Category Archives: Research

The Census During Hard Times: A Gift That Keeps On Giving

One of the best things that can happen to a grant writer is to have the Census roll around during a time of economic crisis, because decennial Census data hangs around for about ten years. It takes the Census Bureau around two years or so to publish the latest data, which then gets used until the next turn of the census screw. The “2010 Census” will really be used as the 2012–2022 Census.

While the Census Bureau and other data miners produce interim data, such data are mostly a hodgepodge of extrapolations, which is another word for educated guesses. It’s possible for a city or county to request a special mid-decade census, but it’s doubtful that many have the money for it, so grant writers are pretty much stuck with whatever the Census produces. It’s our job to craft compelling Needs Assessments, whether the data is good, bad or indifferent. The task becomes a lot easier when the data shows economic calamity.

Given the recent economic collapse, incomes will be down, poverty up, etc., in the 2010 Census for the kinds of target areas we usually write about. When the Census coincides with better times, such as the 2000 Census, it’s much harder to make the case that things are tough because incomes and so forth will be relatively high, but a good grant writer will make this case anyway, pointing out the lingering effects of the last recession, the coming recession, or the ever popular refrain, “the target area is an island of misery in a sea of prosperity.” But lousy census data means happy times for grant writers. The 2010 Census will be a case in point, as we will be using the dismal economic data to good effect until the year 2022 or so!

Being as old as mud, I started using census data from the 1970 Census. In 1978, I was hired as the Grant Writing Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, CA, which is located next to Compton and Watts in LA County. By the time I got to Lynwood, most residents were African American and very low-income, but one would never know it by looking at the 1970 Census data. The 1970 Census painted Lynwood as a largely middle class, white community, which it was when the Census was taken. Like its much better known neighbor, Compton, which has been immortalized in endless rap songs like N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton,” Lynwood was the victim of blockbusting and turned almost overnight from white to Black. It’s just that Compton metamorphosed immediately after the Watts Rebellion and before the Census was taken. In contrast, Lynwood changed demographically just after the Census was taken. I left Lynwood before the 1980 Census data was taken, so I spent three years writing proposals in which I had to explain away the available census data. While annoying, this helped hone my grant writing skills.

One interesting factoid about the census is that, and as reported, albeit obliquely, by the Pew Research Center in Census History: Counting Hispanics, Hispanics were not actually counted until the 1980 Census and the questions relating to Hispanic status change each census cycle, making it very challenging to make the kind of comparisons that are the stuff of needs assessments. This is compounded by the fact that the Census Bureau does not consider “Hispanic” to be a race. One can be counted as a Hispanic of any number of races and, if all are added up, this can easily total more than 100% of the population. There are various work arounds, the easiest of which is to check with the local city or county to see if they have sorted out what the percentage of “Hispanics” is in their jurisdiction.

We are currently writing an OJJDP FY 2010 Youth Gang Prevention and Intervention Program proposal for a nonprofit in Southern California. The target area was largely middle class and white at the time of the 2000 Census but is now Hispanic and low-income. So, for me it’s 1978 again and I am struggling with same data issues I was in Lynwood.

As the wheel of time turns and grant writers must use out-of-date census data for at least two more years. Look on the bright side of things––data from the 2010 Census will be absolutely awful and you can use it to your advantage for many years to come.

How to Write About Something You Know Nothing About: It’s Easy, Just Imagine a Can Opener

One of the many interesting aspects of running a general-purpose grant writing firm is that we are often called upon to write complex proposals covering subjects about which we know little or nothing, as I discussed in No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer. In the interest of “transparency,” perhaps the most overused and least realized word of the last few years, here’s how this is possible.

Start by reading the RFP very carefully. In many cases, the RFP will say exactly what the applicant is supposed to do, as I described tangentially regarding the Department of Labor’s YouthBuild program in True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales. State RFPs for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC), a federal pass-through program from the Department of Education, often do the same thing. In such “cookbook” RFPs, precise descriptions of how the program should run, including detailed activities and metrics, are presented in plain, albeit bureaucratic, English. In extreme cases, simply copy the listed activities and re-write in breathless proposalese and, voila, you have your program description.

Occasionally, however, even mature cookbook programs like YouthBuild get updated, requiring going deeper than just reading the RFP recipe. For example, the last YouthBuild RFP in FY 2009 required for the first time that YouthBuild trainees be trained for “green jobs” and that labor-market information (LMI) be provided to support the need for these green jobs. Two minor problems: the RFP failed to provide a definition of green jobs. And states do not track such data because nobody knows what a green job is.

Don’t believe me? Google the phrase, “federal green job definition” and see what you get. I just did and found this hilarious or depressing, depending on your point of view, Christian Science Monitor article, Obama to create 17,000 green jobs. What’s a green job?. The article discusses President Obama’s recent announcement of “17,000 green jobs” being created. Then the article states, “Which is great, except that no one can count green jobs because, fundamentally, no one knows what a green job is.” Since I didn’t know what a green job was and apparently neither did the Department of Labor, for purposes of writing the YouthBuild proposals we completed last year, we simply referred to a lot of green-sounding jobs that we dreamed up (e.g., Weatherization Specialist, Solar Panel Installer, Wind Turbine Mechanic, etc.) and cobbled together vague LMI data to support our imaginary green job career paths (think phantom data). We must have done something right, as four out of the five proposals were funded.

Given the above, I was delighted when the Department of Energy recently released a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). Last year’s Stimulus Bill brought this program to life. WAP will fund training to prepare low-income people for careers as Weatherization Specialists. We squared the circle by writing a WAP proposal, even though we knew nothing about weatherization. We accomplished this slight-of-hand by looking at a link the DOE thoughtfully buried in the FOA for suggested curriculum for the training. A general knowledge of job training for hard-to-train participants and a quick re-write of the curriculum later, and the program description was extruded from our solar-powered proposal writing machine (we used to use diesel, but switched to solar to create more green jobs).

Here’s another example. We just completed writing a proposal for the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which funds fairly esoteric water quality research. Once again, we knew nothing about this topic. In an unusual circumstance, we actually received great technical content from the PI on the project, who is a biology professor at the public university which hired us. He was very skeptical about our ability as general purpose grant writers to write a scientific research proposal until I told him he just had to provide us with a bulleted list of the five W’s and the H. Then the light went on for him. I received a couple of pages of bullet points a few days later. We fired up the proposal machine and out popped the project description. After the PI read our second draft, he sent an e-mail that said, “I do think it [the proposal] is going together nicely.” Another convert to the Seliger method.

To summarize the above meandering, here is how one writes about an unfamiliar topic:

  • Look for clues in the RFP and any provided links.
  • Visualize how the project would work within the context of your individual life experiences. Even though I have no idea what a Weatherization Specialist does, I have plenty of experience in trying to keep the rain out of the several houses I owned in Seattle.
  • Use your imagination. I have no idea of how stream sampling is actually performed, but I guessed correctly that undergrads would dip little bottles into the stream and take copious field notes. The only thing that surprised me is that the notes are not entered into a handheld computer, but carefully written long hand in notebooks, just like in Charles Darwin’s day. Apparently, the lilly pad is not ready for the iPad.
  • Leave lots of blanks in your first draft for your client or whoever actually knows something about the project and is willing to read the draft, such as, “Stream sampling will be conducted on a _____ basis by ______________ at _________ locations by the light of the full moon.”*
  • Ask for technical content. If not, write the first draft with even more blanks, as above, and hope the content appears in the comments on the first draft. Should you not receive any technical content, write everything in generalities or guess. Since many proposals are reviewed by people with limited or no understanding of the topic, your guesses may get the job done.

No matter what strategies you use to write about a completely unfamiliar topic, the grant writer’s task is to provide a complete and technically responsive proposal, not run the program after the grant is awarded. So be creative! To illustrate the point, here is an old joke about traffic engineering consultants who develop statistical models that will predict how many people will turn left at a given intersection on Wednesday afternoon in 2030:

Two traffic engineers are stranded on a desert island with several hundred cans of food and no can opener. One looks at the other and says, “what should we do?” The other smiles and says, “imagine a can opener.”

Start imagining can openers and you will be fine.


* No, I would not actually put in “by the light of the full moon.” But since there is a dreadful remake in the theaters now of one of my favorite horror movies, The Wolfman, I was reminded of Lon Chaney, Jr. as the afflicted Larry Talbot, who is told that “even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

How much money is available? Explaining maximum grant amounts

If you read our e-mail newsletter, the Seliger Funding Report, you’re aware of a number that can mean different quantities depending on the RFP: the maximum grant amount. There are a couple of ways to calculate this number: by the amount available over the total project period (which could be more than a single year) or the yearly total amount. In addition, sometimes a grant announcement provides little or no guidance whatsoever. To better understand what that means, let’s look at a few examples.

Take the Sports, Cultural, and Youth Visitor Program, which was included in the newsletter for the week of February 16. It’s a relatively simple program:

Total available: $1,130,000
Number available: 1
Max size: $1,130,000

In other words, there’ll be one grant made with a funding total of $1,130,000. According to the RFP, the exchanges are supposed to take place in 2009 and 2010, meaning the project period is probably in the neighborhood of eighteen months or two years, so the funder also might have been able to give a maximum grant amount of $565,000, but distribute that amount over two years, and nothing else would’ve changed in the program except how the program is presented.

That’s pretty straightforward. But it’s also possible to find announcements that say $500,000 per year is available, for a project total of, say, $1,500,000. The information about whether the maximum grant amount is per year or per project total is usually contained in the RFP itself, and it’s wise to find the answer before you decide how much to apply for. We’ll deal with this in greater detail below.

Consider another program: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy System Technology Research and Development (STTR [R41/R42]):

The SF424 (R&R) SBIR/STTR Application Guide indicates the statutory guidelines of funding support and project duration periods for Phase I and Phase II STTR awards. Phase I awards normally may not exceed $100,000 total for a period normally not to exceed 1 year. Phase II awards normally may not exceed $750,000 total for a period normally not to exceed 2 years.

NOTE: These award levels and project periods are statutory guidelines, not ceilings. Therefore, applicants are encouraged to propose a budget and project duration period that is reasonable and appropriate for completion of the research project. Applicants are encouraged to discuss deviations with IC program staff at the awarding component likely to be assigned the application. All budget and time deviations must be justified in the grant application.

Notice the “statutory guidelines” language: the reviewers and ultimate funding oversight person doesn’t have to limit you to $750,000 for phase two grants. Still, it seems wise to stay within their guidelines unless you have an incredible, extraordinary reason not to; so far, we’ve never had a client who we advised to exceed the program funding guidelines, but clients will sometimes have their award amounts adjusted up or down based on funding vagaries, the phases of the moon, and the like.

For yet another variation, consider the Texas Parallel Pathways to Success Grant Program. The RFP says: “It is anticipated that selected projects will be funded in a range of $50,000 – $125,000 per year.” So that means a maximum of $250,000 is available over the project period, or $125,000 per year. In the Seliger Funding Report, I would normally list the maximum as $125,000 because that’s the number the funder has listed, and it would be exceedingly difficult to dig through every RFP in the Federal Register and elsewhere to normalize the maximums. If any Government Accountability Office (GAO) or others involved in standards are reading this, take note.

Sometimes RFPs play hide-the-salami regarding how much money they have or the maximum grant amount. This is particularly irritating because one is liable to guess too low or too high, and most funding agencies that experiment with this game will eventually be more forthright when they get wildly divergent budgets. For example, the National Institute of Health (NIH) does this in its Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) (R25). The Executive Summary at the link says:

Budget and Project Period. There are no specific budget limitations; however, the requested direct costs must be reasonable, well documented, fully justified and commensurate with the scope of the proposed program. The total project period for an application submitted in response to this funding opportunity may not exceed five years.

Great! But what does reasonable mean in these circumstances? Alas, we apparently don’t get to find out, which actually makes it harder to decide how much to request, not easier. Another example of this comes from the Department of Transportation in the form of the FY 2010 Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP) High Priority Grant Program, which also doesn’t list an award ceiling.

Once you understand how much is available as a grant maximum, you have to decide how much to ask for (which will be the topic of a future post), and whether you want to apply for a particular program. Remember that there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between the complexity of an application and the amount of money being offered; for example, we base our fees on the difficulty of the application and the amount of time we have to complete it, so we’d likely charge the same $5,000 – $12,000 for most assignments whether the maximum award $50,000 available or $5,000,000. Therefore, you shouldn’t assume that a proposal for $100,000 will be any easier to complete than one for $1,000,000.

Still, there are a myriad of reasons for organizations to pursue smaller grants anyway: there might be less competition; they might be unusually well-suited for the project; they might need a particular position funded that can be shoe-horned into an application; the applicant might be a new organization that needs to prove it can account for grant funds before it pursues larger applications; or, as Isaac discussed recently in True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales, you might hit the grant lotto by having funding renewed over and over again for what seems like a small grant, which happened with the Neighborhood Action Program (NAP). When you’re trying to make these decisions, however, you should at least make sure that you know what the numbers you’re looking at mean.