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Project GEESE is Project NUTRIA At a Table Near You. Also, HRSA’s Service Area Competition (SAC) FOA is out

According to the New York Times, “the city’s too fertile and apparently pesky geese will soon face a grim fate, but will not go to waste: They will go to feed hungry Pennsylvanians.” I’m not making this up.

The idea might sound familiar to Grant Writing Confidential readers. Isaac wrote a post called “Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development,” which describes how to conceptualize project development while parodying some of the crazy concepts we see bandied about. A nutria, for those who don’t know, is basically a very big rat, and they were apparently terrorizing Seattle not long ago. So Isaac suggested that low-income and/or homeless individuals be trained to capture the nutria and turn them into food.

This was (mostly) a joke.

The New York Times article, however, indicates that something quite similar is actually happening. No word on whether there’s a job training element to the proposed project or an acronym. If whoever runs this program needs an acronym, we’re willing to contribute one gratis: Project GEESE (Geese Expeditiously Evicted and Served to Everyone). You could change “Evicted” to “Eviscerated.” No word yet regarding whether any of the unsuspecting geese will force fed first to produce foie gras, which I’ve eaten once and would not care to eat again.

Furthermore, you may want to take a gander at this article article from a different source, which claims that “Due to strict New York guidelines regulating the processing and distribution of goose meat, local authorities finally decided to send them off to Pennsylvania, which already has an established protocol for distributing slaughtered geese.” Who knew? So there’s a bureaucratic perspective to this feathered tale as well.

In other acronym-related news, the Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA) Service Area Competition (SAC) Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) has been announced, which you should celebrate by asking WTF took so long and ordering some BBQ.

EDIT: In “Why Soup Kitchens Serve So Much Venison,” Henry Grabar reports that “a growing percentage of [venison served to the homeless and needy] comes from the suburbs of American cities, at the unlikely but unmistakably American intersection of bow hunting, pest control and hunger relief.” There are too many deer and too many hungry people, and they intersect here.

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High Noon at the Grant Writing Corral: Staring Down Deadlines

Jake gave me a DVD edition of High Noon for Father’s Day, in which Gary Cooper’s Marshall Will Kane must face Frank Miller and his henchmen at exactly noon when their train arrives.* Tension builds as Marshall Kane realizes that none of the town folk will help him and that he must stand alone in the street while the large clock at the town square ticks relentlessly toward noon. This theme is played out endlessly in other Westerns, like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral—another favorite.

This scenario of a person alone with a ticking clock is exactly the situation faced by a grant writers on a deadline, although I must admit that I have never actually been shot at by a pistol-wielding HUD program officer. A deranged client once threatened my life, but this is a subject for another post. Grant writers should deal with the ticking clocks of RFPs by making sure they can work under extreme time pressure. If the idea of an absolute deadline gives you the willies, run for congress instead, where the dates are always mobile. In other words, if you don’t function well with absolute deadlines, give up, find something else to do, hire us, or work in some other administrative function. In epic fantasy and capital-R Romance, not everyone can or should fight the dragon, and it takes Beowulf to kill Grendel. If you’re ready to continue the quest, however, here is my handy guide to slaying RFP monsters while avoiding resorting to the use of strong drink:

1. Construct a proposal preparation timeline backwards, giving at least a two day cushion for hard copy submissions (this gives the FedEx plane a day for engine trouble, a day for the hurricane to pass, etc.) and a three day cushion for submissions (this provides a day or two to resolve file upload/server problems). How much time should be allocated for achieving proposal preparation milestones (e.g., completing the first draft, review time for various drafts, etc.) depends on many variables, including how fast a writer you are, how complex the RFP is, how much research has to be done, how many layers of management have to review the drafts, etc. Most proposals can be easily completed in four to six weeks from initial project conception to hatching the proposal egg.

2. Scope the project thoroughly with whoever knows the most about the idea and give them an absolute deadline for providing background info (e.g., old proposals, studies, reports, back of the napkin doodles and the like). Make sure you know the answers to the 5Ws and the H (who, what, when, where and how—the subject of next week’s post). Tell them that the minute you start writing, you will no longer look at any background info that comes in later.

3. Assume that, regardless of any representations made by the Executive Director, City Manager, Project Director, et al, writing the proposal will be entirely up to you. Like Marshall Kane, you’ll be alone in the street facing the deadline, unless you have a handy partner like I do to serve as Doc Holliday to my Wyatt Earp.

4. Don’t do anything on the project for a few days to a few weeks, depending on how much time you have, letting the project idea percolate in your subconscious while you work on other things.

5. Write the first draft, incorporating whatever background info you have, the banalities of the RFP, and your hopefully fertile imagination (see Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development for thoughts on fleshing out a project concept).** When you write, try to write everything at once with the minimum number of possible breaks and interruptions. Avoid distractions, as Paul Graham advises in that link. Depending on the complexity and length of proposal and necessary research, the first draft should take anywhere from about six to 30 hours.

This is a broad range, but there is a spectacular difference between drafting a proposal to the Dubuque Community Foundation and HRSA. When you’re done, and only when you’re done with the first draft, send the draft proposal to the contact person with an absolute deadline for returning comments. Assuming there is enough time, it is best to allow at least a week for everyone involved to review the first draft. Always insist on a single set of comments, as some people like chocolate, some like vanilla and some don’t eat ice cream at all. Comments from multiple readers will also have you changing “that” to “which” and back again.

6. Read Proust, learn to understand cuneiform or do whatever else you do while not writing proposals.

7. When you have comments, write the second draft. This is last time you should agree to make major changes in the project concept. So, if the contact person tells you the target population is now left-handed at-risk youth from East Dubuque, instead of right-handed at-risk teen moms from West Dubuque as originally scoped, let them know that, if you make the change, you are not going back to right-handed youth in the final draft—the more conceptual changes that are made in later drafts, the harder it is to thread the changes throughout the proposal and associated documents (e.g. budget, budget narrative, etc.). The net result of late changes is usually internal inconsistencies, which is a fast way to lose points and sink a submission. Once again, provide an absolute deadline for returning comments, shorter than the time allowed for review of the first draft. Remind your contact that you are only looking for major errors, typos and the like. This is not the time to add a soliloquy on tough times in Dubuque. If your contact person has a hard time meeting deadlines, call or send e-mails and faxes with reminders that dallying may jeopardize meeting the submission deadline, which after all is the point of the exercise. We don’t view these reminders as CYA (cover your ass) stuff because, unlike internal grant writers, we are focused entirely on completing the assignment, not proving the guilt of others in a failed submission process. Keep in mind that your contact person is extremely unlikely to be as good as hitting deadlines as you are, so be gentle with initial reminders, rising to SCREAMS as the deadline bears down on you like the famous scene of the train finally arriving at 12:00 in High Noon, shot looking down the tracks straight at the onrushing locomotive.

8. Time to read Proust again.

9. Write the final draft when you have comments. Ignore pointless text changes like “that” to “which,” adding redundant adjectives, etc. Instead, focus on getting the document “right enough” and technically correct for submission in time to meet the deadline (see The Perils of Perfectionism).

Grant writing is all about meeting deadlines just like Westerns are all about facing the bad guys when they show up. It doesn’t matter how perfect the proposal is if you miss the deadline. Making sure you don’t miss it requires forward planning, hitting internal deadlines, avoiding procrastination and not wasting time in internal navel gazing or donut eating sessions. If you indulge those vices the proposal will never be finished. It many seem daunting to confront the anxieties of immovable deadlines with potentially millions of dollars and the needs of hundreds or thousands of people at stake, but, in over 35 years of proposal writing, I’ve never missed a deadline and neither should you.

* If you like High Noon, you’ll love the unusual scifi remake, Outland, with Sean Connery reprising the Gary Cooper role as Marshall O’Niel on a distant mining colony somewhere in deep space. Outland replaces the town square clock with a digital clock and adds a reasonable amount of gratuitous nudity, but confirms that the original Star Wars is not the only great Western set in space.

** I could not resist the bad pun for those of you brave enough to look at tasty nutria recipes.

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Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development

Grant writers are often called on to develop project concepts with little or no input from clients or program specialists. In other words, we often invent the project concept as we write, within the confines of those pesky RFPs. We do it by taking one or more problems and applying standard implementation approaches to produce the ever-popular, but elusive “innovative” project concept. To illustrate how this slight-of-hand, or, perhaps more appropriately, slight-of-mind, is done, I have developed the fictitious Project NUTRIA to solve the problem of rampaging rodents, homelessness, job training, vacant houses, nutrition, and, yes, even global warming.*

This project idea emerged from a recent Seattle PI article, “Seattleites take up arms against ‘rat’ as big as cat.” Variations on the theme of rampaging “invasive species” show up all the time, whether it be kudzu, walking carp, or, today, nutria. These unappealing fellows apparently leave a path of destruction from Louisiana to Seattle, much like Godzilla in Tokyo but on a smaller scale. I chuckled over the breathless prose about a rodent with a very long tail, and concluded this latest crisis makes a pretty good starting point for a tale about conceptualizing project development.

Let’s assume nutria have invaded my favorite example town, Dubuque, and a new nonprofit—Citizens Against Nutria-Dubuque Organization (CAN-DO)—has formed to fight this scourge. Since not many funders are likely to be all that interested in nutria eradication, CAN-DO broadens the project scope to address other pressing community concerns and comes up with the following initiative, Project NUTRIA (Nutria Utilization and Training Resources for Itinerant Americans).

Here is the expanded project service delivery model:

1. Conduct a survey to identify nutria habitat and overlay the map with the recent survey of the homeless to determine proximity of both target populations. Graphics may be useful here.

2. Conduct street-based outreach to recruit individuals experiencing homelessness to be trained as Nutria Relocation Specialists (NRSes) and Nutria Processing Specialists (NPSes).

3. At the CAN-DO action center, provide NRSes with appropriate training in humane nutria capture and termination strategies, and provide NPSes with training in the fine art of deconstructing nutria.

4. NRSes capture nutria and prepare them for transport to a local processing facility, to be established in a property that is vacant because of the sub-prime lending crisis.

5. NPSes process the nutria meat into recipe-sized packages and prepare the fur for sale to US-based manufacturers of sporty lightweight garments—thus helping retain American jobs. This could lead to further job training possibilities, but I’ll leave them out for simplicity.

6. Conduct an information campaign to educate low-income residents about the many tasty ways of serving their families economical and nutritious nutria-based meals. If you don’t think people eat nutria, see this unappealing Nutria Recipe Page. My favorite recipe—based solely on descriptions—is for “Stuffed Nutria Hindquarters,” but I am not brave enough to find out exactly what the hindquarters are stuffed with. You could say, “I don’t give a rat’s ass,” but that might be inappropriate in a grant proposal.

7. Distribute the processed nutria meat, with a special emphasis on individuals experiencing homelessness,** TANF recipients, WIC program participants, and other income-challenged populations. Many job training programs for the homeless involve food service, and there are a number of cafes around the country, such as Seattle’s FareStart, that feature formerly homeless employees in training. Sounds like a good outlet for nutria. Also, I am sure there is a similar nonprofit restaurant in LA that foodies would flock to for a bit of the newly trendy nutria kabobs.

8. Advocate for better utilization of nutria as a way of combatting global warming. Unlike cows and chickens, the nutria raise themselves, so no unnecessary carbon is released in providing the hungry with a low fat, high protein food source.

These steps would be incorporated in a project timeline and dressed up with objectives, an evaluation section and all the other features of a well constructed proposal.

The point of this exercise is to remind grant writers that project concepts can often be made to appeal to different funding audiences by tweaking the proposal to meet the priorities of the funder. For example, if the Project NUTRIA proposal was being sent to EPA, the environmental benefit would be stressed. If it was being sent to the Department of Labor, the job training aspect would be emphasized, and so on. While it is always a good idea to have a specific focus for your proposal, it is also possible to address more than one problem, particularly to appeal to a broader range of funders.

EDIT: In “Why Soup Kitchens Serve So Much Venison,” Henry Grabar reports that “a growing percentage of [venison served to the homeless and needy] comes from the suburbs of American cities, at the unlikely but unmistakably American intersection of bow hunting, pest control and hunger relief.” There are too many deer and too many hungry people, which means both problems can be solved at once. There isn’t any news about workforce development, however.

* Note to animal rights folks, homeless advocates, et al: this is parody and no harm was done to actual nutria or homeless in the writing of this blog post.

** Free grant writing tip: this is currently the most politically correct term for the homeless, as it implies that homelessness just happened; as grant writers, we always seek emerging politically correct terms. Nominations are appreciated. If we get enough of them, whether in comments or by e-mail, expect a post on the subject.