Tag Archives: How-to

Teams don’t write grants: individual writers do, one word at a time

Teams don’t write proposals. If you hear about a team that is writing a proposal, that translates roughly to “lots meetings are being held, but no one is actually working on the proposal.”

We sometimes hear people at nonprofit and public agencies talk about how they’ve assembled a “team” to write a proposal. For some reason, proposals written by “teams” have a habit of a) not getting done, b) if they are done, being done unevenly at best, and/or c) creating permanent acrimony among team members.

Do you remember “group work” when you were in middle and high school, which meant that one responsible person did the entire project while the other members goofed off and then took as much credit as they could? That’s what you’ll get with proposal writing assignments, only the stakes are higher.

Every time we hear about proposal writing teams, we know that the person talking doesn’t know how proposals actually get written and is probably working on a proposal that won’t be submitted anyway.

For example, we were recently working on a large federal grant proposal for a school district in the midwest. Throughout the engagement, our contact person keep talking about “the team” that was working on the proposal from their end. When the proposal was nearly done—on the Sunday before the deadline—I heard from out contact person, who finally admitted that “the team” had abandoned her and she had to more or less pull an all-nighter by herself to ensure that we were able to finish the submission package.

Saying that you’re “assembling a team” sounds good: one imagines the innumerable scenes in movies and TV shows in which the ultimate crime or cop group gets wrangled together for one big or one last job.* The members look suitably grizzled. They all have nifty specialties. These days there’s inevitably a hacker who can magically “bypass building security.” The leading men are dapper and debonair, the leading women beautiful and feisty. Unfortunately, in the real world, writing is still best done by a single person who can keep the narrative complexity of a difficulty response in their head.

We’ve written about how to write a proposal before, most notably in “One Person, One Proposal: Don’t Split Grant Writing Tasks.” We’re writing about it again because we see the same set of mistakes again and again.

If you’re drafted into a “grant writing team,” be aware that you’ll probably have one of two roles: You’ll end up writing the vast majority of the proposal, or trying to make yourself look good while someone else writes the vast majority of the proposal. No amount of dividing up tasks will solve the essential problem of facing a blank screen, a full RFP, and starting to type.


Isaac’s favorite example of this comes from The Magnificent Seven, which is actually a good movie. The first thirty or so minutes of the movie consists of Yul Brynner collecting his expert gunmen. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, most nonprofit and public agencies don’t have the same needs as a Mexican village beset by bandits. Usually. Those that do, however, might be the subject of another post.

Perfect Proposal Production In an Imperfect World

As a companion piece to Jake’s post on YouthBuild and Isaac’s on formatting, I want to explain the science of proposal production.

1. It starts, like all aspects of grant writing and preparation, with a thorough reading of the RFP. Failing to read the RFP is the equivalent of failing to check your boat for holes before you push out to sea. You can’t discuss the finer arts of sailing if your vessel sinks.

2. Make a master checklist of every item needed for submission, even if the funding source provides a checklist. Sometimes the funding source’s list doesn’t match the funding source’s RFP. Sometimes the funder won’t remember to list optional items on their checklist. RFPs can sometimes be as hard for funders to understand as they are for you, the applicant.

Get someone to double-check the list you make. A lot of grant writing, like legal work, simply consists of making sure that you don’t miss anything. Like, say, a required document.

3. Begin to gather the requested items. Some will be very common, like a 501(c)3 letter or a list of the board of directors. Some will be esoteric. Some will have to come from others: as soon as you make the critical decision to apply, you want to be sure to write memos to stakeholders with a list of items needed, including absolute deadlines for the items you need. You should decide on those deadlines based on how much time you need to prepare the proposal. Then back those deadlines up by a couple of days, to allow for late items. So if your proposal is due on, say, May 30, and you need to assemble it on May 26, then you should give an “absolute” deadline of May 20 to your collaborators.

Managing stakeholders could be the subject of an entire blog post in itself. If managing people were easy, and if people routinely do what they say they will, we wouldn’t have an entire discipline called “management.”

4. Arrange each item in the order required by the funding source. If you have missing items, write “Commitment letter from the LEA” on a blank sheet of paper and leave a Post-it sticking out to remind you that you don’t have the letter but need it (this will help you remember what you need).

For electronic submissions, scan all the documents that are not already electronic files and note items missing. We’re fond of the Fujitsu ScanSnap, which has a cult following among the people who heroically push paper for a living, much like the Swingline Stapler. It’s also not a bad idea, but time consuming and paper producing, to print these and insert marked pages for any missing items.

5. Make a list of the information needed to complete the application forms. Then begin filling out the forms. Leave time to obtain the signature pages for paper submissions and make sure your organization is registered to submit electronically. If you’re missing any information, make a list of who knows the information you need, how you will obtain that information, and what you will do if it’s not available.

As you can probably tell, lists are your friend and help you organized.

6. Consult your checklist daily and remind stakeholders or partners about when you must have the documents. Your stakeholders—especially if they’re the staff of other agencies—are probably very busy (or at least claim to be), and it’s easy to forget a request for a letter. A handy reminder, well before the deadline, is highly advised.

7. When everything has been gathered (finally!), paginate the document, if required; we recommend it unless pagination if specifically forbidden: page numbers help you and the reader.

8. Then—and this is most important part—have a fresh set of eyes look the document over. Encourage the person or people to ask questions if they aren’t sure about something. This is the easiest and best way to catch errors, like missing signatures or signature pages. While there is no way to ensure a “perfect” proposal, this method will improve your proposal production process.

Next up: Submitting the optimal proposal.

One Person, One Proposal: Don’t Split Grant Writing Tasks

Would-be grant applicants often look at the dizzyingly long, arduous road to a finished proposal and think, “There’s gotta be a better way than assigning one person to write and assemble the entire beast.” They consider the RFP for a while and hit on a brilliant strategy: divide up the proposal like you’re cutting a pizza! One person writes the needs assessment, another the organization’s ability to operate the project, a third the evaluation, and so on.

Don’t do this. It’s a fundamentally bad idea, like sailing near the Sirens on Sirenum scopuli.

The temptation to work in parallel when you should work in serial is obvious: less work for each person. This would make the proposal development process like an assembly line, where dividing up the labor will result in greater productivity. But writing a proposal is more like a novel or poem than building a car, as the unified structure of a single mind is necessary for coherence of form and unity of content. Very few novels are written by more than one person, and even fewer novels that are any good are written by more than one person; as far as I know, zero novels that are genuinely great have been written by partners or groups.

That’s because the novel would be written in different styles, each style would have a different aim, the characters would act bizarrely, one part would be lyrical and another part plot-driven, and whatever meaning might be derived from the novel would be a muddled mess. Good novels are incredibly hard for one person to write, and two people would be even worse. Committee reports are so notoriously boring that there’s a term for ideas that get expressed in them: death by committee. There’s another expression in a field where more opinions lead to worse outcomes: too many cooks spoil the broth.

So what happens to organizations that write proposals this way? If you divide up the proposal, the sections won’t match. The project description won’t mention how the project will tie into existing efforts because someone else did that section. The RFP may ask for the project’s goals in three different places, and each of those will be different. The evaluation and project description will stare at each other like Martians and Earthlings in the fairly good 1953 version of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. Writing styles will clash like Germany and Russia at Stalingrad—the result will not be pretty. If it were merely aesthetically ugly, that would be acceptable, but it will probably also be incoherent, which is not.

The same set of problems apply to revising. There is a temptation to give five copies to five people and let a single person or small group of people make those revisions, which will lead to problems just like those described above. That’s why we demand a single set of changes for each draft we produce, with no exceptions. In other words, we don’t want one set from the Executive Director, another from the Board President, and a third from the Program Manager; with all those corrections, we’ll a) waste a lot of time trying to understand them and b) get conflicting revisions from different people. If we didn’t work this way, the result would be proposals that are confused, choppy, and don’t make enough sense because they lack consistency.

Occasionally we get hired to straighten out proposals that have been written and edited in parallel, and we almost always get a mess that we edit for consistency as best we can, but the end product is almost never as good as it would have been if we, or a competent single author, had simply written it from the beginning.

Technology increases the temptation to split writing and editing tasks among many individuals, especially for people who work in tech fields and are used to collaborative software development. Such software is all well and good for many arenas, but it hurts more than helps for writing, where individual styles vary widely and so does content. There’s an entire discipline out there attempting to explain how to get software developers to work together; Fred Brooks covers the subject in The Mythical Man Month, Timothy Lister and Tom DeMarco mention it in Peopleware, Joel Spolsky and Paul Graham discuss it in various places, and version control systems proliferate because software developers need them. Famous ones include Subversion, CVS, and GitHub. They could all be adapted for writing projects, but they probably seldom should be because they’re more likely to be misused. They also bring an organization perilously close to the methodologies Spolsky mocks in Big Macs vs. The Naked Chef, which ought to be required reading for anyone who wants to split up writing tasks (notice that Spolsky uses cooking metaphors, which I also do in the fourth paragraph of this post).

With a proposal, you’re writing a novel, not an operating system. If no one in your organization can write an entire proposal on their own, you should hire someone who can—either a consultant, in which case you’ve come the right place, or an employee, who can write proposals over and over. There are pros and cons to each, which I’ll write about further in a future post, but having multiple writers in a single proposal is an unambiguously bad idea, which experience has taught us and other grant writers. In fact, it’s so bad that Isaac probably could have noted it in The Danger Zone: Common RFP Traps.

Some applicants—especially those staffed by people inexperienced in the grant development process, such as businesses seeking Department of Energy (DOE) grants—attempt to split proposals anyway, which is likely to lead to a disastrous result. This is one of those lessons that, like touching the hot pan, everyone seems to need to learn the hard way, but when they do, we’ll be standing by with bandages and skin grafts, depending on the severity of the proposal burn.