Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Good Grant Writing Blurs the Lines between Fact and Fiction

On Sunday I attended an elegant house-warming and BBQ in the wine country with a friend. During the party, I had an interesting conversation with a patent attorney. 
We started our conversation with the customary pleasantries and the standard introductory question between guys, “So what do you do?” Rightly or wrongly, it’s how guys break the ice until we retire when we ask things like, “What’s your handicap? Or who did your hip replacement?” But I digress.
We – the lawyer and I – talked about styles of writing in both of our professions. I drew from our discussion that writing a patent application is not unlike applying for a grant. This man’s assessment of grant writing is that the two kinds of writing are quite similar.
I explained that grant writing is a mixture of writing about factual information and fictional writing (kind of Orwell-style futuristic fiction).  Grant writing describes a future state to be created with grant funds.
He explained to me that this is similar to what he must produce when writing a patent application.  In addition to the technical aspects of the patent, he must describe the future benefits and functions of this yet-to-be produced widget, a future state based on the present facts.
Grant writers must be skillful in describing the future state. My advice to aspiring grant writers about how to achieve this unique style of writing, which would, perhaps, similarly edify aspiring patent attorneys, is this;
1)      Spend time with your client to adequately understand the future state desired,
Your imagination may produce sparkling fictional narrative, but if your client seeks a rocket to Mars and you write a grant sending him to Venus, you’ll have written an unachievable or undesired program.
2)      Write about this future state in a positive, can-do manner, with sufficient detail to make it a believable narrative,
Good fiction delivers the reader into a created world where they willingly suspend disbelief and buy in to the feasibility of the program design. Your grant narrative must deliver the program design in a way that the reader never stops nodding in agreement.
3)      Ground your optimistic description of the future state on the facts at hand.
The best fiction is grounded in facts that blur the lines between what’s real and what’s possible. The moment you force your reader to stop and ask themselves whether you’re proposing something plausible, you’re sunk.
My conversation with the attorney made me curious about how similar the writing styles actually are, or whether he was being over-generous in his assessment. I’ll conduct a search with Google this week to see if I can find a patent application to read. I suspect that if the style and level of difficulty are similar that, based the extravagance of his new vacation home, the main difference is to be found in our invoice for services.

Other Posts You May Enjoy:

Photo Credit: Rosa Ballada

Thursday, May 26, 2011

What Do You Do?

“I’m a grant writer,” a statement I've become hesitant to make because I tend to get one of three reactions.
Reaction 1 is a glazed over look from people who tried to write a grant once (usually a five page mini grant that was not funded) and hated every sentence of the experience. I imagine these people see me through mutant lenses as if I, and my large egg-shaped head, recently stumbled out of a broken silver spaceship in the New Mexico desert.
Many grant writers may have stumbled out of a space ship but like Roswell, the evidence is probably secreted away in an Area 51 vault.
Reaction 2 is a look of superiority from people who’ve written one more grants and have been successfully funded (almost always five page mini grants). It resembles the knowing-simpatico look that a firefighter gets from the guy who put out a grease fire on his neighbor’s stove, it is the “I can do that” sort of look.
You are not a grant writer or a firefighter unless you make a living at it.
Reaction 3 is a look that is at once rosy charm and mystical attraction. People who never tried to write a grant may give me this look.  These are well-intentioned, but uninformed, people who loved English courses and who once received an A+ on a paper about their kitten “Boots” (that A+ given by a cat loving English professor who was later committed for living with 123 feral cats and a mummified Pekinese named Boots). I imagine these folks see grant writers a technical writing Ernest Hemingway living an exotic lifestyle. They can imagine themselves drinking red wine in Pamplona until dawn.
Grant writing is sitting in an office for 14 days in a row writing a 40 page narrative for a client whose main idea for the program design is not to make anyone do anything new. That is not romantic; although, it could impel you to buy several bottles of wine and search out Jake and Brett.
Grant writing is real writing, mind you, though a bit stilted and constrained in style and form.  But there are no kitten stories to be written. Most grants are written about programs, the minutia of which is adequate substitution for cerebral Novocain. I read once that some people having brain surgery did not need general anesthetic; I surmised they were forced to read poorly written grant narratives before being wheeled to the operating room thereby dulling their senses to a dramatic extent.
I do what most writers do, I wrestle with my narratives until a deadline forces me to give them up. I get stuck and am too close to the narrative to make sense of it.  I curse at my edited copy, and, I drink to my editor’s continued good health. The narrative always pins me because it is never quite finished.
There is a 4th reaction, that of utter disinterest, like the young woman years ago at a club who when told what I do turned up her nose and asked me what kind of car I drove. The next time I am asked what I do, I shall make something up that squelches conversation, like life insurance salesman or telephone solicitor.

Other posts you might enjoy:

Photo Credit - Brian Lary

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Grant Research is a Steep Climb

Looking for foundation grant funding is laborious even if you know what you’re doing. There’s a lot of ground to cover if you’re going to find a match for your program or organization. It’s tough work and it takes a lot of time.

Did you know that there were 1,617,301 tax-exempt organizations registered in the United States in 2011, including:
    • 1,046,719 public charities;
    • 115,915 private foundations;
    • and, 454,667 other types of nonprofit organizations, including chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and civic leagues?
(Source: http://nccs.urban.org/)

That means you’re going to sift through a lot of foundation records to find a few that are a good match for your purpose. Even when you find one that funds your field of interest, there’s no assurance that the foundation will review your application.

You need to find those foundations that: A) accept unsolicited applications (or you need to attend the right cocktail parties/golf tournaments where you might gain an invitation to apply); B) have money to give this year; C) offers a funding cycle that gives you an opportunity to apply.

Did you know that Foundations gave $42.9 billion in 2009? According to The Foundation Center, this represents a decrease of 8.4% from 2008.

You need to know who’s giving the money so you can budget your research time wisely.  The Foundation Center goes on to report that the total foundation giving in 2008 was distributed as follows:
    • 72% came from independent foundations;
    • 10% came from community foundations;
    • 10% came from corporate foundations;
    • and, 8% came from operating foundations.
According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the number of 501(c)(3) organizations in the United States grew from 631,902 in 1999, to 1,006,670 in 2009.  That’s more than a 59% increase in the number of non-profit organizations. Those organizations gave 42.9 billion dollars in 2009 alone.  This figure should encourage you to keep researching to find the right match for your organization.

Other posts you may enjoy:

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Angel of the Odd and My Grant

Each time I write a grant, I learn something new. The grant I just submitted was written over a two week period and it included a 40 page narrative and all the ancillary pieces, it was not a small project.

I sit this afternoon before my computer pondering what to blog. It occurs to me that perhaps there’s a connection with a short story I read last night, Edgar Allen Poe’s “Angel of the Odd.” I suspect that this very Angel showed up and made my life difficult over the past two weeks. In the story, Poe, in reading numerous accounts of odd tragedies befalling people, decided that these stories were simply fictions created to sell papers.  In so thinking, Poe offended the “Angel of the Odd” who paid him a visit to set him straight and who designed for some odd circumstances to befall Poe who came to believe in the end that Odd things did happen and that the stories were real.

My Odd circumstances started on a Monday morning, the first of what was to be 14 days of grant writing.  I was primed, rested, ready to start writing.  My plan was to put my head down and make a dent in the narrative that morning.  I sat in my old Honda Civic waiting for the green light when suddenly I was rudely rammed into the intersection from behind amidst a thundering crash.

This odd situation got even stranger when I looked into the rear-view mirror to see the villain, who had attempted to park in my trunk at high speed, back up from under my car and pull around me to make a right turn, drive up the street, and then disappear in a crossing alleyway.

I was outraged at the scoundrel leaving me behind and not caring a whit whether I was breathing or passing on to my final reward; so I tried to follow him.  But my car would not roll as the tires rubbed loudly under the frame: my little car was fatally injured.

The chain of events that followed the commission of the crime kept me from writing a word until nearly noon time.  Even as I finally sat down to write, my head spun with the odd reality of my new situation.  I was 25 miles from home without a vehicle, I needed to ride the bus home, I needed to do battle with insurance companies, I faced the likelihood this man had no car insurance; these and a thousand other thoughts kept me from concentrating on my narrative until the next morning.

Writing a grant is mentally exhausting enough.  The hit and run driver totaled my car and imposed a whole set of odd circumstances upon me.  These included the additional 3 hours a day to my commute, the physical pain of the crash, the mental uproar of being in an accident and all the details attached to that (police, insurance, doctors, concerned friends and family) None of these things changed the fact that I had a grant to write.

As Poe learned, Odd things happen in an instant. But in spite of unwelcome visits by the Angel of the Odd, a grant writer can’t allow life to intervene.  It’s not a job that allows one to take sick leave while the work sits in an “In Box.” Grant deadlines do not wait.

What did I learn from this grant? I learned when a grant deadline is imminent; I simply need to suck it up and get the work done.

Other Posts You May Enjoy:

Photo Credit - Simona Dumitru

About Creative Resources & Research

My photo
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.