Tag Archives: Experience

Be “Experienced” and “Innovative” at the Same Time

Certain buzzwords and buzz-ideas take over the grant world (and the larger world) at various times. “Innovation” is one concept everyone loves. According to Google’s Ngram viewer, “innovation” has appeared to triple in popularity over the last two centuries. Way back in 2010 we wrote “Change for Change’s Sake in Grant Proposals: When in Doubt, Claim Your Program is Innovative.” That’s still true today and will likely be true for many years to come. But being “innovative” often feels contrary from being “experienced.”

Innovators are often the brash upstarts, while experienced applicants are supposed to apply their knowledge of the past to the problems of the present.* As we wrote in “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually)” and “So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For? And Who’s the Competition?“, the size and experience of an agency will often dictate the logic argument made for why a given proposal should be funded.

Arguing that you have experience providing similar services is at odds with claims about being radically innovative. Markets depend on creative destruction, and the grant system exists in part to facilitate the exit of sclerotic nonprofits and the creation of nimbler nonprofits. Consider, this from “How Tesla Will Change the World:”

Over time, big industries tend to get flabby and uncreative and risk-averse—and if the right outsider company has the means and creativity to come at the industry with a fresh perspective and rethink the whole thing, there’s often a huge opportunity there.

Fortunately for grant writers and applicants, very few funders are going to think that hard about the distinction between innovation and experience: we’ve never heard that any of our clients have had a funder point out this conundrum to them. Funders are managed by humans—mostly, anyway—and like most humans their motivations are not only obscure to observers, and also often to themselves. So a good grant writer can still argue that the applicant is somehow both innovative and experienced. The number of truly “innovative” programs we’ve seen is quite small, but that’s because social and human services attempt to get people to behave in ways that they don’t feel like behaving.**

* As, for example, Steven Berlin Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From.

** When I wrote this post I was thinking about “In Grant Writing, Longer is Not Necessarily Better.”

Issues Facing Old-Line Nonprofits Differ from Those Facing New Nonprofits: Think Bambi Meets Godzilla

We’ve written various posts on the challenges of starting a new nonprofit (like this one), mostly because we get lots of calls from fairly new nonprofits or folks trying to get one off the ground. Last week, however, I got a call from an agency in a large east coast city that’s been operating for about 200 years. I’m not making this up. The nonprofit originally was an orphanage that morphed into a broad-based children’s services agency.*

Though the caller was delighted to recite the exceptional history of his nonprofit, I didn’t get excited, as we we’ve worked for many nonprofits that have been around for decades—including one in a big Midwestern city that started in 1860s as a “settlement house” in the vein of Jane Adams’s Hull House. By now Seliger + Associates is older than many nonprofits.

While the caller was interested in a standard-issue federal RFP that’s on the street, we also talked over the challenges of keeping an Ancien Régime agency going in the face of an endless onslaught of Nouveau Riche competitors. Nonprofits face the innovator’s dilemma too. They must evolve over time and not get stuck in the “these are the services we provide” trap. It helps that most long-established nonprofits have contracts to provide capitated services or services with handy third-party payers (e.g., foster care, family reunification, residential care, primary health care, substance abuse treatment, etc.). Capitated-service agencies have a base cash flow, which they supplement with fundraising and grants (that’s were we come in).

Unlike new agencies, which are struggling for recognition and any funding scraps they can find, the main challenges old-line agencies face are relevance, ossification, and the inevitable disputes that arise with donors and funders.

Old-line agency must meet emerging needs. For example, there is apparently an astounding, sudden and unexplained surge of unaccompanied Central American children crossing into Texas this year, and they are essentially begging to be “caught” by the Border Patrol. This could reach as many as 100,000 random kids this year, who will overwhelm the current residential care capacity in the border states. The border patrol turns these kids over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which then hands them off to DHHS for transportation and temporary or permanent—depending on your interpretation of immigration laws—resettlement in small and big cities across America.

Not surprisingly, the Obama administration is requesting $2 billion in new funding to address this human tidal wave or humanitarian crisis, once again depending on your point of view. I’m confident much of this money will end up as competitive grant opportunities from the DHHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). As the former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel put it, “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

Say you’re our former midwestern client and have been around since the Civil War. You provide family and child support services but not residential care, so it’s essential to develop this capacity; thousands of Central American refugee children are likely to be dumped into your service area. You should meet this new crisis, as part of your mandate and mission, while at the same time bolstering your revenue with tidy ORR grants. This is a basic “win-win.”

Regarding ossification, old agencies are usually larger and bureaucratic, mimicking the funders that support them. It’s easy for a large, established nonprofit to become moribund, not only in the services they deliver, but also in the way in which services are delivered. Old agencies are less likely to adopt new technology and cultural practices—like contacting clients and conducing outreach through social media—because they do things the way they’ve always done things. Change is hard and inertia is seductive. This phenomenon is not limited to the nonprofit sector. Examples in business are common: huge companies like Motorola, Sears and IBM (before IBM reinvented itself under the remarkable CEO, Louis Gerstner) rise, lose focus or miss market shifts, and fall.

Finally, old-line nonprofits will often become embroiled in disputes with donors and funders. This can range from rich Mrs. Himmelfarb, who makes $100,000 annual donations, getting pissed off because she got seated at the wrong table at the nonprofit’s annual gala to the agency failing to submit required reports to the DOL for the agency’s YouthBuild grant. Once donors and/or funder program officers get annoyed with a large nonprofit, the organization may suddenly find itself in financial trouble.

Beneath the feet of every lumbering old-line dinosaur nonprofit are tiny new mammal nonprofits scouring around and trying to meet new community needs, provide nimble services in innovative ways, and eventually take away the big boy’s donations and grants.** The old-line nonprofit needs to address these upstarts by acting like Godzilla in Bambi Meets Godzilla, perhaps the best short film ever made.

* Fun fact: although it may be moving against the conventional wisdom to defend orphanages, Richard McKenzie explains why they’re often better than foster-style systems in “The Best Thing About Orphanages.” Saying “They’re better than the alternative” is not equivalent to saying, “They’re great!”

** Some grant programs are explicitly designed to provide challengers to incumbents; Community Health Centers (CHCs), for example, are eligible for “Service Area Competition” (SAC) grants. As readers of our e-mail newsletter know, the last two weeks have seen more than $150 million in SAC grants. Every geographic area in the U.S. is supposed to be covered by a SAC-funded agency, and every time a competition arises, new CHCs can try to wrest the grant from the existing grantee.

Unicorn Spotted in the LA Times: A Large Nonprofit Gives Back Huge Federal Grants

In the 280 or so years I’ve spent grant writing (grant writing years should be considered as dog years because of endless deadlines and dumb RFPs), I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a nonprofit that voluntarily gave back significant federal grants.

Faithful readers will know that I use the term “unicorn” for anything I find exceedingly unlikely in the fun-filled world of grant writing (see, for example, “No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer“). I nearly choked on my daily ration of Chemex-brewed coffee on Saturday morning when I spotted this “unicorn” story by Alexandra Zavis in the LA Times: Homeless shelter to drop government-funded programs. How can this be?

The Union Rescue Mission (URM) is a giant homeless services provider in L.A. It is obviously a faith-based organization (FBO). Remember that there are two kinds of FBOs. The first kind gives you a bowl of soup when you’re hungry, and the second kind gives you a bowl of soup when you’re hungry but makes you listen to a sermon before you get the soup. URM is presumably the second kind, which means it is not directly eligible for government grants because it intertwines service delivery with religion.

The first kind of FBO is often eligible for government grants, and we often work for those FBOs. To get around the pesky problem of grant eligibility, URM apparently set up another nonprofit, EIMAGO, to serve as the grant applicant and recipient for federal grants. This is not unusual. EIMAGO is described in the article, however, as a secular “subsidiary” of URM. Nonprofits don’t usually describe affiliated organizations as “subsidiaries,” preferring “affiliate,” “partner,” etc., to preserve at least an appearance of independence and deflect the impression that the “subsidiary” exists only as a grant conduit.

Leaving aside the relationship of URM and EIMAGO, the article says that Alan Bates, URM President and apparently spokesperson for EIMAGO, says that they (URM or EIMAGO?) can no longer operate government-funded programs because the costs are not fully covered and it takes months to get paid:

Bales said the Christian mission has been using private donations to supplement the government contracts operated by its secular subsidiary, EIMAGO. “In the last six or seven years, we have subsidized those operations about $4.5 million because we never get enough money from the government to operate the programs as they should be operated,” he said.

But, Bates also goes on to say that “no one would be forced onto the streets because of the decision.”

Let’s do a small Gedankenexperiment or “thought experiment” to test the logic of the article.

1. URM/EIMAGO exist to help the hungry and the homeless.

2. Joe is hungry and homeless and needs three hots and a cot, as they say in the shelter biz.

3. URM/EIMAGO gets $100/day in federally derived grant funds to take care of Joe, and the money comes from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA, which is the primary homeless grant spigot in LA County), FEMA, Department of Veterans Affairs, HUD, or another government agency.

4. For whatever reason (extra piece of mystery meat in the stew, designer blanket, one too many case managers, etc.), URM/EIMAGO spends $105/day taking care of Joe, meaning they have to get Harry to donate $5 to URM/EIMAGO to keep Joe fed and housed.

5. URM/EIMAGO says its too tough to get $5/day out of Harry to supplement the $100/day from Uncle Sam to take care of Joe, so they are going to reject the $100/day from Uncle Sam.

6. Without $100/day from Uncle Sam, how much will URM/EIMAGO have to get from Harry to take care of Joe?

$105/day. If you grasped this point, you are quicker on the uptake than the reporter. Without the federal grants, URM/EIMAGO is either going to serve a lot fewer Joes or will need to find a lot more Harrys. This is why I’ve never run across any large profit that would voluntarily cancel federal grants—or any grants for that matter. URM/EIMAGO is a unicorn.

In addition to pointing out the logic problem presented above and highlight an unusual unicorn story, this post is really intended for those nonprofits who want to become “multi-program, multi-funded agencies,” and particularly nonprofits that aim to supplement project grants, general purpose grants and donations with contracts for capitated services (e.g., most homeless services, primary health care, substance abuse treatment, foster care, etc.). For these grantees, which provide a service for some agreed upon per head/per day/per visit/per whatever fee, the capitated payments, like other grant funds, are often fungible (Jake covered fungible grants last year in “Supplementing Versus Supplanting Grant Funds: Examples from the Rural Housing and Economic Development Program and the Capital Fund Recovery Competition Grants“).

In the case of a soup kitchen, you could ask: which dollar bought the carrots in the stew that Joe is eating? The LAHSA grant, the Department of Veterans Affairs Grant, the donation from Harry? Nobody knows. For that matter, Joe is fungible. If he’s a veteran, the agency can claim him on their Vets grant, if he’s an ex-offender, he could be tallied on their Department of Justice grant, if he has a substance abuse challenge, he could be covered by a CSAT grant, or, ideally, all three.

One of the unspoken realities of running large nonprofits is that clever multi-funded, multi-program agencies can often pay for services for a particular individual more than once, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by accident. Funders don’t seem to care, as long as this is never stated in grant proposals or reports and reporters are too naive to inquire.

I don’t know anything about URM/EIMAGO other than what I gleaned from this article, as we’ve never worked for either organization. To forestall the potential lawyer inquiry, I am not making any accusations about either organization, which I am sure are great service providers. The situation described in the LA Times article seems implausible to me, particularly given this quote from it: “The mission’s difficulties come at a time when many nonprofits are struggling to raise the funds they need to keep up with demand for their services in a bad economy.” Seems like someone at URM has been reading Grant Writing Confidential, as I have been making this point for over two years. It’s a bad time to be trying to replace hard-to-get grant funds with even harder-to-get donations.

The article also provides an opportunity to illustrate how larger nonprofits often use multiple grant sources to keep the lights on. For those newer and more nimble nonprofits in L.A. that want to provide homeless services, it looks like you’ll have an opportunity to dine on the LAHSA grants that URM/EIMAGO rejects. Some agency is going to need to serve the legions of hungry and homeless in L.A. Go get your bowl of LAHSA grant soup!

How to Write About Grant Writing and How to Learn About Grant Writing Via Blogging

In “Twentysomething: Making time for a blog and a full-time job,” Ryan Healy says that one should create deadlines, skip days when necessary, and remember why one blogs. It’s good advice, and we try to follow it.

Grant Writing Confidential has one big advantage over similar blogs: we’re extremely specific about programs, RFPs, problems, and solutions; notice our recent post about HRSA and Section 330 grantees. Grant writing is all about ignoring generalities (except for this generality) and attending to specifics.

But the bigger lesson is this: good blogging and good grant writing share a lot of characteristics, and this post explores this intersection. Get better at one and you’ll probably get better at the other.

Other Grant Writing Blogs

When grant writing blogs feature lots of hand waving, they’re signaling that their writers are not detail oriented or aren’t real grant writers. The latter problem is especially obvious in the age of the Internet, where your work is in front of the audience. If you’re not actually writing proposals (and writing about writing proposals), people will figure it out.

Most grant writing blogs aren’t interesting or informative, and I wish more were. But this also creates an opportunity for us: we’re more personable than others and slide into spaces left by less interesting bloggers. There aren’t many (good) grant writing blogs, since most of them don’t do the kinds of things we talk about in “How to Write a “Juicy” Nonprofit Blog — or a Blog of Any Kind.”


One valuable thing I learned from Isaac is the ability to admit ignorance and say that I don’t know, which he does to clients regularly. I get the impression many other grant writers and consultants don’t. But you can’t find out how things work if you don’t tell people when you don’t understand something. When I called around getting quotes for Xeroxes and phone systems, broadcasting how little I knew about that particular domain helped me get a better sense of what I was looking for. Journalists use the same tactic. Chris Matthews calls it “hanging a lantern on your problems” in his wonderful book Hardball. I have a signed copy that’s falling apart because I’ve read it so many times and the book has so changed my thinking—less about politics the sport than about the politics inherent in life.

In How to be more interesting to other people, Penelope Trunk says:

That’s the part we should talk about when we talk about ourselves. If you limit the conversation, discussing only what you are certain about, then there’s no chance to stand on equal footing with your conversation partner. You stand on equal footing when you both reveal your struggles with what you don’t know yet, and the conversation can contribute to the answer.

Trunk has all kinds of useful posts about blogging, but some are more useful than others. In How to write a blog post people love, she gives five pieces of advice, each of which is bolded, with my commentary after it:

1. Start strong.

Every newspaper person knows the lead sells the rest of the story. We try to start off with a pithy sentence that ideally encapsulates the post itself or draws readers in through stories. Sometimes this works better than others.

2. Be short.

Admonishing people to “be short” works better for some blogs than others. Blogs with a mass, relatively low skill audience are probably better off with this than other blogs, and some topics are genuinely complex—like many of the subjects we discuss. I would amend this to say, “be as short as possible and no shorter.” For her, the right length is usually shorter than it is for us. Grant Writing Confidential posts are often long because grant writing is a complex subject.

3. Have a genuine connection.

This is vacuous and could be rolled into the fourth category.

4. Be passionate.

I would argue that passion helps writers of any sort, but it should be tempered with expertise. Don’t be a True Believer, and make sure you internal critic is always on the job (we sometimes call this “self-consciousness” or “self-awareness”). Indeed, passion without expertise probably dooms many blogs: it’s easy to skate along the surface of something, like a dilettante with an idea, but difficult to bring something genuinely new and engaging to a world (ditto for grant proposals). This is another thing that sets GWC apart from most blogs that cover grant writing and nonprofits, which seem to thrive on vague generalities, “a delicious lunch was served,” formulations, and too few real-world examples. These problems blend into the next category.

5. Have one good piece of research.

You need a good piece of research, but blogs often misrepresent research or reference it in such a facile way that they barely need it. And remember that your grant story needs to get the money. Trunk’s last link in this post stinks of this problem:

I can virtually guarantee that the research behind “The smell of pizza makes men want to have sex” is not nearly as strong as Trunk’s uncritical acceptance of it implies. This goes back to the “expertise” issue.

Granted, maybe Trunk is right about some of these issues—I wonder how many people read to the end of this post. Those who don’t, miss the big point: this advice is also good for writing proposals and virtually all kinds of writing.

No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer

The Stimulus Bill deluge has begun, and we’ve been getting lots of calls from for-profit companies interested in Department of Energy “Funding Opportunity Announcements” (FOA is DOE-speak for RFP). Usually the caller will say something along the lines of, “So, how many funded proposals for Dilithium Crystal research have you written?” This leads me to launch into my standard response, which is more less as follows:

We’ve never written funded proposals for this particular unusual topic—but so what? There are lots of things we haven’t written about. 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. And, of course, keep in mind that most creatures you’ll find in the forest that look like unicorns are actually just ponies with party hats taped to their heads.

We’re also transparent to funding sources, so it’s not like the DOE Program Officer is going to say, “Great, another proposal from Seliger + Associates, we love these guys” (or the reverse). The funding source won’t even know we exist, so the proposal is going to rise or fall based on the believability of the applicant, the competition, the technical correctness of the proposal and the story it tells. We take care of and are experts in the last two aspects. The first one is up to the client, and the second is unknowable. To hire us, you have to be like Demi Moore responding to Patrick Swayze’s question in Ghost: “Do you believe?” If you believe we can write the proposal, hire us. Otherwise, crack your knuckles and start writing the proposal yourself.

In saying the above, which I’ve been doing endlessly for the past two months, I’m trying to get across the concept that qualified grant writers like Seliger + Associates could presumably write anything, just as journalists are trained to cover anything. When I started this business 16 years ago, my immediate background was mostly in economic development and redevelopment. I quickly decided that what the world needed was general purpose grant writing firms, and we took on any proposal writing assignment for which the client was eligible and able to afford our fees. We began writing all kinds of human services proposals about which we knew essentially nothing.

For example, in late 1993, we wrote a proposal for a small nonprofit in South Central Los Angeles for the then-new HUD version of the YouthBuild program. The NOFA was fantastically complex and disjointed, demonstrating how some things don’t change. After studying the NOFA like a Talmudist using the “pilpul” approach, I quickly discerned that it was really just another job training program and not an affordable housing program, despite being issued by HUD and being wrapped up in housing ribbons. We wrote the proposal, which was the only YouthBuild grant awarded in Southern California for that first funding cycle, even though competing applicants included the LA County Housing Authority and lots of other heavy hitters. It was probably funded because we were the only grant writers who could cobble together a compelling story in the face of the incoherent and obtuse NOFA.*

As this first YouthBuild (and eventually dozens of other proposals) were funded for a cacophony of organizations and programs, we could have proclaimed ourselves “experts” in numerous areas. No matter how many funded proposals on any particular topic we’ve churned out over the years, however, we still call ourselves generalists and never represent the company any other way. I often describe our knowledge base as being like an oil slick: a few molecules thick and very wide. Whenever someone hires us to write for a program or project concept we know nothing about—which is quite often—the slick becomes a bit wider, but not much thicker. So, while we’re pretty familiar with, say, SAMHSA or HRSA from writing endless proposals to them, we still don’t claim special knowledge about substance abuse treatment or primary health care. As we like to say, “we just write ’em.”

I am old enough to have been a busy, busy grant writer during the energy crisis of the late 1970s and actually wrote a funded proposal for the long-forgotten DOE Electric Vehicle Demonstration Grant Program and other state and federal alternative energy programs. When working as the Grants Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, I was detailed to find companies and grants to recycle the approximately 6,000,000 old tires that had been stored on about 20 acres of land in Lynwood since World War II. I put out the word that the City was looking for would-be tire recyclers and was soon inundated with lots of folks who wanted to use someone else’s money to try out their tire recycling schemes.

These ranged from the somewhat plausible, like turning the tires back into oil, to my personal favorite, turning them into margarine. I am not making this up: “Steel-belted Blue Bonnet, anyone?” None of these panned out, although I had a lot of fun flying around the country to look at prototype plants. As luck would have it, none of those prototypes were actually operating when I got there (“you should have been here yesterday!”) and all seemed to be fronted by two guys: a fast talking promoter type in white shoes and a white belt—this is the ’70s, remember—and a “scientist” with a vague German/Eastern European accent (“Vie vill take ze tires und cook zem until ze molecules crack. Zen vie vill make zem into ze margarine!”).

Flash forward to 2009. The Stimulus Bill gusher is roaring and bringing out lots of folks who want their piece of the DOE pie. Guess what? For every seemingly legit potential applicant (e.g. utility company, car battery manufacturer, etc.), I’m getting about two calls from the “white shoes and mad scientist” crowd. We’re happy to work for anyone as long as they are eligible applicants. But it helps if they also can provide us with technical content about their research design, proposed products, etc. We’re now writing a fair number of DOE proposals and, sooner or later, one or more will be funded. Will this make us “experts” at DOE grants? No: we’ll still just be general purpose grant writers, but the slick will be wider and perhaps even a nanometer (a little tech talk to get myself in the mood for DOE) or two thicker.

The real point of this post is that a good grant writer should be able to write anything, just as I was able to write the Electric Vehicle proposal in the ’70s. As Randy Jackson likes to say on American Idol, “The theory is that Mariah Carey can sing anything. You hear that expression, ‘She can sing the phone book.’ So if you can really sing, you should be able to sing anything, so we’re testing them. That’s the whole competition.” It pains me to admit it, but over the last two years I’ve finally succumbed to the many charms of Idol (or, as Jake calls it, American Idle). While I’ve yet to bring myself to vote, I finally grok the show, and it’s obvious that Randy is right. Some contestants, like this year’s Adam Lambert and Danny Gokey and last year’s winner, David Cook, really could sing the phone book, while others, like this year’s just kicked off Megan Joy or last year’s dreadlocked wonder Jason Castro, are really mediocre singers. In picking a grant writer, make sure they really can “sing the phone book, Dawg.”

* A fun anecdote: when HUD issued the YouthBuild NOFA for the next funding round the following year, the NOFA had been changed to model the proposal we had written. In other words, we had explained the YouthBuild program to HUD by writing a simple, declarative proposal in the face of extraordinary obfuscation.