Monthly Archives: August 2009

Late August Links: Unintended Consequences, Multitasking, Government, Stimulus Madness, and More

* Isaac predicted that YouthBuild will run a new competition rather than use earlier grants; it looks like other parts of the federal government have done the same in response to the Stimulus Bill, with the Teacher Quality Partnership Grants Program Recovery Act (ARRA) coming for another round of action.

* Speaking of schools, Steven Brill’s The Rubber Room: The battle over New York City’s worst teachers should be required for anyone interested in schools, teachers, charter schools, or grants related to education; it also describes one of many reasons I’m not a teacher.

* Telecom companies were rushing to meet the Aug. 14 BIP and BTOP deadlines, according to Business Week. This means they didn’t plan ahead: Seliger + Associates was not rushing to meet those deadlines for our clients.

* Speaking of fiber, Ars Technica says rural telcos are rolling out fiber to the home (ftth) while their urban counterparts languish with cable and DSL.

* I sent an e-mail to GAO report author Stanley Czerwinski on the subject of Grants.gov and our many writings about it over the past three years, figuring that he might be interested in people who actually use Grants.gov regularly and therefore probably know more about its flaws than anyone else. A guy named David Fox, who is a “Senior Analyst, Strategic Issues,” wrote back to say:

Thank you for contacting us about our recent report on Grants.gov. My director, Stanley Czerwinski, asked that I respond to your inquiry. We appreciate that you took the time to comment on our report and make us aware of your blog. As you may already know, we have issued several reports on Grants.gov and e-Government over the last few years. We will add your name and contact information to our distribution system so that you receive notice of any future work on Grants.gov.

Thank you again for your interest in our work.

This is an improvement over the e-mail I got from Tom Harrington of FEMA regarding the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, but in terms of form it still reminds me of Roger Shuy’s book, Bureaucratic Language in Government and Business.

* More from the busy department of unintended consequences: “The New Book Banning: Children’s books burn, courtesy of the federal government.” This is because the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) stops the selling of used children’s good produced before 1985, when lead was banned, unless those products conform to the post-1985 standards. Although lead in children’s books hasn’t been shown to be harmful, the books don’t pass muster anyway.

I am generally not an organized political person who writes angry letters to Congresspersons and such, but this might be worth an exception. Furthermore, see this post regulatory processes at their worst regarding the legislation in question. It’s hard not to admire Mattel’s Machiavellian expertise even as one abhors their ethics or lack thereof.

(Hat tip to Megan McArdle.)

* William Easterly on How it helps to teach NGOs as selfish. One might replace “NGOs” with “nonprofits” and make the same argument.

* No one actually multitasks. I agree.

* The Wall Street Journal warns of unintentional consequences from the Treasury Department’s efforts to regulate financial institutions:

Here’s a stumper: In the Treasury financial reform proposal, who comes in for more regulatory retooling: Fannie Mae, or your average 14-man venture capital shop? If you said venture capital, you understand why one of America’s greatest competitive advantages is now at risk in Washington.

(Compare this to Paul Graham’s comment in The Venture Capital Squeeze, when he says that venture capitalists should “lobby to get Sarbanes-Oxley loosened. This law was created to prevent future Enrons, not to destroy the IPO market. Since the IPO market was practically dead when it passed, few saw what bad effects it would have. But now that technology has recovered from the last bust, we can see clearly what a bottleneck Sarbanes-Oxley has become.”)

* The criminalization of poverty.

* Read Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians, which is excellent, as further described at the link.

* On criminals and signaling.

* Needle exchanges are effective—and the politics of “ick.”

* It was once a rule of demography that people have fewer children as their countries get richer. That rule no longer holds true.

* Cash for Clunkers is a clunker, says CNN commentator and painfully bad headline.

* Can Jazz Be Saved? The audience for America’s great art form is withering away.

* Stimulus Slow to Flow to Infrastructure, says the Wall Street Journal. The subhead could also say, “Duh.”

One Person, One Proposal: Don’t Split Grant Writing Tasks

Would-be grant applicants often look at the dizzyingly long, arduous road to a finished proposal and think, “There’s gotta be a better way than assigning one person to write and assemble the entire beast.” They consider the RFP for a while and hit on a brilliant strategy: divide up the proposal like you’re cutting a pizza! One person writes the needs assessment, another the organization’s ability to operate the project, a third the evaluation, and so on.

Don’t do this. It’s a fundamentally bad idea, like sailing near the Sirens on Sirenum scopuli.

The temptation to work in parallel when you should work in serial is obvious: less work for each person. This would make the proposal development process like an assembly line, where dividing up the labor will result in greater productivity. But writing a proposal is more like a novel or poem than building a car, as the unified structure of a single mind is necessary for coherence of form and unity of content. Very few novels are written by more than one person, and even fewer novels that are any good are written by more than one person; as far as I know, zero novels that are genuinely great have been written by partners or groups.

That’s because the novel would be written in different styles, each style would have a different aim, the characters would act bizarrely, one part would be lyrical and another part plot-driven, and whatever meaning might be derived from the novel would be a muddled mess. Good novels are incredibly hard for one person to write, and two people would be even worse. Committee reports are so notoriously boring that there’s a term for ideas that get expressed in them: death by committee. There’s another expression in a field where more opinions lead to worse outcomes: too many cooks spoil the broth.

So what happens to organizations that write proposals this way? If you divide up the proposal, the sections won’t match. The project description won’t mention how the project will tie into existing efforts because someone else did that section. The RFP may ask for the project’s goals in three different places, and each of those will be different. The evaluation and project description will stare at each other like Martians and Earthlings in the fairly good 1953 version of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. Writing styles will clash like Germany and Russia at Stalingrad—the result will not be pretty. If it were merely aesthetically ugly, that would be acceptable, but it will probably also be incoherent, which is not.

The same set of problems apply to revising. There is a temptation to give five copies to five people and let a single person or small group of people make those revisions, which will lead to problems just like those described above. That’s why we demand a single set of changes for each draft we produce, with no exceptions. In other words, we don’t want one set from the Executive Director, another from the Board President, and a third from the Program Manager; with all those corrections, we’ll a) waste a lot of time trying to understand them and b) get conflicting revisions from different people. If we didn’t work this way, the result would be proposals that are confused, choppy, and don’t make enough sense because they lack consistency.

Occasionally we get hired to straighten out proposals that have been written and edited in parallel, and we almost always get a mess that we edit for consistency as best we can, but the end product is almost never as good as it would have been if we, or a competent single author, had simply written it from the beginning.

Technology increases the temptation to split writing and editing tasks among many individuals, especially for people who work in tech fields and are used to collaborative software development. Such software is all well and good for many arenas, but it hurts more than helps for writing, where individual styles vary widely and so does content. There’s an entire discipline out there attempting to explain how to get software developers to work together; Fred Brooks covers the subject in The Mythical Man Month, Timothy Lister and Tom DeMarco mention it in Peopleware, Joel Spolsky and Paul Graham discuss it in various places, and version control systems proliferate because software developers need them. Famous ones include Subversion, CVS, and GitHub. They could all be adapted for writing projects, but they probably seldom should be because they’re more likely to be misused. They also bring an organization perilously close to the methodologies Spolsky mocks in Big Macs vs. The Naked Chef, which ought to be required reading for anyone who wants to split up writing tasks (notice that Spolsky uses cooking metaphors, which I also do in the fourth paragraph of this post).

With a proposal, you’re writing a novel, not an operating system. If no one in your organization can write an entire proposal on their own, you should hire someone who can—either a consultant, in which case you’ve come the right place, or an employee, who can write proposals over and over. There are pros and cons to each, which I’ll write about further in a future post, but having multiple writers in a single proposal is an unambiguously bad idea, which experience has taught us and other grant writers. In fact, it’s so bad that Isaac probably could have noted it in The Danger Zone: Common RFP Traps.

Some applicants—especially those staffed by people inexperienced in the grant development process, such as businesses seeking Department of Energy (DOE) grants—attempt to split proposals anyway, which is likely to lead to a disastrous result. This is one of those lessons that, like touching the hot pan, everyone seems to need to learn the hard way, but when they do, we’ll be standing by with bandages and skin grafts, depending on the severity of the proposal burn.

How much money is available? Explaining maximum grant amounts

If you read our e-mail newsletter, the Seliger Funding Report, you’re aware of a number that can mean different quantities depending on the RFP: the maximum grant amount. There are a couple of ways to calculate this number: by the amount available over the total project period (which could be more than a single year) or the yearly total amount. In addition, sometimes a grant announcement provides little or no guidance whatsoever. To better understand what that means, let’s look at a few examples.

Take the Sports, Cultural, and Youth Visitor Program, which was included in the newsletter for the week of February 16. It’s a relatively simple program:

Total available: $1,130,000
Number available: 1
Max size: $1,130,000

In other words, there’ll be one grant made with a funding total of $1,130,000. According to the RFP, the exchanges are supposed to take place in 2009 and 2010, meaning the project period is probably in the neighborhood of eighteen months or two years, so the funder also might have been able to give a maximum grant amount of $565,000, but distribute that amount over two years, and nothing else would’ve changed in the program except how the program is presented.

That’s pretty straightforward. But it’s also possible to find announcements that say $500,000 per year is available, for a project total of, say, $1,500,000. The information about whether the maximum grant amount is per year or per project total is usually contained in the RFP itself, and it’s wise to find the answer before you decide how much to apply for. We’ll deal with this in greater detail below.

Consider another program: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy System Technology Research and Development (STTR [R41/R42]):

The SF424 (R&R) SBIR/STTR Application Guide indicates the statutory guidelines of funding support and project duration periods for Phase I and Phase II STTR awards. Phase I awards normally may not exceed $100,000 total for a period normally not to exceed 1 year. Phase II awards normally may not exceed $750,000 total for a period normally not to exceed 2 years.

NOTE: These award levels and project periods are statutory guidelines, not ceilings. Therefore, applicants are encouraged to propose a budget and project duration period that is reasonable and appropriate for completion of the research project. Applicants are encouraged to discuss deviations with IC program staff at the awarding component likely to be assigned the application. All budget and time deviations must be justified in the grant application.

Notice the “statutory guidelines” language: the reviewers and ultimate funding oversight person doesn’t have to limit you to $750,000 for phase two grants. Still, it seems wise to stay within their guidelines unless you have an incredible, extraordinary reason not to; so far, we’ve never had a client who we advised to exceed the program funding guidelines, but clients will sometimes have their award amounts adjusted up or down based on funding vagaries, the phases of the moon, and the like.

For yet another variation, consider the Texas Parallel Pathways to Success Grant Program. The RFP says: “It is anticipated that selected projects will be funded in a range of $50,000 – $125,000 per year.” So that means a maximum of $250,000 is available over the project period, or $125,000 per year. In the Seliger Funding Report, I would normally list the maximum as $125,000 because that’s the number the funder has listed, and it would be exceedingly difficult to dig through every RFP in the Federal Register and elsewhere to normalize the maximums. If any Government Accountability Office (GAO) or others involved in standards are reading this, take note.

Sometimes RFPs play hide-the-salami regarding how much money they have or the maximum grant amount. This is particularly irritating because one is liable to guess too low or too high, and most funding agencies that experiment with this game will eventually be more forthright when they get wildly divergent budgets. For example, the National Institute of Health (NIH) does this in its Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) (R25). The Executive Summary at the link says:

Budget and Project Period. There are no specific budget limitations; however, the requested direct costs must be reasonable, well documented, fully justified and commensurate with the scope of the proposed program. The total project period for an application submitted in response to this funding opportunity may not exceed five years.

Great! But what does reasonable mean in these circumstances? Alas, we apparently don’t get to find out, which actually makes it harder to decide how much to request, not easier. Another example of this comes from the Department of Transportation in the form of the FY 2010 Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP) High Priority Grant Program, which also doesn’t list an award ceiling.

Once you understand how much is available as a grant maximum, you have to decide how much to ask for (which will be the topic of a future post), and whether you want to apply for a particular program. Remember that there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between the complexity of an application and the amount of money being offered; for example, we base our fees on the difficulty of the application and the amount of time we have to complete it, so we’d likely charge the same $5,000 – $12,000 for most assignments whether the maximum award $50,000 available or $5,000,000. Therefore, you shouldn’t assume that a proposal for $100,000 will be any easier to complete than one for $1,000,000.

Still, there are a myriad of reasons for organizations to pursue smaller grants anyway: there might be less competition; they might be unusually well-suited for the project; they might need a particular position funded that can be shoe-horned into an application; the applicant might be a new organization that needs to prove it can account for grant funds before it pursues larger applications; or, as Isaac discussed recently in True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales, you might hit the grant lotto by having funding renewed over and over again for what seems like a small grant, which happened with the Neighborhood Action Program (NAP). When you’re trying to make these decisions, however, you should at least make sure that you know what the numbers you’re looking at mean.

True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales

Like Spartacus in the eponymous movie*, we’ve been toiling in the grant salt mines for over 16 years. Over that time, about two-thirds of our clients have been nonprofits, while the rest are a mix of public agencies and—in a recent change due to the Stimulus Bill—for-profit businesses. The popular imagination thinks that all nonprofits are run by grim-jawed, speech-making advocates for whatever issue they address, a myth that is reinforced by the occasional movie or TV show that ventures into the nonprofit world. In reality, most nonprofits operate like small businesses (or large businesses in the case of hospitals, the AARP, etc.), and save their outrage for public hearings, fund raising letters and the like. There is another breed of nonprofit, however, and over the years, I estimate about 10% of our nonprofit clients have been what we term True Believers.

True Believer clients are almost always represented by a highly excitable Executive Director or Board Member, who tries to convey their passion to us in hopes of converting us, eliciting a better deal, drawing more attention to their project, or who knows what else. Whatever the cause espoused, however, we remain dispassionate, make sure all the proposals we turn in are as complete and technically correct as we can make them, and try to treat all clients in the same professional manner. Among other things, this means that we don’t adjust our fees based on the problem being addressed, which often confounds our True Believer clients because they typically cannot imagine that others don’t share their consuming interest. Funders almost never share the True Belief, which can be a problem for clients who think the power of their story will overcome, say, the required budget forms, and we often have to calm True Believers down enough to help them separate their imaginings from the cold reality of the grant making process. Two examples of True Believers come to mind, one of which ended badly for the client and one of which turned out amazingly well:

During the FY ’09 hunting season for the Department of Labor (DOL) YouthBuild program, five nonprofits hired us. Four were fairly standard issue nonprofits, while a True Believer ran the fifth. Four of the five proposals were funded—see if you can guess what happened.

Writing a YouthBuild proposal is very much a “cookbook” exercise in that the DOL pretty much tells applicants what they want applicants to do, and successful proposals have to regurgitate this stuff within the absurdly short page limit and the obtuse data required by the funder. In other words, if you want a YouthBuild grant, you should, as Rupee says, just “Do the Damn Thing.” The clients for the four funded proposals listened to us, and we were able to craft compelling, technically correct proposals that warmed the stone-like hearts of the DOL reviewers. In contrast, our True Believer client had a vision of how she could use a YouthBuild grant to attack a whole slew of problems faced by at-risk youth in her rural community. Almost none of what she wanted to do, however, had anything to do with YouthBuild, and she fought us throughout the proposal development process. We did our best to make the proposal fundable to no avail. Despite her passion and commitment, no YouthBuild funds are available today to help the young folks she cares so much about.

For about as long as we’ve been in business, the City of Los Angeles has made grants through its Neighborhood Action Program (NAP). In the early years of our business, the majority of our clients were in L.A. and we wrote lots of funded NAP grants, which are more or less “walkin’ around” money for nonprofits. By this, I mean that the funded nonprofits use the money on purposes ranging from whatever programs they’re operating to whatever the hell they feel like doing. Not surprisingly, Executive Directors love NAP grants. The most recent NAP RFP process was in 2002, and, as usual, we wrote several funded NAP grants. One of them was for a True Believer. For some bureaucratic reason, the City of L.A. decided that the 2002 NAP competition was for an eight month period with a maximum grant of $100,000. When our True Believer client came to us, he wanted to know if it was “worthwhile” to hire us to chase after what seemed like a relatively small grant. I told him that, if he wanted to establish the bona fides of his nonprofit, he would have to get a government grant at some point to demonstrate his organization’s ability to manage grant funds. Why not start with NAP, which has essentially no oversight? In this case, the Executive Director put aside his passion, listened to us and let us develop a proposal carefully crafted to score highly in the competition. By following our advice and the RFP requirements, his proposal was funded.

As the late great Billy Mays used to say, “But, wait, there’s more!” L.A. City, in its infinite wisdom or political machinations, decided to keep re-funding the 2002 NAP grantees every year until this year! This means that our True Believer client and other clients we wrote NAP proposals for in 2002 have gotten something like a million dollars each in walkin’ around money over seven years. Not bad for a $5,000 or so investment in grant writing fees! The City of L.A. is planning a new NAP RFP process this month, and the RFP will be issued in a couple of weeks—this time for another “one-year” grant period, which I assume will morph into multi-year contracts. We’ll be writing another proposal for our True Believer, who has lost much of his True Belief enthusiasm, and once again will be trying to explain to a new crop of True Believers in L.A. how to get funded and why it is worthwhile to go after a NAP grant.

If you are a True Believer, keep your eye on the prize and understand that, although your own passion might be great, others won’t necessarily share it. No matter how much your cause means to you and your colleagues, unless you succeed at getting grants, you’ll be stuck chasing donations and your nonprofit will never achieve the goals you’ve set for it. As Jake explained in “Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun,” it’s pretty tough to keep a nonprofit going on bratwurst, car washes, and hope. You’re not going to reach as many people if you don’t have the organizational capacity to do so. Put aside your passion long enough to write proposals that are aimed at the funder’s guidelines, not your parochial view of the universe.


* This movie is so great that it’s hard to know where to start, but my favorite scenes involve Tony Curtis as Antonius the slave, using his wonderful Brooklyn accent to intone, “I am a sinGer of sonGs,” as well as bantering coquettishly with Laurence Oliver’s Crassus about the relative merits of oysters versus snails.