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Learn How Things Work, Including Grants and Grant Writing

We regularly get e-mails and phone calls from people who think they can get money for nothing. They don’t know anything about how grants or grant writing works and apparently don’t want to learn. This is mind-boggling to me because it means such people are wasting their time and wasting our time for no particular reason.

People call or write to ask about grants for their small businesses, for child care, to pay their bills, and all kinds of other stuff, even when we say—right on our website—that most businesses and individuals aren’t eligible for grants and that we work primarily for nonprofit and public agencies. Such people are asking to be taken by unscrupulous sharks because they don’t know any better. Almost every legitimate grant writer has statements like ours on their website. We write posts (like this one) on our blog. So why keep sending the emails and calling?

Max Klein’s post “Drug dealers shouldn’t make iPhone apps” gives us a partial answer. He says:

I’ve been noticing that a great deal of successful people are very consistent in what they do and in their approach. For example, a weather man. You will see him having weather kits, weather shows, etc. It’s all about the weather. That’s what people know him for. And he leverages his knowledge to move horizontally in the weather space.

Then he tells a hilarious story about a guy in Bali who rents body boards, is a part-time gigolo, and wants to open a brothel. Klein says:

I spluttered: Why in heavens name don’t you start a motorcycle shop or something and make money legally?

He gave me an answer that is one of the most important sentences I have ever heard:

“What do I know about selling motorcycles? I know about selling bodies, that’s what I do, it’s what I’m good at, and I’m not going to throw away all I have learned over these years and do something where I have absolutely no experience.”

This is brilliant and lots of people don’t do it. They want to throw away whatever they’ve learned to chase grants, or they don’t want to learn anything in the first place. If you’re going to chase grants and you’re reading this, you should start by reading every single post in the archives of this blog. When you’re done, you will know have a reasonable understanding of grant writing and what is possible. If you don’t want to believe us, type “grant writing blog” into the search engine of your choice and read what others have to say.

In an alternate world, I am a famous and successful novelist exchanging bon mots with Jon Stewart and Christopher Hitchens. Obviously I’m not—at the moment, anyway—but in working toward that goal, I’ve read a lot about how writing and publishing works. Blogs have been great for this because they’re often written by people in the industry, and the writers have no reason to put a smiley face on things, unlike writers of how-to-get-published books that want to sell you books and make you believe in your dreams, however improbable, poorly conceived, or poorly executed.

Agent blogs like Nathan Bransford, Betsy Lerner, Janet Reid, and Dystel & Goderich have been incredibly useful. There are others as well. Taken together, they explain what it’s like to be on the other end of the slush pile (pretty ugly) and what catches their eye (voice and writers who’ve done their homework). They explain how publishing works. The novelist Charlie Stross has been explaining how the publishing industry is changing. And so on. Janet Reid also runs a blog named Query Shark, which is a snarky what-not-to-do guide for writing query letters.

If you read all this material, you’ll start to understand what you’re supposed to do if you want any shot whatsoever at getting published. If you don’t, the chances of you remaining in your current, unpublished state rise considerably because you’ll never get past the initial query letter hurdle because you don’t know anything about what you’re trying to do.

Callers to Seliger + Associates, however, routinely demonstrate that they know nothing about what they’re trying to do, and we see the unfortunate results. (Note that if you’re with a nonprofit or public agency, the preceding sentence doesn’t apply to you, and you shouldn’t hesitate to call.) Not long ago, we got an especially strange e-mail from someone who says she is a student in criminology, but has written a cookbook and also has a “business plan and letter of intent for the cookbook.” The e-mail is poorly written and says things like, “I am needing a grant to help pay for this,” which is the kind of mistake that, if my freshmen students make it often enough, means they’ll fail my class. She says, “So, What I am asking is for $10,000.00.” Asking for $10K from us? From someone else? I have no idea.

Maybe this is just the Dunning-Kruger Effect at work (“our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.” Read that again). Or maybe it’s something more.

Our correspondent should learn about what she’s trying to do, because no one is going to give her money or help her based on the query she sent. If she’s looking for financial aid, her college has an office dedicated to that task. This is basic, basic stuff. I have no idea if the woman who wrote to us knows anything about any domain, but she definitely knows as little about grant writing as I know about forestry management. In her email, she also says “This is very important to me,” which is patently untrue, because when something is very important to a person, they research the subject and pay very close attention to what they’re doing. When something is important, a person takes a lot of time to do it well or learn how to do it well. If she doesn’t, then at best she’ll fail in her stated goal and at worse she’ll pay money to someone and get nothing in return.

The guy in Bali has spent years learning about the body trade, and he’s not going to throw that knowledge away by diving into some other field. The woman writing to us should take the same lesson to heart. I realize this is probably shouting into the void, since you, dear reader, are already reading Grant Writing Confidential and thus less likely to make these kinds of egregious, wasteful errors. But now at least I have somewhere to point people.

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Social Innovation Fund Not Terribly Innovative, But Confirms That Getting Grants Is Not Like Winning an Olympic Gold Medal

Faithful readers will remember “Why Winning an Olympic Gold Medal is Not Like Getting a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Grant,” in which I opined that in getting grants, the race does not always belong to the swift. It seems I scooped the New York Times. In today’s edition, Stephanie Strom tells the depressing tale of how the perhaps inappropriately named Social Innovation Fund (SIF) awarded $50,000,000 to applicants with “mediocre scores” in “Nonprofit Fund Faces Questions About Conflicts and Selection Procedures.” Nothing is innovative about not giving grants to applicants with the highest score, but it is innovative that SIF has lots of obvious conflicts of interest and has not “disclosed who reviewed the grants—or who applied for them or the ratings the applicants received.” I can think of a couple of pretty good reasons for the secrecy: they funded who they felt like funding and are ashamed of this obviously boneheaded move.

As I pointed out in my blog post, it is not uncommon for federal agencies to select grant awardees from among technically correct applications, even low scoring ones (SIF is a nonprofit that somehow got what amounts to a $50 million congressional earmark). Usually, however, the funder doesn’t make a secret of the award process and doesn’t shred the review sheets, which SIF apparently did. This is not only not transparent, its a reminds a grizzled grant writer of the missing 18 minutes of the Watergate tapes. As I pointed in a post from two years ago, “It’s a Grant, Not a Gift: A Primer on Grants Management,” “The secret to grant management is to remember that everything related to a grant is likely public information, so don’t do anything you wouldn’t mind seeing on the front page of the local newspaper.”

In this case SIF did something dumb enough to end up in the New York Times. If only Paul Carttar, SIF Executive Director, read Grant Writing Confidential regularly, he wouldn’t look at best stupid or at worst . . . well, you decide what he looks like. In writing proposals, we try never to write the word “horse” under the picture of a horse—or _______ under the picture of a horse’s rear end.

The SIF fiasco has created such a stir in the normally staid climes of the world of big nonprofits that Ruth McCambridge, Editor of the Nonprofit Quarterly, said she may file a request for all the applications under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).* As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously put it, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Secrecy and grant making are a bad combination. I also don’t think much of the recent trend of Congress giving huge grants to national nonprofits, which in turn dole out grants through dubious RFP processes. How does SIF help human services get delivered? As far as I can tell, they fund who they want to fund and likely take a large administrative rake off the top. Why not just have any unit of DHHS run the RFP process for “financing the replication of nonprofit programs that work,” which is supposedly what SIF is doing? I recently wrote a post about another example of a national nonprofit, YouthBuild USA, running a quasi-secret RFP process in A Secret YouthBuild SMART RFP Found and a Not-So-Secret YouthBuild SGA to be Issued.

A note of optimism in all of this doom and gloom about potentially wired competitions brought to us by congressional earmarks for national nonprofits: the vast majority of RFP processes are not wired in any way. Still, it’s just a reality that for many reasons, the highest scoring proposal may not be funded. But your organization will never get a grant unless it submits a technically correct and compelling proposal on time.

For example, we were hired about ten years ago by one of the five largest cities in the US to re-write what was probably the last Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) proposal ever submitted. UDAG is a long-defunct HUD program from the Carter era. Our client was told by HUD that $3 million in returned UDAG funds was theirs in a sole-source submission. All they had to do was submit an application.

The city managed to annoy the HUD Program Officer, who hadn’t gotten the memo that this proposal was supposed to be funded. He rejected it as being technically deficient. We were then hired to fix this mess, and we found the dusty UDAG regs from 1978 and wrote a new proposal that was technically correct. Voila: the $3 million UDAG grant was promptly awarded and helped to ensure construction of a public venue in the city, which shows up on TV regularly. Can you guess the city and project? If you can, we’ll come up with an appropriate prize. The point of this story is that even with a wired RFP process or earmark, the applicant must get the application technically correct or they will screw up a free lunch.

* If you ever do send a FOIA request, let the public official know in advance that you plan to, which will give her the opportunity to say, “Oh, as luck would have it, the info you want is right here on my credenza,” and save time all around. Be sure to use Certified Mail.

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How Much Money You Should Ask For — an example from the National Mentoring Programs, with Improving Literacy Through School Libraries Program as a Bonus

In “So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For?,” we discussed a sometimes delicate issue for nonprofits: picking a grant request amount. Our standard answer: ask for the maximum because zeroes are cheap. Funders will sometimes cut down your budget but almost never increase it.

Some obnoxious programs, however, won’t tell you how much you can request, which makes it harder to find guidance. Last year, an e-mail blast from the Seliger Funding Report included the National Mentoring Programs RFP (warning: .pdf link), which provides grants to national organizations who then offer mentoring services to special populations. In 2008, the RFP didn’t provide guidance about how much money to ask for or how much was available, so I sent an e-mail and called the Department of Justice (DOJ) to ask if they would tell us or were just going to play hide the salami. Patrick Dunckhorst, Program Manager, wrote back to say:

Thank you for your inquiry. Applicants should request the amount of funding they assess/deem necessary to support the requirements of the National Mentoring solicitation.

To solve the world’s problems I need all the world’s money, but that’s not likely to happen. The DOJ probably received applications with wildly divergent and zany funding requests, perhaps ranging from the absurdly small to all the world’s money. In the Funding Report, I quoted his second sentence and left it at that.

In 2009 the max grant amount is $10,000,000. Evidently Patrick got tired of inquiries like mine, because this year the contact person is Eric Stansbury, and he won’t get questions about the amount available save from those who can’t read.*

* One other recent example of random change: the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries Program, which existed under that name in 2006, 2007, and 2008, is now called the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries Competition. I feel more literate already.


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Guest Post: True Tales of a Department of Education Grant Reviewer

In “Why Winning an Olympic Gold Medal is Not Like Getting a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Grant,” Isaac wrote: “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.”

One of our faithful readers wrote in with this tale of grant reviewer woe, which has been anonymized to protect the innocent:

I was a Federal Reviewer for [a Department of Education program] a few years ago. Our team of three reviewers met via phone conference to discuss the grants after we had each read and scored them independently. Amazingly, we pretty much gave each grant a similar score—within 5 – 10 points of each other, which surprised me. I remember the one that we gave the lowest score to. It was awful. The project didn’t even ‘hit’ on the required elements of the RFP and what they proposed to implement didn’t fit at all with [the subject of the program].

None of us had given them a score over 50. The moderator still asked us to discuss the score before we moved on, so we did. None of us wanted to change anything about their score in any way. When the list came out, two of the proposals we had reviewed were funded. One that had scored in the high 90’s, and the one with the lowest score. I can’t remember the location of the low scoring one, although it was somewhere out East.

I do know that the moderator told us that the competition was pretty tough (she had been a moderator in the past) and unless an applicant scored close to 100, they probably wouldn’t get funded. The moderator never mentioned anything about geographic distribution in any of our discussions, but it was in the RFP—I had gone back to check.

The review process is pretty anonymous and cut and dried. It’s done through the e-portal at e-grants, and there’s really no way to go back in and talk to the moderator or the other reviewers once the decisions are made. I do remember being hacked off about that one, though. So much so, that I didn’t go back and apply to be a reviewer for them again the next year.

(Compare this chilling real-life story to the one about how RFPs get written in “Inside the Sausage Factory and how the RFP Process leads to Confused Grant Writers“.)

This story also demonstrates why we don’t read reviewer comments on clients’ previous proposal submissions—or our own. Although the three reviewers on this program mostly agreed with each other, there’s no guarantee that three reviewers next year will agree on the same kinds of criteria or be concerned with the same kinds of things. And even if they do, other considerations often outweigh what the reviewers want.

Still, you should strive to produce the best proposal you can: notice that one funded proposal in our reader’s story did score very highly. You’re always better off with a clear, concise, well-written proposal than an incomplete, poorly written proposal that relies on improbable assistance from reviewers or decision makers that might not come through for you, even if it does for others. You don’t know who else is applying, what their proposals look like, or what non-explicit factors the funding agency is really considering.

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The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Finally Issues a New Access Points (NAP) FOA: $250,000,000 and 350 Grants! (Plus Some Important History)

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) just issued a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA, which is HRSA-speak for RFP) for the New Access Points (NAP) program. There is $250,000,000 available and 350 grants up to $650/000/year for five years! The deadline is November 17. This the first NAP FOA in over three years, and the NAP program is the best way to fund primary health care and prevention for medically indigent folks. In other words, this is a great opportunity. The real question is, where has the NAP program been for the last three years?

I have no idea why HRSA has not issued any NAP FOAs lately, but it may have something to do with the change in administrations and the extended health care reform debate. The NAP program was greatly expanded during the Bush administration, and HRSA issued NAP FOAs frequently during the early and mid years of the decade. We wrote many funded NAP grants and became very familiar with the program in the process. Then funding for NAP was either not included in HRSA appropriations or HRSA slowed down the grant making process, causing NAP to disappear beneath the waves a year or so before President Obama assumed office. But NAP funding was included in the recently passed Health Reform Act of 2010. This Act authorizes dozens of new competitive federal grant programs, as well as some old friends like NAP, and voila, HRSA issues this enormous FOA, so it seems that the NAP program is once again in favor.

For those not in the know, to be eligible for a NAP grant, the applicant has to be, or agree to set-up, a nonprofit “Health Center” under Section 330 of the Public Health Service Act (42 USCS § 254b), or, as they are termed in the trade, a Section 330 provider. Older terms that are sometimes used, like Federal Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) or FQHC Look-Alikes. Without getting too far inside baseball, the intent of such health centers is to provide access to patients who are eligible for public insurance programs, such as Medicaid, Medicare and SCHIP, or have no insurance. Although services are nominally provided on a sliding scale and no one is supposed to be turned away, Section 330 providers have to keep the doors open and, like all health care providers, they prefer patients with third party payers.

The entire Section 330/FQHC/FQHC Look-Alike system grew up to replace the chaotic but never dull “free clinic” model of the late 1960s and 1970s, which was pioneered to serve assorted hippies, druggies, runaways and other youth by the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic and LA Free Clinic. When I moved to LA in 1974, I almost went to work for the LA Free Clinic’s founding Executive Director, Lenny Somberg, who was a very interesting guy but was unfortunately killed by an intruder a few months after I met him.

While I didn’t get the job, I eventually volunteered and served on the board of the Harbor Free Clinic in San Pedro*, another one of the original free clinics. The basic idea of free clinics was to use volunteer docs and allied health professionals to provide free health care while not accepting Medicaid or any other insurance. Although some organizations retain “Free Clinic” in their name, I don’t think any still use this model, having shifted long ago to some version of the Section 330/FQHC paradigm—in other words, they are primarily Medicaid/Medicare providers and use paid medical staff.

These days, if an organization wants to provide primary health care for the uninsured, publicly insured or underinsured, they become a Section 330 provider, and a NAP grant is the organization’s ticket into the Medicaid reimbursement world. This is the first opportunity to compete for a NAP grant in three years, so start writing f you’re eligible. Who knows when the next NAP FOA will pop up in the federal trough?

*Pronounced “Peedro” by residents, not “Paydro,” and often affectionately termed, “The city where the sewer meets the sea.” I lived in Pedro for a few years and can attest to its many charms. Among other things, Pedro often turns up as a locale in movies and TV, including the most recent episode of my favorite TV show, Mad Men, “The Good News.”

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There will be no fighting in the war room: nonprofit non-collaboration and Susan G. Komen

In “Charity Brawl: Nonprofits Aren’t So Generous When a Name’s at Stake,” Clifford M. Marks explains the lengths to which Susan G. Komen for the Cure—a very large, successful nonprofit—will go to protect what it thinks is its brand and the phrase “for the cure,” particularly in conjunction with the color pink. Komen hounds other nonprofits, even those sister nonprofits battling other forms of cancer, such as lung cancer, who get too close to what they think is their turf.

Basically, Komen is acting like BP protecting their dumb flower logo or Apple and Apple Records fighting over an image of, well, an apple. As I wrote in April in “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point,” nonprofits are really in competition with one another and most talk of collaboration is the stuff of fairy tales and true believers.

The hammer and tongs approach used by Komen shows that, while the organization wants to cure cancer, it also wants to make sure it does the curing itself by protecting its brand and ability to raise money. Self-aggrandizement is not exclusive to the political and business worlds. I’m sure that if one pokes through Komen’s marketing materials, lip service will be paid to collaboration, but the fangs come out when another nonprofit gets too close to their food bowl. As Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley says in Dr. Strangelove, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room.” I paraphrase, “Gentle nonprofits, you can’t fight with one another. Let’s all just collaborate, but don’t go anywhere near my donors.”

EDIT: The New York Times is picking up on this: “Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer.” The number of people who orient their lives to research instead of emotion is small.

Komen’s behavior reinforces our point: nonprofits are more like businesses than most people realize.

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A Secret YouthBuild SMART RFP Found and a Not-So-Secret YouthBuild SGA to be Issued

We’ve uncovered a “secret” YouthBuild RFP. Well, it is not exactly secret, but not exactly well publicized either. The FY ’10 Department of Labor Appropriates Bill gave YouthBuild USA, a national nonprofit, a $10,000,000 non-competitive grant. It helps to have pals in Congress. The Department of Labor press release sounds as if YouthBuild USA will use the money itself. The YouthBuild USA site has a cryptic description of the YouthBuild SMART (“Start Making a Real Transformation”) Program.

Rather than use all of Department of Labor lucre itself, YouthBuild USA is making eight sub-grants. What you won’t find on the YouthBuild USA site, however, is the RFP or any explanation of how to apply. That’s because YouthBuild USA apparently only announced the competition in an email to its “affiliates.” Unless a nonprofit is in the know by being an affiliate, it won’t know about this competition. Like all good journalists (I know I ‘m a blogger, not a journalist, but a fella can pretend, can’t he?), we have unnamed sources and decided to put this “secret” RFP in our Free Grant Alert system. I trust YouthBuild USA appreciates our help in getting the word out. It’s interesting that YouthBuild USA will make eight sub-grants totaling about $8,000,000, making their administrative rake about $2,000,000. Nice work if you can get it. By the way, the deadline is September 20.

Speaking of YouthBuild, the Department of Labor will soon issue another YouthBuild SGA (Solicitation for Grant Applications, which is Department of Labor-speak for RFP). There will be at least 28 grants available, using what is left of the FY ’10 YouthBuild appropriation after second year funding for existing grantees, walking around money for YouthBuild USA and what have you. The SGA could be issued any day and there will probably be around $20 million available. This SGA will not be a secret. As Scotty the newsman in “The Thing from Another World” says, “Watch the skies”, or, just read our Free Grant Alerts.

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Meaning Well is Not Enough: The Role of Research in Grant Writing and Proposals

Chances are good that you, as an applicant, have really wonderful intentions in whatever you’re doing—just like everyone else. You want to help kids succeed, make the world a better place, save the endangered sparrow dragonfly,* impart job training skills, build cool stuff, etc. You know this is a excellent use of time and money. The trick is convincing others that your idea is an excellent use of their time and money.**

Usually you convince them by saying that the target area needs whatever you’re proposing and that what you’re proposing will be effective. To really convince the others with money, you can’t merely say that you know what you’re talking about and therefore they should give you the money. You need to present some kind of research that demonstrates your approach is effective. Merely asserting that your approach will be effective isn’t enough.

Lots of our clients don’t have any research to demonstrate that what they’re doing or want to do might be useful, which means we spend a lot of time conducting research. This probably brings back memories of high school term papers and the like. However tedious or difficult research might be, it’s still necessary if you’re going to have a strong application that sets you a part from others.

Here’s why: funders want to think you know what you’re doing. One way is to show that you know what’s going on in the field and that your project is likely to succeed. Some RFPs even tell you what research to cite and which protocols to use. For example, this year’s SAMHSA Offender Reentry Program (ORP) tells you to use a whole grab bag worth of acronyms (“you are encouraged, when appropriate for your setting and population to implement the Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach (A-CRA) coupled with Assertive Continuing Care (ACC) and/or Motivational Enhancement Therapy/Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-5 (MET/CBT-5) with juvenile offenders”).

Most RFPs don’t make things this easy, and you have to do your own research. Still, for most human and social service proposals, you also don’t need to write a dissertation: it’s enough to sprinkle some peer-reviewed research in like paprika over a casserole. As Homer Simpson says, “Facts are meaningless! You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!” The same applies to research. You need to have enough citations to make what you’re doing appear plausible, at least in most cases; for specific research grants or technology projects, you’ll often need someone who is really a domain expert. But for social and human service projects, you usually don’t.

That being said, people make two big mistakes in research for most kinds of grants: too much and too little. The “too much” mistake is less common, but it can happen when a RFP gets released on a short deadline and an applicant agency spends two weeks conducting research, finds a huge amount of material, and then can’t assemble it in an efficient manner to draft a concise and coherent needs assessment.

The “too little” mistake is one we see more frequently: the organization doesn’t have any research or citations whatsoever to demonstrate that their approach is likely to be valid (fortunately, this is an issue we can remedy). For RFPs that require a lot of research, this can be enough to get your proposal thrown out. Teen pregnancy prevention RFPs, for example, usually require a lot of research because of their politically charged nature. They require research even when that research indicates the approach is not likely to succeed, in which case you still need to pretend like the approach will succeed and the research is valid—in other words, you need to focus on the proposal world.

Don’t make either mistake. Use enough research to make your proposal palatable, even if “enough” varies a lot by application. Alas: there’s no real way to gauge how much is enough except through experience, which one uses to judge RFPs on a case-by-case basis. When in doubt, however, cite too much rather than too little.

* Note: this is a made up critter.

** Convincing others doesn’t just apply to funders—it can also apply to potential partners and collaborators. One problem with collaborations that we didn’t mention in our post on the subject is that collaborating agencies might not care about your problem. Sure, the local school district wants, in the abstract, for your mentoring program to succeed. But they already have lots of responsibilities, lots of administrators, and lots of problems, and they get paid average daily attendance (ADA) money whether you get the grant or not. They might care, but not as much as they care about their primary mission.