Posted on 2 Comments

Why You’re Unlikely to see “Seliger and Associates Presents Grant Writing Confidential: The Book and Musical” Anytime Soon

A recent commenter told us, “You should write a book, if you haven’t already.” We’ve thought idly about doing a book and then gone back to drinking Aviations, admiring the sunset, and writing proposals.

But we might eventually write a book if the conditions are right. The main reason I haven’t spent a lot of time on a potential book project is because we can make far more money with far less aggravation as consultants than we can trying to get a book published. To learn why, see Philip Greenspun’s essay “The book behind the book behind the book…,” where he describes how he wrote a computer book, why most computer books are so bad, and points out the sheer amount of time he had spend not consulting for real money but instead working with publishers who removed his biting, appropriate commentary and instead insert happy-talk pablum of the kind that will be incredibly familiar to anyone who has picked up a commercial computer book. Alas, my short description doesn’t convey how hilarious and accurate his essay is; it should be mandatory reading for anyone who thinks they want to publish a book.*

In our case, we can say as much as we want about grant writing and the grant writing process on our blog without having to muck around with publishers. GWC is now sufficiently well developed that I can say to anyone who wants to learn about grant writing, “Read the archives.”

Still, if a publisher or agent came to us and said, “Organize your blog posts into book form and we’ll give you some money,” I’d probably do it because this would make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. That, and I have a compulsive desire to communicate. But I’ve been a would-be novelist for longer than I care to think about (see here for more) and don’t think much of trying to get into publishing because I’ve already been trying to do so for so long. Trying to get in without being invited is tough, tedious, and not all that rewarding even if/when you do get in.

It’s still tempting, though, because so much of the nominal competition is so bad. Most of what people know or think they know about grant writing is wrong. Most of it is based on limited impressions or single projects or single agencies. Most people don’t really know how the grant process works because you just have to have been around long enough to understand it. Very few people have. There are all kinds of things people don’t understand. No one else has simply said, “Seeking grants is also a treasure hunt.” We’ve never seen anyone else point out that just because you get the most points doesn’t mean you’ll get funded. RFPs never convey how to write to them in plain English. We’re trying to put as much plain English into grant writing as possible.

A lot of grant writing books are deficient and almost every grant writing book fails to explain how grants actually work. They haven’t been written by people who have worked across the nonprofit sector. As is often the case, we’ve seen the competition and thought, “We could do better than that.”

But the gap between “could do better” and “your local bookstore” is wide. Books usually get sold by writing an outline, then finding an agent, who pitches a publisher, who buys your book, edits it as you write it, then distributes it to someone who sells it. Each of those stages can be pretty arduous; you don’t climb a mountain just by hitting the first easy patch after a technical climb, and you can fall off a cliff and plummet, screaming, to the bottom at any time during the ascent (this metaphor sums up how people who experience the publishing industry feel about the publishing industry). At the moment, we haven’t overcome inertia to the point we want to begin the ascent. That, and we’ve got lots of work writing proposals down here in base camp.

Anyway, if think we’re awesome and you know someone who works in publishing, tell them to call us at 800.540.8906. Better yet, if you know someone who needs a technically accurate and well-written proposal completed on time, tell them to call us, because that’s still our main business. We wouldn’t mind being in the book business but aren’t likely to get there in the immediate future, unless someone in the know invites us to start the climb.

* When you’re done with it, read “Why I’m not a Writer:” “I’m not a writer. Sometimes I write, but I don’t define myself as a career writer. And that isn’t because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of an obscure writer. It is because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of a successful writer.”

Posted on Leave a comment

Grant Writing Confidential Scoops the Wall Street Journal and More on Being Creative in Finding Funds During the Great Recession

As the editor of my high school newspaper—the Cooper High School Hawk’s Quill—and a short-lived college journalism major, I take great delight in scooping the Wall Street Journal. Shelly Banjo wrote Donations Slip Amid Anxiety on June 9, which said:

For the second year in a row, philanthropy has seen the deepest decline ever recorded by the Giving USA Foundation, which has tracked annual giving since 1956. Donations fell 3.6% to $303.75 billion last year, down from $315 billion in 2008, according to the latest Giving USA study, released Wednesday. In 2008, they were down 2%.

Faithful readers will note that I made more or less the same point in my May 29 blog post, Tough Times for Folks Means More Grant Writing for Nonprofits, although with more humor and helpful advice. If one read Ms. Banjo’s article and knew little about nonprofits, one would get the impression that the end is nigh. This is because her article, like most stories about nonprofits, perpetuates the conventional wisdom that all nonprofits depend exclusively on donations, which is simply not true.

As I pointed out in my post, while donations are important, particularly for certain kinds of nonprofits, most human services providers support their service through grants, fee-for-service contracts, third-party payers and/or quasi-business enterprises, in addition to donations.* These alternative revenue streams, which can be ramped-up when donations are down, are not mentioned by Ms. Banjo and the cast of nonprofit “experts” she quotes and data she cites.

Although new contributions to foundations may be down, foundations still must give away 5% or so of their endowment every year, and the feds, through the Stimulus Bill and lots of other appropriations, have keep the grant spigot wide open. Cagey nonprofit executive directors are busy writing grant proposals and dreaming up other revenue strategies, not wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over declines in donations. But not in the conventional wisdom world of newspaper writers.

A second Wall Street Journal article by Jennifer Levitz and Stephanie Simon on June 12, “A School Prays for Help”, confirms the importance of getting creative during tough times. While this article mostly discusses public schools, police departments and other public agencies seeking alternative funding sources, the same concepts apply to nonprofits.

In this article, the writers describe how some schools are getting local churches to “adopt” them and other strategies for what amounts to advertising in order to supplement limited tax dollars. Nonprofits can do the same sorts of things instead of just waiting around for donations to pickup.

One of the several odd aspects of a church providing donations to a public school, however, is that the church itself is a nonprofit that depends almost exclusively on donations from its members. Why would they do this? One reason could be that the church expects to get new members from school parents and staff, and they will eventually try to extract donations from the new members. In other words, the church and the school are probably competing for donor dollars and the church may be taking the longer view that investing a small amount of its money now, derived from its members, will result in more members and more money later.

While most nonprofits and public agencies like to present themselves as collaborating, in reality they compete with one another for donations, grants, and all kinds of resources. I pointed this out in What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point, a post that generated quite a comment thread.

Some readers understood my point, while other denounced me as a hopeless cynic. Of course, I am a hopeless cynic, but nonprofits and public agencies are largely in competition, and the ongoing economic mess just makes this competition rise to surface, like the somewhat baleful giant crocodile in the best “big animal” movie of recent years, Lake Placid.

* Jake also wrote about funding sources in Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun.

Posted on Leave a comment

Seliger + Associates writes a $2.5 million, funded Department of Energy (DOE) Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) proposal

A $2.5 million Department of Energy Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) proposal we wrote for an electric utility company was funded last week, and, while we write lots of funded proposals, this one was especially gratifying. Faithful readers will remember that last April I wrote No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer; I wrote it because I was constantly explaining to callers who’d been overcome with Stimulus Bill Fever that Seliger + Associates can write almost any DOE proposal, even though we’d never written one and didn’t have any technical background in energy-related project concepts.

The SGIG program came along with $4 billion to enable electric utilities to add whiz bang features to their distribution systems. The enormous amount of money, along with the the media Stimulus Bill hype, produced a flood of callers. Most were inventors, start-up companies, quick-buck artists and dreamers, but among the assorted flotsam and jetsam were calls from three qualified SGIG applicants—electric utility companies.

All three had more or less the same reaction to my pitch: “Since you’re just a general purpose grant writing firm and don’t have electrical engineers on staff, what makes you think you can write a SGIG proposal?” My response became: read the above blog post and accept at face value my observation that, in almost 17 years of being in business, we’d never run across a topic we couldn’t write to, assuming we’re provided with technical content, fava beans* and a fine Chianti (the last two are a test to see if you’re paying attention: they actually come from Hannibal Lector discussing how to enjoy liver). Basically, I said the same thing I often tell potential clients: hiring us is a lot like Demi Moore in Ghost being advised by Whoopi Goldberg—if you want to see Patrick Swayze again, you’re going to have to believe. Similarly, the client has to suspend their own preconceptions, which are usually misconceptions, about grant writing, to believe we can write on any topic for any funder.

Two of the qualified SGIG 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. Flash forward to this week, when I took a small break from toiling over a hot Los Angeles County Area Agency on Aging Supportive Services Program (SSP) proposal to check to see if space aliens had landed on the White House lawn or what have you. President Obama was off somewhere announcing the SGIG awards, so I immediately found the DOE press release to see which applications were funded and saw the proposal we wrote.** I also checked for the other two utility companies, which were not on the list. Perhaps they never found their unicorn, or the unicorn they found turned out be be just a pony with a party hat.

Score one for our general purpose grant writing approach. Still, the writing process for the SGIG was complicated by the fact our client, an electric utility, had never submitted a federal proposal but had lots of bright and talented staff and consultants, so we were endlessly explaining and defending the “Seliger method” for writing proposals. Fortunately for the client, who paid us on hourly basis, we could simply say, read blog post x, rather than forcing us to tediously explaining why we were doing what we were doing or not doing at $200/hour.

I would like to share more about the proposal, but I can’t because we signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). I think, however, that the proposal was funded because of a “national security” argument we developed that the client had not considered. Once again, to paraphrase what I wrote last May in another post on writing DOE and similar high-tech proposals, Professional Grant Writer at Work: Don’t Try This At Home, Seliger + Associates is tanned, fit, relaxed and ready. Now that a DOE proposal we wrote has been funded, we could always claim to be “experts,” but we’ll just keep on keepin’ on as general purpose grant writers to get our clients “tangled up in green.”

* I love to cook, and when Jake and his siblings were little kids, I got it in my head to make fresh fava beans a few times. This exhausting process involves shelling, blanching, and peeling before one gets around to the actual cooking. Like other tasty but enervating recipes I’ve tried over the years (e.g., mousaaka, chili rellenos, etc.), if you get in the mood to make fava beans, lie down until the feeling passes and take yourself to a fine Italian restaurant, like Angelini Osteria in West Hollywood or Vivace and its sister Vivace Pizzeria in Tucson.

** As is often the case, our client forgot to let us know that the SGIG proposal we wrote was funded, so I had to dig around to find out. I know the client knew because federal funding agencies always send an award letter to the applicant and almost always lets their congressperson know about the grant before the press release is sent out. This is why the applicant’s congressional district number is required on the SF424. I am used to clients forgetting who wrote their funded proposals and, as pros, we do not need “attaboys.”