Grant writing professionals are often asked what they know about a particular field in order to determine whether they are qualified to write a successful proposal. Is specific subject matter knowledge helpful to write such a grant? Yes, in many cases. But required? No. In fact, it can even be a hindrance.
I have written a number of successful federal, state, local and foundation proposals for clients in a wide variety of fields, including those on such diverse topics as electrical utility infrastructure improvements (including subtopics like cyber security and interoperability, among other thorny things), to those that elicit services for the disabled, to voter education and registration—without having had any prior expertise in any of these topics. I have been able to do so not because I knew anything about these subjects beforehand, but because I have the ability to read and write well, as well as to ask and answer often highly technical and specialized questions. I am sure that this has been the experience of all successful grant writers.
Would some understanding of these subjects have been helpful before undertaking the task of writing a grant? Perhaps. Especially if I had been called upon to write under a particularly tight deadline when either having the answers to any number of questions at hand would have been useful, or if I wasn’t able to count on having the client’s help. But I can also imagine scenarios in which knowing too much about a particular field may either cause disagreements between a grant writer and a client or even cause the grant writer to get caught up in the minutiae without being able to convey the client’s overall purpose. After all, it’s the client’s abilities, expertise and passion that a grant writer should try to convey in a proposal and not their own.
What is often more useful to a client than subject area competence is specific agency or foundation experience. The degree to which a grant writer is familiar with any particular source(s) may make it easier to write a response that the funder will be more comfortable with, in terms of the language used and the way the proposal is presented, since each has its own culture, language and, of course, people.
That said, it is certainly possible to successfully apply for a grant without having had any prior experience with either the subject matter or the source. After all, I was able to write approximately $40 million in successful Smart Grid Investment Grants in 2009. I had neither any prior knowledge about the technology involved nor any experience writing grants to either the Department of Energy or the federal government, for that matter. So, again, while specific subject matter and/or agency knowledge can certainly be helpful, it is certainly not a requirement for grant writing success.
About the Author
David Lipten, Ph.D., owner/consultant at GrantWorks, has written winning federal grant proposals on behalf of a number of electric utilities, garnering nearly $40 million in U.S. Department of Energy grants, among other successes. He is based in Tallahassee, FL, and can be reached at email@example.com.
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