We have all heard stories about what life was like way back when—the grandparents who had to walk five miles to school in the snow, the parents who did reports on manual typewriters … yada yada yada. Who can predict which modern technology will become obsolete faster than Facebook can change an algorithm, only to serve as a cautionary tale to younger generations on how good they have it. Lest new and upcoming grant professionals take online conveniences for granted, we thought it would be interesting to explore what life was like before everything became automated. We conducted an informal survey to compare what the grant process was like twenty-five or so years ago, compared to now, and summarized the results below. So, dig out your Air Jordans and turn up your Discman, because we are headed back to the nineties.
Question 1: What did you dislike the most about applying for grants before everything went online?
Predictably, the incredible amount of time everything took was often mentioned. Then as now, grant professionals often work around the clock. However, in days gone by, research could not be done in the comfort of your own home (in pajamas or, at the very least, extremely casual leisure wear). There was no such thing as a search engine that you could plug a term into and get several results, all relevant to what you were looking for. It was necessary to go to the library and spend hours at the microfiche machine, combing everything from almanacs to old newspapers to get tidbits here and there of the information needed! As one respondent reminisced, you made friends with librarians and the Dewey Decimal System!
Research was just the first way in which the process was labor intensive. Once your application was written and then perfectly typed, the real fun began.
You jingled and clinked your way through the library, as your purse or pockets were laden with coins! (Luckily, it was the era of baggie jeans, so there was lots of room!) You hovered above an overheated Xerox machine praying that all 200 pages went through properly. There was sorting, collating, and putting all the pages in order for the twenty-one copies you needed to make. You then either mailed it—mindful of the postmark due date—or hand delivered it (if you were especially diligent). But, that was not without its perils, as one person who ran into a police roadblock and interstate traffic jam while trying to make a deadline in a city an-hour-and-a-half-away can attest to!
We do need to point out that uploading your application and then clicking submit is not a pass for procrastinators. One of the most truly heartbreaking stories we heard involved an applicant missing a deadline by ONE MINUTE, because her version of Adobe Acrobat was not the same as the funders. She tried to install their earlier version, but she was simply too late. Hard work lost is hard work lost, whether it is because of a missing page in a manual application or a computer glitch! It is still never a good idea to wait until the last minute.
Question 2: Is there anything you miss about applying for grants the “old school” way?
Other than meeting some great people at the library, the overwhelming response was no! (“Not” or “As if” to stay true to the nineties theme.)
Question 3: Is anything more difficult now than when you started?
This question received insightful answers about how the nature of applying for grants, and what funders are looking for, has changed. The biggest factor seems to be that there is much more competition now, especially for federal applications. Grant guru Beverly Browning (“Dr. Bev”), who also serves as a peer reviewer, recalls that, back in the nineties, one could score 35 or 40 points and be in the running. Now, one can score a 95 and still not be funded. According to her, there is not necessarily less money available, but there are far more seekers going after government grants. Mediocre applications stand a slim chance of netting results.
Data seems to be an area of particular concern, because awards are increasingly data driven. More and more, federal agencies are turning to evidence-based practices because they want to fund programs that produce results. They are also looking for collaboration and cooperation among government agencies and stakeholders in the community. Both the application itself and the program that requires funding need to stand above the rest.
This intense competition is one reason the process is more political than ever. Some municipalities utilize the services of lobbyists. Dr. Bev suggests that, at the very least, for the highly sought after federal awards, it might be wise to let your congressional representative know you are going after a particular grant, and how receiving it could benefit the constituents of their district. She has also long advocated establishing a relationship with any foundation you are seeking funds from.
In conclusion, it appears that, increased competition aside, applying for grants in the twenty-first century is all that and a bag of chips compared to days gone by. Yet, one thing remains consistent. Grant professionals are highly skilled, hardworking, committed individuals who endure all the quirks and challenges of the industry for one reason. At the end of the day, they know that what they are doing makes a difference to their communities. That, we predict, is one thing that will never change!