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Everything complicated is hard, including writing grant proposals

I was just listening to Tyler Cowen’s conversation with Atul Gawande and noticed this part:

COWEN: Why do surgeons sometimes leave sponges behind in the bodies of patients who are being operated on?

GAWANDE: You zeroed in on one of my very first projects in creating intervention.

COWEN: Great paper.

GAWANDE: We had done a case control study of this problem of surgeons leaving sponges inside people, and got it published in the New England Journal [of Medicine], partly because of our whole method of going about solving this problem, which was, we studied 60 people who had sponges left inside them, compared to 240 people at the same institution at the same time with the same operation who didn’t have sponges left inside them.

I don’t want to focus on the interventions Gawande developed (he is the author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, the title of which gives you a pretty big clue about one of those interventions); instead I want to focus on the fact that surgeons—who go to four years of undergrad, four years of med school, at least five years (in most cases) of residency—and who are highly motivated to not screw up procedures, because if they do people die—still manage to make seemingly elementary mistakes. Like forgetting a sponge in a patient.

Those mistakes happen, even to brilliant people, because as the cognitive load on a person increases, so does the tendency for error—even simple error. The same kinds of things happen, of course, in grant writing, although our “patients” are unlikely to die as a result. Still, the grant writing process is cognitively complex, which in part explains why so few people can become good grant writers. Interactions among the staff operating the program, the person writing the proposal, the funding agency, and the RFP are complex and can lead to errors. Even the nature of RFPs themselves lend themselves to error.

For example, I was just working on an HIV testing proposal for a client in a big Midwestern city. The narrative section of the proposal is limited to ten pages, with 1.5 line spacing, or about 7 single-spaced pages. The RFP, however, is 111 single-space pages. That’s right, the RFP is about 15 times longer than the allowed response. The possibility for error in such situations is enormous—it is cognitively difficult, and maybe impossible, to hold 111 pages of sometimes contradictory instructions, background on the applicant, and project design in one’s “RAM,” while also keeping to the max page length.

Part of our job as grant writers is to minimize error and understand where and why it might happen, so that we can prevent it to the maximum extent possible. Surgeons, who face life and death issues, don’t always manage to get the sponges out of people, even when they are very highly incentivized to do so. As such, it should not be surprising that the rest of us, who are doing cognitively complex tasks, also face major challenges in getting things right.

Everything is hard. Sometimes there is no way around that. If you’re old enough, you likely remember computers from ten or fifteen years ago that were slow and unreliable by today’s standards. Today, computers are probably more than a thousand times faster (transistor density tends to double every eighteen to twenty-four months) than they were 15 years ago. Yet Firefox is still kind of slow at times, Word still crashes, and various other programs have their foibles. One would expect computers to have transformed medicine, especially now that they’re so fast, yet every doctor hates their Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system. Isaac’s primary care physician uses eClinicalWorks and routinely complains about it being slower and less efficient than hand charting. He says finding the information he needs is harder with eClinicalWorks than it was when he charted by hand. In other words, he likes a millennia-old technology better than the latest software release.

We have faster computers, but EMRs still suck. We have faster computers, but Word still crashes. We have faster computers, but we also demand more of them. As hardware capabilities expand, we demand more of software. The software gets more complex and eats the gains from hardware speed. If I only ran programs from 10 or 15 years ago and made demands like those from that time, I could have a blazing-fast computer, but without the capabilities I like (like the ultra-high resolution 5K display on my iMac). Making software is hard, so it has problems and trade-offs.

The analogy to grant writing seems too obvious to belabor. I’ve also got to get back to the 10 page opus I’m extruding from the 111 page RFP; it’s too early for a cocktail.

Oh, and that story about the sponges? Gawande did come up with a technological fix for lost sponges: bar code each sponge and make sure that each sponge is “checked in” and “checked out.” That simple intervention means that virtually no sponges are lost in patients today. But not all problems lend themselves to technological fixes. Writing doesn’t.

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Writing (still) requires coherent paragraphs

Last month I was working on a California State Preschool Program Expansion proposal, and California is one of those states with elaborate, bizarre curriculum requirements for every single person ages birth through 18. You may think I’m joking about “birth,” but you can actually look up California’s “Preschool Learning Foundations,” which extend from “Birth Through Kindergarten.”

Leaving aside the absurdity of “learning foundations” for two year olds—when I was two, I suspect that “eating without smearing food on face” was a major “learning foundation”—much of the material produced by California and the flock of vendors around educational programs is written in bullets, tables, fragments, and images. Some of this material is in complete sentences, like “Children use mathematical thinking to solve problems that arise in their everyday environment,” but surprisingly little is in paragraphs.

Much of the material around California’s school requirements is so disjointed that it’s practically unusable for proposals. Grant writers should experience this as a problem and an opportunity, because the number of people who can write sustained, long-form documents is small and may even be shrinking. We’ve written before about how “Grant writing is long-form, not fragmentary.” Yet much of the modern written world consists of bullets, tables, fragments, and images; that’s true even in the education system, which is supposed to be teaching students how to concentrate and how to write clearly and at length. Real writing requires coherent paragraphs, and when states (and their vendors) don’t produce those paragraphs, someone else must step up and do so. Like grant writers.

Being able to write coherent paragraphs, even when the source material is sentence fragments, is (still) an important skill; it’s so important that I’ve actually begun assigning “The Writing Revolution” to students. Paragraphs require transitions and the effective use of “coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.” Effective writing requires effective quotation, as you can see in the previous sentence. Yet bullet, tables, fragments, and images don’t require those things. That’s part of the reason they’re less satisfying to read—though they can be easier to write. Hence the proliferation of tables instead of prose.

But until funders ask for fragments rather than stories, you, the grant writer, must produce coherent paragraphs. This can be hard. I’ve written sentences, paragraphs, blog posts, articles, grant proposals, and books. The length of a document does not scale linearly; it scales exponentially (which is one reason lists and tables are easier than narrative paragraphs: they rely on the reader to fill in blanks and transitions). The longer a given, coherent document is supposed to be, the more challenging it is. That’s why I assign first-semester freshmen five-page papers and second-semester freshmen ten-page research papers, and that’s why senior theses are longer and more detailed. Students have to work up to the conceptually more challenging projects.

I’m not totally opposed to lists and tables in the right circumstances. Our links posts, for example, are a series of bullets. I don’t want to fetishize the paragraph. But I do want to observe that, when everyone else is going short, it can be beneficial for you to go long—and to know how to go long.

Despite the need to write stories and the human need to consume stories, I’ll also note that it’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel for proposals. For example, if you’re working on an after school program or job training program that already has a curriculum available, the curriculum itself can become a large part of the project description—as long as you make sure the language matches the RFP’s language and as long as you can adapt the curriculum descriptions to paragraphs. You don’t need to reinvent everything, and if you’re a real grant writer you probably have neither the time nor the mental energy to do so. But you do need to make sure that the the arguments you make occur in paragraph form and that those paragraphs are logically linked together. If you can do that, you’ve got a skill few people do.

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Links: Occupational licensing, infantilization, L.A.’s self-inflicted housing crisis, Colorado and birth control, better condoms, energy, and more!

* Bess Stillman’s med school, nursing school, and medical residency admission essay writing firm now has a website. She is to application essays what we are to grant writing: the best.

* “The President’s economics team is taking on occupational licensing.” Anyone who cares about low-income workers’s real income and about moving from the gray market to the conventional labor market should cheer this.

* Laura Kipnis On How Campus Feminism Infantilizes Women.

* We have many readers and clients in L.A., who will doubtlessly be interested in “The incredible shrinking megacity: How Los Angeles engineered a housing crisis: Los Angeles used to be the promised land for America’s homeowners. Now it’s tearing at the seams.” Twenty years ago Isaac left L.A. (for the first time) for precisely these reasons.

* “New design could finally help to bring fusion power closer to reality.” Commercial-scale fusion would ameliorate numerous political and environmental problems.

* Colorado’s Effort Against Teenage Pregnancies Is a Startling Success. See also our 2008 post, “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 rush from judgment,” or, how being superficially non-judgmental can be barbaric and foolish. In your proposals, though, always say that staff will be non-judgmental.

* Sea levels will rise much more rapidly than anticipated.

* Energy, by Sam Altman, a hard problem and one related to the fusion link above.

* “The Pecking Disorder: Social Justice Warriors Gone Wild: Culture wars over ‘social justice’ have been wreaking havoc in many communities, including universities and science fiction fandom.” Social Justice Warriors don’t matter outside of academia and government, but inside they can wreck a lot of havoc. Always be wary of zealots.

* The Electric Car: “The electric car is going to take over the world. Soon. Let me explain.” Linear versus discontinuous effects are under appreciated. Everyone who has driven a Tesla says it’s the best car ever. The mass-market version is supposed to arrive in 2017. See also “How Tesla Will Change The World,” which is long but clever.

* “The old suburban office park is the new American ghost town.” Too many parking lots and too few interconnections to rail.

* “It’s worse than Jerry Seinfeld says: PC is undermining free speech, expression, liberties.” I’ve felt these currents throughout my time as a professor.

* Rooftop solar is booming. But it may be more vulnerable than you think. See also “The Miracle of SolarCity: Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX are impressive. But the solar company he founded with his cousins could be transformational.”

* Doing Good Better, on effective altruism and how to get better margins on giving. The sort of thing every potential donor should read. Despite decades in the grant writing business, we’ve never gotten a call from a donor looking for advice.

* “We’ve been cheated out of condoms that actually feel good during sex.” Another of these very important yet totally underrated issues. Issues around reproduction touch almost every aspect of income inequality, real earning power, and education—topics vital to many grant programs.

* “Rising Rents Outpace Wages in Wide Swaths of the U.S.;” national policy focuses on ownership while facts-on-the-ground demand more focus on renting. This is a key and neglected affordability issue.

* “Warren Buffett’s Family Secretly Funded a Birth Control Revolution: In the past decade, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation has become the most influential supporter of research on IUDs and expanding access to the contraceptive.”

* “Success Academy Posted Its Latest Test Scores. The Results Are Astounding: New York’s largest charter network outperformed traditional public schools in wealthy zip codes.”

* “How RED Cameras Changed The [Movie] Game.” If you like movies and TV shows you need to read this.

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Seven Years Later, We’re Number One in the Grant Blogosphere

By at least one metric, we’re now #1.

Seliger + Associates started Grant Writing Confidential over seven years ago: Our first post was “About Us,” which both of us wrote. The first substantive post I wrote was “Zombie Funding,” and Isaac’s first substantive post was “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal.”

During the first two or three years we wrote the blog, we watched our fortunes on Google rise and fall, but we never got to the top because of established competitors—one factor Google considers in its ranking is the age of the site; older sites with recent updates generally get ranked higher than newer sites. By now, though, most of those competitors have disappeared, while we’ve persevered. Being #1 on Google is also a fickle prize: Google could change its ranking criteria at anytime, and there’s a cottage industry of people trying to fool Google. I’m not sure any of that really works, but then again people also try to rob banks despite the futility of that endeavor.

Our strategy is simple: post on topics likely to be interesting to executive directors, project managers, directors, and board members in nonprofit and public agencies, and make those posts based on our direct experiences in writing proposals, reading RFPs, talking to clients, and dealing with funders. Long-time readers know that we post about once a week. We’ve thought about posting more, but it’s not really feasible given the number of hours we already spend writing and preparing proposals. Grant Writing Confidential is only a small slice of that world.

One business slogan we’ve used for over 20 years is “we help you get your slice of the grant pie.” Grant Writing Confidential gives readers free, but valuable slices, of our experience and insights into the opaque world of grant making and grant seeking. We see things almost no one else sees and know things almost no one else knows, and that’s what makes this blog valuable.

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My first bidders conference, or, how I learned what I already knew

In January I went to and got kicked out of my first bidders conference. For those of you not familiar with the practice, bidders conferences are largely pointless schmooz-fests for potential grant applicants. Aside from being there to show the flag to program officers and to preen in front of potential competitors, bidders conferences are useless because almost every RFP will issue a disclaimer like this one:

if the NYCDOE issues an addendum with a digest of the inquiries made and answers given at the pre-proposal conference, proposers shall rely on the information contained in such addendum rather than those given orally at the conference.

This language kills accountability and applicants can’t rely on anything that’s said at a bidders conference. They can only rely on the words in the RFP. As a result, most bidders conferences will at best confuse potential applicants. Anyone who sees something amiss in an RFP would be better served to seek an amendment rather than pester the low-level bureaucrats at a bidders conference. Bidders conferences are great for grant writing consultants, however, because they gather a lot of potential clients in one small space.

Back to my story about being ejected. I arrived at the New York City Department of Education’s (NYC DOE) Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) bidders conference a few minutes early, with marketing fliers in one hand and business cards in the other. Almost no one else was there, so I chatted with the staffers hanging out. There were at least four and maybe half a dozen DOE staff there. I had no idea what they were doing, other than make-work.

People slowly started showing up. A staffer said I could leave flyers next the sign-in table. I said hi and chatted with whoever was wandering by until an older DOE staffer showed up, grabbed the flyers, and brought them over to the recycling bin. I asked her not to chuck them—we put time and energy to getting them made! She gave them back and told me to leave.

As usual I played jailhouse lawyer—public facility, First Amendment, etc.—but she wasn’t having any of it and found a fat security rent-a-cop guy (the conference was being held in downtown Brooklyn at a small college auditorium) who had no doubt kicked many people out of many places.

I left, though I suspect that there’s a real First Amendment case to be made: I wasn’t interfering with the proceedings and it’s a public meeting. But my goal was to get nonprofits to hire us to write their UPK proposals, not be an ACLU test case.*

It was January in New York, which meant that nasty weather was a possibility and that day it was indeed raining. Nonetheless the attendees did show up and took my flyers, which, in keeping with our general style, are bright, eye-catching and obnoxious (but very effective).

About 30 to 40 percent of the bidders looked at me like I’d just taken a dump in front of them. Another 20 or so percent were actively excited. The rest seemed confused. By and large, nonprofit personnel don’t want to be seen consorting with grant writers, much as married men don’t want to be seen with ladies of the evening, so they don’t want to smile and say hi. One woman asked where we were three years ago, when she’d first gotten her UPK contract. Grant writing is one of those things, like house cleaning, that people want to pay someone else to do.

Despite the reactions I got in the flesh, I can say that based on the number of calls we got and UPK proposals we wrote, it’s apparent that a lot of people liked us regardless of how they behaved with their peers watching.

I look forward to the next Bidder’s Conference. When I was too young to attend these events, Isaac used to go to them wearing a brightly colored Seliger + Associates T-shirt, emblazoned with our logo, 800 number and slogan, “We know where the money is!”

We did then and still do.

* I am an ACLU member: I may disagree with what you see but will fight for your right to say it.

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The Weird Case of SUNY Geneseo’s RFP for Grant Writers

We received this “RFP for Grant Writing & Related Consulting Services” from SUNY Geneseo:

That SUNY Geneseo RFP

It’s gotta be the Ron Jeremy of consulting RFPs—even by the standards of public agencies, it’s massive. At least a hundred pages. It’s also only available as a hard copy and was sent to our New York office, so we can’t provide a link. That alone signals that something is amiss: anyone who wants the best services possible should also want to disseminate their RFP as widely as possible. And SUNY Geneseo sent this sumo-sized document via UPS overnight delivery—they must not have read the memo about not wasting dead trees and running up shipping costs. It must still be 1996 in Geneseo.

SUNY Geneseo, however, doesn’t seem to want wide distribution of this RFP, and we have a pretty good theory about why. A few years ago Isaac wrote a post about why we don’t respond to RFPs/RFQs for grant writers (and, implicitly, why any grant writing consultants reading this shouldn’t either). The only exception is when we’re told that the RFQ is already wired for us, in which case we’re happy to apply.* In the case of SUNY Geneseo, there’s almost certainly a local firm or person they’re already going to hire. They just need to get a couple stooge bids.

Most RFQs and RFPs like this have some telltale signs that the local boys are going to win—usually something about the requirement that the consultant be available for in-person meetings, or have knowledge of local operations, or a similar formulation.

Public organizations with mandatory bid processes almost always also have the option of executing “sole-source contracts,” which get past the usual bidding rules. In this case, the contract authority at SUNY Geneseo probably doesn’t want to go through the institutional hassles of getting a sole-source contract, so she’s instead using the stooge method. Isaac actually sent the contract authority an e-mail asking about their convoluted RFP process, and their contact person claimed they “can’t do sole-source contracts.” This is nonsense, of course, as government agencies routinely use sole-source contracts for all kinds of specialized and emergency situations.

I’m not sure how many stooges she’ll find. The SUNY application itself is sufficiently complex that, were we writing a response for clients, we’d probably charge at least $5,000 to complete it. We’re not going to—instead, we’re going to real work, and we recommend that you do the same and that you not fall for the unsolicited RFP/RFQ trap.

EDIT: We’re obviously not the only ones curious—we’ve been getting search engine hits for the phrase “geneseo rfp”. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, since we’re the number one hit for the phrase on Google and the number two hit on Duck Duck Go, which is a search engine with one delightful feature: it doesn’t log searches. Your fascination with Miley Cyrus is safe with it.

* Though we did once get into a situation in which a public agency told us on the QT that the RFQ was wired for us, we submitted an application, and then they picked someone else anyway! We were angry for the usual reasons, the most obvious being that when we say we’ll do something, we do it.

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Language Choices in Grant Writing Present Pitfalls for the Unwary or Inexperienced

In his recent post on potential grant funds embedded in President Obama’s just announced gun violence prevention policy statement, Jake noted that grant writing language is a good topic for a post of its own. He’s right. Like all forms of the written word, grant writing has its own language conventions and wisdom. Faithful readers will know that we often put Easter Eggs in our posts in the form of asterisked “free proposal phrase here.” We do this in part to help would-be grant writers and partly to poke fun at some of the absurdities of our profession.

But choosing the right language is serious in grant writing because the writer has to imagine its impact on a range of unknowable readers. Although it’s not usually possible to write for specific readers (excepting certain foundation proposals), it is possible to make educated guesses about how typical classes of readers might react to certain language. For example, federal bureaucrats reading and scoring a proposal are more likely to be dispassionate about a topic than peer reviewers, who might just be “true believers” with a dog in a particular fight about a contentious issue. When in doubt about what language to use, study the RFP, which will usually provide clues.

As Jake pointed out in his edit, some emotionally charged words to avoid are fairly obvious—like “abortion” in a teen pregnancy prevention proposal. In a case like teen pregnancy prevention, one needs to carefully write around the word, referring opaquely to negative consequences that may result from lack of access to pregnancy prevention knowledge, whether the project concept is centered on abstinence education or sex education.

Similarly, substantial new funding for gun violence prevention programs is likely to emerge in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. Still, smart writers won’t use “gun control” in such a proposal. If we get hired to write gun safety proposals, we’ll take great care to develop euphemisms and obfuscations to avoid annoying readers on either side of the debate in an emotionally or politically charged issue like gun control. Failing to be vigilant means that a a single word or phrase will sink your proposal ship if it runs into the iceberg of a politically motivated reviewer. To beat the nautical metaphor a bit more, there are enough hidden shoals in grant writing without intentionally running aground.

Beyond the obvious iceberg words, there are others we try to avoid. For example, we rarely use “poor” as a descriptor of people because it has a pejorative ring to it and was overused during the halcyon War on Poverty days. We prefer “economically disadvantaged,” “vulnerable,” “low-income,” “at-risk,” and the like. “And the like” is itself a proposal phrase we often use to vary from the boring sounding “etc.”

Similarly, we prefer “African American” to “Black” but are always careful to capitalize Black when we do use it. It’s accepted, however, to use a lower case “white.” A catch-all for minority clients is “clients of color” or “participants of color.” We almost never refer to African American children as “boys” or “girls,” using “young men” and “young women,” or the ever-popular “youth” instead. These choices have to do with the legacy of the Civil Rights struggles from the 1960s, when the language of race became paramount in the larger culture.

As an aside, when writing for California clients, we usually use “Latino,” while in the rest of country we use “Hispanic,” since “Latino” is traditionally used in the Golden State, while Hispanic is used elsewhere and is the term adopted by the US Census since 1980.

In addition, we almost always write in the third person to avoid the cloying sound of “our clients,” “our staff,” etc. In doing so, and to get the attention of female and male feminist readers, we will often use “she/he” and “her/his,” instead of the other way around.

Probably our biggest proposal language debacle took place about ten years ago, but wasn’t really our fault. We were writing a California Tobacco Control Program proposal for a nonprofit in Northern California. The founder of the organization was a true believer who felt that white youth were not getting enough attention or funding in tobacco prevention efforts, compared to youth of color (note the proposalese correctness of this sentence).

The popular wisdom and a black-letter reading of the RFP was that youth of color were disproportionately negatively impacted* by tobacco. Well, according to our client, who produced reams of studies and data from a very reputable UC Berkeley professor, it turned out the white kids in California, particularly low-income youth, were actually much more likely to use tobacco than their peers of color.

Still, our client insisted that the proposal target white youth and that we refer to them as “Euro-American” youth. Since we’re just hired guns or Paladins, we tend to do as our clients request, even though we advised our client that the proposal was going to be torn apart by reviewers (which it was).

The proposal wasn’t funded, and I’ve never seen harsh review comments like the ones this proposal received. The reviewers not only castigated the project concept, but also denounced the applicant as racist, even though ample data citations were provided. The proposal ran counter to the expectations of the reviewers and the clearly stated suppositions in the RFP—so the reviewers were outraged. Remember the Golden Rule. No, not that Golden Rule—this one: she who has the money makes the rules.

* Yet another free proposal phrase here.

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Teams don’t write grants: individual writers do, one word at a time

Teams don’t write proposals. If you hear about a team that is writing a proposal, that translates roughly to “lots meetings are being held, but no one is actually working on the proposal.”

We sometimes hear people at nonprofit and public agencies talk about how they’ve assembled a “team” to write a proposal. For some reason, proposals written by “teams” have a habit of a) not getting done, b) if they are done, being done unevenly at best, and/or c) creating permanent acrimony among team members.

Do you remember “group work” when you were in middle and high school, which meant that one responsible person did the entire project while the other members goofed off and then took as much credit as they could? That’s what you’ll get with proposal writing assignments, only the stakes are higher.

Every time we hear about proposal writing teams, we know that the person talking doesn’t know how proposals actually get written and is probably working on a proposal that won’t be submitted anyway.

For example, we were recently working on a large federal grant proposal for a school district in the midwest. Throughout the engagement, our contact person keep talking about “the team” that was working on the proposal from their end. When the proposal was nearly done—on the Sunday before the deadline—I heard from out contact person, who finally admitted that “the team” had abandoned her and she had to more or less pull an all-nighter by herself to ensure that we were able to finish the submission package.

Saying that you’re “assembling a team” sounds good: one imagines the innumerable scenes in movies and TV shows in which the ultimate crime or cop group gets wrangled together for one big or one last job.* The members look suitably grizzled. They all have nifty specialties. These days there’s inevitably a hacker who can magically “bypass building security.” The leading men are dapper and debonair, the leading women beautiful and feisty. Unfortunately, in the real world, writing is still best done by a single person who can keep the narrative complexity of a difficulty response in their head.

We’ve written about how to write a proposal before, most notably in “One Person, One Proposal: Don’t Split Grant Writing Tasks.” We’re writing about it again because we see the same set of mistakes again and again.

If you’re drafted into a “grant writing team,” be aware that you’ll probably have one of two roles: You’ll end up writing the vast majority of the proposal, or trying to make yourself look good while someone else writes the vast majority of the proposal. No amount of dividing up tasks will solve the essential problem of facing a blank screen, a full RFP, and starting to type.

Isaac’s favorite example of this comes from The Magnificent Seven, which is actually a good movie. The first thirty or so minutes of the movie consists of Yul Brynner collecting his expert gunmen. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, most nonprofit and public agencies don’t have the same needs as a Mexican village beset by bandits. Usually. Those that do, however, might be the subject of another post.

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The Nonprofit’s Grant Writing Life Cycle: No Matter Where You’re Going, There You Are*

Seliger + Associates works with the full spectrum of nonprofits, from newly minted ones to some that have been providing services for 150 years (this is not an exaggeration, as we have one client in Chicago that was formed in the 1860s). We’ve seen how nonprofits morph with respect to their grant writing opinions and practices as they careen through their life cycles. As I pointed out in One, Two, Three* Easy Steps to Start-Up a Nonprofit Upstart, most nonprofits don’t begin life through grant funding; instead, they rely on a loan/gift from the founder and/or an angel “investor.” As the nonprofit gathers steam, however, and begins to expand the services it delivers, the need for grant writing grows, because few nonprofits can offer a wide array of services to a large number of people while operating on a shoestring.

Since new nonprofits usually have extremely limited resources, most cannot afford to hire a grant writer, either as a staff person or consultant. This leaves a conundrum, as the nonprofit has increasing grant writing needs that are tempered by lack of resources. Or, as in the hoary aphorism, “it takes money to make money.” At a basic level, young nonprofits must function like emerging small businesses to meet capital needs to expand service delivery while supporting ongoing operations. Essentially, they have three options if they want to supplement donations and capitated revenue streams with grants:

1. The founder needs to quickly learn how to be a grant writer. Unless the founder is already a skilled writer—and few people are, though many more believe they are—this option is unlikely to produce immediate results because she would have to first learn to write and then learn to grant write. As we pointed out in aCredentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain, one can’t will oneself to become a grant writer by going to a three-day training seminar.

Some founders,** however, have the writing skills and the passion to churn out good enough proposals. But they may not want to be stuck with grant writing tasks; few people decide to save the world, or at least their corner of it, by spending a lot of time alone with their computer and an RFP, just as many science professors are dismayed by the sheer amount of grant writing they have to do to keep a lab funded.

2. The organization finds a person who loves it and/or its mission and already happens to be a grant writer and will volunteer her time. This is even less likely than option one, since there are so few grant writers you’ll be looking for the proverbial hen’s teeth.

3. Scrape together enough resources to hire a grant writer, most likely as a consultant, since this is usually a more effective option than trying to find an employee who also has or can quickly develop grant writing skills. The hen’s teeth problem again.

As the organization moves into adolescence, usually through a combination of donations and some success with grants, it will naturally gravitate toward option three. Many nonprofits try to build an internal grant writing capability by hiring at least one employee with grant writing skills (or grant-writing potential) and also providing in-service grant writing training to existing staff.

Sometimes this even works.

But when grant writers are grown in-house, they often move to other nonprofits or universities that offer more money, or the grant writer achieves sufficient status within the organization that he or she doesn’t want to write proposals any more—which isn’t surprising, given how difficult writing proposals is. Nonetheless, in-house grant writers are quite common.

When the nonprofit achieves adulthood, this internal capacity is generally supplemented with the external resource on a consultant like Seliger + Associates. We are frequently hired by organizations with internal grant writing capacity. An entity that already has a grant writer on staff usually hires a hired gun for three reasons:

1. The internal grant writer is terrified of a particular RFP—and what’s anybody else to write it.

2. The internal grant writer is swarmed over by RFPs and and can’t keep up.

3. Finally, there is the ever popular “shoot the consultant” motivation used by Executive Directors who want somebody to blame if the grant is not funded, or if the organization is experiencing some other kind of turmoil and needs a common enemy to create unity within it.

* Buckaroo Bonzai in one of my favorite movies from the 1980s, the curious The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

** Including myself, as I described in my first GWC post, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal.”

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December 2011 Links: College as a Misallocated Resource, Latinos and Politics, Rising Gas Prices, Technology in Schools, Blogging, and More

* College has been oversold; notice especially data on student majors:

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. This is not bad, but we graduated more students with computer science degrees 25 years ago! [. . .]

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

I wrote a post on “College graduate earning and learning: more on student choice” that also covers these issues.

* You Say Latino: “I was talking with some graduate students, people I didn’t know, when the subject turned to minority issues. Every time I said Hispanic, the guy sitting next to me said Latino. This was about a decade ago; I hadn’t realized the terminology had changed.”

* [R]ising gas prices have pretty much wiped out the whole cash value of the stimulus to families. Read the whole thing at the link, along with this paper by James Hamilton. It may turn out that we simply can’t do anything about macro economic performance without working on energy problems. This kind of information has been circling among economics bloggers for quite a while but hasn’t made much way into the mainstream.

* “A toddler hit by two vehicles in a southern Chinese city and left unassisted by more than a dozen passersby died Friday, adding new fire to an anguished debate over the state of empathy in China’s fast-changing society.” Notice to the video. File this under “The world is not flat” (yet) and “culture is the water we swim in,” usually without knowing it.

* What dealing with California bureaucrats is like. We’ve experienced this indirectly; see, for example, this post and this one for more.

* Solving America’s teen sex “problem:” The Dutch have dramatically reduced adolescent pregnancies, abortions and STDs. What do they know that we don’t?

* “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute” is about a school without computers and the high-tech moguls who send their kids to the school. This resonates with me, given the research on computers in schools and the dangers of distraction.

* Hispanics Reviving Faded Towns on the Plains; notice the contrast with what Isaac wrote in “Seliger + Associates Hitches Up the Wagons and Heads Out to Where the Pavement Turns to Sand.”

* “The Economics of Bike Lanes;” hint: they’re pretty good. Notice this quote about the Washington MetroRail: “Parking spaces cost on average $25,000 each, compared with $1,000 per space for a secured bike cage. “It’s an extremely expensive proposition for us” to expand car parking, [Kristin Haldeman, Metro’s manager of access planning] said.”

* On Never Quitting starts with a great line: “I used to think Joe Konrath was full of shit.” Note that this is posted on Joe Konrath’s blog.

* Grant humor, via The New Yorker:

* Why academics should blog, which seems completely obvious to me.

* How to fix math education in high school and college. Good luck: the incentives don’t look good to me right now.

* A former teacher gets an MFA in puppetry and can’t find a job afterward; note that we’ve worked for a number of nonprofit puppeteers over the years. Hat tip Alex Tabarrok, and do read his analysis:

What astounds me is not that someone could amass $35,000 in student loans pursuing a dream of puppetry, everyone has their dreams and I do not fault Joe for his. What astounds me is that Richard Kim, the executive editor of The Nation and the author of this article, thinks that the failure of a puppeteer to find a job he loves is a good way to illustrate the “national nightmare” of the job market.

* The feds pay contract IT workers half what they pay their own employees. If that’s not enough, those contractors then turn around and work to minimize their own employees’ rights and compensation.

* Best recent RFP: the National Park Service’s “Exploration of Acoustic Environments – Natural Sound Field Activities Focused on Diverse and Undeserved Youth.” I like noise too.

* From the U.K.: World power swings back to America. Maybe.

* New York City Cops and contempt for the law.

* Malcolm Gladwell on “The real genius of Steve Jobs.”

* Apple may axe the Mac Pro. We hope not: Isaac used one for four years, and the form factor is amazing for anyone who needs expandability in their computers. That being said, their current prices have gone from ludicrous to ridiculous; we hope for a price cut and more reasonable processors, rather than the removal of the line itself.