Monthly Archives: July 2012

Behind the Article: Las Vegas’s Clark County and Race To The Top—District (RTTT-D)

In a press release masquerading as a news article, The Las Vegas Sun claims that the Clark County School District—the big one that covers Vegas—doesn’t want to apply for Race To The Top—District funds because they have “too many strings attached.” The strings aren’t that different from those that come with any very large grant program. And most of those strings are imaginary anyway.

Which means there’s something else going on.

The reporter, Paul Takahashi, writes, “There is also an expectation that school districts scale up these innovations after the Race to the Top pilot program ends, said Kimberly Wooden, chief student services officer.” Notice the weasel words: “There is also an expectation.” An expectation from who? How? In another choice quote, Takahashi writes:

“It’s a great idea, but in order to bring it to scale in a district our size, it may require technology,” Wooden said, adding there may be additional costs incurred to the School District to implement this technology.

Getting a grant that “may require technology”—whatever that means—sounds like a tremendous trial. This is the second example of weasel words I’ve quoted, and there are others.

It’s highly likely that there’s something else going on behind the scenes. Here are some possibilities:

  • The school district actually wants to apply, but it doesn’t like some aspect of the competition and wants a waiver or exception. As such, it’s threatening to take its ball and go home if the Department of Education doesn’t play by its rules. This kind of article might help get that exception. The district might be looking for a signal or reassurance from the feds.
  • As an addendum to the bullet above, the school district might already be negotiating with the Department of Education, and this kind of public statement is part of the negotiation process.
  • The district thinks it doesn’t have a real shot at the grant and wants to preemptively cover its ass by announcing that it doesn’t want the grant anyway. This yields a story to tell reporters and angry parents at school board meetings.
  • The district has already screwed up something we don’t know about.
  • There is some political reason the district, the teachers union, the city counsel, the mayor, the governor, or another political entity doesn’t want the district to apply (this is an election year, too, and RTTT-D is one of the rare Federal programs that generates mainstream media coverage; in addition, although presidential politics might not be the driving force, Slate.com’s John Dickerson thinks Obama has a shot in Nevada). Perhaps there’s already a deal in place to offer more or less restricted money.

It’s possible that the district’s story as presented by Takahashi is true. It’s just highly unlikely. The political people and grant writers at the district know or should know the difference between the proposal world and the real world. They know that you have to apply to get the money (one of the school board members says as much). They know there’s a fair amount of money available, and that it would be a handy PR win if the district got the reward, and, moreover, most people and institutions like money. Given those facts, the stated reason for not applying—which amounts to, “it’s too hard”—doesn’t pass the smell test.

This kind of speculation only makes sense in the context of a district large enough to generate political gravity. Smaller districts that claim they don’t want to apply are probably simply telling the truth, or don’t have the political will to apply. For a very large district, like this one, which has access to grant writers or funds for grant writing consultants, something else is almost certainly going on, and the Las Vegas Sun is only being used as a messenger.

President Obama Would Likely Make a Good Grant Writer, as He Recognizes the Value of Telling a Compelling Story

In a recent Charlie Rose interview, President Obama said this about his first term:

The mistake of my first couple of years was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right, and that’s important [. . . .] But, you know, the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.

President Obama correctly points out that presidents often serve as the nation’s Story-Teller-in-Chief. For example, FDR’s Fireside Chats calmed a frantic nation caught up in the uncertainties of the Great Depression (he was the first president to really have access to and understand mass media) and President Reagan’s weekly radio addresses gave him a regular story telling platform that has been used by every succeeding president.

Like the presidency, grant writing at its most most basic level is nothing more than story telling. Successful presidents and successful grant writers are good story tellers, telling their audiences stories the listeners/readers want to believe in.

The latter point is critical in grant writing, as grant reviewers come to the process with preconceived notions of what they expect to read. The grant writer’s job is to craft a compelling story that meets readers expectations within the constraints of the often convoluted RFP. For example, when writing a childhood obesity prevention proposal for a poor and minority target area, it is good idea to suggest in the needs assessment that part of the problem is the lack of available fresh and nutritious food.

In other words, readers will expect a reference to food deserts, whether or not there are few grocery stores in the area (we also wrote about this process in “Two for One: Where Grants Come From, Fast Food, and the Contradictory Nature of Government Programs“). And a food desert conjures up images of want and neglect that are key elements in a “grant story.”

It’s possible that we shouldn’t trust stories nearly as much as we do; in Tyler Cowen’s TED talk on why stories make him nervous, he says that “narratives tend to be too simple,” that they tend to focus too much on good versus evil, that they tend to focus on intent instead of accident, and that they play on our cognitive biases. (A somewhat skeptical New Yorker article about TED talks even said that we might want to “feel manipulated by one more product attempting to play on our emotions,” which is what proposals should basically do.) But most grant reviewers are still looking for stories, even if the stories are simplistic.

The better a grant writer is at telling the story, the more likely she will be to write funded grants. While it is possible to get a grant without a cohesive narrative story, the odds of success increase with the quality of the tale being told. One can get lucky, but it is better to get skilled, because one always count on skill, while luck is elusive.*

When reviewers consider a stack of proposals, they will gravitate toward those that are readable and interesting while fitting within the framework of their expectations, much like you’ll gravitate towards readable and interesting novels more than those that are the opposite. Even if the need in a community is great, a disjointed proposal will generally score lower than one that captures the reader’s imagination.

In composing your narrative, make sure you weave a consistent story throughout all sections. This is easier talked about than done in large part due to the chaotic and repetitive nature of most RFPs, which are written by committee and resemble a camel more than a thoroughbred horse. We’ve written extensively about this in many contexts. Your task as a grant writer is to feed back the information requested in even the most confusing RFP, and you should do so in a way that makes all sections of the proposal hang together. You don’t want to be like President Obama in the quote above, realizing that you’ve failed to fit your policies and your community’s needs into a cohesive story.


* My favorite quote on “luck” is from Dylan’s “Idiot Wind,” “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” Peter Thiel’s essay on luck and life is also good.

Have you seen a Federal agency request a low-quality program? And The Language of the Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL) Program

The Department of Education’s Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL) Program RFP begins by saying that IAL “supports high-quality programs designed to develop and improve literacy skills for children and students from birth through 12th grade within the attendance boundaries of high-need local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools.” Have you ever seen a Federal department—or a foundation, for that matter—request “low-quality programs?” Or even “medium-quality programs?”

Neither have I. Which means the Department of Education could accomplish the same goal—that is, expressing the goal of the program—with fewer words. That’s a component of good writing, and good writing could be considered a component of literacy. Of course, one could always submit a proposal stating that the applicant is not only going to implement a low-quality program, but is also going to Take the Money and Run.*


* A fun 1969 film from when Woody Allen still made funny movies.

The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) Is Legal — For Now — And Its Implications for Grants

Subscribers to the Seliger Funding Report (our e-mail newsletter) have seen the numerous RFPs related to the Affordable Care Act, and loyal blog readers have probably noticed our numerous posts on the issue. Unless you’ve been living in a media-free environment for the last couple of days, you’re also aware that the Supreme Court found the Act to be Constitutional. If it had not, the fate of the numerous discretionary grant programs authorized by the Act would be as uncertain as the fate of the peripheral characters in a horror movie.

But that’s not the end of the story.

It’s plausible that Mitt Romney will win in November, and it’s probable that Republicans will take the Senate, with the House a possibility; if that happens, it’s also plausible that Obamacare will be repealed, replaced, or significantly modified. Such changes would likely impact the dozens of discretionary, competitive grant programs that are larded throughout the Affordable Care Act. Even if these new grant programs are left more or less intact, many could face rescission anyway. Rescissions are rare, but certainly not impossible, and the Affordable Care Act will present a juicy target rescission-minded members of Congress.

Still, it will be more tempting to ax future spending without taking already allocated money away, and Federal grant making agencies know this. So we should see a gaggle of Affordable Care Act RFPs issued between now and November, as Federal agencies work to make sure they have as many grantees on the ground as possible, who will squawk if their grants are rescinded. Last week’s Funding Report included the Personal Responsibility Education Program; this week, DHHS released the Establishment of the Affordable Care Act’s Health Insurance Exchanges program (for which only states are eligible)—and next week we might see even more.