All I Really Need to Know (About Grant Proposal Writing) I Learned from "Free Stuff for Kids"

When was a little girl in the glorious 1980s, I had a book called Free Stuff for Kids.

As the title suggests, this book is about how kids can get free stuff by writing to companies and organizations to politely request that said free stuff be mailed to them.  (The free loot available was edifying, wholesome and often a bit odd -- for example, an "I Brake for Manatees" bumper sticker was on offer.)

I was eight years old, the weather was beautiful, there was a garden to taste blueberries in, a treehouse to climb in, a pool down the street to jump in... and there I was, indoors, poring over Free Stuff for Kids.

I was acing the nuance of form of address, throwing down acronyms (SASE for self-addressed stamped envelope, for example), and following the instructions about enclosures to a tee.

Never mind about the precious days of childhood and how many hours may have been squandered on Free Stuff for Kids avarice. This is what Free Stuff for Kids taught me about producing effective grant proposals: Write a clear, compelling cover letter that makes a connection to the funder's interests: The first chapter of Free Stuff For Kids was about how to write a letter to request that the product be sent to you. The letter-writing-kid was instructed to explain why he or she liked the company or organization, and how he or she would use the requested product. (Example: "I love manatees! I will stick the free bumper sticker on my Trapper Keeper." I look forward to the day when I can recycle this phrase in a cover letter to a foundation.) Follow the directions: It's true -- if you don't follow the directions, you might not get the free stuff. For example, we were instructed to include with our request a self-addressed stamped envelope (that would be a SASE!) in the case when the free item  was a document or other goodie that could fit in a standard envelope. (Thinking about it now, though, I do wonder if something that fits in a business-sized envelope is something that a kid actually wants. Case in point: a pamphlet from the corn growers association about 100 ways to use popcorn. I don't have that anymore.)

Grant applications come with many instructions, and they all do need to be followed. Remember: following the instructions is a sign to grantmakers that you will implement the grant responsibly, if funded.

Treat grantmakers with respect: According to Free Stuff for Kids (1986 edition), one should open a letter with the salutation, "Dear Sir or Madam." There's something undeniably jaunty about this Victorian-era salutation, and I'm still sometimes tempted to use it on my grant application cover letters (no, not really). But courtesy is always appreciated. Funders are people too!

A corporate foundation's program officer recently told me that her pet peeve is when grantseekers send her an email that opens with, "Dear Jessica." Her name is Jessinta! The grant guidelines on the foundation's website include her full name. She said, "When someone sends me an email that starts, 'Dear Jessica,' I think, They don't even care enough to read the grant guidelines and get my name right! And then I'm less inclined to look favorably on their proposal." *

Free Stuff for Kids: it keeps on giving. I just found the "I Brake for Manatees" bumper sticker in a box of my childhood treasures. I stuck it on the bumper of my husband's car, and he was delighted.

* Actually, her name is neither Jessica nor Jessinta. I changed it for sake of confidentiality.  Point is: please spell the program officer's name correctly. If you get her name wrong, she will wonder what your organization will get wrong in implementing a grant.