Category Archives: Blogging

Seven Years Later, We’re Number One in the Grant Blogosphere

By at least one metric, we’re now #1.

Seliger + Associates started Grant Writing Confidential over seven years ago: Our first post was “About Us,” which both of us wrote. The first substantive post I wrote was “Zombie Funding,” and Isaac’s first substantive post was “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal.”

During the first two or three years we wrote the blog, we watched our fortunes on Google rise and fall, but we never got to the top because of established competitors—one factor Google considers in its ranking is the age of the site; older sites with recent updates generally get ranked higher than newer sites. By now, though, most of those competitors have disappeared, while we’ve persevered. Being #1 on Google is also a fickle prize: Google could change its ranking criteria at anytime, and there’s a cottage industry of people trying to fool Google. I’m not sure any of that really works, but then again people also try to rob banks despite the futility of that endeavor.

Our strategy is simple: post on topics likely to be interesting to executive directors, project managers, directors, and board members in nonprofit and public agencies, and make those posts based on our direct experiences in writing proposals, reading RFPs, talking to clients, and dealing with funders. Long-time readers know that we post about once a week. We’ve thought about posting more, but it’s not really feasible given the number of hours we already spend writing and preparing proposals. Grant Writing Confidential is only a small slice of that world.

One business slogan we’ve used for over 20 years is “we help you get your slice of the grant pie.” Grant Writing Confidential gives readers free, but valuable slices, of our experience and insights into the opaque world of grant making and grant seeking. We see things almost no one else sees and know things almost no one else knows, and that’s what makes this blog valuable.

Office of Family Assistance Issues the “Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood Grants Program” FOA, Provides a Generous 30-Day Deadline, and Makes Mothers Eligible

The Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Family Assistance* just issued a Funding Opportunity Announcement (DHHS-speak for RFP) with tens of millions of dollars available and no matching requirement for the Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood Grants program. This new program was apparently hidden in plain sight in a somewhat obscure piece of federal legislation named the Claims Resolution Act of 2010. In addition to resolving the wonderfully named Pigford II settlement (I am not making this up, and no, I am not going to Google Pigford II or its presumable predecessor, Pigford I), this legislation also created and funded the Fatherhood program and at least two more new competitive grant programs: the Community-Centered Healthy Marriage and Relationship (CCHMR) Grants Program and the Community-Centered Responsible Fatherhood Ex-Prisoner Reentry Pilot Project.

There is $52,00,000 available for the Fatherhood program and $57,000,000 for the Marriage program, while the ex-prisoner dads get a comparatively paltry $6,000,000. Even better, none require matching funds, which is so unusual that the fact is worth mentioning twice. It’s open season if your agency is interested in new service delivery programs, and which agency isn’t?

The only bad news is the deadline: all three were published on June 29, with July 28 deadlines. OFA is giving applicants exactly 30 days (including the Fourth of July, which is a family holiday) to write complex responses to new programs. Last year, I blogged about stupid deadlines. The only good news about a deadline like this: there will likely be fewer than usual applications due to the combination of the long holiday weekend, summer vacations, and the struggles inherent in new FOAs and regulations.

Tireless OFA workers did not forget to include a bit of unintentional humor in the Fathers FOA, which, despite its name, says that “programs funded under this FOA must offer services on an equal basis to fathers and mothers.” I guess it could have been called the Responsible Parenting Program, but where’s the fun in that? Perhaps the Prisoners grants must be provided on an equal basis for non-prisoners. There is also the minor problem of whether all marriages—if you know what I mean, and I think you do—can be assisted through marriage grant activities. If we get hired to write this proposal, I will let readers know how I dance around this potential minefield.

Enough blogging.

Unlike you civilians and federal programs officers, who will be stuffing yourselves with tofu dogs and drinking beer, I will be slaving over a hot proposal or two this long holiday weekend. I’ll take a little time out to cruise PCH in my new bright red Mini Cooper S Ragtop. If I have time, I’ll get a dog harness so my golden retriever can ride in the back, adding to the clown aspect of driving it. If I wear a Fez,** I think the look will be complete. Suggestions for 7-character personalized plates will be appreciated.


* “DHHS ACF OFA,” if you want to see the whole string. Perhaps the subagency should have been named the “Office of Assistance to Families” to improve the acronym.

** I think Steely Dan is the only rock group that worked “Fez” into song lyrics, but I could be wrong. Personally, “I’m never going to do it without the fez on.”

Why Clients Love and Hate Us (and Other Consultants), With An E-mail Example

As any consultant knows, some clients will hate you and some will love you. That’s certainly true of us, but the funny thing is that clients love and hate us for exactly the same reason.

It sounds counterintuitive, so let me explain using a recent “we love you!” e-mail from a client as an example:

Your assistance was truly invaluable; we could not have accomplished all of this without your excellent work. We really appreciated the Documents Memo, the specific deadline dates, the direction, advice and guidance and when you left decisions up to us, that was clear.

Please use us as a reference any time and any comments I’ve written here. Whether we get the funding or not, you provided us the opportunity to present the best package possible and best opportunity for funding.

We get attaboys like this regularly, and we like reading them because we take pride in our work.* Clients are often surprised when we do what we say and say what we do, which tells us something about other would-be grant writers.

We also treat all of our clients more or less the same way, which means that we produce complete and technically accurate proposals and minimize the amount of work our clients have to do. This means that we tell clients exactly what they need to do, how they need to do it, and when we need every piece of an individual proposal, which makes many of them love us.

But some clients hate us because we tell them exactly what they need to do, how they need to do it, and when we need every piece of an individual proposal. This thoroughness and lack of ambiguity actually makes them unhappy if they don’t really want to submit the application or want someone to blame if the application is rejected for reasons outside anyone’s control (which we’ve discussed previously here and in “True Tales of a Department of Education Grant Reviewer“).

A certain number of clients hire us, as far as we can tell, because they want to be able to tell others that they’re Doing Something. “Doing Something” is separate from wanting to turn in a complete proposal. An attitude like this doesn’t bother us, but when we first came across it it did surprise us. Usually these clients don’t hate us, but they rarely love us.

Then there are the clients who hate us, most often for things outside of our control. They don’t like that yes, in fact, they do need every single item listed in the documents memo if they want to be funded; they don’t like that we must have comments on the first draft within, say, a week, otherwise there’s not going to be adequate time for the second draft; they don’t like that we’re honest and direct; and so forth. We don’t make the deadlines. We only conform to them.

Our work is similar across clients: we read the RFP, deliver the documents memo (or “doc memo”), write the drafts of the proposal, prepare the budget, and assemble the final submission package. What’s interesting to us is the wide array of reactions we get from our clients. One of our challenges is to maintain our equilibrium regardless of our clients’ reactions. This is probably a problem universal to consultants.

Some are like the client quoted above. A small but real number of others aren’t. But we see our job as maximizing our clients’ probability of getting funded, and we do this by turning in complete and technically accurate proposals without missing a deadline. How our clients treat and feel about us varies widely for reasons largely outside our control.

On another note, grant writers are not miracle workers, although we sometimes resemble them, and we’re not True Believers (hence Isaac’s post, “Does Seliger + Associates ‘Care’ About Our Clients?“). Neither are other consultants, though they may pretend to be True Believers. We sometimes look like we are, but that most often happens when clients do as much as they can to help themselves too.


* In my other life, I’m a grad student in English Lit at the University of Arizona, which means I teach two sections of English Composition per semester. Usually I get a couple of “this class changed my life” e-mails after finals week. One of my favorite began this way:

I just wanted to thank you again for this semester. Although I enjoyed the material of the course, what I will keep with me for the rest of my life is what the course made me think about. Like I said, I am always one to (over…)-analyze and question things but doing a lot of the “why” exercises really helped me organize my thoughts in all areas of my life.

These messages give me hope during the inevitable experiences with apathetic or indifferent students, and the positive e-mails from students and clients are often pretty similar. Here’s a recent example from a client: “Your comments are good, helpful, and easy to understand.”

Why You’re Unlikely to see “Seliger and Associates Presents Grant Writing Confidential: The Book and Musical” Anytime Soon

A recent commenter told us, “You should write a book, if you haven’t already.” We’ve thought idly about doing a book and then gone back to drinking Aviations, admiring the sunset, and writing proposals.

But we might eventually write a book if the conditions are right. The main reason I haven’t spent a lot of time on a potential book project is because we can make far more money with far less aggravation as consultants than we can trying to get a book published. To learn why, see Philip Greenspun’s essay “The book behind the book behind the book…,” where he describes how he wrote a computer book, why most computer books are so bad, and points out the sheer amount of time he had spend not consulting for real money but instead working with publishers who removed his biting, appropriate commentary and instead insert happy-talk pablum of the kind that will be incredibly familiar to anyone who has picked up a commercial computer book. Alas, my short description doesn’t convey how hilarious and accurate his essay is; it should be mandatory reading for anyone who thinks they want to publish a book.*

In our case, we can say as much as we want about grant writing and the grant writing process on our blog without having to muck around with publishers. GWC is now sufficiently well developed that I can say to anyone who wants to learn about grant writing, “Read the archives.”

Still, if a publisher or agent came to us and said, “Organize your blog posts into book form and we’ll give you some money,” I’d probably do it because this would make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. That, and I have a compulsive desire to communicate. But I’ve been a would-be novelist for longer than I care to think about (see here for more) and don’t think much of trying to get into publishing because I’ve already been trying to do so for so long. Trying to get in without being invited is tough, tedious, and not all that rewarding even if/when you do get in.

It’s still tempting, though, because so much of the nominal competition is so bad. Most of what people know or think they know about grant writing is wrong. Most of it is based on limited impressions or single projects or single agencies. Most people don’t really know how the grant process works because you just have to have been around long enough to understand it. Very few people have. There are all kinds of things people don’t understand. No one else has simply said, “Seeking grants is also a treasure hunt.” We’ve never seen anyone else point out that just because you get the most points doesn’t mean you’ll get funded. RFPs never convey how to write to them in plain English. We’re trying to put as much plain English into grant writing as possible.

A lot of grant writing books are deficient and almost every grant writing book fails to explain how grants actually work. They haven’t been written by people who have worked across the nonprofit sector. As is often the case, we’ve seen the competition and thought, “We could do better than that.”

But the gap between “could do better” and “your local bookstore” is wide. Books usually get sold by writing an outline, then finding an agent, who pitches a publisher, who buys your book, edits it as you write it, then distributes it to someone who sells it. Each of those stages can be pretty arduous; you don’t climb a mountain just by hitting the first easy patch after a technical climb, and you can fall off a cliff and plummet, screaming, to the bottom at any time during the ascent (this metaphor sums up how people who experience the publishing industry feel about the publishing industry). At the moment, we haven’t overcome inertia to the point we want to begin the ascent. That, and we’ve got lots of work writing proposals down here in base camp.

Anyway, if think we’re awesome and you know someone who works in publishing, tell them to call us at 800.540.8906. Better yet, if you know someone who needs a technically accurate and well-written proposal completed on time, tell them to call us, because that’s still our main business. We wouldn’t mind being in the book business but aren’t likely to get there in the immediate future, unless someone in the know invites us to start the climb.


* When you’re done with it, read “Why I’m not a Writer:” “I’m not a writer. Sometimes I write, but I don’t define myself as a career writer. And that isn’t because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of an obscure writer. It is because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of a successful writer.”

Writing Conversationally and the Plain Style in Grant Proposals and My Master’s Exam

The kinds of skills you learn by grant writing don’t only apply to grant writing.

Loyal Grant Writing Confidential readers know that in my other life I’m a grad student in English Literature at the University of Arizona. Last week I took my MA written exam, which consisted of three questions that I had to answer over a four-hour period—a bit like Isaac’s recommended test for would-be grant writers:

If we ever decide to offer a grant writing credential, we would structure the exam like this: The supplicant will be locked in a windowless room with a computer, a glass of water, one meal and a complex federal RFP. The person will have four hours to complete the needs assessment. If it passes muster, they will get a bathroom break, more water and food and another four hours for the goals/objectives section and so on. At the end of the week, the person will either be dead or a grant writer, at which point we either make them a Department of Education Program Officer (if they’re dead) or give them a pat on the head and a Grant Writing Credential to impress their mothers (if they’ve passed).

Except the University of Arizona lets you eat and drink tea if you want. Given the extreme deadline pressure, the exam demands that people who take it write quickly and succinctly. I e-mailed my answers to one of my academic friends, who replied, “You write so, well, conversationally, that I wonder how academics will view this. I find it refreshing.” Although this is an underhanded compliment if I’ve ever heard one, I take it as a real complement given how many academics succeed by writing impenetrable jargon. And “conversationally” means, “other people can actually understand what you wrote and follow the thread of your argument.”

This is exactly what I do whether completing a written Master’s exam or writing proposals. If you’re a grant writer, you should too. Proposals should be more or less understandable to readers, who probably won’t give you a very good score if they can’t even figure out what you’re trying to say. It might be tempting to follow the old advice, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit,” but although that might be a good strategy in arguments about politics in bars where your audience is drunk, it’s not such a good idea in proposals. I’ve spent most of my life trying to communicate clearly, in what Robertson Davies and others call the “plain style,” which means a style that is as short as it can be but no shorter, using words as simple as possible but no simpler.* The goal, above all else, is clarity and comprehensibility. If you’ve spent any time reviewing proposals, you know that an unfortunate number come up short on this metric.

Over the last decade and change, I’ve been trained to write proposals in such a way that any reasonably educated person can understand the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the proposal. This applies even to highly technical research topics, in which we write most of the proposal and include technical content and specifications that our clients provide. You should write proposals like this too. Sure, the academics of the world might raise their noses instead of their glasses to you, but they often don’t make good grant writers anyway. A good proposal should be somewhat conversational. People on average appear to like conversation much more than they like reading sentences skewed my misplaced pretension. If you manage to write in the plain style, people might be so surprised that they even find your work “refreshing.” And “refreshing” in the grant world means “fundable,” which is the final goal of all grant writing.

And, as for the exam—I passed.


* For more on this subject, read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (which I assign to my students every semester) and John Trimble’s Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing , which I’m going to start assigning next semester.

Searching for Talent Search: Where Oh Where Has the Talent Search RFP Gone And Why is It A Secret?

UPDATE: Talent Search has finally appeared, and the RFP vindicates much of what Isaac wrote below.

Having been in business for over 17 years, Seliger + Associates has lots of spies. Well, not spies exactly, but clients, former and current, program officers and assorted grant cognoscenti who send us interesting nuggets. Recently, one made it into “Be Nice to Your Program Officer: Reprogrammed / Unobligated Federal Funds Mean Christmas May Come Early and Often This Year” about the anticipated release of the Talent Search RFP.

A client for whom we wrote a funded proposal for a different TRIO program let us know that the “Draft Talent Search Application” was hiding in plain sight at Bulletin Board of an organization called the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE). Even though I’ve been writing TRIO proposals since the early days of the Clinton administration, I’d never heard of COE, which turns out to be more or less a trade group for TRIO grantees and wannabes. Our client hangs out at COE gatherings and told us about the draft Talent Search RFP, since we’re going to write the proposal for her nonprofit. I din’t bother reading the draft RFP because only the final published document matters.

What was intriguing, however, was that the draft Talent Search Application indicated that the real RFP would be issued on October 22. Astute readers might realize that it’s now Halloween. So what happened?

To investigate on behalf of our client and curious Grant Writing Confidential readers, I sent an e-mail to Julia Tower, the contact person listed on the COE website for Talent Search, on October 23. The draft documents were apparently kicked over to COE by the Department of Education, much like YouthBuild stuff is often kicked over to YouthBuild USA by the Department of Labor. Anyway, my e-mail to Julia went out on October 23 and asked innocently (I know it’s hard to believe, but I can be sweet at times) if she knew when the Talent Search RFP would actually be published and if she knew the reason for delay (I can guess the reason, which I reveal below—wait for it—but wanted to back check with somebody actually “in the know”).

Julia sent me a reply, typos and all, that said: “The ED source for all TS info- regs were published- draft appl for grants available on web site eventually- & at ED free wkshops now.” I love “free wkshops” as much as the next guy, but I replied by reiterating my query because Grant Writing Confidential readers presumably want to know if she knows when the RFP will be published.

Julia again ignored my pointed questions and replied, again with typos, “Is your company an institutuional member of coe?” I wrote back:

We are not COE members, but why does this matter?

As bloggers, we sometimes act as journalists. You may wish treat my inquiry the same as if it were coming from a NYT, WP or WSJ reporter, since it is possible I may use this exchange in a blog post. Are the questions I’m asking proprietary in any way or is it not public information? If it is not public information, why is it a secret? A “no comment” or decline to comment might strike our readers, who number in the thousands, as evasive.

FYI, as a grant writer, I can assure you that a draft application and workshops are useless. What matters is the published RFP and the deadline. If I write the post, I’ll explain why.

Since then, I haven’t heard from Julia or anyone else at COE, and, as of this writing, the Department of Education still hasn’t published the Talent Search RFP. Since they have now missed the publication date by at least 10 days and are supposed to provide applicants at least 45 days to respond, the proposed proposal submission deadline of December 9 will also probably be stretched out by at least 10 days, putting it around December 20. Oops, that’s a bit close to Christmas, which might push the deadline into January and smack into the FY 2011 budget hurricane that was the subject of my original post. Funny how grant writing things that come around, go around.

Note to Julia—a draft application and pre-application workshops are fairly useless from a grant writer’s perspective because the only document that really matters is the RFP/application as published in the Federal Register and/or grants.gov. The rest is merely speculation and isn’t binding. I also can’t imagine why the Department of Education flies Program Officers all around the country for these workshops, which could easily be presented on the web as podcasts or what have you. It seems the TRIO office at the Department of Education is firmly cemented in the last century.*

Now, for my guess regarding the delay: It is probably a result of the giant backlog at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The OMB has to approve all RFPs, regulations and other federal announcements prior publication. With the current avalanche of RFPs, as well health care reform and Wall Street reform rule making going on, I suspect the boys and girls at the OMB are probably a wee bit behind. In addition to Talent Search, we’re also waiting for HRSA to issue their FOA (Funding Opportunity Announcement, which is HRSA-speak for RFP) for the Expanded Medical Capacity (EMC) program. Another our spies said the EMC FOA is hung up at the OMB, and I suspect it’s probably sitting on top of the Talent Search RFP on some GS-11’s desk.


* In the early days of our business, I actually sometimes went to RFP workshops, but not to listen to the blather and giggling of the Program Officers (go to any such workshop and the presenter will eventually giggle when confronted with an uncomfortable question). I went to market our services, wearing a Seliger + Associates “WE KNOW WHERE THE MONEY IS” t-shirt and passing out marketing flyers.

This typically drove the Program Officers over the edge. I was actually almost arrested at a Department of Education TRIO workshop on the campus of Seattle Community College around 1995. When the Program Officer figured out what I was doing, she called campus security. The President of the College promptly showed up with an officer or two in tow and demanded to know what I was doing. I said I’m simply drumming up business and exercising my free speech rights. He huffed and puffed and left me to pass out flyers and chat-up the attendees.

The October 2010 Blog Carnival: Tell Us About Your Tools

The October Nonprofit Blog Carnival is setting up camp at Grant Writing Confidential. A couple of thoughts for future writers before we get started:

  • Read Paul Graham’s The List of N Things, because many of the submissions are like wannabe magazine submissions: “Seven Ways to Beat Fat Now!!!!” (The number seven occurs disproportionately).
  • The world of tools goes beyond social media and online. For example, one of the most useful tools a nonprofit can use to manage grant writing and other assignments is a whiteboard. Since I’m dating a med student, I’ve discovered that whiteboards are often used in emergency rooms to track patients because anyone walking by them can see at a glance who is where and any patients they’re responsible for.
  • If you’re going to write a worthwhile blog, bring expertise to the table.

Now, on to the carnival:

Thanks to everyone who contributed!

How to Write About Grant Writing and How to Learn About Grant Writing Via Blogging

In “Twentysomething: Making time for a blog and a full-time job,” Ryan Healy says that one should create deadlines, skip days when necessary, and remember why one blogs. It’s good advice, and we try to follow it.

Grant Writing Confidential has one big advantage over similar blogs: we’re extremely specific about programs, RFPs, problems, and solutions; notice our recent post about HRSA and Section 330 grantees. Grant writing is all about ignoring generalities (except for this generality) and attending to specifics.

But the bigger lesson is this: good blogging and good grant writing share a lot of characteristics, and this post explores this intersection. Get better at one and you’ll probably get better at the other.

Other Grant Writing Blogs

When grant writing blogs feature lots of hand waving, they’re signaling that their writers are not detail oriented or aren’t real grant writers. The latter problem is especially obvious in the age of the Internet, where your work is in front of the audience. If you’re not actually writing proposals (and writing about writing proposals), people will figure it out.

Most grant writing blogs aren’t interesting or informative, and I wish more were. But this also creates an opportunity for us: we’re more personable than others and slide into spaces left by less interesting bloggers. There aren’t many (good) grant writing blogs, since most of them don’t do the kinds of things we talk about in “How to Write a “Juicy” Nonprofit Blog — or a Blog of Any Kind.”

Uncertainty

One valuable thing I learned from Isaac is the ability to admit ignorance and say that I don’t know, which he does to clients regularly. I get the impression many other grant writers and consultants don’t. But you can’t find out how things work if you don’t tell people when you don’t understand something. When I called around getting quotes for Xeroxes and phone systems, broadcasting how little I knew about that particular domain helped me get a better sense of what I was looking for. Journalists use the same tactic. Chris Matthews calls it “hanging a lantern on your problems” in his wonderful book Hardball. I have a signed copy that’s falling apart because I’ve read it so many times and the book has so changed my thinking—less about politics the sport than about the politics inherent in life.

In How to be more interesting to other people, Penelope Trunk says:

That’s the part we should talk about when we talk about ourselves. If you limit the conversation, discussing only what you are certain about, then there’s no chance to stand on equal footing with your conversation partner. You stand on equal footing when you both reveal your struggles with what you don’t know yet, and the conversation can contribute to the answer.

Trunk has all kinds of useful posts about blogging, but some are more useful than others. In How to write a blog post people love, she gives five pieces of advice, each of which is bolded, with my commentary after it:

1. Start strong.

Every newspaper person knows the lead sells the rest of the story. We try to start off with a pithy sentence that ideally encapsulates the post itself or draws readers in through stories. Sometimes this works better than others.

2. Be short.

Admonishing people to “be short” works better for some blogs than others. Blogs with a mass, relatively low skill audience are probably better off with this than other blogs, and some topics are genuinely complex—like many of the subjects we discuss. I would amend this to say, “be as short as possible and no shorter.” For her, the right length is usually shorter than it is for us. Grant Writing Confidential posts are often long because grant writing is a complex subject.

3. Have a genuine connection.

This is vacuous and could be rolled into the fourth category.

4. Be passionate.

I would argue that passion helps writers of any sort, but it should be tempered with expertise. Don’t be a True Believer, and make sure you internal critic is always on the job (we sometimes call this “self-consciousness” or “self-awareness”). Indeed, passion without expertise probably dooms many blogs: it’s easy to skate along the surface of something, like a dilettante with an idea, but difficult to bring something genuinely new and engaging to a world (ditto for grant proposals). This is another thing that sets GWC apart from most blogs that cover grant writing and nonprofits, which seem to thrive on vague generalities, “a delicious lunch was served,” formulations, and too few real-world examples. These problems blend into the next category.

5. Have one good piece of research.

You need a good piece of research, but blogs often misrepresent research or reference it in such a facile way that they barely need it. And remember that your grant story needs to get the money. Trunk’s last link in this post stinks of this problem:

I can virtually guarantee that the research behind “The smell of pizza makes men want to have sex” is not nearly as strong as Trunk’s uncritical acceptance of it implies. This goes back to the “expertise” issue.

Granted, maybe Trunk is right about some of these issues—I wonder how many people read to the end of this post. Those who don’t, miss the big point: this advice is also good for writing proposals and virtually all kinds of writing.

The Nonprofit Blog Carnival is Here: Tell Us About Your Tools

We’re hosting October’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival, which means that we’re inviting you (the reader and possibly writer) to contribute posts about the tools you use in your life working for a nonprofit. What hardware, software, items, or techniques have made your life substantially better, easier, or more interesting? We (and others) want to know; think of this prompt as being like Cool Tools, but for nonprofits.

Submit your links here, send an e-mail to me at seliger@editingandwriting.com, or send a note to the carnival address: nonprofitcarnival@gmail.com.

You can interpret the topic as broadly or as narrowly as you choose. We’ve written about this previously from a grant writer’s perspective—see, for example, Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have and Tools and Organizing Organizations: How to Wrangle Information and Databases for Grant Writers—but want to hear what others are doing and how they’re doing it. If you have a post that you think is valuable but doesn’t fit with the theme, let us know and we may include it anyway.

If you don’t have a blog but still want to contribute, leave a comment on this post.

You can see an example of a previous carnival on Katy’a Nonprofit Marketing Blog; I like her definition of what this is about: “I should explain the carnival is simply a monthly roundup of themed blog posts hosted by various bloggers in the nonprofit world.” Right. It’s supposed to be a fun, easy way for nonprofits and others to share thoughts and ideas. We hope to hear yours no later than October 25.

How to Write a “Juicy” Nonprofit Blog — or a Blog of Any Kind

July’s “Nonprofit Blog Carnival” asks for suggestions on “How to Create a Juicy Nonprofit Blog.” I’m not sure it’s possible to write a “juicy” nonprofit blog—I can’t see how SIX SHOCKING CELEBRITY SEX TAPE SCANDALS!!!! would apply to the sector, except as Google bait and something to draw the idea of otherwise bored readers to the article.

That being said, here’s my advice:

* Tell stories. People like stories. Joel Spolsky’s Joel on Software gets zillions of visitors not because he’s a very good programmer—which he probably is—but because he imparts his lessons through real stories about software fiascos. He says in Introduction to Best Software Writing I:

See what I did here? I told a story. I’ll bet you’d rather sit through ten of those 400 word stories than have to listen to someone drone on about how “a good team leader provides inspiration by setting a positive example.”

Yeah! In “Anecdotes,” Joel says:

Heck, I practically invented the formula of “tell a funny story and then get all serious and show how this is amusing anecdote just goes to show that (one thing|the other) is a universal truth.”

Steal someone else’s stories if you have to (I just stole Joel’s, which is a pretty solid source).

There’s a reason the Bible and most other religious texts are lighter on “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” and heavier on parables: the parables are way more fun. More people read novels than read legal codes, even though the novels implicitly offer examples of how to live your life. People read stories more readily than they read “how-to” manuals. Taken together, this is we often tell stories about projects, clients, and so on; my post Deadlines are Everything, and How To Be Amazing is a good example of this, since it’s basically one story after another. So is Stay the Course: Don’t Change Horses (or Concepts) in the Middle of the Stream (or Proposal Writing).

Real life is just a story generating machine. Which leads me to my next point:

* Do or have done something. I get the sense—perhaps incorrect—that some nonprofit bloggers spend more time blogging than they do working in or running nonprofits. This is like describing how to play professional baseball despite having never done so. A lot of grant writing bloggers, for example, don’t show evidence of working on any actual proposals; they don’t tell stories about projects, use specific examples from RFPs, and so on. This makes me think they’re pretending to be grant writers.*

* Be an expert and genuinely know the field. A lot of blogs that are putatively about grant writing don’t appear to have much insight into the process of grant writing, the foibles involved, the difficulty of getting submissions right, and so on. As I mentioned above, the writers seldom mention projects they’ve worked on and RFPs they’ve responded to.

* Dave Winer on great blogging:

1. People talking about things they know about, not just expressing opinions about things they are not experts in (nothing wrong with that, of course).

2. Asking hard questions that powerful people might not want to be asked.

3. Saying things that few people have the courage to say.

I would amend 3. to say “Saying things that few people have the courage or knowledge to say.”

* Don’t do something that everyone else is already doing. Every blog has “eight tips for improving your submissions,” which say things like “read the RFP before you start” and “get someone else to proofread your proposal.” Paul Graham wrote an essay against the “List of N Things” approach that’s so popular in weak magazines:

The greatest weakness of the list of n things is that there’s so little room for new thought. The main point of essay writing, when done right, is the new ideas you have while doing it. A real essay, as the name implies, is dynamic: you don’t know what you’re going to write when you start. It will be about whatever you discover in the course of writing it.

The whole essay is worth reading. Sometimes a bulleted list is appropriate, but more often it’s merely easy. Sometimes the “eight tips” are obvious and sometimes they’re wrong, but they often don’t add anything unique to a discussion.

Everyone else writes posts that are 100 – 200 words long and includes pictures; we made a conscious decision to write long, detailed posts that will actually help people who are trying to write grants. Stock photo pictures don’t add anything to writing, and most of what grant writing deals with can’t be shown or expanded with pictures. So we don’t use them. Isaac, of course, insists on working in old movies, TV shows and rock ‘n’ roll lyrics, but I will not comment on these idiosyncrasies.

Writing proposals is really, really hard, and the process can’t be reduced to soundbites, which is why we write the way we write as opposed to some other way. Pictures are wonderful, but I think it better to have no pictures unless those pictures add something to the story that can’t be conveyed any other way. Generic pictures are just distractions.

As you’ve probably noticed, this post isn’t really about nonprofit blogs: it’s about how to be an interesting writer in general, regardless of the medium. Being an interesting writer has been a hard task since writing was invented, and it will probably continue to be a hard task forever, regardless of whether the medium involves paper (like books, magazines, and newspapers) or bits (like blogs) or neural channels (someday).

Finally, if you can’t take any of my suggestions but you do have a shocking celebrity sex tape, post it, and you’ll probably get 1000 times as much traffic as every other nonprofit blog combined. That’s really juicy—almost as juicy as posts that are unique and don’t merely parrot back what the author has heard elsewhere and the reader has seen before.


* I also get the feeling there are a lot of pretend grant writers out there because our clients are so often astonished that we do what we say we’re going to do. That this surprises so many people indicates to me that a lot of “grant writers” are out there who prefer to talk about grant writing rather than writing grants.