Tag Archives: Businesses

A Grant Writer Gets a New Companion and Explains Some Lesser Known Aspects of Certain Nonprofits

Faithful readers will know that I think every grant writer—or any writer—is better off with a dog at their feet. Writing is a solitary activity and even for those of us who rarely experience writer’s block, there are times when one wants a bit of distraction, and watching a dog find the perfect position for slumber or worry a rawhide bone helps me refocus on writing assignments.

A dog will also patiently listen to me rant and rave about a particularly nauseating RFP section, then wag his tail and lick me. The same can’t be said of most HUD program officers. And dogs need and like to be walked—a great way to clear my mind from the fog of grant writing, particularly since I live very near Palisades Park along the Santa Monica bluffs, one of the most beautiful strolls in LA. A writer writing about having a dog is more or less writing a tale about a tail (I should apologize for this).

IMG_0721I just acquired a new puppy—or I should say a dog of an uncertain age, as Boogaloo Dude (“Boogie”*) comes to me as a rescue. He is a more-or-less Golden Retriever and has most of the attributes of a Golden, including the charming golden smile.

Boogie is purported to be around four, but, given his predilection to sleep about 22 hours a day, he might be a tad older. Boogie isn’t his original name—as one should change an abused dog’s name—and he was horribly mistreated. Now he seems happy to have become Pancho to my Cisco** and is content to receive an occasional ear scratch and belly rub. He sometimes literally runs into the ubiquitous Santa Monica pigeons on our morning walk, seemingly not comprehending what a bird is. The pigeons’ feathers are hardly ruffled and they strut away with a look of avian disdain. When Jake next comes to town, he’ll have to give Boogie a lesson in pigeon chasing, as he’s loved chasing pigeons since he was a little boy and probably still does so in Manhattan when he thinks no one is watching.

I did not get Boogie from Southern California Golden Retriever Rescue (SCGRR), the local Golden rescue nonprofit. Although I tried to adopt a dog from them, I kept getting rejected by the volunteers who decide which applicant gets a dog. Like most animal rescue nonprofits, SCGRR is volunteer-run and member-driven, so there is no hierarchy to facilitate appeals; when a volunteer decides you’re not good enough for a particular dog, you don’t get the dog, or possibly any dog.

Since Goldens are a popular breed, SCGRR has way more would-be adopters than available rescue dogs and is very selective. The organization supports itself in large part through application and adoption fees and, as such, is highly motivated to get as many people as possible to apply, even though the likelihood of getting a Golden through them is low. As an experienced grant writer, I knew this because I know how animal rescue outfits—and especially in-demand breed rescue organizations—are funded. But I played the game for a month anyway before giving up on SCGRR.

Boogie came not through a well-meaning and respectable nonprofit, but instead via The Loved Dog, a business run by celebrity dog trainer to the stars Tamar Geller. She’s Oprah’s dog trainer (this is LA and I’m not making this up). I met Tamar at a JDate event, mentioned that I was looking for a Golden, and learned she rescued one from SCGRR, who had earlier rescued the dog but then was going to euthanize him because he was supposedly aggressive—another example of the tyranny of volunteers that can emerge in membership nonprofits. Tamar scooped up the dog, who is all of 50 pounds and docile, and worked with him for a few months—until I appeared to provide what hopefully will be his permanent home.

IMG_0716The lesson of this story—other than it pays to persevere—is that not all nonprofits are necessarily “golden” and not all for-profits are necessarily avaricious. For example, a little-known fact is that PETA, self-portrayed as a paragon of animal welfare, is actually one of the largest operators of shelters thateuthanize animals. You may find this startling, but PETA has its reasons for euthanizing, which you can evaluate for yourself. As a guy who’s been working for or with nonprofits since the Nixon administration, however, not much in the nonprofit world surprises me; nor does much in the world in general, since even dogs in the U.S. eat better than many humans elsewhere, as the linked story about the adoption of some Sudanese “lost boys” indicates:

The next aisle over, Peter touched my shoulder. He was holding a can of Purina dog food. “Excuse me, Sara, but can you tell me what this is?” Behind him, the pet food was stacked practically floor to ceiling. “Um, that’s food for our dogs,” I answered, cringing at what that must sound like to a man who had spent the last eight years eating porridge. “Ah, I see,” Peter said, replacing the can on the shelf and appearing satisfied. He pushed his grocery cart a few more steps and then turned again to face me, looking quizzical. “Tell me,” he said, “what is the work of dogs in this country?”

But, as Sir Paul put it, “Venus and Mars are alright tonight.” Boogie is a happy dog, I’ve got a boon companion and it’s time to take him for his evening constitutional. And, then it will be cocktail hour and I’ll lift a glass or two to all the other abused puppies that are waiting for someone to watch over them.


* Boogaloo dude is a lyric in one of my favorite songs from the early 70s, Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes.” Boogie is also the name of Mickey Rourke’s character in the wonderful 1982 film, Diner. So I covered the 70s and 80s with this dog naming exercise.

** As a kid, I always liked Cisco, played by the inimitable Duncan Reynaldo, better than Zorro, but that’s just me. “Hey Cisco; Hey Pancho.”

Why nonprofits are more like businesses than you realize

In a Hacker News thread, “guylhem” asked a (very) common question, in the context of firms that specialize in providing services to nonprofit and public agencies: “Why exactly is profit / commerce considered a bad thing?”

Since we’ve been working with nonprofit and public agencies for decades, we naturally have some ideas about the issue (we’ve discussed some of those ideas before, in “Tilting at Windmills and Fees: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing” and “Why Fund Nonprofits, Public Agencies, and Other Organizations Through Grant Applications At All?“). A lot of people feel nonprofit and public agencies are not supposed to be like other businesses, even though in reality they share a lot of the needs and attributes of for-profit businesses.

Consider similarities. Nonprofits need their toilets to work. They need an IT guy or gal. Though they obviously don’t face the profit drive that businesses do, they still need to “make” more money than they spend, either to invest in new services or build a small but prudent reserve. If they don’t make more than they spend, the nonprofit will eventually be shut down. Nonprofits only have four basic ways of making money: grants/contracts, donations, fees for services, or investment income.

Because nonprofits, like other businesses, have a wide array of needs, they buy goods and services they can’t productively make or do themselves. We’re fond of the plumber analogy: most nonprofits do not have a plumber on staff, and, when their toilets clog, they hire someone to unclog the toilet. When the plumber is done with the job, she or he presents a bill and the nonprofit pays it.

That’s straightforward. But many people seem to feel that grant applications are more like a college admissions essay, in which hiring a consultant is somehow cheating.* We obviously don’t think so, since our entire job involves preparing grant applications. Nonetheless, those people don’t really think that grant writing is like plumbing (at least until they need a grant writer). Regardless of feelings, however, nonprofit and public agencies that submit better proposals tend to get funded more often than those that don’t—so feelings about the purity of the grant writing process get weeded out by the “market,” which still exists for nonprofits. People who think they’re good grant writers but turn out not to be eventually find they can’t run their nonprofit, or they can’t expand it, just like people who think they’ve got a great business idea but can’t sell.

We’ve also argued before that there’s no reason in principle why a nonprofit grant writing agency can’t exist, but in practice none do, and, even if they did, the demand for their services would far outstrip supply, as usually happens when something is given away. If you want to know why you generally can’t get something for nothing, well, look around: few people or firms give valuable things away, while many people or firms are selling valuable things, and prices tend to show what people in the aggregate think is valuable and what people think is less valuable.

Demand for “free” grant writing services would be especially high because grant writing is very boring, difficult, and tedious—a troika that makes free grant writing especially unlikely, since grant writing doesn’t give people the good feelings they might get from, say, doling out soup at a soup kitchen, or providing pro-bono legal work. Volunteers have their place, but most organizations that operate on more than a shoestring basis are quickly going to discover the limitations of volunteers.

Even nominally low-cost grant writing services often turn out to be quite expensive. As most of us have discovered the hard way, it’s not at all unusual to get what you pay for. Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part higher prices imply higher quality, at least up to a point. We’ve been hired by innumerable nonprofit and public agencies to attempt to salvage jobs prepared by “low-cost” grant writers, and we’ve also had nonprofits call us, hire someone else, then call us back for the same program in the next funding round and hire us instead of the other firm.

In response to the ideas above, “pbreit” replied: “I would think that a nonprofit reasonably considers grant writing a core competence or at least well closer to a core competence than, say, plumbing.” Maybe that’s true. But many nonprofits are good at delivering human services, and less good at writing proposals. Those skills do not necessarily co-occur, and if there’s any overlap between the skill of delivering human services and the skill of writing, it’s pretty slender. Plus, becoming a great writer is a “10,000-hour skill” that takes a lot of deliberate practice to develop. That’s why you have to take so many years of English classes in school (though I realize many of those English classes are bad, but that’s another topic). The average person who decides, “I want to become a competent grant writer” is probably looking at a couple of years of effort.

Sufficiently large nonprofits usually do have a grant writer on staff, but smaller ones usually don’t. A really good grant writer will probably cost at least $70,000 per year in salary alone, and is likely to cost much more. That big number helps explain why relatively few small- to mid-sized organizations have one. In addition, hiring a grant writer who turns out not to be particularly good at his or her job can really hurt a nonprofit. We’ve been hired by many, many nonprofit and public agencies who have grant writers on staff—sometimes for positive reasons (the in-house grant writer is overwhelmed or on leave) and sometimes for less positive ones (the in-house grant writer isn’t very good at writing proposals, is scared of the RFP or the Executive Director wants to play “shoot the consultant,” if the proposal is not funded). For small nonprofits, hiring a full-time or even part time grant writer might actually be outside their core competency.

What we’ve described in the last two paragraphs is a specific instance of a more generalizable question about whether one should hire a consultant, learn a skill, hire an employee, or not have it performed, and we’ve written about that issue in “Consultants, Employees, and More: Should We Hire a Grant Writer? And How Will Our Agency Complete Proposals?” Different organizations will deal with these questions in different ways, depending on a variety of factors.** These problems recur in the business world and in the personal world: Do you want to learn how to cook, hire someone else to cook through going to a restaurant, or not eat? Do you want to learn bike maintenance, take your bike to a shop, let your bike degrade over time, or not ride?

The most reasonable middle ground for nonprofits, for-profits, and people in general is to work to expand your range of basic and advanced skills while simultaneously acknowledging that you’re not going to learn everything. Things you don’t know how to do but want done you’ll probably have to pay for, one way or another. This isn’t always true—family members generally don’t charge each other when one person makes dinner—but as a general rule it’s pretty good, since strangers very rarely give valuable things to other strangers without a reason. Attractive women have told me that men will often do things for them and buy drinks for them and so on, without any or much prompting, but I definitely don’t qualify that as being “without a reason,” since the reason in most cases is probably obvious.

I don’t think most people are consciously thinking about the choices between learning, buying, and not having. But if you want to run a successful nonprofit, public agency, or business, you should start thinking about them now.


* Actually, hiring an admissions essay consultant starts to make sense when one thinks about how much money might be on the line in terms of scholarships, but that’s another issue for another day. The higher the financial stakes in a one-time event that doesn’t allow repeated attempts at practice, the stronger the incentive to make sure one does everything one can to win.

** If you’re curious about how this works in an academic context, check out Coase’s famous essay, “The Nature of the Firm,” in which Coase describes why firms exist at all.

On the Subject of Crystal Balls and Magic Beans in Writing FIP, SGIG, BTOP and Other Fun-Filled Proposals

I’ve noticed a not-too-subtle change in RFPs lately—largely, I think, due to the Stimulus Bill—that requires us to drag out our trusty Crystal Ball, which is an essential tool of grant writing. Like Bullwinkle J. Moose, we gaze into our Crystal Ball and say,”Eenie meenie chili beanie, the spirits are about to speak,” as we try to answer imponderable questions. For example, our old friend the HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 (NSP2) wants:

A reasonable projection of the extent to which the market(s) in your target geography is likely to absorb abandoned and foreclosed properties through increased housing demand during the next three years, if you do not receive this funding.

How many houses will be foreclosed upon, but also absorbed, in our little slice of heaven target area in 2012? If I was smart enough to figure this out, I’d be buying just the right foreclosed houses in just the right places, instead of grant writing. People much smarter than us who were predicting in 2005 how many houses they’d need to absorb in 2009 were tremendously, catastrophically wrong, which is why we’re in this financial mess in the first place: you fundamentally can’t predict what will happen to any market, including real estate markets. Consequently, HUD’s question is so silly as to demand the Crystal Ball approach, so we nailed together available data, plastered it over with academic sounding metric mumbo jumbo, and voila! we had the precise numbers we needed. In other words, we used the S.W.A.G. method (“silly” or “scientific wild assed guess,” depending on your point of view). I have no idea why HUD would ask applicants a question that Warren Buffett (or, Jimmy Buffet for that matter, who may or may not be a cousin of Warren) could not answer, but answer we did.

You can find another example of Crystal Ball grant writing in the brand new and charmingly named Facility Investment Program (FIP), brought to us by HRSA, which are for Section 330 providers (e.g. nonprofit Community Health Centers (CHCs)). We’re writing a couple of these, which requires us to drag out the ‘ol Crystal Ball again, since the applicant is supposed to keep track of the “number of construction jobs” and “projected number of health center jobs created or retained.”

I just lean back, imagine some numbers and start typing, since there is neither a way to accurately predict any of this nor a way to verify it after project completion. HRSA is new to the game of estimating and tracking jobs, so they make it easy for us overworked grant writers and applicants by not requiring job creation certifications. Other agencies, like the Economic Development Administration (EDA), which has been about the business of handing out construction bucks for 40 years, are much craftier. For instance, the ever popular Public Works and Economic Development Program requires applicants to produce iron-clad letters from private sector partners to confirm that at least one permanent job be created for every $5,000 of assistance. We’ve written lots of funded EDA grants over the years, and the inevitable job generation issue is always the most challenging part of the application. HRSA will eventually wise up when they are unable to prove that the ephemeral construction and created/retained jobs ever existed. Alternately, they might wise up when they realize the futility of the endeavor in which they’re engaged, but I’m not betting on it.

This tendency to ask for impossible metrics is always true in grant writing, as Jake discussed in Finding and Using Phantom Data, but sometimes it’s more true than others. I ascribe the recent flurry to the Stimulus Bill because more RFPs than usual are being extruded faster than usual, resulting in even less thought going into them than usual, forcing grant writers to spend even more time pondering what our Crystal Balls might be telling us.

Since the term “Crystal Ball” began popping up whenever I scoped a new proposal with a client, I got to thinking of other shorthand ways of explaining some of the more curious aspects of the federal grant making process to the uninitiated and came up with “Magic Beans,” like Jack and the Beanstalk. We’re writing many proposals these days for businesses, who have never before applied for federal funds, for programs like the Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) Program, and the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) of the National Telecommunications & Information Agency.

When scoping such projects, I am invariably on a conference call with a combination of marketing and engineer types. The marketing folks speak in marketing-speak platitudes (“We make the best stuff,” even if they don’t know what the stuff is) and the engineers don’t speak at all. So, to move the process along, and to get answers to the essential “what” and “how” of the project concept, I’ve taken to asking them to, in 20 words or less, describe the “Magic Beans” they will be using and what will happen when the magic beans are geminated after that long golden stream of Stimulus Bucks arcs out of Washington onto their project. This elicits a succinct reply, I can conclude the scoping call, and we can fire up the proposal extruding machine.

So use your Magic Beans to climb the federal beanstalk and reach the ultimate Golden Goose, keeping your Crystal Ball close at hand.