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 grants.gov 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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