Tag Archives: Deadlines

You know you’re a grant writer if a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Service Area Competition (SAC) deadline vexes you

You know you’re a grant writer if… You’re reading the Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA) Service Area Competition (SAC) and discover that the deadline is July 6.

You’re frustrated because Monday, July 6 is a holiday for most people: the Fourth of July is Saturday, so the “holiday” part is the Monday after, which means that you won’t get much tech support if you need it on that Monday. You probably won’t get any tech support on Friday, July 3, either, since everyone in the federal government will probably have left—most of the Feds count that Friday as the holiday this year.

The real deadline is probably closer to July 2, chiefly because whatever genius at HRSA picked this deadline probably didn’t realize it was a holiday weekend, or simply decided to play a cruel trick on applicants. There are two possible reasons for this snafu: incompetence or malice. Neither portrays HRSA in a positive light. Oh, and applicants for this program are “Section 330” nonprofit community health centers, which are perhaps not the best targets for a HRSA practical joke, especially given how tremendously complex and difficult the applications are.

You know you’re a grant writer if… the same SAC RFP further irritates you because you have to submit a preliminary application using Grants.gov for a June 23 deadline, then submit the full application using HRSA’s Electronic Hand Books (EHB) system with a deadline of July 6 July 2. In other words, you have to learn yet another esoteric electronic system, although one that’s at least somewhat easier than Grants.gov.

You know you’re a grant writer if… you find Grants.gov’s failures and quirks amusing, causing you to write about them with some frequency.

You know you’re a grant writer if… the budget you receive from your client has no relationship to the narrative you’ve written, based on what the client told you in the first place. Actually, the budget has nothing to do with little if anything to do with anything whatsoever.

You know you’re a grant writer if… you’re the only person in America working on a holiday, other than cops and escorts.

You know you’re a grant writer if… you don’t even realize that tomorrow is a holiday—Memorial Day—and have to be told to hold the Seliger Funding Report for another day.

You know you’re a grant writer if… you’re outraged when you find that a deadline is on the holiday you hadn’t realized was there (see: first paragraph, above).

You know you’re a grant writer if… you’re inclined to write lists regarding when you know you’re a grant writer, and you actually think they’re amusing.

Grants.gov and deadline goofs

Isaac wrote about the dangers of online submissions in “Grants.gov Lurches Into the 21st Century,” which says that real world deadlines should be at least two days before the actual deadline to ensure that your proposal is actually received. This will help you avoid latency and response problems when every other applicant rushes to upload their application at the last minute.

Occasionally Grants.gov goofs result in postings like one regarding the Department of Education’s Charter School Programs (CSP; CFDA 84.282A):

The original notice for the FY 2009 CSP competition established a January 29, 2009, deadline date for eligible applicants to apply for funding under this program. For this competition, applicants are required to submit their applications electronically through the Governmentwide Grants.gov site (www.Grants.gov). Grants.gov experienced a substantial increase in application submissions that resulted in system slowness on the deadline date. For this reason we are reopening and establishing new deadline dates for the FY 2009 competition for CSP. Applicants must refer to the notice inviting applications for new awards that was published in the Federal Register on December 15, 2009 (73 FR 76014) for all other requirements concerning this reopened competition. The new deadline dates are: Deadline for Transmittal of Applications: February 25, 2009.

The odd thing, of course, is that whoever operates Grants.gov must know deadline days will result in a submission flood, and yet when that flood predictably comes everyone seems flummoxed. Sometimes, but not always, the funding agency responds by allowing more time. It’s not apparent what factors, if any, Grants.gov or program personnel consider in deciding whether to extend the deadline, and this opaqueness means that you have to assume that no deadlines will be extended. Isaac wrote about a lucky circumstance in “Now It’s Time for the Rest of the Story:”

[…] our client didn’t even know that HUD had received the proposal until about two weeks before the funding notification. It seems that she did not receive the sequence of emails from grants.gov confirming receipt of the proposal. She called and sent emails to grants.gov and HUD, which generated responses along the lines of, “we can’t find any record of it.”* This went on for about two months. Adding to the festivities, it turned out that there were problems with other applicants that day at grants.gov, so HUD re-opened the competition for a short period of time to allow these applicants to re-submit. Our client called the HUD Program Officer to discuss the re-submission process, at which point she was quickly told, “You don’t have to, we have your proposal and it’s already scored.” Two weeks later, she got a call from her congressman letting her know she’s been funded.

But you can’t rely on lucky circumstances. Just as the stimulus bill probably isn’t going to function as advertised and popularly portrayed and FEMA can’t seem to run the Assistance to Firefighters (AFG) program well, Grants.gov isn’t going to yield the efficiency gains it theoretically should. And if stimulus-funded programs begin pouring forth from Washington, the traffic on Grants.gov is only going to grow.

There’s a lesson to take from this: Grants.gov submissions are as arbitrary and disorganized as paper submissions, but it’s vastly harder to prove that you actually submitted a proposal using Grants.gov. In modern times the postal system and FedEx have rarely—if ever—been so overwhelmed that they couldn’t deliver packages (exceptions being obvious weather issues like hurricanes), and even when they became overwhelmed, one can still show proof of submission. With Grants.gov, that luxury is gone. Be warned.

That’ll Be The Day: Searching for Grant Writing Truths in Monument Valley

Faithful readers know of my Blue Highways post about driving to LA with my daughter following her college graduation last spring. This is my year for road trips, as I recently drove with Jake from Seattle to his new life as a English Literature Ph. D. candidate at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I insisted on a somewhat circuitous route via Salt Lake City, eventually winding up driving on a quintessential blue highway through one of my favorite places—Monument Valley.* Many readers would immediately recognize Monument Valley because they’ve been there vicariously in endless Westerns and other movies, particularly seven films directed by John Ford. To most most of the world’s movie fans, Monument Valley is the American West. One of the most interesting aspects of visiting or staying in Monument Valley is that one hears a cacophony of languages, since it is so popular with European and other foreign tourists.**

John Ford’s greatest Western is undoubtedly The Searchers, an epic tale of single-minded determination that shows off Monument Valley in all the glory of VistaVision. I got out the commemorative DVD of The Searchers that Jake gave me a few years ago and watched it again with a fried who’d never seen it. He was impressed, as most are by the striking themes and images. John Wayne’s maniacal lead character, Ethan Edwards, spends five years tearing around Monument Valley looking for his kidnapped niece, Debbie, played by a young and beautiful Natalie Wood. Accompanying Ethan is Debbie’s naive, but equally determined, half-brother, Martin Pauley, played by Jeffrey Hunter.*** The movie’s tension is built around whether Ethan will kill Debbie, because of the implied “fate worse than death” she has presumably suffered at the hands of her American Indian captors, or if Martin protect her from Ethan’s wrath. I will not spoil the outcome, except to note the last scene, which is of Ethan standing alone in the doorway of the ranch house framing Monument Valley in the distance, having rejected the comforts of hearth and family for the anti-civilization of the wilderness:

This is one of the best ending images of any movie, as it establishes the otherness of the character in the best tradition of Cooper’s Natty Bumpo in The Leatherstocking Tales.

This has much to do with grant writing: throughout the movie, Ethan teaches Martin how to stick with a challenge, tossing off the most famous line of the movie, “That’ll be the day,” when confronted with suggestions that he give up, can’t possibly find Debbie, etc. Grant writers, who must persevere to complete the proposal no matter what happens, need this attitude as well. Just as for Ethan, the task is all about finding Debbie, the grant writer’s job is to complete a technically correct proposal in time to meet the deadline no matter what.

We keep harping on the importance of meeting deadlines in this blog, but this really is the heart of grant writing. So, the next time someone tells you that you’ll never finish your needs assessment, budget narrative, or attachments, just lean back in your Aeron chair like John Wayne in the saddle, and say, “That’ll be the day.” In addition, the way Ethan informally tutors Martin during The Searchers illustrates how grant writing is best learned: by hanging around an accomplished grant writer. Perhaps instead of the foolish grant writing credentials we like to poke fun at, we should start a medieval-style Grant Writing Guild in which we indenture would-be grant writers at age 12, since apprenticeship is a pretty good model for learning such obscure skills as grant writing, glass blowing, horse-shoeing and seafaring. That could lead to a great memoir entitled, “Two Years Before the RFP.”**** For more on the subject of never giving up, see Seth Grodin’s blog post, The secret of the web (hint: it’s a virtue).

* For those planning to visit Monument Valley, try to a get a room at Goulding’s Lodge, the historic inn on the Navajo Reservation that was used by John Ford and many other filmmakers as a base for operations. The Lodge has an unsurpassed view of the Valley, along with a small but engaging museum.

** Jake and I helped a Swiss crew push their rather odd looking solar powered car out of a ditch. Like John Ford, they could find no better backdrop than the Valley for showcasing their work.

*** TV cognoscenti will remember that Jeffrey Hunter was the original captain in the pilot for Star Trek.

*** I’ve never actually read Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, but I lived in San Pedro many years ago and this book arose endlessly in cocktail party chatter. I’m not sure anyone has actually read it in about 100 years, but I am sure I will hear from at least one devoted Dana fan.

High Noon at the Grant Writing Corral: Staring Down Deadlines

Jake gave me a DVD edition of High Noon for Father’s Day, in which Gary Cooper’s Marshall Will Kane must face Frank Miller and his henchmen at exactly noon when their train arrives.* Tension builds as Marshall Kane realizes that none of the town folk will help him and that he must stand alone in the street while the large clock at the town square ticks relentlessly toward noon. This theme is played out endlessly in other Westerns, like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral—another favorite.

This scenario of a person alone with a ticking clock is exactly the situation faced by a grant writers on a deadline, although I must admit that I have never actually been shot at by a pistol-wielding HUD program officer. A deranged client once threatened my life, but this is a subject for another post. Grant writers should deal with the ticking clocks of RFPs by making sure they can work under extreme time pressure. If the idea of an absolute deadline gives you the willies, run for congress instead, where the dates are always mobile. In other words, if you don’t function well with absolute deadlines, give up, find something else to do, hire us, or work in some other administrative function. In epic fantasy and capital-R Romance, not everyone can or should fight the dragon, and it takes Beowulf to kill Grendel. If you’re ready to continue the quest, however, here is my handy guide to slaying RFP monsters while avoiding resorting to the use of strong drink:

1. Construct a proposal preparation timeline backwards, giving at least a two day cushion for hard copy submissions (this gives the FedEx plane a day for engine trouble, a day for the hurricane to pass, etc.) and a three day cushion for grants.gov submissions (this provides a day or two to resolve file upload/server problems). How much time should be allocated for achieving proposal preparation milestones (e.g., completing the first draft, review time for various drafts, etc.) depends on many variables, including how fast a writer you are, how complex the RFP is, how much research has to be done, how many layers of management have to review the drafts, etc. Most proposals can be easily completed in four to six weeks from initial project conception to hatching the proposal egg.

2. Scope the project thoroughly with whoever knows the most about the idea and give them an absolute deadline for providing background info (e.g., old proposals, studies, reports, back of the napkin doodles and the like). Make sure you know the answers to the 5Ws and the H (who, what, when, where and how—the subject of next week’s post). Tell them that the minute you start writing, you will no longer look at any background info that comes in later.

3. Assume that, regardless of any representations made by the Executive Director, City Manager, Project Director, et al, writing the proposal will be entirely up to you. Like Marshall Kane, you’ll be alone in the street facing the deadline, unless you have a handy partner like I do to serve as Doc Holliday to my Wyatt Earp.

4. Don’t do anything on the project for a few days to a few weeks, depending on how much time you have, letting the project idea percolate in your subconscious while you work on other things.

5. Write the first draft, incorporating whatever background info you have, the banalities of the RFP, and your hopefully fertile imagination (see Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development for thoughts on fleshing out a project concept).** When you write, try to write everything at once with the minimum number of possible breaks and interruptions. Avoid distractions, as Paul Graham advises in that link. Depending on the complexity and length of proposal and necessary research, the first draft should take anywhere from about six to 30 hours.

This is a broad range, but there is a spectacular difference between drafting a proposal to the Dubuque Community Foundation and HRSA. When you’re done, and only when you’re done with the first draft, send the draft proposal to the contact person with an absolute deadline for returning comments. Assuming there is enough time, it is best to allow at least a week for everyone involved to review the first draft. Always insist on a single set of comments, as some people like chocolate, some like vanilla and some don’t eat ice cream at all. Comments from multiple readers will also have you changing “that” to “which” and back again.

6. Read Proust, learn to understand cuneiform or do whatever else you do while not writing proposals.

7. When you have comments, write the second draft. This is last time you should agree to make major changes in the project concept. So, if the contact person tells you the target population is now left-handed at-risk youth from East Dubuque, instead of right-handed at-risk teen moms from West Dubuque as originally scoped, let them know that, if you make the change, you are not going back to right-handed youth in the final draft—the more conceptual changes that are made in later drafts, the harder it is to thread the changes throughout the proposal and associated documents (e.g. budget, budget narrative, etc.). The net result of late changes is usually internal inconsistencies, which is a fast way to lose points and sink a submission. Once again, provide an absolute deadline for returning comments, shorter than the time allowed for review of the first draft. Remind your contact that you are only looking for major errors, typos and the like. This is not the time to add a soliloquy on tough times in Dubuque. If your contact person has a hard time meeting deadlines, call or send e-mails and faxes with reminders that dallying may jeopardize meeting the submission deadline, which after all is the point of the exercise. We don’t view these reminders as CYA (cover your ass) stuff because, unlike internal grant writers, we are focused entirely on completing the assignment, not proving the guilt of others in a failed submission process. Keep in mind that your contact person is extremely unlikely to be as good as hitting deadlines as you are, so be gentle with initial reminders, rising to SCREAMS as the deadline bears down on you like the famous scene of the train finally arriving at 12:00 in High Noon, shot looking down the tracks straight at the onrushing locomotive.

8. Time to read Proust again.

9. Write the final draft when you have comments. Ignore pointless text changes like “that” to “which,” adding redundant adjectives, etc. Instead, focus on getting the document “right enough” and technically correct for submission in time to meet the deadline (see The Perils of Perfectionism).

Grant writing is all about meeting deadlines just like Westerns are all about facing the bad guys when they show up. It doesn’t matter how perfect the proposal is if you miss the deadline. Making sure you don’t miss it requires forward planning, hitting internal deadlines, avoiding procrastination and not wasting time in internal navel gazing or donut eating sessions. If you indulge those vices the proposal will never be finished. It many seem daunting to confront the anxieties of immovable deadlines with potentially millions of dollars and the needs of hundreds or thousands of people at stake, but, in over 35 years of proposal writing, I’ve never missed a deadline and neither should you.

* If you like High Noon, you’ll love the unusual scifi remake, Outland, with Sean Connery reprising the Gary Cooper role as Marshall O’Niel on a distant mining colony somewhere in deep space. Outland replaces the town square clock with a digital clock and adds a reasonable amount of gratuitous nudity, but confirms that the original Star Wars is not the only great Western set in space.

** I could not resist the bad pun for those of you brave enough to look at tasty nutria recipes.