Grant Application Narratives

Nov. 4, 2005
We have been taught growing up that there are two sides to every story. This has never been truer than in the realm of grant applications.

We have been taught growing up that there are two sides to every story. This has never been truer than in the realm of grant applications. Without rehashing all of my college psychology and communications classes, there are basically six parts of a communication thread: the sender, the idea the sender wants to communicate, the encoding of the idea into verbal or written communication, the receiver, the decoding of said message by the receiver, and sometimes, feedback from the receiver to the sender. In the case of writing grant applications, we really do not receive proper feedback. All we know is whether or not we are being awarded. But let us not concentrate on the feedback part yet, we cannot control that. What we can control, is how we encode our message (application) so that the receiver (Peer Review) decodes it properly.

The idea in the case of our grant application is why we chose the project that we are applying for, and why we believe that it meets the highest priorities established by the program. Where most people get lost is in the so-called encoding of that message, i.e. the narrative of the application. It is not for a lack of trying; many times the reason is emotional. Very few people have to write out their feelings or justifications. Most communications nowadays is done verbally, and there is constant feedback during verbal communications. The message sender can read the body positioning, eye contact, and of course listen to verbal feedback from who they are talking to. Written communications are different because there is no chance for the intended receiver of the message to read it with the emotion that it was written in, nor understand completely the context in which the message was sent.

So how can you overcome these communications traps? Fortunately, I'm not here to teach a writing course, there are far more qualified individuals that can do that for you. What I can do it point out some of the easier methods for ensuring that your communications are effective in conveying your message.

  • Have your facts straight.
    Nothing destroys the logic of an argument faster than flawed data. While not all reviewers are guaranteed to be veteran firefighters, they are from this earth. You don't have to be an expert on a subject to realize that something does not make sense when reading it. With the limited time that the reviewers have to look over your application the last thing you want to do is confuse them, or cite something they know not to be true. Hopefully everyone took care of the research and avoided this pitfall as suggested by my first article.
Use the headings designated by the application guidance. So many times I have seen people create their own sections to a narrative that have nothing to do with anything remotely involving the project. Every grant application either has clearly defined section headings, or explicitly says what tasks must be accomplished within the narrative. Do not stray from these. The scoring methods employed are metered by how well you meet those tasks, and simply enough, if you do not meet them, you will not score well. Adding sections such as Department History and Community Involvement are not needed unless specified. While I do think mentioning both of those topics in the course of the narrative are beneficial, devoting an entire section to them is not. The flow of the narrative is very important Be candid in your argument. Being candid does not mean that you should be brief to the point of leaving out information. But it does not mean that you should appear to be letting your emotions rule your writing style. I agree completely that applying for a grant is a long and emotional process, but when it comes time to put pen to paper, you are better served by leaving some of the emotion out. Hopefully in the design of your project you encountered a series of facts that you used as the basis for developing your solution. This is the time to elaborate on these facts, not bury them in rhetoric. Avoid templates. I highly recommend avoiding templates when developing your narrative. Every other part of the application is a template of sorts and you don't want this part to be glossed over. The narrative is your chance to shine above the rest. After reading a pile of applications that sound exactly the same, it is impossible to judge applications on their merits because they are identical in form, verbiage, and sometimes length. While the computer scores may vary, the lack of diversity in the narrative compared to other applications will bring the score down significantly. Now do not confuse avoiding a template with not using the headings defined by the program. There is a distinct difference. Several organizations have put out true templates complete with blank lines for applicants to simply enter their names and proper quantities. No matter how you attempt to make a template your own, the lack of originality shines through. What is also missing is the personality of the department. It may be hard to believe, but after reading thousands of applications, I find it very easy to distinguish the templates from the ones written from scratch. The reviewers can also, and when it comes to score, being your own person will get you farther. Be clear in your purpose. I certainly understand that in some areas of the country, things are bad. This is part of the reason I chose to write these articles because many departments that I've helped have made some of the mistakes I've written about avoiding. One major error is piling on too many problems into one application. One would think that it would be difficult to confuse a reader about an application for a vehicle. It is only one object after all, how could it become hard to confuse the argument? The problem is in using other bad situations as justification for a lack of funding. I have reviewed dozens of applications for vehicles, and when I hit the end, I forgot what the department was applying for because they mentioned so many other vehicles and their problems. One application for a tanker spent more time stating that their brush truck and two engines were in very bad shape, that I was wondering if they shouldn't be applying for one of those trucks instead of the tanker. As bad as things may be, straying from justifying why you need something will lower your score as much as applying for the wrong project.

Narrative Structure

You should start with an introduction to the department. This establishes a bond with the reviewer and allows them to get a mental picture of who you are, where you are, and what you do. But try to keep it brief. Avoid too much department history by explaining who founded the department, where, and why. The department was formed to provide fire protection where none existed before, this is a common fact about all fire departments. As proud as you may be of that heritage, that's not the purpose of the narrative. You don't want to detract from your true message of explaining your current need and why your solution is more deserving than the rest. While history may have something to do with it, nearly every department in the country started out poor and with little equipment, but it all depends on how that situation was managed. You don't want to take the chance of losing the interest of the reviewers before they even get to the meaty part of the narrative.

The next section can either be just a description of the project by itself, or a description combined with the benefits of the project and the problem the project is solving. It really depends on the project and the solution designed. As long as everything is clear, mixing the description and the benefits can be done very well. As you write, if you feel that coming back to the project benefits in another section would cause you to be overly redundant or reduce the clarity of the argument, then include the benefits as you describe the project. Clarity is a key part of the structure.

The last section as required by the most applications would be the explanation of financial need. This is the tricky part, and where most people completely falter. Why? In many cases the person writing the application doesn't know how whatever money the department does have is being spent, and the discussion of financial need just falls apart. It becomes very apparent that the writer does not know why the project can't be funded locally. And if the writer doesn't know why, they certainly won't be able to convince a panel of strangers either.

I fully recommend that whoever is putting together the application, see at minimum a yearly line item budget for the department. Technically, these documents are available to anyone under the Freedom of Information Act since tax dollars are being spent, but if you're the one with that knowledge, don't hide it from the people working on the application. After all, they're working for you in the department's best interest. Give them what they need to get the job done properly.

English: A Not So Common Language

There is no dispute among scholars that the English language is the most difficult to learn. While it is not necessary to have a Ph.D. to successfully form a narrative, having your work reviewed for proper spelling and grammar is very important. When someone uses broken arguments, difficult sentence structures, and localized language the Peer Reviewers have a hard time deciphering your message. This is why it is important to understand the nuances of effective communications as I discussed in the beginning of the article. For instance, not everyone knows what a task force is. And for those that do, a task force means something completely different depending on where you are. The Reviewers will not think less of you if any terms that might be misunderstood are explained. Remember, if they are confused, they will score your application lower.

So how do we ensure that our proper message gets across to the receivers? Let's try one on for size.

Take these two statements for a project to retrofit a light tower on a truck:

We want to put a light tower on this vehicle because lots of fireground injuries happen at night and if our firefighters can see better, they won't get hurt.

Fireground injuries are costly to a fire department, not only in terms of direct medical bills, but also in terms of the lost resource of the injured firefighter for future incidents. According to USFA's Technical Report #XYZ123, one of the leading causes of fireground injuries is slips and falls. Many of the ones reported at night were deemed preventable because there was a lack of proper scene lighting. While we have been fortunate to not have had any severe injuries yet, the light tower that we propose to have installed on our truck in conjunction with routine safety training will help to further minimize this risk.

Both essentially say the same thing but the first statement, while most of us in the fire service know this statement to be generally true, it is basically just an opinion without any backing. Depending on who your reviewers are, they may read the first statement and think that being dark has no bearing on injuries since firefighters run around the fireground all of the time and trip because they weren't looking, not because it was dark. The reviewers in this case can and probably will dismiss your statement because of his or her experience that light has nothing to do with the project at hand.

The reference to the USFA report in the second statement has more credibility, as well as not making the mistaken declaration that because of this light tower, none of your firefighters will ever get hurt. The second statement shows that you did your homework and have proof that an independent entity has the statistics to back your claim, and you're also not dismissing the possibility of a firefighter injury. It also doesn't give them a chance to nullify your argument. Their objections to needing a light tower are invalidated by the people that developed the grant program in the first place. They don't have to take your word for it, but they will believe USFA. And since you cited a specific source of information instead of just saying "USFA said" or "NFPA says", it's even harder to dismiss your argument as an emotional appeal instead of being factually based. In addition, the writer says that they will continue safety training in recognition that the light tower is not a magic fix for the problem.

I've always felt that the reviewers don't go out of their way to think of reasons to not give you the money, but on the other hand you still have to give them reasons to give you high scores. For instance, mentioning that you don't have the money for a truck because you spend it all on PPE, SCBA, and training your people goes a long way. It shows that you are putting your people and their safety first, which is truly the primary goal of the AFG Program.

If the opposite is the case, and you spent all of your money on replacing multiple trucks in the past few years, you will have a very hard time convincing anyone that you can't afford to replace old PPE or SCBA. By purchasing the vehicles, you basically stated that your department felt that having 2 or more new vehicles was more important than safe and compliant equipment, so you are not leaving much leeway for the reviewers to come to a different conclusion. No matter how you try and state it, your actions will speak even louder.


Now that you have a narrative that you feel has followed the proper structure, and it explains why you designed the high priority project that you did, do you want to take the limited feedback from either a denial or an award? Of course you do not. I spoke earlier of the benefits of feedback in verbal communications and it is just as important to get feedback on your written word. Why would you want to submit an application that could have holes in it?

What sometimes causes a downfall is the fact that humans think faster than they write or speak. We think we wrote something when in fact we didn't, but when we re-read our own works our mind fills in the blanks automatically. I have this problem myself, which is why no matter how many times I re-read something I always have someone else review my work. I encourage my clients to always review everything of course, but I also use several other resources when available. I have utilized my wife on many occasions (including having her review these articles). But I have also used friends and firefighters that are also teachers and business owners.

I recommend using people from outside of the department as well because they won't get lost in the routine operations by knowing how things work in your department. Some great outside sources are local business owners and high school or college educators. The teachers and professors are great resources because they deal with essays on a regular basis and while they may not be able to give you pointers about the merits of applying for a tanker versus a pumper, they can verify that your argument is well documented and flows properly.

For anyone that is still confused as to why you would want a business person to review your application, think of it this way. A grant application is basically a business proposal. You are trying to convince someone that has money that your need is valid, and the solution you have designed is highly cost-effective and beneficial to all involved. In the business world, this is called evaluating Return On Investment (ROI). If the proposed usage of the funding is going to create the greatest return for the amount invested, then something is deemed to have a very high ROI. In federal grant programs, the ROI is taken in terms of the amount spent versus the increase in safety of the citizens and responders. If you create a great ROI case in your application, you have a great chance at receiving your funding.

Finally if they say they have time, use your local government's representatives. Why? My reason is twofold. First, if you can't convince the people that control your funding now that you need something, do you really think you have the chance with complete strangers? By allowing them the opportunity to review the application, they will become more familiar with your situation. Perhaps they feel that what you are asking for is too great of a need to wait for the chance at federal funding and they make moves to try and fund your project immediately, in which case, you definitely have a winning application.

Secondly, if they agree it is a need but they can't fund it, perhaps they know of other funding avenues that can be pursued should this proposal not be successful. The key is to communicate with them so that nothing comes as a surprise.

The same goes for the general public. Always keep the people that will benefit from the application apprised of the situation. There is nothing wrong with not being funded. Not everyone will be. But there is great satisfaction in letting your citizens know that you do care about serving them to the best of your abilities, and there just isn't enough money in this grant program.

Many areas have come together to raise taxes to bring up the funding levels after learning of the department's dire situation. This is important because most grant programs have a one in four award to application rate. They are by no means a golden arrow that will fix every problem in the American fire service. Not applying will not fix any problems. No one can guarantee an award, but you should always put your best foot forward just in case.

Hopefully with this and my previous two articles, I've given you a better understanding of how to make your application as competitive as possible.

In the next article we'll discuss post-award/denial tips and tricks to maximize the effort you put into creating your application. For now, just remember that all is not solved with an award, and all is not lost with a denial.

Brian Vickers would like to here your questions, so please email them to him at [email protected]. Brian will address your question along with many other frequently asked questions in an upcoming article available only on Firehouse.Com. Thanks for your input and check back soon for answers to your AFG Program questions.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!