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December, 2011

Get The Money: Part 2: Ditch the Blue Smoke and Mirrors

I probably say it a dozen times in my workshops:  Writing funding proposals is a competitive sport.

And just like in sports, there’s no charity.  There’s no forgiveness of mistakes. There’s no dismissing poor performance as a fluke. There’s no fooling.  Blue smoke and mirrors just don’t work.  Sorry.

It’s serious competition and the result is winner take all.

Most proposals, especially high dollar federal proposals, are scored by independent panels of peer reviewers.  What this means is that experts in the field who have been trained to score proposals are in charge of your fate.  This refers to high level national competitions but much less so to state and local funding.  Foundations run the gamut. Depending on their size, interests, and investment plan, foundations may use a formal point process or put more store in relationships, reputation, and their program officers’ gut about certain projects.

For those of you who write proposals that will be formally scored, here are three tips gleaned from many years in the federal grantwriting business:

 1.  Read the proposal guidelines very carefully.  You’re looking for two things here.  First,  how the points are distributed, e.g. how many for the problem statement, how many for the program design and so on, will tell you what’s important to the funding source.  You need to score high in all sections.  But the point distributions tells you where to focus your planning and preparation efforts. 

Second, what are the specific criteria on which the point allocation will be made?  Proposal guidelines can be tricky, providing information about the required elements in one place and the evaluation criteria in another.  And they don’t always match.  Your job as the proposal writer is to create an integrated list of criteria.  In other words, you are going to respond well to everything.

2. Understand that each proposal section is scored separately.  This means that the problem statement, program design, organizational description are scored independently of each other.  Sure, it’s possible to cross-reference information from one section to another (a good strategy to save space in a document), but you must make sure that each section pretty much stands alone and fully addresses the point criteria.

3.  Look under the rock.  Proposal reviewers, especially federal reviewers, hide their detailed review under a big rock.  What is the big rock?  It’s applicants’ fear of criticism.  Review comments are available upon request.  So, if a panel of three peer reviewers scored your proposal, you can receive all of their scores and comments.  This is the road map for the next proposal.  It will tell you where you were weak and why.  Your competition is combing through those review comments looking for ways to improve next time.  The fools – the ones with their programs’ pockets turned inside out, complaining about the unfairness of funding sources – will write the same failing proposal next time or, if they’re really special, find new ways to fail.

Think about proposal writing like a football team prepares for a game and then reviews a loss.  They watch film.  They play as hard as they possibly can. They watch more film. They analyze their strengths and weaknesses.  They win.  (Yes, sports fans, I know I’m oversimplifying here but you get my point.)

That’s what winning proposal writers do.  I learned this the hard way so I know it’s true.  Good luck!

Get The Money: Part 1: The Language of Proposal Writing

There are dozens of books and workshops about writing proposals. Most of them focus on how to write a proposal from the macro point of view — needs statement, project design, goals and objectives, evaluation, and budget. Absent is advice about the micro level. 

What is the language of proposals? How should the written proposal word look and feel?  Does it make a difference how a proposal reads as long as it contains the right information?

I think it makes a huge difference.

Proposals are competitive.  They’re scored by human beings – people who might be tired, rushed, bored with the topic; people who want to make a good decision and do it quickly.  If your proposal is hard to read, it won’t be read well.  It’ll be skimmed.  You don’t want that.  The proposals that are skimmed by reviewers don’t get funded. 

FIVE QUICK TIPS:

1. Write only facts.  Proposal reviewers are looking for evidence that your organization knows what it’s doing and can run a good program.  Everything you write in a proposal needs to contribute to the evidentiary pile.  If it doesn’t, get rid of it. Some folks think that this takes the heart out of their proposal.  I don’t agree.  You shouldn’t have to weep on the page.  The numbers should make the case for you.

2.  Park the adjectives.  Pretend you have only ten adjectives to use in your entire proposal.  Place them judiciously in spots where they will catch the reviewers eye and where the word is backed up by evidence.  (See #1 above) Instead of using a lot of adjectives, focus on comparisons.  Rather than saying that the incidence of homelessness in Milwaukee is extremely high compare Milwaukee’s ratio of homeless to non-homeless to several comparable cities, report Milwaukee’s ranking on a national scale, or present a trend line showing worsening stats over time. Numerical comparisons are 100 times more effective than adjectives.

3. Use a formal tone.  Many successful proposal writers use the first person as in “We run a great program.”  I think this is too familiar in a grant proposal.  An letter or email solicitation is another matter but in a formal grant proposal, the use of the first person sounds unprofessional to me. Similarly, a proposal should conform to rules of proper grammar and punctuation.  I am so formal in a proposal that I do not even use contractions.

4.  Remember that looks matter. I want to see white space in a proposal.  Yes, this can be difficult when there are severe page limitations and you don’t want to give up even a centimeter to white space because everything you have to say is so important.  Here’s a hint.  If you dump 90% of your adjectives, you will have more white space.  Critical graphics (and by this I mean graphics that are so good, they can replace text) can give the reader that white space relief while still  conveying essential information.

5. Edit. The first draft of the last winning proposal I wrote — a proposal to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to establish a Family Drug Treatment Court in Milwaukee County – was 10 pages too long.  Guidelines permitted only 30 pages.  I had 40.  The editing process hunted down escaped adjectives, took out the ‘chat’ and converted several pages of text into two spectacular project-summarizing graphics.  Is it the most poetic piece of prose in the universe?  No.  But the Family Drug Treatment Court is operating as we speak.

Sometimes, a colleague will ask me to read his/her proposal and I can tell in the first 30 seconds that it’s a dud.  That’s how quick a reviewer makes a decision about your proposal.  I don’t have all the answers about how to get the money but these tips have worked for me. 

Let me know if they’re helpful for you.

Hair on Fire

This is my 100th Wilberg Community Planning blog post.  So I figured it needed to be really good.  Deeply meaningful.  Something people will print out and carry in their wallets. 

But it’s not going to be because what I’m thinking about is ‘hair on fire.’  Hair on fire, to me, is about professional hysteria.  It’s about people who should know better going around the bend about a problem – usually before they have all the facts, before they’ve talked to anyone, and before they’ve taken 30 seconds to reason things out.  Hair on fire people (HOFP) can generate a lot of upsetness and take up a lot of time.

Here are 5 ways you can tell if you’re a HOFP:

1. You can’t wait to tell people about a problem and when you do, you make it just a titch bigger than it was when you first discovered it.  A big part of ‘hair on fire’ is thinking you have to be Paul Revere, that you have to get on your horse and start tearing through town spreading the news before anyone else.

2.  You want to make the problem so important and world-changing that it requires a whole group to solve it.  ‘Hair on fire’ is no fun all by your lonesome.  You really need a circle of nodding heads and at least one or two people whose reactions will be more extreme than yours so you look like a moderate.

3. You think that the distance between the situation and the end of the world is less than 5 yards.  When your hair’s on fire, you are convinced that the worst case scenario is staring you in the face.  And you kind of like that idea. 

 4.  You keep gathering evidence to stoke the fire. When you’ve got that ‘hair on fire’ thing going, everything  seems to be related to your problem.  You get gum on your shoe and you find a way to connect it to your calamity.

5.  The problem turns out to be nothing.  Eventually, even if you can’t because you’re a HOFP, someone will take a deep breath and figure out that the tornado actually isn’t headed this way and besides that, it’s petered out to a strong wind.  It’s sad not to have a crisis but 99% of the time, there’s no crisis.  No reason for hair on fire.  Demoralizing for the HOFP.

The whole ‘hair on fire’ thing would just be entertainment for a group if it didn’t take up so much time and often have repercussions way beyond the moment. When people buy into the panic, they do extreme and often dumb stuff they wouldn’t otherwise do. Sometimes, they end up paying for it for a long time.

Know any HOFP?  Give them my 100th blog post to carry in their wallet.