Newsletter of the Society for Technical Communication, San Francisco Chapter
Technical communicators follow many specialties. Some write guides to help others do their work, and some help others find and fund the work they do; those who do the latter are grant and proposal writers.
In August, Judy Herr, who has long specialized in grant and proposal management and consulting, spoke to the San Francisco chapter on the state of the field, what goes into successful proposals, and what grant and proposal writers need to know to succeed.
Judy Herr is well known within the STC, where she is active both at the local and Society levels. Locally she has served in every leadership position in the East Bay Chapter and is a stalwart in Touchstone, the Northern California Technical Communication competition. At the Society level, she is an STC Fellow and a member of the STC Board of Directors.
Judy collected her proposal management skills during a ten-year stint as Director of Communication and Documentation for SAIC. Before that, she was a Director of Fundraising for the American Cancer Society. Both experiences were great on-the-job learning opportunities as she worked with subject matter experts, managers, and her own team on complex proposals and made valuable contacts. She later started her own business, Well Chosen Words, which specializes in providing consultative support to small businesses pursuing government and commercial contracts as well as preparing environmental, health, and occupational safety documentation.
Starting with the basics, Judy explained that grant writers put together grant proposals to help organizations, mostly non-profits, get the funding they need to execute projects and carry out their missions. Proposal consultants and writers help businesses win government and commercial contracts. They do this by helping them navigate government's often arcane Requests for Proposal (RFPs) process, and by producing the documents and oral presentations needed to win the work.
Judy says that while the grant and RFP processes differ in many respects, the skills needed from technical communicators are similar. Many of the needed skills are second nature to technical communicators, starting with basic writing and communication skills (including learning to talk the talk), but also including being able to organize, learn quickly, work with subject matter experts, and do whatever it takes to meet tight deadlines.
Judy said that because of the down economy -- where many foundations and funding agencies lack funds to award -- this is a difficult time to break into the field. However, for those who can afford to do pro-bono work, it could be a great time to build your resume and make the contacts that you will later need.
Judy explained both the grant seeking and the RFP process.
When seeking a grant, writing is only part of the process, she said. Key to winning a grant is being able to sell the need, and demonstrate your organization's ability to execute a specific project and get the desired result. You need to prepare a short summary of the project and services offered, explain why the project is needed, argue your case for being selected, and supply a cost/benefit estimate justifying why the project is worth doing. Success, she said, goes to those who can passionately tell the most compelling story -- and demonstrate the benefit of the effort.
To win a grant, she said, you need to already have an organizational structure in place. It is very difficult to get grant money for operational expenses. Funding agencies want to feel that they are funding something "sexy," and that means a specific, "marketable" project with emotional appeal.
You also need to match the size of your request with the requirements of the funding agency. Large funders, she said, rarely issue grants for small projects or in small amounts. Administering small grants isn't cost effective for large foundations.
Judy said that grant work is all about networking. You use your personal contacts to find out whom to send grant applications to and, she said, it pays to have an inside track. Personal relationships and contacts really matter. It is wise to have everyone in your organization involved in the funding process because you never know who knows someone who could help.
Judy gave a close-to-home example. At a local high school the lacrosse team needed a defibrillator, a medical device that is used to restart stopped hearts. (Lacrosse goalies can die of blows to the chest if immediate help is not available.) Defibrillators can cost several thousand dollars. Armed with a basic proposal -- this is what we need and why we need it -- and a "60 Minutes" video about kids being killed from lacrosse injuries, a parent approached the local Rotary club. The Rotary club gave half the needed money. The rest was raised by a woman who moonlighted as a sports trainer for the high school who used personal contacts to get help from a local health care group where she worked.
But, Judy said, even if you don't know who to send a grant proposal to, there are ways to do research. In the Bay Area one of the best resources is the Foundation Center, an organization that maintains a major database of funders, and also teaches classes and offers other help. You can conduct Foundation Center research online for a fee, or you can use their facilities for free at their offices near San Francisco's Union Square.
When seeking a grant, Judy said, it also pays to know who your competitors are. You want to know who might also be seeking funds in the same area so you can build your case for why you are the better choice. Fifty to sixty percent of grants now being issued are from family foundations. Family foundations are harder to research, she said, because they don't have the same disclosure requirements as large public foundations.
Judy also explained the RFP process. When government agencies want to outsource work to contractors they issue a Request for a Proposal (RFP), which describes the work to be done and spells out the application process, including deadlines and special instructions. RFPs may be distributed in several ways, including being posted on a centralized government website.
To respond, you must submit a written proposal telling the issuing agency how you will do the proposed work, why you have the skills and resources to do it, and try to outbid potential competitors on the cost. Judy says the whole process is very exacting, and a proposal can easily run 400 pages. Government agencies usually will require both an electronic copy of the proposal and numerous hard copies. They may also require a copy of the PowerPoint slides for an oral presentation to be given by the proposed staff. As both a writer and the manager for the proposal process, Judy says she first takes the RFP and builds an outline for the proposal. Bidders must follow the requirements exactly. If not, the proposal will be thrown out, she said.
Often the process involves putting together a team of different businesses who may work together for this project, but who may expect to later be competitors. Often the coordinator/manager is the only one who has possession of all of the relevant information, and their respect for confidentiality must be trusted.
Judy stresses the importance of the technical communicator as the person who must control the wording of key pieces of the document, such as the executive summary. She says the communicator must also be assertive and take charge of the process. You must be able to decide when something is good enough.
The work can be arduous, but the rewards and satisfaction when it all comes together can be great. Judy ended by encouraging the audience to take risks and make their journey through life an exciting one.
Patrick Lufkin is an STC Associate Fellow and Chair of the Kenneth M. Gordon Memorial Scholarship for Technical Communication. He is currently co-manager of the 2009 Northern California Technical Communication Competition.