Category Archives: Clients

More on Federally Approved Indirect Cost Rates in Developing Federal Grant Proposal Budgets: De Minimus has Arrived

We’ve written about federally approved indirect cost rates before in developing federal grant proposal budgets; I thought there was nothing more to say of this bit of grant writing arcana, but I was wrong.

In general, indirect costs are an agglomeration of “keeping the lights on” costs that are lumped together is a single line item, below the total direct costs in a Federal SF-424A budget form. Since I began writing proposals during Nixon administration,* it was generally necessary for the nonprofit or public agency applicant’s CFO to prepare a “cost allocation plan,” separating the organization’s operating budget into direct costs (e.g., program service staff, client/participant services costs, etc.) and indirect costs (e.g., administrative staff, facility maintenance, etc.).

To claim an indirect cost rate in a federal grant budget, this cost allocation plan must be submitted to the cognizant federal agency, which is the federal department/agency that provides the greatest amount of grant funding to the organization. For example, the cognizant agency for a job training provider would likely be the Department of Labor (DOL), while for an FQHC it would be HRSA.

There’s a Catch-22, however: the organization had to have a federal grant to have a cognizant federal agency to apply to for approval of a cost allocation plan. Thus, non-federal grantees, or ones who never bothered to get an approved cost allocation plan, were basically out of luck regarding indirect costs. There was a workaround: additional line items for administrative costs could broken out. Still, it’s easier to blob a single, indirect-cost line item than it is to include numerous administrative costs, which complicate the budget and narrative while raising uncomfortable questions.

It seems that, while I wasn’t looking, the Feds, and in particular the DOL, has introduced the concept of de minimus into indirect costs. “De minimus” is a Latin expression often used in legal matters to denote something that is too trivial to consider.

We recently completed a DOL proposal for a large nonprofit in a big midwestern city. The client, who we’ve worked for for years, has had lots of federal grants but never applied for an approved indirect cost rate. Since I knew this, I left out indirect costs in the draft budget, putting in a slew of direct cost line items instead. A closer reading of the RFP, however, revealed this nugget:

If you meet the requirements to use the 10 percent de minimis rate as described in 2 CFR 200.414(f), then include a description of the modified total direct costs base.

Apparently the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) was changed in 2014, allowing a 10% de minimus indirect rate in lieu of an approved rate. Amazing! This old dog has learned a new trick.

Federally approved indirect costs rates can vary from 15% for a small human services nonprofit up to 80% for a university or hospital (think of all the building upkeep, squadrons of deans and hospital administrators, free lunches, etc.). In my experience, however, most Federal agencies will not approve an indirect cost line item more than about 15% for most human services programs, no matter the approved rate. We’ve worked for a large East Cost substance abuse treatment provider that has a Federally approved indirect of 42%, but they never got more than 15% on their federal grants. So the 10% de minimus rate mirrors reality, which is always a surprise in matters relating to the Feds.


* Yes, I’m a geezer.

Who are the HRSA peer reviewers? An anecdote from the New Access Points (NAP) Program

Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) know that the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), like some other federal agencies, uses peer reviewers for proposals. That can lead to some entertaining coincidences and collisions. We were recently hired by a client who had previously served on a review panel for the last New Access Points competition. In talking with him, I mentioned that we’d written a funded NAP proposal about a year ago for a client in an unusual location. It turned out that our new client had been on the review panel for that proposal (which, fortunately, was funded).

Peer review can in effect shrink the size of the grant world. Peer reviewers also (usually) know something about the programs and processes being discussed, which isn’t necessarily the case with staff reviewers. In some funding agencies, like the Department of Labor, peer reviewers generally aren’t used; if there aren’t enough reviewers, the DOL may grab staffers from other federal agencies to review proposals. That implies grant writers should explain more about basic ideas, rather than assuming that reviewers actual understand the program they’re reviewing. So for staff-reviewed proposals, it’s a good idea to explain more than might be necessary in peer reviewed proposals, since the staffers may not be up-to-date on, say, prisoner reentry common practices, or the finer parts of the parole system.

Because of the small-world effect in peer-reviewed proposals, it can be particularly important to turn in high-quality proposals, because you never know when your proposal is going to act as an inadvertent resume. If you’re part of the Greater Seattle FQHC and someone from the Greater Nashville FQHC reads and likes your proposal as a reviewer, you may much later get a call from them offering you a job.

Don’t underestimate the power of “avoiding social embarrassment” in the list of motivations underlying human behavior.

In grant writing, you don’t have to be great; you only have to be better than the other guy

You don’t need to submit the perfect grant application (assuming the “perfect application” even exists); you just need to be better than the other guy.

A story: Years ago we we wrote a string of funded grants for a majority-minority California city. The city was not particularly well run and some of its workers were indicted for corruption. But the feds kept pouring money into the city because, while it was messed up, it was still better run than other majority-minority cities at that time. The city wasn’t going to win any good government awards, but it was less corrupt than the alternatives. So the proposals we wrote got funded because the feds wanted to fund a majority-minority city somewhere west of the Mississippi and there weren’t (and still aren’t) many choices.

This pattern repeats itself. A couple years ago we wrote a funded HRSA Service Area Competition (SAC) proposal for a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in a medium-sized city.* In and of itself this isn’t interesting, because we write lots of funded HRSA proposals. This FQHC client, however, failed to tell us that, as we wrote the first draft, some of their officers were being indicted on corruption charges. Our FQHC client had competition from another large, local nonprofit, which applied for the same SAC grant.

Given our client’s legal problems, we figured they’d never get their SAC grant renewed. We were wrong.

We later discovered why HRSA funded our client: The other SAC applicant was facing corruption charges too, and it had a big federal grant pulled. Our HRSA client kept getting funded because, it was probably the lesser of two evils, and HRSA had to fund someone. Without a SAC grantee in the city, at least 15,000 Medicaid patients would’ve had nowhere to go for primary care.

What makes this story even more fun is the the second nonprofit was also a former client, albeit for a non-HRSA grant. And, of course, the second client also didn’t tell us about their corruption woes when we were writing their proposal.

One sees this general principle in other areas. Tech workers, for example, are now increasingly fleeing Silicon Valley. San Francisco’s draconian land-control policies mean that expanding housing supply is almost impossible. Restricting supply in the face of rising demand causes prices to rise. Silicon Valley’s situation is uniquely insane on the national stage, as this article describes.

Seattle—while not exactly a paragon of good, fast local governance—is allowing more housing units to be built than San Francisco, and it’s even building underground light rail services that are getting done on-time and under-budget. Light rail construction is going so well that residents want more transit tunneling. There is also no income tax in Washington State, which makes Seattle a much less expensive place to live than the Bay Area. Consequently, tech companies and tech workers are leaving California for Seattle—not because Seattle is perfect, but because it’s better and more functional than its southern neighbor. Even highly paid tech workers are voting with their wallets and feet.

Analogies to dating are so obvious that I won’t belabor them here, although I will say that Briefly noted: Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game is an excellent take on the subject.

Potential clients often ask us whether they should apply for a particular grant. We can never tell them definitively, but we do say that if they don’t apply, they definitely won’t get funded. We’ve seen numerous apparent underdogs get funded because they applied and the presumed favorites didn’t, or because they applied and the presumed favorites messed up their application, or because they applied and the funder was sick of the presumed favorite. To get funded, you don’t necessarily have to be the “best,” whatever that may mean. You only have to be better than the other guy.


* At least one Section 330 SAC grant is available for virtually every geographic area in the United States; those grants are used to fund primary healthcare services for predominantly low-income people. Without them, many large FQHCs would not be able to operate. Funded FQHCs must compete to keep their Section 330 funding about every three years when HRSA issues a new SAC RFP for their area.

HRSA Randomizes FQHC Program Officers, Likely Trading One Set of Problems for Another Set of Problems

In days of yore, most federal grantees had a dedicated program officer who handled budget issues, contract amendments, reports, and the like; the program officer would often conduct site visits, getting to know the executive director and the nuances of the agency and target area. This system began to atrophy during the Reagan administration with cutbacks to federal travel budgets, and today grantees rarely if ever see their program officer. For example, we’ve written many funded YouthBuild proposals for a South Central LA nonprofit, which hasn’t had a site visit from their HUD program office in 20 years of implementing over ten rounds of YouthBuild funding. Still, most grantees develop a virtual relationship with a specific program officer.

We write many HRSA proposals and were surprised to learn during a scoping call with the CEO of a long-time FQHC client that HRSA has changed this system. Instead of having an assigned program officer, HRSA program officers are now randomized. This means that when an FQHC—which often juggles multiple HRSA grants—has an issue, the problem is randomly assigned to one of a pool of program officers. This is more or less the system used when one waits in line at the DMV or Katz’s Delicatessen. At the DMV, this prevents a clerk from issuing fake drivers licenses for a bribe and the counter man at Katz’s from adding a little extra corned beef to his pal’s sandwich every day at lunchtime.

I assume the same reasoning applies at HRSA: randomizing program officers presumably is aimed at preventing special treatment for favored FQHCs or, I suppose, outright graft. Avoiding special treatment has a cost, though, as it’s likely to wildly increase inefficiency and systemic friction. One sees such problems most clearly in defense contracting, but any large bureaucracy can develop them.

In a randomized oversight management system, the program officer handling a particularly issue will have no agency background or context for the problem. I’m sure that HRSA management thinks thinks will lead to “fair” treatment for all grantees, while minimizing the potential for corruption, but it will also clog the system. HRSA program officers are probably GS 11s and 12s and, like most bureaucrats, they aren’t especially motivated to quickly solve grantee problems. Relationships with the grantees can improve motivation because most of us don’t want to be considered jerks by people we know and have repeated interactions with (why this is true is beyond the scope of this post, but Joseph Henrich’s account in The Secret of Our Success is recommended; it’s also a popular book written by a scholar, not a self-help book). Program officers get paid every two weeks, whether they solve problems or create them, as long as their breath clouds a mirror (to prove they’re still alive) when the paychecks are passed out.

HRSA is changing one set of real or imagined problems for a different set of problems. An unintended consequence of this change is also likely to be more congressional interference.

Why? Let’s say you’re the CEO of the fictional Owatonna Community Health Center and need a rapid decision to amend the agency’s NAP grant budget. In the Ancien Régime, the experienced program officer could probably be sweet-talked into a quick budget revision because of the interpersonal relationship and agency knowledge. In the new system, however, the program officer might put the request under her coffee cup and leave for five days of training, followed by vacation. Why does she care about what some random FQHC in Minnesota or wherever thinks or does?

Without any other recourse, the panicked CEO is likely to call their congressperson’s district office for relief, which will result in a field deputy harassing upper level HRSA management in Washington. This will lead to more friction and bad vibes, as management puts the congressionally-induced hammer to the program officer. The program officers will become even more bureaucratic in response, and they’ll make sure every last rule gets followed. Meticulously following rules is actually a CIA-approved method for organizational sabotage. No, seriously, it is: follow the preceding link.

We’ve written about the challenges of managing grants before. Like grant writing, grants management involves a specific set of skills and experience. Anything that makes managing grants harder is not going to help HRSA or FQHCs in the long run.

Deadlines can be your friend because they force a decision

Many of us have been in romantic circumstances with a wishy-washy or indecisive person (maybe we’ve even been that person). That can be frustrating because the potential romantic partner always seems on the verge of making a commitment, only to pull back, vacillate, introduce a rival, dither, consult with clueless or inept “friends,” and so on.

In the grant world, applying for foundation and government grants is a largely similar process. But the differences count too. Almost all government grants have a hard decision deadline—you’re in or out at a specific point. You have to be ready to submit proposal by the deadline or you can’t get the grant. Although everyone complains about deadlines at one point or another, they’re useful because they make you do things (or not do them). You can’t have an infinite number of meetings spread over months or years. The deadlines force a decision, and forcing a decision is valuable.

There are other advantages to deadline-based government grants: they’re usually for larger amounts of money and longer project periods than foundation funding—unless the foundation really, really loves you (which you won’t know and can’t find out until you apply).

Foundation grants, however, often have simpler applications and will usually fund a wider array of projects. We’ve seen numerous clients get funded for foundation projects that didn’t quite fit government programs. The one thing that foundation clients have in common, though, is that they decide to apply and complete the application process.

Sometimes we get hired in part because we provide an external structure to ensure that the job gets done, rather than waiting until an eternal tomorrow to finish it. In this respect, and to return to the metaphor in the first paragraph, we’re like a dating coach who provides the support and motivation necessary to get out there and make things happen.

Data-Based Client Tracking Services and Outcomes is a Real Challenge for Many Nonprofits

Jake recently wrote a post on the huge challenges faced by primary care provider organizations in meeting EMR Meaningful Use regulations. This got me thinking about other data collection challenges facing nonprofits. Apart from computers and the Internet,* one of few aspects of grant writing that has changed since I started writing proposals when dinosaurs walked the earth is an ever-increasing RFP/funder emphasis on data tracking to demonstrate services delivered and improved “outcomes.”

The scare quotes around “outcomes” expresses how we feel about many of them. While we’re adept at creating plausible data collection strategies in proposals, regardless of what our clients are actually doing in the real world, we know that demonstrating service delivery levels and outcomes is a major issue for certain types of human services providers. These include many faith-based organizations (FBOs)** and ethnic-specific providers, some of which have been operating since the days of Hull House. We’ve worked for several nonprofits that have been providing services for well over 100 years.

It’s not unusual for smaller FBOs and organizations serving immigrant/refugee populations to provide services in what seems, from the outside, to be a chaotic manner. But the service delivery practices are actually well-suited to their mission. A range of services might be provided to a particular individual, like help with an immigration problem, but the agency will end up helping the person’s extended family members with all manner of issues. In many ethnic communities, the concept of “family” is malleable. A nominal “uncle” or “cousin” is actually not related but hails from the same village or clan in their country of origin.

Such services are usually provided on the fly and the harried case worker, who is typically a co-religionist or from the same ethnicity, hops from client problem to problem without time or interest in database entry. Like pulling a thread on sweater, helping one person in a 30-member extended family can result in dozens of “cases” that may not be separated and documented. The family often does not want the problem documented because of cultural/religious taboos and (often justified) fear of government officials. Thus, much service delivery is provided on the down-low.

Everyone knows that New York City has dramatically changed from the bad old Death Wish days of the 1970s to a glittering metropolis of 70-story apartment buildings for the one-percenters and a well-scrubbed, tourist-focussed Times Square. What isn’t generally known is that an amazing 37% of NYC’s population is foreign-born. This percentage is increasing. NYC has more foreign-born residents than the entire City of Chicago has residents! Rapidly growing NYY immigrant groups include Orthodox Jews from the former Soviet Union, Dominicans, Asians, Central Americans, and so on. We work for many nonprofits that serve these immigrant populations; this client type usually only serves their brethren. These nonprofits have great difficulty documenting the often extraordinary services they provide—one of the main reasons they hire us is because of our ability to weave their stories into the complicated responses required by RFPs, including service and outcome metrics. Like the proverbial centipede, these nonprofits walk perfectly, as long as no one asks them how they do it.

The data capture challenge is compounded because few prospective social workers enter grad school with the idea of becoming bean counters. Like the best doctors and teachers/professors, social workers start off with the idealistic notion that they will spend most of their time helping people, not doing data entry and accounting for every minute of their day. When not extruding proposals or writing novels, Jake is a college English professor. He can attest that much of his best teaching doesn’t show up in metrics.

Many of us have had a “hero teacher” at one point and a conversation or a book recommendation might have changed your life, but will not be reflected in grades or academic honors. Similarly, a case worker who gets a tacoria to hire the “nephew” of one of her clients as a busboy to keep him out of juvenile hall might set the young man on a positive life path, even though “job placement” is not part of her official duties and will not appear in the agency’s reports.


* Which have also made the world worse, at least in some respects.

** This this does not refer to industrial-sized FBOs like Catholic Charities or the Salvation Army, which operate with bureaucratic precision.

Meaningful Use Regulations, CMS, HRSA FQHCs and the Stalled Push to Electronic Medical Records (EMRs)

According to Mother Jones, the United States has spent billions on electronic medical records (EMRs)* and we’ve got little to show for it. Digitizing healthcare records was supposed to save time, money, and lives. It hasn’t. That news resonates with us because we’ve written dozens of proposals, mostly for Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) RFPs that either explicitly or implicitly require a discussion of our clients’ use of EMR systems. These clients are usually hospitals, Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) or other primary care providers. From them we’ve heard numerous heard off-the-record stories about the fiascos that ensued for providers that have implemented EMRs. For example, we worked for a hospital in Southern California that interfaced with a much larger, nationally known hospital that attempted to implement a comprehensive EMR system. The large, famous hospital eventually scrapped a $30 million EMR system because the doctors simply refused to use it.

There seems to be no good solution to the EMR problem. EMRs have been touted for at least the last 15 years as a tech-based way of improving patient outcomes, while reducing healthcare costs or at least bending the cost curve downward (as health policy wonks like to say). EMRs got a got big push with huge amounts of EMR funding included in the 2009 “Stimulus Bill.” The advent of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA,” or, colloquially, “ObamaCare”) escalated the EMR drive. Various Federal and state agencies advocated and then effectively mandated EMRs.

But this well-meaning concept has at best moved sideways. HealthIT.gov promulgates the wonderfully bureaucratically named “Meaningful Use” regulations, which use a combination of incentives (e.g., higher Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements) and threats. The carrots are offered and the threats enforced primarily by CMS. Everyone is supposed to get to Stage 1 of Meaningful Use (data capturing and sharing) on a supposedly smooth trajectory to Stage 3 (improved outcomes). Stage 3 turns out to be like the intergalactic instantaneous travel through spacetime. We’ve yet to find an hospital, FQHC or other client that has reached Stage 3. Most are stuck at Stage 1, with a few bravely claiming Stage 2. We’ve never seen a client hit Stage 3, though they may be out there, perhaps in a galaxy far far away.

The problem is that EMRs are trying to map the extraordinary complexities of the real world into software. The complexity can be seen in the new International Classification of Diseases, ICD-10 Codes, published by our old friend CMS. ICD-10 codes are used by medical providers and billers to track patients and payments, based on the code or codes of the patient’s particular situation. When we talk to FQHCs, they invariably say that coding errors are among their major problems. ICD-10 has an astounding 68,000 individual codes, compared to only 14,000 codes in the previous ICD-9. In recent years, humans have invented or discovered an enormous number of new ways to get hurt. No one can remember more than a few hundred of these mysterious codes, which are easy to mistype into an EHR and/or be misunderstood by harried doctors and mid-level practitioners. The complexity of the codes, combined with human diversity and frailty, inherently generates huge numbers of mistakes.

Folks with too much time on their hands have published various funny ICD-10-CM codes. Some choice ones (we are not making these up) include: “V97.33XD: Sucked into jet engine, subsequent encounter;” Y92.146: “Swimming-pool of prison as the place of occurrence of the external cause” (how many prisons have swimming pools?); and my personal favorite, “R46.1: Bizarre personal appearance.” You can tweet your favorite bizarre ICD-10 codes to @healthcaredive.

Ask your doctor about their EMR system and you’ll likely here a lot of invective. I live with a doctor and so have heard the horror stories from her and her colleagues. Isaac’s primary care physician (PCP) hates EMRs but is more or less forced to use eClincalWorks, an EMR system that is also popular with our FQHC clients. Epic is another popular one. Still, however you feel about whether EMRs is efficacious or horrible or brilliant or whatever, pretty much every healthcare-related proposal has to mention EMRs, statistics, and tracking. That could be as minor as a project that works on childhood obesity or as major as a hospital chain implementing some new facet of EMRs.

Anyway, EMRs are a specialized case of a more general problem described in “Why Software Fails: We waste billions of dollars each year on entirely preventable mistakes.” EMRs, like other forms of software, have numerous moving parts and numerous human users. Anyone working in or around EMRs needs to read “Why Software Fails.” At Seliger + Associates, we expect to keep writing about EMRs for FQHCs and similar clients for years if not decades to come. In the real world, doing EHRs right is simply a Hard Problem—so hard that it deserves capital letters. EMRs are almost impossible to do “right” and yet have to be done right. They’re so hard that we don’t have a solution. “Why Software Fails” explains why a solution may not exist, no matter how badly HRSA or CMS wants one. As the Soviet Union discovered, mandates from above, no matter how strong, do not automatically translate into fixing problems from below.

* EMRs are alternatively referred to as Electronic Health Records (EHRs), particularly in HRSA and CMS RFPs. In ones types “EHR” into Word, or any other word processor, and the autocorrect feature will change it to “HER.” This in annoying, but does result in some unintentionally funny typos. When finished with proposal draft involving EHRs, always do a find and replace for “HER”.

In grant writing, make sure you get to the finish line

Five years ago I wrote a post explaining why applying for grants is not like winning an Olympic Gold Medal. A couple of recent conversations with clients made me re-think this analogy, because these clients seemed to want to give up before we completed the proposal submission package but after most of the work had been done.

The clients had an array of not-mutually-exclusive reasons. They’d been traumatized or paralyzed into inaction by the proposal completion process. They’d experienced difficulty getting support letters. Other members of the management team had lost enthusiasm. Christmas is coming in three months. A sudden opportunity to travel to the Galapagos Islands appeared. And so on. This puts us in the position of a baseball third-base coach waving a runner home, even though Yogi Berra is blocking home, waiting for the bullet outfield throw from Mickey Mantle. In baseball you can’t score if you don’t cross home plate. You can’t win an Olympic Gold Medal in the 100 yard dash unless you break the tape. You also can’t get a grant without submitting the proposal in time to meet the deadline. The closer you get to that deadline, the better off you are completing the proposal so that you can at least have a chance of winning.

In these cases, we do everything we can to get our suddenly reluctant clients to cooperate and meet the deadline, even if the proposal is missing a piece or two or is otherwise less than perfect. While we make every effort to help our clients submit technically correct proposals, we’ve also seen proposals funded that were technically deficient. Grant reviewers sometimes miss the deficiency, either from simple oversight or from the fact that RFPs are often astoundingly complex, contradictory and/or opaque—to reviewers and writers.

We’ve even seen federal grant proposal review comments in which the reviewer clearly confused the proposal we wrote for a proposal submitted by a different applicant in a different part of country. In other words, the proposal we wrote was actually scored entirely incorrectly because someone else’s was mistaken for it. This means the other proposal was also incorrectly scored!

Error is the normal state of human affairs, and decades in the grant business have revealed many errors to us. Keep in mind too that as the deadline looms other would-be applicants are probably feeling as demoralized as you. Force yourself to be disciplined enough to get the proposal in as good shape as you can and hit the grants.gov submit button, even one minute in advance of the deadline. You might be one of a handful of applicants who submits a more or less complete proposal. As we’re written about before, since it’s simply not possible to handicap the chances of any proposal being funded, you might as well submit what you have and hope.

Which brings me back around to Yogi, who left us a few weeks ago to play ball once again, this time on his own Field of Dreams. Yogi was the source of many quotes that apply to the grant preparation process—”It ain’t over till it’s over” and “this is like deja vu all over again” seem apropos.

More on Using the Critical Path Method (CPM) in Grant Writing

This post expands on an issue raised in “No Calls, No Bother: ‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule’ and the Grant Writer’s Work.” Specifically, the critical path method (CPM), which is a jargon-sounding acronym that actually conveys useful information. CPM has been around for decades and is commonly used in construction, software development, and manufacturing. CPM can also be used effectively in developing human service project concepts and writing compelling grant proposals that accurately reflect the project concept. We write proposals for some federal programs, like the Department of Labor YouthBuild program and the HRSA Service Area Competition (SAC), that are essentially cookbooks. YouthBuild and SAC proposals should reflect standard project concepts required by the funder.

But most federal and state RFPs, as well as foundation guidelines, allow the applicant some creative leeway. In these situations, our clients often only have a general idea of their project concept until they read our first proposal draft. This first draft conforms to the often conflicting RFP/guidelines structure but also expresses the key 5 Ws and H that every proposal should delineate.

First drafts often make the lightbulb go off, and the client will make complex and sometimes contradictory or irrelevant changes to the draft—but ignore what’s really important, like missing data, required partners, management staff experiences, etc. This is likely because most nonprofits don’t use CPM, relying instead on brainstorming and visioning exercises led by organizational development facilitators or, even worse, the management team.

Here’s how to use and think about CPM in grant writing:

  • Figure out the critical path. This starts with identifying required proposal elements and attachments. To be considered for any grant, a proposal must first be deemed technically correct by the funding agency following submission. To assist our clients, we email a documents memo immediately after we scope the project concept. A member of our team goes through the RFP in great detail, marking up relevant sections. The documents memo is prepared based on this close reading and sent to the client; it is a bulleted list that includes items needed to complete the submission package. In effect the documents memo is not only a check list but a layout of the critical path to achieve the goal of submitting a technically correct application in advance of the deadline. Still, many clients ignore all or parts of the documents memo until near the deadline, focusing instead on non-critical path issues like how changing “which” to “that,” inserting PR boilerplate randomly in the draft, and the like.
  • Make sure the proposal includes relevant data to build the needs statement logic argument. Our first drafts usually have data we’ve found along with blanks for any information we can’t have, like socioeconomic characteristics of current clients or client outcome metrics. In second drafts, we only leave in critical blanks, and any that remain unknown get re-written as generalities in the final draft.* Some final proposals are sent in missing obvious CPM elements, because, as bad as this is, it’s better than blowing the deadline. We’ve seen proposals that are missing critical pieces get funded anyway.
  • Look for internal inconsistencies in the narrative, which will creep in through edits by multiple editors/readers from your agency as the narrative goes from first to final draft. Then make sure the narrative is consistent with the budget, budget narrative, org chart, job descriptions and other attachments. This sounds easy but readers generate opinions exponentially, not linearly.
  • Make sure the proposal has all required attachments, no matter what, such as letters of support and/or collaboration, financial statements, audits, 501(c)(3) letters of determination, etc. This is where the check list aspect of the documents memo comes in handy.
  • Resist the urge to include non-requested attachments unless the RFP/guidelines specifically allow this. Even then, be judicious in selecting attachments. No grant reviewer wants to see a newspaper clipping of your Executive Director smiling on the Oprah set. For online submissions like grants.gov, it’s important that the complete application file doesn’t bloat to 20 MB by including huge attachments like drawings/pictures/videos, or you might encounter upload challenges.
  • Carefully follow formatting instructions regarding font type and size, margins, page limits, character/word count limits for online submissions that have text input boxes, etc.

As daunting a gauntlet** as the above may seem, it’s actually not that hard if you approach the process with CPM in mind and keep your eye on the prize of winning the grant, not internal management egos. Grant writing is about methodical attention to detail more than it is about anything else. A grant proposal is many things, but it is definitely not a PR piece.


* We a prepare first, second and final draft. More drafts are not needed and don’t help, as the more drafts and readers you have, the more inconsistencies are likely to creep in. You won’t see them because you’ll have read the drafts too many times, but they’ll stand out in neon to a fresh grant reviewer.

** The correct usage is actually gantlet, but gauntlet reads and sounds better and has become accepted usage.

Use Microsoft Word (Until Further Notice)

You should use Microsoft Word to write your proposals. There are many other fine word processors out there—I’m personally fond of Scrivener for some tasks—and online tools like Google Docs are becoming more popular. But in the grant world everyone—especially funders—have standardized on Word and remain using Word, because of path dependence.

The last couple of generations of Word interchange files easily and seamlessly. They retain formatting and special characters and so forth. As we’ve written about before, proposals should be written by a single person, but they may be read by dozens of people. Word has reasonably good facilities, in the form of Track Changes, for ensuring that it’s possible to collect and reconcile comments. File format converters often don’t work very well. Formatting is often lost or corrupted in the conversion process. Proposals are hard enough as it is without inducing technical problems.

Funders also want to receive either Word files or PDFs as uploaded files. You must send funders proposals in the required format or your proposal will be rejected out of hand.

We have loads of complaints about Word: its paragraph style system is difficult. For many years we used a program called Lotus WordPro, not above, but WordPro lost and Word won, so we gave up. If you’re working on proposals, you need a copy of Word for the foreseeable future. Sorry. It’s true. In some domains online systems may be better than Word. Grant writing isn’t one of those domains and won’t be for the foreseeable future. Like it or not, Word seems to be here to stay.

Word for OS X still crashes with distressing frequency, which is amazing given how long smart software engineers have been working on it. I’m writing this sentence on June 3, and Word just crashed as I tried to quit it. Data wasn’t lost—which is good, because I was also editing a YouthBuild proposal and had Auto Save enabled—but it’s notable that a program like Word is still not as good as it should be. I can be angry about Word, but because of the ecosystem around it I can’t get away from it. Neither can you. Don’t try. Not now. Not if you have to collaborate with more than one or two people.

You may have already intuited this, but in this post, as with so many posts, we speak from hard experience.