Tag Archives: Blogging

December 2011 Links: College as a Misallocated Resource, Latinos and Politics, Rising Gas Prices, Technology in Schools, Blogging, and More

* College has been oversold; notice especially data on student majors:

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. This is not bad, but we graduated more students with computer science degrees 25 years ago! [. . .]

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

I wrote a post on “College graduate earning and learning: more on student choice” that also covers these issues.

* You Say Latino: “I was talking with some graduate students, people I didn’t know, when the subject turned to minority issues. Every time I said Hispanic, the guy sitting next to me said Latino. This was about a decade ago; I hadn’t realized the terminology had changed.”

* [R]ising gas prices have pretty much wiped out the whole cash value of the stimulus to families. Read the whole thing at the link, along with this paper by James Hamilton. It may turn out that we simply can’t do anything about macro economic performance without working on energy problems. This kind of information has been circling among economics bloggers for quite a while but hasn’t made much way into the mainstream.

* “A toddler hit by two vehicles in a southern Chinese city and left unassisted by more than a dozen passersby died Friday, adding new fire to an anguished debate over the state of empathy in China’s fast-changing society.” Notice to the video. File this under “The world is not flat” (yet) and “culture is the water we swim in,” usually without knowing it.

* What dealing with California bureaucrats is like. We’ve experienced this indirectly; see, for example, this post and this one for more.

* Solving America’s teen sex “problem:” The Dutch have dramatically reduced adolescent pregnancies, abortions and STDs. What do they know that we don’t?

* “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute” is about a school without computers and the high-tech moguls who send their kids to the school. This resonates with me, given the research on computers in schools and the dangers of distraction.

* Hispanics Reviving Faded Towns on the Plains; notice the contrast with what Isaac wrote in “Seliger + Associates Hitches Up the Wagons and Heads Out to Where the Pavement Turns to Sand.”

* “The Economics of Bike Lanes;” hint: they’re pretty good. Notice this quote about the Washington MetroRail: “Parking spaces cost on average $25,000 each, compared with $1,000 per space for a secured bike cage. “It’s an extremely expensive proposition for us” to expand car parking, [Kristin Haldeman, Metro’s manager of access planning] said.”

* On Never Quitting starts with a great line: “I used to think Joe Konrath was full of shit.” Note that this is posted on Joe Konrath’s blog.

* Grant humor, via The New Yorker:

* Why academics should blog, which seems completely obvious to me.

* How to fix math education in high school and college. Good luck: the incentives don’t look good to me right now.

* A former teacher gets an MFA in puppetry and can’t find a job afterward; note that we’ve worked for a number of nonprofit puppeteers over the years. Hat tip Alex Tabarrok, and do read his analysis:

What astounds me is not that someone could amass $35,000 in student loans pursuing a dream of puppetry, everyone has their dreams and I do not fault Joe for his. What astounds me is that Richard Kim, the executive editor of The Nation and the author of this article, thinks that the failure of a puppeteer to find a job he loves is a good way to illustrate the “national nightmare” of the job market.

* The feds pay contract IT workers half what they pay their own employees. If that’s not enough, those contractors then turn around and work to minimize their own employees’ rights and compensation.

* Best recent RFP: the National Park Service’s “Exploration of Acoustic Environments – Natural Sound Field Activities Focused on Diverse and Undeserved Youth.” I like noise too.

* From the U.K.: World power swings back to America. Maybe.

* New York City Cops and contempt for the law.

* Malcolm Gladwell on “The real genius of Steve Jobs.”

* Apple may axe the Mac Pro. We hope not: Isaac used one for four years, and the form factor is amazing for anyone who needs expandability in their computers. That being said, their current prices have gone from ludicrous to ridiculous; we hope for a price cut and more reasonable processors, rather than the removal of the line itself.

January Links: Health Care, the Affordable Care Act Teaching Health Center, the Maternal and Child Health Pipeline Training Program, and more

* Isaac was interviewed on Nonprofit Spark Radio.

* As Ranks of Insured Expand, Nation Faces Shortage of 150,000 Doctors in 15 Years: “A shortage of primary-care and other physicians could mean more-limited access to health care and longer wait times for patients.” Limited access to care health care is already here—not because of insurance, per se, but because many people on Medicare/Medicaid simply can’t find providers who take either.

* As Grant Writing Confidential readers already know from reading “Be Nice to Your Program Officer: Reprogrammed / Unobligated Federal Funds Mean Christmas May Come Early and Often This Year,” unspent grant dollars tend to get spent. Politicians evidently don’t know that or don’t want to admit this, as evidenced in “Unspent Stimulus Tough to Retrieve” from the Wall Street Journal.

* The New York Times: “Consumer advocates fear that the health care law could worsen some of the very problems it was meant to solve — by reducing competition, driving up costs and creating incentives for doctors and hospitals to stint on care, in order to retain their cost-saving bonuses.”

* Strapped Cities Hit Nonprofits With Fees.

* The [Unjust] war against cameras:

Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.

* Modern Parenting: If we try to engineer perfect children, will they grow up to be unbearable? Fortunately, I do not believe this was a problem for me growing up.

* You should blog even if you have no readers.

* Eminent domain now effectively has no limits, and that’s definitely a bad thing.

* A study confirms every suspicion you ever had about high-school dating.

* The last time the Maternal and Child Health Pipeline Training Program appeared in the Seliger Funding Report was 2005. Unless we managed to miss a year, it’s been a while since we’ve seen this program.

* The challenge to German liberalism, which may have its lessons for the United States as well.

* The Problem of Measurement in evaluating teachers, with these problems still being better than no measurement at all, which currently exists.

* A hacker’s guide to tea. This is really worth reading—who knew that “Tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid that promotes mental acuity. The combination of L-theanine and caffeine creates a sense of ‘mindful awareness.’ ”

* Apparently, the Nissan Leaf is pretty good.

* Touching Your Junk: An Ontological Complaint.

* To mildly alleviate the doctor shortage mentioned above, HRSA released the Affordable Care Act Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education Payment Program. But there’s something unusual about this RFP: HRSA says $230,000,000 is available for 10 awards of up to $900,000 each. We sent out this caveat in the Seliger Funding Report:

Note that the bizarre numbers in the amount ($230M), number available, and max grant size are HRSA’s (10 x $900,000 = $9M; where are the other $221M?).

* This is not good but, regardless of whether it’s good, may simply be the new state of things: “In essence, we have seen the rise of a large class of “zero marginal product workers,” to coin a term. Their productivity may not be literally zero, but it is lower than the cost of training, employing, and insuring them.

* Not Really ‘Made in China’: The iPhone’s Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics. The short version: beware trade statistics, especially those related to manufacturing.

* The Future of China? Look at Mexico.

* Department Of Education Study Finds Teaching These Little Shits No Longer Worth It.

* Close the Washington Monument.

* Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer.

Not having New Year’s Resolutions and Some Predictions for Nonprofits 2011

Joanne Fritz of About.com’s nonprofit blog is hosting this month’s blog carnival and wants to know your “2011 resolutions.” Our resolutions are easy: we don’t have any because we don’t need them. We’re going to keep writing complete, technically correct proposals that we submit on time for our clients. That’s it. Our clients hire us because they know we can do this, and we accept them as clients only when we believe they are eligible to apply for the grant program in question. It’s what we’ve been doing for over 17 years and will continue doing this year.

Joanne offers some alternatives, too, including 2011 trends; like everyone else, I would expect a major budget battle in Congress in the near future, along with continued uncertainty among nonprofits—as described here and elsewhere on GWC. That uncertainty will manifest itself in lower donation levels and increased anxiety that makes some large, established agencies who fail to adapt to different funding landscapes fail and some small, nimble nonprofits grow.

Otherwise, we expect a lot of things to continue: nonprofits will keep providing services to high-risk / low-resource individuals, federal, state and local government agencies, as well as foundations, will continue to make grant awards, and Seliger + Associates will continue to write proposals. The main thing that will be “hot” in nonprofit world will remain the same as it always has: offering real services that are useful to real people. The rest is mere commentary.

How to Write About Grant Writing and How to Learn About Grant Writing Via Blogging

In “Twentysomething: Making time for a blog and a full-time job,” Ryan Healy says that one should create deadlines, skip days when necessary, and remember why one blogs. It’s good advice, and we try to follow it.

Grant Writing Confidential has one big advantage over similar blogs: we’re extremely specific about programs, RFPs, problems, and solutions; notice our recent post about HRSA and Section 330 grantees. Grant writing is all about ignoring generalities (except for this generality) and attending to specifics.

But the bigger lesson is this: good blogging and good grant writing share a lot of characteristics, and this post explores this intersection. Get better at one and you’ll probably get better at the other.

Other Grant Writing Blogs

When grant writing blogs feature lots of hand waving, they’re signaling that their writers are not detail oriented or aren’t real grant writers. The latter problem is especially obvious in the age of the Internet, where your work is in front of the audience. If you’re not actually writing proposals (and writing about writing proposals), people will figure it out.

Most grant writing blogs aren’t interesting or informative, and I wish more were. But this also creates an opportunity for us: we’re more personable than others and slide into spaces left by less interesting bloggers. There aren’t many (good) grant writing blogs, since most of them don’t do the kinds of things we talk about in “How to Write a “Juicy” Nonprofit Blog — or a Blog of Any Kind.”

Uncertainty

One valuable thing I learned from Isaac is the ability to admit ignorance and say that I don’t know, which he does to clients regularly. I get the impression many other grant writers and consultants don’t. But you can’t find out how things work if you don’t tell people when you don’t understand something. When I called around getting quotes for Xeroxes and phone systems, broadcasting how little I knew about that particular domain helped me get a better sense of what I was looking for. Journalists use the same tactic. Chris Matthews calls it “hanging a lantern on your problems” in his wonderful book Hardball. I have a signed copy that’s falling apart because I’ve read it so many times and the book has so changed my thinking—less about politics the sport than about the politics inherent in life.

In How to be more interesting to other people, Penelope Trunk says:

That’s the part we should talk about when we talk about ourselves. If you limit the conversation, discussing only what you are certain about, then there’s no chance to stand on equal footing with your conversation partner. You stand on equal footing when you both reveal your struggles with what you don’t know yet, and the conversation can contribute to the answer.

Trunk has all kinds of useful posts about blogging, but some are more useful than others. In How to write a blog post people love, she gives five pieces of advice, each of which is bolded, with my commentary after it:

1. Start strong.

Every newspaper person knows the lead sells the rest of the story. We try to start off with a pithy sentence that ideally encapsulates the post itself or draws readers in through stories. Sometimes this works better than others.

2. Be short.

Admonishing people to “be short” works better for some blogs than others. Blogs with a mass, relatively low skill audience are probably better off with this than other blogs, and some topics are genuinely complex—like many of the subjects we discuss. I would amend this to say, “be as short as possible and no shorter.” For her, the right length is usually shorter than it is for us. Grant Writing Confidential posts are often long because grant writing is a complex subject.

3. Have a genuine connection.

This is vacuous and could be rolled into the fourth category.

4. Be passionate.

I would argue that passion helps writers of any sort, but it should be tempered with expertise. Don’t be a True Believer, and make sure you internal critic is always on the job (we sometimes call this “self-consciousness” or “self-awareness”). Indeed, passion without expertise probably dooms many blogs: it’s easy to skate along the surface of something, like a dilettante with an idea, but difficult to bring something genuinely new and engaging to a world (ditto for grant proposals). This is another thing that sets GWC apart from most blogs that cover grant writing and nonprofits, which seem to thrive on vague generalities, “a delicious lunch was served,” formulations, and too few real-world examples. These problems blend into the next category.

5. Have one good piece of research.

You need a good piece of research, but blogs often misrepresent research or reference it in such a facile way that they barely need it. And remember that your grant story needs to get the money. Trunk’s last link in this post stinks of this problem:

I can virtually guarantee that the research behind “The smell of pizza makes men want to have sex” is not nearly as strong as Trunk’s uncritical acceptance of it implies. This goes back to the “expertise” issue.

Granted, maybe Trunk is right about some of these issues—I wonder how many people read to the end of this post. Those who don’t, miss the big point: this advice is also good for writing proposals and virtually all kinds of writing.

How to Write a “Juicy” Nonprofit Blog — or a Blog of Any Kind

July’s “Nonprofit Blog Carnival” asks for suggestions on “How to Create a Juicy Nonprofit Blog.” I’m not sure it’s possible to write a “juicy” nonprofit blog—I can’t see how SIX SHOCKING CELEBRITY SEX TAPE SCANDALS!!!! would apply to the sector, except as Google bait and something to draw the idea of otherwise bored readers to the article.

That being said, here’s my advice:

* Tell stories. People like stories. Joel Spolsky’s Joel on Software gets zillions of visitors not because he’s a very good programmer—which he probably is—but because he imparts his lessons through real stories about software fiascos. He says in Introduction to Best Software Writing I:

See what I did here? I told a story. I’ll bet you’d rather sit through ten of those 400 word stories than have to listen to someone drone on about how “a good team leader provides inspiration by setting a positive example.”

Yeah! In “Anecdotes,” Joel says:

Heck, I practically invented the formula of “tell a funny story and then get all serious and show how this is amusing anecdote just goes to show that (one thing|the other) is a universal truth.”

Steal someone else’s stories if you have to (I just stole Joel’s, which is a pretty solid source).

There’s a reason the Bible and most other religious texts are lighter on “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” and heavier on parables: the parables are way more fun. More people read novels than read legal codes, even though the novels implicitly offer examples of how to live your life. People read stories more readily than they read “how-to” manuals. Taken together, this is we often tell stories about projects, clients, and so on; my post Deadlines are Everything, and How To Be Amazing is a good example of this, since it’s basically one story after another. So is Stay the Course: Don’t Change Horses (or Concepts) in the Middle of the Stream (or Proposal Writing).

Real life is just a story generating machine. Which leads me to my next point:

* Do or have done something. I get the sense—perhaps incorrect—that some nonprofit bloggers spend more time blogging than they do working in or running nonprofits. This is like describing how to play professional baseball despite having never done so. A lot of grant writing bloggers, for example, don’t show evidence of working on any actual proposals; they don’t tell stories about projects, use specific examples from RFPs, and so on. This makes me think they’re pretending to be grant writers.*

* Be an expert and genuinely know the field. A lot of blogs that are putatively about grant writing don’t appear to have much insight into the process of grant writing, the foibles involved, the difficulty of getting submissions right, and so on. As I mentioned above, the writers seldom mention projects they’ve worked on and RFPs they’ve responded to.

* Dave Winer on great blogging:

1. People talking about things they know about, not just expressing opinions about things they are not experts in (nothing wrong with that, of course).

2. Asking hard questions that powerful people might not want to be asked.

3. Saying things that few people have the courage to say.

I would amend 3. to say “Saying things that few people have the courage or knowledge to say.”

* Don’t do something that everyone else is already doing. Every blog has “eight tips for improving your submissions,” which say things like “read the RFP before you start” and “get someone else to proofread your proposal.” Paul Graham wrote an essay against the “List of N Things” approach that’s so popular in weak magazines:

The greatest weakness of the list of n things is that there’s so little room for new thought. The main point of essay writing, when done right, is the new ideas you have while doing it. A real essay, as the name implies, is dynamic: you don’t know what you’re going to write when you start. It will be about whatever you discover in the course of writing it.

The whole essay is worth reading. Sometimes a bulleted list is appropriate, but more often it’s merely easy. Sometimes the “eight tips” are obvious and sometimes they’re wrong, but they often don’t add anything unique to a discussion.

Everyone else writes posts that are 100 – 200 words long and includes pictures; we made a conscious decision to write long, detailed posts that will actually help people who are trying to write grants. Stock photo pictures don’t add anything to writing, and most of what grant writing deals with can’t be shown or expanded with pictures. So we don’t use them. Isaac, of course, insists on working in old movies, TV shows and rock ‘n’ roll lyrics, but I will not comment on these idiosyncrasies.

Writing proposals is really, really hard, and the process can’t be reduced to soundbites, which is why we write the way we write as opposed to some other way. Pictures are wonderful, but I think it better to have no pictures unless those pictures add something to the story that can’t be conveyed any other way. Generic pictures are just distractions.

As you’ve probably noticed, this post isn’t really about nonprofit blogs: it’s about how to be an interesting writer in general, regardless of the medium. Being an interesting writer has been a hard task since writing was invented, and it will probably continue to be a hard task forever, regardless of whether the medium involves paper (like books, magazines, and newspapers) or bits (like blogs) or neural channels (someday).

Finally, if you can’t take any of my suggestions but you do have a shocking celebrity sex tape, post it, and you’ll probably get 1000 times as much traffic as every other nonprofit blog combined. That’s really juicy—almost as juicy as posts that are unique and don’t merely parrot back what the author has heard elsewhere and the reader has seen before.


* I also get the feeling there are a lot of pretend grant writers out there because our clients are so often astonished that we do what we say we’re going to do. That this surprises so many people indicates to me that a lot of “grant writers” are out there who prefer to talk about grant writing rather than writing grants.

You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Journal Tells You

The Wall Street Journal published a misleading article by Dennis Nishi called “Early Transition to Blog Pro,” about BoingBoing’s Mark Frauenfelder. It has two major problems: it implies that many more people make money solely from blogging than actually do, as though one can make a quick career of blogging (“How You Can Get There, Too”) and it doesn’t discuss how people actually use their blogs to make money, which is by selling ancillary services.

Problem One: No Money

Frauenfelder says that his blog does “make enough from advertising alone to cover costs and salaries,” but that “it’s hard to grow on just advertising.” Other bloggers—whose blog is a cornerstone of their career strategy—have already dealt with this issue in almost the exact language that he uses. As Penelope Trunk writes in “Reality check: You’re not going to make money from your blog,” people whose blogs are their income are very much the anomaly.” Right: even she doesn’t derive her primary income from blogging. Google ads pay almost nothing. Banner ads are worth almost nothing, and the market for advertising has cratered with the Great Recession.

Notice her first point: “Big bloggers come from big media.” She wrote a syndicated column before Brazen Careerist. If you’re not already involved in big media, you’re even less likely to make money blogging.

The experience described in “Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest” is probably more common: “Many people who think blogging is a fast path to financial independence also find themselves discouraged.”

First-Move Advantage

Frauenfelder has a first-mover advantage. Notice this:

Not long after [Frauenfelder’s magazine distributor folded], I discovered blogs and loved how easy they made it to publish, so I turned BoingBoing into one in 2000. It had already become a web zine (so) it seemed like a natural evolution.

He started nine years ago, before anyone on a newspaper staff had even heard the word “blog.” BoingBoing is now one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, in part because it covers technology, which is perhaps the most pervasive topic on the net. Very people are going to get there, even if they do work as hard as he has. Even then, I’d love to see Frauenfelder’s tax returns, because I bet he’s not making all that much despite running one of the Internet’s most popular blogs. Virtually no one is making any money directly from web advertising except Google (more on that later).

Lying With Numbers

The sidebar to “Early Transition to Blog Pro” claims:

Salary range: According to Henry Copeland, founder of BlogAds.com, a Web advertising concern based in Carrboro, N.C., self-employed bloggers in 2007 took in between $2,000 and $10,000 a month from ad sales.

I’d love to see what those numbers are based on, how Copeland defines self-employed, and so forth, especially since the numbers come from a person with an interest in making them appear high. This is a classic example of bogus data appearing in newspapers, and it’s the sort of thing that makes people doubt the news; this statistic could be an example in James Fallows’ Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.

Paul Graham explains how bogus numbers get into newspapers in The Submarine, which concerns how public relations lurk beneath much of what you read and watch. In one example, he says:

Our greatest PR coup was a two-part one. We estimated, based on some fairly informal math, that there were about 5000 stores on the Web. We got one paper to print this number, which seemed neutral enough. But once this “fact” was out there in print, we could quote it to other publications, and claim that with 1000 users we had 20% of the online store market.

Copeland did the same thing to the WSJ, which is unusual—not because he tried, but because they bit. Without real metrics, Copeland’s numbers are garbage, and I doubt they’d stand up to, say, peer review. You can see the same kind of twisting in data about, say, job creation through government spending.

Still, Blogging Isn’t a Waste of Time

That being said, Trunk also argues that “Blogging [is] essential for a good career,” which is true for the reasons she gives and one she doesn’t: it sends a powerful signal of your intellectual engagement and prowess. You can’t fake enthusiasm and knowledge on a blog, where what you know and how you express what you know is available for all to see; Geoffrey Miller discusses extensively in his book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.

Note, however, that Trunk’s article doesn’t map to “you’ll make a lot of money from blogging,” which is the subject of the WSJ story, and the likelihood of it being one’s primary income source is, again, low.

Problem Two: How People Do Make Money Via Blogging

They sell something else besides ads on their blog. If they run XKCD, they sell T-Shirts. If they run Ph.D. Comics, they sell… T-Shirts. If they run Joel on Software, they sell software. Trunk began a startup around headhunting.

Far more seem to make money by showing expertise and then selling said expertise. In other words, they’re producing something useful for the world.

To be Fair…

I wrote an e-mail to expressing some of these concerns Nishi, who replied:

Most of the people I interview for this column probably have some advantage or more sheer will than most people. But they do represent exceptional examples and are meant to inspire and show what’s possible. So if I interview Bill Gates, it wouldn’t be an instruction guide about how to create a software giant. It’s more of a glimpse into what it took to build a software giant, hence the name of the column.

(The name of the column is “How I Got Here”).

Bill Gates isn’t a very good analogy—if you told someone you could be like Bill Gates and get rich selling desktop software in, say, 2001, you would’ve been misguided at best: the world was (and still is) moving to web-based applications. Hell, even if you said that in 1989, you would’ve been wrong: between then and now, the only companies that have really made money from shrinkwrapped software are Microsoft and Adobe. Everyone else folded. His timing advantage isn’t just “some advantage”—it’s the advantage that allowed him to massively succeed.

Nonetheless, Nishi has a strong point. But the tone of the story differs from the tone of his e-mail. Look at the first line of the story: “When blogs first came to the Internet over a decade ago, nobody believed they would make money,” which implies that now some of them do make money. Which is correct—but it’s probably an astonishingly small number relative to the number of blogs out there, especially given the (cratered) advertising market. Look at the aforementioned sidebar: “How You Can Get There, Too.” Lots of people build blogs about subjects they’re passionate about and will never make money from them, as Trunk observes.