How I track needs assessments and other grant proposal research

Bear with me. I’m about to discuss a topic that might recall horrific memories from high school history or college English, but I promise that, this time, I’m discussing research methods that are a) simple and b) relevant to your life as a grant writer in a nonprofit or other setting.

The single best way I’ve found to track grant research is described in Steven Berlin Johnson’s essay “Tool for Thought.” You can safely go read Johnson’s essay and skip the rest of this post, because it’s that good. I’m going to describe the way Johnson uses Devonthink Pro (DTP) and give some examples that show how useful this innovative program is in a grant writing context.

The problem is this: you’re a grant writer. If you’re any good, you’re probably writing/producing at least one proposal every three months, and there’s a solid chance you’re doing even more than that—especially if you have support staff to help with the production side of proposals. Every proposal is subtly different, yet each has certain commonalities. Many also require research. In the process of completing a proposal, you do the research, find a bunch of articles and maybe some books, write the needs assessment, and cite a bunch of research in (and perhaps you also cite research) in the evaluation section or elsewhere, depending on the RFP.

You finish the proposal and you turn it in.

You also know “One of the Open Secrets of Grant Writing and Grant Writers: Reading.” You see something about your area’s economy in the local newspaper. You read something about the jobs situation in The Atlantic. That book about drug prohibition—what was it called again? Right, Daniel Okrent’s Last Call—has a couple of passages you should write down because they might be useful later.

But it’s very hard to synthesize any of this material in a coherent, accessible manner. You can keep a bunch of Word documents scattered in a folder. You can develop elaborate keyword systems. Such efforts will work for a short period of time; they’ll work when you have four or five or six proposals and a couple dozen key quotes. They won’t work when you’ve been working for years and have accumulated thousands of research articles, proposals, and quotes. They won’t work when you know you need to read about prisoner re-entry but you aren’t sure if you tagged everything related to that subject with prisoner re-entry.

That’s where DTP comes in. The program’s great, powerful feature is its “See Also” function, which performs associative searches on large blocks of text to find how things might be related in subtle ways. Maybe you use the word “jail” and “drugs” without using the word “prisons” in a paragraph. If you search for “prisons,” you might not find that other material, but DTP might. This is a contrived example, but it helps show the program’s power.

Plus, chances are that if you read an article six years ago—or, hell, six months ago—you’re probably not going to remember it. Unless you’re uncommonly organized, you’re not going to find the material you might really need. DTP lets you drop the information in the program to let the program do the heavy lifting by remembering it. I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement, but DTP works surprisingly well.

Let’s keep using the example I started above and imagine that your nonprofit provides re-entry services to ex-offenders. You’ll probably end up writing the same basic explanation of how your program conducts intake, assessment, plans, service delivery, and follow-up in a myriad of different ways, depending on the funder, the page limit, and the specific questions being asked. You want a way to store that kind of information. DTP does this very well. The trick is keeping text chunks between about 50 words and 500 words, as Johnson advises. If you have more, you won’t be able to read through what you have and to find material quickly.

Consequently, a 3,000-word project services section would probably overwhelm you next time you’re looking for something similar. But a 500-word description of your agency’s intake procedure would be very manageable.

The system isn’t perfect. The most obvious flaw is in the person doing the research: you need a certain amount of discipline to copy/paste and otherwise annotate material. This might be slow at first, because DTP libraries actually get more useful when they have more material. You also need to learn how to exploit DTP to the maximum feasible extent (free proposal phrase here). But once you’ve done that, you’ll have a very fast, very accurate way of finding things that can make your grant writing life much, much easier. (Incidentally, this is also how I organize blog posts, and DTP often refers me back to earlier blog posts I would otherwise have forgotten about).

Right now, DTP is only available on OS X, but there is similar functionality in programs like Evernote or Zoho Notebook, which are cross-platform. I can’t vouch for these programs because I’ve never used them, but others online have discussed them. DTP, if used correctly, however, is a powerful argument for research-based writers using OS X.

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