January 29, 2013

How Grant Writing is a lot like College

At The Grant Plant I am surrounded by people who have all been grant writing for some time now. They are knowledgeable about the different aspects of grant writing and never cease to have a wealth of information to learn from. I am a recent UNM graduate who has been working at The Grant Plant for about a year and I have a lot to learn about grant writing. I have, however, over the past year made some observations that have led me to believe that grant writing is similar to attending college. Perhaps you too are newly embarking on a development career such as grant writing and if so, then hopefully you can identify with at least one of the five observations I have made.

Observation #1: Grant writing and college are similar because you must take one step at a time, one scary writing assignment at a time.

As I look forward to learning more about grant writing, I am always astounded by how often I hear that grant writing is hard. Even Grant Writing for Dummies by Bev Browning, which promises to take the guess work out of grant writing, acknowledges that it is not an easy task. One of my co-workers’ favorite blogs is Grant Writing Confidential, by the Seligers. The first post I ever read in the blog was partly titled If I Only Had a Brain, and it terrified me, particularly the part about being placed in a windowless room and if you survived for a week then you could call yourself a grant writer. This is intimidating to read when you have zero experience as a grant writer and are seriously considering it as a new career path. The moment of panic I had reading over this post was not unlike the first time I looked over a syllabus handed out by a college professor at the beginning of a new semester. The long list of reading assignments in combination with the brief overviews of writing assignments always made me feel slightly overwhelmed. The lesson I learned from these moments of panic was it is important to take it one step at a time, one reading and writing assignment at a time. I have found that those anticipated assignments were never as hard or scary as they first seemed. It is my hope that grant writing will be much the same.

Observation #2: Outlines are useful. Twelve pages or 50 pages, outlines can be your best friend.

The second way college is similar to grant writing was nicely summed up by one of our writers, Jenny Jackson, who stated that writing grants was much like being assigned term papers at the end of the semester, over and over, and over and over, again. Grant writing (in particular, the narrative) is essentially one long paper on a topic that you have studied to familiarize yourself with. Granted, narratives can be quite long, some as many as 50 pages, while the longest paper I was ever assigned to write was 12 pages – nothing compared to 50!

My English professor once stated that to write ten pages is not so different from writing 20 or 100 pages as long as you have a clear outline of what you would like to say (I’m not so sure my co-workers would agree). I used to abhor outlines but as my classes became progressively harder I found that outlines were useful. It required me to think about what I wanted to say ahead of time and encouraged me to think through my writing process and the organization of my paper. I plan to utilize outlines frequently as I start writing for The Grant Plant.

Observation #3: College is hard and so is grant writing. Acknowledge this fact and don’t give up.

My last semester in college I was required to take a Shakespeare course for my English minor, a subject that was wildly out of my comfort zone. I did not understand what I was reading and my professor was so enthralled with the deeper meaning of the passage that she only confused me further. It was hard. Every time I became comfortable with one Shakespearean play we would be moving on to a different play and it took some time before I easily understood what we were reading. Grant writing is going to be hard. All proposals and application processes are different. And some appear much more detailed and difficult than others. Just when I feel comfortable with the more basic applications, I may find that other applications are ten times more difficult and be back at square one. I think this is typical of anything new or challenging. It takes dedication and determination to master the new skill.

Observation #4: Graduating from college, much like seeing a grant proposal through from application to funding, will take some time. You must be patient.

I imagine that learning to be a grant writer, and becoming a successful one, will take some time as did earning my bachelor’s degree. You don’t graduate from college overnight. It takes months – years – and a lot of hard work. Grant writing will take time to learn. For example, how do you read an RFP (and yes, I did read Aly Sanchez’s recent article on how to read an RFP, have you?) or how do you decipher what writing voice to use when writing for different funders, or what exactly is involved in writing a 50-page narrative? Luckily, tutorials for these are all in the TGP arsenal and I am looking forward to using them. Luckily, I am surrounded by talented grant writers who are willing to point me in the right direction and who don’t mind answering my endless questions.

Observation #5: You go to college to prepare for a career and make a better life for yourself. You write grants to secure funding for worthy nonprofits that are trying to make our communities a better place. Remember the larger purpose behind your hard work!

For those of you who are just starting out in the grant writing business or who work for a busy non-profit and have been assigned the task of writing a grant proposal, you are not alone. I met a nice lady at the United Way conference this past fall who was taking a college course on grant writing. She said she didn’t know a thing about grant writing and was overwhelmed at the beginning of her course. When I asked why she was taking the course she responded that she was currently volunteering for a non-profit and she hoped to learn how to write a competitive grant in order to help the nonprofit secure much-needed funds. It was a good reminder that although grant writing can be daunting and conjure mental images of a windowless room with only one meal and a glass of water (thank you, Seliger), the purpose of grant writing is to secure funds for non-profit organizations that are doing so much to help those in our community.

So remember, take it one step at a time, utilize your outlines, do not give up, be patient while you learn, and remember the larger purpose behind your task which makes the hard work worth every second. Sure, I won’t get to don a red cap and gown every time I complete a grant proposal, but I will experience the sweet sense of accomplishment just like the night I graduated from UNM.

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