Monthly Archives: August 2008

Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts

In Mordecai Richler’s hilarious novel Barney’s Version, a discussion arises:

“We’ve got a problem this year. There’s been a decline in the number of anti-Semitic outrages.”
“Yeah. Isn’t that a shame,” I said.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m against anti-Semitism. But every time some asshole daubs a swastika on a synagogue wall or knocks over a stone in one of our cemeteries, our guys get so nervous they phone me with pledges.”

In some ways, the worse things are, the better they are for nonprofits, because funding is likely to follow the broad contours of social issues. For example, before the Columbine shooting, the vast majority of money for at-risk youth and after school programs targeted inner cities. A few years later, money began appearing for suburban and rural schools, the thinking being that now all teenagers were at risk simply by virtue of being teenagers. A case in point is the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which emerged around the time of Columbine; we’ve written at least a dozen or so funded grants, mostly in non-inner city areas. In fact, one funded 21st CCLC grant we wrote served Aspen, CO—an area not usually seen as a hotbed of social needs.

It’s not even clear that the conventional wisdom of the rationale behind the programs, which attacked the conventional wisdom of what was supposedly behind the shootings, was correct, as Slate.com argues here. But for grant writing purposes, that’s less important than noticing the direction of the grant winds. If you were a suburban school district trying to fund, say, an art programs, and you read the Federal Register, you might’ve noticed new funding or shifts in emphasis. You could’ve combined your art program with nominal academic support, thus widening your program focus enough to make a plausible applicant for the 21st CCLC program and thus getting the money to carry out your central purpose: art.

This isn’t to say that you should fraudulently misrepresent what you do, because you shouldn’t, or that it’s necessary to change your program’s purpose haphazardly; you want to notice the wind but not necessarily be driven by it. Nonetheless, smart nonprofits find ways of getting the grant funds they need by shackling one idea to another, more fundable idea, particularly if “fundable” means a live RFP is on the street. Sometimes clients have ideas for programs they want to run that can be made vastly more fundable with relatively minor tweaks. We often suggest and execute those tweaks.

It’s not uncommon for nonprofits to shift their focus with time, funding, and opportunities. This will correlate to some extent with the general media landscape. To use another trend, homeless programs were more prevalent in the late 80s and early 90s. Today, an organization that once worked solely on homeless issues might expand its area of expertise to related areas, like affordable housing, prisoner reentry, or foster care emancipation. The latter problem has gained some traction in recent years as various levels of government have come to realize that few 17-year-olds are ready to be self-supporting the moment they turn 18, resulting in in crime, drug use, and prostitution as common outcomes among this population, as depicted in Charles Bock’s novel Beautiful Children.

Finally, organizations that pursue grants in other areas should remember that administrative funds from one area might end up subsidizing another; this commonly happens with service contracts, such as substance abuse treatment and foster care and can also occur with grants. In the near future, Isaac is going to describe how and why to acquire a Federally Approved Cost Allocation Plan and resulting Indirect Cost Rate, which is a great way to secure general purpose administrative funds to support multi-program operations. By pursuing grants related to your nominal field of expertise, you can in effect diversify and avoid major problems if there’s a decline in your version of the number of anti-Semitic outrages. Don’t put all your investments in a single stock, and don’t invest all your grant writing and service energy in a single cause, lest you discover that specialization has led you to an evolutionary dead end.

That’ll Be The Day: Searching for Grant Writing Truths in Monument Valley

Faithful readers know of my Blue Highways post about driving to LA with my daughter following her college graduation last spring. This is my year for road trips, as I recently drove with Jake from Seattle to his new life as a English Literature Ph. D. candidate at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I insisted on a somewhat circuitous route via Salt Lake City, eventually winding up driving on a quintessential blue highway through one of my favorite places—Monument Valley.* Many readers would immediately recognize Monument Valley because they’ve been there vicariously in endless Westerns and other movies, particularly seven films directed by John Ford. To most most of the world’s movie fans, Monument Valley is the American West. One of the most interesting aspects of visiting or staying in Monument Valley is that one hears a cacophony of languages, since it is so popular with European and other foreign tourists.**

John Ford’s greatest Western is undoubtedly The Searchers, an epic tale of single-minded determination that shows off Monument Valley in all the glory of VistaVision. I got out the commemorative DVD of The Searchers that Jake gave me a few years ago and watched it again with a fried who’d never seen it. He was impressed, as most are by the striking themes and images. John Wayne’s maniacal lead character, Ethan Edwards, spends five years tearing around Monument Valley looking for his kidnapped niece, Debbie, played by a young and beautiful Natalie Wood. Accompanying Ethan is Debbie’s naive, but equally determined, half-brother, Martin Pauley, played by Jeffrey Hunter.*** The movie’s tension is built around whether Ethan will kill Debbie, because of the implied “fate worse than death” she has presumably suffered at the hands of her American Indian captors, or if Martin protect her from Ethan’s wrath. I will not spoil the outcome, except to note the last scene, which is of Ethan standing alone in the doorway of the ranch house framing Monument Valley in the distance, having rejected the comforts of hearth and family for the anti-civilization of the wilderness:

This is one of the best ending images of any movie, as it establishes the otherness of the character in the best tradition of Cooper’s Natty Bumpo in The Leatherstocking Tales.

This has much to do with grant writing: throughout the movie, Ethan teaches Martin how to stick with a challenge, tossing off the most famous line of the movie, “That’ll be the day,” when confronted with suggestions that he give up, can’t possibly find Debbie, etc. Grant writers, who must persevere to complete the proposal no matter what happens, need this attitude as well. Just as for Ethan, the task is all about finding Debbie, the grant writer’s job is to complete a technically correct proposal in time to meet the deadline no matter what.

We keep harping on the importance of meeting deadlines in this blog, but this really is the heart of grant writing. So, the next time someone tells you that you’ll never finish your needs assessment, budget narrative, or attachments, just lean back in your Aeron chair like John Wayne in the saddle, and say, “That’ll be the day.” In addition, the way Ethan informally tutors Martin during The Searchers illustrates how grant writing is best learned: by hanging around an accomplished grant writer. Perhaps instead of the foolish grant writing credentials we like to poke fun at, we should start a medieval-style Grant Writing Guild in which we indenture would-be grant writers at age 12, since apprenticeship is a pretty good model for learning such obscure skills as grant writing, glass blowing, horse-shoeing and seafaring. That could lead to a great memoir entitled, “Two Years Before the RFP.”**** For more on the subject of never giving up, see Seth Grodin’s blog post, The secret of the web (hint: it’s a virtue).


* For those planning to visit Monument Valley, try to a get a room at Goulding’s Lodge, the historic inn on the Navajo Reservation that was used by John Ford and many other filmmakers as a base for operations. The Lodge has an unsurpassed view of the Valley, along with a small but engaging museum.

** Jake and I helped a Swiss crew push their rather odd looking solar powered car out of a ditch. Like John Ford, they could find no better backdrop than the Valley for showcasing their work.

*** TV cognoscenti will remember that Jeffrey Hunter was the original captain in the pilot for Star Trek.

*** I’ve never actually read Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, but I lived in San Pedro many years ago and this book arose endlessly in cocktail party chatter. I’m not sure anyone has actually read it in about 100 years, but I am sure I will hear from at least one devoted Dana fan.

Links for 8-13-08

* Imagine our surprise at seeing a client on the front page of CNN:

“AIDS in America today is a black disease,” says Phill Wilson, founder and CEO of the institute and himself HIV-positive for 20 years. “2006 CDC data tell us that about half of the just over 1 million Americans living with HIV or AIDS are black.”

We wrote a two-million dollar funded CDC Capacity Building Assistance to Improve the Delivery and Effectiveness of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Prevention Services for Racial/Ethnic Minority Populations grant for the Black Aids Institute in 2004.

* I discussed how to attract and retain grant writers by relying on Joel Spolsky’s Joel on Software for guidance. He also wrote a short book, Smart and Gets Things Done: Joel Spolsky’s Concise Guide to Finding the Best Technical Talent on the subject. To reiterate my earlier point: although Spolsky is writing about programmers, much of what he says is equally applicable to any intellectual worker—including grant writers. Buy a copy and put it on your bookshelf next to Write Right!.

(37signals has a good article on environment and productivity echoing Spolsky’s points.)

* The L.A. Times ran an article attempting something unusual—fresh perspectives on teen pregnancy:

Teenage motherhood may actually make economic sense for poorer young women, some research suggests. For instance, long-term studies by Duke economist V. Joseph Hotz and colleagues, published in 2005, found that by age 35, former teen moms had earned more in income, paid more in taxes, were substantially less likely to live in poverty and collected less in public assistance than similarly poor women who waited until their 20s to have babies. Women who became mothers in their teens — freed from child-raising duties by their late 20s and early 30s to pursue employment while poorer women who waited to become moms were still stuck at home watching their young children — wound up paying more in taxes than they had collected in welfare.

Eight years earlier, the federally commissioned report “Kids Having Kids” also contained a similar finding, though it was buried: “Adolescent childbearers fare slightly better than later-childbearing counterparts in terms of their overall economic welfare.”

To evade the set of angry e-mails and comments likely to follow, I’ll point out that the thrust of the article isn’t that teen pregnancy is a great idea—it’s those involved, rhetorically and otherwise, in the issue might want to consider alternate viewpoints and explanations rather than go back to the usual birth control and sex ed versus abstinence debate.

“Teenage Childbearing and Its Life Cycle Consequences: Exploiting a Natural Experiment” uses a very clever method to get around the correlation-is-not-causation problem in research areas like this, and it’s one of the academic papers underlying the article. You can read it at Duke economist V. Joseph Hotz’s website (warning: .pdf link).

EDIT: In addition, compare these pieces to our later post, What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP.

* The Wall Street Journal has done excellent reporting on the housing perhaps-crisis, as Isaac mentioned previously. Now comes “Philadelphia’s Housing Woes May Provide Lesson for Lawmakers:”

One point is being missed in this squabble: No matter what Congress does, some cities will end up owning more crumbling houses as owners fail to pay taxes and do their maintenance. Taxpayers will foot the bill. The bigger question is: How can cities quickly get this property back into productive use?

For perspective on this debate, it helps to stroll through Philadelphia’s Ludlow neighborhood, about a mile north of the city center. In this neighborhood and others like it, the Philadelphia Housing Authority became one of the main property owners in the 1970s and 1980s, acquiring homes through foreclosures after owners failed to pay their mortgages or taxes.

One thing you can be sure the solution will involve: grants.

* Well-run career programs that incorporate college counseling and prep classes help low-income students according to a study cited by the New York Times. This is at least a somewhat better study than most, as the New York Times says:

To compare similar students, all those who volunteered to join a career academy at each school were randomly assigned either to participate in the academy or to serve as part of a control group outside the academy.

Nonetheless, it still suffers from the cherry-picking flaw most grant-funded programs do, and it’s encapsulated in one word: volunteered. Those who are at least smart and willing enough to seek help are be definition more likely to do better than those who don’t. Nonetheless, that the group receiving services did better still than the control group is encouraging.

* Freakonomics discusses advice to young and ludicrously rich philanthropists who don’t know much about the world:

They believed that poverty was largely a result of resource deficiencies and organizational inefficiencies: if the poor had more money and their service providers could simply manage their giving more efficiently, change would happen. None placed much emphasis on feelings of self worth, the long-term nature of behavioral change or, most important, that staying above water is itself an accomplishment for a poor household. Everyone modeled their expectations after their family business or other corporate workplaces where they saw the “bottom line” motivate people to meet certain standards of achievement.

* For those of you interested in the academic and systematic aspects of philanthropy more generally, check out the heavy hitters at Creative Capitalism, including Bill Gates, Richard Posner, Gary Becker, Clive Crook, Larry Summers, Ed Glaeser, and Gregory Clark. Alternately, if you want to wait, a book based on the discussions is supposed to be released in 2009. Conor Clarke explains why you might pay for something you can get free online.

* What’s mystery ingredient X for improving school outcomes? Marginal Revolution considers.

* More on parsing RFPs: The Partnerships for Innovation program wants you to:

1) stimulate the transformation of knowledge created by the research and education enterprise into innovations that create new wealth; build strong local, regional and national economies; and improve the national well-being; 2) broaden the participation of all types of academic institutions and all citizens in activities to meet the diverse workforce needs of the national innovation enterprise; and 3) catalyze or enhance enabling infrastructure that is necessary to foster and sustain innovation in the long-term.

That’s not easily understood and doesn’t answer the essential “what” question that an RFP should: what does the program demand that an Institute for Higher Education (IHE) do? The answer is probably “nothing,” and the National Science Foundation (NSF) probably could’ve just said, “We’re giving walking around money to universities so they can use it to fund research or donut eating. Enjoy!”

* An unintentionally funny RFP called the Sexually Transmitted Infections Cooperative Research Centers says:

The purpose of this Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) is to stimulate multidisciplinary, collaborative research that is focused on control and prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) […]

Surely I can’t be the only one to read a certain double meaning into “stimulate” in this context, given its juxtaposition with the program title.

* Slate points to a study that found TV watching among the very young might cause or contribute to autism.

Tilting at Windmills and Fees: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing

People often find Grant Writing Confidential by searching for terms like “commission only grant writers,”* “free grant writers,” “free grant writing,” or variations on those themes. I see such queries in our blog stats every week, so I’ll address these anonymous multitudes now: in grant writing, you’re likely to get what you pay for. Caveat emptor. Others find us by searching for “free examples of written grants.” Those seeking example grants shouldn’t use them, both because the writing is probably of low quality and, even if it isn’t, if one person can find them, so can everyone else—readers aren’t likely to be amused by three proposals all cribbing from the same source. Buying papers for college assignments exposes the lazy or indifferent student to the same manifold dangers.

The cliché goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. In grant writing, many snake-oil salespeople of various stripes want to entice you with promises of vast quantities of free money that turn out to be nothing but a mirage. For example, you may have seen infomercials for Matthew Lesko, the doofus dressed in a question mark-covered suit who touts billions of dollars for the average guy. Think about it logically: were there really this vast flow of money out there, wouldn’t everyone be seeking or taking it?** The story doesn’t pass the credulity test.

Free grant writing services don’t exist either. In looking for them, you’re wasting time. As with most services, you have three choices: pay a professional, learn how to do it yourself, or hope your sister marries a grant writer who wants to ingratiate himself with you. The first costs in monetary terms, the second in time terms, as well as being impossible for some people, and the third is just thrown in to illustrate the absurdity of the proposition. Notice that all three options have costs.

Even if someone did write high-quality, free proposals, they’d be so swamped by nonprofits seeking their services that they’d probably have a backlog stretching far into the future—certainly further than any live RFP. As a result, they wouldn’t be of any use to you, meaning that you’ve once again substituted time for money, just in a different sense. All this would be obvious to readers of Greg Mankiw’s excellent and surprisingly readable textbook, Principles of Economics, which deals with many of these issues and provides attractive graphs of supply and demand to boot.

In this case, a competent grant writer offering free services would have far more takers than she has time, creating a shortage situation where the quantity of time available is less than the number of people who want to use that time. The Soviet Union discovered the hard way that goods and services without prices tend to produce sub-optimal outcomes, and I’m sure that most seekers of anything for nothing, including grant writing services, will find the same.

The search for “free grant writing training,” and variations on that theme is both more and less pernicious. Free grant writing training is about as likely to materialize as free grant writing, but since grant writing training is probably useless to begin with, as Isaac discussed in “Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain,” you won’t actually be losing much outside of your time, and you won’t be paying for bogus training. On the other hand, you’ll still be wasting your time, as you’d be better off paying for a journalism or English course at your local community college than you would with grant writing training, no matter the cost. Free grant writing training would lead to the same quality problems as free grant writers.

That’s the theory, anyhow, and the manifestation of that theory appears when people search for free grant writers. They’re never going to find those grant writers, and even if such grant writers are found, they won’t be very good, and even if they were, they wouldn’t be accessible. It would probably be more effective to focus on alchemy and through that invent a way to transmute base metals into gold and then sell that gold to fund the nonprofit.

Given that the history of humanity is one of credulous people being hoodwinked or duped by their own false hopes with the assistance of charlatans, I’m not expecting this post to stop many from searching for the philosopher’s stone, a cousin of alchemy. This post does at the very least explain why the quixotic search for free grant writing help will prove futile.


* Fewer discover us using the terms more common to grant writers, like “contingent fee,” demonstrating perhaps the knowledge of those involved; last time I searched for “contingent fee grant writers,” every hit in the top 10 on Google explained why this is a bad idea or why the grant writers in question wouldn’t or shouldn’t do it, including us. Other nomenclature problems exist in queries: the person who sought “free grant writing attorneys” doesn’t get legal jargon right, as attorneys who donate their time do so pro bono, or “for the public good.” Even then, there’s no guarantee that attorneys are going to be any better at grant writing than anyone else, and they might very well be worse. At the very least they’re likely to be more expensive, as law school doesn’t pay for itself.

** An old joke: An economist is walking down the street and passes $20. A pedestrian stops him and says, “Hey, why didn’t you pick up that cash?” The economist says, “In an efficient market economy, if it were worth doing, someone would’ve already done it.”