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Yet Another Grant Writing Lesson from KU Basketball: Don’t Expect a Savior

Faithful readers will know that I’m a KU Jayhawks basketball fan and that I’ve written a few posts, like this one, relating KU’s basketball fortunes to grant writing.

This year, the Jayhawks were bounced from the NCAA tournament last weekend in the round of 32. A disappointing and inglorious end to an altogether lackluster season, given that KU had freshman phenom Andrew Wiggins, the number one 2013 college prospect, who was billed as the “Canadian LeBron” and showcased on the cover of SI before playing a college game. As the season unfolded, it became very obvious very quickly that Wiggs, despite his skill, was no LeBron and was amazingly inconsistent.

In this era of “One and Done” (OAD) college basketball players, all big-time basketball coaches face a dilemma: should they go all out to sign a OAD kid like Wiggs or build the team around mid-level players who are likely to stick around for two to four years? Head Coach Bill Self (HCBS) has been at KU since 2003—around the same time the NBA forbade players from entering the draft straight out of high school (as Kobe Bryant and LeBron did), causing OAD college players to become common.

For the first few yeas, HCBS recruited lesser talents but did very well overall, including winning the NCAA title in 2008. Starting in 2010, however, he seemed to switch gears and recruited a succession of OADs, including Josh Shelby, Ben McLemore, and Wiggs this year. Each of these can’t-miss players turned out to be less than overwhelming as big-time college players. KU actually did better without OADs.

As I write this, the Final Four teams for this year are set: U Conn, Florida, Wisconsin and Kentucky. With the exception of Kentucky, whose coach John Calipari is perhaps the biggest OAD recruiter of all, the rest take the alternate, “let’s recruit quality, but non-phenom, players” route. This is particularly true of Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, who only recruits players that commit to staying for four years. After 13 straight years of NCAA Tournament frustration, Coach Ryan’s old-school approach finally paid off with a Final Four birth. Next week, we’ll see is this basketball tortoise beats Coach Calipari, the ultimate basketball hare.

This basketball stuff has plenty to do with grant writing. In the nonprofit world, it’s easy to be seduced by the prospect of a superstar fund raising or grant writing savior, who’s going to magically make money rain from the heavens. While those of us at Seliger + Associates like to think we’re about as good as it gets regarding grant writers, we’re not going be be your savior. As Elvis Costello put it, walking on water won’t make me a miracle man. Like a quality college basketball team, building a successful grant writing effort involves more than the grant writer.

Chemx photoFor example, while we can write a compelling proposal about anything for any funder, we can’t get the letters of commitment that may be required and we can’t hit the submit button for you. As we’re written about many times, grant writing, like all writing and most artistic pursuits, is inherently a solitary activity—one person, one computer and lots of coffee made in the best ever Chemex Coffeemaker,* but the grant submission process is a team effort.

It’s helpful to have your target area/target population data assembled for analysis by the grant writer, someone to charm potential collaborators, a finance person who understands the agency’s budget needs and a system for tracking grant outcomes. Just as every coach in American says at some point, “there’s no ‘I’ in team,” there’s no “I” in grant (I know there’re two “i’s” in writing). Having been a consultant for 21 years, I could tell lots of stories of clients who have mistaken us for miracle workers, but I don’t kiss and tell. Usually.

Grant writing isn’t the only field that suffers from the New Jesus complex, but it’s the one we’re most familiar with and we’ve seen may New Jesuses come and go from various organizations. Quality organizations don’t spring from the efforts of a single individual working over a short period of time.

It’s best to build a grant writing and grant management team for the long haul, not to chase this year’s championship, no matter how real or ephemeral. A good grant writer like us can get you to the Final Four, but the most successful “individuals” are surrounded by a good team if they’re going to win it all, year after year.

* If a Chemex was good enough for James Bond in From Russia, with Love, it’s good enough for me. I’ve been using one for about 40 years, but then again, I also like my martinis—shaken not stirred. Bonus points for any readers who remember who Captain Nash was. Hint: beware of a guy who orders red wine and fish. To quote J. Bond, “I should have known.”

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Counting the OJJDP Second Chance Act Chances

There are a lot of second chances in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) Second Chance Act programs. The latest to the hit the street is the Comprehensive Statewide Juvenile Reentry Systems Reform Planning Program, which proves that OJJDP doesn’t just inflict unwieldy acronyms on itself but also brands its programs the same way (“CSJRSRPP,” anyone?).

This latest program has relatively limited eligibility, however: only “state juvenile correctional agencies, juvenile justice agencies that oversee the reentry process for youth placed in local correctional facilities post-disposition, or the state planning agency” (or organizations partnering with one of those) can get a grant.

But don’t be discouraged by narrow eligibility requirements. CSJRSRPP isn’t the only Second Chance Act program: others include “Technology Careers Training Demonstration Projects for Incarcerated Adults and Juveniles,” “Mentoring Grants to Nonprofit Organizations,” “Reentry Program for Adult Offenders with Co-Occurring Substance Abuse and Mental Health Disorders,” and, more simply, “Prisoner Reentry Initiative.”

Organizations interested in prisoner reentry—which should be a lot of organizations, because it and job training are among current grant waves—just need to find the particular program or programs that work for them. Just being a “Second Chance Act” program isn’t enough. But these programs have enough money available to make them worth not just knowing about but studying for any organization even remotely interested in the subject.

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A Report from the Front: Close Reading This Year’s DOL YouthBuild Solicitation for Grant Applications (SGA)

We wrote the very first funded YouthBuild grant for a Southern California client in 1994 and have written funded YouthBuild proposals for virtually every funding round since, which means that we have an unusually nuanced perspective on changes over time.* We’ve noticed two big changes and one minor change in this year’s SGA: market labor market information (LMI) data is out, green construction skills training is out, and the SGA is less structured.


First, LMI data has been a prominent feature of every YouthBuild SGA since the program was transferred from HUD to DOL about ten years ago. Applicants were supposed to demonstrate that construction skills were in high demand in their area, usually using phantom data, since the LMI data provided by states—the only source for such info—lags the real market by at least a couple years.

Those of you who have been alive and reading any news in the period from 2009 – 2013 know that Bad Things happened to the housing market. Household formation dropped like my Manhattan off a rooftop bar,** housing prices plummeted, and developers stopped building new housing or rehabilitating existing housing. Some went bankrupt. Today’s labor market data probably indicates that there is little support for the need for more construction workers. Requiring data that won’t support need anywhere makes YouthBuild as a program look stupid, and as all political observers know the ideal way to avoid information that makes you look stupid is to pretend it doesn’t exist.

LMI data has always been dubious because no one has a crystal ball; macro data doesn’t tell you much. Forward projections rarely work, and as Nassim Taleb points out (in colorful language) in The Black Swan, no one knows what’s going to happen in markets, labor or otherwise. It’s inherently not possible to know.

Jobs are growing at the low end (in healthcare, service, etc.) and, to a lesser but real extent, the very high end (technology, engineering). But no one can really take a large number of low-income high school dropouts and get them ready to work for Facebook or build the next WhatsApp. Entry-level jobs in fast food or caring for old folks, however, don’t demand a lot of training.

Secondly, green construction training is missing. Training for so called “green jobs” and “green construction skills” first appeared in YouthBuild SGAs about five or six years ago, more or less corresponding with the start of the Obama administration and the Stimulus Bill. As best we can tell, nobody’s talking about green jobs after the A123 Battery debacle and the like, and “green jobs” were never well-defined; “green practices” make more sense, but they really mean energy efficiency, which has been around since the energy shocks of the mid 1970s: double or triple-paned windows, high-efficiency appliances, and perhaps most importantly multi-family housing.

As Edward Glaeser points out in Triumph of the City, multi-family housing is by far the greenest way to live by all sorts of metrics. I’m living in New York on the 22nd floor of an apartment building; because New York’s density means that public transportation works, I don’t own a car. No one lives a greener lifestyle than me (I enjoy patting myself on the back).

To tie points one and two together, I’ll note that Isaac lives in Downtown Santa Monica, where many new multifamily buildings are going up. He got to talking to a foreman on one of the projects, and the foreman said that the buildings aren’t even really built on-site anymore: components come in larger and larger pieces, and then they’re assembled like Tinker Toys. The real greening of those building isn’t happening on-site; it’s happening in distant factories. And these buildings just don’t require as many people to build because so much is done off-site.

In much of the U.S., the real need for housing choice and affordable housing starts at the regulatory level, not the worker level. Matt Yglesias’s The Rent is Too Damn High observes that, in many places, permitting and local development rules hold back affordable housing because they restrict supply in the face of growing demand. New York and Seattle need to be able to create new housing before they need more construction workers. The Federal government has limited control over local land-use practices.

Finally, the SGA’s narrative section is less structured than it used to be. This is mostly a grant wave. Any program narrative can be more structured or less structured. The more structured program narratives will say things like “2. Program Design” then “a. Education and Occupational Skills Training” and then “Factor one: The evidence that the type of academic instruction offered…” Less structured program narratives will say things like, “What’re you going to do once you get all those damn kids in a room?” and let the applicant bloviate as long or as short as the applicant wishes.

We tend to like the latter version better, both because it’s more fun to write and because the resulting proposal tends to be more fun to read. Funders, however, can’t resist meddling and directing, so they tend to like to tell applicants what to do.

* If I live long enough maybe I’ll write the very last YouthBuild funded grant application.

** It was an accident.

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My first bidders conference, or, how I learned what I already knew

In January I went to and got kicked out of my first bidders conference. For those of you not familiar with the practice, bidders conferences are largely pointless schmooz-fests for potential grant applicants. Aside from being there to show the flag to program officers and to preen in front of potential competitors, bidders conferences are useless because almost every RFP will issue a disclaimer like this one:

if the NYCDOE issues an addendum with a digest of the inquiries made and answers given at the pre-proposal conference, proposers shall rely on the information contained in such addendum rather than those given orally at the conference.

This language kills accountability and applicants can’t rely on anything that’s said at a bidders conference. They can only rely on the words in the RFP. As a result, most bidders conferences will at best confuse potential applicants. Anyone who sees something amiss in an RFP would be better served to seek an amendment rather than pester the low-level bureaucrats at a bidders conference. Bidders conferences are great for grant writing consultants, however, because they gather a lot of potential clients in one small space.

Back to my story about being ejected. I arrived at the New York City Department of Education’s (NYC DOE) Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) bidders conference a few minutes early, with marketing fliers in one hand and business cards in the other. Almost no one else was there, so I chatted with the staffers hanging out. There were at least four and maybe half a dozen DOE staff there. I had no idea what they were doing, other than make-work.

People slowly started showing up. A staffer said I could leave flyers next the sign-in table. I said hi and chatted with whoever was wandering by until an older DOE staffer showed up, grabbed the flyers, and brought them over to the recycling bin. I asked her not to chuck them—we put time and energy to getting them made! She gave them back and told me to leave.

As usual I played jailhouse lawyer—public facility, First Amendment, etc.—but she wasn’t having any of it and found a fat security rent-a-cop guy (the conference was being held in downtown Brooklyn at a small college auditorium) who had no doubt kicked many people out of many places.

I left, though I suspect that there’s a real First Amendment case to be made: I wasn’t interfering with the proceedings and it’s a public meeting. But my goal was to get nonprofits to hire us to write their UPK proposals, not be an ACLU test case.*

It was January in New York, which meant that nasty weather was a possibility and that day it was indeed raining. Nonetheless the attendees did show up and took my flyers, which, in keeping with our general style, are bright, eye-catching and obnoxious (but very effective).

About 30 to 40 percent of the bidders looked at me like I’d just taken a dump in front of them. Another 20 or so percent were actively excited. The rest seemed confused. By and large, nonprofit personnel don’t want to be seen consorting with grant writers, much as married men don’t want to be seen with ladies of the evening, so they don’t want to smile and say hi. One woman asked where we were three years ago, when she’d first gotten her UPK contract. Grant writing is one of those things, like house cleaning, that people want to pay someone else to do.

Despite the reactions I got in the flesh, I can say that based on the number of calls we got and UPK proposals we wrote, it’s apparent that a lot of people liked us regardless of how they behaved with their peers watching.

I look forward to the next Bidder’s Conference. When I was too young to attend these events, Isaac used to go to them wearing a brightly colored Seliger + Associates T-shirt, emblazoned with our logo, 800 number and slogan, “We know where the money is!”

We did then and still do.

* I am an ACLU member: I may disagree with what you see but will fight for your right to say it.

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Grant writer vs grant manager: Two essential nonprofit jobs separated by a common word

George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde allegedly said, “England and America are two nations separated by a common language.” “Grant Writer” and “Grant Manager” are two allegedly related functions separated by a common word: grant. Many nonprofits and public agencies combine the functions of Grant Writer and Grant Manager into a single position, often called the Grant Coordinator.

This is not a good idea.

This bit of common organizational stupidity was recently brought up by a faithful reader, frequent commentator and now-former grant writing consultant competitor (we’ll call him Milo). As Milo put it in an email, after several years of being a grant writing consultant, he’s given up* and decided to “come in from the [consulting] cold.” He’s been offered a job at a fairly large nonprofit ($13 million annual budget) as their combined Grant Writer/Grant Manager, even though he has no management experience.

Milo’s question: “At what size do nonprofit organizations typically make grant development and management separate jobs?” Unlike with new latest remake of Godzilla, size does not matter and I advised him that nonprofits and public agencies, small and large, usually combine these disparate functions, apparently only because the word “grant” is in both job titles. I assume this happens because most senior managers actually have no idea of what a grant writer does.

Having had the unenviable experience of having been the “Grant Coordinator,” albeit over 35 years ago when I worked for the woebegone City of Lynwood, I assured Milo that grant writing has little to do with grant management. As GWC readers know, a grant writer is essentially a Steppenwolf—a solitary figure who spends long hours alone sitting at a computer, churning out proposals. Coffee, snacks, and books go in and a proposal comes out.

To be a grant writer, one has to like working alone, be a good and fast writer, be unafraid of deadlines and have an active imagination about how to structure programs in the proposal world. The job of a grant manager, by contrast, is all about extracting fiscal and program information from line staff regarding existing grants and then regurgitating the info back to funders on convoluted forms and stultifying reports that nobody reads.

The grant writer is usually respected and/or feared by other staff, as they are the organization’s warrior, whose job is to conduct single mortal combat with a RFP dragon, over and over again, to keep the paychecks flowing and the lights on. The grant manager is typically hated and shunned by line staff, since the grant manager is always badgering them for performance data, and, even worse, outcome data. In military terms, the grant writer is the tip of the spear and the grants manager is a classic REMF (“Rear Echelon Mother Fucker”).

Assuming one has the skills and no fear of working without a net, it’s much more fun to be a grant writer than a grant manager. To use a scientific terms, being a grant manager blows.

* I wish Milo well. Having been in business for 21 years, we’ve seen lots of consulting competitors rise and and eventually give up. Being a grant writer is hard, but being a successful grant writing consultant is much harder, as Milo and many others have learned.

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Grant Writing Links: Prosperity Despite Heroin, Bedrooms, Drug War Danger, Google Fiber, Real Prosperity, DuckDuckGo and More

* “Despite Heroin Epidemic, Vermont Is Prospering.” The heroin story may be a bogus trend story, but it’s also possible that many people can enjoy drugs responsibly and be otherwise functional.

* Are Bedrooms Superfluous? The next-generation Murphy bed.

* “How the Drug War Disappeared the Jury Trial,” which everyone needs to read and which should also scare everyone who does read it; at what point did the “War on Drugs” become more dangerous than drugs themselves?

* Fight poverty by giving poor people money.

* Why Google Fiber will never come to Seattle; this is both important and depressing.

* “Why Does A Good Kettle Cost $90+?” Since I started drinking tea I have wondered about this and now have an answer. The Hacker News discussion is also good, except for the top comment.

* “The federal government has spent nearly a billion dollars to help poor couples stay together—with almost nothing to show for it. So why aren’t we pulling the plug?” One could ask the same question and give the same answers for any number of federal (and state, and local) programs that fail the same test.

* Divorce Corp: A Movie Review, which is really a society review that should scare you.

* Real Prosperity:

Munk points out that it’s easy to help people have more stuff than they otherwise would have. That’s called charity. The much harder challenge–and the one Sachs tackled–is creating growth, the possibility of future improvement.

* “Fight Over Effective Teachers Shifts to Courtroom.” Brilliant.

* “How the left’s embrace of busing hurt the cause of integration;” file under “unintended consequences.”

* The terrifying surveillance case of Brandon Mayfield.

* “High cost of ‘affordable’,” or in the words of Tyler Cowen, “How to build truly cheap housing for the poor.” We have the technologically necessary to lower housing costs in many places like Portland, Seattle, New York, and L.A.—we just choose, politically, not to deploy it, per Matt Yglesias’s recent article “How Bill de Blasio Can Fix NYC Housing: He needs to build more of it—a lot more.”

* Inside DuckDuckGo, Google’s Tiniest, Fiercest Competitor, which I use as my primary search engine:

How could DuckDuckGo, a tiny, Philadelphia-based startup, go up against Google? One way, he wagered, was by respecting user privacy. Six years later, we’re living in the post-Snowden era, and the idea doesn’t seem so crazy. [. . .] Simply put, they’re hardcore about privacy.

* “A Star in a Bottle: An audacious plan to create a new energy source could save the planet from catastrophe. But time is running out.”

* Wisconsin tires of public-sector union rent-seeking and offers a model for other states.

* “What good are children?