Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Difference Between Being “Involved” in Grants and Being a Grant Writer

Most people who claim to be grant writers or “involved” in grants don’t actually write proposals. They’re more often engaged in things like grant management, the distribution of grant funds, or development (fund raising), which are important but very different things than grant writing.

Grant writing means you sit down and write a proposal. Grant management means you oversee funding; file reports; help with evaluations; hire staff; and the like. Notice that “write proposals” is not on the list. Also, some people who say they’re involved with grants are actually on the funder side of things, which means they might help write RFPs or evaluate proposals, but again: those skills are very different and of limited use when actually confronted by a proposal in the wild. Someone who writes proposals can of course be involved in grant management, but it seldom goes the other way around; if you’re going to be a grant writer, you have to be able to pass the test Isaac proposed in “Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain:”

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).

You don’t need to pass that kind of arduous test to manage grants, issue RFPs, or review applications.

Last weekend, for example, I met a couple who said they knew a lot about grant writing and were “in” grants. Compared to a random person on the street, they did know a lot: one of them works for a regional government transportation authority and has probably helped disseminate hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in transportation funding. The other works as a development director for a university. Together, they have about 40 years of combined experience in “grants.” It turns out, however, that neither have ever even once done what I was doing about twenty minutes before I began this post: writing a proposal. Development directors often do everything in the universe to shake money out of donors except write proposals; that may be why we’ve worked for a fair number of development directors over the years. And program officers, who pass out grant funds, might write RFPs, but never the responses.

I wish more people who worked “in” or around grant writing had the experience of actually writing a proposal, because if they had, I suspect we’d get better RFPs. I’m also reminded of the theory / practice divide that arises in so many academic disciplines. Psychology, for example, has a large number of people who do a lot of research but don’t see patients, and a large number who see patients and don’t do research. Naturally, the researchers often think of the practitioners as mere carpenters and the practitioners often think of researchers as mandarins who don’t understand what life on the ground is like. Both are probably somewhat right some of the time.

Something similar happens in English: a lot of English departments these days are bifurcated between the people in “creative writing” and literature. The creative writers—novelists, poets, and so forth—produce the stuff that the literary critics and theorists ultimately discuss; I suspect there, too, the world would be a better place if critics and theorists actually took a serious stab at producing original work. If they did, many might not hold the sometimes implausible opinions they do. They’re like RFP writers who know everything the world about grant writing except what it’s like to stare down a nasty, confused, contradictory RFP. You probably wouldn’t want to eat at a restaurant run by a chef who never tastes his own food, but that’s the situation one often gets with grant writing.

There’s a moral to this story: be wary of people who say they know a lot about grant writing, since they often know a lot about everything but grant writing.

Thirty day deadlines favor the prepared

The cliche goes, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” and we could repurpose it to, “Short deadlines favor the prepared nonprofit.” I have the dubious pleasure of reading the Federal Register every week and have noticed that deadlines are shrinking like hemlines. This means the organizations that apply with a complete and technically correct proposal are, even more than usual, the ones who don’t dawdle in deciding to apply and don’t procrastinate once they’ve made the decision.

If you’re thinking about applying for a grant with a thirty-day deadline, don’t take a week to mull it over. Take an hour. Need to wait on a board meeting? See if you can schedule an emergency meeting that night. Can’t do it? Text the chairperson immediately and set up a conference call. If you wait long enough, you won’t be able to get your application together, and, in an environment like this one, you don’t want to miss a deadline for a good program. It could be the life or death of your organization. Small delays tend to turn into big ones; don’t delay any part of the process any longer than you have to.

We sometimes find ourselves in a situation where a couple of clients hire us before a funder issues an RFP. Once the RFP is issued with a very short deadline, we get deluged with calls; as a result, we often have to say “no” to jobs because we lack the capacity and the time to do them. For us, this sucks, since we want to help our clients get funded. But we’re also unusual because we always hit our deadlines; part of the reason we can always hit deadlines is because we decline work if we can’t finish it.

This sometimes makes potential clients, who think hiring a consultant is like shopping at the Apple Store, irritated: “Whaddaya mean, you can’t write the proposal?” “We don’t have the capacity.” “That’s ridiculous! I’m ready to pay.” But consulting isn’t like stamping out another MacBook Air: it’s an allocation of time, and, like most people, we only have twenty-four hours in our days. While we can often accept very short deadlines, sometimes our other obligations mean we can’t. No matter how much it hurts to say “no,” we say it if we have to. This is one reason it is a good idea to hire in advance of a RFP being issued.

There are also situations with misleading or hidden double deadlines. For example, the HRSA Section 330 programs Isaac wrote about last week list application deadlines of October 12. But that deadline is only for the initial Grants.gov submission, which requires an SF-424, a budget, and a couple other minor things. Stuff you could do in a day. The real application—the HRSA Electronic Handbook (EHBs) submission—isn’t due until November 22. So what looks like thirty days is actually closer to two months, but only to people in the know (like those of you who read our e-mail grant newsletter; I’ve seen lots of sites present the October 12 deadline HRSA offered instead of the real deadline). If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to miss what’s really happening on the ground.

But you should still make your choice to apply for any grant program quickly, not slowly. Slow food might be a virtue, but slow grant application decision-making and proposal writing aren’t.

When Seliger + Associates began, the Internet was just breaking into the mainstream and relatively few nonprofits used computers in the workplace and few business and home computers had reliable Internet connection. Grant deadlines were routinely in the neighborhood of 60 days. They had to be: disseminating information about deadlines was slow, shipping hard copies of RFPs was slow, research was slow and required trips to libraries. Plus, there’s an element of fundamental fairness in giving nonprofit and public agencies enough time to think about what they’re doing, gather partners, solicit community input, decide to hire grant writers, and so forth, and funders appear to have lost interest in that issue. Now, nonprofits have to do this much faster. The ones that succeed are the ones who realize that circumstances on the ground have changed and then adapt to the new environment.

$700,000,000 in the Affordable Care Act Capital Development Fund: Building Capacity and Immediate Facility Improvements Programs — See, I Told You The Feds Weren’t Broke

HRSA just issued two Funding Opportunity Announcements (“FOAs”) for the Affordable Care Act Capital Development: Building Capacity Grant Program and the Affordable Care Act Capital Development: Immediate Facility Improvements Program”. The first program has $600,000,000 available and the second has $100,000,000. These are significant grant opportunities for existing Section 330 grantees, which include Community Health Centers (CHCs), Migrant Health Center (MHCs), Health Care for the Homeless (HCHs), and Public Housing Primary Cares (PHPCs) providers.

If your agency is a Section 330 provider, you should definitely apply for one or both programs, which will fund facility improvements—an otherwise difficult project concept. Even if your organization is not eligible, you should take heart because it means there are many grant opportunities out there as long as you go fishing for grants. Also, the funding authorization for these two HRSA gems is in the Affordable Care Act (“Obama Care”), and no further congressional budget action is needed. As I’ve blogged about before, there are approximately 50 discretionary grant programs funded in the Affordable Care Act, which will continue to become available in coming months. In most case, the applicants do not have to be Section 330 providers.

Ever since the Great Recession hit, I’ve had to remind readers that the Federal government continues to make billions of dollars in competitive grant funds available across thousands of discretionary grant programs. When you’re right, you’re right, and I’m right.

If you are a Section 330 provider, keep in mind that HRSA uses a two-step application process involving a fairly simple initial application submitted through our old friend Grants.gov. In this case the initial application is due October 12. The second, much more complicated application is submitted through a HRSA portal called Electronic Handbooks (EHBs). The EHBs deadline for these two programs is November 22, which is a thoughtful two days before the Thanksgiving holiday. Of course, HRSA won’t actually let you see the EHBs application kit until the Grants.gov application is submitted, adding needless complexity to an already complex process.

Writing a HRSA proposal is not a good idea for a novice grant writer or the faint of heart. But we’ve written many funded Section 330 and other HRSA proposals and know the arcana of the HRSA pack of tarot cards well. We’re tanned and fit from a summer of boogie boarding and bike riding in Surf City and ready to write.

Repurpose: The Word of the Decade and a Word for Nonprofits to Live By

During this seemingly endless period of economic stagnation, “repurpose” has emerged as the word of the decade. Repurpose is omnipresent. My wife recently “repurposed” a duvet that our dog had chewed by patching the hole and stuffing it into a new cover she made from some leftover fabric from a long-forgotten sewing project. Angus Loten’s recent WSJ article, “When Cost Cuts Fail… Drastic Measures, tells the tale of small businesses repurposing their entire business model to stay afloat. It seems we are all repurposing: in some cases voluntarily, like my wife who enjoys interior design, and in more cases involuntarily, like the businesses in the WSJ story and the many unfortunate workers who are being repurposed into consumers at food pantries and human services providers by long-term unemployment.

In many ways (consider this another free proposal transition phrase), nonprofits are really small businesses, even if they are run by True Believers. Like small business, nonprofits have formal or informal business plans; resources in the form of cash reserves, facilities, equipment, human capital, and organizational experience; target markets and customers; “angel investors” in the form of consistent volunteers and donors; and, although they operate as “tax exempt,” nonprofits are responsible for payroll taxes, gas taxes, utility taxes and user fees (thinly disguised taxes enacted by strapped local governments), meaning their tax burden is not zero as is often imagined.

One big difference between the challenged small businesses discussed in the WSJ story above and most nonprofits is that nonprofits usually lack the ability to obtain lines of credit to carry the agency during difficult times and are more likely to quickly cut staff and programs than businesses that depend on personnel to generate revenue. As the nonprofit cuts staff and programs, it loses its organizational credibility among its consumers, remaining funders and, most importantly, future funders. This can become a death spiral for a nonprofit. Since the Great Recession hit, we have worked for some hollowed-out nonprofits that at one time had fairly broad programming but are now more or less shells. Through the magic of grant writing, we can make them appear whole, at least in the proposal world. It is better for the organization and the populations they serve, however, to repurpose themselves before they become nonprofit versions of the ghosts in Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place, who take a while to realize they’re already dead.*

Whether they realize it or not, many nonprofits will either have to repurpose themselves by seeking new grants, making better use of social media and accepting the changes that have arrived in the nonprofit world.

If you’re running a nonprofit, a staff member sitting in a strategy meeting, or a board member, find a way to repurpose your nonprofit. Look at the resources you have, your nonprofit competitors, the challenges emerging in your community and the endless possibilities of new federal, state, local and foundation grants. Get going. As I have been blogging about for months, the most nimble nonprofits will transition part or all of their suite of services (another free proposal phrase) and will emerge different but stronger when the economy eventually recovers. I just didn’t have the right word for this process, but thanks to my wife and the WSJ, I do now: repurpose.


* Like the rest of human existence, when a old nonprofit does not repurpose itself and goes under, it will provide a niche for a new nonprofit, since presumably the problems it was addressing still exist in its target community. See this post I wrote on the subject last November: “Grant Writing from Recession to Recession: This is a Great Time to Start a New Nonprofit.”

September 2011 Links: How to Meet Your Program Officer, The Death of Books, Mistakes in Thinking Outside the Box, Handwriting, Education, and More

* How to meet not only your program officer, but the US Attorney as well: “D.C. Government Claims Nonprofit Used Grant Money to Open Strip Club.” This is especially brazen; everyone knows that programs occur a certain amount of indirect costs, but that’s considerably different than out-and-out fraud.

* Reminder: in the age of the death of the book, “Publishers sold 2.57 billion books in all formats in 2010, a 4.1 percent increase since 2008.

* Charities Struggle With Smaller Wall Street Donations, although this probably isn’t news to GWC readers.

* The Legislation That Could Kill Internet Privacy for Good.

* Why the Real Estate Recession is Halting Divorces.

* The grant of the week, courtesy of a reader: “Co-Management for Sibsistenceuse of Pacific Walrus.” That is in fact how it appeared at Grants.gov.

* News flash: college students like drinking because it alleviates social anxiety and enables hooking up. File this under, “I could’ve told them that.” If you’re running a Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws Discretionary Program: University/College Initiative or Capacity Building Initiative for Substance Abuse program, you should keep articles like this in mind. People don’t binge drink to become cautionary tales. They do it because it’s fun.

* Speaking of college life: “Smart Girls Wear Short Skirts, Too: Stop Complaining About College Students.”

* “Two years after it was awarded $186 million in federal stimulus money to weatherize drafty homes, California has spent only a little over half that sum and has so far created the equivalent of just 538 full-time jobs in the last quarter, according to the State Department of Community Services and Development.” That’s from the New York Times, “Number of Green Jobs Fails to Live Up to Promises.”

* What happens to doctors who think outside the box? Answer: nothing good. Kind of like grant writers who think outside the box.

* If you can get FiOS, you should.

* Broadcasting and Narrowcasting: “Generalized interventions tend to affect everyone a little bit, but they don’t close achievement gaps. Narrowly targeted interventions make large differences on a small scale; they help close gaps, but they don’t do much for the overall completion number.” If you’re not reading this blog about community college life, you probably should be.

* Handwriting Horror: Nation of adults who will write like children?

* Why Software Is Eating The World by Marc Andreessen—one of the most impressive essays I’ve read recently.

* CIA’s ‘Facebook’ Program Dramatically Cut Agency’s Costs.

* A Federal Register API? Shocking!

* Charlie Stross, interesting as usual:

In the period 1997-2010 in the UK, Parliament created an average of one new criminal offence for every day the House of Commons was in session. I asked a couple of legal experts how many actual chargeable offences there were in the English legal system; they couldn’t give an exact answer but suggested somewhere in the range 5,000-20,000. The situation in the USA is much, much worse, with different state and federal legal systems and combinations of felonies; the true number of chargeable felonies may be over a million, and this situation is augmented by a tax code so large that no single human being can be familiar with all of it (but failure to comply is of course illegal).

Now, most of the time most of these laws don’t affect most of us. But there’s a key principle of law, that ignorance is no defence: I’m willing to bet that most human beings are guilty of one or more crimes, be it smoking a joint or speeding or forgetting to declare earnings or failing to file the paperwork for some sort of permit we don’t even know exists. We are all potentially criminals.

* Note: there is no evidence that birth control actually causes weight gain.

* Does a Moleskine notebook tell the truth? Answer: probably not. I’ve been trying various notebooks over the years and have probably settled on the Rhodia Webbie, an unfortunately named but quite nice notebook that appears much more durable than its competitors. I am disappointed with Moleskines.

* The “overlearning the game” problem.

* On English as a language:

[. . .] there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English—if it’s used right. Unfortunately, there are many ways of using it wrong

This should remind you of our post, How to Write About Something You Know Nothing About: It’s Easy, Just Imagine a Can Opener.

* A Tough Job, but Someone’s Gotta Do It. A jobs-training proposal that looks straight out of, well, a proposal.

* College football as seen by a (British?) person acting as an anthropologist.

* PicPlum calls itself “the easiest way to send photos.” I ordered some and they turned out quite nicely.

* Text Slang for Adults. Sample: “NSR = Need some roughage”; “T4W = Time for whiskey.”

* Contrary to popular belief, riots might not mean much of anything:

But across U.S. cities, there has never been much of a link between unrest and either inequality or poverty. In fact, the riots of the 1960s were actually slightly more common in cities that had more government spending. Riots were significantly less common in the South, where the Jim Crow laws were making their long overdue exit. This isn’t to say that many people involved in riots don’t have valid grievances, but plenty of people have serious grievances and don’t riot.

* He Sexts, She Sexts More, Report Says, this from the NYT.

* How Cisco’s “unmitigated gall” derailed one man’s life.

* Recession worsens racial wealth gap; women and minorities hurt most.

* This may be the most impressive blog comment I’ve ever read (it’s from Cory Doctorow):

Education is a public good. It is best supplied and paid for by the group as a whole, because no individual or small collective can produce the overall social benefit that the nation can provision collectively.

Education doesn’t respond well to market forces because many of the social goods that arise from education — socialization, a grounding in civics, historical context, rational and systematic reasoning — are not goods or services demanded by a market, but rather they are the underlying substrate that allows people to intelligently conduct transactions in a marketplace as well as establishing and maintaining good governance.

There is a long and wide body of evidence that people with wide, solid educational foundations that transcend mere vocational skills produce societies that are more prosperous, more transparent, healthier, more democratic — that attain, in short, all the things we hope markets will attain for us.

* “There are many studies of the stimulus, but finally there is one which goes behind the numbers to see what really happened. And it’s not an entirely pretty story.”

* Although For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers doesn’t say as much, it’s actually about how hard it is for lower-and middle-class students to get into elite colleges.

* Born, and Evolved, to Run.

Jake Becomes “ABAMA,” But Not Obama

Faithful readers will know that my son and associated Seliger, Jake, has been toiling in the graduate English Literature program at the University of Arizona (go Cats!) for three years, like Kirk Douglas in the opening salt mine sequence in Spartacus. Jake, like his parents and siblings, is a bit challenged with respect to (“WRT” is a free proposal transition phrase) foreign languages; although he has long finished his coursework and the Masters examination, the pesky little problem of the foreign language requirement remained.

Jake just learned that he’s satisfied the foreign language requirement. This makes him “ABAMA:” A B.A. + M.A. = ABAMA. Now, on to the qualifications exam, a 100 page dissertation on a suitably obscure topic and the Ph.D. will be done.

Congratulations!!