Monthly Archives: January 2015

Links: Demography, Arrests Records, Books as Art, the Fate of Marriage, and More!

* “Demography Is Rewriting Our Economic Destiny,” an under-appreciated and significant issue; this can be read profitably in tandem with Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.

* “Decades-long Arrest Wave Vexes Employers: Companies Struggle to Navigate Patchwork of Rules That Either Encourage or Deter Hiring Americans With Criminal Records;” if a third of Americans have arrest records something is seriously wrong with our society. Articles like this also explain the many prisoner re-entry and vocational training RFPs out there.

* “The Innovative Art of the Book-Preserving Underground: How do illustrations for new editions of Farenheit 451 or Breakfast at Tiffany’s stay fresh? Artists for The Folio Society remain true to the text.” I’ve bought Folio Society books.

* “Americans aren’t getting married, and researchers think porn is part of the problem,” which must be read skeptically.

* “The Henry Ford of Books,” about James Patterson, who is not good at sentences but perhaps he knows as much: “he is philosophical about his critics, in particular critics of his craft. Patterson decided long ago that he’d rather be a successful popular novelist than a mediocre literary one.”

* “How to be an expert in a changing world,” which, like many Graham essays, is about more than it appears to be about; this for instance applies to artists: “Good new ideas come from earnest, energetic, independent-minded people.” That is also where new nonprofits often come from.

* “The Birdcage: How Hollywood’s toxic (and worsening) addiction to franchises changed movies forever in 2014.” Here is me on Birdman and note too that the author is nostalgic for a time when movies were central to the culture, which hasn’t been true for at least a decade.

* “Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School: New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire.” See also our post “Trying to Give Away Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) or Early Head Start (EHS).”

* The Unappreciated Success Of Charter Schools.

* Incredible NYC pictures taken from 7,500 feet.

* The Scourge of Edu-speak, which is all over our education proposals—because funders demand it. No one individually likes it yet the system conspires to produce it.

* I Was Arrested for Learning a Foreign Language. Today, I Have Some Closure.

The Curse of Knowledge in the Proposal World

Being too knowledgeable can actually hurt your proposal.

At first glance that seems wrong: Isn’t knowing more better than knowing less? Does anyone want to hire a web developer who says he doesn’t know how databases work? In most situations these questions have obvious answers, but in writing knowing too much can be a hindrance rather than a help because you’ll assume that the reader has information the reader doesn’t actually have.

You’ll know so much that you’ll assume others know what you do. You’re a wizard. But non-wizards haven’t spent years studying your arcane subject, and they need extra mental scaffolding to understand it. This problem is even worse when you’re on a team of wizards, and you’re surrounded by other technical experts. You’ll begin to subconsciously think that everyone knows what you know (certain fields, like medicine, seem particularly subject to this problem).

We’ve read numerous proposals, provided by clients, that are riddled with internal acronyms, knowledge, and arcane systems. Readers don’t automatically know that your CBO will interface with the BSSG to commit to TCO improvements. Readers won’t automatically know that the HemiSystem is clearly better than the Vaso Company’s product. Readers need to build up to knowledge of the BSSG and HemiSystem.

The vast majority of proposals are read by non-wizards, and even peer-reviewed proposals are often also read by non-peers. “Peer” can be surprisingly vague (this is especially dangerous in writing National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), or Small Business Research and Investment (SBIR) proposals). A technical “peer: may still be far enough away from a particular problem area to not know the nuances of the specific proposal topic area. It’s often better to err on more clarifying explanation rather than less.

There is no easy cure for this problem. Awareness helps—hence this post; we’re trying to make you a better writer and improve your life—but isn’t perfect. Feedback helps but also isn’t perfect. Wizards also tend to ignore the value of non-wizard feedback—if you’re not part of the guild, you don’t know enough to contribute—and that can create an echo chamber.

One strategy: give a proposal written by a wizard to an intelligent non-wizard and ask them to read it and mark confusing places, or stop when they stop understanding. If the reader stops midway through the abstract, there’s likely a problem. Another strategy is to have a non-subject area expert write the proposal—that, in essence, is what we do, and what many journalists do. We’re not experts in orthopedic surgery, or construction skills, or medical device development (to name three subjects we’ve worked in) and we don’t pretend to be. But we are experts at organizing information and telling stories. We’re experts in acquiring specialized knowledge and organizing that knowledge. That is itself a distinct skill and it’s one we have.

Even we can be susceptible to the curse of knowledge, however, and we watch for it in our proposals. You should watch for it in yours, and you should read experts at translating specialized knowledge into the public term’s. Physicist Brian Greene is famously good at this, and books like The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory are excellent.

We’re also not the first to notice the curse-of-knowledge problem: Steven Pinker discusses it in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Should you meet anyone cursed with knowledge, give them Pinker’s book. But although you can give a book, you can’t force someone to learn. That has to come from within. People who don’t read aren’t committed to knowledge. That’s just the way it is.

Trying to Give Away Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) or Early Head Start (EHS)

We worked on a bunch of New York City Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) and federal Early Head Start (EHS) proposals last year, so we read with interest Katie Taylor’s NYT story “In First Year of Pre-K Expansion, a Rush to Beat the School Bell.” New York is apparently having a tough time giving away valuable free stuff. The City and/or its UPK grantees have had to hire “enrollment specialists”—who we like to call “Outreach Workers” in proposals—to convince people to take the slots.*

This is strange: imagine Apple trying to give away MacBooks and having trouble finding enough takers. The 5th Avenue Apple Store would become even more of a disaster zone than it already is.

Usually it’s not hard to maintain a waiting list for UPK or EHS, but keeping the census up can be difficult. Parents sometimes enroll their kids and then don’t actually bring the kids (this is a specific example of the more general problem of people not valuing what they don’t pay for). Nonetheless, the need to advertise free stuff contradicts the de Blasio quote in the story:

“Parents get what this means for their kids,” the mayor said. “They understand the difference between their child getting a strong start and not getting it.”

Right.

There is another interesting moment in the story: “It is critical to Mr. de Blasio’s credibility that the program ultimately be seen as successful.” The key words are “be seen as.” The program doesn’t have to be successful; it only must be perceived that way. That’s true of virtually every government-funded grant program.

Smart applicants know his and tailor their proposals, reports, marketing, and other material appropriately. In the grant world there are no failures; there are only programs that need more money and time to thrive with ever-greater success, leading to a glorious future when the next five-year plan has been fulfilled.

One can see this principle at work in “Thoughts on the DOL YouthBuild 2012 SGA: Quirks, Lessons, and, as Always, Changes,” where we describe how “the DOL is implicitly encouraging applicants to massage data.” One of our clients didn’t realize this and submitted self-reported data not to the DOL’s highly improbable standards. Our client didn’t realize that the DOL doesn’t want to know the truth; the DOL wants to be told that they’re still the prettiest girl at the dance.

In general we are not hugely optimistic that early childhood education is going to have the widespread salutary effects regularly attributed to it by its defenders. But we stand, as always, on the side of truth and the side of the organizations we work for—our job is always to get the money and let researchers fight it out elsewhere.**

EDIT: At Slate.com Alison Gopnik adds that “New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire.” Presumably anyone who has spent any amount of time around two to five year olds is aware of the… challenges… in the approaches mandated by UPK and EHS.


* Incidentally, this:

“Good morning,” she said, approaching a young couple at a playground in Brownsville this month. “Do you know any 4-year-olds?”

Is the same sort of thing that people who call themselves “pick-up artists” or “gamers” do. Shanté Jones probably isn’t as polished, but I hope she has read How to Win Friends and Influence People. I prefer the pre-1981 edition which is less politically correct but also a useful reminder of what people, or at least one person reflecting on his cultural milieu, thought in the 1936s. “Cultural milieu” is also a good proposal phrase.

** James Tooley’s book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves is also good on this subject.

Don’t Piss Off Local Gatekeepers Who Stand Between You and Federal Grants

While most federal grant proposals are submitted directly to the federal agency funding source, some require the blessing of a local gatekeeper. It pays to play nice with such gatekeepers. We’ve seen a number of local gatekeepers evolve over the years:

  • Continuum of Care (CoC): As we’ve written before, CoCs are the gatekeepers to most HUD grants for homeless services. Unless the CoC includes you in their master HUD application, you have no chance of getting McKinney Act funding.
  • Ryan White Act: Ryan White Act grants provide funding for HIV/AIDs services. Such funds flow through local governments and Ryan White regional coordinating bodies. To gain access to most Ryan White dollars, it is imperative to get the support of the local Ryan White gatekeeper, no matter how innovative or needed your proposed project.
  • Economic Development Agency (EDA): EDA grants are one of the best ways to pay for infrastructure projects, but first you have to sweet-talk the usually formidable local/regional Economic Development Representative (EDR). Without the support of your EDR, EDA will likely toss your application.
  • Rural Development (RD): The Department of Agriculture’s RD programs are the best way of funding community development and affordable housing projects in rural areas. Much like an EDR, support of the local RD Program Officer is essential to access RD loans and grants.
  • Workforce Development Board: The bulk of federal job training funds are derived from the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). Not only do Local Workforce Development Boards (WDBs), which are sometimes called Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs), control much of WIA funding, but they are also often required parters for other Department of Labor job training grants.

It’s an unfortunate aspect of human nature that people with power tend to exercise it. Gatekeepers like these, whether it be a consortium (CoC) or an individual (EDR) can easily turn into petty tyrants. For many novice grant seeking agencies, this can be like being suddenly thrust into Game of Thrones, with shifting alliances, real or imagined slights, grudges and so on.

To get many federal grants, you have to learn to keep your eye on the prize and thread your way past gatekeepers. Compounding the problem is that in many cases, you not only need the gatekeeper to access a particular grant, but may also need them to form the alleged collaborations that are required by many federal RFPs. The frequent DOL requirement for a letter of support from the local WDB/WIB noted above is a case in point.