When you sit down to write a grant proposal, you and your colleagues may think: "What should we include--what should our 'spin' be so that our project gets funded? How can we create the best representation of our organization's work and its capabilities?" You are thinking, in other words, about the first step—getting through the submission process and to the award. But there is a second phase of the grant process that you’ll need to deal with if you are successful and receive the award. This is the reporting phase. If the grant proposal is too lofty or unclear, more sales pitch than roadmap, both the implementation of the project and the reporting of the project’s results will be difficult.
Funders vary in how many reports they require. You could be required to submit an annual report only, or required to submit a semi-annual or even quarterly reports. Compared to writing the grant, writing the reports can be much harder. Proposal language can include aspirational language about what the organization hopes to realize through a project. In contrast, the report must document in detail what has occurred, and some of what occurred may not be favorable to your organization.
To set yourself up for a successful report, keep the reporting process in mind while you write the proposal and describe the type of work and activities to be funded.
The Impact of Passive Voice on a Proposal
Grant writers and technical program staff can be tempted to use vague language to describe proposed activities and expected outcomes. The idea behind this strategy is that the more “loose” the language, the more room you will have to make interpretative adjustments later after the project launches.
An example of how vague language enters a proposal is the use of passive voice. By using passive voice ("XYZ will be accomplished instead "X person will do XYZ"), the reader doesn't know who will do the work. While using passive voice isn't always bad, one of the pitfalls is that passive voice makes it difficult to know roles and responsibilities. Subsequently, it becomes harder to use the proposal to answer basic questions that come up after the award, such as: What did we say we would do? Who has what role on the project?
Impact of Vague Language on the
If you write the proposal with vague language, if you build the proposal using lots of passive voice, the proposal will fail to offer the guidance you need post-award unless you have supporting documents (e.g. internal documents or supporting materials submitted with the proposal) to help flesh out roles, responsibilities, and actions.
Another result of using vague language in the proposal is that you can lose valuable time trying to get the project going and figuring out what you what you promised and what you think the funder is expecting you to do. What you wrote in the grant proposal will usually be what you report against. The proposal language is like a map, and if you are not clear in the proposal about where you are headed and how you intend to get there, documenting progress in a report can be difficult. Without clear and specific milestones in the proposal, you haven't given yourself any stable landmarks. You may find it hard to match up what has been done with what you said you would do or determine whether you are on target to meet the expected outcomes.
If written clearly, a grant proposal gives the grantor and grantee a shared understanding of what will happen on the project. Written vaguely, a grant proposal can create a situation where not only do the grantor and grantee have different expectations of what will happen, but also within the organization there may be confusion between technical and executive staff regarding what was promised, what the priorities are, and who should be taking the lead on activities.
Is There a Risk in Being Too Clear in a Proposal?
Some may argue that writing clear proposals creates as many (or possibly more) risks for the grantee than being vague. There is a fear among some grant seekers that if the grant proposal consists of language that is clear and detailed, the organization will be boxed in, post-award, when things do not develop exactly according to plan. This fear makes vague language seem attractive. Given the risk of being locked into a course of action, and potentially having to admit failings, there are some obvious benefits to writing a proposal that leaves room for interpretation. Vague language serves as an escape valve. If something cannot be done, or if the project falls behind, vague language provides some elasticity to reinterpret timelines, actions, and actors so that things can look better than perhaps they really are.
On the other hand, if you say you’ll do XYZ, where XYZ is clear and measurable, everyone understands what should happen and immediately recognizes when plans have gone off track, adding accountability and pressure to perform.
Is There a Compromise between
Specificity and Vagueness?
Ideally the grant proposal should be clear enough that the grantor and grantee have a mutual understanding of the purpose of the project. The project outcomes should also be clear. Without clear outcomes, it is impossible to evaluate the project's impact.
Where there is an opportunity for flexibility is in the language of the “how"--the details of the actions to be taken to bridge the goal and the outcomes.
While some funders may be interested in learning the details behind every step to be taken to achieve the desired outcomes and expected deliverables, the specifics regarding implementation in most cases will be more valuable to the organization than to the funder. This doesn’t mean that the details of how the work will be done should not be included in the proposal, only that the level of detail describing the project’s implementation can be less exhaustive than for other proposal components. So the “how” is covered, and the language included should be accurate as possible, but it can be presented at a broader level in the proposal. For the organization, the details of the “how” are very important for implementation purposes and should be written up for the benefit of the staff doing the work, but this information may not have a place in the proposal unless explicitly required. Even for those funders that do want to get involved at the day-to-day operational or technical level, these details can usually be shared more appropriately through post-award updates, not the proposal.
Tips for Striking the Balance in Proposal Language
The proposal should be written clearly and with enough detail to give all parties—the grant writers, the organization’s staff, the potential funders—a similar understanding of the proposed work, what is to be achieved, and what the outcome measures are.
- The details of how the project staff will reach the stated goals and outcomes should be presented in the proposal with as much detail as possible to provide an accurate view of the work to be done, but not at such a high level of detail that the proposal will quickly be out of date as plans undergo periodic adjustments once the project implementation begins.
- While writing the proposal, imagine having to use the proposal as your guide for executing the project and reporting on progress. If the proposal language is too vague to create a clear sense of the direction and outcome measures, revise.
A Grant Proposal's Lasting Influence
on a Project
Particularly for foundation grants, the grant proposal will continue to play a role during the project implementation and reporting phases. With this in mind, it pays to be clear and detailed in the proposal. Aspects of project implementation can be reserved for a separate (possibly internal) document that can be revised as needed. What is not a good strategy is to write a proposal that is vague in the hopes that this lack of clarity will allow the project to evolve and change direction more easily. Funders know projects change over time. They expect that proposed activities will require adjustments once the project is underway. If you write a clear proposal, the benefits are that you and the funder will start from the same place and can discuss any future revisions to the project from a point of mutual understanding.
If your proposal embraces active voice and clarity it will serve you well throughout the project and reporting process. Before deciding on a specific approach regarding where to emphasize detail and where to be less detailed, always look carefully at the funder’s guidelines as some funders may want a high-level of detail throughout the application.