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On the importance of internal consistency in grant proposals

Grant writing, like most artistic pursuits, is an essentially solitary endeavor. No matter how many preliminary group-think planning meetings or discussions occur, eventually one person will face a blank monitor and contemplate an often cryptic, convoluted RFP.*

As a consequence of being written by a single person, most proposal first drafts are fairly internally consistent. A grant writer is unlikely to call the person in charge of the proposed initiative, “Program Director” in one section and “Project Director” in another, or randomly use client/participant/student interchangeably. Inconsistencies, however, tend to emerge as the proposal goes through various drafts to get to the submission draft.

Let’s say three readers edit the first draft: Joe doesn’t like chocolate, MaryLou doesn’t like vanilla and Sally doesn’t like ice cream. Joe’s edits might change Program Director to Project Coordinator for some arcane reason, but only in some sections, while the other readers may make similar changes, some of which might be valid and some capricious. As the proposal goes through the remaining drafts, these inconsistencies will become embedded and confusing, unless the grant writer is very careful to maintain internal consistency; a change on page 6 has to be made on pages 12, 15, and 34. Even if the grant writer is careful, as she revises the drafts, it will become harder and harder for her to spot these problems because earlier drafts become entangled with later ones.

Inconsistencies often crop up in project staffing, for example. Most proposals have some combination of threaded discussions of what the project staff is going to do, along with a staffing plan (usually includes summary job descriptions), organization chart, line-item budget, budget narrative, and/or attached actual position descriptions. If the staffing plan lists three positions, but the budget includes four and the budget narrative five, it’s “Houston, we have a problem time.” To a funding agency reviewer, these inconsistencies will stand out like neon signs, even if the grant writer can no longer see them. While some inconsistencies probably don’t matter much, some could easily be “sink the ship” errors.

In our consulting practice, we typically only prepare three drafts: the first, second and final or submission draft. We also provide clients with drafts in both Word and Acrobat, and we strongly suggest that only the Acrobat version be given to the reader list. This enables our contact person to return a single revised Word version and control the internal editing process.

But, like many of our suggestions, this is often ignored, so the final edited version we get from clients often has these various consistency problems in terms of both language and formatting. We overcome these by having the final draft flyspecked by one of our team members who has not closely read previous drafts. We also carefully compare the final draft to RFP requirements with respect to section headers, outline format, required attachments and so on. Nonetheless, we aren’t perfect and sometimes a sufficiently altered proposal can’t be effectively made consistent again.

Here’s another technique we often suggest to our clients to ferret out inconsistencies in language and formatting in final drafts: give the draft to someone who has good reading/writing skills but has never read the proposal and has no direct knowledge of the project concept, the services provided by your agency, or the RFP. For this person ignorance is strength. A retired uncle or aunt who taught high school English is perfect for this role. Such a reader will not only spot the inconsistencies, but will also likely find logic errors and so on.

Still, it’s important to complete this process well before the deadline. The closer the deadline looms, the more you risk either blowing the deadline or creating worse problems for yourself. A day or two before the deadline is a poor choice for making serious changes—which we’ve seen numerous clients attempt, and drastic last-minute changes rarely turn out well.

* This assumes you haven’t made the mistake of parceling out different proposal sections for different people to write—as is said, a camel, not a horse, will inevitably result from this dubious practice.