Tag Archives: Clients

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General or Specific—The Challenge of Defining a Project Concept for Foundation Support

When scoping a foundation appeal with a client, the first task is to define the project concept. This may seem simple, but few aspects of grant seeking and grant writing are simple.

Let’s assume our client is the Waconia* Family Resource Center and the agency provides a range of family and child support services, including, but not limited to—free proposal phrase here—case management, parenting training, demonstration homemaking, child care, after school enrichment, foster care, childhood obesity prevention and saving the walleye. I tossed the last one in to see if you’re paying attention, as well as to titillate our Minnesota readers.

The executive director could pick a project ranging from the very general—helping disadvantaged Waconians—to the very specific—outreach to the growing population of Latinos to involve their obese kids in fitness activities—and everything in between. So: what to do?

There is no right answer. Like marriage, you’ll only know you’ve made the right choice after it’s too late. In grant writing, you’ll know the correct choice was made when you get funded. With marriage, you’ll know sometime between your honeymoon and the rest of your life. When contemplating this non-Hobson’s choice with a client, we always remind them of this essential axiom: the more general the request, the greater the number of possible foundation funders, but the less interest any particular funder will have in the project.

If the project concept is to help downtrodden Waconians, there will be many potential funders. But, leaving aside the Waconia Community Foundation and the Walleyes Forever Founation, none will likely be particularly focused on the need, because the stated need is so general. Conversely, if the project concept targets chubby kids of the hundreds of Latino families who just moved into the community to work at the new industrial hog farm,** there will be relatively few potential funders, but the ones that exist will be very interested in the idea.

Given this news, most of our client choose a more general approach, unless they are really committed to a highly specific purpose. We recently had a large client, for example, that more or less refused to apply for any grants because they’re waiting for the perfect grant salmon to swim by. Their ideal projects were so narrowly defined that potential funders didn’t exist.

As your organization gears up to go after foundation funds, keep the above conundrum in mind. But whatever you do, don’t dither. As Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”


* I spent a lot of my wasted youth fishing for walleyes on Lake Waconia with my dad. Since the sport is called fishing, not catching, I had a lot of time in the boat to contemplate the complex issues that face a 10-year-old boy.

** About 15 years ago we actually wrote a large funded proposal for more or less this project concept on behalf of a tiny school district in rural Oklahoma. I remain convinced that the proposal was funded largely because of the then-unusual juxtaposition of Latinos, hogs and rural Oklahoma. Industrial sized hog farms and the immigrants who primarily work in them are now commonplace across much of rural American. Not much of a problem, unless you happen be be downwind or downstream.

A Lesson in Passthrough Funds and Capacity Building: ACF’s Non-Profit Capacity Building Program NOFA

If you read this week’s grant newsletter, you probably saw the NOFA for the Administration for Children and Families’s “Non-Profit Capacity Building Program,” which I first thought meant “pass-through funds,” since the purpose is “to increase the capacity of a small number of intermediary grantees to provide specific assistance to improve the sustainability of and expand services provided by small and midsize nonprofits in communities facing resource hardship challenges.” Do you know what would help those agencies? Money.

Unfortunately, I was wrong: it initially looks like pass-through funds but isn’t.

If you dig into the NOFA, you’ll find that “specific assistance” means that applicants should propose activities like “a comprehensive strategy of various learning activities and methods to increase the knowledge, skills, and abilities of recipients to implement performance management systems as well as any other best practice areas to target for improvement.” If I were a small nonprofit, I’d prefer that “specific assistance” mean “direct funding,” but here it doesn’t; the best you can do is use “a small portion of funds [. . .] to provide minor capital investments in the capacity of certain recipients such as the purchase of specific software or systems to improve infrastructure.”

I’m guessing that, if you surveyed the nonprofits “facing resource hardship challenges” to be “helped” by well-meaning but paternalistic intermediary organizations if they’d prefer “various learning activities and methods” or “cold, hard cash,” they’d prefer the latter. Isaac has written extensively on the challenges and opportunities nonprofits face in the current climate, and a dearth of training hasn’t been one. As he said, when donations and contracts dry up, smart nonprofits turn to grants. Less smart ones disappear. I think the ACF’s nominal purpose in running this program is to help small nonprofits. Its real purpose, however, is to help the intermediate nonprofits that are supposed to run a variation on train-the-trainers.

How do you do that? The NOFA itself says that “applicants will focus their organizational development assistance program on developing and implementing performance management systems that enable organizations to measure their progress and improve their performance towards intended outcomes.” So it wants nonprofits to basically act like Accenture, IBM Global Services, or the other big consultants that are frequently the target of Dilbert. We’ve written a number of funded proposals over the years to do activities like this, and one key is understanding what I’ve laid out above: you’re passing out training, not money.

You don’t see a huge number of pass-through awards because they just increase administrative friction: ACF is paying staffers to write the RFP, review applications, and so forth, it isn’t going to give grants to “intermediary” nonprofits to… write a mini-RFP solicit applications, review applications, and so forth, probably to the tune of 10 – 30% of the grant. You’ll find pass-through grants at the state level, but very rarely lower than that.

Foundation appeal clients occasionally want to run variations on pass-through programs. Some clients, for example, will provide scholarships to people with a particular illness, like Groat’s disease. We tell them not to do this, however, because if the funder wants to fund any kind of cash payment scheme, they’ll do so directly and cut out the middleman. You want to look like something more than the middleman. Foundations mostly like direct services. As the “Non-Profit Capacity Building Program” shows, so do the feds.

Why Clients Love and Hate Us (and Other Consultants), With An E-mail Example

As any consultant knows, some clients will hate you and some will love you. That’s certainly true of us, but the funny thing is that clients love and hate us for exactly the same reason.

It sounds counterintuitive, so let me explain using a recent “we love you!” e-mail from a client as an example:

Your assistance was truly invaluable; we could not have accomplished all of this without your excellent work. We really appreciated the Documents Memo, the specific deadline dates, the direction, advice and guidance and when you left decisions up to us, that was clear.

Please use us as a reference any time and any comments I’ve written here. Whether we get the funding or not, you provided us the opportunity to present the best package possible and best opportunity for funding.

We get attaboys like this regularly, and we like reading them because we take pride in our work.* Clients are often surprised when we do what we say and say what we do, which tells us something about other would-be grant writers.

We also treat all of our clients more or less the same way, which means that we produce complete and technically accurate proposals and minimize the amount of work our clients have to do. This means that we tell clients exactly what they need to do, how they need to do it, and when we need every piece of an individual proposal, which makes many of them love us.

But some clients hate us because we tell them exactly what they need to do, how they need to do it, and when we need every piece of an individual proposal. This thoroughness and lack of ambiguity actually makes them unhappy if they don’t really want to submit the application or want someone to blame if the application is rejected for reasons outside anyone’s control (which we’ve discussed previously here and in “True Tales of a Department of Education Grant Reviewer“).

A certain number of clients hire us, as far as we can tell, because they want to be able to tell others that they’re Doing Something. “Doing Something” is separate from wanting to turn in a complete proposal. An attitude like this doesn’t bother us, but when we first came across it it did surprise us. Usually these clients don’t hate us, but they rarely love us.

Then there are the clients who hate us, most often for things outside of our control. They don’t like that yes, in fact, they do need every single item listed in the documents memo if they want to be funded; they don’t like that we must have comments on the first draft within, say, a week, otherwise there’s not going to be adequate time for the second draft; they don’t like that we’re honest and direct; and so forth. We don’t make the deadlines. We only conform to them.

Our work is similar across clients: we read the RFP, deliver the documents memo (or “doc memo”), write the drafts of the proposal, prepare the budget, and assemble the final submission package. What’s interesting to us is the wide array of reactions we get from our clients. One of our challenges is to maintain our equilibrium regardless of our clients’ reactions. This is probably a problem universal to consultants.

Some are like the client quoted above. A small but real number of others aren’t. But we see our job as maximizing our clients’ probability of getting funded, and we do this by turning in complete and technically accurate proposals without missing a deadline. How our clients treat and feel about us varies widely for reasons largely outside our control.

On another note, grant writers are not miracle workers, although we sometimes resemble them, and we’re not True Believers (hence Isaac’s post, “Does Seliger + Associates ‘Care’ About Our Clients?“). Neither are other consultants, though they may pretend to be True Believers. We sometimes look like we are, but that most often happens when clients do as much as they can to help themselves too.


* In my other life, I’m a grad student in English Lit at the University of Arizona, which means I teach two sections of English Composition per semester. Usually I get a couple of “this class changed my life” e-mails after finals week. One of my favorite began this way:

I just wanted to thank you again for this semester. Although I enjoyed the material of the course, what I will keep with me for the rest of my life is what the course made me think about. Like I said, I am always one to (over…)-analyze and question things but doing a lot of the “why” exercises really helped me organize my thoughts in all areas of my life.

These messages give me hope during the inevitable experiences with apathetic or indifferent students, and the positive e-mails from students and clients are often pretty similar. Here’s a recent example from a client: “Your comments are good, helpful, and easy to understand.”

Supplementing versus supplanting grant funds

In “Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass,” Isaac included a footnote that says “This is a big grant no-no called ‘supplantation.’ In a future post I will explain how you can explain away supplantation in your grant writing anyway.”

This is that post, except I’m writing it instead of him, so one might say I am supplanting him. Or am I supplementing him? Read on to find out.

Supplanting Versus Supplementing: A Key Distinction

A grant applicant always, always, always should assure the funding source that funding of any kind will supplement, not supplant, existing programs. Some RFPs make this explicit; for example, the HUD NOFA for the Capital Fund Recovery Competition Grants says on page 26:

No Supplanting of Funds. The applicant must certify that: (1) the CFRC funds, if awarded, will not supplant expenditures from other Federal, State, or local sources or funds independently generated by the grantee; and (2) the CFRC funds, if awarded, will not supplant any leverage related to this grant, if any (that is, the grantee must have pursued and secured leverage to the fullest extent possible in order to ensure that expenditures from other Federal, State, or local sources or funds independently generated by the grantee are not supplanted).

Last year we had a client who decided that he wanted to fund his existing staff positions with a new HUD Rural Housing and Economic Development Program grant. That’s a big no-no: it’s supplantation, and if he tells HUD that he wants to use their money to replace the money he’s already got, at best they’ll deduct it from his budget. At worst, they’ll reject the proposal outright. It’s also possible that they won’t notice until after the grant is awarded and implemented, and if our client is unlucky enough to get a program audit they could demand repayment of the grant amount that “supplanted” existing funding. This is the same as a college student asking his mom to supplant her $100 to cover his cell phone bill so that he can use the original $100 on beer. Moms know not to fall for this and so do most funders.

Still, there are ways of getting around this proposal world problem. For example, one could announce that people already employed by the agency will spend 10 – 20% of their time managing the proposed program, so that money should come from the grant. If an organization has enough major grants, they might cover 100% of management team salaries. Actually, some agencies claim more than 100% of the time of certain staff, which is another no-no and an issue that we’ll cover in a future post. Another method is to give multiple job titles: previously, an existing staff person was a Housing Counselor, and now she is a Program Specialist for Client Assistance. Suddenly, she’s being paid because she’s in a new position related to the new grant.

Why Supplantation Happens Anyway

Although the rules usually forbid it, supplantation happens all the time anyway, mostly because money is fungible—meaning that many organizations just have a big money pot at the center of their financial systems, so money goes in one side and out the other, making it almost impossible to determine whose dollar was spent on what.*

So if you have a grant and you need, say, new computers, you might put them in the budget for the grant—and those computers no longer need to come from your equipment replacement fund. And does the Executive Director spend “15%” of their time on the grant? That’s another small but real amount of money that doesn’t have to come from the central pile. Do you have a Program Director? Put her in charge of the new program, and hire someone else in her place. Technically none of that is supplantation, because it’s part of what you need to run the program.

I explained all this to my girlfriend, who asked why the rules about supplantation exist. The answers:

  • They work sometimes and aim to prevent egregious abuses;
  • The rules weed out unsophisticated applicants who announce they’re going to stop using local funds and donations and start using Federal dollars;
  • Such rules pass the New York Times test, which means that the funding agency or the funded agency aren’t as likely to see themselves on the front page of the Times, if a nonprofit proposes to do Bad Things (the theme song from my guilty pleasure, True Blood) with their money.

* There is an approach called Fund Accounting, which is supposed to overcome fungibility but often doesn’t. Think of the Social Security “Lockbox” debate of a few years ago. How exactly do the feds account for your FICA contributions? That’s fungibility writ large.

Does Seliger + Associates “Care” About Our Clients?

After almost 17 years in business, I thought I’d been asked every possible question (the common ones are answered on our web page). As a result, most initial phone calls are fairly routine. So I was rendered almost speechless—a very uncommon occurrence—when chatting last Monday with two nonprofit founders. About 10 minutes into the call, one guy asked, “If we were to call a sample of your clients, would most say that Seliger + Associates cares about them?”

This stopped me for about 10 seconds, and I responded by paraphrasing former President Clinton‘s answer about Monica Lewinsky and sexual activity: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘care’ is.” We don’t care about clients in the way he meant—that is to say, our clients are not family or close friends, and we don’t care about our clients as a parent might care how a child does in school or one might care about the outcome of a friend facing a marriage crisis. We’re not invested emotionally in clients, which I told the callers. But we do care, albeit in a different way.

I’m sure they were surprised, since they are very much the “true believers” described in “True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales,” and they were incredulous that, not only would I not say I would “care” about them as clients, but that I also was not immediately captivated by their project concept. I went on to explain that, while we don’t really “care” about our clients, we care very much about what we do for our clients, as well as the impact of our efforts. We’re professionals who always try to provide a consistently high level of services to all clients. This means we care about doing the best possible work.

In the True Believers post, I referred to us as “paladins” in the context of the 50s TV Western, but we could also be seen as in reference to classic definition of a “paladin” as a defender or champion, albeit with words and a Mac rather than a broadsword and a warhorse. The Magnificent Seven, which is a remake of the Japanese classic Seven Samurai, illustrates this. In The Magnificent Seven, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, who was never more cool in a movie, lead seven gunslingers (or paladins) to save a Mexican village from a band of outlaws.

The Magnificent Seven respect their task exactly as Seliger + Associates treats its clients: they provide their “service” dispassionately, but with precision. Even when the villagers betray them, The Magnificent Seven return one last time to fight the bad guys—not to save the villagers, but to demonstrate their commitment to their craft, despite the certainty that most will die. As Steve McQueen’s Vic says early in the movie of their business, “We deal in lead, friend.” Well, we deal in words and we’ll do just about anything to get the job done.

A case in point: several months ago, we wrote a HUD Rural Housing and Economic Development (RHED) proposal for a nonprofit. This was during the rapid-fire deadlines caused by Stimulus Bill madness. The client, who we’ve worked for over the years, produced match letters which we thought were wrong and would torpedo the proposal (in short, he wanted to use millions of dollars in financing commitments for future affordable housing transactions that had nothing to do with the project).

Even though we were under extreme deadline pressure, we spent a day patiently explaining what was wrong with his approach, getting him to reconsider his match letters and reworking the fantastically complex HUD budget forms. In other words, we went back to the village when we could’ve just let him hang. Last week, our client called to tell us ecstatically that he was funded for $300,000.

Would he have been funded if the original letters were used? Maybe, but I doubt it. Did we have to spend an extra day on his project? No. Do we care about his agency? You decide. Incidentally, our client is so happy that he wants to send us a present. I’m going to tell him to keep the fruit basket, because like Chris, Vin, Bernardo, Lee, Harry, Brit (James Coborn’s first role in which he has exactly seven spoken words, but nearly steals the movie), and Chico, as well as a host of other Western heros and anti-heroes, doing our job well for a reasonable fee is reward enough for this small band of paladins.

EDIT: Or, as Steven Pressfield puts it, “There’s a phenomenon in advertising called Client’s Disease. Every client is in love with his own product. The mistake he makes is believing that, because he loves it, everyone else will too.”