Tag Archives: Consultants

So, Are Seliger + Associates’ Grant Writing Fees Too High, Too Low, or Just Right?

Last Monday, the executive director of a Community Health Center (CHC) in a western city called me for a HRSA New Access Points (NAP) proposal fee quote—a fairly routine call. I gave him the quote, told him how we do what we do oh-so-well, and he agreed to hire us. As my kids liked to say when they were in high school, “it’s all good.” Just before I signed off, however, our new client startled me by asking, “By the way, how come your fees are so cheap?”

Wow! This query surprised me, as I always thought our fees were relatively high compared to our alleged competition. So, I did a little riff on how we price jobs. I also offered to raise the fee, if he wanted to feel like he was buying the best, but he declined. In our view the fee is about right for this kind of assignment with about eight weeks to complete.

On Tuesday, I was on the loading dock checking in a new shipment of gerunds when the phone rang. I put down my bailing hook, took off my work gloves, and answered. It was a call back from a national nonprofit in Washington D.C. that wants to outsource their grant writing functions. I had talked to an underling the previous week, and she was calling back with the big boss man to grill me about what we do, how we do it, and what we charge. I spent a half hour giving my standard pitch and fielding rapid fire questions with aplomb. After 20 years of pitching, I’ve pretty much heard every possible permutation of questions and have ready answers. The queso grande, however, was going at me hammer and tongs and was giving me the verbal equivalent of what Elmore Leonard calls the Big Yard stare.

I thought I was doing all right when he said, “How come your fees are so high? You’re three times as expensive as the other grant writers we’re interviewing.” On Monday, we’re too cheap and on Tuesday, we’re too expensive! I said that he was in the Mercedes dealership and must have gotten lost on him way to the Hyundai dealership across the street. I told him what we think of our competition—which is not much, based on the websites we’ve seen and the proposals we’ve been given by clients. Finally, I reminded him that our fees are cleverly hidden in plain sight on our website. If he was looking for the 99-cent store of grant writers, he was wasting our collective time.

The interview ended shortly thereafter. I guess he thought I was going to collapse in the face of pressure and give him a two-thirds discount.* As John Wayne said in my favorite Western, The Searchers, “That’ll be the day.”

These two anecdotes show that one person’s cheap consultant is another person’s expensive grant writer. We post our fee ranges on our website in part to avoid sticker shock. Most of our competitors, however, either post nothing about fees or write in vague generalities. I assume this is because they don’t know what their time is worth or charge by the hour.** We’ve been in business for 20 years, so we must be hitting the sweet spot of pricing—or we would have disappeared along the way, as so many of our would-be competitors have.

When you’re seeking hundreds or thousands or millions of dollars in grants, you can hire a consultant because they’re cheap or you can hire a consultant because they’re good. But when the difference in fees is a couple of thousand dollars, and the difference in outcomes is measured in hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, you know who to call.


* He might also already have another grant writer he wants to hire, or he might be engaging in some weird interpersonal battle with his employee, or have some other consideration in mind. We don’t know enough to know what’s really going on, but in many situations nominal price considerations are actually a cover for other motivations. We’ve written about one example of this in “Why Seliger + Associates Never Responds to RFPs/RFQs for Grant Writing Services,” which we noted that “RFQs/RFPs for professional services are easily wired, with ‘wired’ meaning that one firm is going to get the contract regardless of who submits a response.”

** Charging by the hour makes sense in some circumstances—we sometimes work on an hourly basis—but for many assignments a flat-fee arrangement better aligns our interests and our clients’ interests. Many would-be grant writers charge by the hour because they know they can’t actually complete a full proposal, even if they say they can and will. For us, charging a flat fee for many assignments signals that we’re going to get the job done.

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.”

National Institute of Health (NIH) grant writers: An endangered species or hidden like Hobbits?

Type “NIH Grant Writers” into Google and look at what you find: pages and pages of “how-to” sheets with no actual grant writers.

That’s not surprising: trying to become a specialist NIH grant writing consultant would be really, really hard because the niche is sufficiently small that one couldn’t easily build a business solely around NIH grants. And the people who could or would want to write solely NIH grants are employed by universities or big hospitals and aren’t available for consulting.

You probably won’t be able to find a specialist in NIH grant writing even if you think you should find one. Isaac addressed this problem in “No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer:” “Looking for qualified grant writers is about the same as looking for unicorns: don’t make a hard problem insolvable by looking for a unicorn with a horn of a certain length or one that has purple spots. Be happy to find one at all.”

He used the same unicorn language in “I Was Right:”

Two of the qualified SGIG [Smart Grid Investment Grant] callers did not “believe” and presumably kept searching in the forest for the perfect, but ephemeral, grant writing “unicorn” I described in my original post. One caller became our sole SGIG client for this funding round. The application process culminated in a finely crafted proposal that went in on the deadline day.

The proposal got funded, even though we’d never written a Smart Grid proposal before—and neither had anyone else. How’d we do it? Through the same means described in “How to Write About Something You Know Nothing About: It’s Easy, Just Imagine a Can Opener,” which explains how an attentive generalist learns to write a proposal for unfamiliar programs (and remember: all programs are unfamiliar when they first appear; this was certainly true for Smart Grid applicants). The same principles apply to all proposals; the trick is finding someone who understands and can implement those principles on a deadline.

Such people are as rare as the ones who know a lot about NIH grant writing. If you created a Venn diagram of the two, you’d probably have almost no overlap. If you were going to set up a business writing NIH proposals, you’d need at least three very unusual skills: able to write, able to hit deadlines, and health knowledge, ideally through getting a PhD or perhaps a research-oriented MD. But that would be really, really time consuming and expensive: MDs don’t come cheap, and even family docs make six figures after residency. The kinds of people capable of being NIH grant specialists are either an endangered species that’s seldom seen or hidden like hobbits in the modern world, who can vanish in a twinkle and apparently aren’t on the Internet.

In short, you’re not going to find them. We explain this fairly regularly to people who call us looking for “experts” and “specialists” in grant writing for particular fields, but they often don’t believe us, despite our seventeen years of experience.

EDIT: We’ve also worked for clients who’ve sat on NIH panels, and many say that, if they can’t figure out what the proposal is about within ten minutes of starting, they don’t even read the rest of it. You may see a blog post on this subject shortly.

Our Experience Trying to Hire Grant Writers

There’s one other reason we’re skeptical that you’ll find many specialized grant writers, let alone general grant writers: we’ve hired a lot of grant writing stringers, and most of them turned out to be not particularly great grant writers.* The best one had no unusual training at all—he was a journalist, which meant he understood the 5Ws and the H and was accustomed to writing against inflexible deadlines. Most thought they could write proposals, but they couldn’t pass the test Isaac describes in Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain.

The number of people out there who claim they can write against deadlines or pretend they can is vastly larger than the number of people who actually can. If there’s something strange, and it don’t look good, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters! If you’ve trying to understand a RFP, and it don’t look good, you know who to call. Alternately, you could keep searching until the deadline has passed, in which case the probability of you not being funded is 100%.


* This was mostly before my time, however; once I got to college, I tended to write more proposals, and the frustrations of stringers weren’t worth the benefit for Isaac. In addition, I’m mostly inured to his sometimes acerbic commentary by now. Seliger + Associates has not used stringers for well over ten years.

 

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.”

Consultants, Employees, and More: Should We Hire a Grant Writer? And How Will Our Agency Complete Proposals?

People regularly discover Grant Writing Confidential by searching for “should we hire a grant writer?” Being grant writers, our answer is almost always “yes.” On a less glib level, virtually every nonprofit organization has to write proposals, which means that someone will either have to write proposals in addition to their regular work or write them full-time. If your organization decides to hire a grant writer, it can go one of two fundamental routes: hire a staff person or hire a consultant (it’s slightly more complex because a staff person could be hired from outside the organization or trained from within, but ignore that distinction for now).

We’ve already effectively covered hiring employees in “Why Can’t I Find a Grant Writer? How to Identify and Seize that Illusive Beast.” Now we’re going to talk in more depth about consulting: the benefits, drawbacks, and caveats. To some extent, grant writing lends itself to consulting in the same way most organizations hire lawyers by the hour or on retainer rather than employing their own: jobs tend to be self-contained, expertise is of paramount importance, and so forth.

The biggest advantage to hiring a real grant writing consultant is that the job will get done. Seliger + Associates has been in business for almost 17 years and never missed a deadline. Since the goal of writing proposals is to get the money, that should be of paramount importance, and it’s surprising how many would-be grant writers fail to turn in complete and technically correct proposals prior to deadlines. In nonprofits, it’s not uncommon for a job to be unfinished or for a technically incomplete application to be turned in; this is especially problematic among novice grant writers, as we wrote about here.

This leads to the next point: hiring a consultant means that someone is going to sit down and write the proposal, rather than have endless meetings discussing what the proposal should be like. Organizations that assign group writing projects often encounter the donut-eating problem, and if they end up with anything at the end, it’s often a franken-proposal cobbled together from mismatched parts. This is a major mistake novice and even experienced agencies make. Consultants won’t make it, or at least shouldn’t, since if they do they won’t be in business long.

If don’t hire us, you might hire consultants who can’t get the job done. If so, it’s relatively easy to hire and fire the grant writer at will. This is much harder with a permanent employee. If you make someone an employee and discover six months later that the employee has spent more time playing solitaire and mastering online poker than preparing proposals, that person can often be hard to fire for reasons of morale and law, especially if that person has a litigious disposition. If your consultant is no good, you just cancel their retainer or hire someone else for the next job.

A consultant also doesn’t have to deal with institutional politics, or deals with them in a different way; one commenter to our post on True Believers and grant writing wrote:

[The realities of fundraising are] more complex when you are not a consultant. Though I would like to be writing grants, in truth most of my time is spent in meetings with the True Believers at my organization.
The worst is when a True Believer wants to shape a proposal based on their True Belief, and you are lesser in status and title in the hierarchy, so have to go along with something you know will not be funded.

Finally, the diverse experience many consultants have can be a bonus, as exposure to different ideas, trends, and kinds of work can filter into other proposals. So can knowledge of funding “gotchas”—for example, we’ve figured out how to use Grants.gov and why it’s important to turn in applications before the deadline. You don’t want to make a million-dollar mistake from someone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of application systems.

The major con to hiring a professional grant writer is the lack of institutional memory that using an external grant writer entails. In other words, people within the organization might not remember how or why a proposal was completed or where to start next time. A lesser “con” might be that they find someone who advertises him or herself as a grant writer but actually can’t finish proposals; we’ve occasionally been hired by organizations that have fallen into this trap.

In addition, it might be slightly more expensive to hire a consultant than to have a permanent employee, if you have an employee who can actually write a large number of proposals under tight deadlines. Very few people seem to be able to do this, however, which is why I emphasize it with italics. Many of those who claim to be able to consistently write deadline proposals probably can’t.

A client with an in-house grant writer recently hired us for an assignment, and their in-house grant writer called looking for advice long after the job was over. We’re in the writing business, not the giving-free-advice business, but Isaac talked to him for a bit. Last week, the in-house grant writer called back to say that he wanted to work for us, indicating that he hadn’t read our website and that he’s probably not too busy at his present “full-time” grant writing position.

If you’re an organization looking for a grant writer, you also consider your location. In a high-need or rural area, it might be hard or impossible to find candidates who are willing to live and work locally. Many of our retainer clients over the years have looked for a full-time grant writing employee but were simply unable to find anyone both competent and local. We’ve heard this story often enough that we want to include it here.

I’d make one other observation that’s neither a pro nor con: regardless of how you prepare proposals for agencies, you’ll still end up “paying” one way or another, as we describe in “Tilting at Windmills: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing.” Whether you pay salary and benefits directly or cut checks to consultants, grant writing is a fundamental cost that can’t be avoided. Some organizations try to do so by looking for grant writers to work on contingent fees, but, as we note on our FAQ page, this almost never works out.

Regardless of what you decide, read the book Peopleware, which is perhaps the most brilliant and yet ignored book on intellectual organizations I’ve encountered. I don’t mean “ignored” in the sense of being poorly known—many, many people have heard of it—but rather in the sense that few actually take its important recommendations into account. It’s nominally about software, much like Moby Dick is nominally about a whale, but it’s really about managing knowledge workers (although I hate the phrase “knowledge worker”). It seems that many nonprofits, like many companies, have Mickey Mouse management and dysfunctional office politics; this book is an effort towards great professionalism, which doesn’t mean wearing ties and being boring, but, rather, means being able to get the job done. If you’re going to use grant writers effectively, whether in-house or as consultants, read it.