Written communication holds power, as there is power through information. Grant and proposal writing is a writing specialization in which writers can make a crucial impact on local, national, and international communities. Grant and proposal writers are the ones who collaborate to draft a proposal to appeal to foundations and other financial institutions to gain funding for important social programs and projects. In this regard, grant and proposal writing is a complicated and demanding endeavor due to the amount of research, composition, and required attention for the types of grants funding source guidelines. Yet, without teams of dedicated, talented proposal writers, communities would surely lack the critical resources that projects and programs can provide. This article will showcase grant writing principles, compositional strategies, how to identify funders, and how this writing field can serve communities.
To begin, grant and proposal writing has long been an established and necessary field that writers can consider a niche career choice. Grant writers should not only be talented in linguistic efforts to pursue funders, but they should also be aware of the types of grants concerning their projects or programs. These types of grants include project grants, equipment grants, travel grants, fellowships, and basic research grants (Braukmann & Pedras, 1989). James Braukmann and Melvin J. Pedras (1989), professors in Technology and Education, describe the following funding sources:
Large federal institutions, such as the Department of Education or the National Science Foundation, prefer to make awards to institutions, rather than individuals [...] [and] are more likely to support a project that is officially sponsored by an institution, that is, one that has evidence of institutional commitment (p. 42).
Therefore, not every project or grant proposal can apply for any such grant. Specific funding and sources have different requirements, and a grant writer does not want to draft an entire proposal that could be disqualified for not following guidelines. In a Grant Writing Workshop hosted by Liberty University (2000), advancement consultants Ellen Nagy and Brad Mankin presented three major funding sources: governmental, foundations, and corporate (p.1). Public funding sources are given money through governmental budgeting, and private through stakeholders or corporations, to support projects and programs with high potential for success. To exemplify why grants are written, Laura Gitlin PhD, Ann Kolanowski PhD, and Kevin Lyons PhD (2021), professors with decades of experience in the healthcare-related departments in higher education, utilize the example of "Ms. L", an assistant professor of social work and volunteers at a local homeless shelter with lacking quality social work health care:
She is convinced that a formal educational program to prepare social work, nursing, and other health professional students to work in these shelters is a way to help alleviate some of these health problems [...] Ms. L decides to meet with her department chairman to inquire about recruiting more students to work in the shelters and to suggest that the department offer a formal educational program to prepare clinicians to work in underserved areas (p. 5, 6).
Yet, despite the well-meaning idea, her superior indicates the lack of departmental funding resources for a new program and thus, encouraged her to outsource funding (p. 5, 6). University departments, non-profits, and research institutions are some of the biggest organizations in need of outsourcing additional funds for programs such as the "Ms. L" case.
Thus, each grantmaker has also predetermined criteria and instructions that grant applicants must follow. Some proposals may not qualify for allocations from particular funders because they may only award grants based on locality, project or program types, target demographics, communities, and fields. For example, a foundation with the distinct mission of serving local homeless communities through food, clothing, or lodging will not consider a proposal for a project related to providing digital resources to underprivileged children, teens, and adults. The broader the funding eligibility, the more competitive it may be.
In addition, due to the vast database of grantmakers, it is expected that grant writers should research and meticulously study the guidelines stated in the Request for Proposal (RFP). Karina Stokes (2012), an Assistant Professor of Professional Writing at the University of Houston, detailed the following explanation and definitions of RFPs, contracts, and grants:
[RFPs are] intended to alert the interested public to a sponsoring organization’s plan to spend money on research […] [and] can vary in length and specificity. If the award is to be a grant, the proposer may have considerable flexibility in the form of the response. If the award is to be a contract, especially with a government agency, the RFP may identify specific questions to be answered, dictate a format, and assign page limits to discussions of particular issues (p. 225).
Adhering to these guidelines streamlines the process of reviewing proposals because it aligns with the reviewers’ expectations. Grant and proposal writers must also locate major funding sources through websites such as “The Foundation Center”, “Guide Star”, and webpages of prominent funding programs in specified disciplines (Altman, 2009). Each RFP presented by these grantmakers has fixed deadlines and stipulations on how money should be used, while others are slightly more flexible and open-ended. Grant writers must have an awareness of all these conditions.
Besides assisting underprivileged communities, funds are also awarded to elevating research and academic institutions. Some fields also receive more investment than others due to the debate, at times political, between prioritizing the hard over the soft sciences and humanities. For example, proposal writers seeking more financial aid to upkeep quality in the programs in the arts constantly meet the challenge of drafting persuasive and fruitful proposals. Wendy Bishop and David Starkey (2006), professors in Creative Writing, co-authored a thorough resource volume "Keywords in Creative Writing" to guide aspiring creative writers on how to get started in their careers. In their "Grants" section, they report on the state of the funding of arts in the early 2000s United States:
The U.S. Congress, which funds the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), has been controlled by a conservative Republican Congress with a demonstrated suspicion of, if not outright hostility toward, the arts [...] In fine, searching for grants is a hit-or-miss process, but a thorough investigation is likely to turn up some surprising opportunities (p. 100-101).
While Bishop and Starkey are writing in 2006, a time that is much different materially and politically than in 2022, they touch on an additional opposition that grant writers may have to contend with depending on the nature of their proposal. Political climates, social stigmas, and public values of which academic disciplines can impact which fields can apply for supplemental funding. The same can apply to funding research of social programs and projects for certain communities and what resources on the governmental and private level will fund and for what amount.
Therefore, to write a successful proposal, grant writers must employ rhetorical devices that express the scope of the project and why it needs funding. Grant writers should simultaneously ensure that proposals include the RPF requirements and make the composition conscious, clear, and well-organized. Ultimately, grantmaking panels read hundreds of proposals, so developing a persuasive and concisely-structured document will increase the chances for a proposal to be accepted. Laurel Grove (2004), a researcher in technical communications, outlines various categories of what reviewers look for in grant proposals throughout her article and how to appeal to their criteria. For the purposes of this article, Grove’s major categories with questions related to each are summarized as the following (2004, pp. 30-34):
Literature Review: Has the applicant demonstrated a clear sense of having researched the previous, relevant, and/or related studies?
Strength of Design: Is the research plan reasonable? Is it presented in sufficient detail? Can it succeed?
Proposal presentation: Is the proposal clear, concise, and well-written?
Budget: Does the budget seem reasonable? Is there any additional support (in kind, matching, and so forth)?
Personnel: Does the proposer have a history of activity as a society member?
Benefits to Society: Will the study [or project/program] further the goals of the Society, as described in the STC Research Grants Committee Guidelines and the current Society research agenda?
Grove’s categories and bulleted reviewer inquiries present a roadmap for how grant writers should approach writing a proposal. A writer always knows their audience, and these strategies, in addition to RFP guidelines, are insightful indications of what a proposal should contain to persuade funders.
As a consequence, grant and proposal writing involves a fair amount of collaborative writing because proposals have several categories that must be fulfilled. Jonathan Bush and Leah Zuidema (2013), researchers in English education, underscore the nature of professional writing as an exceedingly collaborative profession:
A professional writer (or a professional writing team) is writing at the behest of an entire organization […] Likewise, a technical writer of an instructional document may write on behalf of an entire company. The cost of a misstep can be so high—a lawsuit for faulty instructional manual or the fallout for a website public relations gaffe, for example—that the context itself creates the inherent need for collaboration (p. 107-108).
Collaboration allows room for the input of multiple experts and establishes accountability and credibility when publishing a written work. Due to the myriad of sections required in grant proposals, roles are generally assigned amongst a team because not every writer will have comprehensive knowledge of a particular section. Mary J MacCracken (2020), a Principal Investigator for the "Finding A Better U" Grant at the University of Akron, provides the following role examples: "A co-principal investigator (PI) as one team member may be more skilled at writing, while another is more proficient in data collection, project implementation, or writing a budget" (p. 29). Any proposal must display a budget section to display the funds available, a realistic projection of how much it will cost, and the gap in the budget that needs to be fulfilled by an outside resource. For that reason, someone on the team familiar with the numbers will undertake the responsibility of drafting that section.
Subsequent to considering the proposal's form and organization, writers must also carefully contemplate their approach in the language of the proposal. An obstacle that even the most intelligent writers face as they construct a proposal document is called the ‘curse of expertise'. The 'curse' refers to when highly practiced individuals disseminate information without conveying the background knowledge to lay audience members (Van Ekelenburg, 2010). Henk Van Ekelenburg (2010), a business development expert in mechanical engineering, advises how to overcome this common circumstance by introducing a method of logical flow called ‘the chain of reasoning’:
It links the main elements—problem, solution and benefits/arguments—thereby providing a logical and consistent framework for the project [...] The chain of reasoning is related to, but not the same as, a proposal outline. An outline is a summary of ‘what, why and how’, whereas the chain of reasoning reflects the underlying thinking of the proposal and focuses on the ‘why’ (p. 432).
Even judges who are somewhat familiar with the industry related to the proposal must know the reason for administering financial aid.
In summary, grant and proposal writing is an incredibly elaborate process that requires exploring the ‘why’ within a proposal. Monetary compensation is not given without a positive cost-benefit perception of the giver. An individual would not exchange their money for a service or product they did not believe in, and funders will not risk significant financial aid to a cause, organization, or group whose project would fail or raise ethical concerns. Micah Altman (2009), a social and information scientist at MIT's Center for Research in Equitable and Open Scholarship, describes that the initiative to achieve funding does not end upon acceptance: “Remember that a funded project requires ongoing management not only of the research effort, but also of personnel, finances, and administration” (p. 525). Indeed, the undertaking of outside funding, from application to execution of the intended project, balances several variables. Even still, the intense endeavor of grant writing is an unquestionably essential public service to fund projects and programs to aid and strengthen communities worldwide.
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