The Art of the Grant Proposal Abstract is Like the Art of the Newspaper Story Lead

Proposal abstracts are funny beasts: they’re supposed to summarize an entire proposal, presumably before the reader reads the proposal, and they’re often written before the writer writes the proposal. Good abstracts raise the question of whether one really needs to read the rest of the document. While RFPs sometimes provide specific abstract content—in which case you should follow the guidance—an abstract should answer the 5Ws and H: Who is going to run the program? Who is going to benefit and why? What will the program do? Where will it occur? When will it run, both in terms of services and length of the project? Why do you need to run it, as opposed to someone else? How will you run it?

Whenever I write an abstract, I ask myself the questions listed above. If I miss one, I go back and answer it. If you can answer those questions, you’ll at least have the skeleton of a complete project. If you find that you’re missing substantial chunks, you need to take time to better conceptualize the program and what you’re doing (which might itself make a useful future blog post).

As you write, start with the most relevant information. A good opening sentence should identify the name of the organization, the type of the organization if it’s not obvious (most of our clients are 501(c)3s, for example, and we always state this to make sure funders know our clients are eligible), the name of the project, what the project will do (“provide after school supportive services” is always popular), and who the project will serve. The next sentence should probably speak to why the project is needed, what it will accomplish, and and its goals. The next should probably list objectives. And so on. By the time you’ve answered all the questions above, you’ll have about a single-spaced page, which is usually as much space as is allowed for abstracts in most RFPs. At the end, since this is probably the least important part, you should mention that your organization is overseen by an independent board of directors, as well as its size, and a sentence about the experience of the Executive Director Project Director (if known).

If you’ve taken a journalism class, you’ve been told that the lead of news articles should be the most important part of the story. When someone important has died, don’t wait until the fourth paragraph to tell your busy reader what their name was and what they accomplished in life. Treat proposals the same way. For that matter, treat blog posts the same way, which we try to do.

You’ll have to find an appropriate level of detail. The easiest way to find that level is to make sure you’ve answered each of the questions above and haven’t gone any longer than one page. If you have, remove words until you’re on a single page. You don’t need to go into the level of specificity described in “Finding and Using Phantom Data in the Service Expansion in Mental Health/Substance Services, Oral Health and Comprehensive Pharmacy Services Under the Health Center Program,” but a mention of Census or local data won’t hurt, if it can be shoehorned in. Think balance.

Here’s one open secret about reading large numbers of documents at once: after you’ve read enough, you begin to make very fast assessments of that document within a couple of sentences. I don’t think I learned this fully until I started grad school in English lit at the University of Arizona. Now I’m on the other side of the desk and read student papers. Good papers usually make themselves apparent within the first page. Not every time, but often enough that it’s really unusual to experience quality whiplash.

To be sure, I read student essays closely because I care about accurate grading, and there is the occasional essay that starts out meandering and finds its point halfway through, with a strong finish. But most of the federal GS 10s, 11s, and 12s reading proposals aren’t going to care as much as they should. So first impressions count for a lot, and your abstract is your first impression. Like drawing a perfect circle, writing a perfect abstract is one of these things that seems like it should be easy but is actually quite hard. We’ve given you an outline, but it’s up to you to draw the circle.

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