Category Archives: Clients

Foster Family Agencies (FFAs) and why political rhetoric rarely focuses on child abuse

Tyler Cowen asks an interesting question: “Why the low status of opposition to child abuse?” A reader speculates that, on the cultural left, “the highly visible progressive segment that drives wokeness, is culturally powerful, etc.” does not emphasize child abuse, and, “while there’s nothing obviously wrong with their attention to sexual and racial discrimination, the energy put into it is disproportionate to the massive social cost of child abuse.” One possible answer to this query is that, as Cowen posits, “virtually everyone is against child abuse, so opposing it doesn’t make anyone significant look worse.” Another reader lists some reasons the political right could be quiet, and he says that “you can’t even think of a solution [to child abuse] by reasoning from your political views.” I’d venture another component: detecting child abuse is frequently hard because it occurs inside the home and away from most eyes, plus, once it has been unambiguously detected—what then?

What’s the alternative when the family is abusive, or, more readily and frequently, borderline abusive? Many GWC readers already know that the existing foster family system (FFS) can be characterized in a variety of ways, but “harmonious, well-funded, and functional” are rarely among them. Something like “completely f-ed up” is probably more common, in candid conversation if not publicly.* Most foster “family parents” are in effect small businesses in that they receive monthly payments from the contracting foster family agency (FAA),** which are higher for higher-risk kids. With several high-risk kids in the household, monthly payments can rise into the thousands of dollars—the foster kids know this and know they are, in some respects, a commodity. Still, some foster parents are saints (if you are one or know one and you are about to leave a comment, let me say that I’m aware of great and loving foster families) but most are running a very small enterprise on a tight margin. Plus, as much as I hate to say it, some number of foster families are motivated by the the very unattractive, horrific, and illegal impulses that you might imagine motivate them. To counteract bad actors, one needs a whole massive bureaucratic oversight machine, which is itself expensive, invasive, and onerous—and it discourages the well-meaning people who might otherwise participate. Most of us don’t want our homes randomly invaded by snooping, judging strangers.

We’ve worked for many FFAs over the years, and every FFA has the same publicly stated goal, which is aligned with the mission of county child protective services agencies: to facilitate family reunification, whenever possible. Birth families and/or relatives have to be very bad for the kid(s) to be worse off than they are in foster care, given the well-known shortcomings of the FFS. The honest FFAs will admit as much, again off the record. For family reunification, DHHS even has an RFP on the street, “Quality Improvement Center on Family-Centered Reunification.” It only has one grant available, which means it’s wired, so we’re unlikely to write one of these, though we’ve written other proposals in this genre.

It’s also important to understand that FFAs are themselves thin-margin businesses, which are often organized as nonprofits in only the most nominal of senses. The FFS in most states uses contracts with FFAs that reimburse the FFAs for the actual number and types of kids placed and the length of the placement. It is in effect a reimbursed per-capita arrangement that incentivizes the FFA to keep their census of placements as high as possible to cover fixed costs like staff and endlessly recruiting, training, and monitoring foster families. The many things that can go wrong with this structure are fairly obvious.

I have seen occasional articles like “The Best Thing About Orphanages:”

Duke University researchers issued the first report on their multiyear study of 3,000 orphaned, abandoned and neglected children in developing countries in Africa and East and South Asia. About half were reared in small and large “institutions” (or orphanages) and half in “community” programs (kin and foster care). Contrary to conventional wisdom, the researchers found that children raised in orphanages by nonfamily members were no worse in their health, emotional and cognitive functioning, and physical growth than those cared for in their communities by relatives. More important, the orphanage-reared children performed better than their counterparts cared for by community strangers, which is commonly the case in foster-care programs.

I don’t have a final answer to this issue, but orphanages have such bad PR in the United States that I doubt they’ll ever be seriously tried. Any politician who seriously proposes trying them is going to be compared to a Dickens villain and will likely be courting career suicide (on the other hand, I never thought we’d see legal marijuana, and here we are). The last major politician to make a pitch for orphanages was Newt Gingrich in 1990s, and that went nowhere (“[Gingrich] dared to suggest that some welfare children would be better off in private orphanages. In making his off-the-cuff comments, he ignited a media and policy firestorm, the general tone of which was best captured by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who dubbed the idea ‘unbelievable and absurd'”). Still, given our work with FFAs, I would favor some experimentation in the direction of orphanages, as long as they were re-branded with some clever moniker (“Growth Homes?”). Having a large number of adults watching each other and the kids is probably at least not worse than the current system, although I don’t see orphanages as a panacea. There is no panacea and some problems lack solutions.

All the problems above around foster care enumerated above are only exacerbated by teenagers, who are technically legally “children” but who often have non-childish impulses, are hard to control, and often run away. Even a 13 or 14 year old boy can be six feet tall and weigh 160 pounds or more. Girls present a different set of challenges.

Ideally, most political stances come with a set of solutions, but orphanages have a bad rap, more money would help the current system without alleviating its most pressing problems, and abused kids and FFAs are not large enough interest groups for their votes to be salient to politicians. There are lots of problems that we as a society prefer to sweep under the rug and not think about—it appears, for example, that “Air Pollution Reduces IQ, a Lot.” We could fix a lot of air pollution by depreciating gasoline-powered cars, but most people would prefer to ignore the issue and the incredible damage we do to kids’s health through cars. Animal meat processing factories are another example: if you kick a dog in public, you might be arrested and charged with a crime, but most of us prefer to ignore the horrific things that happen in meat processing factories. Foster care is yet another area in which we hope for the best and prefer not to know too much about what’s really happening.

While I was writing the precursors to this post, I also realized something unusual about grant writing: I don’t know exactly how to describe the vantage point we have, but it’s not a common one: we’re in this purgatory that’s not where most people thinking about social science and government policy reside. We’re in an intellectual and observational place halfway between the on-the-ground implementers and the in-the-tower legislators and academics. We’re not called on to dream up new programs, ideas, problems, or data, like academics and legislators, but we’re also much closer to the problem space, while not being completely mired in immediate day-to-day experience. Because we’re at a higher level of abstraction than most implementers, we can see comparisons that on-the-ground people sometimes miss, while still seeing enough of the ground floor to have a better idea what’s going on than some academic/legislator-types do. Almost no one asks us what we’ve seen and what we can see across organization types—for example, at one point, “We imagined foundations would hire us to help improve RFPs/funding guidelines. We were wrong.” That essay was written in 2015 and since then, zero funders have sought feedback. I’m not sure what to do with this observation, apart from noting that we see some things other people miss.


* We learn many interesting things from clients, most of which we can’t say publicly. Silence is one of our virtues.

** You can tell that we’re dealing with government because of the number of acronyms in play.

Community foundations and grants that are more work than they’re worth

We get calls from some (inexperienced) potential clients who want to pursue “community foundation” grants, which are usually small grants that range up to $5,000 or $10,000, but we almost always tell them the same thing: those grants aren’t worth chasing. We’ve mentioned that, in grant writing, zeroes are cheap, and many very large grants aren’t much harder to get, and to manage, than smaller grants.

Something unusual, however, just happened: We got a phone call from a community foundation CEO who is unhappy because he’s finding small grants harder and harder to give away. It seems that this community foundation offers free grant writing training to local nonprofit leaders in hopes of helping them understand how to write proposals, but the nonprofit executive directors still can’t be bothered to fill out the foundation’s relatively simple applications for the small grants it offers. The foundation is trying to get the local nonprofits to seek funding from it, but they won’t, because of the problems I mention in the first paragraph. While we love work, there’s nothing we could do for this foundation to solve this problem—we said him that the foundation should make the grants larger and they’ll get more applications. Alternatively, just give the money away without an application.

We also got a recent call from a client who is now turning down these kinds of smaller grants. Why would an organization turn down money? Because, the client said, by the time the she applies, deals with the bureaucracy, gets the money, and accounts for the money, there is little or no real money left to provide services—it’s all gone into administration. Dedicating management resources for $500,000 or million-dollar grants makes sense. Dedicating management resources for $5,000 grants doesn’t.*

Community foundations that want to make an impact are better off just sending the check to the nonprofits they already like without requiring an application. Or, they could invite nonprofits to submit applications they’re already submitting. For example, we recently worked on a SAMHSA Strategic Prevention Framework – Partnerships for Success (SPF-PFS) application; a community foundation interested in opioid use disorder (OUD) prevention and treatment could say to a local nonprofit, “If you’re already applying for a grant and send it to us, we’ll review it too, just using our own criteria.” Emailing a copy of an existing grant is easy—it would be something like the college Common Application in college admissions, but for grants. As far as I can remember, we’ve never seen a foundation do this.

I feel bad for community foundations that are trying to give away money unsuccessfully—but there is (rarely) such thing as a free lunch, and nonprofits know that friction costs are real.


* As Isaac relates in the very first post we put up, back in 2007, the first grant proposal he wrote in 1972 was for $5,000. That made sense then, as $5K was real money in 1972, but it’s not any more.

More experiments in education and job training: Shopify’s “Dev Degree”

Lots of us know that traditional education providers offer various kinds of on-the-job training, work experience, internships, and similar arrangements with employers; in typical arrangements, someone who primarily identifies as a student also does some work, often paid but sometimes not, to get some real-world experience. But what happens if you try going the other way around?

You may have read the preceding sentence a couple of times, trying to understand what it means. Shopify, the ecommerce platform, is now offering something called “Dev Degree,” which is described as “a 4-year, work-integrated learning program that combines hands-on developer experience at Shopify with an accredited Computer Science degree from either Carleton University or York University.” On Twitter, one of Shopify’s VP’s said that “We pay tuition & salary, ~$160k over 4 yrs”—so instead of student loans, the student, or “student,” comes out net positive. Instead of identifying as someone who is primarily a student but does a little work experience, a person presumably identifies primarily as a worker but does some schooling too.

As often happens, the old is becoming new again. Before lawyers enacted occupational licensing restrictions to raise their wages, most proto-lawyers just studied under senior lawyers using an apprenticeship model. When the proto-lawyer could pass the bar and convince clients to give him money, he was a lawyer—one who’d learned on the job. Think of Abe Lincoln, who become something greater than a passable country lawyer.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Lambda School, Make School, and now Shopify School (okay, it’s not technically called that) are concentrated in tech and programming, where an extreme shortage of qualified candidates seems to intersect with extremely high demand for qualified candidates. The New York Times and Economist aren’t proposing ways to more quickly and cheaply turn English majors into journalists, because there are plenty of English majors and few journalism jobs. But these experiments in alternative education are interesting because they speak to the relentlessly rising cost of conventional education combined with onerous student loans that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy (the infamous 2005 bankruptcy “reform” act made student loans almost impossible to discharge). If there’s enough pressure on a system, the system starts to react, and Dev Degree is another example of the reaction.

We’ve been covering the “alternative education” beat in various places for a lot of reasons, one being that we do a lot of work for colleges and universities. Another is in the fact that I’ve spent some time in the basement of the ivory tower, where I’ve witnessed some insalubrious, unsavory practices and behaviors. Another is that we’ve had an uptick in stories from nonprofit clients and potential clients about their clients or participants who have relatively small amounts of student loan debt, often in the $1,000 to $4,000 range, but that the participant can’t pay off. So the participant starts school, quits or otherwise can’t finish, and then drags around this mounting debt while making minimum wage or close to it.

Yet another way to cover these stories is the potential for these kinds of systems to be applied in other fields, like healthcare tech, truck driving, and the like. Most government-sponsored job training programs focus on these kinds of fields, and they haven’t been apprentice-ized yet. But the right nonprofit or business might come along and make it so. We want to encourage change and innovation in this sector, and we know some of our clients will make change happen.

Doing business with public agencies in Texas versus California (or New York)

We’re working on a project for a large public agency in Texas, and, like most large public agencies, it has standard vendor signup forms. We’ve also worked for many public agencies in states like California and New York, which are infamous for being unfriendly to business—and, in this instance, the rumors are true. The differences in required vendor forms might be a microcosm for larger differences between California (or New York) and Texas. The Texas public agency has a short, simple vendor form with no attachments other than a W-9.

California and New York public agencies, however, typically have long and onerous forms and processes so complex that sometimes we turn down the assignment. They often require a “temporary” local business license, even thought the assignment will likely be completed in less than six weeks and we’ll never set foot in the jurisdiction; proof of worker’s comp, liability, errors and commissions and even car insurance (all of which we have, but insurance certificates are a pain to produce and may not match the agency’s strict rules); and oddball by-jurisdiction forms that have little or nothing to do with grant writing. The City of Los Angeles, for example, requires forms certifying that Seliger + Associates did not benefit from slavery (for those of you keeping score at home, slavery ended in all U.S. states in 1865, and Seliger + Associates was founded in 1993). Another example, when working for the City of Richmond in California: we have to provide four wet-signed notarized copies of the contract (party like its 1979).

The costs of complying with random forms and local regulations are rarely discussed—but they’re very real and often high. Such requirements even drive up the cost of childcare, in ways that are often invisible to the entities imposing the requirements. Since we work nationally, and sometimes internationally, we’re accustomed to the challenges, but states and municipalities reveal much about themselves even in small ways.

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.

Seliger + Associates’ 25th Anniversary: A quarter century of grant writing

My first post, on Nov. 29, 2007, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal,” tells the story of how I became a grant writer (when dinosaurs walked the earth); 500 posts later, this one covers some of the highs and lows of grant writing over the past 25 years, since I founded Seliger + Associates.

Let me take you back to March 1993 . . . President Clinton’s first year in office, Branch Davidians are going wild in Waco, Roy Rogers dies, Intel ships its first Pentium chips, Unforgiven wins the Oscar for Best Picture, and Seliger + Associates is founded. The last item caused no disturbances in the Force or media and was hardly noticed. Still, we’ve created a unique approach to grant writing—although we’re not true believers, I like to think we’ve made a difference for hundreds of clients and their clients in turn.

When I started this business, the Internet existed, but one had to know how to use long forgotten tech tools like text-based FTP servers, “Gopher,” dial-up modems, and so on. While I taught myself how to use these tools, they weren’t helpful for the early years, even though the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, was launched in late 1993. I used a primitive application, HotMTML Pro, to write the HTML code for our first web site around the same time. I didn’t understand how to size the text, however, so on the common 12″ to 14″ monitors of the day, it displayed as “Seliger + Ass”. It didn’t much matter, since few of our clients had computers, let alone Internet access.

Using the Wayback Machine, I found the first, achieved view of our website on December 28, 1996, about two years after we first had a Web presence. If this looks silly, check out Apple.com’s first web archive on October 22, 1996. You could get a new PowerBook 1400 with 12 MB of RAM and a 750 MB hard drive for only $1,400, while we were offering a foundation appeal for $3,000!

Those were the days of land line phones, big Xerox machines, fax machines, direct mail for marketing, FedEx to submit proposals, going to a public library to use microfiche for research data, waiting for the Federal Register to arrive by mail about a week after publication, and an IBM Selectric III to type in hard copy forms. Our first computer was a IMB PS 1 with an integrated 12″ monitor running DOS with Windows 3.1 operating very slowly as a “shell” inside DOS.

Despite its challenges, using DOS taught me about the importance of file management.

As our business rapidly in the mid to late 1990s, our office activities remained about the same, except for getting faster PCs, one with a revolutionary CD-ROM drive (albeit also with 5 1/14″ and 3.5″ floppy drives, which was how shrink-wrapped software was distributed); a peer-to-peer coax cable network I cobbled together; and eventually being able to get clients to hire us without me having to fly to them for in-person pitch meetings.

It wasn’t until around 2000 that the majority of our clients became computer literate and comfortable with email. Most of our drafts were still faxed back and forth between clients and all proposals went in as multiple hard-copy submissions by FedEx or Express Mail. For word processing, we used WordPro, then an IBM product, and one that, in some respects, was better than Word is today. We finally caved and switched to Macs and Office for Mac around 2005.

Among the many after shocks of 9/11, as well as the bizarre but unrelated anthrax scare, there were enormous disruptions to mail and Fedex delivery to government offices. Perhaps in recognition of this—or just the evolving digital world—the feds transitioned to digital uploads and the first incarnation of grants.gov appeared around 2005. It was incredibly unreliable and used an odd propriety file format “kit file,” which was downloaded to our computers, then proposal files would be attached, and then emailed to our clients for review and upload. This creaky system was prone to many errors. About five years ago, grants.gov switched to an Acrobat file format for the basket-like kit file, but the upload / download drill remained cumbersome. On January 1, 2018, grants.gov 3.0 finally appeared in the form of the cloud-based WorkSpace, which allows applications to be worked on and saved repeatedly until the upload button is pushed by our client (the actual applicant). But this is still not amazon.com, and the WorkSpace interface is unnecessarily convoluted and confusing.

Most state and local government funding agencies, along with many foundations, also moved away from hard copy submissions to digital uploads over the past decade. These, of course, are not standardized and each has its owns peccadilloes. Incredibly, some funders (mostly state and local governments and many foundations) still—still!—require dead tree submission packages sent in via FedEx or hand-delivered.

There have of course been many other changes, mostly for the better, to the way in which we complete proposals. We have fast computers and Internet connections, cloud-based software and file sharing, efficient peripherals, and the like. Grant writing, however, remains conceptually “the same as it ever was.” Whether I was writing a proposal long hand on a legal pad in 1978, using my PS 1 in 1993, or on my iMac today in 2018, I still have to develop a strong project concept, answer the 5 Ws and H within the context of the RFP structure, tell a compelling story, and work with our clients to enable them to submit a technically correct proposal in advance of the deadline.

Another aspect of my approach to grant writing also remains constant. I like to have a Golden Retriever handy to bounce ideas of of, even though they rarely talk back. My last Golden mix, Boogaloo Dude, had to go to the Rainbow Bridge in November. Now, my fourth companion is a very frisky four-month old Golden, Sedro-Woolley, named after the Cascades foothill town to which I used to take Jake and his siblings fishing when they were little and Seliger + Associates and myself were still young.

 

FQHCs, Reproductive Health/Family Planning Services, and Planned Parenthood: An Uneasy but Symbiotic Relationship, Centered on Title X Funding

We often write about Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), in part because we often work for them in part because FQHCs illustrate many challenges facing other nonprofits. This post discusses a service that FQHCs could provide but mostly choose not to—a common circumstance among certain classes of nonprofits, like foster family agencies and substance abuse treatment providers.

To understand the dilemma, you have to know that the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) funds FQHCs under Section 330 of the Public Health Services Act and FQHCs are sometime referred to as “Section 330 providers.” While FQHCs do collect copays and most take insurance, a large chunk of their funding comes directly and indirectly (via Medicaid) from the feds. FQHCs are mandated to provide “integrated full life-cycle care” (HRSA-lingo here), including reproductive health/family planning services. Still, many of our FQHC clients are skittish about promoting these services and are consequently reluctant to seek other grants to support family planning.

Thus, FQHCs have effectively ceded the huge pot of Title X family planning grants ($288 billion in 2016) to specialized family planning clinics, which are mostly but not exclusively operated by local affiliates of Planned Parenthood. While Planned Parenthood provides great women’s reproductive and related preventative health care, with an emphasis on low-income women and girls, unlike FQHCs, their clinics do not provide full life-cycle care.

From what we can tell, FQHCs and Planned Parenthood clinics seem to operate in a symbiotic, but parallel manner, in which both stay out of each other’s turf (if you have even more specialized knowledge about this situation, feel free to leave a comment). There are about 650 Planned Parenthood clinics, which serve about 2.5 million women annually with family planning services (this does not include abortions). In contrast, there are about 1,400 FQHCs, which serve about 17 million patients annually, and these numbers are growing rapidly due to the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. More than 50% of FQHC patients are women, so let’s call it 9 million. FQHCs serve many more women than Planned Parenthood, but readers would never know this from the media.

While I don’t know this for sure, one presumes this is because, bureaucratically speaking, there are at least two parts to Planned Parenthood that are structured separately: the family planning side, which is touted by progressives, and the abortion side, which is demonized by some conservatives. The nascent FY ’18 federal budget battle between the Trump administration/Republicans and Democrats is being fought partially over Title X funding. The media usually obfuscates the Tile X grant aspect, focussing instead on the much more sensational issue of Planned Parenthood funding.

I assume that, if Congress passed legislation making Planned Parenthood ineligible for Title X (unlikely but possible), other providers, like FQHCs, would start applying for Title X grants. In other words, no matter what happens, as far as I know, there are no proposed cuts to Title X (again, if you have specialized knowledge, leave a comment). It’s just a question of which agencies will provide Title X funded services and how those agencies will link with Planned Parenthood, which presumably would continue as the nation’s main abortion provider.

I know the potential competition between FQHCs and Planned Parenthood clinics is a big issue for Planned Parenthood, as Title X provides more or guaranteed funding to keep the lights on—a concern for all nonprofits. This basic issue was confirmed by several interesting pieces I found and that the Alan Guttmacher Institute published (it’s more or less the research affiliate of Planned Parenthood).* For example, this article makes the curious argument that FQHCs couldn’t expand to provide family planning service now being provided by Planned Parenthood:

FQHCs are an integral part of the publicly funded family planning effort in the United States, but it is unrealistic to expect these sites to serve the millions of women who currently rely on Planned Parenthood health centers for high-quality contraceptive care.

As a grant writer, I admire the carefully crafted but entirely specious reasoning, which reminds me of our needs assessments, I’m pretty confident that FQHCs would have no trouble picking up the slack and the Title X grants—if they wanted to. We have some FQHC clients with over 40,000 patients, and at that size they can begin to resemble something larger than a community clinics. At the moment, they’re mostly reluctant to tangle with Planned Parenthood—but, again, they could.

And they might.


* The Guttmacher Institute is a great source, albeit one with a point of view, for studies and data relating family planning, teen pregnancy, and the like. We sometimes use their citations in writing needs assessments. If you’re curious about research organizations with a point of view, Daniel Drezner’s book The Ideas Industry is good.

How we write scientific and technical grant proposals

We’re not scientists or engineers and yet we routinely write scientific and technical proposals. First-time callers are often incredulous at this ability; how can we, with no expertise in a given scientific or technical field, write a complex grant proposal in that field? Though it seems impossible, we do it.

We can write those proposals because we’re expert grant writers—and we’re also like journalists in that we’re very good at listening to what we’re told and reshaping what we’re told into a coherent narrative that covers the 5Ws and H. We do rely on technical content from our clients, and most clients have something—journal articles, concept papers, Powerpoint slides, etc., that describes their technology and proposed research design. We’re very good at reading that material and understanding the rules it offers, the challenges it presents, and the constraints of the problem space.

Once we understand those things, we’re also good at understanding the principles as our clients describe them. So if our clients tell us that Process A and Process B yields Outcome C and Outcome D, we’ll keep repeating that until we see a moment in their background material that says Process A and Process B yield Outcome E, at which point we’ll raise the issue with the actual experts (sometimes the technical experts realize that something is amiss). There are many specific examples of this I could give, but I won’t in this public forum because we respect our clients’ privacy. We also often often sign NDAs, so you’ll have to accept somewhat abstract and contrived-feeling examples.

large_hadron_colliderWhile we’re very good at following the rules our clients give us, we generally won’t uncover specific technical issues that other technical experts might. We’re not chemists or materials scientists or programmers, so it’s possible for a howler to sail right past us; we rely on our clients to understand their own technical processes and the basic physical laws of chemistry, physics, biology, etc. That being said, we do have a basic understanding of some aspects of science—we’ve gotten calls from spurious inventors trying to get us to work on their perpetual motion machines (I’m not making this up), but for the most part we rely on our clients’ deep technical background.

Oddly, sometimes our relative scientific ignorance is actually a virtue. We often ask questions that make our clients really understand what they’re doing and what they’re proposing. Sometimes we uncover hidden assumptions that need to be explained. Other times we find logic or conceptual holes that must be plugged. Having a total outsider come in and tromp around can improve the overall project concept, because we clarify what is actually going on and ask questions that more experienced people might not—but that grant reviewers might. It’s possible to be too close to a set of ideas or problems, and in those situations outsiders like us can be useful.

As I’ve written throughout this post, our ability to write scientific and technical proposals is predicated on our clients’ technical background. For that reason we generally don’t offer flat-fee bids on technical jobs because we don’t know how much background material we will receive or when we will receive it. For most social and human service grants, we’re able to accurately estimate how many hours a given project will take us, based on our past experience and our understanding of the field. We can and often write quite complex social and human service grants with near-zero background from our clients. But we’re not able to do that for projects related to new drugs, new solar technologies, and the like. We also don’t know how usable and coherent the background material our clients provide will be; coherent, usable materials can dramatically shorten our work time, while the opposite will obviously lengthen it.

We’re also very good at storytelling. A compelling proposal, even a highly technical one, needs to make an argument about why funding the proposal will lead to improvement innovations, breakthroughs, or improvements. Most scientific and technical experts have not spent much time honing their general writing or storytelling skills. We have, and we’re aware that, to most people, data without stories is not compelling. We often find that our clients know a huge amount of useful, vital information and have great ideas, but that those same clients can’t structure that information in a way that makes it viable as a proposal. We can do that for them.*

Occasionally, potential clients tell us that they somehow want a domain expert who is also a grant writer. We wish them luck, and often they call back after a day or two, unable to find what they’re looking for; we’ve written about related topics in “National Institute of Health (NIH) Grant Writers: An Endangered Species or Hidden Like Hobbits?” There are no hybrid grant writers and physicists (or whatever) because the market for that niche is too small to have any specialists in it. Being an expert grant writer is extremely hard and being an expert physicist is also extremely hard. The overlap between those two is so tiny that most organizations are better off hiring an expert grant writer and helping the grant writer learn just enough to write the proposal.


* Not everyone is good at everything, and we all reap gains from trade and specialization. We’re very good grant writers but we can’t explain what’s happening at the Large Hadron Collider or write useful open source software.

Photo courtesy of and copyright by “Image Editor.”

Lawyers misread RFPs all the time. They rarely improve the grant writing process

Occasionally clients want their lawyers to read RFPs or our draft proposals or both. This is almost always a waste of time of time and money, because a) most lawyers have no special expertise or experience in grant writing/reading RFPs, b) lawyers are not magical, and c) there is usually no good reason for lawyers to be involved in the process:

* Most lawyers have no special expertise or experience: There are no law school classes on grant writing or reading RFPs. The field is still blessedly unregulated, and the scourge of occupational licensing has not arrived. Someone who is a lawyer may also be a grant writer, but the fields are not linked in any way and a generic lawyer is going to have to learn a lot about RFPs, grant-maker machinations, and the like if they’re going to be a productive grant writer (or reader). Most aspects of practicing law and/or going to law school don’t provide such training.

* Lawyers are not magical. I went to law school for a year and met lots of lawyers and proto-lawyers. Lawyers are just people who’ve spent at least three years in law school. By now, many of the people who start law school are adversely selected for intelligence, because smart people realize that most law schools are scams and most law school grads don’t even get jobs that require J.D.s (Paul Campos is a law professor and wrote Don’t Go to Law School (Unless), a book that details why and how in greater detail than I can). Even those who aren’t adversely selected for intelligence do not necessarily learn more than people who’re studying reading, writing, and related topics via methods other than law school.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with lawyers, and if you’re arrested or sued, you should hire one. But many lawyers are not geniuses and are not better readers or writers than anyone else. In ye olden days, lawyers could simply apprentice to another lawyer and/or “read the law” in order to take the bar and start work. That system is much saner than the occupational licensing system that we have for lawyers now, and that system is mostly designed to benefit law school professors who get cush jobs teaching the next generation of lawyers. Today, lawyers are people with the time, money, inclination, and/or delusion necessary to spend three years and too many dollars in law school.

* There is no good reason for lawyers to be involved. We’ve written at least $275 million in funded proposals that we know about and probably that much in proposals that we don’t know about because clients often don’t tell us when they’ve been funded. Few lawyers have been involved in the preparation of the applications we’ve worked on. They add nothing to the process and can frequently make it more onerous, without adding value.

In most instances, hiring a lawyer or telling a lawyer to read an RFP or proposal is a way of lining a lawyer’s pockets. Most lawyers will (unsurprisingly) favor such an outcome, and they’re more than happy to hold your hand for as long as you want your hand held.

But you don’t need them to do grant writing. If you’re engaging in a complex real estate transaction, or you’ve been arrested, or you’re getting divorced, hire a lawyer. Those are circumstances in which a lawyer might add value to the process. Grant writing is not such a circumstance.

They only see the final proposal: Make sure you submit something to funders

This may seem obvious, but bear with me: Funders only see the final proposal you submit. They don’t see how hard you may have worked, the number of drafts you’ve completed, or how much you may have fought with your colleagues during drafting.

Even if the grant writing and assembly process goes bad, you should still submit the proposal anyway; we’ve said similar things in many posts, like “Deadlines are Everything, and How To Be Amazing.” If you don’t submit a proposal on time, you cannot be funded no matter how great the need or wonderful the project concept. If you do submit, however, funding is always possible, even if you are dispirited by the journey there. We’ve seen many internally dysfunctional organizations get funded because they managed to get something submitted, with our help, cajoling, and, near the deadline itself, outright hectoring. We’ve seen zero organizations, functional or not, get funded if they do not submit.

Many grant writing processes are ugly on the inside: Filled with recriminations, unhappiness, fights, bitterness, and so on. But the final product can, if the participants focus on the prize, turn out well regardless of the weakness of initial wrangling.

As it is in many places, The Lord of the Rings is relevant here. You may remember the hellacious journey of Sam and Frodo into and then through Mordor. Their process is, in modern terms, sub-optimal: they are hungry, thirsty, and exhausted throughout; they are opposed by Orcs, Nazgûl, and other foul creatures; the Ring continually tempts Frodo and calls out to its master; and the will of both Sam and Frodo is nearly crushed. Yet their quest is achieved because they persevere.

The process of destroying the Ring is daunting but the outcome is good, or at least an improvement over having all Middle Earth smothered by the darkness of Sauron, who would make all its people slaves. In grant writing, ugly processes can still sometimes yield funded programs. While we always strive to work with our clients to ensure technically correct submission packages that are internally consistent, this is not always possible due to missing support letters, committed matches, etc. Still, we’ve seen some technically incorrect proposals get funded, either through the magic of our grant writing, the ineptness of the reviewers or other opaque factors. Don’t forget that, even in the darkness that sometimes sets in a week before the deadline.

In many things in life, the people who succeed at whatever they attempt are the ones who are most determined to succeed and most determined to grind out a victory. Perseverance is underrated still.