Monthly Archives: September 2009

Does Seliger + Associates “Care” About Our Clients?

After almost 17 years in business, I thought I’d been asked every possible question (the common ones are answered on our web page). As a result, most initial phone calls are fairly routine. So I was rendered almost speechless—a very uncommon occurrence—when chatting last Monday with two nonprofit founders. About 10 minutes into the call, one guy asked, “If we were to call a sample of your clients, would most say that Seliger + Associates cares about them?”

This stopped me for about 10 seconds, and I responded by paraphrasing former President Clinton‘s answer about Monica Lewinsky and sexual activity: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘care’ is.” We don’t care about clients in the way he meant—that is to say, our clients are not family or close friends, and we don’t care about our clients as a parent might care how a child does in school or one might care about the outcome of a friend facing a marriage crisis. We’re not invested emotionally in clients, which I told the callers. But we do care, albeit in a different way.

I’m sure they were surprised, since they are very much the “true believers” described in “True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales,” and they were incredulous that, not only would I not say I would “care” about them as clients, but that I also was not immediately captivated by their project concept. I went on to explain that, while we don’t really “care” about our clients, we care very much about what we do for our clients, as well as the impact of our efforts. We’re professionals who always try to provide a consistently high level of services to all clients. This means we care about doing the best possible work.

In the True Believers post, I referred to us as “paladins” in the context of the 50s TV Western, but we could also be seen as in reference to classic definition of a “paladin” as a defender or champion, albeit with words and a Mac rather than a broadsword and a warhorse. The Magnificent Seven, which is a remake of the Japanese classic Seven Samurai, illustrates this. In The Magnificent Seven, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, who was never more cool in a movie, lead seven gunslingers (or paladins) to save a Mexican village from a band of outlaws.

The Magnificent Seven respect their task exactly as Seliger + Associates treats its clients: they provide their “service” dispassionately, but with precision. Even when the villagers betray them, The Magnificent Seven return one last time to fight the bad guys—not to save the villagers, but to demonstrate their commitment to their craft, despite the certainty that most will die. As Steve McQueen’s Vic says early in the movie of their business, “We deal in lead, friend.” Well, we deal in words and we’ll do just about anything to get the job done.

A case in point: several months ago, we wrote a HUD Rural Housing and Economic Development (RHED) proposal for a nonprofit. This was during the rapid-fire deadlines caused by Stimulus Bill madness. The client, who we’ve worked for over the years, produced match letters which we thought were wrong and would torpedo the proposal (in short, he wanted to use millions of dollars in financing commitments for future affordable housing transactions that had nothing to do with the project).

Even though we were under extreme deadline pressure, we spent a day patiently explaining what was wrong with his approach, getting him to reconsider his match letters and reworking the fantastically complex HUD budget forms. In other words, we went back to the village when we could’ve just let him hang. Last week, our client called to tell us ecstatically that he was funded for $300,000.

Would he have been funded if the original letters were used? Maybe, but I doubt it. Did we have to spend an extra day on his project? No. Do we care about his agency? You decide. Incidentally, our client is so happy that he wants to send us a present. I’m going to tell him to keep the fruit basket, because like Chris, Vin, Bernardo, Lee, Harry, Brit (James Coborn’s first role in which he has exactly seven spoken words, but nearly steals the movie), and Chico, as well as a host of other Western heros and anti-heroes, doing our job well for a reasonable fee is reward enough for this small band of paladins.

EDIT: Or, as Steven Pressfield puts it, “There’s a phenomenon in advertising called Client’s Disease. Every client is in love with his own product. The mistake he makes is believing that, because he loves it, everyone else will too.”

Consultants, Employees, and More: Should We Hire a Grant Writer? And How Will Our Agency Complete Proposals?

People regularly discover Grant Writing Confidential by searching for “should we hire a grant writer?” Being grant writers, our answer is almost always “yes.” On a less glib level, virtually every nonprofit organization has to write proposals, which means that someone will either have to write proposals in addition to their regular work or write them full-time. If your organization decides to hire a grant writer, it can go one of two fundamental routes: hire a staff person or hire a consultant (it’s slightly more complex because a staff person could be hired from outside the organization or trained from within, but ignore that distinction for now).

We’ve already effectively covered hiring employees in “Why Can’t I Find a Grant Writer? How to Identify and Seize that Illusive Beast.” Now we’re going to talk in more depth about consulting: the benefits, drawbacks, and caveats. To some extent, grant writing lends itself to consulting in the same way most organizations hire lawyers by the hour or on retainer rather than employing their own: jobs tend to be self-contained, expertise is of paramount importance, and so forth.

The biggest advantage to hiring a real grant writing consultant is that the job will get done. Seliger + Associates has been in business for almost 17 years and never missed a deadline. Since the goal of writing proposals is to get the money, that should be of paramount importance, and it’s surprising how many would-be grant writers fail to turn in complete and technically correct proposals prior to deadlines. In nonprofits, it’s not uncommon for a job to be unfinished or for a technically incomplete application to be turned in; this is especially problematic among novice grant writers, as we wrote about here.

This leads to the next point: hiring a consultant means that someone is going to sit down and write the proposal, rather than have endless meetings discussing what the proposal should be like. Organizations that assign group writing projects often encounter the donut-eating problem, and if they end up with anything at the end, it’s often a franken-proposal cobbled together from mismatched parts. This is a major mistake novice and even experienced agencies make. Consultants won’t make it, or at least shouldn’t, since if they do they won’t be in business long.

If don’t hire us, you might hire consultants who can’t get the job done. If so, it’s relatively easy to hire and fire the grant writer at will. This is much harder with a permanent employee. If you make someone an employee and discover six months later that the employee has spent more time playing solitaire and mastering online poker than preparing proposals, that person can often be hard to fire for reasons of morale and law, especially if that person has a litigious disposition. If your consultant is no good, you just cancel their retainer or hire someone else for the next job.

A consultant also doesn’t have to deal with institutional politics, or deals with them in a different way; one commenter to our post on True Believers and grant writing wrote:

[The realities of fundraising are] more complex when you are not a consultant. Though I would like to be writing grants, in truth most of my time is spent in meetings with the True Believers at my organization.
The worst is when a True Believer wants to shape a proposal based on their True Belief, and you are lesser in status and title in the hierarchy, so have to go along with something you know will not be funded.

Finally, the diverse experience many consultants have can be a bonus, as exposure to different ideas, trends, and kinds of work can filter into other proposals. So can knowledge of funding “gotchas”—for example, we’ve figured out how to use and why it’s important to turn in applications before the deadline. You don’t want to make a million-dollar mistake from someone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of application systems.

The major con to hiring a professional grant writer is the lack of institutional memory that using an external grant writer entails. In other words, people within the organization might not remember how or why a proposal was completed or where to start next time. A lesser “con” might be that they find someone who advertises him or herself as a grant writer but actually can’t finish proposals; we’ve occasionally been hired by organizations that have fallen into this trap.

In addition, it might be slightly more expensive to hire a consultant than to have a permanent employee, if you have an employee who can actually write a large number of proposals under tight deadlines. Very few people seem to be able to do this, however, which is why I emphasize it with italics. Many of those who claim to be able to consistently write deadline proposals probably can’t.

A client with an in-house grant writer recently hired us for an assignment, and their in-house grant writer called looking for advice long after the job was over. We’re in the writing business, not the giving-free-advice business, but Isaac talked to him for a bit. Last week, the in-house grant writer called back to say that he wanted to work for us, indicating that he hadn’t read our website and that he’s probably not too busy at his present “full-time” grant writing position.

If you’re an organization looking for a grant writer, you also consider your location. In a high-need or rural area, it might be hard or impossible to find candidates who are willing to live and work locally. Many of our retainer clients over the years have looked for a full-time grant writing employee but were simply unable to find anyone both competent and local. We’ve heard this story often enough that we want to include it here.

I’d make one other observation that’s neither a pro nor con: regardless of how you prepare proposals for agencies, you’ll still end up “paying” one way or another, as we describe in “Tilting at Windmills: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing.” Whether you pay salary and benefits directly or cut checks to consultants, grant writing is a fundamental cost that can’t be avoided. Some organizations try to do so by looking for grant writers to work on contingent fees, but, as we note on our FAQ page, this almost never works out.

Regardless of what you decide, read the book Peopleware, which is perhaps the most brilliant and yet ignored book on intellectual organizations I’ve encountered. I don’t mean “ignored” in the sense of being poorly known—many, many people have heard of it—but rather in the sense that few actually take its important recommendations into account. It’s nominally about software, much like Moby Dick is nominally about a whale, but it’s really about managing knowledge workers (although I hate the phrase “knowledge worker”). It seems that many nonprofits, like many companies, have Mickey Mouse management and dysfunctional office politics; this book is an effort towards great professionalism, which doesn’t mean wearing ties and being boring, but, rather, means being able to get the job done. If you’re going to use grant writers effectively, whether in-house or as consultants, read it.

Graffiti, Windmills, CAP Agencies, and an Answer to the Question As to Whether This is 1975 or 1965

After six months of Stimulus Bill madness, I felt like Bob Dylan in Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues: “I do believe I’ve had enough.” So my wife and I decamped for two weeks in Paris and Berlin, leaving Jake with a whip and a chair to deal with hordes of would-be grant applicants wanting “some of that Obama money,” as one recent caller described it.

As usual, I can’t travel anywhere without contemplating the wonderful world of grant writing. Between fabulous meals and wonderful wine in Paris and Berlin, one fact stood out: the overwhelming amount of graffiti covering many public spaces. I am not a fan of graffiti, so my view is biased, but even someone who appreciates this “art form” would likely be taken aback by the shear volume. The complexity and layers of the graffiti tell me that public officials have given up trying to get rid of it. In contrast, most American cities fight a constant battle against graffiti, which in many cases seems to have worked.

The most famous example was then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s application of the “broken window” theory of fighting urban decay in the 1990s. Overall, I think such efforts have been reasonably successful in most American cities I visit, but as Borat and Jon Stewart would both say, not so much in France and Germany. This is too bad because anti-graffiti programs are great for nonprofits, which can approach the problem at both ends of the spectrum by hiring the people who put up the graffiti at night to paint it out during the daytime, while adding a soupçon of art instruction to spice up the grant application to pay for this cycle. The Arizona Star just reported on such a program trying to get going in Tucson (“Red Tape Stalls Graffiti Cleanup“). The County Court system wants to use juvenile offenders to do the clean-up, and I’m certain many of the young people working in the project are also pretty handy with a spray paint can. In the US, anti-graffiti programs are typically funded by local government agencies, such as this Tucson example, or business groups.

In Europe, we took several day trips from Paris on the TGV. One could see the beautiful French land zipping by at 150 MPH and imagine a knight or two partially hidden in a copse of chestnut trees. The countryside looked timeless.* In contrast, as soon as we entered Germany, the bucolic views were ruined by tons of 400 foot tall wind turbines on every hill. It seems the French value their views by generating electricity with nuclear power plants, while the Germans have decided to solve their electricity needs with wind turbines.

Leaving aside the political aspects of nuclear versus wind power, since both alleviate the global warming problem, and to paraphrase Arnold Schwarzenegger in End of Days who said, “Between your faith and my Glock nine millimeter, I’ll take the Glock”—between nuclear power and windmills, I’ll take the nukes. I am not alone in my dislike of giant windmills, as Jeffrey Ball recently wrote in in Renewable Energy, Meet the New Nimbys for the Wall Street Journal. Many people aren’t too keen on sacrificing beautiful vistas on the altar of renewable energy. We are working on a couple of solar and wind projects, which, even if they are funded, might get tripped up by a rowdy band of nimbys.

My final observation about our Europe ’09 tour is that I saw almost no evidence of nonprofits. This flummoxed me until I realized that this is likely because France and Germany are social democracies with extensive social safety nets. In Europe, most human services are provided by an army of social workers employed directly by the government, instead of through nonprofits, as is done in the US. I may be wrong, but I believe the US system of funding nonprofits through grants to conduct human services is an accident of history resulting from the frenetic pace of deploying War on Poverty programs in 1965, when the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) was set up to find a way to quickly get the federal funds to local communities. OEO was the brainchild of Sargent Shriver, special counselor to LBJ, first OEO Director, father of Governor Schwarzenegger’s wife Maria, and Senator McGovern’s running mate in 1972. Shriver decided the fastest and best way to alleviate poverty was to contract with local nonprofits, rather than using the New Deal model of having the government run local programs directly.

In an effort to keep poor folks in the loop and in keeping with the concept of maximum feasible participation of the poor contained in the enabling Equal Opportunity Act that authorized the War on Poverty, Shriver hit on the idea of forming legions of new nonprofits, called community action programs, usually referred to as “CAP agencies.” About 900 of the CAPs survive around the county, running Head Start, Weatherization and a plethora of other programs. We often work for CAP agencies. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, garden variety nonprofits got hip to applying for government grants and the system as we know it developed. When services are provided directly by government agencies, nonprofits are back to surviving on donations and selling bratwurst as Jake described in Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun, which isn’t nearly as lucrative as government grants.

This brings me back around to a question I posed last March in The Office of Community Services Rides the Stimulus Wave with Funding for Community Economic Development Projects, But Is It 1965 or 1975 Again?

While thinking about what I had seen in Europe during the long flight back, I have concluded that it is more like 1965 because the feds are in a state of hysteria about trying to shovel Stimulus Bill money out the door, very similar to Shriver’s OEO in 1965, while nonprofits, alternative energy companies and your Aunt Martha are frantic to get a piece of the stimulus pie. In the background looms never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing a specter of Vietnam. I am just old enough to remember President Johnson failing in his attempt to balance a progressive domestic agenda with foreign commitments, or, as it was called then, the “guns and butter” dilemma (I’m hardly the only person to notice: the New York Times recently asked “Could Afghanistan Become Obama’s Vietnam?“) Since this ended badly for Johnson, my advice to nonprofits is to go after the butter while it’s on the table. This really is the best of times for grant applicants, so let’s all party like its 1965.

* The best take on Americans visiting Europe remains Mark Twain’s wonderful The Innocents Abroad, Or, the New Pilgrims’ Progress. Not a great deal has changed in 150 years.

** In the Small World Department, and as I was thinking about writing this post last week, the Executive Director of a nonprofit in Kentucky called for a quote on writing a proposal for the CDC HIV Prevention Projects for Community-Based Organizations program. When she told me she was in Eastern Kentucky, I asked her if the Job Corps Center in Breckenridge was still operating and it turns out it is, much to my delight.

In early summer 1965, my older brother got a job right of college as a Residential Counselor at something called a Job Corps Center, which was being set up in a WWII-era army camp by something called the “OEO” that was implementing “the War on Poverty.” He got the job because one of his professors at the University of Minnesota happened to be a pal of one of Shriver’s aides and OEO was desperate for personnel (I see shades of the recent Stimulus Bill ramp-up). My brother went off to become one of the original foot soldiers in the War on Poverty and later that summer I took the Louisville & Nashville Railroad’s famous Hummingbird train to visit him for two weeks. It was quite an experience for a 14-year old kid from Minneapolis to spend time in a southern state just getting past Jim Crow and it started me down the road to spending the last four decades soldiering myself in various ways in the never-ending War on Poverty. I gave the Executive Director, a “War on Poverty” discount on her fee quote for reminding me of why this is really 1965.