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Language Choices in Grant Writing Present Pitfalls for the Unwary or Inexperienced

January 21st, 2013 · by Isaac Seliger · 2 Comments

In his recent post on potential grant funds embedded in President Obama’s just announced gun violence prevention policy statement, Jake noted that grant writing language is a good topic for a post of its own. He’s right. Like all forms of the written word, grant writing has its own language conventions and wisdom. Faithful readers will know that we often put Easter Eggs in our posts in the form of asterisked “free proposal phrase here.” We do this in part to help would-be grant writers and partly to poke fun at some of the absurdities of our profession.

But choosing the right language is serious in grant writing because the writer has to imagine its impact on a range of unknowable readers. Although it’s not usually possible to write for specific readers (excepting certain foundation proposals), it is possible to make educated guesses about how typical classes of readers might react to certain language. For example, federal bureaucrats reading and scoring a proposal are more likely to be dispassionate about a topic than peer reviewers, who might just be “true believers” with a dog in a particular fight about a contentious issue. When in doubt about what language to use, study the RFP, which will usually provide clues.

As Jake pointed out in his edit, some emotionally charged words to avoid are fairly obvious—like “abortion” in a teen pregnancy prevention proposal. In a case like teen pregnancy prevention, one needs to carefully write around the word, referring opaquely to negative consequences that may result from lack of access to pregnancy prevention knowledge, whether the project concept is centered on abstinence education or sex education.

Similarly, substantial new funding for gun violence prevention programs is likely to emerge in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. Still, smart writers won’t use “gun control” in such a proposal. If we get hired to write gun safety proposals, we’ll take great care to develop euphemisms and obfuscations to avoid annoying readers on either side of the debate in an emotionally or politically charged issue like gun control. Failing to be vigilant means that a a single word or phrase will sink your proposal ship if it runs into the iceberg of a politically motivated reviewer. To beat the nautical metaphor a bit more, there are enough hidden shoals in grant writing without intentionally running aground.

Beyond the obvious iceberg words, there are others we try to avoid. For example, we rarely use “poor” as a descriptor of people because it has a pejorative ring to it and was overused during the halcyon War on Poverty days. We prefer “economically disadvantaged,” “vulnerable,” “low-income,” “at-risk,” and the like. “And the like” is itself a proposal phrase we often use to vary from the boring sounding “etc.”

Similarly, we prefer “African American” to “Black” but are always careful to capitalize Black when we do use it. It’s accepted, however, to use a lower case “white.” A catch-all for minority clients is “clients of color” or “participants of color.” We almost never refer to African American children as “boys” or “girls,” using “young men” and “young women,” or the ever-popular “youth” instead. These choices have to do with the legacy of the Civil Rights struggles from the 1960s, when the language of race became paramount in the larger culture.

As an aside, when writing for California clients, we usually use “Latino,” while in the rest of country we use “Hispanic,” since “Latino” is traditionally used in the Golden State, while Hispanic is used elsewhere and is the term adopted by the US Census since 1980.

In addition, we almost always write in the third person to avoid the cloying sound of “our clients,” “our staff,” etc. In doing so, and to get the attention of female and male feminist readers, we will often use “she/he” and “her/his,” instead of the other way around.

Probably our biggest proposal language debacle took place about ten years ago, but wasn’t really our fault. We were writing a California Tobacco Control Program proposal for a nonprofit in Northern California. The founder of the organization was a true believer who felt that white youth were not getting enough attention or funding in tobacco prevention efforts, compared to youth of color (note the proposalese correctness of this sentence).

The popular wisdom and a black-letter reading of the RFP was that youth of color were disproportionately negatively impacted* by tobacco. Well, according to our client, who produced reams of studies and data from a very reputable UC Berkeley professor, it turned out the white kids in California, particularly low-income youth, were actually much more likely to use tobacco than their peers of color.

Still, our client insisted that the proposal target white youth and that we refer to them as “Euro-American” youth. Since we’re just hired guns or Paladins, we tend to do as our clients request, even though we advised our client that the proposal was going to be torn apart by reviewers (which it was).

The proposal wasn’t funded, and I’ve never seen harsh review comments like the ones this proposal received. The reviewers not only castigated the project concept, but also denounced the applicant as racist, even though ample data citations were provided. The proposal ran counter to the expectations of the reviewers and the clearly stated suppositions in the RFP—so the reviewers were outraged. Remember the Golden Rule. No, not that Golden Rule—this one: she who has the money makes the rules.


* Yet another free proposal phrase here.

Tags: Advice · Government · Grants