Monthly Archives: June 2008

Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development

Grant writers are often called on to develop project concepts with little or no input from clients or program specialists. In other words, we often invent the project concept as we write, within the confines of those pesky RFPs. We do it by taking one or more problems and applying standard implementation approaches to produce the ever-popular, but elusive “innovative” project concept. To illustrate how this slight-of-hand, or, perhaps more appropriately, slight-of-mind, is done, I have developed the fictitious Project NUTRIA to solve the problem of rampaging rodents, homelessness, job training, vacant houses, nutrition, and, yes, even global warming.*

This project idea emerged from a recent Seattle PI article, “Seattleites take up arms against ‘rat’ as big as cat.” Variations on the theme of rampaging “invasive species” show up all the time, whether it be kudzu, walking carp, or, today, nutria. These unappealing fellows apparently leave a path of destruction from Louisiana to Seattle, much like Godzilla in Tokyo but on a smaller scale. I chuckled over the breathless prose about a rodent with a very long tail, and concluded this latest crisis makes a pretty good starting point for a tale about conceptualizing project development.

Let’s assume nutria have invaded my favorite example town, Dubuque, and a new nonprofit—Citizens Against Nutria-Dubuque Organization (CAN-DO)—has formed to fight this scourge. Since not many funders are likely to be all that interested in nutria eradication, CAN-DO broadens the project scope to address other pressing community concerns and comes up with the following initiative, Project NUTRIA (Nutria Utilization and Training Resources for Itinerant Americans).

Here is the expanded project service delivery model:

1. Conduct a survey to identify nutria habitat and overlay the map with the recent survey of the homeless to determine proximity of both target populations. Graphics may be useful here.

2. Conduct street-based outreach to recruit individuals experiencing homelessness to be trained as Nutria Relocation Specialists (NRSes) and Nutria Processing Specialists (NPSes).

3. At the CAN-DO action center, provide NRSes with appropriate training in humane nutria capture and termination strategies, and provide NPSes with training in the fine art of deconstructing nutria.

4. NRSes capture nutria and prepare them for transport to a local processing facility, to be established in a property that is vacant because of the sub-prime lending crisis.

5. NPSes process the nutria meat into recipe-sized packages and prepare the fur for sale to US-based manufacturers of sporty lightweight garments—thus helping retain American jobs. This could lead to further job training possibilities, but I’ll leave them out for simplicity.

6. Conduct an information campaign to educate low-income residents about the many tasty ways of serving their families economical and nutritious nutria-based meals. If you don’t think people eat nutria, see this unappealing Nutria Recipe Page. My favorite recipe—based solely on descriptions—is for “Stuffed Nutria Hindquarters,” but I am not brave enough to find out exactly what the hindquarters are stuffed with. You could say, “I don’t give a rat’s ass,” but that might be inappropriate in a grant proposal.

7. Distribute the processed nutria meat, with a special emphasis on individuals experiencing homelessness,** TANF recipients, WIC program participants, and other income-challenged populations. Many job training programs for the homeless involve food service, and there are a number of cafes around the country, such as Seattle’s FareStart, that feature formerly homeless employees in training. Sounds like a good outlet for nutria. Also, I am sure there is a similar nonprofit restaurant in LA that foodies would flock to for a bit of the newly trendy nutria kabobs.

8. Advocate for better utilization of nutria as a way of combatting global warming. Unlike cows and chickens, the nutria raise themselves, so no unnecessary carbon is released in providing the hungry with a low fat, high protein food source.

These steps would be incorporated in a project timeline and dressed up with objectives, an evaluation section and all the other features of a well constructed proposal.

The point of this exercise is to remind grant writers that project concepts can often be made to appeal to different funding audiences by tweaking the proposal to meet the priorities of the funder. For example, if the Project NUTRIA proposal was being sent to EPA, the environmental benefit would be stressed. If it was being sent to the Department of Labor, the job training aspect would be emphasized, and so on. While it is always a good idea to have a specific focus for your proposal, it is also possible to address more than one problem, particularly to appeal to a broader range of funders.

EDIT: In “Why Soup Kitchens Serve So Much Venison,” Henry Grabar reports that “a growing percentage of [venison served to the homeless and needy] comes from the suburbs of American cities, at the unlikely but unmistakably American intersection of bow hunting, pest control and hunger relief.” There are too many deer and too many hungry people, which means both problems can be solved at once. There isn’t any news about workforce development, however.


* Note to animal rights folks, homeless advocates, et al: this is parody and no harm was done to actual nutria or homeless in the writing of this blog post.

** Free grant writing tip: this is currently the most politically correct term for the homeless, as it implies that homelessness just happened; as grant writers, we always seek emerging politically correct terms. Nominations are appreciated. If we get enough of them, whether in comments or by e-mail, expect a post on the subject.

Why Can’t I Find a Grant Writer? How to Identify and Seize that Illusive Beast

(Editor’s note: this post deals primarily with employees. We’ve also written a post on the subject of grant writing consultants to complement this one.)

Last week’s post deals with the tools grant writers should have, and although it focuses on grant writing, it’s really about equipping almost any intellectual worker, or, in Richard Florida’s atrocious and ugly phrase, person in the creative class.* Likewise, this week’s post covers the peculiarities of finding a grant writer, but much of it applies to anyone recruiting intellectual workers, whether they’re software programmers, writers, professors, or policy wonks.

Despite the similarities between grant writing and other professions, some grant writing websites or blogs spew all kinds of misleading or silly advice about finding and hiring grant writers. For example, one of the top hits on seeking grant writers is a Chronicle of Higher Education article called “Debunking Some Myths About Grant Writing.” It says things like, “Grant writing is all about power.” No: grant writing is all about getting proposals funded. Power is at most another level of abstraction out from that.

As with many such articles, some of its advice is okay and some of it is idiotic, like this: “Myth 4: Meeting the deadline is the most important goal of a successful grant writer.” If you’ve decided to apply to a program, meeting the deadline is the most important goal, because, obviously if you don’t meet the deadline, you have no chance of being funded. Incidentally, that distinguishes Seliger + Associates from other grant writers: in 15 years, we’ve never missed a deadline. If you’re not going to place meeting deadlines above all other priorities, you shouldn’t be writing grants.

If you’re going to seek a grant writer, you’ve got a choice to make: whether you’re going to hire a consultant or a full-time person. If you’re going to hire a consultant, congratulations, because your search is already done. If you’re going to hire an employee, this article is for you; given the aforementioned plethora of bad advice, we’re going to start by suggesting you read Joel Spolsky’s article “Finding Great Developers” followed by “A Field Guide to Developers.” He says things like:

“Tell me: did you have private offices for your developers at all your startups?”

“Of course not,” he said. “The VCs would never go for that.”

This doesn’t sound like grant writing language, but if you replace “developers” with “grant writers” and “VCs” with “executive directors and donors,” you’ve got the same basic idea. Ignore comments specifically about programming and pay very close attention to the ways he recruits and the things he offers. And read the book Peopleware, which is perhaps the most brilliant and yet ignored book on intellectual organizations I’ve encountered. I don’t mean “ignored” in the sense of being poorly known—many, many people have heard of it—but rather in the sense that few actually take its important recommendations into account.

Anyway, Spolsky’s best contribution is observing that the individual variation between programmers is huge, and smart companies want the best ones, but it’s hard to tell who’s who. The same is true in grant writing; there can be orders of magnitude in difference between grant writers. It’s possible for a grant writer who is a fantastic writer and hard worker (note the “AND” conjunction—one or the other isn’t sufficient) to write dozens of proposals a year, depending on the nature of the proposals, the size of the organization, etc. Big federal proposals require more effort than small foundation proposals, but one per month seems like a reasonable, easy baseline for a single grant writer with limited support staff.

Conversely, a bad grant writer will be a drag: they’ll suck up the time of the executive director and board members with useless meetings and questions, botch applications for grants the organization needs, and irritate repeat funders, especially foundations. There’s a lot of what we call “doughnut eating” in the nonprofit world, which is a derogatory term for endless meetings and discussion in lieu of action. Bad grant writers love doughnut eating. Good grant writers tolerate it to the extent necessary but would rather be finishing proposals. A really incompetent grant writer could torpedo an organization that relies principally on grant funds to survive.

You obviously want the good ones want to avoid the less good. The bad news is that the difference between great and bad grant writers usually isn’t readily apparent before they start, and if you post public messages seeking grant writers, you’re almost guaranteed to be inundated with applications from bad candidates. Great grant writers will for the most part already be with or running successful agencies. If they write lots of proposals that get funded, their agencies will flourish, be flush with cash, and in turn their grant writers won’t be on the market. If they do, they’ll likely have lots of options: they can continue writing proposals, run useless grant writing training, become consultants, or the like. The reverse is true as well: bad grant writers are always out there, because they’re “let go,” or get fired, or their organizations go under for a lack of funds, or nonprofits won’t hire them for more than 90 days in the first place (more on this in a minute).

If you’re trying to hire good grant writers, you’ll need to identify and recruit them. A word concerning one popular method of finding them: writing samples. Writing samples are a mixed bag: if you’re hiring someone, a sample might not be a bad thing to see, but they’ll a) have no relevance for someone who knows how to write but hasn’t written proposals, b) are easy to fake, c) still might not mean the person can hit deadlines or write quickly, or d) can write about a topic about which they know nothing, which is the hallmark of a really great grant writer. The false positive rate on writing samples seems far too high; Costo gives free samples; grant writers usually don’t. For what it’s worth, we have never provided writing samples.

In addition, most employers will have a 90 day trial period, which is sufficient time to see if the would-be grant writer actually writes. You’ll get all the writing samples you need—and samples that can’t be faked, aren’t written by committee, taken from the Internet, or whatever, and are on point for your organization. Does that grant writer spend those 90 days or so “familiarizing” themselves with the organization instead of seeking and writing proposals? Do they talk about writers block? Or do they take your background materials, write whatever proposals you’ve given them, and maybe find a few RFPs you’re not familiar with and bring them to your attention? In those 90 days, you’ll find out whether your grant writer is really a grant writer. Oh, and you should also make it a binary thing. As Spolsky says in “The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing (version 3.0),” “There are only two possible outcomes to this decision: Hire or No Hire.” He goes on:

Never say “Maybe, I can’t tell.” If you can’t tell, that means No Hire. It’s really easier than you’d think. Can’t tell? Just say no! If you are on the fence, that means No Hire. Never say, “Well, Hire, I guess, but I’m a little bit concerned about…” That’s a No Hire as well. Mechanically translate all the waffling to “no” and you’ll be all right.

Why am I so hardnosed about this? It’s because it is much, much better to reject a good candidate than to accept a bad candidate. A bad candidate will cost a lot of money and effort and waste other people’s time fixing all their bugs. Firing someone you hired by mistake can take months and be nightmarishly difficult, especially if they decide to be litigious about it. In some situations it may be completely impossible to fire anyone. Bad employees demoralize the good employees. And they might be bad programmers but really nice people or maybe they really need this job, so you can’t bear to fire them, or you can’t fire them without pissing everybody off, or whatever. It’s just a bad scene.

Grant writing diverges from software programming here because you can’t throw questions about subroutines or abstraction or recursion or the other computer science concepts any good computer scientist should know. You could spring an essay test on them, but that wouldn’t show much more than whether they perform well under “gotcha”-style pressure. We advocate for the trial period: it should give you the information you can’t just get from an interview. Grant writing, unlike software, also has a better defined, more easily delineated work product: a finished proposal. It’s analogous to the piecework versus salary debate, which you should read if you want to understand the problems. Software eventually has to ship, but judging output can be much murkier, which both Spolsky and Paul Graham talk about elsewhere.

Regardless, if you can’t tell who is good by writing samples, interviews, and the like, you can tell by working with them for a period of time. That’s why a 90 day trial makes sense. It will help you find grant writers who are not only good writers, but also take care of the corollary work that can actually take up most of a grant writer’s time. Good grant writers read Seliger Funding Report. They bring new opportunities to your attention. When you hand them an assignment, they start on it right away because there’s no reason not to. They read many newspapers and books that are likely to contain information about new research and ideas that could relate to grants. Bad grant writers ask for a meeting with key stakeholders in two weeks, and spend the intervening time playing Solitaire. They wait too long to start proposals and then rush to make the deadline, and as a result are missing a key letter of support and have proposals that are badly formatted and filled with typos. They will make excuses as to why they couldn’t complete the proposal by the deadline. Good grant writers get the job done without blaming others.

None or very little of this will be apparent from interviews and resumes.

Still, you have to look at resumes and conduct interviews to remove the grossly unqualified. Spolsky once again has a useful article on the subject. Virtually all the criteria apply to grant writing with the exception of “hard-core,” and even that has some element of grant writing in it—preparing a HUD Lead Hazard Control or Section 202 proposal is more hard core than most foundation proposals, for instance. Nonetheless, it gives some idea of how to sort candidates and why resumes are not very good at separating the so-so from the great candidates. They’re effective for filtering out the weakest people (Can’t spell or write coherent sentences? Experience is entirely as a barista at Starbucks with no writing education? Toss ’em.) Once you’re through those, you’re still going to have a giant stack, and when you do have that stack, you should remember this:

One temptation of recruiters is to try and add a few extra hoops to the application process. I’ve frequently heard the suggestion of including a programming quiz of some sort in the application procedure. This does work, in the sense that it reduces the number of applications you get, but it doesn’t work, in the sense that it doesn’t really improve the quality. Great developers have enough choices of places to work that only require the usual cover letter/resume application to get started; by inventing artificial hoops and programming tests and whatnot simply to apply, you’re just as likely to scare away good programmers as weak programmers. Indeed, you may be more likely to scare away the best programmers, who have the most alternatives, and get left with a pool of fairly desperate candidates who are willing to do extra work to apply simply because they don’t have any alternatives.

That’s the equivalent of having a candidate write a proposal on the spot. It’s not really going to work, and it’s more likely to backfire than succeed in somehow weeding out more candidates. One thing you can do to make it easier to find and attract good grant writers is by making your office an attractive place to work, thus making it more likely that, if you do find a good writer, they’ll want to come to you.

Peacocks have big, attractive feathers that might help them attract peahens, or vice-versa, depending on which sex has the feathers. By a similar but more useful token, you also have feathers to display. Isaac discussed some, which is how this post got started. There are others: Does your office remind candidates of the Department of Education, or of a high-end law firm? Are they going to be shoved in a noisy cubicle next to the guy who cold calls donors all day, or are they going to have a door that shuts so they can concentrate on writing and get in the zone? This is essentially paraphrased from Spolsky’s articles, and with good reason: you’re going to spend an appreciable portion of your life in your office, so most people want one, consciously or not, that’s at least as pleasant as possible. Good candidates have lots of choices and will be able to find jobs that offer an attractive place to work. If not, there’s a good chance they’ll make their own jobs by starting businesses. Since such people are likely going to be the best grant writers, giving your grant writer nice tools is a major advantage.

It’s not even all that expensive an advantage—those tools are so cheap relative to the cost of good personnel. Think about it this way: if the one-time $4,000 expense for making sure your grant writer is comfortable enables her to write an extra proposal a year and even just one gets funded for a relatively small amount like $100,000, you’ve come out $96,000 ahead. Even then, you’ve probably come out ahead by a little bit more, since your grant writer will need at least some computer, desk, space, and supplies, and those probably can’t be had for much less than $1,000.

The marginal difference between a nice computer, desk, and supplies and shoddy ones is so small that it’s astonishing how many nonprofits will do with hand-me-downs just because it’s the nonprofit way. The shabby chic culture is not unique to nonprofits, as any visitor to Wal*Mart headquarters can attest, and Jeff Bezos was famous for making desks out of sawhorses and plywood in the early days of Amazon.com. This structure could function for an organization, but only if it has committed and competent idealists. Even so, committed and competent idealists would probably be more efficient with better tools and a better environment, and both will help you get the much larger pool of the competent and idealistic who aren’t as idealistic as nonprofit founders.

In addition, the grant writer is often directly tied to the financial performance of your organization. Most skilled professions, whether they be lawyers, accountants, or doctors, directly tie compensation and status to the person who does the most to bring money into the organization. Law is an extreme example of this phenomenon: the lawyers who bill the most hours win. They’re treated accordingly. If you don’t want your grant writer to go to law school instead of working for your organization, you should give them nicer chairs than they get in law firms. Even doctors who run free clinics or who donate services will often have quality medical and personal equipment because they realize they can help the maximum number of people if they’re in an environment that allows them to use their skills optimally.

Nice tools will help with retention—the recruiting process is long and arduous, and to avoid having that person jump ship, you should give them a pleasant working environment. It’s probably not going to be money that causes them to leave, unless you aren’t paying them enough to start with.

So far we’ve discussed how a) there’s tremendous variation between grant writers, b) why it’s wise to recognize this and look for the good grant writers, c) why it’s hard to tell the difference between them and d) some of the things you can do to try and e) some of the things you can do to make your organization more attractive to prospective grant writers.

Once you’ve gone through your resume pile, conducted interviews, and have a short slate of candidates, you’ll eventually have to hire one. The problem is that you probably won’t know whether you’ve actually found a good grant writer or whether you’ve found a doughnut eater until you test someone out on a couple of proposals. Isaac wrote:

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).

Do the same with your new grant writing hire. If they don’t produce proposals, go back to that slate you’d drawn up previously. By the end of 90 days, you’ll know whether that person can write proposals. If they can’t, send them on their way and see if the next person on it is still available. This requires being “hardnosed,” but if you want to run the best organization you can, you have to be. If the person you’ve hired can’t write proposals, you might have to start the recruiting process over again. As with searching for software developers, there’s a real chance that you’ll constantly be recruiting grant writers. Be ready for that, and be ready to release any supposed grant writers who are really doughnut eaters in disguise.

We’ve had e-mails along the lines of one that goes, “I also appreciate that you know that there is more than enough grant work to go around so that you are not threatened by posting other opportunities for us to investigate.” There are more grants to be written than there are qualified writers to write them, and that will always be the case because there is always a shortage of talent at the top of any intellectual field since most people lack the skills, tenacity, fortitude, and internal training drive to reach the top. Those people are very good at blending it with those who do have those qualities, and this article is an algorithm for sifting through candidates so you can distinguish one from the other. The only real metric is whether the candidate, when faced with a computer, an RFP, and a deadline, can produce a finished proposal.

The rest is mere commentary.

What you’ll notice about this advice regarding grant writers is that it’s time consuming and demands lots of work—unless you want to hire a contract grant writer, in which case, as we said previously, you’re already done with your research. Just reading and digesting this post and all the relevant links in it could take a few hours. Like many things, however, work you put into the process of finding a grant writer is proportional to the quality of the grant writer you’re going to find as a result. One reason to hire outside consultants is to minimize these problem by a) making it easy to fire bad consultants and b) minimizing donuts eating and related problems by having a person with a single purpose: writing and submitting a proposal.

If you find a good consultant, you can hire that company over and over again and make an offer to one of its people to become a full-time staff member. If you don’t go that route, remember that smart organizations are going to offer Embody chairs, Mac Pros, and lower-case-w windows. They’re going to keep their ear to the figurative physical and Internet streets. If you want to maximize your organization’s reach through grant writing, you should be prepared to do the same and more. The trouble is implementing all this advice; just as it’s relatively easy to describe how to become a good writer and really, really hard to actually become one, it’s easy to read this advice compared to making it part of your organization’s plan. At the very least, you have a blueprint about how to become a grant writing powerhouse, and you only need to build the house so you can provide the services your organization offers.


* For a truly self-indulgent bout of navel gazing, read his book, The Rise of the Creative Class. If you’re interested in a more readable treatment of the same general subject, David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise is worthwhile. Both quarry different veins in the same mine as Spolsky and this post.

Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have

A budding grant writer who is enrolled in a Nonprofit Management Masters program recently e-mailed me to ask if she should spend $4,000 on grant writing classes. Regular readers know how little I think of grant writing training, so I advised her to take some undergrad courses in English composition/journalism and spend her $4k on a good computer and comfortable chair instead. In addition to being infinitely more useful than grant writing classes, she’ll also enjoy them for activities other than grant writing. This led me to think about the useful tools a grant writer should have, including:

1. A great computer. After years of frustration with Windows, Jake converted the rest of us to Macs about 18 months ago and they’ve mostly been a pleasure. Mac OS X has two particularly helpful features for grant writers: “Spotlight” and “Time Machine.” If I’m writing a proposal about gang violence in Dubuque, typing keywords in Spotlight lets me easily find an article on my hard drive from the Dubuque Picayune Press about gangs that I saved two years ago. If I manage to muck up a current proposal file, Time Machine lets me go back to yesterday’s version to recover it. Trying to do these tasks in Windows XP is so difficult that having a bottle of Scotch handy is a good idea if you try, although Windows Vista is supposed to have improved the search experience.

As to which model is best, I prefer the Mac Pro because it is easy to add multiple video cards—meaning you can also attach lots of monitors. I use three and might add a fourth if I can find a good rack system. You’re thinking that I must imagine myself as Tom Cruise flipping images across displays in Minority Report,, but it is actually very handy to have multiple monitors because I can arrange relevant data on all of them by having the proposal I’m writing on my 23″ primary screen, a file from the client on the 20″ screen to the right and a pertinent website on the 19″ screen to the left. The fourth monitor would show the RFP. Avoiding opening and closing windows saves time and, for a grant writer, time is literally money. Jake prefers his 24″ iMac, which only accepts one additional monitor, but looks oh so elegant on his desktop. He can also have two windows open simultaneously:

Others like the MacBook Pro, but I’ve never liked writing on a laptop, unless forced to on a plane.* Grant writers who travel should be aware that a MacBook or MacBook Pro is easier to use in coach class because both hinge at the bottom, as opposed to most laptops, which hinge at the top. You have a somewhat better chance of using it when the large person in front of you drops their seat back into your lap.

2. A comfortable chair. Grant writers spend much of their lives sitting, so don’t skimp on the chair. Jake and I like the Aeron Chair, Herman Miller’s gift to those of us trapped in offices but dreaming of working on the command deck of the Starship Enterprise. Others prefer the Steelcase Leap Chair, but whatever you get, make sure its adjustable and makes you want to sit in it for 12 hours a day when under deadline pressure. Slashdot recently had a long discussion of the relative merits of various chairs, and the differences might not seem important—but if you spend endless hours in your chair, the value of a good one quickly becomes apparent.

3. Sound system and headphones. I like to write wearing headphones, as listening to Nelly rap “Midwest Swing” at high volume gets me in the mood for writing a proposal about East St. Louis, which I have to do as soon as I finish this post. There is no substitute for Bose QuietComfort 3 Noise Canceling Headphones, which also come in handy on planes. When everyone has left the office, you can fling off the headphones and listen using Bose Companion 3 Computer Speakers.

4. A large desk with an ergonomic keyboard holder. Any desk will do, as long as it has lots of space for papers, books, pictures of kids, empty diet coke cans, etc. But don’t forget to attach a high quality adjustable keyboard tray. We love Humanscale trays, which can be attached to most any flat top desk. Spend $20 on the desk and $300 on the keyboard tray and your wrists will thank you.

5. Desk stuff. Jake likes annoying, noisy, clicky keyboards with great tactile feel, but the rest of us are happy with Apple wireless models. Although it is no long necessary to have a stack of reference books (e.g.,dictionary, thesaurus, etc.), a copy of Write Right! and On Writing Well isn’t a bad idea. A ruler, handheld calculator, lots of post-in notes, assorted desk jewelry to play with, a message pad, speaker phone, cell phone with Bluetooth earpiece lots of markers and pens are nice accessories.

6. A window. Writing grant proposals is too confining a task to do so without a view of something. Just make sure there’s a blind, so you can shut it when you find yourself daydreaming.

7. Companion. Personally, I like a dog nearby to pet when I pause to take a break (I know, there could be a bad pun here). Our faithful Golden Retriever, Matzo the Wonder Dog, was our constant office companion until she laid down her burden last winter, but she was often in a festive mood:

We now have Odette, a frisky seven month old Golden Retriever puppy, who keeps us laughing with her office antics:

About $4,000 should set up a first class grant writer’s office. It is not necessary to have one, but it is nice. When we started 15 years ago, we used hand-me-down desks, $5 chairs and PCs bartered for grant writing services. If you have a bit of money, however, the grant writing experience can be made vaguely enjoyable with good tools. After all, we are nothing more than wordsmiths and any craftsperson can make due with what they have, but a good set of tools helps speed the job and make it more pleasant.


*I’ve never understood why TV shows and movies always show writers using laptops, a lá Carrie in “Sex and the City.” If there are any writers out there who actually use laptops everyday, I’d like to hear from them.

Links: Finnish kids, computers in schools, bureaucrats, race, Playboy (?), and more!

* The Wall Street Journal ran “What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart? Finland’s teens score extraordinarily high on an international test. American educators are trying to figure out why” (the article is accessible for subscribers only). Part of the answer may include a culture that values reading, but the article also says:

Finnish high-school senior Elina Lamponen saw the differences [between the U.S. and Finland] firsthand. She spent a year at Colon High School in Colon, Mich., where strict rules didn’t translate into tougher lessons or dedicated students, Ms. Lamponen says. She would ask students whether they did their homework. They would reply: ” ‘Nah. So what’d you do last night?'” she recalls. History tests were often multiple choice. The rare essay question, she says, allowed very little space in which to write. In-class projects were largely “glue this to the poster for an hour,” she says.

In other words, the numerous rules imposed by U.S. schools might not actually help educational attainment.

* High school evaluation news continues, with a paper from the Urban Institute saying that Teach For America teachers are more effective than the regular ones in the same schools.

* Years ago, there were a variety of federal and state programs designed to get computers into schools. We wrote countless proposals for just that purpose, though my experience in public schools was that computers were almost always poorly used at the time—they didn’t help me learn anything about reading, writing, or math, but they were great for Oregon trail. Now researchers have found that, based on a Romanian program in which households received vouchers for computers:

Children in household that won a voucher also report having lower school grades and lower educational aspirations. There is also suggestive evidence that winning a voucher
is associated with negative behavior outcomes.

(Hat tip Slate.com).

* A concrete example of the kind of citation that can help get programs funded. But I’m not moving to Needles if I can avoid it. Which moves us right into…

* Megan McArdle’s an excellent post on the topic of federal assistance to depressed rural areas. I’ve read elsewhere in The Atlantic that urban and rural areas are essentially subsidized by the suburbs through various forms of tax redistribution, which should be at least somewhat apparent to longtime newsletter subscribers who see the numerous grant programs targeted at rural and urban areas but virtually none targeting suburbs.

* McArdle is so good that I’m linking to her twice. Regarding bureaucrats, she says:

Having a ridiculous reaction to something is not the fault of the person who did it–even if that person is a terrorist attempting horrific acts. I don’t mind removing my shoes, particularly–indeed, my parents will testify that they had quite a problem teaching me to keep them on. I achieve minor renown in college for walking around Philadelphia barefoot all summer. But the act of moving in compliant herds through the TSA lines, mindlessly adhering to the most ridiculous procedures the government can think up, contributes to making us what Joseph Schumpeter called “state broken”. Citizens should not acquire the habit of following orders with no good reason behind them.

After flying entirely too often in the last few months, I’ve come to loathe the TSA bureaucrats and the herd mentality in airports. Similar principles are at work regarding FEMA and Grants.gov.

* In other news about incompetent bureaucracies, check out this from the Washington Post.

* Whether you want to take race into account in programs or not, you’re bound to be criticized. Get used to it.

* In the “Who knew?” category, Playboy has a foundation and is accepting applications from a “Noteworthy advocate for the First Amendment.” I’m guessing they’re not shooting for those upholding the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. A quick quiz: the First Amendment actually has six components—can you name them all? (Answers in the second link).

Deconstructing the Question: How to Parse a Confused RFP

The breathless SAMHSA RFP, “Targeted Capacity Expansion Program for Substance Abuse Treatment and HIV/AIDS Services (Short Title: TCE/HIV)” (.pdf link to the RFP) has already been mentioned and also features one of my favorite proposal verbal quirks: the automatic success assumption. The last bullet in Section C (page 26) says:

Demonstrate success in referring, and retaining clients in aftercare and recovery support services/programs following substance abuse treatment.

I read that, noted the grammar mistake (see the last paragraph of this post for more about it) and called Isaac. I initially assumed the RFP wanted to know how the applicant had helped others similar to the target population get drug treatment. In other words, it just asked the applicant to show previous experience in similar programs. This, however, would be too easy. It’s also not exactly what’s being asked: they want to know about referring, and retaining clients in other services/programs. So they don’t necessarily want information about a program that the applicant has run, but presumably such services would be as a result of some program, or an aspect of another program.

The question is hard to understand because its form and hard to answer because it doesn’t define “success,” and the only way to answer it straight would be with data that says something like, “In 2007, 120 people were referred to other substance abuse clinics, and of those, 77 went, which we think is successful because other programs/the literature/our therapist/numbers we made up indicate that normally less than half of people in the target population when referred actually made it to treatment.”

For a program dealing with substance abuse or medical care, there are further complicating factors because of third-party payer issues and whether clinics are willing to treat the uninsured or publicly insured. Many clinics aren’t willing to take such patients, which is an important treatment gap the current political debate around healthcare is ignoring: many of the uninsured are eligible for public support programs but don’t enroll or, if they do enroll, cannot find providers.

That was a long tangent, the point of which is that even if a program like the ones being created in response to TCE/HIV do refer clients, there’s no guarantee that the treatment provider on the other end will accept the client, even if the client manages to find her way to the other program for help. Furthermore, the question itself is confusing and, once you understand what it means and its implications, you realize that it’s asking for data that don’t really exist and, even if they did, probably wouldn’t be useful for the reasons I just described. Finally, the question asks about aftercare and recovery/support programs, which, for an organization providing outreach and pretreatment services, also doesn’t exist. Initial referrals have nothing to do with recovery and support. The deeper into this question one gets, the worse it appears.

Finally, note the bizarre comma inserted after the fourth word: “referring, and retaining clients…” Commas should be used between independent clauses (meaning complete sentences that could stand alone) joined by “but, nor,” or “for,” and they’re optional if the sentence is joined by “and” or “or.” You can also use them to separate things in a series, between consecutive adjectives, or to set off phrases and clauses. All of this is courtesy of Write Right!, which I mentioned previously here. Notice that none of those rules say “drop a comma randomly in a sentence that would otherwise flow smoothly, even if its content is incoherent.” The comma is symptomatic of a deeper malady: RFP writers who aren’t really thinking about what they’re doing and who, in their attempts to sound positive and upbeat, contort themselves in verbal knots that the grant writer must in turn untangle.

Blue Highways: Reflections of a Grant Writer Retracing His Steps 35 Years Later

One of my favorite books is William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, an ode to the spiritual healing powers of exploring America and one’s self by driving the roads literally less traveled. From my first road trip at age 16 with my buddy Tom in his ’53 Chevy from Minneapolis north towards the Iron Range, I’ve always loved the unexpected that’s just over the next hill, around the next bend and in that sleepy town that waits at the end of the day’s drive.

Faithful readers will remember that in my first post, They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal, I recalled my journey westward to California in January 1974, taking Route 66 on the way to becoming a grant writer. In mid-May, my daughter graduated from the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications at the University of Kansas and I drove with her to her new public relations job in Los Angeles (this also explains the slowdown in posting over the last two weeks). We took the same route I traveled 35 years ago, picking up the path west of Topeka and traveling southwest through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas on US 156/54 to reach I-40 and what is left of Route 66. A side trip to the always fascinating Grand Canyon and a couple of days later we arrived in LA, where my daughter faces the same challenges that confronted me all those years ago—where to live in the vastness of LA, learning to put up with indignities of endless traffic and trying to figure out the best place to spot stars.*

This nostalgia has a great deal to do with grant writing: just before I left for KU, we finished a proposal for a newly minted Los Angeles City program, the oddly named Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) program, which is the brainchild of Mayor Antonio Villarigosa. Apparently, the Mayor was shocked, shocked to discover gangs in LA** and decided to move various existing anti-gang/youth services funding from the Community Development Department (CDD) to the Mayor’s Office.

GRYD is more or less the usual rehash of counseling, mentoring, et al. It is absolutely not a stunning innovation and is extraordinarily unlikely to impact gangs or anything else in LA. The most interesting aspect of writing the proposal was the prehistoric GRYD RFP budget forms (warning: .pdf link). About two weeks after arriving in LA in 1974, I found myself writing a proposal for a nonprofit to some long-forgotten LA City youth service program. I remember staring at the cryptic budget forms and struggling to complete a “budget narrative” using a legal pad, pencil and long division. Flash forward to the GRYD RFP, which still uses the same type of budget forms that presume applicants will be using a typewriter and calculator to complete. As I drove across the West once more, I was struck by how the LA Mayor’s office has apparently not heard of Excel or even fillable Acrobat forms. In other words, not much has changed in 35 years of grant writing, even as computers and the Internet have altered so much of life.

In another example confirming the stasis in the grant world, about six months after I arrived in LA, I managed to get a better job working for then newly elected Mayor Tom Bradley in his Human Services Office, reporting Deputy Mayor Grace Montañez Davis, one of the more interesting people I’ve ever met. At that time, Grace managed a slew of federal and state grants designed to provide various services, and I was working for one of them, the LA Volunteer Corps, which essentially did nothing. But those of us on the staff had a great time pretending to be doing something important. After about a year, the Mayor’s Office came under political pressure get out of the human services business and the Los Angeles CDD was born. I was just talking to a friend who still works at the CDD, who told me transferring youth services money from CDD to the Mayor’s Office is the start of moving a whole bunch of human services back to the Mayor’s Office. Back to the Future once again.

Returning to my road trip, I was struck by how much more empty the land had become since last I travelled this route, especially on the blue highways at the beginning. For the past 15 years, I’ve written endless proposals for dozens of clients in rural areas in which the theme is invariably along the lines of, “the jobs are gone, the family farms are dying, young people are leaving, etc.” I saw the reality of what I thought I had imagined as a typical grant writer’s myth. While the larger cities, like Dodge City, KS, Guymon, OK and Dalhart, TX, have a smattering of new fast food chains and budget hotels, the tiny dots on the blue highways have just about ceased to exist. As we entered each town, a faded and often broken billboard sadly announced an attraction that likely no longer exists. In these almost ghost towns, abandoned gas stations, motels and other empty, forlorn buildings line the road, with almost no signs of life. Vast swatches of rural America reflect the dire conditions I often portray in proposals.

If I had had more time, I would have taken a detour and driven 20 miles or so west of Guymon to see how Keyes, OK is faring. About ten years ago, we wrote a $250,000 funded Department of Education “Goals 2000” grant on behalf of Keyes Public Schools, home of the “Pirates.” With just 102 students, this probably represents the largest grant/target audience member we’ve ever written. The fun part about this proposal was the argument that the school district needed to add bilingual education because a 500,000 hog industrial farm operation was about to open and hundreds of Asian-immigrant workers were expected to follow the hogs to Keyes. Whether true or not, the Department of Education bought the story line “whole hog” and funded the proposal. I was reminded of the Keyes project because at breakfast in Dahlhart, I read the Amarillo newspaper and was startled to read a story about a “wave of killings” (three to be exact—perhaps they need a GRYD program and should call of Mayor Villaregosa for tech support), attributed to a local Asian youth gang.

The problem, according to the police, is that they and the city in general lack any staff who can speak the unnamed Asian language spoken by residents, so they were stumped for clues. Talk about a great grant proposal concept! Who would expect an Asian gang crisis in Friday Night Lights country? Perhaps, like Keyes, Amarillo is home to industrial hog operations, or, perhaps, like other so many other towns I drove through, the glimmer of hope that hogs represented to Keyes was an illusion and Keyes is slipping out of existence, one abandoned building at a time.

So, while we didn’t exactly “get our kicks on Route 66,” it was perhaps a last opportunity to spend three days alone with my daughter, as she begins her adult life, and a special chance for me to remember the 22-year old kid who found his future waiting in Los Angeles—and how short the memories of many grant making agencies are. In case you haven’t guessed, my daughter is also 22, making the trip particularly meaningful.


* Gelson’s Supermarket in Studio City on Sunday morning is still a great place to spot movie/TV stars.

** Yes, this is my movie reference to Claude Rains delightful Captain Renault being shocked to discover gambling at Rick’s in my favorite movie, Casablanca.