Grants Solve Problems by Julie Alsup, GPC

The credentials behind my name state that I am a certified grant writer with the technical knowledge needed to write a strong grant proposal.  I love logic models, evidence-based strategies, and rigorous data collection methods.  Those things make my job easier. Yet the clients I work with face increasingly complex, multi-layer challenges, problems without clear definitions or technical solutions, daily.  In the past, I would find myself getting slightly frustrated when a program I was tasked with writing a grant for had a small number of beneficiaries, or had frequently changing curriculum, or had a high turnover in participants between pre- and post-test measures.  How do I write a grant for that?

Then I had the opportunity to participate in a year-long Healthy Communities Leadership Academy experience supported by the Health Care Foundation.  I applied to be part of it because I personally wanted to learn more about health equity and policy – buzz words in community work.  But I wasn’t completely sure how it would improve my skills as a grant writer.  I had no idea that it would change my life, challenging how I thought about myself as a leader and a project manager, forcing me to examine and confront my assumptions and personal biases, and making me face how I felt when I didn’t know how to find the answer to something.  All of these things changed me as a grant writer.

The challenge I wrestled with was how to create a high-quality, technically strong grant proposal while fully appreciating and capturing the messiness of community work.   I was introduced to the definition of adaptive versus technical problems and solutions by the Academy facilitators.  Adaptive problems are those for which there are no clear definitions or technical solutions.  Adaptive solutions don’t always follow the traditional, technical grant writing process.  These did not fit easily into my logic model.

We also dove deep into the idea of approaching community work with an equity lens.  This means having a greater awareness of the inequities that exist because of things like race, ethnicity, and the social determinants that surround an individual or community.  Having an equity lens doesn’t necessarily mean we understand; it means we have an awareness and willingness to seek understanding.

As a grant writer, this challenged me to approach grant writing differently, asking more questions to better understand the unique needs and complexities at the the root of the problem for which a grant is being written to address.  I also had to acknowledge that I must be aware of my own biases to ensure they do not trickle into how I write about an agency or program or issue.

Having this perspective helped me approach grant writing with more curiosity and open mindedness, and with truly more engagement.  As a grant writer, I ask questions of those that work in the trenches of their communities to seek understanding so I can better articulate the meaningful milestones of their work in a way that also meets the requirements of a proposal. I must ask questions not just about the barriers facing their clients, but questions about the iterative processes by which they have come to identify and overcome those barriers, for there is rich content and meaningful metrics in that information.  The grant writer as the facilitator must ask about partnerships and collaborations that are involved in a project; It is equally important to ask “who is not in the room that should be” as it is, “who is in the room,” particularly when it is in regards to representation from the target population.  A project design created without input from the target population is likely to be inadequate.

GPC Competency 3: Knowledge of strategies for effective program and project design and development.  Skill 9: Identify any cultural competency or cultural diversity issues within the organization or project that will impact the design and/or grant development process.