Professional Grant Writer At Work: Don’t Try Writing A Transportation Electrification Proposal At Home

Seliger + Associates was recently hired to edit a proposal for the charmingly titled U.S. Department of Energy National Energy and Technology Laboratory Recovery Act-Transportation Electrification (NETLRATE)* program. We edit proposals all the time; the unusual part of this assignment is our client, which is a successful tech company with lots of engineer types instead of the human service folks who typically hire us. The CEO told me that his company has experience in submitting business proposals to tech and manufacturing companies and would have no problem writing the proposal. They just wanted us to review it, but the resulting fiasco demonstrates why our client would have been much better served to simply hire us to write the entire proposal, even though we know little about electric vehicles (as I discussed in No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer). But, as with the advice Wavy Gravy gave at Woodstock about watching out for the brown acid, “it’s your trip.”

A week or two went by, with the Seliger + Associates team using our secret proposal production machine to extrude applications. The deadline for our DOE client to email his draft came and went. Two days later, and within a week of the deadline, the draft appeared in my inbox, along with the 41-page, single-spaced Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA). The email said we should look at page 33 of the FOA, which our client used as a guide to prepare the draft. I looked and found the ever-popular “review criteria.” Here is a snippet (it actually goes on for two pages):

Evaluation Criteria for Area of Interest 1, 2, and 3

Criterion 1: Technical Approach and Project Management Weight: 40%
• Responsiveness and relevance to the programmatic research goals and requirements identified in this announcement for this area of interest, including rationale for the vehicle and/or infrastructure design
• Demonstrated knowledge and understanding of vehicle design and manufacturing, related past and current work and how the proposed effort builds on or expands from these prior efforts to ensure a production-intent design, i.e., their adaptation of and application to specific vehicle propulsion systems and platforms
• Degree and source of the identified risk in demonstrating the proposed technology, including definition of potential technology deficiencies along with proposed solutions to mitigate the risk;
• Innovativeness of the proposed technology

I immediately knew that our client, no matter how smart and experienced a businessperson he is, had fallen into The Danger Zone of Common RFP Traps I wrote about last year. RFPs often include convoluted criteria that unnamed “reviewers” will supposedly use to score the proposal, which are often separate from the instructions for the proposal itself.

The problem is that such criteria are invariably hidden somewhere in the bowels of the RFP and may or may not be referenced in the RFP completion instructions. I did what I always do to find the instructions and searched for “pages” and “page,” and uncovered detailed instructions on how to construct the NETLRATE proposal on page 22 of the FOA. Here is a nugget from the four pages of instructions:

The project narrative must include:

• Project Objectives: This section should provide a clear, concise statement of the specific objectives/aims of the proposed project.

• Merit Review Criterion Discussion: The section should be formatted to address each of the merit review criterion and sub-criterion listed in Part V.A. Provide sufficient information so that reviewers will be able to evaluate the application in accordance with these merit review criteria. DOE WILL EVALUATE AND CONSIDER ONLY THOSE APPLICATIONS THAT ADDRESS SEPARATELY EACH OF THE MERIT REVIEW CRITERION AND SUB-CRITERION.

• Relevance and Outcomes/Impacts: This section should explain the relevance of the effort to the objectives in the program announcement and the expected outcomes and/or impacts.

The second bullet point references the “criterion discussion,”** where our client should have placed his 15-page, single-spaced narrative. He did not realize that there were instructions, so this would have been hard to do. But his draft included an abstract, the instructions for which are also on page 22. This means he must have seen the instructions without fully realizing what they were.

That was his first major problem. The second was the draft itself, which was filled with the kind of self-congratulatory public relations happy talk that one finds in news releases and brochures. While coherent and well written, it wasn’t proposalese. Rather, it reiterated the “a delicious lunch was served” formulations that every freshman journalism student learns not to write. And the proposal did not follow the pattern of the four criteria pages and 40 or so bullet points. The response was technically incorrect and would probably not be evaluated, per the second bullet point in the above FOA quote.

Within two minutes of opening the file, I realized that our client had misunderstood the FOA and had written a marketing piece, not a proposal. Since we don’t hide from our clients, I called our contact and gave him the bad news that there was no point in having us edit his draft, as it was formatted wrong and written like a press release. He took it well and didn’t try to shoot the messenger, which is a not uncommon reaction to bad news. As Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” Callahan says in Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” and our contact now does.

Instead of wasting our time and his money on pointless editing, I rewrote the Abstract to reflect the instructions along with the ever popular “5 Ws and the H” and produced a detailed outline of the proposal with about a dozen Word paragraph styles*** following the pattern of the completion instructions. I also wrote lots of connector phrases and left assorted blanks for him to fill in, which is a paint by numbers approach to grant writing (this reference shows you how old I am).

Due to other writing commitments caused by our old friend the Stimulus Bill, we couldn’t spend any more time on this project, no matter how much our client was willing to pay, as we never accept assignments we can’t complete. With a $16 million grant on the line, it would have been much more cost effective for our client to have hired us to write the entire proposal in the first place. You may have noticed the small text that scrolls at the bottom of TV ads showcasing cars like the new 2011 FiCrysler Electric Eel roadster tearing across the desert at at 150 MPH, stating “Professional driver on closed course, do not attempt.” When it comes to grant writing, spend your time working on things you know how to do and hire a pro.

* This acronym is not actually used in the FOA. I just wanted to see what it would look like. Let’s try pronouncing it: “nettlerate?” I would have changed the name to National Action to Make America Special through Transportation Electricfication (NAMASTE). Maybe I’ve spent too much time watching Lost or perhaps I just need a calming Sanskrit word after too much fevered Stimulus Bill grant writing.

** Obviously no English majors were involved in the production of this FOA, as I believe the work they were looking for is “criteria,” when referring to “criterion” in the plural, although saying “criterion” makes me feel vaguely intellectual.

ibm-1-small-3*** While the draft proposal was written in Word, no paragraph styles were used. Instead, he used the default “normal” style for everything, along with tab stops. This proposal looked like it had been typed by the curvy secretary, Joan Hollway, on my favorite TV program, Mad Men, using an IBM Selectric typewriter. We have a Selectric III (distinguished from the Selectric II by the spacey orange backlight on the tab bar). We rescued this remarkable example of industrial design 15 years ago, and it still performs flawlessly when called upon every couple of months to complete a paper form. It gets serviced every three years. We’ll be able to keep it until the last typewriter repairman dies, at which point we will use it as a boat anchor, since it weighs about 50 pounds. Incidentally, you can get a similar feel on some modern keyboards, like the IBM Model M / Unicomp Customizer.

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