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6 Criticisms that Changed the Way I Write Grants

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

Grant writing courses provide a general overview of the “dos and don’ts,” but nothing shapes you into a better writer than constructive criticism from real-world clients. I’m going to share 6 criticisms I received from bosses and funders early on in my career that have honed my skills as a successful grant writer:

1. “Don’t bury the lead”

When I was a novice writer, I had the eye-opening experience of observing a grant pre-screening in which an administrator highlighted the “important parts” of my proposal before passing it on to the actual decision makers. She was frustrated that key details were often written toward the middle or end of my responses. It struck me that the decision makers might only read the text she highlighted and ignore the rest of the content I poured hours into; without this pre-screener, they might have tossed my application altogether once they realized my responses weren’t immediate and clear. That experience made it obvious that my first sentences must always state direct answers to their questions; I could expand on my answers if word count limits allowed it, but only after clearly responding to their prompt as it was asked.

2. “Everyone thinks their problems are the worst”

This statement was shared with me by a funder who was explaining how an organization’s outcomes are more pivotal to a proposal’s success than emphasizing the problem the organization intends to address. (i.e., – instead of writing 3 paragraphs on the dangers rhinos face, maybe writing 1 paragraph on threats, and the other 2 on how your organization has a solid plan to get them off the endangered species list). While a powerful need statement is important, this funder’s insight helped me realize that illustrating the problem is only effective if you make a solid case for your organization’s ability to address it.

3. “Just the facts, ma’am”

English classes challenge students to be abundantly expressive – using descriptive “fluff” words, abstract concepts, and college-level vocabulary. The grant world, however, demands just the opposite. Funders review daunting stacks of applications, and they need content to be quickly digestible (we’re talking 5th grade English!) This criticism was shared with me after I submitted a lengthy letter of intent that contained redundancies, excessive adjectives, and irrelevant details. Since then, I’ve put more thought into only including content that is truly critical for a funding decision.

4. “Organize and then re-organize”

If I had to pick the most important skill for a grant writer to have, I would hands down choose, “synthesis”: being able to take mountains of disjointed information and data, and transforming it into an organized story that makes sense to reviewers. One of my early mentors helped me improve my organization and flow with the following advice: “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em. Tell it to ‘em. Then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”

Applying this concept to your grant proposal might look something like:

  • This is a dire problem, and I’m going to tell you how my organization is going to fix it.

  • Here is the evidence that supports my organization’s ability to fix this problem.

  • As you can see, this organization is a smart investment to address this threatening problem.

5. “They don’t care about that.”

This comment was made when a former boss was reviewing a response I had copied and pasted from a previous proposal we had written for a different funder. Although he approved of the response in the original application, it did not reflect the priorities of the new funder. This impressed the importance of considering each funder’s focus area, and tailoring responses accordingly. After receiving this criticism, I spent more time scouring funders' websites and 990s to understand their goals and giving patterns before drafting their applications.

6. “In God we trust. All others bring data.”

As a rookie writer, I had a tendency to make bold claims without adequate data to back them up. I remember getting called out for writing that the demand for a client’s program was growing, when in reality their enrollment numbers were down. Embarrassing lesson learned: don’t make assumptions about your client’s impact that you haven’t confirmed, and don’t write a sentence just because it sounds good. I now avoid broad generalizations about programs like, “kids think it’s fun!” or “it transforms lives,” unless I have some type of data to quantify the truth of those statements.

Constructive criticism can be hard to hear, but if you can keep your ego in check, it’s one of the best tools for enhancing your skills and building success. Each of these lessons struck a chord with me and improved my writing ability, consequently increasing the amount of funding I’ve won for my clients year over year.

About Heather Macaulay:

First and foremost I am a proud wife and mom of 3 growing souls who I have miraculously kept alive despite killing every plant I’ve ever owned. I was born and raised in Orange County, California, and while I will always be a California girl at heart, North Carolina is where the Macaulay family has called home since 2015. I cannot say enough about what this wonderful community has offered us. I have been writing grants and copy since 2010 and have had projects funded by a variety of funders from family foundations to major corporations, Ivy League universities, and international rock stars. My passions include cooking, travel, and studying history, languages, psychology, and philosophy. I also have an unhealthy addiction to true crime shows and Nutella.

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