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The Real World and the Proposal World

In the Ghostbusters movie, there’s a scene where Ray (played by Dan Aykroyd) tells Gozer to get off an apartment building. He then makes a critical mistake:

Gozer: [after Ray orders her to re-locate] Are you a God?
[Ray looks at Peter, who nods]
Dr. Ray Stantz: No.
Gozer: Then… DIE!
[Lightning flies from her fingers, driving the Ghostbusters to the edge of the roof and almost off; people below scream]
Winston Zeddemore: Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say “YES”!

(I’ve yet to have anyone ask me if I’m a god, but I’ve definitely got my answer prepared.)

Ray’s focus on the immediate truth is an error given his larger purpose, which, if I recall correctly from hazy memories, has something to do with closing inter-dimensional portals that let the ghost world or hell or something like that open into our world. Bear in mind I probably haven’t seen Ghostbusters since childhood, but I did see it about 75 times. Before the Ghostbusters can close the portal, the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man arrives and is about 20 stories tall, causing a great deal of screaming and running on the part of New Yorkers, who get their own opportunity to flee from the equivalent of Godzilla.

Anyway, the important thing isn’t just the trip down memory lane, but Ray’s key mistake: thinking that he should give a factual answer, rather than a practical answer. The grant writing world has a similar divide, only we deal with the “real world” and the “proposal world.” The real world roughly corresponds to what a funded applicant will actually do if they’re funded by operating the program. The proposal world refers to what the RFP requires that the applicant say she’ll do, along with a stew of conventional wisdom, kabuki theater, prejudice flattering, impractical ideas nicely stated, exuberant promises, and more.

Astute readers will have noticed that we keep referring to the proposal world in various posts. A few examples:

  • From What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals?: “In the proposal world where Seliger + Associates lives, collaborations are omnipresent in our drafts, and we spin elaborate tales of strategic planning and intensive involvement in development of project concepts, most of which are woven out of whole cloth to match the collaborative mythology that funders expect […]”
  • From Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun: “In many if not most human services RFPs, you’ll find an unintentionally hilarious section that neatly illustrates the difference between the proposal world and the real world: demanding to know how the project will be sustained beyond the end of the grant period.”
  • From Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation: “In the proposal world, the grant writer states that data will be carefully tracked and maintained, participants followed long after the project ends, and continuous improvements made to ensure midcourse corrections in programs when necessary […] In the real world of grants implementation, evaluations, if they are done at all, usually bear little resemblance to the evaluation section of the proposal, leading to vague outcome analysis.”
  • From Know Your Charettes!: “Once again, I’m sure more nonprofits write about PACs than actually run them, but the proposal world is not always identical to the real world, which is one reason I was so surprised to read about the design charrette I linked to in the first paragraph.”

In all these examples, the proposal world entails telling the funder what they want to hear, even if what they want to hear doesn’t correspond all that well to reality.

Funders want to imagine that programs will continue when funding ends, but if a funding stream disappears, it’s not easy to replace; as Isaac said last week, “[…] it is vastly easier to form new nonprofits than it is to find millionaires and corporations to set up foundations to fund the avalanche of new nonprofits.” There are more nonprofits chasing millionaires to keep programs going than there are millionaires to fund those programs.

Evaluations that really matter demand lots of advanced math training and scrupulous adherence to procedures that most nonprofits just don’t have in them (don’t believe me? Read William Easterly’s What Works in Development?: Thinking Big and Thinking Small). The extensive community planning that most RFPs demand is too time and cost intensive to actually undergo. Besides, who is going to be opposed to another after school or job training program? The answer, of course, is no one.

In the proposal world, elaborate outreach efforts are necessary to make the community aware of the proposed project. In the real world, almost every provider of services is so overwhelmed with people who want those services that, even with additional funding, the provider still won’t be able to accept everyone who might be helped.

In the proposal world, everyone in the community gets a voice and a chance to sit on the Participant Advisory Council (PAC). In the real world, even if someone is sitting on the council and espouses a radical new idea, the constraints of the proposal requirements (“you must serve a minimum of 200 youth with three hours of academic and life skills training per year, using one of the approved curricula…”) means that idea will probably languish. Also, the PAC is likely to meet a few times every year instead of every month to provide “mid-course corrections,” as promised in the proposal.

If you’re a grant writer or an applicant who has hired a grant writer, your job is to get the money, and getting the money means being able to distinguish between the proposal world and the real world and present the former as it should be presented. This doesn’t mean that you should be stealing the money in the real world (hint: a Ferrari is probably not necessary for client transport and Executive Director use) or wildly misusing it (hint: skip claiming the Cancun Spring Break extravaganza as “research”), but it does mean that there’s a certain amount of assumed latitude between what’s claimed and what is actually done.

Many grant novices fail to understand this or experience cognitive dissonance when they read an RFP that makes wildly implausible demands. Once you realize that the RFP makes those demands because it’s dealing with the proposal world, as imagined by RFP writers, rather than the real world, as experienced by nonprofit and public agencies, you’ll be much happier and much better able to play the proposal world game.

When someone from the proposal world asks, “Are you a god?” the answer is always “yes,” even if you’re actually just a guy with a silly contraption strapped to your back who is desperately trying to save the world.

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How’d You Like a 20% Discount on Grant Writing? You Got It, As Long as You are Willing to Go Against Conventional Wisdom!

Jake wrote recently about the perils of being too creative as a grant writer in Never Think Outside the Box: Grant Writing is About Following the Recipe, not Creativity. This post elaborates on the invisible fence of “Convention Wisdom” (CW) that forces us grant writers to remain in the box.

CW is an amorphous blob of assumed correctness that ping pongs through the media, popular culture, academia and everything else in America, even though aspects of it may be proven wrong. Two examples from recent newspaper articles will demonstrate how hopelessly wrong CW can be:

1) Foster Care and Orphanages: The CW about foster care is that the system, although flawed, is a much better alternative than orphanages, which conjure up Dickensian images of underfed orphans cowering in dark rooms. Although a quick Google search confirms that no one seems to really know how may kids are in foster care in America, a good guess is about 600,000. Richard. B. McKenzie, a UC-Irvine professor who grew up in an orphanage in the 1950’s, tackles the foster care/orphanage CW in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Best Thing About Orphanages.” Professor McKenzie cites a 2009 Duke University study of 3,000 orphaned children in Africa and Asia and states:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the researchers found that children raised in orphanages by nonfamily members were no worse in their health, emotional and cognitive functioning, and physical growth than those cared for in their communities by relatives. More important, the orphanage-reared children performed better than their counterparts cared for by community strangers, which is commonly the case in foster-care programs.

Professor McKenzie surveyed 2,500 alumni of American orphanages and found they generally did much better than their peers in the general population across a range of educational attainment, income, happiness and related indicators. In other words, orphanages, which have largely disappeared from America and been replaced by foster care, actually did a reasonably good job given the circumstances in nurturing orphans. Having written dozens of proposals addressing the needs of foster youth over the years, I know that outcomes are not good for kids in the system. In 17 years of being in business, however, no one has ever approached us to write a proposal for an orphanage.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is one of the largest private funders for child service programs. A search of their website for “orphanages” produces two hits, both in Romania, while a search for “foster care” produces 230 hits! I have a pretty good idea of how the CW thinkers at the Casey Foundation would react to a proposal to set up a new orphanage in Owatonna*: shock and horror! But they’d probably happily fund yet another “innovative” program to provide wrap around supportive services for foster kids.

2) Endangered Salmon: While living in Seattle for 15 years, I became accustomed to waking up pretty much every morning to another newspaper story about endangered salmon. Several years ago, there was even an attempt to OK killing sea lions because they were eating too many salmon, although I don’t believe a whisker on a single sea lion was actually ever harmed. I nearly fell off my chair when I read this piece in the January 21, 2010 Wall Street Journal: Fish Boom Makes Splash in Oregon. Despite the CW about the end of salmon runs on the West Coast, this year there are so many steelhead and their cousins that in some creeks, “you could literally walk across on the backs of Coho,” according to Grant McOmie, outdoors correspondent for a television news team in Portland. As the article states:

In 2007, one state office warned, “Populations of anadromous [or oceangoing] fish have declined dramatically all over the Pacific Northwest. Many populations of Chinook, Coho, chum and steelhead are at a tiny fraction of their historic levels.” The year before that, a naturalist in Seattle wrote: “It is hard to find the silver lining in a situation as dire as the collapse of wild salmon off the Oregon and California coasts.”

It turns out that the CW about salmon in Oregon is kind of fishy. This looks like a good opportunity for an enterprising homeless services provider in Portland to use the service delivery model I developed satirically in Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development. I’ll give you the acronym at no charge: Project FISH (Feed the Indigent/Salmon for Homeless). The grant writer for this proposal could make tidy use the old aphorism, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.”

It is almost never a good idea to go against your understanding of the presumed CW of the reviewers in writing a grant proposal. Not only do you have to stay inside in the box, as Jake wrote, you actually have to stay in a corner of the box. A case in point:

We’ve written lots of funded proposals for anti-tobacco/anti-smoking proposals over the years, particularly in California, which at one time had tons of money for such initiatives. About ten years ago, we were hired to write three proposals to prevent youth smoking in California by three different agencies for the same state RFP. While two of the clients were fairly typical youth service organizations, one was different. This nonprofit was interested in only working with white kids, which they deemed “Euro-Americans.” We almost never get good data sources from our clients, but this client provided peer-reviewed studies confirming that, with the exception of Native American youth, white teenagers in California were much more at risk for smoking than African American, Asian or Latino kids.

I told the client, however, that he would be going against CW about smoking and ethnicity and he would likely not be funded—especially if we wrote the proposal using the term “Euro-American” with a focus on white teenagers. He insisted, and we wrote it the way he wanted, using his terrific citations in one of the best needs assessments we’ve ever written. Not only was the proposal not funded, but it was also completely trashed in written reviewer comments our client later gave me. The reviewers were outraged that the agency would focus on white kids, instead of youth of color, and claimed a lack of data, despite the citations we included. In other words, their CW was so strong, they did not recognize the statistics provided right under their noses. The punch line is that the other two proposals we wrote for this competition focused on African American and Latino youth, respectively, used more or less the same service delivery approach as the first proposal and had entirely specious data that we cobbled together.

They were funded.

Now, about that discount. We’re willing to provide a 20% discount off our standard fee for a foundation appeal to the first qualified client who wants to fund an orphanage, salmon to feed the homeless or some other anti-CW project concept that we find intriguing. This means we’ll conduct basic research to identify a prospect list, complete detailed research to narrow down the list, write a foundation letter proposal (about five single spaced pages) and prepare 10 finished foundation proposals to the best identified sources for $5,600, a $1,400 discount from our standard fee of $7,000 for this type of assignment! If we get anyone to take us up on this offer, I’ll post updates on the outcome.**

* We were recently hired by a client in Owatonna, a small town about 40 miles south of Minneapolis. I have fond memories of Owatonna, since I used to go there frequently with my dad in the late 1950s to get live turkeys from a farm for our family kosher meat market. It was fun for a six-year-old to try to catch a turkey that was bigger than himself—with a poultry hook. Owatonna is also mentioned in one of Jake’s favorite childhood movies, Hot Shots. At the start of this hilarious parody, Charlie Sheen is Topper Harley, a troubled fighter pilot trying to recover his mojo in an Indian village, when a character speaks a series of faux Indian words that are actually town names in Minnesota, including Owatonna. The sequel, Hot Shots! Part Deux, is also lots of fun.

** The client must be a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Seliger + Associates will, at its sole discretion, determine if the client is qualified and the project concept is appropriate for this offer.