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Grant Advice is Only as Good as the Knowledge Behind It

As faithful readers know, in my other life I’m a graduate student in English Literature at the University of Arizona. A few weeks ago, first years were required to attend a brief seminar on grant writing, which amused me given GWC’s low opinion of training sessions, courses, and the like. Isaac is fond of telling a story about his first encounter with one: he was younger than I am and began a two-day grant training session. It started with the instructor writing the 5Ws and the H on a board, at which point Isaac realized they were really teaching journalism and that grant writing similar to writing feature stories, which he already knew how to do. He got up and left.

I didn’t have the same reaction Isaac did, largely because I was required to attend.

The seminar’s major problem was its vagueness. We like to call this “hand waving” or “donut eating.” Grant writing advice of any sort is only as good as the details contained within it—saying there is “money available” is not nearly as helpful as saying the Department of Education issued an RFP on September 3rd with a deadline of October 15th and eligibility requirements x, y, and z. The more general you are in grant writing, the less useful the advice is. That’s why this blog works toward specificity: by citing real RFPs, real problems we’ve encountered, real issues with examples backing them, and the like, we aim to show what struggling with the grant beat truly entails. It’s also why our grant newsletter only contains only live RFPs with actual deadlines; we don’t want to say “the money is out there,” as if describing UFOs—we want to provide a concrete map to the money. Our advertising slogan for years has been, “We know where the money is,” and we strive to live up to it. Until you struggle with an actual RFP—or finding one—you’ll know little if anything about what grant writing is. For someone who had never heard the term “grants” or “grant writing” before might have found it useful, much like a person who’d never seen a large body of water might find it useful to stand it a pool before learning how to swim. But for almost anyone else, the seminar’s content wasn’t optimally useful because so much was conducted via hand-waving, and the leader—I’ll call her “Linda” because I can’t remember her name—said a variety of things that were vaguely correct, but lacked detail:

* Elections affect grants and grant making. Although elections have some effect on the distribution of money in terms of funding priorities, elections have made relatively little difference in the amount of money distributed, which seems to go perpetually up, and in the actual programs used as distribution vehicles. Some programs will become zombies and some phoenixes, as discussed in this post. But politics won’t change grant funds that much for public and nonprofit agencies, and politics will affect graduate students even less. (Politics and its tenuous connection to the grant world will be discussed in a future post.)

* Conflating grants, contracts, and fellowships. The first two are similar and have a fuzzy border but shouldn’t be used identically. Human service delivery grants are usually made to nonprofit and public agencies to solve some perceived social problem. RFPs for grant programs usually give general guidance, about what to do but don’t offer specific metrics, as the applicant should substantively design the program and state how they’d approach the problem and their own measurements. It’s usually not performance-based and will essentially say, “Tell us how you will decrease the rate of heart disease and diabetes in the target population,” for example.

In contrast, contracts are usually offered by public agencies on what is more or less a vendor/vendee relationship. You could have a contract for providing toilet seats or substance abuse treatment slots, and the metrics for a contract are usually specific, defined, and fixed. You’ll deliver X units of something per month, and you’ll be paid on a capitated (per head), per day or per service unit delivered. For example, a nonprofit agency might agree to provide job training and receive $1,000 per person in training per week. A childcare provider might have 50 slots and receive $50/day per slot filled.

Finally, fellowships are usually given to individuals or occasionally small groups to perform some kind of specific research or do some kind of specific thing. They’re a subset of grants, and we discuss an example of a fellowship program below.

* We were advised to “value the process” of finding a grant. While I’m not entirely sure what that means, I’ll go ahead and disagree with it anyway because the process is a means to the end. You need to value the outcome. The process of applying for a grant can’t be neglected, but it’s less important to do the process well than it is to, say, turn in the application on time.

* Paying close attention to reviewer feedback. This issue should be very familiar to faithful readers. To quote one of Isaac’s recent posts:

The primary reason for not taking reviewer comments seriously is the nature of the people reviewing it. Any proposal is read at a point in time by a set of reviewers, who are likely reading other proposals submitted for the same competition and may or may not be interested in the task at hand. For example, if the proposal is read by five peer reviewers brought to D.C. by DHHS, one may be hung over from bar hopping the night before in Georgetown, one may be anxious to meet their Aunt Martha for dinner, a third may be itching to get to the Air and Space Museum before it closes, and two might be vaguely interested in the review process. And, of the last two, one may have gotten a speeding ticket in your jurisdiction 20 years ago and hates the city.

The same applies to graduate students or anyone else engaging in grant writing.

* Make the grant be whatever you want. Although you shouldn’t apply for grants of any sort you have no intention of running, you should still stretch your program concept to fit guidelines to the extent you can, as we discuss in Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts:

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.

* Failure to customize applications. Linda emphasized several points that were completely correct: one must pay attention to rules, guidelines, and requirements for a particular program, whether government or foundation. With the latter, a blanket pitch to foundations is most likely to result in total rejection; each foundation has its own persnickety needs and requirements, and anything sent to a particular foundation should be customized to those requirements. As a result, you’re better off sending a small number of applications to a limited number of foundations and making sure those applications follow the foundation’s guidelines precisely. This is a corollary of another thing Linda said, which is that one should seek good matches in funding. Come to think of it, this is also a pretty good rule for dating.

* The difference between the grant and real worlds. Just as you should stretch ideas to fit program guidelines, you should also realize that the grant world and real world aren’t necessarily the same things. We discuss the issue in Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation and Know Your Charettes!. As Linda said, programs like the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program are supposed to help you finish school faster because you have money and thus should be able to focus on your work. But the reality is that many recipients finish their Ph.Ds. slower because they don’t have a financial ax looming over their neck. This is the kind of reality you shouldn’t mention in your application, because you’re building an argument that needs to agree with the premise of the program, even if everyone knows what really tends to happen.

* Persistence. As Isaac often tells prospective clients, he’s a grant writer and not a fortune teller and thus doesn’t know whether any particular agency will be funded for a particular grant because too many factors outside the applicant’s control can change whether a grant is funded or not. The best one can do is turn in a complete and technically accurate proposal and hope for the best. That’s true of any individual proposal. Nonetheless, over the long term, the organizations that get funded are the persistent ones that never give up and continually refine their approach and work to improve their grant writing skills. The same is true of graduate students and individuals. As Randy Pausch says in The Last Lecture, barriers and walls are there to show how badly you want something. It’s true of grant writing, job searching, novel publishing, date finding, and a variety of other complex undertakings with multiple interlocking parts based on imperfect knowledge and equally imperfect judgment.

Now, it’s true that the seminar might have been helpful for someone who’d never heard the term “grant” or “fellowship” and had never even thought about the issue. But even so, it wasn’t maximally helpful. Had Linda been more knowledgeable about particular grant programs graduate students in English are eligible to apply for, it could have been better. If she’d had a potential program most of us were eligible for, she could have assigned all of us to prepare application packages. Now that would be useful. Part of the problem is that very few programs exist for graduate students who aren’t writing their dissertation: as a result, graduate students might spend too much time searching for opportunities that don’t exist. One program that does, for example, is the aforementioned Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program. It’s only available for first-year students, however, and the deadline for it has already passed, which is a good metaphor for the seminar’s overall utility.

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Now it’s time for the rest of the story

Faithful readers will recall my post on the perils of last minute changes to proposal concepts in “Stay the Course: Don’t Change Horses (or Concepts) in the Middle of the Stream (or Proposal Writing).” But, as Paul Harvey likes to say, now it’s time for the rest of the story. . .

Just after I’d written “Stay the Course,” the public-sector client who was the subject of this sad tale of woe called to breathlessly say that HUD funded the proposal for $3 million! Despite the unnecessary drama resulting from last minute changes that caused the proposal to be submitted at 11:59 PM on the due date, the outcome was great, illustrating the difference between process and outcome objectives that I covered in “The Goal of Writing Objectives is to Achieve Positive Outcomes (Say What?).”

Plus, our client didn’t even know that HUD had received the proposal until two weeks before the funding notification. She didn’t receive the sequence of emails from confirming receipt; calls and emails to (and HUD) generated responses along the lines of, “we can’t find any record of it.”*

This went on for months. It also turned out that there were problems with other applicants that day at, so HUD re-opened the competition to allow affected applicants to re-submit. Our client called the HUD Program Officer to discuss the re-submission process, at which point she was quickly told, “You don’t have to, we have your proposal and it’s already scored.” Two weeks later, she got a call from her congressman letting her know she’s been funded.

I’m not sure what the moral to this story may be, other than proposal writing is stressful enough without amping it via last-minute changes. The story does reveal the chaotic nature of the grant review process, as well as the general uninterest most bureaucrats show toward the programs they run and their “customers” (grant applicants).

If anyone at or HUD cared, they could’ve done the research necessary to reassure our client that the proposal was received, instead of providing the slow psychological torture of bureaucratic indifference.** I could’ve helped our client solve this problem if she’d called me, because a quick phone call to her congressman’s field deputy who is the HUD liaison would’ve lit a fire under the bureaucrats’ rear ends sufficient to raise even the most slack-jawed HUD staffer from their stupor long enough to get to the bottom of this exercise in absurdity.

* Faithful readers will remember how fantastically unhelpful bureaucrats can be.

** For an exquisite study in psychological torture, read Ian Fleming’s most unusual James Bond story, “Quantum of Solace”, which is not to be confused with the eponymous movie that merely shares the title.

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November Links: Myths, Housing, and More

* The New Republic has an article based on a Brookings Institute piece that deconstructs the small-town USA mythology regularly propagated in proposals:

But the idea that we are a nation of small towns is fundamentally incorrect. The real America isn’t found in cities or suburbs or small towns, but in the metropolitan areas or “metros” that bring all these places into economic and social union.

Think of this as a prelude to an eventual post on the subject of grantwriter as mythmaker. And if you’re interested in myth as a broader subject, see Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By. He’s the same guy who wrote Hero With a Thousand Faces, the book that, most famously, provided the outline for Star Wars.

* The New Yorker asks, “Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?” Like some of the data discussed in our post on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program, the article has problems of its own, including drawing conclusions that might be based on faulty data, but it nonetheless illustrates many of the issues at stake.

* The reason we can’t build affordable housing is chiefly structural, according to an article that also gives a recent history of industrial housing design:

What’s driving the high cost of houses today is not increased construction costs or higher profits (the Levitts made $1,000 on the sale of each house), but the cost of serviced land, which is much greater than in 1951. There are two reasons for this increase. The first is Proposition 13, the 1978 California ballot initiative that required local governments to reduce property taxes and limit future increases, and sparked similar taxpayer- driven initiatives in other states. Henceforth, municipalities were unable to finance the up- front costs of infrastructure in new communities, as they had previously done, and instead required developers to pay for roads and sewers, and often for parks and other public amenities as well. These costs were passed on to home buyers, drastically increasing the selling price of a house.

The other reason that serviced lots cost more is that there are fewer of them than the market demands. This is a result of widespread resistance to growth, the infamous not-in-my-backyard phenomenon, which is strongest in the Northeast, California, and the Northwest. Communities in growing metropolitan areas contend with increased urbanization, encroachment on open space, more neighbors, more traffic, and more school- age children.

Compare this to Virginia Postrel’s A Tale of Two Town Homes.

* We’ve written before about modern problems with bureaucrats. Such problems are hardly new: in the preface to The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne writes:

Suffice it here to say, that a Custom-House officer, of long continuance, can hardly be a very praiseworthy or respectable personage, for many reasons; one of them, the tenure by which he holds his situation, and another, the very nature of his business, which—though, I trust, an honest one—is of such a sort that he does not share in the united effort of mankind.

The oddest thing about the novel is how modern it seems in the subjects it treats and the way it portrays the subjectivity of its characters. The writing marks it from the 19th century, but in many other ways it is not.

* Mackerel Economics in Prison Leads to Appreciation for Oily Fillets from the Wall Street Journal has been making the blog rounds for good reason: it’s hilarious (“Elsewhere in the West, prisoners use PowerBars or cans of tuna, says Ed Bales, a consultant who advises people who are headed to prison.”) and insightful (using the specific example of prisons to demonstrate larger truths about the necessity of currency in virtually any non-hunter-gatherer culture). And how long have there been consultants who advise future prisoners?

* Speaking of the Wall Street Journal, it also published Giving Till It Works about “capitalistic philanthropy.” We’ve mentioned the issue with regard to Creative Capitalism, discussed tangent issues in Why Do People Give? And Other Unanswerable Questions, and brought up incentive problems in Foundations and the Future.

* Why is Mt. Denali in Alaska technically named McKinley by the federal government? I never thought I would care about the answer, either, but it sheds a great deal of light on politics, bureaucrats, history, culture, randomness, and infighting, as described by the Agitator.

* The New York Times reports on school reform efforts without discussing the enormous costs of some reforms, or the inherent scaling problems most such programs have had—just because a program with a small, extremely dedicated core of individuals manages to, for example, raise student achievement, that doesn’t mean that a larger program with less dedicated and less qualified staff do. Those two persistent issues have bedeviled attempts at reform, and there is no obvious way around them. Nonetheless, it’s still a positive sign that the issues are being more seriously discussed.

* Speaking of the New York Times, schools, and language, this could have come from a proposal:

The Equity Project Charter School (TEP) will open in September 2009 in Manhattan’s Washington Heights community, and it will aim to enroll middle school students at risk of academic failure. Students with the lowest test scores will be given admissions priority. In order to recruit the country’s top teachers to work with these at-risk students, the school’s founding principal will cut administrative costs and put a higher percentage of the school’s public funding into teacher salaries.

Notice the euphemistic “at risk of academic failure,” the choice to use the “most-in-need” model rather than the “most-likely-to-be-helped” model,” and the term “at-risk students” used again in the second sentence.