Faithful readers know that I’ve been writing federal grant proposals since the last ice age.* For most of the last four decades, federal grant writing has changed little, other than in obvious tech-related ways—computers, online databases, quick and reliable digital literature/data searches, easy access to applicant background info and so on. I recently realized that incremental changes, glacial in speed though they may be, have begun to have a cumulative impact on the way in which proposals, and especially federal grant proposals, are prepared.
The biggest change in federal proposal preparation was the switch from hard copy to digital submissions, starting around 12 years ago. While at first there were a number of portals developed by various federal agencies, over the years most, but not all, have switched to Grants.Gov. For the first five or so years, Grants.Gov was incredibly badly coded, and the upload process was often uncertain and dicey. In recent years, the reliability of Grants.Gov has improved dramatically and the required attachments mercifully streamlined.
In the bad old days of paper submissions, federal agencies usually required a zoo of attachments, like target area maps, evaluator CVs, key staff resumes, job descriptions, organization charts, evidence of 501(c)3) status, bylaws, financial statements, letters of support, MOUs, and the dreaded logic model. The narratives themselves were long, like attention spans back in those days, with maximums sometimes reaching 50 single-spaced pages. It was not uncommon to end up with a 150-page grant application, which usually had be submitted with a “wet-signed” original and up to ten copies. Sometimes the FedEx boxes we shipped to HUD or the Department of Education weighed over ten pounds.
In the early days of Grants.Gov, these attachment requirements continued, making the upload process very complicated (try uploading a 10 megabyte financial statement attached to a Grants.Gov kit file for example) and sometimes impossible, as there might not be an attachment slot for a given required attachment. As time passed, federal RFPs began to strip away attachments or even require only a couple of consolidated attached files. This is much simpler and makes the grants.gov kit file preparation easier and significantly more reliable.
Most federal agencies have also reduced the maximum length of the narrative and settled on a double-spaced, single-sided page formatting convention. For example, Department of Labor proposals now usually have 20 double-spaced page maximums for narratives. Before you say “hallelujah,” however, keep in mind that the RFPs themselves have not gotten any shorter–an RFP could easily be 150 pages, with the questions to be answered in the 20-page narrative actually being many pages longer than the maximum allowed response. It is often harder to write a shorter narrative of, say, 20 pages, than 40 pages, because the writer faces the “building-a-ship-in-a-bottle” problem. Furthermore, despite severe page limitations, all of the headers/sub-headers must be included to enable reviewers to easily find your responses.
Other interesting RFP changes involve the objective and evaluation sections, which are sometimes combined and always intertwined. Until recently, most RFPs let the grant writer essentially make up the objectives. Now, however, many ED programs like Student Supportive Services and HRSA programs like New Access Points provide more or less fill-in-the-blank objectives. I’m fairly sure this trend is to facilitate “apples-to-apples” comparisons by reviewers, but whatever the reason, it makes it easier to stay within the page limit. While evaluation section requirements used to be astoundingly complex, these days, RFP evaluation instructions tend to be much more straightforward and linked to specified objectives.
Now for the bad news. The budget and budget narratives sections have changed little. Grants.Gov kit files still use a variation of the venerable SF-424A budget form, which is actually a summary of federal object cost categories. To create the 424A, any sane person would use an Excel template. The only people in the US who do not seem to grasp the concept of a spreadsheet are federal RFP writers. There is still no federal Excel SF-424A template provided, although we use versions that we’ve developed over the years.** A well-laid-out Excel line-item budget not only displays each line item within each cost category, but it can also double as the budget narrative. See further in “Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets.”
The budget narrative instructions in almost all federal RFPs are written as if the response is to be done on a typewriter, circa 1975. The budget narrative is also often excluded from the narrative page limit, with no page limit on the budget narrative. Although we would never do this, we’ve seen proposals from our clients in which the budget narrative is longer than the program narrative. Don’t do this—unless you think the tail wagging the dog is a good approach to life.
* Forty-four years to be exact, but who’s counting?
** We always provide clients with a draft budget in a handy reusable Excel template—which is one good reason to hire us!