Tag Archives: universities

The Difference Between Being “Involved” in Grants and Being a Grant Writer

Most people who claim to be grant writers or “involved” in grants don’t actually write proposals. They’re more often engaged in things like grant management, the distribution of grant funds, or development (fund raising), which are important but very different things than grant writing.

Grant writing means you sit down and write a proposal. Grant management means you oversee funding; file reports; help with evaluations; hire staff; and the like. Notice that “write proposals” is not on the list. Also, some people who say they’re involved with grants are actually on the funder side of things, which means they might help write RFPs or evaluate proposals, but again: those skills are very different and of limited use when actually confronted by a proposal in the wild. Someone who writes proposals can of course be involved in grant management, but it seldom goes the other way around; if you’re going to be a grant writer, you have to be able to pass the test Isaac proposed in “Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain:”

If we ever decide to offer a grant writing credential, we would structure the exam like this: The supplicant will be locked in a windowless room with a computer, a glass of water, one meal and a complex federal RFP. The person will have four hours to complete the needs assessment. If it passes muster, they will get a bathroom break, more water and food and another four hours for the goals/objectives section and so on. At the end of the week, the person will either be dead or a grant writer, at which point we either make them a Department of Education Program Officer (if they’re dead) or give them a pat on the head and a Grant Writing Credential to impress their mothers (if they’ve passed).

You don’t need to pass that kind of arduous test to manage grants, issue RFPs, or review applications.

Last weekend, for example, I met a couple who said they knew a lot about grant writing and were “in” grants. Compared to a random person on the street, they did know a lot: one of them works for a regional government transportation authority and has probably helped disseminate hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in transportation funding. The other works as a development director for a university. Together, they have about 40 years of combined experience in “grants.” It turns out, however, that neither have ever even once done what I was doing about twenty minutes before I began this post: writing a proposal. Development directors often do everything in the universe to shake money out of donors except write proposals; that may be why we’ve worked for a fair number of development directors over the years. And program officers, who pass out grant funds, might write RFPs, but never the responses.

I wish more people who worked “in” or around grant writing had the experience of actually writing a proposal, because if they had, I suspect we’d get better RFPs. I’m also reminded of the theory / practice divide that arises in so many academic disciplines. Psychology, for example, has a large number of people who do a lot of research but don’t see patients, and a large number who see patients and don’t do research. Naturally, the researchers often think of the practitioners as mere carpenters and the practitioners often think of researchers as mandarins who don’t understand what life on the ground is like. Both are probably somewhat right some of the time.

Something similar happens in English: a lot of English departments these days are bifurcated between the people in “creative writing” and literature. The creative writers—novelists, poets, and so forth—produce the stuff that the literary critics and theorists ultimately discuss; I suspect there, too, the world would be a better place if critics and theorists actually took a serious stab at producing original work. If they did, many might not hold the sometimes implausible opinions they do. They’re like RFP writers who know everything the world about grant writing except what it’s like to stare down a nasty, confused, contradictory RFP. You probably wouldn’t want to eat at a restaurant run by a chef who never tastes his own food, but that’s the situation one often gets with grant writing.

There’s a moral to this story: be wary of people who say they know a lot about grant writing, since they often know a lot about everything but grant writing.

Why Academics Don’t Always Make Good Social and Human Services Grant Writers

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.