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Another Lesson for Grant Writers from KU Basketball: Every Organization Needs a Great Grant Writing Point Guard

My beloved KU Jayhawks just got bounced from the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament by a much lower ranked team, V.C.U. As much as I favor the Jayhawks, who would probably beat V.C.U. nine out of ten times, V.C.U. was the better team today and deserved to win. Having watched most of the KU games this year, it became obvious early in the season that the team lacked a stellar point guard, even though they only lost two games coming into today’s fiasco.*

For those who do not follow college hoops, point guards run the offense, distributing the ball and acting as the “Field General,” even more so than the quarterback on a football team. Basketball is so fast that the point guard has to make decisions on the fly, maximizing the potential of the offense while blunting the defense. The best point guards can also create their own shots by breaking down defenses. This year, KU’s starting point guard is good but not great, meaning that several guards shared the duties. This is another way of saying that KU lacked a true point guard.

There is good analogy between a great point guard and an organization’s grant writing efforts. If a nonprofit or public agency is committed to getting grants, they need a quality point guard to run the grant writing offense. As I have pointed out in many recent posts (see, for example, “Federal Budget Battle Unfolds, But the RFPs Just Keep Rollin’ Along“), the competition for grants is even more ferocious than normal. This makes it essential for every grant applicant to have a great grant writing point guard to keep the organization’s Eyes on the Prize. It doesn’t matter if the grant writing point guard is the Executive Director, Grants Coordinator, or a grant writing consultant like Seliger + Associates, as long as the grant writing point guard keeps the ball in play and the focus on scoring. They need to coordinate the whole organization to make sure that it maximizes its opportunities and doesn’t let easy “points,” or, in this case, money, slip away.

The challenge of keeping an organizational focus on grant writing can be seen in the differing behaviors of two Community Action Agencies (CAAs) we’re working for. As I pointed out recently in “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,” CAAs are under enormous pressure because of threatened cutbacks to their core funding streams.

In the case of CAA client # 1, we are trying to finish a non-deadline assignment we started six months ago. Our contact, who is the Executive Director and his own grant writing point guard, is totally consumed with potential budget cuts. He’s effectively abandoned our project and, as far as I can tell, his overall grant writing efforts. In other words, he’s not handling the ball well. Regarding CAA Client # 2, the Executive Director is also the grant writing point guard. She is completely ignoring the maelstrom of potential budget cuts and focusing like a laser on the many RFPs on the street. We just finished two proposals for her and are currently writing another one. She is a consummate point guard and is distributing to ball to all shooters, not dribbling in the back court or making a bad out of bounds pass.

Even a perennial basketball powerhouse like KU can be easily derailed by lack of focus by their point guard and the general fear of tomorrow that paralyzed the team today. The best point guards keep their eyes focused on what is immediately in front of them while not losing sight of the whole court. If you organization’s grant writing team is transfixed about macro budget cutbacks that is out of their control, it is best to get their attention back to what really matters—what grants funds are available today and how can you get them. Otherwise, like CAA client # 1, you will find yourself out of time and out of money, while CAA client # 2 and others like her, race by you for an easy transition bucket. The grant funds are there for the taking.

* Never having been an athlete, I am always careful in my criticism of athletes. In some ways, being a grant writer is like being an athlete, particularly like a golfer or pitcher, in that one goes one-on-one against the “RFP opponent” to produce a winning proposal. While the grant writer may have other team members—who gather research, complete forms, edit, etc.—nonetheless, she’s in the grant writing arena along with her iMac listening to Pandora Radio on her Bose QuietComfort 3 Headphones and facing the RFP alone. When criticizing athletes, grant writers, novelists, fighter pilots or others engaged in solitary conflicts against long odds, remember this Teddy Roosevelt extract from his “Citizenship In a Republic Speech,” “The Man in the Arena”:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

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March Links: Reinventing Philanthropy, Bureaucrats in Action, Urbanism and Environment, Abstinence Education on Valentine’s Day, and More

* Google Finds It Hard to Reinvent Philanthropy. Seliger + Associates unsurprised.

* Bureaucrat acts like a jerk and attempts to silence smart guy. News at 11:00.

* Southwest Airlines pilot holds plane for murder victim’s family. Wow.

* Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period.

* FYI: US manufacturing still tops China’s by nearly 46 percent, at least as measured by dollar output.

* The most amusing recent grant title: “Developing High-Throughput Assays for Predictive Modeling of Reproductive and Developmental Toxicity Modulated Through the Endocrine System or Pertinent Pathways in Humans and Species Relevant to Ecological Risk Assessment.” Say it three times fast.

* You Can’t Be Against Dense, Urban Development and Consider Yourself an Environmentalist.

* An important rap song: Julian Smith’s “I’m Reading a Book,” complete with bagpipes at the end.

* The Facebook fast, with lessons learned.

* What do twin adoption studies show?

* The quality of nonfiction versus fiction. We don’t think it matters much what grant writers read as long as they do read.

* Slate’s review of Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation: “[. . . ] The Great Stagnation makes an ambitious argument whose chief present advantage (and greatest eventual liability) is that it’s impossible to assess in real time.” This might be the most important book of the year, and at the very least is dense with argument and novel thought.

* Why I don’t care very much about tablets anymore, from Jon Stokes, except I never did care about tablets in the first place. A sample:

A Google Image search turns up the above, quite typical picture of a scribe practicing his art. You’ll notice that the scribe’s desk contains two levels, where the topmost level holds an exemplar document and the bottom holds the document that he’s actually working on. The scribe in the picture could be a copyist who’s making a copy of the exemplar, or he could be a writer who’s using the top copy as a source or reference. Either way, his basic work setup is the same as my modern monitor plus keyboard setup, in that it’s vertically split into two planes, with the top plane being used for display and the bottom plane being used for input.

The key here is that the scribe’s hands aren’t in the way of his display, and neither are mine when I work at my desktop or laptop. My hands rest on a keyboard, comfortably out of sight and out of mind.

With a tablet, in contrast, my rather large hands end up covering some portion of the display as I try to manipulate it. In general, it’s less optimal to have an output area that also doubles as an input area. This is why the mouse and keyboard will be with us for decades hence—because they let you keep your hands away from what you’re trying to focus on.

When you write a full proposal on a tablet, let me know. And not just as a stunt to say, “I could do it,” either.

* Why publishers are scared of ebooks—the standard reasons and Amanda Hocking as symbol.

* In an amusing twist, Texas publishes its Abstinence Education Services RFP on Valentine’s Day.

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Why You’re Unlikely to see “Seliger and Associates Presents Grant Writing Confidential: The Book and Musical” Anytime Soon

A recent commenter told us, “You should write a book, if you haven’t already.” We’ve thought idly about doing a book and then gone back to drinking Aviations, admiring the sunset, and writing proposals.

But we might eventually write a book if the conditions are right. The main reason I haven’t spent a lot of time on a potential book project is because we can make far more money with far less aggravation as consultants than we can trying to get a book published. To learn why, see Philip Greenspun’s essay “The book behind the book behind the book…,” where he describes how he wrote a computer book, why most computer books are so bad, and points out the sheer amount of time he had spend not consulting for real money but instead working with publishers who removed his biting, appropriate commentary and instead insert happy-talk pablum of the kind that will be incredibly familiar to anyone who has picked up a commercial computer book. Alas, my short description doesn’t convey how hilarious and accurate his essay is; it should be mandatory reading for anyone who thinks they want to publish a book.*

In our case, we can say as much as we want about grant writing and the grant writing process on our blog without having to muck around with publishers. GWC is now sufficiently well developed that I can say to anyone who wants to learn about grant writing, “Read the archives.”

Still, if a publisher or agent came to us and said, “Organize your blog posts into book form and we’ll give you some money,” I’d probably do it because this would make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. That, and I have a compulsive desire to communicate. But I’ve been a would-be novelist for longer than I care to think about (see here for more) and don’t think much of trying to get into publishing because I’ve already been trying to do so for so long. Trying to get in without being invited is tough, tedious, and not all that rewarding even if/when you do get in.

It’s still tempting, though, because so much of the nominal competition is so bad. Most of what people know or think they know about grant writing is wrong. Most of it is based on limited impressions or single projects or single agencies. Most people don’t really know how the grant process works because you just have to have been around long enough to understand it. Very few people have. There are all kinds of things people don’t understand. No one else has simply said, “Seeking grants is also a treasure hunt.” We’ve never seen anyone else point out that just because you get the most points doesn’t mean you’ll get funded. RFPs never convey how to write to them in plain English. We’re trying to put as much plain English into grant writing as possible.

A lot of grant writing books are deficient and almost every grant writing book fails to explain how grants actually work. They haven’t been written by people who have worked across the nonprofit sector. As is often the case, we’ve seen the competition and thought, “We could do better than that.”

But the gap between “could do better” and “your local bookstore” is wide. Books usually get sold by writing an outline, then finding an agent, who pitches a publisher, who buys your book, edits it as you write it, then distributes it to someone who sells it. Each of those stages can be pretty arduous; you don’t climb a mountain just by hitting the first easy patch after a technical climb, and you can fall off a cliff and plummet, screaming, to the bottom at any time during the ascent (this metaphor sums up how people who experience the publishing industry feel about the publishing industry). At the moment, we haven’t overcome inertia to the point we want to begin the ascent. That, and we’ve got lots of work writing proposals down here in base camp.

Anyway, if think we’re awesome and you know someone who works in publishing, tell them to call us at 800.540.8906. Better yet, if you know someone who needs a technically accurate and well-written proposal completed on time, tell them to call us, because that’s still our main business. We wouldn’t mind being in the book business but aren’t likely to get there in the immediate future, unless someone in the know invites us to start the climb.

* When you’re done with it, read “Why I’m not a Writer:” “I’m not a writer. Sometimes I write, but I don’t define myself as a career writer. And that isn’t because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of an obscure writer. It is because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of a successful writer.”