Thursday, March 5, 2015

Knowledge of People is Power: Using Teamwork to Improve Your Grant Writing

As a graduate and undergraduate student, I thought of academic/intellectual production as a lonely, solitary occupation. However, when I wrote -- and later published -- my doctoral dissertation, I quickly learned that being a successful political scientist meant that I would have to get really good at working with small groups of people highly skilled people. While my name was on the final product, I benefited from assistance of a number of editors, proofreaders, research assistants and mentors.

In a similar manner, I like to stress that grant writing is not a solitary exercise - it is in fact a team sport.

In my experience, it is not always the best charities or institutions that win the most lucrative grants. Instead, success goes to those folks who manage to pull together a broad range of information and produce a conforming document under the pressure of a tight deadline. In most cases, the grant writer is dependent on the accounting office for budget information, the executive director's office for goals and vision, the program administrators for day-to-day expertise, clients for practical insight, staff members for fresh versions of their resumes, and even the funder's own administrators regarding the details of the application.

In this context, I think the best grant writers have a knack for managing small, temporary work groups. One of my secrets of success is to pay attention to the temperaments of the people involved in the process.

In Lao Tzu's book, The Art of War, he says that there is a place for everybody when you are planning a military campaign.  He says that those who are impulsive and full of courage should be given the honor of leading the charge. He says that those who are naturally cautious and careful are better employed at logistics and planning. The challenge is to size up your group and make intelligent assignments quickly.

At the start of the grant writing process, I like to leverage the excitement and enthusiasm of the most outspoken proponents of the grant. I encourage them by rapidly creating a complete A-Z grant application which puts their biggest and best ideas into a rational, conforming framework.  I encourage them to shoot for the stars, apply the latest research, and compile their most inspirational wish list.

As I near completion of the project, however, I like to encourage the voices of the project pessimists, the one who may have been indifferent, or actively opposed, writing the grant in the first place. Frequently, I have found that those who were most resistant to even trying for the grant can be quite helpful in polishing up and perfecting it at the end of the process. I like to leverage the naysayers by encouraging their criticism, asking for their harshest observations, and implementing their most realistic perspectives.

One of the advantages of this approach, by the way, is that the most aggressive grant optimists have already lost interest in the project and are moving on to fresh endeavors.

Accordingly, I think it is important to stress that grant writing is more of a team sport than a form of solitary contemplation. There is a lot of money to be made by paying attention to your team's personalities, strengths and weaknesses.  

Never Rewrite Anything the Same Day You Write It

One of the most important techniques I use to produce grants quickly...and to generate copy for our monthly to follow the rule of never rewriting anything the same day I write it.  When I was an undergraduate student, I used to spend hours writing and rewriting the first sentence of my term paper until it was perfect.  Then I would spend hours and hours writing and rewriting the first paragraph.  This process was especially painful because I was using a typewriter to compose my document and liquid paper to cover-up my mistakes.
Then, as you might guess, I would write the rest of the five page paper in about four hours - right before the paper was due. 
Looking back on my youth, I'm amazed I had the strength and perseverance to pull this off.  When I went to graduate school, however, I got better tips on writing and my productivity shot up.  As you may know, I won an award from the American Political Science Association for my doctoral dissertation.  I completed my dissertation more quickly than my fellow graduate students, in large measure, because of my fidelity to the principle of never rewriting on the same day that I first drafted a page or two of a chapter.

Today, however, I'm taking this principle to a new level.  One of my current rules is to start articles and grant applications by using voice recognition software.  This software allows me to produce a first draft about three times faster than typing it out by hand.  Although it is tempting to go back and repeat what I've just dictated in a slightly different fashion, I resist this temptation.  (This can be difficult, by the way, because I usually have a better idea of what I really think after I've had a chance to vocalize my ideas.)  Although my first drafts are wordy and repetitive, I can clean up these mistakes as I do the second draft...or after the staff of the agency has had a chance to help me improve the quality and realism of the proposal.
Even if you are uncomfortable with this technique at first, even if you think it is impossible to dictate you thoughts verbally, please do not let these presuppositions hold you back from applying this advice and benefiting from it.  Overtime, you will eventually get more comfortable with dictation and you will find it hard to imagine producing documents in a slower, less efficient fashion.
If you want to order voice recognition software, then please check out the following link:Link to Dragon Naturally Speaking Software
As always, I don't make any money from recommending voice recognition software to you.  My payment is your satisfaction with your improved productivity.

Setting Up a Grantsmanship Library to Speed Up the Application Process

The process of grant writing quickly exposes you and your charity to a "survival of the fittest" environment.  Ironically, you will be harming yourself and your charity if you spend too much time grant writing, get too perfectionistic, or drag out the process too long. Thus, one of the most important secrets of grant writing is to recognize that you are in a dangerous spot and to get through it as quickly as possible. 

One of the biggest problems I see in the field of grant writing is that very few people are timing how long it takes them to write a grant.  If more of us - me included - did a better job measuring the length of time needed to produce a full-proposal, then I think we would be more likely to look for new technology, short-cuts, and other tricks of the trade to speed up our grant writing.  In my case, for example, I found a lot of practical wisdom in the traditional tenets of the grant writing literature...but only after I reinterpreted these recommendations as tools for saving time. 
One of the most important techniques I use as a grant writing consultant is to create a "grantsmanship" library for each client. 
In this library, I collect - ahead of time - the key documents that will be needed as part of a hard-copy or on-line grant application.  These documents include copies of the agency's 501 ( c ) 3 determination letter, their IRS 990 form, a list of their Board members, their annual audit, and resumes for the Executive Director and key program officers. 
I put these items in files, agency by agency, and then place them in a filing cabinet that is within easy reach. My rule is that the more often I use something, the closer I store it next to me.  As I like to demonstrate in the Grant Writing Fundamentals class, I want to see the grant writer's chair right next to the grantsmanship library. 
Below, I'm including an excerpt from my, "A Really Great Booklet on Grant Writing," which indicates the elements of a grantsmanship library: Link to List of Elements for Your Grantsmanship Library
Your ability to move quickly in a crisis - to act decisively - will be favorably influenced by this simple practice of organizing your key materials ahead of time.  If you do not yet have a grantsmanship library, please do yourself a favor and get started on it now.  I think you'll be glad you did.

How to Reduce Your Grant Campaign Risks By Becoming a High Speed Grant Writer

What are the advantages of assigning the first draft to the high speed grant writer?

You can produce more grants, you can provide your team with more time to perfect the grant applications, like a race car driver your own attention is focused more completely under high speed grant writing, high speed means the final document will most likely reflect a natural consistency based on your current state of mind, you can move quickly when money becomes available, you can reduce risks by addressing the reasonable challenges and potentially unwarranted fears which might keep you from even attempting to produce a grant application.

Moreover, it is more fun and less of a chore. You'll be able to take advantage of the full capacity of your brain's intuition, memory, associations and your innate artistic sensibility. In my view, the challenge of high-speed grant writing is all the more interesting and easier to teach because it becomes a physical and not and intellectual skill.

Secrets of High Speed Grant Writing: Use Voice Recognition Software

I want to introduce you to the incredible power of voice recognition software is a key tool for speeding up the grant writing process. It is very difficult to do this sort of work on a high-speed basis if you are not able to dictate what you're doing, or to record your dictation and quickly download it into print. I write like I'm in the middle of a hurricane to gain sharper focus and urgency.

Secrets of High Speed Grant Writing: Start at the Beginning and Produce an A to Z First Draft

Once you have your voice recognition software in place, I think it is helpful to create a first draft of the entire grant application from A to Z - in that order. Save time by starting at the beginning each time.

Secrets of High Speed Grant Writing: Write First, Then Do Your Research

I'm a little rough in the first draft. I create dummy numbers. I fill in all the blanks with the expectation that the staff will refine the document with the exactly correct numbers based on their experience. My technique is to do my writing first and then doing my research afterwards. This speeds up things by allowing me to research only the information that is relevant to the grant. In this sense, I think it pays to create a quick first rough draft because it forces you to digest the grant application requirements from A to Z. This process of actively answering the questions forces you to read all the questions and to get up to speed on the realistic requirements for a more polished grant application.

Secrets of High Speed Grant Writing: Write for an Overwhelmed Reader

In my workshops, for example, I explain that I'm writing for the hung over intern who is facing severe emotional problems. You can assume the reader is overwhelmed by late night hours, crushed by too much to read even as the reviewer is comforted by too much to drink. I write very clearly simply and cleanly. I point out the obvious connections between my answers and the written questions I'm responding to. It is essential to initiate work on the budget concurrently with the grant application. The tired grant reader may simply not read the proposal and just jump to the budget.

Secrets of High Speed Grant Writing: Apply the Golden Rule to Your Own Grant Writing

Ultimately, the high speed grant writer needs to write what makes sense to the high speed grant writer. If you are not sold on the grant, then it is likely the funder will not be sold on the grant either. You know you are on the right track when you get the feeling that you know why they have to fund your grant application.   There is not enough time to go back and forth and interview your team and ask them what they think. There is not enough time in the world for the team to debate and decide every issue. There are too many unknowns. Ultimately, the best thing to do is to trust yourself. That is to trust your intuition and to deliver product that makes sense to you. The Golden Rule works because it is a decision-making tool in a world of constrained rationality. It is a rule that will allow you to gain greater decisiveness over time.

Your Opportunity to Shine: Meeting with the Foundation Officer Face-to-Face

In general, if the funder asks to meet with you, then you are virtually certain to win a grant from them. In my experience, you chance of winning something after a site visit from a funder is about 90%.
All in all, I think these site visits are a good idea for everyone involved in the grant winning, grant giving process. The funders are surprisingly fearful of new organizations and concerned about being embarrassed about making a bad decision. A quick face-to-face visit is often all they need to determine that you and your charity are genuine and capable of implementing a grant effectively to serve clients. Consequently, the time funders spend meeting with you is quite valuable to both parties.

Visiting Think & Do in Cairo, Egypt
Visiting Think & Do in Cairo, Egypt

Accordingly, I have a couple of tips for managing these brief moments a charity shares with a funding organization.Ideally, your first meeting with the funder should be an exciting time of discovery. Here are my tips for how to handle this precious moment:

1. Reread the Grant: Definitely ask your Executive Director, Program Director to reread the grant proposal. In my experience, the funder will often ask you to repeat the evidence and program details contained in your original grant application. You will look foolish and/or out-of-touch if you have not refreshed your memory about these specific details.

2. Use Your Winning Slogan: Train everyone to implement your winning line-of-the-day during the visit. This means everyone who comes in contact with the funder's representative should know the winning slogan that advantages your charity against the competitor charities who are also seeking funding - often from this same representative.

3. Clean Up the Office: It is amazing to me that I can tell an awful lot about an organization from a quick glance at their office space. As I take in what I see, I quickly get a feeling for their mission, their resolve, their level of energy, their sense of synergy and a lot of other things which are not readily apparent in an on-line or paper grant application. Assuming that the funders are as quick to pick up on these details as I am, I like to prepare for their visit by tiding up the little details in the office including the plants and the artwork. If a charity is neglecting its plants, I assume they are also neglecting their clients. If the pictures are crooked, I assume they lack empathy about everything else. For these reasons, I like to take the brown leaves off the plants and straighten the art work so that it is not crooked looking to a viewer.  

4. Make Sure You Offer Refreshments: Ironically, one of the things that a funder will remember the most about their visit to your charity is your hospitality. Do not be afraid to go over a little board and offer them coffee, tea, water and so on. 

Protect Your Odds of Winning By Sharing the Potential Pain of Rejection with the Funder

One of the subtle themes I use to make my grant writing more compelling is that I remind the grant funder that their rejection of the grant will have measurable consequences for the charity. In other words, I like to suggest that the charity's rainy day might also be the funder's rainy day.

After Heavy Rain in California 3 - Remix!
After Heavy Rain in California 3 - Remix!
I am not above leaning on their guilt to help motivate a positive decision. By the time I am done with a grant proposal, the charity may be as compelling as a target of generosity as the homeless family begging for change in front of your neighborhood Costco store.

I am not above sending a message to the funder that their rejection of the grant will hurt our feelings.

To be sure, the funder knows that its rejection will hurt your feelings. The trick, however, is to make this natural pain so real that they could never see themselves as saying no to your grant. This trick only works if you know for sure that you have met the funders eligibility requirements. Otherwise, it is too easy for the funder to hid behind its own regulations and insist that your request failed to overcome their necessary bureaucratic boundary conditions. By making your application perfectly compliant, you are building their sense of guilt if they reject your application.

Following my logic, there are a number of interesting ways to make your grant more painful for them to reject. One is to play up and highlight previous gifts you have gotten from the funder. Another trick is to raise their costs of rejection by reminding them of any personal contacts your charity has with their board members or staff. Consistent with these ideas, I have also found it pays to tell a story about an individual client who will be helped by the charity. I like to write this story in such a manner that it will be clear that this client will be among the very first to hear, yes or no, about whether or not the funder approved of the grant proposal. In other words, I want to make it clear that the vulnerable client will never forgive the funder for failing to support the grant request. 

Likewise, I try to remind the funder that their rejection of the grant proposal will not only disappoint the clients, but also the charity's staff, board members, and community partners - including other funders. The idea is to bring the funder face-to-face with the enormous consequences of their decision so that they do not take a rejection lightly and so that they have every opportunity to be the hero that makes the project possible.

Hold Tight to Your Winning Message As Your Draft Comes Face-to-Face With Reality

As I have shared before, the first thing I do when I start writing a grant is develop the most appropriate winning message for that charity. This winning message needs to present your charity as the best possible social investment for a funder - especially when your charity is compared, side-by-side, with competitor charities. 

As I write and revise the grant, however, I find that my knowledge of the charity and its proposed project increases over time. At the same time, I have found that the clarity of the grant writing process itself sometimes inspires the charity's leaders to make needed changes in their mission and their project once they are face-to-face with how a well-meaning, yet thoroughly objective, observer reacts to their plans. As we work to put ideas down on paper, I have often found that new, completely fresh information comes to light at the last second which causes everyone to rethink and reconsider the grant application. 

Under these circumstances, I become careful not to change the spirit of the winning message as I am buffeted by the "fog of war" towards the end of the grant writing process.

Instead, I hold tight to the winning message and then carefully add details to my details so that even the tiniest bit of new information nevertheless supports the winning theme. In my experience, the addition of relevant details actually makes the charity's grant proposal more, not less, attractive to funders. As they say, "God is in the details." These carefully added details will bring a crisp twist to your proposal, a twist that make it even more memorable to the potential donor. 

By holding tight to the winning message, even in the last few moments of grant writing, I'm able to generate a document that is both compelling and simple for the funder to understand.  In the end, I make sure the details add up to communicate the message that the charity is "all in" when it comes to making its project a reality.

Nouns Are Us: End Your Sentences with a Strong Word

Normally, I do not talk much about writing style when I speak about grant writing techniques. Nevertheless, there are some simple tricks I have used over the years to make my words easier to follow in the mind of the reader. One of the simplest of these techniques is my habit of ending sentences with a noun.  

Visit to OC's The Great Park
Visit to OC's The Great Park

As I read through various grant applications by new or inexperienced grant writers, I often find them ending the sentence with a verb or a gerund. For example, they will write: 

Clients go into the park to explore. 


Clients enjoy the park by exploring.

Instead, my typical approach is to write something more grounded such as

Clients will go and explore in the park.


Clients enjoy exploring in the park.

My sense is that ending the sentence with a verb is sort of like not allowing the reader to breath at the end of your sentence. The other endings seem to imply more action or activity is coming and thus leave the sentence reading less precisely or as if it is incomplete in its thought.

Since charities are often unstable, even unreliable entities, I try to use language to reflect the idea that they are a safe and traditional place to invest social monies. I do this by almost always ending a sentence with a noun.

Improving Your Success Ratio By Seeding In the Funder's Buzz Words

One of the most effective techniques I use when writing a grant proposal is to feedback to the funder the sort of buzzwords they feel comfortable using in their own application materials and website. 

Visit to OC-FAS Studios in Anaheim, CA
Visit to OC-FAS Studios in Anaheim, CA
In my experience, each funder tends to find itself circling around a steady and consistent set of five to ten buzzwords which illustrate their fundamental take on humanity and what they perceive to be in the best interests of the community. Although I usually disagree with their perspective - I'm trained as a political scientist, after all - I have nevertheless found it profitable to identify these buzzwords and carefully and appropriately seed them into my document.

I think this technique works, in part, because it is a way of showing off how the charity will be compliant and easy to deal with after we have won a check from the funder. The funder, of course, understands that we are mirroring their buzzwords. Nevertheless, they seem to appreciate this extra effort and this expression of solidarity with their take on the world.

After all, a short grant application is not really a great venue for totally transforming the hard-wired assumptions and prejudices of a funder. Instead, it is a strong opportunity to show that the folks receiving the grant will not be rocking the boat to any significant extent.