Monthly Archives: February 2011

Writing Conversationally and the Plain Style in Grant Proposals and My Master’s Exam

The kinds of skills you learn by grant writing don’t only apply to grant writing.

Loyal Grant Writing Confidential readers know that in my other life I’m a grad student in English Literature at the University of Arizona. Last week I took my MA written exam, which consisted of three questions that I had to answer over a four-hour period—a bit like Isaac’s recommended test for would-be grant writers:

If we ever decide to offer a grant writing credential, we would structure the exam like this: The supplicant will be locked in a windowless room with a computer, a glass of water, one meal and a complex federal RFP. The person will have four hours to complete the needs assessment. If it passes muster, they will get a bathroom break, more water and food and another four hours for the goals/objectives section and so on. At the end of the week, the person will either be dead or a grant writer, at which point we either make them a Department of Education Program Officer (if they’re dead) or give them a pat on the head and a Grant Writing Credential to impress their mothers (if they’ve passed).

Except the University of Arizona lets you eat and drink tea if you want. Given the extreme deadline pressure, the exam demands that people who take it write quickly and succinctly. I e-mailed my answers to one of my academic friends, who replied, “You write so, well, conversationally, that I wonder how academics will view this. I find it refreshing.” Although this is an underhanded compliment if I’ve ever heard one, I take it as a real complement given how many academics succeed by writing impenetrable jargon. And “conversationally” means, “other people can actually understand what you wrote and follow the thread of your argument.”

This is exactly what I do whether completing a written Master’s exam or writing proposals. If you’re a grant writer, you should too. Proposals should be more or less understandable to readers, who probably won’t give you a very good score if they can’t even figure out what you’re trying to say. It might be tempting to follow the old advice, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit,” but although that might be a good strategy in arguments about politics in bars where your audience is drunk, it’s not such a good idea in proposals. I’ve spent most of my life trying to communicate clearly, in what Robertson Davies and others call the “plain style,” which means a style that is as short as it can be but no shorter, using words as simple as possible but no simpler.* The goal, above all else, is clarity and comprehensibility. If you’ve spent any time reviewing proposals, you know that an unfortunate number come up short on this metric.

Over the last decade and change, I’ve been trained to write proposals in such a way that any reasonably educated person can understand the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the proposal. This applies even to highly technical research topics, in which we write most of the proposal and include technical content and specifications that our clients provide. You should write proposals like this too. Sure, the academics of the world might raise their noses instead of their glasses to you, but they often don’t make good grant writers anyway. A good proposal should be somewhat conversational. People on average appear to like conversation much more than they like reading sentences skewed my misplaced pretension. If you manage to write in the plain style, people might be so surprised that they even find your work “refreshing.” And “refreshing” in the grant world means “fundable,” which is the final goal of all grant writing.

And, as for the exam—I passed.


* For more on this subject, read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (which I assign to my students every semester) and John Trimble’s Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing , which I’m going to start assigning next semester.

Federal Budget Battle Unfolds, But the RFPs Just Keep Rollin’ Along

Last Sunday, I wrote about the Obama Administration’s emerging planned Federal FY 2011 Budget Cuts. Not to be upstaged and right on cue, this week the House Appropriation Committee released a press release regarding Republican plan to cut the budget, CR Spending Cuts to Go Deep, which proposes $58 Billion in “non-security discretionary spending reductions” in this fiscal year.

Curiously, some of the grant programs on the Republican chopping block mirror the Obama administration’s proposed cuts (e.g., CDBG and CSBG). Some others, which are probably of most interest to our readers and clients, are LIHEAP (I am not making this acronym up—Google it), SAMHSA (not clear which programs), CDC (no details on which programs), Rural Development Services, WIC, and $2 billion from various job training programs. The Appropriations Committee has targeted 70 grant programs for reduction this fiscal year via the next Continuing Resolution (CR), which is supposed to be adopted by March 4. The Obama Administration’s FY 2011 budget will be released this week. The Republicans will presumably lambast it. Should be an interesting few weeks. As I opined last week, while I think it likely substantial reductions to both this fiscal year and next fiscal year grant programs will result from this brouhaha, the numbers will be somewhere in the middle.

Since our crystal ball is in the shop and we can’t know the future, Seliger + Associates just keeps on keepin’ on writing proposals in response to the flood of new RFPs that continue to be issued. Here are few that have been issued in recent weeks:

The vast majority of federal RFPs are issued in the January to July timeframe. To paraphrase Oscar Hammerstein, the government grant making machinery jes’ keeps rolling along as the budget debate unfolds. If you seek federal grants, don’t give up. As in Paul Robeson sang in the revised 1938 lyrics for Ol Man River, “But I keeps laffin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin’, / And Ol’ Man River, / He’ll just keep rollin’ along!”

Heavens to to Murgatroyd: Grant Competition Is About to Heat Up for Community Services Block Grant Grant (CSBG) and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Recipients

Cuts to Federal discretionary spending are coming, whether at the larger percentages proposed by congressional Republicans, more modest levels offered by the Obama administration or more likely somewhere in between. An opinion piece in today’s New York Times highlights this new reality: “The Easy Cuts Are Behind Us” by Jacob Lew, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Between the political euphemisms and doublespeak, Mr. Lew actually lifts the curtain to offer several specific cuts to be proposed in the administration’s soon-to-appear FY 2012 budget, including the following two which have significant implications for thousands of nonprofit and public agencies across America:

* Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) Program: The CSBG Program has been around since 1981 and provides formula grants for the nation’s 1,086 Community Action Agencies (CAAs)—AKA “Community Action Programs” (CAPs) for those of us old enough to remember their inception in the original 1965 War on Poverty. States also receive CSBG funds, which are distributed in areas not served by a CAA.

In most states, CAAs are nonprofit organizations, although in California many cities and counties have absorbed the CAA into their bureaucracies. CSBG formula grants are the lifeblood of CAAs because the CAA only has to exist and file reports to get the money. While most CAAs receive a plenitude of other nominally competitive grants (e.g., Head Start, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Weatherization, etc.), CSBG forms their financial bedrock. In larger cities and urban counties, CSBG block grant funds are sometimes made available to nonprofits through local RFP processes. Thus, CSBG funding is a big deal, albeit somewhat hidden from popular consciousness because most civilians and all reporters don’t have a clue that it exists. Here’s what Mr. Lew said about the administration’s plan for CSBG:

The president is proposing to cut financing for this grant program in half, saving $350 million, and to reform the remaining half into a competitive grant program, so that funds are spent to give communities the most effective help.

That’s right, a 50% cut—and making the CAAs compete for what’s left! Instantly, every CAA will be fighting with each other for the scraps of the CSBG program. This means that each CAA will have to get a lot better at grant writing, not only to get their piece of the shrunken CSBG pie, but to find other funding sources to make up the slack. The local nonprofits at bottom of the CSBG food chain will be in even in more dire straights, as many will lose a sure source of annual funding. As Snagglepuss says, Heavens to Murgatroyd!.

* Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program: The CDBG Program was created in 1974 and consolidated a slew of then-existing HUD discretionary grant programs into a single formula block grant to “entitlement communities,” which are more or less mid- to large-size cities and urban counties. Like CSBG, states also receive CDBG funds for use in smaller cities and rural counties. While entitlement cities and counties use CDBG funds for all kinds of public programs, most also make sub-grants to local nonprofits through annual RFP processes. The mechanics for all of this organizational walking-around money are five-year Consolidated Plans and their daughter Annual Action Plans, prepared by entitlement entities. CDBG funds not only pay for a lot of municipal and county administrative overhead and pet programs but also fund thousands of nonprofits. Although somewhat competitive through the Annual Action Plan process, lots of nonprofits have come to view their annual slice of CDBG pie as automatic.

Back to Mr. Lew, who has this to say about CDBG funding:

While we know from mayors and county leaders how important these [CDBG] grants are for their communities, and are very aware of the financial difficulties many of them face, the sacrifices needed to begin putting our fiscal house in order must be broadly shared, and we are proposing to cut this program [CDBG] by 7.5 percent, or $300 million.

Uh oh, there goes $300,000,000 in CDBG funds. Heavens to Murgatroyd redux!

I’ve been blogging about impending budget cuts and/or rescissions for about a year and some specific proposed cuts are now evident. More will emerge in the coming weeks as the budget battle unfolds in anticipation of the need to increase the federal debt ceiling in March or April.

If your agency receives CSBG, CDBG or most any other federal grants, it’s time to ramp up your grant writing efforts, as I have been advising for months. Don’t wait until the cuts take place. If you think grant seeking is competitive, wait a few months, and you will experience what those of us working with grants went through in early days of the Reagan administration, when wholesale cuts in federal funding were made. That round of cutbacks culminated with the demise of the ultimate free federal grant ride: General Revenue Sharing, which started in 1972 and ended with a thud in 1987. Today is Super Bowl Sunday, and like every player on the Packers and Steelers, all we can say is “put me in, Coach.” We’re tanned, fit and ready for the grant writing frenzy that is about to unfold.