Think Systems When You Write You Prepare Your Proposal, and a Tale From the Medical Trenches

A friend of mine just applied to medical residencies, and in the process he worked himself into a lather over what specialty he wanted to choose and how he should order his preferred programs. He made a nearly fatal mistake of the kind many grant applicants do: he waited until the last minute to make a decision and submit his choices.

Medical residencies are disseminated through a Grants.gov-like mechanism called the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP), which is about as user-friendly as a double-edged sword with no hilt. This means he should’ve taken extra care by double checking every step of the application process and leaving himself at least a 48-hour window between the deadline and submission, which is a two-step, unintuitive process.

This being Grant Writing Confidential, you can probably already guess that he didn’t do that. Instead he waited until five minutes before the deadline. Over a couple months, I kept encouraging him to set a goal and create objectives, along with a timeline. That’s because I’ve seen Seliger + Associates prepare innumerable proposals and know what happens as a deadline approaches: panic. And panic isn’t conducive to clear thinking or good decision making.

Anyone who’s applied to a college knows that you need a large number of persnickety documents in the exact order and quantity the college demands. Those of you who’ve prepared a grant proposal should be thinking, “That sounds just like a proposal!” It’s also just like a medical residency. If you fail to do precisely what you’re supposed to, you’ll simply be out of luck. The main difference with grant applications is that a) they’re even more persnickety than colleges and b) a lot of agencies prepare them over and over again.

The weaker agencies panic each time and use the “hope and pray” method, which entails a lot of chaos. Smart agencies develop systems to prevent mistakes and ensure applications are submitted on time. They don’t procrastinate. They double check everything, then have a second person check too; it’s easy to miss a sentence or a document or a requirement. They learn from mistakes so they don’t make them again.

When you hire Seliger + Associates, part of what you get is a built-in anti-procrastination device. You’re not just buying our expertise, but the processes we’ve developed. If you, like most of my students, wait until the last minute to write your proposal (or paper), you’re more likely to miss critical parts of the RFP or nuances that might be essential to being funded. You’re going to miss a document that could get your application rejected. You’re going to be overwhelmed when you don’t need to, like my friend the soon-to-be doctor.

There’s nothing stopping you from doing all this on your own, of course, just as there’s nothing stopping my students from writing their papers early. It’s just that most people don’t make lists, don’t get someone knowledgable to back check their work, and don’t prepare in advance. As the big day inevitably approaches, they grow steadily more crazed. They’re more likely to make mistakes, and if they make a bad one, they’ll sink their million dollar grant ship.

In the case of my friend, his medical residency application was in jeopardy because of delays and self-imposed indecision. Innumerable nonprofits suffer the same malady every year. Don’t be one of them: design systems that ensure you get your work done methodically and in advance. If you can’t do it yourself, hire someone who will. Don’t be like my friend the medical resident and dither unless you want to harm your own chances of success for no reason at all.

And the friend did get into a great residency, which confirms the old adage that sometimes “luck beats skill.”

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