Stay the Course: Don’t Change Horses (or Concepts) in the Middle of the Stream (or Proposal Writing)

Before you start writing a proposal, it’s good idea to understand the project concept and stick with this concept throughout the various drafts. If you don’t, the probability of creating an incomprehensible mess is high. In other words, it is a spectacularly bad idea to make big changes during the final stages of finishing the proposal.

This simple truth was reinforced during the recent HUD SuperNOFA season, when we experienced the grant equivalent of The China Syndrome. We were writing a proposal for one of the SuperNOFA programs on behalf of a public sector client for whom we had written the same proposal twice previously. Both those applications were funded. The program itself was and is very complex, and it requires close collaboration between city and county entities to meet HUD requirements.

Since we were familiar with our client’s past approach and our contact person did not correct us during our scoping session, we wrote the first and second drafts based on what we thought was the project concept. After she reviewed the second draft, I got a panicked phone call from our client telling me that she had decided to radically change the service delivery model, even though we were within three or four days of the deadline. I told her this was a very bad idea for all kinds of reasons, but she persisted—with predictably disastrous results. Although the proposal got submitted, it was a nail-biter and probably went in with lots of mistakes.

Here’s why . . .

Most proposals have intertwined narratives in which program elements are threaded throughout the document. In the example above, one major issue was a collaborator, and our client decided change its role at the last minute. While I made a yeoperson’s effort to find and correct all of these instances, it is likely that some were missed, meaning that the proposal probably went in with internal inconsistencies.

Such gaffes are not obvious if one has read the draft proposal a dozen times, but they will stand out like neon lights to a reviewer and lead to lowered points, if not outright laughter in the event that a group is reviewing the proposal. The particular change she made also affected the budget and budget narrative. For HUD proposals, there are up to four budget forms that must be completed, in addition to the budget narrative, so a last minute change may introduce budget errors. In federal grant reviewing, budgets are usually not scored, but inconsistencies between budget forms and the narrative can be a fast way to the exit.

The HUD example was a grants.gov submission, causing another major problem. As faithful readers will recall from “Grants.gov Lurches Into the 21st Century,” Grants.gov allows itself up to 48 hours to declare that an acceptable upload has been received. Thus, we always recommend that grants.gov deadlines be moved up 2 – 3 days to allow for file corruption, server downtime, etc.

Our client had us making last minute changes to the proposal up to the night before the deadline, which meant the application kit file was not ready for upload until the morning of the due date. Of course, when she tried to upload the file, grants.gov rejected it. It took all day and hours on the phone with grants.gov tech support for her to resolve the problem. If she had not insisted on major last minute changes, the upload attempt would have been done two days earlier and the problem resolved without drama. Since the proposal request was $3 million, there was a lot on the line.

The moral of this sad tale: get the project concept straight at the start and resist the urge to change directions near the end of the process. Successful grant writers must be single-minded to produce a technically correct proposal on time. Radical alterations to the proposal concept at the last minute is a variation on “The Perils of Perfectionism.” Grant writers should work on a proposal until they’ve worked on it enough, then button it up, submit it in time to easily meet the deadline and retire to a nearby bar for a cocktail or two. Try a Negroni which is an excellent way to get over a stressful proposal writing experience.


EDIT: You can find a follow-up describing how this experience ends in “Now It’s Time for the Rest of the Story.”

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