Tag Archives: Narrative

Be “Experienced” and “Innovative” at the Same Time

Certain buzzwords and buzz-ideas take over the grant world (and the larger world) at various times. “Innovation” is one concept everyone loves. According to Google’s Ngram viewer, “innovation” has appeared to triple in popularity over the last two centuries. Way back in 2010 we wrote “Change for Change’s Sake in Grant Proposals: When in Doubt, Claim Your Program is Innovative.” That’s still true today and will likely be true for many years to come. But being “innovative” often feels contrary from being “experienced.”

Innovators are often the brash upstarts, while experienced applicants are supposed to apply their knowledge of the past to the problems of the present.* As we wrote in “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually)” and “So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For? And Who’s the Competition?“, the size and experience of an agency will often dictate the logic argument made for why a given proposal should be funded.

Arguing that you have experience providing similar services is at odds with claims about being radically innovative. Markets depend on creative destruction, and the grant system exists in part to facilitate the exit of sclerotic nonprofits and the creation of nimbler nonprofits. Consider, this from “How Tesla Will Change the World:”

Over time, big industries tend to get flabby and uncreative and risk-averse—and if the right outsider company has the means and creativity to come at the industry with a fresh perspective and rethink the whole thing, there’s often a huge opportunity there.

Fortunately for grant writers and applicants, very few funders are going to think that hard about the distinction between innovation and experience: we’ve never heard that any of our clients have had a funder point out this conundrum to them. Funders are managed by humans—mostly, anyway—and like most humans their motivations are not only obscure to observers, and also often to themselves. So a good grant writer can still argue that the applicant is somehow both innovative and experienced. The number of truly “innovative” programs we’ve seen is quite small, but that’s because social and human services attempt to get people to behave in ways that they don’t feel like behaving.**


* As, for example, Steven Berlin Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From.

** When I wrote this post I was thinking about “In Grant Writing, Longer is Not Necessarily Better.”

How I track needs assessments and other grant proposal research

Bear with me. I’m about to discuss a topic that might recall horrific memories from high school history or college English, but I promise that, this time, I’m discussing research methods that are a) simple and b) relevant to your life as a grant writer in a nonprofit or other setting.

The single best way I’ve found to track grant research is described in Steven Berlin Johnson’s essay “Tool for Thought.” You can safely go read Johnson’s essay and skip the rest of this post, because it’s that good. I’m going to describe the way Johnson uses Devonthink Pro (DTP) and give some examples that show how useful this innovative program is in a grant writing context.

The problem is this: you’re a grant writer. If you’re any good, you’re probably writing/producing at least one proposal every three months, and there’s a solid chance you’re doing even more than that—especially if you have support staff to help with the production side of proposals. Every proposal is subtly different, yet each has certain commonalities. Many also require research. In the process of completing a proposal, you do the research, find a bunch of articles and maybe some books, write the needs assessment, and cite a bunch of research in (and perhaps you also cite research) in the evaluation section or elsewhere, depending on the RFP.

You finish the proposal and you turn it in.

You also know “One of the Open Secrets of Grant Writing and Grant Writers: Reading.” You see something about your area’s economy in the local newspaper. You read something about the jobs situation in The Atlantic. That book about drug prohibition—what was it called again? Right, Daniel Okrent’s Last Call—has a couple of passages you should write down because they might be useful later.

But it’s very hard to synthesize any of this material in a coherent, accessible manner. You can keep a bunch of Word documents scattered in a folder. You can develop elaborate keyword systems. Such efforts will work for a short period of time; they’ll work when you have four or five or six proposals and a couple dozen key quotes. They won’t work when you’ve been working for years and have accumulated thousands of research articles, proposals, and quotes. They won’t work when you know you need to read about prisoner re-entry but you aren’t sure if you tagged everything related to that subject with prisoner re-entry.

That’s where DTP comes in. The program’s great, powerful feature is its “See Also” function, which performs associative searches on large blocks of text to find how things might be related in subtle ways. Maybe you use the word “jail” and “drugs” without using the word “prisons” in a paragraph. If you search for “prisons,” you might not find that other material, but DTP might. This is a contrived example, but it helps show the program’s power.

Plus, chances are that if you read an article six years ago—or, hell, six months ago—you’re probably not going to remember it. Unless you’re uncommonly organized, you’re not going to find the material you might really need. DTP lets you drop the information in the program to let the program do the heavy lifting by remembering it. I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement, but DTP works surprisingly well.

Let’s keep using the example I started above and imagine that your nonprofit provides re-entry services to ex-offenders. You’ll probably end up writing the same basic explanation of how your program conducts intake, assessment, plans, service delivery, and follow-up in a myriad of different ways, depending on the funder, the page limit, and the specific questions being asked. You want a way to store that kind of information. DTP does this very well. The trick is keeping text chunks between about 50 words and 500 words, as Johnson advises. If you have more, you won’t be able to read through what you have and to find material quickly.

Consequently, a 3,000-word project services section would probably overwhelm you next time you’re looking for something similar. But a 500-word description of your agency’s intake procedure would be very manageable.

The system isn’t perfect. The most obvious flaw is in the person doing the research: you need a certain amount of discipline to copy/paste and otherwise annotate material. This might be slow at first, because DTP libraries actually get more useful when they have more material. You also need to learn how to exploit DTP to the maximum feasible extent (free proposal phrase here). But once you’ve done that, you’ll have a very fast, very accurate way of finding things that can make your grant writing life much, much easier. (Incidentally, this is also how I organize blog posts, and DTP often refers me back to earlier blog posts I would otherwise have forgotten about).

Right now, DTP is only available on OS X, but there is similar functionality in programs like Evernote or Zoho Notebook, which are cross-platform. I can’t vouch for these programs because I’ve never used them, but others online have discussed them. DTP, if used correctly, however, is a powerful argument for research-based writers using OS X.

President Obama Would Likely Make a Good Grant Writer, as He Recognizes the Value of Telling a Compelling Story

In a recent Charlie Rose interview, President Obama said this about his first term:

The mistake of my first couple of years was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right, and that’s important [. . . .] But, you know, the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.

President Obama correctly points out that presidents often serve as the nation’s Story-Teller-in-Chief. For example, FDR’s Fireside Chats calmed a frantic nation caught up in the uncertainties of the Great Depression (he was the first president to really have access to and understand mass media) and President Reagan’s weekly radio addresses gave him a regular story telling platform that has been used by every succeeding president.

Like the presidency, grant writing at its most most basic level is nothing more than story telling. Successful presidents and successful grant writers are good story tellers, telling their audiences stories the listeners/readers want to believe in.

The latter point is critical in grant writing, as grant reviewers come to the process with preconceived notions of what they expect to read. The grant writer’s job is to craft a compelling story that meets readers expectations within the constraints of the often convoluted RFP. For example, when writing a childhood obesity prevention proposal for a poor and minority target area, it is good idea to suggest in the needs assessment that part of the problem is the lack of available fresh and nutritious food.

In other words, readers will expect a reference to food deserts, whether or not there are few grocery stores in the area (we also wrote about this process in “Two for One: Where Grants Come From, Fast Food, and the Contradictory Nature of Government Programs“). And a food desert conjures up images of want and neglect that are key elements in a “grant story.”

It’s possible that we shouldn’t trust stories nearly as much as we do; in Tyler Cowen’s TED talk on why stories make him nervous, he says that “narratives tend to be too simple,” that they tend to focus too much on good versus evil, that they tend to focus on intent instead of accident, and that they play on our cognitive biases. (A somewhat skeptical New Yorker article about TED talks even said that we might want to “feel manipulated by one more product attempting to play on our emotions,” which is what proposals should basically do.) But most grant reviewers are still looking for stories, even if the stories are simplistic.

The better a grant writer is at telling the story, the more likely she will be to write funded grants. While it is possible to get a grant without a cohesive narrative story, the odds of success increase with the quality of the tale being told. One can get lucky, but it is better to get skilled, because one always count on skill, while luck is elusive.*

When reviewers consider a stack of proposals, they will gravitate toward those that are readable and interesting while fitting within the framework of their expectations, much like you’ll gravitate towards readable and interesting novels more than those that are the opposite. Even if the need in a community is great, a disjointed proposal will generally score lower than one that captures the reader’s imagination.

In composing your narrative, make sure you weave a consistent story throughout all sections. This is easier talked about than done in large part due to the chaotic and repetitive nature of most RFPs, which are written by committee and resemble a camel more than a thoroughbred horse. We’ve written extensively about this in many contexts. Your task as a grant writer is to feed back the information requested in even the most confusing RFP, and you should do so in a way that makes all sections of the proposal hang together. You don’t want to be like President Obama in the quote above, realizing that you’ve failed to fit your policies and your community’s needs into a cohesive story.


* My favorite quote on “luck” is from Dylan’s “Idiot Wind,” “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” Peter Thiel’s essay on luck and life is also good.

A Day in the Life of a Participant is Overrated: Focus on Data in the Neighborhood

I’ve seen a lot of proposals from clients and amateur grant writers that include something like, “A day in the life of Anthony” in their needs assessments. This is almost always a mistake, because almost anyone can include a hard-knocks anecdote, and they convey virtually no information about why your hard-knock area is different from Joe’s hard-knock area down the street, or on the other side of the tracks, or across the country. These stories are staples of newspaper accounts of hardship, but newspapers know most of their readers aren’t thinking critically about what they read and aren’t reading 100 similar stories over eight hours. Grant reviewers do.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any RFPs that requested day-in-the-life stories in the needs assessment. If funders wanted such stories, they’d ask for them. Since they don’t, or at best very rarely do, you should keep your needs assessment to business. And if you’re curious about how to get started, read “Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World.” If you’re applying to any grant program, your application is one of many that could be funded, so you want to focus on the core purpose of the program you want to run. Giving a day in Anthony’s life isn’t going to accomplish this purpose.

Creativity is useful in many fields, but those involving government are seldom among them (as we wrote in “Never Think Outside the Box: Grant Writing is About Following the Recipe, not Creativity“). As a result, unless you see specific instructions to do otherwise, you should stick to something closer to the Project Nutria model, in which you describe the who, what, where, when, why, and how. Anything extraneous to answering those questions is wasting pages, and perhaps more importantly, wasting patience, and the precious attention that patience requires.

There’s only one plausible exception I can think of: sometimes writing about a day-in-the-life of a person receiving project services can be helpful, but again, you should probably leave those stories out unless the RFP specifically requests them. Some RFPs want a sample daily or weekly schedule, and that should suffice without a heroic story about Anthony overcoming life obstacles when he finally receives the wraparound supportive services he’s always wanted.

Take Time to Develop a Proposal Timeline

Many RFPs require that you include a timeline that will describe when your project will actually unfold—remember that the “when” section is part of the 5Ws and H. Even if the RFP writers forget to require a timeline, you should include one anyway, either under the “Project Description” or “Evaluation” sections because the timeline will clarify both your own thinking and the reviewer’s understanding of how you plan to sequence activities and achieve milestones.

Think of your project timeline as something like the timelines cops are always trying to establish in police procedurals. A shocking crime is committed—perhaps a socialite is killed. A rogue cop on the outs with the department is trying to solve the case. The night of the murder, the husband was at a charity ball, while the ex-husband was at the gym, while the husband’s jealous lover was at a taqueria. Could the husband have slipped away between the main course and the souffle? Did the ex-husband have time between 9:45 and 10:45 to slip out of the racquetball game, run over to the condo, and do the deed? In asking these questions, the cop is always trying to figure out if the crime is plausible. He—and he is almost always a “he”—is checking the believability of the tales he’s constructing. When you write a timeline for a proposal, you’re trying to do the same, only for the future. You’re trying to convince yourself, and the reviewer, that you’re believable in doing the job (except in this case the job is human services, not murder, for most nonprofit and public agencies).

Doing a timeline right requires a number of elements, including:

  • Startup Period: You probably can’t start delivering services on the day you execute the contract with the funder. Chances are good that you’ll need staff, training, space, and maybe more. Some RFPs will dictate how long your startup period should last, either from the notice of grant award or from the execution date of your contract. Usually they’ll demand somewhere around 90 days, which is fairly reasonable if it’s from the date you’ve executed your contract. Even if the funder doesn’t include a minimum or maximum startup period, you should. Unless otherwise directed by the RFP or client, we usually include a 90 day startup period.
  • Staff Recruitment/Assignment and Training: Make sure to provide for staff recruitment/assignment and preservice training in the startup period, as well as periodic or annual refresher training. Funders love professional development as much as mystery writers love plot twists, so serve it up in your timeline.
  • Outreach Start: Many if not most projects will involve some effort to get the word out to the target population. You’ll probably need to start outreach prior to the start of service delivery. Outreach is usually an ongoing activity; I might eventually write a post about everything that outreach should entail.
  • Project Oversight/Participant Committee: Most projects should have some form of participant, staff, and community oversight committee mentioned in their proposal. The formation and meeting facilitation of such committees should be reflected in the timeline.
  • Referral and Intake: Once you’ve made the target population and other providers aware of your project, you need some system for deciding who gets services and who doesn’t. Put referral and intake in between outreach and service delivery.
  • Services Start: Whatever services you’re providing should have a start date, often three months after the project begins. In many projects, service delivery is ongoing. In others, the referral/take process is done on a “batch” basis, repeating annually or periodically, rather than ongoing. This is how many job training programs work.
  • Evaluation: Your project should have some form of annual evaluation. The timeline should include some time for developing the evaluation criteria, conducting the evaluation and preparing/disseminating the evaluation reports.

Those are the basic elements for a human services timeline, like the one that might go with Isaac’s hypothetical Project NUTRIA. If you’re doing a capital campaign, you’d have a different set of milestones relating to construction, like permits, architecture, engineering, the commencement of construction, burying the body of Ralph “Ralphie” Cifaretto in the foundation for Tony Soprano, and so on, but the same basic idea would remain: you’d enumerate significant steps in your project, without going into too much minutia. Most of our of timelines are 10 – 15 rows, which is enough to give the general idea while avoiding specifics the client might not want to meet.

You also have to decide how to lay your timeline out. We used to make elaborate Visio drawings, and if we did the same thing today we’d use Omnigraffle Pro. But with the rise of online submissions, it’s too dangerous to use anything but tables in Word; now we usually make tables with three columns: the “date” column, with the number of project months it will take something to happen; a “milestone” column that will say something like “evaluation begins” and a “description” column that will say something like, “The evaluation, to be conducted by an expert evaluator selected through an open bidding process, will examine both process and outcome measures, as described in section 4.b.” If required by the RFP, we will also include a “responsibility” column or similar. For most projects, it’s absolutely not necessary, and is likely to time wasting and counter-productive, to use such professional scheduling software as Microsoft Project or Primavera. Such software will drive you nuts and, if embedded in a Word document, will probably bork the upload process.

Timelines don’t have to be extraordinarily complex, but they do have to match what you’ve written in other sections of the proposal. Internally inconsistent proposals will often be rejected because they fail to make sense, which is one danger of doing when you split a proposal among multiple writers (see more about this in “Stay the Course: Don’t Change Horses (or Concepts) in the Middle of the Stream (or Proposal Writing)“).

If you have no idea what should go into your timeline, it’s probably means your narrative lacks cohesion. Sometimes you’ll find that writing the timeline reminds you of something that should go elsewhere in the narrative, which is another use for them: back checking your own work, just as the cops in police procedures use timelines to make sure their own logic is sound. Your job might be slightly easier and less likely to leave a crazed serial killer on the loose, but it’s still important to do it well if you’re going to get the money.

Adventures in The Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP), Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), and Figuring Out Where to Start the Narrative

Although this might not seem like it should be a problem, figuring out where to start the narrative section of a proposal can sometimes be difficult: do you write to the evaluation criteria, to something labeled “narrative,” or to a series of text boxes? Federal programs are particularly fond of hiding the salami, as anyone who has had the misfortune of sitting down with a freshly issued, complex RFP can attest.

Novice grant writers often start writing to the wrong section, and Isaac described one example of this occurrence in Professional Grant Writer At Work: Don’t Try Writing A Transportation Electrification Proposal At Home. As he said, “The problem is that [review] criteria are invariably hidden somewhere in the bowels of the RFP and may or may not be referenced in the RFP completion instructions.”

You can see a particularly pernicious example of this in the Broadband Initiatives Program, whose application guide is available at the link. Oh, and you can also read the NOFA that was included in the Federal Register.

There are a few different areas within the NOFA and application guidance you could conceivably respond to. Check out page 16 of the NOFA, which says, “1. BIP Infrastructure Projects. a. General.” It has some point totals, which we usually write against when dealing with, say, YouthBuild. In the case of BIP, however, that would be logical, but wrong, because the application guide has more detailed instructions. If you look in it, you’ll be tempted by page 8 (though it’s labeled “7” in the hard copy) because it has scoring criteria similar but not identical to what’s in the NOFA.

Confused yet? Me too. But if you keep looking, you’ll find that the the place you actually want to start is page 14 (which is labeled 13) in the guidance, which says “Executive Summary.” As far as I know, however, no part of the NOFA or the application guidance actually come right and say, “write to the questions/criteria starting on page 14, which is actually labeled page 13 in the hard copy!” If you don’t take the time to study both the application guide and the NOFA, you could end up with an incomplete and totally wrong application on which you’ve spent dozens of work hours.

There’s another amusing part of the BIP NOFA, which has implications for this and other programs. It says, “Describe the methodology, source of data, and analytical approaches used to determine whether the proposed funded service areas are classified as “unserved,” ”underserved,” or for BIP, at least 75% rural.” But the NOFA already describes what “unserved” and “underserved” mean on page 7:

Specifically, a proposed funded service area may qualify as underserved for last mile projects if at least one of the following factors is met, though the presumption will be that more than one factor is present: 1. No more than 50 percent of the households in the proposed funded service area have access to facilities-based, terrestrial broadband service at greater than the minimum broadband transmission speed (set forth in the definition of broadband above); 2. No fixed or mobile broadband service provider advertises broadband transmission speeds of at least three megabits per second (‘‘mbps’’) downstream in the proposed funded service area […]

And it goes on from there. The most obvious maneuver to answer this question is to copy the exact language from the NOFA and spit it back in the response. They’ve given you the answer: you just have to use it. This isn’t a college exam, where you get extra credit for creativity; you get extra credit for staying in the lines. Save your imaginative powers for writing novels or composing software—in many grant writing exercises, imaginative powers will be wasted and possibly harmful, because your job is often to stack one two by four on top of another two by four to build the application following the RFP blueprints. The only question is where you need to build your foundation, and that’s what I’ve tried to answer in this post; the foundation issue will have to wait for another.

Oh, and the best part of all this: the narrative section for our client turned out to be around 30 pages long. The application guide is 72 pages long. I would propose a test of an RFP: if it takes longer to explain how to apply to a program than to describe what the applicant will actually do, the RFP writer has failed in some significant way.

The worse it is, the better it is: Your grant story needs to get the money

A client recently said that she was moved by a description Isaac wrote of her target area in the needs assessment of her proposal, but she asked if we could make it more hopeful. Isaac strongly discouraged her—not as a way of disparaging her neighborhood, but because describing an area as terribly depressed makes the application more likely to be funded. Consequently, a grant writer has a strong incentive to paint as bleak a word picture as possible. Paradoxically, the worse a target area is, the better it is for grant writers, and the smart strategy is to tell a story about doom and gloom that can only be alleviated by the creation of the program being proposed in the application.*

Some programs will even come and out say that the worse things are, the more points you’ll get. For example, when HUD ran Youthbuild, the RFPs did this explicitly; the 2005 RFP has a subsection of need entitled “Poverty” and gave this point breakdown:

1) Less than the national average—0 points.
(2) Equal to but less than twice the national average—1 points.
(3) Twice but less than three times the national average—3 points.
(4) Three or more times the national average—5 points.

Although most RFPs won’t give particular point values to particular numbers, reviewers will tend to do so: if they read about one application from an agency proposing to serve an area where the poverty rate is 33%, and they know the national average is around 12%, they’re more likely to want to fund that application than one serving an area with a poverty rate of, say, 15%. It

It’s important not to lie, but you can and should be selective in how you present data; there is even a funny book called How to Lie With Statistics regarding the subject, and Amazon says the book shows how the “terror [of numbers] translate[s] to blind acceptance of authority.” If you master statistics, you can make the reviewer think that visiting your target area would be terrifying and that he or she should therefore shower it with money.

In any event, the main point is that you shouldn’t lie about a target area’s characteristics: if the official unemployment rate for Dubuque is eight percent—two percent higher than the national average—it’s unethical to say it’s twelve percent, and even were that not unethical, it would also be a fantastically bad idea to make up easily verifiable statistics like unemployment rates. But if the unemployment rate is eight percent for Dubuque as a city, you could argue that it’s probably twice as high for the target population, which is less educated, lives in a worse part of town, and has members whose criminal records will likely prevent them from obtaining living-wage jobs. Then you’re telling a story and extrapolating from the data, and the worse you can make that story sound, the better off you’ll be when funding decisions are made. If you make an educated guess that, although the Dubuque unemployment rate is 8%, the rate among the target population might be closer to 25%, you’re being a smart grant writer.

You can go further: unemployment rates count only people who are actively looking for work. Those who have given up and no longer seek employment aren’t considered unemployed. Although this is well-known among economists and others who study issues around unemployment, this is the kind of fact you can argue, as a lawyer might, that understates the Dubuque unemployment rate more than it would the national rate. Suddenly, things look even grimmer than official statistics indicate and you haven’t lied. Think of yourself as a lawyer: a defense attorney isn’t trying to decide whether his or her client is guilty. The attorney’s job is make the best case for his or her client. Legal ethics prevent the lawyer from lying altogether—insert lawyer joke here—but not from arguing that the facts should be seen in the light most favorable to the lawyer’s client.

The grant writer should make the most compelling case for funding the application in question, and part of that is through writing a needs assessment that makes it seem the world is ending, as Isaac wrote about in the linked post. If Census data, for example, says that median household income is relatively high, but the percentage of high school graduates is relatively low, you should leave off household income and write about education and its link to income. If median household income is high relative to the state but low relative to the nation, construct a table comparing median household income from the target area to the national averages, which will make the situation look worse than it actually is.

We’ve discussed this issue before: for example, in Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts, we note that “In some ways, the worse things are, the better they are for nonprofits, because funding is likely to follow the broad contours of social issues.” That’s true at the level of an individual agency too. In our November Links post, we write:

* The New Republic has an article based on a Brookings Institute piece that deconstructs the small-town USA mythology regularly propagated in proposals:

But the idea that we are a nation of small towns is fundamentally incorrect. The real America isn’t found in cities or suburbs or small towns, but in the metropolitan areas or “metros” that bring all these places into economic and social union.

Think of this as a prelude to an eventual post on the subject of grantwriter as mythmaker. And if you’re interested in myth as a broader subject, see Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By. He’s the same guy who wrote Hero With a Thousand Faces, the book that, most famously, provided the outline for Star Wars.

A few caveats on the above are, however, in order. This post helps explain how the myth of a place is created. I’ve given one version of the myth, involving a target area being as bad as anywhere, which is usually but not always a good strategy. Some places that seem statistically and culturally average in many ways can come to represent a problem taken as a whole, and an ordinary client can become a representative sample whose problems reflect vast swaths of America, so whatever problems they have, everyone has. This style of argument became representative when suburban public schools applied for grants post-Columbine, as we describe in Surfing the Grant Waves.

Consequently, one can construct an argument for urban, rural, or suburban school districts: for the first, one argues about bad test scores, low family incomes, low educational attainment, and the like. For the second, one argues that long distances, hidden drug abuse, and the paucity of resources combine to create educational failure. For suburban districts, one argues that the malaise of contemporary society exists beneath the veneer of happy teenagers, and that when one lifts up and peers beneath the rock, a whole angry ecology seethes. Think of the various books about suburban disappointment and disillusionment: Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, and much of Sinclair Lewis. Zenith City in Lewis’ Babbitt is a particularly good example. One can portray even fairly tony suburbs as caldrons of discontent.

Another factor might discourage using the blasted wastelands argument, and this objection is most often raised by city managers, mayors, and school superintendents, because they’ve often spent their careers running around trying to promote their version of Babbitt’s Zenith City, claiming that the sewage plant between the school house and police station is actually quite aesthetically pleasing and lends character to Zenith, despite the smell. If they sign an application saying that Zenith City is hell’s half acre, that its citizens are illiterate, and that meth production and distribution is the primary industry, and that application’s content hits the local paper or bigwig blogger, then the Zenith city manager, mayor, or superintendent is going to be very uncomfortable in the resulting squall. On the other hand, if the city manager, mayor, or superintendent doesn’t note the illiteracy of its citizens and meth problem, he or she might not be funded. Smart city managers, mayors, or superintendents seize the money.

Sometimes these other considerations can outweigh the grant. When I told Isaac about the post, he responded with a story** about his time working for the City of Lynwood in California, when he wrote a funded proposal to exterminate rats that the city manager declined because he’d rather have the rats than the publicity about getting rid of the rats. In addition, a few years ago, a client wanted money for a giant mammogram machine because the women in the target area were a bit on the large side from eating the local cheeses and dairy products. So we wrote about that in the needs section, but the client demanded we take it out because it might offend local sensibilities, and we couldn’t use the best argument in favor of the expensive machine. The proposal wasn’t funded—maybe not for that reason, but not using it couldn’t have helped. Your job as a grant writer is most frequently to portray blasted wastelands that the proposed program will turn into a harmonious Dionysian garden.


* All this also helps explain why a “batting average” or “track record” figure is useless regarding general purpose grant writers, as we describe in this FAQ question. We don’t know if our clients are going to come from Beverly Hills or from places where most residents haven’t graduated from high school. From a grant writing perspective, a client from the latter place might be more likely to be funded than someone from Beverly Hills.

** Virtually anytime I mention something grant-related, Isaac has a story about it.

Know Your Charettes! Especially Near the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) Program

It’s not unusual for an RFP to ask how community feedback was incorporated into the design of a project, and a good answer is to have some form of group activity feedback meeting. Notice the last four words: “group activity feedback meeting.” What a vile phrase, even by proposal standards. Don’t use such a phrase—call them Community Meetings, Participant Committees, Group Action Committees, or something more recondite like charrette (“a final, intensive effort to finish a project, esp. an architectural design project, before a deadline”), which is my favorite term. I’ve even seen it used outside of proposals, which is especially amusing because when I first heard “charrette” years ago I suspected that Isaac had made it up.

He hadn’t, though, and the word is sufficiently but not overly esoteric to make it an interesting addition to a proposal, like capers to a recipe. The idea behind the word is often needed, whether before or after a project begins. For example, group meetings can “occur” before the project begins to show that the community is interested in the program the applicant seeks to implement. (I put scare quotes around occur because I suspect such meetings are written about somewhat more often than they are actually held.) Not surprisingly, most community groups find that free money from the government is a good thing, and Tim Harford discussed this tendency in The Logic of Life. One way to strength a proposal narrative is to include a description of the charrette that came to this conclusion.

The same thinking can apply to groups formed after the project begins. For example, a Project Advisory Committee (PAC) composed of participants, staff, collaborators, and other members of the community can help provide a continuous feedback loop to constantly improve. Once again, I’m sure more nonprofits write about PACs than actually run them, but the proposal world is not always identical to the real world, which is one reason I was so surprised to read about the design charrette I linked to in the first paragraph.

To give a specific example of where charrettes could see action, I’ll return to an RFP mentioned previously. I made fun of the California 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) – Elementary & Middle Schools program, but you could cite charrettes in section 1.c., which wants you to “[d]escribe how you assessed the needs and strengths of your community […]” and section 1.e., which wants you to “[b]riefly discuss the proposed process for conducting, and the results of, your needs assessment for family literacy services.”

In either case, an applicant could say that a community charrette found significant demand for the learning center proposed. Charrette members concluded would help make the community more livable, cure cancer, and perhaps save the world from global warming. I can’t imagine why a real group of community members would ever decide, for example, that the community doesn’t need more money, and ideally someone else’s money, but I guess it’s conceivable, like a reduction in government spending not forced by revenue problems or a time portal opening in my backyard. Back on point: the needs assessment can describe how the charrette brings together key stakeholders—e.g., business persons, nonprofit and faith-based organization representatives, community leaders, and the like—and then announce how much they want that money, meaning that the proposal springs from authentic desire, while the applicant is merely the body through which the charrette’s will is implemented.


On a historical note, the whole charrette in public service concept got started in earnest with the War on Poverty and the idea that the poor and disadvantage should have a say in how public and other money is spent. The goal was to create “workable plan committees” and the like for civic leaders and their constituents, and the key phrase was”” maximum feasible involvement”” of the poor. Daniel Moynihan‘s book, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, is actually a play on this term. As the review, published in 1970, says:

[…] Moynihan traces the development of the community action approach. From the gray areas program of the Ford Foundation, through the Mobilization for Youth in New York City, on to the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, there emerged the ideas of the urgency for localized, community-based programs aimed at the involvement of youth in constructive, problem-solving activity. This stream of development was in the background of the community action orientation of the War on Poverty.