Category Archives: Stories

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).

Grant Proposal Staffing Plans: Payroll Titles vs Proposal Titles vs Real-World Duties

We’ve written about proposal staffing plans before, but staffing plans seem to confuse many of our clients and, presumably, many others. As we’ve explained previously, staffing plans are intertwined with other proposal elements (e.g., project description, budget, budget narrative, organization chart, job descriptions, etc.). Like all aspects of proposal writing, these elements—which are in a state of flux as the proposal moves from conceptualization to final draft—must be internally consistent in the submission package.

This makes the basic staffing plan the backbone of the entire proposal, which is frequently overlooked in the pressure-cooker days leading up to the submission deadline. One issue that often creates a strong potential for internal inconsistencies is the difference between payroll job titles and proposal job titles. All public agencies, and many larger nonprofits, have standardized job titles that are linked to salary steps and formal job descriptions. But those job titles may not match proposal job titles—and they don’t need to match.

For example, I was hired to work for Mayor Tom Bradley as a 22-year old long haired acolyte of Saul Alinsky* in 1974. I actually had two titles, neither of which had anything to do with my actual duties. My payroll title was “Administrative Assistant,” which didn’t impress me until I learned that “Administrative Assistant” was actually a fairly high level pre-management position in the LA City personnel system—not a coffee fetcher, as I’d first imagined. It turned out that many LA City lifers toiled for years before finally rising from Junior Admin Assistant to Admin Assistant to the ne plus ultra of Senior Admin Assistant. A friend worked for the City of LA for 33 years, starting as a Junior Admin Assistant, but never made to Senior Admin Assistant.

In LA I was actually being paid under a large federal Office of Community Services (OCS) grant. The OCS grant was being used in part to fund a visionary but ultimately pointless program called the LA Volunteer Corps, which was housed in Mayor Bradley’s office. My working title, “Evaluation Specialist,” was included in the original OCS proposal, and I was hired to supposedly evaluate the Volunteer Corps.

In reality, I got the job through a connection who wired the interview for me (I know you’re shocked to find corruption in a big city mayor’s office), even thought I know nothing about evaluation. No one actually wanted the Volunteer Corps evaluated, however, so that didn’t matter. The Evaluation Specialist position was included in the proposal to impress grant readers, and someone had to be tagged with it.

Suddenly I was the Evaluation Specialist, with a payroll title of Admin Assistant. But I din’t do either on the job. Instead, once my boss, Deputy Mayor Grace Montañez Davis, learned I knew how to write grants, I mostly wrote proposals for nonprofits interested in City of LA funding. I’d get a call from Grace and we’d go to see Mayor Bradley, who would introduce me to some nonprofit Executive Director. I’d interview them and write their proposal, which the City would then fund. It wasn’t all that different from our approach at Seliger + Associate, except that our proposals aren’t usually wired.**

When you develop proposals, don’t worry about your organization’s formal job titles—just pick titles that more or less match the imagined job duties in the proposal and that have the right salary ranges for the grant budget. Then dream up proposal job titles that match the project concept. Make sure the proposal job titles are consistent in all proposal elements but that the budget reflects the actual salaries tied to real organization job titles. After funding, none of this really matters, since the nominal Outreach Coordinator might end up doing case management in the real world.


* My training in Saul Alinsky community organizing is the only thing that connects me to Hillary Clinton, who is quite a bit older than me, and President Obama, who is quite a bit younger.

** Some proposals we write are wired, like the reprogrammed funds proposals Jake recently wrote about.

It’s possible to get re-programmed funds, if you’re tight with your federal agency program officer

In 2010 Isaac wrote “Be Nice to Your Program Officer: Reprogrammed / Unobligated Federal Funds Mean Christmas May Come Early and Often This Year,” and that post is important for the context of this story. We’ve written several funded grants for the same federal program for the same client over the last few years. The client is a national trade group, and last week our client contact called because he’d just gotten a random call from his program officer offering a large tranche of re-programmed funds. That money doesn’t come with any strings beyond the general restrictions on the initial grant-funded program. It’s also a sure thing, which is a rare, valuable thing in the grant world.*

Organizations that get re-programmed funds still have to submit a proposal (which may be short). However short, the proposal for re-programmed funds must be technically correct and usually has a quick turnaround time (this always happens near the end of the federal fiscal year, which is September 30). As a cautionary note, we’ve seen clients who’ve messed up their wired, re-programmed applications. Overall, though, the amount of effort required is usually far smaller than a conventional, competitive grant program.

When Isaac worked for the City of Inglewood in the 1980s, the FAA (yes, the Federal Aviation Administration) gave Inglewood re-programmed funds almost every year for about eight years. That happened because the City of Los Angeles had to relocate several thousand families to extend one LAX runway on the Pacific Ocean side. You can see the vacant land when you take off from LAX and just before the plane crosses the beach.

At the same time, Inglewood, where Isaac was the Redevelopment Manager, was removing about 800 families from under the flight path to the east of LAX, near The Forum and the site of the new LA Rams stadium, for redevelopment. To keep Inglewood from joining all the other players who were suing LAX over the runway extension, a deal was struck in which LAX convinced the FAA to accept grant applications from Inglewood for wholesale land acquisition with “noise mitigation” being the ruse or quid pro quo.

All of this was on the down low, of course, and Isaac wrote all the FAA proposals, which totaled over $25 million. The FAA liked Inglewood, mostly because it could spend the money quickly while accounting for it, so Isaac got a call every August from the FAA program officer asking if Inglewood wanted additional re-programmed funds. The answer was always… yes. Sometimes, all you have to do is not screw it up.


* And bars after 11 on a Saturday night.

Hard Times for Housing Nonprofits and the New York Times Provides a Pretty Good Example of Proposalese

Last week a former client and a prospective client called; both of their nonprofits have been involved in affordable housing development, foreclosure assistance, fair housing counseling and the like, but both have also seen their grant and other resources wither in recent years. Housing nonprofits are experiencing the negative side of the grant waves we’ve written about. Right now there isn’t a lot of government or foundation funds available for affordable housing issues: the Great Recession is officially over*, the foreclosure crisis has receded in most places, and the policy view of housing affordability has mostly shifted from social/legal/regulatory concerns (e.g., overt housing discrimination, redlining, predatory lending/foreclosures, etc.) to economic concerns, as best articulated by Matt Yglesias in The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think. The biggest affordability challenge is the inability to build housing at all in many superstar cities, like L.A., New York, and Seattle, due to NIMBY problems.

My advice to both callers was the same: they can a) change the mission of their nonprofit to something being pushed by the grant waves (e.g., job training, primary health care, re-integration of ex-offenders, supplemental education for out-of-school youth and young adults, etc.), b) put their nonprofit into suspended hibernation while waiting for the grant gods to once again smile on affordable housing, or c) try to use the emerging theme of continuing housing segregation that has risen in public consciousness through incessant media coverage of public outrage and civil disturbances in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore following police violence against unarmed African American youth.

Today, the New York Times published “An Indelible Black-and-White Line,” which illustrates pretty well how to build a grant needs argument around the civil disturbances and obvious housing segregation in most American cities. This paragraph from the article could have been ripped from our proposals:

“Such is the case in Ferguson. The part where Mr. Brown died is a predominantly black east side neighborhood where residents have complained of police harassment and high crime in a cluster of apartments that stretches into the census tract with the most Section 8 renters in Missouri. Life is much different just two miles away in the city’s amenity-filled central business district, surrounded by pockets of predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods with sturdy brick and clapboard homes.”

We often use variations on the life-is-different riff when writing about disadvantaged target neighborhoods embedded in affluent cities.

The article is a pastiche of misinformation and half-truths that conflates the history of Section8 Housing Certificates with desegregation efforts, fair housing, income equality, and general malaise in low-income communities. Section 8 was not created as a “tool for desegregation,” as stated in the article. The primary tool for desegregation in the 1970s and 1980s was school busing, not Section 8. Section 8 was a Nixon/Ford era reform that was supposed to encourage private developers to build more affordable housing. In the early days of the Reagan administration in the mid-80s, Section 8 was expanded as direct HUD financing programs for affordable housing developments were largely eliminated.

It wasn’t until the Clinton era that Section 8 was seen as something of a desegregation tool, but this shift occurred primarily within the context of then new HUD HOPE VI Program, (or “Hopeless VI,” as we used to call it around the office). This bizarre program resulted in the demolition of thousands of last-resort public housing units, replacing the original developments with “mixed-income” developments and providing Section 8 Certificates (now known as Housing Choice Vouchers or “HCV”) for poor, mostly African Americans, residents displaced by HOPE VI.

But Section 8 never resulted in many new housing units being built, so HCV holders were (and are) forced to compete with working poor and middle-class renters for the same limited pool of housing. Landlords will avoid accepting HCVs if they can—not necessarily because they’re racist (although they might be), but because the building/unit has to pass a HUD inspection to be certified for Section 8. The building and unit also have to undergo annual re-inspections.

Most landlords won’t sign up for this unless they’re having difficulty renting the units. They also prefer wealthier tenants with good histories, when those tenants are available. That’s why Section 8 units end up being in less desirable neighborhoods. The other reality is that the HCV holders often self-segregate for social, cultural and family reasons. While a single mom may be able to use her HCV in a nice, affluent suburb, that won’t help her much if her support system for childcare (e.g., extended family members) is back in the lower-income community she’s leaving. Also, she might not want be far from her church and friends. Whole Foods probably doesn’t sell chitlings** or chicken necks.

The Times article avoids all of these details and instead concocts a witch’s brew that explains all of the ills of low-income African American neighborhoods away by blaming everything on Section 8 caused segregation. While this is mostly nonsense, it’s perfect reasoning for a grant proposal for housing nonprofits—like my two callers last week—trying to get funding. We’ll use these concepts for any housing related proposals we write in the coming months.

If this stuff gets past the editors at the New York Times it’ll definitely get past foundation program officers, who don’t know any more than editors and probably know even less.


* In our grant proposals, no matter what is actually going on with the economy, the target neighborhood is always being buffeted by the current recession, the lingering effects of the last recession and/or the looming next recession.

** Anyone who’s worked and/or lived in African American communities like I have, knows that chitlings remain a favored delicacy. To test your knowledge, take the somewhat out of date, but still fun Chitling Test (also known as the Dove Counterbalance General Intelligence Test). I had the privilege of being a colleague of the test’s creator, Adrian Dove, in the mid-1970s, when we both worked in Mayor Tom Bradley’s office. Here’s a sample question: “Cheap chitlings (not the kind you purchase at a frozen food counter) will taste rubbery unless they are cooked long enough. How soon can you quit cooking them to eat and enjoy them? (a) 45 minutes, (b) 2 hours, (c) 24 hours, (d) 1 week (on a low flame), (e) 1 hour.”

More on Developing Federal Grant Budgets: Stay in the Proposal World, Not the Operations World

This is an update to our popular post “Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets.” While that post provides a step-by-step description of how to develop a federal grant proposal budget, it assumes that the budget preparer understands the difference between the real world and the proposal world. In preparing proposal budgets, experts in real-world budgets are often too sophisticated for the proposal world.

When Seliger + Associates is hired to write a federal proposal, we send our client an Excel template that models the SF-424 budget form found in all grants.gov application kit files. Recently, we’ve been working for a series of large nonprofits and public agencies that have skilled Chief Financial Officers (CFOs). The challenge, however, is that most of these CFOs have little or no understanding of proposal budgeting, as they’re accustomed to detailed operational budgets.

Even if we discuss the proposal world with the CFO first, the completed template we receive back is usually way too detailed, because it reflects actual program operations, not the idealized proposal world. This not only makes it unnecessarily difficult to prepare the associated budget narrative/justification, but also makes it hard to get the budget presentation to display well when saved at the required .pdf for attachment to the kit file. It will confuse proposal reviewers (which is never a good idea while being very easy to do).

Here are some additional tips to keep your federal budget anchored in the proposal world, where it belongs:

  • Minimize the number the number of line items—around, say, 20. If you use 40 line items, the spreadsheet bloat will be very difficult to format in a way that is readable and meets RFP formatting requirements (unless you’re a wiz at Excel, which almost no one, including us and the CFOs we encounter, is).
  • Only include staff and line items that will be charged to the grant (or match, if required).
  • Personnel line items must match the staffing plan in the narrative. Resist the urge to load up the budget with small FTEs (2% to 5%) of lots of existing administrators/managers. This will make your agency look bureaucratic (not a good idea, even if it is) and clog the budget narrative. Large numbers of small FTEs are what a federally approved Indirect Cost Rate is for. If your agency has at least one existing federal grant, get an approved Indirect Cost Rate, which is not that difficult, and many of your proposal budgeting woes will be solved.
  • Unless the RFP requires it, don’t line-item fringe benefits. These can usually be lumped together as the percent of salaries your fringe benefit package equates to. For most nonprofits, this will be in the 18% to 30% range. Anything above 30% will probably generate unwanted attention from grant reviewers, even if that is what you pay. If the fringe benefit rate is relatively high, this should be explained in the budget narrative (e.g. lower salaries, high local costs, need to retain staff, etc.).
  • For multi-year budgets, don’t include expected yearly salary increases or annual inflators; this is too detailed and will again result in a very complicated budget justification. Inflation in the current environment is low. In a high-inflation environment like the ’70s, this advice would be different.
  • Regarding the “Other” Object Cost Category on the SF-424A, it’s unnecessary to break down line items too far. For example, lump together facility costs (e.g., rent, utilities, security, janitorial, maintenance, etc.), or communications (e.g., landline and cell phones, mailings, etc.) in single line items.
  • If feasible, try to make the total annual budget level for each project year. This can be a bit challenging, if, for example, the project involves start-up costs (e.g., buying staff furniture, hiring a web designer/social media consultant, etc.) in year one. The way to do this is to increase some other line item(s) in the out years to keep the budget level. Level annual budgets will make the budget narrative easier to write and understand.
  • Make one line item your plug number to enable reconciliation to the maximum allowed grant and/or level annual amounts in multi-year grants. The plug number should be in the Other Object Cost Category and could be advertising, communications, or similar line items that look OK with an odd number in different years. Reviewers are aware of plug numbers and won’t hold reasonable plug numbers against you.

Always remember that the proposal budget is just a financial plan that supports the proposed project activities, not a detailed expression of an operational situation. Following notice of grant award, your agency will have to negotiate the actual budget in the contract anyway.

Also, in most cases, the grantee can move 10% of the total grant among line items by notifying the federal program officer or requesting larger budget changes to reflect operations in the real world as the project is implemented. Unless you ask to swap an Outreach Worker for a lease on a Tesla for the Executive Director, the program officer will likely go along with your plan, as most simply don’t care what you do so long as the grant doesn’t end up in BuzzFeed, Politico, or the New York Times.

Grant Writer as Ghost Writer: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Conundrum

At our most basic level, we grant writers are nothing more than ghost writers. Ghost writing is sometimes referred to as the world’s second oldest profession, and there’s probably some truth to that. While ghost writers haunt (sorry about that) every strain of writing, ghost writing is largely veiled from the real world. Andrew Crofts’s new book, Confessions of a Ghostwriter, provides a rare glimpse into the profession.

Like me, Crofts has spent about 40 years writing under other writers’s bylines and toiling in the shadows while making a tidy living and seemingly enjoying his anonymous vocation. Crofts points out correctly that his clients view him as ranking “somewhere between a valet and a cleaner.” In my view, our clients actually view us more in line with the purveyors of world’s actual oldest profession, but his point is well taken: when someone wants a grant writer/ghost writer/valet/hooker or some similar service, they want it right now and they probably don’t want to be reminded that they felt compelled to use the particular service.*

While we don’t worry about not having our writing attributed to us, our anonymity presents some challenges when we’re asked for references. Since we’ve been in business for 21 years, we have lots of potential references, except for a few minor issues. One is anonymity: as mentioned in the footnote, not every client wants others to know that they did not write a particular proposal and may decline to provide a reference or even deny our involvement. Crofts points out the reality: clients who hire ghost writers don’t necessarily want to be public about it.

Hillary Clinton just released her state department memoir, Hard Choices, which has been widely panned by reviewers as a real snoozer, but at least Hillary admitted to the Washington Post that this tome was actually written by her “book team” (I wonder if the team had matching t-shirts). This is better than President Kennedy, who accepted a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, which was largely written by Theodore Sorenson without attribution. Interestingly, Sorenson also wrote Kennedy’s stirring Inaugural Address, once again without public credit.

To return to our own story, we’ve also been around so long that we’ve outlived many of the contact people we worked with, who retire or move on to new jobs. There is little institutional memory in most nonprofits. For example, about 15 years ago, we wrote several large funded proposals for a small nonprofit that oddly used arts education to provide English as a second language (ESL)** instruction to immigrant children. As a result of these funded proposals, they became a much larger organization, but for whatever reason they stopped hiring us. About five years ago, I received a call from the new executive director of this same nonprofit inquiring about grant writing assistance.

The old executive director had left some time before and the new guy was amazed when I told him that we’d written the original funded proposals that launched them into nonprofit glory. He was skeptical, so I emailed him a proposal we’d written about ten years earlier. He declined to hire us and the organization eventually sunk back beneath the nonprofit waves again. They couldn’t effectively write proposals. Nonprofits that can’t write winning proposals or find some other way of funding themselves die.

Talk about ghost writing reminds me of one of my favorite John Ford Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Told in flashbacks, the storyline is that Jimmy Stewart’s righteous, nonviolent lawyer character Ransom Stodard (called “Pilgrim” by John Wayne’s laconic and quick with a gun rancher character, Tom Doniphon) is forced by circumstance to face down and “shoot” the local desperado, Liberty Valance, played with snarling fury by Lee Marvin.

Or did he? As “the man who shot Liberty Valance,” Stodard becomes famous and is elected a senator. It turns out, of course, that John Wayne’s character actually shot Liberty over Stodard’s shoulder. In effect, John Wayne was Pilgrim’s “ghost shooter.” When Jimmy Stewart finishes telling the true story to the local newspaper editor in real time at the end of movie, he says to the editor, “you’re not going use the story?” The editor replies, “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Like all ghost writers, we grant writers just print the legend.


* This is one reason why we don’t list past clients on our website and always disguise them when we mention one in a post. We don’t just sell grant writing; we sell discretion.

** “ESL” is actually a somewhat archaic term in grant writing these days. The newer term is English language learning (ELL), making the the students ELLs. Now you know. In a couple years the nomenclature will probably change again, for no reason apart from fashion.

The Pestiferous Stink of Politics in Grant Writing: ORR’s “Residential Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children” (UAC) Program

As we’ve said before, politicians at every level usually like it when nonprofits in their districts get grants. They like it so much that they’re happy to take credit for a nonprofit’s grant writing effort, which they usually have nothing to do with. That being said, politics usually have little to do with grant writing, at least at the level experienced by most nonprofit and public agencies. As you might have guessed from the way we keep repeating “usually” in this paragraph, this post is about exceptions to that principle.

Ages ago, before I graced the world, Isaac worked as Grants Coordinator for Ed Valliere, City Manager of the City of Lynwood.* The city didn’t have a lot of money and Ed sicced Isaac on every grant Isaac could find, which is one way to effectively get a lot of grants (some of our retainer clients give us similar direction and latitude). Anyway, Isaac wrote a federal rat-control grant that got funded, but he didn’t bother to get a City Council resolution authorizing the submission.

Isaac didn’t think it would be funded, but he didn’t think too much about it: he just wrote proposals. Inexplicably, the rat proposal was funded.** This made Ed explode: the City of Lynwood wasn’t going to admit publicly that it had a rat problem, so Ed instructed Isaac to turn down the grant. The City Council remained unaware of the application, the award, and the rejection. Isaac and Ed kept their jobs.

Ed knew that politicians didn’t want reporters asking, “Hey, how’s the rat problem going?” Cities spend lots of money marketing themselves—you may have heard that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” (a lie), and a motto like “Lynwood: We’ve solved our rat problem!” doesn’t work so well. Although Isaac does report that in the late 70s, the staff routinely referred to Lynwood alternatively as “The Town Too Tough to Die” or “The Town that Time Forgot.”

Which brings us to the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) “Residential Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children” (UAC) program. It has $350 million available, with average grants of $4 million—residential care services, especially for children, are very, very expensive. The program addresses the unexpected surge in unaccompanied Central American children at the southern border.

But not every residential services provider is going to want or be able to apply for this ORR grant program. By applying, nonprofit residential care providers—which are often large organizations deeply embedded in the local community power structure—announce that they’re going to house immigrant children and teens. As anyone who has paid attention to the news over the last decade or century should know, immigrants arouse fear, suspicion, hatred, and xenophobia. “They” will not be like “us” and don’t share “our” values.

Consequently, not every organization that could or should apply for a UAC grant will actually apply. As we said, most local politicos are happy for organizations in their districts to get grants, but they aren’t always. No one wants a crisis homeless shelter right next to them.*** The acronym “NIMBY” emerged as a catch-all term to attack this idea. But in the real world, a small number of people will fight much harder to keep a residential treatment facility out of their neighborhood than a large, amorphous number of people with vague feelings of kindness will fight to put it in.

We rarely discuss politics or the local political situation with our clients, but we can occasionally detect politics, much like astrophysicists detect dark matter, through the otherwise weird-seeming behavior of clients or potential clients. This is going to be deliberately vague, because we take confidentiality very seriously, but recently we have seen some unusual behaviors and desires that may be politically motivated. “Politics” seems like a likely motivator.

(Added later: I wrote most of the above a couple days ago and then had to work on other projects. Today, this is a top story at nytimes.com: “Towns Oppose Bid to House Child Migrants.” That didn’t take long. I wonder if the people hoisting American flags in opposition to immigration realize the irony in what they’re doing.)


* Another funny story I’ve heard many times: Isaac wrote many funded California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) grants for Lynwood, including one that paid for the installation of strobes on traffic signals and in emergency vehicles. These strobes allow emergency vehicles to change the signal as they approach intersections. The then-Mayor of Lynwood, who will go unnamed to protect the guilty, insisted on having an strobe installed in his personal car, so he could flip the traffic lights as he tooled around town. He also had a police and fire scanner in his car, and when things happened he’d go flying across town to the emergency. Then the traffic people would get pissed off, because he’d screw up the traffic for hours. Eventually the City had to take the strobe away from him.

** Demonstrating yet again that it’s not possible to know what will be funded and what won’t be.

*** No one wanted World War II refugees either, as anyone on the S. S. St. Louis knows, or would know had they not been murdered by Nazis.

This is one argument for open borders, an important concept too rarely even discussed in the media.

The Challenges of Seeking Grants for a New Facility

Facility grants are among the most difficult grants for a nonprofit to secure and almost impossible for a new organization with no track record.

Last week, a guy in Atlanta called about grants for a transitional living facility for pregnant teens. I immediately asked the caller if his organization had received its IRS Letter of Determination of tax exempt status under Section 501(c)3 of the IRS Code, and the organization’s track record. At first he said he had the letter, but after some questioning he finally admitted that he had just applied to the IRS.*

I know from decades of incorporating nonprofits that the organization was unlikely to get the all-important IRS letter for at least six months to a year. Ordinarily, I would have brought up the potential of the caller finding a fiscal agent to serve as the applicant, but he also eventually revealed that the new organization hadn’t actually done anything yet—and he was seeking capital grants to buy a facility for the proposed transitional living facility.

The conversation declined and he eventually hung up on me. Why? Because I told him, as I always do with such callers, what I told you in the first paragraph of this post: that “facility grants are among the most difficult grants for a nonprofit to secure and almost impossible for a new organization with no track record.” I suggested he consider seeking start-up grants to lease a facility, hire staff and so on. Nonprofits, like most businesses, should test their idea first and worry about long-term real estate second, or really eighth—behind a host of other factors.

It’s also challenging to get grants of any kind for transitional living facilities, which are sometimes called group homes, board & care homes, or sober living housing, depending on the population being served. Most such facilities serve a small number of residents—often only six, because of zoning restrictions, and rarely more than 25 or so.

Let me do the math: the organization seeks $500,000 to buy, renovate and equip a building for use as a transitional living facility to house ten pregnant teens. That’s $50,000/teen, without providing staff, supportive services and so on. If the funder simply gave $50,000 to the teen, she could rent her own apartment, provide child care, hire a personal case manager and have her nails done weekly. There’s really no need for the nonprofit.

Additionally, funders all know that most transitional housing operators charge rent to residents, which is usually provided at least in part by a third-party payer (e.g., SSI, foster care system, child protective services, insurance, family, etc.). Thus, a facility grant request requires a cash flow analysis and sources & uses statement to demonstrate a funding gap. Every real estate developer trying to get investors or a bank loan knows that a positive cash flow must be demonstrated, but in the nonprofit world of facility grants, the reverse is true: a gap must be demonstrated.

This is called a “but-for” analysis; but for the grant in question, the facility can not be purchased or built. In any other condition, the nonprofit faces supplantation problems. Back to my example: a sources & uses analysis might demonstrate that a $100,000 grant is enough to support a $500,000 facility acquisition, taking into account projected revenue, mortgages costs, and the like. Nonprofit executive directors, and especially founders of new organizations, never want to hear this reality; they want money for nothing and chicks for free.

Funders generally will not even fund the gap for new organizations with no track record, for perhaps obvious reasons. Most new organizations that require purchase of a facility are actually funded by a combination of a direct loan from the founder and/or a bank line of credit, secured by the personal guarantee of the founder or an “angel” who loves the project. This, of course, eliminates most would-be facility acquisition proponents, as they either don’t have much money, lack credit, and/or have yet to meet an angel.

The better, more realistic approach is to gather enough capital and/or grants to lease a facility, operate on a shoe-string and collect third-party payments. After a few years of successful operations, the organization can then plausibly seek capital grants, based on demonstrated expenses and documented projected revenues.


* For reasons that elude me, callers often lie to me about their nonprofit and operational status. Since I’ve been fielding such calls for 21 years, I recognize pointless obfuscation immediately. As Long John Baldry put it, “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie Woogie on the King of Rock & Roll.”

Moreover, there’s little point in lying to your doctor or grant writers: what we don’t know can hurt you.

Seven Years Later, We’re Number One in the Grant Blogosphere

By at least one metric, we’re now #1.

Seliger + Associates started Grant Writing Confidential over seven years ago: Our first post was “About Us,” which both of us wrote. The first substantive post I wrote was “Zombie Funding,” and Isaac’s first substantive post was “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal.”

During the first two or three years we wrote the blog, we watched our fortunes on Google rise and fall, but we never got to the top because of established competitors—one factor Google considers in its ranking is the age of the site; older sites with recent updates generally get ranked higher than newer sites. By now, though, most of those competitors have disappeared, while we’ve persevered. Being #1 on Google is also a fickle prize: Google could change its ranking criteria at anytime, and there’s a cottage industry of people trying to fool Google. I’m not sure any of that really works, but then again people also try to rob banks despite the futility of that endeavor.

Our strategy is simple: post on topics likely to be interesting to executive directors, project managers, directors, and board members in nonprofit and public agencies, and make those posts based on our direct experiences in writing proposals, reading RFPs, talking to clients, and dealing with funders. Long-time readers know that we post about once a week. We’ve thought about posting more, but it’s not really feasible given the number of hours we already spend writing and preparing proposals. Grant Writing Confidential is only a small slice of that world.

One business slogan we’ve used for over 20 years is “we help you get your slice of the grant pie.” Grant Writing Confidential gives readers free, but valuable slices, of our experience and insights into the opaque world of grant making and grant seeking. We see things almost no one else sees and know things almost no one else knows, and that’s what makes this blog valuable.

My first bidders conference, or, how I learned what I already knew

In January I went to and got kicked out of my first bidders conference. For those of you not familiar with the practice, bidders conferences are largely pointless schmooz-fests for potential grant applicants. Aside from being there to show the flag to program officers and to preen in front of potential competitors, bidders conferences are useless because almost every RFP will issue a disclaimer like this one:

if the NYCDOE issues an addendum with a digest of the inquiries made and answers given at the pre-proposal conference, proposers shall rely on the information contained in such addendum rather than those given orally at the conference.

This language kills accountability and applicants can’t rely on anything that’s said at a bidders conference. They can only rely on the words in the RFP. As a result, most bidders conferences will at best confuse potential applicants. Anyone who sees something amiss in an RFP would be better served to seek an amendment rather than pester the low-level bureaucrats at a bidders conference. Bidders conferences are great for grant writing consultants, however, because they gather a lot of potential clients in one small space.

Back to my story about being ejected. I arrived at the New York City Department of Education’s (NYC DOE) Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) bidders conference a few minutes early, with marketing fliers in one hand and business cards in the other. Almost no one else was there, so I chatted with the staffers hanging out. There were at least four and maybe half a dozen DOE staff there. I had no idea what they were doing, other than make-work.

People slowly started showing up. A staffer said I could leave flyers next the sign-in table. I said hi and chatted with whoever was wandering by until an older DOE staffer showed up, grabbed the flyers, and brought them over to the recycling bin. I asked her not to chuck them—we put time and energy to getting them made! She gave them back and told me to leave.

As usual I played jailhouse lawyer—public facility, First Amendment, etc.—but she wasn’t having any of it and found a fat security rent-a-cop guy (the conference was being held in downtown Brooklyn at a small college auditorium) who had no doubt kicked many people out of many places.

I left, though I suspect that there’s a real First Amendment case to be made: I wasn’t interfering with the proceedings and it’s a public meeting. But my goal was to get nonprofits to hire us to write their UPK proposals, not be an ACLU test case.*

It was January in New York, which meant that nasty weather was a possibility and that day it was indeed raining. Nonetheless the attendees did show up and took my flyers, which, in keeping with our general style, are bright, eye-catching and obnoxious (but very effective).

About 30 to 40 percent of the bidders looked at me like I’d just taken a dump in front of them. Another 20 or so percent were actively excited. The rest seemed confused. By and large, nonprofit personnel don’t want to be seen consorting with grant writers, much as married men don’t want to be seen with ladies of the evening, so they don’t want to smile and say hi. One woman asked where we were three years ago, when she’d first gotten her UPK contract. Grant writing is one of those things, like house cleaning, that people want to pay someone else to do.

Despite the reactions I got in the flesh, I can say that based on the number of calls we got and UPK proposals we wrote, it’s apparent that a lot of people liked us regardless of how they behaved with their peers watching.

I look forward to the next Bidder’s Conference. When I was too young to attend these events, Isaac used to go to them wearing a brightly colored Seliger + Associates T-shirt, emblazoned with our logo, 800 number and slogan, “We know where the money is!”

We did then and still do.


* I am an ACLU member: I may disagree with what you see but will fight for your right to say it.