A Day in the Life of a Participant is Overrated: Focus on Data in the Neighborhood

I’ve seen a lot of proposals from clients and amateur grant writers that include something like, “A day in the life of Anthony” in their needs assessments. This is almost always a mistake, because almost anyone can include a hard-knocks anecdote, and they convey virtually no information about why your hard-knock area is different from Joe’s hard-knock area down the street, or on the other side of the tracks, or across the country. These stories are staples of newspaper accounts of hardship, but newspapers know most of their readers aren’t thinking critically about what they read and aren’t reading 100 similar stories over eight hours. Grant reviewers do.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any RFPs that requested day-in-the-life stories in the needs assessment. If funders wanted such stories, they’d ask for them. Since they don’t, or at best very rarely do, you should keep your needs assessment to business. And if you’re curious about how to get started, read “Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World.” If you’re applying to any grant program, your application is one of many that could be funded, so you want to focus on the core purpose of the program you want to run. Giving a day in Anthony’s life isn’t going to accomplish this purpose.

Creativity is useful in many fields, but those involving government are seldom among them (as we wrote in “Never Think Outside the Box: Grant Writing is About Following the Recipe, not Creativity“). As a result, unless you see specific instructions to do otherwise, you should stick to something closer to the Project Nutria model, in which you describe the who, what, where, when, why, and how. Anything extraneous to answering those questions is wasting pages, and perhaps more importantly, wasting patience, and the precious attention that patience requires.

There’s only one plausible exception I can think of: sometimes writing about a day-in-the-life of a person receiving project services can be helpful, but again, you should probably leave those stories out unless the RFP specifically requests them. Some RFPs want a sample daily or weekly schedule, and that should suffice without a heroic story about Anthony overcoming life obstacles when he finally receives the wraparound supportive services he’s always wanted.

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