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Acceptable Grant Proposal Language Evolves: No More Living on the Down Low

In today’s world of hyper micro-aggression Thought Police on social media and college campuses,* grant writers must be constantly vigilant regarding “acceptable” grant proposal language while simultaneously being culturally sensitive. We’ve written about the challenge of balancing the two in “Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing.” We recently encountered a challenge along those lines in the form of client pushback to a phrase we’ve used for years when writing HIV/AIDs proposals targeting African Americans: “Living on the down low.”

“Living on the down low” is shorthand for the fairly common practice of some men (and it’s particularly common among African American) to sometimes have unacknowledged (and usually unprotected) sex with other men. This class of high-risk persons are commonly referred to as “MSMs” (men who have sex with other men) in the grant writing trade, but they don’t consider themselves bisexual. Leaving aside the closeted aspect of this behavior, it can help explain why the CDC reports that “African Americans are the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV in the United States.” The New York Times published the seminal (pun intended) story on this phenomenon way back in 2003.

For years, we’ve been including sentences like this in most HIV/AIDS proposals: “The target population is African American men living on the down low.” We recently wrote a HRSA HIV/AIDS proposal that offered variations on “living on the down low” in the first draft. But our client considered that phrase pejorative. Internally, we were surprised, but we rewrote the second draft with alternative, convoluted language to describe the same behavior. We’re just ghost writers after all and never have a dog in proposal language fights.

We don’t know when “living on the down low” became anathema to our contact person in this agency, but we won’t use it in their proposals anymore. There are other formerly used terms have a similar history. For example, “Afro-American” and “black” were popular usages until the Reverend Jesse Jackson led a 1988 news conference of 75 “black” (black was used in the media) organizations, stating that their preferred usage was now African American and certainly not “Negro,” which had last seen favor in the Johnson administration. Consequently, we’ve predominantly used the term “African American” since going into business in 1993, unless our client tells us they prefer “black.” We’re always careful to capitalize Black when we do use it, to keep language hawks at bay. Some clients serve African or Caribbean immigrants, however, and dislike the term “African American” because they see it as inaccurate. There is no single right answer for everyone.

“People of color” is another currently fashionable usage and handy catch-all. Be careful, however. ABC’s Good Morning America anchor Amy Robach recently fell afoul when she inexplicably tossed out the phrase “colored people” on live TV, presumably having meant to say “people of color.” This led to a rather wonderful essay by African American and decidedly non-PC Columbia University linguist John McWorter, in which he asked: “Is ‘colored people’ a slur?”

In grant writing it’s important not to offend clients and grant reviewers. But it’s even more important to find pathways through the language and identity minefields to write in clear, easy to understand, language that succinctly tells the story.

* See, though, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s essay “The Coddling of the American Mind: In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. This essay explains why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health,” which takes on related issues.

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They only see the final proposal: Make sure you submit something to funders

This may seem obvious, but bear with me: Funders only see the final proposal you submit. They don’t see how hard you may have worked, the number of drafts you’ve completed, or how much you may have fought with your colleagues during drafting.

Even if the grant writing and assembly process goes bad, you should still submit the proposal anyway; we’ve said similar things in many posts, like “Deadlines are Everything, and How To Be Amazing.” If you don’t submit a proposal on time, you cannot be funded no matter how great the need or wonderful the project concept. If you do submit, however, funding is always possible, even if you are dispirited by the journey there. We’ve seen many internally dysfunctional organizations get funded because they managed to get something submitted, with our help, cajoling, and, near the deadline itself, outright hectoring. We’ve seen zero organizations, functional or not, get funded if they do not submit.

Many grant writing processes are ugly on the inside: Filled with recriminations, unhappiness, fights, bitterness, and so on. But the final product can, if the participants focus on the prize, turn out well regardless of the weakness of initial wrangling.

As it is in many places, The Lord of the Rings is relevant here. You may remember the hellacious journey of Sam and Frodo into and then through Mordor. Their process is, in modern terms, sub-optimal: they are hungry, thirsty, and exhausted throughout; they are opposed by Orcs, Nazgûl, and other foul creatures; the Ring continually tempts Frodo and calls out to its master; and the will of both Sam and Frodo is nearly crushed. Yet their quest is achieved because they persevere.

The process of destroying the Ring is daunting but the outcome is good, or at least an improvement over having all Middle Earth smothered by the darkness of Sauron, who would make all its people slaves. In grant writing, ugly processes can still sometimes yield funded programs. While we always strive to work with our clients to ensure technically correct submission packages that are internally consistent, this is not always possible due to missing support letters, committed matches, etc. Still, we’ve seen some technically incorrect proposals get funded, either through the magic of our grant writing, the ineptness of the reviewers or other opaque factors. Don’t forget that, even in the darkness that sometimes sets in a week before the deadline.

In many things in life, the people who succeed at whatever they attempt are the ones who are most determined to succeed and most determined to grind out a victory. Perseverance is underrated still.