What did I know about grants when I sat down to work on my very first proposal? Not. One. Thing. Here are three things I’m glad I didn’t know. They helped me get that first grant – and if you’re a Grants Newbie, they may help you get off to a strong start too.
My Grants Newbie origin story goes back $42 million and more-years-than-I-usually-admit ago (think: pre-Internet). I’ve learned a bazillion things about grants since then and I love sharing what I’ve learned through GrantsMagic U.
But looking back, there are three things I’m glad I didn’t know before sitting down to write – and get! – that very first grant.
1. “What’s an RFP, anyway?”
In the grants world the acronym RFP stands for “request for proposals.” It’s the notice a grantmaker puts out announcing that their grant cycle is open and sharing instructions to grantseekers for preparing a qualified proposal.
Dear Grants Newbie, you now officially know more about grantseeking than I did when I was tasked with writing my first grant proposal – and it was a Federal grant at that.
There I was, just three days into a new job. It had been a competitive selection process, and I wasn’t everyone’s top choice. So I felt I had a lot to prove when my boss’s boss (one of those who’d wanted someone else) clomped into my cubicle and dropped a stack of papers on the corner of my desk.
“Here’s an RFP,” she barked. “It’s due in three days. See what you can do with it.”
Smiling brightly I said, “No problem, Nancy – I’m on it!” I listened to her clomping around the corner and down the hall to her office. Then I looked at the stack of papers she’d left behind and thought, “Hmm … what’s an RFP, anyway?”
Yes, I was that green.
Answering that question turned out to be my very first step on what would become the journey of a lifetime. I had no idea then that it would become the journey of a lifetime. I certainly had no idea there were a bazillion things to learn ahead of me on that journey.
All I knew at that moment was I’d better figure out this RFP thing. So I set about doing exactly that. (More on this topic in the next section.)
What can you learn from this?
Beginner’s mind is your friend. It’s fine that you don’t know everything. In fact, you’re not supposed to: You’re a newbie! Just start with the first thing you don’t know – and figure it out. Then go from there.
You do know how to figure things out. You’ve been doing it your whole life.
And by the way, remember, dear Grants Newbie, that you already know more than I did when I faced my first-ever grant proposal – $42 million ago.
2. “Writing a proposal is hard.”
You hear it everywhere in the grants world.
“Writing a proposal is hard. Getting grants is hard. Grantmakers make it hard. It’s like a near-impossible obstacle course. You’ll have to work really really hard – and then you may end up not getting the grant and have nothing to show for all that hard work.”
Another day I might debate the truth of statements like these. For now, let me just say that when I faced that stack of papers Nancy dumped on my desk all those years ago, I’d never heard any of this.
Nobody had ever told me that writing a proposal is “supposed to be” hard.
Nobody had ever told me that getting grants is hard.
Certainly I had never been told that “Nobody ever gets the first grant they write – and especially not a Federal grant.”
None of these beliefs was in my head. I had beginner’s mind. There was only one voice in my head, and that was Nancy’s – my boss’s boss. Remember, Nancy didn’t think I’d been the best candidate for the job I now held. But she hadn’t said “This will be hard for you.” She hadn’t said “You don’t know enough to do this right.” She hadn’t said “You probably won’t succeed.”
She just said – and bless her for this:
“Here’s an RFP. It’s due in three days. See what you can do with it.”
What I heard was: Maybe there’s something you can do with it. As in: It’s possible you can do this.
Okay, I thought, let’s see, and reached for that stack of papers.
Within minutes I realized that what I had in my hands was a set of detailed instructions on:
- Exactly what kind of project the Federal grant program wanted to spend its money on; and
- Exactly how to put together a proposal for doing that kind of project.
“Oh wow!” I remember thinking. “This is amazing – they’re telling us exactly what they’re looking for! All I have to do is follow their instructions. I can do that.”
Nobody had ever told me writing a grant proposal was complicated – so I didn’t go into it thinking it would be. Challenging, yes. But I’d always loved a good puzzle. So that’s exactly how I approached the process. A little like a scavenger hunt, a little like a Rubik’s cube (remember those?), a little like an essay test in college.
(Nobody had ever told me that three days was an impossible zero-to-out-the-door turnaround time for a Federal proposal, either!)
Got busy on the challenge, got it done, got it submitted – and voila!
The stars aligned, and we got the grant.
What can you learn from this?
Think of this as “Beginner’s mind is your friend, Part 2.” What have you heard about grantwriting? What do you think you already know because someone else says so? What would it be like if you dropped the words “complicated” or “hard” (or “impossible”) from your Grants Newbie vocabulary, and instead substituted the words “challenge” or “puzzle”?
As much as you can, at the beginning, let the only voice in your head be mine, repeating what Nancy said to me:
See what you can do with this.
And let your response be:
Okay, let’s see. I can figure this out. Where do I start?
3. “Never bother the grantmaker.”
In all the years I’ve been doing grants training the questions I hear more than any others are those starting with these two phrases:
- Why do grantmakers … (do this, do that, do this other thing?); and
- What do grantmakers … (mean when they say, really want, want us to do when?).
There’s only one honest answer I can ever offer: “I don’t know. It depends. Ask them.”
Often the response is stunned silence, then “Oh, I can’t do that. You’re not supposed to do that. You can’t just ask the grantmaker.” And then follows some variation of:
- They’ll think I’m stupid.
- It’ll give them a bad impression.
- They’re busy.
- They don’t want you to bother them.
- (Or even …) I’m scared to.
When you think of it, none of these reactions makes a lick of sense. Where else in our professional or personal lives do we shy away from reaching out for the information we need to the very people who have that exact information?
Again, that first time out, I had no idea you “aren’t supposed to bother the funder.” So when a few questions came up that the RFP didn’t answer clearly, I found the name and phone number of the Federal program contact and gave him a call.
When Nancy found out, she was horrified.
“What were you thinking!” she almost shouted. “You aren’t supposed to bother the grantmaker!”
As it turned out, though, the answers I got were material to putting together a solid project plan and making sure the proposal met the technical requirements of the RFP. (I later found out that phone call made a good impression on the program officer – which is always a plus!)
In other words: “Bothering the grantmaker” may have gotten us the grant.
Thank goodness I didn’t know you “weren’t supposed to”!
What can you learn from this?
Simple. If you have questions, and you’ve checked and double-checked and can’t find the answers, do NOT assume. Do NOT second-guess. Do NOT ask your neighbor in the next cubicle.
Ask the grantmaker.
Find out who the program officer or staff person is for the RFP and get in touch. They’re the ones with the information to help you put together a great grant proposal.
Yes, they’re probably busy. And no, you might not reach them the first time. (You might not reach anyone at all – it does happen.) But they won’t think you’re stupid, it won’t make a bad impression. Quite the opposite.
And they really truly I-promise-you are not even a little bit scary. Grumpy sometimes, sure – who isn’t? But not scary.
So there you have it – the three things I’m glad I didn’t know before writing (and getting) that first grant.
I certainly didn’t get everything right that first time – far from it. (More on my big mistakes elsewhere.) But somehow I stumbled my way through, figured things out, and got enough right that – given the mix of other proposals under consideration – ours found its way into the FUND THIS pile.
Which happens, Dear Grants Newbie, to be exactly what I wish for your proposals too.
If you enjoyed this post, please share! For more great grants tips and training from GrantsMagic U, please visit us at Go.GrantsMagic.org. And if you’re new to grantseeking and could use a getting-started boost, be sure to check out GrantsMagic U’s free Quick-Start Guide to the One-Page Grant Proposal – a simple, powerful proposal planning tool plus three-part video training to get you on your way to success!