People with advanced degrees and university professors are (presumably) good at lots of things, like publishing the original research they’re trained to produce, but they aren’t always good grant writers—especially for the kinds of social and human service proposals that Seliger + Associates often writes. I think there are lots of reasons for this:
- Academics often don’t like or respond well to short deadlines. Having a four- to six-week turnaround time simply isn’t enough. Having a one- to two-week turnaround time, which we sometimes do, is even harder. And a lot of people, academics included, don’t have the right stuff.
- You don’t have to be an expert to write on a subject, but academics are culturally encouraged to make claims only in areas they have studied deeply. This means they often sneer at dilettante journalists, but journalism is actually the field most analogous to grant writing, and sometimes being an expert can actually impede your ability as a grant writer by making you too enmeshed in the area. Reviewers won’t have the same expertise as you, and the assumptions you hold might not be the ones everyone else holds. What you really need to do is tell a story—and experts are often better at making find-grained distinctions of fact or opinion than telling stories. We discuss the problems of experts in National Institute of Health (NIH) Grant Writers: An Endangered Species or Hidden Like Hobbits?. (Note that this paragraph won’t necessarily apply if you’re seeking advanced research grants).
- Academics love committees and process. Both are lovely in their time and place, but writing a proposal isn’t one of them, and a love of committees sometimes leads to the critical mistake of trying to divide writing tasks.
- A lot of academics have no idea how social and human services are actually delivered. They know how such services should be delivered in theory, but the gap between theory and practice is wider in practice than in theory. They haven’t read Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development or Every Proposal Needs Six Elements: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The Rest is Mere Commentary.
- Academics are sometimes prone to hand-waving, which I witnessed in my own department’s colloquium and described in Grant Advice is Only as Good as the Knowledge Behind It.
- The goal is to get the money, not to be right.
This last one is especially significant, and we’ve talked about it before in The Real World and the Proposal World and The Worse it is, the Better it is: Your Grant Story Needs to Get the Money. If your goal is to get the money, you should disregard data that doesn’t support the idea that your service area needs the money and highlights the idea that service area does. You shouldn’t lie, but the judicious selection of facts and ideas to support the narrative you’re trying to develop will help your application.
As mentioned above, grant writing, especially for social and human services, is more than anything else about telling stories. Sometimes stories aren’t entirely factual, or miss an important part of the whole picture, but they’re what proposals (and journalism feature stories) are made of. So if you can get important-sounding opinions from misery professionals but not much about data, use the important-sounding opinions. Sometimes they’re not very far from “research” anyway. Here’s how you get data: take a bunch of opinions, collate them, publish them, and call them data. A lot of peer-reviewed articles basically amount to this. You can spend loads of time searching for research to support your organization’s need and come up with nothing or with weak research. If so, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and massage what you’ve got. A lot of academics can’t, or won’t, do that.
To be sure, I’m confident that there are some academics and professors out there who would make or are lovely grant writers. But we’ve witnessed a sufficient number of failed grant writing attempts by academics to doubt most are good at it. If you have an academic writing social or human service proposals, especially if it’s the academic’s first time doing so, make them read this post.