Category Archives: Questions

How we write scientific and technical grant proposals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photo courtesy of and copyright by “Image Editor.”

How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse

In most ways computers have made our lives better. In some, however, they’ve made our lives worse.* In grant writing, computers have enabled a level of neurotic, anxious behavior that was simply impractical before frictionless communications. Some of those problems include:

1. More drafts.

Isaac existed before computers. Well, technically, so did I, but I wasn’t writing proposals. In the pre-computer era, most proposals only went through two drafts: a first and a final. First drafts were written long-hand on legal pads, dictated, or roughly typed. The second/final draft would be typed by a secretary with great typing skills. Still, the final draft usually had typos, “white out” blotches and lacked any formatting apart from paragraph indents and tabs to create “tables.” Since proposals couldn’t logistically go through numerous drafts or interim drafts, two drafts were sufficient.

The perpetual editing make possible by computers also means that we can do something, someone else can do something (that is possibly wrong), and then we have to fix the messed up problems. Versioning can be endless, and in the last couple of months we’ve gotten into several seemingly unhappy versioning loops with clients. Versioning loops don’t make anyone happy, but the easy editability of documents means that it’s tempting for everyone to have a say (and everyone to make edits that later have to be carefully reverted). Computer editing also makes it more tempting to change project concepts mid-stream, which is not a good idea.

2. Longer drafts.

In keeping with point one, proposals can now be much, much longer. We’ve worked on some Head Start drafts that topped out around 100 pages. That’s ridiculous, but computers make it possible in general to write far longer drafts. “Longer” is not necessarily “better.” A longer draft has more room for internal inconsistencies (of the sort that can kill your application, as described at the link).

Longer drafts fatigue writer and reader. We’re the iron men of writers, so we of course never feel fatigue. But few writers are as sharp at page 80 of a proposal as they are at page 10. Few readers read page 80 with the same care as page 10. Isaac and occasionally speculate about how funny it would be to drop a sentence, late in a proposal, like “I’ll give you $20 if you read this sentence” or “Don’t you think 50 Shades of Grey really does have a legitimate point?” We’d never do that, but we bet that if we did, few reviewers would notice.

3. More screwing around and eternal availability.

In ye olden days, one had to call someone to express an idea or make a change or just to badger them. Since fax machines weren’t common until the 80s, drafts to other offices/readers had to be mailed or sent by courier. Copies were harder to make, so editors had to do one review, not 12. Today we’re available for eternal electronic pinpricks via email, and yet every pinprick has a cost. We mostly ignore those costs, but they add up.

It’s easier to spend way too much time changing “that” to “which” and “which” to “that.” Sometimes such changes are appropriate but too many of them lead to tremendous drag on the entire project. They cost scarce attention.

4. Convoluted instructions.

Before computers, attachments were (generally) fewer, RFPs were shorter, and instructions were clearer because 20 people didn’t have the opportunity to “contribute” their thoughts and words. Now instructions can be infinitely convoluted, weird data sources can be more easily managed, and random attachments of almost infinite size can be ordered.

Sometimes, too, applicants will be tempted to add extra attachments because they can. Don’t do that.

5. Data mandates that don’t exist, or don’t exist properly.

We’ve written before about phantom data and its attendant problems. Computers and the Internet often tempt funders into asking for more esoteric data. Before the Internet, most data had to be manually, laboriously extracted from Census tables and similar paper-based sources. This meant long hours at a library or Census office. Now it’s possible to request all sorts of weird data, and sometimes that data can’t be found. Or, if various applicants do find it, it comes from all sorts of methodologies that may not be comparable. Poverty rates are one good example of this. Is the 2013 poverty rate 14.5% or 4.8%? Depends on the data used. And that’s for a well-known metric! Others are worse.

6. Email has also shifted the “Cover-Your Ass” (CYA) memo to the “CYA” email.

The famous CYA memo predates email, but email has made conversations that would once have been ephemeral permanent. Anything you say or write can be used to hang you, as innumerable politicians (like former Congressman Weiner) and everyday people have learned. This has consequences of all sorts, as teenagers have discovered in the course of sexting and as even spies have learned (that link goes to an article about a totally crazy hit the Israelis pulled in Dubai: if you abandon this post to read it, I wouldn’t blame you at all).

Permanent records mean that nothing can be ignored and that everything can be interpreted in the worst possible light. It is now possible for clients to send us (and us to send them) dozens of emails in a way that never happened in the snail-mail world. In a snail-mail world, each missive took a day or two send, receive, and reply.

The new email world means we—and clients—can waste fantastic amounts of time mulling over minor issues and misunderstandings via email. Anything sent by email lives forever, so it must be written with great care because it can later be used to hang the writer. Every word has to be considered as if it would be judged by a judge and jury. That means a level of precision is necessary in a way that wouldn’t be necessary on a phone call.

7. Conclusion

In Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, Kentaro Toyama writes: “It’s often said that technology is a cost-saver; or that ‘big data’ makes business problems transparent; or that social media brings people together; or that digital systems level playing fields. These kinds of statements are repeated so often that few people question them. Yet none of them is a die-cast truth.” Toyama is right, and we’ve witnessed the problems of relentless communication, which let people endlessly niggle over minor, unimportant points, while misunderstanding bigger, more important pictures.

This post is an attempt to share the bigger picture.


* For one example of how things are worse, see Alone Together by Sherry Turkle or Man Disconnected: How technology has sabotaged what it means to be male by Philip Zimbardo. We aren’t luddites and aren’t condemning technology—indeed, our business couldn’t exist as it does without technology—but we are cognizant of the drawbacks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

In Forming a Nonprofit Board, Think “Goldilocks”

When forming a new nonprofit, one of the first issues confronting the sponsor as they apply for a state charter and draft articles of incorporation and bylaws is: How many board members should the new organization have? As with most things relating to nonprofits and grant writing, while there’s no definitive right answer, there are some good answers.

Some states will approve a new profit with just a single board member—and the inherent simplicity and control of a single board member often appeals to a founder—this is a fast way to the exit when you apply for IRS 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. Other founders, particularly true believers, will think they should have huge boards, perhaps as many as 25 or 30. Unless you’re really good at herding cats, this is an equally bad idea. The care and feeding of 15 or 20 board members is an enormous task and raises the real potential that you might get booted out of your own nonprofit in a coup* when grant money finally arrives. In addition, more opinions does not necessarily result in a better outcome and often results in a worse outcome than fewer. Whatever number of board members you pick, it’s critical that you be able to maintain control of the board.

If one board member is too few and twenty five too many, what’s the Goldilocks number? When we used to set up nonprofits in an earlier incarnation of Seliger + Associates**, we always recommended five, seven or nine members. An odd number of board members prevents tie votes. Five is generally enough to pass the IRS believability test. Also, IRS regs require that not more than half the board be “interested parties,” so you have to go beyond your mother-in-law for members and getting five can be a challenge. With a five member board, only two can be interested parties. Any number of board members more than nine will get unmanageable very fast. In this case, bigger is definitely not better.

Moving beyond the size issue, consider the quality of the members. It’s good if the majority of board does not have the same last name. Many foundation and some government funders will request board member affiliations. Having well-respected, un-indicted business leaders, clergy, public officials and so on is usually better than having all average Joes and Josephines. Still, it’s good grant PR to have one or two potential consumers of whatever service you’re providing. For example, if the organization will be providing affordable health care, have one or two potential patients on the board. Unless you’re forming a national/regional organization or one with a highly specific purpose like research for a obscure medical condition, claim that the board is “community-based,” and plausible evidence of that claim is an advantage. Local residents are usually better than distant “experts,” even in situations where that makes no sense.

One effective approach is to have a small, community-based, but still “respected” board of five members and a much larger “advisory board” of big shots that look good on letterhead and your website. The advisory board doesn’t actually have any power and doesn’t do much except lend their credibility and hopefully a donation every year. The advisory board idea is very common in Los Angeles, as there are many has-been actors and other entertainment industry types who’re willing to serve on advisory boards, as long as they don’t have to do anything. New York has ladies who lunch.


* It’s not uncommon for founders to get booted off their own board or for some board members to be kicked by other members in a putsch. I know because it happened to me when I was in my early 20s and still starry-eyed. I’ve heard lots of similar horror stories from clients over the years. Nonprofit boards can be intensely political, especially because the stakes are often so small.

** We no longer form nonprofits in most circumstances. As we’ve written before, it’s best to use an attorney or accountant who is familiar with nonprofits to help with the paperwork and approvals needed to form a new nonprofit.

Talking About Progressive Ideals in Proposals: Money, Time, and Poverty in Grant Writing

No Money, No Time” helps set the cultural tone for the proposal world. In the proposal world—which does sometimes overlap with the real world—poor people spend time where richer people might spend money. Rich people are rich in many ways, but one is simple: their lives aren’t as organized around other people’s bureaucracies.* A nonprofit or public agency should help the poor, and it would be a good idea to incorporate the idea that poor people don’t have the time wealthier people do. This idea also ties into other important parts of contemporary thinking: if low-income people** weren’t so busy with day-to-day survival, they’d go buy arugula from the farmers market and make a salad, instead of buying Cokes and Big Macs.

There is some truth to the argument: a lot of low-income people are surrounded by endless appointments, case managers, social workers, parole officers (sometimes called corrections officers), and others who want a piece of their time. That time does add up. Years ago, we wrote a proposal to L.A. County for a nonprofit proposing to fund “master” case managers who would manage each client’s roster of case managers, parole officers, court cases, etc.

That’s not a totally superficial idea, though it has the ring of parody. If a poor single mom misses an appointment with her Child Protective Services (CPS) case manager, her kids might be put in foster care and she’ll end up in court. If she misses a shift, she might lose her job. If she fails to fill out out a form completely, she (and her children) might lose Medicaid or a Section 8 apartment. Life for the American poor is like a game of Chutes & Ladders—which is not an original thought, since Katherine S. Newman made the argument in a book called Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Labor Market (and she’s written a number of others, all good; used copies are under $1 on Amazon. If you’re writing social and human service proposals, you can’t afford not to buy them).

In the proposal world, solutions spring from government funding, but in the real world, many of the problems derive from laws passed by legislatures. Among the poor in particular—who cannot afford good lawyers and who often cannot afford service fees and other penalties—lives get complicated by entanglement with officialdom and by drug prohibition. Legal issues usually involve drugs and kids; jailing men for failing to pay child support has a real, under-appreciated downside that is not being widely discussed (though you will hear about it in some places).

Even outside the realm of drugs and kids, we have so many laws, rules, and regulations—many not at all intuitive and many counter to the ways actual people want to live—that no one is innocent and everyone breaks laws, usually inadvertently. Tyler Cowen’s “Financial Hazards of a Fugitive Life” also describes this; the column is substantially about Alice Goffman’s brilliant book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, which you should also read (and cite).

These laws came, not surprisingly, from good intentions. Before Prohibition, progressives theorized that getting rid of Demon Rum and John Barleycorn would mean that men wouldn’t get drunk, lose their jobs, eventually lose everything, and send their wives and daughters into prostitution. As any student of history knows, that didn’t turn out real well. Drug prohibition isn’t working out real well, but we’re still wasting a lot of time and resources doing it—in all sorts of ways.

Some costs to drug prohibition are quite small. Office Depot used to have tons of signs up saying, “We drug test employees.” But our thought was: who cares? We’re just asking someone where the pens are. If Office Depot’s employees want to light up after work, that’s their own affair. Nonetheless, Office Depot may have been unintentionally reinforcing poverty by denying jobs to otherwise qualified workers who like to dance with Mary Jane on the weekends (just like many social workers and case managers, at least in my experience).

The net result of this is the time crunch. The first article in this post should be cited in proposals—but only in the needs assessment. The problem should be forgotten in the project description, since participants must be assumed to have lots of time to serve on the Participant Involvement Council (PIC), community service etc. Other writers have also described the time trap of being poor: John Scalzi’s “Being Poor” is one particularly poetic example.

The time crunch is not unique to poor people and human service organizations serving them. Isaac actually tried to talk to the Small Business Administration (SBA) group in Seattle when he first started Seliger + Associates. They wanted him to sit through ten sessions on… something, all of which required lots of travel time he didn’t have because he was furiously busy writing proposals and finding clients. You do not discuss the nature of warfare, starting with the Greeks, when the enemy is shooting and your position is in danger of being overrun.

That being said, it’s useful to understand where these ideas come from. There are, loosely speaking, two big views on poverty right now. The one presented in the New York Times, which we’ve been discussing in this post, is the generally leftish, Democrat, progressive view, and that’s the view that should predominate in proposals. The other view is generally rightish, Republican / Libertarian-esque, and slightly more conservative, and that’s the view that the material conditions of being poor in the U.S. have improved incredibly over the last century or more. That’s where one gets The Heritage Foundation pointing out that 80% of poor people have AC, 75% have a car, two thirds have a TV, and so on. That’s also where one finds Charles Murray’s solutions in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (these issues are not unique to the United States: Britain’s working class faces similar travails).

Just about everyone likes Murray’s research, but American progressives and conservatives tend to disagree on what the research means and what, if anything, should be done about it. Progressives tend to stress direct income transfer and government-paid supportive services, while conservatives tend to stress marriage, avoiding drugs, not getting knocked up outside of marriage, etc.

Beyond the drug war, there are other drags on the earnings and lives of poor people. Almost no one, right or left, mentions that the rent is too damn high, and that every time wealthy owners in places like Santa Monica, Seattle, and New York prevent new construction, they’re simultaneously making the lives of the poor much, much harder. Only a relatively small number of voices in the wilderness are speaking up.

We’re grant writers—that is, hired guns—so we’re not intensely political about these issues and are in it for the money (I know you’re shocked). Usually we shy away from the theory and thought behind grant writing, since most readers and human service providers don’t really care about it, or care to the extent that thinking translates into dollars.


* Isaac doesn’t like using the word “bureaucracy” in proposals, in any context, but I’m quite fond of it. Isaac says that isn’t a good idea to remind the bureaucrats reading a proposal that they are in fact bureaucrats who are making people jump through hoops in order to receive goods and services. He may have a point.

** In proposals, no one is poor and everyone is “low-income.” We use them interchangeably here only because a) this is where grant writers and nonprofit administrators come to talk about reality, not fantasy, and b) the original writer uses the term “poor.”

Guest Post: Tales of the Grant Manager

This guest post was inspired by “Grant Writer Vs. Grant Management: Two Essential Nonprofit Job Functions Separated by a Common Word” and describes what a Grant Manager does and how that differs from what grant writers do. Like many of our guest posts, it is published anonymously to protect the guilty and the innocent.

I’ve been a Grant Manager for about two years. I had spent much of my career as a public sector urban planner, but the Great Recession devastated the planning field. Like a lot of planners, I was on the chopping block for a layoff. I ended up taking a position as Grant Manager for a medium-sized community development nonprofit with a really excellent reputation.

As a planner I’d written plenty of grants, so it was all old hat. Before I joined my current organization, there were two grant-related positions, both vacant when I started: a Grants Manager and a Contracts Administrator, with the former handling new funder research and proposal writing and the latter dealing with outcomes management. But I was left to do both tasks. The higher-ups in the organization thought that both functions could be managed by one staff person (me) temporarily, and, if it worked out, permanently.

It was completely unmanageable. Those first few months were a blur. I was fortunate in that the organization eventually authorized me to interview candidates. When I was attempting to do two jobs, 60+ hour weeks were the norm.

There was just not enough time to pursue new sources of funding, write the proposals, pull together the umpteen redundant attachments for each proposal, AND ensure that we are doing everything that we said we would do in our existing grant agreements and contracts. The latter function requires a whole separate set of skills, as you have to pry reams of time-sensitive (and when involving individual clients, often confidential) data out of staff that are already overworked to begin with. It’s easy to become the person that program staff dreads to speak to. It takes a certain personality to get that information without becoming as welcomed as a knock on the door from the KGB.

Fortunately, I managed to hire someone who is absolutely excellent at every aspect of the work. He and I are such a good team that we should be able to wear capes to work, honestly. We make up for one another’s weaknesses—I’m a stronger writer and he’s an ace at data analysis, spreadsheets, etc. He and I cross train one another whenever possible, which certainly comes in handy during vacations, or when a big deadline looms and it’s “All Hands on Deck” to get a giant Federal proposal out the door or to get an annual performance report compiled and submitted on time.

An example of the kind of skills one needs as a Grants Manager: I was at a recent info session conducted by a longtime government funder with whom we were seeking renewed funding. As soon as the presentation starts, the government rep conducting the session says “Now everyone, I want to emphasize that this is all just an informal conversation—we’re all here to do everything we can to serve our clients, so no secrets in this room—we are all on the same team”.

Present at this session were staff from several other nonprofit organizations seeking this same funding—of those present, only my organization and one other nonprofit were current grantees. The other two attendees were gunning to replace us. Like chickens who get to vote on dinner, we were not in favor of serving ourselves.

A staffer from one of the non-funded nonprofits asks the government rep, “So, based on the amount of potential funding available, how many clients should we plan to serve?” The gov’t rep smiles and says “we want to see what you all come back with.” Surprisingly, the staffer from the other current vendor says “we serve around 30 per year.” I’m sitting there thinking two things at the same time: “why would you surrender this critical piece of information so easily? Dumb.” and “is this some kind of eleven dimensional chess move?”

The eyes of the other nonprofit reps and the government rep all turn to me, so I state “yeah, we serve the same number”—which was the truth, but not a piece of data I had planned to surrender. There was no getting out of it. Thankfully, I was able to get through the meeting without having to give up any other “secrets,” so to speak.

This was one of those situations where you can win the battle, but lose the war—I could’ve said nothing, or said a number lower or higher than the truth—but the government rep knows how many clients its vendors serve. There was no winning, and it doubtlessly would’ve been worse had I said nothing, because we are “all on the same team” – even though the reality is that we’re actually at each other’s throats to get the same pot of funding to pay for staffing, fringe, OTPS, and all of the other things you need to make a nonprofit work. It’s a subtle dance, for sure.

Meanwhile, as I’m doing that, my Contracts guy is back at the office harassing program staff (in the most charming and diplomatic way possible) for data needed for a quarterly report, so it’s all good.


Got something to say about grants, grant writing, nonprofits, or government? Send us an e-mail. We’re always interested in hearing from other people with unusual knowledge and acerbic wit.

Grant writer vs grant manager: Two essential nonprofit jobs separated by a common word

George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde allegedly said, “England and America are two nations separated by a common language.” “Grant Writer” and “Grant Manager” are two allegedly related functions separated by a common word: grant. Many nonprofits and public agencies combine the functions of Grant Writer and Grant Manager into a single position, often called the Grant Coordinator.

This is not a good idea.

This bit of common organizational stupidity was recently brought up by a faithful reader, frequent commentator and now-former grant writing consultant competitor (we’ll call him Milo). As Milo put it in an email, after several years of being a grant writing consultant, he’s given up* and decided to “come in from the [consulting] cold.” He’s been offered a job at a fairly large nonprofit ($13 million annual budget) as their combined Grant Writer/Grant Manager, even though he has no management experience.

Milo’s question: “At what size do nonprofit organizations typically make grant development and management separate jobs?” Unlike with new latest remake of Godzilla, size does not matter and I advised him that nonprofits and public agencies, small and large, usually combine these disparate functions, apparently only because the word “grant” is in both job titles. I assume this happens because most senior managers actually have no idea of what a grant writer does.

Having had the unenviable experience of having been the “Grant Coordinator,” albeit over 35 years ago when I worked for the woebegone City of Lynwood, I assured Milo that grant writing has little to do with grant management. As GWC readers know, a grant writer is essentially a Steppenwolf—a solitary figure who spends long hours alone sitting at a computer, churning out proposals. Coffee, snacks, and books go in and a proposal comes out.

To be a grant writer, one has to like working alone, be a good and fast writer, be unafraid of deadlines and have an active imagination about how to structure programs in the proposal world. The job of a grant manager, by contrast, is all about extracting fiscal and program information from line staff regarding existing grants and then regurgitating the info back to funders on convoluted forms and stultifying reports that nobody reads.

The grant writer is usually respected and/or feared by other staff, as they are the organization’s warrior, whose job is to conduct single mortal combat with a RFP dragon, over and over again, to keep the paychecks flowing and the lights on. The grant manager is typically hated and shunned by line staff, since the grant manager is always badgering them for performance data, and, even worse, outcome data. In military terms, the grant writer is the tip of the spear and the grants manager is a classic REMF (“Rear Echelon Mother Fucker”).

Assuming one has the skills and no fear of working without a net, it’s much more fun to be a grant writer than a grant manager. To use a scientific terms, being a grant manager blows.


* I wish Milo well. Having been in business for 21 years, we’ve seen lots of consulting competitors rise and and eventually give up. Being a grant writer is hard, but being a successful grant writing consultant is much harder, as Milo and many others have learned.

“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.

Why nonprofits are more like businesses than you realize

In a Hacker News thread, “guylhem” asked a (very) common question, in the context of firms that specialize in providing services to nonprofit and public agencies: “Why exactly is profit / commerce considered a bad thing?”

Since we’ve been working with nonprofit and public agencies for decades, we naturally have some ideas about the issue (we’ve discussed some of those ideas before, in “Tilting at Windmills and Fees: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing” and “Why Fund Nonprofits, Public Agencies, and Other Organizations Through Grant Applications At All?“). A lot of people feel nonprofit and public agencies are not supposed to be like other businesses, even though in reality they share a lot of the needs and attributes of for-profit businesses.

Consider similarities. Nonprofits need their toilets to work. They need an IT guy or gal. Though they obviously don’t face the profit drive that businesses do, they still need to “make” more money than they spend, either to invest in new services or build a small but prudent reserve. If they don’t make more than they spend, the nonprofit will eventually be shut down. Nonprofits only have four basic ways of making money: grants/contracts, donations, fees for services, or investment income.

Because nonprofits, like other businesses, have a wide array of needs, they buy goods and services they can’t productively make or do themselves. We’re fond of the plumber analogy: most nonprofits do not have a plumber on staff, and, when their toilets clog, they hire someone to unclog the toilet. When the plumber is done with the job, she or he presents a bill and the nonprofit pays it.

That’s straightforward. But many people seem to feel that grant applications are more like a college admissions essay, in which hiring a consultant is somehow cheating.* We obviously don’t think so, since our entire job involves preparing grant applications. Nonetheless, those people don’t really think that grant writing is like plumbing (at least until they need a grant writer). Regardless of feelings, however, nonprofit and public agencies that submit better proposals tend to get funded more often than those that don’t—so feelings about the purity of the grant writing process get weeded out by the “market,” which still exists for nonprofits. People who think they’re good grant writers but turn out not to be eventually find they can’t run their nonprofit, or they can’t expand it, just like people who think they’ve got a great business idea but can’t sell.

We’ve also argued before that there’s no reason in principle why a nonprofit grant writing agency can’t exist, but in practice none do, and, even if they did, the demand for their services would far outstrip supply, as usually happens when something is given away. If you want to know why you generally can’t get something for nothing, well, look around: few people or firms give valuable things away, while many people or firms are selling valuable things, and prices tend to show what people in the aggregate think is valuable and what people think is less valuable.

Demand for “free” grant writing services would be especially high because grant writing is very boring, difficult, and tedious—a troika that makes free grant writing especially unlikely, since grant writing doesn’t give people the good feelings they might get from, say, doling out soup at a soup kitchen, or providing pro-bono legal work. Volunteers have their place, but most organizations that operate on more than a shoestring basis are quickly going to discover the limitations of volunteers.

Even nominally low-cost grant writing services often turn out to be quite expensive. As most of us have discovered the hard way, it’s not at all unusual to get what you pay for. Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part higher prices imply higher quality, at least up to a point. We’ve been hired by innumerable nonprofit and public agencies to attempt to salvage jobs prepared by “low-cost” grant writers, and we’ve also had nonprofits call us, hire someone else, then call us back for the same program in the next funding round and hire us instead of the other firm.

In response to the ideas above, “pbreit” replied: “I would think that a nonprofit reasonably considers grant writing a core competence or at least well closer to a core competence than, say, plumbing.” Maybe that’s true. But many nonprofits are good at delivering human services, and less good at writing proposals. Those skills do not necessarily co-occur, and if there’s any overlap between the skill of delivering human services and the skill of writing, it’s pretty slender. Plus, becoming a great writer is a “10,000-hour skill” that takes a lot of deliberate practice to develop. That’s why you have to take so many years of English classes in school (though I realize many of those English classes are bad, but that’s another topic). The average person who decides, “I want to become a competent grant writer” is probably looking at a couple of years of effort.

Sufficiently large nonprofits usually do have a grant writer on staff, but smaller ones usually don’t. A really good grant writer will probably cost at least $70,000 per year in salary alone, and is likely to cost much more. That big number helps explain why relatively few small- to mid-sized organizations have one. In addition, hiring a grant writer who turns out not to be particularly good at his or her job can really hurt a nonprofit. We’ve been hired by many, many nonprofit and public agencies who have grant writers on staff—sometimes for positive reasons (the in-house grant writer is overwhelmed or on leave) and sometimes for less positive ones (the in-house grant writer isn’t very good at writing proposals, is scared of the RFP or the Executive Director wants to play “shoot the consultant,” if the proposal is not funded). For small nonprofits, hiring a full-time or even part time grant writer might actually be outside their core competency.

What we’ve described in the last two paragraphs is a specific instance of a more generalizable question about whether one should hire a consultant, learn a skill, hire an employee, or not have it performed, and we’ve written about that issue in “Consultants, Employees, and More: Should We Hire a Grant Writer? And How Will Our Agency Complete Proposals?” Different organizations will deal with these questions in different ways, depending on a variety of factors.** These problems recur in the business world and in the personal world: Do you want to learn how to cook, hire someone else to cook through going to a restaurant, or not eat? Do you want to learn bike maintenance, take your bike to a shop, let your bike degrade over time, or not ride?

The most reasonable middle ground for nonprofits, for-profits, and people in general is to work to expand your range of basic and advanced skills while simultaneously acknowledging that you’re not going to learn everything. Things you don’t know how to do but want done you’ll probably have to pay for, one way or another. This isn’t always true—family members generally don’t charge each other when one person makes dinner—but as a general rule it’s pretty good, since strangers very rarely give valuable things to other strangers without a reason. Attractive women have told me that men will often do things for them and buy drinks for them and so on, without any or much prompting, but I definitely don’t qualify that as being “without a reason,” since the reason in most cases is probably obvious.

I don’t think most people are consciously thinking about the choices between learning, buying, and not having. But if you want to run a successful nonprofit, public agency, or business, you should start thinking about them now.


* Actually, hiring an admissions essay consultant starts to make sense when one thinks about how much money might be on the line in terms of scholarships, but that’s another issue for another day. The higher the financial stakes in a one-time event that doesn’t allow repeated attempts at practice, the stronger the incentive to make sure one does everything one can to win.

** If you’re curious about how this works in an academic context, check out Coase’s famous essay, “The Nature of the Firm,” in which Coase describes why firms exist at all.

Why fund nonprofits, public agencies, and other organizations through grant applications at all?

Donna Shelley asks a perceptive question in response to “Upward Bound means more narrative confusion:”

Why is this [grant-making process] done at all? It continues to be a mystery to me. What is the point of grant making? If it is to give money to a qualified applicant, then what are all these games about? It appears that making the process as arcane and frankly, insane as possible.

There are at least two big issues: Why does the U.S. grant-making system persist in the weird way it does, and how did it evolve into its current state? My guess is that the answers is linked, and the big reason it remains involve signaling. By creating byzantine, inefficient requirements for distributing money, government agencies and, to a lesser extent, foundations, ensure that the only people who will bother are the ones who really, really want the money.

The devotion of resources to a pointless-seeming endeavor signals the applicant’s commitment. Applicants who care the most will invest the most in deciphering RFPs, and those who don’t care as much won’t. The grant-maker can’t tell who is qualified, but they grant-maker can try to get applicants to signal their quality (one sees something similar in college applications: most colleges teach orders of magnitude more than high schools do, so one could see high school as a long signaling process for college, which is part of Bryan Caplan’s argument in his forthcoming book The Case Against Education). In this reading, insanity becomes sane because funders are trying to gauge the fundee’s commitment level using the best tools they have, which aren’t very good.

Professional grant writers—like us—are a logical byproduct of this process: many nonprofit and public agencies specialize in providing services rather than in writing abstruse, detailed proposals. So people who are good at service delivery specialize at that, and they don’t specialize in plumbing, vehicle repair, grant writing, and so forth. This may be why nonprofits find it hard to hire good grant writers: most don’t actually specialize in grant writing.

If you’re curious about how signaling works more generally, there is a rich evolutionary biology literature summarizing it.

The next sentence is the sort that, like any sentence using the phrase “the Progressive Era,” may come dangerously close to boring you to death, but bear with it and me. As far as I can tell, the roots of the grant-making process lies in political reforms that got started in the Progressive Era and reached their culmination in the 1960s. Prior to the 1930s and the New Deal, the Federal government and state governments basically didn’t spend enough money to have a grant-making apparatus and bureaucracy like they do now. To the extent such activities happened at all, services were provided directly, or via pass-throughs straight to agencies.

Such practices engendered lots of corruption—see further Chicago, New Jersey, All the King’s Men, etc. In addition, there were problems related to whether, say, the feds in DC actually had any idea what people in urban Chicago, or rural Mississippi, or Oxnard, California, might actually need. So the inability to decide need and the problem of corruption yielded a solution: instead of the feds (or state governments) simply funding services directly or picking organizations to run programs, they’d run competitions to see who has the best proposal for the provision of services.

This being the government, however, anything that starts simple rapidly complexifies, like cellular automata (for another example of this phenomenon, see the tax code). So over the last couple of decades, Congress creates lots of well-meaning laws; rule-making bodies make well-meaning rules; courts probably throw their spices into the broth; some organizations steal or misuse the money, thus leading to more rules so that Won’t Happen Again; and finally one gets to something like Upward Bound, which was the subject of my original post, and had something like a hundred pages of guidance written in a style only especially obtuse lawyers could love. Not only that, but the difficulty of understanding an entire RFP becomes hard even for the agency issuing the RFP, which increases the likelihood of errors or internal contradictions on their part—without even discussing the grant writers who are trying to decipher the instructions.

Around the office, we’ve observed that a lot of grant applications could be done via postcard: will you perform these services for x participants over y months and achieve z outcomes? Then you’re in the running. If that happened, we’d be out of business, of course, but there’s no real political constituency for the simplification of the grant-making process. There is a real constituency for the simplification of the tax code, and that’s an issue that’s gone nowhere and appears likely to continue to go nowhere, like that one bridge.