How to win a grant

Flip the yes switch

James Buckhouse
3 min readJul 10, 2013


Write to win

Skip the long-winded argument on why your idea—your life’s work—deserves institutional support, and instead do this:

  1. In one sentence, explain exactly what you will do in concrete terms: Have a terse reason why, a small amount of how, and a clear what.
  2. Next, start again and do the same thing, but this time in a single paragraph to expand key details.
  3. Now do it again, but this time take a full page.
  4. Once you’ve written all three (sentence, paragraph, page) then write three additional stories that illustrate specific groups of people who have a problem, experience your solution, and then leave transformed. How do you chose which three groups of people to feature? Read your potential funder’s mission statement and address the groups listed there. Do not address other groups of people. Write a grant your funder can actually fund.
  5. Answer every official question as tersely as possible.

If you still want to talk about your deep thoughts and good reasons, feel free to do this next, but don’t really worry about this part. It will remain unread. But if you do write more, try to follow the inverted-ice-cream-cone method of structural editing.

Why it works

The job of the grant writer is not to write an argument but to devise an elegant solution that flips the yes switch inside of the grant-reviewer’s mind as soon as possible.

The role of a grant reviewer is to be impartial, but how can one be “fair” when evaluating art?

The solution grant reviewers have established is to evaluate grants based on who best answers all of the criteria, not on the work they personally like the best. Work chosen via the judge’s taste is a contest, not a grant.

Your job, then is to get to flip the yes switch as soon as possible. The most extreme edit can accomplish a yes in four or five words: Your four-word story.

If you open with a no (then try to crawl back to a yes) you will lose. Why? Reviewer attention attrition.

It turns out almost everyone only reads the first sentence. Very few people read the first paragraph, and one or two people might skim the first page. Almost no one reads the rest. This is true for grants, and true for advertising. If you accidentally flip the no switch in your headline, you cannot win them back with your conclusion. Why? No one reads the conclusion. You are already in the no-pile.

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar. -David Ogilvy

Words are tiny machines that do work on your behalf—poetic work, legal work, romantic work, ethical work, or artistic work.

You must be concrete enough that your reviewer can repeat your project to the nominating committee and you must be convincing enough that they understand why they should care.

Since figuring this out I’ve applied for four grants. The results? I’ve won all four.

Did I have the best art? Well, I’m not bad, but that’s a matter of taste; remember, I wasn’t entering contest, but winning grants.

Did I create word-machines that immediately flipped the yes switch? You betcha.



James Buckhouse

Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford GSB/d.school & Harvard GSD jamesbuckhouse.com