Posted on 2 Comments

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Grant World Shifts from the “Community Based Abstinence Education Program” to “Competitive Abstinence Education Grant Program”

In 2008, I wrote a pair of long blog posts about the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program and what happens when a program that is nominally based on “research” has an unfortunate problem: the best available research shows the premise of the program is unlikely to succeed. (The first post is “What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study.”) We wrote a number of funded CBAE programs over the course of a couple years.

Today, however, I was enjoying my usual Sunday jaunt through the Federal Register and found the Competitive Abstinence Education Grant Program. It’s much, much smaller than CBAE, since it only has $4,611,070 available, while CBAE had $40,000,000 in the 2008 funding cycle. In addition, while the new program may have abstinence in the title, description says that applicants should take “medically accurate” approach to sex education, which is quite different than the required CBAE approach, which explicitly forbids medically accurate sex education.

This is the part of the post where a political blogger would make some sort of ideological or political point.* I don’t have one, but I will say that the CBAE to CAEG shift is another example of how smart agencies should be adaptable, as I described in my post “Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts.” Four years ago, the grant waves were throwing abstinence; this year, they’re throwing comprehensive sex education. Forty years ago, when Isaac was getting started, the emphasis was on “medically accurate” information (like today’s RFP), as he wrote about in “Teenage Pregnancy Prevention and the Replication of Evidence-based Programs: the Research and Demonstration Programs and Personal Responsibility Education Program are Two RFPs that Provide a ‘Madeleine Moment’ for a Grizzled Grant Writer.”

For a lot of agencies, what happens on the ground when they’re trying to educate teenagers probably won’t change much based on the funding stream, since teenagers themselves haven’t changed much since they were invented in the 1920s or thereabouts (read Joseph Kent’s Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present and similar books for the history of adolescence as an idea; see also here for a graph depicting the rise of the term “teenager”). Given how fast we produce teenagers, and the gap between what most teenagers really want and what most adults really want them to do, the need for some fashion of sex education is unlikely to go away in the near future, which means federal RFPs are likely to keep being issued—regardless of how they’re labeled.

EDIT: In “Parents Just Don’t Understand: A sociologist says American moms and dads are in denial about their kids’ sexual lives,” Sinikka Elliott argues about comprehensive sex education and abstinence education:

One side is saying, ”Well, they need to abstain. That’s a surefire way that they’re gonna be safe,” and the other side is saying, “They’re not gonna abstain and so they need contraceptive information.” They were basing their argument on the same things: the teen pregnancy rates, the STI rates.

Neither focuses much on pleasure, as Elliott points out.


* I don’t have one, but I will say that the Margaret Talbot’s New Yorker article, Red Sex, Blue Sex is probably the most interesting and comprehensive article I’ve read about the kinds of political differences that shift the funding streams for programs like CBAE and now CAEG.

Posted on 2 Comments

Breaking News: The Department of Education Announces Race to the Top–District (RTTT-D) Program with $400 Million for LEAs!

EDIT: The RFP has finally been issued—two months a day after this post was first published.

The Department of Education will issue an RFP for the Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) program around July 1. There will be about $400 million up for grabs. Local Education Agencies (“LEAs,” which is education-speak for school districts) with at least 2,500 students, of whom at least 40% are low-income, will be eligible to compete for grants up to $25 million or so.

This is the first time LEAs have been eligible to apply directly to the feds for RTTT funds. Even better, the Department of Education must obligate the funds by December 31, so this is going to be Fast and Furious grant making that favors the prepared applicant. Based on recent Department of Education RFP cycles, I assume there will be about 30 days from the RFP publication to the deadline. If they meet the July 1 publication target, the proposal preparation period will include the 4th of July, which falls on a Wednesday this year. Lots of civilians will aim for a five-day vacation, while us grant writers will be tossing another gerund on the barbie.*

RTTT-D is an extraordinary opportunity for LEAs. Given the uncertain political climate and budget constraints, it might be a long time until LEAs are again able to apply for substantial funds to essentially do anything they want, as long as the it conforms to the loosey-goosey reforms of RTTT. If I were a LEA administrator, I would already be developing my RTTT-D proposal. Gentlewomen and gentlemen, start your grant engines.


* “Tossing” is a gerund for those readers who like to diagram sentences (actually, it’s a gerund for all readers). Here is Dave Barry’s take on diagramming sentences:

Q. Please explain how to diagram a sentence.

A. First spread the sentence out on a clean, flat surface, such as an ironing board. Then, using a sharp pencil or X-Acto knife, locate the “predicate,” which indicates where the action has taken place and is usually located directly behind the gills. For example, in the sentence: “LaMont never would of bit a forest ranger,” the action probably took place in a forest. Thus your diagram would be shaped like a little tree with branches sticking out of it to indicate the locations of the various particles of speech, such as your gerunds, proverbs, adjutants, etc.

Posted on 6 Comments

Upward Bound means more narrative confusion

The Upward Bound deadline passed, but the RFP lingers on in my mind like a foul meal.

The RFP was an extraordinary work of indirection, with 130-something pages of instructions supporting a 72-page narrative (counting “Competitive Priorities”). Upward Bound is one of the Department of Education’s “TRIO” programs—there used to be three: Upward Bound, Educational Opportunity Centers, and Student Supportive Services, but now there are five or six. Another TRIO program, Educational Opportunity Centers (“EOC”), was released last May, and that RFP is particularly close to my heart because I used its “Plan of operation” section to teach my University of Arizona students technical writing. The EOC RFP was also overly long and overly verbose, but its similarity to Upward Bound meant that looking at that proposal would help me with the new one.

It also included a trap, because the Department of Education made subtle but real changes between the way they phrased requirements from one program to the other. For example, under “Project Need” in EOC, the first two major headers said something like, “Low-incomes in the target area” and “High percentage of target area residents with education completion levels below the baccalaureate level.” The UB RFP says, “The income level of families in the target area is low” and “The education attainment level of adults in the target area is low.” So an applicant who applies for both EOC and UB can reuse data—but a straight copy-paste will result in the Department of Education knowing that you’ve done so. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Department of Education does this intentionally, like Van Halen and their legendary M&M Rider:

The rider’s “Munchies” section was where the group made its candy-with-a-caveat request: “M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES).” While the underlined rider entry has often been described as an example of rock excess, the outlandish demand of multimillionaires, the group has said the M&M provision was included to make sure that promoters had actually read its lengthy rider. If brown M&M’s were in the backstage candy bowl, Van Halen surmised that more important aspects of a performance–lighting, staging, security, ticketing–may have been botched by an inattentive promoter.

Van Halen uses brow M&M’s as a signal, and the Department of Education is using section headers the same way. If your section headers are identical to the EOC section heads, your proposal will be thrown out altogether, or at least have its points lowered.

There are other perils stashed in this RFP, too: its writers practically hide the location of the material you’re supposed to respond to. The RFP directs you to page 102, but the actual narrative requirement in the form of the “selection criteria” to which you’re supposed to respond starts on page 70 (of a 132-page RFP). And the narrative section lists “Objectives” on page 71, but you have to be cognizant enough to know that you have to copy the objectives listed on page 93.

Read and tread carefully when preparing to write a grant proposal.

EDIT: A former Department of Education reviewer wrote us to say:

I read with interest your article on Upward Bound grants in which you spoke of “traps” by the Department of Education. You clearly are experienced and are doing a great service for fledgling grants writers. However, I have served as a reader for several TRIO programs, and my experience is that the Department of Education NEVER puts traps in their RFPs. They work very hard to see that readers are fair and generally positive about the grant process. Of course, they also want consistency to keep down on appeals. The reason that I am writing is that you are doing your readers a disservice by making them think that there is a “magic phrase” that might result in acceptance for funding or rejection of a grant. The Department of Education wants writers to address the problems in a straightforward manner and teachers readers to reward clear writing.

Posted on Leave a comment

January 2012 Links: Paypal Problems, Inner-City Crime, Proposalese in the Media, Innovation, “Abstinence Education,” and More

* Do not ever use Paypal; this story from someone who gets their accounts frozen is fairly common. I had a nasty encounter with Paypal that guarantees I will never, ever use them again, and I can tell you from experience that their legal department is just as difficult and cruel as their so-called dispute resolution department.

* Fighting Inner-City Crime: When, and how, citizens should take action is a pressing question. Notice the author, Sudhir Venkatesh, who also wrote Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, which is useful for anyone developing proposal project concepts and needs assessments.

* “As [the] Public Sector Sheds Jobs, [Women] and Minorities Hurt Most.”

* A review of the new Seagate Momentus XT. I have the old version in my laptop and will say that it was a tremendous improvement over a regular, 5400 RPM laptop hard drive.

* The Research Bust:

[A]fter four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point, the cascade of research having exhausted most of the subfields and overwhelmed the capacity of individuals to absorb the annual output. Who can read all of the 80 items of scholarship that are published on George Eliot each year? After 5,000 studies of Melville since 1960, what can the 5,001st say that will have anything but a microscopic audience of interested readers?

* The brutal logic of climate change, an important and likely-to-be-ignored post.

* “The End of Stagnation and the Coming Innovation Boom;” especially note this:

Our ancestors were bold and industrious, they built a significant part of our transportation and energy infrastructure more than half a century ago. It would be impossible to build that same infrastructure today. Could we build the Hoover Dam? We have the technology, of course, but do we have the will? In building infrastructure many interest groups can say no and nearly no one can say yes. We are beset by a swarm of veto players. Time, however, is running out. We cannot rely on the infrastructure of our past to travel to our future.

I’ve seen the veto players and automatic “no” people in watching Seattle attempt to build a light-rail system to alleviate its atrocious traffic problems. The number of lawsuits and amount of issues are staggering, so it’s taken the city and other players literally decades to get anything done. The proposed California Bullet Train is another example of the same.

* Still: Tunnels: Seattle’s boring past filled with thrills:

In a world where most work is done with a keyboard and dispersed into electronic ether, their work is refreshingly real, lasting, utilitarian. Workers seem also to share a frontier can-do spirit. Masters of a subterranean universe, not for nothing is their line of work called heavy civil: a good name for a grunge band, or a workforce that stops at pretty much nothing.

* Unsurprising: Alabama Can’t Find Anyone to Fill Illegal Immigrants’ Old Jobs.

* [Bill] O’Reilly Gets Ambushed, just like he does to other people. One definition of a bully might be someone who can’t accept what they do to others or say about them.

* James Fallows: With Mitt’s Ascent, We’re Back to the ‘Mormon Question’, a very good post and one that changes what I think.

* Without comprehensive sex education, porn is the only solid information kids are getting about sex. File this under “the obvious.”

* A fascinating and largely accurate list of what kinds of inequality are acceptable and what kinds aren’t, by David Brooks:

Status inequality is acceptable for college teachers. Universities exist within a finely gradated status structure, with certain schools like Brown clearly more elite than other schools. University departments are carefully ranked and compete for superiority.

Status inequality is unacceptable for high school teachers. Teachers at this level strongly resist being ranked. It would be loathsome to have one’s department competing with other departments in nearby schools.

And people involved in each system probably believe in both without questioning why they do or how they came to believe what they believe. I would also be interested in seeing other lists of this kind and for other countries.

Brooks ends: “Dear visitor, we are a democratic, egalitarian people who spend our days desperately trying to climb over each other. Have a nice stay.” We may also believe that equality of opportunity doesn’t imply equality of results, although that itself might be acceptable to believe while it might not be acceptable to believe in many circles that we have equality of opportunity.

* David Henderson’s “Occupy Monterey” talks are fascinating in part because they reveal the basic economic illiteracy of much of his audience. There are three parts, all at the link; some of the comments shouted from people in the audience remind me of things I’ve heard peers and profs say in English departments.

* The No-Brainer Issue of the Year: Let High-Skill Immigrants Stay:

Behind Door #1 are people of extraordinary ability: scientists, artists, educators, business people and athletes. Behind Door #2 stand a random assortment of people. Which door should the United States open?

In 2010, the United States more often chose Door #2 [. . .]

* Get Ready for Manufacturing’s Big Comeback: “As the cost of doing business in China rises, U.S. manufacturing could be on the verge of a renaissance.”

* Famous Authors’ Harshest Rejection Letters. It’s amazing to me not only how little we know, but how little we know how little we know (read that twice).

* We haven’t met the aliens because they’ve become enmeshed in video games. Alternately, the reason we haven’t met any aliens morphs with the contemporary issues we’re starting to notice; during the Cold War, nuclear annihilation was a probable parable. Today, it’s cultural suicide abetted by technology.

* The slow erosion of legal rights; “terrorism” and “drugs” appear to be the keys to removing Constitutional safeguards.

* Ending the Infographic Plague.

* I already linked to this but see no reason no to do so again, since a reader sent it to me: Bookshelf porn. Note that this involves no actual nudity; the books are closed.

* “The secret lives of feral dogs: A Pennsylvania city instructs police to shoot strays, opening a sad window on animal care in the age of austerity.”

* “The average health care insurance premium today is over $15,000 and by 2021 it may be headed to $32,000 or so (admittedly that estimate is based on extrapolation);” that’s from “The median wage figure and the health care costs figure.”

* “The fragile teenage brain: An in-depth look at concussions in high school football.” After reading about the many football concussion studies, I’ve learned that a lot of the brain damage football causes isn’t from single big hits—it’s from many small hits that accrue in practice and elsewhere. There is no way I’d let my kid play football.

Posted on Leave a comment

FY ’12 Upward Bound Draft RFP Found with $305,289,000 for New Awards — A Nice Apparition for Halloween

Subscribers to our free weekly Email Grant Alerts and faithful blog readers know that I have been predicting for a few months that the FY ’12 RFP for the Upward Bound program would be soon be issued. It’s getting there, and we now have a copy of the complete Draft FY ’12 Upward Bound RFP.

For the last several weeks, we’ve known the draft FY ’12 Upward Bound NOFA was floating in the ether, although the Department of Education didn’t seem to want to post it publicly for some unknown reason. But, after 19 years in business, we’ve got our sources and finagled a copy of the draft RFP and related docs in advance of publication.

By the time your read this, you should be able to find an announcement about Upward Bound in the October 31 Federal Register. The draft essentially provides a 30 day comment period on the Department of Education’s plan for “reinstatement of a previously approved application for grants under the Upward Bound (UB) Project (1840-0550), which has expired.” This bit of federal Doublespeak means that there have been some legislative changes since the last Upward Bound RFP process in 2007. The Department of Education needs to go through a public comment period before issuing the RFP they’ve already produced—and it will probably be in more or less the same form as the version we have.

You’ve gotta love the timing of the Department of Education performing a little prestidigitation by releasing the phantom RFP on Halloween. Boo!

I’ve paged through the 114 single-spaced page Upward Bound RFP and it looks remarkably like every other TRIO Program RFP I’ve ever seen. But the best part in the RFP is that there will be $305,289,000 for new UB awards, with an average award of $330,000/year for five years. The Department of Education is still being coy about the deadline, but let’s do some math: the 30 day comment period starts on October 31, it’ll take about 15 days or so for the program officers to examine and reject comments, and about 15 days or so to set up the next FR publication. Thus, the FY ’12 RFP should be published between Christmas and January 15. These days, most Department of Education RFPs have 30 day deadlines, so expect the deadline to be late January to mid-February.

Upward Bound will be one of the best opportunities this year to grab a pretty big Department of Education grant salmon this year. Nonprofits and institutions of higher education (IHE, which means “college or university” in Edu-speak) are eligible applicants. Upward Bound is a great way of funding academic support programs for high school students to enable them to build the skills needed to graduate from high school and thrive in the postsecondary education milieu (free proposal phrase here).

Just don’t wait for the actual RFP to be issued. Find the draft RFP, read it, and, if you think you organization could run the program, go to work on planning the project. With over $300 million up for grabs, there should be at least 1,000 grants awarded. We’ve written many funded TRIO grants, including Upward Bound, and know that the funding decisions for these programs are often the stuff of strange tales. But if your organization doesn’t get moving and submit a great, technically correct proposal, you will miss out on a twice-a-decade opportunity. It’ll take that long for the next Upward Bound bus to roll by. Get on this one.

Posted on Leave a comment

Teaching the Teacher: What I Learned From Technical Writing

We’re skeptics on the subject of grant writing training as such, but this summer I taught a “Technical Writing” course for juniors and seniors at the University of Arizona. The original course design wasn’t very challenging, so I decided to make it more nutritious by building a unit around grant writing; in a fit of cruelty, I gave the class the “Plan of Operations” section for the last round of Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC) funding (you can read the assignment sheet here if you’re curious). The RFP was on my mind because I’d just finished one and thought a single section of the narrative should be stretch the students’ abilities while still being doable.

Teaching a writing class shows the instructor how things that’ve become easy for him might be very hard for everyone else. Working with students and grading their assignments also made me realize how much tacit knowledge I’ve accumulated about grant writing—mostly through listening to Isaac tell war stories and berate me over missing sections when I was much younger. That was definitely a “trial-by-fire” experience. In a classroom, students should get a gentler but still rigorous introduction to grant writing, and that’s what I tried to do, even though teaching effectively is hard, just like grant writing; the skills necessary for one don’t necessarily overlap very much or very often. As a result, it’s worth describing some of what I learned, since teachers often learn as much if not more than students.

Breaking down the component parts of the process requires thought. As I said above, relatively little of my knowledge about grant writing was explicit and ready to be communicated. This is probably true of all fields, but I haven’t noticed how hard it is to articulate what to do and how to do it. In response to student questions, I often had to slow down and ask myself how I knew what I knew before I could answer their questions.

For example, because I knew a lot about TRIO programs, I knew that EOC aims to provide a very large number of people with a very small amount of help, direction, and information. Think of the amount of money per student and the amount of time invested in that student as correlated: less money means less time. Which approach is “better?” Probably neither. But I needed to find a way to make sure students could figure out what the RFP is really saying without too much prompting.

You can’t teach technical writing outside of the context of regular writing. Most students didn’t have well-developed general writing skills, so we had to collectively work on those at the same time they were trying to learn about grant writing as a specific domain. You can’t write an effective proposal without knowing basic English grammar and being able to write sentences using standard syntax. Most high schools simply don’t teach those writing skills, or, if they do, students don’t retain them. I’ve learned over time to incorporate basic rules in my freshman-level classes, and I definitely had to do the same in this class—especially because most students weren’t humanities majors and hadn’t been required to write since they were freshmen.

I’m not talking about abstruse topics like the gerunds versus present participles or a finely grained definition of the pluperfect tense. I’m talking about simple stuff like comma usage and avoiding passive voice (this is actually a good test for you: do you know a couple major comma rules? Hint: “When you take a breath / pause” isn’t one. If you’ve begun sweating at this self-test, try Write Right!).

Your proposal isn’t going to be rejected outright because you misuse one or two commas. Typos happen. But if grammar and syntax errors make it difficult to read, there’s a good chance that reviewers simply won’t try to read it. The same applies to your layout, which is why Isaac wrote “What Does a Grant Proposal Look Like Exactly? 13 Easy Steps to Formatting a Winning Proposal.” In addition, a proposal filled with typos and other errors signals to reviewers that you don’t even care enough to find or hire someone to edit your work. And if you don’t care before you get the money, what’s it going to be like after you get the money?

On the subject of what students know, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses demonstrates that an astonishingly large number of college graduates effectively learn nothing, academically speaking, over their four to six years of college life. It should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in postsecondary education.

You can’t be an effective grant writer without basic writing skills. People who can’t write complete sentences or coherent paragraphs simply need to develop those skills prior to trying to write complex documents. If you, the reader, are starting to write proposals and your own writing skills are shaky, consider finding a basic composition class at a local community college and taking that.

Reading RFPs is hard. Which is why I wrote “Deconstructing the Question: How to Parse a Confused RFP” and “Adventures in Bureaucracy and the Long Tale of Deciphering Eligibility: A Farce.” The EOC RFP is more than 100 pages, so I gave students the dozen or so pages necessary to write the “Plan of Operations.” Relatively few understood the inherent trade-off among the number of participants served, the cost per participant, and the maximum grant amount. Fine-grained details like this are part of what makes grant writing a challenge and, sometimes, a pleasure when the puzzle pieces slip into place.

There’s nothing to stop RFP writers from improving the organizational structure of their RFPs, but they simply don’t and have no incentive to. So I don’t think the inherent challenge of reading RFPs will go away over time.

A lot of students haven’t learned to write in the plain style: they use malapropisms, or pretentious diction that doesn’t feel right because they don’t trust themselves to use simple words correctly and in an appropriate order to convey meaning.

The best proposals balance imaginativeness and fidelity to the RFP. There is not a limitless number of possible activities to entice people into universities; if you’re proposing that leprechaun jockeys ride unicorns through the streets, shouting about the program through bullhorns, you’re probably erring on the side of being too, er, imaginative. If the only way you can conceive of getting students to college is by creating a website, you probably need more imagination.

Grant Writing Confidential is, in fact, useful. This isn’t just an effort to toot our own horn, but I gave students reading assignments in the form of blog posts, with about three posts required per day. The students who read the posts thoroughly and took the advice within wrote significantly better proposals than those who didn’t. When would-be grant writers ask us for advice these days, we tell give them much of the advice we’ve been giving for close to 19 years—along with a point to read all of GWC. It shouldn’t take more than an afternoon to read the archives, and someone who comes out on the other end should be better equipped to write proposals.

At some point, I’ll organize a bunch of the posts into a coherent framework for would-be grant writers and for others who simply want to sharpen their skills.

Nonprofit organization itself isn’t easy to understand. Nonprofits, despite the name and the associations with the word “corporation,” are still “corporations”—which means they have the organizational structure and challenges of any group of humans who band together to accomplish some task. People who work in nonprofit and public agencies already know this, but a lot of college students don’t realize that nonprofits require management, have hierarchies of some kind (the executive director probably isn’t doing the same thing as a “peer outreach worker,” at least most of the time, however important both roles may be), and that specialization occurs within the nonprofit itself.

People understand things better in story form. We sometimes tell “war stories” on this blog because they’re usually more evocative than dry, abstract, and technical posts. People hunger for narrative, and you need to tell a story in your proposal.

People who’re being taught usually want stories too, and when possible I tried to illustrate points about grant writing through story. But I didn’t realize the importance of this when I started. I should’ve, especially since I’m a PhD student in English Lit and spend a lot of my time studying and analyzing story.

Students prefer honest work over dishonest make-work, like most people. Too much of school consists of assignments that either aren’t hard or aren’t hard in the right way. We often call those assignments “busy-work” or “make-work.” Most group projects fall into this category. Students resent them to some extent, and I can’t blame them.

The cliche has it that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan. The same is true in proposals: if an application is funded, everyone wants to maximize their perceived role in executing it. If it isn’t, then Pat down the hall wrote most of it anyway, and we should blame Pat. Having a small group talk over the proposal but a single person writing it will result in both a better, more coherent proposal and in more satisfied writers, who are doing real work instead of watching someone else type—which usually means “checking Facebook” or chatting, or whatever.

In our own workflow, as soon as we’re hired we set a time to scope the proposal with the client shortly after we received a signed agreement and the first half of our fee. We usually talk with the client for half an hour to an hour and a half, and once we’ve done that we usually write a first draft of the narrative section of the proposal and draft a “documents memo” that describes all the pieces of paper (or, these days, digital files) that make up a complete proposal. This is real work. We don’t waste any time sitting in meetings, eating doughnuts, articulating a vision statement, or any of the other things nominal “grant writers” say they do.

Time pressure is a great motivator. The class I taught lasted just three weeks, and students had three to four days of class time to write their proposals. At the end of the class, many remarked that they didn’t think they could write 15 to 20 pages in a week. They could, and so can you. The trick, however, is choosing your week: you don’t want to write 20 pages two days before the deadline. You want to write them two weeks or two months before the deadline.

If you can’t, hire us, and we will. Assuming we have enough time, of course; we also take a fair number of last minute assignments, which often happens when other grant writing consultants quit or when a staff person realizes that this grant writing thing is harder than it looks. We’re happy to take those last-minute assignments if we have the capacity for them, but it’s not a bad idea to hire us in advance if you know you want to apply for a program.

Starting early gives you time to revise, edit, and polish. This advice is obvious and applies to many fields, but a lot of people don’t think they can do as much as they can until they’re forced to act because of circumstances. But little stops you from applying the same force to yourself earlier.

Conversely, Facebook is a great scourge to concentration. I taught in a computerized classroom that had an Orwellian feature: from the master computer, I could see the screens of anyone else in the classroom. Students who spent more time dawdling on Facebook produced worse proposals than those who didn’t. This might be a correlation-is-not-causation issue—worse writers might spend more time on Facebook, instead of Facebook causing worse writing—but I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook and other Internet distractions are hurting people’s ability to focus for long periods of time. I think consciously about how to disconnect distraction, and, if it’s an issue for me, I can virtually guarantee it’s an issue for many others too.

People who have never written a proposal before aren’t really ready to write a full proposal. This might seem obvious too, but it’s worth reiterating that few people who’ve never tried to write a complex proposal can do it right the first time. Grant writing, like many activities, benefits from a master/apprentice or editor/writer relationship.

This, in fact, is how I learned to write proposals: Isaac taught me. Granted, he’s a tough master, but the result of difficult training is mastery when done. Viewers like watching Gordon Ramsay on TV because he’s tough and that toughness may accelerate the learning process for those on the other end of his skewer. I can’t do the same in class, which is probably a good thing. Nonetheless, whether you’re making an egg souffle or a Department of Education proposal, don’t expect perfection the first time through. Actually, don’t expect perfection at all, but over time your skills will improve.

Posted on 5 Comments

Federal Pass-Through Programs Illustrated: California Issues RFAs for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers – Elementary & Middle Schools and High School ASSETs Programs

Grant writing is inherently confusing—particularly when it comes to federal “pass-through” grant programs. A pass-through program is one in which the federal government passes grant funds to state or large local jurisdictions based on an allocation formula of some sort. Let’s take a look at one such program, 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC).

The 21st CCLC program started about 12 years ago as a direct federal competitive program from the US Department of Education. Essentially, this program funded and still funds before- and/or after-school enrichment activities—including tutoring, arts and crafts, recreation, cultural activities, computer skills and so forth—along with family literacy and a few other odds and ends. Think of it as more or less a standard Boys & Girls Clubs of America program.

Not surprisingly, Boys & Girls Clubs make great 21st CCLC applicants, as long as they partner with a LEA (“local education agency” in education-speak) or public school, which they all do anyway. The program was well-funded, and we wrote lots of funded 21st CCLC grants around the country. The whole exercise was straightforward because there was one pot of money with fairly large five-year grants available, one annual deadline, and one set of criteria. Of course, this simple approach was too much for Congress, and about six years ago the 21st CCLC program was transformed into a pass-through structure. While every state is guaranteed some money, the smaller states do not get all that much and each state Department of Education runs their own RFA (“Request for Applications”, which is RFP in education-speak) process. The result of this “reform” is much confusion about the program, when to apply, and on and on.

The 21st CCLC situation in California illustrates how a fairly simple program concept can become fantastically complex when the feds take the pass-through approach. Since California is huge, it gets a huge 21st CCLC entitlement. Every few years, the California Department of Education issues not one, but two 21st CCLC RFAs. The FY 2012 RFAs were issued on October 7, including the 21st Century Community Learning Centers – Elementary & Middle Schools program and the 21st Century High School ASSETs (After School Safety and Enrichment for Teens) program, the latter being for high school students. Each RFA is 65 single-spaced pages long, with lots of qualifiers, charts, and tables that are too numerous to recite here. It gets better—there are also on-line application forms. In addition to meeting the basic 21st CCLC federal and state regulations, applicants—which can be LEAs, schools, nonprofits and public agencies—have to find an eligible partner school that does not currently have a 21st CCLC program, or, if it does, the existing program has to be in the last year of operation. Since 21st CCLC grants are actually five, one-year grants, a given school and potential 21st CCLC provider might be out of synch with the application process. This makes it challenge for a non-LEA applicant to partner with the right school at the right time to get a 21st CCLC grant.

Despite the layers of complexity that the California Department of Education and other SEAs (“state education agencies”—this is an acronym-heavy post) have added to the 21st CCLC program, it remains the single best way of funding an after school program. Assuming the red tape can be surmounted, a successful applicant is reasonably assured of five years of funding that can make an enormous difference in the lives of vulnerable children and youth (free proposal phrase here).

And keep in mind that the program is available in every state, as long as you can find it and figure out the application process. To help out, here are links to the 21st CCLC in New York and Illinois. Poke around your SEA website and you should find the 21st CCLC site. Then, determine the funding cycle, line up a school partner and be ready when the RFA is issued. While your investigating the 21st CCLC program, look for state-funded analogue programs too. For example, California has the After School Education and Safety (ASES) program. I’m not sure of the current funding levels for ASES, but it wins the unintentionally funny acronym contest, although it is pronounced “aces,” not as it appears.

Illinois has the better named Teen REACH (Teen Responsibility, Education, Achievement, Caring, and Hope program, but children as young as seven can participate, so don’t trust public acronyms. The best of worlds is to combine a 21st CCLC program grant with a state-funded grant, which, for those of you who are old enough to remember, means you will be able to double your pleasure, double your fun.

Other pass-through federal programs, such as HUD’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and the Office of Community Services’ (OCS) Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) program work similarly to the 21st CCLC program, except they’re even more complicated. I’ve written a bit about CDBG and CSBG earlier and won’t put readers to sleep with more minutia about them. The key point to remember with federal pass-through funds is that applicants have to understand both the underlying federal regulations, as well as the state/local application process.

Posted on Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, as for the exam—I passed.


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

Posted on 3 Comments

Talent Search RFP Finally Published — But What A Stupid Deadline

Last Sunday I posed the question, “Searching for Talent Search: Where Oh Where Has the Talent Search RFP Gone And Why is It A Secret?.” I still don’t know why the RFP release date was a secret, but on Wednesday, the Department of Education finally published the Talent Search application instructions. Hallelujah, or as my now 24 year old son used to say at about age five, “Hallalulah!”

One minor problem: The deadline is December 28, dead center between Christmas and New Years Day. I wonder why the Department of Education would pick such a dumb deadline. A quick check of the calendar reveals that Christmas and New Years Day fall on Saturdays. Anybody who has worked for a public agency will know that almost all Talent Search employees will, at a minimum, take off December 24 and 31, and most will be on vacation from December 24 through at least January 3. Most folks want to combine vacation days with holidays and quasi-holidays to stretch out their time off.

Thus, there will be no one home to look at proposals submitted on December 28. Likely, because of the hullabaloo in D.C. with the start of the new Congress on January 3 and MLK day on January 17 (another opportunity to stretch a three day weekend into ten days off), not much will likely happen with Talent Search applications until at least the third week in January.

So why make Talent Search applicants work right through Christmas? The Talent Search team is either venal or just plain stupid. As Forrest Gump observed, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

You be the judge. Of course, if you really want to have a Happy Holiday, let us slave over your hot Talent Search proposal and you can hit those day after Xmas sales to do your part to bring the economy back.