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Guest Post: Inside the Sausage Factory and how the RFP Process leads to Confused Grant Writers

Today’s guest post comes from an email sent by someone with broad experience in the grant world who prefers to remain anonymous—like many of our correspondents. In this respect we’re a bit like CIA officers running spy networks; unlike CIA agents, however, we have never been offered a “honey trap.”  Our guest writer is speculating about one RFP, which has to remain nameless, and how it demonstrates the way the drafting process used to construct RFPs can contribute to an unpalatable final product.

Grant writers, like lawyers, must be able to understand writing that simultaneously tries to eliminate ambiguity while conveying all the information necessary for an applicant to understand the program. These conflicting forces can cause the problems described here and elsewhere.

Here’s what I think about how one RFP was constructed.

I know the Director of the agency in question personally. He is knowledgeable and brilliant in many ways, but not terribly good at verbal communication. He states what he wants somewhat awkwardly, even when he’s totally right. The process starts with him. He calls in his assistant, or whoever is in charge of putting an RFP together, and tells her what he wants. She gets most of it right and converts it into RFP legal-sounding gobbledegook. He can read RFP legal sounding gobbledegook, so he passes on it, probably more quickly than he should because he has a lot on his plate.

What she writes then gets passed along to various branch administrators for their comments and suggestions. They think about legal stuff and mostly about details that have to be completed if the contractor will be acceptable. They include things that are not relevant to the actual work but which make their effort to judge the proposal easier…like being sure that the contractor puts tabs on each section (numbered 1.1.1, 1.1.2, etc.) and having the contractor sign a form indicating that his company has the proper insurance and that it lists its overhead rates. Since travel expense is involved, they have the contractor price the trips but are careful not to explain what the state’s car mileage rates are or what is allowed for hotels and meals. Let them try to guess, or plow through the state rates, if they exist, on the Internet. Throw in some language that says that each 1.1.2 section etc. is totally self contained.

That is, forbid the contractor from saying things like “see section 1.1.1 for this information.” [Jake’s note: see my advice in Further Information Regarding the Department of Redundancy Department.] And give them firm warnings or threats. Say that otherwise the proposal will be disqualified. Include expressions like “submit one original and four copies” even though all copies look (and are) original in the electronic world. For the deadline, put in that the proposal has to be “on the desk of X person by 2 p.m. May 15th” but give only a post office box as the address, making the contractor hope that the people at the PO box will be able to find X person’s desk on time.

And don’t give even a small hint about how much money is allowed for the proposal. Make them guess how much we have available. The most frustrating part is that the RFP doesn’t say how the computer generated paragraphs which are assembled into letters will get rewritten. Having already gone through this with another agency, we know what a huge task this is. We can say what’s wrong with a sample of the paragraphs and letters but our hands are tied about how they get revised and assembled.

The Director wants to have his staff be able to rewrite the computer generated letters we are to assess so he tells his assistant as much. She may not be used to this approach so she writes stuff that is rather unclear about what they want. Are we to do any teaching to accomplish this? I guess not, since we think the RFP says our work is to train the trainers how to teach the staff to write clearly, but it is not all that clear who we are to train.

Experience tells us that the folks there need more than a little information if they are to revise their current training programs. The training materials we’ve seen deal mostly with grammar and usage but we know they need much, much more. We have to hope that the examples we provide will be able to be translated into teaching materials. It would be easier to do the training ourselves but we apparently won’t be allowed to do this.

We conclude that the best we can do is to outline the kinds of problems extant paragraphs and letters contain, then construct a process for their ultimate revision by someone unknown to us, who then assembles them into actual letters. We are to help prepare such people, not knowing exactly who we’re to help. So we’ll build an outline about what the department might do, if it has staff and technical capability to do it.

There’s more, of course, but that should exemplify our frustration a bit. So we propose, duck, and hope for the best. Maybe the best would be that they reject our proposal. That would be okay with us. But we sincerely want to help the Director and help our state as well.

Isaac has experienced similar processes in working for and talking to agencies/organizations that issue RFPs. This death-by-committee effect isn’t unique to grant writing, but the combination of fear, pompousness, uncertainty, certitude and the like seems to lead to the production of especially unpalatable RFPs, and the nature of bureaucracies make potential reforms difficult to implement. In addition, RFP writers seldom have to respond to the RFPs they produce, or any other RFPs for that matter, and thus don’t understand the kinds of problems we describe. In the fifteen years Seliger + Associates has been in business, we’ve written numerous proposals across a broad array of subjects and have never been contacted by an issuing organization to ask how their RFPs might be improved. They don’t have to, of course, since as noted in “Foundations and the Future” and “Studio Executives, Starlets, and Funding,” he who has the gold makes the rules.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” as the cliché goes. Writing done by committee usually comes out about as well as mass-produced food: serviceable at best, with the character of no character, and more commonly inedible. As the grant writer, it’s your job to deal with this output as best you can, and if you understand why RFPs are so hard to read and filled with repetition and other problems, you’ll be better equipped to deal with them.

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Juggling Rules and Principles In Running Grant Programs

Grant programs are not based solely around rules (e.g. you must do this, you must not do that) or around guiding principles (e.g. you’re to help the medically indigent achieve better access to healthcare). Neither approach is absolutely correct, and preferences for each tend to go in cycles, like those of leniency and harshness in criminal justice. The question is which you should adhere to, and the more general answer is: rules when you write the proposal, principles when you run a program.

This post again gets at some of the ideas behind the trade-offs inherent in running grant-funded programs, as I discussed in More on Charities and alluded to in Foundations and the Future. Isaac dealt with part of the issue last week, in It’s a Grant, Not a Gift: A Primer on Grants Management, which discusses the absolute rules of budgets. Within those rules, however, there is room for interpretation: how much of the budget travel should be allocated in travel costs, and how much within that should be dedicated to local travel, for example? Renting a Ferrari for the Program Manager probably won’t cut it, but a reasonable mileage reimbursement rate for an appropriate number of miles, given the size of the service area, probably will. If you reshuffle your budget categories by under 10% of the total budget, your Program Officer likely won’t care, but if you decide after the fact to charge 90% of the Executive Director’s time to the project and you’re audited, the auditors very much will care.

One can see the specific issues between rules and principles in novels, as when a character in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red says, “Now that I’ve reached this age, I know that true respect arises not from the heart, but from discrete rules and deference.” The problem is that strict adherence to the rules of governing a particular grant program might actually result in inferior service: you can blindly continue an activity that is ineffective or, perhaps worse, run a program with a flawed project concept. Too strict adherence to principles can cause a different set of problems: they might be the wrong principles, or, worse, the unintended use of grant funds might constitute fraud.

The easy answer is, “find a happy medium,” which isn’t of much practical use when deciding what programs to apply for and how to fund an organization. The tension between rules and principles will probably always exist, like the tension between the orthodoxy of a movement and the reformers of a movement will always exist, regardless of the movement. In The Name of the Rose, much of the conflict revolves around schisms between ecclesiastical orders that question whether or not it is right to live in poverty. This, incidentally, is similar to questions of whether nonprofits should use more of their funds for direct services at the expense of making it easier to, say, attract good people, or whether they should allocate more to administrative expenses as a way to provide better services. Rules might dictate this—or principles. Regardless of which does, those who seek simple solutions to complex problems are often wrong and often have little sense of history between the complex problems in the first place. Both the movement toward rules and toward principles can be a good thing. Too many rules are stifling, and principles that are too general can lead to abuse.

So what should you do, the person who actually runs grant programs? Should you follow what seems best regardless of rules or adhere strictly to what a program orders you to do? There is no answer—there are only particular situations that might arise as a consequence of applying to some programs rather than others, but if you have some idea of the trade-offs involved, you’re going to be better equipped to understand the issues before you. You’ll also be better equipped to understand which programs you should apply for and how you should use what money you earn.