Category Archives: How-to

The Street Outreach Program (SOP) and Seliger’s quick guide to outreach components

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) just issued the Street Outreach Program (SOP) FY ’13 Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA),* which offers an opportunity for us to describe a common funder program paradigm: outreach. Last week, faithful readers will recall that we blogged about yet another outreach program: Health Navigators.

Not all of our readers are likely hip to outreach program design. In essence, all outreach programs use more or less the same design and have changed little since the halcyon days of outreach of the 1970s. Actually, this is not entirely true: these days a soupçon of social media should be added to the outreach stew, but otherwise things remain the same.

Unless there is a static client input stream (e.g., domestic violence offenders being court-referred), almost all human services programs require some outreach component; even if the RFP doesn’t require one, smart, imaginative grant writers will include outreach anyway. An SOP or Health Navigator proposal is just a gigantic outreach effort, but the basic structure of outreach can be applied to most any project design.

The point of outreach is to connect some target population with something that is supposed to improve their life outcomes (free proposal phrase here). Within this context (another free proposal phrase here), there are two basic types of outreach: local and regional/statewide. Local outreach almost always includes:

  • One-on-one information meetings conducted with the staff of other providers to give them the good news about the program, so that they will refer their eligible clients.
  • Presentations to community groups, faith-based organizations and any other group that has a constituency that could benefit from the program, or, barring that, any other constituency that can be gathered in one place at one time.
  • Press releases to whatever print media that remains alive in your target area.
  • Radio and TV public service announcements (PSAs), although these have largely been superseded by YouTube uploads.
  • Direct mailings and email blasts, using as many mailing lists as you can find and/or develop.
  • Widespread distribution of posters and other printed material touting the project’s message, ideally in every language spoken by the target population, up to and including Elbonian.
  • The ever-popular “street-based” outreach, which requires a brave Outreach Worker to actually leave the comforts of their warm agency nest and venture out to where the target population hangs out: parks, community centers, welfare offices, public housing projects, liquor store parking lots, minimarts, barber shops, basket ball courts, and so on.
  • Use of Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, group texting, and whatever other “new” media seems plausible. We’re often tempted to include a social media tool that doesn’t actually exist, but we choose the path of righteous honesty and have not actually done so.
  • The only real question is whether to use a dedicated outreach worker, usually a peer of the target population, or a portion of the time of other proposed staff. Keep in mind that having a dedicated outreach person can lead to unfortunate acronyms like “Peer Outreach Worker” (POW), or even worse (particularly for female target populations): a Community Outreach Worker. You’ve been warned, watch your acronyms!

For regional/statewide outreach initiatives like Health Navigators, one or both of the following complications are usually added to make the funder think you’ll actually find eligible clients in distant places:

  • Propose a hub-and-spoke system with a circuit riding Outreach Worker. Your agency is the hub in Minneapolis and you find collaborators in Owatonna, Climax, Blue Earth, and Sleepy Eye Minnesota, to periodically host an Outreach Worker. She’s in Blue Earth on Tuesdays, Climax on Thursdays, and so forth. When in Sleepy Eye, the Outreach Worker reaches out, using the above toolkit. If you’re really frisky, you can open small site offices in other towns, so the Outreach Worker has a place to nest and preen while visiting.
  • Use a train-the-locals approach in which your Outreach Worker trains staff or volunteers from indigenous organizations in the region to conduct the various outreach strategies, using social media to watch over her dispersed brood.

Now you know how to develop an outreach component: no need to convene a group-think, draw circles and arrows on white boards, and eat donuts.


* For those of you keeping score at home, this makes it the DHHS ACF FYSB SOP FOA. I know it looks like cryptography, but the acronym is actually just your tax dollars at work.

You Don’t Forget Your First RFP Amendment Post: DOL’s Face Forward Expands Eligibility Requirements

I got my first federal RFP amended last week.

It’s a bit like being blooded when you’re in the Mafia: the tenth time is just standard procedure, but the first time is special.* Isaac, for instance, has gotten numerous RFPs amended, which is always fun because our clients are amazed by our wizardly abilities.

The original version of DOL’s Face Forward Serving Juvenile Offenders Grants SGA said this about the eligible service population:

An individual may participate in a project funded under these grants if he/she: is between the ages of 16 and 24 on the date of enrollment [. . . and ] has never been involved with the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system.

That’s a big problem for a lot of applicants: in New York and North Carolina, youth ages 16 and up are no longer considered juveniles and are therefore adjudicated by the adult justice system.** The original SGA also states that participants must be “currently involved or has been involved in the juvenile justice system or is currently a candidate for diversion under state guidelines for juvenile diversion Programs.” In most states, 16- and 17-year-old youth would be adjudicated within the juvenile justice system for minor crimes, but that’s not true in all states.

Even if a New York nonprofit identifies youth who were adjudicated by the juvenile justice system prior to age 16, most of those youth are likely to have also been involved in the adult system. Few at-risk youth give up criminal behavior at age 16 without supportive services. This is of course the whole point of Face Forward.

As a result, the original rules would make most New York and North Carolina nonprofits effectively ineligible for Face Forward, because they won’t be able to get enough mandatory participants.

I called and sent an e-mail to Mamie Brown (the Face Forward contact person) outlining the problem. She didn’t return my call but did send back an e-mail that completely ignored the point I described above, and she helpfully said, “Please review the Eligibility Requirements in Section III. 3 a) Eligible Participants of the SGA which clearly states who can participate and receive services under this grant. For your convenience the SGA specifically states [. . . ]”

Yes, thank you, I can read.

Whenever a contact person does this, it’s time to look for decisions makers or (unlike most Program Officers) at least a thinking human being. We decided to shoot for either an undersecretary in the DOL, or, since Face Forward is officially being offered by the Employment Training Administration, we decided to try for Assistant Secretary Jane Oates.

There are two dangers in this kind of bureaucratic wasp-nest poking: getting someone too low on the totem pole, who won’t make any decisions (that’s Mamie) or someone too high, who has no idea what the hell is going on in the bowels of the organization and will often be unwilling to respond until the lower echelons have been exhausted.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to jump straight to the top, but in this case we decided an intermediate person. If the intermediate person hadn’t been helpful, we would at least have her name and correspondence when we went further up the chain.

Anyway, I called Oates and left a message, then sent an e-mail. She was quiet for a few days, which is reasonable and not uncommon: she has to figure out what’s going on herself and formulate a response. But the deadline was approaching, so I also called and wrote New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s office. Senators and House members sometimes become involved in grant program rules if they think their home states aren’t getting a fair shot at the money.

Why? Because Senators and House members love to crow about all the money “they” got for their states and districts. We’ve actually had clients whose first notification of grant award came not from the federal agency, but from reporters calling because a Senator put out a press release about how he got more money for the state. Never mind that he had no bearing on the proposal and that letters from Congresspeople are worthless to applicants: the only thing Congresspeople love more than credit for getting money is money itself.

I don’t know if the person I found at Schumer’s office actually did anything, but a couple days after I contacted them Face Forward Amendment One appeared. The amendment changed “has never been involved with the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system; and has never been convicted of a sexual offense other than prostitution” to “has never been convicted within the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system; and has never been convicted of a sexual offense other than prostitution.”

That works for us. The new criteria makes it easier for our Face Forward clients to recruit eligible participants. Plus, in the real world of providing human services, most nonprofits are going to interpret plea bargains for minor crimes in the adult system as not being convictions—but rather, only being “involvement.”

I even got a nice e-mail from Eric Luetkenhaus, the DOL Grant Officer/Chief, about the amendment. When I wrote back to him and Oates saying to say thanks, I received an even more unusual e-mail from Oates: “Thanks to Eric and his team for fixing this but most of all Jake thanks for bringing this to our attention.” Wow! Usually, federal agencies hate issuing amendments, and we’ve never gotten an attaboy from a federal office before. Being as writers who are either a) well-versed in Federal matters or b) cynics (you decide), we were pleasantly shocked.

This story contains a recipe for how to get RFPs amended. If you want to try, you have to start by making sure there’s something wrong or contradictory in an RFP. If the RFP is okay, you obviously don’t need to amend it. Once you’ve determined that there’s a real problem, however, here’s a guide for public RFPs:

1. Start by calling and e-mailing the program contact. These days, most listed contacts don’t like to answer their phones and actually interact with the grimy, ugly public, members of which tend to do annoying things like ask follow-up questions. Consequently, they’ll probably ignore your calls, and you’ll need to send an e-mail. That’s what I did in this case, and I got the language of the RFP spit back to me by Mamie. First contact is unlikely to generate a useful response: the safest thing for a program officer to do is repeat back the language of the RFP. Consequently, that’s what they’ll almost always do (this is also why bidders’ conferences are generally useless for anything other than schmoozing).

2. Be reasonable. Most program officers face the public, and, while most of the public is reasonable, one crazy person can take a disproportionate amount of time and energy. Your goal is to come across as thoroughly reasonable as possible. If you’re not a good writer, find someone in your organization who is, and get them to write the e-mail. Be sure to directly quote from the RFP sections that concern you. Your freshman English teacher was right: quotation really is better and stronger than paraphrase.***

3. Get a response from the underling. This will show the decision maker you eventually reach that you’ve done your homework and, again, that you’re reasonable. Almost all contact people will behave like Mamie.

4. Be polite, but firm and specific. The “polite” part is key, again, because you can’t actually make a federal bureaucrat do anything they don’t want to do. You need to make sure that you’re perceived as reasonable. If you’re not, you’ll get justifiably binned as a loony. But you should also be firm: you want a change to be made for reasons X, Y, and Z.

5. If that doesn’t work, or doesn’t work expeditiously, try calling and writing your Congressperson or Senator. Some will be indifferent, but you should try to find the field officer or field deputy who deals with the federal agency that issued the RFP. The first person you talk to won’t be a decision-maker; their job will be to screen lunatics and to route constituents. You want to be routed to the right person, and frequently you won’t know who that is before you start. Again, your goal is to be scrupulously polite and reasonable, because the public-facing parts of the Congressperson’s office is designed to weed out lunatics.

Taken together, these steps won’t actually take much time, and they should yield results. But they won’t always. If they don’t, don’t yell and scream and holler. Back down and go back to whatever you’d normally be doing. The minute you start screaming, you’ve probably lost. If you get to the top bureaucrat, you’re probably stuck, and probably stuck permanently. But more often than not, genuine mistakes will be rectified—provided you know how to push effectively.


* Although I don’t have guys named Jimmy Caprese and Big Pussy congratulating me.

** As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” We want teenagers to be adults when they commit crimes and “children” when they have sex, which tells you more about our culture than about teenagers.

And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

Laws, including those embodied in Face Forward, reflect race and gender norms: white girls are the primary target of age-of-consent laws, while African American youth are the target of laws around crime and delinquency. The contradictory trends are readily explained by something rather unpleasant in society.

*** Having taught freshmen English to hundreds of students, I know well the skepticism they feel when I tell them about the powers of quotation.

“Estimate” Means “Make It Up” In the Proposal and Grant Writing Worlds

Many RFPs ask for data that simply doesn’t exist—presumably because the people writing the RFPs don’t realize how hard it is to find phantom data. But other RFP writers realize that data can be hard to find and thus offer a way out through a magic word: “estimate.”

If you see the word “estimate” in an RFP, you can mentally substitute the term “make it up.” Chances are good that no one has the numbers being sought, and, consequently, you can shoot for a reasonable guess.

Instead of the word “estimate,” you’ll sometimes find RPPs that request very specific data and particular data sources. In the most recent YouthBuild funding round, for example, the RFP says:

Using data found at http://www.edweek.org/apps/gmap/, the applicant must compare the average graduation rate across all of the cities or towns to be served with the national graduation rate of 73.4% (based on Ed Week’s latest data from the class of 2009).

Unfortunately, that mapper, while suitably wizz-bang and high-tech appearing, didn’t work for some of the jurisdictions we tried to use it on, and, as if that weren’t enough, it doesn’t drill down to the high school level. It’s quite possible and often likely that a given high school is in a severely economically distressed area embedded in a larger, more prosperous community is going to have a substantially lower graduation rate than the community at large. This problem left us with a conundrum: we could report the data as best we could and lose a lot of points, or we could report the mapper’s data and then say, “By the way, it’s not accurate, and here’s an alternative estimate based on the following data.” That at least has the potential to get some points.

We’ve found this general problem in RFPs other than YouthBuild, but I can’t find another good example off the top of my head, although HRSA New Access Point (NAP) FOAs and Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) RFPs are also notorious for requesting difficult or impossible to find data.

If you don’t have raw numbers but you need to turn a proposal in, then you should estimate as best you can. This isn’t optimal, and we don’t condone making stuff up. But realize that if other people are making stuff up and you’re not, they’re going to get the grant and you’re not. Plus, if you’re having the problem finding data, there’s a decent chance everyone else is too.

Teams don’t write grants: individual writers do, one word at a time

Teams don’t write proposals. If you hear about a team that is writing a proposal, that translates roughly to “lots meetings are being held, but no one is actually working on the proposal.”

We sometimes hear people at nonprofit and public agencies talk about how they’ve assembled a “team” to write a proposal. For some reason, proposals written by “teams” have a habit of a) not getting done, b) if they are done, being done unevenly at best, and/or c) creating permanent acrimony among team members.

Do you remember “group work” when you were in middle and high school, which meant that one responsible person did the entire project while the other members goofed off and then took as much credit as they could? That’s what you’ll get with proposal writing assignments, only the stakes are higher.

Every time we hear about proposal writing teams, we know that the person talking doesn’t know how proposals actually get written and is probably working on a proposal that won’t be submitted anyway.

For example, we were recently working on a large federal grant proposal for a school district in the midwest. Throughout the engagement, our contact person keep talking about “the team” that was working on the proposal from their end. When the proposal was nearly done—on the Sunday before the deadline—I heard from out contact person, who finally admitted that “the team” had abandoned her and she had to more or less pull an all-nighter by herself to ensure that we were able to finish the submission package.

Saying that you’re “assembling a team” sounds good: one imagines the innumerable scenes in movies and TV shows in which the ultimate crime or cop group gets wrangled together for one big or one last job.* The members look suitably grizzled. They all have nifty specialties. These days there’s inevitably a hacker who can magically “bypass building security.” The leading men are dapper and debonair, the leading women beautiful and feisty. Unfortunately, in the real world, writing is still best done by a single person who can keep the narrative complexity of a difficulty response in their head.

We’ve written about how to write a proposal before, most notably in “One Person, One Proposal: Don’t Split Grant Writing Tasks.” We’re writing about it again because we see the same set of mistakes again and again.

If you’re drafted into a “grant writing team,” be aware that you’ll probably have one of two roles: You’ll end up writing the vast majority of the proposal, or trying to make yourself look good while someone else writes the vast majority of the proposal. No amount of dividing up tasks will solve the essential problem of facing a blank screen, a full RFP, and starting to type.


Isaac’s favorite example of this comes from The Magnificent Seven, which is actually a good movie. The first thirty or so minutes of the movie consists of Yul Brynner collecting his expert gunmen. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, most nonprofit and public agencies don’t have the same needs as a Mexican village beset by bandits. Usually. Those that do, however, might be the subject of another post.

How I track needs assessments and other grant proposal research

Bear with me. I’m about to discuss a topic that might recall horrific memories from high school history or college English, but I promise that, this time, I’m discussing research methods that are a) simple and b) relevant to your life as a grant writer in a nonprofit or other setting.

The single best way I’ve found to track grant research is described in Steven Berlin Johnson’s essay “Tool for Thought.” You can safely go read Johnson’s essay and skip the rest of this post, because it’s that good. I’m going to describe the way Johnson uses Devonthink Pro (DTP) and give some examples that show how useful this innovative program is in a grant writing context.

The problem is this: you’re a grant writer. If you’re any good, you’re probably writing/producing at least one proposal every three months, and there’s a solid chance you’re doing even more than that—especially if you have support staff to help with the production side of proposals. Every proposal is subtly different, yet each has certain commonalities. Many also require research. In the process of completing a proposal, you do the research, find a bunch of articles and maybe some books, write the needs assessment, and cite a bunch of research in (and perhaps you also cite research) in the evaluation section or elsewhere, depending on the RFP.

You finish the proposal and you turn it in.

You also know “One of the Open Secrets of Grant Writing and Grant Writers: Reading.” You see something about your area’s economy in the local newspaper. You read something about the jobs situation in The Atlantic. That book about drug prohibition—what was it called again? Right, Daniel Okrent’s Last Call—has a couple of passages you should write down because they might be useful later.

But it’s very hard to synthesize any of this material in a coherent, accessible manner. You can keep a bunch of Word documents scattered in a folder. You can develop elaborate keyword systems. Such efforts will work for a short period of time; they’ll work when you have four or five or six proposals and a couple dozen key quotes. They won’t work when you’ve been working for years and have accumulated thousands of research articles, proposals, and quotes. They won’t work when you know you need to read about prisoner re-entry but you aren’t sure if you tagged everything related to that subject with prisoner re-entry.

That’s where DTP comes in. The program’s great, powerful feature is its “See Also” function, which performs associative searches on large blocks of text to find how things might be related in subtle ways. Maybe you use the word “jail” and “drugs” without using the word “prisons” in a paragraph. If you search for “prisons,” you might not find that other material, but DTP might. This is a contrived example, but it helps show the program’s power.

Plus, chances are that if you read an article six years ago—or, hell, six months ago—you’re probably not going to remember it. Unless you’re uncommonly organized, you’re not going to find the material you might really need. DTP lets you drop the information in the program to let the program do the heavy lifting by remembering it. I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement, but DTP works surprisingly well.

Let’s keep using the example I started above and imagine that your nonprofit provides re-entry services to ex-offenders. You’ll probably end up writing the same basic explanation of how your program conducts intake, assessment, plans, service delivery, and follow-up in a myriad of different ways, depending on the funder, the page limit, and the specific questions being asked. You want a way to store that kind of information. DTP does this very well. The trick is keeping text chunks between about 50 words and 500 words, as Johnson advises. If you have more, you won’t be able to read through what you have and to find material quickly.

Consequently, a 3,000-word project services section would probably overwhelm you next time you’re looking for something similar. But a 500-word description of your agency’s intake procedure would be very manageable.

The system isn’t perfect. The most obvious flaw is in the person doing the research: you need a certain amount of discipline to copy/paste and otherwise annotate material. This might be slow at first, because DTP libraries actually get more useful when they have more material. You also need to learn how to exploit DTP to the maximum feasible extent (free proposal phrase here). But once you’ve done that, you’ll have a very fast, very accurate way of finding things that can make your grant writing life much, much easier. (Incidentally, this is also how I organize blog posts, and DTP often refers me back to earlier blog posts I would otherwise have forgotten about).

Right now, DTP is only available on OS X, but there is similar functionality in programs like Evernote or Zoho Notebook, which are cross-platform. I can’t vouch for these programs because I’ve never used them, but others online have discussed them. DTP, if used correctly, however, is a powerful argument for research-based writers using OS X.

The Nonprofit’s Grant Writing Life Cycle: No Matter Where You’re Going, There You Are*

Seliger + Associates works with the full spectrum of nonprofits, from newly minted ones to some that have been providing services for 150 years (this is not an exaggeration, as we have one client in Chicago that was formed in the 1860s). We’ve seen how nonprofits morph with respect to their grant writing opinions and practices as they careen through their life cycles. As I pointed out in One, Two, Three* Easy Steps to Start-Up a Nonprofit Upstart, most nonprofits don’t begin life through grant funding; instead, they rely on a loan/gift from the founder and/or an angel “investor.” As the nonprofit gathers steam, however, and begins to expand the services it delivers, the need for grant writing grows, because few nonprofits can offer a wide array of services to a large number of people while operating on a shoestring.

Since new nonprofits usually have extremely limited resources, most cannot afford to hire a grant writer, either as a staff person or consultant. This leaves a conundrum, as the nonprofit has increasing grant writing needs that are tempered by lack of resources. Or, as in the hoary aphorism, “it takes money to make money.” At a basic level, young nonprofits must function like emerging small businesses to meet capital needs to expand service delivery while supporting ongoing operations. Essentially, they have three options if they want to supplement donations and capitated revenue streams with grants:

1. The founder needs to quickly learn how to be a grant writer. Unless the founder is already a skilled writer—and few people are, though many more believe they are—this option is unlikely to produce immediate results because she would have to first learn to write and then learn to grant write. As we pointed out in aCredentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain, one can’t will oneself to become a grant writer by going to a three-day training seminar.

Some founders,** however, have the writing skills and the passion to churn out good enough proposals. But they may not want to be stuck with grant writing tasks; few people decide to save the world, or at least their corner of it, by spending a lot of time alone with their computer and an RFP, just as many science professors are dismayed by the sheer amount of grant writing they have to do to keep a lab funded.

2. The organization finds a person who loves it and/or its mission and already happens to be a grant writer and will volunteer her time. This is even less likely than option one, since there are so few grant writers you’ll be looking for the proverbial hen’s teeth.

3. Scrape together enough resources to hire a grant writer, most likely as a consultant, since this is usually a more effective option than trying to find an employee who also has or can quickly develop grant writing skills. The hen’s teeth problem again.

As the organization moves into adolescence, usually through a combination of donations and some success with grants, it will naturally gravitate toward option three. Many nonprofits try to build an internal grant writing capability by hiring at least one employee with grant writing skills (or grant-writing potential) and also providing in-service grant writing training to existing staff.

Sometimes this even works.

But when grant writers are grown in-house, they often move to other nonprofits or universities that offer more money, or the grant writer achieves sufficient status within the organization that he or she doesn’t want to write proposals any more—which isn’t surprising, given how difficult writing proposals is. Nonetheless, in-house grant writers are quite common.

When the nonprofit achieves adulthood, this internal capacity is generally supplemented with the external resource on a consultant like Seliger + Associates. We are frequently hired by organizations with internal grant writing capacity. An entity that already has a grant writer on staff usually hires a hired gun for three reasons:

1. The internal grant writer is terrified of a particular RFP—and what’s anybody else to write it.

2. The internal grant writer is swarmed over by RFPs and and can’t keep up.

3. Finally, there is the ever popular “shoot the consultant” motivation used by Executive Directors who want somebody to blame if the grant is not funded, or if the organization is experiencing some other kind of turmoil and needs a common enemy to create unity within it.


* Buckaroo Bonzai in one of my favorite movies from the 1980s, the curious The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

** Including myself, as I described in my first GWC post, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal.”

Perfect Proposal Production In an Imperfect World

As a companion piece to Jake’s post on YouthBuild and Isaac’s on formatting, I want to explain the science of proposal production.

1. It starts, like all aspects of grant writing and preparation, with a thorough reading of the RFP. Failing to read the RFP is the equivalent of failing to check your boat for holes before you push out to sea. You can’t discuss the finer arts of sailing if your vessel sinks.

2. Make a master checklist of every item needed for submission, even if the funding source provides a checklist. Sometimes the funding source’s list doesn’t match the funding source’s RFP. Sometimes the funder won’t remember to list optional items on their checklist. RFPs can sometimes be as hard for funders to understand as they are for you, the applicant.

Get someone to double-check the list you make. A lot of grant writing, like legal work, simply consists of making sure that you don’t miss anything. Like, say, a required document.

3. Begin to gather the requested items. Some will be very common, like a 501(c)3 letter or a list of the board of directors. Some will be esoteric. Some will have to come from others: as soon as you make the critical decision to apply, you want to be sure to write memos to stakeholders with a list of items needed, including absolute deadlines for the items you need. You should decide on those deadlines based on how much time you need to prepare the proposal. Then back those deadlines up by a couple of days, to allow for late items. So if your proposal is due on, say, May 30, and you need to assemble it on May 26, then you should give an “absolute” deadline of May 20 to your collaborators.

Managing stakeholders could be the subject of an entire blog post in itself. If managing people were easy, and if people routinely do what they say they will, we wouldn’t have an entire discipline called “management.”

4. Arrange each item in the order required by the funding source. If you have missing items, write “Commitment letter from the LEA” on a blank sheet of paper and leave a Post-it sticking out to remind you that you don’t have the letter but need it (this will help you remember what you need).

For electronic submissions, scan all the documents that are not already electronic files and note items missing. We’re fond of the Fujitsu ScanSnap, which has a cult following among the people who heroically push paper for a living, much like the Swingline Stapler. It’s also not a bad idea, but time consuming and paper producing, to print these and insert marked pages for any missing items.

5. Make a list of the information needed to complete the application forms. Then begin filling out the forms. Leave time to obtain the signature pages for paper submissions and make sure your organization is registered to submit electronically. If you’re missing any information, make a list of who knows the information you need, how you will obtain that information, and what you will do if it’s not available.

As you can probably tell, lists are your friend and help you organized.

6. Consult your checklist daily and remind stakeholders or partners about when you must have the documents. Your stakeholders—especially if they’re the staff of other agencies—are probably very busy (or at least claim to be), and it’s easy to forget a request for a letter. A handy reminder, well before the deadline, is highly advised.

7. When everything has been gathered (finally!), paginate the document, if required; we recommend it unless pagination if specifically forbidden: page numbers help you and the reader.

8. Then—and this is most important part—have a fresh set of eyes look the document over. Encourage the person or people to ask questions if they aren’t sure about something. This is the easiest and best way to catch errors, like missing signatures or signature pages. While there is no way to ensure a “perfect” proposal, this method will improve your proposal production process.

Next up: Submitting the optimal proposal.

A Day in the Life of a Participant is Overrated: Focus on Data in the Neighborhood

I’ve seen a lot of proposals from clients and amateur grant writers that include something like, “A day in the life of Anthony” in their needs assessments. This is almost always a mistake, because almost anyone can include a hard-knocks anecdote, and they convey virtually no information about why your hard-knock area is different from Joe’s hard-knock area down the street, or on the other side of the tracks, or across the country. These stories are staples of newspaper accounts of hardship, but newspapers know most of their readers aren’t thinking critically about what they read and aren’t reading 100 similar stories over eight hours. Grant reviewers do.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any RFPs that requested day-in-the-life stories in the needs assessment. If funders wanted such stories, they’d ask for them. Since they don’t, or at best very rarely do, you should keep your needs assessment to business. And if you’re curious about how to get started, read “Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World.” If you’re applying to any grant program, your application is one of many that could be funded, so you want to focus on the core purpose of the program you want to run. Giving a day in Anthony’s life isn’t going to accomplish this purpose.

Creativity is useful in many fields, but those involving government are seldom among them (as we wrote in “Never Think Outside the Box: Grant Writing is About Following the Recipe, not Creativity“). As a result, unless you see specific instructions to do otherwise, you should stick to something closer to the Project Nutria model, in which you describe the who, what, where, when, why, and how. Anything extraneous to answering those questions is wasting pages, and perhaps more importantly, wasting patience, and the precious attention that patience requires.

There’s only one plausible exception I can think of: sometimes writing about a day-in-the-life of a person receiving project services can be helpful, but again, you should probably leave those stories out unless the RFP specifically requests them. Some RFPs want a sample daily or weekly schedule, and that should suffice without a heroic story about Anthony overcoming life obstacles when he finally receives the wraparound supportive services he’s always wanted.

Making it Easy to Understand Who’s Eligible for HRSA’s School-Based Health Center Capital Program

The Affordable Care Act has made it especially hard to figure out who’s eligible for a program. This week, the “Affordable Care Act: Grants for School-Based Health Center Capital Program” is our star. The announcement says that eligible applicants must “Be a school-based health center or a sponsoring facility of a school-based health center as defined in 4101(a)(6) of the Affordable Care Act [. . .]”

Once you track that section down, however, you find this: “(6) DEFINITIONS- In this subsection, the terms ‘school-based health center’ and ‘sponsoring facility’ have the meanings given those terms in section 2110(c)(9) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1397jj(c)(9)).” So it’s off to find the Social Security Act. Eventually you’ll find:

In general.—The term “school-based health center” means a health clinic that—

(i) is located in or near a school facility of a school district or board or of an Indian tribe or tribal organization;

(ii) is organized through school, community, and health provider relationships;

(iii) is administered by a sponsoring facility;

(iv) provides through health professionals primary health services to children in accordance with State and local law, including laws relating to licensure and certification; and

(v) satisfies such other requirements as a State may establish for the operation of such a clinic.

Note that these five subsections describe only what school-based health center means “In general.” What would a specific definition be? Notice too that the act doesn’t mention whether this program applies only to K-12 schools, or if universities count. We’re choosing to interpret Local Education Agencies (LEAs) and their subsidiaries as eligible, since IHEs aren’t mentioned and “school district” generally implies LEAs. If you have any reason to think otherwise, let us know in the comments.

This isn’t the first time we’ve investigated curious, obfuscatory eligibility requirements, and I doubt it will be the last.

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.