The Real World and the Proposal World

In the Ghostbusters movie, there’s a scene where Ray (played by Dan Aykroyd) tells Gozer to get off an apartment building. He then makes a critical mistake:

Gozer: [after Ray orders her to re-locate] Are you a God?
[Ray looks at Peter, who nods]
Dr. Ray Stantz: No.
Gozer: Then… DIE!
[Lightning flies from her fingers, driving the Ghostbusters to the edge of the roof and almost off; people below scream]
Winston Zeddemore: Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say “YES”!

(I’ve yet to have anyone ask me if I’m a god, but I’ve definitely got my answer prepared.)

Ray’s focus on the immediate truth is an error given his larger purpose, which, if I recall correctly from hazy memories, has something to do with closing inter-dimensional portals that let the ghost world or hell or something like that open into our world. Bear in mind I probably haven’t seen Ghostbusters since childhood, but I did see it about 75 times. Before the Ghostbusters can close the portal, the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man arrives and is about 20 stories tall, causing a great deal of screaming and running on the part of New Yorkers, who get their own opportunity to flee from the equivalent of Godzilla.

Anyway, the important thing isn’t just the trip down memory lane, but Ray’s key mistake: thinking that he should give a factual answer, rather than a practical answer. The grant writing world has a similar divide, only we deal with the “real world” and the “proposal world.” The real world roughly corresponds to what a funded applicant will actually do if they’re funded by operating the program. The proposal world refers to what the RFP requires that the applicant say she’ll do, along with a stew of conventional wisdom, kabuki theater, prejudice flattering, impractical ideas nicely stated, exuberant promises, and more.

Astute readers will have noticed that we keep referring to the proposal world in various posts. A few examples:

  • From What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals?: “In the proposal world where Seliger + Associates lives, collaborations are omnipresent in our drafts, and we spin elaborate tales of strategic planning and intensive involvement in development of project concepts, most of which are woven out of whole cloth to match the collaborative mythology that funders expect […]”
  • From Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun: “In many if not most human services RFPs, you’ll find an unintentionally hilarious section that neatly illustrates the difference between the proposal world and the real world: demanding to know how the project will be sustained beyond the end of the grant period.”
  • From Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation: “In the proposal world, the grant writer states that data will be carefully tracked and maintained, participants followed long after the project ends, and continuous improvements made to ensure midcourse corrections in programs when necessary […] In the real world of grants implementation, evaluations, if they are done at all, usually bear little resemblance to the evaluation section of the proposal, leading to vague outcome analysis.”
  • From Know Your Charettes!: “Once again, I’m sure more nonprofits write about PACs than actually run them, but the proposal world is not always identical to the real world, which is one reason I was so surprised to read about the design charrette I linked to in the first paragraph.”

In all these examples, the proposal world entails telling the funder what they want to hear, even if what they want to hear doesn’t correspond all that well to reality.

Funders want to imagine that programs will continue when funding ends, but if a funding stream disappears, it’s not easy to replace; as Isaac said last week, “[…] it is vastly easier to form new nonprofits than it is to find millionaires and corporations to set up foundations to fund the avalanche of new nonprofits.” There are more nonprofits chasing millionaires to keep programs going than there are millionaires to fund those programs.

Evaluations that really matter demand lots of advanced math training and scrupulous adherence to procedures that most nonprofits just don’t have in them (don’t believe me? Read William Easterly’s What Works in Development?: Thinking Big and Thinking Small). The extensive community planning that most RFPs demand is too time and cost intensive to actually undergo. Besides, who is going to be opposed to another after school or job training program? The answer, of course, is no one.

In the proposal world, elaborate outreach efforts are necessary to make the community aware of the proposed project. In the real world, almost every provider of services is so overwhelmed with people who want those services that, even with additional funding, the provider still won’t be able to accept everyone who might be helped.

In the proposal world, everyone in the community gets a voice and a chance to sit on the Participant Advisory Council (PAC). In the real world, even if someone is sitting on the council and espouses a radical new idea, the constraints of the proposal requirements (“you must serve a minimum of 200 youth with three hours of academic and life skills training per year, using one of the approved curricula…”) means that idea will probably languish. Also, the PAC is likely to meet a few times every year instead of every month to provide “mid-course corrections,” as promised in the proposal.

If you’re a grant writer or an applicant who has hired a grant writer, your job is to get the money, and getting the money means being able to distinguish between the proposal world and the real world and present the former as it should be presented. This doesn’t mean that you should be stealing the money in the real world (hint: a Ferrari is probably not necessary for client transport and Executive Director use) or wildly misusing it (hint: skip claiming the Cancun Spring Break extravaganza as “research”), but it does mean that there’s a certain amount of assumed latitude between what’s claimed and what is actually done.

Many grant novices fail to understand this or experience cognitive dissonance when they read an RFP that makes wildly implausible demands. Once you realize that the RFP makes those demands because it’s dealing with the proposal world, as imagined by RFP writers, rather than the real world, as experienced by nonprofit and public agencies, you’ll be much happier and much better able to play the proposal world game.

When someone from the proposal world asks, “Are you a god?” the answer is always “yes,” even if you’re actually just a guy with a silly contraption strapped to your back who is desperately trying to save the world.

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