Monthly Archives: April 2009

No More Ball of Confusion: The Reality of the Grant Making Process is Really Simple and I’m the Guy to Explain It to You

  • In the April 20, 2009 Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Williamson wrote “Stimulus Confusion Frustrates Business,” in which she states “Confusion over how to go after money allocated to various stimulus programs appears to be clouding corporate efforts to plan ahead . . .”
  • In the April 12, 2009 New York Times, Kirk Johnson wrote “Waving a Hand, Trying to Be Noticed in the Stimulus Rush,” which concerns a nonprofit group stumbling around looking behind the refrigerator looking for stimulus funds like our faithful Golden Retriever, Odette, sniffing after the scent of the salami she was tossed yesterday, and thinking, “it’s just got be here somewhere.” Kirk states, “Whether the stimulus even has a place for the ideas [the nonprofit] is pursuing is not clear.” Both the reporter and the nonprofit smell the grant salami, but can’t quite find it, while Odette eventually gives up and rolls on her back.

Sense a trend? I could cite a dozen other similar stories in which talented reporters interview presumably bright individuals, none of whom find the Stimulus Bill salami, but you get the idea: no one in the media is writing “how” stories about the ways federal funds are distributed. Instead, endless “who,” “what,” “where” and “when” articles are published, leaving readers to assume the whole process, is, as the Temptations sang when I was in high school in 1968, just a Ball of Confusion. To quote:

Evolution, revolution, gun control, sound of soul.
Shooting rockets to the moon, kids growing up too soon.
Politicians say more taxes will solve everything.
And the band played on.
So, round and around and around we go.
Where the world’s headed, nobody knows.
Oh, great googalooga, can’t you hear me talking to you.
Just a ball of confusion.

Every time I see a “ball of confusion” story about the Stimulus Bill, I write the same note to the reporter . . . “call me and in 15 minutes, I will explain how federal funding actually is distributed.” Few call, perpetuating the “ball of confusion” story line. Like Tiny Mills, my favorite professional wrestler when I was a kid growing up in the late ’50s in Minneapolis, used to say when being interviewed by announcer Marty O’Neil, “I’m all burned up, Marty, I’m all burned up.” Since I’m all burned up about the slipshod Stimulus Bill reporting, here is the shorthand version of the federal funding process (and even this is a slightly simplified version):

  • Imagine Barney Frank (if you are a Democrat) or John Boehner (if you are a Republican) waking up one morning with a bright idea to solve some real or imagined problem in American by taking money from Peter to help Paul.*
  • The bright idea is turned into a bill, which both houses of Congress pass and the President signs.
  • Funding authorization for the newly minted program is included in a budget authorization bill. In some cases, the legislation creating the program and funding are in the same bill. The recently passed ARRA (“Stimulus Bill”) both creates new programs with funds authorized for the new programs and authorizes additional funding for existing programs. An example of the first case is the Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) Program, which was originally created in 2007 but substantially modified with additional funding in the ARRA. An example of the second case is the Department of the Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Program, which received an extra $100 million under the ARRA. A new NOFA was just issued with a deadline of May 27.
  • The new program is assigned to a Federal agency, which in turns assigns existing or new staff as Program Officers for the program.
  • Along with the requisite donut eating and mindless meetings, draft regulations are written and passed among Beltway types (e.g., legislation staff, “evil” lobbyists, interest groups, etc.) for informal review and comment. After the draft regulations are made as obtuse as possible, they are published in the Federal Register for public comment, usually for 30 days.
  • Final regulations are then published, usually featuring detailed explanations of why all the public comments are stupid and pointless, meaning the final regs are generally about the same as the draft regs. This is because interested parties have already taken their shots during the informal review process and Program Officers don’t care about what folks in Dubuque think anyway. It may take a federal agency anywhere from 30 days to 180 days to publish draft regs, and the review comment period is usually 30 days. The final regs will usually appear about 30 – 60 days later. The SGIG Program mentioned above is still in the informal regulatory review stage. A client sent us the draft regs, and they are a mess (the reasons why would be a post in itself). The FOA is being drafted simultaneously with the regs to speed up the process and the FOA is supposed to be published in June.
  • After the program regs are finalized, there are two possibilities, as follows:
    • (1) If the program is a federal pass-through to the states, the money is made available for the states to distribute, using an existing or new system, and based on some formula. Most of the so-called “infrastructure” funding in the Stimulus Bill was allocated this way, allowing the feds to more or less wash their hands of the process and say, “we’ve allocated the money with lightening speed and it’s not our fault if the states are too dumb to spend it quickly.” These pass-through Stimulus Bill funds go the relevant agencies in each state, with highway construction funds to the State Transportation Department, water/sewer funds to the State Water Department, UFO landing strip construction funds to the State Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs, and so on. I will eventually write a detailed post on how states distribute funds, but I digress.
    • (2) If the program involves direct submission to the federal agency, the Program Officers draft a RFP/NOFA/SGA/FOA or what have you, which is the document that applicants will actually use as the guidelines for spinning their tales of woe and need. RFPs are sometimes published in the Federal Register, made available through Grants.gov, FedBizOpps.gov, and/or in even more obscure ways. As Jake has previously noted, Grants.gov is the central repository for all Federal grant information, except when it isn’t.**
  • Applicants prepare and submit proposals in response to the RFPs. This is what Seliger + Associates does endlessly. Depending on the funding agency, the amount of hysteria surrounding the grant program and the underlying problem it is supposed to solve, the length of time allowed for submission varies from about two weeks to three months, with 45 days being typical. In the case of new programs, where new regs and RFPs have been drafted, one can usually expect several modifications to the RFP to be published, as mistakes and inconsistencies are identified. Since we spend much of our time deciphering arcane RFPs, we often have the thankless task of letting the Program Officer know that they have screwed up their RFP. In making these calls, we usually receive snarls and growls, not attaboys in return. We don’t do this out of civic duty, but to protect our client’s interest by not having the Program Officer declare a do over and start the RFP process again.
  • Once the RFP deadline arrives, the process submerges into the murky waters of Washington, but the review process goes more or less as follows:
    • 1. Applications are “checklist reviewed” to make sure the applicant is eligible, the forms are signed, etc. In most cases, if the application is technically incorrect, it is summarily rejected. You do not pass Go and you do not get $200, but you will eventually get a charming “thanks for the lousy application” form letter. Certain funding agencies, such as HUD, may send a deficiency letter, giving the applicant one more chance to sign the forms or what have you.
    • 2. Applications that pass the technical checklist are reviewed on “merit.” These reviews can be done by the Program Officers, by “peer reviewers” (nonprofit and public agency managers lured to Washington by per diem and a $100/day honorarium) or by other Federal employees dragooned into the task. The last is the worst alternative, because the shanghaied bureaucrats will know nothing about the program and will be annoyed at having been roused from their slumber. Think of Smaug the Dragon in The Hobbit, who always slept with one eye half-open.
    • 3. The applications will be scored on some scale and, in most cases, allegedly against criteria in the RFP. The applications will be ranked by their score, at which point our old friend, politics, rears its ugly head again. Most RFPs contain language along the lines of “The Secretary reserves the right to make funding recommendations based on geography and other factors.” While the Secretary of Whatever can basically fund any agency she bloody well feels like, as a practical matter this means that the funds are spread to many states for applicants in big cities, towns and rural areas and for projects that are perceived to help certain populations of interest. One could have a highly ranked application but still not be funded due to the vagaries of the approval process. If it is good news, the applicant might get a congratulations call from their House Rep or Senator’s office before the notice of grant award letter shows up. Some our of clients have reported reading press releases in local papers from their elected representatives before they were officially notified of being funded. While most Federal agencies aim for about a 90 day review process, about three – nine months is more typical. Using six months is a good standard.
  • The grant award letter will include instructions to contact the Budget Officer who has been assigned to the application. This being the Federal government, the award being offered may be the exact amount requested, or less than requested, or even more than requested.
  • You’re not done yet because the applicant must “negotiate” a contract with the Budget Officer. If the Budget Officer thinks the budget originally submitted was not prepared in accordance with Federal budgeting rules, or is just having a bad day, he will demand that you modify your budget or prove that it is reasonable. I have lots of funny stories about this process, but will save them for future posts. After the budget is agreed, the rest of the contract is negotiated. Allow two months for the contracting process.
  • Congratulations, you’ve fallen across the finish line. Since Federal funds cannot usually be expended before contract is signed, most recipients will not begin project implementation until the money is actually available, so another three months can be added to hire staff, teach them where the restrooms are, arrange for donuts to be delivered for weekly staff meetings and the like. Keep in mind that, if the money is for construction of something, add additional time for environmental reviews, permits, bidding and yet more contracts!

How much time is likely to go by before funds for new programs in the Stimulus Bill actually start stimulating something other than reporter’s imaginations? Adding it all up, I’ve got:

  • 3 months to develop regulations
  • 2 months to develop the RFP
  • 1.5 months for submission of applications
  • 6 months for application review
  • 5 months for contracting/start-up activities

If all goes right—and it almost never does—it takes at least one year for a Federal grant program to move from congressional approval/budget authorization to walkin’ around money for nonprofits. Keep in mind that this is for a program involving direct Federal competition. In the case of state pass-through programs, an additional one to three years can be added, depending on state budgeting and other processes. We’ll be writing “Stimulus Bill” proposals in the twilight of President Obama’s first term!


* As George Bernard Shaw famously quipped, “The government who robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”

** The CDFI Program is a good example of how Federal agencies sometimes “forget” to publish their grant opportunities in grants.gov or the Federal Register. As noted above, the Department of the Treasury received $100 million in extra Stimulus Bill funds for this program and decided to use $45 million to fund additional applications for the last funding round, which closed in October. The funding announcements for the October round have not yet been made, so for those of you counting, six months has gone by since the application deadline. Even though there is much gnashing of teeth in the media about banks not lending, the Treasury Department itself is taking forever to get its funds on the street.

The other $55 million in CDFI Stimulus Bill funds have been set aside for new applicants in a supplemental funding round, which has been rumored for two months. The NOFA was finally issued on April 21, with a deadline of May 27, but was only placed on an obscure part of the CDFI web site, if one drills down to “News and Events.” It is not listed on the “How to Apply Page,” which includes timely info on the deadline for last October. Nor was it published on Grants.gov or in the Federal Register. If there are any aspiring Woodward or Bernstein type investigative reporters out there, you might want to find out why the Department of Treasury did as little as possible to let potential applicants know about this very sweet pot of gold. With all the fuss and bother over the Stimulus Bill, one would have thought the Department of the Treasury would have been trumpeting the availability of these funds.

From the Department of “No Kidding:” Grants.gov Warns of Outages at High Service Period

Those of you who are working feverishly to finish Federal proposals by Monday should stop surfing the Internet and get back to your assignment, because Grants.gov has finally figured out (or admitted) what Seliger + Associates did five years ago. According to the post “High Submission Volume” from the Grants.gov blog, which is written with a voice somewhere between “press release” and “technical bulletin,”

There are 29 Grant Opportunities closing on Monday, April 27, 2009, including a large Recovery Act opportunity for NIH that is expected to receive an unprecedented number of applications. The submissions for these opportunities have already begun and will continue to grow as we move towards April 27.

(emphasis added).

Imagine Amazon announcing that you can’t buy books a week before Christmas, or Stubhub saying that you should wait until after the Superbowl to look for tickets and telling you to use their services when no one else is. Whoever is running Grants.gov probably don’t see the irony of announcing instability when the largest number of people are likely to use the system and that you can depend on the system when using it isn’t important. In his first post about Grants.gov, Isaac wrote:

[T]he real world deadline for Grants.gov submissions is actually two days in advance of the published deadline, since, unless there is a system meltdown, the funding agency is unlikely to give you any slack. So, if the upload gets screwed up, you’re generally screwed as well.

Now even the Grants.gov administrators have effectively acknowledged this. I wonder if RFP writers will eventually start including this caveat. Regardless, I’ll reiterate what I said in the first paragraph: if you’re working against a Monday deadline, stop shirking your duties and get that proposal uploaded!

EDIT: More entertaining news appeared this weekend. Grants.gov is supposed to be the central repository for all grant-related aspects of the federal government. But we’ve now learned that “[… S]elect programs may choose to use alternate systems to process grant applications during this heightened period of demand.” Remember: everything goes through Grants.gov. Unless it doesn’t.

In addition, Grants.gov must be getting the Santa Claus calls we’ve been getting, which Isaac discussed at the link, because the front page now says that “Grants.gov does not provide personal financial assistance. To learn where you may find personal help, check Government Benefits, Student Loans and Small Business Start-up Loans.”

Reading “Arugulance” and then Writing It

After reading the first draft of “One of the Open Secrets of Grant Writing and Grant Writers: Reading,” I suggested that Jake lay down for a while, as he seemed to have worked himself into a frenzy over the subject of no reading versus some reading versus close reading versus . . . well, you’ve gotten the idea from reading his post. So, it was with some surprise that I found myself (here it comes) “reading” the Sunday New York Times yesterday, when I came across Maureen Dowd’s column.

Ordinarily, I don’t read her column, as she is usually even too cynical for a inherently cynical and grizzled grant writer like me. This time, however, the headline caught my eye because it used the term “arugulance,” which I learned is shorthand for the arrogance of the grow local/buy local/shop at Whole Paycheck movement. As luck would have it, I had been writing a federal grant proposal over the weekend for a client that plans to expand access for low-income folks to a nearby urban farmers’ market to reduce obesity, et al. There in the Times I found the perfect term to sum up my project concept. Jake, I stand corrected. I guess I should stop watching Idol and ’50s Westerns and get a subscription to some esoteric periodicals instead.

One of the open secrets of grant writing and grant writers: reading

Good writing is inextricably linked to reading, and this is true not only of grant writing, but of virtually any genre. Most of what you pick up through reading is subliminal: you’re not consciously studying ideas, or rhythms, or structure, or vocabulary,* but you absorb them through osmosis regardless of your intention. You learn words via context, how to understand sophisticated sentences, and the techniques writers use to impart meaning. When it’s time to write, you recombine elements of virtually every writer you’ve ever read; Francine Prose says in her excellent book, Reading Like a Writer, “Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books.” After you’ve been writing for a long time, this comes to be so axiomatic that you forget that not everyone knows it.

You not only learn how to write, but what to write. With grant writing, if you’ve read The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns, you’ve read what is probably the best description of urban poverty that exists. If you’ve read Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, you’ll have still more ballast to add. If you’ve read Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, you know how to describe rural towns so desolate that tumbleweeds count as company and hope for many people means fleeing. Elmore Leonard’s caper novels, like Get Shorty and Out of Sight, are justifiably acclaimed for their impeccable dialog and for their depiction of wise-guys trying to get ahead. The value of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well should be evident from its title.

Reading is more than just books. If you’ve seen our link posts, you know more about a vast array of social issues likely to be the basis of grant programs. I have hundreds of articles and reports on my hard drive, which I regularly rummage using Spotlight and plain old memory for data and ideas when proposals. If you don’t read, you won’t acquire the stuff from which proposals are often made. In reading, you also learn something of how the world works. If you’re a grant writer and deal with federal, state, and local agencies and you haven’t read Bureaucratic Language in Government and Business, you’re making a mistake, because the book will teach you about why many frustrating things are the way they are.

Beyond content, you’ll also see that grammar, spelling, syntax, and style count. You can find virtually everything on those subjects that you need for grant writing in Write Right!, a book we’ve linked to and praised before and will again because it’s so extraordinarily useful and terse (perhaps those two adjectives are redundant when combined: were Wright Right! 1,000 pages, would it still be useful?). The book is $10 from Amazon. There is no reason not to have and have read a copy if you produce any amount of prose on even an irregular basis.

It’s important that you know what Write Right! contains, even if you don’t own that book. Steven King says—yes, that Steven King, the one who can’t get no respect—analogizes writing to carpentry in his excellent book On Writing that grammar, spelling, syntax and the like are towards the top of your writers’ toolbox and that you can learn them relatively easily if you want to—and excuses won’t fly:

[T]his isn’t high school. Now that you’re not worried that (a) your skirt is too short or too long and the other kids will laugh at you, (b) you’re not going to make the varsity swimming team, (c) you’re still going to be a pimple-studded virgin when you graduate (probably when you die, for that matter), (d) the physics teacher won’t grade the final on a curve, or (e) nobody really likes you anyway AND THEY NEVER DID . . . now that all that extraneous shit is out of the way, you can study certain academic matters with a degree of concentration you could never manage while attending the local textbook loonybin.

Isn’t that a clever way of putting it? Sure, the passage has a flaw or two—the double “that” in the last sentence is a bit weak and the tone maybe slightly more colloquial than I usually write, but it’s effective. When King writes “local textbook loonybin,” we know exactly how he feels about schools, and he speaks with authority on them, since he’s been both prisoner and warden in them, and it sounds like he wasn’t impressed with his cohort in either role. You don’t develop the skills to show these kinds of subtle cues unless you read a lot and get used to close reading.

I’m guessing King didn’t stop and think to himself, “what word or phrase should I use to show what I think of secondary schools in the United States that will convince the reader I’m on their side?” I bet it just hit him, he liked it, and he rolled with it, much as I picked up his theme and wrote “prisoner” and “warden” in lieu of “student” and “teacher” because so many people do feel like school has many penitentiary aspects (I’m hardly the first to notice this: Paul Graham wrote in “Why Nerds are Unpopular:” “What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates.” Herman Hesse wrote about the same issues regarding Germany in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.)

Anyway, King’s point is that you have no business being a writer if you’re not going to learn something of grammar, syntax, and style, and I’ll reiterate it. Furthermore, as King also observes, you already know the vast majority of English grammar merely by being a native speaker. Anything additional will mostly be names (what’s a gerund again? “a form regularly derived from a verb and functioning as a noun,” or, more simply, an -ing word, like working. See? You already use gerunds all the time) or fillips like “omit unnecessary words,” which is by the far best writing advice I’ve ever read or heard. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the shortest.

Oh, and books speak to each other. If I’d never read On Writing, I wouldn’t be able to cite it here. If I hadn’t read a lot, and read deeply, I wouldn’t have been able to construct this post with the numerous examples that help prove my point and give it the force and authority of a bunch of references and links and allusions to other writers, not all of which are explicit. Speaking of allusion, it’s worth shooting down one other amateur’s canard, namely that reading a lot will somehow “pollute” you. Mavis Gallant’s The Paris Notebooks is worth quoting, by way of Kate’s Book Blog:

There is no such thing as a writer who has escaped being influenced. I have never heard a professional writer of any quality or standing talk about “pure” style, or say he would not read this or that for fear of corrupting or affecting his own; but I have heard it from would-be writers and amateurs. Corruption–if that is the word–sets in from the moment a child learns to speak and hear language used and misused. A young person who does not read, and read widely, will never write anything–at least, nothing of interest.

All this isn’t to say that you have to become a monkishly devoted reader, slaving over Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to be a writer (although the latter is more a joy than pain, which Alain de Botton makes a strong argument for in How Proust Can Change Your Life). Even if you don’t let Proust change your life, you should let someone try to via text if you want to be a good writer. One of the best essay I’ve read about reading comes from Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?“, which says:

[…] the Census Bureau and the National Endowment for the Arts [have,] since 1982, asked thousands of Americans questions about reading that are not only detailed but consistent. The results, first reported by the N.E.A. in 2004, are dispiriting. In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002. Last month, the N.E.A. released a follow-up report, “To Read or Not to Read,” which showed correlations between the decline of reading and social phenomena as diverse as income disparity, exercise, and voting. In his introduction, the N.E.A. chairman, Dana Gioia, wrote, “Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement.”

Correlation is not causation, as I’ve repeatedly observed, and merely because you don’t read copious amounts of creative literature doesn’t mean you’re not reading lots of other meritorious—as opposed to meretricious—material. Nonetheless, Crain goes into some of the neuroscience behind reading as well as studies regarding readers’ ability to reason, compare arguments, make logical inferences, and the like. Hint: non-readers don’t come out well. By the way, if you didn’t follow my earlier link to “Twilight of the Books,” you should do so now because it’s a brilliant piece, and even were it not, you should read simply for further grant writing knowledge. I regularly quote it in proposals because the article distills so much about what’s known about literacy and the dangers of its reduction in the general population. It often dovetails with Neal Stephenson’s extended argument about the widening gap between the reading/nerd class in his new novel, Anathem, which posits a world in which the reading/nerd class lives in monasteries, shuns video, and studies abstract logic and math, while the outside world takes the equivalent of happy pills and eats junk food. An early form of these ideas are evident in his much more readable op-ed piece, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.”

Reading the New Yorker regularly allowed me to find “Twilight of the Books,” and many of the proposals I’ve written would’ve been worse without it. Now, I’m not trying to be this guy or say that TV rots your brain or whatever else lit snobs say. TV offers some material and allusions that’ll be more widely recognized than many literary allusions, but it’s difficult to quote TV or movies directly and seldom at the depth you’ll need for writing.**

In addition, I’m not arguing that you need reading boot camp. I don’t think you can force yourself to read, boot camp style, and only the actual enjoyment of reading will work. Virtually all professional writers do. If you want to read more, the question arises concerning what you should read. My answer is that it probably doesn’t matter much, as long as you’re reading something that’s been professionally written and edited. In periodical terms, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times are excellent, as is the Atlantic magazine. I also like the New Yorker, as mentioned earlier, although I don’t think I’ve ever read every article word-for-word. But great articles like “Twilight of the Books” make up for ones that grow tedious after a page. The Economist has an impressive grasp on foreign affairs and it’s not unusual for people to swear by Harper’s.

The other major source of good stuff is books. If you read some of the newspapers and magazines listed above, you’ll notice their book review sections, which will often point you toward things to read. In addition, the ten books I most often recommend are:

Fiction Nonfiction
Richard Russo, Straight Man Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence:
500 Years of Western Cultural Life
Alain de Botton, On Love Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd,
The Time Paradox
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise:
Listening to the 20th Century
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, & Steel
Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

None of these books are directly related to grant writing, but they’re all enormously fun while also being reasonably cerebral. All the King’s Men describes politics and, in a broader sense, human nature; Cryptonomicon is hilarious and insightful, and it’s not coincidental that I cited another Stephenson novel above; From Dawn to Decadence imparts more knowledge about history than four years of high school did; and Reading like a Writer will help anyone read and think better.

Chances are that I shouldn’t have to explain all this, but I read tons of proposals and blog posts and reports that indicate their authors don’t read much, which is virtually synonymous with saying they don’t like to read, because if you like to do something, you’ll do it, particularly given that reading is, these days, considered a virtue, which is pretty funny if you know about the history of the novel. Isaac said that I’m perhaps being overly strident or emphatic in this post. He might be correct, but it’s obvious that many would-be writers aren’t taking the advice given above. Don’t be one of them.

In short, if you’re trying to be a grant writer—or any kind of writer—and you don’t like to read, you’re going to be like a person trying to swim with iron weights tied around their ankles. You might make it a little ways, but it’ll be neither pretty nor easy nor pleasant. Plenty of people in such circumstances flail around publicly on blogs or embarrass themselves privately in e-mail. But if you’re going to write professionally, or even as a competent volunteer, you’re not going to get anywhere without reading, and you’re not going to understand why you’re not getting anywhere or why you’re not getting funded.

Did you find it easy to follow my metaphor of the swimmer? If so, you’re probably used to comparative imagery, as virtually all forms of human speech are, on some level, comparative, which Steven Pinker argues in The Stuff of Thought. If you didn’t find that metaphor easy to follow, scroll up to the table that’s a few paragraphs above this one.

That’s a good place to start.

EDIT: Isaac wrote “Reading ‘Arugulance’ and then Writing It” as a follow-up.


* Vocabulary is such a good proxy for reading sophistication that lots of standardized tests, including the GRE and SAT, use it. Sure, you can memorize word lists to the game the test, but that’s tremendously cumbersome, boring and probably ineffective. Even then, you still can’t fake a lifetime of not reading by two months of cramming, as I discovered when I taught the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) for about a year and found people who were terrible at the reading comprehension and wanted to know how to improve within weeks. I never had a good answer for them, because there is no way over the short term.

** Notice that the top 100 TV catchphrases of all time as measured by, well, whoever measures such things, contains mostly interjections (“a part of speech that usually has no grammatical connection with the rest of the sentence and simply expresses emotion on the part of the speaker”) and short, simple phrases more noted for their delivery than their word content. On the page, you don’t get delivery: you only get content.

No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer

The Stimulus Bill deluge has begun, and we’ve been getting lots of calls from for-profit companies interested in Department of Energy “Funding Opportunity Announcements” (FOA is DOE-speak for RFP). Usually the caller will say something along the lines of, “So, how many funded proposals for Dilithium Crystal research have you written?” This leads me to launch into my standard response, which is more less as follows:

We’ve never written funded proposals for this particular unusual topic—but so what? There are lots of things we haven’t written about. Looking for qualified grant writers is about the same as looking for unicorns: don’t make a hard problem insolvable by looking for a unicorn with a horn of a certain length or one that has purple spots. Be happy to find one at all. And, of course, keep in mind that most creatures you’ll find in the forest that look like unicorns are actually just ponies with party hats taped to their heads.

We’re also transparent to funding sources, so it’s not like the DOE Program Officer is going to say, “Great, another proposal from Seliger + Associates, we love these guys” (or the reverse). The funding source won’t even know we exist, so the proposal is going to rise or fall based on the believability of the applicant, the competition, the technical correctness of the proposal and the story it tells. We take care of and are experts in the last two aspects. The first one is up to the client, and the second is unknowable. To hire us, you have to be like Demi Moore responding to Patrick Swayze’s question in Ghost: “Do you believe?” If you believe we can write the proposal, hire us. Otherwise, crack your knuckles and start writing the proposal yourself.

In saying the above, which I’ve been doing endlessly for the past two months, I’m trying to get across the concept that qualified grant writers like Seliger + Associates could presumably write anything, just as journalists are trained to cover anything. When I started this business 16 years ago, my immediate background was mostly in economic development and redevelopment. I quickly decided that what the world needed was general purpose grant writing firms, and we took on any proposal writing assignment for which the client was eligible and able to afford our fees. We began writing all kinds of human services proposals about which we knew essentially nothing.

For example, in late 1993, we wrote a proposal for a small nonprofit in South Central Los Angeles for the then-new HUD version of the YouthBuild program. The NOFA was fantastically complex and disjointed, demonstrating how some things don’t change. After studying the NOFA like a Talmudist using the “pilpul” approach, I quickly discerned that it was really just another job training program and not an affordable housing program, despite being issued by HUD and being wrapped up in housing ribbons. We wrote the proposal, which was the only YouthBuild grant awarded in Southern California for that first funding cycle, even though competing applicants included the LA County Housing Authority and lots of other heavy hitters. It was probably funded because we were the only grant writers who could cobble together a compelling story in the face of the incoherent and obtuse NOFA.*

As this first YouthBuild (and eventually dozens of other proposals) were funded for a cacophony of organizations and programs, we could have proclaimed ourselves “experts” in numerous areas. No matter how many funded proposals on any particular topic we’ve churned out over the years, however, we still call ourselves generalists and never represent the company any other way. I often describe our knowledge base as being like an oil slick: a few molecules thick and very wide. Whenever someone hires us to write for a program or project concept we know nothing about—which is quite often—the slick becomes a bit wider, but not much thicker. So, while we’re pretty familiar with, say, SAMHSA or HRSA from writing endless proposals to them, we still don’t claim special knowledge about substance abuse treatment or primary health care. As we like to say, “we just write ’em.”

I am old enough to have been a busy, busy grant writer during the energy crisis of the late 1970s and actually wrote a funded proposal for the long-forgotten DOE Electric Vehicle Demonstration Grant Program and other state and federal alternative energy programs. When working as the Grants Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, I was detailed to find companies and grants to recycle the approximately 6,000,000 old tires that had been stored on about 20 acres of land in Lynwood since World War II. I put out the word that the City was looking for would-be tire recyclers and was soon inundated with lots of folks who wanted to use someone else’s money to try out their tire recycling schemes.

These ranged from the somewhat plausible, like turning the tires back into oil, to my personal favorite, turning them into margarine. I am not making this up: “Steel-belted Blue Bonnet, anyone?” None of these panned out, although I had a lot of fun flying around the country to look at prototype plants. As luck would have it, none of those prototypes were actually operating when I got there (“you should have been here yesterday!”) and all seemed to be fronted by two guys: a fast talking promoter type in white shoes and a white belt—this is the ’70s, remember—and a “scientist” with a vague German/Eastern European accent (“Vie vill take ze tires und cook zem until ze molecules crack. Zen vie vill make zem into ze margarine!”).

Flash forward to 2009. The Stimulus Bill gusher is roaring and bringing out lots of folks who want their piece of the DOE pie. Guess what? For every seemingly legit potential applicant (e.g. utility company, car battery manufacturer, etc.), I’m getting about two calls from the “white shoes and mad scientist” crowd. We’re happy to work for anyone as long as they are eligible applicants. But it helps if they also can provide us with technical content about their research design, proposed products, etc. We’re now writing a fair number of DOE proposals and, sooner or later, one or more will be funded. Will this make us “experts” at DOE grants? No: we’ll still just be general purpose grant writers, but the slick will be wider and perhaps even a nanometer (a little tech talk to get myself in the mood for DOE) or two thicker.

The real point of this post is that a good grant writer should be able to write anything, just as I was able to write the Electric Vehicle proposal in the ’70s. As Randy Jackson likes to say on American Idol, “The theory is that Mariah Carey can sing anything. You hear that expression, ‘She can sing the phone book.’ So if you can really sing, you should be able to sing anything, so we’re testing them. That’s the whole competition.” It pains me to admit it, but over the last two years I’ve finally succumbed to the many charms of Idol (or, as Jake calls it, American Idle). While I’ve yet to bring myself to vote, I finally grok the show, and it’s obvious that Randy is right. Some contestants, like this year’s Adam Lambert and Danny Gokey and last year’s winner, David Cook, really could sing the phone book, while others, like this year’s just kicked off Megan Joy or last year’s dreadlocked wonder Jason Castro, are really mediocre singers. In picking a grant writer, make sure they really can “sing the phone book, Dawg.”


* A fun anecdote: when HUD issued the YouthBuild NOFA for the next funding round the following year, the NOFA had been changed to model the proposal we had written. In other words, we had explained the YouthBuild program to HUD by writing a simple, declarative proposal in the face of extraordinary obfuscation.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Offender Reentry Program and Prisoner Re-entry Initiative

In an August 24 blog post, we wrote:

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[…]

Now SAMHSA has released the FY 2009 Offender Reentry Program, with $8.2M available and grants to $400,000 per year; in 2008, the Prisoner Re-entry Initiative Grants was released. This is the kind of grant wave that smart agencies in tangential areas will attend to. I can only say: “Cowabunga—surf’s up!”

If you want free samples, go to Costco; for proposal writing, go to a grant writer

People regularly discover Grant Writing Confidential by searching for template proposals. For example, two recent searches that turned up in our query logs include “carol m. white pep sample proposal” and “free grant writing samples.” At least the former person is more likely to find something useful than the latter, since a generic proposal is going to be about as useful as a random pair of shoes: you might be a woman and get a man’s shoes, or need sneakers and find boots. Still, in both cases, the searcher is engaging in a futile effort similar to that described in “Tilting at Windmills: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing.” Free grant writing lunches and useful free sample proposals don’t really exist.

There are two major, obvious problems in “free proposals:” they aren’t likely to be useful for the specific project and funding source you’re looking to write / apply to, and, even if they magically are, you’ll be trying to adapt a proposal that other would-be grant writers have also hunted down. The first issue is arguably more pressing: if you’ve found a “general” sample proposal, it will tell you absolutely nothing about the specific proposal you have to write. The RFP might require a radically different structure, since no two RFPs are alike and even annual federal RFPs change from year to year, as we discussed in The Danger Zone: Common RFP Traps; the information about your specific agency and area obviously won’t be in the sample proposal; the program you’re supposed to run will bear as much resemblance to the sample as a newt does to a grizzly bear; and so on. It takes an experienced grant writer to artfully adapt an existing proposal, and, if the grant writer is good enough to re-conceptualize a sample proposal, she doesn’t need the sample anyway—talk about a Catch-22.

Furthermore, proposals that are sufficiently general to make them worth copying are also probably not specific enough to be fundable. And even if they are specific enough for your program, you’re still running up against the larger problem of others using the same template. If a reviewer reads one proposal from Dubuque Family Outreach and another from Davenport Afterschool Inc. with identical or nearly identical content, there’s a decent chance the reviewer will reject both on principle. You’re going to suffer the danger plagiarists everywhere do: that someone else will stumble across the same material and submit it. If four people find the same hypothetical example of a Carol M. White proposal searched for above, the reviewers might figure out that you’ve all cribbed from the same source and reject all four proposals wholesale. If your average high school English teacher can spot plagiarism, even a Department of Education reviewer, who probably was a high school English teacher at some point, will be easily be able to do so.

Sometimes prospective clients ask for sample proposals, but we never provide them for a number of reasons. A random proposal on an unrelated subject will tell you little about how a proposal for your project and your program will turn out. We also respect our clients’ privacy and thus don’t hand out their work. Clients hire grant writers to prepare proposals for them, not for tossing into the Google ocean. If we write a proposal for you, we’re not going to share it with anyone else—and neither should any grant writer. We never take credit for proposals we’ve been hired to write. In addition, any sample that lands on the net will simply be endlessly copied by the same people who don’t know any better or suffer from the l-a-z-y disease. This isn’t merely idle paranoia: once, we had a new client, and as always we requested that they send old proposals and other background material to us. They sent a proposal that had clearly been copied from an old one of ours, much to our amusement.

Proposals won’t help you evaluate grant writers. What might help you is a) track records and b) some evidence of an ability to write in general. Not to toot our own horn, but in we’ve been in business since 1993 and have had over 500 clients in 42 states. That more than 500 clients have hired us should indicate that we’re able to produce proposals. In addition, the dozens of posts on this blog demonstrate that we can write.

If you’re reading this after searching for sample proposals, you should be convinced that you’re wasting your time. But you should also know more about how to learn to write proposals of your own. A good proposal will answer six questions. If you can’t figure out how to write simple declarative sentences that answer “Who, what, where, when, why, and how” coherently, take a journalism class at your local community college, which will teach you more about grant writing than an infinite number of sample proposals. Furthermore, you’ll start to learn what good writing is and what it sounds like, which will help you evaluate your own writing and that produced by others.

We discussed this in greater detail in Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain, and to the discussion in that post I would also recommend my favorite journalism book: Mitchell V. Charnley’s Reporting, which one of my high school teachers recommended and which I’ve been carrying around since. The book describes three important, interrelated skills for grant writers: how to tell stories, how to structure stories, and how to write clearly and concisely. The book is so old that you can imagine Mitch chewing a cigar while he reads the copy for the afternoon edition, striking a word here and there and maybe taking a second to tell you a story about that crook from the legislature who got busted thirty years ago for an unusual take on the usual vices.

My major motivations in writing this post are to a) explain how things work, b) help spread knowledge, and c) convince people to stop wasting time. I realize that “c)” is an unlikely outcome, but any improvement is welcome. For whatever reason, many people seem to think that they’ll learn something by reading sample proposals. They won’t—and neither will you.