Grant writing and cooking: Too many details or ingredients is never a good idea

As a grant writer who also likes to cook, I understand the importance of simplicity and clarity in both my vocation and avocation: too much detail can ruin the proposal, just as too many ingredients can produce a dull dish. Ten years ago, I wrote a post on the importance of using the KISS method (keep it simple, stupid—or Sally, if you don’t like the word “stupid”) in grant writing. We recently wrote an exceedingly complex state health care proposal for a large nonprofit in a Southern state, but even complex proposals should be as simple as possible—but no simpler.

As is often the case with state programs, the RFP was convoluted and required a complex needs assessment. Still, the project concept and target area were fairly straightforward. We wrote the first draft of the needs assessment in narrative form, rather than using a bunch of tables. There’s nothing intrinsically better or worse about narrative vs. tables; when the RFP is complex, we tend toward narrative form, and when the project concept and/or target area are complex, we often use more tables. For example, if the target population includes both African American and Latino substance abusers in an otherwise largely white community, we might use tables, labeling columns by ethnicity, then compare to the state. That’s hard to do in narrative form. Similarly, if the target area includes lots of counties, some of which are much more affluent than others, we might use tables to contrast the socioeconomic characteristics of the counties to the state.

Many grant reviewers also have trouble reading tables, because they don’t really understand statistics. Tables should also be followed by a narrative paragraph explaining the table anyway.

So: our client didn’t like the first draft and berated me for not using tables in the needs assessment. The customer is not always right, but, as ghostwriters, we accommodate our clients’s feedback, and I added some tables in the second draft. Our client requested more tables and lots of relatively unimportant details about their current programming, much of which wasn’t germane to the RFP questions. Including exhaustive details about current programming takes the proposal focus away from the project you’re trying to get funded, which is seldom a good idea. It’s best to provide sufficient detail to answer the 5 Ws and the H), while telling a compelling story that is responsive to the RFP.

Then, stop.

The client’s second draft edit requested yet more tables and a blizzard of additional, disconnected details. Our client disliked it the third draft. We ended up writing five drafts, instead of the usual three, and the proposal got steadily worse, not better. As chef-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck* is said to have said, “Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors – it’s how you combine them that sets you apart.” Attempting to use all the flavors at once usually results in a kitchen disaster.

A given section of a proposal should be as short as possible without being underdeveloped. Changes from draft to draft should also be as minimal and specific as possible.

* Jake sort-of-met Wolfgang, albeit before he was born. His mom was eight months pregnant with him when we went to Spago for dinner. Wolfgang was there in his Pillsbury Doughboy getup, and, despite not being celebrities, he couldn’t have been nicer and made a big deal out of a very pregnant woman dining at his place. I think he wanted his food to induce labor, but that didn’t happen for a couple of weeks; instead, Nate ‘n’ Al’s Deli (another celebrity hangout in Beverly Hills), was the culprit. A story for another day.

The Goal of Writing Objectives is to Achieve Positive Outcomes (Say What?)

Writing the goals and objectives section of a grant proposal is usually a daunting task for the novice grant writer. Compounding the challenge is that almost every government or foundation Request for Proposal (RFP) requires some statement of goals and objectives, and if not required, should be included in most cases. So, here is a short course in how to get over this hurdle.

First, it is critical that one does not confuse goals, objectives, and methods. A goal is an overall statement of intent, such as, “The overarching goal of the LHEAP (Left Handed Enrichment Action Project) initiative is to improve educational outcomes for at-risk left-handed youth in southwest Dubuque.” Note: I don’t mean to keeping picking on Dubuque in my posts, it’s just that as a kid growing up in Minneapolis with a kosher butcher father who always seemed to be ordering meat from a packing plant in Dubuque, it remains an exotic locale in my mind. Sorry for the Proustian reverie (In Search of Lost Time) and back to the subject at hand.

In contrast to goals, objectives are specific, measurable and time-framed products or outcomes of activities proposed for funding through the grant. Objectives are often separated into “process objectives” (sometimes called “formative”) and “outcome objectives” (sometimes called “summative”). Process objectives could include such statements as, “LHEAP will serve a minimum of 100 targeted left-handed youth annually.” Outcome objectives could include such statements as, “A minimum 10% increase in scores on the standardized Iowa Test of Arcane Academic Knowledge will be achieved annually by left-handed students who participate in project activities for a minimum of 10 hours per week over the nine-month school year. Methods are ways of accomplishing objectives, such as conducting individual assessments, providing tutoring, mentoring youth with mentors, offering family literacy to parents/caregivers, etc. Keep methods out of the goals/objectives section and discuss them in the project description section.

The secret to writing effective goal/objective sections is to use the time-honored KISS method, which is to “keep it simple stupid.” At the risk of going Proustian again, I first heard this term in Air Force basic training and it fits perfectly to this aspect of grant writing (for a nice discussion of the KISS method and the virtues of simplicity in general see a post on Ed Sim’s Blog (BeyondVC). By keeping it simple, I mean try hard to state a minimum number of goals (one simply stated goal is ideal), because a separate set of process and outcome objectives is needed for each goal statement. If you have multiple goals, you end up with something like this:

Goal 1

Project Objective 1.1

Process Objective 1.2

Outcome Objective 1.1

Outcome Objective 1.2

Goal 2

Project Objective 2.1

Process Objective 2.2

Outcome Objective 2.1

Outcome Objective 2.2

And so on.

You can see that with four or five goal statements, the objectives will be repetitive and you will likely not only confuse yourself, but also the reader. Having multiple goals also unnecessarily complicates writing evaluation sections (I will soon write a post on how to draft evaluation sections, another novice proposal writer nightmare). So, unless the RFP requires multiple goals, keep it simple and try not to confuse goals, objectives and methods.