General Writing tips part 1

Today I thought I’d share some helpful information in regards to general writing tips from my book. While useful for any sort of project, these are of course focused on grant narratives specifically. I’ll be occasionally posting useful tips and small excerpts from my book here on this blog.

Before writing each chapter, I jotted down a few thoughts for each section and did any research which was necessary. I then began writing this book the same way I do everything else-by dictation. I have a software package on my computer which allows me to dictate into a microphone and have the words appear on the computer screen. This is a very quick and easy way to write.

One of the most important factors in writing is to set aside time which is dedicated 100 percent to getting those words on paper. I realize that, in some organizations, this may be extremely difficult to do. However, if your employer realizes how important your writing will be, given the fact that it will hopefully bring in substantial amounts of money, he or she will do whatever is necessary to create an atmosphere in which you can work in an uninterrupted fashion.

I have found that many people have a problem with being easily distracted. This has not been helped by the availability of the new social networking sites. I have seen and heard of people making postings at the altar while getting married, during childbirth, and while teaching a class. You must do everything in your power to stay on task and get the work done. The writer has to be willing to push everything else aside.

It stands to reason that persons with the following traits will be the most successful at writing: ability to think critically, ability to communicate, giving attention to detail, patience, having a good vocabulary, being well-read, and being well-grounded in English.

Today was simply some general overview types of things, though I will delve deeper in the future on writing as well as other aspects of putting together a solid grant application.

Evaluating Your List of Grant Prospects

Now that we have finished our research, it is time to put it all together and develop a strategy, or plan of action, by which we can access grant funds for our project. The most important rule to follow here is to be inclusive when it comes to developing a list of potential funding sources. If there is any doubt at all, it is best to keep that source on the list. This is particularly true of private foundations where often the first inquiry is a two-page letter. In most cases, the same letter can be sent to multiple foundations with very slight variations. There is therefore little or no cost involved in including additional foundations on the “potentials” list. It is much better to include some sources which may not work rather than miss out on a source which might later prove to be a beautiful fit for the project.

Most governmental grant programs are generally rather clear in their guidelines. Once again, the idea here is to look for “deal breakers” such as project eligibility, applicant eligibility, geographical eligibility, due date, and matching funds. If there is any doubt at all, it is absolutely essential to contact the funding agency to get clarification. It makes no sense to commit significant staff resources to write an application only to have it be turned down during the initial review without being rated or ranked due to ineligibility. It can also be quite embarrassing to explain to your boss or to your Board of Directors.

Once the grant writer determines whether the project (or the applicant agency) will meet threshold (eligibility) review, it is time to determine the chances of success versus the staff resources required to complete the applications. There are several variables here, and the process somewhat resembles a juggling act. If the application is relatively simple, it makes sense to apply even if chances of getting the funding may not be the most promising. In this case, relatively few resources will be utilized, but yet there is still a chance of receiving grant money. There is no magic formula which tells you when the committal of resources is worth it. This is a highly personalized decision made by the applicant agency and will in part depend upon how ample the agency’s resources are. If the organization is operating on a shoestring, it may not be worth the effort to have three staff members take two entire days to prepare an application which only has about a 10-15 percent chance of being funded. There are better ways to utilize staff resources.

On the other hand, an application with a relatively high chance of being funded should be submitted even if a significant amount of time and resources is involved. It is better to stretch oneself a bit and “go out on the limb” in order to have the best chance of succeeding at grant seeking. Even if the first try does not succeed, the organization is in a better position the following grant round and may very well receive the funds at that time. A re-submittal of the same application obviously does not involve nearly as much work. In addition, if your agency submits two or more of this type of application, even if the staff is hard-pressed for a short period of time, the odds are that you will receive approval for least one of these applications.

Most federal applications require a substantial amount of work. It is also well to keep in mind that federal programs are awarded through national competitions. It is a good idea to not apply to federal programs if the project is marginal and significant resources are needed to complete the application. For this reason, it may be well to give preference to state programs.

Other search criteria which can eliminate certain private foundations are geographic eligibility, eligibility of the applicant, and eligibility of the activity. The chances of receiving funds from a local foundation or from a foundation which only awards grants within a certain state are much higher than receiving funds from a foundation which gives on a national basis. The grant seeker is also advised to try to match its proposed project as closely as possible with the interest areas of the various foundations. A client recently asked me to search for funding to construct a building which would house a local Boy Scout troop. When searching foundations which give nationally, I only specified those which are interested in giving to Boy Scout projects. If I had searched for national foundations which are interested in giving to youth activities, the list would have been too long and it would have been very difficult to sort it out. However, in searching local and state foundations in my area, I included both areas of interest — Boy Scouts and youth. The advantage in applying to local and state foundations was enough to include those only stating an interest in youth activities.

When making telephone or e-mail inquiries to private foundations in order to determine the eligibility of your project for their funding, keep your questions short and
direct. You will be much more likely to receive an answer this way. Do not ask them to make a detailed critique of your project’s eligibility. They do not have the time for this.

One last word on eliminating various sources- clearly, those funding agencies whose applications and administrative requirements are beyond the scope of your ability should be taken off your list. One example which comes to mind is many of the programs funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The majority of the funding awarded by this agency is for scientific research which must have a principal lead investigator with sufficient academic and research credentials. In addition, the project must be rigorously designed in order to follow the protocols accepted by the scientific community. The applications are extremely lengthy and complex and it is most helpful if a scientist completes the majority of the items. It is almost impossible to “get your foot in the door” unless you are a recognized academic/scientist/researcher. Several laypeople have approached me about applying to NIH for rather loosely organized studies dealing with mental and physical health. I have told all of them that such an application would be a waste of time. This is something that I very seldom tell anyone.

DOS AND DONTS STRAIGHT FROM THE FUNDING AGENCIES-Part III

Application Process:
 Make letters of inquiry brief (no more than 2 pages) but informative – stress the need for the project, your organization’s ability to carry it out, and the benefits which will accrue from it.
 Respond promptly if a foundation requests a full proposal based on a letter of inquiry.
 Check the web site of a funding agency thoroughly before e-mailing or telephoning so as to avoid asking questions which are clearly answered on the web site.
 Ensure that you have the latest version of the application and regulations.
 Check the math in the budget – although this is obvious, many applicants make mathematical errors.
 Pay attention to those agencies which require that a Letter of Intent be filed prior to a full application. In nearly all cases, there is a specific deadline for submitting this letter.
 Pay careful attention to the rating and ranking criteria when crafting a proposal. Incorporate the application language into the narrative.
 Be concise but thorough in the narrative.
 If there is a specific page maximum, be sure that you come as close to that as possible without exceeding it. You can rest assured that the other applicants will provide as much information as possible.
 Give a descriptive narrative with specific examples.
 Be crystal clear in your writing. Do not “beat around the bush”.
 Be complete and thorough in the narrative – do not leave the reviewer wondering what you mean. Answer the questions completely.
 Use good grammar and correct punctuation and spelling.
 Re-read the application at least twice.
 Give proper attribution for all information derived from others and cite sources for statistical data
 Answer the funding agency’s requests for additional information completely, cheerfully, and on time.
 Send letters of support with the application itself unless the guidelines state otherwise. However, some U.S. Representatives and Senators will only send support letters directly to the funding agency.
 If there is any doubt whatsoever about whether an application will reach the office of the funding agency on time, send it overnight or two-day guaranteed delivery.
 Send the application directly to the person named in the solicitation, with the correct number of copies.
 Check to see that the application arrived on time.
 Start on-line applications early so that you can get your questions answered before the deadline.
 Keep the user name and password for on-line applications in a handy place where they will not be lost.
 Do your best to stave off performance anxiety as the due date for the application arrives – this will impair your ability to do the best job possible.
 Do your best to be available for site visits when the funding agency wants to come. Only change the date if there is an emergency.
Project Administration
 Sign and return the grant acceptance documents promptly.
 Read the grant agreement carefully.
 Call the funding agency or foundation with any questions regarding the administration of the funds. They would rather have you call frequently than have a mess to clean up at the time of the audit. They are worried about those grantees who do not call.
 Ensure as much accuracy in financial recordkeeping as humanly possible. This is what the funding agencies will check first.
 Begin to implement your project as soon as you possibly can. Funding agencies do not like to give extensions and in many cases will not give them for any reason.
 If you are passing funds through to a sub-recipient, monitor their work closely. Your agency will be held accountable if anything goes wrong.
 Check to see what procurement procedures the funding agency requires for any purchases.
 Check periodically during implementation to be sure that the project is meeting the need and fulfilling the goals.
 For projects involving individual beneficiaries, be sure to get all of the pertinent information qualifying that individual or family (such as income verification) prior to approving or disbursing any benefits.
 Be completely cooperative during a monitoring visit and provide everything the funding agency asks for.
 Answer any monitoring findings completely and promptly. Funding for your next project will depend upon it!
 Keep accurate and up-to-date records as the project proceeds.

Dos and Don’ts Straight From the Funding Agencies-Part II

“Dos” in Searching for Grants:
 Look for organizations in the area which offer the free use of search resources, including Foundation Center Online. This could include community foundations, colleges and universities.
 Call a potential funding source if there is some doubt as to whether it should be included in your search results. When making these calls, go to the trouble of finding out which staff member can best help.
 Check several grant search resources – try at least 3 or 4.
 When doing a search, do not hesitate to contact peers in other organizations for ideas.
 When writing the results of a grant search, develop a clear strategy for action which is realistic and offers the best chance of receiving funding as soon as possible.
 Follow up on letters of inquiry to foundations if no response is received. Many foundations do not reply.

Dos and Don’ts Straight From the Funding Agencies-Part I

This is the first in a series of posts regarding my conversations with funding agencies over the 35 years I have been a Grant Writer. These posts will cover what the reviewers think is the most important pieces to the puzzle of getting funded. This one covers the “Dos” in general and in project design.
Do…
General:
• Read through the entire NOFA before starting the application.
 Review the NOFA with an eye toward looking for deal breakers.
 Identify the need before proposing a solution or searching for funds and quantify the extent of the need.
 Gather as much statistical and background data as possible before designing the project.
Designing Project:
 Discuss possible solutions with key people prior to designing the project – get as much input as possible.
 Discuss the project with funding agency staff by telephone or e-mail before starting the application.
 Review the solutions implemented by other organizations which have a similar need – however, be aware of your unique circumstances.
 If necessary, be willing to travel to see other projects which have a bearing on yours. If this is not possible, talk on the telephone.
 Think “outside of the box” when developing a project – the sky is the limit!
 Use common sense in project development – sometimes your own best judgment is the answer!

Putting a Grant Rejection Into Perspective

Most grant writers tend to blame themselves unduly if an application is rejected. Granted, there are sometimes instances where obvious mistakes have been made on the part of the grant writer. However, I have found that most professionals in this field are sincerely dedicated to their jobs and really want to receive the grant money. This is a very big incentive to do the very best job possible on the grant application.
This field of work has some features which are different from many others. There is a need to remain focused and stay on track, as tangible products must be produced. It is hard to “slack off” when there is a submission deadline to be met. The funding agencies will not accept late applications. Grant writers who do not produce an application on time will not have many more chances to redeem themselves. Not meeting the deadline and therefore not being able to submit an application is considered to be a failure of the worst sort.
This of course produces a pressure to perform, which can, in extreme cases, induce performance anxiety. This is exacerbated by the highly competitive field in which the grant writer operates. In the case of most federal and state grant opportunities, all municipalities, counties, or nonprofits applying are in competition with one another. This does nothing to reduce the pressure.
Conversely, when an application is approved, the grant writer becomes a “rainmaker”. As one can imagine, this is a highly respected person who is given a great deal of importance within the organization.
The purpose of saying all of this is to caution the grant writer to not become overly identified with the results of any one particular application or even several applications. In order to preserve one’s sense of balance, it is necessary to not become overly dejected when an application is not funded or to take too much of the credit for successful applications

Working “Smarter”, Not Harder

As grant writers, we work in a field which is inherently full of pressure, due to its very nature. We must prepare and submit grant applications to meet deadlines which are nonnegotiable. The funding agencies will almost never give an individual applicant an extension. If the application is not submitted by the due date, the application has no chance of being considered. Also, grant writers are prone to performance anxiety due to the fact that our success or failure is so visible. We either get the money, get part of what we requested, or get nothing at all. Many grant writers fall into the trap of becoming too personally identified with the results of the applications they write. This makes them feel that a rejection is due solely to their lack of skill in writing the application. This could not be farther from the truth, as there are many other reasons for the rejection of an application, such as other applicants with a greater level of need or having a project which is not really ready to be implemented.

A grant writer’s method of dealing with stress and time management will naturally have to take into account whether they are part-time or full-time and whether they are a grant consultant or an employee of an agency which is seeking grants. In my case, this is how I make my living and support my household. One would think that this would cause a great deal of stress, worry and pressure. I know it sounds simplistic, but my way of dealing with this is that I concentrate on the work to be done and do not let myself get into the stress-oriented frame of mind. I have found, in my 35 years of grant writing, that the best policy is to do the best one can and have confidence that the funds will flow. This is sometimes difficult to do. I recognize that some personalities deal with pressures in different ways. However, if you are an excessive worrier, you probably should not be a grant writer.

Having expressed these generalities, I would like to share with you some of the techniques I use in order to meet my deadlines and work at a comfortable pace. Fortunately, my business is thriving and I therefore must work on multiple projects at the same time. One of the things which really helps me the most has been my use of dictation. For a number of years now, I have used a product called Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which is manufactured by a company called Nuance. This software enables one to speak into a microphone and have the words automatically typed on the computer screen. It is hard to overstate the time savings I have realized as a result of using dictation. However, I think that everyone is initially leery of working in this fashion. Many people feel that they can think better if they type. However, my advice would be to start out dictating very simple letters and memorandums, which is what I did. Once you get comfortable with that, it will be relatively easy to dictate two page documents and work up from there.

Another method I use for avoiding stress is to gather all documents I need from others prior to beginning an application. For example, a funding agency may request copies of audits, articles of incorporation, a list of board members and so forth, which I will have to gather from the client. I have found that it really helps to get these documents together in the very beginning. This will help the grant writer to avoid last-minute pressures.

It is also a good idea to avoid unnecessary meetings. For those meetings which must take place, it is a good idea to encourage brevity by knowing ahead of time what you wish to say and what you hope to get out of the meeting. I have found in most cases that one motivated person can help to keep meetings shorter, provided that the group is not too large. Of course, you will find that some clients (in the case of consultants) or coworkers (in the case of grant writers which work for an organization) will try to increase the number of meetings and interactions above and beyond what is really necessary. In some cases, this is due to the fact that this is what they are used to. In other cases, it may be because these individuals feel that more is better in the case of meetings. I generally have one meeting with a client in the beginning and have the rest of our interactions by telephone and e-mail. This has proved to be sufficient.

Finally, I would encourage all grant writers who are employees to be frank with their supervisors about what they need in order to produce a successful application. This may be a reduction in other duties, allowing work at home, support from other staff, or access to research resources. Employers are generally happy to receive this sort of feedback, as they are as concerned as you are about producing an excellent application. They will not know your needs unless you tell them. Being assertive is a key to success in the grant field.

These are just a few suggestions on how to avoid burnout. Being able to organize your time and to speak up about your needs are key factors. Having a mentor is of immeasurable benefit, as support from others goes a long way towards relieving stress. I wish you success in your grant seeking.

My Article on Grant Central USA

My article on Grant Central USA discusses grant and low-interest loan opportunities for businesses: http://bit.ly/12x7sE5 .

I have also contributed articles to Grant Central’s blog regarding law enforcement grants and fire protection grants. They can all be found at the link above, as well as an interview with me conducted by Rodney Walker of Grant Central USA.

Historic Preservation Grants

The National Trust Preservation Fund provides two types of assistance to nonprofit organizations and governmental entities. Matching grants of from $500-$5,000 are given for preservation planning and education. Funding is also provided for preservation emergencies. Examples of preservation planning activities may include the services of experts in architecture, archaeology, engineering, preservation planning, land use planning, fundraising, and organizational development.

The Johanna Favrot Fund for Historic Preservation provides grants for professional advice, conferences, workshops and education programs which contribute “to the preservation or the recapture of an authentic sense of space”, as stated on the website. Prospective grantees must in general apply for at least $2,500 and no more than $10,000. There are some exceptions to this. Nonprofits and governmental entities may apply for funding for any type of project which meets these general guidelines. Individuals and for-profit businesses may apply only if the project for which funding is requested involves a National Historic Landmark.

The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors is concerned with preserving the inside of historic buildings. Again, grants range from $2,500 to $10,000. Eligible applicants are the same as those stated for the Johanna Favrot Fund.

Heritage Preservation (http://www.heritagepreservation.org), a national nonprofit whose mission is to assist museums, provides assistance worth $3,000-$6,500 to undertake conservation assessments. This funding is geared toward any non-profit institution which possesses a collection of items which tell a story. This could include museums as well as zoos, botanical gardens, and historical houses. The collection must be small enough to be surveyed within two days. The site also lists other sources for historical conservation.

Statement of Need

Although this is one of the most important parts of any grant application, it also tends to be one of the most poorly written. One of the reasons for this may be that many grant writers just assume that the need for the project is obvious. Do not assume anything. The grant writer must make the case for both the need for the project and the need for financial assistance to do the project in a very clear, comprehensive, concise, and compelling manner. These are the four C’s for writing any grant application. This section is no place for vague, general, weak, or “stretching” statements.

Grant reviewers are not fond of flowery language. They tend to regard this type of verbiage with suspicion. It is as if the grant writer does not really have anything substantial to say and relies upon words designed to disguise the fact that there is no substance to the proposal. Whenever I read something like that, I feel rather insulted, as if I had been confronted with a particularly bad sales pitch. What counts with grant reviewers is a simple, direct statement of the facts. Please let your facts shine through and speak for themselves. They do not need to be embellished or exaggerated. Do not, under any circumstances, tell falsehoods in your application. This will damage your credibility with the funding agencies and word will get around. Your success rate will plummet rapidly. At the risk of sounding redundant, I will say it again: it is not worth the risk.

As I have said before and will certainly say again, it is very important to be specific. The use of statistics, when available, makes a very compelling case. Individual histories and anecdotes are also helpful. In short, anything which can help the reviewer to get a clear picture of the project should be added to this section of the narrative. The basic elements of a well-written project need section are just commonsense. They are as follows: general description of the situation, the number and type of people affected, the extent to which these people are affected, and what will happen if the project is not done.

It is also extremely important to discuss the need for financial assistance in order to carry it out. The applicant must clearly demonstrate that without grant funding, the project will not move forward. If the applicant has been turned down by other potential sources, it is necessary to specify that and to include copies of the letters rejecting the request for funds. It is always helpful for agencies to know that they are not the only source which is being requested to provide funding. An applicant will have more credibility if it can be demonstrated that potential funding sources were carefully researched and a funding strategy was well thought out.

Another angle to demonstrate financial need is to show the allocation of funds in an organization’s total budget in order to demonstrate that no applicant monies are available. This information will show that all available funds are going toward operating costs and cannot be used for new projects or that other needed projects are consuming the entire budget of the organization. In many cases, a copy of the applicant’s most recent audited financial statement must be submitted along with the application.

In the case of municipalities or counties, information regarding the economic situation of the community is critical. If an area is considered to be economically disadvantaged and demonstrates high unemployment, low median income, and a high rate of poverty, then the assessable base or value of the real estate upon which taxes are calculated is low. This dictates that the local government has only a limited ability to raise taxes and thereby realize additional revenue. It may very well be that the population of this political jurisdiction cannot afford to pay additional taxes which could fund new programs.

In the case of nonprofits, financial need may be demonstrated by a statement that the organization has a small donor base or that a reduction in donations over a certain period of time has occurred. Information should also be given on the nonprofit’s operating costs in order to show the amount of money which is being spent to keep the organization going.