Monthly Archives: February 2018

Seliger + Associates’ 25th Anniversary: A quarter century of grant writing

My first post, on Nov. 29, 2007, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal,” tells the story of how I became a grant writer (when dinosaurs walked the earth); 500 posts later, this one covers some of the highs and lows of grant writing over the past 25 years, since I founded Seliger + Associates.

Let me take you back to March 1993 . . . President Clinton’s first year in office, Branch Davidians are going wild in Waco, Roy Rogers dies, Intel ships its first Pentium chips, Unforgiven wins the Oscar for Best Picture, and Seliger + Associates is founded. The last item caused no disturbances in the Force or media and was hardly noticed. Still, we’ve created a unique approach to grant writing—although we’re not true believers, I like to think we’ve made a difference for hundreds of clients and their clients in turn.

When I started this business, the Internet existed, but one had to know how to use long forgotten tech tools like text-based FTP servers, “Gopher,” dial-up modems, and so on. While I taught myself how to use these tools, they weren’t helpful for the early years, even though the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, was launched in late 1993. I used a primitive application, HotMTML Pro, to write the HTML code for our first web site around the same time. I didn’t understand how to size the text, however, so on the common 12″ to 14″ monitors of the day, it displayed as “Seliger + Ass”. It didn’t much matter, since few of our clients had computers, let alone Internet access.

Using the Wayback Machine, I found the first, achieved view of our website on December 28, 1996, about two years after we first had a Web presence. If this looks silly, check out Apple.com’s first web archive on October 22, 1996. You could get a new PowerBook 1400 with 12 MB of RAM and a 750 MB hard drive for only $1,400, while we were offering a foundation appeal for $3,000!

Those were the days of land line phones, big Xerox machines, fax machines, direct mail for marketing, FedEx to submit proposals, going to a public library to use microfiche for research data, waiting for the Federal Register to arrive by mail about a week after publication, and an IBM Selectric III to type in hard copy forms. Our first computer was a IMB PS 1 with an integrated 12″ monitor running DOS with Windows 3.1 operating very slowly as a “shell” inside DOS.

Despite its challenges, using DOS taught me about the importance of file management.

As our business rapidly in the mid to late 1990s, our office activities remained about the same, except for getting faster PCs, one with a revolutionary CD-ROM drive (albeit also with 5 1/14″ and 3.5″ floppy drives, which was how shrink-wrapped software was distributed); a peer-to-peer coax cable network I cobbled together; and eventually being able to get clients to hire us without me having to fly to them for in-person pitch meetings.

It wasn’t until around 2000 that the majority of our clients became computer literate and comfortable with email. Most of our drafts were still faxed back and forth between clients and all proposals went in as multiple hard-copy submissions by FedEx or Express Mail. For word processing, we used WordPro, then an IBM product, and one that, in some respects, was better than Word is today. We finally caved and switched to Macs and Office for Mac around 2005.

Among the many after shocks of 9/11, as well as the bizarre but unrelated anthrax scare, there were enormous disruptions to mail and Fedex delivery to government offices. Perhaps in recognition of this—or just the evolving digital world—the feds transitioned to digital uploads and the first incarnation of grants.gov appeared around 2005. It was incredibly unreliable and used an odd propriety file format “kit file,” which was downloaded to our computers, then proposal files would be attached, and then emailed to our clients for review and upload. This creaky system was prone to many errors. About five years ago, grants.gov switched to an Acrobat file format for the basket-like kit file, but the upload / download drill remained cumbersome. On January 1, 2018, grants.gov 3.0 finally appeared in the form of the cloud-based WorkSpace, which allows applications to be worked on and saved repeatedly until the upload button is pushed by our client (the actual applicant). But this is still not amazon.com, and the WorkSpace interface is unnecessarily convoluted and confusing.

Most state and local government funding agencies, along with many foundations, also moved away from hard copy submissions to digital uploads over the past decade. These, of course, are not standardized and each has its owns peccadilloes. Incredibly, some funders (mostly state and local governments and many foundations) still—still!—require dead tree submission packages sent in via FedEx or hand-delivered.

There have of course been many other changes, mostly for the better, to the way in which we complete proposals. We have fast computers and Internet connections, cloud-based software and file sharing, efficient peripherals, and the like. Grant writing, however, remains conceptually “the same as it ever was.” Whether I was writing a proposal long hand on a legal pad in 1978, using my PS 1 in 1993, or on my iMac today in 2018, I still have to develop a strong project concept, answer the 5 Ws and H within the context of the RFP structure, tell a compelling story, and work with our clients to enable them to submit a technically correct proposal in advance of the deadline.

Another aspect of my approach to grant writing also remains constant. I like to have a Golden Retriever handy to bounce ideas of of, even though they rarely talk back. My last Golden mix, Boogaloo Dude, had to go to the Rainbow Bridge in November. Now, my fourth companion is a very frisky four-month old Golden, Sedro-Woolley, named after the Cascades foothill town to which I used to take Jake and his siblings fishing when they were little and Seliger + Associates and myself were still young.

 

“Your methods are unorthodox”

As GWC readers know, getting information about state and local grants is often tricky. Every state and municipality is different, and, like foundations, few if any make any effort at standardization or the user experience; most just assume that the usual suspects will apply for grants, and consequently they end up forming de facto cartels. In theory, too, all government grant information is also public information, but that’s a little like the theory that DMV employees are public servants who work on behalf of taxpayers: connecting theory to practice can be hard or nonexistent—naive visitors to the DMV learn.

Anyway. I spent some time attempting to get into the Wisconsin “Division of Public Health Grants and Contracting (GAC) Application” page, which is stashed behind a password wall for no reason I can discern. In the process I ended up emailing “Yvette A Smith,” a contracting specialist, to request access, and in reply, she told me that “Your request is unorthodox.” While not quite as good as “Your methods are unsound,” I did actually laugh out loud; I do like to imagine I’m the grant-world equivalent of Captain Willard talking to Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

And Yvette is right: our methods are unorthodox and we do disturb the fabric of the grant/proposal world. That’s part of the reason we’re effective.

Still, I had no idea that there’s an orthodoxy in the State of Wisconsin. And if there is, what is that orthodoxy? Is it John 16:10 that describes how users should access GAC Application information? Or does orthodoxy emerge from other texts?

Alas, I didn’t inquire that far, and I also never quite got access to the GAC Application Page, but I was able to find the information I needed elsewhere. Still, I did learn just a little about the quality of governance in Wisconsin. A famous paper looks at “Cultures of Corruption: Evidence From Diplomatic Parking Tickets,” and the authors find that “diplomats from high corruption countries (based on existing survey-based indices) have significantly more parking violations, and these differences persist over time.” I wonder if my own experiences interacting with local and state governments are similar: the worse the quality of random bureaucrats, the worse the overall level of governance.

Earmarks could come back: That’s great news for governance and nonprofits

I was wrong about earmarks.

Like a lot of good-government types, I opposed earmarks (which are sole-recipient funds to specific organizations allocated by Congress) and thought earmarks were a sign of brazen corruption, like cash kickbacks from vendors to mayors. I didn’t oppose earmarks out of greed, although earmarks can be seen as bad for grant writers because any funding that’s earmarked isn’t available for grant-funded competitions—I saw them as basically immoral. Corruption is bad, so we should get rid of it, right?

But banning earmarks was (and is) a cure worse than the disease. Without earmarks, congressional leaders have limited tools to discipline members of their caucuses. Members are free to grandstand, vote on principle, and block useful legislation in order to pander to primary voters, rather than general election voters. You, dear reader, may initially think it’s good to vote on principle—as long as the principle is one you uphold. But when it isn’t one you uphold, you’ll likely be angry. You’ll also be angry when Congress seems incapable of acting. Because of the way the United States is structured, there are many intentional chokepoints for legislation, and it’s much easier to block than pass legislation. As parties have become more polarized, we’ve gotten increasing legislative gridlock.

Without earmarks, voters have no incentive to vote for pragmatists who will bring the pork their district. Instead, they can vote for extreme partisans who engage in a lot of symbolic talk and votes without considering what’s really good for the country. When congressional leaders have earmarking power, grandstanding has a real consequence. When congressional leaders don’t have earmarking power, they can’t keep their caucus together and it’s much harder to cobble together the 60 votes needed to pass most anything in the Senate. In Congress, pragmatism is actually better than purity, but we’ve seen increasing ideological purity at the expense of a functioning country.

This is a post, not a book, so I can’t go into great detail about why and how this happens, but The Myth of the Rational Voter is a good place to start. I can say, however, that earmarks improve the incentives on legislators to cut deals and make sure the government can do something—anything, really.

Beyond high-minded principles, some nonprofit and public agencies will also be able to receive earmarks again. Pursuing earmarks isn’t in the scope of our business practice, but it is a useful thing to note.

This article, from 2016, gives some more earmark context on earmarks. This article, gives more context. Here’s a good Tweetstorm.

Note that no one is arguing that earmarks are perfect or that the process is without defect. When I’ve argued the case for earmarks to politically minded friends, they’ve told me that I’m a craven tool of corporate interests (let’s ignore the logic of that for the time being and just view it as a signaling mechanism). But earmarks are better than no earmarks; sometimes bad is an improvement over even worse. We’ve seen what happens to the quality of federal governance without earmarks to discipline congresspeople. It isn’t good. Bring ’em back. I admit publicly that I was wrong.

Here is an argument against earmarks, which I don’t find persuasive for reasons listed in the paragraphs above, but it is a reasonable view.