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.  

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