Tag Archives: Grant writing

Grant writing and cooking: Too many details or ingredients is never a good idea

As a grant writer who also likes to cook, I understand the importance of simplicity and clarity in both my vocation and avocation: too much detail can ruin the proposal, just as too many ingredients can produce a dull dish. Ten years ago, I wrote a post on the importance of using the KISS method (keep it simple, stupid—or Sally, if you don’t like the word “stupid”) in grant writing. We recently wrote an exceedingly complex state health care proposal for a large nonprofit in a Southern state, but even complex proposals should be as simple as possible—but no simpler.

As is often the case with state programs, the RFP was convoluted and required a complex needs assessment. Still, the project concept and target area were fairly straightforward. We wrote the first draft of the needs assessment in narrative form, rather than using a bunch of tables. There’s nothing intrinsically better or worse about narrative vs. tables; when the RFP is complex, we tend toward narrative form, and when the project concept and/or target area are complex, we often use more tables. For example, if the target population includes both African American and Latino substance abusers in an otherwise largely white community, we might use tables, labeling columns by ethnicity, then compare to the state. That’s hard to do in narrative form. Similarly, if the target area includes lots of counties, some of which are much more affluent than others, we might use tables to contrast the socioeconomic characteristics of the counties to the state.

Many grant reviewers also have trouble reading tables, because they don’t really understand statistics. Tables should also be followed by a narrative paragraph explaining the table anyway.

So: our client didn’t like the first draft and berated me for not using tables in the needs assessment. The customer is not always right, but, as ghostwriters, we accommodate our clients’s feedback, and I added some tables in the second draft. Our client requested more tables and lots of relatively unimportant details about their current programming, much of which wasn’t germane to the RFP questions. Including exhaustive details about current programming takes the proposal focus away from the project you’re trying to get funded, which is seldom a good idea. It’s best to provide sufficient detail to answer the 5 Ws and the H), while telling a compelling story that is responsive to the RFP.

Then, stop.

The client’s second draft edit requested yet more tables and a blizzard of additional, disconnected details. Our client disliked it the third draft. We ended up writing five drafts, instead of the usual three, and the proposal got steadily worse, not better. As chef-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck* is said to have said, “Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors – it’s how you combine them that sets you apart.” Attempting to use all the flavors at once usually results in a kitchen disaster.

A given section of a proposal should be as short as possible without being underdeveloped. Changes from draft to draft should also be as minimal and specific as possible.


* Jake sort-of-met Wolfgang, albeit before he was born. His mom was eight months pregnant with him when we went to Spago for dinner. Wolfgang was there in his Pillsbury Doughboy getup, and, despite not being celebrities, he couldn’t have been nicer and made a big deal out of a very pregnant woman dining at his place. I think he wanted his food to induce labor, but that didn’t happen for a couple of weeks; instead, Nate ‘n’ Al’s Deli (another celebrity hangout in Beverly Hills), was the culprit. A story for another day.

Seliger + Associates’ 25th Anniversary: A quarter century of grant writing

My first post, on Nov. 29, 2007, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal,” tells the story of how I became a grant writer (when dinosaurs walked the earth); 500 posts later, this one covers some of the highs and lows of grant writing over the past 25 years, since I founded Seliger + Associates.

Let me take you back to March 1993 . . . President Clinton’s first year in office, Branch Davidians are going wild in Waco, Roy Rogers dies, Intel ships its first Pentium chips, Unforgiven wins the Oscar for Best Picture, and Seliger + Associates is founded. The last item caused no disturbances in the Force or media and was hardly noticed. Still, we’ve created a unique approach to grant writing—although we’re not true believers, I like to think we’ve made a difference for hundreds of clients and their clients in turn.

When I started this business, the Internet existed, but one had to know how to use long forgotten tech tools like text-based FTP servers, “Gopher,” dial-up modems, and so on. While I taught myself how to use these tools, they weren’t helpful for the early years, even though the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, was launched in late 1993. I used a primitive application, HotMTML Pro, to write the HTML code for our first web site around the same time. I didn’t understand how to size the text, however, so on the common 12″ to 14″ monitors of the day, it displayed as “Seliger + Ass”. It didn’t much matter, since few of our clients had computers, let alone Internet access.

Using the Wayback Machine, I found the first, achieved view of our website on December 28, 1996, about two years after we first had a Web presence. If this looks silly, check out Apple.com’s first web archive on October 22, 1996. You could get a new PowerBook 1400 with 12 MB of RAM and a 750 MB hard drive for only $1,400, while we were offering a foundation appeal for $3,000!

Those were the days of land line phones, big Xerox machines, fax machines, direct mail for marketing, FedEx to submit proposals, going to a public library to use microfiche for research data, waiting for the Federal Register to arrive by mail about a week after publication, and an IBM Selectric III to type in hard copy forms. Our first computer was a IMB PS 1 with an integrated 12″ monitor running DOS with Windows 3.1 operating very slowly as a “shell” inside DOS.

Despite its challenges, using DOS taught me about the importance of file management.

As our business rapidly in the mid to late 1990s, our office activities remained about the same, except for getting faster PCs, one with a revolutionary CD-ROM drive (albeit also with 5 1/14″ and 3.5″ floppy drives, which was how shrink-wrapped software was distributed); a peer-to-peer coax cable network I cobbled together; and eventually being able to get clients to hire us without me having to fly to them for in-person pitch meetings.

It wasn’t until around 2000 that the majority of our clients became computer literate and comfortable with email. Most of our drafts were still faxed back and forth between clients and all proposals went in as multiple hard-copy submissions by FedEx or Express Mail. For word processing, we used WordPro, then an IBM product, and one that, in some respects, was better than Word is today. We finally caved and switched to Macs and Office for Mac around 2005.

Among the many after shocks of 9/11, as well as the bizarre but unrelated anthrax scare, there were enormous disruptions to mail and Fedex delivery to government offices. Perhaps in recognition of this—or just the evolving digital world—the feds transitioned to digital uploads and the first incarnation of grants.gov appeared around 2005. It was incredibly unreliable and used an odd propriety file format “kit file,” which was downloaded to our computers, then proposal files would be attached, and then emailed to our clients for review and upload. This creaky system was prone to many errors. About five years ago, grants.gov switched to an Acrobat file format for the basket-like kit file, but the upload / download drill remained cumbersome. On January 1, 2018, grants.gov 3.0 finally appeared in the form of the cloud-based WorkSpace, which allows applications to be worked on and saved repeatedly until the upload button is pushed by our client (the actual applicant). But this is still not amazon.com, and the WorkSpace interface is unnecessarily convoluted and confusing.

Most state and local government funding agencies, along with many foundations, also moved away from hard copy submissions to digital uploads over the past decade. These, of course, are not standardized and each has its owns peccadilloes. Incredibly, some funders (mostly state and local governments and many foundations) still—still!—require dead tree submission packages sent in via FedEx or hand-delivered.

There have of course been many other changes, mostly for the better, to the way in which we complete proposals. We have fast computers and Internet connections, cloud-based software and file sharing, efficient peripherals, and the like. Grant writing, however, remains conceptually “the same as it ever was.” Whether I was writing a proposal long hand on a legal pad in 1978, using my PS 1 in 1993, or on my iMac today in 2018, I still have to develop a strong project concept, answer the 5 Ws and H within the context of the RFP structure, tell a compelling story, and work with our clients to enable them to submit a technically correct proposal in advance of the deadline.

Another aspect of my approach to grant writing also remains constant. I like to have a Golden Retriever handy to bounce ideas of of, even though they rarely talk back. My last Golden mix, Boogaloo Dude, had to go to the Rainbow Bridge in November. Now, my fourth companion is a very frisky four-month old Golden, Sedro-Woolley, named after the Cascades foothill town to which I used to take Jake and his siblings fishing when they were little and Seliger + Associates and myself were still young.

 

Bad news in new tax bill for nonprofits that depend on small- to medium-sized donations

I recently wrote about Bad and good news for FQHCs in the latest Republican tax bill, and last week, the Republican tax bill passed under its official title, “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” (TCJA). Like it or not, the TCJA is now law and I’m continuing to look at its implications for nonprofits and grant seeking. As reported by the Washington Post, “Charities fear tax bill could turn philanthropy into a pursuit only for the rich.”

Why? The combination of doubling the standard deduction and limiting the deductibility state/local taxes and mortgage interest will likely significantly reduce charitable donations by middle and upper middle income Americans. Those people would need very high deductions to bother itemizing, so many won’t. That’s very bad news for smaller to mid-size nonprofits that depend on donations.

Unlike businesses, which can enter new markets and develop new products, nonprofits have relatively few revenue possibilities (the main ones they do have are listed at the link). In addition to grants and fee-for-service contracts (e.g., foster care, substance abuse treatment, homeless shelter beds, etc.), these are limited to membership dues (for member organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs, animal rescues, etc.), fundraisers, and donations. The latter three will be impacted by the TCJA.

While every nonprofit executive director dreams of landing a donor “whale,” mega-donors are not only rare but tend to give to larger and well-connected nonprofits (the rarely acknowledged “swamp” of philanthropy, if you will). The booming stock market and lowered corporate tax rate will likely to produce more whales, but many of these will donate to corporate or family foundations—not garden variety human services nonprofits toiling away in relative obscurity. We’ve had many conversations with executive directors whose nonprofits are doing good work but find it hard to translate “good work” into “increased donations.”

Nonprofit executive directors will have to make a choice that will become more acute in 2018: cast off in the whale boat to search for Moby-Dick or chase schools of small donation fish. The former strategy is usually pointless and the later is time consuming work that will become harder as many Americans realize that there won’t be a tax deduction reward because they won’t itemize.

The silver lining is that foundation portfolios are being engorged by the historically high bull market. They’ll also receive huge donations from corporations and the upper-income people, who will get much of the direct benefits from the TCJA. No matter what, foundations must distribute 5% of their assets every year, and we offer foundation appeals in part with that in mind to clients.

Also, federal spending on discretionary grant programs continues to rise and most states should see increased tax revenue, some of which will be allocated to grant programs. As budgetary chaos subsides, federal agencies will resume normal RFP patterns.

Why do grant writing firms market so many disparate services?

We’ve seen a lot of would-be grant writing competitors come and go, and the ones that commonly go have something in common: they offer a huge array of disparate services. Grant writing. Program development. Board training. Evaluation. Curriculums. Lobbying. Staff training. Guacamole recipes.

Okay, I made that last one up. Still, a cliché encapsulates the disparate-service approach of some firms: “Jack of all trades and master of none.” I see firms marketing half a dozen (or more) different services and think they’re likely not very good at any. How many restaurants make six different cuisines well? None, or nearly none. Any single field, including the highly specialized form of technical writing that is grant writing, is extremely difficult to master. Few firms are likely to have mastered many, vaguely related, and specialized services.*

To my mind, claiming to do even three disparate things at a professional level is improbable. Advertising many together seems like the mark of an amateur, or someone chucking as many stones as they can in order to see what hits. Individual targeting of one or two services is more likely to yield a good outcome.

Grant writing and marketing, for example, have very little to do with each other. Even grant writing and donor management are very different skills, much like coding software is a very different skill from selling software—even if both positions involve software in some way.

Not surprisingly, I recently saw a particular firm’s website that demonstrates some of these themes. I’m not going to name it, but if you’ve been around the nonprofit block a few times you’ve probably seen it or ones similar to it.


* The possible exception to this is of course Amazon, which is (so far) successfully mastering an astonishing and growing array of unrelated-seeming services.

Favorite odd-but-mandatory proposal forms: LA Slavery and New York Northern Ireland edition

Experienced grant writers know that all proposal instructions must be followed as precisely as possible (though they can also be contradictory—a problem we discovered in a recent Department of Education RFP). Perhaps because of that principle, funders (or their political masters) also get the chance to include absurd or bizarre forms with RFPs. Some of our favorites include ones from City of Los Angeles Departments, since the City requires that firms it contracts with, including nonprofits, certify that the organization wasn’t been involved in slavery. For those of you keeping track at home, slavery ended in the United States in 1865 and Seliger + Associates was founded in 1993.

Today was I working on behalf of a New York client and ran into the “Empire State After-School Program,” which is a fairly standard after school program not so different from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program or many other, similar programs. But this one is issued by the state of New York, and, amid the pile of pretty typical required documents (like “Non-Collusive Bidding Certification Required by Section 139d of the State Finance Law (OCFS-2634)”) was one that caught my attention: “MacBride Fair Employment Principles in Northern Ireland (OCFS-2633).”

Northern Ireland?

I was curious enough to follow the link to the form and found that grantees for this program apparently must certify as to whether it has ever conducted business in Northern Ireland. If it has, these instructions apply, and the applicant:

Shall take lawful steps in good faith to conduct any business operations that it has in Northern Ireland in accordance with the MacBride Fair Employment Principles relating to non-discrimination in employment and freedom of workplace opportunity regarding such operations in Northern Ireland, and shall permit independent monitoring of its compliance with such principles.

I don’t know what discriminatory practices might be common in Northern Ireland. Nor do I know why New York State in particular is concerned with this tiny corner of the world. Out of curiosity, I checked the CIA World Factbook, and it says that Ireland’s entire population is a smidgen under five million, or about 60% the size of New York City’s alone.

Somewhere back there in the haze of New York political history must be some Irish-related controversy that lives on, to this day, in the form of a form that random nonprofits providing after-school services must include or risk being rejected as technically incorrect. Keep in mind that in the good old days of 1931, the Empire State Building was built in one year and 45 days. I’m pretty sure the developer did not have to fill out a Slavery or Northern Ireland form, which likely speedup up the process. Sometimes I see the more absurd aspects of grant writing and think about cost disease and how computers have paradoxically made grant writing worse.

It’s possible to get re-programmed funds, if you’re tight with your federal agency program officer

In 2010 Isaac wrote “Be Nice to Your Program Officer: Reprogrammed / Unobligated Federal Funds Mean Christmas May Come Early and Often This Year,” and that post is important for the context of this story. We’ve written several funded grants for the same federal program for the same client over the last few years. The client is a national trade group, and last week our client contact called because he’d just gotten a random call from his program officer offering a large tranche of re-programmed funds. That money doesn’t come with any strings beyond the general restrictions on the initial grant-funded program. It’s also a sure thing, which is a rare, valuable thing in the grant world.*

Organizations that get re-programmed funds still have to submit a proposal (which may be short). However short, the proposal for re-programmed funds must be technically correct and usually has a quick turnaround time (this always happens near the end of the federal fiscal year, which is September 30). As a cautionary note, we’ve seen clients who’ve messed up their wired, re-programmed applications. Overall, though, the amount of effort required is usually far smaller than a conventional, competitive grant program.

When Isaac worked for the City of Inglewood in the 1980s, the FAA (yes, the Federal Aviation Administration) gave Inglewood re-programmed funds almost every year for about eight years. That happened because the City of Los Angeles had to relocate several thousand families to extend one LAX runway on the Pacific Ocean side. You can see the vacant land when you take off from LAX and just before the plane crosses the beach.

At the same time, Inglewood, where Isaac was the Redevelopment Manager, was removing about 800 families from under the flight path to the east of LAX, near The Forum and the site of the new LA Rams stadium, for redevelopment. To keep Inglewood from joining all the other players who were suing LAX over the runway extension, a deal was struck in which LAX convinced the FAA to accept grant applications from Inglewood for wholesale land acquisition with “noise mitigation” being the ruse or quid pro quo.

All of this was on the down low, of course, and Isaac wrote all the FAA proposals, which totaled over $25 million. The FAA liked Inglewood, mostly because it could spend the money quickly while accounting for it, so Isaac got a call every August from the FAA program officer asking if Inglewood wanted additional re-programmed funds. The answer was always… yes. Sometimes, all you have to do is not screw it up.


* And bars after 11 on a Saturday night.

Is Violent Crime Going Up or Down in America? Nobody Actually Knows, But the Debate Illustrates How Grant Proposal Needs Assessments are Written

One of our past posts described how to write proposal needs assessments. A spate of recent articles on the so-called Ferguson Effect provides a good example of how proficient grant writers can use selected data and modifying words to shape a needs assessment to support whatever the project concept is.

Last week Heather Mac Donald’s Wall Street Journal editorial “Trying to Hide the Rise of Violent Crime” claimed that violent crime is rising, due to “the Ferguson Effect,” but that “progressives and media allies” have launched a campaign to deny this reality. Right on cue, the New York Times ran a front page “news” story telling grumpy New Yorkers that “Anxiety Aside, New York Sees Drop in Crime.” Both articles cite the same Brennan Center for Justice study, Crime in 2015: A Preliminary Analysis, to support their arguments.

This reminds me of the old joke about how different newspapers would report that the end of the world will happen tomorrow: the New York Times, “World Ends Tomorrow, Women and Minorities Hurt Most;” the Wall Street Journal, “World Ends Tomorrow, Markets Close Early;” and Sports Illustrated, “Series Cancelled, No World.” One can frame a set of “facts” differently, depending on one’s point of view and the argument being made.

Neither the NYT or WSJ writers actually know if violent crime is going up or down in the short term. Over the past few decades, it is clear that crime has decline enormously, but it isn’t clear what causal mechanisms might be behind that decline.

Perhaps, like Schrödinger’s cat being alive and dead at the same time to explain quantum mechanics, crime is up and down at the same, depending on who’s doing the observing and how they’re observing.

One of the challenges is that national crime data, as aggregated in the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system, is inherently questionable. First, police departments report these data voluntarily and many crimes are subject to intentional or unintentional miss-categorization (was it an assault or aggravated assault?) or under/over reporting, depending on how local political winds are blowing (to see one public example of this in action, consider “NYPD wants to fix stats on stolen Citi Bikes,” which describes how stealing a Citi Bike counts as a felony because each one costs more than $1,000). A less-than-honorable police chief, usually in cahoots with local pols, can make “crime rates” go up or down. Then there is the problem of using averages for data, which leads to another old joke about the guy with his head in the oven and his feet in the freezer. On average, he felt fine.

But from your perspective as a grant writer, the important question isn’t whether crime rates decline or whether “the Ferguson Effect” makes them fall. If residents of a given city/neighborhood feel vulnerable to perceived crime increases, the increases are “real to them” and can form the basis for a project concept for grants seeking. Plus, when data to prove the need is hard to come by, we sometimes ask our clients for anecdotes about the problem and add a little vignette to the needs assessment. A call to the local police department’s gang unit will always produce a great “end of the world” gang issue quote from the Sergeant in charge, while a call to the local hospital will usually yield a quote about an uptick in gun shoot victims being treated, and so on. Sometimes in proposals anecdotes can substitute for data, although this is not optimal.

Within reason and the rather vague ethical boundaries of grant seeking and writing, a good grant writer can and should pick and choose among available data to construct the needs assessment argument for funding anything the agency/community sees a need for.

For example, if we were writing a proposal for an urban police department to get more funds for community policing, we would use up or down crime rate data to demonstrate the need for a new grant. If the crime is trending down, we’d use the data to argue that the police department is doing a good job with community policing but needs some more money to do an even better job, while being able to provide technical assistance to other departments. If the crime data is trending upward, we’d argue that there’s a crisis and the grant must be made to save life and limb. If we were working for a nonprofit in the same city that wants grants for after school enrichment for at-risk youth, we’d cherry-pick the crime data to argue that a nurturing after-school setting is necessary, to keep them protected from the false allures of gangs, early risky sexual experimentation, and/or drugs.

Most grant needs assessments are written backwards. One starts with the premise for the project concept and structures the data and analysis to support the stated need. It may be hard for true believers and novice grant writers to accept, but grant writing is rarely a blue sky/visioning exercise. The funder really sets the parameters of the program. The client knows what they want the grant for. It’s the job of the grant writer to build the needs assessment by including, excluding, and/or obfuscating data. This approach works well, because most funders only know what the applicant tells them in the proposal. Some grant programs, like our old pals DOL’s YouthBuild and ED’s Talent Search, try to routinize needs assessments and confound rascally grant writers by mandating certain data sets. We’re too crafty, however, and can usually overcome such data requirements through the kind of word and data selections that Mac Donald cites in her article.

How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse

In most ways computers have made our lives better. In some, however, they’ve made our lives worse.* In grant writing, computers have enabled a level of neurotic, anxious behavior that was simply impractical before frictionless communications. Some of those problems include:

1. More drafts.

Isaac existed before computers. Well, technically, so did I, but I wasn’t writing proposals. In the pre-computer era, most proposals only went through two drafts: a first and a final. First drafts were written long-hand on legal pads, dictated, or roughly typed. The second/final draft would be typed by a secretary with great typing skills. Still, the final draft usually had typos, “white out” blotches and lacked any formatting apart from paragraph indents and tabs to create “tables.” Since proposals couldn’t logistically go through numerous drafts or interim drafts, two drafts were sufficient.

The perpetual editing make possible by computers also means that we can do something, someone else can do something (that is possibly wrong), and then we have to fix the messed up problems. Versioning can be endless, and in the last couple of months we’ve gotten into several seemingly unhappy versioning loops with clients. Versioning loops don’t make anyone happy, but the easy editability of documents means that it’s tempting for everyone to have a say (and everyone to make edits that later have to be carefully reverted). Computer editing also makes it more tempting to change project concepts mid-stream, which is not a good idea.

2. Longer drafts.

In keeping with point one, proposals can now be much, much longer. We’ve worked on some Head Start drafts that topped out around 100 pages. That’s ridiculous, but computers make it possible in general to write far longer drafts. “Longer” is not necessarily “better.” A longer draft has more room for internal inconsistencies (of the sort that can kill your application, as described at the link).

Longer drafts fatigue writer and reader. We’re the iron men of writers, so we of course never feel fatigue. But few writers are as sharp at page 80 of a proposal as they are at page 10. Few readers read page 80 with the same care as page 10. Isaac and occasionally speculate about how funny it would be to drop a sentence, late in a proposal, like “I’ll give you $20 if you read this sentence” or “Don’t you think 50 Shades of Grey really does have a legitimate point?” We’d never do that, but we bet that if we did, few reviewers would notice.

3. More screwing around and eternal availability.

In ye olden days, one had to call someone to express an idea or make a change or just to badger them. Since fax machines weren’t common until the 80s, drafts to other offices/readers had to be mailed or sent by courier. Copies were harder to make, so editors had to do one review, not 12. Today we’re available for eternal electronic pinpricks via email, and yet every pinprick has a cost. We mostly ignore those costs, but they add up.

It’s easier to spend way too much time changing “that” to “which” and “which” to “that.” Sometimes such changes are appropriate but too many of them lead to tremendous drag on the entire project. They cost scarce attention.

4. Convoluted instructions.

Before computers, attachments were (generally) fewer, RFPs were shorter, and instructions were clearer because 20 people didn’t have the opportunity to “contribute” their thoughts and words. Now instructions can be infinitely convoluted, weird data sources can be more easily managed, and random attachments of almost infinite size can be ordered.

Sometimes, too, applicants will be tempted to add extra attachments because they can. Don’t do that.

5. Data mandates that don’t exist, or don’t exist properly.

We’ve written before about phantom data and its attendant problems. Computers and the Internet often tempt funders into asking for more esoteric data. Before the Internet, most data had to be manually, laboriously extracted from Census tables and similar paper-based sources. This meant long hours at a library or Census office. Now it’s possible to request all sorts of weird data, and sometimes that data can’t be found. Or, if various applicants do find it, it comes from all sorts of methodologies that may not be comparable. Poverty rates are one good example of this. Is the 2013 poverty rate 14.5% or 4.8%? Depends on the data used. And that’s for a well-known metric! Others are worse.

6. Email has also shifted the “Cover-Your Ass” (CYA) memo to the “CYA” email.

The famous CYA memo predates email, but email has made conversations that would once have been ephemeral permanent. Anything you say or write can be used to hang you, as innumerable politicians (like former Congressman Weiner) and everyday people have learned. This has consequences of all sorts, as teenagers have discovered in the course of sexting and as even spies have learned (that link goes to an article about a totally crazy hit the Israelis pulled in Dubai: if you abandon this post to read it, I wouldn’t blame you at all).

Permanent records mean that nothing can be ignored and that everything can be interpreted in the worst possible light. It is now possible for clients to send us (and us to send them) dozens of emails in a way that never happened in the snail-mail world. In a snail-mail world, each missive took a day or two send, receive, and reply.

The new email world means we—and clients—can waste fantastic amounts of time mulling over minor issues and misunderstandings via email. Anything sent by email lives forever, so it must be written with great care because it can later be used to hang the writer. Every word has to be considered as if it would be judged by a judge and jury. That means a level of precision is necessary in a way that wouldn’t be necessary on a phone call.

7. Conclusion

In Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, Kentaro Toyama writes: “It’s often said that technology is a cost-saver; or that ‘big data’ makes business problems transparent; or that social media brings people together; or that digital systems level playing fields. These kinds of statements are repeated so often that few people question them. Yet none of them is a die-cast truth.” Toyama is right, and we’ve witnessed the problems of relentless communication, which let people endlessly niggle over minor, unimportant points, while misunderstanding bigger, more important pictures.

This post is an attempt to share the bigger picture.


* For one example of how things are worse, see Alone Together by Sherry Turkle or Man Disconnected: How technology has sabotaged what it means to be male by Philip Zimbardo. We aren’t luddites and aren’t condemning technology—indeed, our business couldn’t exist as it does without technology—but we are cognizant of the drawbacks.

In grant writing, longer is not necessarily better

If you’re buying apples, more apples are (usually) better. A faster processor in your iMac is (usually) better. Same for a higher capacity hard drive. But longer is not necessarily better with, say, books. Few readers think, “Gee, this 1,200-page novel is intrinsically better than a 350-page novel.”* They also don’t think a 1,200-page novel is worth three times as much as a 350-page novel. Readers want a novel length appropriate to the story and material. Fiction writers often gravitate towards either short stories or novels. For example, Mary Gaitskill’s collection Bad Behavior: Stories is excellent, and I say this as someone who prefers novels. Gaitskill’s novels, however, are not the best. Some writers can go short or long but she doesn’t appear to be one.

You can see where I’m going with this point. Longer grant proposals are not necessarily better than shorter ones and in many circumstances are worse. This is clearest in foundation proposal writing, where five single-spaced pages are more than enough for an initial submission narrative. Many foundations actually require less than five pages.

When we conduct a foundation appeal, we write an final draft that’s about five single-spaced pages and ultimately use that version to customize proposals to the best five or ten foundation sources we identify. Clients often want us to write longer proposals, but we strongly suggest that foundation proposals be no longer than five pages, since most foundations will reject anything longer and even those that technically accept longer unsolicited proposals rarely read them.

To understand why, let’s look at the process from the funder’s perspective. A foundation may get hundreds of proposals every quarter. Each proposal probably gets read initially by an intern or junior staff person who does a reality check to see if the proposal meets the foundation’s basic guidelines. A foundation that only funds in Texas and gets a proposal from a nonprofit in California will chuck the latter. A foundation that only funds healthcare but gets a proposal for after school services will chuck the latter. Proposals that are simply incoherent or incomprehensible will get chucked.

Once the sanity check has been conducted, however, dozens or hundreds of viable proposals may remain. Each overlong proposal costs foundation officers time. Each proposal that isn’t clear and succinct increases its odds of getting rejected because the reader doesn’t have the time or inclination to figure out what the writer is babbling about. For this reason the first sentence is by far the most important sentence in any proposal.

The same thing is as true, and maybe even more true, of government proposals. There, reviewers may have to slog through dozens or hundreds of pages for each proposal. We’d like to imagine each reviewer considering each proposal like a work of art, but more likely than not they behave like you do in a bookstore. A good bookstore has tens of thousands of titles. How do you choose one? By browsing a couple of books based on covers or staff recommendations or things you’ve heard. Proposal reviewing is closer to bookstore browsing than we’d like to admit, and good proposals shouldn’t be any longer than they have to be. Shorter proposals are a gift to reviewers, and they’ll appreciate any gift you can give them. Anyone who has reviewed grants understands this. Over-long proposals are a failure of empathy on the part of the writer for the reader.

While you should never go over the specified page limit, in many circumstances being under the page limit is desirable. When you write a proposal you are no longer in school and will no longer get brownie points by baffling reviewers with bullshit.

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever heard: “Omit unnecessary words.” Right up there with “Omit unnecessary words”, however, is: “When you’re done, stop.” Arguably the latter advice is a special case of the former. Many novice writers experience ending anxiety, which may occur in part as an artifact of “the way schools are organized: we get trained to talk even when we have nothing to say.” When you have nothing more to say, say nothing.


* Though physical books also have some cost limitations based on binding processes. Books that are longer than something like 418 printed pages are more expensive to print than books that are shorter (for most commercial publishers). Commercial publishers will use formatting tricks when possible to get a book under that number of pages, and, if they have to go over, they’ll go way over.

Some Positive Changes in Federal Grant Grants.Gov Submission Requirements Emerge

Faithful readers know that I’ve been writing federal grant proposals since the last ice age.* For most of the last four decades, federal grant writing has changed little, other than in obvious tech-related ways—computers, online databases, quick and reliable digital literature/data searches, easy access to applicant background info and so on. I recently realized that incremental changes, glacial in speed though they may be, have begun to have a cumulative impact on the way in which proposals, and especially federal grant proposals, are prepared.

The biggest change in federal proposal preparation was the switch from hard copy to digital submissions, starting around 12 years ago. While at first there were a number of portals developed by various federal agencies, over the years most, but not all, have switched to Grants.Gov. For the first five or so years, Grants.Gov was incredibly badly coded, and the upload process was often uncertain and dicey. In recent years, the reliability of Grants.Gov has improved dramatically and the required attachments mercifully streamlined.

In the bad old days of paper submissions, federal agencies usually required a zoo of attachments, like target area maps, evaluator CVs, key staff resumes, job descriptions, organization charts, evidence of 501(c)3) status, bylaws, financial statements, letters of support, MOUs, and the dreaded logic model. The narratives themselves were long, like attention spans back in those days, with maximums sometimes reaching 50 single-spaced pages. It was not uncommon to end up with a 150-page grant application, which usually had be submitted with a “wet-signed” original and up to ten copies. Sometimes the FedEx boxes we shipped to HUD or the Department of Education weighed over ten pounds.

In the early days of Grants.Gov, these attachment requirements continued, making the upload process very complicated (try uploading a 10 megabyte financial statement attached to a Grants.Gov kit file for example) and sometimes impossible, as there might not be an attachment slot for a given required attachment. As time passed, federal RFPs began to strip away attachments or even require only a couple of consolidated attached files. This is much simpler and makes the grants.gov kit file preparation easier and significantly more reliable.

Most federal agencies have also reduced the maximum length of the narrative and settled on a double-spaced, single-sided page formatting convention. For example, Department of Labor proposals now usually have 20 double-spaced page maximums for narratives. Before you say “hallelujah,” however, keep in mind that the RFPs themselves have not gotten any shorter–an RFP could easily be 150 pages, with the questions to be answered in the 20-page narrative actually being many pages longer than the maximum allowed response. It is often harder to write a shorter narrative of, say, 20 pages, than 40 pages, because the writer faces the “building-a-ship-in-a-bottle” problem. Furthermore, despite severe page limitations, all of the headers/sub-headers must be included to enable reviewers to easily find your responses.

Other interesting RFP changes involve the objective and evaluation sections, which are sometimes combined and always intertwined. Until recently, most RFPs let the grant writer essentially make up the objectives. Now, however, many ED programs like Student Supportive Services and HRSA programs like New Access Points provide more or less fill-in-the-blank objectives. I’m fairly sure this trend is to facilitate “apples-to-apples” comparisons by reviewers, but whatever the reason, it makes it easier to stay within the page limit. While evaluation section requirements used to be astoundingly complex, these days, RFP evaluation instructions tend to be much more straightforward and linked to specified objectives.

Now for the bad news. The budget and budget narratives sections have changed little. Grants.Gov kit files still use a variation of the venerable SF-424A budget form, which is actually a summary of federal object cost categories. To create the 424A, any sane person would use an Excel template. The only people in the US who do not seem to grasp the concept of a spreadsheet are federal RFP writers. There is still no federal Excel SF-424A template provided, although we use versions that we’ve developed over the years.** A well-laid-out Excel line-item budget not only displays each line item within each cost category, but it can also double as the budget narrative. See further in “Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets.”

The budget narrative instructions in almost all federal RFPs are written as if the response is to be done on a typewriter, circa 1975. The budget narrative is also often excluded from the narrative page limit, with no page limit on the budget narrative. Although we would never do this, we’ve seen proposals from our clients in which the budget narrative is longer than the program narrative. Don’t do this—unless you think the tail wagging the dog is a good approach to life.


* Forty-four years to be exact, but who’s counting?

** We always provide clients with a draft budget in a handy reusable Excel template—which is one good reason to hire us!