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Yet Another Note on Grant Writing Training, Seminars, and Workshops

Most of the people who send us angry e-mails regarding our posts on the uselessness of grant writing credentials, workshops, and the like do so because they teach those workshops and are unhappy when prospective students send links to our work. We got another such e-mail recently, which starts with a rhetorical question we’ve answered in a dozen places: “How does a potential grant writer learn to prepare a proposal?” It’s not that hard: one learns, most often, in English comp classes that teach you how to write and journalism classes that teach you how to answer who, what, where, when, why, and how. The rest is described in the post linked to above.

Our correspondent continued:

“I firmly believe conducting a grant writing seminar is a great marketing tool for consultants who are building their practice. After all, it is the novice grant writers who need the greatest help from the grant writing experts…such as myself or Seliger + Associates.”

We firmly believe that the best way to learn how to be a grant writer is by learning how to write, which grant writing seminars can’t teach you, and then writing proposals. But grant writing seminars are a great marketing tool for people like the woman who wrote to us, since she teaches grant writing seminars and would be out of business if she couldn’t do so any more. If I sold hot dogs, I’d be very opposed to people who point out that hot dogs aren’t very good for you. If I sold grant writing seminars, I’d be opposed to people who point out that such seminars are a waste of time.

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The Last Word on Grant Writing Credentials: Awards Are Only as Good as the Organization Giving Them

On a software blog, I found this post concerning an author who’d given himself an award:

‘You know, there were two strange things about that award, …Firstly, after I awarded it to myself, I felt oddly elated, as if some august academic body had suddenly realised my true worth as an author and had strained every sinew to ensure that my talent was acknowledged.’


‘… and what was the other strange thing?’

‘You are the first person ever to have asked me precisely what award it was that I’d won. Everybody else has just taken it for granted.’

‘I work in IT. It makes one cautious of trusting qualifications and awards.’

Consider this in light of Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain and its follow-up, both of which discuss how certifications, credentials, and the like are only as good as the knowledge they represent and the organization issuing them. With many credentials, bogus language cloaks what’s really happening—for another example of the same phenomenon, check out this post from Joel Spolsky.

Anyway, the point Isaac made regarding the degrees that matter is a good one: the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. matter, but even then only to a limited extent. People of varying talents earn those degrees, which are in turn only as rigorous as the classes taken. Not so long ago I was an undergrad, and almost all of us had mental hierarchies of teachers and classes, and anyone who wanted to avoid harder teachers/classes could. It’s simply not very difficult to get a degree in many majors, especially in the liberal arts. Of course, there are many good people who graduate with liberal arts degrees, but many is not the same at as all. We’ve all probably met incompetent college graduates, and I’ve met head-in-the-clouds Ph.D.s. There is no alphabet soup behind a person’s name that really guarantees that person’s skill.

You only have what Mr. Spolsky would call “weak indicators.” Given how imperfect college degrees are as indicators of skill, and how much effort goes into them, you shouldn’t be surprised that so many other “credentials” are even worse. Tautologically, only skill can show skill, and the best indication of a person’s skill is that person’s track record. Want to discover if you or someone you know can write a proposal? Give them an RFP, a deadline, a computer, Internet access, as much coffee as they want and see if they produce a proposal. If so, they’re a grant writer, and you can give them another. If not, use your best Donald Trump voice to say “You’re fired!”, send them to the Department of Education (as Isaac suggested), and go on to the next resume or consultant in your pile. Eventually you’ll probably find a grant writer.

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Grant Writing Credentials Redux

Two comments on Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain caught my attention: one is an elegantly written response challenging some aspects of my argument and the other a screechy attack.

In the first response, Marcia Ford agrees with my statements about “bogus credentials,” but defends the credential offered by the American Association of Grant Professionals, the organization she represents. Her reply is not all that surprising, as Ms. Ford helped develop the credential and presumably supports a product she sells. Now, it may anger some to call her organization’s grant writing credential a “product,” but that’s what it is, and one that sells for $595—not a small amount for the average struggling would-be grant writer. Her primary organization has set up a nonprofit to develop and market the credential.

Many entities sell services and products to nonprofits and their personnel. These include unabashed businesses, such as Seliger + Associates or Office Depot, nonprofits like Ms. Ford’s Grant Professionals Certification Institute, and businesses that look like nonprofits, such as Charity Channel (Charity Channel is particularly interesting as they describe themselves as “a resource that connects nonprofit colleagues around the world” on their FAQ page, but don’t make it obvious that they are a for-profit business, veiling themselves behind a wall of altruistic statements).

So, are Ms. Ford’s comments accurate and is the product worth the price? I think not in both cases. She says that “writing is not all there is to grant development any more.” Grant writing has always included more than writing (e.g., imagination, being to work under pressure, etc.), but as Rabbi Hillel said when asked by a heathen to explain Jewish law, “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary.” Grant writing is about writing and the rest is mere commentary, including Ms. Ford’s other eight “competencies.” If you can’t write well under pressure, who cares if you know all there is to know about “grant readiness,” whatever than is. I’m heartened to know that “major training companies” are “aligning their curriculums to cover these skills.” I assume she’s talking about The Grantsmanship Center, which is also a “nonprofit” business that exists to sell products to other nonprofits. If there are others, I would be interested to learn of them.

Ms. Ford is also proud that the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NOCA) will soon accredit their certification. According to her, they accredit certifications from “poison control to nurse practitioners.” It might be meaningful if they accredited journalists, novelists, or other writers, although it is interesting to think of grant writing in the context of poison control. But writing has nothing to do with vocational skills like nursing. In addition, the GPC exam was developed by an Institute at the University of South Florida, which certifies public teachers in the state. This might not be an optimal comparison, since competency tests for teachers are notoriously lax (Jake can attest to this, as he took the Washington test, which he says is slightly more complicated than holding up a mirror to check for breath). Just for fun, I went to the Florida Department of Education website to see how effective the certified teachers are doing in Florida and found that 34% of 12th graders achieve a score of 3 or higher (5-point scale) on the FCAT Reading Test, meaning that 2/3 of high school seniors have not learned to read adequately. Even more fun is that 69% of 3rd graders score 3 or higher on the test—apparently the longer a young person is subjected to certified teachers, the worse the outcome.

Now, I’m just having fun manipulating data, so don’t get too excited. I appreciate the work of public school teachers, sent all three of my kids to public schools and am myself a graduate of Cooper High School in Robbinsdale, MN (go Hawks!). But the tests necessary to become a teacher don’t seem to have much to do with teaching skill or establish anything more than a bare minimum of knowledge. Going back to Ms. Ford, she concludes by alluding to “industry-recognized standards,” without stating what industry and who is doing the recognizing, other than her own organization, which sells the certification, the contractor that developed the exam, and the accrediting agency, all of which are collecting fees and none of which is a disinterested party. But I would guess that she is a good grant writer because as her comment is a great example of specious writing, an essential competency for all grant writers.

The more grating comment comes from the self-proclaimed “Ethical Grantwriter,” who confuses training and testing. For example, she/he wants to know if I would hire an accountant who “wasn’t a CPA” or a lawyer who “didn’t pass the bar.” Probably not, but then again, the CPA exam and bar exam are well established credentials with decades of broad society recognition. I’ll check back in 50 years and, if Ms. Ford’s certification is still around, perhaps I’ll take the test. Also, our Ethical Grantwriter fails to point out that one cannot take the CPA or bar exams without first completing years of post-secondary education. Anybody with $595 can take Ms. Ford’s exam and perhaps pass, but I can’t just trot down to take the bar exam. Finally, the “academic study” of grant writing means taking college journalism and English classes, which is what I suggested. Perhaps, he does agree with me, but is just confused. I suggest she/he stop staring at RFPs and have a couple of cocktails.

So, keep those comments coming. One of the central reasons for starting Grant Writing Confidential was to encourage the exchange of ideas about grant writing and it seems we’re succeeding.

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Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain

A manager at the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, an agency we sometimes work for, recently sent me a link to the “Grant Professionals Certification Institute” (GPCI; link deliberately excluded), an organization that offers “credentials” for would-be grant writers. He wanted my reaction to the idea of grant writing credentials, which I gave him immediately: they’re (mostly) a waste of time. But I decided to take a look at this offer, since I’ve been writing proposals without a license for 35 years.

The GPCI was apparently formed just to offer credentials. The fee is $525 to take an “examination developed through rigorous national standards for professional credentials.” I have no idea what could be meant by “rigorous national standards” or who developed them, but a grant writer must have written this sentence because it is definitely proposalese: filled with vague citations to an unnamed authority and using many complex words where a few simple ones would convey the message.

Without going into the equally unintentionally funny “competencies and skills tested,” the best part is that a “writing exercise represents 20% of the examination score.” So, 80% of a test to prove one can write is not writing! This further confirms grant writers thought up the idea. You pay $525 to pass a test and get a certificate, presumably gilt-edged and suitable for framing.

Does this mean anything? My guess is not much to the recipient, but it’s a great deal for the people selling the credential, just like Tom Sawyer getting friends to whitewash a fence. Apparently, the GPCI never heard of such existing credentials as a baccalaureate, a Masters or a Ph.D. in English or journalism, so they decided to offer a degree of their own, but one with less rigor and no oversight. Let’s see—if they can get 1,000 people to sign up, that’s over $500K. Not a bad business proposition.

I’ve seen various versions of grant writing certifications over the years, along with endless self-help books, training seminars, and the like, but the bad news for those chasing such wills-o-the-wisp is that none will make someone a grant writer. For example, I recently received a notice from The Grantsmanship Center about a local training session, and the note proudly announced that “more than 100,000 people” have attended over the years. If their training was effective, thousands of qualified grant writers should roam the streets, but I don’t often run into them.

Despite the good intentions of some organizations promoting grant writing credentials and training, the only way to become good at grant writing is to write proposals—the more the better and the more varied the better. This is true of all kinds of writing. The challenge is, most people who want to be grant writers are not good writers to begin with or cannot write under deadline pressure. A five-day seminar or sitting for an exam is unlikely to solve this problem and make one a grant writer.

I’m constantly asked how to become a grant writer and I always give the same response: take English composition or journalism classes at a local college to sharpen your writing skills, find a nonprofit in need of help—not too tough to find—and start writing proposals. After a couple of tries, most people will give up, but a few will persevere and become proficient. It also helps if you can apprentice with a grant writer, which is one reason Jake is a good grant writer—he’s been marinating in grant writing for many years and whatever the “it” is, has soaked in.

If we ever decide to offer a grant writing credential, we would structure the exam like this: The supplicant will be locked in a windowless room with a computer, a glass of water, one meal and a complex federal RFP. The person will have four hours to complete the needs assessment. If it passes muster, they will get a bathroom break, more water and food and another four hours for the goals/objectives section and so on. At the end of the week, the person will either be dead or a grant writer, at which point we either make them a Department of Education Program Officer (if they’re dead) or give them a pat on the head and a Grant Writing Credential to impress their mothers (if they’ve passed).

The whole idea of grant writing credentials reminds me of Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz, who awards the Scarecrow a “diploma” to compensate for his lack of a brain. As Dorothy understands, you don’t need a diploma to prove you have a brain and you don’t need a two-bit credential to prove you are a grant writer.

EDIT 2015: Despite all the invective above, we are willing to offer grant writing training / seminars, though they won’t be much like most grant writing training and our primary mission is still grant writing—not grant-writing teaching. They also aren’t quite as draconian as the suggestions above. We charge $2,000 per day, or $5,000 per three-day workshop, and Jake teaches the classes.

UPDATE: Isaac responded to some of the commenters in this post. Jake wrote another post about credentials and certifications. If you aren’t altogether sick of the topic, you can also read this.