Monthly Archives: February 2008

What Does a Grant Proposal Look Like Exactly? 13 Easy Steps to Formatting a Winning Proposal

I was having dinner with some friends who are consultants for a multinational company, and they wanted to know who handles the “graphics” in our proposals. They are used to preparing elaborate business presentations and were startled to learn that the proposals we prepare are usually simple text documents. That got me thinking about how proposal styles have come full circle and we’ve gone Back to the Future, thanks largely to digital submission requirements.

When dinosaurs walked the earth and I started writing proposals in the early 1970s, I literally wrote them—long hand on legal pads. When I was finished, I would either type them, or, if I was lucky enough to be working for an agency that had a secretary, the proposals would be typed for me. In either case, the proposals more or less looked like ransom notes, with blotchy corrections (anyone old enough to remember Liquid Paper?) and virtually no formatting, except for using tabs and the hyphen key (—–) to create separator lines. The good news was that proposals were much shorter, since they were so hard to physically produce. Eventually I moved up the managerial food chain and earned a secretary with short hand skills. I got pretty good at dictating proposals, but they still looked pretty much like high school term papers when typed.

Flash forward to more “thrilling days of yesteryear” (which started every episode of my favorite TV shows as a kid: The Lone Ranger), when we were starting our business in 1993 and PCs had come of age. We began producing fairly elaborate proposals, with color covers, pie charts, embedded org charts and flow diagrams (using Object Linking and Embedding technology), comb binding and professional appearance. We kept upgrading our color printers and the proposals were getting pretty slick as we mastered the art of formatting.

Now enter The Time Tunnel with me (another guilty TV pleasure from the ’60s) again and emerge around 2001, when we ran into digital submissions. The Feds rolled out two different digital submission platforms, finally settling on grants.gov, while state/local agencies and foundations came up with endless variations. Given the vagaries of the divers digital submission systems, however, we soon learned that there was little point in dressing up our proposals, since the chance of file corruption was simply too great. The formatting party stopped, and once again our proposals are simple text documents, stripped of the bells and whistles. Yes, I know Acrobat can be used to tart-up proposals, but one dirty little secret is that most digital submissions are not reviewed digitally, but are printed and xeroxed—so much for saving trees—and Acrobat does not always faithfully reproduce the original formatting. This is a potential sink-the-ship problem when, for example, there are page limits.

So, in this age of digital submissions, what should a proposal look like? Simple and neat is the best approach. Here are some tips to make sure that your proposals are easy to read and look great:

  • Read the RFP carefully for formatting instructions and follow them precisely. For example, if the RFP says the proposal is to be double spaced, and does not make an exception for tables, double space all tables, no matter how silly this looks. The Department of Education, for example, will often reject proposals for non-compliance for just such nitpicking instructions.
  • It is generally not a good idea to bind or staple proposals, unless otherwise directed in the RFP (e.g., sometimes a 3-ring binder will be required). Instead, fasten with a binder clip or rubber bands.
  • If you want to use a cover page, keep the fonts and colors subdued. An agency logo is a nice touch, but skip the photos unless they are highly evocative.
  • Make sure you put the agency name and program title/RFP number in the header on each page. Make sure they are right.
  • Avoid odd fonts and stick with Times New Roman when space is an issue or Arial if you have lots of room. The new default font for Microsoft Word, Cambria, is probably also okay.
  • Learn to love outlines. If the RFP has an outline format, reproduce it. If not, develop a simple outline format of your own, indenting .2 or .25 inches as the outline descends. It is easy to do this in Word by using paragraph styles. Make Outline 1 “A” with no indent, Outline 2, “1” with a .2 indent, Outline 3 “a” with .4 indent and so forth.
  • Never use the tab key or multiple spaces for indentation purposes. Just set up additional paragraph styles to align text paragraphs with outline styles (see above).
  • Use tables, rather than charts, unless you are positive the reviewers will not be xeroxing the proposal. Also, it is generally not worth the time to format charts. Instead, put your time into research and writing.
  • Avoid bold, ALL CAPS, underlining and other forms of text screaming, with the exception of bolding/underlining the start of outlined/bulleted section. If your words are good enough, the reader will get the idea, and, if they’re not, all the bolding in the world won’t matter.
  • We prefer justified text, but some may disagree on stylistic grounds.
  • Do not try to squeeze extra words in by kerning the text or narrowing the margins. This will simply make the proposal hard to read, which is not a good idea, since you want reviewers to savor every golden word. We almost never use less than one inch margins all around or tighten the text.
  • Place footnotes at the bottom of each page or on a literature citation page, which is easily done in Word.
  • Finally, buy a sequentially numbering stamp and paginate each page. This way, when the reviewers drop the proposal on the floor, it can be reassembled. This also helps when creating a table of contents.

There you have it—13 easy steps to proposal formatting. Simple, clean, and consistent are your best friends with formatting, because they help the formatting get out of the way of what matters: the text. Now, go forth and write.

Why Do People Give to Nonprofits and Charities? And Other Unanswerable Questions

This month’s Giving Carnival—discussed here previously—asks why people give and what motivates giving. I have no idea and suspect no one else does, either, but that’s not reason not to speculate. I assume that some combination of altruism, kindness, self-interest, pride, and noblesse oblige motives giving. Slate talks about the “immeasurable value of philanthropy” here:

But the core of [Lewis Hyde’s] insights are about the connections between donors and recipients and about how successful gifts continue to give, in, yes, a circle, from the direct recipients to others to whom they pass a gift along (in one form or another) and back to the donors. While a gift can have market value, its worth is often—and more importantly—psychological and social. Even when its impact isn’t immediate, it’s likely to be what Hyde calls “a companion to transformation.”

I’m not sure that has anything to do with anything. Later, however, the article ties into issues raised by posts about evaluations and their limitations:

As philanthropic organizations become more attentive to businesslike standards—how effective are nonprofits? What is a particular donation likely to accomplish?—they increasingly use the language of finance to describe their goals.

I can buy the dominant narrative in the press about philanthropy becoming more businesslike, but I doubt this tendency over the long run because of the incredible difficulty in measuring output without dollars that can be added up toward a bottom line. Still, this Slate article is actually worth reading even if it strays outside the context of the question discussed here because it raises the right issues, although I’m not sure the reporter fully grasps the issue of measurement. This issue ties back into what motivates giving because part of what motivates giving is probably effectiveness—meaning, is what I’m giving actually doing someone some good? Some recent books, like The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It and The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good argue that much Western aid has been wasted because it’s ineffective, which might lessen the desire to give aid. Consequently, I do think “effectiveness,” or the belief that giving helps someone aside from the giver, who gets a warm and fuzzy glow, at least in part motives ate.

I say “lessen” and “effectiveness” above, but I also think the desire to help others is intrinsic, like the desire for self-improvement. But just as there is an element of randomness in who gets funded, there seems to be a stronger one in the question of why people give.

Agricultural Cooperatives Live

Reporters have been writing about the death of small family farm since at least the Great Depression, and governmental efforts have been underway to save it for almost as long if not longer. Combine that with perennial grant programs—which we’ve written about before (and here too)—and you’ll find many odd patterns. Recently I found the Small, Minority Producer Grant Program, which aims to “provide technical assistance to small, minority agricultural producers through eligible minority cooperatives and minority associations of cooperatives.” Compare that to what Isaac wrote in his introductory post:

But I’ll never feel better about the universe than when I picked up that check from an aging 1930s radical who was a manager at the funder, Farmer’s Union Central Exchange, a producer cooperative long since merged into an energy conglomerate. This old guy in a conservative suit knew another radical when he saw one and was delighted to once again be stirring things up.

Funders of various types are still passing out money to agricultural businesses, large and small— including cooperatives. One thing I’d like to know: just how many small, minority farm producers are there?


For another, similar program called Rural Cooperative Development, I tried to turn a sentence from section “I. Funding Opportunity Description” from proposalese into English:

Grant funds are provided for the establishment and operation of Centers that have the expertise or who can contract out for the expertise to assist individuals or entities in the startup, expansion or operational improvement of cooperative businesses.

Subscribers instead got this:

Grants to establish and operate centers with the expertise to help start, expand or improve cooperative rural businesses.

It effectively says the same thing in 18 words instead of 39 words, reducing the word count by half while simultaneously being easier to understand. This is an example of what I mocked in RFP Absurdity and Responding to Narrative Questions and Bad Government English. At times it might be beneficial to write as poorly as this in proposals, but at the very least you should know if you are writing in proposalese and why. For instance, if you’re parroting sections of an RFP to answer a question, mimic the proposalese, but if you’re facing harsh page limits, write succinctly. And if you’re trying to state the purpose of the programs to time-stressed leaders in the nonprofit world, as I do, make their lives a little easier by writing in simple declarative sentences. Try not to use 39 words when 18 will do.

Grant Writing Credentials Redux

Two comments on Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain caught my attention: one is an elegantly written response challenging some aspects of my argument and the other a screechy attack.

In the first response, Marcia Ford agrees with my statements about “bogus credentials,” but defends the credential offered by the American Association of Grant Professionals, the organization she represents. Her reply is not all that surprising, as Ms. Ford helped develop the credential and presumably supports a product she sells. Now, it may anger some to call her organization’s grant writing credential a “product,” but that’s what it is, and one that sells for $595—not a small amount for the average struggling would-be grant writer. Her primary organization has set up a nonprofit to develop and market the credential.

Many entities sell services and products to nonprofits and their personnel. These include unabashed businesses, such as Seliger + Associates or Office Depot, nonprofits like Ms. Ford’s Grant Professionals Certification Institute, and businesses that look like nonprofits, such as Charity Channel (Charity Channel is particularly interesting as they describe themselves as “a resource that connects nonprofit colleagues around the world” on their FAQ page, but don’t make it obvious that they are a for-profit business, veiling themselves behind a wall of altruistic statements).

So, are Ms. Ford’s comments accurate and is the product worth the price? I think not in both cases. She says that “writing is not all there is to grant development any more.” Grant writing has always included more than writing (e.g., imagination, being to work under pressure, etc.), but as Rabbi Hillel said when asked by a heathen to explain Jewish law, “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary.” Grant writing is about writing and the rest is mere commentary, including Ms. Ford’s other eight “competencies.” If you can’t write well under pressure, who cares if you know all there is to know about “grant readiness,” whatever than is. I’m heartened to know that “major training companies” are “aligning their curriculums to cover these skills.” I assume she’s talking about The Grantsmanship Center, which is also a “nonprofit” business that exists to sell products to other nonprofits. If there are others, I would be interested to learn of them.

Ms. Ford is also proud that the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NOCA) will soon accredit their certification. According to her, they accredit certifications from “poison control to nurse practitioners.” It might be meaningful if they accredited journalists, novelists, or other writers, although it is interesting to think of grant writing in the context of poison control. But writing has nothing to do with vocational skills like nursing. In addition, the GPC exam was developed by an Institute at the University of South Florida, which certifies public teachers in the state. This might not be an optimal comparison, since competency tests for teachers are notoriously lax (Jake can attest to this, as he took the Washington test, which he says is slightly more complicated than holding up a mirror to check for breath). Just for fun, I went to the Florida Department of Education website to see how effective the certified teachers are doing in Florida and found that 34% of 12th graders achieve a score of 3 or higher (5-point scale) on the FCAT Reading Test, meaning that 2/3 of high school seniors have not learned to read adequately. Even more fun is that 69% of 3rd graders score 3 or higher on the test—apparently the longer a young person is subjected to certified teachers, the worse the outcome.

Now, I’m just having fun manipulating data, so don’t get too excited. I appreciate the work of public school teachers, sent all three of my kids to public schools and am myself a graduate of Cooper High School in Robbinsdale, MN (go Hawks!). But the tests necessary to become a teacher don’t seem to have much to do with teaching skill or establish anything more than a bare minimum of knowledge. Going back to Ms. Ford, she concludes by alluding to “industry-recognized standards,” without stating what industry and who is doing the recognizing, other than her own organization, which sells the certification, the contractor that developed the exam, and the accrediting agency, all of which are collecting fees and none of which is a disinterested party. But I would guess that she is a good grant writer because as her comment is a great example of specious writing, an essential competency for all grant writers.

The more grating comment comes from the self-proclaimed “Ethical Grantwriter,” who confuses training and testing. For example, she/he wants to know if I would hire an accountant who “wasn’t a CPA” or a lawyer who “didn’t pass the bar.” Probably not, but then again, the CPA exam and bar exam are well established credentials with decades of broad society recognition. I’ll check back in 50 years and, if Ms. Ford’s certification is still around, perhaps I’ll take the test. Also, our Ethical Grantwriter fails to point out that one cannot take the CPA or bar exams without first completing years of post-secondary education. Anybody with $595 can take Ms. Ford’s exam and perhaps pass, but I can’t just trot down to take the bar exam. Finally, the “academic study” of grant writing means taking college journalism and English classes, which is what I suggested. Perhaps, he does agree with me, but is just confused. I suggest she/he stop staring at RFPs and have a couple of cocktails.

So, keep those comments coming. One of the central reasons for starting Grant Writing Confidential was to encourage the exchange of ideas about grant writing and it seems we’re succeeding.

Another Example of the Wonderful Past

Last night I was reading Madame Bovary and found another example of the cultural phenomenon I described in The Wonderful Past, which is the tendency to compare the present to superior days: “[Canivet] belonged to that great surgical school created Bichat – that generation, now vanished, of philosopher-practitioners, who cherished their art with fanatical love and applied it with enthusiasm and sagacity.” This might be intended ironically because Canivet doesn’t actually help and the incompetent Homais deifies him, which tells you how long the idea of a lost past has been around and how long people have been mocking the idea. Regardless, it’s the same general idea you can invoke in needs assessments.

Evoke The Wonderful Past in Your Needs Assessment

In Umberto Eco’s fabulous The Name of the Rose, Adso of Melk says that “In the past men were handsome and great (now they are children and dwarfs), but this is merely one of the many facts that demonstrate the disaster of an aging world. The young no longer want to study anything, learning is in decline, the whole world walks on its head […]” The novel was published in 1980 and is set in 1321.

In Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, Black says: “A cleric by the name of Nusret […] had made a name for himself during this period of immorality, inflation, crime, and theft. This hoja, who was from the small town of Erzurum, attributed the catastrophes that had befallen Istanbul in the last ten years […] to our having strayed from the path of the Prophet.” The novel was published in 2001 and is set in the 1590s.

In the HBO show The Wire, a police commissioner—Herb, I think, but trying to remember the characters’ names is like trying to learn Russian—says in episode three or four, “It’s not like it was.” That’s the theme of the entire fifth season, which is set at a newspaper. Given that newspapers and TV news stations laid off about 25% of their staff from 2001 to now, and seen similar circulation declines, it’s definitely not like it was.

All three stories demonstrate beliefs about a superior golden age; we’ve been expelled from the Garden of Eden and the present day is one of monstrous vice, corruption, incompetence, mendacity, bad pop music, dissolute youth, depravity, environmental degradation, inappropriate fashion, and the like. Characters in novels, like their counterparts in nostalgic movies, promote this idea. It’s a narrative assumption that often goes unchallenged in newspapers. It’s such a cultural commonplace that it should be a corollary of Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World: argue that the past was often better than the present. We used to live in an age of abundance, happiness, and success. Now we don’t. But if you fund our program, we’ll live happily again. All you need to do is cut the check for the program we’re going to run. Your needs assessment needs appropriate data, of course, but it should also have an overarching story. The fall from a golden age could be one such arc.

Recently, the New York Times quoted Plato in “Generation You vs. Me Revisited“: “’The children now love luxury,’ Plato wrote 2,400 years ago. ‘They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.’” For more than 2,000 years, and probably longer, we’ve been telling ourselves about a past that probably never existed. (Although I should note that the NYT article questions conventional wisdom and the idea that self-absorption can be measured through tests like the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Isaac wrote a post about why self-esteem measurements are silly and used similar reasoning to what’s in the article. The underlying phenomena is similar: it’s very hard to ascertain what people think and feel because the only methods of measurement we have are words and behaviors, which are at best imprecise.)

Back to the main point: the idea of a fall from an ideal state is a very old one—at least as old as the Old Testament and probably older. People like it, so you can claim that you need to operate the program you wish to run as a way of recapturing this past, which is much more wholesome than a degraded present beset by all manner of ills, such as gangs. The worse you can make the present appear, the more you need funding. Then, in activities section (or whatever it happens to be called), you should depict the program you wish to run as a way to return to or surpass this state and create a better vision for the future.

This isn’t the only possible approach; you could also frame the issue by arguing that the past has always been as bad as the present: for generations, the target neighborhood/group/city has been mired in poverty, assailed by outsiders, ignored by the government, and harmed by pernicious societal forces. Now, a program has finally come along to remedy the malady and restore the rightful social order, as one might in a traditional Romance (i.e. one with magical events, ordained heroes, and perilous quests).

Either way, the present isn’t good, and the agency applying will be the knight in shining armor ready to slay the social beast, be it crimes, gangs, teenagers more generally, or a dragon infestation. Many writers include elements of the Wonderful Past unconsciously. We’re giving you permission to make the wonderful past an explicit part of your needs assessment.

Déjà vu All Over Again—Vacant Houses and What Not to Do About Them

The Wall Street Journal ran “As Houses Empty, Cities Seek Ways, To Fill the Void” (link goes to a blog that copied the article—see the original here) by Michael Corkery and Ruth Simon on February 6, 2008. They document the large number of vacant and abandoned houses in many American cities and attempts by public officials to address this latest urban crisis. For me, as Yogi Berra once said, “This is like déjà vu all over again.”

Faithful Grant Writing Confidential readers may recall that, in my first post, They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal, I waxed nostalgically about setting up a Vacant Housing Task Force as a 21-year old intern and proto-Community Organizer a la Barack Obama. I tried all kinds of approaches—chasing down absentee owners, running home repair workshops, starting a nonprofit hardware cooperative, and sitting through endless meetings with local politicos. But it was to no avail, as many houses remained vacant. America finds itself once again mired in the difficult days of 1972 (e.g., vacant houses, endless war, stagnant pop music scene, etc.) and bright young minds once again confront the vacant house conundrum.

While Corkery and Simon did a nice job with the basic story, they did not explore the long history of public agency attempts to grapple with the vacant housing issue. They mention the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which can be used to tackle this issue, along with about 482 other social problems, but they did not cover other efforts. For example, HUD’s 203(k) Housing Rehab program sells HUD-owned houses to nonprofits at a discount, provided they rehab the houses and sell to low-income people.

Also, at one time HUD had a Urban Homesteading program that provided cities with HUD-owned houses. I don’t think this program still has funding, perhaps making it a Zombie program, but there were also variations that encouraged cities to resell the houses to police officers and teachers in hopes of diversifying disadvantaged neighborhoods. There are lots of other well-intentioned state and local government initiatives, all designed to recycle vacant and abandoned houses.

Corkery and Simon come up with many wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth quotes from grim public officials in such places as San Diego and Cleveland—now there’s an odd couple—about the dire consequences of what is supposed to be the biggest vacancy problem since the Great Depression. Yikes! What to do? The article suggests such approaches as “land banks,” which is a great way of replacing vacant houses with vacant lots. The representative of the Genesee County Michigan Land Bank seems proud that the Land Bank has bought and demolished 800 houses and built 200 houses. It they keep it up, eventually no one will live in Flint, the city immortalized by Michael Moore in Roger & Me. Regardless of whether the Land Bank is a good thing, it’s hard to see how creating more vacant lots will stop speculators from “perpetuating neighborhood blight,” as reducing density will probably have the same negative impacts on neighborhood vibrancy that Jane Jacobs wrote about in 1961.

The article also suggests that another solution is to somehow have a public agency buy the vacant houses and resell them to poor folks, keeping the houses “affordable.” Having also worked on endless schemes like this when I was the Development Director for the City of Inglewood, CA, the major problem is that such an effort often involves deed restrictions, which in turn restrict the ability of low-income homeowners to gain future price appreciation and virtually guarantees they will never get out of poverty and the neighborhood will never become economically diverse. If a large number of low-income homeowners cannot benefit from rising property values—which over time will probably happen—and can only sell to other low-income buyers, which is a central tenet of these programs, the entire community becomes stuck in an economic rut.

So, under the banner of trying to preserve affordable housing, the public agency can end up inadvertently causing the neighborhood to stagnate. Perhaps Flint should emulate Detroit, where urban farmers plant corn in neighborhoods where houses once stood. It may seem odd, but there is a movement in Detroit, a city with vast stretches of empty residential lots, to plow up the infrastructure and put the land to agricultural uses. The grant writer in me starts salivating at this idea, as once could combine biodiesel production with bootstrap economic development and help the vacant housing crisis—a grant writing trifecta.

My experience, starting with knocking on doors in North Minneapolis long ago, is that none of these efforts work, or at the very least none will be consequential enough to notice. Eventually, market forces will equalize and the houses will become so inexpensive that people will move back in, fix them up and the neighborhood will gentrify. This is an interesting narrative, but, as Tim Harford writes, “[…] neighborhoods do not tend to ‘up and come’ at all. Anyone who doubts this should look at Charles Booth’s famous map of London’s rich and poor areas at the end of the nineteenth century […] Overlaying Booth’s map with today’s poorest areas is a sobering experience: With few exceptions, yesterday’s poor areas are also today’s poor areas.” This is probably less true in the United States—think of Manhattan of the 1970s versus today—but still instructive.

Of course, if gentrification does happen, this will start the handwringing all over again, as periodically the New York Times will run a story about the poor folks being driven out of their homes by gentrification, instead of predatory lenders. Newspapers thus have a choice of running two stories in alternate years: falling housing values are harming the poor by destroying neighborhoods, or rising housing values are harming the poor by pricing them out of the market. In either case, newspapers confirm that poor people are always getting screwed one way or another, which is probably true.

As a grant writer, however, I am delighted to see the media and our politicians focused on a new crisis because, wherever a major social problem emerges, grant programs are sure to follow. Not to hope for doom, but, as Chairman Mao said, “let a hundred flowers bloom.” When Congress comes up with a new grant program to address the vacant housing challenge, as it surely will, Seliger + Associates will be ready to write the proposals till the next crisis arrives.

Know Your Charettes! Especially Near the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) Program

It’s not unusual for an RFP to ask how community feedback was incorporated into the design of a project, and a good answer is to have some form of group activity feedback meeting. Notice the last four words: “group activity feedback meeting.” What a vile phrase, even by proposal standards. Don’t use such a phrase—call them Community Meetings, Participant Committees, Group Action Committees, or something more recondite like charrette (“a final, intensive effort to finish a project, esp. an architectural design project, before a deadline”), which is my favorite term. I’ve even seen it used outside of proposals, which is especially amusing because when I first heard “charrette” years ago I suspected that Isaac had made it up.

He hadn’t, though, and the word is sufficiently but not overly esoteric to make it an interesting addition to a proposal, like capers to a recipe. The idea behind the word is often needed, whether before or after a project begins. For example, group meetings can “occur” before the project begins to show that the community is interested in the program the applicant seeks to implement. (I put scare quotes around occur because I suspect such meetings are written about somewhat more often than they are actually held.) Not surprisingly, most community groups find that free money from the government is a good thing, and Tim Harford discussed this tendency in The Logic of Life. One way to strength a proposal narrative is to include a description of the charrette that came to this conclusion.

The same thinking can apply to groups formed after the project begins. For example, a Project Advisory Committee (PAC) composed of participants, staff, collaborators, and other members of the community can help provide a continuous feedback loop to constantly improve. Once again, I’m sure more nonprofits write about PACs than actually run them, but the proposal world is not always identical to the real world, which is one reason I was so surprised to read about the design charrette I linked to in the first paragraph.

To give a specific example of where charrettes could see action, I’ll return to an RFP mentioned previously. I made fun of the California 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) – Elementary & Middle Schools program, but you could cite charrettes in section 1.c., which wants you to “[d]escribe how you assessed the needs and strengths of your community […]” and section 1.e., which wants you to “[b]riefly discuss the proposed process for conducting, and the results of, your needs assessment for family literacy services.”

In either case, an applicant could say that a community charrette found significant demand for the learning center proposed. Charrette members concluded would help make the community more livable, cure cancer, and perhaps save the world from global warming. I can’t imagine why a real group of community members would ever decide, for example, that the community doesn’t need more money, and ideally someone else’s money, but I guess it’s conceivable, like a reduction in government spending not forced by revenue problems or a time portal opening in my backyard. Back on point: the needs assessment can describe how the charrette brings together key stakeholders—e.g., business persons, nonprofit and faith-based organization representatives, community leaders, and the like—and then announce how much they want that money, meaning that the proposal springs from authentic desire, while the applicant is merely the body through which the charrette’s will is implemented.


On a historical note, the whole charrette in public service concept got started in earnest with the War on Poverty and the idea that the poor and disadvantage should have a say in how public and other money is spent. The goal was to create “workable plan committees” and the like for civic leaders and their constituents, and the key phrase was”” maximum feasible involvement”” of the poor. Daniel Moynihan‘s book, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, is actually a play on this term. As the review, published in 1970, says:

[…] Moynihan traces the development of the community action approach. From the gray areas program of the Ford Foundation, through the Mobilization for Youth in New York City, on to the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, there emerged the ideas of the urgency for localized, community-based programs aimed at the involvement of youth in constructive, problem-solving activity. This stream of development was in the background of the community action orientation of the War on Poverty.

Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain

A manager at the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, an agency we sometimes work for, recently sent me a link to the “Grant Professionals Certification Institute” (GPCI; link deliberately excluded), an organization that offers “credentials” for would-be grant writers. He wanted my reaction to the idea of grant writing credentials, which I gave him immediately: they’re (mostly) a waste of time. But I decided to take a look at this offer, since I’ve been writing proposals without a license for 35 years.

The GPCI was apparently formed just to offer credentials. The fee is $525 to take an “examination developed through rigorous national standards for professional credentials.” I have no idea what could be meant by “rigorous national standards” or who developed them, but a grant writer must have written this sentence because it is definitely proposalese: filled with vague citations to an unnamed authority and using many complex words where a few simple ones would convey the message.

Without going into the equally unintentionally funny “competencies and skills tested,” the best part is that a “writing exercise represents 20% of the examination score.” So, 80% of a test to prove one can write is not writing! This further confirms grant writers thought up the idea. You pay $525 to pass a test and get a certificate, presumably gilt-edged and suitable for framing.

Does this mean anything? My guess is not much to the recipient, but it’s a great deal for the people selling the credential, just like Tom Sawyer getting friends to whitewash a fence. Apparently, the GPCI never heard of such existing credentials as a baccalaureate, a Masters or a Ph.D. in English or journalism, so they decided to offer a degree of their own, but one with less rigor and no oversight. Let’s see—if they can get 1,000 people to sign up, that’s over $500K. Not a bad business proposition.

I’ve seen various versions of grant writing certifications over the years, along with endless self-help books, training seminars, and the like, but the bad news for those chasing such wills-o-the-wisp is that none will make someone a grant writer. For example, I recently received a notice from The Grantsmanship Center about a local training session, and the note proudly announced that “more than 100,000 people” have attended over the years. If their training was effective, thousands of qualified grant writers should roam the streets, but I don’t often run into them.

Despite the good intentions of some organizations promoting grant writing credentials and training, the only way to become good at grant writing is to write proposals—the more the better and the more varied the better. This is true of all kinds of writing. The challenge is, most people who want to be grant writers are not good writers to begin with or cannot write under deadline pressure. A five-day seminar or sitting for an exam is unlikely to solve this problem and make one a grant writer.

I’m constantly asked how to become a grant writer and I always give the same response: take English composition or journalism classes at a local college to sharpen your writing skills, find a nonprofit in need of help—not too tough to find—and start writing proposals. After a couple of tries, most people will give up, but a few will persevere and become proficient. It also helps if you can apprentice with a grant writer, which is one reason Jake is a good grant writer—he’s been marinating in grant writing for many years and whatever the “it” is, has soaked in.

If we ever decide to offer a grant writing credential, we would structure the exam like this: The supplicant will be locked in a windowless room with a computer, a glass of water, one meal and a complex federal RFP. The person will have four hours to complete the needs assessment. If it passes muster, they will get a bathroom break, more water and food and another four hours for the goals/objectives section and so on. At the end of the week, the person will either be dead or a grant writer, at which point we either make them a Department of Education Program Officer (if they’re dead) or give them a pat on the head and a Grant Writing Credential to impress their mothers (if they’ve passed).

The whole idea of grant writing credentials reminds me of Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz, who awards the Scarecrow a “diploma” to compensate for his lack of a brain. As Dorothy understands, you don’t need a diploma to prove you have a brain and you don’t need a two-bit credential to prove you are a grant writer.

EDIT 2015: Despite all the invective above, we are willing to offer grant writing training / seminars, though they won’t be much like most grant writing training and our primary mission is still grant writing—not grant-writing teaching. They also aren’t quite as draconian as the suggestions above. We charge $2,000 per day, or $5,000 per three-day workshop, and Jake teaches the classes.


UPDATE: Isaac responded to some of the commenters in this post. Jake wrote another post about credentials and certifications. If you aren’t altogether sick of the topic, you can also read this.