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Every Proposal Needs Six Elements: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The Rest is Mere Commentary.

In writing a grant that describes a program, you, the writer, are actually telling a story you want readers to believe. To do so, you need to make it as complete as possible. Journalists know that an effective lead paragraph in a news story tells the reader who, what, where, when, why, and how (together, the six are usually referred to as 5Ws and H) as quickly and concisely as possible. Well-written, interesting grant proposals should do the same for their readers, although not in the first paragraph. Before you start writing, you should be able to write a simple, declarative sentence answering each question.

Isaac pointed out in “Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain” that “A good way to start [learning how to write grants] is to take English composition or Journalism classes at a local college to sharpen your writing skills.” Journalism has a lot of overlap with grant writing—except that good journalism strives to be factually balanced and accurate, while grant writing strives to depict absolute need through the creative, but never outright dishonest, use of selected facts. At least, that’s what grant writers should do if they want their organizations to be funded.

The next section discusses each element in more detail:

Who: Two separate aspects of the “who” need to be covered: your organization/partners and the population to be served. Most grant applications will have a section on the applicant’s background. Give a brief history of your organization, its management structure, some of the other programs it runs, and its purpose. Do a briefer history for key partners, if space permits.

The other aspect is the group to be served. What demographic, cultural, educational, and other challenges set your target population apart from society at large? Why have you selected this population? What expertise makes you likely to serve them well?

What: You should be able to describe succinctly what you are going to do. For example, if you want to run an ever-popular afterschool program, describe the components of your program; you might say, “Project LEAD will offer academic enrichment and life skills training. The academic enrichment will include three hours per week of tutoring and three hours per week of educational games. Life skills training will include…” Almost all human service delivery projects have five fundamental components: outreach, intake/assessment, services, follow-up, and evaluation. Note that Isaac represented all these steps in his theoretical Project NUTRIA.

Where: Unless you plan to serve the galaxy, define your target area. “Inner-city Baltimore” might be one designation and “Zip codes 98122 and 98112” another. This is often included in the “Who” section and almost always in the needs assessment section. You should also describe where project services will be delivered. To continue the example above, if Project LEAD activities take place in school buildings, say so, and why the building was selected, and if they take place in a community center, describe the community center, including its facilities and equipment, and why it was selected.

When: Like “who,” “when” also has two components: the project timing/length and the hours/times for service delivery/activities. Most projects proposed for grant funding will have a project period—say, three years. You should construct a timeline, whether included as an actual table or not, demonstrating when activities will start. Don’t forget the steps necessary before service delivery starts, such as hiring and assigning staff, formalizing the partnership structure, etc. The timeline should also contain significant milestones, like stabilized case load, completion of the “Action Plan,” etc.

In addition, you must describe when project services will actually be delivered; for example, Project LEAD might operate from 3 – 7 p.m. during the academic year and from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. during the summer.

Why: Your project should have some rationale behind it. The Request For Proposals (RFP) often gives a rationale that you must follow, but you should be able to explain factors like:

* Why you are targeting who you are targeting?
* Why you have decided on what you will do?
* Why you will provide services in a particular place?
* Why you have decided on particular times?

Take each “W” and then ask yourself why you described them in the way you did. The “why” should be emphasized in the needs assessment section and also threaded through other sections.

How: You should decide how your project will be implemented. This incorporates all the previous elements and explains, for example:

* How you will engage the target population.
* How will individuals be assessed and admitted?
* How you will provide services.
* How you will retain participants.
* How you will evaluate the project’s effectiveness.

It should explain all aspects of the mechanics of how a project will be carried out, and it should also demonstrate that the applicant has thoroughly considered the details of the project implementation strategy. This section will usually be called something like the “Project Description.”

For an example of an RFP that just asks for the 5Ws and H, see SAMHSA’s infrastructure grants:

Your total abstract should not be longer than 35 lines. It should include the project name, population to be served (demographics and clinical characteristics), whether the application is proposing service expansion, service enhancement, or both, strategies/interventions, project goals and measurable objectives, including the number of people to be served annually and throughout the lifetime of the project, etc. In the first five lines or less of your abstract, write a summary of your project that can be used, if your project is funded, in publications, reporting to Congress, or press releases.

The project name is part of the what. The population is the “who” with demographics as part of the “why,” and the proposal for expansion, enhancement, or both is also part of the “what,” while “strategies/interventions” is part of the “how.” Goals and measurable objectives are partially “what” (i.e. what will your outcomes be) and partially “why” (i.e. these explain why things will improve). As you might notice, SAMHSA forget “where,” although one could shoehorn that into the “population to be served” section, as well as “when.” As a grant writer, your job is to be smarter than the RFP writers** by realizing what they missed and filling the requests they tried to convey between the lines.

The deeper and more complete you can make the story you tell, the better off you’ll be. This is part of the reason internal inconsistencies can be so damning: if you say you’ll serve 20 individuals per month in one place, 20 families per month in another, and 40 individuals per quarter in another, you’re waking the reader from their fictional dream and casting doubt on whether you really understand what you’re doing. Even if an internal inconsistency is minor, finding one will make the reader doubt everything else you propose.

Keeping in mind the 5Ws and H will help you maintain consistency, because if you decide at the front end what those will be, you should find it easier to build supportive evidence around it at the back end. Even dim-witted RFP writers have figured this out, which is why many RFPs ask for a project abstract or summary: to get you to conceive of what the project will entail before you get mired in details.

In virtually any narrative section of a proposal, you should be able to say which of the 5Ws or H you’re addressing. If you keep them in mind as you write, you’ll be writing a better, more consistent proposal.

* A well-written abstract/executive summary will actually contain an abbreviated version of the 5Ws and H.

** This isn’t hard in general, particularly if the RFP writer is in the Department of Education; nonetheless, you need to manifest that intelligence by knowing when the RFP writer has screwed up, which occurs frequently.

4 thoughts on “Every Proposal Needs Six Elements: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The Rest is Mere Commentary.

  1. […] “Every Proposal Needs Six Elements: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The Rest Is Mere Com… by Jake Seliger on the Seliger Associates blog […]

  2. Wonderful piece that actually spells out contemporary requirements of grant writing.

  3. Thanks! This was a helpful post!

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