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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.

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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.

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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!

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Standard At-Risk Youth or Ex-Offender Empowerment Program: Improve Lives Through “X!”

A standard pitch for at-risk youth empowerment grant proposals is simple: We’ll give youth access to X, and through their love of or learning about X they’ll become better students / scholars / workers / people. “X” can be any number of things: To name a few of the projects we’ve worked on over the years, X can be horseback riding, chess, job skills, academic skills, computer programming, music, outdoor activities, art, photography, or sports. Existing organizations of various sizes attempt to improve lives through X; one of the oldest approaches are police athletic leagues (PALs), which try to get kids to stay out of trouble by learning about and playing sports with cops.

Another example is classical music exposure, which sometimes includes playing an instrument. Various symphonies are engaged in this project by sponsoring youth orchestras or having their players perform for high school students who secretly likely aspire to be Lady Gaga or Kendrick Lamar, not learn to play the oboe.* Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Philharmonic conductor, is famously interested in the youth orchestras.

Still, in the memoir Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, these endeavors are not portrayed as admirable by Blair Tindall; in her rendition art may encourage drug use rather than dissuading students from it. Nonetheless, it also appears that a disproportionate number of highly paid programmers, engineers, and nerds more generally are involved with music, and correlation must imply causation, so we as a society think getting kids involved with music is a Good Thing. Which it probably is! We don’t want to seem overly cynical, and really, who is against music?

Sometimes the youth involved in a particular program have other issues (e.g., foster care, differently abled, cancer, etc.), and sometimes the target population is people with other kinds of life challenges. For example, ex-offenders are a common group, with prisoner re-entry programs becoming more popular in recent years. In addition, not any value can be substituted for “X;” we’ve yet to work on any programs that offer, say, pole-dancing lessons, such that through their earthly love of each other youth will stay out of other trouble.

Programs that bring “X” to youth all have in common taking kids or other targeted high-risk groups out of their normal environments and putting them in a different environment that exposes them to new ideas and skills. Do such efforts work? It’s hard to say: programs like these got started in the Progressive Era, with efforts like the Boy Scouts, PALs and different programs have been emphasized at different times and in different places. Their purposes have changed over time, depending on what society happens to be anxious about at a given moment.

Today, not that many people (with money) care about exposure to rural environments, such as 4H agriculture programs, and so forth. But they care a lot about job training and/or workforce development. They care about education, which they link to job training and/or workforce development. If you’ve got a program that involves education, job training, and/or workforce development, consider whether it takes kids, ex-offenders or other high-risk groups out of their normal environments. If it does, you’ve got an important, time-honored claim: that by giving access to X you’ll also improve Y.

And if you want to do more than claim the mantle of innovation—which as a baseline we recommend you all do—consider this pattern in human services and what, if anything, you might do to break it.

EDIT: In Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a mid-sized beautiful book, Cheryl Strayed describes how she ended up working as  “youth advocate” for girls with serious problems and seriously messed-up families. She writes:

I was meant to silently, secretly, covertly empower them by taking them to do things they’d never done at places they’d never been. I took them a rock-climbing gym and to the ballet and to a poetry reading at an independent bookstore. The theory was that if they liked to pull the weight of their blossoming girl bodies up a faux boulder with little pebble-esque plastic hand- and footholds then perhaps they would not get knocked up. If they glommed on to the beauty of art witnessed live—made before their very eyes—they would not become meth addicts and steal someone’s wallet and go to jail at the age of fifteen.

Instead, they’d grow up and get a job at Walmart.

Strayed would get this post. At least one of the girls, we learn by the end of the essay, succeeds. One senses the combination of desperation and hope Strayed feels. She writes too that the work was “the best job I ever had but I only stayed for one year. It was a heavy gig and I was a writer and so I left it for less emotionally taxing forms of employment so I could write.” How many of us can blame her? She gets the Sisyphean task, but unlike Sisyphus she occasionally gets to leave the rock at the top of the mountain.


* Whatever the merits of the oboe; we respect it as an instrument and do not wish to denigrate any oboists among our readership.

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“You Can’t Shovel Tens Pounds of Shit in a Five Pound Bag:” The New York Times Ignores CHCs, Section 330 Providers, and HRSA

In “For Many New Medicaid Enrollees, Care Is Hard to Find, Report Says,” Robert Pear discovers something that has long been obvious to our many Community Health Clinic (CHC) clients: having insurance doesn’t mean you can see a doctor. Many if not most doctors won’t see Medicaid patients. CHCs, however, are a class of primary care organization designed specifically for Medicaid patients and the uninsured. We’ve written numerous Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) proposals for CHCs, and everyone one of those proposals is supposed to expand access to care. This year’s New Access Point (NAP) program, for example, has $100 million available. Pear apparently does not know that CHCs exist and are funded through HRSA mostly to serve Medicaid patients.

The bigger problem regarding real-world healthcare is the number of doctors. Any discussion about the difficulty of finding care that doesn’t mention the limits on the supply of doctors is specious at best. There have been around 100,000 residency slots since the 1980s. Medical schools stopped expanding long ago. These facts are well-known to experts. Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners are to some extent filling in the gap, but in most states they still must practice under a doctor.

Our CHC clients’ biggest problem is rarely recruiting patients—when you subsidize goods or services, people consume more—it’s finding doctors. CHCs usually serve a high-need, difficult-to-treat population. Consequently, physicians often prefer to seek higher pay and lower stress jobs. Although there are lots of people trying to go to medical school—in Educating Physicians: A Call for Reform of Medical School and Residency, the authors note that 42,000 people applied for 18,000 medical school spots, and that at least 30,000 were likely qualified to become doctors—med school and residency act as bottlenecks to this process.

You can give every person health insurance without ensuring that they’ll actually get care, much like you can give everyone a degree without ensuring they have a brain. In the United Kingdom, care gets rationed through wait times. In the U.S., a similar dynamic is happening via provider shortages. While it is laudable that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) significantly increased the number of Americans covered by Medicaid, the landmark legislation did little to increase the number of providers to serve the newly insured. Or, as they used to say in the old days, you can’t shovel ten pounds of shit into a five pound bag. It’s a vulgar phrase but applicable to this article and the overall challenge of helping the newly insured actually access affordable, quality healthcare.

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Collaboration Again: A Story From the Trenches

We’re working on a project for a client who needs two things: a lot of data that isn’t easily publicly available and the dreaded letters of collaboration from other local providers (which we’ve written about in the context of Susan G. Komen, Mark Zuckerberg, and Community-Based Job Training). We have to be vague on the details, but our client initially planned to serve a reasonable service area, and we wrote a draft proposal reflecting our client’s plan.

The plan didn’t survive contact with the enemy, however. Our client’s so-called “collaborators” sabotaged the proposed project service area: They refused to sign letters of collaboration unless our client reduced the proposed service area to stay off their “turf.” So much for collaboration among nonprofits. The overall concept of collaboration, as required in most proposals these days, is ludicrous. It’s the equivalent of Burger King getting to veto a McDonald’s location. Alternately, it’s the equivalent of the contemporary market for broadband Internet access, which is totally broken, as demonstrated by the link.

Still, our client can’t effectively get the grant without letters offered by the client’s competitors, who ganged up on our client. She had to change the proposed service and we had to revise the draft to reflect this. The losers are of course the low-income and underserved residents of the removed part of the service area, who will have one fewer option for help and who don’t get a voice in this process, which is occurring entirely behind closed doors.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: forcing nonprofits to “collaborate” makes no more sense than forcing businesses to collaborate.

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GWC Goes to the Movies: Casablanca and a WSJ Opinion Piece on the Wobegon Illinois Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI)

Faithful readers know I love movies, and this is the first in a new series: “Grant Writing Confidential Goes to the Movies.”

Today, let’s talk about perhaps the best film ever made, Casablanca,* and Claire Groden’s recent opinion piece in the WSJ, “An ‘Antiviolence’ Boondoggle in Murder-Plagued Chicago.”

Groden recounts the disappointing impact and sad tale of woe surrounding the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI), a $54 million grant program sponsored by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. NRI was supposed to reduce the astounding level of youth violence in the state, and in particular in Chicago, where dozens of young people are killed every weekend. Not only did violence rise during the program implementation, but one of the at-risk youth employed in the program allegedly shot and killed a second employed youth while the two were passing out anti-violence pamphlets in the community.**

Groden is apparently surprised that NRI didn’t work, which reminds me of the scene in Casablanca when Captain Renault says to Major Strasser, “I’m shocked, shocked to find out that gambling in going on in here [Rick’s],” as a croupier hands him a pile of winnings. Programs like NRI rarely achieve their lofty public goals—which is one reason evaluation sections are unintentionally hilarious—but they may achieve other, less obvious ones. Just because NRI didn’t do much to curb crime doesn’t mean it’s a “boondoggle.” In Casablanca terms it’s more like Captain Renault saying “Round up the usual suspects.”

While we haven’t written any NRI proposals, the program looks to me like a fairly standard Walking Around Money suspect, about which we’ve blogged many times. Lots of grant programs are really a means to funnel money into certain neighborhoods via nonprofits. It’s also clear to me, if not to Groden, that NRI is mostly a jobs program—in this case, the idea is to hire gang bangers as Peer Outreach Workers, with the assumption that if the youth have some money, perhaps they won’t feel the need for mayhem. In this instance the theory didn’t work so well, as one of the employed kids shot another one in the head. (This could be an argument for a higher minimum wage, but I digress).

Many grant programs are really jobs programs in disguise. My favorite example is Head Start, on which billions of federal grant dollars are spent annually, with over a million kids enrolled. While there are lots of conflicting studies on whether or not Head Start actually has any lasting impact on enrolled kids, it certainly succeeds as a jobs program—tens of thousands of low-skilled, low-income women, are employed as Head Start “teachers.”***

Interestingly, most Head Start teachers also have or have had kids enrolled in the program, which means the same women who seemingly fail to educate and socialize their kids in their own home are somehow supposed to help similar kids learn in the classroom. Head Start has been around for almost 50 years and, by now, there must be lots of third-generation Head Start kids. Since the family has to be low-income to be in Head Start, if three generations are still in poverty despite Head Start—including moms and grandmothers who were Head Start teachers—one can assume that the program doesn’t improve long-term family self-sufficiency (free proposal phrase here). It does, however, keep lots of low-skill women employed at an average annual salary of $21,000, which is probably around what they could make at Wal-Mart but also includes implicit childcare subsidies.

Groden makes a common mistake by confusing the grant program—NRI—with the funding agency—the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority (IVPA). Since NRI has gotten a lot of bad press, the program may see reduced funding, becoming a grant mummy waiting for more tana leaves. She implies that this means the end of IVPA. Wrong. IVPA has been around for years. I know, because we’ve written many funded IVPA proposals for a variety of programs, albeit not NRI. IVPA is a vehicle for federal pass-through funding, with similar agencies existing in each state. While IVPA and the Illinois governor may put temporary brakes on NRI, IVPA will continue to churn out grants for lots of other programs.

As Dooley Wilson sings, “The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.

Much of the Casablanca plot centers around missing Letters of Transit. These are never explained because they’re just a plot device, called a MacGuffin by Alfred Hitchcock and often used in both screenplays and grant proposals. Examples of common MacGuffins in proposals are imagined community needs assessments (e.g., vaguely described informal task forces), case planning documents (e.g., Individual Service Plans), referral linkages, and so on. Since most proposals have severe page limitations, it’s often not possible to go beyond MacGuffin references to move the proposal narrative along, so we might randomly stick in “informal planning task force” or “referral for wraparound supportive services” every few pages. After a while, the reader thinks they know what an informal planning task force is or what the referral mechanism is just as a Casablanca viewer eventually buys into the Letters of Transit device.


* When I worked for L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley in 1974, one of volunteers in the Mayor’s Office was Kitty Curtiz, daughter of Micheal Curtiz, director of Casablanca. Kitty was a delightful woman who’d been a teen on the set when Casablanca was being filmed at Warner Brothers in Burbank. She had lots of anecdotes about the filming and confirmed that no one knew (spoiler alert) Rick would end up with Louie, not Ilsa, at the end of the movie, until it was shot.

** This is called “street outreach” in the grant writing biz and is a standard component in the outreach/engagement section of most human services proposals. Once again, round up the usual suspects.

*** A comprehensive 2011 Head Start Study by DHHS itself found that, while Head Start produces “brief learning gains,” such gains fade quickly and have little or no impact on ultimate education and income outcomes. Judge for yourself.

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Grant Writer as Ghost Writer: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Conundrum

At our most basic level, we grant writers are nothing more than ghost writers. Ghost writing is sometimes referred to as the world’s second oldest profession, and there’s probably some truth to that. While ghost writers haunt (sorry about that) every strain of writing, ghost writing is largely veiled from the real world. Andrew Crofts’s new book, Confessions of a Ghostwriter, provides a rare glimpse into the profession.

Like me, Crofts has spent about 40 years writing under other writers’s bylines and toiling in the shadows while making a tidy living and seemingly enjoying his anonymous vocation. Crofts points out correctly that his clients view him as ranking “somewhere between a valet and a cleaner.” In my view, our clients actually view us more in line with the purveyors of world’s actual oldest profession, but his point is well taken: when someone wants a grant writer/ghost writer/valet/hooker or some similar service, they want it right now and they probably don’t want to be reminded that they felt compelled to use the particular service.*

While we don’t worry about not having our writing attributed to us, our anonymity presents some challenges when we’re asked for references. Since we’ve been in business for 21 years, we have lots of potential references, except for a few minor issues. One is anonymity: as mentioned in the footnote, not every client wants others to know that they did not write a particular proposal and may decline to provide a reference or even deny our involvement. Crofts points out the reality: clients who hire ghost writers don’t necessarily want to be public about it.

Hillary Clinton just released her state department memoir, Hard Choices, which has been widely panned by reviewers as a real snoozer, but at least Hillary admitted to the Washington Post that this tome was actually written by her “book team” (I wonder if the team had matching t-shirts). This is better than President Kennedy, who accepted a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, which was largely written by Theodore Sorenson without attribution. Interestingly, Sorenson also wrote Kennedy’s stirring Inaugural Address, once again without public credit.

To return to our own story, we’ve also been around so long that we’ve outlived many of the contact people we worked with, who retire or move on to new jobs. There is little institutional memory in most nonprofits. For example, about 15 years ago, we wrote several large funded proposals for a small nonprofit that oddly used arts education to provide English as a second language (ESL)** instruction to immigrant children. As a result of these funded proposals, they became a much larger organization, but for whatever reason they stopped hiring us. About five years ago, I received a call from the new executive director of this same nonprofit inquiring about grant writing assistance.

The old executive director had left some time before and the new guy was amazed when I told him that we’d written the original funded proposals that launched them into nonprofit glory. He was skeptical, so I emailed him a proposal we’d written about ten years earlier. He declined to hire us and the organization eventually sunk back beneath the nonprofit waves again. They couldn’t effectively write proposals. Nonprofits that can’t write winning proposals or find some other way of funding themselves die.

Talk about ghost writing reminds me of one of my favorite John Ford Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Told in flashbacks, the storyline is that Jimmy Stewart’s righteous, nonviolent lawyer character Ransom Stodard (called “Pilgrim” by John Wayne’s laconic and quick with a gun rancher character, Tom Doniphon) is forced by circumstance to face down and “shoot” the local desperado, Liberty Valance, played with snarling fury by Lee Marvin.

Or did he? As “the man who shot Liberty Valance,” Stodard becomes famous and is elected a senator. It turns out, of course, that John Wayne’s character actually shot Liberty over Stodard’s shoulder. In effect, John Wayne was Pilgrim’s “ghost shooter.” When Jimmy Stewart finishes telling the true story to the local newspaper editor in real time at the end of movie, he says to the editor, “you’re not going use the story?” The editor replies, “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Like all ghost writers, we grant writers just print the legend.


* This is one reason why we don’t list past clients on our website and always disguise them when we mention one in a post. We don’t just sell grant writing; we sell discretion.

** “ESL” is actually a somewhat archaic term in grant writing these days. The newer term is English language learning (ELL), making the the students ELLs. Now you know. In a couple years the nomenclature will probably change again, for no reason apart from fashion.

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One Foundation Grant Can Lead to Another: A Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Funding Story

A few years ago we conducted foundation grant source research and wrote ten foundation proposals for a national membership nonprofit that wanted to do a complex education study. One of the national foundations we identified, and wrote a proposal to, awarded the client $200,000. The award is terrific but not the end of the story—if it were, we wouldn’t be writing this post. The funder then referred our client to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest foundation in the world, who awarded our client a still larger grant. The study was completed and the American education system presumably improved.

Everyone who works in the grant world knows that the Gates Foundation usually doesn’t accept unsolicited proposals.* The Gates Foundation has to come to the organization.

This specific example illustrates a general principle: with any kind of grant writing, but especially with foundation funding, it’s impossible to know what might happen when the proposal is submitted. Every big foundation knows every other big foundation. Local foundations know other local foundations. Foundations are often fond of funding organizations that have been funded by other foundations. Life many human endeavors, the first grant is the hardest and funding typically get easier after that. If you get into the foundation club, you’ll find that being a member is much more pleasant and fun than watching from the outside.** (Venture capital works the same way.)

But there’s no easy way in, unless you happen to have a friend or relative who happens to sit on a foundation’s board. We, like most people, don’t have any friends or relatives like that. The only practical approach in seeking foundation grants is to carefully research foundations, prepare a compelling boilerplate foundation letter proposal***, customize this generalized proposal to create technically correct submissions to several plausible foundations, submit the proposals, and retire for a cocktail or three.

(Warning: The next paragraph is a shameless plug. Skip it if you’re likely to be offended.)

Incidentally, we’re having a Sizzling Summer Sale right now, and our foundation proposal package fees are discounted by 25%. Call us at 800.540.8906 for details, but don’t delay, as the sale ends July 31.

(Advertising section over.)

Our client’s story also illustrates the challenge in responding to common questions that potential clients frequently ask. They want to know how many clients we’ve gotten “funded.” But this case demonstrates how hard it can be to answer. When our client was initially funded, he didn’t tell us. If we were trying to keep a client batting average—which we don’t, because a batting average is a waste of time, given the wide range of our clients in terms of size, track record, location, type and so on—we wouldn’t have known that he should be included.

In addition, it can be hard to answer the question, “What is ‘funded?'” We wrote and submitted the first proposal, so we’ll take credit for it. But the first funder, which is very large, led directly funding for the save project by the second. Does the Gates Foundation grant count for our tally? Did we get the client funded only for the original $200,000 grant, or for the millions that followed? One could reasonably argue both sides, since the second funder wouldn’t have appeared without the first one.


* The Gates Foundation may run specific RFP processes from time to time, but those are narrow and rarer. Almost anyone who says they want to submit to the Gates Foundation but who doesn’t have connection is actually saying they don’t know what they’re talking about.

** If you want a hot date to the Prom, it helps if you’ve had dates to fall and winter formal dances first.

*** We use the term “foundation letter proposal” to characterize the initial foundation submission. We initially format these as a five-page, single-spaced letters, since many foundations request a short LOI. The final submissions may be customized to create the appropriate letters with proposals, on-line inserts, or some combination—depending on the requirements of the particular foundations.

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Talking About Progressive Ideals in Proposals: Money, Time, and Poverty in Grant Writing

No Money, No Time” helps set the cultural tone for the proposal world. In the proposal world—which does sometimes overlap with the real world—poor people spend time where richer people might spend money. Rich people are rich in many ways, but one is simple: their lives aren’t as organized around other people’s bureaucracies.* A nonprofit or public agency should help the poor, and it would be a good idea to incorporate the idea that poor people don’t have the time wealthier people do. This idea also ties into other important parts of contemporary thinking: if low-income people** weren’t so busy with day-to-day survival, they’d go buy arugula from the farmers market and make a salad, instead of buying Cokes and Big Macs.

There is some truth to the argument: a lot of low-income people are surrounded by endless appointments, case managers, social workers, parole officers (sometimes called corrections officers), and others who want a piece of their time. That time does add up. Years ago, we wrote a proposal to L.A. County for a nonprofit proposing to fund “master” case managers who would manage each client’s roster of case managers, parole officers, court cases, etc.

That’s not a totally superficial idea, though it has the ring of parody. If a poor single mom misses an appointment with her Child Protective Services (CPS) case manager, her kids might be put in foster care and she’ll end up in court. If she misses a shift, she might lose her job. If she fails to fill out out a form completely, she (and her children) might lose Medicaid or a Section 8 apartment. Life for the American poor is like a game of Chutes & Ladders—which is not an original thought, since Katherine S. Newman made the argument in a book called Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Labor Market (and she’s written a number of others, all good; used copies are under $1 on Amazon. If you’re writing social and human service proposals, you can’t afford not to buy them).

In the proposal world, solutions spring from government funding, but in the real world, many of the problems derive from laws passed by legislatures. Among the poor in particular—who cannot afford good lawyers and who often cannot afford service fees and other penalties—lives get complicated by entanglement with officialdom and by drug prohibition. Legal issues usually involve drugs and kids; jailing men for failing to pay child support has a real, under-appreciated downside that is not being widely discussed (though you will hear about it in some places).

Even outside the realm of drugs and kids, we have so many laws, rules, and regulations—many not at all intuitive and many counter to the ways actual people want to live—that no one is innocent and everyone breaks laws, usually inadvertently. Tyler Cowen’s “Financial Hazards of a Fugitive Life” also describes this; the column is substantially about Alice Goffman’s brilliant book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, which you should also read (and cite).

These laws came, not surprisingly, from good intentions. Before Prohibition, progressives theorized that getting rid of Demon Rum and John Barleycorn would mean that men wouldn’t get drunk, lose their jobs, eventually lose everything, and send their wives and daughters into prostitution. As any student of history knows, that didn’t turn out real well. Drug prohibition isn’t working out real well, but we’re still wasting a lot of time and resources doing it—in all sorts of ways.

Some costs to drug prohibition are quite small. Office Depot used to have tons of signs up saying, “We drug test employees.” But our thought was: who cares? We’re just asking someone where the pens are. If Office Depot’s employees want to light up after work, that’s their own affair. Nonetheless, Office Depot may have been unintentionally reinforcing poverty by denying jobs to otherwise qualified workers who like to dance with Mary Jane on the weekends (just like many social workers and case managers, at least in my experience).

The net result of this is the time crunch. The first article in this post should be cited in proposals—but only in the needs assessment. The problem should be forgotten in the project description, since participants must be assumed to have lots of time to serve on the Participant Involvement Council (PIC), community service etc. Other writers have also described the time trap of being poor: John Scalzi’s “Being Poor” is one particularly poetic example.

The time crunch is not unique to poor people and human service organizations serving them. Isaac actually tried to talk to the Small Business Administration (SBA) group in Seattle when he first started Seliger + Associates. They wanted him to sit through ten sessions on… something, all of which required lots of travel time he didn’t have because he was furiously busy writing proposals and finding clients. You do not discuss the nature of warfare, starting with the Greeks, when the enemy is shooting and your position is in danger of being overrun.

That being said, it’s useful to understand where these ideas come from. There are, loosely speaking, two big views on poverty right now. The one presented in the New York Times, which we’ve been discussing in this post, is the generally leftish, Democrat, progressive view, and that’s the view that should predominate in proposals. The other view is generally rightish, Republican / Libertarian-esque, and slightly more conservative, and that’s the view that the material conditions of being poor in the U.S. have improved incredibly over the last century or more. That’s where one gets The Heritage Foundation pointing out that 80% of poor people have AC, 75% have a car, two thirds have a TV, and so on. That’s also where one finds Charles Murray’s solutions in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (these issues are not unique to the United States: Britain’s working class faces similar travails).

Just about everyone likes Murray’s research, but American progressives and conservatives tend to disagree on what the research means and what, if anything, should be done about it. Progressives tend to stress direct income transfer and government-paid supportive services, while conservatives tend to stress marriage, avoiding drugs, not getting knocked up outside of marriage, etc.

Beyond the drug war, there are other drags on the earnings and lives of poor people. Almost no one, right or left, mentions that the rent is too damn high, and that every time wealthy owners in places like Santa Monica, Seattle, and New York prevent new construction, they’re simultaneously making the lives of the poor much, much harder. Only a relatively small number of voices in the wilderness are speaking up.

We’re grant writers—that is, hired guns—so we’re not intensely political about these issues and are in it for the money (I know you’re shocked). Usually we shy away from the theory and thought behind grant writing, since most readers and human service providers don’t really care about it, or care to the extent that thinking translates into dollars.


* Isaac doesn’t like using the word “bureaucracy” in proposals, in any context, but I’m quite fond of it. Isaac says that isn’t a good idea to remind the bureaucrats reading a proposal that they are in fact bureaucrats who are making people jump through hoops in order to receive goods and services. He may have a point.

** In proposals, no one is poor and everyone is “low-income.” We use them interchangeably here only because a) this is where grant writers and nonprofit administrators come to talk about reality, not fantasy, and b) the original writer uses the term “poor.”