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They only see the final proposal: Make sure you submit something to funders

This may seem obvious, but bear with me: Funders only see the final proposal you submit. They don’t see how hard you may have worked, the number of drafts you’ve completed, or how much you may have fought with your colleagues during drafting.

Even if the grant writing and assembly process goes bad, you should still submit the proposal anyway; we’ve said similar things in many posts, like “Deadlines are Everything, and How To Be Amazing.” If you don’t submit a proposal on time, you cannot be funded no matter how great the need or wonderful the project concept. If you do submit, however, funding is always possible, even if you are dispirited by the journey there. We’ve seen many internally dysfunctional organizations get funded because they managed to get something submitted, with our help, cajoling, and, near the deadline itself, outright hectoring. We’ve seen zero organizations, functional or not, get funded if they do not submit.

Many grant writing processes are ugly on the inside: Filled with recriminations, unhappiness, fights, bitterness, and so on. But the final product can, if the participants focus on the prize, turn out well regardless of the weakness of initial wrangling.

As it is in many places, The Lord of the Rings is relevant here. You may remember the hellacious journey of Sam and Frodo into and then through Mordor. Their process is, in modern terms, sub-optimal: they are hungry, thirsty, and exhausted throughout; they are opposed by Orcs, Nazgûl, and other foul creatures; the Ring continually tempts Frodo and calls out to its master; and the will of both Sam and Frodo is nearly crushed. Yet their quest is achieved because they persevere.

The process of destroying the Ring is daunting but the outcome is good, or at least an improvement over having all Middle Earth smothered by the darkness of Sauron, who would make all its people slaves. In grant writing, ugly processes can still sometimes yield funded programs. While we always strive to work with our clients to ensure technically correct submission packages that are internally consistent, this is not always possible due to missing support letters, committed matches, etc. Still, we’ve seen some technically incorrect proposals get funded, either through the magic of our grant writing, the ineptness of the reviewers or other opaque factors. Don’t forget that, even in the darkness that sometimes sets in a week before the deadline.

In many things in life, the people who succeed at whatever they attempt are the ones who are most determined to succeed and most determined to grind out a victory. Perseverance is underrated still.

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Deadlines can be your friend because they force a decision

Many of us have been in romantic circumstances with a wishy-washy or indecisive person (maybe we’ve even been that person). That can be frustrating because the potential romantic partner always seems on the verge of making a commitment, only to pull back, vacillate, introduce a rival, dither, consult with clueless or inept “friends,” and so on.

In the grant world, applying for foundation and government grants is a largely similar process. But the differences count too. Almost all government grants have a hard decision deadline—you’re in or out at a specific point. You have to be ready to submit proposal by the deadline or you can’t get the grant. Although everyone complains about deadlines at one point or another, they’re useful because they make you do things (or not do them). You can’t have an infinite number of meetings spread over months or years. The deadlines force a decision, and forcing a decision is valuable.

There are other advantages to deadline-based government grants: they’re usually for larger amounts of money and longer project periods than foundation funding—unless the foundation really, really loves you (which you won’t know and can’t find out until you apply).

Foundation grants, however, often have simpler applications and will usually fund a wider array of projects. We’ve seen numerous clients get funded for foundation projects that didn’t quite fit government programs. The one thing that foundation clients have in common, though, is that they decide to apply and complete the application process.

Sometimes we get hired in part because we provide an external structure to ensure that the job gets done, rather than waiting until an eternal tomorrow to finish it. In this respect, and to return to the metaphor in the first paragraph, we’re like a dating coach who provides the support and motivation necessary to get out there and make things happen.

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Shorter Deadlines Are Sometimes Better for Organizations and Grant Writers

It seems intuitive that having more time to complete a task would result in a better final product. But in grant writing—and other fields—that’s sometimes not the case.

The reason is simple: more time sometimes allows organizations to edit their proposals into oblivion or let everyone contribute their “ideas,” no matter poorly conceived or how poorly the ideas fit the proposal. We’ve been emphasizing these issues a lot recently, in posts like “On the Importance of Internal Consistency in Grant Proposals” and “The Curse of Knowledge in the Proposal World,” because consistency is incredibly important yet hard to describe concisely. Good proposals, like good novels, tend to emerge from a single mind that is weaving a single narrative thread.

The same person who writes the initial proposal should ideally then be in charge of wrangling all comments from all other parties. This isn’t always possible because the grant writer is often under-appreciated and has to accept conflicting orders from various stakeholders elsewhere in the organization. One advantage we have as consultants is that we can impose internal deadlines for returning a single set comments on a draft proposal on clients that otherwise might tend towards disorder. Sometimes that also makes clients unhappy, but the systems we’ve developed are in place to improve the final work product and increase the likelihood of the client being funded.

Short deadlines, by their nature, tend to reduce the ability of everyone to pour their ideas into a proposal, or for a proposal to be re-written once or repeatedly by committee. If the organization is sufficiently functional to stay focused on getting the proposal submitted, regardless of what else may be occurring, the proposal may turn out better because it’ll be more consistent and decision makers won’t have too much time to futz with it.

You’ve probably heard the cliché, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” It exists for a reason. You may also have seen baseball games in which delays let the coach have enough thinking time to think himself into a bad pitcher or hitter change. Although every writer needs at least one editor, a single person should be responsible for a proposal and should also have the authority and knowledge necessary to say “No” when needed.

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Grant Writing Confidential Goes to the Movies 4: Titanic Edition and Sink-the-Ship mistakes

Titanic is not actually one of my favorite movies, but I’m going to use it to illustrate a critical aspect of grant writing: you’ve got to know when you’re about to commit a sink the ship mistake. We’ve written about aspects of this before (see here, here, or here), but the issue is worth emphasizing because it arises so often.

We all remember the hapless Titanic passengers, whether it be the swells in first class epitomized by the beautiful Kate Winslet or the proles in steerage personified by Leonardo DiCaprio. As least as depicted in the movie, they all bought into the White Star Line’s “unsinkable” PR BS. In Titanic, the movie, the only person who understands the minor problem of the iceberg is the ship’s designer. He responds to a passenger screaming incredulously “But the ship can’t sink” by saying, “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can… and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.”

Grant writers are the architects of a given proposal writing assignment. As one, it’s your job to steer clear of sink-the-ship problems, even if the captain (executive director) wants to sail blithely into a field of metaphorical icebergs. Here are some common sink the ship problems we see:

  • Propose a budget that exceeds the maximum grant amount or is below the minimum grant amount.
  • Propose a match that is below the minimum required match. Or fail to understand how the match should be calculated.
  • Fail to include letters of commitment or MOUs from required partners.
  • In hard copy submissions, fail to include required signature pages.
  • In online/upload submissions, fail to include required attachments, including the voluminous federal certifications required by
  • Exceed the page limit maximum and/or often-hidden formatting requirements (e.g. font type and size, double spacing, pagination, file naming and so on).
  • Fail to include required attachments specified in the RFP (e.g., service area map, data tables, site plans for construction projects, etc.).
  • Propose service delivery to an ineligible target area or target population.
  • Be an ineligible applicant.
  • Miss the deadline, which is the ultimate sink the ship problem.

Any of the above will most likely get your proposal tossed during the initial technical review and it will not be scored. You will have hit an iceberg, or, if you like this metaphor better, dealt yourself the Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200 card.

As professional grant writers, we make every effort (free proposal phrase here) to avoid the above by closely reading the RPP and preparing a “documents memo” for our clients. This is a checklist for required submission package items and guides our clients on what they should worry about during the drafting process. While many RFPs include “checklists,” these are often incomplete and/or inconsistent with the RFP. As President Reagan famously put it about negotiating with the Soviet Union, “trust, but verify.”

While it pays to be very careful to avoid a sink-the-ship problem, many grant writers and executive directors instead focus on non-sink-the-ship problems at late stages of the application process. Here are some examples we run into frequently:

  • Excessively worrying about word choices. Although it always best to use good grammar, using “that” instead of “which” or “client” instead of “participant” are not important after the first draft.
  • Spending inordinate time preparing fancy color charts and graphs. While the formatting should look pleasing, putting ribbons on your proposal pig may backfire, as your your agency may look “too good” to readers, or create a huge file that may result in upload problems at and other upload sites.
  • Including endless descriptions of how wonderful the agency and executive director are. One paragraph is usually enough for the entire management team and a couple of pages of agency background is all that is needed. When writing about the agency, use specifics regarding programs, number of clients served and outcomes, instead of PR babble. Save this stuff for your annual holiday appeal letter.
  • Adding attachments that are not requested in the RFP. A screen shot of the executive director on “Oprah” or “Dr. Oz” won’t help you get funded, but they will generate amusement on the part of readers. Remember, you never what to submit a proposal that will be passed around by reviewers saying, “get a load of this one!”
  • Wasting time and space with letters of support from elected officials. Most grant reviewers know that virtually any applicant can get a letter from their congressperson/senator just by asking. This is not how influence is peddled in Washington.

Like most of our advice on the technical aspects of grant writing, avoiding a sink the ship problem is pretty simple. Read the RFP carefully, prepare a checklist with responsibilities and timeframes, write a compelling proposal, and submit a technically correct proposal a couple days ahead of the deadline. The challenge is all in the execution.

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Fallible FedEx and Federal Deadlines

Some things just can’t happen unless the time is right. When we dreamt up Seliger + Associates about 21 years ago, all grant proposal submittals were paper-based, usually involving an original with wet signatures and multiple copies—sometimes as many as ten, despite the Federal Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980. In the early stages of Seliger + Associates, we were based in the Bay Area, most of our clients were in LA, and most of the funders were in LA City and County departments—or Sacramento (CA state grants) and Washington, DC. It would not have been possible for Seliger + Associates to thrive without these three crucial elements: “800” phone service, a fax line and, most importantly, FedEx, or, as it was still known in 1993, “Federal Express.”

By 1993, it was pretty easy to get toll-free service and, at that time, “800” numbers were it (no 866, 888, etc.). The 800 number was essential, as we knew the office would be mobile and an 800 could be piggy-backed or associated with any phone number. Once we had an 800 number, it would follow us wherever we went—and it has, from the Bay Area to Seattle to Tucson and now Santa Monica. I sometimes get phone calls from clients I haven’t spoken to for ten or fifteen years because they remember the 800 number, which has appeared on tens of thousands of marketing flyers, letters, and business cards that lurk in hidden places and offices throughout America.

Fax machines were also ubiquitous by 1993, and they were state-of-the-art for instant document transmission. All we needed was a second phone line and a fax machine to easily send and receive proposal drafts to clients.

FedEx, however, was the real key to business success: it enabled us receive overnight payments (always important to a consultant) and background info from clients. We could overnight finished proposals to funders. The best part of FedEx was that it seemed, at least to us, to be 100% reliable. In fact, I can’t remember a single incidence of FedEx failing to deliver a package, as promised—until last week. [1]

Here is the sad tale of FedEx the fallen . . .

While almost all federal, state and local proposals are now submitted electronically, for some unknown reason the New York City Department of Education apparently thinks it’s time to party like 1999 and required hard copies for the 2014 Universal PreKindergarten (UPK) RFP process. The deadline was last Friday—February 14.

For local government funders, we typically produce hardcopies in LA, rather than our satellite office in New York, and ship them to our client, who then hand-deliver the submission package. This helps maintain our transparency as ghost writers. Being prudent grant writers, we finished the submission package last Monday and took it to the local FedEx office at about 4:45 PM—30 minutes in advance of what we thought was the 5:15 PM deadline for East Coast priority next-day deliver.

FedEx, however, decided at some point during the day to move up the drop off deadline to 4:30 PM without changing the automated telephone recording for this location. We had called earlier in the day (once again being prudent) and heard the recording, which confirmed the erroneous 5:15 PM deadline. When we got to FedEx, a gaggle of incredulous shippers like us were yelling at the hapless counter guy.

Since the RFP deadline was Friday, we thought a Wednesday delivery would be okay—and, of course, there was nothing we could do about it.[2] I called FedEx central anyway and was told the problem was “a snow storm expected in Indianapolis”—the FedEx hub through which the package was being routed.

We returned to the local FedEx office with the package on Tuesday and off it went. Unfortunately by then, the snow storm had actually hit Indianapolis, delaying FedEx plane departures in the middle of the night. The FedEx plane was hours late getting to Newark and by the time the package got to the NYC sort facility, the drivers had already left on their rounds.

I didn’t figure this out until 10:00 AM PST on Wednesday and spent an hour or so working my way up the food chain to a FedEx supervisor, who said, more or less, that I could go piss up a rope because the package wouldn’t be delivered until Thursday. I was indignant, because in days of yore, a FedEx supervisor would have moved heaven and earth to get a package delivered, even if meant having local FedEx managers use their own cars for delivery. The company culture has changed.

The supervisor did, however, say that our client could go to the sort facility and pick up the package. I called the client, who said she would go retrieve it. By the time she got there, FedEx had apparently gotten enough complaining phone calls from angry shippers and sent the late packages out with a wave of unscheduled afternoon trucks.

The package was now on a truck, not at the sort facility, so our client went back to her office, which is in a private school building. By then the blizzard was bearing down on NYC. At 5:00 our client and most other staff left the building. Of course FedEx delivered the package at 5:15 to the security guard, who was the only person left at the school. The package was locked in the school building, which was naturally closed on Thursday, due to the now very real blizzard.

As the Vince, pitchman for Shamwow[3], used to say “are you following me, camera guy?” The package that was supposed to be delivered by FedEx on Tuesday was actually not received by our client until Friday morning, just a few hours ahead of the deadline.

But on Thursday, the NYC DOE issued an amendment extending the deadline until this Tuesday, February 18, because of the blizzard that had been harassing this proposal all last week.

A couple of takeaways from this bizarre story: FedEx has turned into a bureaucracy and is longer as infallible as it once seemed. FedEx employees used to care about their sacred mission, much as Google employees are said to today; now they seem to be punching the clock. Just as we advise our clients to always upload submissions at least 48 hours in advance of the deadline to allow for upload issues, give yourself a couple of days of slack for hard copy submissions being sent via FedEx.[4]

Having given this advice, however, it is also not a good idea to submit proposals more than two days in advance. Funders will sometimes issue last minute amendments to RFPs. In the case of the NYC DOE RPF I’ve been discussing, the last minute amendment was a deadline extension, but it could have been some other, crucial change. If you’ve already submitted a proposal—hard copy or digital—early, and a subsequent amendment is issued, then in technical terms, you be screwed. You generally can’t un-submit a proposal.

[1] Oddly enough, Jake just had FedEx miss a delivery as well. He ordered a Tom Bihn Cache, which should have arrived in New York from its manufacturing point outside of Seattle before Jake’s recent trip to Boston. The package didn’t show up, however, and when Jake called FedEx with the tracking number the person who answered said he couldn’t find the package’s location in the system and suggested that Jake file a claim for a lost package.

Jake sent an e-mail to Tom Bihn, figuring that they should take care of it, and eventually the package did show up—just not in time for his trip. Nonetheless, the experience doesn’t inspire confidence in the company, especially since their customer service reps don’t even know what their system messages mean.

[2] We have a Force Majeure— sometimes referred to as an “act of God”—clause in our contracts for just this reason.

[3] My daughter bought Shamwows for me as a gag gift a few years ago, because she knew how much I enjoyed Vince’s infomercials. They turned out to be a very good product. No one, however, has yet bought me a Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman, made famous by Ron Popeil, the original informercial pitchman.

[4] Amazingly, there are still some federal programs, particularly in that bastion of innovation, the Department of Education, requiring hard copy submissions.

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Always Finish Early: You Never Really Know What’s Going To Happen With a Proposal Deadline

We always tell our clients the same thing: the real deadline for any Federal proposal is 48 hours before the stated deadline. The is true for online and hard copy submissions.

Most federal proposals these days are submitted through what has become our old friend, takes 48 hours to spit out confirmation e-mails confirming that the system has received a complete application. If you wait until you’re within 48 hours of the deadline, you could easily have the whole grant writing and application process torpedoed by an server problem, file corruption, or other weird upload issues.

You also never knows when is going to be overloaded or otherwise inaccessible. In an age of Google and Amazon Web Services, most people are used to highly reliable on-line experiences. Throw those assumptions out when dealing with

Despite the slide toward online submissions, some RFPs still require hard copy submissions, which means FedEx or Express Mail. You can’t know when Hurricane Sandy (or an equivalent, such as a meteor strike) is going to hit. Usually disasters encourage deadline extensions and, possibly, the invocation of force majeure. But sometimes deadlines aren’t extended and the butterfly effect means that a bad thing happening in any part of the grant pipeline—such as a storm in Memphis, which is FedEx’s hub—can screw up the whole system. As for Express Mail, I don’t think I have to comment on the vagaries of USPS.

This is a boring but important topic. We know it’s boring because, hey, who wants to talk about deadlines? We know it’s important, however, based on the number of clients we’ve talked to who’ve missed the deadlines for their applications by ten minutes or two hours.

There’s one other issue, too, which we brought up in “Hurricane Sandy and the Election Combine to Blow Away the RFPs: disasters that affect DC may result in delays in the issuing and processing of RFPs. If you miss one deadline, you may not see another promising program for months. Occasionally a single RFP can mean the different between life and death for an agency. Failing to seize every chance you get may mean that you ultimately discover one day that you’re out of chances.

EDIT: I forgot this story, but a couple years ago a client was submitting a YouthBuild application, and he waited until the morning of the due date to upload his files. He spent the next 14 hours trying to get the upload to work and finally succeeded at 11:59 PM. I am not making this up. The good news is that his agency was funded, but life is too short for this sort of drama.

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Thirty day deadlines favor the prepared

The cliche goes, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” and we could repurpose it to, “Short deadlines favor the prepared nonprofit.” I have the dubious pleasure of reading the Federal Register every week and have noticed that deadlines are shrinking like hemlines. This means the organizations that apply with a complete and technically correct proposal are, even more than usual, the ones who don’t dawdle in deciding to apply and don’t procrastinate once they’ve made the decision.

If you’re thinking about applying for a grant with a thirty-day deadline, don’t take a week to mull it over. Take an hour. Need to wait on a board meeting? See if you can schedule an emergency meeting that night. Can’t do it? Text the chairperson immediately and set up a conference call. If you wait long enough, you won’t be able to get your application together, and, in an environment like this one, you don’t want to miss a deadline for a good program. It could be the life or death of your organization. Small delays tend to turn into big ones; don’t delay any part of the process any longer than you have to.

We sometimes find ourselves in a situation where a couple of clients hire us before a funder issues an RFP. Once the RFP is issued with a very short deadline, we get deluged with calls; as a result, we often have to say “no” to jobs because we lack the capacity and the time to do them. For us, this sucks, since we want to help our clients get funded. But we’re also unusual because we always hit our deadlines; part of the reason we can always hit deadlines is because we decline work if we can’t finish it.

This sometimes makes potential clients, who think hiring a consultant is like shopping at the Apple Store, irritated: “Whaddaya mean, you can’t write the proposal?” “We don’t have the capacity.” “That’s ridiculous! I’m ready to pay.” But consulting isn’t like stamping out another MacBook Air: it’s an allocation of time, and, like most people, we only have twenty-four hours in our days. While we can often accept very short deadlines, sometimes our other obligations mean we can’t. No matter how much it hurts to say “no,” we say it if we have to. This is one reason it is a good idea to hire in advance of a RFP being issued.

There are also situations with misleading or hidden double deadlines. For example, the HRSA Section 330 programs Isaac wrote about last week list application deadlines of October 12. But that deadline is only for the initial submission, which requires an SF-424, a budget, and a couple other minor things. Stuff you could do in a day. The real application—the HRSA Electronic Handbook (EHBs) submission—isn’t due until November 22. So what looks like thirty days is actually closer to two months, but only to people in the know (like those of you who read our e-mail grant newsletter; I’ve seen lots of sites present the October 12 deadline HRSA offered instead of the real deadline). If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to miss what’s really happening on the ground.

But you should still make your choice to apply for any grant program quickly, not slowly. Slow food might be a virtue, but slow grant application decision-making and proposal writing aren’t.

When Seliger + Associates began, the Internet was just breaking into the mainstream and relatively few nonprofits used computers in the workplace and few business and home computers had reliable Internet connection. Grant deadlines were routinely in the neighborhood of 60 days. They had to be: disseminating information about deadlines was slow, shipping hard copies of RFPs was slow, research was slow and required trips to libraries. Plus, there’s an element of fundamental fairness in giving nonprofit and public agencies enough time to think about what they’re doing, gather partners, solicit community input, decide to hire grant writers, and so forth, and funders appear to have lost interest in that issue. Now, nonprofits have to do this much faster. The ones that succeed are the ones who realize that circumstances on the ground have changed and then adapt to the new environment.

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Talent Search RFP Finally Published — But What A Stupid Deadline

Last Sunday I posed the question, “Searching for Talent Search: Where Oh Where Has the Talent Search RFP Gone And Why is It A Secret?.” I still don’t know why the RFP release date was a secret, but on Wednesday, the Department of Education finally published the Talent Search application instructions. Hallelujah, or as my now 24 year old son used to say at about age five, “Hallalulah!”

One minor problem: The deadline is December 28, dead center between Christmas and New Years Day. I wonder why the Department of Education would pick such a dumb deadline. A quick check of the calendar reveals that Christmas and New Years Day fall on Saturdays. Anybody who has worked for a public agency will know that almost all Talent Search employees will, at a minimum, take off December 24 and 31, and most will be on vacation from December 24 through at least January 3. Most folks want to combine vacation days with holidays and quasi-holidays to stretch out their time off.

Thus, there will be no one home to look at proposals submitted on December 28. Likely, because of the hullabaloo in D.C. with the start of the new Congress on January 3 and MLK day on January 17 (another opportunity to stretch a three day weekend into ten days off), not much will likely happen with Talent Search applications until at least the third week in January.

So why make Talent Search applicants work right through Christmas? The Talent Search team is either venal or just plain stupid. As Forrest Gump observed, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

You be the judge. Of course, if you really want to have a Happy Holiday, let us slave over your hot Talent Search proposal and you can hit those day after Xmas sales to do your part to bring the economy back.

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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.


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Deadlines are Everything, and How To Be Amazing

I was reading Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days when I came across an interview with Philip Greenspun in which he describes part of what made ArsDigita so successful:

The third element is just meeting the deadlines. If we’d said we were going to do something by a certain date, we did it, and the customers were stunned.

He goes on to say that “There was so much repeat business because customers would be amazed that we delivered on time and that it was more or less what they wanted and actually usable for the end user.”

That shouldn’t be amazing, but it often is because we’re used to dealing with stuff that doesn’t work very well and businesses that over-promise and under-deliver, if they deliver at all.

Think of airlines, which specialize in jerking you around and making you feel like everyone else paid less for their ticket than you did. Or, of consultants who set unrealistic deadlines for deliverables and then make endless excuses when they miss their often self-imposed deadlines.

Or think of car dealerships.

I’ve been trying to buy or lease a car, and probably a Toyota Prius, so I can look down on my neighbors for destroying the environment. And I hear they—the cars, not the neighbors—get good mileage. Anyway, car dealerships are on my mind because buying a car is a miserable, maddening, opaque experience. The salesmen—and they’re almost always men—lie constantly. They make things up. Last week, one of them showed me his super secret invoice price that he couldn’t possibly go below… until he did. Then he decided he was sick.

Then whoever he handed me off to couldn’t produce actual lease terms. Then I got a third guy from the same dealership who loaded a lease that should’ve had, at most, $1,799 in drive-off costs with $4,500 in drive-off costs. Another dealership had a Prius II in “Barcelona Red,” the color I wanted… with an extra $2,000 in dealer options I didn’t. I wasted half an hour there. By the time I left, I no longer wanted to buy anything.*

What’s really amazing is that car dealers stay in business. But they do, because someone with less tenacity or more money will simply put up with the dance. I know car dealers are just engaging in sophisticated forms of market segmentation, and they’re playing a much longer game than I am.

That being said, they make buying a new car as pleasant as a visit to the dentist, at least for me (Isaac actually likes wrangling car dealers, and I will leave you to decide what this says about his personality). Toyota spends billions of dollars a year trying to convince people that they’re a nice company, and then I go through the showroom wringer and come out hating them, even though I intellectually know that corporate has little to do with how the dealership down the street behaves.

Contrast the buying-a-car experience with what getting a proposal written is like with Seliger + Associates. We post our fees on our website. If you call us and say, “I want an Office of Community Services’ (OCS) Community Economic Development Projects proposal,” you generally get a price quote right then. If you’re not eligible for a program or if you’re running a business that is ineligible for grants, we tell you.

In Founders at Work, Paul Graham described the way he managed to sell Viaweb, his early software for building online stores:

I found I could actually sell moderately well. I could convince people of stuff. I learned a trick for doing this: to tell the truth. A lot of people think that the way to convince people of things is to be eloquent—to have some bag of tricks for sliding conclusions into their brains. But there’s also a sort of hack that you can use if you are not a very good salesman, which is simply tell people the truth. Our strategy for selling our software to people was: make the best software and then tell them, truthfully, ‘this is the best software.’ And they could tell we were telling the truth”

Notice that: he learned a trick for selling things—”tell the truth.” That this is considered a trick should make it obvious that something is profoundly wrong in a lot of businesses. Car dealers basically make everything they do a series of lies, hoops, and tricks, such that, after having to deal with them, I assume they’re lying most of the time.

Seliger + Associates also has a simple procedure: tell the truth and write proposals. If you hire us, we complete a compelling proposal on time. We never miss deadlines and never make excuses.

People are amazed! We hit deadlines, and that’s enough to impress them because so many of their experiences with employees, other grant writers, and consultants are apparently so lousy that they’ve come to expect a lack of follow through. We’ve never missed a deadline. Did I mention that already? It’s worth repeating, because deadlines are the essence of grant writing. If you’re a grant writer working for an organization and you want to be a star, never miss a deadline.

Almost everyone else does. Most deadlines imposed by businesses are artificial—get this report to me by Friday. If you don’t until Monday, it doesn’t matter. With grant writing, it does, and if you hit deadlines, you’re an unusual person.

You’ll also be a competent one. Off the top of my head, I can remember only a handful of times that I’ve been completely delighted by competence. Starwood Hotels come to mind: if you call the reservation number, whoever is on the other end will do whatever he or she can to make sure you get what you want. I had to visit Seattle last December and managed to stay in the W Hotel at a very good rate because of the friskiness of the phone rep. That kind of thing happens so rarely that I’m writing about it now.

Most of the time, you call a company’s number and get interminable music punctuated by “We appreciate your business,” which is a transparent lie, because if it were true, I wouldn’t be on hold. One car salesman said to me, “What can I do to earn your business?” just after I’d complained about another dealership and just before I discovered his own dissembling. It’s incredibly frustrating. Here’s a clue to car salesmen: try telling the truth. One good reason to tell the truth, which Isaac has told me since I was young, is that, if one tells the truth, one does not need to remember what is said to this person or that person.

Philip Greenspun understood that basic dynamic when he started ArsDigita. We understand it too. The simple thing to do is tell the truth and do what you say you’re going to do. If you do, people will be amazed, and you’ll be a superstar grant writer. This is true in human service delivery, grant writing, software development, and any number of other fields.

* Dan Ariely spends some time slagging Audi’s customer service in his new book, The Upside of Irrationality, which, like Predictably Irrational, is very much worth reading. Anyway, he describes how his effectively new car mysteriously halted on the way to Boston, leaving him in the lurch, and the indifference that Audi shows. We used to have a Passat, and, later, an Audi TT convertible, both of which were spectacularly unreliable and convinced my family not to buy any more Audis or Volkswagons.