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Never Think Outside the Box: Grant Writing is About Following the Recipe, not Creativity

A New Yorker cartoon I like:

never think outside the box

If you write proposals, don’t be this cat.

Any time you’re writing to an RFP—which, for grant writers, is virtually all the time—you’re required to respond to the RFP. If the RFP says, “give services to 300 participants per year,” you should say in your proposal that you’re going to serve 300 participants per year, not 30 or 3,000. If the RFP says, “run a three-year program,” propose a three-year program, not a five-year program. I could go on indefinitely in this vein, but I shouldn’t have to. The point is simple: do exactly what the RFP says you should do. As a grant writing rat in an RFP Skinner Box, you get the treat (money) by pressing the bar (following RFP directions), not by running in circles trying to get out of the box.

Clients sometimes direct us not to do what the RFP says, even when we advise them that it is best to follow the RFP. Ignoring the RFP instructions almost guarantees they won’t be funded; Isaac has already written about one example in True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales:

Writing a YouthBuild proposal is very much a “cookbook” exercise in that the DOL pretty much tells applicants what they want applicants to do, and successful proposals have to regurgitate this stuff within the absurdly short page limit and the obtuse data required by the funder. In other words, if you want a YouthBuild grant, you should, as Rupee says, just Do the Damn Thing.

The clients for the four funded proposals listened to us, and we were able to craft compelling, technically correct proposals that warmed the stone-like hearts of the DOL reviewers. In contrast, our True Believer client had a vision of how she could use a YouthBuild grant to attack a whole slew of problems faced by at-risk youth in her rural community. Almost none of what she wanted to do, however, had anything to do with YouthBuild, and she fought us throughout the proposal development process. We did our best to make the proposal fundable to no avail. Despite her passion and commitment, no YouthBuild funds are available today to help the young folks she cares so much about.

A more recent example involved a Department of Education program in which the exact student cohorts to be served are mandated in RFP, as well as the underlying legislation and regulations. It doesn’t get any more specific than this. For reasons that were not made clear to us, our client insisted on removing one of the specified student cohorts from the draft proposal, even though we told him that he could save the postage, as the proposal will likely be deemed technically incorrect, which it is, and be thrown out before it is scored. This particular RFP also includes specific fill-in-the-blanks objectives, which were to be replicated word for word in the proposal. In the first draft, our client modified the wording of the objectives.

While some RFPs provide significant latitude in program design, many do not and are essentially cookbooks. If you have a cookbook RFP, follow the cookbook. For example, YouthBuild demands that participants being trained in the construction trades have on-site training experiences in the construction/rehabilitation of low-income housing, so you shouldn’t propose a retail mall as a training site, no matter how good an idea that might be to the Executive Director or Board. On a similar subject, remember that every question in the RFP applies to you, no matter how dumb it may seem, how repetitive it may be, or how little you think it should apply. I explain how this works in RFP Lunacy and Answering Repetitive or Impossible Questions.

Part of not thinking outside the box includes telling the funding agency what they want to hear. One such example is the infamous “sustainability” sections that many federal RFPs include, which we wrote about in detail here. These sections require applicants to state how they will sustain the project after federal funding ends. As Isaac said in the post:

For the vast majority of nonprofits applicants […] grants and donations [are the only viable financial resources available]. If we know this simple truth, how come foundation and federal program officers seem clueless? If the agency had the couple hundred thousand dollars sitting around to fund a given program, it wouldn’t need the grant and wouldn’t apply.

Furthermore, the major cost for most human service providers are staff salaries and other operating costs. So it’s improbable that you’ll just need a bunch of money to get off the ground; although startup costs are real, they’re still dwarfed by staffing and ongoing operations costs in most cases. There might be a hypothetical dream project out there, somewhere, that just needs that DHHS grant to get started and then can run indefinitely off of revenue, but we’ve never seen it.

If you don’t like an RFP’s inane restrictions, remember the golden rule, as articulated in Studio Executives, Starlets, and Funding: “He who has the gold makes the rules.”

Very occasionally, you have to invent a box for yourself because the funder hasn’t given it to you. Foundations will do this by not putting a maximum cap on requests and/or by having maddeningly opaque guidelines. In such cases, you should look at how much they’ve previously offered in funding; if they’ve historically made grants in the $10,000 – $50,000 range, asking for $400,000 is unlikely to work (for more on this topic, see my post “So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For?“).

Most of the time, however, you’ll be given a box, and if you step outside it, you’re not going to be praised like a precocious high school student. You’re going to be treated like a cat who’s decided to show its creativity by ignoring the litter box. The RFP is your litter box. Ignore it at your peril.

EDIT 1/25/2010: Isaac wrote a follow-up to this post regarding the importance of conventional wisdom, even when it’s wrong. Debunk conventional wisdom on your blogs and through your other writing. Repeat it in proposals.

EDIT 2: For another example of the principles above at work, see “What happens to doctors who think outside the box?” Answer: nothing good, much of the time. If you’re looking to understand the many problems in medicine, this is an excellent starting point, both for the specific event and for the general principles inferred from that event.

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