Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Nonprofit’s Grant Writing Life Cycle: No Matter Where You’re Going, There You Are*

Seliger + Associates works with the full spectrum of nonprofits, from newly minted ones to some that have been providing services for 150 years (this is not an exaggeration, as we have one client in Chicago that was formed in the 1860s). We’ve seen how nonprofits morph with respect to their grant writing opinions and practices as they careen through their life cycles. As I pointed out in One, Two, Three* Easy Steps to Start-Up a Nonprofit Upstart, most nonprofits don’t begin life through grant funding; instead, they rely on a loan/gift from the founder and/or an angel “investor.” As the nonprofit gathers steam, however, and begins to expand the services it delivers, the need for grant writing grows, because few nonprofits can offer a wide array of services to a large number of people while operating on a shoestring.

Since new nonprofits usually have extremely limited resources, most cannot afford to hire a grant writer, either as a staff person or consultant. This leaves a conundrum, as the nonprofit has increasing grant writing needs that are tempered by lack of resources. Or, as in the hoary aphorism, “it takes money to make money.” At a basic level, young nonprofits must function like emerging small businesses to meet capital needs to expand service delivery while supporting ongoing operations. Essentially, they have three options if they want to supplement donations and capitated revenue streams with grants:

1. The founder needs to quickly learn how to be a grant writer. Unless the founder is already a skilled writer—and few people are, though many more believe they are—this option is unlikely to produce immediate results because she would have to first learn to write and then learn to grant write. As we pointed out in aCredentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain, one can’t will oneself to become a grant writer by going to a three-day training seminar.

Some founders,** however, have the writing skills and the passion to churn out good enough proposals. But they may not want to be stuck with grant writing tasks; few people decide to save the world, or at least their corner of it, by spending a lot of time alone with their computer and an RFP, just as many science professors are dismayed by the sheer amount of grant writing they have to do to keep a lab funded.

2. The organization finds a person who loves it and/or its mission and already happens to be a grant writer and will volunteer her time. This is even less likely than option one, since there are so few grant writers you’ll be looking for the proverbial hen’s teeth.

3. Scrape together enough resources to hire a grant writer, most likely as a consultant, since this is usually a more effective option than trying to find an employee who also has or can quickly develop grant writing skills. The hen’s teeth problem again.

As the organization moves into adolescence, usually through a combination of donations and some success with grants, it will naturally gravitate toward option three. Many nonprofits try to build an internal grant writing capability by hiring at least one employee with grant writing skills (or grant-writing potential) and also providing in-service grant writing training to existing staff.

Sometimes this even works.

But when grant writers are grown in-house, they often move to other nonprofits or universities that offer more money, or the grant writer achieves sufficient status within the organization that he or she doesn’t want to write proposals any more—which isn’t surprising, given how difficult writing proposals is. Nonetheless, in-house grant writers are quite common.

When the nonprofit achieves adulthood, this internal capacity is generally supplemented with the external resource on a consultant like Seliger + Associates. We are frequently hired by organizations with internal grant writing capacity. An entity that already has a grant writer on staff usually hires a hired gun for three reasons:

1. The internal grant writer is terrified of a particular RFP—and what’s anybody else to write it.

2. The internal grant writer is swarmed over by RFPs and and can’t keep up.

3. Finally, there is the ever popular “shoot the consultant” motivation used by Executive Directors who want somebody to blame if the grant is not funded, or if the organization is experiencing some other kind of turmoil and needs a common enemy to create unity within it.


* Buckaroo Bonzai in one of my favorite movies from the 1980s, the curious The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

** Including myself, as I described in my first GWC post, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal.”

The Grant World Shifts from the “Community Based Abstinence Education Program” to “Competitive Abstinence Education Grant Program”

In 2008, I wrote a pair of long blog posts about the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program and what happens when a program that is nominally based on “research” has an unfortunate problem: the best available research shows the premise of the program is unlikely to succeed. (The first post is “What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study.”) We wrote a number of funded CBAE programs over the course of a couple years.

Today, however, I was enjoying my usual Sunday jaunt through the Federal Register and found the Competitive Abstinence Education Grant Program. It’s much, much smaller than CBAE, since it only has $4,611,070 available, while CBAE had $40,000,000 in the 2008 funding cycle. In addition, while the new program may have abstinence in the title, description says that applicants should take “medically accurate” approach to sex education, which is quite different than the required CBAE approach, which explicitly forbids medically accurate sex education.

This is the part of the post where a political blogger would make some sort of ideological or political point.* I don’t have one, but I will say that the CBAE to CAEG shift is another example of how smart agencies should be adaptable, as I described in my post “Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts.” Four years ago, the grant waves were throwing abstinence; this year, they’re throwing comprehensive sex education. Forty years ago, when Isaac was getting started, the emphasis was on “medically accurate” information (like today’s RFP), as he wrote about in “Teenage Pregnancy Prevention and the Replication of Evidence-based Programs: the Research and Demonstration Programs and Personal Responsibility Education Program are Two RFPs that Provide a ‘Madeleine Moment’ for a Grizzled Grant Writer.”

For a lot of agencies, what happens on the ground when they’re trying to educate teenagers probably won’t change much based on the funding stream, since teenagers themselves haven’t changed much since they were invented in the 1920s or thereabouts (read Joseph Kent’s Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present and similar books for the history of adolescence as an idea; see also here for a graph depicting the rise of the term “teenager”). Given how fast we produce teenagers, and the gap between what most teenagers really want and what most adults really want them to do, the need for some fashion of sex education is unlikely to go away in the near future, which means federal RFPs are likely to keep being issued—regardless of how they’re labeled.

EDIT: In “Parents Just Don’t Understand: A sociologist says American moms and dads are in denial about their kids’ sexual lives,” Sinikka Elliott argues about comprehensive sex education and abstinence education:

One side is saying, ”Well, they need to abstain. That’s a surefire way that they’re gonna be safe,” and the other side is saying, “They’re not gonna abstain and so they need contraceptive information.” They were basing their argument on the same things: the teen pregnancy rates, the STI rates.

Neither focuses much on pleasure, as Elliott points out.


* I don’t have one, but I will say that the Margaret Talbot’s New Yorker article, Red Sex, Blue Sex is probably the most interesting and comprehensive article I’ve read about the kinds of political differences that shift the funding streams for programs like CBAE and now CAEG.

Is It Really a Partnership, Or Is It a Convenient Arrangement To Get the Money?

Is it really love if she only comes back for $300 an hour?

Is it really a partnership if one person holds a gun to the other’s head?

Does Microsoft really care about your business when they’ve kept you on hold for an hour, listening to aggravating muzak, only to tell you that they won’t give you the product key you need?

In grant writing, when you can’t get other local agencies to partner with you for a grant application, it’s often time to offer them a subcontract or some other piece of the action that can be measured in dollars. The piece you want or need can vary with the grant or the importance of the agency to the project and the nature of the project, but if you need the partnership badly enough you’ll pay for it.

In some circumstances this isn’t optimal, and if you’re paying for partnerships you might also be moving other local agencies from an economy based on gifts, favors, and reciprocity to one based on straightforward money—which might make accomplishing your actual goals harder. (Lewis Hyde describes gift versus exchange economies in The Gift, and there’s a rich economics literature on the subject too.) Many organizations, like many interpersonal relationships, don’t exist in a solely gift or solely mercantile space; they operate somewhere in between, and whether a relationship primarily involves gifts or fee-for-service depends a myriad of factors that are beyond the scope of this blog post.

But if an organization doesn’t want to help you out of the goodness of their hearts, or out of the promise that you’ll be their nominal partner on some future project, then money might be your only route forward. School districts are notoriously difficult in this regard, largely because they know that they’ll get ADA money regardless of whether they provide Joe’s Nonprofit with a letter.

Sometimes, however, Joe’s Nonprofit can strike back by getting the local newspaper to write an article about how the district’s intransigence might cost the community a $500,000 grant. A couple of years ago, we were writing a HUD Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) proposal for a city in California. The LBPHC requires specific health metrics and interventions that are the domain of counties in California. The cognizant agency at first refused to cooperate with our client. We suggested that our client call the county rep and tell her that the next call would be to the newsperson, so that a story about why the county wants young low-income children to be poisoned could run. The county immediately agreed to cooperate and provided a strong letter and data. The proposal was funded. And our client didn’t have to offer any money to get it funded.

Given the realities of “partnerships,” why are funding agencies so interested in partnerships? We’ve addressed this question before, in posts like “Is it Collaboration or Competition that HRSA Wants in the Service Area Competition (SAC) and New Access Points (NAP) FOAs?” and “There Will Be No Fighting in the War Room: An Example of Nonprofit Non-Collaboration in Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” and “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point.” As we’ve said, genuine partnerships might be appropriate and useful in some circumstances, but much of the time they just look cosmetic, as we’ve discovered from talking to clients who are attempting to wrangle partnerships out of recalcitrant agencies.

When partnerships are primarily cosmetic, I suspect the larger issue is, like so much of grant writing, one of signaling.* In grant writing, partnerships are a kind of social proof—if you can get other people to agree to associate with you, their association is a form of implicit approval of your actions. If you’ve ever seen bars where one guy seems to be talking to all the women in the place, you’re in part seeing social proof at work; if you’ve been reluctant to eat an empty restaurant or happy to wait for a table at a full one, you’ve also seen it.

Among grant applicants, partnerships are being used to prove that the applicant and jump through a large number of somewhat arbitrary hoops, in the hopes that those applicants with the fortitude, tenacity, and skill necessary to do so are also the ones most likely to operate programs well.


* Robin Hanson has written extensively about signaling and its pervasiveness in human social life; his recent post “How Social Are Signals?” is a good place to start if you’re curious. Unfortunately, he hasn’t written a book about signaling and other aspects of his blogging life, so there’s no large-scale guide to his thinking on the subject. Yet.

Breaking News: The Department of Education Announces Race to the Top–District (RTTT-D) Program with $400 Million for LEAs!

EDIT: The RFP has finally been issued—two months a day after this post was first published.

The Department of Education will issue an RFP for the Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) program around July 1. There will be about $400 million up for grabs. Local Education Agencies (“LEAs,” which is education-speak for school districts) with at least 2,500 students, of whom at least 40% are low-income, will be eligible to compete for grants up to $25 million or so.

This is the first time LEAs have been eligible to apply directly to the feds for RTTT funds. Even better, the Department of Education must obligate the funds by December 31, so this is going to be Fast and Furious grant making that favors the prepared applicant. Based on recent Department of Education RFP cycles, I assume there will be about 30 days from the RFP publication to the deadline. If they meet the July 1 publication target, the proposal preparation period will include the 4th of July, which falls on a Wednesday this year. Lots of civilians will aim for a five-day vacation, while us grant writers will be tossing another gerund on the barbie.*

RTTT-D is an extraordinary opportunity for LEAs. Given the uncertain political climate and budget constraints, it might be a long time until LEAs are again able to apply for substantial funds to essentially do anything they want, as long as the it conforms to the loosey-goosey reforms of RTTT. If I were a LEA administrator, I would already be developing my RTTT-D proposal. Gentlewomen and gentlemen, start your grant engines.


* “Tossing” is a gerund for those readers who like to diagram sentences (actually, it’s a gerund for all readers). Here is Dave Barry’s take on diagramming sentences:

Q. Please explain how to diagram a sentence.

A. First spread the sentence out on a clean, flat surface, such as an ironing board. Then, using a sharp pencil or X-Acto knife, locate the “predicate,” which indicates where the action has taken place and is usually located directly behind the gills. For example, in the sentence: “LaMont never would of bit a forest ranger,” the action probably took place in a forest. Thus your diagram would be shaped like a little tree with branches sticking out of it to indicate the locations of the various particles of speech, such as your gerunds, proverbs, adjutants, etc.

HRSA Service Area Competition (SAC) Grants: How to Defend Your Turf or Deftly Lift a HRSA Grant from an Unsuspecting Grantee

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) recently issued a Funding Opportunity Announcement (“FOA,” which is HRSA-speak for RFP) for the Service Area Competition (SAC) program. This program provides extremely valuable (for reasons we’ll explain in this post) five-year grants to operate one or more Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs).

There are three ways to get become an FQHC, which will let an organization access Section 330 funds: (1) apply to have an existing health clinic certified as an FQHC (this is an incredibly complex process because the regulations are a nightmare); (2) wait for HRSA to issue a New Access Points (NAP) FOA and apply for a grant (this can be done in any community that meets Section 330 requirements, and it has a distinct advantage because a grant award is attached); or (3) wait for HRSA to publish a SAC FOA for your service area (which has the same advantage as number two).

The SAC route is probably the easiest because HRSA already knows that the area and residents qualify for Section 330 funds. Each time a FOA appears, existing Section 330 grantees at the end of their five-year grant period have to compete for new money against any other nonprofit or public agency that can (1) meet the eligibility test to become an FQHC and (2) chooses to apply.

This can make for mighty nervous Section 330 grantees, because running an FQHC or three can be a very lucrative undertaking for a nonprofit or public agency. As a result, even nominal collaborators can turn into cutthroat competitors and sack a grantee during a SAC funding cycle.*

Most federal programs require grantees to re-apply for continuation grants, including some (e.g., TRIO grants) that give bonus points to current grantees. Since operating a FQHC requires significant organizational infrastructure (e.g., specialized facilities and equipment, medical staff, HIPAA-compliant records management, and other features that go above and beyond basic nonprofit infrastructure), it is curious that HRSA requires current Section 330 grantees to compete for continuation funding. If a grantee is more or less getting the job done, why not just let them keep on doing what they’re doing? I assume the complicated re-application process is designed to keep the grantees on their toes. It also forces them to be accountable for the objectives stated in their original application (FQHC, NAP or SAC application), as well as the new SAC application.

HRSA Section 330 FOAs also require applicants to state highly specific objectives for required HRSA “Clinical and Financial Performance Measures,” as well for service delivery levels (e.g., number of patients, service encounters, etc.). Many applicants overstate their objectives beyond what is achievable in the real world. While we often differentiate between the Real World and the Proposal World in our approach to grant writing, sometimes the real world is important. HRSA Section 330 proposal writing is a case in point. Because the SAC application includes electronic data forms with highly specific input boxes and the metrics are so easily measured, a grantee can easily get too enthusiastic and wildly overstate the objectives that are likely to be achieved in the real world.

While being grandiose in stating objectives can be okay in many subjective human services proposals, it is a recipe for future unhappiness in HRSA Section 330 proposals. This is because failure to meet stated metrics will likely annoy your Program Officer, assuming you submit reasonably honest reports. An annoyed Program Officer is likely to torpedo your next SAC application or even cut back your current grant.

For example, a few years ago we wrote a number of funded HRSA, CDC, and foundation proposals for a Section 330 client in the midwest. While the client had no big problems in implementing several complex programs, she unfortunately got crosswise with her HRSA Program Officer over the stated objectives. Incredibly, the Program Officer got so annoyed that the client was forced into a SAC FOA three years ahead of schedule. With HRSA grants, don’t make this mistake and lose millions of dollars by overstating what your organization can do.

If your agency decides to try for the funding of an existing Section 330 grantee, it would be a good idea to request copies of their original application and reports. Just call up your competitor and ask them for these documents (note: this is joke, as no one in the real world would make this call). What you really want to do is call the HRSA Program Officer with the request and, if necessary, follow-up with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Keep in mind that FOIA requests can take a long time, so it is best to plan your ambush well in advance.


* For more on the “collaborative” aspects of HRSA FOAs, see “Is it Collaboration or Competition that HRSA Wants in the Service Area Competition (SAC) and New Access Points (NAP) FOAs?.”

** See also The Real World and the Proposal World.

June Links: College Degrees, Federal Acronyms, NIH Grant Writers, Savings, Chairs, GeekDesk, Teaching, Teen Moms and Teen Pregnancy Prevention, and More

* A college diploma isn’t worth what it used to be. To get hired, grads today need hard skills.

* Let’s play “Count the Acronym” in this sentence, from the ACF’s Transitional Living Program and Maternity Group Homes: “The Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) is accepting applications for the Transitional Living Program (TLP) and for Maternity Group Homes (MGH) funding opportunity announcement (FOA). TLPs provide an alternative to involving RHY in the law enforcement, child welfare, mental health, and juvenile justice systems.”

* Someone found us by searching for, “how do you keep your youthbuild grant”. Here’s how: by providing the services you promised to provide and filling out your DOL reports thoroughly and on time.

* Another person found us by searching for “expert nih grant writer”. You’ve come to the right place!

* Why Are Teen Moms Poor? Surprising new research shows it’s not because they have babies. They have babies because they’re poor. Emile Zola more or less got this point in 1885 in his masterpiece, Germinal.

* Why the U.S. has an artificially low savings rate: we take money from the young, who might save for later and have a low discount rate, and give it to the elderly, who want to spend it now because they have a high discount rate.

* Against chairs. I want a GeekDesk.

* Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments for Teachers; I try to follow them, especially the one about arguing via authority.

* Learning that works: rethinking vocational education. This is positive step, and I’m noticing more and more people making these kinds of arguments.

* The Real E-Publishing Story: It’s Not the Millionaires, It’s the Midlist.

* Game over for the climate, which is one of those important articles you won’t read.

* “As an outsider I hear plenty of what America does wrong, I want to hear what they do right.”

* The World as We Know It Is About to End, Say Some Really Frightened Scientists.

* A lot of what’s wrong with public schools can be surmised from How did this parent end up in jail? Kelley Williams-Bolar just wanted her kids to go to a safer school — then her story took an unexpected turn.

* The great Verizon FiOS ripoff.

Perfect Proposal Production In an Imperfect World

As a companion piece to Jake’s post on YouthBuild and Isaac’s on formatting, I want to explain the science of proposal production.

1. It starts, like all aspects of grant writing and preparation, with a thorough reading of the RFP. Failing to read the RFP is the equivalent of failing to check your boat for holes before you push out to sea. You can’t discuss the finer arts of sailing if your vessel sinks.

2. Make a master checklist of every item needed for submission, even if the funding source provides a checklist. Sometimes the funding source’s list doesn’t match the funding source’s RFP. Sometimes the funder won’t remember to list optional items on their checklist. RFPs can sometimes be as hard for funders to understand as they are for you, the applicant.

Get someone to double-check the list you make. A lot of grant writing, like legal work, simply consists of making sure that you don’t miss anything. Like, say, a required document.

3. Begin to gather the requested items. Some will be very common, like a 501(c)3 letter or a list of the board of directors. Some will be esoteric. Some will have to come from others: as soon as you make the critical decision to apply, you want to be sure to write memos to stakeholders with a list of items needed, including absolute deadlines for the items you need. You should decide on those deadlines based on how much time you need to prepare the proposal. Then back those deadlines up by a couple of days, to allow for late items. So if your proposal is due on, say, May 30, and you need to assemble it on May 26, then you should give an “absolute” deadline of May 20 to your collaborators.

Managing stakeholders could be the subject of an entire blog post in itself. If managing people were easy, and if people routinely do what they say they will, we wouldn’t have an entire discipline called “management.”

4. Arrange each item in the order required by the funding source. If you have missing items, write “Commitment letter from the LEA” on a blank sheet of paper and leave a Post-it sticking out to remind you that you don’t have the letter but need it (this will help you remember what you need).

For electronic submissions, scan all the documents that are not already electronic files and note items missing. We’re fond of the Fujitsu ScanSnap, which has a cult following among the people who heroically push paper for a living, much like the Swingline Stapler. It’s also not a bad idea, but time consuming and paper producing, to print these and insert marked pages for any missing items.

5. Make a list of the information needed to complete the application forms. Then begin filling out the forms. Leave time to obtain the signature pages for paper submissions and make sure your organization is registered to submit electronically. If you’re missing any information, make a list of who knows the information you need, how you will obtain that information, and what you will do if it’s not available.

As you can probably tell, lists are your friend and help you organized.

6. Consult your checklist daily and remind stakeholders or partners about when you must have the documents. Your stakeholders—especially if they’re the staff of other agencies—are probably very busy (or at least claim to be), and it’s easy to forget a request for a letter. A handy reminder, well before the deadline, is highly advised.

7. When everything has been gathered (finally!), paginate the document, if required; we recommend it unless pagination if specifically forbidden: page numbers help you and the reader.

8. Then—and this is most important part—have a fresh set of eyes look the document over. Encourage the person or people to ask questions if they aren’t sure about something. This is the easiest and best way to catch errors, like missing signatures or signature pages. While there is no way to ensure a “perfect” proposal, this method will improve your proposal production process.

Next up: Submitting the optimal proposal.