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Learn How Things Work, Including Grants and Grant Writing

We regularly get e-mails and phone calls from people who think they can get money for nothing. They don’t know anything about how grants or grant writing works and apparently don’t want to learn. This is mind-boggling to me because it means such people are wasting their time and wasting our time for no particular reason.

People call or write to ask about grants for their small businesses, for child care, to pay their bills, and all kinds of other stuff, even when we say—right on our website—that most businesses and individuals aren’t eligible for grants and that we work primarily for nonprofit and public agencies. Such people are asking to be taken by unscrupulous sharks because they don’t know any better. Almost every legitimate grant writer has statements like ours on their website. We write posts (like this one) on our blog. So why keep sending the emails and calling?

Max Klein’s post “Drug dealers shouldn’t make iPhone apps” gives us a partial answer. He says:

I’ve been noticing that a great deal of successful people are very consistent in what they do and in their approach. For example, a weather man. You will see him having weather kits, weather shows, etc. It’s all about the weather. That’s what people know him for. And he leverages his knowledge to move horizontally in the weather space.

Then he tells a hilarious story about a guy in Bali who rents body boards, is a part-time gigolo, and wants to open a brothel. Klein says:

I spluttered: Why in heavens name don’t you start a motorcycle shop or something and make money legally?

He gave me an answer that is one of the most important sentences I have ever heard:

“What do I know about selling motorcycles? I know about selling bodies, that’s what I do, it’s what I’m good at, and I’m not going to throw away all I have learned over these years and do something where I have absolutely no experience.”

This is brilliant and lots of people don’t do it. They want to throw away whatever they’ve learned to chase grants, or they don’t want to learn anything in the first place. If you’re going to chase grants and you’re reading this, you should start by reading every single post in the archives of this blog. When you’re done, you will know have a reasonable understanding of grant writing and what is possible. If you don’t want to believe us, type “grant writing blog” into the search engine of your choice and read what others have to say.

In an alternate world, I am a famous and successful novelist exchanging bon mots with Jon Stewart and Christopher Hitchens. Obviously I’m not—at the moment, anyway—but in working toward that goal, I’ve read a lot about how writing and publishing works. Blogs have been great for this because they’re often written by people in the industry, and the writers have no reason to put a smiley face on things, unlike writers of how-to-get-published books that want to sell you books and make you believe in your dreams, however improbable, poorly conceived, or poorly executed.

Agent blogs like Nathan Bransford, Betsy Lerner, Janet Reid, and Dystel & Goderich have been incredibly useful. There are others as well. Taken together, they explain what it’s like to be on the other end of the slush pile (pretty ugly) and what catches their eye (voice and writers who’ve done their homework). They explain how publishing works. The novelist Charlie Stross has been explaining how the publishing industry is changing. And so on. Janet Reid also runs a blog named Query Shark, which is a snarky what-not-to-do guide for writing query letters.

If you read all this material, you’ll start to understand what you’re supposed to do if you want any shot whatsoever at getting published. If you don’t, the chances of you remaining in your current, unpublished state rise considerably because you’ll never get past the initial query letter hurdle because you don’t know anything about what you’re trying to do.

Callers to Seliger + Associates, however, routinely demonstrate that they know nothing about what they’re trying to do, and we see the unfortunate results. (Note that if you’re with a nonprofit or public agency, the preceding sentence doesn’t apply to you, and you shouldn’t hesitate to call.) Not long ago, we got an especially strange e-mail from someone who says she is a student in criminology, but has written a cookbook and also has a “business plan and letter of intent for the cookbook.” The e-mail is poorly written and says things like, “I am needing a grant to help pay for this,” which is the kind of mistake that, if my freshmen students make it often enough, means they’ll fail my class. She says, “So, What I am asking is for $10,000.00.” Asking for $10K from us? From someone else? I have no idea.

Maybe this is just the Dunning-Kruger Effect at work (“our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.” Read that again). Or maybe it’s something more.

Our correspondent should learn about what she’s trying to do, because no one is going to give her money or help her based on the query she sent. If she’s looking for financial aid, her college has an office dedicated to that task. This is basic, basic stuff. I have no idea if the woman who wrote to us knows anything about any domain, but she definitely knows as little about grant writing as I know about forestry management. In her email, she also says “This is very important to me,” which is patently untrue, because when something is very important to a person, they research the subject and pay very close attention to what they’re doing. When something is important, a person takes a lot of time to do it well or learn how to do it well. If she doesn’t, then at best she’ll fail in her stated goal and at worse she’ll pay money to someone and get nothing in return.

The guy in Bali has spent years learning about the body trade, and he’s not going to throw that knowledge away by diving into some other field. The woman writing to us should take the same lesson to heart. I realize this is probably shouting into the void, since you, dear reader, are already reading Grant Writing Confidential and thus less likely to make these kinds of egregious, wasteful errors. But now at least I have somewhere to point people.