Monthly Archives: June 2009

The Stimulus Bill Enters the Bizarro World

We’ve been up to our elbows writing Stimulus Bill proposals for a couple of months now with no end in sight and the oddities are beginning to pile up. Here are a few:

* We’re working on a HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 (NSP 2) proposal for a California city. Nothing is particularly unusual about the 194 page NOFA—except that no budget forms are required. For the last ten years or so, HUD has required a mind numbing coterie of complex budget forms, including SF424A, HUD CB and HUD CBW, along with a detailed budget narrative. While NSP2 provides grant awards with a minimum of $5,000,000, a simple “blob” table, with no line item detail or justification, is the only required budget document. Better still, HUD is allowing applicants to take a 10% administrative rake off the top, so a grantee can pocket $500,000 on a $5,000,000 grant without any explanation. When we couldn’t find budget instructions or forms in the NOFA, we sent an inquiry to the NSP2 Program Officer, Jessi Molinengo, and received the following response:

On page 24, IV.3.a, The NOFA states that you will indicate how you will use NSP2 funds by providing a list or table showing the amount of funds budgeted for each eligible use and CDBG eligible activity.

Duh. We’d already figured that out and were incredulous that HUD would give up on any pretense of accountability and transparency, but apparently HUD has contracted ARRA-flu and entered the Bizarro World.* But if that’s all they want, that’s all we’ll give them. After all, one of Seliger + Associates’ grant writing rules is the Golden Rule: “The folks with gold make the rules.”

* We just finished a proposal for the Tribal Title IV-E Plan Development Grant Program on behalf of an Indian Tribe. Through a series of mishaps, our client, who had decided to send in the finished proposal themselves, wanted to FedEx the submission package on the day it was due in D.C. We told them to save the cost, as the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) would reject it for being late. Our contact person was very unhappy, so I told him to try calling ACF. He did, and they agreed to take the proposal late. Once again, we’re in the Bizarro World, as I have never seen this happen in 37 years of grant writing.

* We wrote four funded Department of Labor YouthBuild proposals for the most recent RPF cycle that completed last January. This is nothing new, as we’ve written lots of funded YouthBuild proposals over the years. What is surprising is that one of our clients sent us a email blast he received from the DOL YouthBuild Program Officer, Anne Stom, breathlessly announcing an avalanche of new Stimulus Bill grants pouring out of D.C.:

Today, the US Department of Labor – Employment and Training Administration announced an exciting new grant opportunity – five distinct Green Jobs Workforce Development grant solicitations. As a current or new Youthbuild grantee, you are eligible to seek funding for green jobs training, capacity building, and other programs under these SGAs, and we encourage you to go for it!

Note Anne’s giddy enthusiasm. Communiques from federal officials are usually written in the droll style of Ben Stein, but this one could have been delivered by Vince Shlomi, the ShamWow Guy.**

The Stimulus Bill is distorting the Federal grant making process and is apparently also taking its toll on grant writers. I received the following email from a faithful GWC reader who wishes to remain anonymous:

I was wondering if you would consider writing about how to handle the increased load and stress of the grant writing related to the stimulus funding, and people’s desire for grant writers to go after every available prospect no matter the health and well being of their staff. What have you found over the years about this issue? I am working at a Settlement House and my staff is dropping like flies, and I recently had a doc tell me I have to reduce the stress. I am not sure how that is even possible in this career.

The short answer to the problem of stress and grant writing is that there is no answer. If one cannot handle the stress of endlessly recurring deadlines, then this is the wrong career choice. Personally, endless deadlines are what I like most about grant writing, because there is a finite aspect to completing grant proposals. When we’ve finished yet another proposal and the deadline has arrived, we can turn off the proposal extruding machine, leave the office, go home and retire to the pool to gaze at ever-changing Catalina Mountains and enjoy an Aviation cocktail or three.***

On the serious side, an agency shouldn’t wildly apply for grants just because the money is there, since you might get funded and actually have to run the program. Although the Stimulus Bill is like a smorgasbord for applicants, try not to overload your plate, even if Program Officers like Anne Stom are screaming at you, “Eat, eat, you’re so thin!”

Last February, I predicted this Stimulus madness in Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing. At Seliger + Associates, we are writing faster and furiouser, but we handle the stress by not accepting assignments we cannot complete, even if it means we turn down work. At the moment we’re not taking assignments with deadlines before early to mid August and it has been that way for months. We keep our eye on the prize, which is to prepare well written, technically correct proposals that put our clients in the running to be funded. If you’re an applicant, remember that it is better to submit one or two carefully crafted proposals than a dozen half-baked ones. You’ll get more grant funds and your grant writer will not run away to become a circus clown.


* Like Jerry Seinfeld, I was a big fan of Superman comics (Batman who?) when I was a kid and loved that he resurrected the Bizarro World in his TV series.

** My daughter bought me a box of ShamWows for my birthday and they work great. Now, if one of the kids will buy me a Slap Chop, I’ll have it all. To quote Vince, “Are you following me, camera guy?” [Editor Jake’s note: this is not going to come from me.]

*** To make serious cocktails like The Aviation, one needs exotic ingredients like Maraschino Liqueur and Creme de Violette, which means one needs a great liquor store. After years of putting up with state owned liquor stores in the hopelessly provincial Washington, I was delighted to be introduced to the exceptional Rum Runner by Jake after arriving in Tucson, which is well-stocked and run by pros who will track down any spirit you need to lift your spirits after a hard day slaving over hot proposals.

Talk of the Nation, The Department of Education’s Arne Duncan, and Stimulus Slowness

On the way to Seliger + Associates’ new Tucson offices last week, I listened to Neal Conan conduct an interview with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that illustrates problems with both Stimulus Bill (ARRA) passthrough funding and media coverage of contentious issues.

Issue One: Stimulus Bill Distribution

Conan said that education stimulus funding to states had become entangled in bureaucratic morasses. Well, he actually cited NPR education reporter Claudia Sanchez’s reporting on how little stimulus money had gone anywhere because of disagreements about distribution, but I think my first sentence is more accurate. Duncan countered said that 25 states had applied and that more than $20 billion had gone “out the door.”

But neither number means much: which 25 states had applied? The big ones, or the small ones? How much had they distributed downwards? Why are states turning down federal money? And what does this say for the timeliness of the stimulus bill? In a February 16, 2009 post, Isaac wrote:

… despite the best intentions of our President and Congress—it’s going to take quite a while to get the money to the streets. Most Federal agencies usually take anywhere from three to six months to select grantees and probably another three months to sign contracts. My experience with Federal employees is that they work slower, not faster, under pressure, and there is no incentive whatsoever for a GS-10* to burn the midnight oil.

We’re now in June, and Duncan is proud that 25 states have applied and/or been approved for Stimulus Bill funding by the Department of Education. But “applying for or being approved” is another fairly pointless metric. It’s analogous to the Secretary saying that he’s proud that 25 million teenagers are in high school, when the actually important metric is how many graduate.

It seems likely that the inevitable bureaucratic snafus accompanying efforts like the Stimulus Bill are occurring as predicted in our Blog, since no the Feds seem unable to accurately detail the only metrics that matter, how much Stimulus Bill money has actually been spent and what jobs resulted.

Issue Two: The Need for Precision

The second big issue is what else Duncan talked about, or rather didn’t, regarding education: specifics. Many of his points were platitudes that anyone can agree with. Who doesn’t want high-performing schools, excellent teachers, demanding curricula, and so forth? Can I see a show of hands? Will the party against those features please say so on its platform? This is symptomatic of the larger focus on “what” people want, rather than how it is to be accomplished.

The big contention regarding education and so many other programs operated by government or nonprofit agencies aren’t about the “what” we want done—good schools, etc.—but on the how. Will yet another round of educational reform mean being able to hire and fire teachers at will? Convert more schools into charter schools of offer vouchers? Pour more money into existing systems? Train teachers? Lower class size? Fragment existing school districts? At least in the fifteen minutes I heard, Duncan answered none of these questions. This holds an important lesson for grant writers: if you’re working on a problem, it’s not enough to emphasize the “what”—you need to cover the “how” as well. If you’re not telling the funding source what Project Nutria will do, you haven’t told them anything useful.

A Bonus Link

(As a side note, I later heard “Funds would brighten solar industry” on the subject of delays in stimulus funding for that sector. The piece quotes Mike Finocchario, president of Schott Solar, saying, “There’s a slowdown in the marketplace, people basically waiting to see what the stimulus package is going to provide for them.”)

You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Journal Tells You

The Wall Street Journal published a misleading article by Dennis Nishi called “Early Transition to Blog Pro,” about BoingBoing’s Mark Frauenfelder. It has two major problems: it implies that many more people make money solely from blogging than actually do, as though one can make a quick career of blogging (“How You Can Get There, Too”) and it doesn’t discuss how people actually use their blogs to make money, which is by selling ancillary services.

Problem One: No Money

Frauenfelder says that his blog does “make enough from advertising alone to cover costs and salaries,” but that “it’s hard to grow on just advertising.” Other bloggers—whose blog is a cornerstone of their career strategy—have already dealt with this issue in almost the exact language that he uses. As Penelope Trunk writes in “Reality check: You’re not going to make money from your blog,” people whose blogs are their income are very much the anomaly.” Right: even she doesn’t derive her primary income from blogging. Google ads pay almost nothing. Banner ads are worth almost nothing, and the market for advertising has cratered with the Great Recession.

Notice her first point: “Big bloggers come from big media.” She wrote a syndicated column before Brazen Careerist. If you’re not already involved in big media, you’re even less likely to make money blogging.

The experience described in “Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest” is probably more common: “Many people who think blogging is a fast path to financial independence also find themselves discouraged.”

First-Move Advantage

Frauenfelder has a first-mover advantage. Notice this:

Not long after [Frauenfelder’s magazine distributor folded], I discovered blogs and loved how easy they made it to publish, so I turned BoingBoing into one in 2000. It had already become a web zine (so) it seemed like a natural evolution.

He started nine years ago, before anyone on a newspaper staff had even heard the word “blog.” BoingBoing is now one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, in part because it covers technology, which is perhaps the most pervasive topic on the net. Very people are going to get there, even if they do work as hard as he has. Even then, I’d love to see Frauenfelder’s tax returns, because I bet he’s not making all that much despite running one of the Internet’s most popular blogs. Virtually no one is making any money directly from web advertising except Google (more on that later).

Lying With Numbers

The sidebar to “Early Transition to Blog Pro” claims:

Salary range: According to Henry Copeland, founder of BlogAds.com, a Web advertising concern based in Carrboro, N.C., self-employed bloggers in 2007 took in between $2,000 and $10,000 a month from ad sales.

I’d love to see what those numbers are based on, how Copeland defines self-employed, and so forth, especially since the numbers come from a person with an interest in making them appear high. This is a classic example of bogus data appearing in newspapers, and it’s the sort of thing that makes people doubt the news; this statistic could be an example in James Fallows’ Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.

Paul Graham explains how bogus numbers get into newspapers in The Submarine, which concerns how public relations lurk beneath much of what you read and watch. In one example, he says:

Our greatest PR coup was a two-part one. We estimated, based on some fairly informal math, that there were about 5000 stores on the Web. We got one paper to print this number, which seemed neutral enough. But once this “fact” was out there in print, we could quote it to other publications, and claim that with 1000 users we had 20% of the online store market.

Copeland did the same thing to the WSJ, which is unusual—not because he tried, but because they bit. Without real metrics, Copeland’s numbers are garbage, and I doubt they’d stand up to, say, peer review. You can see the same kind of twisting in data about, say, job creation through government spending.

Still, Blogging Isn’t a Waste of Time

That being said, Trunk also argues that “Blogging [is] essential for a good career,” which is true for the reasons she gives and one she doesn’t: it sends a powerful signal of your intellectual engagement and prowess. You can’t fake enthusiasm and knowledge on a blog, where what you know and how you express what you know is available for all to see; Geoffrey Miller discusses extensively in his book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.

Note, however, that Trunk’s article doesn’t map to “you’ll make a lot of money from blogging,” which is the subject of the WSJ story, and the likelihood of it being one’s primary income source is, again, low.

Problem Two: How People Do Make Money Via Blogging

They sell something else besides ads on their blog. If they run XKCD, they sell T-Shirts. If they run Ph.D. Comics, they sell… T-Shirts. If they run Joel on Software, they sell software. Trunk began a startup around headhunting.

Far more seem to make money by showing expertise and then selling said expertise. In other words, they’re producing something useful for the world.

To be Fair…

I wrote an e-mail to expressing some of these concerns Nishi, who replied:

Most of the people I interview for this column probably have some advantage or more sheer will than most people. But they do represent exceptional examples and are meant to inspire and show what’s possible. So if I interview Bill Gates, it wouldn’t be an instruction guide about how to create a software giant. It’s more of a glimpse into what it took to build a software giant, hence the name of the column.

(The name of the column is “How I Got Here”).

Bill Gates isn’t a very good analogy—if you told someone you could be like Bill Gates and get rich selling desktop software in, say, 2001, you would’ve been misguided at best: the world was (and still is) moving to web-based applications. Hell, even if you said that in 1989, you would’ve been wrong: between then and now, the only companies that have really made money from shrinkwrapped software are Microsoft and Adobe. Everyone else folded. His timing advantage isn’t just “some advantage”—it’s the advantage that allowed him to massively succeed.

Nonetheless, Nishi has a strong point. But the tone of the story differs from the tone of his e-mail. Look at the first line of the story: “When blogs first came to the Internet over a decade ago, nobody believed they would make money,” which implies that now some of them do make money. Which is correct—but it’s probably an astonishingly small number relative to the number of blogs out there, especially given the (cratered) advertising market. Look at the aforementioned sidebar: “How You Can Get There, Too.” Lots of people build blogs about subjects they’re passionate about and will never make money from them, as Trunk observes.

Seliger + Associates Hitches Up the Wagons and Heads Out to Where the Pavement Turns to Sand

We’ve more or less completed our move to sunnier climes in Tucson, AZ. This is the fourth location for Seliger + Associates in 16 and a half years in business, starting in Danville, CA, before migrating to Bellevue and then Mill Creek, WA. So it’s goodbye to coffee and mold and hello to incredible Sonoran food and unlimited mountain/desert vistas. As Neil Young said in Thresher:

It was then I knew I’d had enough,
Burned my credit card for fuel
Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand

Faithful readers will remember that whenever I go on a road trip, a blog post integrating grant writing and my innate desire to see what is around the next curve follows. In preparation for the 1,700 mile drive, I read William Least Heat-Moon’s latest book-length paean to the American thirst for the open road, Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey (see Blue Highways: Reflections of a Grant Writer Retracing His Steps 35 Years Later for earlier thoughts on Least Heat-Moon’s Ur-travel essay Blue Highways).

Although we had planned to drive south on US Highways 95/395 through Oregon and California, an excellent blue highway route, our mover decided to drive like the World War II Red Ball Express down US 93 from Twin Falls, ID to Tucson—another great blue highway. He is better at his job than we are at his, so he was going to arrive before us, leaving us to the tender mercies of I-5. But all was not lost, as we were able to take CA 58 east from Bakersfield over the Tehachapis through the Mojave Desert, where we found our long lost US 95, going from Needles to Blythe on 100 miles of roller coaster two-lane highway before our own race to Tucson on I-10 through Tonopah, AZ. Least Heat-Moon would be proud. The upshot of this rambling paragraph is that, 35 years after seeing Lowell George and Little Feat perform for the birthday party of a minor LA celebrity a friend of mine knew at the celebrity’s Malibu “ranch” in 1974, I finally got to drive from Tehachapi to Tonopah, as immortalized in Little Feat’s Willin’:

I’ve been from Tuscon to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonapah
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed
And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine
and you show me a sign
I’ll be willin’, to be movin’*

I only need to find time to drive from Tucson to Tucumcari for the circle to be complete.

This blather does have something to do with grant writing: as I have observed before, at their most basic level, grant writers are simply story tellers who often tell stories about places they have never seen. Long distance driving, preferably on blue highways, is an exceptional way to stay in touch with America—not the America of CNN or Fox News or the New York Times and Washington Post, but the America that is really being blasted by the Great Recession. As we rolled through small towns in the Central Valley and Mojave Desert, we saw endless Main Street desolation: forlorn vacant restaurants with fading “For Sale” signs, car dealers, either closed or with the few cars they had spread out across expanses of display lots with balloons tied to antennas in a sad attempt at normalcy, and, perhaps most troubling, piles of broken stuff—cars, appliances, farm equipment and mounds of unidentifiable crapola that apparently no one wants.

Perhaps no one cares enough to haul this junk away, or maybe there is no place to haul it to. Although politicians from Washington D.C. to Seattle chatter on about the “greening” of American and the importance of using resources wisely, to me it seems more like the “rusting” of America. Least Heat-Moon found the same disturbing panorama in Roads to Quoz, preventing him from seeing the scenery beyond the roadway:

Miles of abandoned buildings, of decaying house-trailers steadily vanishing under agglomerations of cast-off appliances, toys, rusted vehicles (autos, busses, riding mowers, tractors, trucks, a bulldozer, a crane, a forklift), and a plethora of cheap things.

Least Heat-Moon wrote about Oklahoma, which I discussed in the “Blue Highways” post noted above, but the junkification of rural America has worsened considerably in the last year, presumably because of the enervating effects of the recession. If any interested rural nonprofits are reading this, Project JUNC (Joint Undertaking to Negate Crap) would be a great Stimulus Bill grant concept; JUNC would train unemployed folks to pick up stuff, haul it, sort it, and recycle it. I’ll even provide a 20% discount to write the proposal because, like Least Heat-Moon, it’s hard to admire a 19th Century courthouse or church when you have to look past blocks of detritus. It pains me to see much of rural America being buried in kipple.**

I am about to write a HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 (NSP) proposal for a rural city in California, which involves rehab of vacant, foreclosed houses. Since endless newspaper stories describe how vacant houses get stripped of copper plumbing, appliances, etc., I was going to include this idea, as I usually do when writing about housing rehab, in the proposal. But my recent sojourn through rural OR, CA and AZ, gives me pause. Why would anyone bother breaking into a house to steal metal, when tons of metal are piled along rural roadways, there for the picking? This is a real world demonstration of how road trips benefit grant writers. Grant writer readers should get out of your Aerons, fire up your Prius (in my case, a BMW ragtop), and unleash your inner Kerouac by going On the Road.


* Not to worry: no weed or whites were abused on this drive—just a little wine to take the edge off after the the day’s drive after finding a motel that would take our golden retriever.

** Kipple is the accumulated junk of modern society and is best described by Philip K. Dick (one of my favorite SF writers) in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was made into the nearly perfect 1982 movie, Blade Runner. For cognoscenti of this film, Harrison Ford’s despairing Deckard is actually a replicant.