FUNDAMENTALS OF WRITING A GRANT PROPOSAL James H. Young, Ed.D., Resource Development Specialist (Reprinted: The National Council for Resource Development, Resource Paper No. 19, March, 1979) The principal instrument with which outside funds are solicited is the proposal. A grant proposal, in its most basic form, is simply a written justification for resources requested. Proposals may vary widely in length, format, and quality; however, all proposals must contain a constant “core” of elements and characteristics. The importance of the proposal cannot be over-emphasized. All grant programs (federal, state, or private) are highly competitive. The key to success in making application is just as likely to be the quality of a proposal as the soundness of the idea or the institution’s need. It should be emphasized at the outset that the proposal has one, and only one, central purpose: to communicate clearly an idea or set of ideas from your institution to the funding agency. Regardless of what other assumptions one may have heard voiced, it is never the purpose of a proposal to confuse, inspire, entertain, or deceive its reader. Therefore, governing principles of proposal writing should always be the “3-Cs: Clarity, Conciseness, and Completeness.” Clarity: Educators are infamously noted for their abilities to masquerade the English language under a wide array of euphemism, hyperbole, rhetoric, and jargon. Masters of the synonym, they often destroy the funding potential of a good idea by attempting to embellish it with semantic extravagance. An extreme but illustrative example comes from a letter written by a Houston principal to the parents of his students: “Our school’s cross-graded, multi-ethnic individualized learning program is designed to enhance the concept of an open-ended learning program with emphasis on a continuum of multi-ethnic, academically enriched learning using the identified intellectually-gifted child as the agent or director of his own learning." Had such a statement appeared in a grant proposal (and many have) the reaction of the reader would have been very similar to that of one Houston parent who replied to the above letter: “I have a college degree, speak two foreign languages and four Indian dialects, have been to a number of county fairs and three goat ropings, but I haven’t the faintest idea as to what the heck you are talking about. Do you?” So, in your proposal, get straight to the point and “tell it like it is.” Avoid ambiguous words and phrases. Write in short sentences and paragraphs. Avoid compound-complex sentences and always write in the active voice. Use concrete examples to illustrate your points. Conciseness: Proposals (especially federal grants) are usually read by a group of readers who are given stacks of documents to evaluate in short periods of time. There is nothing that can, under these conditions, more easily generate negative feelings in a reader than a proposal that rambles for thirty pages to say what it could have said in ten. Thus, specificity is more than an admirable quality in a proposal—it is a survival skill. Conciseness is achieved more by what you don’t write than by what you do write. As enthusiastic as you may be about your institution or your idea, this enthusiasm must be tempered by restraint. For example, one must always avoid the “Chamber of Commerce” approach when describing your institution. Readers do not care to hear that: “XYZ Community College is nestled in a scenic pastoral valley, overlooked by snow-capped peaks from whence a crystal brook flows through the picturesque campus.” There are also less dramatic examples of how you might improve conciseness in your proposals. Do not use a phrase when a single word will suffice. Some common examples of this practice include: Using To Mean an excessive amount too much in the area of in in close proximity to near has the capacity to can in the majority of cases usually serves the function of being is in view of the fact that since due to the fact that because Other barriers to concise proposals include unnecessary repetition (once is generally sufficient to say something); use of cliches or meaningless phrases (“tried and true,” “solid as a dollar,” “The community college is a unique institution,” “first and foremost,” “last but not least”); and excessive use of modifiers--adjectives and adverbs (especially avoid the use of superlatives; i.e., “greatest,” “only,” “fastest growing”). Your best bet in communicating your idea is a simple sentence of monosyllable words written in the active voice and free of jargon, cliches, and descriptive modifiers. Completeness: Although your proposal must be clear, concise, and to the point, you must make sure it is complete. Remember, the only thing a reader will know about your institution or your idea is what you tell him in your proposal. We who write proposals tend to make assumptions about what readers do or should know. Very often, those things that we consider “obvious” about our proposed programs are much less than common knowledge. Even if a reader is a student of a particular concept or practice you intend to employ, he cannot in good conscience evaluate your proposal on any basis except what is actually there. This is one reason it is always good to have your proposal drafts ready by someone who is totally unfamiliar with your ideas. You and your close associates are likely to “read between the lines” if you are directly associated with the proposed activity. Make sure you explain thoroughly and specifically the procedures you will implement and the steps you will follow. Flow charts, PERT diagrams and timetables are of valuable assistance here. Even where you are restricted by guidelines in the number of pages your narrative may encompass, there are numerous ways of making sure all essential information is available to the reader. Perhaps the best means is the use of appendices. In this manner, you do not force a reader to wade through minute details if he doesn’t want to. At the same time, however, you provide such information for those readers who might be interested in detailed analysis. Another approach is the use of parenthetical insertions in your narrative. For example, instead of speaking of “steadily increasing enrollments,” you might offer a statement like, “curriculum enrollment has increased significantly (34.6% N= +472 FTE students) over last year’s level.” If a reader has unanswered questions after reviewing your proposal, it is likely that he will consider your idea incomplete or your procedures inadequate. Remember, you will not have an opportunity to answer questions you create in your proposal. Clarity, Conciseness, and Completeness—these are the qualities your proposal must possess. Now let’s look at the content it must contain. Content: Although various grant programs and numerous foundations have their own particular formats for grant proposals, all proposals will ask that you answer five fundamental questions: 1. Why are you going to do it? (Needs) 2. What are the anticipated outcomes? (Objectives) 3. How are you going to do it? (Procedures) 4. How much will it cost to do it? (Budget) 5. How will you know when and to what extent you have done it? (Evaluation) Let’s briefly review the component parts of a grant proposal that address these questions. Needs: Every fundable proposal must be based on tangible and identifiable needs which exist and which the institution can legally address. Needs may be institutional needs (more facilities, the reduction of dropouts, etc.) or individual needs (to learn to read, to gain marketable skills, etc.). In either case, needs must be documented to demonstrate their existence and their intensity. Interest and needs surveys, internal needs assessment inventories, and needs identification committees are some vehicles that might be used in needs assessment for proposal writing. Remember, no matter how attractive a grant possibility may appear, if your institution does not require the resources to satisfy a real and existing need, do not apply for it. Objectives: Proposal objectives are perhaps best defined as “explicit statements of anticipated outcomes.” That is, objectives must specify the particular results to be achieved by the proposed project or activity. They are not concerned with how such results are to be attained. For example, “To expose students to the writings of Shakespeare,” is a procedure to be carried out; it is not an objective. Yet, “To increase the reading level of each student by 2.0 grade levels” specifies an outcome and is (in its most basic form) an objective. The most common deficiency of grant proposals is the inability of authors to write proper objectives. As objectives determine the remainder of your proposal (procedures, evaluation, budget), they will make or break your effort. For unless you know and can communicate precisely what you intend to accomplish, you cannot present a defensible request for support for it. A few examples from actual proposals will perhaps help illustrate differences between “good” and “bad” objectives. First, let’s look at some ambiguous, non- defensible objectives: 1. That students develop positive self-concepts. (Ambiguous) 2. From this project XYZ Community College plans to develop a broad consortium in future years. (No definition of purpose) 3. To employ an additional counselor to work with low-income disadvantaged students. (This is a procedure) On the other hand, let’s look at some examples of specific, measurable, and defensible proposal objectives. 1. To reduce attrition among first-year students by 10% below the 1975-76 levels. 2. To increase by 25% the total number of second-year students transferring to four-year academic institutions as compared with 1977-78. There are numerous excellent resources on writing measurable objectives. Proposal writers must develop the ability to recognize and write such objectives if their proposals are to be fundable. Procedures: These are the activities and actions one establishes for reaching the stated objectives. Care must be taken to ensure that each proposed procedure can and will contribute to meeting the objectives. For example, if your objective is to increase reading levels, a procedure which calls for establishing a “career placement center” would appear non-germane to your proposal. Secondly, always make sure that proposed procedures are realistic and are within the range of possibility for the project participants. Often, we let our imaginations overrule our rationality and prescribe program procedures that cannot possibly be carried out within the time or resources framework of our proposed project or within the reasonable capabilities of our target population. Evaluation: No proposal is sound unless it provides some tangible means for demonstrating the extent to which it accomplished its purposes. Therefore, a strong and definitive evaluation component is essential. In its most basic form, evaluation consists of making judgements about programs based on established criteria and known observable evidence. Thus, your evaluation components in a proposal must consist of a set of benchmarks or specified expectations, which can be demonstrated by the collection or observation of certain tangible outcomes. You must specify what kinds of results will indicate accomplishment of your objectives, how such results will be evident, and what levels of performance will be considered acceptable in deciding the success or failure in reaching your objectives. Unless proposal evaluation components contain, at the minimum, these basic elements, the effectiveness of activities in the proposal will be impossible to ascertain and the proposal itself will become very difficult to defend. Budget: Proposal budgets may vary greatly depending upon the scope of the proposed project, the cost of its activities, and the restraints or guidelines specified by the agency to which the proposal is to be submitted. Most sets of directions for writing any proposal will specify clearly those items or activities that are eligible for funding. The first rule of proposal budgeting (though often violated) is to refrain from requesting funding for non-eligible items. Be sure you know what these are—do not make assumptions. Another frequent mistake made in proposal budget preparation is inflation of requests. Some writers operate on the theory of “reciprocal expectations” (i.e., that you must “pad” budgets because agencies expect you to “pad” budgets. Thus, the only way to get what you really need is to ask for more than you need.). This theory may sound logical, but its utilization can kill an otherwise decent proposal. Proposal readers are acutely aware of what programs and personnel should cost. Excesses in requests are easily spotted and viewed negatively. So ask for what you need, but don’t view your proposal as a potential “gravy train.” Also, make sure that every item in your budget is mentioned and justified in your proposal narrative. It is always a god idea to take your final budget and, for each line item, go back to your narrative and make sure you have explained why the item is needed and how it contributes to accomplishing your objectives. Thus, proposal budgets must be line-itemized, financially realistic, and directly supported by the proposal narrative. And by all means—accurate. Make sure your addition is correct. These elements: needs, objectives, procedures, evaluations, budget, represent the essential and basic components of all grant proposals. Although there are numerous other details that a knowledgeable professional grantsperson can give a proposal beyond these, no one can write a fundable proposal without initial mastery of these. As educational resources become continually more competitive, the need for all educational personnel to become involved in proposal preparation will intensify. Those individuals who understand the proposal fundamentals outlined here will be valuable assets to their institutions, and institutions that share proposal preparation responsibilities throughout their ranks will be at the forefront when scarce resources are allocated.
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