What I Learned from Writing 3 Grants in 10 Days

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Under normal circumstances, I would have said no.

There was always some grant I could be doing, but I knew from experience that, if I’m not careful, grant writing — especially freelance grant writing — could take over both my work life and my home life.

Three grants in ten days, for three first-time clients? Was I really considering this?

I was. For one thing, the three organizations were all eager to apply for grants that they had just heard about, grants with deadlines that were approaching fast. For another, two of them were applying for the same grant. (They knew about each other. How that came to be is a complicated, aboveboard, and not very interesting story.) The grants were all good matches too, right in line with the mission and vision of my potential clients. If funded, they would have real, lasting, positive impact on high-need communities.

I also happened to have just the right size window in my calendar. Ten days. Ten long, intense days…but nothing else on my calendar — or my family’s calendar — that would get in the way.

Plus the pay was great.

I talked about it with my wife, and we made the decision together: go for it.

For the next ten days, I worked from six in the morning to six in the evening. Often, I continued working after the girls went to bed. I bet I spent at least a dozen hours on the phone during that time. I know for a fact that I logged hundreds of miles worth of driving in order to attend a few critical face-to-face meetings. By the time this sprint was over, I had written three grants from scratch. Together, the applications reached almost 60 pages (including forms and attachments), nearly 20,000 words, and over $390,000 in funding requests.

Then I clicked the SUBMIT button on the last application.

And then I slept.

It will be a long time before I say yes to another opportunity like this one. Availability, fit, compensation, and family priorities would all have to align just right. But I’m glad I said yes in this instance, and not just for the reasons described above. If a grant application is going to take 35-40 hours to complete, I prefer to spread it out over a month. I have a process that I’ve refined over 13 years of doing this stuff for a living. But compressing it into just ten days helped me experience and refine the process in fresh ways. It taught me new things, and reminded me of a few things I had somehow forgotten.

Here then are the top five lessons I learned while writing three grants in ten days:

Lesson #1: Set manageable milestones…but be prepared to revise along the way

One of the first things I did was to break each grant application into its component parts. These included subsections of the narrative — needs statement, activities, management plan, etc. — as well as things like budget, partner letters, and signature sheets. I then identified which days I would focus on these sections, in first draft, revised draft, and final draft forms. The chart below is a simplified example — simplified, because the actual chart I used included milestones from three different projects. I found it helpful to fill a day with both the slower work of writing a first draft and the faster work of making revisions. Even with the compressed deadline, I tried giving my clients a full day to read and respond to section drafts.

Monday

  • Needs Statement (First)

  • Goals & Objectives (First)

Tuesday

  • Program Activities (First)

  • Timeline (First)

Wednesday

  • Needs Statement (Revised)

  • Goals & Objectives (Revised)

  • Budget (First)

  • Management Plan (First)

Thursday

  • Program Activities (Revised)

  • Timeline (Revised)

  • Evaluation Plan (First)

  • Executive Summary (First)

Friday

  • Needs Statement (Final Draft)

  • Goals & Objectives (Final Draft)

  • Budget (Revised Draft)

  • Management Plan (First Draft)

Predictably, I sometimes fell short on meeting my daily goals. Once or twice, I didn’t hear back from my clients in time. Other times I just simply overestimated how much I was going to be able to accomplish on a given day. That meant putting in even more hours later in the week, as missed milestones bunched up. But overall the calendar worked pretty well, and it made the projects less daunting.

Lesson #2: Make roles and responsibilities crystal clear

From the beginning, I was unequivocal that we were all in this together. If my clients didn’t follow through on their commitments, I couldn’t guarantee that I could follow through on mine. In our very first meetings, we made sure every stakeholder knew what they needed to do and by when. We determined who would make a first pass at the budget, who would be responsible for gathering partner letters, and who would be reading drafts. We identified the one or two key people who would be at least CC’ed on pretty much every email I sent.We also identified a local “point person.” This was huge. Because two of the organizations I was working with were located more than an hour away, I needed someone who could get letters and forms signed, recruit partners, communicate with staff and constituents, and just generally be an energetic advocate for this grant.

Lesson #3: Stay in constant communication

I was a near constant presence in my clients’ email inboxes. Usually, this is annoying. But in this case it might have been reassuring to know that things were progressing. Everyone understood how much ground we were trying to make up, squeezing a comfortable month-long process into a space one-third its normal size. I would emerge from a two- or three-hour deep work dive with questions and ideas that I needed addressed ASAP. I also blocked off several hours on Friday for phone and Skype calls. My clients weren’t going to work on Saturday and Sunday, but I needed to. I had five or six conversations that afternoon that gave me more than enough information to stay busy over the weekend. I tried to make the most of all my meetings by being prepared and staying on task.

Lesson #4: Don’t dawdle

Obviously.

And yet there are two elements of my personality that threatened to get in the way with these projects. The first is that I am an introvert. I get recharged by spending time alone, or with one or two of my closest friends. But in order to do these jobs well and on-time, I had to take the initiative to schedule calls and meeting. I also made myself available to answer the phone after-hours, something I usually try not to do.

The second personality trait I had to manage was my tendency toward perfectionism, especially when it comes to writing. But I had to set that aside. I couldn’t wait for “perfect” — as if there was such a thing — before I sent out drafts. My collaborators needed time to read, revise, and answer the questions I embed within the text of my narratives.I was also reminded (for about the hundredth time) not to wait until the last minute to get required signatures on the forms and letters. Missing signatures can drive you crazy. In fact, if an executive director, superintendent, or community partner is unavailable to sign on submission day, it can doom an entire application. (This is why under normal circumstances I try to submit at least a day before the deadline.) In this instance, I realized that a partner letter that had been sent to me as a PDF several days earlier had not been signed…something I should have noticed but didn’t. Thankfully, we were able to track down the person we needed, though with only a few hours to spare.

Lesson #5: Don’t make a habit of it

I am grateful I had the opportunity to work on these projects. I really am. In the end, only one of the three grants — the largest, slightly less than $200,000 — was awarded. (I believe the other big grant faltered in part because we didn’t actually have that passionate local advocate I mentioned above.) But the one funded grant could make a major difference in the lives of hundreds of underserved young people.

Even so, I won’t write many grants under these conditions. I simply can’t give my best, to my clients or to my family. With grants — as in so many other areas of life — slow, steady, attentive work is the ideal. And that is the best lesson of them all.