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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.