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I’ve Got Those End of the Year,, Don’t Work So Good Subterranean Homesick Blues Again

As 2010 proposals slide into the archives, I find myself reflecting on the inadequacy of and other federal electronic grant submission portals. After about seven years of electronic submissions, why is the federal government so incredibly incompetent at this? After all, can take hundreds of thousands of orders a day and Apple can ship tens of thousands products a day, but is overwhelmed by a few hundred or thousand grant submissions. In essence, goes “biddle-up,”* like our puppy after a hard day of watching us write proposals:

YouthBuild hunting season ended with a December 3 submission deadline. We caught our limit of YouthBuilds this year, which we usually do, and met the deadline, which we always do. Since submitting an electronic proposal involves what is essentially an electronic signature, Seliger + Associates does does not actually submit them. Instead, we complete the submission package and email the files to our clients, who actually hit the submit button. In the good old days of hard copy submissions, our clients would FedEx their signature pages and we’d copy and submit the applications.

One of our YouthBuild clients was trying to upload her application through on December 1, two days before the deadline, which is ordinarily enough time. But I received this startling email from her:

I have tried to submit it [YouthBuild] one hour and 20 minutes ago. It’s still “processing.” And I don’t want to try to submit again until I get a go ahead from someone. We also found out more than 25 other grants have Dec. 1 as deadline.

The entire system is apparently not robust enough to handle 25 deadlines on a given day. Maybe the whole grant submission process should be turned over to WikiLeaks, which seems to have unlimited bandwidth.

A few hours later, she sent the following email:

Right now, at this minute, it is 4 hours and 22 minutes ago, and my screen says “Processing, please don’t close the window until you receive a confirmation.

I called our client and told her to call tech support (800-518-4726). When she finally got a live person on the line, the tech deleted her application and told her to re-submit. She did and it took another four hours to complete the submission process. In the age of instant everything, uploading a 4 MB *.pdf file took over eight hours! At least it got submitted. I’ve written about the perils of in Now, It’s Time for the Rest of the Story, but that was over two years ago. One would think would have been improved in two years, but apparently not so much that you’d notice.

One change is that tech support is now open 24 x 7 now, instead of being closed on weekends. Of course in the federal world 24 X 7 doesn’t exactly mean every day, since the support describes its hours as follows: Hours of Operation: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are closed on federal holidays. This year, they’re closed on Saturday, December 25 and 31.

In addition to YouthBuild, this has also been hunting season for the Department of Education’s Talent Search Program. The Talent Search deadline is December 28, as I pointed out in Talent Search RFP Finally Published — But What A Stupid Deadline. If you were trying to avoid working on Christmas weekend and hoped to upload on Friday (as one of our clients tried to) but ran into a problem, would likely be closed just when you needed them. This would mean trying to contact them on a Sunday (good luck finding a live person on a holiday weekend) or waiting until Monday. Since gives itself 48 hours after the submission button is pushed to send a series of confirming emails, one can see the disaster potential. I expect many Talent Search application submissions are going to get screwed up. Because of this possible perfect storm we finished our work on Talent Search proposals last week. If anyone out there in blog-reader land ran into this problem with Talent Search, leave a comment.

Before you think I’m picking on, here’s another tale from the darkside of electronic grant writing portals. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) mostly disdains for a little gem called (warning .pdf alert) Electronic Handbooks (EHBs). Leaving aside the fact that the EHB system is intertwined with (which is too complicated a story for this post, but another example of unnecessary complexity in the grant submission process), EHBs is also notorious for submission problems. In addition to YouthBuild and Talent Search, this has also been hunting season for HRSA’s New Access Points (NAP) Program, which had a deadline of November 17 and EHBs deadline of December 15 (don’t ask). We received the following email from one our NAP clients on December 21:

I don’t know if I told you or not, but I did push the button on the NAP before the deadline and was successful in getting the application through to HRSA. I got an email last night from HRSA extending the deadline to December 23rd, this Thursday. Due to the high request for waivers for getting the application in, they decided to extend the deadline. Apparently, HRSA servers couldn’t handle the massive NAP applications that were trying to get in by the deadline of the 15th.

HRSA’s servers couldn’t handle the “massive NAP applications” and went biddle-up, like our golden retriever. I have a feeling Google could have easily handled these uploads, which are hardly massive. Condolences to all of you NAP applicants out there who sweated blood to meet the December 15 deadline only to learn after the deadline passed that it had been extended by a week. Apparently, HRSA has a practical joke department.

With all due respect to hard working GS 11s at and EHBs, who are toiling this holiday season over vats of simmering grant proposals, and to paraphrase B. Dylan, I’ve got those end of the year, don’t work so good Subterranean Homesick Blues again. At this point, “I’m on the pavement, thinking about the government.”

* When the Notorious D.O.G. was actually a puppy, she liked to roll over to show us her belly (“biddle”), so she could be scratched (“biddled”). She still goes biddle-up and likes to be biddled, but then again, who doesn’t?

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Not having New Year’s Resolutions and Some Predictions for Nonprofits 2011

Joanne Fritz of’s nonprofit blog is hosting this month’s blog carnival and wants to know your “2011 resolutions.” Our resolutions are easy: we don’t have any because we don’t need them. We’re going to keep writing complete, technically correct proposals that we submit on time for our clients. That’s it. Our clients hire us because they know we can do this, and we accept them as clients only when we believe they are eligible to apply for the grant program in question. It’s what we’ve been doing for over 17 years and will continue doing this year.

Joanne offers some alternatives, too, including 2011 trends; like everyone else, I would expect a major budget battle in Congress in the near future, along with continued uncertainty among nonprofits—as described here and elsewhere on GWC. That uncertainty will manifest itself in lower donation levels and increased anxiety that makes some large, established agencies who fail to adapt to different funding landscapes fail and some small, nimble nonprofits grow.

Otherwise, we expect a lot of things to continue: nonprofits will keep providing services to high-risk / low-resource individuals, federal, state and local government agencies, as well as foundations, will continue to make grant awards, and Seliger + Associates will continue to write proposals. The main thing that will be “hot” in nonprofit world will remain the same as it always has: offering real services that are useful to real people. The rest is mere commentary.

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The Laugh Test Strikes Again — and the Danger of Calling on Weekends

We mentioned “the laugh test” in “So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For? And Who’s the Competition?” Whenever you’re asking for money, you shouldn’t request a wildly implausible amount. If your organization has a $100,000 budget and you ask a foundation for $10M, you’ve failed the laugh test. As we said in “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually),” you need to avoid the silly factor.

This also applies to people who contact us. We only work for organizations that have a some plausible charitable or other fundable purpose in mind and whose representatives who don’t seem to be charlatans or scammers. One way we can identify potential charlatans or scammers is when they fail the laugh test. Like this person, who says she is located in the US and works for a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Tanzania:

We are seeking funding from USAID, Gates, and others and I would like to know the success you have had with these NGOs. Have you ever won grants over $10 million? How much collectively have you ever been able to obtain from USAID, Gates and Rockefeller?

We are currently seeking a grant from the MasterCard Foundation for $100 million. They suggest that eh completed application if 50-75 pages long.

Now, it’s possible that this person is simply running a scam, but I’m going to make the questionable assumption that he or she isn’t for the purposes of this post. He or she is missing the fact that virtually no foundations make grants of $100 million, especially on their own. It just doesn’t happen, or, if it does, it’s national news.

The language of the e-mail is wrong too: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a real client ask if we’ve “won” grants. Written grants, yes, but not won. You win the World Series; you’re awarded a grant.

In short, the kinds of questions this person asks fail the laugh test. She doesn’t know how things work. Lots of people in a variety of fields deal with problems like this; the sex advice columnist Dan Savage wrote a whole column called “‘F’ Is for Fake” on the subject of the BS letters he gets and how he knows they’re BS. He doesn’t use the laugh test, but he might as well.

We have a similar BS detector because we have to. For example, in the almost 18 years we’ve been in business, exactly one person who called on a weekend has ever hired us. So when someone calls on a weekend, we assume they’re a flake. And when someone talks about foundation grants of $100 million, we assume the same.

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One, Two, Three* Easy Steps to Start-Up a Nonprofit Upstart

My recent post, “Grant Writing from Recession to Recession: This is a Great Time to Start a New Nonprofit,” featured a phone call I received from a “Mrs. Smith” who inquired about using our services to fund her new nonprofit. A few days ago, we received this comment from another real world Mrs. Smith, in this case, one Rev. Loring Pasmore, who asked:

I’m a Mrs. Smith with my ducks in a row and no money to jump start my programs. How do I get started?

To the good Reverend and all the other Mrs. Smiths out there, here are the three action steps to start-up a nonprofit upstart:

Step 1: Resign yourself to the reality that, like for-profit start-ups, your nonprofit will need some working capital to get going between, say, $10,000 and $100,000, depending on the project and how frisky you are. Where does one find the initial capital? Since banks will not lend to an unproven nonprofit and there is no equivalent of the SBA in the nonprofit world, start-up capital is likely going to come from the following sources: a loan from the founder (this is the most common and easiest path), fund raisers (see Step 2 before you do this), and/or a loan from the nonprofit version of an “angel investor,” although he or she is not really an investor, since nonprofits obviously don’t generate profits. Typically this angel will be either someone with money who loves you and/or someone with money who loves your project idea.

Step 2: If you haven’t done so already, obtain a nonprofit corporation charter in your state and apply for a 501(c)3 Letter of Determination of tax exempt status from the IRS. This is the critical path, as the IRS can take a year or more to issue your letter and, until the letter is issued, donations are not federally tax-exempt. It’ll be a lot easier to find an angel and hold successful fundraisers if you have a Letter of Determination, rather than a story about how you plan to get one. This letter will also help separate you from flakey people who merely have an idea with no ability to execute said idea.

Step 3: While you’re waiting around for the 501(c)3 letter to appear, get the word out about your new organization, gather data, scrounge for low cost office space and castoff office equipment, and, unless you already know how to conduct grant source research and write proposals, find a grant writer. See Step 1, because few, if any, qualified grant writers will work free or on the come—there is no free grant writing lunch. Essentially, you need enough money to hire a grant writer to seek funds so that you can repay any initial loans and cover initial start-up and operating costs.

That’s it. Once again, the secret of most aspects of grant writing is that there are no secrets.

Good luck to Mrs. Smith, Rev. Pasmore and everyone else who is trying to do something positive in these tough times. I noted Friday that the official US unemployment jumped to 9.8% in November; there is an ongoing need for spirited people to start new nonprofits to help their communities.

* One of my favorite forgotten movies is Billy Wilder’s impeccable One, Two, Three, or Eins, Zwei, Drei, auf Deutsch. Stoic and bewildered Horst Buchholz of Magnificent Seven-fame is hilarious playing opposite the always impressive James Cagney. Check it out for a Cold War blast.