Category Archives: Stories

When you hire consultants, you’re hiring them for all the mistakes they’ve ever seen (and made)

When you hire a lawyer, part of who you’re hiring is someone who has made thousands of mistakes in law school and as a young lawyer. Lawyers, like doctors and other professionals, learn in an apprentice-style system that incorporates the mistakes made by their mentors. Proto-lawyers also make some mistakes of their own—and, ideally, have those mistakes corrected by senior lawyers, and learn to not make those mistakes in the future. Most people don’t think about hiring a person or team specifically for their mistakes, yet this is a useful way to think about most professional services, including our personal favorite: grant writing consultants.

When you’re hiring a grant writer, you’re really hiring the experience that grant writer has. It isn’t impossible to hire a college intern or recent journalism grad and get funded; we’ve seen it happen and heard stories from clients. But the intern and inexperienced writers will make mistakes more experienced people won’t. We’ve written numerous posts about subtle mistakes that are easy to make in all aspects of the grant pipeline, from the needs assessment to the program design to the submission process. It’s also possible to get a competent junior person to write a couple of proposals, but grant writing is very hard and over time they tend to demand more money—or leave. That’s why you have trouble hiring grant writers. Many interns will write a proposal or two, but when they learn how hard and under-appreciated the job is, they often want money commensurate with difficulty. The inexperienced tend to make mistakes; the experienced grant writers tend to charge accordingly.

We are still not perfect (no one is; if anyone think they are, refer to “the perils of perfectionism“). But we have learned, through trial and error, how to make many fewer mistakes than novice or somewhat experienced grant writers. It’s not conceptually possible to eliminate all errors, but it is possible to avoid many errors that scupper most would-be grant writers.

If your organization can get a recent English major to write successful proposals for little or nothing, you should do that. But we’ve also heard from a lot of organizations that have “whoever is around” write, or attempt to write, their proposals, only to fail. Experience matters. You can get the magic intern, but more often you get someone who is overwhelmed by the complexity of a given writing assignment, who doesn’t understand human services or technical projects, is simply terrified by absolute deadlines, etc.

Let’s take as an example a common error that we’ve seen in a spate of recent old proposals provided by clients. Most include some variation, made by inexperienced writers, who want to write that “we are wonderful,” “we really care,” and the like in their proposals. This is a violation of the writing principle “Show, don’t tell.” Most of the time, you don’t want to tell people you’re wonderful—you want to show them that you are. “We are wonderful” statements are empty. “We served 500 youth with ten hours of service per week, and those services include x, y, and z” statements have objective content. It’s also harder to accurately describe what specific services an organization is providing than it is to say subjectively, “We are wonderful and we care.” Whatever is rare is more valuable than that which is common.

The above paragraph is just one example of the kind of errors novices make that experts tend not to. Attempting to enumerate all errors would be book-length if not longer. Experienced grant writers will avoid errors and offer quality almost instinctively, without always being able to articulate every aspect of error vs. optimality.

Grant writing and cooking: Too many details or ingredients is never a good idea

As a grant writer who also likes to cook, I understand the importance of simplicity and clarity in both my vocation and avocation: too much detail can ruin the proposal, just as too many ingredients can produce a dull dish. Ten years ago, I wrote a post on the importance of using the KISS method (keep it simple, stupid—or Sally, if you don’t like the word “stupid”) in grant writing. We recently wrote an exceedingly complex state health care proposal for a large nonprofit in a Southern state, but even complex proposals should be as simple as possible—but no simpler.

As is often the case with state programs, the RFP was convoluted and required a complex needs assessment. Still, the project concept and target area were fairly straightforward. We wrote the first draft of the needs assessment in narrative form, rather than using a bunch of tables. There’s nothing intrinsically better or worse about narrative vs. tables; when the RFP is complex, we tend toward narrative form, and when the project concept and/or target area are complex, we often use more tables. For example, if the target population includes both African American and Latino substance abusers in an otherwise largely white community, we might use tables, labeling columns by ethnicity, then compare to the state. That’s hard to do in narrative form. Similarly, if the target area includes lots of counties, some of which are much more affluent than others, we might use tables to contrast the socioeconomic characteristics of the counties to the state.

Many grant reviewers also have trouble reading tables, because they don’t really understand statistics. Tables should also be followed by a narrative paragraph explaining the table anyway.

So: our client didn’t like the first draft and berated me for not using tables in the needs assessment. The customer is not always right, but, as ghostwriters, we accommodate our clients’s feedback, and I added some tables in the second draft. Our client requested more tables and lots of relatively unimportant details about their current programming, much of which wasn’t germane to the RFP questions. Including exhaustive details about current programming takes the proposal focus away from the project you’re trying to get funded, which is seldom a good idea. It’s best to provide sufficient detail to answer the 5 Ws and the H), while telling a compelling story that is responsive to the RFP.

Then, stop.

The client’s second draft edit requested yet more tables and a blizzard of additional, disconnected details. Our client disliked it the third draft. We ended up writing five drafts, instead of the usual three, and the proposal got steadily worse, not better. As chef-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck* is said to have said, “Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors – it’s how you combine them that sets you apart.” Attempting to use all the flavors at once usually results in a kitchen disaster.

A given section of a proposal should be as short as possible without being underdeveloped. Changes from draft to draft should also be as minimal and specific as possible.


* Jake sort-of-met Wolfgang, albeit before he was born. His mom was eight months pregnant with him when we went to Spago for dinner. Wolfgang was there in his Pillsbury Doughboy getup, and, despite not being celebrities, he couldn’t have been nicer and made a big deal out of a very pregnant woman dining at his place. I think he wanted his food to induce labor, but that didn’t happen for a couple of weeks; instead, Nate ‘n’ Al’s Deli (another celebrity hangout in Beverly Hills), was the culprit. A story for another day.

No children allowed in the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Families and Children

Anyone who writes a few proposals will soon discover the disconnect between the bureaucrats who write RFPs and those of us who write the proposal responses. We’ve discussed poorly written RFPs before and part of the reason that RFPs are often badly written, contradictory, confusing, etc., is that the bureaucrats responsible for the RFPs never try to write a proposal in response. These (usually faceless) government program officers are also just doing a job they’ve been assigned to—they don’t any more interested in the services being provided through the grant program than an L Train Operator in NYC is interested in why the hapless riders on their train. It’s just a job!

We’ve seen this basic idea reinforced numerous times, but a recent bureaucrat encounter reminded me of my favorite example. In the Spring of 1993, Seliger + Associates was newly formed and I was struggling to find clients, run the business, and write proposals as a “one man band.” This was long before the advent of email and the Internet, so seeking clients and completing proposals involved lots more time and shoe leather than today. Since I was then working out of a home office and my then-wife was working to bring home some turkey bacon, I also played Mr. Mom—not a great movie, but on point for this post.

We were living in the East Bay Area then, and most of our initial clients were there or in LA—I flew down to LA at least once a week. A nonprofit in San Francisco that worked with African American teen moms hired me to write a proposal from the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Families and Children. Due to a less-than-cooperative client (some things never change), the proposal wasn’t finished until around noon on the day it was due. In those distant days, all proposals were submitted in hard copy form, typically an original and up to ten copies. This meant a trip to Kinkos (now FedEx Office), since I couldn’t yet afford a giant Xerox machine.

Naturally it was a school holiday and Jake, who was still in elementary school, and his two younger siblings were home that day. So I had to button up the original “running master”* of the finished proposal, toss the three kids into the Volvo 240 wagon, and race to Kinkos to get the submission copies made, while trying to keep the kids from destroying the store. Then it was a dash through the always-crowded Caldecott Tunnel and across the Bay Bridge to get to the Mayor’s Office in San Francisco by 5:00 PM. Feeling like the protagonist in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” (“made the bus in seconds flat”), I got the car parked, kids wrangled, and took the entourage up the office on the fifth floor.

I stood in line at the counter waiting with other applicants to turn in the submission package and get a time-stamped receipt. By this point, it was around 4:45 and, I was fairly anxious and the kids were impatiently wanting their promised ice cream cones and acting like, well, kids. Still, I managed to keep them and myself more or less calm while waiting. After about five minutes, a very officious woman emerged from an office, strode around the counter, focused her beady eyes on us, and loudly announced that we had to leave immediately, as “no children were allowed in the Mayor’s Office of Children and Families.” I told her, equally loudly, how stupid this was, pointing to the sign identifying the office. I received cheers and applause from the other applicants in line, and got the proposal submitted (and eventually funded).

The point of this story is that this city bureaucrat, whose job it was to help at-risk children in the abstract, was offended by confronting real children. Keep the reality that government grant reviewers are only very rarely true believers in your cause, or any cause. That’s one reason we recommend writing proposals in the plain style rather than any florid style that assumes sympathy on the part of the reader. Most readers are going to be more like that San Francisco city bureaucrat than the rare careful reader who cares about the project.

 * A “running master” is now mostly archaic term for the paginated stack of papers, including copies of signed forms/letters of support, the proposal narrative, and attachments, that is used to make or “run” the required submission copies. Once the run is complete, the original wet-signed forms and letters are substituted in one of the copies, recreating the original. Then “ORIGINAL” is hand written in large blue print at the top of that copy.

Nonprofit royalty exist, but you’re unlikely to be the next Duchess of At-Risk Youth Services

I had coffee with a friend who was in LA from NYC, and he’s the development director of a huge arts organization in NYC that raises $50M annually, mostly from large foundations, “whale” donors, ticket sales, and a soupçon of grants (not one of our clients). Over our iced macadamia milk lattes (this is LA after all) at Go Get Em Tiger, he told me he’s making his annual trek to LA to meet and show the flag with a big entertainment-related foundation that funds his agency. He was invited to various “industry events” that us mere mortals read about in TMZ. I said he’s a member of the nonprofit royalty.

“What’s that?” he asked.

Imagine you’re looking down on a vast savanna. Roaming are the 1.5 million 501(c)(3) US nonprofits (thousands of new ones bubble into existence every year, while some starve to death). Let’s deduct two-thirds of these as either being very small or too inert to be of interest. That leaves maybe 500K active nonprofits scurrying around the plain looking for donation and grant grubs, mice, rabbits, and the occasional elk. Most of these nonprofits are doing good works in primary health care, at-risk youth services, workforce development, other human services, the arts, and so on. While most have relatively modest annual operating budgets, say less than $5M, some, like big FQHCs, have annual operating budgets north of $50M. No matter how large, however, these are still commoners, battling with one another for donations, grants, third-party payers, and the like.

Among the nonprofit herd, however, stride a very smaller number of nonprofit royalty, like my friend’s agency in NYC. Royal nonprofits are funded by fawning large foundations, public agencies, and donations from the carriage trade (in LA, this means entertainment and tech folk, while in NYC this means hedge-fund types).* For the nonprofit royals, much of their revenue is derived from relationships, individual and organizational. Management staff and board members of the royals go to the same events as their target funders, probably went to the same colleges, and send their kids to the same private schools. Royals have access to celebrities at galas that they can dangle in front of potential funders—pssssst, Meryl Streep and Al Gore will be at the VIP party after our annual gala, and a donation of only $50K gets you in the VIP door.

A nonprofit does not have to be “born” royal, although it helps if the founder is a royal herself, can sweet talk some royals to serve on the board, or arrives at the the right moment to address a suddenly attractive cause. Examples of fortuitous nonprofit start-ups include Komen for the Cure, Wounded Warriors Project, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the like. Nonprofit royals usually grow into their status, rise above the nonprofit herd through hard work, relentless PR, providing great services, and more than a bit of luck.

The “luck” element is important, and you’re likely familiar with analogous stories from the movie biz. Meghan Markle was just another beautiful actress, one of thousands in LA, when she was auditioning for bit parts 15 years ago, and now she’s set to marry Prince Harry. Grace Kelly from Philly had only been acting for six years when she married Prince Rainier in 1956. Both became literal royals.

The same process can unfold with nonprofits. Geoffrey Canada took the rather mundane work of helping at-risk kids and their families to nonprofit royaldom with the Harlem Children’s Zone over 30 years (he’s also not a client). Like in Hollywood, only a tiny percent of. nonprofits start with or ever achieve this rarefied status—and they must work incredibly hard to maintain that position, albeit in ways different than conventional nonprofits. For most aspiring actors, it’s best to have a fallback career plan, and for nonprofits, it’s best to assume you’re part of the herd, not the royalty.

This is why we advise our clients to forget about trying to get foundation and government grants based on relationships (unless they already have preexisting relationships). All large foundations have frontline program officers whose main job is to talk nicely with nonprofits seeking grants and point them to their guidelines. It’s pretty hard to schmooze your way to big foundation grants, as the program officers have heard it all before. The only real way to achieve this is via relationships that already exist. For example, there’s an organization called Cancer for College that offers scholarships to childhood cancer survivors. The founder was a college frat buddy of Will Farrell. That’s not going to be true of the vast majority of nonprofits.

Most government grant officers, meanwhile, are bureaucrats with little, if any, interest in which applicant get funded—the system is actively designed to be impersonal in order to prevent corruption. Also, virtually every politician, and their field deputies, will wholeheartedly gush over any idea you bring to them, pat you on the head, tell you you that you have to wait for an RFP, like everyone else, as they show you the door (and likely invite you to a fundraiser). This is why there’s little point in getting support letters from politicians for proposals, as they will generally provide them to any agency that asks.

There are exceptions in the government grant world, especially at the local level, where patronage and cronyism is evident. Many NYC and LA City and County RFPs are not entirely competitive, as the pols, and the program officers, know that favored constituency groups (e.g., African Americans, Hispanics, Orthodox Jews, etc.) and a few connected applicants need to be funded.

Since seeking grants through relationships and royalty status is not going to work for most nonprofits, what’s an agency to do? It’s not complex, but it is hard to execute: select services that are needed and your organization can plausibly deliver, conduct detailed grant source research, and submit compelling and technically correct proposals on time. It you do that often enough, who knows, your agency might become the Duchess of At-Risk Youth Services, joining the royal court with Duke Geoffrey Canada.


* Amazon’s pretty good series, Mozart in the Jungle about a fictional version of the NY Philharmonic, has some storylines that fairly accurately depict how nonprofit royals use relationships to snare big donors (everyone in NYC wants to drink mate tea with Maestro Rodrigo). The series is based on the eponymous but very different memoir by Blair Tindall.

Seliger + Associates’ 25th Anniversary: A quarter century of grant writing

My first post, on Nov. 29, 2007, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal,” tells the story of how I became a grant writer (when dinosaurs walked the earth); 500 posts later, this one covers some of the highs and lows of grant writing over the past 25 years, since I founded Seliger + Associates.

Let me take you back to March 1993 . . . President Clinton’s first year in office, Branch Davidians are going wild in Waco, Roy Rogers dies, Intel ships its first Pentium chips, Unforgiven wins the Oscar for Best Picture, and Seliger + Associates is founded. The last item caused no disturbances in the Force or media and was hardly noticed. Still, we’ve created a unique approach to grant writing—although we’re not true believers, I like to think we’ve made a difference for hundreds of clients and their clients in turn.

When I started this business, the Internet existed, but one had to know how to use long forgotten tech tools like text-based FTP servers, “Gopher,” dial-up modems, and so on. While I taught myself how to use these tools, they weren’t helpful for the early years, even though the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, was launched in late 1993. I used a primitive application, HotMTML Pro, to write the HTML code for our first web site around the same time. I didn’t understand how to size the text, however, so on the common 12″ to 14″ monitors of the day, it displayed as “Seliger + Ass”. It didn’t much matter, since few of our clients had computers, let alone Internet access.

Using the Wayback Machine, I found the first, achieved view of our website on December 28, 1996, about two years after we first had a Web presence. If this looks silly, check out Apple.com’s first web archive on October 22, 1996. You could get a new PowerBook 1400 with 12 MB of RAM and a 750 MB hard drive for only $1,400, while we were offering a foundation appeal for $3,000!

Those were the days of land line phones, big Xerox machines, fax machines, direct mail for marketing, FedEx to submit proposals, going to a public library to use microfiche for research data, waiting for the Federal Register to arrive by mail about a week after publication, and an IBM Selectric III to type in hard copy forms. Our first computer was a IMB PS 1 with an integrated 12″ monitor running DOS with Windows 3.1 operating very slowly as a “shell” inside DOS.

Despite its challenges, using DOS taught me about the importance of file management.

As our business rapidly in the mid to late 1990s, our office activities remained about the same, except for getting faster PCs, one with a revolutionary CD-ROM drive (albeit also with 5 1/14″ and 3.5″ floppy drives, which was how shrink-wrapped software was distributed); a peer-to-peer coax cable network I cobbled together; and eventually being able to get clients to hire us without me having to fly to them for in-person pitch meetings.

It wasn’t until around 2000 that the majority of our clients became computer literate and comfortable with email. Most of our drafts were still faxed back and forth between clients and all proposals went in as multiple hard-copy submissions by FedEx or Express Mail. For word processing, we used WordPro, then an IBM product, and one that, in some respects, was better than Word is today. We finally caved and switched to Macs and Office for Mac around 2005.

Among the many after shocks of 9/11, as well as the bizarre but unrelated anthrax scare, there were enormous disruptions to mail and Fedex delivery to government offices. Perhaps in recognition of this—or just the evolving digital world—the feds transitioned to digital uploads and the first incarnation of grants.gov appeared around 2005. It was incredibly unreliable and used an odd propriety file format “kit file,” which was downloaded to our computers, then proposal files would be attached, and then emailed to our clients for review and upload. This creaky system was prone to many errors. About five years ago, grants.gov switched to an Acrobat file format for the basket-like kit file, but the upload / download drill remained cumbersome. On January 1, 2018, grants.gov 3.0 finally appeared in the form of the cloud-based WorkSpace, which allows applications to be worked on and saved repeatedly until the upload button is pushed by our client (the actual applicant). But this is still not amazon.com, and the WorkSpace interface is unnecessarily convoluted and confusing.

Most state and local government funding agencies, along with many foundations, also moved away from hard copy submissions to digital uploads over the past decade. These, of course, are not standardized and each has its owns peccadilloes. Incredibly, some funders (mostly state and local governments and many foundations) still—still!—require dead tree submission packages sent in via FedEx or hand-delivered.

There have of course been many other changes, mostly for the better, to the way in which we complete proposals. We have fast computers and Internet connections, cloud-based software and file sharing, efficient peripherals, and the like. Grant writing, however, remains conceptually “the same as it ever was.” Whether I was writing a proposal long hand on a legal pad in 1978, using my PS 1 in 1993, or on my iMac today in 2018, I still have to develop a strong project concept, answer the 5 Ws and H within the context of the RFP structure, tell a compelling story, and work with our clients to enable them to submit a technically correct proposal in advance of the deadline.

Another aspect of my approach to grant writing also remains constant. I like to have a Golden Retriever handy to bounce ideas of of, even though they rarely talk back. My last Golden mix, Boogaloo Dude, had to go to the Rainbow Bridge in November. Now, my fourth companion is a very frisky four-month old Golden, Sedro-Woolley, named after the Cascades foothill town to which I used to take Jake and his siblings fishing when they were little and Seliger + Associates and myself were still young.

 

Nashville, seen and unseen

I’m flying back from Nashville today, and I keep thinking about what I saw—and what I didn’t see. Let me explain: there are now many places that, in demographic, income, and related terms, don’t look like a normally distributed curve, with a big hump in the middle and trailing, small tails of the very rich and very poor. There are still of course some places that are nearly all poor and nearly all rich; we write about some of the former, for obvious reasons, and pretty much none of the latter. Unlike where Apple Stores locate, we primarily work where the affluent aren’t.

Many places, however, increasingly see a bimodal distribution, like this:

In these places—and we’ve written about a lot of them for clients—more and more people are well-off. These places are often gentrification stories, in which once-poor or marginal areas are taken over by college-educated high-earners looking for a reprieve from big-city housing prices.

But there’s often a second, shadow story as well, and in that story far more people are simply not making it—but not showing up in data like median household income. They’ve fallen out of the middle class or never quite made it there in the first place. Their lives were okay until opioid addiction or an accident or a factory closure turned those lives downwards. They’re making it every month until draconian zoning laws increase their rent to unrealistic levels, leading to eviction.

Those people are part of the data too, but the bifurcation means they can get lost from a cursory glance at Census or similar data. At the city or county level, data can look pretty good, even if at the zip code or Census Tract level reveal many pockets that aren’t doing well. We’ve seen that kind of data reappear over and over again as we write needs assessments for proposals, most prominently in L.A. and New York, but this bimodal dynamic appears elsewhere too—and I’m confident that Nashville is one of the places where a “two worlds” story can be told.

One of those worlds is downtown and near Vanderbilt University, with no shortage of trendy coffee shops like Crema, where sublime, rococo $6 pourovers are available.* In that world, construction cranes are seemingly everywhere. I checked a couple of new apartment buildings where one-bedroom apartments are almost $2,000 a month. For that price, I’d take Brooklyn or Queens, but someone must be willing to pay—however absurd those prices seem to me. I suspect the next recession will be an interesting experience for those building developers/owners.

The other world is not very far away, and I found some evidence of it off West End Avenue: the mom-and-pop nonprofits renting storefronts, cheap ethnic restaurants (which I like!), and halfway houses/treatment facilities. I’m guessing that a lot of downtown and Vanderbilt residents only rarely wander into those parts of town, even though they’re pretty close, geographically speaking.

Almost every Nashville native I talked to mentioned traffic and parking problems. To me that’s hilarious; I saw no traffic issues whatsoever, or nothing that I’d consider real traffic, but my internal calibration comes from Seattle, NYC, and L.A., with those last two being the biggest cities in the U.S. Urban planners like to say that every place worth being has a “traffic problem,” so I tend to discount those complaints. And parking problems make sense too, due to the hidden high cost of free parking. But most people don’t think in terms of systems; they think in terms of what’s immediately in front of them. To fix the “problem” at the forefront, it’s often necessary to think about the system as a whole—exactly like most people don’t.

To my eyes, I didn’t see traffic in Nashville; I saw underutilized roads that were empty almost all the time. Empty parking spots could be seen almost everywhere I walked and rode. The city seems to have lots of space for growth, and there are even plans for a rail network that will make the transportation system more functional. I have no idea if that’ll come to fruition, but if Nashville voters are smart they’ll think about the future and avoid Seattle’s errors.**

I write about transit here because transit issues are linked to housing issues, and housing is becoming (or has become) a major issue driving poverty, problems with the middle class, and other economic challenges that grant-funded programs are supposed to ameliorate. Without addressing them, many job training and housing are doomed to fail, much like L.A’s Prop HHH for homelessness services.

Some other thoughts, less cogently developed: Vanderbilt dominates the educational landscape. There are also some HBCUs in the city, but it’s striking how this single university sprawls almost everywhere. In Seattle, the University of Washington plays an analogous role, but Seattle seems to have more community colleges in it, along with the private Seattle University and the University of Puget Sound in nearby Tacoma. I don’t have a huge amount to say about what this means, but as someone who likes to teach as well as write proposals, it’s noticeable.

There’s a lot of “sir” and “ma’am,” or at least more than I’m used to. It’s charming. Coming from NYC, it’s hackneyed to say it, but people really are more polite in the South!

Most city ads and slogans are, uh, BS—or at least overstated. Nashville bills itself as “Music City” and lives up to the name. Guitars are everywhere, as is live music. The guy who played at my hotel on a random Thursday night sounded really good. Most of the time, where I hear “live music” at a bar, I want to go elsewhere. Not so in Nashville. I kept chatting with people and asked, “What made you move here?”, and many said, “music.” I stopped to listen to many singers in random bars and most of those singers were good.

Of the new residents who didn’t say “music,” many were from smaller towns elsewhere in the vicinity. One hostess, for example, was from a small town in Arkansas, and she had the charming accent to match. Another guy said he’d moved from Mississippi for “opportunity.”

The bike share program is so small that its utility is limited, and I don’t think I saw anyone apart from myself on a bike for the first few days. If traffic were truly bad, that would change. The city is ripe for Ofo, Spin, and Limewire: dockless companies that make the bike pickup and dropoff experience far simpler. Sidewalk space is copious, too.

While I visited, a fire department conference was going on, so I spontaneously pitched grant writing to some of the fire chiefs I met for the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) program. We’ve done a fair amount of work for fire and police departments over the years, although we don’t emphasize that on our website or in general marketing.

Austin is the next city on the visit list. I already have one person lined up for a meeting there; if you’re in Austin and want to talk grants, teaching, and related matters, drop me an email.


* While I was writing this post, a hipster-looking dude in a checked shirt and glasses came over to ask if I knew the wi-fi password. I didn’t—I often like to write “offline,” so to speak, and away from the endless carnival of the Internet—but somehow the experience is emblematic of the nerd economy.

** Briefly, Seattle had various rail plans that by some estimates date back to 1912; in the ’70s, Seattle almost started a rail system funded with federal money, but cutbacks at Boeing made people wonder if the city was going to shrink into itself. Then the city began to recover in the in the mid ’90s and began planning its current light rail projects. Unfortunately, the early parts of the project were ill-managed, but there’s now a light rail line stretching from the SEATAC Airport in the south to the University of Washington (“U-Dub” in local lingo) in the north. Still, no train lines cross Lake Washington to Bellevue (home to many Amazon execs) and Redmond (Microsoftville)—yet. The next major line is supposed to open in 2021 or 2023. The slowness of the projects is notable.

Why do grant writing firms market so many disparate services?

We’ve seen a lot of would-be grant writing competitors come and go, and the ones that commonly go have something in common: they offer a huge array of disparate services. Grant writing. Program development. Board training. Evaluation. Curriculums. Lobbying. Staff training. Guacamole recipes.

Okay, I made that last one up. Still, a cliché encapsulates the disparate-service approach of some firms: “Jack of all trades and master of none.” I see firms marketing half a dozen (or more) different services and think they’re likely not very good at any. How many restaurants make six different cuisines well? None, or nearly none. Any single field, including the highly specialized form of technical writing that is grant writing, is extremely difficult to master. Few firms are likely to have mastered many, vaguely related, and specialized services.*

To my mind, claiming to do even three disparate things at a professional level is improbable. Advertising many together seems like the mark of an amateur, or someone chucking as many stones as they can in order to see what hits. Individual targeting of one or two services is more likely to yield a good outcome.

Grant writing and marketing, for example, have very little to do with each other. Even grant writing and donor management are very different skills, much like coding software is a very different skill from selling software—even if both positions involve software in some way.

Not surprisingly, I recently saw a particular firm’s website that demonstrates some of these themes. I’m not going to name it, but if you’ve been around the nonprofit block a few times you’ve probably seen it or ones similar to it.


* The possible exception to this is of course Amazon, which is (so far) successfully mastering an astonishing and growing array of unrelated-seeming services.

Everything complicated is hard, including writing grant proposals

I was just listening to Tyler Cowen’s conversation with Atul Gawande and noticed this part:

COWEN: Why do surgeons sometimes leave sponges behind in the bodies of patients who are being operated on?

GAWANDE: You zeroed in on one of my very first projects in creating intervention.

COWEN: Great paper.

GAWANDE: We had done a case control study of this problem of surgeons leaving sponges inside people, and got it published in the New England Journal [of Medicine], partly because of our whole method of going about solving this problem, which was, we studied 60 people who had sponges left inside them, compared to 240 people at the same institution at the same time with the same operation who didn’t have sponges left inside them.

I don’t want to focus on the interventions Gawande developed (he is the author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, the title of which gives you a pretty big clue about one of those interventions); instead I want to focus on the fact that surgeons—who go to four years of undergrad, four years of med school, at least five years (in most cases) of residency—and who are highly motivated to not screw up procedures, because if they do people die—still manage to make seemingly elementary mistakes. Like forgetting a sponge in a patient.

Those mistakes happen, even to brilliant people, because as the cognitive load on a person increases, so does the tendency for error—even simple error. The same kinds of things happen, of course, in grant writing, although our “patients” are unlikely to die as a result. Still, the grant writing process is cognitively complex, which in part explains why so few people can become good grant writers. Interactions among the staff operating the program, the person writing the proposal, the funding agency, and the RFP are complex and can lead to errors. Even the nature of RFPs themselves lend themselves to error.

For example, I was just working on an HIV testing proposal for a client in a big Midwestern city. The narrative section of the proposal is limited to ten pages, with 1.5 line spacing, or about 7 single-spaced pages. The RFP, however, is 111 single-space pages. That’s right, the RFP is about 15 times longer than the allowed response. The possibility for error in such situations is enormous—it is cognitively difficult, and maybe impossible, to hold 111 pages of sometimes contradictory instructions, background on the applicant, and project design in one’s “RAM,” while also keeping to the max page length.

Part of our job as grant writers is to minimize error and understand where and why it might happen, so that we can prevent it to the maximum extent possible. Surgeons, who face life and death issues, don’t always manage to get the sponges out of people, even when they are very highly incentivized to do so. As such, it should not be surprising that the rest of us, who are doing cognitively complex tasks, also face major challenges in getting things right.

Everything is hard. Sometimes there is no way around that. If you’re old enough, you likely remember computers from ten or fifteen years ago that were slow and unreliable by today’s standards. Today, computers are probably more than a thousand times faster (transistor density tends to double every eighteen to twenty-four months) than they were 15 years ago. Yet Firefox is still kind of slow at times, Word still crashes, and various other programs have their foibles. One would expect computers to have transformed medicine, especially now that they’re so fast, yet every doctor hates their Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system. Isaac’s primary care physician uses eClinicalWorks and routinely complains about it being slower and less efficient than hand charting. He says finding the information he needs is harder with eClinicalWorks than it was when he charted by hand. In other words, he likes a millennia-old technology better than the latest software release.

We have faster computers, but EMRs still suck. We have faster computers, but Word still crashes. We have faster computers, but we also demand more of them. As hardware capabilities expand, we demand more of software. The software gets more complex and eats the gains from hardware speed. If I only ran programs from 10 or 15 years ago and made demands like those from that time, I could have a blazing-fast computer, but without the capabilities I like (like the ultra-high resolution 5K display on my iMac). Making software is hard, so it has problems and trade-offs.

The analogy to grant writing seems too obvious to belabor. I’ve also got to get back to the 10 page opus I’m extruding from the 111 page RFP; it’s too early for a cocktail.

Oh, and that story about the sponges? Gawande did come up with a technological fix for lost sponges: bar code each sponge and make sure that each sponge is “checked in” and “checked out.” That simple intervention means that virtually no sponges are lost in patients today. But not all problems lend themselves to technological fixes. Writing doesn’t.

Tyler Cowen’s “The Complacent Class,” 25 Years After the Rodney King Uprising and Grant Writing

Tyler Cowen’s exceptional The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream is another must-read for grant writers, like Sam Quinones’s Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Jake and I like Cowen not only because he’s a terrific writer, but also because he often points out when “conventional wisdom” isn’t supported by data or logic.

While this is not a full book review (see Jake’s review here), I want to focus on one of Cowen’s key findings: America is by some metrics actually more segregated today than it was when I was a budding community organizer and grant writer in 1972. In describing what “segregated” means, Cowen not only cites compelling studies for racial segregation in housing, but also for education, economic, and political metrics. Anyone who lived through the recent election and has seen the startling red/blue county election map should realize that some obvious political divides exist. Still, the increasing racial and educational segregation of America most trouble me.

If I could travel backwards in time to interview my 20-year-old, idealistic self in 1972, I know that my 1972 self would believe two things about America in 2017: we’d be using flying cars powered by dilithium crystals or something exotic, and racial segregation in housing and education would be a distant memory. I was wrong on both counts. While electric cars are slowly gaining ground and articles about the coming autonomous car revolution are rampant, my 21-year-old self would have no trouble either driving or understanding most 2017 cars, which still have gasoline engines (primarily), a steering wheel, gas pedal, brake pedal, and so on.

As Cowen points out, and as we grant writers daily see in Census data, racial segregation is worse today, by some metrics, than it was in 1972, both in terms of housing and education. As Cowen says, “If we look at school systems, racial segregation is also getting worse in some ways.” Despite the perfectly rational explanations Cowen provides, I still find this almost incomprehensible. After five decades of the “War on Poverty,” endless speechifying from politicians, religious leaders, and virtue signalers on the left and right, and the racial divide is not only still here, but seems to be increasing.

Data that supports this doesn’t just come from The Complacent Class. The New York Times just published “Family by Family, How School Segregation Still Happens.” Although Jim Crow laws are long gone, the vast majority of American public school students attend highly segregated schools. For example, 73% of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) students are Latino, even though only 47% of LA residents are Latino (of any race; note this is Census lingo). Only 8.8% of LAUSD students are white, while 49.8% of LA City residents are white. It’s obvious that LA has re-segregated from both residential and school attendance perspectives. The vast majority of white LA residents, regardless of income, have simply abandoned LAUSD (or, depending on one’s point of view, LAUSD has abandoned them). Thus, no matter what ethnicity a LAUSD student is, they likely attend a very segregated school, and, unless they’re Latino, that student is going to be on the extreme narrow end of the segregation stick.

Re-segregation in America presents an interesting problem for grant writers, as we frequently must gently massage the data to fit within the prevailing notions of clients, and grant reviewers. For example, when writing a proposal for Watts or South Central LA, we still present the mythology that this area is largely African American—though it isn’t and hasn’t been for at least two decades. Even the LA Times revealed in 2015 that Watts is over 70% Latino.

We’ve also reached the 25th anniversary of the Civil Disturbances* following the acquittal of the cops involved in the Rodney King beating. I watched a Showtime documentary about this big brother to the 1965 Watts Rebellion, “Burn Motherfucker, Burn”.

In 1992, I was living in the Bay Area, but on April 29th I happened to be in Hollywood visiting a hospitalized relative. We were watching on TV in his room. When the not-guilty decision was announced, the station switched to live feeds of gathering angry crowds at the LAPD’s Parker Center Downtown, which is pretty close to the hospital. I quickly decided to “get out of Dodge” (or Hollywood in this case), as I knew what was going to happen.

I was staying in the San Fernando Valley, which was largely untouched, but as I drove to LAX the next afternoon, I could see the smoke billowing over much of the basin. To quote a prophetic James Baldwin story, it’ll be “The Fire Next Time.”

Around April 29, 1992, I first thought of leaving my public sector career as a Community Development Director to start a consulting business, as I watched LA burn. This idea eventually became Seliger + Associates in 1993. I reasoned correctly that the federal response to the unrest would be massive grant programs aimed at South Central. Since I had worked for the Cities of Lynwood and Inglewood for years, I knew many public agency managers and nonprofit executive directors in LA. Consequently, our first clients were mostly from LA, with many being in South Central. In this way, Seliger + Associates is linked to the Rodney King decision.

While the Showtime documentary is reasonably well made and should be viewed by those too young to remember 1992, I was struck by how the film maker perpetuated the same mythology about South Central and similar areas we still use in proposals to describe target areas. In reality, the disturbances extended way beyond South Central to Hollywood, Mid-Wilshire and Koreatown, none of which were even close to being majority African American. Many of the looters and arsonists were Latino. Even the area around the infamous live TV broadcast beating of the unfortunate Reginald Denny at Normandy and Florence was probably not majority African American in 1992. But this doesn’t fit the narrative of the Civil Disturbance in the documentary, just like Census data doesn’t always fit the narrative of our proposals. As we’ve written about before, grant writers, like documentarians, are at our most basic level story tellers. As Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard is told by a newspaper editor at the end of John Ford’s classic western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”


* Note that I use “Civil Disturbance” and “Rebellion,” both capitalized, not the more descriptive term, “riots.” Avoid words like “riot” or similarly loaded terms in your grant proposals. Remember who’s going to read the proposal and use language that fits their worldview.

How 9/11 Changed Grant Writing

I went to the office around 5:30 AM PDT on September 11, 2001 because we had an Administration for Native Americans Social & Economic Development (ANA SEDS) deadline later than week. Fifteen years ago, the Internet was still relatively new and, while I always checked my email when I got to the office, I didn’t automatically open a browser (back then probably Explorer) to check the news.

I was listening to music (remember CDs?) on my Bose headphones as I polished the final proposal draft. The ringers were off on the land lines (remember those?), since it was so early. Around 6:30 AM, my brother called on my cell phone (probably a Motorola StarTac flip phone—remember those?), hysterically asking if I’d seen the news. By the time I went to CNN.com and turned on the office TV, both towers were in flames and no more work got done that day. Like everyone else, we were transfixed by the unfolding horror.

In 2001, all grant proposals were hard copy submissions, including the ANA SEDS proposal that had to be in Washington, DC on Friday of that week. Our office was then located in the Seattle area, and our FedEx cutoff was 5:00 PM for East Coast deliveries, so for a Friday deadline, we had to finalize our “master copy” by about noon to give us enough time to 1) run the five or six required hard copies, 2) substitute “wet signatures” in one copy to make the “original” copy, 3) run a client copy, 4) box up the FedEx package, and 5) dash to the FedEx office by 4:59 PM. Sometimes—usually due to a late arriving original of a wet-signed signature page—we’d miss the FedEx deadline, so we’d have to use Alaska Airlines “Gold Streak” small package delivery service. As long as we got the boxed proposal to the Alaska Air freight terminal at SeaTac by around 10:00 PM, the package would be put on a red eye to DC and delivered by courier the next morning, usually beating FedEx.

That option ended on 9/11.

While we sent the SEDS in by FedEx on Thursday, it wasn’t received by ANA for about six weeks. The weeks and months following 9/11 were beyond chaotic. All airline traffic was halted for days, and services like Gold Streak soon required “known shippers,” which proved to be too complex to comply with. All postal packages were held for X-ray and federal offices no longer would accept direct deliveries from FedEx, Express Mail and couriers—packages were held at central locations until they could be inspected. For the next couple of years, this meant finishing proposals well in advance of deadlines, which were usually extended, often multiple times, because of the confusion and uncertainty.

I assume that the rapidly changing shipping environment spurred the Feds into accelerating digital uploads, including our old pal Grants.gov, which is the portal for most federal grant submissions. Today, almost all federal, state and local proposals, as are about 50% of foundation proposals.

There are some exceptions, most notably in Los Angeles County. We write many proposals to various LA County agencies and for them, it’s still September 10, 2001, as multi-copy hard copy submissions with a wet signature original in a hand-delivered big box are required. Maybe the LA County Chief Administrative Officer will read this post and bring them fully into this century.

There are many ways of remembering 9/11. I had no friends or family directly involved, but the memory stays with me. This post is my own way of recalling it and way it altered the world in ways great (and well known) and small (like changes to grant submission processes).