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critical thinking: September 2010 Archives

Yes, it's been far too long, gentle reader. I know. It was a good summer, though. And now, despite the continued warm weather, it's definitely fall, and that means it's time to ponder the upcoming grant proposal season.calvin-essay-writing.gif

Most every September since 1991 I have been faced with fall deadlines. This is the last spurt before year-end giving, and also the beginning of the new year's agenda. So, inevitably, there are two or more proposals that have to go in by November 1 or thereabouts. (Really, I have been doing this for almost twenty years. I'm a lot older than I look.) Just last week, I submitted a request, and I've been thinking about how much has changed since I started writing grants. 

My very first grant, written when I was 22, was to the Institute of Museum Services (now called IMLS), requesting $150,000 for general operating support. Does any of you remember those grants? They were a nightmare. Twenty-five pages, single-spaced, quarter-inch margins, and you had to use a ruler to make sure your text would fit into the spaces provided for each question. I believe there were something like 20 questions, each of which had point rankings. The grants were supposed to be rewards for good performance, meaning strict adherence to "standards" established by AAM's Accreditation Commissionhttp://www.neh.gov/whoweare/divisions/PreservationAccess/index.html, and were given out to the top point winners until the money ran out. Thus pretty much only the top 1% of museums nationwide ever received a GOS grant. We won't debate whether this was fair or appropriate; the grant program no longer exists in this form, and much has changed in the museum field since then. My point is, these grants were monsters.

I also recall a request to NEH's Preservation and Access Division that ended up being something like 30 pp of text plus more than 100 pp of appendices. Can you imagine? And each of those pages had to be consecutively numbered. Because the appendices were mostly photocopies of other documents, we had to number them by hand. (Quick, write "65" in Roman numerals!) We had to submit something like 20 copies. That's 2,600 pages, or over five reams of paper, which presumably perished in a landfill somewhere.

By contrast, last week I submitted a request in which I was asked to explain the nature of the request, the need, the timetable, and the intended outcomes in 2000 characters including spaces and punctuation. (For those keeping track at home, that's about 75-100 words, max.) The funder kept us all honest by using a PDF with a limited field - once you reached 2000 characters, you couldn't type any more. No tricks with margins or font size. Total paper count: 51.

I also submitted a request online, using a fill-in form. Some of these answers were limited to 20 characters or less, and the heart of the request was limited to three short paragraphs (probably 250 words). Total paper count: 12, and that was only because I always print a file copy. More and more, I'm finding these types of grant proposals are the norm, and the multi-page essays are fast disappearing. I've even had one where I had to summarize the request in 20 words or fewer.

What's changed since the last century? Is it that funders are simply busier, and don't have time to read? I suppose, but my secret belief (well, not so secret anymore!) is that they never read those monster grants, not completely. Maybe the staff did, but not the reviewers. In the case of the GOS grants, I'm certain that they skimmed the narrative, looking for key terms and statistics (relative humidity, number of linear feet, percent of collections on exhibit, percent of collections cataloged, etc.), ranked those, and otherwise relied on the reputation of the requesting institution. What else could they do?

Now, there are definitely those that descry the sea change. They struggle to craft a beautiful grant narrative, and feel disheartened when they can't possibly do justice to their request in 2000 characters (that grant was a challenge, believe me). I remember someone wailing to me, not that long ago, about a grant narrative being limited to seven pages: "Seven pages! I haven't even warmed up in seven pages!" (Seven pages single-spaced is roughly 5,000 words, by the way.) Or, they write too much, and try to edit down to fit, and feel unsatisfied with the result.

Remember what I said about flash fiction? It's extremely brief, 50-1000 words, and must contain all the elements of a complete story: a protagonist, a conflict, and a discernible plot that leads to an outcome or resolution. Every word advances the story; there is no need or space for "throwaways." These new grant proposals are essentially "flash exposition": an agency, faced with a need, is trying to benefit a certain audience or clientele in order to achieve some end. I've become a proponent of this approach. If I can't sum up the grant proposal in a single sentence, answering 1) who we are, 2) what we need, 3) for whom, and 4) what we plan to accomplish, I haven't thought through the request enough yet. And I'm incredibly thankful that I took a course at the local community college that covered flash fiction!

Is the novel gone as an art form? No. But I do feel that the 20-page grant proposal is a dinosaur. I'd encourage all the grant writers out there (and that's pretty much everyone these days, isn't it?) to embrace the new paradigm: rather than "start long, cut to short," start short, and stay short. I've gotten as much money from a three-sentence letter as I have from a multi-page proposal, on numerous occasions.

Is it hard? Damn straight. Is it different? Yes, it's exercising a different perspective on writing. Is it worth the effort? Definitely. I'm going to predict that we don't have a lot of choice here. I submit about 2-5 grants per month these days. The new paradigm is here to stay.

'Nuff said. Good luck, everybody!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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