One of the most common statements about grant writing I hear is: “I didn’t get funded and can’t understand why.” Rejection happens for a multitude of reasons, one of which is writing narcissistic proposals. In other words, the proposal is all about you and why your project should be funded. Your application becomes a monologue, rather than a dialogue with the donor.
It is not unusual to compare narcissistic proposal writers with productive narcissists such as Jack Welch and George Soros. Both men are gifted and creative strategists who see the big picture and find meaning in the risky challenge of changing the world. One reason we look to productive narcissists in times of great transition is that they have the audacity to push through the massive transformations that society periodically undertakes. The danger is that narcissism can turn unproductive when, lacking self-knowledge and restraining anchors, narcissists become unrealistic dreamers. They nurture grand schemes and harbor the illusion that only circumstances or enemies block their success. This tendency toward grandiosity and distrust is the Achilles’ heel of narcissists. Because of it, even brilliant narcissists can come under suspicion for self-involvement in the grant life cycle.
Maintaining your productivity is key to grant success. Often researchers are gifted and creative scientists or educators, and want to advance knowledge and make an impact on society. The problem begins when they lose sight of the characteristics that can turn proposals narcissistic. Take care that the following statements do not apply to you:
- The focus of your request is the research, without consideration of the donor. A donor has specific criteria for what they want to fund. They speak a language that the requester must also speak and understand to write an effective proposal.
- Your communication with the donor is one-sided. The prose is often difficult to read due to the belief that it is up to the reader to glean the meaning. The proposal becomes a monologue which may simply be dismissed by the donor.
- You believe the RFP is for someone else to read and understand. Ignoring the details of the RFP because of the overriding belief that it is too trivial to read is not uncommon. The narcissistic grant writer believes he/she is above all of this, after all.
- You believe your idea is worthy of being circulated to many donors without modification. Once again, the problem arises out of the inability to communicate with others. Different donors have different interests; thus, the project is not aligned with the donor, but stands on its own.
- The donors are in the wrong, not you. Often when the rejection comments arrive, rather than carefully understanding the donor’s criticism, the reaction is defensive. Responses such as: “They didn’t read what I wrote,” or “They clearly do not understand the importance of my research,” are common among narcissistic grant writers.
Understanding how to create a dialogue with the donor, and therefore, putting your proposal on the right path will require the following steps:
- Navigate the donor’s home page carefully. You will find several critical pieces of information here, from due dates to program standards. The tone exhibited by the organization will allow you to further tailor your proposal to their interests.
- Understand the donor’s mission and address it in your proposal. This step will help you to speak the donor’s language. It will also go a long way in reassuring the donor that you are on the same wavelength.
- Identify who will review your proposal and address their interests. Building commonality into your writing ensures you will have the reviewers’ attention. This may require that you write the proposal in such a way that various reviewers – who may not know your subject matter as well as you – understand your request.
- Discover the donor’s funding patterns by researching who was funded previously. This knowledge can facilitate your understanding of how your project parallels what has previously been funded. Thus, your request will be comparable to the donor’s funding trends.
- Know the leadership of the organization and to whom they report. This is especially important if you are submitting to a foundation or a corporate donor. It is also critical for federal agencies that must incorporate legislative requests in their applications.
- Develop an ongoing relationship with the donor. This can be achieved through the program officer or other staff assigned to the funding program. Remember, the relationship need not end when the grant does.
- Speak the donor’s language. If the donor wants innovative, transformative, or interdisciplinary proposals, ensure that you know how they define these terms. Reading the abstracts of previously-funded proposals will give you an indication of the style and language the donor uses.
- Recognize who the donor considers eligible. Don’t waste time writing a proposal for a donor who would never take on your project. Instead, read the RFP closely to find this information early on in the process.
The narcissistic proposal writer who ignores the donor’s vision is often fated to crash and burn. Once you fully understand how to create that essential dialogue, you can step back and begin writing grants that are significant to you and the donor.
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