Category Archives: Deadlines

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.

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.

Fallible FedEx and Federal Deadlines

Some things just can’t happen unless the time is right. When we dreamt up Seliger + Associates about 21 years ago, all grant proposal submittals were paper-based, usually involving an original with wet signatures and multiple copies—sometimes as many as ten, despite the Federal Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980. In the early stages of Seliger + Associates, we were based in the Bay Area, most of our clients were in LA, and most of the funders were in LA City and County departments—or Sacramento (CA state grants) and Washington, DC. It would not have been possible for Seliger + Associates to thrive without these three crucial elements: “800” phone service, a fax line and, most importantly, FedEx, or, as it was still known in 1993, “Federal Express.”

By 1993, it was pretty easy to get toll-free service and, at that time, “800” numbers were it (no 866, 888, etc.). The 800 number was essential, as we knew the office would be mobile and an 800 could be piggy-backed or associated with any phone number. Once we had an 800 number, it would follow us wherever we went—and it has, from the Bay Area to Seattle to Tucson and now Santa Monica. I sometimes get phone calls from clients I haven’t spoken to for ten or fifteen years because they remember the 800 number, which has appeared on tens of thousands of marketing flyers, letters, and business cards that lurk in hidden places and offices throughout America.

Fax machines were also ubiquitous by 1993, and they were state-of-the-art for instant document transmission. All we needed was a second phone line and a fax machine to easily send and receive proposal drafts to clients.

FedEx, however, was the real key to business success: it enabled us receive overnight payments (always important to a consultant) and background info from clients. We could overnight finished proposals to funders. The best part of FedEx was that it seemed, at least to us, to be 100% reliable. In fact, I can’t remember a single incidence of FedEx failing to deliver a package, as promised—until last week. [1]

Here is the sad tale of FedEx the fallen . . .

While almost all federal, state and local proposals are now submitted electronically, for some unknown reason the New York City Department of Education apparently thinks it’s time to party like 1999 and required hard copies for the 2014 Universal PreKindergarten (UPK) RFP process. The deadline was last Friday—February 14.

For local government funders, we typically produce hardcopies in LA, rather than our satellite office in New York, and ship them to our client, who then hand-deliver the submission package. This helps maintain our transparency as ghost writers. Being prudent grant writers, we finished the submission package last Monday and took it to the local FedEx office at about 4:45 PM—30 minutes in advance of what we thought was the 5:15 PM deadline for East Coast priority next-day deliver.

FedEx, however, decided at some point during the day to move up the drop off deadline to 4:30 PM without changing the automated telephone recording for this location. We had called earlier in the day (once again being prudent) and heard the recording, which confirmed the erroneous 5:15 PM deadline. When we got to FedEx, a gaggle of incredulous shippers like us were yelling at the hapless counter guy.

Since the RFP deadline was Friday, we thought a Wednesday delivery would be okay—and, of course, there was nothing we could do about it.[2] I called FedEx central anyway and was told the problem was “a snow storm expected in Indianapolis”—the FedEx hub through which the package was being routed.

We returned to the local FedEx office with the package on Tuesday and off it went. Unfortunately by then, the snow storm had actually hit Indianapolis, delaying FedEx plane departures in the middle of the night. The FedEx plane was hours late getting to Newark and by the time the package got to the NYC sort facility, the drivers had already left on their rounds.

I didn’t figure this out until 10:00 AM PST on Wednesday and spent an hour or so working my way up the food chain to a FedEx supervisor, who said, more or less, that I could go piss up a rope because the package wouldn’t be delivered until Thursday. I was indignant, because in days of yore, a FedEx supervisor would have moved heaven and earth to get a package delivered, even if meant having local FedEx managers use their own cars for delivery. The company culture has changed.

The supervisor did, however, say that our client could go to the sort facility and pick up the package. I called the client, who said she would go retrieve it. By the time she got there, FedEx had apparently gotten enough complaining phone calls from angry shippers and sent the late packages out with a wave of unscheduled afternoon trucks.

The package was now on a truck, not at the sort facility, so our client went back to her office, which is in a private school building. By then the blizzard was bearing down on NYC. At 5:00 our client and most other staff left the building. Of course FedEx delivered the package at 5:15 to the security guard, who was the only person left at the school. The package was locked in the school building, which was naturally closed on Thursday, due to the now very real blizzard.

As the Vince, pitchman for Shamwow[3], used to say “are you following me, camera guy?” The package that was supposed to be delivered by FedEx on Tuesday was actually not received by our client until Friday morning, just a few hours ahead of the deadline.

But on Thursday, the NYC DOE issued an amendment extending the deadline until this Tuesday, February 18, because of the blizzard that had been harassing this proposal all last week.

A couple of takeaways from this bizarre story: FedEx has turned into a bureaucracy and is longer as infallible as it once seemed. FedEx employees used to care about their sacred mission, much as Google employees are said to today; now they seem to be punching the clock. Just as we advise our clients to always upload grants.gov submissions at least 48 hours in advance of the deadline to allow for upload issues, give yourself a couple of days of slack for hard copy submissions being sent via FedEx.[4]

Having given this advice, however, it is also not a good idea to submit proposals more than two days in advance. Funders will sometimes issue last minute amendments to RFPs. In the case of the NYC DOE RPF I’ve been discussing, the last minute amendment was a deadline extension, but it could have been some other, crucial change. If you’ve already submitted a proposal—hard copy or digital—early, and a subsequent amendment is issued, then in technical terms, you be screwed. You generally can’t un-submit a proposal.


[1] Oddly enough, Jake just had FedEx miss a delivery as well. He ordered a Tom Bihn Cache, which should have arrived in New York from its manufacturing point outside of Seattle before Jake’s recent trip to Boston. The package didn’t show up, however, and when Jake called FedEx with the tracking number the person who answered said he couldn’t find the package’s location in the system and suggested that Jake file a claim for a lost package.

Jake sent an e-mail to Tom Bihn, figuring that they should take care of it, and eventually the package did show up—just not in time for his trip. Nonetheless, the experience doesn’t inspire confidence in the company, especially since their customer service reps don’t even know what their system messages mean.

[2] We have a Force Majeure— sometimes referred to as an “act of God”—clause in our contracts for just this reason.

[3] My daughter bought Shamwows for me as a gag gift a few years ago, because she knew how much I enjoyed Vince’s infomercials. They turned out to be a very good product. No one, however, has yet bought me a Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman, made famous by Ron Popeil, the original informercial pitchman.

[4] Amazingly, there are still some federal programs, particularly in that bastion of innovation, the Department of Education, requiring hard copy submissions.

Youth CareerConnect Program: The Department of Labor Provides An Early Holiday Present

The holidays come early year with this tasty new* program from the elves at the Department of Labor (DOL) Employment and Training Administration (ETA): the Youth CareerConnect Program.** There’s $100,000,000 up for grabs, with 25 to 40 grants to be awarded—in other words, serious money. Sequestration hasn’t been a horror story for nonprofit and public agencies—the federal trough is full and there’s always for one more nonprofit snout.

Read the RFP. You’ll realize you’ve seen this movie before—but just because the plot is stale doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see yet another version of boy meets girl. Youth CareerConnect funds small learning communities, career-focused curricula, employee partnerships, high school diplomas or equivalents, industry-recognized credentials, work readiness, low-income participants (including females and minorities), and (wait for it), wraparound supportive services. It’s like YouthBuild but without the construction training, or like prisoner reentry without prisoners, or community colleges without the community college.

The services may elicit a yawn but the money won’t. If your agency runs YouthBuild or almost any other training or supportive services for at-risk youth or young adults, this is a wonderful grant opportunity that could be run by almost any youth services nonprofit. Remember, though, that you should get going before your Thanksgivukkah turkey and latkes put you to sleep, because the deadline is January 27. All I can say to my pals at DOL ETA, is Gobbletov!

EDIT: As I noted in “Are You Experienced? Face Forward—Serving Juvenile Offenders SGA: A New Department of Labor Program That Mirrors YouthBuild,” it’s almost always a good idea to apply for the first funding round of a new program. The reasons are too many and varied to repeat here, but the original post is worth reading carefully for anyone debating about whether their agency should apply.

In addition, it’s worth noting that page 16 of the Youth CareerConnect SGA forbids community colleges from applying. That’s curious, because community colleges are probably the most plausible candidates for running YCC programs. They’re probably excluded because community colleges are the only eligible applicants for the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Grant Program, which is essentially the same thing as YCC, except that it has even more money available. DOL just wants to spread the wealth to other organizations.


* It’s “new” in the sense that the title is new and the hundred million has been freshly allocated, but anyone who has ever provided job training services should recognize the melody, beat, and lyrics.

** I particularly like the way DOL has run Career and Connect together to form an allusion of speed and urgency with CareerConnect.

Always Finish Early: You Never Really Know What’s Going To Happen With a Proposal Deadline

We always tell our clients the same thing: the real deadline for any Federal proposal is 48 hours before the stated deadline. The is true for online and hard copy submissions.

Most federal proposals these days are submitted through what has become our old friend, Grants.gov. Grants.gov takes 48 hours to spit out confirmation e-mails confirming that the system has received a complete application. If you wait until you’re within 48 hours of the deadline, you could easily have the whole grant writing and application process torpedoed by an server problem, file corruption, or other weird upload issues.

You also never knows when Grants.gov is going to be overloaded or otherwise inaccessible. In an age of Google and Amazon Web Services, most people are used to highly reliable on-line experiences. Throw those assumptions out when dealing with Grants.gov.

Despite the slide toward online submissions, some RFPs still require hard copy submissions, which means FedEx or Express Mail. You can’t know when Hurricane Sandy (or an equivalent, such as a meteor strike) is going to hit. Usually disasters encourage deadline extensions and, possibly, the invocation of force majeure. But sometimes deadlines aren’t extended and the butterfly effect means that a bad thing happening in any part of the grant pipeline—such as a storm in Memphis, which is FedEx’s hub—can screw up the whole system. As for Express Mail, I don’t think I have to comment on the vagaries of USPS.

This is a boring but important topic. We know it’s boring because, hey, who wants to talk about deadlines? We know it’s important, however, based on the number of clients we’ve talked to who’ve missed the deadlines for their applications by ten minutes or two hours.

There’s one other issue, too, which we brought up in “Hurricane Sandy and the Election Combine to Blow Away the RFPs: disasters that affect DC may result in delays in the issuing and processing of RFPs. If you miss one deadline, you may not see another promising program for months. Occasionally a single RFP can mean the different between life and death for an agency. Failing to seize every chance you get may mean that you ultimately discover one day that you’re out of chances.

EDIT: I forgot this story, but a couple years ago a client was submitting a YouthBuild application, and he waited until the morning of the due date to upload his files. He spent the next 14 hours trying to get the upload to work and finally succeeded at 11:59 PM. I am not making this up. The good news is that his agency was funded, but life is too short for this sort of drama.

Hurricane Sandy and the Election Combine to Blow Away the RFPs

Dedicated readers of our e-mail grant newsletter have probably noticed how slender it’s been over the last four weeks. The newsletter isn’t slender because we’re reluctant to share grant opportunities with you—it’s slender because federal and state governments haven’t been issuing very many RFPs, and they’ve been issuing even fewer interesting RFPs of the sort that nonprofit and public agencies are likely to apply for. Whatever the merits of, say, the Tunisia Community College Scholarship Program or Research Using Biosamples from Selected Type 1 Diabetes Clinical Studies, they’re undeniably specialized programs that are unlikely to interest the vast majority of our subscribers.

Like any good grant Kremlinologists, we have to admit that we don’t know everything and can only make reasonable inferences based on limited data. With that caveat in mind, our best guess about the RFP drought is that DC has been hit with two major punches: Hurricane Sandy and the election. The former hasn’t done too much damage to Washington itself, but preparing for it set the city back by a couple of days, and the Northeast corridor still hasn’t recovered. The situation is sufficiently bad that deadlines are also being extended because of the chaos in the Northeast. The Race To The Top—District (RTTT-D) program, for example, had its deadline extended, but at first the Department of Education didn’t give a new deadline. The actual extension dates—Nov. 2 for everyone else and Nov. 7 for those affected by Sandy—took a couple of days.

The election shouldn’t directly impact the grant cycle, but it does because DC is a company town, and everyone in the town is waiting to see what’s going to happen at the top. Although the civil service employees who actually run grant competitions won’t be directly affected by the winners and losers of Tuesday’s elections, their political appointee masters will be, and the tenor of what’s happening in each department may change. As a result, it’s not infrequent to see this kind of federal torpor right before an election, and that, we think, is why you’ve seen such thin newsletters recently. Not to worry, though, because there should be a “storm surge” of RFPs when the bureaucracy rises from its election lassitude.

California’s Supplemental Education Services (SES): What Gives?

California’s Supplemental Educational Services program looks a bit curious when you first study it: the grant-like program isn’t really a grant program, per se. It’s a competition designed to, as we said in the Seliger Funding Report:

apply for state approval of the applicant’s capability to provide before- and after-school tutoring to remedy academic deficiencies in low-income and at-risk youth. Once approved, the applicant can receive contracts from CA LEAs to provide such tutoring services. The SES program is a federal pass-through program and is available in all states.

(The link is ours, naturally.)

If you’re “funded”—although “selected” is a more appropriate verb here—you’ll be able to seek contracts with school districts throughout the state. Those contracts can be very lucrative. If you want to apply, however, you’ve got to do a two-step dance, and the application we link to in the first sentence is the first step.

Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) is Finally Here

Back in June, we got excited about the imminent announcement for the Department of Education’s Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) Program. Then we waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Today, however, two months and a day after our post, the Department of Education finally released the complete application package. Some of the highlights include 70 pages of narrative and 117 pages of RFP. There’s a non-mandatory letter of intent (LOI) due by August 30 (from page 5 of the RFP: “Applicants that do not complete this form may still apply for funding.”). The federal deadline is October 30, but— and this is a big “but”—applicants have to allow ten business days in advance of the federal deadline for review by the state department of education and the mayor of the relevant jurisdiction(s). The means that the real deadline appears to be October 17!

We usually send our the Seliger Funding Report on Monday morning, which means we’d have to wait another week to get this breaking news to our subscribers and readers. But, given the time-sensitive nature and complexity of the application, and its liar deadline, we want to make sure as many potential applicants know about this $400,000,000 RFP as possible.

Thirty day deadlines favor the prepared

The cliche goes, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” and we could repurpose it to, “Short deadlines favor the prepared nonprofit.” I have the dubious pleasure of reading the Federal Register every week and have noticed that deadlines are shrinking like hemlines. This means the organizations that apply with a complete and technically correct proposal are, even more than usual, the ones who don’t dawdle in deciding to apply and don’t procrastinate once they’ve made the decision.

If you’re thinking about applying for a grant with a thirty-day deadline, don’t take a week to mull it over. Take an hour. Need to wait on a board meeting? See if you can schedule an emergency meeting that night. Can’t do it? Text the chairperson immediately and set up a conference call. If you wait long enough, you won’t be able to get your application together, and, in an environment like this one, you don’t want to miss a deadline for a good program. It could be the life or death of your organization. Small delays tend to turn into big ones; don’t delay any part of the process any longer than you have to.

We sometimes find ourselves in a situation where a couple of clients hire us before a funder issues an RFP. Once the RFP is issued with a very short deadline, we get deluged with calls; as a result, we often have to say “no” to jobs because we lack the capacity and the time to do them. For us, this sucks, since we want to help our clients get funded. But we’re also unusual because we always hit our deadlines; part of the reason we can always hit deadlines is because we decline work if we can’t finish it.

This sometimes makes potential clients, who think hiring a consultant is like shopping at the Apple Store, irritated: “Whaddaya mean, you can’t write the proposal?” “We don’t have the capacity.” “That’s ridiculous! I’m ready to pay.” But consulting isn’t like stamping out another MacBook Air: it’s an allocation of time, and, like most people, we only have twenty-four hours in our days. While we can often accept very short deadlines, sometimes our other obligations mean we can’t. No matter how much it hurts to say “no,” we say it if we have to. This is one reason it is a good idea to hire in advance of a RFP being issued.

There are also situations with misleading or hidden double deadlines. For example, the HRSA Section 330 programs Isaac wrote about last week list application deadlines of October 12. But that deadline is only for the initial Grants.gov submission, which requires an SF-424, a budget, and a couple other minor things. Stuff you could do in a day. The real application—the HRSA Electronic Handbook (EHBs) submission—isn’t due until November 22. So what looks like thirty days is actually closer to two months, but only to people in the know (like those of you who read our e-mail grant newsletter; I’ve seen lots of sites present the October 12 deadline HRSA offered instead of the real deadline). If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to miss what’s really happening on the ground.

But you should still make your choice to apply for any grant program quickly, not slowly. Slow food might be a virtue, but slow grant application decision-making and proposal writing aren’t.

When Seliger + Associates began, the Internet was just breaking into the mainstream and relatively few nonprofits used computers in the workplace and few business and home computers had reliable Internet connection. Grant deadlines were routinely in the neighborhood of 60 days. They had to be: disseminating information about deadlines was slow, shipping hard copies of RFPs was slow, research was slow and required trips to libraries. Plus, there’s an element of fundamental fairness in giving nonprofit and public agencies enough time to think about what they’re doing, gather partners, solicit community input, decide to hire grant writers, and so forth, and funders appear to have lost interest in that issue. Now, nonprofits have to do this much faster. The ones that succeed are the ones who realize that circumstances on the ground have changed and then adapt to the new environment.

One Person, One Task: Who’s in Charge of Your Proposal?

Who is in charge of completing and submitting your proposal?

You should immediately be able to say, “Jane Doe. Or “John Doe.” Whoever. Can you instantly think of that person’s name—the person who gets the praise if the proposal is submitted on time and technically correct or the blame if it isn’t?

If you can’t, you’ve got a problem—and it’s a problem endemic to a lot of industries. This topic is topical because there’s a fascinating article in Fortune Magazine called “Inside Apple,” which describes the notoriously secretive and productive company. Here’s the relevant bit:

At Apple there’s never confusion “as to who is responsible for what.” In Apple’s parlance, a DRI’s name (directly responsible individual) always appear on the agenda for a meeting, so that everyone knows who’s the right contact for a project

Oh, and it’s not just Apple, or just nonprofits, with this problem. In one discussion thread about “Inside Apple,” poster “JacobAldridge” says “This is a project I run with almost all of my clients – shifting an organic, but dysfunctional, business arrangement into one where everyone knows their responsibility, and the right person does the right jobs at the right time (and for the right cost point).” In the nonprofit world, doing something like this for organizations as a whole is way beyond our scope, but it is our standard practice to designate specific responsibilities when we’re hired for a grant writing assignment.

We insist on a single contact person and a single set of revisions per draft. If we didn’t, we’d have madness—the kind of madness you might remember from worthless group projects in high school or highly dysfunctional organizations. We’d have critical documents or drafts fall through the cracks of miscommunication or evaded responsibility. We’d suffer “confusion ‘as to who is responsible for what,’ ” which we virtually never experience.

Many nonprofits intentionally avoid assigning direct responsibility for proposals and other tasks to a single person. This is a mistake, much like splitting up the writing of a proposal. Don’t do it, and if your organization does, it’s time to start thinking like Steve Jobs or Seliger + Associates—and about how to adopt the DRI model.