My client called me very excited, “They loved our concept paper! The program officer said that work is genius and inspiring. Now we just have to put it in their online format and get the process going!” This news was a milestone for my client – our first multi-year, six-figure grant from a prominent national funder. I excitedly began to start the grant application.
But then my heart sank. The application questions were numerous (typical), generous in space (3000 characters!), and common enough that I certainly had all the answers in my concept paper – mission, history, accomplishments, outcomes, objectives, workplan, evaluation, sustainability, and partnerships. The problem was that I would have to deconstruct and pull apart all of the concept paper for it to work in their application format. The information would need to be in a different order, prefaced by different context, and completely re-written for the information to be where they wanted it. I re-wrote the application, and we sent it in.
The program officer called to say he hated the proposal. “What happened?” he asked. “It was so good before.” It was the same organization, the same workplan, the same program officer. The only thing that was different was that the information followed the dictated format of their standard proposal questions.
Could the presentation in a free form context (concept paper) differ so much from the structure of a proposal so as to deflate a program officer’s interest? I’ve always suspected that structured grant proposals are not designed for organizations to put their best foot forward, but this was the closest I have ever come to having objective data pointing to that effect. The program officer’s before and after responses added to my sense that grant proposals are designed to collect information that gets analyzed by foundation staff and trustees. A level playing field is created not only by having standardized questions, but also by stripping away opportunities for an organization to be “too persuasive” using anything besides the objective strength of their program plans.
I can see why this might be beneficial. We want funders to invest in strong organizations, programs, and plans. To the degree that rhetorical persuasion is manipulative, we don’t want to be overly blinded by manufactured emotions from pretty words when making funding decisions. At the same time, I think this makes philanthropy via grants rather clinical and robotic. And the result? Strong organizations and programs doing great work in the community may not get funded.
Persuasion is not wrong. We need to be inspired by what we do. But grant proposal applications rarely give us room to persuade. We have to do that by connecting with the person behind the proposal application – the program officer. So, the lesson I take away from this experience is the utmost importance of relationships with funders. If this proposal had gone in cold (no previous contact with the funder), it would never have been picked up. The program officer knew the potential in the project through the conversations he had with my client, and the unstructured letter just confirmed it. Because of the strong relationship, he was willing to stick through three months of revisions to the proposal to get the project to present in its best form within their proposal structure. His commitment to the original idea that inspired, moved, and persuaded him was what helped us get this pivotal grant.
So what do you think? How do structured grant proposals help or hinder your organization from making your best case for support? What have been your experiences?