How specific should I be in my grant proposal?


Here's a (paraphrased) question from a client. It was such a fantastic general question that I thought I'd share it (and my paraphrased response) with you:


I thought I had to finalize the details of a grant only if it's approved. Why do I need to be specific in the proposal?


GREAT question. Generally speaking, you need to be as specific as possible so that the people reviewing your proposal can “see” what you’re proposing to do. It’s a lot of work to do up front, but if YOU don’t do it you’re leaving it to the imagination of the funder (bad idea).


Think Like a funder


As a funder, I’d want to know the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, and HOW of your project (the WHY should be covered in the needs assessment or background/overview). 

I want the answers to those questions so that I can understand where my money is going. If I have a clear picture of your project, I'll be able to figure out whether it's a good fit for what I want to accomplish as a funder. Then I'll be able to decide to give you money to work on your project.

And I want to feel confident that you know enough about what you’re doing that you’ll be able to execute the project with the money I give you. You need to convey that explicitly by telling me about your experience and expertise, and implicitly by giving me enough detail about the project that it's clear that you've thought it through.


What you don't need to worry about


What you DON'T need to be specific about in the proposal are things that you can reasonably be expected to do if the grant is approved, and not before.

For example, many grants require that you list who is on the project team, their credentials, and so on. But if your proposal requires that you hire someone specifically for the project, you can't reasonably be expected to include that person on the team before the grant is approved.

But what you CAN do is explain that you plan to hire someone with X, Y, and Z experience for the project. And you can signal to the reviewer that you know what this process entails (and roughly how long it will take) by including the different components (writing and disseminating a job description, interviewing, orientation, etc.) in the project timeline. This is one of the ways that you can implicitly demonstrate that you know what you're doing.


How to avoid the "Hooray! Holy Sh*T" phenomenon


Another really important reason to be specific is to avoid what I call the "Hooray! Holy Sh*t" phenomenon: you get the money but you're totally unprepared to do the work.

Spending time thinking through your project in the proposal writing stage is ESSENTIAL to pulling off a successful grant and keeping your funders happy. If you're not ready to hit the ground running when you get that approval, you're toast. The chances of getting funding without a detailed proposal are pretty slim, but you'd be surprised at how much "we'll think about that later" still happens in a detailed project proposal.

Trust me, the LAST thing you want to do after you've cleaned up the party streamers is rub your hands together and say, "Okay! Where do we start?" 

Which means you need to be cautiously optimistic every time you submit a grant proposal. You'll be prepared if you get a Yes. And then it'll just be Hooray! And not Holy Sh*t.


How can you be more specific in your grant writing? Let me know in the comments!