  In fact, it is one of the things that new grant writers struggle with most.

On the one hand, you need to provide enough detail to make your plans perfectly clear to the readers and to thoroughly address the scoring criteria.  On the other hand, you usually also have a page limit pressing against you and keeping you from providing as much detail as you might like to include.

It makes it worse when the guidance from the funding source is nebulous.  I participated in a webinar this morning during which a funder was providing guidance for a grant due next week.  This one has no page limitation for the narrative (a very rare situation), and lots of terms like "describe thoroughly" and "provide detail about" in the RFP.  When asked for some guidance, the funder's representative simply replied, "Well, don't write too much, and be succinct, but you need to describe your plan thoroughly and provide enough detail so the readers will feel comfortable about how you addressed the scoring criteria."

Leave it to the government to provide a non-answer to a perfectly legitimate question. Sometimes you just want to yell, "Can't you give me a straight answer?"

So, what do you do?

Here's the advice I give to others (and the advice I try to follow myself):

  1. Assume that your reader knows nothing about your organization and what you do.  You need to provide enough detail for someone who knows nothing about you to understand a) who you are, b) what you are planning to do, and c) how you plan to do it.
  2. Provide more detail in sections that will gain you higher points. Remember, it's a numbers game.  It's a subjective numbers game, but a numbers game nonetheless.
  3. Provide more detail in the first several pages, regardless of how many points are allocated for the first section.  The first few pages that the readers see set the tone for their attitude for your whole proposal.  You need to start off strong sounding competent and like you have thought it all through.
  4. If you have no page limitation, or if you have more room left than you have already used, ask yourself, "What additional details I can provide that would help the readers select this project over another?"  Then add to your narrative accordingly.
  5. Read through your proposal to make sure it is focused on the scoring criteria.  Sometimes, writers fill their proposals with information they think is interesting, but that has little to do with what the funder wants to know.  I call this extra stuff "grant noise". Keep the grant noise to a minimum.  Focus on what the funder is asking and choose a simple project design. Sometimes pulling out all the "noise" helps you see where you need to add detail.
  6. Give your proposal to someone who has not been involved in the development of the project, and ask their opinion.  If there is anything that they think is unclear, add more detail to clarify the point.  This is definitely a time to "check your ego at the door."  Even if you think you said it clearly, if your friendly reader needed more explanation, the funder's readers probably will,  too.

Want more grant writing tips?  Try 101 Tips for Aspiring Grant Writers and consider taking an online grant writing seminar or course through the Online Learning Center.

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About Creative Resources & Research

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Woodland, CA, United States
Creative Resources and Research is a consulting firm specializing in grant writing, grant seeking, program evaluation and professional development training. We have worked with hundreds of clients including public and private schools, school districts, universities, non-profit organizations, and social service agencies throughout California, securing over $155 million from federal, state and private foundation funding sources over the past decade. Our primary grant writers and program evaluators have over 50 years of combined experience in the education and social services fields. At CRR we prefer a personal approach to the clients we work with; by developing long term relationships, we are better suited to match client’s needs with available funding sources. We provide a variety of services to help assist you, including grant writing, evaluation consulting, professional development opportunities, and workshops.