Lisa Cirincione, Senior Resource Development Associate at Joining Vision and Action
I recently finished working on a grant proposal that had such a restricted page length that I spent as many hours cutting language as I did writing the narrative in the first place. In my 16 years of writing grant proposals, I have learned that it is much easier to write a grant that does not have any page length restrictions or character count limits. The shorter the grant, the harder it is to write and the longer it is going to take because there is a premium for every word—they all have to be fantastic.
There are plenty of tricks.
Savvy grantwriters have always tried to look for loopholes in the grantmakers’ formatting requirements to squeeze in a few extra sentences. Common tricks include things like making the right margin a little shy of one inch when the document is not fully justified; single spacing the text in tables and footnotes; making double-spaced pages 1.5 spaced instead; and choosing fonts that kern the letters just slightly but are still the required point size. At JVA, we always reach out to grantmakers to make sure the loopholes we are planning to use will not get our clients’ proposals eliminated from review. You knew that could happen, right? You think I’m kidding? I’m not. Some grantmakers will not even read proposals that violate their formatting guidelines, which is just what the U.S. Department of Education’s reviewers did in the most recent Upward Bound competition.
Why formatting matters.
In that competition, 77 proposals were excluded from review because of issues such as using the wrong font, not double spacing the proposals, having the wrong margin distance or submitting in Word instead of as a pdf. Other proposals were rejected because their proposed budget exceeded the cap. The Department’s decision to deny those applications from consideration caused 32 House of Representative members to sign a letter encouraging the Department to reconsider applications with minor formatting errors. While those applications’ appeals will not be granted, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has issued an order that forbids the U.S. Department of Education from mandating any page or formatting rules in grant applications. They may establish voluntary formatting guidelines but cannot reject grant applications that do not meet those voluntary requirements. Please note that at this time, this only applies to grants to the U.S. Department of Education.
So, am I happy? Not really.
While I hate requirements that force applicants to answer 45 questions in four double-spaced pages, now it will be difficult to know just how much detail grant reviewers are expecting. Without any requirements, it will be tempting to add every bit of information possible so that you do not miss the chance to fully explain the need for the project, how the project works and why your organization has the most capacity to deliver that program—even if that takes 50 pages. On the other hand, it will be hard to figure out just how much information is too much and will annoy the reviewers.
What’s the solution?
A perfect solution for me would be to have federal departments suggest a recommended page length and recommended formatting, but not omit any application from review that does not follow that. That way, I will rest easier not worrying about if I forgot to use the right style of page numbering or other small formatting details. It will also give me a better idea of just how much detail reviewers want to read. Moving forward, I will follow their voluntary suggestions whenever they are included.