Monthly Archives: October 2011

Teaching the Teacher: What I Learned From Technical Writing

We’re skeptics on the subject of grant writing training as such, but this summer I taught a “Technical Writing” course for juniors and seniors at the University of Arizona. The original course design wasn’t very challenging, so I decided to make it more nutritious by building a unit around grant writing; in a fit of cruelty, I gave the class the “Plan of Operations” section for the last round of Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC) funding (you can read the assignment sheet here if you’re curious). The RFP was on my mind because I’d just finished one and thought a single section of the narrative should be stretch the students’ abilities while still being doable.

Teaching a writing class shows the instructor how things that’ve become easy for him might be very hard for everyone else. Working with students and grading their assignments also made me realize how much tacit knowledge I’ve accumulated about grant writing—mostly through listening to Isaac tell war stories and berate me over missing sections when I was much younger. That was definitely a “trial-by-fire” experience. In a classroom, students should get a gentler but still rigorous introduction to grant writing, and that’s what I tried to do, even though teaching effectively is hard, just like grant writing; the skills necessary for one don’t necessarily overlap very much or very often. As a result, it’s worth describing some of what I learned, since teachers often learn as much if not more than students.

Breaking down the component parts of the process requires thought. As I said above, relatively little of my knowledge about grant writing was explicit and ready to be communicated. This is probably true of all fields, but I haven’t noticed how hard it is to articulate what to do and how to do it. In response to student questions, I often had to slow down and ask myself how I knew what I knew before I could answer their questions.

For example, because I knew a lot about TRIO programs, I knew that EOC aims to provide a very large number of people with a very small amount of help, direction, and information. Think of the amount of money per student and the amount of time invested in that student as correlated: less money means less time. Which approach is “better?” Probably neither. But I needed to find a way to make sure students could figure out what the RFP is really saying without too much prompting.

You can’t teach technical writing outside of the context of regular writing. Most students didn’t have well-developed general writing skills, so we had to collectively work on those at the same time they were trying to learn about grant writing as a specific domain. You can’t write an effective proposal without knowing basic English grammar and being able to write sentences using standard syntax. Most high schools simply don’t teach those writing skills, or, if they do, students don’t retain them. I’ve learned over time to incorporate basic rules in my freshman-level classes, and I definitely had to do the same in this class—especially because most students weren’t humanities majors and hadn’t been required to write since they were freshmen.

I’m not talking about abstruse topics like the gerunds versus present participles or a finely grained definition of the pluperfect tense. I’m talking about simple stuff like comma usage and avoiding passive voice (this is actually a good test for you: do you know a couple major comma rules? Hint: “When you take a breath / pause” isn’t one. If you’ve begun sweating at this self-test, try Write Right!).

Your proposal isn’t going to be rejected outright because you misuse one or two commas. Typos happen. But if grammar and syntax errors make it difficult to read, there’s a good chance that reviewers simply won’t try to read it. The same applies to your layout, which is why Isaac wrote “What Does a Grant Proposal Look Like Exactly? 13 Easy Steps to Formatting a Winning Proposal.” In addition, a proposal filled with typos and other errors signals to reviewers that you don’t even care enough to find or hire someone to edit your work. And if you don’t care before you get the money, what’s it going to be like after you get the money?

On the subject of what students know, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses demonstrates that an astonishingly large number of college graduates effectively learn nothing, academically speaking, over their four to six years of college life. It should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in postsecondary education.

You can’t be an effective grant writer without basic writing skills. People who can’t write complete sentences or coherent paragraphs simply need to develop those skills prior to trying to write complex documents. If you, the reader, are starting to write proposals and your own writing skills are shaky, consider finding a basic composition class at a local community college and taking that.

Reading RFPs is hard. Which is why I wrote “Deconstructing the Question: How to Parse a Confused RFP” and “Adventures in Bureaucracy and the Long Tale of Deciphering Eligibility: A Farce.” The EOC RFP is more than 100 pages, so I gave students the dozen or so pages necessary to write the “Plan of Operations.” Relatively few understood the inherent trade-off among the number of participants served, the cost per participant, and the maximum grant amount. Fine-grained details like this are part of what makes grant writing a challenge and, sometimes, a pleasure when the puzzle pieces slip into place.

There’s nothing to stop RFP writers from improving the organizational structure of their RFPs, but they simply don’t and have no incentive to. So I don’t think the inherent challenge of reading RFPs will go away over time.

A lot of students haven’t learned to write in the plain style: they use malapropisms, or pretentious diction that doesn’t feel right because they don’t trust themselves to use simple words correctly and in an appropriate order to convey meaning.

The best proposals balance imaginativeness and fidelity to the RFP. There is not a limitless number of possible activities to entice people into universities; if you’re proposing that leprechaun jockeys ride unicorns through the streets, shouting about the program through bullhorns, you’re probably erring on the side of being too, er, imaginative. If the only way you can conceive of getting students to college is by creating a website, you probably need more imagination.

Grant Writing Confidential is, in fact, useful. This isn’t just an effort to toot our own horn, but I gave students reading assignments in the form of blog posts, with about three posts required per day. The students who read the posts thoroughly and took the advice within wrote significantly better proposals than those who didn’t. When would-be grant writers ask us for advice these days, we tell give them much of the advice we’ve been giving for close to 19 years—along with a point to read all of GWC. It shouldn’t take more than an afternoon to read the archives, and someone who comes out on the other end should be better equipped to write proposals.

At some point, I’ll organize a bunch of the posts into a coherent framework for would-be grant writers and for others who simply want to sharpen their skills.

Nonprofit organization itself isn’t easy to understand. Nonprofits, despite the name and the associations with the word “corporation,” are still “corporations”—which means they have the organizational structure and challenges of any group of humans who band together to accomplish some task. People who work in nonprofit and public agencies already know this, but a lot of college students don’t realize that nonprofits require management, have hierarchies of some kind (the executive director probably isn’t doing the same thing as a “peer outreach worker,” at least most of the time, however important both roles may be), and that specialization occurs within the nonprofit itself.

People understand things better in story form. We sometimes tell “war stories” on this blog because they’re usually more evocative than dry, abstract, and technical posts. People hunger for narrative, and you need to tell a story in your proposal.

People who’re being taught usually want stories too, and when possible I tried to illustrate points about grant writing through story. But I didn’t realize the importance of this when I started. I should’ve, especially since I’m a PhD student in English Lit and spend a lot of my time studying and analyzing story.

Students prefer honest work over dishonest make-work, like most people. Too much of school consists of assignments that either aren’t hard or aren’t hard in the right way. We often call those assignments “busy-work” or “make-work.” Most group projects fall into this category. Students resent them to some extent, and I can’t blame them.

The cliche has it that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan. The same is true in proposals: if an application is funded, everyone wants to maximize their perceived role in executing it. If it isn’t, then Pat down the hall wrote most of it anyway, and we should blame Pat. Having a small group talk over the proposal but a single person writing it will result in both a better, more coherent proposal and in more satisfied writers, who are doing real work instead of watching someone else type—which usually means “checking Facebook” or chatting, or whatever.

In our own workflow, as soon as we’re hired we set a time to scope the proposal with the client shortly after we received a signed agreement and the first half of our fee. We usually talk with the client for half an hour to an hour and a half, and once we’ve done that we usually write a first draft of the narrative section of the proposal and draft a “documents memo” that describes all the pieces of paper (or, these days, digital files) that make up a complete proposal. This is real work. We don’t waste any time sitting in meetings, eating doughnuts, articulating a vision statement, or any of the other things nominal “grant writers” say they do.

Time pressure is a great motivator. The class I taught lasted just three weeks, and students had three to four days of class time to write their proposals. At the end of the class, many remarked that they didn’t think they could write 15 to 20 pages in a week. They could, and so can you. The trick, however, is choosing your week: you don’t want to write 20 pages two days before the deadline. You want to write them two weeks or two months before the deadline.

If you can’t, hire us, and we will. Assuming we have enough time, of course; we also take a fair number of last minute assignments, which often happens when other grant writing consultants quit or when a staff person realizes that this grant writing thing is harder than it looks. We’re happy to take those last-minute assignments if we have the capacity for them, but it’s not a bad idea to hire us in advance if you know you want to apply for a program.

Starting early gives you time to revise, edit, and polish. This advice is obvious and applies to many fields, but a lot of people don’t think they can do as much as they can until they’re forced to act because of circumstances. But little stops you from applying the same force to yourself earlier.

Conversely, Facebook is a great scourge to concentration. I taught in a computerized classroom that had an Orwellian feature: from the master computer, I could see the screens of anyone else in the classroom. Students who spent more time dawdling on Facebook produced worse proposals than those who didn’t. This might be a correlation-is-not-causation issue—worse writers might spend more time on Facebook, instead of Facebook causing worse writing—but I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook and other Internet distractions are hurting people’s ability to focus for long periods of time. I think consciously about how to disconnect distraction, and, if it’s an issue for me, I can virtually guarantee it’s an issue for many others too.

People who have never written a proposal before aren’t really ready to write a full proposal. This might seem obvious too, but it’s worth reiterating that few people who’ve never tried to write a complex proposal can do it right the first time. Grant writing, like many activities, benefits from a master/apprentice or editor/writer relationship.

This, in fact, is how I learned to write proposals: Isaac taught me. Granted, he’s a tough master, but the result of difficult training is mastery when done. Viewers like watching Gordon Ramsay on TV because he’s tough and that toughness may accelerate the learning process for those on the other end of his skewer. I can’t do the same in class, which is probably a good thing. Nonetheless, whether you’re making an egg souffle or a Department of Education proposal, don’t expect perfection the first time through. Actually, don’t expect perfection at all, but over time your skills will improve.

Seliger’s Believe it or Not Tales from the World of Grant Writing: Recovery Act Weatherization Training Centers and TAACCT

As a kid, I loved reading Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Who knew if these fantastic stores were true, but they were true enough to capture my imagination when I was about ten. Today, I experience lots of hard-to-believe tales as a grant writer, and I thought I would share a few.

Faithful readers may recall “Why Winning an Olympic Gold Medal is Not Like Getting a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Grant;” in 2010, I wrote about having to tell a client that a high point total does not always ensure getting particular grant, including a Department of Education PEP grant. What I didn’t put in that post was an important fact: our client insisted on including program elements that were certain to reduce the point total. Although I advised her of this, she insisted on including them anyway, and the grant was not funded.

A few months ago, we were hired to edit a new client’s previously submitted but unfunded PEP proposal for this year’s RFP process. We didn’t write the original and substantially rewrote the narrative. It was funded for about $1.5 million over five years, perhaps in part because this PEP client took our advice on which program elements should be included. In addition, the project concept was unique in that it involved providing services to elementary-age children in private schools and public high school students.

In other words, the concept was different, and in grant writing, different is often good because it wakes the reviewers up. I used PEP as my example in the old post, however, not because of the project concept issue, but because funding decisions for this program are particularly opaque. As I wrote then, getting any grant proposal funded is more than telling a compelling story—a submitted proposal has to be technically correct and the applicant has to be lucky with respect to a whole host of factors, like geography, applicant believability, need, mood of the reviewers and similar stuff.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago. We wrote a proposal earlier this year for another Department of Education program: Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC). In this case, the proposal one was point shy of a perfect score and was still not funded. I’m not sure why because this client provides a range of wraparound supportive services for at-risk youth and young adults in a very economically disadvantaged part of a large city (another free proposal phrase) and we’ve written many funded grants for the organization over the years. The Executive Director was incredulous, as was I, and I could not offer her any solace—other than the grant making process often appears random, even though it is not random to the funders, who always have reasons, other than the stated ones, for making the decisions they do.

Last year, however the randomness of the grant making process, however, worked in this client’s favor. We wrote a Department of Energy Recovery Act – Weatherization Assistance Program Training Centers proposal for her. The grant was funded for $1,000,000, even though this organization had no real background in weatherization job skills training. All of the other grantees were experienced weatherization job skills training providers, as were probably almost all the other applicants. This means the proposal we wrote stood out from the crowd, like the second PEP client I discussed above.

Now on to my last weird tale for the day. Earlier this year, we wrote a Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT—now that’s a mouthful) program. Despite the odd name, TAACCT (rhymes with cat…?) is really just a vocational training program for community colleges.

What’s interesting about TAACCT is that the underlying federal legislation and regulations specify that at least one TAACCCT grant is supposed to be made in every state—but grants were only awarded in 33 states. So much for regs! The proposal we wrote was for a consortium of community colleges in a suburban area near a collection of very large cities and urban counties. Our client was politically very well connected, the project concept was also fairly unusual, and the proposal technically correct. Seems like the odds should have been pretty good. In this state, only one TAACCCT grant award was made: to a tiny community college in a rural area. My guess is that the Department of Labor received several grants from the big cities and other entities in which our client was located and decided not to fund any of them, choosing instead to fund an obscure rural college—that way, all the big city applicants would be equally mad.

While all of these tales may make you laugh or cry, they should not prevent your organization from applying for grants. Since one cannot know which organizations will manage to submit technically correct proposals, how program officers will interpret regs, or much of anything else, all you can do is decide to apply and submit the best proposal you can—and submit it on time.

Think of how delighted the small community college was at beating out much bigger institutions. Or how great our client felt when she got the news about the Weatherization grant. Clients new and old often ask me to handicap the odds of a particular proposal being funded and I always tell them, “I am a grant writer, not a fortune teller.” Go after the grants your organization wants and needs, disregarding oddsmakers, soothsayers and the The Voice of Doom.

HUD Issues the FY ’12 Indian Community Development Block Grant (ICDBG) NOFA Not Long After the FY ’11 NOFA

HUD just issued the FY ’12 Indian Community Development Block Grant (ICDBG) NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability, which is HUD-speak for RFP). There’s about $61 million available for federally recognized Tribes, Alaskan Native Villages and selected Native American organizations. This is a great opportunity for eligible Native American applicants to fund housing, economic development and community facility projects, and maximum grants range from $600,000 to $5,500,000, depending on the location and number of persons impacted. The question is, why am I blogging about it, since it seems like another run-of-the-mill federal grant process?

The answer is in the timing of the NOFA release and deadline.

The timing issue caught my eye because the FY ’11 ICDBG deadline was June 15. The FY ’12 ICDBG NOFA was released on October 4 and the deadline is January 4, so two “annual” funding cycles will be completed within a year! Faithful readers will recall that I wrote several posts in halcyon days of the Stimulus Bill passing in early 2009, including February 2009’s Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing. In it, I correctly predicted that the feds would have more than a little trouble shoveling $800 billion out of the door.

The Stimulus Bill also distorted the more or less predictable flow of other discretionary grant programs like ICDBG; while the Stimulus Bill unleashed a huge quantity of additional grant funds, there were few, if any, additional personnel to manage the process, as I observed then:

My experience with Federal employees is that they work slower, not faster, under pressure, and there is no incentive whatsoever for a GS-10 to burn the midnight oil. Federal staffers are just employees who likely don’t share the passion of the policy wonks in the West Wing or the grant applicants. They just do their jobs, and, since there are protected by Civil Service, they cannot be speeded up. Also, there are no bonuses in the Federal system for work above and beyond the call of duty.

The nearly back-to-back release of ICDBG NOFAs is likely the result of the Stimulus Bill backlog—something like the boa constrictor eating an elephant in Saint-Exupéry’s charming novella, The Little Prince. ICDBG-eligible applicants had to wait for the FY ’11 grants to be digested, and then they have the opportunity to apply all over again a few months later.

The lack of a federal budget for three years and the reliance on Continuing Resolutions (CRs) to fund federal agencies likely doesn’t help. While the media focuses on the upcoming election and never-ending economic challenges, Congress passes appropriation bills using CRs, which allows FY ’12 funds, like ICDBG, to become available. You can expect a flood of backlogged federal programs to issue RFPs in the next few months.

Given the chaos in the federal budgeting process, it seems like a good bet to apply for any grant programs that come along now because the funding cycles for ICDBG and lots of other programs are pretty screwed up. In the case of ICDBG, I have no idea when the FY ’13 ICDBG NOFA will appear, but there’s an opportunity for a second bite of the apple this year. It seems to me that any ICDBG-eligible entity should bite that apple (or is it a salmon? I leave it to readers to decide).

Federal Pass-Through Programs Illustrated: California Issues RFAs for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers – Elementary & Middle Schools and High School ASSETs Programs

Grant writing is inherently confusing—particularly when it comes to federal “pass-through” grant programs. A pass-through program is one in which the federal government passes grant funds to state or large local jurisdictions based on an allocation formula of some sort. Let’s take a look at one such program, 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC).

The 21st CCLC program started about 12 years ago as a direct federal competitive program from the US Department of Education. Essentially, this program funded and still funds before- and/or after-school enrichment activities—including tutoring, arts and crafts, recreation, cultural activities, computer skills and so forth—along with family literacy and a few other odds and ends. Think of it as more or less a standard Boys & Girls Clubs of America program.

Not surprisingly, Boys & Girls Clubs make great 21st CCLC applicants, as long as they partner with a LEA (“local education agency” in education-speak) or public school, which they all do anyway. The program was well-funded, and we wrote lots of funded 21st CCLC grants around the country. The whole exercise was straightforward because there was one pot of money with fairly large five-year grants available, one annual deadline, and one set of criteria. Of course, this simple approach was too much for Congress, and about six years ago the 21st CCLC program was transformed into a pass-through structure. While every state is guaranteed some money, the smaller states do not get all that much and each state Department of Education runs their own RFA (“Request for Applications”, which is RFP in education-speak) process. The result of this “reform” is much confusion about the program, when to apply, and on and on.

The 21st CCLC situation in California illustrates how a fairly simple program concept can become fantastically complex when the feds take the pass-through approach. Since California is huge, it gets a huge 21st CCLC entitlement. Every few years, the California Department of Education issues not one, but two 21st CCLC RFAs. The FY 2012 RFAs were issued on October 7, including the 21st Century Community Learning Centers – Elementary & Middle Schools program and the 21st Century High School ASSETs (After School Safety and Enrichment for Teens) program, the latter being for high school students. Each RFA is 65 single-spaced pages long, with lots of qualifiers, charts, and tables that are too numerous to recite here. It gets better—there are also on-line application forms. In addition to meeting the basic 21st CCLC federal and state regulations, applicants—which can be LEAs, schools, nonprofits and public agencies—have to find an eligible partner school that does not currently have a 21st CCLC program, or, if it does, the existing program has to be in the last year of operation. Since 21st CCLC grants are actually five, one-year grants, a given school and potential 21st CCLC provider might be out of synch with the application process. This makes it challenge for a non-LEA applicant to partner with the right school at the right time to get a 21st CCLC grant.

Despite the layers of complexity that the California Department of Education and other SEAs (“state education agencies”—this is an acronym-heavy post) have added to the 21st CCLC program, it remains the single best way of funding an after school program. Assuming the red tape can be surmounted, a successful applicant is reasonably assured of five years of funding that can make an enormous difference in the lives of vulnerable children and youth (free proposal phrase here).

And keep in mind that the program is available in every state, as long as you can find it and figure out the application process. To help out, here are links to the 21st CCLC in New York and Illinois. Poke around your SEA website and you should find the 21st CCLC site. Then, determine the funding cycle, line up a school partner and be ready when the RFA is issued. While your investigating the 21st CCLC program, look for state-funded analogue programs too. For example, California has the After School Education and Safety (ASES) program. I’m not sure of the current funding levels for ASES, but it wins the unintentionally funny acronym contest, although it is pronounced “aces,” not as it appears.

Illinois has the better named Teen REACH (Teen Responsibility, Education, Achievement, Caring, and Hope program, but children as young as seven can participate, so don’t trust public acronyms. The best of worlds is to combine a 21st CCLC program grant with a state-funded grant, which, for those of you who are old enough to remember, means you will be able to double your pleasure, double your fun.

Other pass-through federal programs, such as HUD’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and the Office of Community Services’ (OCS) Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) program work similarly to the 21st CCLC program, except they’re even more complicated. I’ve written a bit about CDBG and CSBG earlier and won’t put readers to sleep with more minutia about them. The key point to remember with federal pass-through funds is that applicants have to understand both the underlying federal regulations, as well as the state/local application process.

September 2011 Links: Understanding Expenses, the Freelance Revolution, Skirt Length, College Life, Schools, Software, and More

* The Tyranny of Silly Expense Control Rules; notice the comment from yours truly.

* The Freelance Surge Is the Industrial Revolution of Our Time. People are, in other words, repurposing their jobs. A lot of academics in the humanities appear to be completely missing this. In addition, you might want to emphasize this fact in your job training proposals, much like social media.

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

* The FDA should be limited to establishing safety, which I find convincing for reasons demonstrated by Cowen and Grove.

* The Real Problem With College Admissions: It’s Not the Rankings. Notice especially the graph.

* I don’t often agree with the Wall Street Journal’s editorial line, but “The Latest Crime Wave: Sending Your Child to a Better School” has it about right:

In case you needed further proof of the American education system’s failings, especially in poor and minority communities, consider the latest crime to spread across the country: educational theft. That’s the charge that has landed several parents, such as Ohio’s Kelley Williams-Bolar, in jail this year.

An African-American mother of two, Ms. Williams-Bolar last year used her father’s address to enroll her two daughters in a better public school outside of their neighborhood. After spending nine days behind bars charged with grand theft, the single mother was convicted of two felony counts. Not only did this stain her spotless record, but it threatened her ability to earn the teacher’s license she had been working on. [. . .]

Only in a world where irony is dead could people not marvel at concerned parents being prosecuted for stealing a free public education for their children.

I knew some kids in high school who used this trick; one day, I gave a guy a ride home after working on the school newspaper and was surprised at how far he lived from campus. He told me that his parents used his uncle’s address to smuggle him in.

* Is barefoot running (using shoes like the “Vibram Five-Fingers” I wear) “better” for you? Yes, if you land on your forefoot. If you still land on your heel, however, they’re probably worse. This, however, would be pretty damn unnatural.

* My job is to watch dreams die. My job is to make dreams live; I think it works out better for me.

* One Path to Better Jobs: More Density in Cities.

* File this under “no shit:”

But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements.

Remember: there is no silver bullet for education.

* The New Pants Revue, by Bruce Sterling: “Since I’m a blogger and therefore a modern thought-leader type, my favorite maker of pants sent me some new-model pants in the mail:”

I should explain now why I have been wearing “5.11 Tactical” trousers for a decade. It’s pretty simple: before that time, I wore commonplace black jeans, for two decades. Jeans and tactical pants are the same school of garment. They’re both repurposed American Western gear. I’m an American and it’s common for us to re-adapt our frontier inventions.”

(Hat tip Charlie Stross.)

* The most important post you haven’t read and probably won’t read: Great Stagnation…or Great Relocation?:

Suppose all of those people had the same purchasing power. If you were a factory owner, and you wanted to minimize transport costs, where would you put your factories? The answer is a no-brainer: China and India. Some others in Europe, Japan, and Indonesia. Perhaps a couple on the U.S. East Coast. But for the most part, you’d laugh in the face of any consultant who told you to put a factory in the U.S. The place looks like one giant farm!

It may be that American manufacturing strength was due to a historical accident. Here is the story I’m thinking of. First, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, our proximity to Europe – at that time the only agglomerated Core in the world – allowed us to serve as a low-cost manufacturing base. Then, after World War 2, the U.S. was the only rich capitalist economy not in ruins, so we became the new Core. But as Europe and Japan recovered, our lack of population density made our manufacturing dominance short-lived.

Now, with China finally free of its communist constraints, economic activity is reverting to where it ought to be. More and more, you hear about companies relocating to China not for the cheap labor, but because of the huge domestic market. This is exactly the New Economic Geography in action.

* California or Bust. Isaac may also write a post on this.

* Student choice, employment skills, and grade inflation.

* People respond to incentives, example #14,893:

Top officials [in the Social Security Administration], in a bid to meet goals to win promotions or thousands of dollars in bonuses, directed many employees to refrain from issuing decisions on cases until next week, according to judges and union officials. This likely would delay benefits paid to thousands of Americans with pending applications, many of whom are financially needy and have waited for a government decision for more than a year.

* Demand for software developers is still high.

* Two thousand years in one chart, or, “we make a lot of stuff these days.”

* This is how you catch someone’s attention with the lead: “I became a feminist the day my sixth-grade math teacher dismembered and spit on a white rose, telling us, ‘This is you after you have sex.’

* How Suburban Sprawl Works Like a Ponzi Scheme.

* Hiring Locally for Farm Work Is No Cure-All.

* “The Numbers Behind What’s Your Number?: How many sex partners has the average American woman had—and does anyone still care?” My guess tends towards “no,” and that the number of think “no” increases with age.

* Why Businessmen Wear Black Hats in the Movies:

Why don’t the movies have plausible, real world villains anymore? One reason is that a plethora of stereotype-sensitive advocacy groups, representing everyone from hyphenated ethnic minorities and physically handicapped people to Army and CIA veterans, now maintain a liaison in Hollywood to protect their image. The studios themselves often have an “outreach program” in which executives are assigned to review scripts and characters with representatives from these groups, evaluate their complaints, and attempt to avoid potential brouhahas.

Finding evil villains is not as easy as it was in the days when a director could choose among Nazis, Communists, KGB, and Mafiosos.

This has the unfortunate side effect of decreasing realism and / or pandering to obviousness; no one is going to argue Nazis aren’t bad guys.

* For the performing arts, this is the moment where recession turns into depression. See data at the link.

* Filed under “duh:” “The e-book marketplace is redefining what people expect to pay for books.”

* “[T]he broader point really is the cliche: this is what it looks like when “the terrorists win” and we lose the long-term struggle to protect a free society.” From James Fallows.

* Awesome: NASA revealed on Wednesday a design for its next colossal rocket that is to serve as the backbone for exploration of the solar system for the coming decades.

* Some real Shock and Awe: Racially profiled and cuffed in Detroit.

* Better Business Bureau (BBB) accreditation appears to be bullshit, since the organization will rescind accreditation if you criticize it.

* Finally, for those of you who made it to the end: “Steve Jobs passes and the Internet speaks.”

Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Foundation Grant Budgets

Faithful readers will remember our post “Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets.” This is a companion post for developing foundation budgets.

Unlike federal budgets, foundations rarely provide budget forms, or, if they do, the form is usually fairly simple and most grant writers, even novices, should be able to figure out how to complete it. The challenge is deciding what to present to the foundation and what format to use when a budget form is not provided. We opt for a simple Excel spreadsheet. If the concept of using Excel makes you break into a cold sweat, stop reading and learn how to use Excel immediately. I could place an illustration of a typical foundation proposal spreadsheet here, but we never post sample work products. For our reasoning, see “If You Want Free Samples, Go To Costco; If You Actually Want Proposal Writing, Go To A Grant Writer.” You’ll have to use your imagination to visualize what the spreadsheet should look like, but you’re grant writers and should have at least a soupçon of imagination.

Most of the foundation proposals we write are for project concepts involving operating support, a human services delivery project, start-up costs for a new nonprofit, or a capital campaign. The following applies to the first three (I’ll write a future post discussing capital campaign foundation budgets, which are structured differently):

  • Place a descriptive title at the top of the spreadsheet, such as “Project NUTRIA Three-Year Line Budget Spreadsheet and Justification.” Don’t forget to add your agency name above the title.* I like the look of the Center Across Selection tool in Excel, but choose your own actual formatting.
  • We use two broad line item categories: “Personnel” and “Other” in column A, which is usually titled “Line Items” or similar.
  • Starting with a “Personnel” header, list each administrative or project position as a line item row in descending order from the Executive Director down. Provide a subtotal row, then a row for fringe benefits. It is not necessary to itemize fringe benefits. Instead, express them as a percentage of the personnel subtotal in the first calculation column. Finally, provide a Personnel Total row.
  • Everything else goes into “Other” header. Provide enough line items to cover the activities noted in the proposal, but not so many as to make the spreadsheet print on two pages or be otherwise difficult to read. Typical “Other” line items include local travel, professional development, equipment, printing, communications, insurance, hourly staff (e.g., tutors for an after school program) expressed as hours (there are 2,080 hours in a person year, so two FTE tutors = 4,160 hours) in the first calculation column times an hourly rate in the second calculation column, and so on. Provide an Other Total row.
  • Provide a Total Cost row, which is the sum of the Personnel and Other Totals. If your agency uses an indirect rate, the Total row will be called Total Direct Costs, followed by an Indirect Costs row (expressed as a percentage of Total Direct Costs in the first calculation column) and a Total Project Costs row.
  • Moving across the spreadsheet from column A (line item names), the next two or three columns should be for calculations (e.g., numbers, months, percentages, etc., so the readers can figure out how your formulas are derived). The next three columns will be Year One, Year Two and Year Three yearly totals. The formulas in these cells will be multiplications of the calculation cells for each line. The next column will be the project period total for each line.
  • The last column should be larger and be titled, “Narrative Explanation” or similar. Place a brief description of the line item (“10 iPhones @ $200 ea. to enable Outreach Workers to connect with participating at-risk youth through social media, as detailed in the attached project narrative”). As I discussed in my post on federal budgeting, I see no reason to have long-winded budget narratives that regurgitate the proposal like Jon Voight by the eponymous snake in Anaconda.
  • Provide a bottom sum row for each project year and the project budget year total, perhaps with a cost/participant total, and you’re done.
  • Actually, you’re not quite done, as you will have to struggle with font sizes, row heights and such to get Excel to print the spreadsheet on a single, readable page. But grant writers love struggle, so this should be the fun part of the exercise.

It is OK to estimate most line items. As with all budgets, however, the most important aspect is to make sure that the budget is consistent with the narrative. For example, if the narrative discusses having Outreach Workers using social media to engage at-risk youth, there should be a line item in the budget for the cost of buying the phones and/or computers, as well as a separate line item for phone service charges. Also, I like round number budgets—say $250,000/year for a $750,000 project total. The round number can be easily achieved by making one row (e.g. participant incentives or advertising) a “plug number” (guessed flat per year number for a particular line item), rather than a calculated total. Keep adjusting the plug number in each year until you achieve the round number.

Although this kind of spreadsheet may seem too simple, it will provide enough detail for the foundation to understand your budget request. If the foundation gets interested in funding the project, you’ll know because, in most cases, the foundation will request additional budget details.


* “The Name Above the Title” is the title of a 1991 CD by the somewhat forgotten folk-rocker John Wesley Harding. I’ve been asked many times about the music I listen to while writing proposals. One of these days, I compile a playlist or two and post them. J.W. Harding might be on one of them.