Grant Writing Tips
from Jane Maxwell, Ph.D.
UT Center for Social Work Research
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Follow the instructions - exactly.
Spend time at the beginning going over the instructions in detail. Some agencies issue several documents, the program announcement for the particular grant category, and another more general set of instructions for all grant applications. These can be confusing and contradictory in their instructions. Go through them and develop an outline of everything that is required, and if there are differing instructions on where a certain item is to be included, discuss it at both places. Keep going over the instructions every day as you are writing the proposal, and then double check them again in great detail at the end. Your copy of the instructions should be ragged by the time you have finished! Have someone else also become an expert in the instructions, particularly those involving required forms and budget instructions, and get that individual to carefully double-check the application as you are finishing it up. Remember, many applications get thrown out just because the instructions were not followed.
Set aside plenty of time.
Do not underestimate the amount of time required to write a competitive application. Plan to spend three to four weeks full time at work writing, and be able to set aside another 40-50 hours of overtime (when you have peace and quiet and can concentrate). If you will not have that much time available, do not undertake the project.
Make the final deadline earlier than required.
Always set your final deadline at least two days earlier than what is required so you can have enough time to send in more copies if your first mailing gets lost. (Keep the number of your parcel and call the overnight delivery service to make sure it was delivered on time). Set the deadlines for contributions from other authors very, very early so you have time to rewrite. Get the required signatures and forms done early; they don't have to be signed on the last day. Count on everything going wrong at the end, so allow time for broken printers, crashed hard disks, and directors who are out-of-town and unavailable to sign the form you overlooked. You want to spend the last couple of days polishing your proposal, rather than dealing with problems which could have been handled earlier.
Be a grant reviewer.
If you have the opportunity to be on a review panel, jump at the chance. Each year funding agencies ask for volunteer reviewers. It is a lot of work, but you get an insight into how the process works and also what it is like to be a reader. Once you have spent a weekend reading 15-20 proposals, you will find your own approach to grant writing will change dramatically.
Write a grant that is friendly to your reader.
The reviewers are reading your proposal at nights or on weekends. Some will be conscientious and will read and reread each proposal (some will even grade Section A of your application against Section A of all the other proposals). The overly conscientious reviewer will hold you to the instructions literally and may double-check your footnotes or data to try to find faults in your work. Conversely, a reader may not be very interested or committed, and he or she may give the proposal a very quick and cursory look. Thus, you need to have a good abstract and good section headings. Make sure the important points stand out at the beginning of the paragraphs. Do not assume your reader knows what every acronym and buzzword pertaining to the substance abuse field means; define each term, approach or service philosophy clearly. Explain in detail and show the reader you understand what you are talking about. If you make the reader's job easy, he or she will be your biggest advocate during the review. If you make the reader's job difficult by not following directions, preparing a sloppy application, or expressing an "attitude" in the proposal, the reader can be your worst enemy.
Have only one author — with lots of helpers.
Get others to write parts which require knowledge or expertise you don't have. But then take their work and rewrite it in your words and make sure the concepts, time frames, terminology, etc. are the same throughout. Proposals which are simply "cut and pastes" of different authors do not do well because of contradictions. Many just need a rewrite by one author to make them strong.
Match the budget to the grant.
The reviewer will look to see if the budget actually is carrying out what the application proposes. Set up the staffing pattern, including phasing in employees. Show the number of out-of-state trips, consultants, and special equipment needed. Then, have your fiscal person turn it into a final budget (following the instructions and budget forms). Most federal applications use the same cost principles as state agencies. Force yourself to pay attention to the budget justification, which allows you to explain again why you need a particular item and to emphasize innovative items which make your application special.
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