If you want free samples, go to Costco; for proposal writing, go to a grant writer

People regularly discover Grant Writing Confidential by searching for template proposals. For example, two recent searches that turned up in our query logs include “carol m. white pep sample proposal” and “free grant writing samples.” At least the former person is more likely to find something useful than the latter, since a generic proposal is going to be about as useful as a random pair of shoes: you might be a woman and get a man’s shoes, or need sneakers and find boots. Still, in both cases, the searcher is engaging in a futile effort similar to that described in “Tilting at Windmills: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing.” Free grant writing lunches and useful free sample proposals don’t really exist.

There are two major, obvious problems in “free proposals:” they aren’t likely to be useful for the specific project and funding source you’re looking to write / apply to, and, even if they magically are, you’ll be trying to adapt a proposal that other would-be grant writers have also hunted down. The first issue is arguably more pressing: if you’ve found a “general” sample proposal, it will tell you absolutely nothing about the specific proposal you have to write. The RFP might require a radically different structure, since no two RFPs are alike and even annual federal RFPs change from year to year, as we discussed in The Danger Zone: Common RFP Traps; the information about your specific agency and area obviously won’t be in the sample proposal; the program you’re supposed to run will bear as much resemblance to the sample as a newt does to a grizzly bear; and so on. It takes an experienced grant writer to artfully adapt an existing proposal, and, if the grant writer is good enough to re-conceptualize a sample proposal, she doesn’t need the sample anyway—talk about a Catch-22.

Furthermore, proposals that are sufficiently general to make them worth copying are also probably not specific enough to be fundable. And even if they are specific enough for your program, you’re still running up against the larger problem of others using the same template. If a reviewer reads one proposal from Dubuque Family Outreach and another from Davenport Afterschool Inc. with identical or nearly identical content, there’s a decent chance the reviewer will reject both on principle. You’re going to suffer the danger plagiarists everywhere do: that someone else will stumble across the same material and submit it. If four people find the same hypothetical example of a Carol M. White proposal searched for above, the reviewers might figure out that you’ve all cribbed from the same source and reject all four proposals wholesale. If your average high school English teacher can spot plagiarism, even a Department of Education reviewer, who probably was a high school English teacher at some point, will be easily be able to do so.

Sometimes prospective clients ask for sample proposals, but we never provide them for a number of reasons. A random proposal on an unrelated subject will tell you little about how a proposal for your project and your program will turn out. We also respect our clients’ privacy and thus don’t hand out their work. Clients hire grant writers to prepare proposals for them, not for tossing into the Google ocean. If we write a proposal for you, we’re not going to share it with anyone else—and neither should any grant writer. We never take credit for proposals we’ve been hired to write. In addition, any sample that lands on the net will simply be endlessly copied by the same people who don’t know any better or suffer from the l-a-z-y disease. This isn’t merely idle paranoia: once, we had a new client, and as always we requested that they send old proposals and other background material to us. They sent a proposal that had clearly been copied from an old one of ours, much to our amusement.

Proposals won’t help you evaluate grant writers. What might help you is a) track records and b) some evidence of an ability to write in general. Not to toot our own horn, but in we’ve been in business since 1993 and have had over 500 clients in 42 states. That more than 500 clients have hired us should indicate that we’re able to produce proposals. In addition, the dozens of posts on this blog demonstrate that we can write.

If you’re reading this after searching for sample proposals, you should be convinced that you’re wasting your time. But you should also know more about how to learn to write proposals of your own. A good proposal will answer six questions. If you can’t figure out how to write simple declarative sentences that answer “Who, what, where, when, why, and how” coherently, take a journalism class at your local community college, which will teach you more about grant writing than an infinite number of sample proposals. Furthermore, you’ll start to learn what good writing is and what it sounds like, which will help you evaluate your own writing and that produced by others.

We discussed this in greater detail in Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain, and to the discussion in that post I would also recommend my favorite journalism book: Mitchell V. Charnley’s Reporting, which one of my high school teachers recommended and which I’ve been carrying around since. The book describes three important, interrelated skills for grant writers: how to tell stories, how to structure stories, and how to write clearly and concisely. The book is so old that you can imagine Mitch chewing a cigar while he reads the copy for the afternoon edition, striking a word here and there and maybe taking a second to tell you a story about that crook from the legislature who got busted thirty years ago for an unusual take on the usual vices.

My major motivations in writing this post are to a) explain how things work, b) help spread knowledge, and c) convince people to stop wasting time. I realize that “c)” is an unlikely outcome, but any improvement is welcome. For whatever reason, many people seem to think that they’ll learn something by reading sample proposals. They won’t—and neither will you.

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