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Sometimes the Message is the Machinery

I was so close to popping the grant application into the mail that I could almost taste the envelope adhesive. After all, the funder sent me an electronic version of the application. We grant writers love electronic and hate typewriters. No problem that the file was in portable document format, also known as PDF. We have Adobe Acrobat, so we can edit PDF files.

Disappearing Text
I clicked Print and strode triumphantly to the printer, understandably smug that I would make the submission two whole days ahead of the deadline, significantly improving my average. Lifting the application from the print tray, I stood in frozen bewilderment. This was the application, all right — page after page of an empty application form. Between computer and printer, my carefully crafted text had disappeared.

Educated Fool
For a moment, I suffered a flashback to the first week in my first professional job out of college, back in the B.C. era (before computers). I learned all kinds of theory in college that made me theoretically prepared for real-world achievement. Yet, I sat in my office that first week wondering just how exactly one gets things accomplished. Faced with the mysteries of a mimeograph machine, “the Xerox,” a multi-line telephone, an electric jogger (which shook large stacks of paper into alignment) and a modern, new handheld dictation machine, I felt woefully unprepared to accomplish anything at all.

Perhaps it was the Special Events Manager waving her hand before my glassy eyes that snapped me back from long ago to the current reality that I have just two more days to complete a very long and still-empty grant application. There was an era when I could blame all on the secretary. In the 21st century, it is just the machinery and I.

So Many Formats, So Little Time
Grant writers today must wrestle with a variety of grant application forms and formats. There was a day when skill with a typewriter and a bottle of correction fluid (or simply access to a good secretary) was all it took to complete a simple printed application form. Now, we may receive a funding application in any of several formats, while most secretaries are on social security.

We may wrestle with a traditional hard copy. We may dance with a Microsoft Word file, or we may be forced to unravel the subtle complexities of PDF. Newest on the scene is the online application, with its own special challenges. How we get the words into the form is sometimes as critical as how we come up with the words in the first place, especially as the submission deadline approaches.

Which brings me back to my struggle with that PDF. Why did my application, which looked so good on the screen, print as nothing but a blank form? I discovered that the funder saved the PDF with special security settings that bar anyone from changing the file. I could type into that form the grant writer’s equivalent to Shakespeare, but, alas, I could neither print nor save the masterpiece.

Ancient Art of Typewriting
The technical challenges of completing a funding application are numerous, no matter the format, as this episode illustrates. My plan to easily complete the PDF form using Acrobat software now dashed, I search for a typewriter. If you are not sure what a typewriter looks like, it is that clunky contraption tucked under the finance clerk’s desk, reserved for the increasingly rare need. Finding a clear horizontal surface (nowhere near my desk), I set the typewriter down and insert the blank application. If you don’t know or don’t recall how to place a sheet of paper into a typewriter, find someone over age 40 to introduce you to the roller. Keep fingers and ties at safe distance.

I would begin by typing the name of the organization, 46 characters and spaces long, onto a 2-1/2 inch wide line, and it must be no smaller than 10-point font. No way! This typewriter doesn’t even have 10-point font and, even if it did, the name would still not fit the space provided on the form. With the typewriter now back under the finance clerk’s desk (where, in my opinion, it should remain), I resist the urge to panic. After all, I still have 38 hours to march the application to the post office.

Dances with Word
After a good night’s sleep, and with Wiley Coyote optimism, I print the blank application form and then use a document scanner to turn it into an image. I open a blank Word document, set page margins to zero and paste the image onto the page. I now have a “picture” of the application in my Word document. So far, so good. I then create text boxes on top of the image, just under each question, and type in the answers. By using condensed font, I fit the organization name within the 2-1/2 inch space limitation. With 20 hours to deadline, I am quite pleased.

I then print the completed first page and find the graphics quality so poor that, this time, I can read the answers, but not the questions. In retrospect, there are techniques and tools that can improve the image to an acceptable quality, making this a viable option, but sometimes you just run out of ideas and emotional faculties as the deadline approaches.

Scissors and Glue
The next day, with just seven hours before the local post office closes, panic is in order. I type answers to all the funder’s questions into a blank Word document and print the blocks of text onto paper. I then meticulously cut strips of text and physically glue each into precise position on a printed copy of the blank, seven-page application form. With one hour to go, I realize one answer is glued under the wrong question and another is actually too long for the allotted space.

With these flaws corrected, and with glue in my hair, I photocopy and compile the completed application and rush across town in the dark to the one post office open into the night.

Tools and Techniques
Many tools and techniques can significantly improve a grant writer’s productivity and sometimes save the organization from missing a deadline. Among them are:

  • An up-to-date computer, including a minimum 17-inch monitor, more than 256 MB RAM memory and a beefed up graphics card.
  • Word processing software capable of opening and editing Microsoft Word files and that can tell you both word count and character count.
  • Adobe Acrobat software for editing PDF files.
  • A screen capture utility like SnagIt that allows you to capture the image of an entire page, beyond the viewable area of your screen.
  • A document scanner for capturing hard copy forms that can then be pasted into a word processor and filled in with text boxes.
  • A graphics editor with a little more capability than Microsoft Paint, but simple enough to easily manipulate an image. I use an old Microsoft application bundled with FrontPage, called Image Composer.
  • High-speed Internet access for downloading those electronic application files from the funder’s Web site.
  • And, if all else fails, a typewriter.

Finally, a grant writer must learn to use these tools. When between a tight spot and a drop-deadline, technical wizardry saves creative wordsmithing. Sometimes the message is the machinery.

Oh, by the way, a year has passed since my wordsmanship was reduced to scissoring and gluing. The same funder just sent me a new application, again in PDF format, and the security settings still prevent me from adding text to the file. This time I am tempted to save a lot of time by not applying, but now you know how I love a challenge. And now I know where to get an envelope postmarked at five minutes before midnight.

Bill Smith

About the Contributor: Bill Smith

Bill Smith began his career as a newspaper reporter, but fear of starvation drove him to HR management, where he finally attained certification as Senior Professional in Human Resources the same year he decided to return to writing. Following five years in business and technical communication, Bill and grant writing struck up an enduring romance in 2002 that plays out to the benefit of hunger relief and various other causes.

His combined HR and writing career wound its way through government, manufacturing, construction, and technology sectors before settling into nonprofit fundraising. He and his wife also served six years overseas helping refugees and aiding the post-communist recovery of East Europeans. The Smiths also co-authored books  and articles on child training.

Bill served in various volunteer capacities with Grant Professionals Association, including founding the Tennessee Chapter in Nashville, chairing the national marketing committee and serving six years on the national board, including Board President in 2010.

He served on five panels through the years developing and refining the Grant Professionals Certification (GPC).

By night, Bill is a volunteer, assisting with the communication, financial and technology needs of his wife’s organization, providing care to local victims of human trafficking.

After years of interaction and joint projects with CharityChannel, joining the editing team at CharityChannel Press was a natural outcome. Bill would say his best long-distance friend is CharityChannel Founder Stephen Nill. Stephen might agree, but would wryly add, “Just as long as it remains long distance.”

Bill Smith and his wife live near Nashville on a quiet hill shared by turkeys, deer, coyotes, and semi-colons.

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