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Generalizing Generalizations: Cut the Crap and Stick to Fact

By Elizabeth Evans

While not a new notion, the desire to avoid hasty generalizations within one’s grant proposal is ever present. We are all guilty of it. Facing character or page limits, we often try to distill complex ideas down to as few of words as possible while still making our message clear. We make broad-based statements such as, “surveillance cameras can help our police department reduce crime”, “video conferencing equipment will empower our hospital fight the opioid epidemic”, or “1:1 classroom technology is necessary for successful education in this digital age”. However, there is a huge problem with these kinds of statements. They are weak arguments that do not tell the funder anything of actual substance.

“Now wait a minute!” you may be thinking. Aren’t you now just generalizing hasty generalizations? Isn’t that a bit hypocritical? Yes and No. You are correct that we are generalizing generalizations, however, most professional writers (be they academics, journalists, novelist, or even grant writers) are of the opinion that precision of language is key. This is because generalizations, more often than not, come across as lazy writing and can be indicative of a lack of fully formed thoughts.

Just take a moment to google “Hasty Generalization”. You’ll see the term defined as: “a fallacy in which a conclusion that is reached is not logically justified by sufficient or unbiased evidence”. Meaning, an assertation has been made about a specific group, situation, or event that is based on a small sample size or singular experience instead of looking all of the facts, details, and specifics of what the generalization would ultimately be applied. This is a particularly significant issue within grant funding because reviewers are looking to support specific solutions to specific problems or challenges.

Following, are some of the biggest issues with generalizations when used in grant proposals:

1. Generalizations are often based upon the viewpoint of the writer. His or her own knowledge base, personal biases, and world view influence his or her assertion of a generalization. It is a risk to assume, for example, that “Everyone knows XYZ”.

2. Making sweeping statements about a group of people based on their age, gender, race, sexuality, or ability, can reinforce harmful stereotypes. In doing so, you might inadvertently offend your proposal reviewer, thus hindering the likelihood of a favorable review.

3. Generalizations, to grant funders, are meaningless. Generalizations don’t tell the funder what they need to know about your particular organization’s need or its plan to achieve results. Generalizations cannot convey the impact that support for your proposed solution would offer to the specific client base or community your project aims to serve.

So what you can do to avoid sloppy generalizations within your own grant writing practice?

Heed the words of my 6th grade English teacher and “Back it up, baby!”. Her daily classroom mantra hammered into my head that any claim made MUST be followed by verifiable evidence from a reliable source at all times. Find journal articles, peer-reviewed studies, or other sources of data to support your assertions. The more closely those reference materials line up with the population your project is trying to support, the better. This evidence will help the funder to see parallels between your project and goals, and what you are trying to emulate.

One should also never assume that the funder reading your proposal will hold the same values as you or your organization. Your organization may fit within the funder’s interest of “ABC” on a base level, but the funding entity may hold an entirely different opinion as to how “ABC” should be brought to fruition. If your assertion cannot be backed up by hard data, do you have anecdotal evidence from those involved in the project that you can reference? If you don’t have either, rethink what you are trying to say. Always be sure denote when something is a personal opinion by using more passive language such as “it is the feeling of our team…”, or “we believe...”.

Think long and hard about your word choice. Write, write, write, and write some more. It is preferable to have a first draft that is over the page limit and includes all potentially relevant information and supporting data – even if the narrative you’ve woven meanders, is repetitive at times, and is littered with verbose literary flourishes. From there, it is easier to whittle down your narrative to the most essential elements rather than attempt to craft details out of nothingness for your final proposal. To spend your valuable page limit or word count on anything less than facts or specifically measurable goals and objective activities, is wasted effort and gives the funder little of substance to grab on to. If you do happen to find yourself with extra space remaining after you have answered the funder’s questions (including relevant data to back up your claims), only then should you feel empowered to go back in and add additional context or the occasional flowery verse.

A handy bit of advice told to us when we first started grant writing, many years ago, was to treat every grant proposal as though we were arguing our case for support within a courtroom. Be persuasive, be clear, and always back up your position with real evidence. So let’s get away from those generalized platitudes that mean nothing. Instead, focus your attention on crafting specific details that funders want to see!