The Three Cs of Grant Writing

The building blocks of creating great proposals that can (and hopefully will!) be funded  start with the specific and detailed requirements you find in the Request for Proposals (RFP) and particularly the narrative prompts in this document.

Remember, the RFP is your best friend when writing a grant (although it can seem like a very problematic friend indeed when you are wading through pages and pages of turgid, often bureaucratic prose).

The key for successful grant writing is to focus on the specific narrative questions and make sure you answer them as well as possible. This will get you the highest score and improve your likelihood of funding. Sounds simple? It can get tough.

How do you do this?

Heather and I like to talk about the three Cs when structuring the narrative responses in our proposals- they should be clear, comprehensive, and concise.

Let’s take each one of these in turn.


The narrative should be clear in that there can be no doubt at all times that you are specifically  answering the questions posed in the RFP and narrative prompts. It’s easy to get off track, and a focus on clarity is one way to fight this.

Let’s take a recent RFP from the U.S. Department of Education, the Student Support Services (SSS) program, a part of federal TRIO services, to look at this. According to the RFP, “the purpose of the SSS Program is to increase the number of disadvantaged, low-income college students, first-generation college students, and college students with disabilities in the United States who successfully complete a program of study at the postsecondary level.”

Seems clear, right? But this means that EVERYTHING you write should be geared toward meeting this, whether it is the needs statement, the design of program services, the personnel used to operate the program, and especially the outcomes to be achieved by the program.

The RFP clarifies this point further by saying that retention, transfer and graduation rates are how you assess if you are increasing the number of disadvantaged students who complete the program of study.

So, as you write the narrative, you need to be very clear that everything you mention can support the graduation of students. If you find you are writing about need, program elements, outcomes, or personnel that is not in some way addressing this, you’re going off the tracks and you need to stop and fix it. Reviewers see so many vague, muddled and unclear proposals that you will lose them very quickly without this clarity.


To be funded and stand out as a really outstanding proposal, you also need to be comprehensive as well as clear, and this can be tricky.

You need to marshal all the relevant information required to support your responses to ensure the reviewers know that you understand everything needed for the successful and outstanding program you are building the case for.

So if you want to provide services that support college graduation for low income students at a community college (as in the example above) you should show detailed need that demonstrates the large number of eligible students who are not currently graduating on time.

And instead of just saying you will provide one-on-one tutoring for enrolled students who received a C or lower in the last semester (this is very clear!) you should also show, through research, or pilot programs, or case studies, why one-on-one tutoring is the best option for these students, and importantly, how this tutoring will be provided. Is it once a week? Is it online? Is there a contract between the student and tutor? How do you decide how long tutoring should go? What kind of training will each tutor get before working with students?

The completeness of your responses amplify the clarity of your responses and show that you have seriously thought through all of these elements. Your case for a well thought out program that will be successful is strengthened. You have a real program design reflecting the needs of students and the capabilities of your present or future staff that will be working in this program.

The comprehensive nature of your responses lend weight and heft to your proposed program and make it more likely reviewers will score it higher.


And the last one is to be concise, which seems like it works against everything we’ve said above. But it really doesn’t. You are (hopefully) not writing War and Peace or Les Miserables here, and no reviewer will thank you for dropping a 150 page narrative or higher on their lap, even if you are allowed to.

And that’s the thing- in most cases you are not allowed to go wild in your narrative and need to abide by very strict page, spacing, and font requirements detailed in the RFP. While this can be frustrating, it actually is a very good thing for the quality of your proposal.

To be honest, this is always one of the most challenging things when I write a narrative- to get the length under the required maximum. No matter how much space I’m given (and I’ve seen narrative limits of up to 150 pages, double-spaced in some federal RFPs) I’m always shooting past the limit and am forced to painfully cut my writing.

And you know what? It always makes the final narrative better. Always.

The process of not just explaining something thoroughly but also with clarity and brevity is the secret sauce that leads to great proposals. The tension you deal with in forcing you to abide by maximum length requirements in proposals forces you to find the most concise way to say something comprehensive and clear about what you are doing in the proposed program.

Keep in mind that everyone submitting proposals needs to abide by these restrictions, so the writers who can most successfully make their point concisely, while being as through in their answers as possible and clearly expressing what they want to do with the proposal program will have a winning narrative that has the highest likelihood of being funded.

The three Cs. Heather and I see them as the building blocks of our most successful narratives and think they can be for you as well.

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