I have been grant writing for 20 years and raised over $60 million and yet I just did something for the very first time that I didn’t think was possible. I wrote a grant proposal at a leisurely pace over the course of a year. So, I thought I’d share with you about the lessons that I learned from the experience.
About a year ago, I got a phone call from the Director of a Ronald E. McNair program – it’s part of the Dept of Education’s TRIO suite that includes Upward Bound and Talent Search. I have successfully written several of these and they are HIGHLY HIGHLY competitive. He had not been involved in writing the initial proposal and so asked if I would mentor him through the process of resubmission.
Now, like most grantwriters I am used to working to tight deadlines and putting something together in a matter of weeks and, on rare occasion, days. I had never had the opportunity to write a proposal over the course of a year.
These were my hesitations
1. The final RFP would change things significantly and make the pre-work moot.
2. I would end up tweaking and twiddling with it and spend way more time than necessary on the proposal.
3. That I would lose my train of thought while working on it in bite-sized chunks.
None of these hesitations were warranted
1. RFP changes:Unlike other federal programs, the grant proposal guidelines for the TRIO programs are written in the authorizing legislation. This means that while the program officers can adjust the competitive preference priorities and page length, the basic structure of the proposals is set. They published the draft guidelines in the Federal Register a couple of months before the real ones so we had a good sense of what was probably coming. This year, they made a couple of big changes in the line spacing and added a new section worth 5 points. But, by and large, the format and content remained similar to previous years.
2. Endless Tweaking: I found that it took about the same amount of time to complete the draft as usual even though I was spending a few hours a week on it versus being consumed by it for a solid month. I did notice that I ended up with 17 drafts (versus the usual 12) but that just meant we had a more polished product in the end.
3. Losing Track: This was not really a problem at all – in fact, in some cases it worked to my advantage. I had to pull up a LOT of statistics for the needs section. Because we had so much time, I could ask the data guru’s at the institution that I was contracting with to pull up precise data and give them several months to do it. So, I ended up with up-to-date information that was highly detailed.
In other instances, when something was being laborious or not working well, I could just walk away and come back to it the next week – and by that time it just flowed. There was no need to push or stretch myself or anyone else.
It is totally possible to write a grant proposal at a leisurely pace and keep coming back to it. In fact, it was highly pleasurable and resulted in a refined product.
The caveat is that not all programs are so static – but many are and yet we don’t take advantage of that.
We are trained by school and college to cram and pull all-nighters and we take this habit into grant writing because the RFPs usually have a 6 week response window. But, in truth, when we step back it is often possible to know 80-90% of what is coming and we can prepare a lot in advance.
I am a convert to Slow Grants
– and I encourage you to try it too if the opportunity should arise.