Monthly Archives: July 2010

Why Winning an Olympic Gold Medal is Not Like Getting a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Grant

A .0001 second difference can separate an Olympic Gold Medalist from a Silver Medalist for swimming, and a five minute difference may separate her and the hapless competitor from Lower Slabovia. The fastest swimmers win medals and the slowest swimmers get new Speedos. Think of the intrepid ski jumper, Eddie the Eagle, in the 1984 Winter Olympics. He didn’t come close to winning a medal, but he seemed to enjoy competing and falling off the ski jump.

Many grant applicants are under the delusion from years of watching the Olympics and similar sports competitions that, if their application receives the highest review score, the grant will automatically be awarded. But regardless of what is true in the real world,* the proposal world is different.

We recently completed a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) proposal for a small, rural Midwestern school district (or local education agency (LEA) in edu-speak). Our contact, the superintendent, was an amiable fellow with about 30 years of experience as a school superintendent and about 30 minutes of experience as a grant applicant. When chatting at the end of the assignment, he said something along the lines of, “I hope our application gets the highest number of points so that we get funded.” I put him on hold, opened up the RFP, and found this version of the bad news language I knew would be lurking somewhere (in this case on page 127 of 152, in Section 5506, “Administrative Provisions,” Subpart b, “Proportionality,” rather than “grant award procedures,” where one would expect it):

(b) PROPORTIONALITY- To the extent practicable, the Secretary shall ensure that grants awarded under this subpart shall be equitably distributed among local educational agencies and community-based organizations serving urban and rural areas.

I explained to our incredulous client that grant awards are often made for reasons other than high point totals. In example above, the Department of Education is reserving its right to use “proportionality” regarding “urban and rural areas” to divvy up the pot. I have no idea what “proportionality” means in this context, other than it can be used to make an award to any applicant the Department feels like funding.

There is a caveat: the applicant usually has to submit a technically correct proposal and reach the minimum score. After that, apparently, anything can go. Funding decisions are often made for all kinds of reasons: urban/rural (in the example cited above, I guess no suburban applicants will be funded, since suburbs are not mentioned as a possibility), politics (upcoming elections tend to grab the attention of federal decision makers), geography (Senator Foghorn Leghorn to Secretary Arne Duncan: “Tell me again, Mr. Secretary, why have no PEP grants have been awarded in Alabama in five years?”), perceived or stated target population (e.g., African American, Latino, children with special needs, etc.), experienced/inexperienced applicants, and who knows what else.

Our client was a bit crestfallen when I explained the above, but I told him to cheer up. We think we helped him submit a technically correct proposal, which is no small achievement given the fantastic complexity of the PEP RFP and spectacularly confusing directions. His district is also fairly representative of other small, rural school districts. If his application is one of only a few technically correct proposals from similar school districts in his state/region, the chances of funding will go up enormously. Since I know from decades of experience that many more urban districts are likely to apply for PEP than rural districts, and a lot of these are likely to screw up their applications, our client’s chances are probably pretty good. I’ll find out along with everyone else when the funding announcements are made in a few months, because, as I always tell callers, we’re grant writers, not fortune tellers.

In case you think I’m picking on PEP, here are a few other examples of the same weasel words from other recent federal and state RFPs selected at random for this post:

  • From the “Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools Grants for the Integration of Schools and Mental Health Systems” RFP: “Review and Selection Process: Additional factors we consider in selecting an application for an award are the equitable distribution of grants among the geographical regions of the United States and among urban, suburban, and rural populations.”
  • From the “Intellectual Property Enforcement Program: FY 2010 Competitive Grant Announcement:” “Absent explicit statutory authorization or written delegation of authority to the contrary, all final grant award decisions will be made by the Assistant Attorney General (AAG), who may also give consideration to factors including, but not limited to, underserved populations, geographic diversity, strategic priorities, past performance, and available funding when making awards.”
  • From the “Teen Pregnancy Prevention Community Challenge Grant (CCG) Program” from the California Department of Public Health: “Additionally, OFP will seek to achieve equitable and balanced funding via geographic distribution across California at its discretion.”

To try this exercise at home, put on safety glasses and a rubber apron, then search for the words “the secretary” or “geographical” in almost any federal RFP and you will find some version of the above.

This curious aspect of grant writing can play out in strange ways, as confirmed in this recent Wall Street Journal article by Jonathan Weisman and Alex P. Kellogg, “Obama Courts Stimulus Doubters”. Oddly, the relatively nondescript Holland, MI, is, according to this article, “a community awash in stimulus dollars.” Holland “has seen a big infusion of cash from the president’s economic stimulus plan: hundreds of millions of dollars for new automotive battery plants, tens of millions for schools, as well as millions more for housing, small businesses, university research and transportation.”

Pretty strange for a City with a population of about 20,000 in Ottawa County, which has around 250,000 residents. Call me cynical, but, unless there is a hidden nest of grant writers in Holland, the reason for this tsunami of stimulus dollars is likely because this region in Michigan used to have lots of automotive-related manufacturers, most of which have long since gone the way of the Studebaker. It would make a great story, particularly for the 2012 election, if a sprinkling of federal fairy dust in the form of stimulus grants caused green job industries to flourish.

While I have no way of confirming this, I suspect there are pin maps in various federal agencies with a bullseye on Holland and other charmed communities. As Bob Dylan put it in Idiot Wind, “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” It seems Holland is lucky and, while grant applicants can’t make their luck, they can work hard to submit compelling, technically correct proposals, ideally, with some aspect of program design that makes them stand out, and wait for that congrats phone call from their congresswoman letting them know that the Secretary of Whatever Federal Department has used “other factors” to shove their proposal to the top of the funding heap.

But this assumes their proposal is complete and technically correct. Until you get at least that far, you have virtually no chance at all.

EDIT: Also see our follow-up post, “True Tales of a Department of Education Grant Reviewer.”


* For an incredibly confusing take on the “real world” versus the “non-real world of dreams,” pack an overnight bag and go see the imaginative, but interminable Inception. Jake observed that none of the characters use computers or cell phones in this terminally hip film, while I noted that all the male actors wore suits and there was no swearing or sexual situations. It is like being in an IBM sales office circa 1970. Too bad Ross Perot didn’t have a cameo.

July 2010 Links: Community Economic Development Projects, Partnerships, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the Street Outreach Program, and More

* Dean Dad on Partnerships from the perspective of a community college administrator:

You don’t really appreciate how difficult collaboration is until you contrast it to running your own stuff. Every collaboration needs a “go-to person” at each site, sometimes grant-funded, sometimes not. Every collaboration has its own calendar, which is usually an amalgam of the various partners’ calendars and the preferences of the funding agency. Every partnership has its own ‘benchmarks,’ its own reporting protocols and requirements, its own sunset provisions, its own local ‘matching’ requirements, its own acronyms — what is it about granting agencies and acronyms? — and its own assumptions about how the constituent institutions actually run. Those assumptions are frequently, and maddeningly, wrong, but it’s considered bad form to say so.

Sound familiar? It should.

* This story is not from The Onion: Plummeting Marijuana Prices Create A Panic In California. See more about similar stories in Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

* Nonprofit Advocate Carves Out a For-Profit Niche, which concerns how a business can sometimes use a nonprofit to avoid taxes and make real money.

* Loan Giants Threaten Energy-Efficiency Programs. This is an excellent example of how government can end up working at cross-purposes, especially when one purpose (energy efficient) is particularly important but the bureaucrats in other parts of the government don’t care.

* The New York Times’ “City Room Blog” wrote this post: “White Population Rises in Manhattan,” which quotes Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, as saying that “conflation of luxury development and good strong public housing stock” means that “that the borough is becoming a place for very, very wealthy people and enclaves for poor people and that middle-income people are finding it impossible to stay here.”

If you want to make Manhattan—or any city—more affordable for a wide array of people, the only way to effectively do so is to increase the supply of housing. Anyone genuinely interested in the issue should take a look at the graph that appears in Virginia Postrel’s “A Tale of Two Cities.”

* Gates Foundation gets low marks in relations with non-profits, according to the Seattle Times. I hate to tell you, but if most foundations surveyed the nonprofit and public agencies they gave money to, they’d probably get the same response. And if you surveyed funders about their grantees, the funders would probably be unimpressed.

* The Office of Community Services’ (OCS) Community Economic Development Projects shows an interesting trend: last year’s RFP had an Letter of Intent (LOI), then the final. This year, they just want the final application. I might call that progress.

* Boogie down!: the FY 2010 Railroad Research and Development – Safety Evaluation of HSR Bogie Concepts is here.

* Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is: what happens when you’re too incompetent to judge that you’re incompetent? One of my (former?) friends taught the LSAT—the Law School Admissions Test—and called this the stupid person’s paradox: that you’re too stupid to realize that you’re stupid, which he often ran into with students who had high GPAs in very easy majors and then wondered why they were terrible at the LSAT and/or couldn’t read effectively.

I like that name better than the “the Dunning-Kruger Effect,” which finds that “our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.” I wonder if understanding the effect makes us less likely to susceptible to it, or merely makes us implicitly smug that we’re smart enough to understand it and “they” aren’t, but in actuality we suffer just as much.

I find this bit of the article especially compelling:

DAVID DUNNING: People will often make the case, “We can’t be that stupid, or we would have been evolutionarily wiped out as a species a long time ago.” I don’t agree. I find myself saying, “Well, no. Gee, all you need to do is be far enough along to be able to get three square meals or to solve the calorie problem long enough so that you can reproduce. And then, that’s it. You don’t need a lot of smarts. You don’t have to do tensor calculus. You don’t have to do quantum physics to be able to survive to the point where you can reproduce.” One could argue that evolution suggests we’re not idiots, but I would say, “Well, no. Evolution just makes sure we’re not blithering idiots. But, we could be idiots in a lot of different ways and still make it through the day.”

* Yet another article on how it’s impossible to fire teachers.

* Thoughts on DIY U deserves to be more widely read.

* Is the Internet rotting our brains? In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr answers “yes.” I’m not so sure.

* Dan Savage on “sexting.”

* The Street Outreach Program is back, with 85 grants of up to $200,000 a pop. If you’re going to write one of these, consider reading Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children and alluding to the novel; a large section deals with street youth, as they’re often called in the grant writing biz.

How to Write a “Juicy” Nonprofit Blog — or a Blog of Any Kind

July’s “Nonprofit Blog Carnival” asks for suggestions on “How to Create a Juicy Nonprofit Blog.” I’m not sure it’s possible to write a “juicy” nonprofit blog—I can’t see how SIX SHOCKING CELEBRITY SEX TAPE SCANDALS!!!! would apply to the sector, except as Google bait and something to draw the idea of otherwise bored readers to the article.

That being said, here’s my advice:

* Tell stories. People like stories. Joel Spolsky’s Joel on Software gets zillions of visitors not because he’s a very good programmer—which he probably is—but because he imparts his lessons through real stories about software fiascos. He says in Introduction to Best Software Writing I:

See what I did here? I told a story. I’ll bet you’d rather sit through ten of those 400 word stories than have to listen to someone drone on about how “a good team leader provides inspiration by setting a positive example.”

Yeah! In “Anecdotes,” Joel says:

Heck, I practically invented the formula of “tell a funny story and then get all serious and show how this is amusing anecdote just goes to show that (one thing|the other) is a universal truth.”

Steal someone else’s stories if you have to (I just stole Joel’s, which is a pretty solid source).

There’s a reason the Bible and most other religious texts are lighter on “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” and heavier on parables: the parables are way more fun. More people read novels than read legal codes, even though the novels implicitly offer examples of how to live your life. People read stories more readily than they read “how-to” manuals. Taken together, this is we often tell stories about projects, clients, and so on; my post Deadlines are Everything, and How To Be Amazing is a good example of this, since it’s basically one story after another. So is Stay the Course: Don’t Change Horses (or Concepts) in the Middle of the Stream (or Proposal Writing).

Real life is just a story generating machine. Which leads me to my next point:

* Do or have done something. I get the sense—perhaps incorrect—that some nonprofit bloggers spend more time blogging than they do working in or running nonprofits. This is like describing how to play professional baseball despite having never done so. A lot of grant writing bloggers, for example, don’t show evidence of working on any actual proposals; they don’t tell stories about projects, use specific examples from RFPs, and so on. This makes me think they’re pretending to be grant writers.*

* Be an expert and genuinely know the field. A lot of blogs that are putatively about grant writing don’t appear to have much insight into the process of grant writing, the foibles involved, the difficulty of getting submissions right, and so on. As I mentioned above, the writers seldom mention projects they’ve worked on and RFPs they’ve responded to.

* Dave Winer on great blogging:

1. People talking about things they know about, not just expressing opinions about things they are not experts in (nothing wrong with that, of course).

2. Asking hard questions that powerful people might not want to be asked.

3. Saying things that few people have the courage to say.

I would amend 3. to say “Saying things that few people have the courage or knowledge to say.”

* Don’t do something that everyone else is already doing. Every blog has “eight tips for improving your submissions,” which say things like “read the RFP before you start” and “get someone else to proofread your proposal.” Paul Graham wrote an essay against the “List of N Things” approach that’s so popular in weak magazines:

The greatest weakness of the list of n things is that there’s so little room for new thought. The main point of essay writing, when done right, is the new ideas you have while doing it. A real essay, as the name implies, is dynamic: you don’t know what you’re going to write when you start. It will be about whatever you discover in the course of writing it.

The whole essay is worth reading. Sometimes a bulleted list is appropriate, but more often it’s merely easy. Sometimes the “eight tips” are obvious and sometimes they’re wrong, but they often don’t add anything unique to a discussion.

Everyone else writes posts that are 100 – 200 words long and includes pictures; we made a conscious decision to write long, detailed posts that will actually help people who are trying to write grants. Stock photo pictures don’t add anything to writing, and most of what grant writing deals with can’t be shown or expanded with pictures. So we don’t use them. Isaac, of course, insists on working in old movies, TV shows and rock ‘n’ roll lyrics, but I will not comment on these idiosyncrasies.

Writing proposals is really, really hard, and the process can’t be reduced to soundbites, which is why we write the way we write as opposed to some other way. Pictures are wonderful, but I think it better to have no pictures unless those pictures add something to the story that can’t be conveyed any other way. Generic pictures are just distractions.

As you’ve probably noticed, this post isn’t really about nonprofit blogs: it’s about how to be an interesting writer in general, regardless of the medium. Being an interesting writer has been a hard task since writing was invented, and it will probably continue to be a hard task forever, regardless of whether the medium involves paper (like books, magazines, and newspapers) or bits (like blogs) or neural channels (someday).

Finally, if you can’t take any of my suggestions but you do have a shocking celebrity sex tape, post it, and you’ll probably get 1000 times as much traffic as every other nonprofit blog combined. That’s really juicy—almost as juicy as posts that are unique and don’t merely parrot back what the author has heard elsewhere and the reader has seen before.


* I also get the feeling there are a lot of pretend grant writers out there because our clients are so often astonished that we do what we say we’re going to do. That this surprises so many people indicates to me that a lot of “grant writers” are out there who prefer to talk about grant writing rather than writing grants.

National Institute of Health (NIH) grant writers: An endangered species or hidden like Hobbits?

Type “NIH Grant Writers” into Google and look at what you find: pages and pages of “how-to” sheets with no actual grant writers.

That’s not surprising: trying to become a specialist NIH grant writing consultant would be really, really hard because the niche is sufficiently small that one couldn’t easily build a business solely around NIH grants. And the people who could or would want to write solely NIH grants are employed by universities or big hospitals and aren’t available for consulting.

You probably won’t be able to find a specialist in NIH grant writing even if you think you should find one. Isaac addressed this problem in “No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer:” “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.”

He used the same unicorn language in “I Was Right:”

Two of the qualified SGIG [Smart Grid Investment Grant] callers did not “believe” and presumably kept searching in the forest for the perfect, but ephemeral, grant writing “unicorn” I described in my original post. One caller became our sole SGIG client for this funding round. The application process culminated in a finely crafted proposal that went in on the deadline day.

The proposal got funded, even though we’d never written a Smart Grid proposal before—and neither had anyone else. How’d we do it? Through the same means described in “How to Write About Something You Know Nothing About: It’s Easy, Just Imagine a Can Opener,” which explains how an attentive generalist learns to write a proposal for unfamiliar programs (and remember: all programs are unfamiliar when they first appear; this was certainly true for Smart Grid applicants). The same principles apply to all proposals; the trick is finding someone who understands and can implement those principles on a deadline.

Such people are as rare as the ones who know a lot about NIH grant writing. If you created a Venn diagram of the two, you’d probably have almost no overlap. If you were going to set up a business writing NIH proposals, you’d need at least three very unusual skills: able to write, able to hit deadlines, and health knowledge, ideally through getting a PhD or perhaps a research-oriented MD. But that would be really, really time consuming and expensive: MDs don’t come cheap, and even family docs make six figures after residency. The kinds of people capable of being NIH grant specialists are either an endangered species that’s seldom seen or hidden like hobbits in the modern world, who can vanish in a twinkle and apparently aren’t on the Internet.

In short, you’re not going to find them. We explain this fairly regularly to people who call us looking for “experts” and “specialists” in grant writing for particular fields, but they often don’t believe us, despite our seventeen years of experience.

EDIT: We’ve also worked for clients who’ve sat on NIH panels, and many say that, if they can’t figure out what the proposal is about within ten minutes of starting, they don’t even read the rest of it. You may see a blog post on this subject shortly.

Our Experience Trying to Hire Grant Writers

There’s one other reason we’re skeptical that you’ll find many specialized grant writers, let alone general grant writers: we’ve hired a lot of grant writing stringers, and most of them turned out to be not particularly great grant writers.* The best one had no unusual training at all—he was a journalist, which meant he understood the 5Ws and the H and was accustomed to writing against inflexible deadlines. Most thought they could write proposals, but they couldn’t pass the test Isaac describes in Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain.

The number of people out there who claim they can write against deadlines or pretend they can is vastly larger than the number of people who actually can. If there’s something strange, and it don’t look good, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters! If you’ve trying to understand a RFP, and it don’t look good, you know who to call. Alternately, you could keep searching until the deadline has passed, in which case the probability of you not being funded is 100%.


* This was mostly before my time, however; once I got to college, I tended to write more proposals, and the frustrations of stringers weren’t worth the benefit for Isaac. In addition, I’m mostly inured to his sometimes acerbic commentary by now. Seliger + Associates has not used stringers for well over ten years.

 

The Ups and Downs of Using a Fiscal Agent to Apply for Grants

We sometimes write proposals, usually for foundation grants, when the applicant is not tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). Most government grant programs and almost all foundations require that the applicant be a public benefit, tax exempt organization, but one can also use a fiscal agent/fiscal sponsor. A fiscal agent can enable an individual (e.g., artist, researcher, inventor, explorer looking for the The Lost City of Z,* etc.) or unincorporated associations (e.g., Citizens for a Better Owatonna, Residents United Against Everything, etc.) to be considered for grants. The ineligible individual or entity has to make a deal with the 501(c)(3) organization to, in effect, borrow their tax exempt status and be responsible for the grant funds received.

The upside of using a fiscal agent is that the project proponent can try to get their snout into the funding trough without going through the time consuming process of forming a corporation (e.g. finding folks willing on the board of directors, obtaining a nonprofit charter in their state, etc.) and applying for and getting a Letter of Determination of Tax Exempt Status from the IRS. While it is possible to form a new nonprofit and obtain a Letter of Determination by yourself (I first did it when I was about 21), most people use a attorney and/or accountant to do the paperwork and must pay application fees at significant expense while waiting from six to nine months for the paperwork to wind its way through the state and federal bureaucracies.

This makes using a fiscal agent attractive, particularly if the project proponent wants funding for something urgent, like, say, cleaning oil-soaked birds in the Gulf today, providing post-Hurricane Katrina disaster relief in 2005 or offering case management for those newly diagnosed HIV in 1985. It is also a good approach for artists and other individuals who want to concentrate their creative energies on outcomes, not process.

The advantages to the grant user are obvious, but what’s in it for the fiscal agent? Some established organizations genuinely are interested in expanding availability of services in their community and want to lend a hand to emerging nonprofits. Others, a cynic like myself might conclude, are looking to collect administrative fees and influence the direction of service delivery in their bailiwick. But, whatever the motivations on both sides, fiscal agency remains popular.

As a result, we occasionally accept selected grant writing assignments involving fiscal agents, but only after we explain the potential pitfalls and challenges, such as:

  • The plausibility of the fiscal agent/grant user relationship, which increases if the fiscal agent conducts activities at least vaguely similar to the grant user. It is hard, for example, to explain why a domestic violence prevention organization is serving as the fiscal agent for a documentary on the American Revolution. It is important to not give the impression to the funder that the 501(c)(3) fiscal agent is “renting” its tax exempt status.
  • It is not good if the 501(c)(3) fiscal agent appears to be a shell organization to serve only as a pass-through to the ineligible grant user. For example, for-profit medical groups sometimes set up a “captive” 501(c)(3) affiliate. While the captive may be an eligible applicant, if it has no track record and grant funds will be used to hire the medical group, or some of its docs, the relationship may be seen as a sham. There are many situations, however, in which this affiliated nonprofit relationship is perfectly innocent and accepted, such as when a school district establishes a 501(c)(3) “educational foundation” to raise money through donations or grants to supplement tax revenues. Since many foundations will not fund entities like school districts, which are taxing entities, the affiliated nonprofit structure has become quite common and accepted.
  • Even if the intentions of both parties in the fiscal agent relationship are believable, the real problem often emerges when the grant seeking effort is successful. It’s fine to contemplate the nuances of fiscal agent responsibilities in the proposal world, but the real world complicates things. To paraphrase Grandmaster Flash in one of the first rap anthems, White Lines, “The money gets divided / The fiscal agents get excited.” When grant funds start flowing, the fiscal agent will often suddenly develop a need and deep interest in what the grant user is doing. In extreme cases, the fiscal agent may simply deep-six their “partner” to run the program themselves and there will be little, if anything, the grant user can do about it.

If your idea is good enough to be grant-worthy, it is probably worth your time and money to establish a new nonprofit and obtain tax exempt status instead of using a fiscal agent. Unless there is urgency to the problem being addressed, it is best to form the new nonprofit at the start. Otherwise, you are telling the funder that you are hedging your bets by not investing in the new organization until the grants are approved, implying that you want the funder to take a risk while you are unwilling to do so.


* An explorer seeking grants for an expedition to find the Lost City of Z actually contacted us about 12 years ago. I explained that he needed a fiscal agent, but he never called back. Either he couldn’t find a fiscal agent or, like John Voight in one of my favorite “big animal” movies, Anaconda, was swallowed by a large snake on his way through the Amazon to Z.

We were also hired by a fellow seeking grants through a fiscal agent to set up a reserve for Komodo Dragons. We lost contact with our client after he left for Komodo Island in Indonesia, where he may have been eaten by a dragon. His fate is unknown, but I will leave the rest of this tale for another post.