Monthly Archives: July 2015

More on Using the Critical Path Method (CPM) in Grant Writing

This post expands on an issue raised in “No Calls, No Bother: ‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule’ and the Grant Writer’s Work.” Specifically, the critical path method (CPM), which is a jargon-sounding acronym that actually conveys useful information. CPM has been around for decades and is commonly used in construction, software development, and manufacturing. CPM can also be used effectively in developing human service project concepts and writing compelling grant proposals that accurately reflect the project concept. We write proposals for some federal programs, like the Department of Labor YouthBuild program and the HRSA Service Area Competition (SAC), that are essentially cookbooks. YouthBuild and SAC proposals should reflect standard project concepts required by the funder.

But most federal and state RFPs, as well as foundation guidelines, allow the applicant some creative leeway. In these situations, our clients often only have a general idea of their project concept until they read our first proposal draft. This first draft conforms to the often conflicting RFP/guidelines structure but also expresses the key 5 Ws and H that every proposal should delineate.

First drafts often make the lightbulb go off, and the client will make complex and sometimes contradictory or irrelevant changes to the draft—but ignore what’s really important, like missing data, required partners, management staff experiences, etc. This is likely because most nonprofits don’t use CPM, relying instead on brainstorming and visioning exercises led by organizational development facilitators or, even worse, the management team.

Here’s how to use and think about CPM in grant writing:

  • Figure out the critical path. This starts with identifying required proposal elements and attachments. To be considered for any grant, a proposal must first be deemed technically correct by the funding agency following submission. To assist our clients, we email a documents memo immediately after we scope the project concept. A member of our team goes through the RFP in great detail, marking up relevant sections. The documents memo is prepared based on this close reading and sent to the client; it is a bulleted list that includes items needed to complete the submission package. In effect the documents memo is not only a check list but a layout of the critical path to achieve the goal of submitting a technically correct application in advance of the deadline. Still, many clients ignore all or parts of the documents memo until near the deadline, focusing instead on non-critical path issues like how changing “which” to “that,” inserting PR boilerplate randomly in the draft, and the like.
  • Make sure the proposal includes relevant data to build the needs statement logic argument. Our first drafts usually have data we’ve found along with blanks for any information we can’t have, like socioeconomic characteristics of current clients or client outcome metrics. In second drafts, we only leave in critical blanks, and any that remain unknown get re-written as generalities in the final draft.* Some final proposals are sent in missing obvious CPM elements, because, as bad as this is, it’s better than blowing the deadline. We’ve seen proposals that are missing critical pieces get funded anyway.
  • Look for internal inconsistencies in the narrative, which will creep in through edits by multiple editors/readers from your agency as the narrative goes from first to final draft. Then make sure the narrative is consistent with the budget, budget narrative, org chart, job descriptions and other attachments. This sounds easy but readers generate opinions exponentially, not linearly.
  • Make sure the proposal has all required attachments, no matter what, such as letters of support and/or collaboration, financial statements, audits, 501(c)(3) letters of determination, etc. This is where the check list aspect of the documents memo comes in handy.
  • Resist the urge to include non-requested attachments unless the RFP/guidelines specifically allow this. Even then, be judicious in selecting attachments. No grant reviewer wants to see a newspaper clipping of your Executive Director smiling on the Oprah set. For online submissions like grants.gov, it’s important that the complete application file doesn’t bloat to 20 MB by including huge attachments like drawings/pictures/videos, or you might encounter upload challenges.
  • Carefully follow formatting instructions regarding font type and size, margins, page limits, character/word count limits for online submissions that have text input boxes, etc.

As daunting a gauntlet** as the above may seem, it’s actually not that hard if you approach the process with CPM in mind and keep your eye on the prize of winning the grant, not internal management egos. Grant writing is about methodical attention to detail more than it is about anything else. A grant proposal is many things, but it is definitely not a PR piece.


* We a prepare first, second and final draft. More drafts are not needed and don’t help, as the more drafts and readers you have, the more inconsistencies are likely to creep in. You won’t see them because you’ll have read the drafts too many times, but they’ll stand out in neon to a fresh grant reviewer.

** The correct usage is actually gantlet, but gauntlet reads and sounds better and has become accepted usage.

More on Developing Federal Grant Budgets: Stay in the Proposal World, Not the Operations World

This is an update to our popular post “Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets.” While that post provides a step-by-step description of how to develop a federal grant proposal budget, it assumes that the budget preparer understands the difference between the real world and the proposal world. In preparing proposal budgets, experts in real-world budgets are often too sophisticated for the proposal world.

When Seliger + Associates is hired to write a federal proposal, we send our client an Excel template that models the SF-424 budget form found in all grants.gov application kit files. Recently, we’ve been working for a series of large nonprofits and public agencies that have skilled Chief Financial Officers (CFOs). The challenge, however, is that most of these CFOs have little or no understanding of proposal budgeting, as they’re accustomed to detailed operational budgets.

Even if we discuss the proposal world with the CFO first, the completed template we receive back is usually way too detailed, because it reflects actual program operations, not the idealized proposal world. This not only makes it unnecessarily difficult to prepare the associated budget narrative/justification, but also makes it hard to get the budget presentation to display well when saved at the required .pdf for attachment to the kit file. It will confuse proposal reviewers (which is never a good idea while being very easy to do).

Here are some additional tips to keep your federal budget anchored in the proposal world, where it belongs:

  • Minimize the number the number of line items—around, say, 20. If you use 40 line items, the spreadsheet bloat will be very difficult to format in a way that is readable and meets RFP formatting requirements (unless you’re a wiz at Excel, which almost no one, including us and the CFOs we encounter, is).
  • Only include staff and line items that will be charged to the grant (or match, if required).
  • Personnel line items must match the staffing plan in the narrative. Resist the urge to load up the budget with small FTEs (2% to 5%) of lots of existing administrators/managers. This will make your agency look bureaucratic (not a good idea, even if it is) and clog the budget narrative. Large numbers of small FTEs are what a federally approved Indirect Cost Rate is for. If your agency has at least one existing federal grant, get an approved Indirect Cost Rate, which is not that difficult, and many of your proposal budgeting woes will be solved.
  • Unless the RFP requires it, don’t line-item fringe benefits. These can usually be lumped together as the percent of salaries your fringe benefit package equates to. For most nonprofits, this will be in the 18% to 30% range. Anything above 30% will probably generate unwanted attention from grant reviewers, even if that is what you pay. If the fringe benefit rate is relatively high, this should be explained in the budget narrative (e.g. lower salaries, high local costs, need to retain staff, etc.).
  • For multi-year budgets, don’t include expected yearly salary increases or annual inflators; this is too detailed and will again result in a very complicated budget justification. Inflation in the current environment is low. In a high-inflation environment like the ’70s, this advice would be different.
  • Regarding the “Other” Object Cost Category on the SF-424A, it’s unnecessary to break down line items too far. For example, lump together facility costs (e.g., rent, utilities, security, janitorial, maintenance, etc.), or communications (e.g., landline and cell phones, mailings, etc.) in single line items.
  • If feasible, try to make the total annual budget level for each project year. This can be a bit challenging, if, for example, the project involves start-up costs (e.g., buying staff furniture, hiring a web designer/social media consultant, etc.) in year one. The way to do this is to increase some other line item(s) in the out years to keep the budget level. Level annual budgets will make the budget narrative easier to write and understand.
  • Make one line item your plug number to enable reconciliation to the maximum allowed grant and/or level annual amounts in multi-year grants. The plug number should be in the Other Object Cost Category and could be advertising, communications, or similar line items that look OK with an odd number in different years. Reviewers are aware of plug numbers and won’t hold reasonable plug numbers against you.

Always remember that the proposal budget is just a financial plan that supports the proposed project activities, not a detailed expression of an operational situation. Following notice of grant award, your agency will have to negotiate the actual budget in the contract anyway.

Also, in most cases, the grantee can move 10% of the total grant among line items by notifying the federal program officer or requesting larger budget changes to reflect operations in the real world as the project is implemented. Unless you ask to swap an Outreach Worker for a lease on a Tesla for the Executive Director, the program officer will likely go along with your plan, as most simply don’t care what you do so long as the grant doesn’t end up in BuzzFeed, Politico, or the New York Times.

Be “Experienced” and “Innovative” at the Same Time

Certain buzzwords and buzz-ideas take over the grant world (and the larger world) at various times. “Innovation” is one concept everyone loves. According to Google’s Ngram viewer, “innovation” has appeared to triple in popularity over the last two centuries. Way back in 2010 we wrote “Change for Change’s Sake in Grant Proposals: When in Doubt, Claim Your Program is Innovative.” That’s still true today and will likely be true for many years to come. But being “innovative” often feels contrary from being “experienced.”

Innovators are often the brash upstarts, while experienced applicants are supposed to apply their knowledge of the past to the problems of the present.* As we wrote in “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually)” and “So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For? And Who’s the Competition?“, the size and experience of an agency will often dictate the logic argument made for why a given proposal should be funded.

Arguing that you have experience providing similar services is at odds with claims about being radically innovative. Markets depend on creative destruction, and the grant system exists in part to facilitate the exit of sclerotic nonprofits and the creation of nimbler nonprofits. Consider, this from “How Tesla Will Change the World:”

Over time, big industries tend to get flabby and uncreative and risk-averse—and if the right outsider company has the means and creativity to come at the industry with a fresh perspective and rethink the whole thing, there’s often a huge opportunity there.

Fortunately for grant writers and applicants, very few funders are going to think that hard about the distinction between innovation and experience: we’ve never heard that any of our clients have had a funder point out this conundrum to them. Funders are managed by humans—mostly, anyway—and like most humans their motivations are not only obscure to observers, and also often to themselves. So a good grant writer can still argue that the applicant is somehow both innovative and experienced. The number of truly “innovative” programs we’ve seen is quite small, but that’s because social and human services attempt to get people to behave in ways that they don’t feel like behaving.**


* As, for example, Steven Berlin Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From.

** When I wrote this post I was thinking about “In Grant Writing, Longer is Not Necessarily Better.”

Links: Sex Offender Registries, Why We Can’t Read Anymore, New, Dumber War on Sex Workers to Replace Dumb War on Drugs, Why Tech Will Never Fix Education, and More!

* “Teenager’s Jailing Brings a Call to Fix Sex Offender Registries,” a point that seems completely obvious to anyone paying attention. We wrote about a similar issue in footnote to this post. Those of you who are writing Healthy Marriage or Pathways to Fatherhood Grants may wish to cite this.

* “Why can’t we read anymore?” Long attention spans are one of our competitive advantages: see also “One of the Open Secrets of Grant Writing and Grant Writers: Reading.” I think attention control is an increasingly valuable job market skill; most of the programmers I know speak of it reverently too.

* For the love of God, rich people, stop giving Ivy League colleges money. The words “diminishing returns” aren’t used explicitly but are implied throughout.

* With Tesla Entering Market, Hopes for Home Batteries Grow.

* “Don’t Be So Sure the Economy Will Return to Normal,” from Tyler Cowen (An unusual perspective, as always). See also my 2013 discussion of his book Average is Over.

* “Are You a Shadow Worker?” Social site moderators are, which is one reason they are often so bad.

* Andrew Ng: “Inside The Mind That Built Google Brain: On Life, Creativity, And Failure,” which is brilliant throughout; I note this: “When I talk to researchers, when I talk to people wanting to engage in entrepreneurship, I tell them that if you read research papers consistently, if you seriously study half a dozen papers a week and you do that for two years, after those two years you will have learned a lot. This is a fantastic investment in your own long term development.”

* “GMO Scientists Could Save the World From Hunger, If We Let Them.”

* From “The department of unintended consequences:” “It turns out that generous maternity leave and flexible rules on part-time work can make it harder for women to be promoted — or even hired at all.” Basic economics holds that making something more expensive means less of it is consumed. Many legislators (and by extension voters) do not understand this.

* Why Technology Will Never Fix Education.”

* “Germany passes Japan to have world’s lowest birth rate;” the real problem in the developed world is underpopulation, not overpopulation.

* It’s Not Uber’s Fault the Job Market Is So Lousy That People Want to Drive for Uber.

* The myth of the Manhattan construction boom.

* “America’s Newest War: As the war on drugs loses its luster, legislators are intent to make the same mistakes with sex workers.”

* The Education Myth.

* “Things I Learned about Credit Bureaus This Week.” This is the sort of thing that would appear in major newspapers, if we had any real journalists left. Sadly we don’t.

* State tax rates discussed and explained by Scott Sumner, or “What’s wrong with Louisiana?” The post is fascinating, contrary to what you may believe based on the title.

* “Why Startups Love Moleskines;” I prefer Rhodia.

* “Everything we have been told about drugs and drug addiction and how society should deal with them is wrong, says the British author and journalist John Hari. He chooses the best books on the War on Drugs.”

* CA Labor Commission Has Just Killed Uber, Though It May Take Years to Bleed Out; note particularly: “the government is making it nearly impossible to employ low-skilled labor.” That is essentially what’s happened in much of Europe.

* “Peter Thiel and thinking for yourself.”

* Ford’s latest e-bike prototype features ‘eyes-free navigation’ and a ‘no sweat’ mode. The biggest problem with the story is the lack of price. If this were $1,000 it would be interesting. Any more than that and the bike has Segway’s problems and no probable solution to them.

* Google Project Fi review. It’s the plan that uses WiFi first and data networks second, which should bring cell phone bills to the $20 – $30 per month range. This is likely to be a big deal. It’ll be interesting to see if the next iPhone supports Project Fi.

* 11 things ultra-productive people do differently, perhaps most importantly: “They fight the tyranny of the urgent.” Second most important: “They don’t multitask.”

* In 1900, Los Angeles had a bike highway — and the US was a world leader in bike lanes. Wow. Shocking to me too.

* Solar power still needs to get much cheaper. Are perovskites the answer?

* ‘Affirmative Consent’ Will Make Rape Laws Worse.

* Europe’s soft underbelly: “For many decades, Italy has been doing the things that American progressives would recommend, pouring lots of fiscal stimulus into the south, to build up the economy. But nothing seems to work.” What gives?

* Road kill: Despite improvements, driving in America remains extraordinarily dangerous. That about 30,000 Americans die in car accidents every year is one of my favorite fun facts for discussions about threats, dangers, urban planning, and so forth. Despite the recent spake of shark attacks at North Carolina this summer, one is much more likely to die in car accident on the way to the beach than be a tasty appetizer for a hungry shark.