“Too much of anything could destroy you... Too much darkness could kill, but too much light could blind.”
― Cassandra Clare, City of Lost Souls
This excerpt from City of Lost Souls is an axiom about excess that rarely is applied in the context of information, the life blood of grant proposals. Although there may be one notable exception, any parent has probably heard the expression of disgust from an embarrassed child at some point: "MOM (with arms folded and face in full pout mode)... TMI!" While the general rule of the thumb is that you can never get enough information, our children may be able to teach us a lesson about the difference between acquisition and dissemination. In the latter case, there is indeed an ability to derail your efforts, particularly in the case of grant submissions. Some will argue that they would rather err on the side of providing too much information rather than the alternative, but in the context of a grant proposal, the key to success is to find the sweet spot, or the bottom of the pendulum swing. Since most people understand the perils of providing too little information, the focus of this month’s column is on avoiding the pitfalls of doing the opposite.
Page, Character and File Size Limits
In the context of proposal development, the one area of the submission where people tend to grasp excess is when it comes size limitations. Experienced grant professionals certainly understand that exceeding page, character, or file size limitations can have drastic consequences on the success of the proposal. At best, reviewers are required to stop reading at the limitation (and the missing information results in low scores and application denial). More often than not, any applications exceeding these limitations are dismissed without review.
One point I often hear from folks in the field is that if the funder (and by extension the reviewers) really like your project, these limitations will not matter. While there are no hard figures to track the data, most federal funders estimate that up to a third of applications are generally denied as a result of size limitations or other technical issues with the submission (e.g. formatting, font size). The idea behind these physical limitations are two-fold: 1) Ensure that the proposals are manageable so that a timely review can be completed, and 2) Provide some type of guidance to applicants to level the playing field. There is no grey area on physical limitations, and applicants must abide by them in order to develop proposals that actually get reviewed (rather than rejected out of hand as non-compliant). In this case TMI is catastrophic, take the physical limitations seriously!
Quality versus Quantity
The issue of quantity versus quality is one that takes me back to college and term papers. The culture of higher education is one in which quality often times is sacrificed for the sake of quantity. Students tend to write to the size limitation provided by the professor (e.g. 20 page term paper). It makes no difference that in many cases these are maximum thresholds, as is the case with limitations provided by funders. If a student can meet the demands of the term paper and deliver a concise and quality paper in 16 pages (rather than the maximum 20), that should suffice. However, most students will attempt to reach that page limitation regardless, exerting tremendous effort to produce four additional pages of what can only be described as filler. On a subconscious level, everyone is guilty of incorporating filler into their writing (including yours truly), but in most instances it obscures the point of the proposal and tends to drastically reduce the quality of the submission. Reviewers do not value quantity and reaching artificial page limitations. In fact, you make their job easier if you can concisely make your case in fewer pages. The filler simply makes it harder for those reviewers to locate the various pieces they are trying assess and score in the review process. In this case, TMI stems directly from a fear of not providing enough information. It's okay to write less... there is no extra credit for writing to the maximum limitations.
Applicants tend to have an underlying urge to provide unsolicited information that is not being requested by the funder. In my experience, this is one of the most underrated and detrimental pitfalls for an applicant. Many times funders leave an opening in that they allow a certain number of attachments that do not necessarily count towards page limitations. As is human nature, applicants view that as a loophole where they can provide excess information in the form of strategic plans, white papers and other materials. Unfortunately, applicants usually tend to attach items to the proposal that were previously developed for other purposes than responding to the particulars of the grant solicitation. As a result, many times there are inconsistencies between these attached documents and the information contained within the proposal narrative.
One example that comes to mind is a healthcare provider that made a recent decision to extend their services via telemedicine to surrounding rural counties in their catchment area. They prepared a terrific proposal that recounted a long history of success with telehealth in their immediate urban environment. Their application was denied because they decided to attach their one-year old strategic plan as part of the submission. That plan was included because the applicant thought it addressed their long-term vision for telehealth and provided proof that Telehealth was an organizational priority. Unfortunately, the plan had also been developed before the provider had decided to become a regional player and penetrate the surrounding rural areas. The reviewer noted this inconsistency as the main reason for their low score and denial. They most likely would have been better off not providing the unsolicited information. If you are determined to offer information that has not be requested, however, it should be thoroughly reviewed and updated to ensure that it is aligned with the proposal narrative. TMI opens the door to criticism by the reviewers.
Aim for TRI (The Right Information)
Applicants must adhere to page limitations and emphasize presenting concise quality information during the proposal development process. Instead of looking for loopholes to bypass page limitations and incorporate unsolicited information, applicants should spend their time ensuring consistency across all application materials. In the end, while folks often err on the side of TMI, they would be better served by aiming to provide The Right Information (TRI). TRI helps you secure funding while TMI often compromises your chances