Monthly Archives: April 2014

Seven Years Later, We’re Number One in the Grant Blogosphere

By at least one metric, we’re now #1.

Seliger + Associates started Grant Writing Confidential over seven years ago: Our first post was “About Us,” which both of us wrote. The first substantive post I wrote was “Zombie Funding,” and Isaac’s first substantive post was “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal.”

During the first two or three years we wrote the blog, we watched our fortunes on Google rise and fall, but we never got to the top because of established competitors—one factor Google considers in its ranking is the age of the site; older sites with recent updates generally get ranked higher than newer sites. By now, though, most of those competitors have disappeared, while we’ve persevered. Being #1 on Google is also a fickle prize: Google could change its ranking criteria at anytime, and there’s a cottage industry of people trying to fool Google. I’m not sure any of that really works, but then again people also try to rob banks despite the futility of that endeavor.

Our strategy is simple: post on topics likely to be interesting to executive directors, project managers, directors, and board members in nonprofit and public agencies, and make those posts based on our direct experiences in writing proposals, reading RFPs, talking to clients, and dealing with funders. Long-time readers know that we post about once a week. We’ve thought about posting more, but it’s not really feasible given the number of hours we already spend writing and preparing proposals. Grant Writing Confidential is only a small slice of that world.

One business slogan we’ve used for over 20 years is “we help you get your slice of the grant pie.” Grant Writing Confidential gives readers free, but valuable slices, of our experience and insights into the opaque world of grant making and grant seeking. We see things almost no one else sees and know things almost no one else knows, and that’s what makes this blog valuable.

Volunteers: Nonprofits really want their money, not their bodies

Today’s New York Times has a rarely expressed view (and, almost as rarely, a view that we share): that volunteering is largely a waste of time. In it, Aaron Hurst quotes an anonymous nonprofit executive director saying that “If I get another volunteer I am going to go out of business.”

It’s a common misconception that volunteers help nonprofits to do work that wouldn’t get done otherwise. But volunteers are actually there to keep them involved in the organizations and for purposes of seeking donations—or buying tickets for galas, art auctions, and so forth. The more contact a volunteer has with an organization, the more likely they are to donate. Nonprofits, like other businesses, need money in order to carry out their activities effectively—not untrained volunteers. Volunteer labor is often not worth the money that’s paid for it.

Decades ago, Isaac was the Executive Director of a nonprofit called the Hollywood-Wilshire Fair Housing Council, and he learned quickly to dislike volunteers. Volunteers didn’t know anything about fair housing and rarely had the skills that matched what the nonprofit needed. This is intuitive in your own life. Let’s say you need to get divorced. If a plumber shows up and says, “Gee, I’ll help with the divorce paperwork,” you’re going to be pretty unhappy with the outcome (so is the judge who has to read pleadings written by a plumber). If you have a clogged toilet you are not likely to want a lawyer in a $1,000 suit standing there charging you $350 an hour to scratch his head and ask which side of the plunger goes down.

When Isaac worked in Fair Housing, he realized how much time he spent messing around with volunteers relative to the amount of real work that got done. To him it seemed a waste of time, especially because volunteers would often screwup the work that then had to be redone by staff—but because they were volunteers, no one could say, “You screwed that up and need to do it right.” Consequently, volunteering comes to resemble a game in which volunteers are praised for doing almost anything, no matter how ineptly or counterproductively, like many public school students.

It can be more expensive to do something with volunteers than it is to do something without, in the same way that giving canned food to the homeless is much, much less efficient than giving them equivalent cash.

Wrangling and deploying volunteers is difficult. Let’s say you want to hand out flyers. You have to give them T-shirts, get them breakfast, and transport them—and handing out flyers is not usually fun and exciting. Volunteers who get bored just leave. Mixing volunteers and paid staff in the same activity tends to demoralize both groups, since paid staff are having otherwise paid hours stolen from them, and volunteers feel like they’re not doing work that wouldn’t get done otherwise.

Many would-be volunteers also find working with kids and helping the next generation to be more satisfying than working with average adults or “elders.”* But working with kids today means police background checks, constant supervision, and limited if any one-on-one time. Arranging the police background checks can be expensive and time consuming, and the costs for screwing up the background checks or not doing them properly could be catastrophic.

Finally, as Tyler Cowen points out in Average is Over, low-skill labor is not in short supply. The number of people willing to work for $9 an hour is high. The news is filled with stories about 20,000 people applying to work at every new Wal-Mart. In addition, anyone who wants to learn about teamwork or whatever else volunteering is supposed to teach can try working at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart. Those places are as good as anyone for learning such virtues and at least as good as volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.

To return to Hurst, he also says something that’ll resonate with our readers:

Working in a nonprofit is no guarantee of having meaning in your daily life. Many nonprofit employees lack purpose in their work. Their organization may be doing inspiring work in the world, but the day-to-day job doesn’t generate much involvement.

Find meaning elsewhere. There is nothing intrinsically not-meaningful in working for a corporation. In the past decade who has provided more net happiness to the world: Apple Computer or every nonprofit in America? It’s not an answerable question but one could create a reasonable set of arguments for each side in a debate.

In the grant world, there seems to be a general trend away from volunteering: we don’t see many RFPs that require volunteers or even mention volunteers. But almost every proposal requires collaboration with other organizations. That’s ascendent. When even the Department of Labor or Education stops talking about volunteers, you know the idea is dead.


* Free proposal word here; I prefer the more accurate, direct term “old people.”

Vaporware, the Media, and the Dept. of Labor’s “Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training” (TAACCCT) Grant Program

The Associated Press is bringing vaporware, an annoying feature of the tech world, to grants: in “Obama, Biden announce $600M for competitive job grants,” an anonymous AP reporter manages to spend 746 words blathering on about job training grants (a topic almost as dear to our hearts as shocking celebrity nudes is to Us Weekly), but the reporter doesn’t manage to learn or say the obvious: name of the program. All that the reporter manages is “Applications were to be available starting Wednesday and due by July 7.”

Which is completely wrong.

Fortunately, the Department of Labor’s website has a little more detail in their exhaustively headlined story, “$450M in US Labor Department grants available to expand job-driven training partnerships between community colleges and employers,” but the DOL says that the program is called “Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training”—which readers of our e-mail grant newsletter ought to already recognize at TAACCCT. (The DOL pronounces it “tacit,” though we sometimes use more colorful pronunciations.)

More fortunately still, Grants.gov actually rode to the rescue with the full SGA today: “Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grants Program.” There are 50 grants available with grants to $20,000,000.

If you’re a community college and reading this notice, you want to apply for this program. Pity that you won’t learn as much from the popular press reporting. There are some mildly better articles—like Maya Rhodan’s in Time—but most of what you see in the media about TAACCT is garbage.

EDIT: The last TAACCCT reference we can find is from 2011, when it appeared in our e-mail newsletter; that year even had $500 million available, but the RFP for this year actually says $450 million available.

Don’t Overmatch: You Need to Look Like You Need the Money

As you no doubt know, many grant programs require matching funds, and we’ve exposed the secrets of matching funds. But in that post we didn’t mention one other key aspect of matching funds: don’t overmatch.

If there’s a 10% match, get a 10% match—and no more. There’s a signaling hazard: If you come up with a 90% match when only 10% is required, you’re demonstrating that you don’t need the money because you already (theoretically) have the money necessary to run the program. This in turn implies the dreaded supplantation problem, which is about as welcome in grant proposals as Sauron is in Gondor.

Beyond that top level reason, there are others. Let’s say you have a $250,000 project cost and in your proposal you say that a huge match will bring the project cost to $450,000. Somehow get funded anyway: now you’ll have to spend $450,000 on the project as part of the contract with the funder. Whatever you say the project cost is, that must be the project cost in the eyes of the Federal government. If you happen to get a project audit, you’re going to have to account for every dollar of $450,000. In the real world, people who happen to have an extra $200,000 sitting around can just add it to the program anyway, without promising to the Federal government that they’ll spend the extra $200,000.

There’s also the fact that funders calculate matches in two different ways: as a percentage of the grant or as a percentage of the total project cost. The first is easy to calculate: 10% of a $1,000,000 grant = $100,000. In the second method, however, its not quite as simple: Assume a $1,000,000 grant and a required match of 10% of the total project cost.

If you propose a $100,000 match in this scenario, you’re actually proposing a 9% match ($100,000/$1,100,000 = 9%). To get to a 10% match, the match must be $110,000 ($1,000,000 grant + $110,000 match = $1,110,000 total project cost and .10% of $1,110,000 =$110,000). Always make sure you know which method is being used by the funder before you start gathering match letters. In scenario two, if you document a $100,000 match, the proposal will likely be rejected as technically deficient and not scored. In Monopoly terms, you do not pass go and do not collect $200.

The only exception to the rule that says you should avoid overmatching happens when a program offers extra points for extra leveraging. YouthBuild is a prime example. In this case, if the required match is 10% but there are bonus points for a 25% match, applicants should find a larger match—but only to the point that gets the extra points.

In general, though we counsel clients not to overmatch. But, as we’ve said before, we’re like lawyers: we offer our clients advice, based on our 20 plus years of business experience, and they’re free to accept or reject it. Our advice is good and if we say that a thing should without doubt be done one way and not another its prudent to follow of advice (there are many other occasions in which there is no right answer, only sets of tradeoffs, and when that’s true we describe the tradeoffs). We were once working for a rural school district on a Department of Education proposal. The superintendent wanted to claim the value of all of their school buildings as a match, and therefore wanted to offer something like a $20 million match. We counseled him not to, and he didn’t.

The grant was funded.

In addition, take care about where the match is coming from. In most cases, federal dollars cannot be directly matched with other federal dollars, usually with the exception of CDBG funds. If you do, and anyone notices, your application will again likely be thrown out.

Anyway, there’s a pernicious line of thinking that goes like this: if some is good, more must be better, right? Wrong: if you take more Tylenol than you’re supposed to you could end up dead or on the waiting list for a liver transplant. Working out or running is great, until you lift so heavy or run so far that you hurt yourself.*

Maybe the overmatching rule seems unreasonable. Much of the grant world is a set of imagined behaviors and situations that don’t correspond well to reality. The matching fund process is one of those fictions that applicants have to go through, like a marriage of convenience to get a visa, to get to the end goal of the money—or, in the case of the marriage of convenience, to get to America.**


* Having done this recently, it’s a salient example that’s on my mind.

** I’m reading a wonderful book called A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward, which is a collection of pithy advice columns for Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland in the early 20th Century, so the idea of making it to the promised land of America is on my mind.

But many of the immigrants discovered that, although America was a much better place than Czarist Russia (it’s also a better place than contemporary Russia for that matter), the streets were not and are not paved with gold, and all of God’s children have problems. In my own family, lore has it that one set of my grandparents used a marriage of convenience to escape Nazi Germany.

Guest Post: Tales of the Grant Manager

This guest post was inspired by “Grant Writer Vs. Grant Management: Two Essential Nonprofit Job Functions Separated by a Common Word” and describes what a Grant Manager does and how that differs from what grant writers do. Like many of our guest posts, it is published anonymously to protect the guilty and the innocent.

I’ve been a Grant Manager for about two years. I had spent much of my career as a public sector urban planner, but the Great Recession devastated the planning field. Like a lot of planners, I was on the chopping block for a layoff. I ended up taking a position as Grant Manager for a medium-sized community development nonprofit with a really excellent reputation.

As a planner I’d written plenty of grants, so it was all old hat. Before I joined my current organization, there were two grant-related positions, both vacant when I started: a Grants Manager and a Contracts Administrator, with the former handling new funder research and proposal writing and the latter dealing with outcomes management. But I was left to do both tasks. The higher-ups in the organization thought that both functions could be managed by one staff person (me) temporarily, and, if it worked out, permanently.

It was completely unmanageable. Those first few months were a blur. I was fortunate in that the organization eventually authorized me to interview candidates. When I was attempting to do two jobs, 60+ hour weeks were the norm.

There was just not enough time to pursue new sources of funding, write the proposals, pull together the umpteen redundant attachments for each proposal, AND ensure that we are doing everything that we said we would do in our existing grant agreements and contracts. The latter function requires a whole separate set of skills, as you have to pry reams of time-sensitive (and when involving individual clients, often confidential) data out of staff that are already overworked to begin with. It’s easy to become the person that program staff dreads to speak to. It takes a certain personality to get that information without becoming as welcomed as a knock on the door from the KGB.

Fortunately, I managed to hire someone who is absolutely excellent at every aspect of the work. He and I are such a good team that we should be able to wear capes to work, honestly. We make up for one another’s weaknesses—I’m a stronger writer and he’s an ace at data analysis, spreadsheets, etc. He and I cross train one another whenever possible, which certainly comes in handy during vacations, or when a big deadline looms and it’s “All Hands on Deck” to get a giant Federal proposal out the door or to get an annual performance report compiled and submitted on time.

An example of the kind of skills one needs as a Grants Manager: I was at a recent info session conducted by a longtime government funder with whom we were seeking renewed funding. As soon as the presentation starts, the government rep conducting the session says “Now everyone, I want to emphasize that this is all just an informal conversation—we’re all here to do everything we can to serve our clients, so no secrets in this room—we are all on the same team”.

Present at this session were staff from several other nonprofit organizations seeking this same funding—of those present, only my organization and one other nonprofit were current grantees. The other two attendees were gunning to replace us. Like chickens who get to vote on dinner, we were not in favor of serving ourselves.

A staffer from one of the non-funded nonprofits asks the government rep, “So, based on the amount of potential funding available, how many clients should we plan to serve?” The gov’t rep smiles and says “we want to see what you all come back with.” Surprisingly, the staffer from the other current vendor says “we serve around 30 per year.” I’m sitting there thinking two things at the same time: “why would you surrender this critical piece of information so easily? Dumb.” and “is this some kind of eleven dimensional chess move?”

The eyes of the other nonprofit reps and the government rep all turn to me, so I state “yeah, we serve the same number”—which was the truth, but not a piece of data I had planned to surrender. There was no getting out of it. Thankfully, I was able to get through the meeting without having to give up any other “secrets,” so to speak.

This was one of those situations where you can win the battle, but lose the war—I could’ve said nothing, or said a number lower or higher than the truth—but the government rep knows how many clients its vendors serve. There was no winning, and it doubtlessly would’ve been worse had I said nothing, because we are “all on the same team” – even though the reality is that we’re actually at each other’s throats to get the same pot of funding to pay for staffing, fringe, OTPS, and all of the other things you need to make a nonprofit work. It’s a subtle dance, for sure.

Meanwhile, as I’m doing that, my Contracts guy is back at the office harassing program staff (in the most charming and diplomatic way possible) for data needed for a quarterly report, so it’s all good.


Got something to say about grants, grant writing, nonprofits, or government? Send us an e-mail. We’re always interested in hearing from other people with unusual knowledge and acerbic wit.