There's a powerful way to become a better grant writer and maximize your chances of successful submissions. In video-game parlance, we'd call it a cheat code and it's simple:
I recently served as a reviewer for another agency’s grant program and was reminded just how valuable that process is in preparing anyone to write better grants. Not only do you see what works and what doesn’t as a reader, you hear it from other reviewers in the discussions and scoring that follows.
Based on that recent experience, here are some general (and a few specific) thoughts and suggestions that may be helpful.
Review proposals out of your area of expertise. There are a lot of U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that need reviewers, as well as local community foundations and city or county program that solicit competitive grants and need reviewers. When you’re reading proposals in areas you are not an expert in, you quickly see the difference between proposals that explain problems and proposed interventions clearly and those that are muddled or assume reviewers are steeped in the minutia of their field. As a proposal writer, assume that your readers don’t know you, don’t know your previous work, and don’t know anything about the problem you’re trying to address.
Minimize – or better yet, eliminate – the use of acronyms. I’ve been pushing this particular communication tip for the 10 years I’ve been in the integrated pest management world, so it was quite rewarding to be on a panel where other reviewers independently called out a proposal for the annoyingly unnecessary overuse of acronyms. Do not assume reviewers are familiar with your acronyms. Do not use multiple acronyms in the same sentence (Or paragraph. Or section. Or narrative.) Do not make readers flip back and forth trying to remember what XYZ stands for. Do not include an acronym key. Do not create six- or seven-letter acronyms. We communicate with words. Use them.
Involve end-users up front whenever possible. One of the strengths of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program is that it requires farmers or ranchers to be actively involved in all of its grants. While other programs may not mandate it, reviewers will have a much better sense that a new tool or activity will be meaningful to its eventual end-users if it’s clear they were involved with its conception or design.
Collect your own list of best practices from the proposals you and your fellow reviewers were impressed with. If you found the formatting of a table or timeline exceptionally clear or helpful, make a note for your next proposal. If a font was particulary easy to read (or you encounter one that wasn’t), note that as well. Be inspired by organization, use of links or illustrations, length of the individual elements within a narrative. You’ll always write your own narrative, but that doesn’t mean you can’t adopt organizational, formatting or design elements that were particularly effective.
Invest thought, care and effort to diversity, both in your proposal and in the project. It’s an area of need in our science and an area of focus for funders. If a grant competition asks about activities to increase diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, it’s not sufficient to explain what you’ve previously done or write how your program is “open to all.” Federal agriculture programs and Land-Grant Universities have been open to all for decades and still have diversity, equity and inclusion issues. We need to do better, and reviewers had no trouble distinguishing between proposals that took diversity and inclusion seriously and those that paid it lip service.
Enlist experts in your proposal design process and project, as appropriate. For instance, if your project involves significant new communication activities – producing videos, launching social media campaigns or other broad public outreach – it’s worth engaging a communicator while designing your project and preparing the proposal. Universities and the Regional IPM Centers all have communicators you can consult with.
A final word about communicators. Communicators focus on audience. We work to deliver the information our audiences need and that we want them to have. As a proposal writer, you are a communicator, providing information your audience needs to make funding recommendations. And the audience you’re communicating to is a tough one, tasked with critically reading, scoring, discussing and defending their evaluation of how well you delivered that information.
Serve on some review panels and you’ll be better able to gather, organize, format and deliver the information your audience needs to score your proposal highly.