Tag Archives: Organizations

Does Seliger + Associates “Care” About Our Clients?

After almost 17 years in business, I thought I’d been asked every possible question (the common ones are answered on our web page). As a result, most initial phone calls are fairly routine. So I was rendered almost speechless—a very uncommon occurrence—when chatting last Monday with two nonprofit founders. About 10 minutes into the call, one guy asked, “If we were to call a sample of your clients, would most say that Seliger + Associates cares about them?”

This stopped me for about 10 seconds, and I responded by paraphrasing former President Clinton‘s answer about Monica Lewinsky and sexual activity: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘care’ is.” We don’t care about clients in the way he meant—that is to say, our clients are not family or close friends, and we don’t care about our clients as a parent might care how a child does in school or one might care about the outcome of a friend facing a marriage crisis. We’re not invested emotionally in clients, which I told the callers. But we do care, albeit in a different way.

I’m sure they were surprised, since they are very much the “true believers” described in “True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales,” and they were incredulous that, not only would I not say I would “care” about them as clients, but that I also was not immediately captivated by their project concept. I went on to explain that, while we don’t really “care” about our clients, we care very much about what we do for our clients, as well as the impact of our efforts. We’re professionals who always try to provide a consistently high level of services to all clients. This means we care about doing the best possible work.

In the True Believers post, I referred to us as “paladins” in the context of the 50s TV Western, but we could also be seen as in reference to classic definition of a “paladin” as a defender or champion, albeit with words and a Mac rather than a broadsword and a warhorse. The Magnificent Seven, which is a remake of the Japanese classic Seven Samurai, illustrates this. In The Magnificent Seven, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, who was never more cool in a movie, lead seven gunslingers (or paladins) to save a Mexican village from a band of outlaws.

The Magnificent Seven respect their task exactly as Seliger + Associates treats its clients: they provide their “service” dispassionately, but with precision. Even when the villagers betray them, The Magnificent Seven return one last time to fight the bad guys—not to save the villagers, but to demonstrate their commitment to their craft, despite the certainty that most will die. As Steve McQueen’s Vic says early in the movie of their business, “We deal in lead, friend.” Well, we deal in words and we’ll do just about anything to get the job done.

A case in point: several months ago, we wrote a HUD Rural Housing and Economic Development (RHED) proposal for a nonprofit. This was during the rapid-fire deadlines caused by Stimulus Bill madness. The client, who we’ve worked for over the years, produced match letters which we thought were wrong and would torpedo the proposal (in short, he wanted to use millions of dollars in financing commitments for future affordable housing transactions that had nothing to do with the project).

Even though we were under extreme deadline pressure, we spent a day patiently explaining what was wrong with his approach, getting him to reconsider his match letters and reworking the fantastically complex HUD budget forms. In other words, we went back to the village when we could’ve just let him hang. Last week, our client called to tell us ecstatically that he was funded for $300,000.

Would he have been funded if the original letters were used? Maybe, but I doubt it. Did we have to spend an extra day on his project? No. Do we care about his agency? You decide. Incidentally, our client is so happy that he wants to send us a present. I’m going to tell him to keep the fruit basket, because like Chris, Vin, Bernardo, Lee, Harry, Brit (James Coborn’s first role in which he has exactly seven spoken words, but nearly steals the movie), and Chico, as well as a host of other Western heros and anti-heroes, doing our job well for a reasonable fee is reward enough for this small band of paladins.

EDIT: Or, as Steven Pressfield puts it, “There’s a phenomenon in advertising called Client’s Disease. Every client is in love with his own product. The mistake he makes is believing that, because he loves it, everyone else will too.”

Consultants, Employees, and More: Should We Hire a Grant Writer? And How Will Our Agency Complete Proposals?

People regularly discover Grant Writing Confidential by searching for “should we hire a grant writer?” Being grant writers, our answer is almost always “yes.” On a less glib level, virtually every nonprofit organization has to write proposals, which means that someone will either have to write proposals in addition to their regular work or write them full-time. If your organization decides to hire a grant writer, it can go one of two fundamental routes: hire a staff person or hire a consultant (it’s slightly more complex because a staff person could be hired from outside the organization or trained from within, but ignore that distinction for now).

We’ve already effectively covered hiring employees in “Why Can’t I Find a Grant Writer? How to Identify and Seize that Illusive Beast.” Now we’re going to talk in more depth about consulting: the benefits, drawbacks, and caveats. To some extent, grant writing lends itself to consulting in the same way most organizations hire lawyers by the hour or on retainer rather than employing their own: jobs tend to be self-contained, expertise is of paramount importance, and so forth.

The biggest advantage to hiring a real grant writing consultant is that the job will get done. Seliger + Associates has been in business for almost 17 years and never missed a deadline. Since the goal of writing proposals is to get the money, that should be of paramount importance, and it’s surprising how many would-be grant writers fail to turn in complete and technically correct proposals prior to deadlines. In nonprofits, it’s not uncommon for a job to be unfinished or for a technically incomplete application to be turned in; this is especially problematic among novice grant writers, as we wrote about here.

This leads to the next point: hiring a consultant means that someone is going to sit down and write the proposal, rather than have endless meetings discussing what the proposal should be like. Organizations that assign group writing projects often encounter the donut-eating problem, and if they end up with anything at the end, it’s often a franken-proposal cobbled together from mismatched parts. This is a major mistake novice and even experienced agencies make. Consultants won’t make it, or at least shouldn’t, since if they do they won’t be in business long.

If don’t hire us, you might hire consultants who can’t get the job done. If so, it’s relatively easy to hire and fire the grant writer at will. This is much harder with a permanent employee. If you make someone an employee and discover six months later that the employee has spent more time playing solitaire and mastering online poker than preparing proposals, that person can often be hard to fire for reasons of morale and law, especially if that person has a litigious disposition. If your consultant is no good, you just cancel their retainer or hire someone else for the next job.

A consultant also doesn’t have to deal with institutional politics, or deals with them in a different way; one commenter to our post on True Believers and grant writing wrote:

[The realities of fundraising are] more complex when you are not a consultant. Though I would like to be writing grants, in truth most of my time is spent in meetings with the True Believers at my organization.
The worst is when a True Believer wants to shape a proposal based on their True Belief, and you are lesser in status and title in the hierarchy, so have to go along with something you know will not be funded.

Finally, the diverse experience many consultants have can be a bonus, as exposure to different ideas, trends, and kinds of work can filter into other proposals. So can knowledge of funding “gotchas”—for example, we’ve figured out how to use Grants.gov and why it’s important to turn in applications before the deadline. You don’t want to make a million-dollar mistake from someone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of application systems.

The major con to hiring a professional grant writer is the lack of institutional memory that using an external grant writer entails. In other words, people within the organization might not remember how or why a proposal was completed or where to start next time. A lesser “con” might be that they find someone who advertises him or herself as a grant writer but actually can’t finish proposals; we’ve occasionally been hired by organizations that have fallen into this trap.

In addition, it might be slightly more expensive to hire a consultant than to have a permanent employee, if you have an employee who can actually write a large number of proposals under tight deadlines. Very few people seem to be able to do this, however, which is why I emphasize it with italics. Many of those who claim to be able to consistently write deadline proposals probably can’t.

A client with an in-house grant writer recently hired us for an assignment, and their in-house grant writer called looking for advice long after the job was over. We’re in the writing business, not the giving-free-advice business, but Isaac talked to him for a bit. Last week, the in-house grant writer called back to say that he wanted to work for us, indicating that he hadn’t read our website and that he’s probably not too busy at his present “full-time” grant writing position.

If you’re an organization looking for a grant writer, you also consider your location. In a high-need or rural area, it might be hard or impossible to find candidates who are willing to live and work locally. Many of our retainer clients over the years have looked for a full-time grant writing employee but were simply unable to find anyone both competent and local. We’ve heard this story often enough that we want to include it here.

I’d make one other observation that’s neither a pro nor con: regardless of how you prepare proposals for agencies, you’ll still end up “paying” one way or another, as we describe in “Tilting at Windmills: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing.” Whether you pay salary and benefits directly or cut checks to consultants, grant writing is a fundamental cost that can’t be avoided. Some organizations try to do so by looking for grant writers to work on contingent fees, but, as we note on our FAQ page, this almost never works out.

Regardless of what you decide, read the book Peopleware, which is perhaps the most brilliant and yet ignored book on intellectual organizations I’ve encountered. I don’t mean “ignored” in the sense of being poorly known—many, many people have heard of it—but rather in the sense that few actually take its important recommendations into account. It’s nominally about software, much like Moby Dick is nominally about a whale, but it’s really about managing knowledge workers (although I hate the phrase “knowledge worker”). It seems that many nonprofits, like many companies, have Mickey Mouse management and dysfunctional office politics; this book is an effort towards great professionalism, which doesn’t mean wearing ties and being boring, but, rather, means being able to get the job done. If you’re going to use grant writers effectively, whether in-house or as consultants, read it.

One Person, One Proposal: Don’t Split Grant Writing Tasks

Would-be grant applicants often look at the dizzyingly long, arduous road to a finished proposal and think, “There’s gotta be a better way than assigning one person to write and assemble the entire beast.” They consider the RFP for a while and hit on a brilliant strategy: divide up the proposal like you’re cutting a pizza! One person writes the needs assessment, another the organization’s ability to operate the project, a third the evaluation, and so on.

Don’t do this. It’s a fundamentally bad idea, like sailing near the Sirens on Sirenum scopuli.

The temptation to work in parallel when you should work in serial is obvious: less work for each person. This would make the proposal development process like an assembly line, where dividing up the labor will result in greater productivity. But writing a proposal is more like a novel or poem than building a car, as the unified structure of a single mind is necessary for coherence of form and unity of content. Very few novels are written by more than one person, and even fewer novels that are any good are written by more than one person; as far as I know, zero novels that are genuinely great have been written by partners or groups.

That’s because the novel would be written in different styles, each style would have a different aim, the characters would act bizarrely, one part would be lyrical and another part plot-driven, and whatever meaning might be derived from the novel would be a muddled mess. Good novels are incredibly hard for one person to write, and two people would be even worse. Committee reports are so notoriously boring that there’s a term for ideas that get expressed in them: death by committee. There’s another expression in a field where more opinions lead to worse outcomes: too many cooks spoil the broth.

So what happens to organizations that write proposals this way? If you divide up the proposal, the sections won’t match. The project description won’t mention how the project will tie into existing efforts because someone else did that section. The RFP may ask for the project’s goals in three different places, and each of those will be different. The evaluation and project description will stare at each other like Martians and Earthlings in the fairly good 1953 version of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. Writing styles will clash like Germany and Russia at Stalingrad—the result will not be pretty. If it were merely aesthetically ugly, that would be acceptable, but it will probably also be incoherent, which is not.

The same set of problems apply to revising. There is a temptation to give five copies to five people and let a single person or small group of people make those revisions, which will lead to problems just like those described above. That’s why we demand a single set of changes for each draft we produce, with no exceptions. In other words, we don’t want one set from the Executive Director, another from the Board President, and a third from the Program Manager; with all those corrections, we’ll a) waste a lot of time trying to understand them and b) get conflicting revisions from different people. If we didn’t work this way, the result would be proposals that are confused, choppy, and don’t make enough sense because they lack consistency.

Occasionally we get hired to straighten out proposals that have been written and edited in parallel, and we almost always get a mess that we edit for consistency as best we can, but the end product is almost never as good as it would have been if we, or a competent single author, had simply written it from the beginning.

Technology increases the temptation to split writing and editing tasks among many individuals, especially for people who work in tech fields and are used to collaborative software development. Such software is all well and good for many arenas, but it hurts more than helps for writing, where individual styles vary widely and so does content. There’s an entire discipline out there attempting to explain how to get software developers to work together; Fred Brooks covers the subject in The Mythical Man Month, Timothy Lister and Tom DeMarco mention it in Peopleware, Joel Spolsky and Paul Graham discuss it in various places, and version control systems proliferate because software developers need them. Famous ones include Subversion, CVS, and GitHub. They could all be adapted for writing projects, but they probably seldom should be because they’re more likely to be misused. They also bring an organization perilously close to the methodologies Spolsky mocks in Big Macs vs. The Naked Chef, which ought to be required reading for anyone who wants to split up writing tasks (notice that Spolsky uses cooking metaphors, which I also do in the fourth paragraph of this post).

With a proposal, you’re writing a novel, not an operating system. If no one in your organization can write an entire proposal on their own, you should hire someone who can—either a consultant, in which case you’ve come the right place, or an employee, who can write proposals over and over. There are pros and cons to each, which I’ll write about further in a future post, but having multiple writers in a single proposal is an unambiguously bad idea, which experience has taught us and other grant writers. In fact, it’s so bad that Isaac probably could have noted it in The Danger Zone: Common RFP Traps.

Some applicants—especially those staffed by people inexperienced in the grant development process, such as businesses seeking Department of Energy (DOE) grants—attempt to split proposals anyway, which is likely to lead to a disastrous result. This is one of those lessons that, like touching the hot pan, everyone seems to need to learn the hard way, but when they do, we’ll be standing by with bandages and skin grafts, depending on the severity of the proposal burn.