Thursday, September 20, 2007

Four pieces of advice on writing persuasive grant proposals

I spent 19 years reviewing grant proposals for the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and Annenberg/CPB at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Here are four pieces of advice about writing proposals to grant competitions (internal or external) where the goal is to improve learning and where the competition is intense.

First and most important, grant proposal is an exercise in teaching at a distance. The desired learning outcome of your distance teaching is for two reviewers to meet, a day or two after they’ve each read the proposal, perhaps shortly before their review panel meets to discuss your proposal.

One panelist says to the other, “I don’t remember this proposal. What’s it about?” Panelist #2 replies, “Oh this is a good one. It’s about X and here’s why I think we should support it.” Panelist #2’s comments are no more than 60 seconds long, typically.

So what should panelist #2 remember to say about your proposal, a day or two after reading a stack of proposals of which yours was just one? That’s your challenge: teach these reviewers a few memorable things about your proposal, things that are important enough to excite the reader. If the reviewer thinks to herself, "I could borrow a couple of those ideas!" so much the better. Don't hide the good stuff.

Second, avoid passive verbs. Don’t be shy about saying “I” or “we.” It helps you use your own experience to a) explain why this is important, b) help educate the reader about whether and how much to trust your skill and insight (because you’re exposing more of your self and your experience.) Proposal reviewing is a confidence game.

Third avoid the current jargon, especially if the grant competition has an explicit goal– if everyone uses the same jargon, all the proposals sound alike.

Put those three things together, and you have the beginnings of a proposal that can persuade reviewers that you’ll be good at educating the world about what you’ve achieved with their money.

That's the fourth, and final, point. Whether far-reaching impact is an explicit goal or not, funders generally like it when other people can learn from the experience they’re paying you to gain. If you’re good at explaining (across disciplines and institutions) what you’ve learned, and being credible in the process, you’re a more valuable person/institution to fund.

Good luck, and please let us know if we can help with your proposal: evaluation planning? help you disseminate to other institutions? help plan faculty development? If you'd like to chat about grants, especially those having to do with improving teaching and learning with technology, please e-mail us at

PS Here's a chapter from the Flashlight Evaluation Handbook on how (not) to evaluate grant-funded technology projects.

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