Monthly Archives: November 2014

Grant Writing Confidential Goes to the Movies 4: Titanic Edition and Sink-the-Ship mistakes

Titanic is not actually one of my favorite movies, but I’m going to use it to illustrate a critical aspect of grant writing: you’ve got to know when you’re about to commit a sink the ship mistake. We’ve written about aspects of this before (see here, here, or here), but the issue is worth emphasizing because it arises so often.

We all remember the hapless Titanic passengers, whether it be the swells in first class epitomized by the beautiful Kate Winslet or the proles in steerage personified by Leonardo DiCaprio. As least as depicted in the movie, they all bought into the White Star Line’s “unsinkable” PR BS. In Titanic, the movie, the only person who understands the minor problem of the iceberg is the ship’s designer. He responds to a passenger screaming incredulously “But the ship can’t sink” by saying, “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can… and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.”

Grant writers are the architects of a given proposal writing assignment. As one, it’s your job to steer clear of sink-the-ship problems, even if the captain (executive director) wants to sail blithely into a field of metaphorical icebergs. Here are some common sink the ship problems we see:

  • Propose a budget that exceeds the maximum grant amount or is below the minimum grant amount.
  • Propose a match that is below the minimum required match. Or fail to understand how the match should be calculated.
  • Fail to include letters of commitment or MOUs from required partners.
  • In hard copy submissions, fail to include required signature pages.
  • In online/upload submissions, fail to include required attachments, including the voluminous federal certifications required by grants.gov.
  • Exceed the page limit maximum and/or often-hidden formatting requirements (e.g. font type and size, double spacing, pagination, file naming and so on).
  • Fail to include required attachments specified in the RFP (e.g., service area map, data tables, site plans for construction projects, etc.).
  • Propose service delivery to an ineligible target area or target population.
  • Be an ineligible applicant.
  • Miss the deadline, which is the ultimate sink the ship problem.

Any of the above will most likely get your proposal tossed during the initial technical review and it will not be scored. You will have hit an iceberg, or, if you like this metaphor better, dealt yourself the Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200 card.

As professional grant writers, we make every effort (free proposal phrase here) to avoid the above by closely reading the RPP and preparing a “documents memo” for our clients. This is a checklist for required submission package items and guides our clients on what they should worry about during the drafting process. While many RFPs include “checklists,” these are often incomplete and/or inconsistent with the RFP. As President Reagan famously put it about negotiating with the Soviet Union, “trust, but verify.”

While it pays to be very careful to avoid a sink-the-ship problem, many grant writers and executive directors instead focus on non-sink-the-ship problems at late stages of the application process. Here are some examples we run into frequently:

  • Excessively worrying about word choices. Although it always best to use good grammar, using “that” instead of “which” or “client” instead of “participant” are not important after the first draft.
  • Spending inordinate time preparing fancy color charts and graphs. While the formatting should look pleasing, putting ribbons on your proposal pig may backfire, as your your agency may look “too good” to readers, or create a huge file that may result in upload problems at grants.gov and other upload sites.
  • Including endless descriptions of how wonderful the agency and executive director are. One paragraph is usually enough for the entire management team and a couple of pages of agency background is all that is needed. When writing about the agency, use specifics regarding programs, number of clients served and outcomes, instead of PR babble. Save this stuff for your annual holiday appeal letter.
  • Adding attachments that are not requested in the RFP. A screen shot of the executive director on “Oprah” or “Dr. Oz” won’t help you get funded, but they will generate amusement on the part of readers. Remember, you never what to submit a proposal that will be passed around by reviewers saying, “get a load of this one!”
  • Wasting time and space with letters of support from elected officials. Most grant reviewers know that virtually any applicant can get a letter from their congressperson/senator just by asking. This is not how influence is peddled in Washington.

Like most of our advice on the technical aspects of grant writing, avoiding a sink the ship problem is pretty simple. Read the RFP carefully, prepare a checklist with responsibilities and timeframes, write a compelling proposal, and submit a technically correct proposal a couple days ahead of the deadline. The challenge is all in the execution.

Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree

Certain things about grant writing can only be learned by reading between the lines: that requires reading individual RFPs carefully, reading many RFPs, interacting with various organizations, interacting with program officers, and the like. This is a post about reading Department of Education (DOE)* RFPs, which means reading “between the lines;” whatever else a particular DOE RFP may require, they really want kids to graduate from four-year colleges. Almost every DOE program—whether it targets four year olds, eight year olds, or eighteen year olds—has to claim that it’ll make more kids attend and graduate from a four-year college.**

The graduate-from-college goal comes from the DOE’s relentless focus on the fact that college graduates on average make a lot more money than non-college graduates. This, however, may be a causation fallacy—college graduates are different in many other respects from people who haven’t finished college—but if you’re writing a DOE proposal, you’re not trying to debate or change policy. You’re trying to give the funder what they want, and the DOE wants college graduates. Bryan Caplan is writing a book called The Case Against Education that argues education is actually a signaling arms race and that most education is socially wasteful and not particularly useful.

I don’t want to start a dispute about the correctness of Caplan’s claims or the DOE’s view in this forum—I’m being descriptive, not proscriptive, here—but I do want you to know that there is a big, often unstated corollary to almost any DOE grant program. It may be true that DOE is behind the times and has forgotten that college is probably not a panacea for economic inequality. It is true, however, that both the American political left and the American political right are broadly pro-education, since they associate education with both work and opportunity.

Your proposal should be broadly pro-college whether you’re a nonprofit, a Local Education Agency (LEA), or an Institution of Higher Education (IHE), and you should definitely announce that your program will increase college attendance and graduation rates. That’s true even for an elementary school project: argue that your program will cause today’s six year olds to graduate in sixteen years. Will your program actually increase the number of graduates? Maybe. In the real world no one really tracks the outcomes of the product of individual school districts and even if they did, that information might not be real useful: what happens if a kid moves three times and has three different school district experiences, and the graduating school is the very last one? These kinds of issues arise in many evaluation sections, and we bring the issue up because it’s a specific example of the general principle that evaluation sections are more theater than reality.

As we’ve written before, there are various “grant waves” that strike due to changes in the economy, changes in what the commentariat is discussing, changes in technology, or changes in policy / politics. From 2000 – 2008, for example, a series of programs to prevent teen pregnancy through abstinence education were big. Since the Great Recession, job training has gotten big. Next year it may be something else. Regardless of the changes, however, you should try to see them coming and be aware of what’s happening in the larger world.

Incidentally, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is always about two things: getting people insured and providing enhanced access to primary health care for low-income people. If you see a HRSA program, include those two components. The first has really come to the fore since the ACA passage. The second has been around longer but has arguably grown in prominence. I’m writing this at the end of 2014. In four years HRSA and DOE may have different priorities. But for now, you’re going to be a more successful applicant if you promise what we’re suggesting you promise.


* There are actually two federal “DOEs,” the Department of Education and the Department of Energy. Take it up with your congressperson.

** I don’t mean to slight community colleges, but DOE wants kids to get four-year degrees, not two-year degrees or certificates. Community colleges can’t get no respect (though they do get a fair amount of grant money). Once again, take it up with your congressperson.

About 20 years ago Isaac went to a bidders’ conference in Seattle about the DOE’s Student Support Services (SSS) program, which funds community colleges and is one of the several “TRIO” programs. The program officers droned on about pointless, obfuscated minutia; the audience was naturally beyond bored. Suddenly, a very large man sitting next to Isaac stood up and said loudly more or less: “Why do you guys keep jabbering on. You just want more kids to graduate from a four-year college. Isn’t that the whole point of TRIO?”

The audience sprang to life with applause, as the program officers admitted that was the case. Isaac talked to the guy afterward, and he’d been running a TRIO program in Illinois for years and knew SSS better than the presenters. Isaac says this is the only time he ever learned anything useful at a bidder’s conference—and this nugget was really revealed between the lines.

Everyone Is Now In Job Training: The “Innovative Public Transportation Workforce Development Program (Ladders of Opportunity Initiative)”

Last month Isaac wrote about how the Jobs Plus Pilot Program show that HUD is getting back into jobs training. Now we’ve run into another odd job training program, and it too has an exhaustive name: Innovative Public Transportation Workforce Development Program (Ladders of Opportunity Initiative). The program offers funding to “to provide information, education, technical assistance, and peer support to families of children and youth with special health care needs (CYSHCN [which I defy anyone to pronounce]) and professionals who serve such families,” just like many other federal job-training programs.*

But why is the new program being done via the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and not the Department of Labor? We actually don’t have a good answer to this and would also ask: What happened to WIA, which is supposed to fund most job training initiative?

There’s another odd part of the program: FTA is the funder, but eligible applicants are not limited to local transit agencies. Instead, any public agency, nonprofit organization or Indian tribe is eligible to apply. This program is worth a close look, if your agency is involved in job training and there happens to be a local mass transit provider handy.


* Despite the similarities between this program and many others, however, you should declare that any program you propose is “innovative.”

Seliger’s Quick Guide to the Concept of “Program Income” in Developing Federal Grant Budgets

Almost all federal budgets require applicants to complete the ever-popular SF-424, which has been the cover page for federal grant applications since the Carter administration. The “SF” stands for “Standard Form,” but at the link you’ll find many variants of this “standard” form (don’t ask why). Regardless of the version, the SF-424 includes sub-forms, including the SF-424A, which is a summary of federal “Object Cost Categories.” The “Program Income” Object Cost Category is found near the bottom of every SF-424A.

The Program Income Object Cost Category represents revenue generated by grant implementation, but in most cases it’s a bad idea to declare any Program Income on the SF-424A. Even if Program Income exists, you shouldn’t list it because Program Income is in effect a deduction from the grant request. Let’s say that the Boys and Girls Club of Milaca, Minnesota* is seeking a grant to provide mentoring services for at-risk kids. All Boys and Girls Clubs charge nominal membership dues and/or user fees, although the dues/fees are often waived for various reasons. Still, Clubs charge dues/user fees to support operations and to make parents/caregivers** feel they’re paying for something. People value something they pay for, even when they pay very little, much more than something they don’t. Our applicant Boys and Girls Club would probably want to try to get the parents/caregivers of mentees (yes—this is right word) to pay dues, but this should never be shown on a SF-424A.

We’ll explain why by using a thought experiment.

Assume the mentor program grant request is $200,000. If $5,000 is shown as Program Income from dues, what is the size of the grant needed to implement the project? The answer is of course $195,000.

Almost all grant budgets are based on a “but for” or “gap” analysis—in other words, but for the grant, the project cannot be implemented or the grant represents the missing funding gap (see also our post on the dreaded supplantation concept). For most human services proposals, the grant always equals the size of the “but for” or “gap.” In addition to helping build the need argument, most federal agencies don’t want program income to be included in the proposal budget, as such income would also need to be tracked during project implementation. This would complicate reporting. The legal fiction is that there is no Program Income; both applicants and federal funding agencies usually agree to look the other way.

As in most grant writing generalities, there are exceptions to the No Program Income rule I’ve just illustrated. A good example is a HRSA Section 330 proposal budget for primary health care, which must show income for third-party payers like Medicaid and private insurance. Another example is the HUD Section 202 affordable housing development program. In Section 202 budgets, Section 8 rental income must be shown to demonstrate project feasibility. Affordable housing grants use the “but for” and/or gap analysis in supporting cash flow statements. Unlike privately funded market rate housing cash flow statements, however, which show an excess of income over expenses to prove feasibility, publicly funded affordable housing cash flow statements always show infeasibility. The infeasibility must be solved, or the gap closed, by the grant request.

Our advice to clients regarding Program Income is always, “when in doubt, leave it out,” but we’re just lowly grant writing consultants and our clients are free to ignore our advice, which they often do.

For example, last year we wrote a Family & Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) Transitional Living Program (TLP) for Homeless & Runaway Youth proposal for a very large homeless youth services provider in a big midwest city. Our client, like most similar faith-based homeless services providers, charges nominal rent to homeless youth living in their transitional housing facility and also requires that the residents work part time.

While this may be a good policy to encourage self-reliance among homeless youth, it’s a very bad idea to include this Program Income in the TLP SF-424A. TLP grants are supposed to help youth with no resources whatsoever and to house the most needy—not the ones who can work part-time or somehow have money for rent.

It was very difficult getting our client to understand this conundrum until we pointed out that they were inadvertently proving they didn’t need the grant amount requested, while opening themselves up to being seen as “cherry picking” the best homeless youth clients. I’ll leave the perils of implied cherry-picking in grant writing to another post, but cherry-picking is also usually a fast way to the exit in grant seeking.

If you want to include program income anyway, you should at least increase the total program budget so that the grant amount requested remains at the maximum allowable amount.


* When I was a kid growing up in Minneapolis in the late 50s, my dad was a big wrestling fan and I often accompanied him to watch wresting matches live at the very dingy Minneapolis Auditorium. One of my favorite wrestlers was Tiny Mills, “King of the Lumberjacks.” Tiny was kind of a good bad guy and was always introduced as being “formerly from Alberta, Canada, but now hailing from Milaca, Minnesota.” For some reason I found this endlessly amusing, only learning later as a teen going on road trips that Milaca is actually a charming town in North Central Minnesota on the way to the beautiful Lake Mille Lacs.

** In writing proposals about at-risk children and youth, always refer to them as having “parents/caregivers,” not just “parents,” to account for those living with grandparents or in foster care.