Monthly Archives: February 2013

February Links: Writing, NIMBYs, Nonprofits-as-startups, Affordable Housing, Baltimore, Washington DC, Washington Monument Syndrome, Porn Star Study and more!

* In Writing, First Do No Harm.

* “The emergence of “YIMBY” [Yes In My Backyard] organizations in American cities would be a welcome counterpoint to the prevailing tides of NIMBYism that often dominate local government. But it is worth saying that broader institutional reforms are what’s really needed.”

* Nonprofit Startups Are Just Like Their Counterparts, according to Paul Graham. We’ve never seen a nonprofit really behave like a startup. Maybe Watsi, the nonprofit featured in the article, will be different.

* Who pays for healthcare also explains why prices are so high. In my view we also spend too much time debating insurance coverage and too little time discussing access to care and how that can be improved.

* “Home craft project: replacing broken laptop screen.” Why haven’t we seen job-skills training programs focused on computer and electronic repair? This may be more viable than Project NUTRIA, but it doesn’t involve small animals.

* From Shlomo Angel’s Planet of Cities:

Like many other observers, such as John Turner (1967) in Latin America, I found that wherever the urban poor could obtain affordable access to minimally serviced land, they could build their own homes and create vibrant communities with little if any support from the government. When free of government harassment and the threat of eviction, their houses would quickly improve over time with their investment of their savings and sweat equity. People could house themselves at the required scale and create many millions of decent homes, while leaving very few people homeless, something that all governments (save that of modern-day Singapore, an outlier on every possible scale) have consistently failed to do. Admitted, the expanding settlements of the poor did not conform to building codes, land subdivision regulations, land use and zoning requirements, or even property rights regimes. (52)

In many jurisdictions, governments nominally devoted to affordable housing prevent its creation. Key words in the above paragraph—”could obtain affordable access to minimally serviced land”—aren’t going to apply to downtown Seattle, or even the downtown Seattle periphery—but the basic idea is an important one. So is the recognition that land use controls in places like New York, Boston, and San Francisco decrease affordability more than any set of programs could increase it. And then there’s Detroit, but that’s another story.

* Baltimore is headed toward bankruptcy. Maybe they need an Outer Harbor to go with the Inner Harbor. Sort of an inni-outti approach to economic development.

* How Washington works: “Many 2011 federal budget cuts had little real-world effect,” and many of the nominal cuts turned out not to be real, by reasonable definitions of “real.”

* “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended,” which makes points that should be obvious to damn near everybody involved in the humanities section of academia.

* “A warning to college profs from a high school teacher,” which is actually about the stakes of student testing.

* New York Times “journalist” John Broder lies in Tesla Motors Model S review, gets called out for it.

Deep Inside: A Study of 10,000 Porn Stars;” highly data-driven and should be safe for work.

* “In early childhood education, ‘Quality really matters;’” that’s one reason Head Start doesn’t work particularly well as education right now. But it works okay as day care and pretty well as a jobs program.

* New York real estate: a study in price escalation.

* The Deadly Opposition to Genetically Modified Food;” this is reminiscent of vaccine scares: people have to die before pseudoscience is really attacked.

* “Taking Apprenticeships Seriously,” which we should have started doing a long time ago. College is not the magic answer to every social and economic quandary, as anyone who has taught at a non-elite college should know.

* Government, illustrated: “the cutback is in accord with what Charles Peters of The Washington Monthly used to call the “fireman first” principle. That is, if bureaucrats are told to take $x million out of their budget, they’ll fight back by making cuts where an $x million loss will be most instantly obvious to the public. Like closing the local firehouse — or canceling an air show.” This is also sometimes referred to as the Washington Monument Syndrome. Isaac has seen this in action personally when he was a redevelopment bureaucrat for cities in Southern California.

Always Finish Early: You Never Really Know What’s Going To Happen With a Proposal Deadline

We always tell our clients the same thing: the real deadline for any Federal proposal is 48 hours before the stated deadline. The is true for online and hard copy submissions.

Most federal proposals these days are submitted through what has become our old friend, Grants.gov. Grants.gov takes 48 hours to spit out confirmation e-mails confirming that the system has received a complete application. If you wait until you’re within 48 hours of the deadline, you could easily have the whole grant writing and application process torpedoed by an server problem, file corruption, or other weird upload issues.

You also never knows when Grants.gov is going to be overloaded or otherwise inaccessible. In an age of Google and Amazon Web Services, most people are used to highly reliable on-line experiences. Throw those assumptions out when dealing with Grants.gov.

Despite the slide toward online submissions, some RFPs still require hard copy submissions, which means FedEx or Express Mail. You can’t know when Hurricane Sandy (or an equivalent, such as a meteor strike) is going to hit. Usually disasters encourage deadline extensions and, possibly, the invocation of force majeure. But sometimes deadlines aren’t extended and the butterfly effect means that a bad thing happening in any part of the grant pipeline—such as a storm in Memphis, which is FedEx’s hub—can screw up the whole system. As for Express Mail, I don’t think I have to comment on the vagaries of USPS.

This is a boring but important topic. We know it’s boring because, hey, who wants to talk about deadlines? We know it’s important, however, based on the number of clients we’ve talked to who’ve missed the deadlines for their applications by ten minutes or two hours.

There’s one other issue, too, which we brought up in “Hurricane Sandy and the Election Combine to Blow Away the RFPs: disasters that affect DC may result in delays in the issuing and processing of RFPs. If you miss one deadline, you may not see another promising program for months. Occasionally a single RFP can mean the different between life and death for an agency. Failing to seize every chance you get may mean that you ultimately discover one day that you’re out of chances.

EDIT: I forgot this story, but a couple years ago a client was submitting a YouthBuild application, and he waited until the morning of the due date to upload his files. He spent the next 14 hours trying to get the upload to work and finally succeeded at 11:59 PM. I am not making this up. The good news is that his agency was funded, but life is too short for this sort of drama.

So, Are Seliger + Associates’ Grant Writing Fees Too High, Too Low, or Just Right?

Last Monday, the executive director of a Community Health Center (CHC) in a western city called me for a HRSA New Access Points (NAP) proposal fee quote—a fairly routine call. I gave him the quote, told him how we do what we do oh-so-well, and he agreed to hire us. As my kids liked to say when they were in high school, “it’s all good.” Just before I signed off, however, our new client startled me by asking, “By the way, how come your fees are so cheap?”

Wow! This query surprised me, as I always thought our fees were relatively high compared to our alleged competition. So, I did a little riff on how we price jobs. I also offered to raise the fee, if he wanted to feel like he was buying the best, but he declined. In our view the fee is about right for this kind of assignment with about eight weeks to complete.

On Tuesday, I was on the loading dock checking in a new shipment of gerunds when the phone rang. I put down my bailing hook, took off my work gloves, and answered. It was a call back from a national nonprofit in Washington D.C. that wants to outsource their grant writing functions. I had talked to an underling the previous week, and she was calling back with the big boss man to grill me about what we do, how we do it, and what we charge. I spent a half hour giving my standard pitch and fielding rapid fire questions with aplomb. After 20 years of pitching, I’ve pretty much heard every possible permutation of questions and have ready answers. The queso grande, however, was going at me hammer and tongs and was giving me the verbal equivalent of what Elmore Leonard calls the Big Yard stare.

I thought I was doing all right when he said, “How come your fees are so high? You’re three times as expensive as the other grant writers we’re interviewing.” On Monday, we’re too cheap and on Tuesday, we’re too expensive! I said that he was in the Mercedes dealership and must have gotten lost on him way to the Hyundai dealership across the street. I told him what we think of our competition—which is not much, based on the websites we’ve seen and the proposals we’ve been given by clients. Finally, I reminded him that our fees are cleverly hidden in plain sight on our website. If he was looking for the 99-cent store of grant writers, he was wasting our collective time.

The interview ended shortly thereafter. I guess he thought I was going to collapse in the face of pressure and give him a two-thirds discount.* As John Wayne said in my favorite Western, The Searchers, “That’ll be the day.”

These two anecdotes show that one person’s cheap consultant is another person’s expensive grant writer. We post our fee ranges on our website in part to avoid sticker shock. Most of our competitors, however, either post nothing about fees or write in vague generalities. I assume this is because they don’t know what their time is worth or charge by the hour.** We’ve been in business for 20 years, so we must be hitting the sweet spot of pricing—or we would have disappeared along the way, as so many of our would-be competitors have.

When you’re seeking hundreds or thousands or millions of dollars in grants, you can hire a consultant because they’re cheap or you can hire a consultant because they’re good. But when the difference in fees is a couple of thousand dollars, and the difference in outcomes is measured in hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, you know who to call.


* He might also already have another grant writer he wants to hire, or he might be engaging in some weird interpersonal battle with his employee, or have some other consideration in mind. We don’t know enough to know what’s really going on, but in many situations nominal price considerations are actually a cover for other motivations. We’ve written about one example of this in “Why Seliger + Associates Never Responds to RFPs/RFQs for Grant Writing Services,” which we noted that “RFQs/RFPs for professional services are easily wired, with ‘wired’ meaning that one firm is going to get the contract regardless of who submits a response.”

** Charging by the hour makes sense in some circumstances—we sometimes work on an hourly basis—but for many assignments a flat-fee arrangement better aligns our interests and our clients’ interests. Many would-be grant writers charge by the hour because they know they can’t actually complete a full proposal, even if they say they can and will. For us, charging a flat fee for many assignments signals that we’re going to get the job done.

When It’s Good For At-Risk Youth to Hang Out At McDonald’s: Searching for Connectivity in All the Wrong Places

The Web-Deprived Study at McDonald’s” describes a role reversal: in the usual proposal universe, McDonald’s is the enemy—a purveyor of simple sugars and nutritionally bankrupt edible food-like substances that help drive obesity and disease. Internet service providers (ISPs), however, are supposed purveyors of knowledge and connections vital to linking the modern world. But many American ISPs have effectively no competition, and they charge accordingly—which means that many low-income families can’t afford Internet access*

As a result, “Access to the Web has expanded [in recent years . . . ] but roughly a third of households with income of less than $30,000 a year and teens living at home still don’t have broadband access there, according to the Pew Research Center.” So McDonald’s, which offers free WiFi in most of its restaurants (using the term loosely), is the unexpected corporate hero in this article. Astute grant writers should pay attention, because future projects dealing with food and nutrition also need to address the digital divide.

In the next Carol M. White Physical Education Proposals we write, for example, we’ll stress WiFi access points at the project delivery sites and libraries, which offer an alternative to McDonald’s, with its allure of Big Macs and McNuggets.

But in proposals that deal with connectivity—like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program—we’ll mention that McDonald’s, Starbucks, and other large corporations offer free Internet access, and, as a result, participants may be tempted buy their non-nutritious food to get the WiFi. So those participants need the alternatives that the project will provide—along with nutritional counseling. Our hypothetical proposal will point out that nutritional counseling might seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes well-supported yet counter-intuitive arguments seem stronger.


* A brief example: when I lived in Tucson, Arizona, Comcast offered 12 Mbs down for $60 a month. Qwest, the only “competition,” offered . . . 1.5 Mbs down. Max. In 1998, that would have been incredible. Today, it’s a joke. Comcast was (and is) a de facto monopoly and charged accordingly.

By contrast, now I’m living in Manhattan, where Verizon, RCN, Time Warner, and others offer Internet connections; I’m buying 25 Mbs down for $30 a month from RCN. Of course, I can still wander over to Starbucks for their “free” WiFi, but at $4 a cup for a wet cap no fat, the free access access gets pretty pricy pretty fast. I can’t bring myself to enter the McDonald’s’ den of food inequity.