Tag Archives: Needs Assessment

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.

RFP Absurdity and Responding to Narrative Questions

I’ve written about stylistically bad language from government RFPs, but more common than the outright bad is the silly, the coy, the euphemistic, and the ridiculous. Now comes a fine example: section 1.d. on page 30 of the California 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) – Elementary & Middle Schools narrative:

Explain how all organizations involved in your collaborative have experience or the promise of success in providing educational and related activities that will complement and enhance the academic performance, achievement, and positive youth development of students.

So you need either (1) experience or (2) the “promise of success.” In other words, your level of experience is irrelevant because you can have a lot or none. The RFP* could’ve just asked, “Are the organizations involved able to provide educational services and, if so, how?” RFPs, however, seldom use 13 easy-to-understand words when 36 words designed to obfuscate meaning are available.

The requirement quoted above is particularly egregious because it has only one answer. Is any applicant going to claim that their organizations don’t have the promise of success? Of course not! And what does “the promise of success” mean? To my mind, the answer is “nothing.” Orwell would be aghast at this and many other RFPs—in “Politics and the English Language” he finds examples where “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.” I’ve not read a better concise description of RFPs.

Still, you’re writing a proposal and thus your output can and perhaps even should reflect the document that guides your input. Unlike most forms of writing, where brevity is beautiful, (Write Right**: “If I were limited to one rule of style, Omit Unnecessary Words would be the hands down winner”) grant applications encourage bad writing because you (a) need to fill space and (b) need to answer obfuscated questions fully and completely. The best way to do so is by parroting back variations on what the application writer expects, and the best way to avoid irritating a reviewer is by filling your proposal with muck and jargon.

This peculiar kind of poor writing is similar to the peculiar kind of speciousness Isaac discussed in Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World. You write a narrative by sending back what you get in the RFP, and when you get garbage in, you usually reflect garbage out. Most RFPs are merely asking you variations on who, what, where, when, why, and how, while most proposals are merely variations on the answers to those questions. Remember that when you’re writing and consider which aspect you should be addressing in the response to each RFP question. The apparently difficult sentence I quoted above from the 21st CCLC can be simplified further to “Who’s going to carry out the program?” There. Nothing to fear. Novice grant writers are often intimidated by the jargon in RFPs, but that’s often just an artifact of bad writing rather than an indication of actual difficulty.

In Studio Executives, Starlets, and Funding, I wrote “Sometimes the funder will want agencies with long track records, sometimes new agencies.” Now I can say that sometimes funders want both, as long as you can somehow justify your experience or the virtue of not having any experience in a proposal. If you come across a narrative demand like the one above, play the RFP’s game. It’s the only way to win.


* Before I get irate e-mails from eagle-eyed readers, I’ll note that the 21st CCLC is a Request For Applications (RFA), but I just call them all RFPs for simplicity’s sake.** If I had to recommend just one book to aspiring writers, regardless of the kind of writing, it would be this one. It’s short, pithy, accurate, and will do more to improve most writers in less time than virtually any other book I know. If I had to recommend two, the second would be William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

On Gangs and Proposals

As Isaac wrote, it almost never hurts to claim gang activity in a proposed service area (“[. . . f]ind and call the police unit responsible for gang suppression in your target area, then ask leading questions. Invariably, the officer will tell horror stories about rampant gang activity.”). Now, by way of Freakonomics, I found an L.A. Weekly article on the subject:

Eventually, James started talking. He told me he’d started gangbanging when he was 12. “I got shot when I was 15, and that’s when it got bad,” he said softly. “I got extreme after I got shot.” James started teaching youngsters from Nickerson how to gangbang. Using rival gangbangers for practice, he taught his students how to hunt and kill. “You teach a person how not to take losses, how to be gladiators, run them down, gun them down,” he explained.

James wasn’t remorseful, but he was far from proud. In truth, he seemed numb; his life of crime and death hung about him in a static haze. There is a personal demilitarized zone in the advanced lives of former hardcore gang members, should they survive their 20s, where they live as neither soldier nor citizen. James said he struggles to keep a gun out of his own hands every day, but that in January he was tempted to join the battle with the Grape Street Crips after a young Bounty Hunter he knew was killed.

Steven Levitt of the Freakonomics Blog says he can’t agree with the article’s conclusion about increasing violence:

Landesman argues that the gang problem is worse than it has ever been, and that gang violence hasn’t dropped the way other crimes have. A quick glance at the homicide rates among young black males over the last 15 years shows that this statement just can’t be accurate. The biggest declines in homicide have been among young black males, both in absolute and percentage terms.

What Levitt doesn’t address is the possibility that gangs are getting worse in Los Angeles, which is the area covered by the article, even if the situation is improving nationwide. Judging from articles like “The Story of a Snitch” in The Atlantic, which covers Baltimore, I wouldn’t be surprised if gang problems are changing rather than abating. Or maybe programs like G.R.E.A.T. are having some effect, as The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) argues. This seems improbable but possible, and I don’t know of anyone who has examined the methodology of the NIJ’s study.

The preceding paragraph again goes back to Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World by demonstrating how statistics can be attacked and why you shouldn’t necessarily trust conclusions found in the popular press or elsewhere. They can be changed and challenged in an actual proposal. If you’re writing one, you usually have an incentive to make the area or situation appear as bad as possible so you can remedy problems through your project.

Consequently, when writing about a target area, you’re better off claiming gang activity, since most reviewers aren’t going to be aware of gang trends nationwide, and even if they are, you can announce that gang activity in your area is rising, as the L.A. Weekly reviewer did. You could also cite Levitt, as I do, and then attack his reasoning.

As with most things about grant writing, there are some local aspects Levitt doesn’t know about, and in this case it’s something everyone in South Central does: Nickerson Gardens, a public housing development, is among the worst areas around. Here’s one example of its history: “The Nickerson Gardens is considered by many as the most violent, drug infested, crime riddled neighborhood in the country.” It’s a very scary place and, ironically, there’s a street running through called “Success,” which reminds me of Soviet propaganda about worker achievement and happiness.

Success Ave

(Click to here to see the full image.)

When I talked to Isaac about this article, he immediately said that he bet that the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), which owns Nickerson, hasn’t tried to use the HUD HOPE VI program to revitalize Nickerson. He was right, and HOPE VI also hasn’t been attempted at the other three public housing projects in Watts: Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts, and Avalon Gardens. Nickerson was also right in the middle of the civil disturbances in Watts in 1965 and the Rodney King incident in 1992, and 15 years later it remains a place of hopelessness and gang activity. Despite the street name, there is little success in Nickerson.

This is the kind of revisionist information you could include in a needs assessment about the area. The stories embedded would add flavor and help counteract what Levitt writes, so even if the reviewer happens to know a lot about gang activity, which is improbable, he or she would still award you points for need.


EDIT: This post covers similar territory.

Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World

Almost every grant proposal requires some form of needs assessment. More or less, the sentiment one must get across it that “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine,” as REM says. Essentially, the object is to make problems look overwhelming, but solvable with just a dollop of grant funds. So, how does a grant writer do this?

Start by making the end appear nigh, which requires a needs assessment. Look at the Census data available at American Fact Finder, which has a variety of geographic choices (e.g. county, city, zip code, census tract, etc.). It is almost always best to match the project target area with a census data geographic area to make assembling data easier, regardless of whether the census area perfectly matches the area you want to serve. Try not to make the target area, “the Westside of Dubuque,” unless that happens to conform with four census tracts. Most geographic areas have 2000 Census data, as well as estimates for 2005. Pick the date that is to your advantage, and being to your advantage means making the situation look worse. For example, if incomes have been trending downward and unemployment upward due to plant closings, the 2005 data may be better. Announce that, if current trends continue, Dubuque may be abandoned completely in 2010 because there are too few jobs, but the situation can be improved with the requested grant.

Once you have your target area, find useful socioeconomic indicators like ethnic breakdown, median family income, age cohort percentages, percent of people living below poverty, percent with disabilities, etc. Only include data that supports your case. A winning grant proposal is not like a thesis, so you are under no obligation to use all available data. Also, it is critical that you provide some data on a larger area for comparison purposes, so your readers understand the relative problems. This can be the city, the county, state or even national data—pick whichever makes your situation look worst, meaning with the greatest discrepancy between the target area and the larger sample. It doesn’t really matter which geographic level you compare to, as long as you can say something to effect of, “The target area median family income is just 2/3 that of Los Angeles County.” Depending on the target population, it may be advantageous to compare data for a particular ethnic group to all residents. For example, if the target area includes a significant African American population with lower incomes, you can set up tables showing African American indicators versus white indicators for the same geographic area, in essence comparing the target area to itself. American Fact Finder has a handy tool on the left button bar for “Fact Sheet for a Race, Ethnic or Ancestry Group” that makes this easy to do.

FactFinder

(Click here to see the full image.)

You can also use census data to obfuscate the actual reality in the target area. For example, in many Southern California cities there are high percentages of Asian Americans, who in some communities have higher-than-average incomes. This can be used for statements such as, “over two in five residents is a person of color.” For better or worse, most grant reviewers will usually associate persons of color with lower incomes and higher risk factors whether this is true or not. Grant reviewers seldom have a deep background in statistics and they probably don’t even know statistics for journalists let alone real statistics. Even if they do, everything starts to become a haze after reading a dozen federal proposals that can be onerously long, so most reviewers are apt to begin looking more for conclusions than data not long into the process. Do you somehow fulfill the checkbox that asks whether educational attainment is lower in the target area than the nation? If so, give ’em five points and move on.

Other good sources of data include state and local departments of education. Some states and school districts have better data engines than others. For example, the California Department of Education has a great site, DataQuest, but other states’s data system are, as Borat would say, “not so much”. If a good data engine/warehouse is not available, find the school/district reports cards mandated by the federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation. Many districts try to hide these reports, as they are often unflattering after you get past the mission/vision statement platitudes, but if you dig hard enough you will find them. If necessary, call the statistics unit at the district or state and force the reports out of them.

Once you have data, only use what helps the argument. So, if test scores for certain grades are low relative to the county or state, use those, not all test scores. If you want to use dropout data, use the four-year derived rate, not the single year, which will be much lower. In some states, such as Illinois, drop out data is wildly understated, due to the way the state treats students who are no longer in school, so if you have to use it, underscore this fact. Health data, including disease incidence, mortality, etc., can usually be found at state and local health department web sites, while crime and gang data are typically found at police department web sites.

If you’re having difficulty building your argument with data, a good technique is to call local “experts” for quotes. For example, find and call the police unit responsible for gang suppression in your target area, then ask leading questions. Invariably, the officer will tell horror stories about rampant gang activity. Just ask if you can quote her and she will almost always agree. It’s always fun to include the names of some local gangs in your proposal for a dash of reader titillation. This is particularly important if the reader is on proposal 35 out of 40 and just wants to go find the hotel bar. You can also find the name of any large social service provider or city official in the target area (other than the one for whom you are working) and ask them about local problems with the target population. For example, if you seek information about at-risk youth services and you talk to the local Boys and Girls Club executive director or city parks director, this person will almost always say that new problems are erupting every minute while their funding is declining.

This gives you the opportunity to write something like, according to Conrad Cuttlebone, YMCA Director, “there are many more latch-key kids in the community since the Hindenburg Dirigible Factory closed, and we’re seeing many more cases of domestic violence, while at the same time the county cut our funding by 50%.” When all else fails, you can simply write, “although specific target area level data is not available, the agency knows anecdotally that teen pregnancy is on the rise, mirroring national trends.” Of course, you can do this even if the local area doesn’t match national trends, as most reviewers don’t have the vaguest idea about national trends for anything.

In other words, while it is not a good idea to make up data, it’s perfectly fair to exaggerate problems through obfuscation and specious analysis. You’re generally rewarded for such effects: the worse the target area, the more likely you are to get points, and the more likely you are to be funded.

The gentle art of writing needs assessments really comes down to painting word pictures that combine cherry-picked data with opinions and anecdotes strung together to meet the expectations of reviewers, who assume something terrible must be going on in your community, or you would be doing almost anything other than writing a grant proposal, such as watching my favorite college football team, the KU Jayhawks, trounce Virginia Tech in the upcoming Orange Bowl. Rock! Chalk! Jayhawk! KU!