Reading is the secret to writing successful grant proposals

No, that wasn’t a copy of War and Peace that hit your desk last week. It was the application guidelines from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program, whose guide to 1998 funding is almost as unwieldy as its name.

Despite its heft, the NTIA/TIIAP (as it’s known by those in the biz) is actually one of the user-friendliest guidelines you’ll see from the government‹or just about anywhere. I helped a nonprofit organization apply for one of these babies last year and was impressed then, as I am today, with the department’s clear, succinct advice on filling out its forms and writing the project narrative. And heck, they even share excerpts from successful grants in the past. How many programs bother to do that?

So I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about reading an application guideline, or RFP (request for proposals), as it’s often called.

Why bother?

“The first thing I would tell people is read the guidelines,” says Don Druker, an NTIA/TIIAP program officer. “Which is almost like telling people who buy a computer to read the user’s manual.”

Now, I’m one of those people who will dig the manual for my computer out of its carton only as a last resort. But I learned early on that there’s only one way to win a federal grant: figure out what they’re looking for and then be that thing.

To do this, you have to read the guidelines.

Are applications from those who’ve read the guidelines really so different from those who haven’t?

“Oh yeah,” says Druker. “You can tell that right away.”

There are several reasons to become intimately acquainted with a grantor’s guidelines.

First, you endear yourself to the funder. The panel who’s reading your proposal will see that you took the time to consider the priorities. You will distinguish and endear yourself for not wasting their time with a project that’s inappropriate.

You find out what they’re looking for! This is extremely important.

Druker says that the Number One problem he sees with the grants that come into his office is that the proposed project doesn’t address the funding priorities. Funding priorities tell you want the grantor wants to see in a proposal. Every grant-making body has them‹from the feds to your local Catholic diocese.

Apparently it bears saying again: Funders want to fund projects that they want to fund. It’s really that simple.

Finally, you save yourself time by applying your limited resources to the areas where you expect the highest success.

It’s tempting to send your stock proposal to everyone under the sun in the hopes that someone will grab it. This kind of scatter-shot approach, however, is not the best use of your time and energy.

Jenine Korfant, who writes grants for the Independent Residential Living facility in Indiana, agrees. Like most fund raisers in nonprofit agencies, Korfant has limited resources to meet her organization’s budget needs. “Really make sure what you’re proposing matches their priorities,” she advises. “Don’t waste your time doing something that’s not a fit.”

Showing such disregard for your readers is also likely to alienate funders who may be interested in another proposal of yours down the road. You risk burning a bridge that you might need later on.

What to read for

Only by reading the guidelines will you understand how your project fits into the program’s funding priorities. When you have a thorough knowledge of what a funder will and will not support, you can create a persuasive argument that clearly states why this funder‹and not any other‹must help meet your need.

“We find a lot of projects that are in search of a funder,” Druker said. “People don’t read the guidelines, or they do with their own agenda in mind. That can produce a document that’s very much at cross-purposes to the funder.”

So, first, understand the grantor’s priorities. Then, learn how to prepare and submit your application. And, finally, understand how to persuade this audience to give you money.

In my mind, anyway, this means you’ll need three different colored highlighters.

Put the really important things in pink, which I find an alarming color:

€ how funds can and cannot be used

€ page limits and formatting rules

€ funding priorities

€ mailing/drop off address and number of copies

€ funding priorities

You must also‹pronto‹find the application deadline and determine whether this is the date the application package is due in the office, or if it’s a postmark deadline. In the case of TIIAP, it must be “received by NTIA no later than 9:00 P.M. EST, March 12, 1998.” Now, that’s pretty clear.

Use another color, good old yellow, for secondary information and any general suggestions, such as “Do not use pointers to online resources.” You really don’t want to irritate your readers with small violations.

And in green mark passages that will help you when you sit down to write. Highlight any buzzwords that you might use in your proposal. TIIAP buzz, for example, includes “haves and have-nots” and “underserved.” The TIIAP guidelines also say that this year’s emphasis is on projects that “deploy, use, and evaluate” the use of information infrastructure as their goal. Should your goal statement includes these words? Oh, I think so.

Also mark excerpts from successful proposals. TIIAP is more generous about giving you good models to follow than most other guidelines‹use this to your advantage.

When you’re examining these excerpts for their content, remember too to look for any stylistic hints. It’s just as important to note the style of the passage: “We expect patient’s self-esteem and satisfaction with their hospital stay to increase,” reads one proposal excerpt from this year’s TIIAP guidelines.

Did you notice how the applicant used pretty common, everyday words? There’s no “inflated” language or overwrought phrases. Nice sentence.

You’ll also notice that it’s written in the first person. This is a highly contested point in the grants writing world that you should approach with common sense. If you can put a sentence into the active voice (“we believe” as opposed to “it is believed”) and you’re writing about a subject like self-esteem (and not mortgages), the first person is perfectly fine, as the crafters of the TIIAP guidelines aretelling us.

Pulling it all together

Another thing to read for is the overall structure of your application package. With TIIAP, you’ve got 40 pages for your application‹including your eight-page project narrative and 32 pages of appendices. Your budget information and some of the forms will make your application package even larger.

You’re not wrong to quake a bit by the task before you. But it is manageable if you read the guidelines for help.

I use the guidelines to create a master control document where I identify each section of the application: project narrative (and all the subheadings under it), budget, the various appendices and forms, etc. Then I’ll indicate my own deadlines for completion and who needs to be involved in pulling that part together.

Druker emphasizes that a common problem with proposals is a lack of coherence. Weak proposals, Druker says, feel as if they’ve been written by a committee of different people with different ideas about the project and limited knowledge of all the funding priorities.

“It really causes applicants to lose points,” Druker says. Inconsistent, haphazard proposals can, at best, confuse your readers or, at worst, give the impression that your organization is slipshod and lacking in solid management‹not an impression that inspires trust.

The project narrative

One of the hardest parts of your application package will be the project narrative. Here’s where a deep understanding of the guidelines and priorities can set you apart from the teeming others.

Some RFPs simply ask you to “describe your project.” Jeez, where to begin, huh? Luckily, the TIIAP guidelines tell you how to organize your project narrative. TIIAP suggests that you organize your narrative around the review criteria‹project purpose, project feasibility, community involvement, reducing disparities, and evaluation, documentation, and dissemination‹an excellent suggestion. Other RFPs won’t be so clear. In those cases, you want to do the same thing: find the review criteria and make those your subject headings.

Yes, use subject headings! It will help the review panel find the information they’re looking for. If you’ve got a boldfaced, underlined section titled “Project Feasibility,” for example, you’re telling your audience that you’ve considered this area. If you’re weak on feasibility and it’s one of the main criteria for awards, hiding it won’t help you.

Use the review criteria to help you think your project through completely.

It’s a good idea to begin an outline in a document where you can type in “buzz words” and other helpful phrases from the guidelines. Under “community involvement,” one of the criteria for the TIIAP, I’d certainly make a note that the reviewers will be looking for plans for “training end users, upgrading their skills, and building community awareness and knowledge of the project.” These can even become sub-headings of their own. This way, you build a useful outline of the elements you’ll need for your proposal as you go through the guidelines. It makes the task of building a persuasive project narrative much easier if you break it down into components. And if those components can be structured on review criteria the panel knows to look for, so much the better!

Reading for Budget

Druker says the second biggest problem he sees with applications is when the “budget tells one story and the narrative tells another story.” The story your numbers tell need to be as persuasive as your words, and they must jibe with your needs statement and your project activities. Nothing kills a proposal faster than numbers that seem inflated or, on the other end, naively optimistic.

Going over the guidelines will help you understand what you can and can’t do with your budget.

Your budget needs to conform to the program’s total project cost specification. NTIA, for example, will contribute up to 50 percent of the total project cost, unless you can document extraordinary circumstances that warrant a grant of up to 75 percent. This is all very helpful to know!

The TIIAP outlines specific project cost categories for you to use. These are pretty consistent categories you can use in other grant proposals that don’t offer such specific guidelines: personnel (salary for project staff), fringe benefits (health insurance, social security, workers comp, retirement benefits of the full-time personnel); travel; equipment; supplies (office supplies); contractual (contractual services and consultant fees); and other (telephone, office space, etc.).

You might also be asked to write a budget narrative. The TIIAP guidelines offers helpful models of a budget narrative. You might take a look at this section even if you’re not applying to the NTIA‹it’s that helpful.

Reading the proposal will also tell you nifty little facts such as…to be eligible to receive a TIIAP grant this year, you’ll need to have already applied for the eRate Universal Service Discount before purchasing telecommunications services with grant funds. You won’t be able to use federal or matching funds to cover the costs that can be covered through your eRate discount. In addition, you can’t count your Universal Service Fund discounts as matching funds.

Now, if I were writing this proposal, I’d have a dozen questions about this. When exactly should I have applied for eRate? How do I prove this? What are “costs that can be covered” and is that costs before the discount or after? And I’d be keeping a list of questions to ask my program officer when I call him or her to discuss my project.

Yes, call the program officer

A tip: develop a relationship with your program officer. It’s the most important thing (after reading the guidelines!) that you can do to help yourself win grants. But you must do your homework. If you call one of the helpful people at TIIAP and say, “What kind of projects are you giving money for?” they’re likely to hang up on you and add your name to the Giant List of People Not To Take Phone Calls From. (OK, I can’t prove that such a list exists, but I’ve felt like there’ve been a few with my name on it before.)

Let’s face it, these are busy people who are constantly being appealed to. Don’t waste their time by calling unprepared.

Do call, though. It’s good to get your name into their heads somehow, and if you’re lucky you can get them to listen to your project and offer you some of the good insider guidance you won’t find in the RFP.

eSchool News Staff

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