Posted on 2 Comments

Yet Another Note on Grant Writing Training, Seminars, and Workshops

Most of the people who send us angry e-mails regarding our posts on the uselessness of grant writing credentials, workshops, and the like do so because they teach those workshops and are unhappy when prospective students send links to our work. We got another such e-mail recently, which starts with a rhetorical question we’ve answered in a dozen places: “How does a potential grant writer learn to prepare a proposal?” It’s not that hard: one learns, most often, in English comp classes that teach you how to write and journalism classes that teach you how to answer who, what, where, when, why, and how. The rest is described in the post linked to above.

Our correspondent continued:

“I firmly believe conducting a grant writing seminar is a great marketing tool for consultants who are building their practice. After all, it is the novice grant writers who need the greatest help from the grant writing experts…such as myself or Seliger + Associates.”

We firmly believe that the best way to learn how to be a grant writer is by learning how to write, which grant writing seminars can’t teach you, and then writing proposals. But grant writing seminars are a great marketing tool for people like the woman who wrote to us, since she teaches grant writing seminars and would be out of business if she couldn’t do so any more. If I sold hot dogs, I’d be very opposed to people who point out that hot dogs aren’t very good for you. If I sold grant writing seminars, I’d be opposed to people who point out that such seminars are a waste of time.

Posted on 4 Comments

How Much Money You Should Ask For — an example from the National Mentoring Programs, with Improving Literacy Through School Libraries Program as a Bonus

In “So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For?,” we discussed a sometimes delicate issue for nonprofits: picking a grant request amount. Our standard answer: ask for the maximum because zeroes are cheap. Funders will sometimes cut down your budget but almost never increase it.

Some obnoxious programs, however, won’t tell you how much you can request, which makes it harder to find guidance. Last year, an e-mail blast from the Seliger Funding Report included the National Mentoring Programs RFP (warning: .pdf link), which provides grants to national organizations who then offer mentoring services to special populations. In 2008, the RFP didn’t provide guidance about how much money to ask for or how much was available, so I sent an e-mail and called the Department of Justice (DOJ) to ask if they would tell us or were just going to play hide the salami. Patrick Dunckhorst, Program Manager, wrote back to say:

Thank you for your inquiry. Applicants should request the amount of funding they assess/deem necessary to support the requirements of the National Mentoring solicitation.

To solve the world’s problems I need all the world’s money, but that’s not likely to happen. The DOJ probably received applications with wildly divergent and zany funding requests, perhaps ranging from the absurdly small to all the world’s money. In the Funding Report, I quoted his second sentence and left it at that.

In 2009 the max grant amount is $10,000,000. Evidently Patrick got tired of inquiries like mine, because this year the contact person is Eric Stansbury, and he won’t get questions about the amount available save from those who can’t read.*


* One other recent example of random change: the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries Program, which existed under that name in 2006, 2007, and 2008, is now called the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries Competition. I feel more literate already.

 

Posted on 1 Comment

Meaning Well is Not Enough: The Role of Research in Grant Writing and Proposals

Chances are good that you, as an applicant, have really wonderful intentions in whatever you’re doing—just like everyone else. You want to help kids succeed, make the world a better place, save the endangered sparrow dragonfly,* impart job training skills, build cool stuff, etc. You know this is a excellent use of time and money. The trick is convincing others that your idea is an excellent use of their time and money.**

Usually you convince them by saying that the target area needs whatever you’re proposing and that what you’re proposing will be effective. To really convince the others with money, you can’t merely say that you know what you’re talking about and therefore they should give you the money. You need to present some kind of research that demonstrates your approach is effective. Merely asserting that your approach will be effective isn’t enough.

Lots of our clients don’t have any research to demonstrate that what they’re doing or want to do might be useful, which means we spend a lot of time conducting research. This probably brings back memories of high school term papers and the like. However tedious or difficult research might be, it’s still necessary if you’re going to have a strong application that sets you a part from others.

Here’s why: funders want to think you know what you’re doing. One way is to show that you know what’s going on in the field and that your project is likely to succeed. Some RFPs even tell you what research to cite and which protocols to use. For example, this year’s SAMHSA Offender Reentry Program (ORP) tells you to use a whole grab bag worth of acronyms (“you are encouraged, when appropriate for your setting and population to implement the Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach (A-CRA) coupled with Assertive Continuing Care (ACC) and/or Motivational Enhancement Therapy/Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-5 (MET/CBT-5) with juvenile offenders”).

Most RFPs don’t make things this easy, and you have to do your own research. Still, for most human and social service proposals, you also don’t need to write a dissertation: it’s enough to sprinkle some peer-reviewed research in like paprika over a casserole. As Homer Simpson says, “Facts are meaningless! You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!” The same applies to research. You need to have enough citations to make what you’re doing appear plausible, at least in most cases; for specific research grants or technology projects, you’ll often need someone who is really a domain expert. But for social and human service projects, you usually don’t.

That being said, people make two big mistakes in research for most kinds of grants: too much and too little. The “too much” mistake is less common, but it can happen when a RFP gets released on a short deadline and an applicant agency spends two weeks conducting research, finds a huge amount of material, and then can’t assemble it in an efficient manner to draft a concise and coherent needs assessment.

The “too little” mistake is one we see more frequently: the organization doesn’t have any research or citations whatsoever to demonstrate that their approach is likely to be valid (fortunately, this is an issue we can remedy). For RFPs that require a lot of research, this can be enough to get your proposal thrown out. Teen pregnancy prevention RFPs, for example, usually require a lot of research because of their politically charged nature. They require research even when that research indicates the approach is not likely to succeed, in which case you still need to pretend like the approach will succeed and the research is valid—in other words, you need to focus on the proposal world.

Don’t make either mistake. Use enough research to make your proposal palatable, even if “enough” varies a lot by application. Alas: there’s no real way to gauge how much is enough except through experience, which one uses to judge RFPs on a case-by-case basis. When in doubt, however, cite too much rather than too little.


* Note: this is a made up critter.

** Convincing others doesn’t just apply to funders—it can also apply to potential partners and collaborators. One problem with collaborations that we didn’t mention in our post on the subject is that collaborating agencies might not care about your problem. Sure, the local school district wants, in the abstract, for your mentoring program to succeed. But they already have lots of responsibilities, lots of administrators, and lots of problems, and they get paid average daily attendance (ADA) money whether you get the grant or not. They might care, but not as much as they care about their primary mission.

Posted on 1 Comment

National Institute of Health (NIH) grant writers: An endangered species or hidden like Hobbits?

Type “NIH Grant Writers” into Google and look at what you find: pages and pages of “how-to” sheets with no actual grant writers.

That’s not surprising: trying to become a specialist NIH grant writing consultant would be really, really hard because the niche is sufficiently small that one couldn’t easily build a business solely around NIH grants. And the people who could or would want to write solely NIH grants are employed by universities or big hospitals and aren’t available for consulting.

You probably won’t be able to find a specialist in NIH grant writing even if you think you should find one. Isaac addressed this problem in “No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer:” “Looking for qualified grant writers is about the same as looking for unicorns: don’t make a hard problem insolvable by looking for a unicorn with a horn of a certain length or one that has purple spots. Be happy to find one at all.”

He used the same unicorn language in “I Was Right:”

Two of the qualified SGIG [Smart Grid Investment Grant] callers did not “believe” and presumably kept searching in the forest for the perfect, but ephemeral, grant writing “unicorn” I described in my original post. One caller became our sole SGIG client for this funding round. The application process culminated in a finely crafted proposal that went in on the deadline day.

The proposal got funded, even though we’d never written a Smart Grid proposal before—and neither had anyone else. How’d we do it? Through the same means described in “How to Write About Something You Know Nothing About: It’s Easy, Just Imagine a Can Opener,” which explains how an attentive generalist learns to write a proposal for unfamiliar programs (and remember: all programs are unfamiliar when they first appear; this was certainly true for Smart Grid applicants). The same principles apply to all proposals; the trick is finding someone who understands and can implement those principles on a deadline.

Such people are as rare as the ones who know a lot about NIH grant writing. If you created a Venn diagram of the two, you’d probably have almost no overlap. If you were going to set up a business writing NIH proposals, you’d need at least three very unusual skills: able to write, able to hit deadlines, and health knowledge, ideally through getting a PhD or perhaps a research-oriented MD. But that would be really, really time consuming and expensive: MDs don’t come cheap, and even family docs make six figures after residency. The kinds of people capable of being NIH grant specialists are either an endangered species that’s seldom seen or hidden like hobbits in the modern world, who can vanish in a twinkle and apparently aren’t on the Internet.

In short, you’re not going to find them. We explain this fairly regularly to people who call us looking for “experts” and “specialists” in grant writing for particular fields, but they often don’t believe us, despite our seventeen years of experience.

EDIT: We’ve also worked for clients who’ve sat on NIH panels, and many say that, if they can’t figure out what the proposal is about within ten minutes of starting, they don’t even read the rest of it. You may see a blog post on this subject shortly.

Our Experience Trying to Hire Grant Writers

There’s one other reason we’re skeptical that you’ll find many specialized grant writers, let alone general grant writers: we’ve hired a lot of grant writing stringers, and most of them turned out to be not particularly great grant writers.* The best one had no unusual training at all—he was a journalist, which meant he understood the 5Ws and the H and was accustomed to writing against inflexible deadlines. Most thought they could write proposals, but they couldn’t pass the test Isaac describes in Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain.

The number of people out there who claim they can write against deadlines or pretend they can is vastly larger than the number of people who actually can. If there’s something strange, and it don’t look good, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters! If you’ve trying to understand a RFP, and it don’t look good, you know who to call. Alternately, you could keep searching until the deadline has passed, in which case the probability of you not being funded is 100%.


* This was mostly before my time, however; once I got to college, I tended to write more proposals, and the frustrations of stringers weren’t worth the benefit for Isaac. In addition, I’m mostly inured to his sometimes acerbic commentary by now. Seliger + Associates has not used stringers for well over ten years.

 

Posted on 2 Comments

Deadlines are Everything, and How To Be Amazing

I was reading Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days when I came across an interview with Philip Greenspun in which he describes part of what made ArsDigita so successful:

The third element is just meeting the deadlines. If we’d said we were going to do something by a certain date, we did it, and the customers were stunned.

He goes on to say that “There was so much repeat business because customers would be amazed that we delivered on time and that it was more or less what they wanted and actually usable for the end user.”

That shouldn’t be amazing, but it often is because we’re used to dealing with stuff that doesn’t work very well and businesses that over-promise and under-deliver, if they deliver at all.

Think of airlines, which specialize in jerking you around and making you feel like everyone else paid less for their ticket than you did. Or, of consultants who set unrealistic deadlines for deliverables and then make endless excuses when they miss their often self-imposed deadlines.

Or think of car dealerships.

I’ve been trying to buy or lease a car, and probably a Toyota Prius, so I can look down on my neighbors for destroying the environment. And I hear they—the cars, not the neighbors—get good mileage. Anyway, car dealerships are on my mind because buying a car is a miserable, maddening, opaque experience. The salesmen—and they’re almost always men—lie constantly. They make things up. Last week, one of them showed me his super secret invoice price that he couldn’t possibly go below… until he did. Then he decided he was sick.

Then whoever he handed me off to couldn’t produce actual lease terms. Then I got a third guy from the same dealership who loaded a lease that should’ve had, at most, $1,799 in drive-off costs with $4,500 in drive-off costs. Another dealership had a Prius II in “Barcelona Red,” the color I wanted… with an extra $2,000 in dealer options I didn’t. I wasted half an hour there. By the time I left, I no longer wanted to buy anything.*

What’s really amazing is that car dealers stay in business. But they do, because someone with less tenacity or more money will simply put up with the dance. I know car dealers are just engaging in sophisticated forms of market segmentation, and they’re playing a much longer game than I am.

That being said, they make buying a new car as pleasant as a visit to the dentist, at least for me (Isaac actually likes wrangling car dealers, and I will leave you to decide what this says about his personality). Toyota spends billions of dollars a year trying to convince people that they’re a nice company, and then I go through the showroom wringer and come out hating them, even though I intellectually know that corporate has little to do with how the dealership down the street behaves.

Contrast the buying-a-car experience with what getting a proposal written is like with Seliger + Associates. We post our fees on our website. If you call us and say, “I want an Office of Community Services’ (OCS) Community Economic Development Projects proposal,” you generally get a price quote right then. If you’re not eligible for a program or if you’re running a business that is ineligible for grants, we tell you.

In Founders at Work, Paul Graham described the way he managed to sell Viaweb, his early software for building online stores:

I found I could actually sell moderately well. I could convince people of stuff. I learned a trick for doing this: to tell the truth. A lot of people think that the way to convince people of things is to be eloquent—to have some bag of tricks for sliding conclusions into their brains. But there’s also a sort of hack that you can use if you are not a very good salesman, which is simply tell people the truth. Our strategy for selling our software to people was: make the best software and then tell them, truthfully, ‘this is the best software.’ And they could tell we were telling the truth”

Notice that: he learned a trick for selling things—”tell the truth.” That this is considered a trick should make it obvious that something is profoundly wrong in a lot of businesses. Car dealers basically make everything they do a series of lies, hoops, and tricks, such that, after having to deal with them, I assume they’re lying most of the time.

Seliger + Associates also has a simple procedure: tell the truth and write proposals. If you hire us, we complete a compelling proposal on time. We never miss deadlines and never make excuses.

People are amazed! We hit deadlines, and that’s enough to impress them because so many of their experiences with employees, other grant writers, and consultants are apparently so lousy that they’ve come to expect a lack of follow through. We’ve never missed a deadline. Did I mention that already? It’s worth repeating, because deadlines are the essence of grant writing. If you’re a grant writer working for an organization and you want to be a star, never miss a deadline.

Almost everyone else does. Most deadlines imposed by businesses are artificial—get this report to me by Friday. If you don’t until Monday, it doesn’t matter. With grant writing, it does, and if you hit deadlines, you’re an unusual person.

You’ll also be a competent one. Off the top of my head, I can remember only a handful of times that I’ve been completely delighted by competence. Starwood Hotels come to mind: if you call the reservation number, whoever is on the other end will do whatever he or she can to make sure you get what you want. I had to visit Seattle last December and managed to stay in the W Hotel at a very good rate because of the friskiness of the phone rep. That kind of thing happens so rarely that I’m writing about it now.

Most of the time, you call a company’s number and get interminable music punctuated by “We appreciate your business,” which is a transparent lie, because if it were true, I wouldn’t be on hold. One car salesman said to me, “What can I do to earn your business?” just after I’d complained about another dealership and just before I discovered his own dissembling. It’s incredibly frustrating. Here’s a clue to car salesmen: try telling the truth. One good reason to tell the truth, which Isaac has told me since I was young, is that, if one tells the truth, one does not need to remember what is said to this person or that person.

Philip Greenspun understood that basic dynamic when he started ArsDigita. We understand it too. The simple thing to do is tell the truth and do what you say you’re going to do. If you do, people will be amazed, and you’ll be a superstar grant writer. This is true in human service delivery, grant writing, software development, and any number of other fields.


* Dan Ariely spends some time slagging Audi’s customer service in his new book, The Upside of Irrationality, which, like Predictably Irrational, is very much worth reading. Anyway, he describes how his effectively new car mysteriously halted on the way to Boston, leaving him in the lurch, and the indifference that Audi shows. We used to have a Passat, and, later, an Audi TT convertible, both of which were spectacularly unreliable and convinced my family not to buy any more Audis or Volkswagons.

Posted on Leave a comment

Rock Chalk, Collapse: Another Grant Writing Lesson from Basketball as Seen in the Investing in Innovation (i3) and Administration for Native Americans Social and Economic Development Strategies (ANA SEDS) Programs

For KU basketball fans, the unthinkable happened yesterday. Our beloved Jayhawks, pre-season Number One and end-of-season Number One in the polls, winner of the Big 12 regular season and tournament and picked by the Bracketologist-in-Chief, President Obama, to win the NCAA championship, lost in the second round to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). Despite all the predictions and prognostications over the past year, KU still had to win its tournament games but ran into a feisty foe in 9th seeded UNI and lost.

Faithful readers will remember that I drew lessons for grant writers from KU’s spectacular championship win two years ago in Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, KU! — Lessons from Basketball for Grant Writers. There is also a significant lesson to be learned from KU’s improbable flop this year. Although KU has been the favorite all year, the would-be NCAA champion must win six games in a row, sometimes against teams like UNI that haven’t gotten the memo saying they can’t win. The same phenomenon often happens in grant writing. Two cases on point:

* Our new-old friend, Investing in Innovation Fund (i3): We’ve blogged about i3 several times. This is an enormous program with huge grants that has been tantalizing LEAs and youth services nonprofits since the Stimulus Bill passed last year. I’ve had lots of recent calls along the lines of, “Will our organization have any chance of funding, since there’ll be so many applicants?” My usual response is more or less the following:

Sure, at this moment, 5,000 organizations probably think they will apply. By the time the May 11 deadline arrives, 2,000 of these will have given up, so maybe 3,000 applications will go in. Since the RFP is fantastically complex, about half of the submitted applications will be thrown out as technically incorrect. The Department of Education says 220 grants will be made. Instead of an individual applicant’s odds of being funded being 4.4%, the odds are probably three times higher, or 14.6%.

But this assumes that all scored applicants have the chance of being funded, which is of course not true, as funding decisions involve lots of factors other than raw scores, such as geography, politics, service to racial and ethnic groups, past funding history and on and on. Nonetheless, many applicants will be scared away because of the assumed competition. About two weeks ago, I received a call from the development director of a large ethnic-specific advocacy organization headquartered in D.C., with affiliates around the country. He told me the organization planned to submit three i3 proposals and I gave him the fee quotes.

This week, he called me back to let me know that for internal reasons, they’ve decided to not submit any i3 proposals, even though the Department of Education has informally encouraged them to apply. This is an example of three of the 5,000 possible applications melting away before the deadline. The same pattern is unfolding across the country and who know how many other organizations will give up before May 11.

* Our old-old friend, the Administration for Native Americans Social and Economic Development Strategies (ANA SEDS) Program: This program has been around for decades and we’ve written lots of funded ANA SEDS grants over the years. For whatever reason, when the ANA SEDS FOA was issued a few weeks ago, there turned out to only be $6,500,000 available, which is substantially less in previous years. Right on schedule, I received a phone call from the executive director of a Native American organization who wanted a fee quote but was concerned about whether they should apply because “there is so little money available this year.” I asked her if she thought other possible applicants would also be discouraged by the small amount of money up for grabs. She said yes and I said she had answered her own question: the small amount available probably means fewer applicants, improving her chances. She hired us.

Whether there is lot of money (i3) or little money (ANA SEDS) to be had in a given RFP process, don’t be discouraged if it is a program that your organization wants to run (and read our previous two posts on the subject). No matter what the imagined odds, apply anyway. Just as teams have to play the games to win the NCAA Tournament, your organization cannot get a grant unless a technically correct and compelling proposal is prepared and submitted on time.

Poor little UNI could have forfeited the game in the face of mighty KU, but they played well enough to win on that particular day, even though they probably will lose the next ten in a row. David only needed one well placed stone to take down Goliath, and your organization only needs one well prepared proposal to bag a big federal grant. Although I am a KU fan, if I was scoring yesterday’s game in the way a reviewer scores a federal proposal, I would have given the game to UNI, even if KU had caught them at the end, because they played a better game.

Posted on Leave a comment

How to Write About Something You Know Nothing About: It’s Easy, Just Imagine a Can Opener

One of the many interesting aspects of running a general-purpose grant writing firm is that we are often called upon to write complex proposals covering subjects about which we know little or nothing, as I discussed in No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer. In the interest of “transparency,” perhaps the most overused and least realized word of the last few years, here’s how this is possible.

Start by reading the RFP very carefully. In many cases, the RFP will say exactly what the applicant is supposed to do, as I described tangentially regarding the Department of Labor’s YouthBuild program in True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales. State RFPs for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC), a federal pass-through program from the Department of Education, often do the same thing. In such “cookbook” RFPs, precise descriptions of how the program should run, including detailed activities and metrics, are presented in plain, albeit bureaucratic, English. In extreme cases, simply copy the listed activities and re-write in breathless proposalese and, voila, you have your program description.

Occasionally, however, even mature cookbook programs like YouthBuild get updated, requiring going deeper than just reading the RFP recipe. For example, the last YouthBuild RFP in FY 2009 required for the first time that YouthBuild trainees be trained for “green jobs” and that labor-market information (LMI) be provided to support the need for these green jobs. Two minor problems: the RFP failed to provide a definition of green jobs. And states do not track such data because nobody knows what a green job is.

Don’t believe me? Google the phrase, “federal green job definition” and see what you get. I just did and found this hilarious or depressing, depending on your point of view, Christian Science Monitor article, Obama to create 17,000 green jobs. What’s a green job?. The article discusses President Obama’s recent announcement of “17,000 green jobs” being created. Then the article states, “Which is great, except that no one can count green jobs because, fundamentally, no one knows what a green job is.” Since I didn’t know what a green job was and apparently neither did the Department of Labor, for purposes of writing the YouthBuild proposals we completed last year, we simply referred to a lot of green-sounding jobs that we dreamed up (e.g., Weatherization Specialist, Solar Panel Installer, Wind Turbine Mechanic, etc.) and cobbled together vague LMI data to support our imaginary green job career paths (think phantom data). We must have done something right, as four out of the five proposals were funded.

Given the above, I was delighted when the Department of Energy recently released a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). Last year’s Stimulus Bill brought this program to life. WAP will fund training to prepare low-income people for careers as Weatherization Specialists. We squared the circle by writing a WAP proposal, even though we knew nothing about weatherization. We accomplished this slight-of-hand by looking at a link the DOE thoughtfully buried in the FOA for suggested curriculum for the training. A general knowledge of job training for hard-to-train participants and a quick re-write of the curriculum later, and the program description was extruded from our solar-powered proposal writing machine (we used to use diesel, but switched to solar to create more green jobs).

Here’s another example. We just completed writing a proposal for the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which funds fairly esoteric water quality research. Once again, we knew nothing about this topic. In an unusual circumstance, we actually received great technical content from the PI on the project, who is a biology professor at the public university which hired us. He was very skeptical about our ability as general purpose grant writers to write a scientific research proposal until I told him he just had to provide us with a bulleted list of the five W’s and the H. Then the light went on for him. I received a couple of pages of bullet points a few days later. We fired up the proposal machine and out popped the project description. After the PI read our second draft, he sent an e-mail that said, “I do think it [the proposal] is going together nicely.” Another convert to the Seliger method.

To summarize the above meandering, here is how one writes about an unfamiliar topic:

  • Look for clues in the RFP and any provided links.
  • Visualize how the project would work within the context of your individual life experiences. Even though I have no idea what a Weatherization Specialist does, I have plenty of experience in trying to keep the rain out of the several houses I owned in Seattle.
  • Use your imagination. I have no idea of how stream sampling is actually performed, but I guessed correctly that undergrads would dip little bottles into the stream and take copious field notes. The only thing that surprised me is that the notes are not entered into a handheld computer, but carefully written long hand in notebooks, just like in Charles Darwin’s day. Apparently, the lilly pad is not ready for the iPad.
  • Leave lots of blanks in your first draft for your client or whoever actually knows something about the project and is willing to read the draft, such as, “Stream sampling will be conducted on a _____ basis by ______________ at _________ locations by the light of the full moon.”*
  • Ask for technical content. If not, write the first draft with even more blanks, as above, and hope the content appears in the comments on the first draft. Should you not receive any technical content, write everything in generalities or guess. Since many proposals are reviewed by people with limited or no understanding of the topic, your guesses may get the job done.

No matter what strategies you use to write about a completely unfamiliar topic, the grant writer’s task is to provide a complete and technically responsive proposal, not run the program after the grant is awarded. So be creative! To illustrate the point, here is an old joke about traffic engineering consultants who develop statistical models that will predict how many people will turn left at a given intersection on Wednesday afternoon in 2030:

Two traffic engineers are stranded on a desert island with several hundred cans of food and no can opener. One looks at the other and says, “what should we do?” The other smiles and says, “imagine a can opener.”

Start imagining can openers and you will be fine.


* No, I would not actually put in “by the light of the full moon.” But since there is a dreadful remake in the theaters now of one of my favorite horror movies, The Wolfman, I was reminded of Lon Chaney, Jr. as the afflicted Larry Talbot, who is told that “even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Posted on Leave a comment

Why Seliger + Associates never esponds to RFPs/RFQs for grant writing services

Faithful readers know we regularly discuss RFPs, NOFAs, FOAs, SGAs—or whatever other acronym funders might dream up to denote that grant funds are available (Jake in particular likes to fulminate about bizarre RRPs). Despite marinating in a stew of RFPs, however,  Seliger + Associates never responds to grant writing service RFPs/RFQs (“Requests for Qualifications”), and there are two basic reasons why.

The first reason is the most important: I know from over 15 years of working for various California cities, mostly in management, that RFQs/RFPs for professional services are easily wired, with “wired” meaning that one firm is going to get the contract regardless of who submits a response. I’m not talking about Sopranos-style wiring in which the public official can expect a visit from Paulie Walnuts if the wiring job isn’t done right: the real process is more anodyne. Usually, the public official knows a certain consultant and thinks the local firm can get it done and makes sure that the local boys get the gig.

A city might also want a local consultant but need bids from qualified out-of-towners to provide cover, so a favored firm is identified before the “open” competition. Many public agencies are required to run a bid process before selecting a consultant (or vendor), and the public official in change of the RFP/RFQ process structures the document to produce the desired outcome. This is usually done by putting requirements into the document that favor the fair-haired bidder.

For example, we recently received an RFQ from a city, and 25% of the available point total was for “knowledge of the local community,” while just 25% was for “grant writing experience.” This RFQ was obviously wired for a local grant writer, as we’d receive zero points for local knowledge. So why should we bid and provide cover for the public officials?

Another favored approach is to require the successful bidder to meet regularly with agency staff in person, making it impossible for a non-local bidder to compete, due to travel costs.Other techniques are subtler, like having a ringer on the selection committee.

We receive at least a dozen RFP/RFQ notices per year. I assume this happens because we’re such a well-qualified and -known firm that we would provide exceptional cover for wired bidding processes. Not being stupid or naive, at least in this respect, we always send more or less the following response: We won’t respond to this RFP, but we’ll be happy to provide a fee quote if your process fails. This does work: the local guys often can’t get the job done. Many public agencies eventually hire us after running a true, or true-seeming, RFP/RFQ process. Years ago, when we first started, we sometimes submitted real bids—but we never got the job.

The second reason is also significant: having been in business for since 1993, we simply don’t have to respond to RFPs/RFQs. We think we’re the best grant writing outfit there is. We’re like Astronaut Gordon Cooper, who answered a reporter’s question concerning who was the greatest fighter pilot he ever saw: “You’re looking at him!“* Responding to RFPs/RFQs wastes our time, and, like lawyers and escorts, grant writers are all about billable hours. Unlike architects, engineers, accountants and similar personal services consultants, who have tons of competition and must respond to RFPs/RFQs, we provide a unique service with few qualified competitors. Don’t believe me? Search online for grant writers and see what you get.

Despite our hard-nosed attitude, we’ve worked for hundreds of public agencies, including cities, counties, housing authorities, redevelopment agencies, and state governments. We can do so without responding to RFPs/RFQs because some public agencies have minimum contract amounts before bidding kicks in, which means they don’t have to go through a RFP/RFQ or public bid process. Additionally, all public agency purchasing rules have an exception for what is known in the trade as a “sole-source contract.” Public agencies occasionally face unexpected emergencies and can’t wait for a bid process. They also sometimes have unique needs—like, say, grant writing—for which there are so few qualified bidders that there is no point in running a competition.

As long as the public official is willing to place herself on the line, nothing prevents her from hiring us under a sole-source contract. When I was a public official and wanted to hire a favored consultant, I simply explained what I wanted to do to the City Manager and City Attorney, wrote the argument in a City Council staff report (if needed—usually it wasn’t), and signed the contract.

This is a lot less work than orchestrating a phony RFP/RFQ process. Since I know from experience that the sole-source approach is always available, and our services and fees are cleverly hidden in plain sight on our website, any public official who wants to go through an RFP/RFQ process is probably trying to wire it. The only way to win is by not playing the game.


* In the terrific film version of The Right Stuff, Dennis Quaid delivers this line as “Who was the best pilot I ever saw? Well, uh, you’re lookin’ at ‘im”, with a boyish charm I could never achieve even when I was a charming boy.

Posted on 5 Comments

When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually)

Faithful readers know that I’m very fond of what used to be called “B movies,” so it should be no surprise that I also love movie trailers. The otherwise forgettable 1998 remake of Godzilla featured one of the best theatrical trailers I’ve seen: old guys are fishing off an East River pier in Manhattan. One hooks something big, his pole bends, the camera moves to the water where a huge wake is forming, and Godzilla’s head emerges. Fade to black with gigantic type across the screen: “SIZE DOES MATTER.” The audience went wild.

Too bad the actual movie was awful.

The question of size in grant writing was posed by a reader in a comment on “Health Care Reform Means Green Grass & High Tides for Grant Writers.” Michael Leza wrote:

I’ve seen you say before that a good way to get into grant writing is to volunteer to write grants for small local non-profits. Do these kind of non profits have a realistic chance of getting funded or is this more of an exercise in going through the motions and learning the process? Would some of these big health care reform/stimulus bills be a more likely source of grants for these kinds of organizations, or would it be easier to try and apply for a more established grant (be it federal or otherwise)?

Michael is wondering if it is worth volunteering to write proposals for a small nonprofit in hopes of becoming a paid grant writer. Since only small nonprofits are likely to take him up on his offer, he probably doesn’t have any choice. But his question suggests the larger issue of whether the size of the applicant organization, and by extension the age and experience of the applicant, matters in applying for grants. Like most questions regarding grant writing, quantum effects cloud the answer, but in most cases size doesn’t matter. In some cases it helps if the applicant for a grant program is new and/or has no track record, as long as the applicant meets basic eligibility criteria. How is this possible?

Let’s take a real world example of a tiny faith-based nonprofit organization in Watts that came to us about 10 years ago for help in writing a LA County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) proposal to provide services for students at Jordan High School, which more or less is the definition of a high-risk high school. What made this interesting is that DCSF was re-bidding a contract it had had for years with an extremely well-known and very large nonprofit in Watts that has been scooping up city, county, federal and foundation grants since the Watts Rebellion in 1965 (those readers who know South Central will know which agency I’m writing about).

Our prospective client, a minister, asked if I thought he could compete for this grant against the local heavyweight champ of nonprofits. I told him that he was man of faith, and if he had faith in his organization, so did we, and we could write a competitive application that would put him in the ring, a nonprofit Rocky against a nonprofit Apollo Creed. Like Rocky, our client won the grant.

While we wrote a great proposal, it was likely funded because the incumbent large organization probably thought they had the grant in the bag and threw together a lame proposal. DCFS may al so have been tired of funding the same organization. Grantees that get repeated grants often end up becoming lazy: they don’t file reports on time and/or start fighting with the funding source. In other words, they act like a typical teenager. This opens up opportunities for new and frisky applicants to successfully compete for grants. The punch line is that once this small nonprofit got their DCFS grant, they used our grant writing skills to develop into a large, multi-program agency with lots of grant funds.

The same principle that size doesn’t usually matter in applying for grants is also true regarding small public agencies. Two examples will demonstrate this. I’ve already mentioned one before in Blue Highways: Reflections of a Grant Writer Retracing His Steps 35 Years Later, which involved us writing a funded $250,000 Department of Education Goals 2000 proposal for a tiny school district with just over 100 students in rural Oklahoma. We were able to make the client competitive against giant applicants like Chicago Public Schools by emphasizing the oddity of their situation: the District wanted to implement bilingual education because of an avalanche of immigrant workers arriving in the community for jobs at an about to open industrial-sized hog farm.

This year, we wrote a funded $1,500,000 HUD Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) program grant for a small, rural city in California that caters to thousands of seasonal tourists. We usually write LBPHC proposals for much larger cities like Boston, but HUD apparently bought our argument that this city, although small in comparison to most LBPHC grantees, has a big lead problem and could implement a believable abatement program. We amped up the proposal by tying the lead problem to the current foreclosure mess (it never hurts to play up any related media-inspired hysteria you can find in a proposal). It also helped that our client had never before had a direct HUD grant, since all of their previous HUD awards were passed through the California Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Small Cities Program. I think HUD is always looking to fund new applicants for LBPHC and other long-in-the tooth grant programs and was pleasantly startled to get a credible proposal from an unlikely applicant.

As long as your organization meets basic eligibility for a given grant competition and avoids the “silly factor” that Jake wrote about last week in So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For? And Who’s the Competition?, get busy and write. As with many things in life, it doesn’t much matter how big the applicant is, as long as the grant writer knows how to use his skills to craft a compelling argument. With luck, the funder will see the application as an opportunity to fund someone new, while using grant funds to meet a real local need.


For an example of this principle in action, check out the Innovative Arts Ideas, which goes so far as to explicitly say, “Great ideas can start anywhere, so the challenge is open to everyone – established arts institutions, independent artists of all types, businesses and service organizations.” So they’re searching for very small organizations or individuals, as well as large, established organizations.

Posted on 2 Comments

Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) is the same as it ever was

As grant writers, we usually don’t pay much attention to new grant programs as they move through the regulation writing process, since we are focused on writing proposals, not the policy minutia of federal regs. A caller last week, however, got me to look at the birthing of the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), and I fell in love with this cute little grant puppy, eyes closed and all.

I immediately liked the fact that a lower case “i” is used in the name, which leads me to believe that perhaps archey the cockroach of archey and mehitabel fame, who jumped from the top of a typewriter to write his stories and couldn’t use the shift key, was involved in the development of the program. Part of the almost already forgotten American Recovery and Relief Act (ARRA, or otherwise known as the Stimulus Bill), i3 will offer up $650 million to “start or expand research-based innovative programs that help close the achievement gap and improve outcomes for students.” This is music to a grant writer’s ears because we could make just about any education project concept work for this nebulous description. Even better, both Local Education Agencies (“LEAs” = school districts in FedSpeak) and nonprofits are eligible.

This is just the latest in a long series of Department of Education grant programs that purport to do more or less the same thing, with few discernible results. i3 projects are supposed to:

  • improve K-12 achievement and close achievement gaps;
  • decrease dropout rates;
  • increase high school graduation rates; and
  • improve teacher and school leader effectiveness.

If there are any “research-based” strategies to accomplish any of the above, let me know, because in 38 years of writing endless Department of Education proposals, I’m not aware of them. If you think I am just a cynical grizzled grant writer, take a gander at the first four of the eight goals for the definitely forgotten Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which was passed in 1994 with much folderol:

By the Year 2000 –

  • All children in America will start school ready to learn.
  • The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.
  • All students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics an government, economics, the arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation’s modern economy.
  • United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.

While Goals 2000 didn’t achieve any of its goals, or much of anything else in the real world for that matter, we wrote lots of funded Goals 2000 proposals and look forward to a target rich environment when the i3 RFP is published this winter. Perhaps archey should have named this effort “goals2010imeangoals2020imeandgoals2030” instead, or for that matter, g2. Attention school district and education-oriented nonprofits: as the Captain of the U-Boot in Das Boot said, “Good Hunting.”

While Secretary Duncan announced i3, and to paraphrase Joni Mitchell in a “Free Man in Paris” the rest of the Department of Education “grantmaker machinery behind the popular program” continues to rumble on. A case in point is the Student Support Services (SSS) program, for which a RFP was recently issued with a due date of December 14. There is $268 million available for SSS, but no fanfare from Secretary Duncan.

Why? It’s simple–nobody pays attention to the old dog when a new puppy appears. SSS is one of the seven “TRIO” programs that fund various initiatives to “assist low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and individuals with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to postbaccalaureate programs.” We’ve written lots of funded TRIO grants over the years. Some TRIO programs, like SSS, are aimed at college students, while others, like Talent Search and Upward Bound, focus on middle and high school students. Hmmm, methinks I could write an i3 proposal that mimics a TRIO proposal without the Department of Education figuring it out.

The reason that SSS causes little excitement, despite the enormous amount of money available, is that it’s been around since the Johnson administration! Everyone is rushing around to pat the i3 puppy on the head, while the old dog SSS barely gets noticed. At Seliger + Associates, however, we love all Department of Education dogs equally and are carefully grooming proposals for our SSS clients while we wait for i3 to be whelped.

I could go on with other Department of Education programs that have more or less the same purpose as i3 (e.g., Title I, Title III, No Child Left Behind, Smaller Learning Communities, Partnership Academies), but you get the idea. Regardless of the likely failure of this latest education reform effort, i3 is another great example of why this is such a wonderful time for grant writing, as I’ve been writing about in various blog posts since the Great Recession started a year ago. Given the various youth and other recession-based horror stories I cited recently in There’s Something Happening Here, But You Don’t Know What It Is, Do You Mr. Jones?, you can be assured that many more grant programs are gestating as I write this. The time to plan (or apply) is now, so that your public agency or nonprofit organization can swoop in. As the Talking Heads put it in “Once in a Lifetime”, for the Department of Education and other federal agencies, it’s “same as it ever was.”