Monthly Archives: October 2010

The October 2010 Blog Carnival: Tell Us About Your Tools

The October Nonprofit Blog Carnival is setting up camp at Grant Writing Confidential. A couple of thoughts for future writers before we get started:

  • Read Paul Graham’s The List of N Things, because many of the submissions are like wannabe magazine submissions: “Seven Ways to Beat Fat Now!!!!” (The number seven occurs disproportionately).
  • The world of tools goes beyond social media and online. For example, one of the most useful tools a nonprofit can use to manage grant writing and other assignments is a whiteboard. Since I’m dating a med student, I’ve discovered that whiteboards are often used in emergency rooms to track patients because anyone walking by them can see at a glance who is where and any patients they’re responsible for.
  • If you’re going to write a worthwhile blog, bring expertise to the table.

Now, on to the carnival:

Thanks to everyone who contributed!

Google Faster than Grants.Gov — Finding the Capital Fund Education and Training Community Facilities Program and the FY 2011 Recovery Implementation Fund

Here's what real search looks likeWhile researching this week’s e-mail Grant Alert newsletter, I needed to find out more about the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) FY 2011 Recovery Implementation Fund. I searched for it on Grants.gov, which kept hanging instead of returning information.

But there’s a way around this: you can restrict Google searches to a single domain. If you want to search for a term, just type in the search term followed by site:http://grants.gov, or whatever site you need. So I tried “Recovery Implementation Fund site:grants.gov,” which immediately found the funding announcement.

If whoever is running Grants.gov had half a brain, they’d use a Google custom search (or one from Bing, Yahoo, or the other major search engine) instead of whatever lousy in-house search tool they’re using. But this presupposes that the brain trust at Grants.gov would care. They don’t because they publish RFPs but don’t respond to RFPs, so why would they care about those of us who are looking for RFPs? Customer service doesn’t matter if customers don’t matter.

The same thing happened with the the Capital Fund Education and Training Community Facilities Program, and Google again came to the rescue. If you’re struggling with a Grants.gov search—or a search of any janky site—use this technique to get around it. It’s also helpful at local or state government sites that contain useful data that you can’t easily otherwise find; Google is often smarter than the designers of such government websites.

Yet Another Note on Grant Writing Training, Seminars, and Workshops

Most of the people who send us angry e-mails regarding our posts on the uselessness of grant writing credentials, workshops, and the like do so because they teach those workshops and are unhappy when prospective students send links to our work. We got another such e-mail recently, which starts with a rhetorical question we’ve answered in a dozen places: “How does a potential grant writer learn to prepare a proposal?” It’s not that hard: one learns, most often, in English comp classes that teach you how to write and journalism classes that teach you how to answer who, what, where, when, why, and how. The rest is described in the post linked to above.

Our correspondent continued:

“I firmly believe conducting a grant writing seminar is a great marketing tool for consultants who are building their practice. After all, it is the novice grant writers who need the greatest help from the grant writing experts…such as myself or Seliger + Associates.”

We firmly believe that the best way to learn how to be a grant writer is by learning how to write, which grant writing seminars can’t teach you, and then writing proposals. But grant writing seminars are a great marketing tool for people like the woman who wrote to us, since she teaches grant writing seminars and would be out of business if she couldn’t do so any more. If I sold hot dogs, I’d be very opposed to people who point out that hot dogs aren’t very good for you. If I sold grant writing seminars, I’d be opposed to people who point out that such seminars are a waste of time.

Be Nice to Your Program Officer: Reprogrammed / Unobligated Federal Funds Mean Christmas May Come Early and Often This Year

I hope faithful readers who are also federal grantees have been nice to their Program Officers, because this could be the year that Christmas comes early and often.

I recently wrote about the unfolding FY 2011 federal budget fiasco. While cruising in the droptop to Palm Spring this weekend to visit relatives, I got to thinking about the next step: what happens when the Republicans win control of at least one house of Congress? Regardless of one’s politics, this looks certain. We’ll have a lame-duck Congress for a few weeks, during which a budget is unlikely to pass, and then an all-out political brawl when the new Congress starts fulminating on January 3. I’m guessing that the budget won’t get resolved until around March, which means the feds will probably operate under Continuing Resolutions for another three to six months.

If you have a direct federal grant and have been a good boy or girl this year by obligating your grant funds, filing timely reports and doing more or less what your grant agreement calls for (e.g., offering family support services but not leasing Porsches or going on site visits to Bimini), Santa may drop in. Provided that the stars align perfectly by having a full-scale budget rumpus unfold, preventing budget adoption by the lame duck congress, the political appointees who run federal agencies (e.g., the Under Secretary of Education for Undersecretarial Affairs) will quickly realize that they need to spend existing budget authority under their Continuing Resolutions ASAP or risk losing the money when the Federal budget is finally adopted.

In some cases, this will mean hurried-up RFPs processes, like the Department of Treasury’s CDFI program, HUD’s Healthy Homes Production Production Program (open, but with short deadlines), and the Department of Education’s Talent Search program (expected to be issued 10/22 with a deadline of 12/9—see theDraft Talent Search RFP for a glimpse of Days of Future Passed.* In other cases, however, the Program Officer may skip the RFP process entirely, however, and request applications from existing grantees. If you are a grantee, don’t be surprised if you get a call or email from your Program Officer in the next few weeks or months asking for a proposal with a week or two turnaround. While you’ll have to submit a technically correct proposal and be willing to accept whatever offer is made, you’ll have no competition. Just submit the proposal, sign the contract, and off you go!

In addition to trying to spend existing budget authority, Program Officers also sometimes have returned grant funds they need to “re-program.” This happens when a grantee screws up their grant, and, assuming that the grantee hasn’t obligated (there’s that word again) their funds, the Program Officer cancels the contract and takes the unobligated money back. To avoid losing the money when the next budget arrives, the Program Officer will sometimes unload the funds on another grantee she likes.

We wrote a funded HUD Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) Program grant in the FY 2009 funding round, which was one of only about 30 grants awarded. Last week, I was talking to this client, and he told me that one of the other grantees had already had their grant pulled because of inactivity. The grantee simply couldn’t get their program launched and the HUD Program Officer lost patience. This gives the LBPHC Program Officer another $2 or $3 million for re-programming. I told our client to be ready for the re-programming call—and so should you!

I’ve experienced the joy of re-programming a few times before I was a consultant. When I was Development Manager for the City of Inglewood in the 1980s (per 2Pac, “Inglewood always up to no good”, I wrote about $20 million in funded FAA grants to support redevelopment under the city’s Airport Noise Control and Land Use Compatibility (ANCLUC) program. This was during the Reagan/Congress budget battles and I was invited to submit a last minute ANCLUC proposal once or twice when my Program Officer got the shanks (note for non-golfers: this is different from “being shanked” in prison).

I’ve heard similar tales from clients and others over the years. Between re-programmed funds and the irresistible urge of Program Officers to shovel money out before the budget door slams shuts, a perfect storm for multiple Christmases is brewing. If you get such a call and feel like sharing, post a comment and we’ll keep you anonymous. Let the grant holidays begin.


* This over-the-top pretentious Moody Blues concept album reminds me of my early grant writing days, as I listened to it about a thousand times in 1970s while I scribbled proposals on to seemingly endless legal pads—not an iPad.

How to Write About Grant Writing and How to Learn About Grant Writing Via Blogging

In “Twentysomething: Making time for a blog and a full-time job,” Ryan Healy says that one should create deadlines, skip days when necessary, and remember why one blogs. It’s good advice, and we try to follow it.

Grant Writing Confidential has one big advantage over similar blogs: we’re extremely specific about programs, RFPs, problems, and solutions; notice our recent post about HRSA and Section 330 grantees. Grant writing is all about ignoring generalities (except for this generality) and attending to specifics.

But the bigger lesson is this: good blogging and good grant writing share a lot of characteristics, and this post explores this intersection. Get better at one and you’ll probably get better at the other.

Other Grant Writing Blogs

When grant writing blogs feature lots of hand waving, they’re signaling that their writers are not detail oriented or aren’t real grant writers. The latter problem is especially obvious in the age of the Internet, where your work is in front of the audience. If you’re not actually writing proposals (and writing about writing proposals), people will figure it out.

Most grant writing blogs aren’t interesting or informative, and I wish more were. But this also creates an opportunity for us: we’re more personable than others and slide into spaces left by less interesting bloggers. There aren’t many (good) grant writing blogs, since most of them don’t do the kinds of things we talk about in “How to Write a “Juicy” Nonprofit Blog — or a Blog of Any Kind.”

Uncertainty

One valuable thing I learned from Isaac is the ability to admit ignorance and say that I don’t know, which he does to clients regularly. I get the impression many other grant writers and consultants don’t. But you can’t find out how things work if you don’t tell people when you don’t understand something. When I called around getting quotes for Xeroxes and phone systems, broadcasting how little I knew about that particular domain helped me get a better sense of what I was looking for. Journalists use the same tactic. Chris Matthews calls it “hanging a lantern on your problems” in his wonderful book Hardball. I have a signed copy that’s falling apart because I’ve read it so many times and the book has so changed my thinking—less about politics the sport than about the politics inherent in life.

In How to be more interesting to other people, Penelope Trunk says:

That’s the part we should talk about when we talk about ourselves. If you limit the conversation, discussing only what you are certain about, then there’s no chance to stand on equal footing with your conversation partner. You stand on equal footing when you both reveal your struggles with what you don’t know yet, and the conversation can contribute to the answer.

Trunk has all kinds of useful posts about blogging, but some are more useful than others. In How to write a blog post people love, she gives five pieces of advice, each of which is bolded, with my commentary after it:

1. Start strong.

Every newspaper person knows the lead sells the rest of the story. We try to start off with a pithy sentence that ideally encapsulates the post itself or draws readers in through stories. Sometimes this works better than others.

2. Be short.

Admonishing people to “be short” works better for some blogs than others. Blogs with a mass, relatively low skill audience are probably better off with this than other blogs, and some topics are genuinely complex—like many of the subjects we discuss. I would amend this to say, “be as short as possible and no shorter.” For her, the right length is usually shorter than it is for us. Grant Writing Confidential posts are often long because grant writing is a complex subject.

3. Have a genuine connection.

This is vacuous and could be rolled into the fourth category.

4. Be passionate.

I would argue that passion helps writers of any sort, but it should be tempered with expertise. Don’t be a True Believer, and make sure you internal critic is always on the job (we sometimes call this “self-consciousness” or “self-awareness”). Indeed, passion without expertise probably dooms many blogs: it’s easy to skate along the surface of something, like a dilettante with an idea, but difficult to bring something genuinely new and engaging to a world (ditto for grant proposals). This is another thing that sets GWC apart from most blogs that cover grant writing and nonprofits, which seem to thrive on vague generalities, “a delicious lunch was served,” formulations, and too few real-world examples. These problems blend into the next category.

5. Have one good piece of research.

You need a good piece of research, but blogs often misrepresent research or reference it in such a facile way that they barely need it. And remember that your grant story needs to get the money. Trunk’s last link in this post stinks of this problem:

I can virtually guarantee that the research behind “The smell of pizza makes men want to have sex” is not nearly as strong as Trunk’s uncritical acceptance of it implies. This goes back to the “expertise” issue.

Granted, maybe Trunk is right about some of these issues—I wonder how many people read to the end of this post. Those who don’t, miss the big point: this advice is also good for writing proposals and virtually all kinds of writing.

I’m in a New York City Recession State of Mind: Quick, Hand Me a Burger and Fries

As I write this, K and I are flying back from a 12-day vacation in New York City, AKA the Big Apple and the City so great they named it twice. I knew from New York, New York, it’s “a hellava Town, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down,” so getting around was not a problem. A grant writer’s vacation in NYC is something of a busman’s holiday in that I was overwhelmed by the never ending implications of the city and its residents for writing. Other than a few days about 100 years ago as a 16-year old, my scattered trips to NYC have been confined to brief business trips. Hard as it is to believe, and although I’ve written lots of proposals for NYC clients, my direct impressions are pretty much based on movies,* Law & Order, and Seinfeld.

Walking uptown, downtown and seemingly all round Manhattan, interspersed with lots of subway rides, put me in a New York [Recession] State of Mind. If one looks closely, even in such tony neighborhoods as the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Central Park South, Chelsea, etc., the signs of the lingering Great Recession are everywhere. We were able to easily buy 1/2 off seats to a fairly big name Broadway musical and opening night seats for Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera. The latter should not have been possible at the last minute.

Virtually every restaurant we visited was offered some kind of deal, and New Jersey Transit is discounting their AirTrain service into Manhattan by 25%. Casual conversations with assorted New Yorkers confirms that the Bronx may still be up, but business is decidedly down and optimism is hard to find. We saw plenty of vacant store fronts and many ads for apartments with “asking price” rents that imply negotiation. As I gazed at Central Park from our 32nd floor room at the wonderful Le Parker Meridien, I thought about the impact of the tough economic times is having on the army of tip-dependent service workers who make it possible for the swells to glide by in town cars and tourists like us to move seamlessly from world-class Jazz at the Village Vanguard to low-down Blues at Arthur’s Tavern. I know that hard times for the working poor means equally hard times for the nonprofits that provide services to them and to the even less fortunate, who are without jobs or are entirely dependent on safety net services.

Since Manhattan is probably the best walking experience in America and the NYPD’s reverse community policing** policy means that tourists can feel quite safe in the neighborhoods they are most likely to visit, it was easy to get an exceptional street level view of the City. As a grant writer, I was struck by the almost complete lack of obvious homeless and panhandlers. The homeless seemed confined to church steps, while most begging took place on subways (perhaps a captive audience is best). I assume the relative lack of visible homeless in touristy areas is due to a combination of the City’s aggressive police presence combined with hefty funding for homeless services agencies. It can’t be due to an absence of actual homeless, because the dire economic times means they must be somewhere. Perhaps a reader who works for a NYC homeless services agency can shed some light on this.

Walking around Manhattan, I was also struck by the dichotomy of schools. While in Central Park, we saw squadrons of prep school kids in snazzy uniforms jogging and otherwise using the Park, generally under the very close scrutiny of staff. Basically, junior Holden Caulfields, who were a particularly startling sight near the Dakota Apartment Building at which John Lennon was killed by a self-professed Caulfield wannabe. In contrast, we saw several public schools, all of which were multi-story affairs with tiny playgrounds, generally surrounded by concertina barbed wire. Public school students are stuck behind fences, while their much more affluent peers are free to roam what is the most spectacular “public” park in the country. This curiosity will give me new perspective in writing proposals for at-risk youth in Manhattan. It seems to me that they may be most at risk of being injured trying to escape their educational compounds. While we were in New York, the ever non-ironic New York Times reported that City schools had once again turned in lower scores on state standardized tests. More bad news for citizens and good news for grant writers.

NYC is a town of sidewalks, at least this time of year, and much of the life of the City flows along them. It was startling to encounter hoards of furtive smokers on virtually every sidewalk. This is despite the fact that cigarettes cost $14/pack in the City! Apparently, astoundingly high taxes and draconian restrictions on where one can smoke have not had all that much effect on smoking. About 20% of all Americans continue to smoke, but I suspect the rate is higher in NYC. Oddly, the poor and the well-off are more likely to smoke these days than middle income folks. Mayor Bloomberg frequently rails against smoking and junk food. But New York sidewalks confirm that he hasn’t exactly succeeded with smokers and has had even less success with junk food. Endless food carts and wagons, dispensing hot dogs, shawarma and various other greasy delights.

The City is also filled with all manor of high-end fast food enterprises, like Shake Shack, Burger Joint, and Five Guys & Fries. Additionally, it seemed like every neighborhood had some sort of street festival going on, which meant even more junk food for sale. My favorite was an “Apple Festival” on the Lower East Side, which featured apple sausage, sauerkraut with apples, mashed potatoes with apples, apple fritters, apple pie and just about every other apple concoction except plain apples!

Apparently because of Mayor Bloomberg’s obsession, all fast food outlets post the calories of their fare (I think the winner was the double bacon cheeseburger with large fries at Nathan’s in Coney Island weighing in at 2,200 calories or so—I opted for the Coney Dog at a modest 300 calories and shared fries). None of the upscale restaurants we visited lists calories on their menus, so only fast food frequenters are confronted by the unhealthy reality of what they are about to eat. In part because of a new national consciousness about childhood obesity and related problems highlighted by First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign and similar efforts, we’ve written many anti-obesity and pro-nutrition proposals in the last few years. No one in NYC seems to have gotten the memo because I did not see a single Tofu on a Stick and Carrots in a Bag stand in all of Manhattan.

My tour of Manhattan convinces me that the need for grant writers will only increase in coming months. Economists may nod gravely to one another that the Great Recession ended last year and elected officials may pontificate about what is good for us. On the streets of New York, however, tough times are evident, while much of Manhattan is covered in a pall of smoke from cigarettes and french fries frying. I visit LA often enough to know that things remain pretty grim there and now I can confirm the situation is similarly hopeless, but not extreme (or is is extreme, but not hopeless?) on the East Coast too.


* Best recent movie featuring Manhattan as a backdrop is the great thinking man’s monster movie, Cloverfield.

** Rather than using community policing, the NYPD floods selected areas like Times Square with a huge number of uniformed officers. Since they can’t do this in every neighborhood at all times, non-targeted areas must have almost no police presence. While I was in NYC, the NYT reported that the City’s gigantic Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant application was rejected by the Department of Justice, with much fulminating from Mayor Bloomberg’s office. Having written lots of COPS proposals over the years, I am not surprised, as it is pretty obvious that, whatever the NYPD is doing, it is not community policing.