The 4Cs: Grant Reviewers are Not Mind Readers

I have served on six federal grant review committees, all valuable learning experiences. Serving on a grant review committee is hard work, and reviewers often end up scratching their heads while reading proposals. It is a grant writer’s job to make it easier for reviewers to get through a stack of grant proposals without too much stress or groans. Since grant reviewers are not mind readers, create a clear, concise, cohesive and compelling proposal. Carnac the Magnificent (Johnny Carson mind reading skit) is not one of the 4Cs or the elusive fifth C. The following tips will strengthen your grant writing skills.

Be Clear

Follow your English teacher’s advice, and clearly tell the reviewer about your project by answering the following questions. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Don’t force the reviewer to read your mind. Explain acronyms the first time you use them, and later in a long narrative to help a tired reviewer easily read your proposal. For example, do you want the reviewer to guess if E.D. stands for Executive Director, Emotionally Disturbed or something more graphic? Reviewers are prohibited from looking up information not included in a grant proposal. Don’t ever make them guess or read between the lines. In addition, they may have never written a grant before and may not be experts on the subject area you are writing about. Before you submit the final grant proposal, have a trusted friend or colleague review it who does not work in the grant subject field. The goal is for a reviewer to understand and implement the project simply from your description. Always use correct grammar and spelling. David Lindeman provides helpful copy editing tips, such as using MS Word’s readability tool, in a Grant Professionals Association blog. In addition to writing at a seventh to eighth grade reading level and restricting use of passive voice to less than 20 percent of the time, I advise aiming for a Flesch Reading Ease score of 60 to 70.

Be Concise

Answer each grant question thoroughly with concise, well thought out and simple language. Use charts, graphics or other methods allowed by the funder to break up the narrative, make complex ideas easier to understand and provide a rest for weary reviewer eyes.  Avoid overly long sentences and unnecessary words such as: that, according to, kind of and definitely.  The Purdue Online Writing Lab provides great examples of words to eliminate and conciseness on their website.

Be Cohesive

A good rule of thumb to achieve cohesiveness is to prepare the grant budget prior to writing the narrative. When a budget is completed at the last minute, it is difficult to ensure alignment with the project description. Experienced reviewers often place the budget and narrative side by side to ensure both sections tell the same story. Avoid surprising or overly expensive items in the budget. Strive for reasonable, allocable and allowable expenses.

Be Compelling

The need section must grab the reader’s attention immediately. Tell a story about the people you serve including valid and reliable statistics. Use research three years old or less, unless it’s classic research accepted over time or there is no current evidence available. To make a greater impact on the reader, generally avoid passive voice. Ensure all community or organizational needs you include in the grant narrative are addressed in the project design. Make all grant sections flow like a beautiful symphony. Aim for the reviewer to feel compelled to fund your project without any lingering doubts.

In my experience as a reviewer, I still remember proposals that left me without unanswered questions to ponder and the inability to deduct many points. These types of proposals are rare, yet the competition is high. Don’t cause groans from reviewers because of a lack of clarity, conciseness, cohesiveness or compelling argument in grant proposals.

Carnac the Magnificent bestows the gift of the 4C’s upon you. Reading your mind is not a required skill of reviewers.