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Thursday, January 18, 2018

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Finding A Path - Overcoming Obstacles to Clear Program Descriptions
Karen Eber Davis

January, 2008

On the top floor of a bank overlooking a lovely bay, along with other community members I reviewed a set of grants. Earlier in fall, teachers had created these three-page documents in hopes of winning $500 for their classes. As I read I became frustrated. In almost every grant, despite the teacher’s dedication and needs, they failed to clarify what they wanted to do with the money. And that made it nearly impossible to rank their request against the established criteria. One obstacle were references to approaches or items, like Marzasno, Kagan Cooperative Learning Strategies and the Burns Math Library. While Kagan was vaguely familiar, the others weren't. The teachers assumed a knowledge of education materials and theories that at least one reader lacked.

These teachers aren’t alone in writing fuzzy program descriptions. Many find them challenging. In fact, failing to write a strong program description is one of the most frequent grant mistakes. Why are they so difficult to write? How can you overcome the obstacles and write great descriptions so you can win more grant funds? This article describes six barriers to good descriptions. It also provides a simple activity to help you write clearly and offers an example of a good description. Finally, we provide you with additional hints on creating clear descriptions.

Barriers to Strong Program Descriptions

When you understand the barriers to writing program descriptions, you will find it easier to surmount them. Here are six with removal suggestions.

Barrier 1. Too Close

Most people forget how much they know. They may use their Activboards and MP3 players regularly. But their readers may be only vaguely aware of these items, especially new electronic ones. Other readers will benefit from a reminder of what they are and what they do.

Solution : You offer a mini-explanation of unfamiliar items. Perhaps it’s a five or six word description from Wikipedia (an on-line encyclopedia developed by readers.)

Barrier 2. No Orientation

Writers jumped right in and start writing about what they need.

Solution: You start by sharing basics, like who will be served (i.e., kindergarteners, seniors or strays) and your setting, the beach, a nursing home and the tip of Manhattan.

Barrier 3. The Unknown

The activities described will take place in the future. Its challenging to write about a place an organization has never gone before.” To be safe, most people choose generalities, rather than specifics.

Solution: You share a plan based on your best educated guess. If you lack one, you make a choice. You gather others to help you create one. Or, you create one and then get their input.

Barrier 4. Fear

The writer is stymied with thoughts like, “Gee, if I promise 200 what happens if we only get 175?”

Solution: You understand that the exact number is seldom the challenge. You focus on telling the reader how you will solve the bigger challenge of reaching 175 or even 200 new members.

Barrier 5. Hard to Get In Their Shoes

The writer forgets to think of the audience when they write.

Solution: You review what you’ve written from the perspective of someone who has never heard of your cause or organization. As you review, you both simplify and expound so that each new reader understands you.

Barrier 6. Mixed Messages
This is also called, “They left an inch of room on the form. They must not want much.”

Solution: Even if the grant donor fails to ask questions or leaves you minimal space, you understand that the donor always wants to know what you will do with their money. You make sure your intent is clear as briefly as possible. If you lack narrative space, you add details in the budget or budget narrative.

A 20-Minute Fix

Here’s a quick activity to help you to write a strong program description. Complete it before you start writing a grant. Pretend you’re given a free 50- word want ad for tomorrow’s local paper. Write about your project. For example:

Local teacher seeks 50 quality puzzles to help teach 10 kindergarten curriculum subjects (i.e., the numbers, the alphabet, farm animals) to achieve 7 learning objectives including improving fine motor skills. Students will use puzzles in a small learning center; puzzles will be rotated to match the curriculum. $500 Why This Helps The ad helps you to...

Remove Jargon. A want ad aimed at readers of a local paper makes it easy to eliminate insider terminology

Provide Details and Examples. Fifty words offers you just enough room to add interesting fact and illustrations. The writer above squeezes in “50 quality puzzles,” “10 subjects” and “fine motor skills.”

• Prune. The word limit forces you to identify your key goal and eliminate extraneous ones.

• Clarify. The reader understands your plans immediately. Once you develop the ad, adapt it for other uses in your grant. For example, modify it for the cover letter and the three-sentence project description. Use it to start your narrative.

For the last, you write: This request is for 50 quality puzzles to help teach 10 kindergarten curriculum subjects (i.e., the numbers, the alphabet and farm animals). This will help the children to achieve several learning objectives, like improving fine motor skills. The puzzles will be used in a small learning center and rotated during the year to match the curriculum in a class of 20 at Adamsville Elementary.

Later, you list all seven learning objectives. You will, also, provide the ten curriculum subjects and additional details in the budget, i.e. the price range, size and types of puzzles.

How Else Will Creating A Want Ad Help?

• Time Saved Surpasses Time Invested. For the most basic grant, you will spend four to five hours developing your proposal. This 20-minute investment organizes and streamlines your other writing tasks.

• A Real Lift. The ad, and the thinking behind it, provide you with an answer the “what’s it all about question” you get from a grant panel member during an on-site review or even— an elevator.

• Measure Twice, Cut Once. Once you receive the grant, your well-written description will help you to draft press releases and get started on the project.

Other Project Description Writing Tips

No Assembly Required. Include an overview of all of the program’s ingredients. In one grant, the teacher requested job skills software. In passing, he mentioned an internship program. The reader was left to piece together that the requested software would reinforce classroom instructions for 10th-12th graders in a job preparation class. The class also included a yearlong internship. Does your activity stand-alone or will it be happening in conjunction with other activities? Don’t make ’em guess.

Name-dropping. When you request an expensive item to be purchased with grant funds, provide proof of its quality. Add a sentence or two to describe the items’ reviews from product rankings surveys and the like. In the same manner, if you mention a theory or piece of research, include something about the renown and academic credentials of the person who completed it. “Teaches at Harvard” helps.

Don’t Forget to Include Your Use, Too. After you offer proof of an idea or products quality, explain the ways your organization will use it. Ideally, include several. Generally, the more uses you have for an item; the less expensive it is per use. And the more often you use it, the stronger your case.

Create a Concept. Consider creating a setting, like the “Explorers Discovery Cove.” Your request creating cove will rank higher than one you submit for basic supplies, even if both requests are for the same items. Likewise, in your application for five group homes, give each one a theme, like art, music, sports or gardening. Concepts make your request standout.

Picture it. Inset a picture 1.5 x 2 picture (or larger.) This is a must for unusual pieces of equipment, like a power video zoom scope recently requested for a hospital.


If your project description lacks clarity, your reviewers will find it hard to rank your request highly, no matter your need. But when your request offers clarity, reviewers will find it easy. My highest ranked teacher grant was clear. I understood what the teacher wanted to do; why she wanted to do it and what she needed to achieve it. Do the same for your readers make your grants grant-tastic. You will be rewarded with money for your mission.

Karen Eber Davis is a consultant, strategist, group facilitator and writer. As president of Karen Eber Davis Consulting, she draws on her full set of skills to help organizations plan and fund their way to excellence. Her firm has attracted such clients as the Red Cross, Circus Sarasota, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Suncoast Workforce Development Board, the Englewood Water District, Dreams are Free and more than 100 local, regional and national organizations. Her consulting work is respected for its innovation, enthusiasm and energy as well as its practical understanding of the spirit and psychology of nonprofit organizations. For more information, visit her website at


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