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True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales

Like Spartacus in the eponymous movie*, we’ve been toiling in the grant salt mines for over 16 years. Over that time, about two-thirds of our clients have been nonprofits, while the rest are a mix of public agencies and—in a recent change due to the Stimulus Bill—for-profit businesses. The popular imagination thinks that all nonprofits are run by grim-jawed, speech-making advocates for whatever issue they address, a myth that is reinforced by the occasional movie or TV show that ventures into the nonprofit world. In reality, most nonprofits operate like small businesses (or large businesses in the case of hospitals, the AARP, etc.), and save their outrage for public hearings, fund raising letters and the like. There is another breed of nonprofit, however, and over the years, I estimate about 10% of our nonprofit clients have been what we term True Believers.

True Believer clients are almost always represented by a highly excitable Executive Director or Board Member, who tries to convey their passion to us in hopes of converting us, eliciting a better deal, drawing more attention to their project, or who knows what else. Whatever the cause espoused, however, we remain dispassionate, make sure all the proposals we turn in are as complete and technically correct as we can make them, and try to treat all clients in the same professional manner. Among other things, this means that we don’t adjust our fees based on the problem being addressed, which often confounds our True Believer clients because they typically cannot imagine that others don’t share their consuming interest. Funders almost never share the True Belief, which can be a problem for clients who think the power of their story will overcome, say, the required budget forms, and we often have to calm True Believers down enough to help them separate their imaginings from the cold reality of the grant making process. Two examples of True Believers come to mind, one of which ended badly for the client and one of which turned out amazingly well:

During the FY ’09 hunting season for the Department of Labor (DOL) YouthBuild program, five nonprofits hired us. Four were fairly standard issue nonprofits, while a True Believer ran the fifth. Four of the five proposals were funded—see if you can guess what happened.

Writing a YouthBuild proposal is very much a “cookbook” exercise in that the DOL pretty much tells applicants what they want applicants to do, and successful proposals have to regurgitate this stuff within the absurdly short page limit and the obtuse data required by the funder. In other words, if you want a YouthBuild grant, you should, as Rupee says, just “Do the Damn Thing.” The clients for the four funded proposals listened to us, and we were able to craft compelling, technically correct proposals that warmed the stone-like hearts of the DOL reviewers. In contrast, our True Believer client had a vision of how she could use a YouthBuild grant to attack a whole slew of problems faced by at-risk youth in her rural community. Almost none of what she wanted to do, however, had anything to do with YouthBuild, and she fought us throughout the proposal development process. We did our best to make the proposal fundable to no avail. Despite her passion and commitment, no YouthBuild funds are available today to help the young folks she cares so much about.

For about as long as we’ve been in business, the City of Los Angeles has made grants through its Neighborhood Action Program (NAP). In the early years of our business, the majority of our clients were in L.A. and we wrote lots of funded NAP grants, which are more or less “walkin’ around” money for nonprofits. By this, I mean that the funded nonprofits use the money on purposes ranging from whatever programs they’re operating to whatever the hell they feel like doing. Not surprisingly, Executive Directors love NAP grants. The most recent NAP RFP process was in 2002, and, as usual, we wrote several funded NAP grants. One of them was for a True Believer. For some bureaucratic reason, the City of L.A. decided that the 2002 NAP competition was for an eight month period with a maximum grant of $100,000. When our True Believer client came to us, he wanted to know if it was “worthwhile” to hire us to chase after what seemed like a relatively small grant. I told him that, if he wanted to establish the bona fides of his nonprofit, he would have to get a government grant at some point to demonstrate his organization’s ability to manage grant funds. Why not start with NAP, which has essentially no oversight? In this case, the Executive Director put aside his passion, listened to us and let us develop a proposal carefully crafted to score highly in the competition. By following our advice and the RFP requirements, his proposal was funded.

As the late great Billy Mays used to say, “But, wait, there’s more!” L.A. City, in its infinite wisdom or political machinations, decided to keep re-funding the 2002 NAP grantees every year until this year! This means that our True Believer client and other clients we wrote NAP proposals for in 2002 have gotten something like a million dollars each in walkin’ around money over seven years. Not bad for a $5,000 or so investment in grant writing fees! The City of L.A. is planning a new NAP RFP process this month, and the RFP will be issued in a couple of weeks—this time for another “one-year” grant period, which I assume will morph into multi-year contracts. We’ll be writing another proposal for our True Believer, who has lost much of his True Belief enthusiasm, and once again will be trying to explain to a new crop of True Believers in L.A. how to get funded and why it is worthwhile to go after a NAP grant.

If you are a True Believer, keep your eye on the prize and understand that, although your own passion might be great, others won’t necessarily share it. No matter how much your cause means to you and your colleagues, unless you succeed at getting grants, you’ll be stuck chasing donations and your nonprofit will never achieve the goals you’ve set for it. As Jake explained in “Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun,” it’s pretty tough to keep a nonprofit going on bratwurst, car washes, and hope. You’re not going to reach as many people if you don’t have the organizational capacity to do so. Put aside your passion long enough to write proposals that are aimed at the funder’s guidelines, not your parochial view of the universe.

* This movie is so great that it’s hard to know where to start, but my favorite scenes involve Tony Curtis as Antonius the slave, using his wonderful Brooklyn accent to intone, “I am a sinGer of sonGs,” as well as bantering coquettishly with Laurence Oliver’s Crassus about the relative merits of oysters versus snails.