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Seliger + Associates’ 25th Anniversary: A quarter century of grant writing

My first post, on Nov. 29, 2007, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal,” tells the story of how I became a grant writer (when dinosaurs walked the earth); 500 posts later, this one covers some of the highs and lows of grant writing over the past 25 years, since I founded Seliger + Associates.

Let me take you back to March 1993 . . . President Clinton’s first year in office, Branch Davidians are going wild in Waco, Roy Rogers dies, Intel ships its first Pentium chips, Unforgiven wins the Oscar for Best Picture, and Seliger + Associates is founded. The last item caused no disturbances in the Force or media and was hardly noticed. Still, we’ve created a unique approach to grant writing—although we’re not true believers, I like to think we’ve made a difference for hundreds of clients and their clients in turn.

When I started this business, the Internet existed, but one had to know how to use long forgotten tech tools like text-based FTP servers, “Gopher,” dial-up modems, and so on. While I taught myself how to use these tools, they weren’t helpful for the early years, even though the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, was launched in late 1993. I used a primitive application, HotMTML Pro, to write the HTML code for our first web site around the same time. I didn’t understand how to size the text, however, so on the common 12″ to 14″ monitors of the day, it displayed as “Seliger + Ass”. It didn’t much matter, since few of our clients had computers, let alone Internet access.

Using the Wayback Machine, I found the first, achieved view of our website on December 28, 1996, about two years after we first had a Web presence. If this looks silly, check out’s first web archive on October 22, 1996. You could get a new PowerBook 1400 with 12 MB of RAM and a 750 MB hard drive for only $1,400, while we were offering a foundation appeal for $3,000!

Those were the days of land line phones, big Xerox machines, fax machines, direct mail for marketing, FedEx to submit proposals, going to a public library to use microfiche for research data, waiting for the Federal Register to arrive by mail about a week after publication, and an IBM Selectric III to type in hard copy forms. Our first computer was a IMB PS 1 with an integrated 12″ monitor running DOS with Windows 3.1 operating very slowly as a “shell” inside DOS.

Despite its challenges, using DOS taught me about the importance of file management.

As our business rapidly in the mid to late 1990s, our office activities remained about the same, except for getting faster PCs, one with a revolutionary CD-ROM drive (albeit also with 5 1/14″ and 3.5″ floppy drives, which was how shrink-wrapped software was distributed); a peer-to-peer coax cable network I cobbled together; and eventually being able to get clients to hire us without me having to fly to them for in-person pitch meetings.

It wasn’t until around 2000 that the majority of our clients became computer literate and comfortable with email. Most of our drafts were still faxed back and forth between clients and all proposals went in as multiple hard-copy submissions by FedEx or Express Mail. For word processing, we used WordPro, then an IBM product, and one that, in some respects, was better than Word is today. We finally caved and switched to Macs and Office for Mac around 2005.

Among the many after shocks of 9/11, as well as the bizarre but unrelated anthrax scare, there were enormous disruptions to mail and Fedex delivery to government offices. Perhaps in recognition of this—or just the evolving digital world—the feds transitioned to digital uploads and the first incarnation of appeared around 2005. It was incredibly unreliable and used an odd propriety file format “kit file,” which was downloaded to our computers, then proposal files would be attached, and then emailed to our clients for review and upload. This creaky system was prone to many errors. About five years ago, switched to an Acrobat file format for the basket-like kit file, but the upload / download drill remained cumbersome. On January 1, 2018, 3.0 finally appeared in the form of the cloud-based WorkSpace, which allows applications to be worked on and saved repeatedly until the upload button is pushed by our client (the actual applicant). But this is still not, and the WorkSpace interface is unnecessarily convoluted and confusing.

Most state and local government funding agencies, along with many foundations, also moved away from hard copy submissions to digital uploads over the past decade. These, of course, are not standardized and each has its owns peccadilloes. Incredibly, some funders (mostly state and local governments and many foundations) still—still!—require dead tree submission packages sent in via FedEx or hand-delivered.

There have of course been many other changes, mostly for the better, to the way in which we complete proposals. We have fast computers and Internet connections, cloud-based software and file sharing, efficient peripherals, and the like. Grant writing, however, remains conceptually “the same as it ever was.” Whether I was writing a proposal long hand on a legal pad in 1978, using my PS 1 in 1993, or on my iMac today in 2018, I still have to develop a strong project concept, answer the 5 Ws and H within the context of the RFP structure, tell a compelling story, and work with our clients to enable them to submit a technically correct proposal in advance of the deadline.

Another aspect of my approach to grant writing also remains constant. I like to have a Golden Retriever handy to bounce ideas of of, even though they rarely talk back. My last Golden mix, Boogaloo Dude, had to go to the Rainbow Bridge in November. Now, my fourth companion is a very frisky four-month old Golden, Sedro-Woolley, named after the Cascades foothill town to which I used to take Jake and his siblings fishing when they were little and Seliger + Associates and myself were still young.


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Tools of the trade, updated: What a grant writer should have

Nine years ago I wrote “Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have.” Since then we’ve written several other posts about our adventures in hardware and software upgrades. Readers like stories about tools, so we keep writing updated versions.

By far our biggest “tools” upgrades in recent years has been a shift from shrink-wrapped software to cloud-based software. We now use:

  • QuickBooks Online replaced QuickBooks Pro and is the standard accounting package for small business bookkeeping. You’ll still need a bookkeeper or someone who understands the mysteries of double-entry bookkeeping to use QB Online effectively, or you will quickly turn to drink—QB remains unfriendly to the uninitiated.
  • Gusto HR, formerly known as Zen Payroll, is far better than the local payroll service company we once used. Gusto is very user friendly and handles the myriad of federal, state, and local requirements deftly. Most importantly, it produces payroll on-time, which makes for happy employees. Additionally, we have employees in two states, and Gusto integrates both state reporting systems with the federal system flawlessly. It’s less expensive than traditional services like ADP, as well as being more fun and hipper to use. Gusto has a complex setup process, but that’s true of all payroll systems.
  • Highrise is a great Customer Relations Management (CRM) solution for small businesses. We use HR to track inquiries, clients, and vendors. It’s enables collecting all contact info, emails, notes, etc., in one place that accessible from any device by authorized team members. Jake wishes for an ultra-fast HR desktop system, however, because logging into the website in the heat of a new client pitch can be too much slower than entering the client’s data into Textmate, then copying into Highrise later.
  • Dropbox is a terrific system for file sharing. It’s easy to set up folder sharing permissions, including temporary shared folders for clients. Synchronization happens near-instantaneously and ensures that any one of us can access any work file immediately and seamlessly.
  • Adobe Acrobat Pro DC has a better interface than Acrobat Pro 9, which we used for many years. This version is a subscription service, which means Adobe is going to draw blood money out of you every month until the end of time. Eventually, this version will end up costing far more than conventional versions used to.
  • MS Office 365 is another subscription service. Both Adobe and MS, however, price their subscriptions so much lower than the download versions that one is really forced into the subscription model, whether you like it or not.

Most proposals today are uploaded rather than submitted on paper, so we’re less dependent on printers/copiers and have jettisoned complex printer hardware. Some of our clients still like to fax, so faxing remains important. We use an HP LaserJet Pro MFP M521DN, hydra-headed printer/copier/fax, which is easy to configure and very reliable.

Our back-up printer is a Xerox Phaser 6280 color laser, which uses expensive supplies but produces good color prints.

We also use a Fujitsu ScanSnap IX500 Scanner. It’s the best small officer scanner on the market.

For phones, we’ve finally wrangled Ooma Office system into functioning. After much tribulation, I was eventually able to get Ooma to fax properly through the HP LaserJet MFP. Ooma also now sells IP phones and sold us proprietary versions of the Cisco 504G. Ooma claims you have to buy IP phones directly from Ooma or they won’t interface with the Ooma black box. I use the phone with a Jabra Pro 9740 bluetooth headset and Jabra GN1000 handset lifter. The phone system works well enough and costs about one-third what land lines did. Telcos don’t want to provide land line service and have priced land lines so high as to make the transition to VoIP inevitable.

With respect to computers, we use a mix of recent iMacs and MacBook Pros. By now PC hardware is boring and pretty much any PC made in the last couple years will work fine. Windows and MacOS are more alike than different; if Microsoft ever makes Office for Linux, that operating system will become viable for grant writers. You can see a picture of Jake’s desk on his blog, but the short version is that he uses a 27″ iMac much like mine. We like the Dell 24″ UltraSharp Monitor as a side monitor, but monitors of that size are now so cheap that pretty much any one will work.

EDIT: See also the second part of this post, “Tools continued: Be careful when you buy from Amazon.”

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Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology — Kentaro Toyama — Book Review

Everyone working in any facet of education and educational nonprofits needs to read Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology; put down whatever other books you’re reading—you are reading, right?—and get a copy of this one.

geek_HeresyIn it, Kentaro Toyama describes how computers and related technologies are not a panacea for education or any other social service fields. He writes that, “like a lever, technology amplifies people’s capacities in the direction of their intentions.” Sound familiar? It should: we’ve written about “Computers and Education: An Example of Conventional Wisdom Being Wrong” and “How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse.” We’ve been writing grant proposals for programs that increase access to digital technologies since at least the late ’90s; for example, we’ve written numerous funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers proposals. Despite all that effort and all those billions of dollars spent, however, it would be polite to say that educational outcomes have not leapt forward.

As it turns out, the computers-in-education trope is part of a general pattern. After years in the field, Toyama eventually realized that technologically driven educational projects tend to follow stages: “the initial optimism that surrounds technology, the doubt as reality hits, the complexity of outcomes, and the unavoidable role of social forces.” That’s after Toyama describes his work in India, where he discovers that “In the course of five years, I oversaw at least ten different technology-for-education projects [. . .] Each time, we thought we were addressing a real problem. But while the designs varied, in the end it didn’t matter – technology never made up for a lack of good teachers or good principals.” Studies of the One Laptop Per Child project show similarly disappointing results.

Chucking technology at people problems does not automatically improve the people or solve the problem: “Even in a world of abundant technology, there is no social change without change in people.” Change in people is really hard, slow, and expensive. It can be hastened by wide and deep reading, but most Americans don’t read much: TV, Facebook, and the other usual suspects feel easier in the short term. Everyone who thinks about it knows that computers are incredibly useful for creating, expressing, and disseminating knowledge. But they’re also incredibly useful for wasting time. Because of the way computers can waste time and drain precious attention, I actually ban laptops and phones from my classrooms. Computers and phones don’t help with reading comprehension and writing skill development. That primarily happens between the ears, not on the screen.

Problems with laptops in classrooms became apparent to me during my one year of law school (I fortunately dropped out of the program). All students were required to use laptops. During class, some used computers for the ends imagined by administrators. Most used them to gossip, check sports scores, send and receive nude photos of classmates, etc. And those were law students, who’d already been selected for having decent discipline and foresight. What hope do the rest of us have? Laptops were not the limiting factor in my classes and they aren’t the limiting factor for most people in most places:

Anyone can learn to Tweet. But forming and articulating a cogent argument in any medium requires thinking, writing, and communication skills. While those skills are increasingly expressed through text messaging, PowerPoint, and email, they are not taught by them. Similarly, it’s easy to learn to ‘use’ a computer, but the underlying math skills necessary for accounting or engineering require solid preparation that only comes from doing problem sets—readily accomplished with or without a computer.

Problem sets are often boring, but they’re also important. I tell my college students that they need to memorize major comma rules. They generally don’t want to, but they have to memorize some rules in order to know how to deploy those rules—and how to break them effectively, as opposed to inadvertently. Computers don’t help with that. They don’t help with more than you think:

Economist Leigh Linden at the University of Texas at Austin conducted experimental trials in India and Colombia. He found that, on average, students exposed to computer-based instruction learned no more than control groups without computers. His conclusion? While PCs can supplement good instruction, they don’t substitute for time with real teachers.

The obvious counterpoint to this is “yet.” Still, those of us who have computers and Internet connections are probably sensitive to how much time we spend doing stuff that might qualify as “work” versus time spent on YouTube or games or innumerable other distractions (pornography sites are allegedly among the largest sites, measured by megabytes delivered, on the Internet).

Moreover, the poorer the school districts or communities, the harder it was to setup and maintain the equipment (another challenge many of us are familiar with: Don’t ask me about the fiasco that upgrading from OS X 10.6 to 10.10 entailed).

In addition, Toyama points out that there is a long history of believing that technology in and of itself will ameliorate human problems:

We were hardly the first to think our inventions would transform education. Larry Cuban, a veteran inner-city teacher and an emeritus professor at Stanford, has chronicled the technology fads of the past century. As his examples show, the idea that technology can cure the ills of society is nothing new. As early as 1913, Thomas Edison believed that ‘the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system.’ Edison estimated that we only learned 2 percent of the material we read in books, but that we could absorb 100 percent of what we saw on film. He was certain that textbooks were becoming obsolete.

Oops. Radio, TV, filmstrips, overhead projectors and other technologies were heralded with similar promise. The problem is that technology is much easier than motivation, concentration, conscientiousness, and perspicacity.

Some quotes should remind you of points we’ve made. For example, Toyama says, “Measurement undoubtedly helps us verify progress. There’s a danger, though, of worshipping the measurable at the expensive of other key qualities.” That’s true of many grant proposals and is consilient with our post on why evaluations are hard to do. Measuring what’s easy to measure is usually much easier than measuring what matters, and funding authorities rarely care in a deep way about the latter.

In his chapter on “Nurturing Change,” Toyama notes that individuals have to aspire to do more and to do better in order for a group or culture to see mass change. This is close to Robert Pirsig’s point in Lila’s Child: An Inquiry Into Quality, which extols the pleasure and importance of of craftsmanship. Defined broadly, “craftsmanship” might mean doing the best work you can regardless of who’s watching or what the expected consequences of that work might be.

Geek Heresy is not perfect. Toyama repeats the dubious calumny that the poverty rate “decreased steadily [in the United States] until 1970. Around 1970, though, the decline stopped. Since then, the poverty rate has held steady at a stubborn 12 to 13 percent [. . . .]” But the official rate is likely bogus: “If you look at income after taxes and transfers you see that the shape of American public policy has become much friendlier to the poor during this period.” Or consider this reading of the data, which finds the “Adjusted percent poor in 2013 [is] 4.8%.” This also probably jibes with what many of our older readers have actually experience: Most manufactured goods are far, far cheaper than they used to be, and official definitions of poverty rarely account for those. On a non-financial level, far more and better medical treatments are available. In 1970 there was no chickenpox or HPV vaccine, regardless of how wealthy you were.

The flaws in Geek Heresy are minor. The important point is that technology will not automatically solve all of our problems and that you should be wary of those who think it will. Until we understand this—and understand the history of attempting to use technology to solve all of our problems—we won’t be able to make real progress in educational achievement.

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Computers and education: An example of conventional wisdom being wrong

We’ve written innumerable proposals for programs to give students computers or access to computers. Some, like “Goals 2000,” have already been forgotten by anyone not named Seliger. Others, like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, continue to exist, although the original federal version got broken into state pass-through funds. All of them work on the presumption that giving students computers will improve education.

The problem is that, as we’ve written before, most research demonstrates that this isn’t true, even if it seems like it should be true. Another study, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers,” just came out against computers improving educational outcomes. Some news report have covered it too, including “Using Laptops In Classrooms Lowers Grades: Study” and one from the Times of India. But the important takeaway is simple: computer access in and of itself doesn’t appear to improve educational attainment.

That doesn’t really matter for the proposal world, in which the conventional wisdom is always right and where these studies can be used to make minor changes in program design to overcome the problem of distraction. But they’re interesting on a real world level, especially because they confirm what many of us know intuitively: that computers are great for wasting time.

I’d define “wasting time” as any time spent nominally doing a task that doesn’t result in some tangible product or change at the end of that task. Reading Slate instead of writing a novel, to use an example from close to home, is time wasted; reading Slate to relax isn’t. The danger with the Internet (and, for others, computer games) is that it can feel work-like without actually accomplishing any work in the process.

Personally, when I need to do serious writing that doesn’t require data research, I use the program Mac Freedom to turn off Internet access. I paid $10 to not be able to access the Internet. I know the Internet, like the Force, has a light side and a dark side. The light side is research, connection, learning, and human possibility. The dark side is an endless carnival of noise, blinking lights, and effervescent distraction. As Paul Graham wrote in “Disconnecting Distraction:”

Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.

Now, if people like Paul Graham (or me!) have trouble doing real work when the Internet black hole is available, what hope does the average 15-year-old have—especially given that Graham and I grew up in a world without iPhones and incessant text messages? This isn’t “Get these darn kids off my lawn” rant, but it is an important anecdotal point about the importance and danger of computers. Computers are essential to, say, computer programming, but they aren’t essential to reading, writing, or basic math.

I went to a law school for a year by accident (don’t ask), and everyone had a laptop. They were sometimes used for taking notes. More often they were used for messaging in class. Occasionally they were actually used for porn. These were 22 – 30-year-old proto lawyers. On one memorable occasion, a guy’s computer erupted with a sports ad that blanketed the room with the drums, trumpets, and deep-voiced announcer promising gladiatorial combat. Evidently he’d forgotten to turn sound off. The brightest students were highly disciplined in their computer usage, but many of us, like addicts, didn’t have that discipline. We were better off not sitting in the room with the coke.

To be sure, computers can be useful in class. My fiancée wrote her med school application essay in class, since she was forced, due to academic bureaucratic idiocy, to take basic cell bio after she’d taken advanced cell bio. The laptop helped her recover time that otherwise would’ve been wasted, but I suspect that she’s in the minority.

I get the impression that the average student has no problem learning to immerse themselves in buzzy online worlds, and the exceptional, Zuckerberg-like student has no problem using digital tools to build those online worlds. What we should really probably be doing is teaching students how to cultivate solitude and concentrate. That’s what we need to learn how to do, even if that isn’t a particular subject matter domain.

Finally, like a lot of ideas, computers in schools might be a bad idea right up to the point they’re not. Adaptive learning software may eventually make a tremendous difference in student learning. That just hasn’t happened yet, and the last 20 years demonstrate that it’s not going to happen by chucking computers at students and assuming that computers are magically going to provide education. They’re not. Computers are mirrors that reflect the desires already inside a person. For students, 1% will build the next Facebook, another 3% will write angsty blog posts and perhaps become writers more generally, and 100% will use it for porn and games.

EDIT 2015: I just wrote about Kentaro Toyama’s book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology, which describes… wait for it… why technology is not a panacea for education and may make it worse.

A few astute readers have also asked an important question: What could make or help technology improve education? I don’t have a good answer (if I did, I’d be starting the company that will deploy the answer). But I think we will see experimentation and slow, incremental steps. Many massive online courses (MOOCs), for example, started off as filmed lectures. Then they morphed towards having multiple camera angles and some quizzes. More recently, those classes shifted towards small, interactive chunks with quizzes that test comprehension interspersed among them. Each step improved comprehension, completion, and student engagement.

But MOOCs don’t seem to improve the ability to sustain concentration, be conscientious, or read in-depth. Without that last skill in particular, I’m not sure how much education of any kind can happen. Technology can give us the text, but it can’t make us read or comprehend the text or deal with it imaginatively.

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Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have

A budding grant writer who is enrolled in a Nonprofit Management Masters program recently e-mailed me to ask if she should spend $4,000 on grant writing classes. Regular readers know how little I think of grant writing training, so I advised her to take some undergrad courses in English composition/journalism and spend her $4k on a good computer and comfortable chair instead. In addition to being infinitely more useful than grant writing classes, she’ll also enjoy them for activities other than grant writing. This led me to think about the useful tools a grant writer should have, including:

1. A great computer. After years of frustration with Windows, Jake converted the rest of us to Macs about 18 months ago and they’ve mostly been a pleasure. Mac OS X has two particularly helpful features for grant writers: “Spotlight” and “Time Machine.” If I’m writing a proposal about gang violence in Dubuque, typing keywords in Spotlight lets me easily find an article on my hard drive from the Dubuque Picayune Press about gangs that I saved two years ago. If I manage to muck up a current proposal file, Time Machine lets me go back to yesterday’s version to recover it. Trying to do these tasks in Windows XP is so difficult that having a bottle of Scotch handy is a good idea if you try, although Windows Vista is supposed to have improved the search experience.

As to which model is best, I prefer the Mac Pro because it is easy to add multiple video cards—meaning you can also attach lots of monitors. I use three and might add a fourth if I can find a good rack system. You’re thinking that I must imagine myself as Tom Cruise flipping images across displays in Minority Report,, but it is actually very handy to have multiple monitors because I can arrange relevant data on all of them by having the proposal I’m writing on my 23″ primary screen, a file from the client on the 20″ screen to the right and a pertinent website on the 19″ screen to the left. The fourth monitor would show the RFP. Avoiding opening and closing windows saves time and, for a grant writer, time is literally money. Jake prefers his 24″ iMac, which only accepts one additional monitor, but looks oh so elegant on his desktop. He can also have two windows open simultaneously:

Others like the MacBook Pro, but I’ve never liked writing on a laptop, unless forced to on a plane.* Grant writers who travel should be aware that a MacBook or MacBook Pro is easier to use in coach class because both hinge at the bottom, as opposed to most laptops, which hinge at the top. You have a somewhat better chance of using it when the large person in front of you drops their seat back into your lap.

2. A comfortable chair. Grant writers spend much of their lives sitting, so don’t skimp on the chair. Jake and I like the Aeron Chair, Herman Miller’s gift to those of us trapped in offices but dreaming of working on the command deck of the Starship Enterprise. Others prefer the Steelcase Leap Chair, but whatever you get, make sure its adjustable and makes you want to sit in it for 12 hours a day when under deadline pressure. Slashdot recently had a long discussion of the relative merits of various chairs, and the differences might not seem important—but if you spend endless hours in your chair, the value of a good one quickly becomes apparent.

3. Sound system and headphones. I like to write wearing headphones, as listening to Nelly rap “Midwest Swing” at high volume gets me in the mood for writing a proposal about East St. Louis, which I have to do as soon as I finish this post. There is no substitute for Bose QuietComfort 3 Noise Canceling Headphones, which also come in handy on planes. When everyone has left the office, you can fling off the headphones and listen using Bose Companion 3 Computer Speakers.

4. A large desk with an ergonomic keyboard holder. Any desk will do, as long as it has lots of space for papers, books, pictures of kids, empty diet coke cans, etc. But don’t forget to attach a high quality adjustable keyboard tray. We love Humanscale trays, which can be attached to most any flat top desk. Spend $20 on the desk and $300 on the keyboard tray and your wrists will thank you.

5. Desk stuff. Jake likes annoying, noisy, clicky keyboards with great tactile feel, but the rest of us are happy with Apple wireless models. Although it is no long necessary to have a stack of reference books (e.g.,dictionary, thesaurus, etc.), a copy of Write Right! and On Writing Well isn’t a bad idea. A ruler, handheld calculator, lots of post-in notes, assorted desk jewelry to play with, a message pad, speaker phone, cell phone with Bluetooth earpiece lots of markers and pens are nice accessories.

6. A window. Writing grant proposals is too confining a task to do so without a view of something. Just make sure there’s a blind, so you can shut it when you find yourself daydreaming.

7. Companion. Personally, I like a dog nearby to pet when I pause to take a break (I know, there could be a bad pun here). Our faithful Golden Retriever, Matzo the Wonder Dog, was our constant office companion until she laid down her burden last winter, but she was often in a festive mood:

We now have Odette, a frisky seven month old Golden Retriever puppy, who keeps us laughing with her office antics:

About $4,000 should set up a first class grant writer’s office. It is not necessary to have one, but it is nice. When we started 15 years ago, we used hand-me-down desks, $5 chairs and PCs bartered for grant writing services. If you have a bit of money, however, the grant writing experience can be made vaguely enjoyable with good tools. After all, we are nothing more than wordsmiths and any craftsperson can make due with what they have, but a good set of tools helps speed the job and make it more pleasant.

*I’ve never understood why TV shows and movies always show writers using laptops, a lá Carrie in “Sex and the City.” If there are any writers out there who actually use laptops everyday, I’d like to hear from them.