Every grant proposal tells a story

Writing grant proposals is stressful. So is reviewing grant proposals. One thing that I think will help to make the process smoother for both parties is to understand that a good grant proposal has a story. The more you, the writer, consciously understand, explore, and express that story, the more compelling the proposal and the better the reviewers will understand it. This will make life better for everyone.

People who come from the hard sciences are likely to be suspicious of connecting the word “story” with the term “grant proposal.” But, let’s think about it. A story has characters with motivations, a plot, obstacles the characters must overcome, and connections between actions and events. There is causality in a story. A good project proposal has the same features. In a good proposal the characters’ motivations, past events, and obstacles are told as clearly as if one were telling a story to an audience. The characters in a proposal are the writers/educators/proponents of the project and their students or populations served. These characters have emotions and motivations. Usually the educators want their students/programs/communities to thrive and they are excited by their role in these successes. The obstacles can be varied, for example; the students lack math skills and therefore fail their courses; the local industry needs technicians quickly in a newly emerging area; a program is failing to recruit women and minorities. The causal connections between motivations, events in the past, and the present proposal are very important. Perhaps the educators tried to recruit students in a certain way that failed but now are excited by promising results using a new method. Perhaps the educators are motivated by their passion to better serve an underrepresented population that they are just beginning to reach. The obstacles to be overcome must match the goals of the grant program. For example, it is unrealistic to solve the economic woes of an entire state with an ATE project. It is unreasonable to expect the federal government to provide funds for a project that has only local impact for a few people. Finally, the story must explain why the characters are now asking for a grant and how the resources of the grant will enable them to overcome the barriers in their path. If the institution has had prior grant support, this should also be explained as part of the story. Presumably the prior support had good outcomes but did not address a new need. Or perhaps the prior support led to encouraging results that suggest a new pathway. Prior results are part of the story and the idea of causality, that one event leads to another, is essential in this section.

There is also the issue of “voice” in a story. Story tellers have a voice. Although we expect a proposal to be written in a professional manner, there is nothing wrong with allowing the voice of the characters to show. There is nothing wrong with using the words “I” or “we” in the narrative. A grant proposal should not be written in the strident voice of a supermarket tabloid; neither should it so stark as to be devoid of any human passion and excitement for education. Balance telling your story in an authentic way with telling it in a professional manner.

There are other features in a proposal in addition to a story. There is a dissemination plan, timelines, sustainability plans, the proper font size and margins, references to past research, and so on. A good grants writer/grants manager is invaluable in making sure these items are present in the proposal. That person, however, cannot imagine your story. He/she might be able to write it down once you express it verbally, but only you, the project’s champion(s) know the story. And, most importantly, the story comes first. It should come early in the proposal’s narrative. This means that some of the first pages should be used to tell your story. The telling must be succinct, but don’t skimp on this part of the proposal. Write it clearly and then ensure that the rest of the proposal falls into place based on the story. The existence of the story absolutely should come before beginning the process of writing, before assembling a grant writing team, before reading the RFP. If there is no story, there is no proposal. End of discussion.

Okay, it is not really the end because sometimes, someone says to you, the faculty member or grants person, “Look! The federal government is giving away money. Get us some!” This is an unfortunate position in which to find yourself and requires tact and strategic thinking. Perhaps you do have an idea for a story that is meaningful and will truly aid your students and community. Then you can get excited about this opportunity and work with real enthusiasm to tell your story. If not, well, perhaps someone else has a story to tell. In the end, if there is no story, there is no proposal.


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