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President Obama Would Likely Make a Good Grant Writer, as He Recognizes the Value of Telling a Compelling Story

In a recent Charlie Rose interview, President Obama said this about his first term:

The mistake of my first couple of years was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right, and that’s important [. . . .] But, you know, the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.

President Obama correctly points out that presidents often serve as the nation’s Story-Teller-in-Chief. For example, FDR’s Fireside Chats calmed a frantic nation caught up in the uncertainties of the Great Depression (he was the first president to really have access to and understand mass media) and President Reagan’s weekly radio addresses gave him a regular story telling platform that has been used by every succeeding president.

Like the presidency, grant writing at its most most basic level is nothing more than story telling. Successful presidents and successful grant writers are good story tellers, telling their audiences stories the listeners/readers want to believe in.

The latter point is critical in grant writing, as grant reviewers come to the process with preconceived notions of what they expect to read. The grant writer’s job is to craft a compelling story that meets readers expectations within the constraints of the often convoluted RFP. For example, when writing a childhood obesity prevention proposal for a poor and minority target area, it is good idea to suggest in the needs assessment that part of the problem is the lack of available fresh and nutritious food.

In other words, readers will expect a reference to food deserts, whether or not there are few grocery stores in the area (we also wrote about this process in “Two for One: Where Grants Come From, Fast Food, and the Contradictory Nature of Government Programs“). And a food desert conjures up images of want and neglect that are key elements in a “grant story.”

It’s possible that we shouldn’t trust stories nearly as much as we do; in Tyler Cowen’s TED talk on why stories make him nervous, he says that “narratives tend to be too simple,” that they tend to focus too much on good versus evil, that they tend to focus on intent instead of accident, and that they play on our cognitive biases. (A somewhat skeptical New Yorker article about TED talks even said that we might want to “feel manipulated by one more product attempting to play on our emotions,” which is what proposals should basically do.) But most grant reviewers are still looking for stories, even if the stories are simplistic.

The better a grant writer is at telling the story, the more likely she will be to write funded grants. While it is possible to get a grant without a cohesive narrative story, the odds of success increase with the quality of the tale being told. One can get lucky, but it is better to get skilled, because one always count on skill, while luck is elusive.*

When reviewers consider a stack of proposals, they will gravitate toward those that are readable and interesting while fitting within the framework of their expectations, much like you’ll gravitate towards readable and interesting novels more than those that are the opposite. Even if the need in a community is great, a disjointed proposal will generally score lower than one that captures the reader’s imagination.

In composing your narrative, make sure you weave a consistent story throughout all sections. This is easier talked about than done in large part due to the chaotic and repetitive nature of most RFPs, which are written by committee and resemble a camel more than a thoroughbred horse. We’ve written extensively about this in many contexts. Your task as a grant writer is to feed back the information requested in even the most confusing RFP, and you should do so in a way that makes all sections of the proposal hang together. You don’t want to be like President Obama in the quote above, realizing that you’ve failed to fit your policies and your community’s needs into a cohesive story.

* My favorite quote on “luck” is from Dylan’s “Idiot Wind,” “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” Peter Thiel’s essay on luck and life is also good.

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January Links: A Genuine Surprise in a Request for Plain English, no Free Grant Writing Lunches, and More on Specious Statistics

* We argued that There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing, and the New York Times in part explains why in When to Work for Nothing (answer: almost never). In addition, the article says you should seldom work for getting “paid in exposure.”

* Many of you probably read the disturbing article in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere about how “Murders of Black Teens Are Up 39% Since 2000-01:”

The data confirm a pattern identified earlier this year by The Wall Street Journal, which found that while most communities in the U.S. were seeing a decline in homicides, many African-American neighborhoods were continuing to see an increase. The Northeastern University research shows that the pattern is more pronounced among juveniles.

What the article doesn’t tell you is that said murders have substantially—probably by more than half—since 1993. However, Freakonomics points out what’s wrong with the scaremongering implied in the WSJ:

This figure presents homicide rates by age for blacks from 1976 to 2007. The dominant pattern in this picture is the huge spike in black youth homicides in the early 1990’s. The phenomenon captured in the scary New York Times graphic above corresponds to the barely perceptible rise in the black circles at the far right of the figure.


According to U.S. Census data, the number of blacks aged 15 to 19 rose by about 15 percent between 2000 and 2007.

So even if any individual black teen’s propensity for crime was unchanged over this time period, the aggregate amount of black-teen crime would have risen by 15 percent. In other words, in that New York Times graphic on perpetrators, just based on changes in population, the number of perpetrators would have been expected to rise from a little over 800 to nearly 1,000. Knowing that, the actual rise to roughly 1,150 doesn’t seem that noteworthy.

Nonetheless, if you’re writing a proposal, you’d do well to ignore the sensible Freakonomics pieces and quote the WSJ or NYT liberally, since they are authoritative and your chief responsibility is making sure that your grant story gets the money.

* In April 2008, we wrote a post on FEMA Tardiness,, and Dealing with Recalcitrant Bureaucrats, in which I described FEMA’s failure to use to announce the Assistance to Firefighters Grants program; the post illustrates the problems discussed in Lurches Into the 21st Century.

To FEMA’s credit, an administrator named R. David Paulison responded to a letter I sent, and Paulison said that FEMA disseminated information about the Assistance to Firefights Grants program through other channels. But, if I send him the firefighter department I’m associated with, he’d consider allowing a late application. Obviously I’m not associated with a fire department, but perhaps this means FEMA will issue the announcement on in a timely manner next year. Still, the letter Paulison sent me is dated December 5, indicating that perhaps FEMA’s tardiness problems haven’t exactly been solved, given that I sent my letter in April.

* Like the businesses they’re bailing out and the nonprofits they’re funding, federal and state governments are not looking good. Note in particular the last line of the linked post.

* RFPs are normally written in bizarre doublespeak, as we’ve amply documented. But in the DARPA Broad Agency Announcement NanoThermal Interfaces (NTI) MTO (warning: .pdf link), Isaac found something he’s never seen over 35 years and thousands of RFPs—a request for simplicity:

Statement of Work (SOW) – In plain English, clearly define the technical tasks/subtasks to be performed, their durations, and dependencies among them.

Presumably, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—the same guys who laid the foundation for the Internet—has among the brightest technical lights in the U.S. government working for it. If they request sections of highly technical proposals in plain English, perhaps the Department of Education should learn something from them, instead of ceaselessly requiring proposals written in educrat. Foundation proposals will occasionally request summaries or even proposals in relatively clear language, but more often than not, their guidelines look as though HUD rejects got into the review process.

Sometimes one will find proposal narrative guidelines almost as long as the page limits on the narrative itself; I can’t think of an immediate example save YouthBuild, as the narrative section of SGA is about 17 double spaced pages for 20 pages of required narrative. Finding another example would require digging through the voluminous (albeit digitally so, these days) RFP archives that make even seasoned grant writers blanch. Regardless, when you can find a request for real writing, savor it: you’ve got a rare dish you won’t taste often.

* Occasionally we’ll post examples of bureaucratic silliness and obtuseness, and I ran into a great example with the The Service Area Competition – Additional Service Areas funding opportunity. If you read the “Additional Information on Eligibility” section, you’ll see that it defines eligible applicants as “Public or nonprofit private entities, including tribal, faith-based and community-based organizations; and Organizations proposing to serve the same service area and/or populations identified in Appendix F,” without saying what the program is actually designed to do. And two paragraphs mention Appendix F at least half a dozen times. So I downloaded the 153-page file and searched for Appendix F, expecting a cornucopia of possible applicants but instead found four: La Pine, OR, Charleston, SC, Marchester, NH, and Miles City, MT.

Wouldn’t it have been easier simply to write those four applicants in the description on the website? And what makes these incredibly narrow areas important enough to justify their own funding announcement? I don’t know for sure, but if I were to wager, I would guess that HRSA, for whatever reason, wants to wire money for specific organizations in each area, and that whichever organizations know they’re getting the money just need to turn in something mostly correct to collect.

* A point Isaac has made many times in private now finds expression on a blog: senior bureaucrats, not political appointees, really run things in Washington.

* The New York Times discusses the “Evidence Gap” in “Drug Rehabilitation or Revolving Door?“, with the article strongly implying “revolving door.” Note this piece:

Yet very few rehabilitation programs have the evidence to show that they are effective. The resort-and-spa private clinics generally do not allow outside researchers to verify their published success rates. The publicly supported programs spend their scarce resources on patient care, not costly studies.

And the field has no standard guidelines. Each program has its own philosophy; so, for that matter, do individual counselors. No one knows which approach is best for which patient, because these programs rarely if ever track clients closely after they graduate.

(Emphasis added. We’ve discussed why that is in Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation and, to a lesser extent, in What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP. The whole article illustrates the problems with evaluations that we describe in the two posts above.)

* New York Times columnist Nick Kristof describes what might be called the charity paradox, whereby those who do good deeds are supposed to be utterly saintly while those in business are supposed to be utterly rapacious, in The Sin in Doing Good Deeds. The column, naturally, attempts to reconcile the two. We discuss similar issues in Foundations and the Future, which was published about a year ago.

* More on questionable abstinence studies, this time from the Washington Post, which says “Premarital Abstinence Pledges Ineffective, Study Finds; Teenagers Who Make Such Promises Are Just as Likely to Have Sex, and Less Likely to Use Protection, the Data Indicate.” Read What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP for more on the smoke surrounding abstinence education, whether in favor or against. Remember too that, if you’re writing a proposal for an abstinence program, Your Grant Story Needs to Get the Money—so if the data don’t support the RFP you’re writing for, don’t use them.