Grant Writing Confidential Goes to the Movies 4: Titanic Edition and Sink-the-Ship mistakes

Titanic is not actually one of my favorite movies, but I’m going to use it to illustrate a critical aspect of grant writing: you’ve got to know when you’re about to commit a sink the ship mistake. We’ve written about aspects of this before (see here, here, or here), but the issue is worth emphasizing because it arises so often.

We all remember the hapless Titanic passengers, whether it be the swells in first class epitomized by the beautiful Kate Winslet or the proles in steerage personified by Leonardo DiCaprio. As least as depicted in the movie, they all bought into the White Star Line’s “unsinkable” PR BS. In Titanic, the movie, the only person who understands the minor problem of the iceberg is the ship’s designer. He responds to a passenger screaming incredulously “But the ship can’t sink” by saying, “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can… and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.”

Grant writers are the architects of a given proposal writing assignment. As one, it’s your job to steer clear of sink-the-ship problems, even if the captain (executive director) wants to sail blithely into a field of metaphorical icebergs. Here are some common sink the ship problems we see:

  • Propose a budget that exceeds the maximum grant amount or is below the minimum grant amount.
  • Propose a match that is below the minimum required match. Or fail to understand how the match should be calculated.
  • Fail to include letters of commitment or MOUs from required partners.
  • In hard copy submissions, fail to include required signature pages.
  • In online/upload submissions, fail to include required attachments, including the voluminous federal certifications required by grants.gov.
  • Exceed the page limit maximum and/or often-hidden formatting requirements (e.g. font type and size, double spacing, pagination, file naming and so on).
  • Fail to include required attachments specified in the RFP (e.g., service area map, data tables, site plans for construction projects, etc.).
  • Propose service delivery to an ineligible target area or target population.
  • Be an ineligible applicant.
  • Miss the deadline, which is the ultimate sink the ship problem.

Any of the above will most likely get your proposal tossed during the initial technical review and it will not be scored. You will have hit an iceberg, or, if you like this metaphor better, dealt yourself the Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200 card.

As professional grant writers, we make every effort (free proposal phrase here) to avoid the above by closely reading the RPP and preparing a “documents memo” for our clients. This is a checklist for required submission package items and guides our clients on what they should worry about during the drafting process. While many RFPs include “checklists,” these are often incomplete and/or inconsistent with the RFP. As President Reagan famously put it about negotiating with the Soviet Union, “trust, but verify.”

While it pays to be very careful to avoid a sink-the-ship problem, many grant writers and executive directors instead focus on non-sink-the-ship problems at late stages of the application process. Here are some examples we run into frequently:

  • Excessively worrying about word choices. Although it always best to use good grammar, using “that” instead of “which” or “client” instead of “participant” are not important after the first draft.
  • Spending inordinate time preparing fancy color charts and graphs. While the formatting should look pleasing, putting ribbons on your proposal pig may backfire, as your your agency may look “too good” to readers, or create a huge file that may result in upload problems at grants.gov and other upload sites.
  • Including endless descriptions of how wonderful the agency and executive director are. One paragraph is usually enough for the entire management team and a couple of pages of agency background is all that is needed. When writing about the agency, use specifics regarding programs, number of clients served and outcomes, instead of PR babble. Save this stuff for your annual holiday appeal letter.
  • Adding attachments that are not requested in the RFP. A screen shot of the executive director on “Oprah” or “Dr. Oz” won’t help you get funded, but they will generate amusement on the part of readers. Remember, you never what to submit a proposal that will be passed around by reviewers saying, “get a load of this one!”
  • Wasting time and space with letters of support from elected officials. Most grant reviewers know that virtually any applicant can get a letter from their congressperson/senator just by asking. This is not how influence is peddled in Washington.

Like most of our advice on the technical aspects of grant writing, avoiding a sink the ship problem is pretty simple. Read the RFP carefully, prepare a checklist with responsibilities and timeframes, write a compelling proposal, and submit a technically correct proposal a couple days ahead of the deadline. The challenge is all in the execution.

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