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Another Lesson for Grant Writers from KU Basketball: Every Organization Needs a Great Grant Writing Point Guard

My beloved KU Jayhawks just got bounced from the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament by a much lower ranked team, V.C.U. As much as I favor the Jayhawks, who would probably beat V.C.U. nine out of ten times, V.C.U. was the better team today and deserved to win. Having watched most of the KU games this year, it became obvious early in the season that the team lacked a stellar point guard, even though they only lost two games coming into today’s fiasco.*

For those who do not follow college hoops, point guards run the offense, distributing the ball and acting as the “Field General,” even more so than the quarterback on a football team. Basketball is so fast that the point guard has to make decisions on the fly, maximizing the potential of the offense while blunting the defense. The best point guards can also create their own shots by breaking down defenses. This year, KU’s starting point guard is good but not great, meaning that several guards shared the duties. This is another way of saying that KU lacked a true point guard.

There is good analogy between a great point guard and an organization’s grant writing efforts. If a nonprofit or public agency is committed to getting grants, they need a quality point guard to run the grant writing offense. As I have pointed out in many recent posts (see, for example, “Federal Budget Battle Unfolds, But the RFPs Just Keep Rollin’ Along“), the competition for grants is even more ferocious than normal. This makes it essential for every grant applicant to have a great grant writing point guard to keep the organization’s Eyes on the Prize. It doesn’t matter if the grant writing point guard is the Executive Director, Grants Coordinator, or a grant writing consultant like Seliger + Associates, as long as the grant writing point guard keeps the ball in play and the focus on scoring. They need to coordinate the whole organization to make sure that it maximizes its opportunities and doesn’t let easy “points,” or, in this case, money, slip away.

The challenge of keeping an organizational focus on grant writing can be seen in the differing behaviors of two Community Action Agencies (CAAs) we’re working for. As I pointed out recently in “Heavens to to Murgatroyd: Grant Competition Is About to Heat Up for Community Services Block Grant Grant (CSBG) and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Recipients,” CAAs are under enormous pressure because of threatened cutbacks to their core funding streams.

In the case of CAA client # 1, we are trying to finish a non-deadline assignment we started six months ago. Our contact, who is the Executive Director and his own grant writing point guard, is totally consumed with potential budget cuts. He’s effectively abandoned our project and, as far as I can tell, his overall grant writing efforts. In other words, he’s not handling the ball well. Regarding CAA Client # 2, the Executive Director is also the grant writing point guard. She is completely ignoring the maelstrom of potential budget cuts and focusing like a laser on the many RFPs on the street. We just finished two proposals for her and are currently writing another one. She is a consummate point guard and is distributing to ball to all shooters, not dribbling in the back court or making a bad out of bounds pass.

Even a perennial basketball powerhouse like KU can be easily derailed by lack of focus by their point guard and the general fear of tomorrow that paralyzed the team today. The best point guards keep their eyes focused on what is immediately in front of them while not losing sight of the whole court. If you organization’s grant writing team is transfixed about macro budget cutbacks that is out of their control, it is best to get their attention back to what really matters—what grants funds are available today and how can you get them. Otherwise, like CAA client # 1, you will find yourself out of time and out of money, while CAA client # 2 and others like her, race by you for an easy transition bucket. The grant funds are there for the taking.

* Never having been an athlete, I am always careful in my criticism of athletes. In some ways, being a grant writer is like being an athlete, particularly like a golfer or pitcher, in that one goes one-on-one against the “RFP opponent” to produce a winning proposal. While the grant writer may have other team members—who gather research, complete forms, edit, etc.—nonetheless, she’s in the grant writing arena along with her iMac listening to Pandora Radio on her Bose QuietComfort 3 Headphones and facing the RFP alone. When criticizing athletes, grant writers, novelists, fighter pilots or others engaged in solitary conflicts against long odds, remember this Teddy Roosevelt extract from his “Citizenship In a Republic Speech,” “The Man in the Arena”:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, KU! — Lessons from Basketball for Grant Writers

My daughter will graduate from the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications at the University of Kansas in May. Although I’m not much of a sports fan, over the past four years, I’ve learned to love Jayhawks basketball and was delighted to see the Jayhwawks come back from a double digit deficit last year to defeat Memphis at the storied Allen Fieldhouse, one of America’s true basketball shrines.

Last night, I watched with over 100 crazed KU alumni at a Seattle sports bar as “Super Mario” Chalmers sank a wild 3 pointer at the end of regulation play to send the Jayhawks into overtime against the Memphis Tigers in the NCAA championship game. This was an improbable feat, since KU was down 60-51 with 2:12 to go. KU went on to win, bringing the championship back to KU for the third time and sending thousands of delirious fans to celebrate on Massachusetts Street in Downtown Lawrence.

KU’s spectacular comeback and victory got me to thinking about how basketball relates to grant writing. Perhaps the most frequent questions I am asked are along the lines of, “What are my chances of getting a grant?” and “Who gets funded?” To the first, I invariably answer, “I’m a grant writer, not a fortune teller. Contact Miss Cleo.” My answer to the second is more complex, as it goes to the bedrock of people’s souls. Nonprofits are only as successful as their founders, board members and staff. So asking who gets funded is like asking which high school student will get into an Ivy League school, which college grad will get into medical school and which team will win a close basketball game. The answer, of course, is that whoever wants whatever “it” is most, will likely achieve it, while the rest will be left to wonder why.

Now, to get ready to win a NCAA Basketball championship, it helps to have a squad of McDonald’s All Americans and a great coach, just as having a chance to get into an Ivy or med school requires a 4.0 GPA and ultra high test scores. Similarly, merely “wanting” a grant is necessary but not sufficient for nonprofits. The organization must have a 501(c)3 Letter of Determination from the IRS, a clear charitable purpose that meets an identified need, be believable at delivering the service, have the necessary management and administrative infrastructure to manage the grant, be capable of identifying appropriate funding sources, and, of course, be able to write compelling and technically correct proposals that are submitted on time. In other words, want is just the start of the process: tenacity combined with an ability to understand what makes a compelling proposal and organization are also necessary to get proposals funded. As Randy Pausch said in his last lecture (available via YouTube or a Wall Street Journal article), “Brick walls are there for a reason. They let us prove how badly we want things.” He was talking about scientific achievement and life goals, but he could just as easily been talking about grants or basketball.

At just over two minutes to go last night, tens of thousands of KU faithful and I, felt another NCAA tournament slipping away. It seemed like Memphis wanted the title more than Kansas, but during the next seven minutes, including overtime, the Jayhawks stormed back and snatched the championship from Memphis. A scriptwriter could not have framed the turnaround better. During the four years I have followed the Jayhawks, they have always fielded great times, but lost before getting to the Final Four. They never gave up believing in their dream, and last night simply wanted the championship more than Memphis. If you believe in your organization and the services it provides, and the need is clear, keep trying. Eventually, like the Jayhawks, you will succeed. In the words of the wonderfully named Tub Thumping, by a one hit wonder band named Chumbawamba, “I get knocked down / But I get up again, / You’re never going to keep me down.”

So, when the Department of Education, SAMSHA or the Dubuque Community Foundation summarily rejects your proposal, get up, dust yourself off, polish the proposal and find another funder. Like the Jayhawks, it may take some time. Like the Jayhawks, you’ll have to work hard if you want to win—almost no one last night saw the countless hours each player spends in the gym. In keeping with the rock theme, and to quote the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well you just might find, you get what you need.” The Jayhawks wanted and needed a NCAA championship and got it. If you want funding for your organization, keep trying, develop a compelling game plan, and you may just get the funding you need.

In the meantime, chant Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, KU five times before you submit every proposal and it will be just like being in Allen Fieldhouse before a Mizzou game.