Grant Writing and Computational Linguistics

Computational linguistics is a branch of linguistics that uses computer science techniques to analyze and synthesize language. You don’t have to be a computer scientist or a linguist to use some existing available tools to help you work smarter, not harder, to increase your proposal persuasiveness.

One major computational linguistic application involves using word frequency of occurrence to analyze Requests for Proposals (RFPs).  Commonly, the grant opportunity announcement contains the “heart” of what the grantmaker is looking for and information about how to apply. When analyzing the heart, the body of the grantmaker’s interest, you want to identify their “hot buttons” and “distinctive features.”

Hot buttons represent the logical and psychological concerns of the sponsor that have an impact on how the project will be conducted. These primary concerns affect the shape of a project’s structure and implementation processes. Hot buttons are emphasized repeatedly in the RFP and pre-proposal contact, and gain force through their repetition. Since hot buttons, are not always stated as evaluation criteria; watch for recurring themes such as accountability, collaboration, communication, cost-effectiveness, outcomes, participation, replication, sustainability, and technical training.

Sponsors may also have secondary concerns that influence the design of certain aspects of the project. Because secondary concerns do not appear repeatedly, they are not hot buttons; rather, they are distinctive features. Distinctive features appear as singular instances identified in the RFP and pre-proposal contact. They often reflect activities in which you are already engaged, yet the sponsor wants explicit assurance that you will continue to do them, e.g., comply with federal regulations, standardize treatment following national guidelines, be able to recruit and retain quality personnel. Other times, distinctive features are sponsor-imposed activities necessary to meet the terms of the grant, e.g., submit timely progress reports, participate in annual national project meetings, and utilize resources provided by the sponsor. Failing to acknowledge distinctive features in your proposal may be viewed by the sponsor as a project weakness. In contrast, addressing hot buttons and distinctive features will make your proposal stand out from the competition

We recommend using a computational linguistic approach to identifying your grantmaker hot buttons and distinctive features so you can incorporate them into your proposal. Here’s how.

  1. Block copy the heart of the RFP. Don’t bother with all of the  “here’s how to submit a proposal via” type of information.  Concentrate instead on any relevant background information concerning the  problem; desired goals, objectives, and outcomes; and any methodological requirements.
  2. Paste the block copied information into neat and free web-based computational linguistics program will tally the frequency of occurrence of each word in your sample text.
  3. After clicking on the “submit” button, ignore the  little words like prepositions and articles. Concentrate, instead, on the      more frequently occurring nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. The higher frequency words are your hot buttons and the lower frequency words are your distinctive features. There is no magic number differentiating  hot buttons and distinctive features; rather, it is a judgment call.
  4. Make a list your hot buttons and then add to this list derivatives and synonyms. For example, if “collaboration” appears to be a hot button, also add to your list such synonym words as collaborate,  partner, partnership, co-existence, consortium, coordinate, coordination, participate, participation, and so forth. Your objective here is to generate as many comparable terms that reflect the grantmakers hot buttons. Your distinctive features require only minimal mention whereas the hot buttons (including synonyms and derivatives) warrant more frequent mention.
  5. Next, take your same block copy material and paste it in the phrase counter, either by clicking on the phrase frequency counter link on the results page, or going to
  6. Click on submit and see how many two-word phrases you have.  If you wish to search for more than two word phrases, set the number of words in a phrase to check to a larger number. Usually two or three words  will reveal your hot button phrases. Use the same type of analysis as you did for find word hot buttons; that is the more frequently occurring phrases will be your hot buttons while the single words and phrases will be your distinctive features.

By following this six step process, which can be done briefly, you have identified the hot buttons and distinctive features that you want to be sure to sprinkle thoroughly but not excessively or blatantly into your proposal. While there is no hard and fast numeric rule to separate hot buttons from distinctive features, our experience has shown so far that hot buttons will commonly occur five or six times – or more whereas the distinctive features will occur once or twice. When you include both into your proposal, you communicate to grantmakers that you share their values glasses. Using hot buttons and distinctive features helps you establish a level of trust and understanding with the sponsor.


Leave a Reply