Monthly Archives: April 2016

Links: Deadlines, funny grant programs, the life of the mind, batteries, solar, sex ed, and more!

* What happened when the NSF eliminated grant deadlines: Applications fell enormously. Is this good or bad?

* A favorite weird Federal Register announcement: “Notice of Intent (NOI) to Issue Funding Opportunity Announcement.” So… that’s a notice about a future notice. I didn’t see if there was a notice about a notice about a notice, but, if I see one, you’ll read about it here.

* “Straight From High School to a Career;” this ought to not be controversial. We’ve written about the issue before. I in particular am aware of the pitfalls of college-for-all, having taught college to extremely uninterested, confused students who would’ve been better served by direct skills training than college.

* “How ‘Safe Spaces’ Stifle Ideas.” Seems obvious, but…

* “How Saudi Arabia captured Washington: America’s foreign policy establishment has aligned itself with an ultra-conservative dictatorship that often acts counter to US values and interests. Why?” It’s amazing that this story doesn’t get more press.

* New lithium battery ditches solvents, reaches supercapacitor rates.

* “Nixon official: real reason for the drug war was to criminalize black people and hippies.” It worked. Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent ought to be mandatory reading for American citizens.

* “When Did Porn Become Sex Ed? Conversations between adults and teenagers about what happens after “yes” remain rare.” See our post “What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP.”

* “The Life Biz: How to succeed at work and at home.”

* Welcome to the next housing crisis: chronic undersupply of homes for a growing country. A point I’ve made before but that is worth making again. Housing touches so many other issues: innovation, education, “income inequality,” opportunity.

* “Millennials like socialism — until they get jobs.” Sometimes my students express shock and horror that anyone, anywhere would vote for Republicans. When they do, I sometimes ask, “How much did you pay in taxes last year?” They look at me, confused, and then I say something like, “When you can answer that question immediately, you’ll know one reason. Which isn’t an endorsement of the party as a whole or of specific Republican politicians, but it’s a piece of the puzzle that may offer a partial answer.”

* “When will rooftop solar be cheaper than the grid?” In some places, it already is. Also: “Cheap Solar Power,” which is a re-think from a former solar skeptic. If you’re doing job training you should be thinking about “solar installer” as a potential career path, especially in the sun belt.

* “Rezoning in the age of hyper-gentrification.” See also my piece, “Do millennials have a future in Seattle? Do millennials have a future in any superstar cities?

* “The Absurd Primacy of the Automobile in American Life: Considering the constant fatalities, rampant pollution, and exorbitant costs of ownership, there is no better word to characterize the car’s dominance than insane.” The most important piece you won’t read today. I just got back from L.A. and L.A. feels insane: a supermassive city built for cars, not humans.

* “The Sins of the Chicago Police Laid Bare,” a horrific story:

Mayor Emanuel created the task force in December, not long after the city released a police video showing a white police officer, Jason Van Dyke, executing a black teenager named Laquan McDonald on a street on the South Side of Chicago. The video contradicted a police news release saying that the young man was killed because he had been menacing the officer. Officer Van Dyke was not charged with murder until November, more than a year after the killing. There is no reason to believe that the officer would ever have been charged had a judge not ordered the city to make the video public.

* “Why There’s Hope for the Middle Class (With Help From China).”

* “The Senate’s criminal justice reform repeats one of the worst mistakes of the war on drugs;” depressing: “The Senate’s bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, spearheaded by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), suggests at least some federal lawmakers have truly learned nothing from the failures of the war on drugs.”

* How cheap does solar power need to get before it takes over the world?

* The Wirecutter tests the (many) online mattress companies and likes Leesa best.

* More than 1,000 world leaders say the obvious: the drug “war” has been a disaster.

* “When Bitcoin Grows Up,” which also covers what money is, what it might be, and the future of money.

* “What the ‘Freedom’ of a Car Means to Me in a City Where Everyone Drives: Compared to the subway I was used to, driving in Seattle was freeing—but it was also lonely.”

* Obvious, but: National HPV vaccination program would provide big benefits. FQHCs should make sure they’re doing everything they can to ensure vaccination.

* AT&T offering $5 internet to low-income families. The devil may be in the details here, but the story goes nicely with an “Obamaphone.”

Who are the HRSA peer reviewers? An anecdote from the New Access Points (NAP) Program

Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) know that the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), like some other federal agencies, uses peer reviewers for proposals. That can lead to some entertaining coincidences and collisions. We were recently hired by a client who had previously served on a review panel for the last New Access Points competition. In talking with him, I mentioned that we’d written a funded NAP proposal about a year ago for a client in an unusual location. It turned out that our new client had been on the review panel for that proposal (which, fortunately, was funded).

Peer review can in effect shrink the size of the grant world. Peer reviewers also (usually) know something about the programs and processes being discussed, which isn’t necessarily the case with staff reviewers. In some funding agencies, like the Department of Labor, peer reviewers generally aren’t used; if there aren’t enough reviewers, the DOL may grab staffers from other federal agencies to review proposals. That implies grant writers should explain more about basic ideas, rather than assuming that reviewers actual understand the program they’re reviewing. So for staff-reviewed proposals, it’s a good idea to explain more than might be necessary in peer reviewed proposals, since the staffers may not be up-to-date on, say, prisoner reentry common practices, or the finer parts of the parole system.

Because of the small-world effect in peer-reviewed proposals, it can be particularly important to turn in high-quality proposals, because you never know when your proposal is going to act as an inadvertent resume. If you’re part of the Greater Seattle FQHC and someone from the Greater Nashville FQHC reads and likes your proposal as a reviewer, you may much later get a call from them offering you a job.

Don’t underestimate the power of “avoiding social embarrassment” in the list of motivations underlying human behavior.

John Seabrook’s “The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory” Also Illustrates How We Write Grant Proposals

Long-time New Yorker writer John Seabrook’s wonderfully witty and sometimes gossipy book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, explains how the pop songs of artists like Rhianna and Britney Spears have, over the last couple decades, come to be produced by teams—sometimes very large teams.* Those of us of a certain age imagine pop song melodies and lyrics being worked out on a piano or guitar by the Gershwin brothers or Irving Berlin in the Tin Pan Alley era, Phil Spector and Carole King in the Brill Building heyday, or John and Paul during the British Invasion.

The_Song_MachineIn other words, we imagine something close to romantic loners coming up with brilliant ideas on their own and turning those ideas into art. Seabrook explodes that mythology: today’s pop stars rarely have much to do with creating their hits, other than laying down vocal tracks, which are almost always enhanced with pitch perfecting software like Auto-Tune. Songs are actually constructed or “manufactured” by producers, who reap gains from specialization and economies of scale—like any other industrial organization.

In these literal hit factories, producers create the underlying track with repetitive hooks from electronic snips of older songs and digital instrumental elements, while topliners add the vocal tune and lyrics. Virtually no musicians playing real instruments are involved. Seabrook lets us know that the once ubiquitous “session musicians” and complex mixing boards are gone, replaced with laptops and software. As Marc Andreessen famously observed, software is eating the world—including the pop music world.

Although I have eclectic music tastes and usually listen to music on my Bose Quiet25 Headphones while writing proposals, I didn’t know about the profound music business transformation. Even more startling is that this new music world order began in Sweden, of all places, a couple decades ago in Cheiron Studios. Founded by producers Denniz Pop and Max Martin, Cheiron created mega hits for an endless stream of pop acts from the Backstreet Boys to Katy Perry to Taylor Swift.

Music fashion may change, but the underlying players have been relatively stable for a surprisingly long time. While I’m well read in pop culture, I’d never heard of Denniz, Max, and a constellation of descending producers and topliners grinding out songs from Stockholm to Brooklyn to West Hollywood, like the amazingly successful and prolific Dr. Luke.

As I was reading The Song Machine, I realized the parallel between writing songs and writing proposals. Like the traditional melody and lyrics approach of pre-Cheiron song writing, grant writing is usually done in a standard way: The internal or external grant writer facilitates visioning meetings with stakeholders to develop the project concept, drawing circles and arrows on a white board, and the proposal is then written iteratively, just like Carole King and Gerry Goffin writing “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in 1961.

In contrast, Seliger + Associates uses the Cheiron approach, and we developed our system almost 25 years ago—around the time Denniz and Max were using computer hardware and software
advances to change the music world. In our grant hit factory, we’ve adopted a track/hook and topliner method for grant writing: The track is formed by the RFP structure that usually dictates the basic project elements (e.g., outreach, case-managed services, follow-up, etc.), research citations in the needs assessment, and agency background.

The track is also larded with short repetitive phrases (e.g., “vulnerable youth,” “African American-centric organization embedded in the target neighborhood,” etc.), forming the hooks. Rhetorical flourishes, which may be relatively nonsensical like top topliner Ester Dean’s lyrics for the Katy Perry hit “Firework” (“‘Cause baby, you’re a firework / Come on show them what you’re worth”), are our toplines. Like Dr. Luke, we add and polish our toplines in the second and final proposal drafts, over the track/hooks laid down in the first draft.

When Seliger + Associates began in 1993, we initially used the hoary and cumbersome traditional melody and lyric grant writing approach. I’d fly to meet clients from Alaska to LA to NYC, then go through the visioning exercise. As the Internet emerged, we realized that this was not only too time consuming and expensive, but also no longer necessary. Over the next few years, we perfected the virtual scoping call and track/hook and topline approach that is illustrated in two Process Diagrams on our site.

Most of our potential clients are amazed that we can write any grant proposal based solely on an hour-long scoping call, whatever background info the client provides, our reading the RFP, and our imagination. But we can, using an analogue of The Song Machine revealed by Seabrook. When I look at the websites of putative competitors and related organizations like the American Grant Writers’ Association (AGWA) or The Grantsmanship Center (TGCI), it’s obvious that they’re stuck in the Brill Building of grant writing.


* Seabrook echoes the lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s 1974 hit “Free Man in Paris:” “But for the work I’ve taken on, Stoking the star-maker machinery, Behind the popular song.”