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Studio executives, starlets, and funding

In William Goldman’s hilarious Adventures in the Screen Trade*, he wrote, “Nobody knows anything.” Nobody knows how much money a movie will make or which movies should be made or what audiences want. Goldman cites movies a studio thought were a sure thing and flopped, and movies every studio but one rejected, only to see it do such astronomical business that every executive in the studio could buy a Beverly Hills pad and live like Ari Gold in Entourage.

Any smart studio head will they say, “I did it once with Star Wars, so why can’t I do it 50 more times with Space Battles and Sun Fight and so on until I exhaust my thesaurus?” This is grossly unrealistic because it assumes studio executives own a thesaurus, but the point remains that if they could reliably pick billion-dollar movies, they wouldn’t have to spend so much time agonizing over scripts from those ungrateful striking writers, putting projects together, trying to get Russell Crowe and his $20 million and 20% deal on board, and doing the 750,000 other things required for a movie to have what they consider a shot at the big time. In other words, they want to find an algorithm for finding a sure thing, so instead of all of that studio executives could skip straight to the mansion-and-floating-in-the-pool-drinking-mai-tais part of their lives, which is why studio executives became who they are. If they’d gotten in for another reason, they’d probably be picketing the Universal lot.

As a result of this effort at picking winners, studio executives have spent enormous amounts of time and money on screen tests, re-cuts, edits, and probably much I don’t know about, all in an effort to discover whether if their movies will succeed. Despite all this effort, most movies still bomb.

Nobody knows anything. If they did, movies wouldn’t bomb so often.

Many of you might be thinking, “I’m at a site about grant writing, right? And if so, why am I reading about Hollywood?”

It actually has a lot to do with grant writing. A commenter to our fourth post writes: “I cannot shake the observation that to get a grant you must tell people with the money what they want to hear […] But there seems to be no objective criteria by which these grants are awarded […]” Telling funders what they want to hear is a fine observation because you should follow whatever guidelines they provide.

The golden rule cliche says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The almost-as-old, snarky version goes, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” If you want to make the rules about who gets funded, you have to lead a federal agency or start a software company, make more money than some countries’ GDP, and endow a foundation. Assuming that Bill Gates isn’t reading this, you’ll have to follow the rules of whoever has the gold, and if you don’t want to follow them, you’re less likely to get funded. You should follow the funder’s instructions if you want to be funded, just as studio executives know that if they want their movies have a better chance of success they should hire Kate Winslet.

You can maximize your probability of being funded by submitting technically correct proposals written and prepared to the best of your ability. This will improve your odds of being funded, which in part includes making sure that you follow whatever submission guidelines are available.

To be sure, no one can be certain whether a given proposal will be funded. Almost anyone who makes guarantees about funding is probably doing something unethical, exaggerating their connections, or simply lying. It’s also difficult to gauge the likelihood of a particular proposal being funded because you probably won’t know many other factors: the other applicants to a program, the mood of the reviewers, who the reviewers are, how many other applicants there are, whether the funder has hidden priorities, the phase of the moon, etc. Like studio executives picking movies, you won’t always know what the audience wants, despite what the audience may say.

Sometimes the funder will want agencies with long track records, sometimes new agencies. Sometimes funders will have geographic preferences—if you’re working for an organization in the Northeast, for example, and the Northeast has brutal competitors while practically no one from the Southwest bothers to apply, and if the funder wants to fund programs evenly in the U.S., then it’s possible that an otherwise good agency with an otherwise good program won’t be funded in the Northeast. Notice the preceding sentence’s length and how many caveats it contains, and that’s only for a single hypothetical factor. Multiply that by fifty or a hundred or infinite factors, right up to whether a reviewer knows where the proposed evaluator went to college and doesn’t think much of that college, which happens to be his college’s rival, and you’ll start to realize why no one can guarantee funding no matter how great an applicant and application might be.

Still, as an organization applies, it should pay some attention to whether its proposals are consistently rejected. As the Seliger + Associates FAQ states:

Over time, you should achieve a 25% – 50% success rate. If less than 25% of your proposals are being funded, you’re probably doing something wrong (e.g., incomplete application packages, ineligible applicant, etc.). If more that 50% of your grants are being funded, you probably are not stretching the envelop far enough by trying to get grants to extend your agency’s service capabilities.

So, to go back to the commenter, who writes about how there seems to be no objective criteria by which these grants are awarded, I’ll give a short answer now: it depends on what you’re applying for. This post, however, has been extended long enough, so Part II will deal with that and come next Monday. Any successful post ought to have a sequel, action figures, and lunch boxes.

Part II is now live.

*An essential book for anyone who wants to better understand the movies they watch, and, implicitly, why so many are abysmal.

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Zombie Funding – Six Tana Leaves for Life, Nine for Motion

Jake’s post on Zombie Funding got me thinking about my favorite Zombie program, the Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery (UPARR) program. This oddball program emerged in 1978 during the Carter administration and was supposed to link economic development with park development, a curious combination even by federal standards. In 1979, I wrote the first two UPARR grants, one for planning and one for implementation, while working as a full-time grant writer for the City of Lynwood. The planning grant was particularly fun to write, as the City only had two parks and it was quite a stretch to dream up complex planning tasks. But such is the joy of grant writing. The Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (BOR) Program Officers, a group that really knew how to party, was so impressed that they invited me to the first, and probably only, annual UPARR conference in San Antonio. Not much of a conference, but I did get to shake hands with Henry Cisneros, a rising political star who might have been President, except for a minor personal peccadillo.

Time passed, and when Reagan rode into D.C., UPARR was one of the first casualties. I assumed it was gone forever, but I failed to take the Zombie factor into account. It was never actually killed. Instead, it was kept out of appropriation bills, which brings me to the Tana leaf effect. Those of you old enough to remember the seemingly endless Mummy movies (see the link for a nice discussion of these films, which were a childhood staple of mine) will recall that it takes the juice of six Tana leaves to keep the old boy in bandages alive and the juice of nine Tana leaves for motion! At nine Tana leaves, the mummy threatens the leading actress, but that part of the analogy doesn’t stretch into the proposal world.

Now, flash forward to 1994, shortly after we started Seliger + Associates. We got a call from a city interested in applying for UPARR. I checked and to my amazement found that the BOR had been giving six Tana leaves to UPARR for 13 years. When Clinton got elected, they went to nine Tana leaves and UPARR stalked the land once more. Even more fun was that BOR had done such a good job of hiding the program that the eligibility rules had never been updated—to apply, the city had to be on the original eligibility list from 1978, which was based on the 1970 census. Along comes G.W. Bush and BOR goes back to six Tana leaves, so UPARR is once again slumbering.

Depending the vagaries of the ’08 election, the scraping noise you hear behind you might be the UPARR Mummy creeping again, after having gotten its nine Tana leaves. Let’s hope they keep the old eligibility list, so I get to work with almost 40-year old census data again. For a real blast from the past, check out the table names for the 1970 census. Political correctness had not quite arrived.

The moral of this story is that the feds almost never completely eliminate funding programs; they just go into suspended hibernation like The Thing from Another World, yet another of my favorite childhood movies.

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They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal

1972—A 21-year-old kid who’d taken a few Saul Alinsky-style courses in community organizing found himself as a Community Organizing Intern working in North Minneapolis, the mostly Black neighborhood in which he grew up, for the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority. His supervisor, Helen Starkweather (who may or may not have been related to the better known Charlie Starkweather), a former AFDC mom and new careerist, let him loose to work on any of the manifold problems in the community.

After conducting a survey of the dozens of vacant and abandoned houses, a problem that existed long before the current subprime meltdown, he decided to ask the Willard-Homewood Organization (incredibly, WHO is still active) for an okay to set up a Vacant Housing Task Force. This led to a series of home improvement seminars and the realization that there were no local hardware stores, making it difficult to even find the tools and supplies necessary to repair homes. What to do? Aha, set up a cooperative hardware store. He asked around and was told, form a nonprofit organization and get some grant funds. He didn’t know what a grant was, but blasted ahead, formed the nonprofit and wrote a grant proposal that was funded for $5,000—big money in 1972 and enough to get the operation going.

The naive young man was of course me, and I thought this grant writing thing was pretty easy. After decamping to LA on a cold morning the following January in my rusted-out ’65 VDub by taking Route 66 (yeah, I stayed in Flagstaff and I didn’t forget Winona), I learned the hard way that there is more to successful grant writing than passion. Thirty-five years later, I’m still honing my skills. But I’ll never feel better about the universe than when I picked up that check from an aging 1930s radical who was a manager at the funder, Farmer’s Union Central Exchange, a producer cooperative long since merged into an energy conglomerate. This old guy in a conservative suit knew another radical when he saw one and was delighted to once again be stirring things up. I’ve long lost my radical ideals, but I still love crafting the small stories that are the stuff of successful grant writing.

I’ll be posting thoughts about grant writing, including tips, anecdotes and random observations about this most unusual occupation, based on my long journey and more proposals written than I like to think about. Posts from my son, Jake, who grew up with grant writing, will probably offer a less cynical and considerably less grizzled view.

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Zombie Funding

Programs can be engorged with money one year and fall off priority lists the next. The Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program/Fire Prevention and Safety Grants demonstrates this better than almost any other, as it had more than $500,000,000 available in 2006—and this year it has all of $2,750,000 (warning: .pdf link). In other words, the Department of Homeland Security, or Congress, or someone, ran out of money for or interest in firefighters.

This absurdly abrupt change in funding also demonstrates why you should apply for attractive funding opportunities as soon as you see them because they might be gutted next year. While old programs are seldom outright eliminated, it’s not unusual for zombie funding sources to keep lurching about without real funding. Occasionally they’ll spring back to life with an infusion of cash, but this is unusual without some impetus.

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About Us

Seliger + Associates provides comprehensive grant writing, grant source research and related services for public and nonprofit agencies throughout the United States. Formed in 1993, we have had over 500 clients in 40 states and have written over $175,000,000 in funded grants.

This blog is maintained by Isaac and Jake Seliger. Isaac has been working in nonprofit and public agencies for more than 35 years, and in that time he’s written hundreds of proposals. He has probably seen every manner of proposal blunder imaginable and has seen endless grant fads come and go, and you will have a chance to read his observations, reminiscences and anecdotes, while picking up useful tips gleaned from a lifetime of staring down proposal deadlines.

His son, Jake, is fond of telling potential clients that while some people grow up with parents who own Italian restaurants and thus inherit recipes for marina sauce, and others have parents who are developers and thus know their cities’ zoning laws intimately, he was raised by a clan of grant writers who were eager for the next round of YouthBuild or SAMHSA grants to be released. As a result, his knowledge of grant writing is broader and deeper than anyone else his age. He also operates Seliger Editing & Writing and writes the literary blog The Story’s Story.