Although this might not seem like it should be a problem, figuring out where to start the narrative section of a proposal can sometimes be difficult: do you write to the evaluation criteria, to something labeled “narrative,” or to a series of text boxes? Federal programs are particularly fond of hiding the salami, as anyone who has had the misfortune of sitting down with a freshly issued, complex RFP can attest.
Novice grant writers often start writing to the wrong section, and Isaac described one example of this occurrence in Professional Grant Writer At Work: Don’t Try Writing A Transportation Electrification Proposal At Home. As he said, “The problem is that [review] criteria are invariably hidden somewhere in the bowels of the RFP and may or may not be referenced in the RFP completion instructions.”
You can see a particularly pernicious example of this in the Broadband Initiatives Program, whose application guide is available at the link. Oh, and you can also read the NOFA that was included in the Federal Register.
There are a few different areas within the NOFA and application guidance you could conceivably respond to. Check out page 16 of the NOFA, which says, “1. BIP Infrastructure Projects. a. General.” It has some point totals, which we usually write against when dealing with, say, YouthBuild. In the case of BIP, however, that would be logical, but wrong, because the application guide has more detailed instructions. If you look in it, you’ll be tempted by page 8 (though it’s labeled “7” in the hard copy) because it has scoring criteria similar but not identical to what’s in the NOFA.
Confused yet? Me too. But if you keep looking, you’ll find that the the place you actually want to start is page 14 (which is labeled 13) in the guidance, which says “Executive Summary.” As far as I know, however, no part of the NOFA or the application guidance actually come right and say, “write to the questions/criteria starting on page 14, which is actually labeled page 13 in the hard copy!” If you don’t take the time to study both the application guide and the NOFA, you could end up with an incomplete and totally wrong application on which you’ve spent dozens of work hours.
There’s another amusing part of the BIP NOFA, which has implications for this and other programs. It says, “Describe the methodology, source of data, and analytical approaches used to determine whether the proposed funded service areas are classified as “unserved,” ”underserved,” or for BIP, at least 75% rural.” But the NOFA already describes what “unserved” and “underserved” mean on page 7:
Specifically, a proposed funded service area may qualify as underserved for last mile projects if at least one of the following factors is met, though the presumption will be that more than one factor is present: 1. No more than 50 percent of the households in the proposed funded service area have access to facilities-based, terrestrial broadband service at greater than the minimum broadband transmission speed (set forth in the definition of broadband above); 2. No fixed or mobile broadband service provider advertises broadband transmission speeds of at least three megabits per second (‘‘mbps’’) downstream in the proposed funded service area […]
And it goes on from there. The most obvious maneuver to answer this question is to copy the exact language from the NOFA and spit it back in the response. They’ve given you the answer: you just have to use it. This isn’t a college exam, where you get extra credit for creativity; you get extra credit for staying in the lines. Save your imaginative powers for writing novels or composing software—in many grant writing exercises, imaginative powers will be wasted and possibly harmful, because your job is often to stack one two by four on top of another two by four to build the application following the RFP blueprints. The only question is where you need to build your foundation, and that’s what I’ve tried to answer in this post; the foundation issue will have to wait for another.
Oh, and the best part of all this: the narrative section for our client turned out to be around 30 pages long. The application guide is 72 pages long. I would propose a test of an RFP: if it takes longer to explain how to apply to a program than to describe what the applicant will actually do, the RFP writer has failed in some significant way.