Tag Archives: ghostbusters

Grant Writing Confidential Goes to the Movies Part 3: Ghostbusters (Who Ya Gonna Call? Program Officers!)

Ghostbusters was Jake’s favorite movie when he was a child. He watched the video at least a hundred times and it remains a classic of its type.* As Ray Parker put it in his incredibly catchy, eponymous Ghostbusters theme song, “When there’s something strange in the neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!” There’s a Koanic simplicity in this advice: when you have a problem, call the expert, not someone pretending to be the expert.

I was reminded of this over the summer, because we wrote proposals for clients applying to several federal grant programs with incredibly complex RFPs and underlying guidelines, including the HRSA New Access Point (NAP) and the Early Head Start (EHS) programs. Our clients for these assignments all had unusual or complex project concepts that required closely reading and carefully interpreting the RFPs and regs. The RFPs and regs raised issues for both our clients, though we can’t specify what those issues are; trust us when we say that they were real.

Our standard advice to clients in this situation—and as we’ve we’ve written about many times—is to immediately contact the Program Officer listed in the RFP and pop any questions about vague descriptions or apparent conflicts. At Seliger + Associates, we almost never contact Program Officers directly, since they rarely pay attention to consultants. Instead, we coach our clients on how to pose the question and get as clear a written interpretation as possible.

But our NAP and EHS clients didn’t want to contact the Program Officers; instead, they sought guidance from their state association, which are effectively trade groups for grantees. For large programs, like HRSA Section 330 and Head Start, networks of state and national organizations have grown up, which provide technical assistance and the ever-popular grantee conferences. An example is the Community Health Care Association of New York State, which is composed of Section 330 providers in New York and assorted hangers-on (note that we did not write a NAP proposal in New york this year—and I found CHSNYS through a Google search). When a big RFP for NAP, Head Start and similar federal programs comes along, these associations put on a full-court press to “help” applicants in their states prepare proposals. This help does not mean writing the proposal, although sometimes the association will provide data and research citations. The technical assistance usually involves meetings, Powerpoint presentations, webinars and so on.

Applicants rarely realize, however, that their association provides the same help to all agencies in their state. Rather than being truly interested in their particular agency submitting a technically correct proposal, the association is more like a mom passing out orange slices at a middle school swim meet—they want all agencies to come in first. Like a swim meet, however, and human nature being what it is, some applicants are favored by the “moms” and get extra orange slices, while others get orange-dyed onion slices.

We had a NAP client a few years ago in a western state that ran into active opposition from the state association because the association staff hated our client. I know this for a fact, because the association Executive Director told me so! Despite the association’s animus and refusal to provide a support letter, we wrote a compelling proposal, which was funded, much to the annoyance of the association, which then had to include our client.

The basic problem in asking associations or consultants for RRP interpretation is simple: they don’t work for the federal agency. Their opinions regarding a particular RFP don’t mean anything. The only way to get an interpretation of an RFP is by asking the Program Officer in writing and getting a written reply. Even then, the response is likely to say something like “this is subject to the guidelines, as published in the Federal Register.” Over the years, we’ve helped our clients thread their way through this process many times, including instances in which the federal agency published a correction to the RFP (as Jake writes at the link). A published RFP amendment is the gold standard for RFP interpretation.

Be careful in taking the advice of your state association, no matter how much fun their conferences are. When there’s something strange in a RFP neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Program Officers!


* I recently saw the grandaddy of ghost/comic films, 1940’s The Ghost Breakers, with the hilarious Bob Hope, exquisitely beautiful Paulette Goddard and a very young Anthony Quinn. If you like Ghostbusters, you’ll love The Ghost Breakers. It’s little non-PC, but the movie was made in 1940.

The Real World and the Proposal World

In the Ghostbusters movie, there’s a scene where Ray (played by Dan Aykroyd) tells Gozer to get off an apartment building. He then makes a critical mistake:

Gozer: [after Ray orders her to re-locate] Are you a God?
[Ray looks at Peter, who nods]
Dr. Ray Stantz: No.
Gozer: Then… DIE!
[Lightning flies from her fingers, driving the Ghostbusters to the edge of the roof and almost off; people below scream]
Winston Zeddemore: Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say “YES”!

(I’ve yet to have anyone ask me if I’m a god, but I’ve definitely got my answer prepared.)

Ray’s focus on the immediate truth is an error given his larger purpose, which, if I recall correctly from hazy memories, has something to do with closing inter-dimensional portals that let the ghost world or hell or something like that open into our world. Bear in mind I probably haven’t seen Ghostbusters since childhood, but I did see it about 75 times. Before the Ghostbusters can close the portal, the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man arrives and is about 20 stories tall, causing a great deal of screaming and running on the part of New Yorkers, who get their own opportunity to flee from the equivalent of Godzilla.

Anyway, the important thing isn’t just the trip down memory lane, but Ray’s key mistake: thinking that he should give a factual answer, rather than a practical answer. The grant writing world has a similar divide, only we deal with the “real world” and the “proposal world.” The real world roughly corresponds to what a funded applicant will actually do if they’re funded by operating the program. The proposal world refers to what the RFP requires that the applicant say she’ll do, along with a stew of conventional wisdom, kabuki theater, prejudice flattering, impractical ideas nicely stated, exuberant promises, and more.

Astute readers will have noticed that we keep referring to the proposal world in various posts. A few examples:

  • From What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals?: “In the proposal world where Seliger + Associates lives, collaborations are omnipresent in our drafts, and we spin elaborate tales of strategic planning and intensive involvement in development of project concepts, most of which are woven out of whole cloth to match the collaborative mythology that funders expect […]”
  • From Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun: “In many if not most human services RFPs, you’ll find an unintentionally hilarious section that neatly illustrates the difference between the proposal world and the real world: demanding to know how the project will be sustained beyond the end of the grant period.”
  • From Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation: “In the proposal world, the grant writer states that data will be carefully tracked and maintained, participants followed long after the project ends, and continuous improvements made to ensure midcourse corrections in programs when necessary […] In the real world of grants implementation, evaluations, if they are done at all, usually bear little resemblance to the evaluation section of the proposal, leading to vague outcome analysis.”
  • From Know Your Charettes!: “Once again, I’m sure more nonprofits write about PACs than actually run them, but the proposal world is not always identical to the real world, which is one reason I was so surprised to read about the design charrette I linked to in the first paragraph.”

In all these examples, the proposal world entails telling the funder what they want to hear, even if what they want to hear doesn’t correspond all that well to reality.

Funders want to imagine that programs will continue when funding ends, but if a funding stream disappears, it’s not easy to replace; as Isaac said last week, “[…] it is vastly easier to form new nonprofits than it is to find millionaires and corporations to set up foundations to fund the avalanche of new nonprofits.” There are more nonprofits chasing millionaires to keep programs going than there are millionaires to fund those programs.

Evaluations that really matter demand lots of advanced math training and scrupulous adherence to procedures that most nonprofits just don’t have in them (don’t believe me? Read William Easterly’s What Works in Development?: Thinking Big and Thinking Small). The extensive community planning that most RFPs demand is too time and cost intensive to actually undergo. Besides, who is going to be opposed to another after school or job training program? The answer, of course, is no one.

In the proposal world, elaborate outreach efforts are necessary to make the community aware of the proposed project. In the real world, almost every provider of services is so overwhelmed with people who want those services that, even with additional funding, the provider still won’t be able to accept everyone who might be helped.

In the proposal world, everyone in the community gets a voice and a chance to sit on the Participant Advisory Council (PAC). In the real world, even if someone is sitting on the council and espouses a radical new idea, the constraints of the proposal requirements (“you must serve a minimum of 200 youth with three hours of academic and life skills training per year, using one of the approved curricula…”) means that idea will probably languish. Also, the PAC is likely to meet a few times every year instead of every month to provide “mid-course corrections,” as promised in the proposal.

If you’re a grant writer or an applicant who has hired a grant writer, your job is to get the money, and getting the money means being able to distinguish between the proposal world and the real world and present the former as it should be presented. This doesn’t mean that you should be stealing the money in the real world (hint: a Ferrari is probably not necessary for client transport and Executive Director use) or wildly misusing it (hint: skip claiming the Cancun Spring Break extravaganza as “research”), but it does mean that there’s a certain amount of assumed latitude between what’s claimed and what is actually done.

Many grant novices fail to understand this or experience cognitive dissonance when they read an RFP that makes wildly implausible demands. Once you realize that the RFP makes those demands because it’s dealing with the proposal world, as imagined by RFP writers, rather than the real world, as experienced by nonprofit and public agencies, you’ll be much happier and much better able to play the proposal world game.

When someone from the proposal world asks, “Are you a god?” the answer is always “yes,” even if you’re actually just a guy with a silly contraption strapped to your back who is desperately trying to save the world.