I recently wrote a blog, Write Like a JD, where I shared some tips I learned in law school that I utilize in my grant writing. When it was published, I was excited – I always am; there’s just something so satisfying about seeing your work in print. But my heart sank immediately when I saw the cover art that originally accompanied my piece. It was a stock photo of a white guy in a suit sitting behind a desk with a gavel on one side of him and the scales of justice on the other. I’m a lawyer by trade, a grant professional by choice, and an African American woman by birth. I did not see myself reflected in this art that accompanied my work.

I recently attended my first-ever Grant Professionals Association (GPA) national conference – virtually, at that (because, you know, the pandemic). It was three days of absorbing information, dialoguing with colleagues, and notating my personal takeaways. I’m what I’d call, an inbetweener in the grant profession; I’m on the cusp of entering the mid-career mark but not quite there yet years-wise. I went into this conference with excitement and hope and left with certain unanticipated lessons learned. During the opening session, our emcee (Jess Pettitt) encouraged conference attendees to record our ‘circles.’ Although she gave a definition, I took this to basically mean, review our session notes and reflect on lessons learned at the end of each day, and circle the ones that personally resonated the most. I made countless observations and learned a ton, but here’s a snippet of what spoke loudest to me.

Do you remember the first time you wrote a report for a funder and had to explain away an undesirable outcome (or more)? I do. Picture it: coffee on drip. Report questions pulled, outcomes and program-related questions sent to program staff. Me, a rookie grant professional at the time, ready to tackle the report…or so I thought. And then I got the email: one of the program’s stated outcomes fell significantly short of the goal. As in, the targeted outcome was 80%, but the actual outcome was 40%. *Insert appropriate amounts of rookie-level panic here, then breathe.*

Grant professionals are oftentimes asked to address multiple questions which require an in-depth response but with limited word (or worse, character) counts. In my transition from a legal career to grant writing, this was, and still remains, one of the strongest skills I brought to the table. Consequently, law school also taught me how to whittle down content like nobody’s business but that’s for another day. There’s a fundamental formula every 1L (i.e. first-year law student) learns for approaching narrative questions, or as we referred to them in my law school days, hypotheticals (hypos for short). The C-R-A-C* methodology (conclusion, rule, analysis, conclusion) is taught as an organization tool for making an effective legal argument. As a grant professional, I use a simplified version of this method to construct my narratives. For our purposes today, we’ll be focusing on applying these strategies to the ‘Need’ section of a proposal.

Unless you’re a one-person show at your agency, you’re likely dependent on someone else within the organization to provide you with whatever information you need to write a grant (e.g. data, service updates, etc.). Getting that information is oftentimes the most challenging part of our jobs as grant professionals. Once we do receive the information, it’s part of our job as grant professionals to use it strategically to build a strong, hopefully award-winning grant proposal.

Many funders see far more applications each funding cycle than their dollars can feasibly reach, forcing them to give careful consideration to how they wish to accomplish their respective missions. Even if your organization is doing amazing, life-changing things for the population it serves, if you fail to articulate those amazing things in a way that convinces the holder of funds to invest in you, you could be missing out on funding.

As grant writers, we help secure much-needed funding so projects or programs can fulfill their objectives. As our society evolves, more and more funders are including cultural competency questions in their grant applications. Funders want to know that investing in your organization’s project or program helps a vast array of people and that your organization is cognizant of serving people in a way that is inclusive, respectful of diversity, and equitable. However, much like the for-profit world, the non-profit sector is not always diverse or culturally competent.