Monthly Archives: May 2015

Seliger + Associates enters grant writing oral history (or something like that)

Seliger + Associates has been toiling away in the grant writing salt mines for over two decades, and last week we got hired to review and edit a new client’s draft proposal for a federal program we’ve been writing for years.* They emailed their draft and we were delighted to see that it’s actually based on a proposal we wrote for some forgotten client ten to fifteen years ago. While the proposal has morphed over the years, we could easily find passages I likely wrote when Jake was in middle school.

We’ve encountered sections of our old proposals before, but this example is particularly obvious. The draft was also written to an archaic version of the RFP, so it included ideas that were important many years ago but that have since been removed or de-emphasized. We of course fixed those issues, along with others, but we also left some our our golden historic phrases intact for the ages. This version will undoubtedly also linger on into the future.

We’re part of what might best termed the “oral history” of grant writing. We’re the Homer of the grant world, which is a particularly apt comparison because “Homer” may have been more than one person. For the first ten years or so of being in business, our drafts were most sent by fax, but we sent final files on CDs. For the past decade we’ve been emailing Word versions of all narratives and Excel budgets. Our proposals have probably been traded by nonprofits all over the country like Magic: The Gathering Cards.** Still, unlike some other grant writers who will remain nameless, we never post or sell our proposals. But it seems that the digital age has caught up with us anyway.

In some ways, seeing shades of our old proposals makes me feel proud, as our impact will likely last as long as there are RFPs—which is another way of saying forever.

We don’t know what strange ways brought the proposal we wrote to our current client. We’ve had hundreds of clients and written many more proposals of all stripes, and even if we wanted to trace its lineage we couldn’t.

As we’ve written before, grant writing at its most basic level is story telling. Now our stories have assumed a digital afterlife of their own. While Titanic is not my favorite film or movie theme, I’ll paraphrase Celine Dion, as it does seem that . . .”our proposal words will go on and on.”


* Faithful readers will probably know which program I’m discussing, but we’ll keep it on the down low to protect the guilty and and punish the innocent.

** When Jake was about 11, and just before his unfortunate discovery of video games, he was a huge Magic player and was always after me to buy yet more cards. As I recall, he and his little pals endlessly traded Magic cards for “value” that completely eluded me, a classic clueless dad. Eventually Jake grew up and lost interest, at which point the value of the cards became zero for him.

Good needs assessments tell stories: Data is cheap and everyone has it

If you only include data in your needs assessment, you don’t stand out from dozens or hundreds of other needs assessments funders read for any given RFP competition. Good needs assessments tell stories: Data is cheap and everyone has it, and almost any data can be massaged to make a given target area look bad. Most people also don’t understand statistics, which makes it pretty easily to manipulate data. Even grant reviewers who do understand statistics rarely have the time to deeply evaluate the claims made in a given proposal.*

Man is The Storytelling Animal, to borrow the title of Jonathan Gottschall’s book. Few people dislike stories and many of those who dislike stories are not neurologically normal (Oliver Sacks writes movingly of such people in his memoir On the Move). The number of people who think primarily statistically and in data terms is small, and chances are they don’t read social and human service proposals. Your reviewer is likely among the vast majority of people who like stories, whether they want to like stories or not. You should cater in your proposal to the human taste for stories.

We’re grant writers, and we tell stories in proposals for the reasons articulated here and other posts. Nonetheless, a small number of clients—probably under 5%—don’t like this method (or don’t like our stories) and tell us to take out the binding narrative and just recite data. We advise against this, but we’re like lawyers in that we tell our clients what we think is best and then do what our clients tell us to do.

RFPs sometimes ask for specific data, and, if they do, you should obviously include that data. But if you have any room to tell a story, you should tell a story about the project area and target population. Each project area is different from any other project area in ways that “20% of the project area is under 200% of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL)” does not capture. A story about urban poverty is different from a story about recent immigration or a story about the plant closing in a rural area.

In addition, think about the reviewers’ job: they read proposal after proposal. Every proposal is likely to cite similar data indicating the proposed service area has problems. How is the reviewer supposed to decide that one area with a 25% poverty rate is more deserving than some other area with a 23% poverty rate?

Good writers will know how to weave data in story, but bad writers often don’t know they’re bad writers. A good writer will also make the needs assessment internally consistent with the rest of the proposal (we’ve written before “On the Importance of Internal Consistency in Grant Proposals“). Most people think taste is entirely subjective, for bad reasons that Paul Graham knocks down in this excellent essay. Knowing whether you’re a good writer is tough because you have to know good writing to know you’re a bad writer—which means that, paradoxically, bad writers are incapable of knowing they’re bad writers (as noted in the first sentence of this paragraph).

In everyday life, people generally counter stories with other stories, rather than data, and one way to lose friends and alienate people is to tell stories that move against the narrative that someone wants to present. That’s how powerful stories are. For example, “you” could point out that Americans commonly spend more money on pets than people in the bottom billion spend on themselves. If you hear someone contemplating or executing a four- or five-figure expenditure on a surgery for their dog or cat, ruminate on how many people across the world can’t afford any surgery. The number of people who will calmly think, “Gee, it’s telling that I value the life of an animal close at hand more than a human at some remove” is quite small relative to the people who say or think, “the person saying this to me is a jerk.”

As you might imagine, I have some firsthand investigative experience in matters from the preceding paragraph. Many people acquire pets for emotional closeness and to signal their kindness and caring to others. The latter motive is drastically undercut when people are consciously reminded that many humans don’t have the resources Americans pour into animals (consider a heartrending line from “The Long Road From Sudan to America:” “Tell me, what is the work of dogs in this country?”).

Perhaps comparing expenditures on dogs versus expenditures on humans is not precisely “thinking statistically,” but it is illustrative about the importance of stories and the danger of counter-stories that disrupt the stories we desperately want to tell about ourselves. Reviewers want stories. They read plenty of data, much of it dubiously sourced and contextualized, and you should give them data too. But data without context is like bread instead of a sandwich. Make the reviewer a sandwich. She’ll appreciate it, especially given the stale diet of bread that is most grant proposals.


* Some science and technical proposals are different, but this general point is true of social and human services.

Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is Out and It’s Topical for More Than Just Police Departments

The Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program is back, most notably via the COPS Hiring Program (CHP), which has $134.5 million available for local law-enforcement agencies. This Clinton-era program has been around for a while but has special resonance this year due to a spate of police shootings and the civil unrest in Baltimore. President Obama is also giving a speech about community-oriented policing today. This adds up to a greater-than-usual focus on a particular set of grant programs, most of which occur beneath the radar of the media and national politicians.

cops - community oriented policing servicesIssues around policing aren’t coming from nowhere. Last year the New York Times published “War Gear Flows to Police Departments,” which sets the tenor for this year’s COPS programs and for federal restrictions on distribution of military-style equipment to police. The feds recently curtailed so-called “civil asset forfeiture,” which is an Orwellian phrase that means police can steal your property and money without prosecutors even convicting you of a crime.

Now, we’re not sure if police are genuinely killing more African Americans than they used to or if the topic has become more salient in the news. We are sure, however, that good cell phone cameras and widespread surveillance cameras have made it much easier for civilians to challenge police narratives and to show when cops lie. Videos also better show how cops sometimes behave antagonistically or cruelly. It’s impossible to watch the video of Eric Garner being choked to death by a cop and not think, “There has to be a better way to  prevent the sale of single cigarettes.”

Community-oriented policing is part of that idea. It’s opposed to quasi-military, occupation-style policing, which is periodically in vogue. After 9/11, cops became fascinated with military hardware and a war-zone footing (or, alternately, there was just a lot of military equipment and training going around, and a lot of cops also served in Iraq or Afghanistan). The “War on Drugs” uses the rhetoric of war to justify war-like behavior like “no-knock” home raids, but policing and war-fighting are supposed to be very different. Blurring them is not good for cops or societies.

From a grant writing perspective, the marketing blitz around COPS tells us that anything nonprofits propose that has to do with integrating the community with law enforcement is going to be a popular grant topic, because we’ve gone about as far as we can towards the military-style of policing. The legalizing of marijuana in Washington, Colorado, and Washington, DC, along with the de facto legalization in California and elsewhere, may signal a shift in drug prohibition. And federal agencies are probably being directed to take already allocated funds and use it for community-oriented policing and related project concepts when possible. Regulatory changes are likely occurring at the same time.

It isn’t just police departments that should be thinking about this. If you have, say, a Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Grant application in the works, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a letter from the police and to say that you’ll coordinate with cops to use community-oriented policing to, perhaps, encourage child support compliance.

May links: Tesla Batteries, Family Structure and Grant Writing, Responsible Fatherhood Opportunities for Reentry and Mobility, Is Sex Mostly About Pleasure?, and More!

* “Freedom, Tesla-Style: The company’s new home-based battery isn’t just nifty. It’s liberating.” This may be the most important link. YouthBuild grantees should think about including “Tesla Energy installer” to their curriculums. Affordable housing organizations should also be thinking about local energy issues.

* “Skip Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Job. Repeat.” To call this system “insane” is an understatement. Even calling it a “system” might be overly kind.

* Considering the link immediately above and immediately below, check out the “Responsible Fatherhood Opportunities for Reentry and Mobility and “Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Grants” programs. They’re both responses to the kinds of links you’ll see in this post, and they’re part of the contemporary grant wave around family structure. Pay close attention to the ramping up presidential campaign and you’ll also hear a lot of rhetoric about family and family structure. Regardless of who wins, new grant programs are likely to follow.

* “Walter Scott, child support defendant murdered by cop, earned about $800/month.”

* “If We Dig Out All Our Fossil Fuels, Here’s How Hot We Can Expect It to Get.”

* “Social Liberalism as Class Warfare“—or, points that are too infrequently made. This ties much more into questions about family than you may expect.

* Nutritional Science Isn’t Very Scientific: The research behind dietary recommendations is a lot less certain than you think. Just about the only obvious thing is “Don’t eat refined carbohydrates,” like sugar and white rice, and eat vegetables and nuts.

* “What If We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?” Not that it’ll happen in the U.S. in my lifetime.

* The Steady Rise of Bike Ridership in New York.

* “Is Capitalism Making Us Stupid?“, a brilliant article with a stupid title.

* Givewell.org’s advice for donating to disaster relief.

* Building streets for humans rather than cars could help solve the affordable housing crisis.

* Did anyone else notice how much of this post is about family and relationships structure? It wasn’t intentional. We’re just grabbing the links we notice and that people send us.