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Grant StrategyProposal Development

It's Not Always What You Say, It's How You Say It

By Vince Siragusa
March 2011

From one of the more memorable movie scenes of the past 20 years, you may recall a phone conversation between Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding, Jr. that portrays the amusing contract negotiation of an agent and one of the professional sports figures he manages. A repeated and emphatic shouting of “Show me the money!” helped endear Jerry McGuire to movie viewers and helped Cruise’s character succeed in achieving his intended task—the movie scene ends with Cruise receiving a simply stated, “Congratulations, you’re still my agent,” from his star-in-the-making. It’s not necessarily the aggressiveness of the message itself but rather its impassioned delivery that may best carry over to grant applications.

Expressing demographic, economic, and other pertinent figures is advised and will likely be required for a number of grant proposals. Inevitably, you’ll use facts and statistics to backup your argument on why financial assistance is necessary. Rather than presenting these figures matter-of-factly or without emotion, however, you should offer some perspective that helps make the information more relevant. For instance, it may be true that your rural sheriff’s department is ill-equipped in their duty to patrol a 5,000 square mile county. But does the grant reviewer understand that your rural county, roughly the size of Connecticut, requires each individual deputy to be responsible for thousands of disparate rural residents over hundreds of square miles? Perhaps the addition of one or two grant funded positions will decrease the geographic scope of the deputies’ individual service areas and improve the average response time by 20% (or about enough time to watch the first half of your favorite Cruise film).

Make your arguments clear and concise but, at the same time, feel comfortable to know that there’s nothing wrong with a little personality and organizational culture coming through to provide some context for your application. In many cases, peer reviewers would welcome project applications that read as interesting stories, which is what the narrative element is all about in its simplest terms: a story about why your project is more important than any other that the reviewers will encounter.

Historically, a good application was able to answer the question, “If this project is so essential, why haven’t you implemented it before?” That’s a pretty straightforward request but finding the right way to answer it may take some effort and it carries a lot of weight. It’s likely true that the economic downturn has hurt your local economy, tax base, funding levels, capital reserves, etc. and hindered your ability to push forward with your initiative. Unfortunately, that scenario does not carry as much ascendancy as it once did, especially as it becomes more commonplace among applicants.

Perhaps the new approach should be centered on the idea that any project worth doing with grant money should be worth doing without grant money. If that statement holds true for your own local setting, a redirected focus on explaining exactly what has been attempted in the past (and proven unsuccessful without sufficient funding) will be better received than citing excuses for why you have not yet attempted to address the gaps in your project.

As the country moves forward into FY2011 and defines a number of new variables, feel comforted to know that various avenues of grant support will always be available. However, we have transitioned into a time when those awards are not solely contingent upon the needs for your project. Granted, the need to finance programmatic deployment is and always will be at the root of grant support, but these decisions are not always made on paper. Painting a more colorful picture for your grant project by tapping into the human element may prove the best way to leave a lasting impression upon your grant reviewers after the theater goes dark.