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RFP Absurdity and Responding to Narrative Questions

January 27th, 2008 · by Jake Seliger · 2 Comments

I’ve written about stylistically bad language from government RFPs, but more common than the outright bad is the silly, the coy, the euphemistic, and the ridiculous. Now comes a fine example: section 1.d. on page 30 of the California 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) – Elementary & Middle Schools narrative:

Explain how all organizations involved in your collaborative have experience or the promise of success in providing educational and related activities that will complement and enhance the academic performance, achievement, and positive youth development of students.

So you need either (1) experience or (2) the “promise of success.” In other words, your level of experience is irrelevant because you can have a lot or none. The RFP* could’ve just asked, “Are the organizations involved able to provide educational services and, if so, how?” RFPs, however, seldom use 13 easy-to-understand words when 36 words designed to obfuscate meaning are available.

The requirement quoted above is particularly egregious because is any applicant going to claim that their organizations don’t have the promise of success? Of course not! And what does “the promise of success” mean? To my mind, the answer is “nothing.” Orwell would be aghast at this and many other RFPs—in “Politics and the English Language” he finds examples where “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.” I’ve not read a better concise description of RFPs.

Still, you’re writing a proposal and thus your output can and perhaps even should reflect the document that guides your input. Unlike most forms of writing, where brevity is beautiful, (Write Right**: “If I were limited to one rule of style, Omit Unnecessary Words would be the hands down winner”) grant applications encourage bad writing because you (a) need to fill space and (b) need to answer obfuscated questions fully and completely. The best way to do so is by parroting back variations on what the application writer expects, and the best way to avoid irritating a reviewer is by filling your proposal with muck and jargon.

This peculiar kind of poor writing is similar to the peculiar kind of speciousness Isaac discussed in Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World. You write a narrative by sending back what you get in the RFP, and when you get garbage in, you usually reflect garbage out. Most RFPs are merely asking you variations on who, what, where, when, why, and how, while most proposals are merely variations on the answers to those questions. Remember that when you’re writing and consider which aspect you should be addressing in the response to each RFP question. The apparently difficult sentence I quoted above from the 21st CCLC can be simplified further to “Who’s going to carry out the program?” There. Nothing to fear. Novice grant writers are often intimidated by the jargon in RFPs, but that’s often just an artifact of bad writing rather than an indication of actual difficulty.

In Studio Executives, Starlets, and Funding, I wrote “Sometimes the funder will want agencies with long track records, sometimes new agencies.” Now I can say that sometimes funders want both, as long as you can somehow justify your experience or the virtue of not having any experience in a proposal. If you come across a narrative demand like the one above, play the RFP’s game. It’s the only way to win.


* Before I get irate e-mails from eagle-eyed readers, I’ll note that the 21st CCLC is a Request For Applications (RFA), but I just call them all RFPs for simplicity’s sake.** If I had to recommend just one book to aspiring writers, regardless of the kind of writing, it would be this one. It’s short, pithy, accurate, and will do more to improve most writers in less time than virtually any other book I know. If I had to recommend two, the second would be William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

Tags: Advice · Grants