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Can’t I just Copy/Paste this into my Grant Proposal? Frequently Asked Questions about Reusing Old Proposal Materials

Imagine this scene: You find yourself sitting at the computer, coffee in hand. The project details your team has spent weeks carefully plotting are printed and neatly stacked in the center of your desk. The plan is ready, the budget set. All that’s left to do is type the grant narrative. You open a fresh Word document and are met with that awful blank page…

We’ve all had that moment of dismay – It’s daunting to start a grant proposal from scratch. Well-written narratives contain an overwhelming number of components, including: comprehensive background information, relevant statistics, project objectives, achievable timelines for activities, and a lengthy budget narrative. When met with this large challenge – or after staring too long at that blank white space – even the most experienced grant writers sometimes search for someone else’s previous work that can be recycled to get things started.

Copying outside material and pasting it into your own narrative can be a double-edged sword. The act of copy/paste does fill blank space and can provide the much-needed jump start to carry on with the rest of the document. In other instances, these extra materials can provide information that validates - or gives further credence to – the story you’re attempting to craft. There are cases, however, when the simple act of copy/paste can be a detriment to your proposal. This is particularly true if a reviewer interprets the act as unoriginal – or worse, lazy.

The next time you’re met with a bit of writer’s block, stop to consider the answers to these FAQs before pasting someone else’s material into your proposal:

Can I copy/paste long term planning documents?

Yes! This is perhaps the BEST time to paste outside materials into a proposal. Take a few minutes to review local documents (e.g. mission statements, comprehensive plans, annual budgets) for any goals that may align with your proposed activities. For extra points, browse online materials published by the funder to include in your proposal. The trick is to keep these references brief and to the point. Don’t copy/paste full paragraphs if 1-2 sentences will do the trick. This is particularly true if the length of your narrative is limited – Use your available space wisely.

Can I copy/paste last year’s proposal?

Yes! Previous applications can be great resources for new or continuing-funding proposals – particularly if your agency has a track-record of success with the funder. This means you know exactly how to articulate a project to secure a grant award. If you experience a bit of writer’s block, read through old proposals for baseline information, such as your agency description, local statistics, and recent literature reviews. Evaluators (especially at foundations) often refer to previously submitted proposals while reviewing current applications, so don’t copy/paste too much. Once you’ve got a jump-start, put away those old submission and focus your attention on the newer version.

Can I copy/paste from an application template?

If the funder provides a model with the application form, be sure to follow that guidance closely. Set up your application to mirror the provided materials, including any formatting, length, and order of content. In instances where the funder does not provide such guidance, tread carefully if you plan to use a template. Reviewers do not appreciate reading a proposal that was obviously created from a “fill in the blanks” mold. The result is a cold, impersonal text that does not speak to your own, unique program needs. In general, use generic templates similar as you would last year’s proposal (see above) – Don’t over-rely on generic text. Elaborate with specific project details as needed. And most importantly, put the templates away as soon as you have the inspiration needed to get started.

Can I copy/paste from earlier sections of the proposal?

No! In writing a proposal, you may come upon a particular question where you think – Oh! I already discussed these details in an earlier section. I’ll just copy/paste that information here too. While this may be very tempting – and a huge time-saver – reviewers will consider it lazy. They each have a large stack of proposals to score and will not appreciate re-reading duplicate text throughout the document. Don’t risk losing points on your application from a displeased reviewer. If you find yourself in this situation, take a step back and consider the application as a whole. Did you misinterpret an earlier question? Are you providing details the funder is not directly requesting in that space? In which section do those details best belong? You may also insert callouts to other sections, referring readers to a different location in the application for more information. For example, “Providing free breakfast during the early morning program is critical, as many participant students do not have reliable access to healthy meal options at home (see more in Section 3: Project Need).” This reference helps to position your argument within facts mentioned earlier in the proposal, without wasting time/space by fully repeating all of the previously outlined details.

Can I copy/paste from someone else’s proposal?

No! Pasting project details from another agency into your proposal has the largest potential to backfire. Most grant programs seek to fund new, innovative approaches that address local issues. Copying a project from another applicant will, by default, not be a new venture - It’s already been done by someone else! Further, a plagiarized application will not speak directly to the specific needs of your community. As such, you should read other applications as an inspiration for your agency’s own proposal. Let these samples serve as launching points - Not as paragraphs to directly copy/paste.

In general, it’s good practice to not rely heavily on others’ work to get you over the hump. While it may be intimidating to start typing in that huge blank page all on your own, at the end of the day, your proposal will benefit from original work. So, take some time to review old applications and exemplar proposals. Use these to jump start your own ideas. Then put those documents away, clear your desk, and get to drafting!