Author: Jake Seliger

Foundation and government grant applicants: It’s “Hell yes” or “No.”

Derek Sivers has a rule for many things:

No ‘yes.’ Either ‘HELL YEAH!’ or ‘no.’” He says, “When deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than ‘Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!’ — then say ‘no.’

That principle applies to other fields: are you going to get the job? If the employer really wants you, they are going to be very “hell yes,” and they are going to start courting you. With any reply other than “hell yes,” keep looking. Don’t stop looking till the contract is signed—and don’t be surprised when the employer is a whole lot more excited about you the day after you sign up with another outfit. Same is true in dating: don’t stop lining up leads unless and until that special person says HELL YES! This is also true in applying for most grant funding: assume it’s a “no” until proven otherwise.

We’ve had lots of clients over the years who have been encouraged by foundations that are eager to cultivate applications but seem decidedly less eager to actually cut the check (CTC). Talk is cheap, but the CTC moment has real costs—in pro hoops and grant seeking. Foundations are prone to delaying that magic moment, if possible. Foundations, like many of us, like the flattery and attention that comes with dangling cash in front of people who desire said cash. Note that I’m not arguing this behavior is fair or appropriate—just that it’s common. Foundation officers seemingly enjoy the flattery that comes with nonprofits’s seduction attempts.

To a lesser extent, some government funders at the federal, state, and local level also engage in the dangling CTC approach, but government rules often discourage excess promises from government officers to applicants. If your agency has applied for a government grant, you’re unlikely to hear anything until you get the hell yes email (notice of grant award) or the “thanks for a lovely evening” email (thanks, but no grant this time around). Still, if a funder, government or foundation, requests more information about your proposed budget or asks if you’ll accept a smaller grant, you’ll almost always eventually get the desired response. Few funders will bother with info requests unless they are likely to fund you.

As a rule, though, your default assumption should be that the funder is not going to fund you until they want to fund you. This is a special case of the Golden Rule. Your assumption should be “no deal:” don’t waste time anticipating a promised deal that may not happen. Spend that energy improving your services and pursuing other funding opportunities. Many foundations also like giving out the last check to make the project happen, rather than the first one, so keep chasing early grants—even small ones.

Links: Don’t steal the grant money, where the jobs are, fun grant programs, ameliorating homelessness, and more!

* Don’t embezzle grant funds. If your organization gets grant funding but can’t carry out the proposed services, just admit it and give the money back—or at least stop taking the money. This ought to go without saying and without federal prosecutors getting involved. And, an excellent way of meeting the local US Attorney is to steal grant funds. Some grantees find themselves unable to execute the grant-funded activity, and, while that isn’t optimal, it is okay.

* We have a massive truck driver shortage, and pay is increasing, albeit too slowly, given that shortage. Contrary to the hype, we still appear to be quite far from automating trucking and many other in-demand jobs.

* “There’s a high cost to making drugs more affordable for Americans.” Almost no one is talking about this. We can likely force the cost of today’s drugs and treatments lower—but at the cost of not having new drugs and treatments tomorrow. This seems like a poor tradeoff to me, although that’s a philosophical point. The interesting thing is that no one advocating for price controls admits the tradeoff.

* “Resistance to Noncompete Agreements Is a Win for Workers.” This is an area where the left and right are aligned: the left worries about worker rights, and the right (putatively) worries about free markets. Banning both is a win for left or right.

* My favorite recent grant program: “Supporting Economic Empowerment in the Pakistan Film Industry.” We really want to be hired to write a proposal for this one!

* “Fears grow over ‘food swamps’ as drugstores outsell major grocers: With CVS selling more groceries than Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s combined, researchers fear food ‘deserts’ are becoming ‘swamps’ of processed food.” Another handy proposal term. Both Isaac and I have noticed the expanding food selection at local drug stores.

* More Millennials Are Dying ‘Deaths of Despair,’ as Overdose and Suicide Rates Climb. See also the book Lost Connections.

* “Americans Need More Neighbors: A big idea in Minneapolis points the way for other cities desperately in need of housing.” Obvious but needs to be repeated, as bad land zoning is at the root of many problems in individual cities and America as a whole today. We feel some of the effects when we work on projects like Prop HHH proposals in Los Angeles. If it’s not possible to build a sufficient amount of new housing, then many actors are going to bid up the price of existing housing, and homeless service providers are rarely the top bidder.

* “Los Angeles Is in Crisis. So Why Isn’t It Building More Housing? Rising rents are feeding a surge in homelessness.” The Atlantic is now on the beat Seliger + Associates has been covering for years. These links are congruent with the links immediately above.

* “An Addiction Crisis Disguised as a Housing Crisis: Opioids are fueling homelessness on the West Coast.” Or, as I’d put it, “Both at once, and interacting with each other.”

* The Machiavelli of Maryland: Edward Luttwak is adviser to presidents, prime ministers – and the Dalai Lama. Hugely entertaining, and via MR.

* “Why Transparency on Medical Prices Could Actually Make Them Go Higher.” I’ve long been a price-transparency proponent, but maybe I’m wrong.

* “Housing crisis: Why can’t California pass more housing legislation?” This is much of the reason homelessness is increasing in California: it’s almost illegal to build housing for humans.

* “Why mention the Affordable Care Act (ACA) when Democrats can debate shiny new Medicare-for-all?” I post this not for the political valence but for the discussion of what has and has not changed in healthcare over the last decade; in many ways, there’s been less change than both ACA proponents hoped for and opponents feared.

* Why Are U.S. Drivers Killing So Many Pedestrians? “If anything else—a disease, terrorists, gun-wielding crazies—killed as many Americans as cars do, we’d regard it as a national emergency.” Maybe the automotive era was a terrible, murderous mistake.

* “Progressive Boomers Are Making It Impossible For Cities To Fix The Housing Crisis: Residents of wealthy neighborhoods are taking extreme measures to block much-needed housing and transportation projects.” Not far from what you’ve been reading here for years, but the news is getting out there.

* “Live carbon neutral with Wren: Offset your carbon footprint through a monthly subscription.” Many people wonder what they as individuals can do. Here is one answer.

* “The numbers are in: SF homeless population rose 30% since 2017.” While people are slowly but surely linking SF’s terrible zoning rules with its extraordinary homelessness challenges (just like L.A.), the city isn’t moving fast enough to make real changes. Interesting fact: about one in 100 San Francisco “residents” lack a place to live. And there is purported to be more dogs than kids living in SF.

* “FBI investigating tattooed deputy gangs in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.” This is almost unbelievable, but here it is.

* The radical case for teaching kids stuff. Relevant to those of you running early childhood education programs like Head Start and UPK.

* “Seliger + Associates enters grant writing oral history (or something like that).” This is a favorite essay, as since then we’ve seen, many times, our own phrases and proposal structures come back to us, like ships in a bottle dropped at sea that then wash up on our shores.

Another piece of the evaluation puzzle: Why do experiments make people unhappy?

The more time you spend around grants, grant writing, nonprofits, public agencies, and funders, the more apparent it becomes that the “evaluation” section of most proposals is only barely separate in genre from mythology and folktales, yet most grant RFPs include requests for evaluations that are, if not outright bogus, then at least improbable—they’re not going to happen in the real world. We’ve written quite a bit on this subject, for two reasons: one is my own intellectual curiosity, but the second is for clients who worry that funders want a real-deal, full-on, intellectually and epistemologically rigorous evaluation (hint: they don’t).

That’s the wind-up to “Why Do Experiments Make People Uneasy?“, Alex Tabarrok’s post on a paper about how “Meyer et al. show in a series of 16 tests that unease with experiments is replicable and general.” Tabarrok calls the paper “important and sad,” and I agree, but the paper also reveals an important (and previously implicit) point about evaluation proposal sections for nonprofit and public agencies: funders don’t care about real evaluations because a real evaluation will probably make the applicant, the funder, and the general public uneasy. Not only do they make people uneasy, but most people don’t even understand how a real evaluation works in a human-services organization, how to collect data, what a randomized controlled trial is, and so on.

There’s an analogous situation in medicine; I’ve spent a lot of time around doctors who are friends, and I’d love to tell some specific stories,* but I’ll say that while everyone is nominally in favor of “evidence-based medicine” as an abstract idea, most of those who superficially favor it don’t really understand what it means, how to do it, or how to make major changes based on evidence. It’s often an empty buzzword, like “best practices” or “patient-centered care.”

In many nonprofit and public agencies, evaluations and effectiveness are the same: everyone putatively believes in them, but almost no one understands them or wants real evaluations conducted. Plus, beyond that epistemic problem, even if evaluations are effective in a given circumstance (they’re usually not), they don’t necessarily transfer. If you’re curious about why, Experimental Conversations: Perspectives on Randomized Trials in Development Economics is a good place to start—and this is the book least likely to be read, out of all the books I’ve ever recommended here. Normal people like reading 50 Shades of Grey and The Name of the Rose, not Experimental Conversations.

In the meantime, some funders have gotten word about RCTs. For example, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Assistance’s (BJA) Second Chance Act RFPs have bonus points in them for RCTs. I’ll be astounded if more than a handful of applicants even attempt a real RCT—for one thing, there’s not enough money available to conduct a rigorous RCT, which typically requires paying the control group to follow up for long-term tracking. Whoever put the RCT in this RFP probably wasn’t thinking about that real-world issue.

It’s easy to imagine a world in which donors and funders demand real, true, and rigorous evaluations. But they don’t. Donors mostly want to feel warm fuzzies and the status that comes from being fawned over—and I approve those things too, by the way, as they make the world go round. Government funders mostly want to make congress feel good, while cultivating an aura of sanctity and kindness. The number of funders who will make nonprofit funding contingent on true evaluations is small, and the number willing to pay for true evaluations is smaller still. And that’s why we get the system we get. The mistake some nonprofits make is thinking that the evaluation sections of proposals are for real. They’re not. They’re almost pure proposal world.


* The stories are juicy and also not flattering to some of the residency and department heads involved.

Links: Housing, grant size, the perils of EMRs, the nature of energy, addiction and treatment, and more!

* Death by a thousand clicks: How electronic medical record (EMR) systems went wrong. We’ve written so many proposals involving EMR systems, and yet it seems they’ve had little if any positive impact on the overall landscape, in terms of health or cost.

* “California Has a Housing Crisis. The Answer Is More Housing.” One of these obvious things, yet here we are.

* “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually).”

* “A $20,243 bike crash: Zuckerberg hospital’s aggressive tactics leave patients with big bills. I spent a year writing about ER bills. Zuckerberg San Francisco General has the most surprising billing practices I’ve seen.” Remember how we wrote about the need for price transparency? This is another specific instance of that general point.

* Waymo’s CEO says autonomous cars “will always have constraints.” They are not a panacea for urban transit and are not going to be here in the next five years, and they will likely be weather-dependent.

* Is fusion power much closer to becoming reality than is commonly anticipated? If so, it will solve or substantially ameliorate the world’s energy problems, along with the geopolitical conflicts fueled by the world’s desire for oil.

* “Firms Learn That as They Help Charities, They Also Help Their Brands.” This is firmly “dog bites man” story instead of a “man bites dog” story, but there it is.

* “California will sue Huntington Beach over blocked homebuilding.” Good news.

* “Most People With Addiction Grow Out of It,” something not widely appreciated in the larger culture and a factoid we never include in the many SUD/OUD treatment proposals we write.

* Public Education’s Dirty Secret. Congruent with my experiences.

* “Is the Revolution of 3D-Printed Building Getting Closer?” Let’s hope so, as that would likely substantially decrease construction costs.

* Japanese urbanism and its application to the Anglo-World.

* “Climeworks: The Tiny Swiss Company That Thinks It Can Help Stop Climate Change.” Not just the usual.

* From Literature to Web Development: My first 6 weeks at Lambda School.

* * “A Radically Moderate Answer to Climate Change.” You may be getting tired of reading about nuclear power, yet we still seem as a culture not to be paying attention to it. See also “Nuclear goes retro — with a much greener outlook.”

* “This is Roquette Science: How computerized arugula (aka roquette) farms take over the world.”

* How to Create Reality: “So a funny thing happened on Twitter this week, which almost changed the world a little bit. Someone sent me a beautiful 3-D mockup of a fictional, car-free city of 50,000 people, set in the scenic nook of land* between Boulder, Colorado and Longmont, where I live.”

* “Science, Small Groups, and Stochasticity.” In short, we are doing the structure of science wrong.

* “The corporations devouring American colleges.” Colleges are businesses with extremely good PR and marketing arms.

* “The Streets Were Never Free. Congestion Pricing Finally Makes That Plain..” Seems obvious to me.

* “The antibiotics industry is broken—but there’s a fix.”

* “The 2008 financial crisis completely changed what majors students choose.” How could it not?

* “Lambda, an online school, wants to teach nursing.” Good. Competing with existing schools is a feature, not a bug. See also that other link about Lambda School, above.

* Most of America’s Rural Areas Are Doomed to Decline. Basically, agriculture now accounts for perhaps 2% of the workforce; manufacturing accounts for less than 15% of the workforce, and even as manufacturing has increased in value produced, it hasn’t much increased in jobs.

* “Considerations On Cost Disease‘s” money shot:

So, to summarize: in the past fifty years, education costs have doubled, college costs have dectupled, health insurance costs have dectupled, subway costs have at least dectupled, and housing costs have increased by about fifty percent. US health care costs about four times as much as equivalent health care in other First World countries; US subways cost about eight times as much as equivalent subways in other First World countries.

I worry that people don’t appreciate how weird this is.

“How Jeff Bezos Turned Narrative into Amazon’s Competitive Advantage”

How Jeff Bezos Turned Narrative into Amazon’s Competitive Advantage” should be mandatory reading for anyone in nonprofit and public agencies, because narrative is probably more important for nonprofits than conventional businesses; conventional businesses can succeed by pointing to product-market fit, but nonprofits typically don’t have that metric. Nonprofits have to get their stories out in other ways than profit-loss statements or sales.

Bezos is Amazon’s chief writing evangelist, and his advocacy for the art of long-form writing as a motivational tool and idea-generation technique has been ordering how people think and work at Amazon for the last two decades—most importantly, in how the company creates new ideas, how it shares them, and how it gets support for them from the wider world.

New ideas often emerge from writing—virtually everyone who has ever written anything substantive understands this, yet it remains misunderstood among non-writers. Want to generate new ideas? Require writing. And no, “Powerpoint” does not count:

“The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related,” he writes, “Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”

I’m not totally anti-Powerpoint—I have seen books about how to do it well—but Powerpoint does not substitute for narrative (in most cases). Most people doing Powerpoint have not read Edward Tufte or adequately thought through their rationale for choosing Powerpoint over some other communications genre, like the memo. The other day I did an online grant-writing training session for the state of California for 400 people, and the guy organizing it expected me to do a Powerpoint. I said that using a Powerpoint presentation to teach writing is largely useless (he seemed surprised). Instead, I did a screencast, using a text editor as my main window, in which I solicited project ideas and RFPs germane to the viewers. I picked a couple and began working through the major parts of a typical proposal, showing how I would construct an abstract using the 5Ws and H, and then how I would use those answers to begin fleshing out typical narrative sections in the proposal. Because it was screencast, participants can re-watch sections they find useful. I think having a text document and working with actual sentences is much closer to the real writing process than babbling on about a prepared set of slides with bullet points. The talk was less polished than it would have been if I’d prepared it in advance, but writing is inherently messy and I wanted to deliberately show its messiness. There is no way to avoid this messiness; it’s part of the writing process on a perceptual level. It seems linked to speech and to consciousness itself.

To return to the written narrative point, written narrative also allows the correct tension between individual creativity and group feedback, in a way that brainstorming sessions don’t, as the article explains. Most human endeavors involving group activity require some tension between the individual acting and thinking alone versus being part of a pair or larger group acting in concert. If you are always alone, you lose the advantage of another mind at work. If you are always in a group, you lack the solitude necessary for thinking and never get other people out of your head. Ideal environments typically include some “closed door” space and some “open door” serendipitous interaction. Written narrative usually allows for both.

Nonprofit and public agencies that can’t or won’t produce coherent written documents are not going to be as successful as those that do. They aren’t going to ensure key stakeholders understand their purpose and they’re not going to be able to execute as effectively. That’s not just true in grant writing terms; it’s true in organizational terms. Reading remains at present, the fastest way to transmit information. If you’re not hiring people who can produce good stuff for reading, you’re not effectively generating and using information within your organization.

Coding school is becoming everyone’s favorite form of job training

For many years, construction skills training (often but not always in the form of YouthBuild) was every funder’s and every nonprofit’s favorite form of job training, often supplemented by entry-level healthcare work, but today the skill de jour has switched to software, programming, and/or coding. Case in point: this NYT article with the seductive headline, “Income Before: $18,000. After: $85,000. Does Tiny Nonprofit Pursuit Hold a Key to the Middle Class?” While the article is overwhelming positive, it’s not clear how many people are going to make it through Pursuit-like programs: “Max Rosado heard about the Pursuit program from a friend. Intrigued, he filled out an online form, and made it through a written test in math and logic…” (emphasis added). In addition, “Pursuit, by design, seeks people with the ‘highest need’ and potential, but it is selective, accepting only 10 percent of its applicants.” So the organization is cherry-picking its participants.

There’s nothing wrong with cherry-picking participants and most social and human service programs do just that, in the real world. As grant writers who live in the proposal world, we always state in job training proposals that the applicant (our client) will never cherry-pick trainees, even though they do. In the article, important details about cherry-picking are stuck in the middle, below the tantalizing lead, so most people will miss them. I’m highlighting them because they bring to the fore an important fact in many social and human service programs: there is a tension between access and success. Truly open-access programs tend to have much lower success rates; if everyone can enter, many of those who do will not have the skills or conscientiousness necessary to succeed. If an organization cherry-picks applicants, like Pursuit does, it will generally get better success metrics, but at the cost of selectivity.

Most well-marketed schools succeed in “improving” their students primarily through selection effects. That’s why the college-bribery scandal is so comedic: no one involved is worried about their kid flunking out of school. Schools are extremely selective in admissions and not so selective in curriculum or grading. Studies have consistently suggested that where you go to school matters much less than who you are and what you learn. Such studies don’t stop people from treating degrees as status markers and consumption goods, but it does imply that highly priced schools are often not worth it. Thorstein Veblen tells us a lot more about the current market for “competitive” education than anyone else.

My digs at well-marketed schools are not gratuitous to the main point: I favor Pursuit and Pursuit-like organizations and we have worked for some of them. In addition, it’s clear to pretty much anyone who has spent time teaching in non-elite schools that the way the current post-secondary education system is set up is nuts and makes little sense; we need a wider array of ways for people to learn the skills they need to thrive. If Pursuit and Pursuit-like programs are going to yield those skills, we should work towards supporting more of them.

It is almost certainly not existing schools that are going to boost more people into the middle class, as they’ve become overly bureaucratic, complacent, and sclerotic; see also Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education on this subject. While many individuals within those systems may want change, they cannot align all the stakeholders to create change from within. Some schools, especially in the community-college sector, are re-making themselves, but many are not. In the face of slowness, however, nimble nonprofits and businesses should move where this grant wave is going.

Links: Price transparency in healthcare?, collaboration, debt, the good life, and more!

* “A Billionaire Pledges to Fight High Drug Prices, and the Industry Is Rattled.” This would be very good: healthcare costs are eating the world.

* Collaboration Again: A Story From the Trenches.

* “GM’s electric bikes unveiled.” File under “Headlines I never thought I’d see outside of The Onion.”

* “Cultural barriers still stand in the way of HPV vaccine uptake.” Most importantly, “Every year, nearly 34,000 cases of cancer in the US can be attributed to HPV, the human papillomavirus. The CDC estimates that vaccination could prevent around 93 percent of those cancers.” We should be getting vaccinated. This is an easy healthcare win, and a way to easily reduce healthcare costs.

* “Six Secrets from the Planner of Sevilla’s Lightning Bike Network.” Reducing car usage is another easy cost win. There are two ways to improve well-being: increase incomes and decrease costs. Almost no one talks about the latter. We should talk more about it.

* “Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year.” An evergreen article. Imagine if 70,000 people were killed by opioid overdoes in the United States every year. Oh wait, that’s actually happening too.

* Single-Family Home Zoning vs. ‘Generation Priced Out.’

* “Doctors Are Fed Up With Being Turned Into Debt Collectors.” Maybe we ought to go back to a world of transparent pricing, paid in advance?

* “Why Cities Must Tackle Single-Family Zoning.” Useful for anyone who thinks their rent is too damn high (like I do).

* “Oil Demand for Cars Is Already Falling: Electric vehicles are displacing hundreds of thousands of barrels a day, exceeding expectations.” We get too little good news; here is some.

* “The Creation of Deviance,” note: “The activities of university administrators may also fit a larger pattern, one in which agents of social control readily create the need for their own services.”

* Scott Alexander: “Preschool: I Was Wrong.” See also us on Universal Pre-Kindergarten and Early Head Start (EHS).

* “Wall Street Rule for the #MeToo Era: Avoid Women at All Cost.” It’s like no one imagined unintended consequences, or understands that incentives affect behavior.

* Greenhouse Gas Emissions Rise Like a ‘Speeding Freight Train’ in 2018.

* “‘Forget About the Stigma’: Male Nurses Explain Why Nursing Is a Job of the Future for Men.” I wrote an essay, “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school,” that also covers germane points.

* “Workers are ghosting their employers like bad dates?” Ghosting is bad for the ghoster and ghostee, in my view.

* Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers. I liked Nashville.

* Why are construction costs rising?

* Repl.it: Get your ideas out there. What the kids are apparently using to learn how to code.

* 2018 Was the Year of the Scooter?

* The World’s Leading Electric-Car Visionary Is Wan Gang, not Elon Musk?

* “Two Roads for the New French Right,” a much deeper, more substantive piece than the headline implies.

* Hospital prices are about to go public. Good news if true. We’ve written quite a bit, perhaps too much, on the topic.

* “A tour of elementary OS, perhaps the Linux world’s best hope for the mainstream.” It is strange to me that Linux still has so many problems for mainstream use and users.

* “Retraining Programs Fall Short for Some Workers: The goal was to help displaced workers gain skills in new industries. But studies show people are earning less or failing to find work.” This will not shock existing training providers. Re-training is hard, and the older the workers being re-trained, the harder the process is. Careers also tend to have arcs. At some point, if haven’t ascended sufficiently, you’re unlikely to ever build up the ability to do so. I think about myself and writing: it took me about ten years of continuous practice to become a competent writer. Ten years. And that seems to be a common fact for highly skilled people. Medical school + residency is seven years. Law school is only three years, but most lawyers take another five or so years to get really good at their jobs.

* Nuclear energy is key to saving the planet.

* “How economic theory and the Netflix Prize could make research funding more efficient.” The journal article is here. Looks like a good idea to us: some signaling is inevitably wasteful but may also be useful. In the grant world, however, there is far too much wasteful signaling. In this respect, the grant world resembles the heavily-marketed college admissions world.

When you hire consultants, you’re hiring them for all the mistakes they’ve ever seen (and made)

When you hire a lawyer, part of who you’re hiring is someone who has made thousands of mistakes in law school and as a young lawyer. Lawyers, like doctors and other professionals, learn in an apprentice-style system that incorporates the mistakes made by their mentors. Proto-lawyers also make some mistakes of their own—and, ideally, have those mistakes corrected by senior lawyers, and learn to not make those mistakes in the future. Most people don’t think about hiring a person or team specifically for their mistakes, yet this is a useful way to think about most professional services, including our personal favorite: grant writing consultants.

When you’re hiring a grant writer, you’re really hiring the experience that grant writer has. It isn’t impossible to hire a college intern or recent journalism grad and get funded; we’ve seen it happen and heard stories from clients. But the intern and inexperienced writers will make mistakes more experienced people won’t. We’ve written numerous posts about subtle mistakes that are easy to make in all aspects of the grant pipeline, from the needs assessment to the program design to the submission process. It’s also possible to get a competent junior person to write a couple of proposals, but grant writing is very hard and over time they tend to demand more money—or leave. That’s why you have trouble hiring grant writers. Many interns will write a proposal or two, but when they learn how hard and under-appreciated the job is, they often want money commensurate with difficulty. The inexperienced tend to make mistakes; the experienced grant writers tend to charge accordingly.

We are still not perfect (no one is; if anyone think they are, refer to “the perils of perfectionism“). But we have learned, through trial and error, how to make many fewer mistakes than novice or somewhat experienced grant writers. It’s not conceptually possible to eliminate all errors, but it is possible to avoid many errors that scupper most would-be grant writers.

If your organization can get a recent English major to write successful proposals for little or nothing, you should do that. But we’ve also heard from a lot of organizations that have “whoever is around” write, or attempt to write, their proposals, only to fail. Experience matters. You can get the magic intern, but more often you get someone who is overwhelmed by the complexity of a given writing assignment, who doesn’t understand human services or technical projects, is simply terrified by absolute deadlines, etc.

Let’s take as an example a common error that we’ve seen in a spate of recent old proposals provided by clients. Most include some variation, made by inexperienced writers, who want to write that “we are wonderful,” “we really care,” and the like in their proposals. This is a violation of the writing principle “Show, don’t tell.” Most of the time, you don’t want to tell people you’re wonderful—you want to show them that you are. “We are wonderful” statements are empty. “We served 500 youth with ten hours of service per week, and those services include x, y, and z” statements have objective content. It’s also harder to accurately describe what specific services an organization is providing than it is to say subjectively, “We are wonderful and we care.” Whatever is rare is more valuable than that which is common.

The above paragraph is just one example of the kind of errors novices make that experts tend not to. Attempting to enumerate all errors would be book-length if not longer. Experienced grant writers will avoid errors and offer quality almost instinctively, without always being able to articulate every aspect of error vs. optimality.

A description of scientific and technical grant writing, found in an unexpected place

I have rarely, if ever, seen an explicit, reasonably accurate description of the grant application process in a general nonfiction book—until this weekend, when I was reading Steve Levine’s book The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War. It’s an excellent and highly recommended book in general, but it also has a passage detailing Argonne National Laboratory’s efforts to become a major battery research and development hub. Becoming an R&D hub required a response to a complex federal Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA, which is another term for RFP). Levine characterizes the process this way:

The assessment [of Argonne’s proposal] lasted two days. Madia was harsh. Argonne’s vision—its “story”—did not shine through. The narrative was “buried deep in the science.” The scientific sections were adequate as far as they went, but the team’s priority was to craft the story so that a nonexpert—like members of the judging team who were not battery guys—could understand it. As the proposal stood, it failed to meet this standard.

More problematically, the proposal seemed actually to ignore some provisions in the FOA. The FOA had stipulated a serious commitment to applied science. Madia judged the appropriate balance at about 60 percent research and the rest development and deployment. The Argonne team had proposed an 80 percent emphasis on basic research—clearly too much.

He raised a couple of other points—there were too many “whats” and not enough “hows”; each time the proposal said the team intended to do something, it should provide an example of how it would be done. Madia was troubled. The previous summer, he had seen a preliminary draft and said much the same.

In the version of the story told by Levine, however, Madia doesn’t fix the proposal himself, which isn’t very helpful. Nonetheless, Grant Writing Confidential readers should notice many points we regularly make in posts like “Proposals need to tell stories.” And scientific and technical proposals are not exempt from this rule. In addition, he who has the gold, makes the rule. You must follow the FOA guidelines, or follow them as best you can.

The “Follow the FOA guidelines” rule has been much on our minds in the last several weeks because we’ve been working on Department of Education Early Head Start (EHS) applications, and the EHS RFP contains this instruction: “Applicants must prepare the project description statement in accordance with the following instructions while being aware of the specified evaluation criteria in Section V.1. Criteria.” In other words, the Dept. of Education put the mandatory headers in one section, starting on page 33 of the RFP, but also included other required material under the “Application Review Information” on page 54. The two sections don’t match, either. The evaluation criteria says, for example, “Evidence of community engagement in the proposed geographic locations that is designed to improve service delivery, increase access to services, and prevent duplication,” but the instructions on page 33 omit that. A would-be applicant who only attends to page 33 will miss the vital material on page 54.

The Argonne grant-writing team evidently faced a similar problem, as shown by the misplaced balance between basic and applied research. The cited difference between the “what” and the “how” is more interesting, though. Some technical proposals don’t have a lot of “how” in them because the proposer doesn’t know how the task will be achieved. If the proposer already understands how the task can be achieved, he sometimes doesn’t need the money—because the problem has already been solved. If we already know how to do something, it’s not research, it’s implementation.

Sometimes, though, the “how” is fairly well-known. A few months ago, we finished working on a technical proposal relating to alternative energy technology R & D project, and the Department of Energy has funded the application. The “How” on that application appeared to be fairly clear. I want to explain what made it clear, but I can’t really do so without giving away too much of the client’s domain expertise.

Overall, Levine’s Argonne story demonstrates why many people choose to specialize in specific fields, then hire experts in fields not their own. The scientific luminaries and visionaries at Argonne haven’t specialized in the grant writing process. They may be working on battery breakthroughs essential to the future of the world, but knowing how to conduct research and knowing how to explain the research to the rest of the world are different skills.

“Health insurance security” and FQHCs

I hesitate to post this, because it’s a bit more political than the topics we typically cover, but it’s explanatory more than partisan: “The 2018 Elections Were Not About Obamacare–They Were About Health Insurance Security.” In it, Bob Laszewski describes how “In March of 2016, there were 20.2 million people covered in the individual health insurance market,” but by “March of 2018 the count was 15.7 million.” Why? Because individual market “premiums and deductibles are sky high–for all but the lowest income participants.” Consider this data:

In Northern Virginia, for example, the cheapest 2019 Obamacare individual market Silver plan for a family of four (mom and dad age-40) making a subsidy eligible $65,000 a year costs $4,514. That plan has a $6,500 deductible meaning the family would have to spend $11,014 on eligible health care costs before collecting other than nominal first dollar benefits.

That same family, but making too much for a subsidy, as 40% of families do, and a typical family in the affluent Virginia 10th, would have to spend $19,484 in premiums plus a $6,500 deductible, for a total of $25,984 in eligible costs before they would collect any meaningful benefits.

Those are shocking numbers, no? Yet we rarely see them, or numbers like them, in the larger media landscape. Many people have individual experiences of such things, including me; I’m covered by a small group employer plan, not an individual market plan, but my own deductible is now about $5,000. Two years ago, it was $4,500, and when I had a minor procedure to fix a toe I’d dropped a pan on, I spent $4,500 out of pocket almost immediately. Not only that, but when I saw podiatrists to get fee quotes on the procedure, most could not or would not give them to me. Even people who say they want to pay in cash often cannot find out how much a particular service will cost. When I inquired about the price of an office visit, most receptionists were confused but could eventually get an answer, and prices varied hugely, from as little as $40 to as much as $350. Why? I don’t know.

Oh, and the podiatrist billed my insurance for something like $12,000, beyond the $4,500 I paid, and she got $900 out of the insurance company. So her net benefit from the procedure was $4,500 in cash (from me) plus $900 from the insurance company. It is almost impossible to read this paragraph and not think, “Something is horribly wrong here.”

And I am not alone: almost anyone not covered by a very large employer plan, Medicaid, or Medicare has had similar experiences.

There is also an absurdly common misconception among normal people: that “insurance” is what matters for healthcare. Insurance is only part of the puzzle, but “insurance” is only as good as the healthcare we can access with it. Many doctors, for example, don’t accept Medicaid patients. So someone on Medicaid who counts as “having insurance” may not have access to care. Laszewski points out that many people “have insurance” (which is fine), but if the insurance never kicks in for the average person, then it is not functioning like true insurance, but not as the pay-all system that health insurance means to most Americans.

Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), which are federally funded nonprofits, have supersized in part because of the strange path of the US healthcare markets. Either by accident or design, FQHCs have become the default Medicaid providers in many parts of the country at the same time that the ACA significantly expanded Medicaid eligibility. Policy wonks in DC, along with some politicians, know that “insurance” is not the same as “health care” (as I myself said above). Even if politicians don’t know that, many of their constituents and voters who are on Medicaid know it. FQHCs are a partial solution, because they accept Medicaid patients and self-pays on sliding fee scales. FQHCs have also become front-line purveyors of Patient Navigation services (which link patients with Medicaid or ACA plans). Still, FQHCs usually do not have enough slots for everyone who seeks care, and waits can be long; FQHCs also often have trouble recruiting clinicians and in particular specialties like OB/GYN and psychiatrist.*

So the convoluted and intertwined health insurance and care access problems remain; the present situation likely cannot hold forever; and I do not know what will happen, politically speaking. But I would surmise that, if a family of four making $65,000 a year must pay $10,000 or more in true costs for healthcare before some manner of insurance kicks in, something has to give.

Single-payer is popular in some American political circles, though it’s not my preferred outcome and seems unfeasible financially; I’d rather see price transparency and mandatory health savings accounts coupled with true insurance for catastrophic care. Unfortunately, no one but me and a handful of healthcare wonks desire this outcome, or something adjacent. It’s hard to explain in a soundbite and normal voters have no idea what “price transparency and mandatory health savings accounts coupled with true insurance for catastrophic care” means. It doesn’t map well onto political ideologies. In healthcare, no one wants to talk about or admit to trade-offs. We write many grant proposals for FQHCs, but we never mention trade-offs. Seliger + Associates is a grant writing firm, so we’re firmly in the proposal world. All FQHCs should be in the proposal world when writing HRSA or SAMHSA or foundation applications. In the real world, however, just saying it’s so, doesn’t make it so. Trade-offs are real and pervasive. It may be socially undesirable to acknowledge them, but they are real.

The most likely political outcome will be more kludges on top of existing kludges. Fortunately, “price transparency” would fit this general paradigm. Unfortunately, there seems to be no political constituency for it. I cannot say what will happen next. I did not think Obamacare would happen, and I was wrong about that. I also did not realize that the feds would re-purpose FQHCs in the way that they have, as Medicaid providers, yet here we are. In healthcare, it seems, almost anything is, or has become, possible.


* This is largely due to barriers to entry imposed by existing doctors and especially the powerful American Medical Association. Many things could be done to increase the supply of doctors, including integrating med school into undergrad; shortening med school; allowing foreign doctors to practice without residency; or creating a special one-year residency for foreign doctors. None, however, are on the political horizon.