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Shorter Deadlines Are Sometimes Better for Organizations and Grant Writers

It seems intuitive that having more time to complete a task would result in a better final product. But in grant writing—and other fields—that’s sometimes not the case.

The reason is simple: more time sometimes allows organizations to edit their proposals into oblivion or let everyone contribute their “ideas,” no matter poorly conceived or how poorly the ideas fit the proposal. We’ve been emphasizing these issues a lot recently, in posts like “On the Importance of Internal Consistency in Grant Proposals” and “The Curse of Knowledge in the Proposal World,” because consistency is incredibly important yet hard to describe concisely. Good proposals, like good novels, tend to emerge from a single mind that is weaving a single narrative thread.

The same person who writes the initial proposal should ideally then be in charge of wrangling all comments from all other parties. This isn’t always possible because the grant writer is often under-appreciated and has to accept conflicting orders from various stakeholders elsewhere in the organization. One advantage we have as consultants is that we can impose internal deadlines for returning a single set comments on a draft proposal on clients that otherwise might tend towards disorder. Sometimes that also makes clients unhappy, but the systems we’ve developed are in place to improve the final work product and increase the likelihood of the client being funded.

Short deadlines, by their nature, tend to reduce the ability of everyone to pour their ideas into a proposal, or for a proposal to be re-written once or repeatedly by committee. If the organization is sufficiently functional to stay focused on getting the proposal submitted, regardless of what else may be occurring, the proposal may turn out better because it’ll be more consistent and decision makers won’t have too much time to futz with it.

You’ve probably heard the cliché, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” It exists for a reason. You may also have seen baseball games in which delays let the coach have enough thinking time to think himself into a bad pitcher or hitter change. Although every writer needs at least one editor, a single person should be responsible for a proposal and should also have the authority and knowledge necessary to say “No” when needed.

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Scaling a Nonprofit Means Confronting the Challenge of Lumpy Growth

Let’s assume that you’re a faithful Grant Writing Confidential reader who started a nonprofit and managed to get enough funding to provide some level of services to your target population. You’ve probably accomplished this through a combination of donations and small grants, and you’re chugging alone or with a small staff. Like many businesses, however, at some point you’re going to face a dilemma, either keep on keeping on (as B. Dylan put it) or try to scale the organization to a larger size.

Scaling up a nonprofit—or a tech startup like Facebook for that matter—is a lumpy exercise. That is to say, the path won’t be a smooth trajectory. For example, if you’re presently operating out of a church basement at little or no costs, an office will have to be leased and equipped to ramp-up services. And since you don’t want to move offices every year, the first office will have to be sized to some future, not current, needs. Similarly, you can’t buy half a Xerox machine or half a van.

While it is possible to hire part-time staff, at some point, you’ll want full-time personnel to attract more qualified people and generally be a fair employer by providing benefits and job security. Let’s say you’ve got one Case Manager. As services increase, the Case Manager will eventually be overloaded, so you will need a second. When you hire the second Case Manager, however, both will probably be underworked for a while. This is another example of a lumpy cost because it will take some time for your organization to swallow the costs of the second Case Manager through increased revenue. It’s rather like the snake digesting an elephant in The Little Prince. But if your organization doesn’t swallow the elephant-like second Case Manager, the first Case Manager will eventually quit from exhaustion or you will have to triage service delivery.

Growing nonprofits will also eventually be faced with the conundrum of when and if to hire professional management staff. This will be yet another lumpy cost, as talented managers will expect appropriate compensation and working conditions (e.g., matching office furniture and a 27″ iMac, instead of a WW-II era dented steel desk and an ancient, temperamental Dell).

Many nonprofits are started by a “true believer” or a human services professional who lacks management training. As the organization grows, management chaos may ensue. Eventually, the founder should probably focus on board/community relations and relinquish day-to-day management to an Operations Director.

This kind of passing of the management torch does not always go well, with Apple’s disastrous hiring of the supposed management expert John Scully by Steve Jobs in 1987 being an especially egregious, famous instance. Of course, the case is often made that the egomaniac Jobs needed to be booted out of Apple to force him to eventually do his best work and return to lead the company to successes unimaginable in the 1980s.

Still, many nonprofits face a fundamental tension between being a grassroots organization and a larger provider. Grassroots organizations tend to be focused on a particular issue, which they often address well. The flipside, however, is that they tend to be poorly managed and lack the impact of a larger organization. Larger organizations tend to provide a wider array of services and thus have a greater impact on more people. The flipside, however, is that they’re sometimes depicted as being out-of-touch, overly bureaucratic, and more focused on the needs of managers and decision-makers within the organization than they on solving the community’s problems.

Neither grassroots organizations nor large organizations are inherently “right,” and both can be good or bad. From a grant-making perspective, either one can be desirable, and the tensions involved with scaling up never really go away.

Many nonprofits fail in the attempt to scale, just like businesses. Some will also wither from not attempting to scale. The funding for lumpy costs requires new revenue, which will also be lumpy. This can take the form of seeking larger donations, going after competitive grants and/or obtaining a line of credit, which must often be initially personally guaranteed by the Executive Director or a board member.

Since balancing lumpy cost increases with uncertain lumpy revenues is an inherent chicken-and-egg problem, you’ll eventually have to decide which to pursue first. One way to overcome the risks of lumpy revenue is to find a service to provide that is funded through a capitated, on-ongoing contract, such as foster care, child care, post-DUI substance abuse education, court-referral domestic violence prevention training and the like. It doesn’t really matter what the capitated service is as long as a more or less predictable revenue stream is attached that enables the organization to cover lumpy expenses while seeking lumpy revenues.

If all of this lumpy stuff scares you, it should. Scaling up a nonprofit or small business is a Tight-Rope exercise. Large organizations will be rhetorically attacked by smaller ones and vice-versa. Be cognizant of the issues involved with each.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tools and Organizing Organizations: How to Wrangle Information and Databases for Grant Writers

Once you have a sufficiently large agency with concomitantly large grant writing needs and multiple funding sources, you’re going to start facing problems of scale. This means a single person is going to find managing all the efforts of the agency steadily harder, and that single person will eventually be overwhelmed. If you’re big enough, you’ll probably need to hire a programmer to roll out a custom database front-end or install a wiki for you; if you’re big, but not quite that big, a white board and calendar would suffice.

This post comes in response GWC reader Joe Orozco’s queries. He’s the Associate Grants Manager for Youth Service America in Washington D.C. and wrote to ask:

I am a huge fan of your blog and wonder if you might use it to discuss database options for grant writers. Here in my current position I prepare proposals for different departments in our office, and with folks not fans of MS Access, I am forced to use large unwieldy spreadsheets. What database or organization strategy do you use to separate and maintain data for different grants by client, or in my case, department? Thank you in advance for any information you can provide. Please do keep up the excellent work on Grant Writing Confidential.

We’re very susceptible to flattery, so we appreciate the compliments. Even better than that, he asks interesting and unusual questions, which we also like to get.

Isaac initially wrote back to say:

I assume you are interested in proposal preparation data issues, not grant management. If so, the short answer is to dump your PC and go to Macs. Mac OS X 10.5 (or “Leopard”) has a built in feature called Spotlight, which can instantly find anything on your hard drive. All you need to do is remember key words. Thus, no need to catalogue proposal info in a database. We still have a couple of old PCs and use Access for mailing lists and the like, but not for proposal management. If you are good at file management and organize proposal writing assignments into folders, and get a Mac, your life will be much easier. FYI, about six years ago, we tried to use Access for grant preparation data management and gave up. To do so, you will need a database programmer to set up the databases for you. Of course, the programmer will know nothing about grant writing, so this won’t help either.

For old school management techniques, let me take you back to 1978 when I had a job like yours. In the days before computers, I used a huge white board to track proposal status, along with a slotted accordion file sorter that sat on top of a horizontal file cabinet for paper files, and a phone sheet to track conversations. I have feeling this would work as well for you today and it did for me all those years ago.

But I wasn’t so sure this would meet the desired needs, so I suggested:

To coordinate what 20 people need, I’m not sure how I would run a database. You could probably install Apache and search tools on a single machine and turn it into a local server, but that might be overkill. For a relatively small group using a LAN, attaching a Drobo (, auto-mounting it on your computer, naming folders in a way that makes sense, and indexing like Spotlight might be ideal. But that’s just my imagination at work.

Joe replied:

Unfortunately, I am tied to a PC environment here. Spotlight does indeed sound like what I may be looking for, but to expand a little on my previous correspondence, each program in our office pursues different grant opportunities depending on the specific nature of their work. I am currently using a spreadsheet to break down information by department and their respective funders. I’m not as interested in other people having the capacity to find information. I just need something less cumbersome than a spreadsheet to keep track of various reporting calendars. I decided to write to you, because I was a fan of your tools of the trade blog post. Everything from the type of office chair to several monitors was covered, and I am hopeful that a bone will be thrown to us lowly PC users who cannot take advantage of the wonderfulness that appears to be Spotlight.

Also, on a minor unrelated point, what kind of blogging tool do you use in your web site? I like the way you’ve seamlessly integrated your blog into the scheme of your web site!

And, as for the blog:

We’re on WordPress, primarily because I began using WordPress to write The Story’s Story and so was familiar with it. Adhost, a business ISP, hosts all our sites and actually has on a different machine than, but a link goes from the latter to the former and I customized our theme to make the blog and regular site look similar. If you’re thinking about starting a blog and can’t afford Adhost—who have been very, very good and reliable over the years we’ve used them—consider Laughing Squid. I’ve heard good things about them.

Microsoft Access

Joe did mention Access in his original e-mail. No one actually likes Microsoft Access, but there is one big advantage to it: it’s the worst desktop database system except for all the others. Like democracy, it’s the least bad choice, unless FileMaker Pro has dramatically improved since version 8. If he still wanted to use Access, a competent database person could probably tie it to a website relatively quickly, easily, and cheaply.

Networked Drobo and Spotlight

If Joe was going to coordinate everything on a local machine or using the Drobo suggested above, Spotlight might do the trick. We do love Spotlight, but even it isn’t perfect; if you have a vast array of data, you might get inundated, and it still doesn’t have boolean commands from the default Spotlight prompt (So you can’t type “Youthbuild -California -Wisconsin”, for example, and get every Youthbuild proposal that doesn’t mention those two states. This can help refine queries.)

Calendars and Whiteboards

One other useful technique is a big calendar on which you write upcoming deadlines for programs. For the program itself, write the letter of intent (LOI; if necessary) and final deadline on the board, then set up subsidiary deadlines: this is when we need a go/no go decision; this is when we need a first draft; this is when we need the budget; this is when we need letters of support; and so forth.

The calendar will quickly fill up, but if you’re in a single, central location you can’t miss the deadlines looming down on you. You don’t have to check a webpage. It’s all in front of you, and if Steve walks by, you can grab him, point to the upcoming HRSA deadline and ask him where the hell those letters of support are. If Jessica wants to apply for a Dept. of Justice (DOJ) program, she can come by, pick up a marker, and decide where the deadlines should go, and you’ll be looking at each other and the board rather than a computer screen.

If you’re a giant organization with hundreds of people who need to review and edit applications, you’ll outgrow these tools. But if that’s the case, you’ll also want to hire dedicated IT people or technical consultants to set up these kinds of systems, because such systems are inherently complex and have lots of small user-interface issues that aren’t going to be easy to solve. But for most of us, some combination of a Spotlight-like system, a whiteboard, institutional memory, a subscription to the Seliger Funding Report, and a calendar will probably suffice.

If Joe writes back to say what, if anything, he’s done, I’ll post his experiences as an edit to this post.