“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.

The movement towards a $15 minimum hourly wage and the Pre-K For All program in NYC


Over the last few years, the highly marketed $15/hour minimum wage has had remarkable success: it, along with the recent economic boom and historically low unemployment rates, have increased wages for some unskilled/low skill workers in some areas. Last week, though, I was developing a budget for a federal grant proposal on behalf of a large nonprofit in NYC. The federal program requires the use of “Parent Mentors”, which is another way of saying “Peer Outreach Worker.” So two full-time equivalent (FTE) Parent Mentors went into the budget.

“Peer” staff are not professionals—college degrees or formal work experience aren’t typically required. Instead, the peer is supposed to have life experience similar to the target population (e.g., African American persons in recovery for a substance abuse disorder treatment project in an African American neighborhood) or street credentials (“street cred”) to relate to the target population (e.g., ex-gang-bangers to engage current gang-bangers). In most human services programs, the peer staff are supervised by a professional staff person with a BA, MSW, LCSW, or similar degree. While the peer staff are at the bottom of the org chart, in many cases, they’re much more important to getting funded and operating a successful program than the 24-year-old recent Columbia grad with a degree in urban studies or psychology, as the “supervisor” is often afraid to go out into the community without a peer staff person riding shotgun. The situation is analogous to a first-year military officer who is technically superior to a 15-year enlisted veteran sergeant.

There are 2,080 person hours in a person year, so, at $15/hour, one FTE peer worker is budgeted at $31,200/year. If a nonprofit operates in an area with a $15/hour minimum wage, that’s the lowest salary that can be legally proposed. For many nonprofits, actual salaries for entry-level professional staff are about $30,000 to $35,000 per year. One might say, “No problem, just raise the professional salaries to $40,000.” This is, however, not easily done, as the maximum grants for most federal and state programs have not been adjusted to reflect minimum wages in places like New York or Seattle. If the nonprofit has been running a grant-funded program for five years, they’ve probably been paying the peer workers around $10/hour, and the new RFP very likely has the same maximum grant—say, $200,000—as the one from five years ago. That means one-third fewer peer workers.

If a Dairy Queen (I’m quite fond of DQ, like Warren Buffet) is suddenly confronted by the much higher minimum wage, they can try making the Blizzards one ounce smaller, skipping the pickles on the DQ Burgers, or buying a Flippy Burger Robot, and laying off a couple of 17-year olds. Nonprofits can’t generally deploy any of these strategies, as the service targets in the RPF are the the same as they ever were. For “capitated programs” like foster care, the nonprofit has to absorb rising costs, because they have a fixed reimbursement from the funder (e.g., $1,000/month/foster kid to cover all program expenses); we’re also unlikely to see robot outreach workers any time soon.

Most nonprofits also depend to some extent on fundraisers and donations. It’s hard enough to extract coin from your board and volunteers, so having a “New Minimum Wage Gala” is not likely to be a winning approach. Some higher-end restaurants in LA have added surcharges for higher minimum wages and employee health insurance, a practice I find annoying (just raise the damn pasta price from $20 to $22 and stop trying to virtue signal—or make me feel guilty). That avenue is typically closed to nonprofits, because the whole point is to provide no-cost services, or, in cases like Boys and Girls Clubs, very low-cost fees ($20 to play in the basketball league). Some organizations charge nominal membership fees, which are often waived anyway.

The nonprofit and grant worlds move much slower than the business world, and I guess we’ll just have to wait for the funders to catch up with rising minimum wages. In the meantime, some nonprofits are going to go under, just like this US News and World Report article that reports, “76.5 percent of full-service restaurant respondents said they had to reduce employee hours and 36 percent said they eliminated jobs in 2018 in response to the mandated wage increase” in New York City. More grants will also likely end up going to lower-cost cities and states, where it’s possible to hire three outreach workers instead of two outreach workers.

We write lots of Universal Pre-K (UPK) and Pre-K For All proposals in NYC and few, if any, of our early childhood education clients over the years have paid their “teachers” or “assistant teachers”—who are mostly peer workers with at most a 12-week certificate—$15/hour. There’s a new NYC Pre-K For All RFP on the street, and, if we’re hired to write any this year, the budgeting process will be interesting, as the City has minimum staffing levels for these classrooms, so staff cannot be cut.

Some organizations will get around the rules. Many religious communities are already “familiar,” you might say, with ways of getting around conventional taxation and regulatory rules. Their unusual social bonds enable them to do things other organizations can’t do. Many religious communities also vote as blocks and consequently get special dispensation in local and state grants and contracts. We’ll also likely end up seeing strategies like offering “stipends” to “parent volunteers” to get around the “wage” problem. For most nonprofits in high-minimum-wage areas, however, the simple reality is that fewer services will be provided per dollar spent.

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.

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. Experts in real-world budgets are often too sophisticated for the proposal world.

When we’re hired to complete a federal proposal, we send our client an Excel template that models the SF-424 budget form found in all grants.gov WorkSpace applications. Recently, we’ve been working for a series of large nonprofits and public agencies that have skilled Chief Financial Officers (CFOs). Most of these CFOs, however, have little or no understanding of proposal budgeting, as they’re accustomed to detailed operational budgets. Yet they’re often charged with filling out a proposal budget.

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 preparing the associated budget narrative/justification far too complex, but also means the budget presentation won’t display well when saved as the required .pdf for attachment to the kit file. The budget will also confuse proposal reviewers (which is never a good idea while being very easy to do), as most of them are not accountants, CFOs, etc.

So how do you keep your budget anchored in the proposal world?

  • Keep the number the number of line items short—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 (and 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 20%) of lots of existing administrators/managers, as 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 a 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.) into single line items. Try to consolidate.
  • 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 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.

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

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. Program officers want to make sure you are reasonable implementing a proposed project, but they don’t care about relatively small changes in operations-level detail. Fighting over small details in a proposal budget is a foolish thing to do, as is including small line items. Get the big picture right and the details will shake out during implementation.

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.

Grant writing and cooking: Too many details or ingredients is never a good idea

As a grant writer who also likes to cook, I understand the importance of simplicity and clarity in both my vocation and avocation: too much detail can ruin the proposal, just as too many ingredients can produce a dull dish. Ten years ago, I wrote a post on the importance of using the KISS method (keep it simple, stupid—or Sally, if you don’t like the word “stupid”) in grant writing. We recently wrote an exceedingly complex state health care proposal for a large nonprofit in a Southern state, but even complex proposals should be as simple as possible—but no simpler.

As is often the case with state programs, the RFP was convoluted and required a complex needs assessment. Still, the project concept and target area were fairly straightforward. We wrote the first draft of the needs assessment in narrative form, rather than using a bunch of tables. There’s nothing intrinsically better or worse about narrative vs. tables; when the RFP is complex, we tend toward narrative form, and when the project concept and/or target area are complex, we often use more tables. For example, if the target population includes both African American and Latino substance abusers in an otherwise largely white community, we might use tables, labeling columns by ethnicity, then compare to the state. That’s hard to do in narrative form. Similarly, if the target area includes lots of counties, some of which are much more affluent than others, we might use tables to contrast the socioeconomic characteristics of the counties to the state.

Many grant reviewers also have trouble reading tables, because they don’t really understand statistics. Tables should also be followed by a narrative paragraph explaining the table anyway.

So: our client didn’t like the first draft and berated me for not using tables in the needs assessment. The customer is not always right, but, as ghostwriters, we accommodate our clients’s feedback, and I added some tables in the second draft. Our client requested more tables and lots of relatively unimportant details about their current programming, much of which wasn’t germane to the RFP questions. Including exhaustive details about current programming takes the proposal focus away from the project you’re trying to get funded, which is seldom a good idea. It’s best to provide sufficient detail to answer the 5 Ws and the H), while telling a compelling story that is responsive to the RFP.

Then, stop.

The client’s second draft edit requested yet more tables and a blizzard of additional, disconnected details. Our client disliked it the third draft. We ended up writing five drafts, instead of the usual three, and the proposal got steadily worse, not better. As chef-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck* is said to have said, “Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors – it’s how you combine them that sets you apart.” Attempting to use all the flavors at once usually results in a kitchen disaster.

A given section of a proposal should be as short as possible without being underdeveloped. Changes from draft to draft should also be as minimal and specific as possible.


* Jake sort-of-met Wolfgang, albeit before he was born. His mom was eight months pregnant with him when we went to Spago for dinner. Wolfgang was there in his Pillsbury Doughboy getup, and, despite not being celebrities, he couldn’t have been nicer and made a big deal out of a very pregnant woman dining at his place. I think he wanted his food to induce labor, but that didn’t happen for a couple of weeks; instead, Nate ‘n’ Al’s Deli (another celebrity hangout in Beverly Hills), was the culprit. A story for another day.

“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.

Links: Young people don’t want construction jobs, how to focus, why there’s an affordable housing crisis, the nature of education, and more!

* “Young People Don’t Want Construction Jobs. That’s a Problem for the Housing Market.” Given what happened to construction workers in 2008, this is not entirely surprising. From what I’ve read, 50% or more of all construction workers were out of work in 2008, and construction didn’t pick up again in earnest for three to four years. Who wants to bear that kind of brutal career risk?

* Alzheimer’s risk 10 times lower with herpes medication. This should also increase interest in herpes vaccines; right now there is basically no reason, save finances, we don’t have one: “Clark said a phase III trial would have cost $150 million and taken three years. In the end, the company’s board and investors were ‘unwilling to take on the investment.'” You should be outraged when you read this. There are also live attenuated versions that show promise.

* “In Some US Cities, There Are Over Ten Times More Parking Spaces Than Households.” Should you be wondering why the rent is too damn high and the commuting times too damn long, this is part of the answer.

* “San Francisco’s zoning makes it illegal to build apartments in 73.5% of the city.” And that, friends, is another part of the reason the rent is too damn high.

* People Are Bad at Being Productive in a Limited Time.

* “Fighting Back Against the War on Homeless Shelters.” Everyone is in favor of homeless shelters in someone else’s neighborhood. See also our post, “Los Angeles’s Prop HHH Funding for homeless facilities meets NIMBYs.”

* “California teacher pension debt swamps school budgets.” Given the poor educational outcomes for most CA public schools, maybe this doesn’t matter?

* “New York City Study Shows Literacy Coaches Had No Effect on Low-Income Second-Graders.”

* The Education Department to require colleges to publish data on graduates’ debt and earnings by major. Good, and long overdue, like that library book the college requires you to pay for prior to receiving your diploma.

* Anti-Vaccine Activists Have Taken Vaccine Science Hostage. Outrageous and true.

* Unions’ Fees Take a Hit After Decision From Supreme Court.

* Does Television Kill Your Sex Life? Microeconometric Evidence from 80 Countries. “Under our most conservative estimate, we find that television ownership is associated with approximately a 6% reduction in the likelihood of having had sex in the past week, consistent with a small degree of substitutability between television viewing and sexual activity.”

* “The Toll of America’s Obesity.”

* Electric scooters will work in NYC. This is obvious, but it’s also amazing to see the small-c conservative NYT editorial board figure it out. Also, “The Real E-Scooters Story Is Much More Boring Than Media Coverage Suggests.” They mostly work out well, and venture capitalists are footing the bill. A win for everyone!

* Rich Absentee Landlords Make a Killing from California’s Prop 13. This is congruent with “L.A. digs a hole more slowly than economics fills it back in: The Proposition HHH Facilities Program RFP.”

* “The Modern Automobile Must Die: If we want to solve climate change, there’s no other option.” More of the obvious, but here it is.

* “What Does Knee Surgery Cost? Few Know, and That’s a Problem.” We need price transparency now.

* “His $109K Heart Attack Bill Is Now Down To $332 After NPR Told His Story.” Another example of why we should be working harder towards price transparency in healthcare.

* “The Nuclear Power Plant of the Future May Be Floating Near Russia.”

* The weirdness of online mobs.

* Radical open-access plan could spell end to journal subscriptions. Good.

* ‘For me, this is paradise’: life in the Spanish city that banned cars.

* Canadian marijuana stock soars to $12 billion. The headline is too celebrity-gossip for me, but the content is of interest as a sign of social change.

* “Why Is the Home Building Industry Stuck in the 1940s? Embrace pre-fabricated, adaptable homes!”

* How San Francisco demolished the California dream via its own housing laws.

* Iron Ox, a new autonomous farm, wants to produce food without human workers.

* Why the novel matters in an age of anger.

* “The Case for Making Cities Out of Wood,” things I had not considered but that are very interesting.

* “Two Students Hooked Up. It Was Clearly Consensual. He Still Spent $12,000 Defending Himself.” Maybe universities ought to get out of the student housing business, which might curtail some of these absurdities.

* The Student Loan Debt Crisis Is About to Get Worse. Having observed the U.S. college system up close for a long time, I find it baffling that it’s managed to persist as long as it has.