Author: Kathy Walsh

Perfect Proposal Production In an Imperfect World

As a companion piece to Jake’s post on YouthBuild and Isaac’s on formatting, I want to explain the science of proposal production.

1. It starts, like all aspects of grant writing and preparation, with a thorough reading of the RFP. Failing to read the RFP is the equivalent of failing to check your boat for holes before you push out to sea. You can’t discuss the finer arts of sailing if your vessel sinks.

2. Make a master checklist of every item needed for submission, even if the funding source provides a checklist. Sometimes the funding source’s list doesn’t match the funding source’s RFP. Sometimes the funder won’t remember to list optional items on their checklist. RFPs can sometimes be as hard for funders to understand as they are for you, the applicant.

Get someone to double-check the list you make. A lot of grant writing, like legal work, simply consists of making sure that you don’t miss anything. Like, say, a required document.

3. Begin to gather the requested items. Some will be very common, like a 501(c)3 letter or a list of the board of directors. Some will be esoteric. Some will have to come from others: as soon as you make the critical decision to apply, you want to be sure to write memos to stakeholders with a list of items needed, including absolute deadlines for the items you need. You should decide on those deadlines based on how much time you need to prepare the proposal. Then back those deadlines up by a couple of days, to allow for late items. So if your proposal is due on, say, May 30, and you need to assemble it on May 26, then you should give an “absolute” deadline of May 20 to your collaborators.

Managing stakeholders could be the subject of an entire blog post in itself. If managing people were easy, and if people routinely do what they say they will, we wouldn’t have an entire discipline called “management.”

4. Arrange each item in the order required by the funding source. If you have missing items, write “Commitment letter from the LEA” on a blank sheet of paper and leave a Post-it sticking out to remind you that you don’t have the letter but need it (this will help you remember what you need).

For electronic submissions, scan all the documents that are not already electronic files and note items missing. We’re fond of the Fujitsu ScanSnap, which has a cult following among the people who heroically push paper for a living, much like the Swingline Stapler. It’s also not a bad idea, but time consuming and paper producing, to print these and insert marked pages for any missing items.

5. Make a list of the information needed to complete the application forms. Then begin filling out the forms. Leave time to obtain the signature pages for paper submissions and make sure your organization is registered to submit electronically. If you’re missing any information, make a list of who knows the information you need, how you will obtain that information, and what you will do if it’s not available.

As you can probably tell, lists are your friend and help you organized.

6. Consult your checklist daily and remind stakeholders or partners about when you must have the documents. Your stakeholders—especially if they’re the staff of other agencies—are probably very busy (or at least claim to be), and it’s easy to forget a request for a letter. A handy reminder, well before the deadline, is highly advised.

7. When everything has been gathered (finally!), paginate the document, if required; we recommend it unless pagination if specifically forbidden: page numbers help you and the reader.

8. Then—and this is most important part—have a fresh set of eyes look the document over. Encourage the person or people to ask questions if they aren’t sure about something. This is the easiest and best way to catch errors, like missing signatures or signature pages. While there is no way to ensure a “perfect” proposal, this method will improve your proposal production process.

Next up: Submitting the optimal proposal.

Why Did the City of Los Angeles Really Lose Out on Stimulus Money?

I find it grimly hilarious, in a Catch-22 way, the City of Los Angeles’ City Controller, Wendy Greuel, realized that a “lack of oversight” cost the City an estimated $125,000,000 in stimulus money because the City failed to pursue all the funding it was eligible to receive.

This isn’t a surprise to Seliger + Associates, as we’re on the pre-approved grant writing vendor list for the City and didn’t receive any calls or RFPs from the City inquiring if we had the capacity to prepare one or more grant applications, as we have in the past. And if we had, this is the daunting gantlet we would have faced before writing a single word in the grant proposal:

  • the City has separate pre-approved lists for almost every City department;
  • apparently none are in a database easily accessed by departments that need grant writing assistance;
  • just because you have been approved by one department of the City, does not mean that you will not have to prepare and submit, almost, if not exactly the same paperwork for each and every department you want to work for.

If you bill by the hour, you could go out of business just preparing paperwork.

Then, if you’re chosen to bid on the specific job, you have to again fill out the same/similar paperwork again to turn in with your bid documents.
These problems, combined with the incompetence or laziness cited in the article, are the real reason the City lost out on more than $125,000,000 in stimulus funds. The City hasn’t realized that every check has a cost.

Nonprofits, however, can learn something important from this: pursue every opportunity you can. Be nimble, like a small business, instead of sclerotic, like the City of Los Angeles.