EVERETT — Jeannie Beckett likes to grab her readers’ attention — mostly government types reading on the job — in the first couple paragraphs.
When that happens, it can really pay off. We’re talking millions of dollars. But the cash isn’t hers to keep, she’s just the grant writer.
Each year, public agencies and private foundations offer billions of dollars in grants. But the money doesn’t magically appear in your in-box. Competition is stiff.
The Port of Everett recently was awarded a $10 million federal grant to help modernize the South Terminal dock. The project, which got underway last month, will enable the container dock to accommodate larger ships carrying heavier cargo.
Beckett was on the writing team.
It’s one of three $10 million grants she’s helped land in the past five years. Four if you count the one for $9.9 million in 2010.
For the port proposal, Beckett teamed up with Lisa Lefeber, the Port of Everett’s acting executive director, and Nancy Overton, the port’s in-house grant writer, to craft the successful, 31-page application.
It’s not every day you apply for a $10 million grant. “We realized we were going to need help with this one,” Lefeber said. “Jeannie really takes the time to really dig into the details and understand how things work.”
Beckett is CEO of The Beckett Group, a transportation strategy firm that specializes in grant writing, financial analysis and related services. An operations director for the Port of Tacoma through 2010, Beckett started her business in 2007 as a part-time gig.
Grant writing is an art and a science.
The writing must be vigorous. The cost-benefit analysis, the document that spells out a project’s worthiness and economic value, must be solid. It can’t be some “pie-in-the-sky” proposal, Lefeber said.
Submitting a request? Imagine a beleaguered teacher facing a mountain of final exams, Beckett said. Reviewers are looking for ways to cull the pile.
“Tell me what you’re going to tell me by the first page. Don’t let me get to page 30 and not know what your proposal is about!” said Beckett, taking a cue from Strunk and White in “The Elements of Style,” the renowned writing guide.
A government worker “might have 800 proposals in front of them,” she said. “So make it interesting for the poor reader.”
Be bold. When you need to make a point in a big way, don’t be afraid of hitting Control-B or using ALL CAPS.
The port did, and in the first paragraph. “The Port of Everett … supports nearly $25 BILLION worth of U.S. exports annually.”
Beckett got her first lesson in not-so-good writing as a teacher’s assistant at the University of California in Berkeley, where she majored in economics and minored in transportation. One of her tasks, grading papers, could be deadly dull.
The takeaway? “Even when you’re writing an assignment — make it interesting.”
That’s especially important when your reader has 200 to 800 grants to read, each 20 to 30 pages long.
“They’re looking for reasons to not put your application in the yes pile,” Beckett said.
Too much jargon? Toss it in the “no” pile. Runs 10 pages over the recommended format? Try again next year.
Even the cover art should be snazzy. The port proposal featured brilliant, sunny-day photographs of the South Terminal and Mount Baker.
“The cover should be memorable enough that the reader can easily find it again in the pile of 800,” Beckett said.
If your proposal isn’t the “lucky dog” the first time it’s submitted, don’t be discouraged, she said.
“I tell clients, you usually have to submit it four times before its accepted — if you use those intervals to sharpen your project’s focus, address issues and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.”
Rejected? Grant reviewers will tell you exactly why your application didn’t make the cut, Lefeber said.
“In 2009, the port applied for a grant for the South Terminal,” Lefeber said. “We did it in-house. I went back for a debriefing and they told me it was not ‘shovel-ready.’ I spent the next seven years setting the stage to make sure it was shovel-ready.”
Off the clock, Beckett reads murder mysteries. “Nothing too heavy,” she said.
When a grant comes through, it’s time to celebrate, she said. “I like to have a nice dinner and a big glass of wine.”