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How I track needs assessments and other grant proposal research

Bear with me. I’m about to discuss a topic that might recall horrific memories from high school history or college English, but I promise that, this time, I’m discussing research methods that are a) simple and b) relevant to your life as a grant writer in a nonprofit or other setting.

The single best way I’ve found to track grant research is described in Steven Berlin Johnson’s essay “Tool for Thought.” You can safely go read Johnson’s essay and skip the rest of this post, because it’s that good. I’m going to describe the way Johnson uses Devonthink Pro (DTP) and give some examples that show how useful this innovative program is in a grant writing context.

The problem is this: you’re a grant writer. If you’re any good, you’re probably writing/producing at least one proposal every three months, and there’s a solid chance you’re doing even more than that—especially if you have support staff to help with the production side of proposals. Every proposal is subtly different, yet each has certain commonalities. Many also require research. In the process of completing a proposal, you do the research, find a bunch of articles and maybe some books, write the needs assessment, and cite a bunch of research in (and perhaps you also cite research) in the evaluation section or elsewhere, depending on the RFP.

You finish the proposal and you turn it in.

You also know “One of the Open Secrets of Grant Writing and Grant Writers: Reading.” You see something about your area’s economy in the local newspaper. You read something about the jobs situation in The Atlantic. That book about drug prohibition—what was it called again? Right, Daniel Okrent’s Last Call—has a couple of passages you should write down because they might be useful later.

But it’s very hard to synthesize any of this material in a coherent, accessible manner. You can keep a bunch of Word documents scattered in a folder. You can develop elaborate keyword systems. Such efforts will work for a short period of time; they’ll work when you have four or five or six proposals and a couple dozen key quotes. They won’t work when you’ve been working for years and have accumulated thousands of research articles, proposals, and quotes. They won’t work when you know you need to read about prisoner re-entry but you aren’t sure if you tagged everything related to that subject with prisoner re-entry.

That’s where DTP comes in. The program’s great, powerful feature is its “See Also” function, which performs associative searches on large blocks of text to find how things might be related in subtle ways. Maybe you use the word “jail” and “drugs” without using the word “prisons” in a paragraph. If you search for “prisons,” you might not find that other material, but DTP might. This is a contrived example, but it helps show the program’s power.

Plus, chances are that if you read an article six years ago—or, hell, six months ago—you’re probably not going to remember it. Unless you’re uncommonly organized, you’re not going to find the material you might really need. DTP lets you drop the information in the program to let the program do the heavy lifting by remembering it. I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement, but DTP works surprisingly well.

Let’s keep using the example I started above and imagine that your nonprofit provides re-entry services to ex-offenders. You’ll probably end up writing the same basic explanation of how your program conducts intake, assessment, plans, service delivery, and follow-up in a myriad of different ways, depending on the funder, the page limit, and the specific questions being asked. You want a way to store that kind of information. DTP does this very well. The trick is keeping text chunks between about 50 words and 500 words, as Johnson advises. If you have more, you won’t be able to read through what you have and to find material quickly.

Consequently, a 3,000-word project services section would probably overwhelm you next time you’re looking for something similar. But a 500-word description of your agency’s intake procedure would be very manageable.

The system isn’t perfect. The most obvious flaw is in the person doing the research: you need a certain amount of discipline to copy/paste and otherwise annotate material. This might be slow at first, because DTP libraries actually get more useful when they have more material. You also need to learn how to exploit DTP to the maximum feasible extent (free proposal phrase here). But once you’ve done that, you’ll have a very fast, very accurate way of finding things that can make your grant writing life much, much easier. (Incidentally, this is also how I organize blog posts, and DTP often refers me back to earlier blog posts I would otherwise have forgotten about).

Right now, DTP is only available on OS X, but there is similar functionality in programs like Evernote or Zoho Notebook, which are cross-platform. I can’t vouch for these programs because I’ve never used them, but others online have discussed them. DTP, if used correctly, however, is a powerful argument for research-based writers using OS X.

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Seliger + Associates Finally Enters the Twitterverse: @SeligerGrants

After three years of contemplation, we’ve finally decided to use Twitter. Sign up at Twitter and you can follow us using our handle, @SeligerGrants. Or, see the “What I’m Doing” column to the left and right of this post.

I’m starting to tweet because I think the world of nonprofits is at another major inflection point, similar to the situation that started three years ago in August 2008 with the bank near-meltdown, TARP and, eventually, the Stimulus Bill. As I’ve been blogging about since, the reality for nonprofits has changed markedly for the worse. As the economy tanked—whether or not the official “recession” ended or is about to re-start—the competition for grants and donations has intensified. Just last week, I blogged about how Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes Keep Coming to the Nonprofit World. And what happened in the last seven days?:

And I thought the news was bad the previous week!

I don’t know what will go wrong this week, but I suspect there are many nonprofit executive directors who’ve just learned that pledged donations have been cancelled, and those executive directors are struggling to re-do their budgets to keep the doors open. I suspect that there will be little good economic news in the coming months to brighten the prospects for nonprofits. Hence, @SeligerGrants. I plan to tweet at least once per day, doing what I can to get information out as quickly as I can.

Here’s my second tweet:

#MilwaukeeYouthRiot… – Nonprofits Go Get Grants – Windhover Fdn… or Marshall & Ilsley Fdn 414-765-7835

For those of you not in the Twitterverse, this may look like gibberish*, as Twitter allows only 140 characters and the URLs are shortened. Allow me to dissect this tweet.

The initial “#”” is a hash tag (#). Hash tags flag interesting or trending tweets. The URL that follows the hash tag is an active link (in a Twitter client), which leads to a story about a riot last week a the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee, in which dozens of African American youth fought a pitched battle with police. For those too young to remember, Milwaukee, like other big Midwestern cities, was the scene of a major urban rebellion in 1967. News of a similar event 44 years later immediately caught my grant writer’s eye. Back to the tweet. “Nonprofits Go Get Grants” is followed by contact info to two large foundations that fund at-risk youth services in Milwaukee, the Windhover Foundation and the Marshall & Ilsley Foundation.

You have it in 140 characters: breaking news affecting nonprofit youth service providers in Milwaukee and a small bit of free grant source research. Whenever there is an urban riot in the United States, foundation and government grant funds are sure to follow. Having written many funded proposals for nonprofits that serve the African American communities in Milwaukee and nearby Racine, I know local needs very well, and I’ll be contacting some of our former clients to see if they want to go after the grants I think will be available. But you can beat me to it through the wonders of Twitter.

If you have a credible nonprofit in Milwaukee, get busy thinking up a plausible concept to help the community overcome the challenge of young people forming a mob in the middle of what is supposed to be a carefree summer event for families and children. Here are a couple of ideas: mentoring, summer jobs, alternative recreation activities, and training a corps of Youth Ambassadors. It doesn’t really matter, as long as your organization springs forward to propose solutions to new or critical problems, as I blogged about last week. Hence the brief but pointed “Go Get Grants” and two foundation funders in my tweet.

I’ll be tweeting as often as I can, highlighting interesting news, project concept, announcing RFPs and blog posts, and throwing in the occasional Huntington Beach Surf Report. Set up a Twitter account and follow my tweets. Even a single idea you get from @SeligerGrants could be the difference that keeps your agency ahead of the competition. Nonprofit executives need all the information they can get. Take our tweets and run with them.

* Jake, who finds Twitter “stupid”—or was it “inane,” or was it “a humbug”—but knows a lot about grants, could not decipher this tweet. His younger sister, who is very involved with social media both for her job and personally, understood it immediately, although she knows little about grants. Jake said, “What can be said in 140 characters is either trivial or abridged; in the first case it would be better not to say it at all, and in the second case it would be better to give it the space it deserves.”

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How much money is available? Explaining maximum grant amounts

If you read our e-mail newsletter, the Seliger Funding Report, you’re aware of a number that can mean different quantities depending on the RFP: the maximum grant amount. There are a couple of ways to calculate this number: by the amount available over the total project period (which could be more than a single year) or the yearly total amount. In addition, sometimes a grant announcement provides little or no guidance whatsoever. To better understand what that means, let’s look at a few examples.

Take the Sports, Cultural, and Youth Visitor Program, which was included in the newsletter for the week of February 16. It’s a relatively simple program:

Total available: $1,130,000
Number available: 1
Max size: $1,130,000

In other words, there’ll be one grant made with a funding total of $1,130,000. According to the RFP, the exchanges are supposed to take place in 2009 and 2010, meaning the project period is probably in the neighborhood of eighteen months or two years, so the funder also might have been able to give a maximum grant amount of $565,000, but distribute that amount over two years, and nothing else would’ve changed in the program except how the program is presented.

That’s pretty straightforward. But it’s also possible to find announcements that say $500,000 per year is available, for a project total of, say, $1,500,000. The information about whether the maximum grant amount is per year or per project total is usually contained in the RFP itself, and it’s wise to find the answer before you decide how much to apply for. We’ll deal with this in greater detail below.

Consider another program: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy System Technology Research and Development (STTR [R41/R42]):

The SF424 (R&R) SBIR/STTR Application Guide indicates the statutory guidelines of funding support and project duration periods for Phase I and Phase II STTR awards. Phase I awards normally may not exceed $100,000 total for a period normally not to exceed 1 year. Phase II awards normally may not exceed $750,000 total for a period normally not to exceed 2 years.

NOTE: These award levels and project periods are statutory guidelines, not ceilings. Therefore, applicants are encouraged to propose a budget and project duration period that is reasonable and appropriate for completion of the research project. Applicants are encouraged to discuss deviations with IC program staff at the awarding component likely to be assigned the application. All budget and time deviations must be justified in the grant application.

Notice the “statutory guidelines” language: the reviewers and ultimate funding oversight person doesn’t have to limit you to $750,000 for phase two grants. Still, it seems wise to stay within their guidelines unless you have an incredible, extraordinary reason not to; so far, we’ve never had a client who we advised to exceed the program funding guidelines, but clients will sometimes have their award amounts adjusted up or down based on funding vagaries, the phases of the moon, and the like.

For yet another variation, consider the Texas Parallel Pathways to Success Grant Program. The RFP says: “It is anticipated that selected projects will be funded in a range of $50,000 – $125,000 per year.” So that means a maximum of $250,000 is available over the project period, or $125,000 per year. In the Seliger Funding Report, I would normally list the maximum as $125,000 because that’s the number the funder has listed, and it would be exceedingly difficult to dig through every RFP in the Federal Register and elsewhere to normalize the maximums. If any Government Accountability Office (GAO) or others involved in standards are reading this, take note.

Sometimes RFPs play hide-the-salami regarding how much money they have or the maximum grant amount. This is particularly irritating because one is liable to guess too low or too high, and most funding agencies that experiment with this game will eventually be more forthright when they get wildly divergent budgets. For example, the National Institute of Health (NIH) does this in its Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) (R25). The Executive Summary at the link says:

Budget and Project Period. There are no specific budget limitations; however, the requested direct costs must be reasonable, well documented, fully justified and commensurate with the scope of the proposed program. The total project period for an application submitted in response to this funding opportunity may not exceed five years.

Great! But what does reasonable mean in these circumstances? Alas, we apparently don’t get to find out, which actually makes it harder to decide how much to request, not easier. Another example of this comes from the Department of Transportation in the form of the FY 2010 Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP) High Priority Grant Program, which also doesn’t list an award ceiling.

Once you understand how much is available as a grant maximum, you have to decide how much to ask for (which will be the topic of a future post), and whether you want to apply for a particular program. Remember that there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between the complexity of an application and the amount of money being offered; for example, we base our fees on the difficulty of the application and the amount of time we have to complete it, so we’d likely charge the same $5,000 – $12,000 for most assignments whether the maximum award $50,000 available or $5,000,000. Therefore, you shouldn’t assume that a proposal for $100,000 will be any easier to complete than one for $1,000,000.

Still, there are a myriad of reasons for organizations to pursue smaller grants anyway: there might be less competition; they might be unusually well-suited for the project; they might need a particular position funded that can be shoe-horned into an application; the applicant might be a new organization that needs to prove it can account for grant funds before it pursues larger applications; or, as Isaac discussed recently in True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales, you might hit the grant lotto by having funding renewed over and over again for what seems like a small grant, which happened with the Neighborhood Action Program (NAP). When you’re trying to make these decisions, however, you should at least make sure that you know what the numbers you’re looking at mean.

Posted on Leave a comment and the GAO, Volunteer Broadband Reviewers for BTOP and BIP, Job Retraining, Grant Writers, and More

* More news on and the Government Accountability Office: Has Systemic Weaknesses That Require Attention. Glad someone in Washington is finally paying attention; Stanley J. Czerwinski is the contact person, so I sent him an e-mail pointing out our earlier posts on the subject, but he hasn’t responded.

Part of the report’s introductory sentence is particularly amusing: “ has made it easier for applicants to find grant opportunities and grantors to process applications faster, applicants continue to describe difficulties registering with and using, which sometimes result in late submissions.” It’s true, but I’d note regarding the first part that while it’s easier to find grant opportunities, it’s still often not easy; for example, searching using Google’s restricted site feature is often faster and better than using’s built-in search function.

* Speaking of which, I like this headline: Contract to Upgrade Stimulates Criticism.

* William Easterly explains Sachs Ironies: Why Critics are Better for Foreign Aid than Apologists:

Official foreign aid agencies delivering aid to Africa are used to operating with nobody holding them accountable for aid dollars actually reaching poor people. Now that establishment is running scared with the emergence of independent African voices critical of aid, such as that of Dambisa Moyo.

* The Dept. of Commerce and USDA must be really desperate if they’re requesting volunteers to review applications. We’re writing a Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) and a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) application, which makes this announcement salient to us.

* The Services for Victims of Human Trafficking program (warning: .pdf) has an unusual deadline feature: it gives 7/13/2009 as the deadline for “Online Registration,” and 7/16/09 for the application itself. But smart applicants should move both those back by at least two days to avoid the inevitable rush.

* Now here’s a great idea for a government requirement: New bill wants fiber conduit built into every road project:

The bill would require new federal road projects to include plastic conduits buried along the side of the roadway, and enough of them to “accommodate multiple broadband providers.” Conduits must meet industry best practices for size and depth, and road builders must include hand holes and manholes along the route to gain access to the conduit. Each conduit will also include a pull tape for fishing new fiber through the line.

Most of the cost to deploy new fiber is the digging and repaving work, so putting in conduit when the ground is already torn up has a certain logic to it. It’s a relatively cheap idea, but one that Eshoo hopes will help US broadband.

Given the lousy shape of U.S. broadband deployment, which Ars Technica has covered in depth, that help would be much appreciated.

* Job Retraining May Fall Short of High Hopes, says the New York Times. This is the kind of article you would never cite in a job training proposal, unless it’s to knock it down, in which case you shouldn’t cite it in the first place. Nonetheless, those of you running job training programs ought to read it.

* Uber-geek publisher and all star Tim O’Reilly (I own a few of his technical books) on The Benefits of a Classical Education.

* Ars Technica reports that GE is throwing its weight behind smart grids. That’s probably good news for Smart Grid Investment Grant Program (SGIG) applicants.

* Ed Glaeser encourages us to put trains where the people are. That this isn’t self-evident is indicative of federal involvement.

* I hadn’t realized it till now, but two years ago the Wall Street Journal published “A Passion for the Keys: Particular About What You Type On? Relax — You’re Not Alone” regarding the fanaticism certain people feel for their keyboards. As writing a review of the Model M-inspired Unicomp Customizer taught me, I am very much note alone. Anyone who spends a lot of time typing should read both articles; even better, they might like this review of the Kinesis Advantage ergonomic keyboard.

* According to “Tax Breaks Under the Microscope” in Slate, nonprofit hospitals are much like their regular counterparts:

But research shows that nonprofit hospitals behave no differently from for-profit ones. And in some cases, nonprofits have been caught mistreating the poor for the sake of financial gains. One example: A nonprofit academic hospital in Connecticut aggressively pursued “deadbeat” elderly patients by placing liens on their homes. More recently, several nonprofit Chicago hospitals were reportedly transferring uninsured patients to the county emergency room.

* State governments are behaving with even less foresight than usual; according to a Salon post quoting the San Jose Mercury News, “In 1980, 17 percent of the state budget went to higher education. By 2007, that had fallen to 10 percent — the same as prisons and parole.” And 2007 predated the current crisis, showing that the trend away from higher education funding is accelerating.

* In one of many bizarre twists surrounding stimulus funding, California’s El Dorado County has rejected $1.6 million in stimulus funding:

The Board of Supervisors last week twice rejected what staff members described as no-strings-attached funding.

“It’s as close to a no-brainer as I’ve ever seen come before this board,” Richard Meagher of the Affordable Housing Coalition of El Dorado said of a grant application that could have put local contractors to work rehabilitating foreclosed houses and made the dwellings available to moderate and low-income homebuyers.

But Supervisor Jack Sweeney characterized himself as a “free-market person” and argued that many current economic ills are a result of government’s intrusion into society.

This seems bizarre even by the standards of local government. I’d bet that Sacramento Bee reporter Cathy Locke either knows something she couldn’t write about or that there’s otherwise something deeper beneath this story.

* Fascinating: Japan and Korea’s hidden protectionist measures prevented U.S. companies from competing in their home markets, and the English-language press largely ignored the story. Compare this to the story told in David Halberstam’s The Reckoning.

* Gas and the suburbs.

* New York remains rich in the ultimate resource: human capital. But the high cost of housing and high taxation levels remain threats. This is by one of my favorite economists, Edward Glaeser.

* Self-esteem has gone up in the United States; achievement has not.

* If The Onion wrote stories about grant titles, I wouldn’t know whether to believe Grants to Manufacturers of Certain Worsted Wool Fabrics is a real program or something dreamt up by satire writers.

* More porn means less rape? Maybe, and the writer cites some experiments that exploit natural variations, a lá Freakonomics, to get there. Expect to hear more on this subject in the coming years.

* I found Developing And Writing Grant Proposals while searching the other day, and love the sometimes-comical advice they give. It starts in the second paragraph, which says “Individuals without prior grant proposal writing experience may find it useful to attend a grantsmanship workshop,” a topic Isaac has dealt with, as have I.

* Megan McArdle writes about When Blogs Were Young. Compare that to my post, “You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Journal Tells You,” which is by far the most visited of any we’ve published.

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Foreign Language Assistance Program: Local Educational Agencies, Courtesy of the English Department

In the funding announcement for the Foreign Language Assistance Program: Local Educational Agencies, notice that the subagency under the Department of Education is the Office of English Language Acquisition. I can’t be the only one who finds it amusing that the Office of English Language Acquisition is in charge of a program for learning foreign languages, or that this structure comes courtesy of our much-mocked friends at the Department of Education.

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Grant Advice is Only as Good as the Knowledge Behind It

As faithful readers know, in my other life I’m a graduate student in English Literature at the University of Arizona. A few weeks ago, first years were required to attend a brief seminar on grant writing, which amused me given GWC’s low opinion of training sessions, courses, and the like. Isaac is fond of telling a story about his first encounter with one: he was younger than I am and began a two-day grant training session. It started with the instructor writing the 5Ws and the H on a board, at which point Isaac realized they were really teaching journalism and that grant writing similar to writing feature stories, which he already knew how to do. He got up and left.

I didn’t have the same reaction Isaac did, largely because I was required to attend.

The seminar’s major problem was its vagueness. We like to call this “hand waving” or “donut eating.” Grant writing advice of any sort is only as good as the details contained within it—saying there is “money available” is not nearly as helpful as saying the Department of Education issued an RFP on September 3rd with a deadline of October 15th and eligibility requirements x, y, and z. The more general you are in grant writing, the less useful the advice is. That’s why this blog works toward specificity: by citing real RFPs, real problems we’ve encountered, real issues with examples backing them, and the like, we aim to show what struggling with the grant beat truly entails. It’s also why our grant newsletter only contains only live RFPs with actual deadlines; we don’t want to say “the money is out there,” as if describing UFOs—we want to provide a concrete map to the money. Our advertising slogan for years has been, “We know where the money is,” and we strive to live up to it. Until you struggle with an actual RFP—or finding one—you’ll know little if anything about what grant writing is. For someone who had never heard the term “grants” or “grant writing” before might have found it useful, much like a person who’d never seen a large body of water might find it useful to stand it a pool before learning how to swim. But for almost anyone else, the seminar’s content wasn’t optimally useful because so much was conducted via hand-waving, and the leader—I’ll call her “Linda” because I can’t remember her name—said a variety of things that were vaguely correct, but lacked detail:

* Elections affect grants and grant making. Although elections have some effect on the distribution of money in terms of funding priorities, elections have made relatively little difference in the amount of money distributed, which seems to go perpetually up, and in the actual programs used as distribution vehicles. Some programs will become zombies and some phoenixes, as discussed in this post. But politics won’t change grant funds that much for public and nonprofit agencies, and politics will affect graduate students even less. (Politics and its tenuous connection to the grant world will be discussed in a future post.)

* Conflating grants, contracts, and fellowships. The first two are similar and have a fuzzy border but shouldn’t be used identically. Human service delivery grants are usually made to nonprofit and public agencies to solve some perceived social problem. RFPs for grant programs usually give general guidance, about what to do but don’t offer specific metrics, as the applicant should substantively design the program and state how they’d approach the problem and their own measurements. It’s usually not performance-based and will essentially say, “Tell us how you will decrease the rate of heart disease and diabetes in the target population,” for example.

In contrast, contracts are usually offered by public agencies on what is more or less a vendor/vendee relationship. You could have a contract for providing toilet seats or substance abuse treatment slots, and the metrics for a contract are usually specific, defined, and fixed. You’ll deliver X units of something per month, and you’ll be paid on a capitated (per head), per day or per service unit delivered. For example, a nonprofit agency might agree to provide job training and receive $1,000 per person in training per week. A childcare provider might have 50 slots and receive $50/day per slot filled.

Finally, fellowships are usually given to individuals or occasionally small groups to perform some kind of specific research or do some kind of specific thing. They’re a subset of grants, and we discuss an example of a fellowship program below.

* We were advised to “value the process” of finding a grant. While I’m not entirely sure what that means, I’ll go ahead and disagree with it anyway because the process is a means to the end. You need to value the outcome. The process of applying for a grant can’t be neglected, but it’s less important to do the process well than it is to, say, turn in the application on time.

* Paying close attention to reviewer feedback. This issue should be very familiar to faithful readers. To quote one of Isaac’s recent posts:

The primary reason for not taking reviewer comments seriously is the nature of the people reviewing it. Any proposal is read at a point in time by a set of reviewers, who are likely reading other proposals submitted for the same competition and may or may not be interested in the task at hand. For example, if the proposal is read by five peer reviewers brought to D.C. by DHHS, one may be hung over from bar hopping the night before in Georgetown, one may be anxious to meet their Aunt Martha for dinner, a third may be itching to get to the Air and Space Museum before it closes, and two might be vaguely interested in the review process. And, of the last two, one may have gotten a speeding ticket in your jurisdiction 20 years ago and hates the city.

The same applies to graduate students or anyone else engaging in grant writing.

* Make the grant be whatever you want. Although you shouldn’t apply for grants of any sort you have no intention of running, you should still stretch your program concept to fit guidelines to the extent you can, as we discuss in Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts:

If you were a suburban school district trying to fund, say, an art programs, and you read the Federal Register, you might’ve noticed new funding or shifts in emphasis. You could’ve combined your art program with nominal academic support, thus widening your program focus enough to make a plausible applicant for the 21st CCLC program and thus getting the money to carry out your central purpose: art.

* Failure to customize applications. Linda emphasized several points that were completely correct: one must pay attention to rules, guidelines, and requirements for a particular program, whether government or foundation. With the latter, a blanket pitch to foundations is most likely to result in total rejection; each foundation has its own persnickety needs and requirements, and anything sent to a particular foundation should be customized to those requirements. As a result, you’re better off sending a small number of applications to a limited number of foundations and making sure those applications follow the foundation’s guidelines precisely. This is a corollary of another thing Linda said, which is that one should seek good matches in funding. Come to think of it, this is also a pretty good rule for dating.

* The difference between the grant and real worlds. Just as you should stretch ideas to fit program guidelines, you should also realize that the grant world and real world aren’t necessarily the same things. We discuss the issue in Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation and Know Your Charettes!. As Linda said, programs like the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program are supposed to help you finish school faster because you have money and thus should be able to focus on your work. But the reality is that many recipients finish their Ph.Ds. slower because they don’t have a financial ax looming over their neck. This is the kind of reality you shouldn’t mention in your application, because you’re building an argument that needs to agree with the premise of the program, even if everyone knows what really tends to happen.

* Persistence. As Isaac often tells prospective clients, he’s a grant writer and not a fortune teller and thus doesn’t know whether any particular agency will be funded for a particular grant because too many factors outside the applicant’s control can change whether a grant is funded or not. The best one can do is turn in a complete and technically accurate proposal and hope for the best. That’s true of any individual proposal. Nonetheless, over the long term, the organizations that get funded are the persistent ones that never give up and continually refine their approach and work to improve their grant writing skills. The same is true of graduate students and individuals. As Randy Pausch says in The Last Lecture, barriers and walls are there to show how badly you want something. It’s true of grant writing, job searching, novel publishing, date finding, and a variety of other complex undertakings with multiple interlocking parts based on imperfect knowledge and equally imperfect judgment.

Now, it’s true that the seminar might have been helpful for someone who’d never heard the term “grant” or “fellowship” and had never even thought about the issue. But even so, it wasn’t maximally helpful. Had Linda been more knowledgeable about particular grant programs graduate students in English are eligible to apply for, it could have been better. If she’d had a potential program most of us were eligible for, she could have assigned all of us to prepare application packages. Now that would be useful. Part of the problem is that very few programs exist for graduate students who aren’t writing their dissertation: as a result, graduate students might spend too much time searching for opportunities that don’t exist. One program that does, for example, is the aforementioned Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program. It’s only available for first-year students, however, and the deadline for it has already passed, which is a good metaphor for the seminar’s overall utility.

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Now it’s time for the rest of the story

Faithful readers will recall my post on the perils of last minute changes to proposal concepts in “Stay the Course: Don’t Change Horses (or Concepts) in the Middle of the Stream (or Proposal Writing).” But, as Paul Harvey likes to say, now it’s time for the rest of the story. . .

Just after I’d written “Stay the Course,” the public-sector client who was the subject of this sad tale of woe called to breathlessly say that HUD funded the proposal for $3 million! Despite the unnecessary drama resulting from last minute changes that caused the proposal to be submitted at 11:59 PM on the due date, the outcome was great, illustrating the difference between process and outcome objectives that I covered in “The Goal of Writing Objectives is to Achieve Positive Outcomes (Say What?).”

Plus, our client didn’t even know that HUD had received the proposal until two weeks before the funding notification. She didn’t receive the sequence of emails from confirming receipt; calls and emails to (and HUD) generated responses along the lines of, “we can’t find any record of it.”*

This went on for months. It also turned out that there were problems with other applicants that day at, so HUD re-opened the competition to allow affected 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.

I’m not sure what the moral to this story may be, other than proposal writing is stressful enough without amping it via last-minute changes. The story does reveal the chaotic nature of the grant review process, as well as the general uninterest most bureaucrats show toward the programs they run and their “customers” (grant applicants).

If anyone at or HUD cared, they could’ve done the research necessary to reassure our client that the proposal was received, instead of providing the slow psychological torture of bureaucratic indifference.** I could’ve helped our client solve this problem if she’d called me, because a quick phone call to her congressman’s field deputy who is the HUD liaison would’ve lit a fire under the bureaucrats’ rear ends sufficient to raise even the most slack-jawed HUD staffer from their stupor long enough to get to the bottom of this exercise in absurdity.

* Faithful readers will remember how fantastically unhelpful bureaucrats can be.

** For an exquisite study in psychological torture, read Ian Fleming’s most unusual James Bond story, “Quantum of Solace”, which is not to be confused with the eponymous movie that merely shares the title.

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November Links: Myths, Housing, and More

* The New Republic has an article based on a Brookings Institute piece that deconstructs the small-town USA mythology regularly propagated in proposals:

But the idea that we are a nation of small towns is fundamentally incorrect. The real America isn’t found in cities or suburbs or small towns, but in the metropolitan areas or “metros” that bring all these places into economic and social union.

Think of this as a prelude to an eventual post on the subject of grantwriter as mythmaker. And if you’re interested in myth as a broader subject, see Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By. He’s the same guy who wrote Hero With a Thousand Faces, the book that, most famously, provided the outline for Star Wars.

* The New Yorker asks, “Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?” Like some of the data discussed in our post on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program, the article has problems of its own, including drawing conclusions that might be based on faulty data, but it nonetheless illustrates many of the issues at stake.

* The reason we can’t build affordable housing is chiefly structural, according to an article that also gives a recent history of industrial housing design:

What’s driving the high cost of houses today is not increased construction costs or higher profits (the Levitts made $1,000 on the sale of each house), but the cost of serviced land, which is much greater than in 1951. There are two reasons for this increase. The first is Proposition 13, the 1978 California ballot initiative that required local governments to reduce property taxes and limit future increases, and sparked similar taxpayer- driven initiatives in other states. Henceforth, municipalities were unable to finance the up- front costs of infrastructure in new communities, as they had previously done, and instead required developers to pay for roads and sewers, and often for parks and other public amenities as well. These costs were passed on to home buyers, drastically increasing the selling price of a house.

The other reason that serviced lots cost more is that there are fewer of them than the market demands. This is a result of widespread resistance to growth, the infamous not-in-my-backyard phenomenon, which is strongest in the Northeast, California, and the Northwest. Communities in growing metropolitan areas contend with increased urbanization, encroachment on open space, more neighbors, more traffic, and more school- age children.

Compare this to Virginia Postrel’s A Tale of Two Town Homes.

* We’ve written before about modern problems with bureaucrats. Such problems are hardly new: in the preface to The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne writes:

Suffice it here to say, that a Custom-House officer, of long continuance, can hardly be a very praiseworthy or respectable personage, for many reasons; one of them, the tenure by which he holds his situation, and another, the very nature of his business, which—though, I trust, an honest one—is of such a sort that he does not share in the united effort of mankind.

The oddest thing about the novel is how modern it seems in the subjects it treats and the way it portrays the subjectivity of its characters. The writing marks it from the 19th century, but in many other ways it is not.

* Mackerel Economics in Prison Leads to Appreciation for Oily Fillets from the Wall Street Journal has been making the blog rounds for good reason: it’s hilarious (“Elsewhere in the West, prisoners use PowerBars or cans of tuna, says Ed Bales, a consultant who advises people who are headed to prison.”) and insightful (using the specific example of prisons to demonstrate larger truths about the necessity of currency in virtually any non-hunter-gatherer culture). And how long have there been consultants who advise future prisoners?

* Speaking of the Wall Street Journal, it also published Giving Till It Works about “capitalistic philanthropy.” We’ve mentioned the issue with regard to Creative Capitalism, discussed tangent issues in Why Do People Give? And Other Unanswerable Questions, and brought up incentive problems in Foundations and the Future.

* Why is Mt. Denali in Alaska technically named McKinley by the federal government? I never thought I would care about the answer, either, but it sheds a great deal of light on politics, bureaucrats, history, culture, randomness, and infighting, as described by the Agitator.

* The New York Times reports on school reform efforts without discussing the enormous costs of some reforms, or the inherent scaling problems most such programs have had—just because a program with a small, extremely dedicated core of individuals manages to, for example, raise student achievement, that doesn’t mean that a larger program with less dedicated and less qualified staff do. Those two persistent issues have bedeviled attempts at reform, and there is no obvious way around them. Nonetheless, it’s still a positive sign that the issues are being more seriously discussed.

* Speaking of the New York Times, schools, and language, this could have come from a proposal:

The Equity Project Charter School (TEP) will open in September 2009 in Manhattan’s Washington Heights community, and it will aim to enroll middle school students at risk of academic failure. Students with the lowest test scores will be given admissions priority. In order to recruit the country’s top teachers to work with these at-risk students, the school’s founding principal will cut administrative costs and put a higher percentage of the school’s public funding into teacher salaries.

Notice the euphemistic “at risk of academic failure,” the choice to use the “most-in-need” model rather than the “most-likely-to-be-helped” model,” and the term “at-risk students” used again in the second sentence.

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Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts

In Mordecai Richler’s hilarious novel Barney’s Version, a discussion arises:

“We’ve got a problem this year. There’s been a decline in the number of anti-Semitic outrages.”
“Yeah. Isn’t that a shame,” I said.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m against anti-Semitism. But every time some asshole daubs a swastika on a synagogue wall or knocks over a stone in one of our cemeteries, our guys get so nervous they phone me with pledges.”

In some ways, the worse things are, the better they are for nonprofits, because funding is likely to follow the broad contours of social issues. For example, before the Columbine shooting, the vast majority of money for at-risk youth and after school programs targeted inner cities. A few years later, money began appearing for suburban and rural schools, the thinking being that now all teenagers were at risk simply by virtue of being teenagers. A case in point is the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which emerged around the time of Columbine; we’ve written at least a dozen or so funded grants, mostly in non-inner city areas. In fact, one funded 21st CCLC grant we wrote served Aspen, CO—an area not usually seen as a hotbed of social needs.

It’s not even clear that the conventional wisdom of the rationale behind the programs, which attacked the conventional wisdom of what was supposedly behind the shootings, was correct, as argues here. But for grant writing purposes, that’s less important than noticing the direction of the grant winds. If you were a suburban school district trying to fund, say, an art programs, and you read the Federal Register, you might’ve noticed new funding or shifts in emphasis. You could’ve combined your art program with nominal academic support, thus widening your program focus enough to make a plausible applicant for the 21st CCLC program and thus getting the money to carry out your central purpose: art.

This isn’t to say that you should fraudulently misrepresent what you do, because you shouldn’t, or that it’s necessary to change your program’s purpose haphazardly; you want to notice the wind but not necessarily be driven by it. Nonetheless, smart nonprofits find ways of getting the grant funds they need by shackling one idea to another, more fundable idea, particularly if “fundable” means a live RFP is on the street. Sometimes clients have ideas for programs they want to run that can be made vastly more fundable with relatively minor tweaks. We often suggest and execute those tweaks.

It’s not uncommon for nonprofits to shift their focus with time, funding, and opportunities. This will correlate to some extent with the general media landscape. To use another trend, homeless programs were more prevalent in the late 80s and early 90s. Today, an organization that once worked solely on homeless issues might expand its area of expertise to related areas, like affordable housing, prisoner reentry, or foster care emancipation. The latter problem has gained some traction in recent years as various levels of government have come to realize that few 17-year-olds are ready to be self-supporting the moment they turn 18, resulting in in crime, drug use, and prostitution as common outcomes among this population, as depicted in Charles Bock’s novel Beautiful Children.

Finally, organizations that pursue grants in other areas should remember that administrative funds from one area might end up subsidizing another; this commonly happens with service contracts, such as substance abuse treatment and foster care and can also occur with grants. In the near future, Isaac is going to describe how and why to acquire a Federally Approved Cost Allocation Plan and resulting Indirect Cost Rate, which is a great way to secure general purpose administrative funds to support multi-program operations. By pursuing grants related to your nominal field of expertise, you can in effect diversify and avoid major problems if there’s a decline in your version of the number of anti-Semitic outrages. Don’t put all your investments in a single stock, and don’t invest all your grant writing and service energy in a single cause, lest you discover that specialization has led you to an evolutionary dead end.

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Deconstructing the Question: How to Parse a Confused RFP

The breathless SAMHSA RFP, “Targeted Capacity Expansion Program for Substance Abuse Treatment and HIV/AIDS Services (Short Title: TCE/HIV)” (.pdf link to the RFP) has already been mentioned and also features one of my favorite proposal verbal quirks: the automatic success assumption. The last bullet in Section C (page 26) says:

Demonstrate success in referring, and retaining clients in aftercare and recovery support services/programs following substance abuse treatment.

I read that, noted the grammar mistake (see the last paragraph of this post for more about it) and called Isaac. I initially assumed the RFP wanted to know how the applicant had helped others similar to the target population get drug treatment. In other words, it just asked the applicant to show previous experience in similar programs. This, however, would be too easy. It’s also not exactly what’s being asked: they want to know about referring, and retaining clients in other services/programs. So they don’t necessarily want information about a program that the applicant has run, but presumably such services would be as a result of some program, or an aspect of another program.

The question is hard to understand because its form and hard to answer because it doesn’t define “success,” and the only way to answer it straight would be with data that says something like, “In 2007, 120 people were referred to other substance abuse clinics, and of those, 77 went, which we think is successful because other programs/the literature/our therapist/numbers we made up indicate that normally less than half of people in the target population when referred actually made it to treatment.”

For a program dealing with substance abuse or medical care, there are further complicating factors because of third-party payer issues and whether clinics are willing to treat the uninsured or publicly insured. Many clinics aren’t willing to take such patients, which is an important treatment gap the current political debate around healthcare is ignoring: many of the uninsured are eligible for public support programs but don’t enroll or, if they do enroll, cannot find providers.

That was a long tangent, the point of which is that even if a program like the ones being created in response to TCE/HIV do refer clients, there’s no guarantee that the treatment provider on the other end will accept the client, even if the client manages to find her way to the other program for help. Furthermore, the question itself is confusing and, once you understand what it means and its implications, you realize that it’s asking for data that don’t really exist and, even if they did, probably wouldn’t be useful for the reasons I just described. Finally, the question asks about aftercare and recovery/support programs, which, for an organization providing outreach and pretreatment services, also doesn’t exist. Initial referrals have nothing to do with recovery and support. The deeper into this question one gets, the worse it appears.

Finally, note the bizarre comma inserted after the fourth word: “referring, and retaining clients…” Commas should be used between independent clauses (meaning complete sentences that could stand alone) joined by “but, nor,” or “for,” and they’re optional if the sentence is joined by “and” or “or.” You can also use them to separate things in a series, between consecutive adjectives, or to set off phrases and clauses. All of this is courtesy of Write Right!, which I mentioned previously here. Notice that none of those rules say “drop a comma randomly in a sentence that would otherwise flow smoothly, even if its content is incoherent.” The comma is symptomatic of a deeper malady: RFP writers who aren’t really thinking about what they’re doing and who, in their attempts to sound positive and upbeat, contort themselves in verbal knots that the grant writer must in turn untangle.