Tag Archives: 21st Century Community Learning Centers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start imagining can openers and you will be fine.


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

RFP Absurdity and Responding to Narrative Questions

I’ve written about stylistically bad language from government RFPs, but more common than the outright bad is the silly, the coy, the euphemistic, and the ridiculous. Now comes a fine example: section 1.d. on page 30 of the California 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) – Elementary & Middle Schools narrative:

Explain how all organizations involved in your collaborative have experience or the promise of success in providing educational and related activities that will complement and enhance the academic performance, achievement, and positive youth development of students.

So you need either (1) experience or (2) the “promise of success.” In other words, your level of experience is irrelevant because you can have a lot or none. The RFP* could’ve just asked, “Are the organizations involved able to provide educational services and, if so, how?” RFPs, however, seldom use 13 easy-to-understand words when 36 words designed to obfuscate meaning are available.

The requirement quoted above is particularly egregious because it has only one answer. Is any applicant going to claim that their organizations don’t have the promise of success? Of course not! And what does “the promise of success” mean? To my mind, the answer is “nothing.” Orwell would be aghast at this and many other RFPs—in “Politics and the English Language” he finds examples where “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.” I’ve not read a better concise description of RFPs.

Still, you’re writing a proposal and thus your output can and perhaps even should reflect the document that guides your input. Unlike most forms of writing, where brevity is beautiful, (Write Right**: “If I were limited to one rule of style, Omit Unnecessary Words would be the hands down winner”) grant applications encourage bad writing because you (a) need to fill space and (b) need to answer obfuscated questions fully and completely. The best way to do so is by parroting back variations on what the application writer expects, and the best way to avoid irritating a reviewer is by filling your proposal with muck and jargon.

This peculiar kind of poor writing is similar to the peculiar kind of speciousness Isaac discussed in Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World. You write a narrative by sending back what you get in the RFP, and when you get garbage in, you usually reflect garbage out. Most RFPs are merely asking you variations on who, what, where, when, why, and how, while most proposals are merely variations on the answers to those questions. Remember that when you’re writing and consider which aspect you should be addressing in the response to each RFP question. The apparently difficult sentence I quoted above from the 21st CCLC can be simplified further to “Who’s going to carry out the program?” There. Nothing to fear. Novice grant writers are often intimidated by the jargon in RFPs, but that’s often just an artifact of bad writing rather than an indication of actual difficulty.

In Studio Executives, Starlets, and Funding, I wrote “Sometimes the funder will want agencies with long track records, sometimes new agencies.” Now I can say that sometimes funders want both, as long as you can somehow justify your experience or the virtue of not having any experience in a proposal. If you come across a narrative demand like the one above, play the RFP’s game. It’s the only way to win.


* Before I get irate e-mails from eagle-eyed readers, I’ll note that the 21st CCLC is a Request For Applications (RFA), but I just call them all RFPs for simplicity’s sake.** If I had to recommend just one book to aspiring writers, regardless of the kind of writing, it would be this one. It’s short, pithy, accurate, and will do more to improve most writers in less time than virtually any other book I know. If I had to recommend two, the second would be William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.