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Grant Advice is Only as Good as the Knowledge Behind It

As faithful readers know, in my other life I’m a graduate student in English Literature at the University of Arizona. A few weeks ago, first years were required to attend a brief seminar on grant writing, which amused me given GWC’s low opinion of training sessions, courses, and the like. Isaac is fond of telling a story about his first encounter with one: he was younger than I am and began a two-day grant training session. It started with the instructor writing the 5Ws and the H on a board, at which point Isaac realized they were really teaching journalism and that grant writing similar to writing feature stories, which he already knew how to do. He got up and left.

I didn’t have the same reaction Isaac did, largely because I was required to attend.

The seminar’s major problem was its vagueness. We like to call this “hand waving” or “donut eating.” Grant writing advice of any sort is only as good as the details contained within it—saying there is “money available” is not nearly as helpful as saying the Department of Education issued an RFP on September 3rd with a deadline of October 15th and eligibility requirements x, y, and z. The more general you are in grant writing, the less useful the advice is. That’s why this blog works toward specificity: by citing real RFPs, real problems we’ve encountered, real issues with examples backing them, and the like, we aim to show what struggling with the grant beat truly entails. It’s also why our grant newsletter only contains only live RFPs with actual deadlines; we don’t want to say “the money is out there,” as if describing UFOs—we want to provide a concrete map to the money. Our advertising slogan for years has been, “We know where the money is,” and we strive to live up to it. Until you struggle with an actual RFP—or finding one—you’ll know little if anything about what grant writing is. For someone who had never heard the term “grants” or “grant writing” before might have found it useful, much like a person who’d never seen a large body of water might find it useful to stand it a pool before learning how to swim. But for almost anyone else, the seminar’s content wasn’t optimally useful because so much was conducted via hand-waving, and the leader—I’ll call her “Linda” because I can’t remember her name—said a variety of things that were vaguely correct, but lacked detail:

* Elections affect grants and grant making. Although elections have some effect on the distribution of money in terms of funding priorities, elections have made relatively little difference in the amount of money distributed, which seems to go perpetually up, and in the actual programs used as distribution vehicles. Some programs will become zombies and some phoenixes, as discussed in this post. But politics won’t change grant funds that much for public and nonprofit agencies, and politics will affect graduate students even less. (Politics and its tenuous connection to the grant world will be discussed in a future post.)

* Conflating grants, contracts, and fellowships. The first two are similar and have a fuzzy border but shouldn’t be used identically. Human service delivery grants are usually made to nonprofit and public agencies to solve some perceived social problem. RFPs for grant programs usually give general guidance, about what to do but don’t offer specific metrics, as the applicant should substantively design the program and state how they’d approach the problem and their own measurements. It’s usually not performance-based and will essentially say, “Tell us how you will decrease the rate of heart disease and diabetes in the target population,” for example.

In contrast, contracts are usually offered by public agencies on what is more or less a vendor/vendee relationship. You could have a contract for providing toilet seats or substance abuse treatment slots, and the metrics for a contract are usually specific, defined, and fixed. You’ll deliver X units of something per month, and you’ll be paid on a capitated (per head), per day or per service unit delivered. For example, a nonprofit agency might agree to provide job training and receive $1,000 per person in training per week. A childcare provider might have 50 slots and receive $50/day per slot filled.

Finally, fellowships are usually given to individuals or occasionally small groups to perform some kind of specific research or do some kind of specific thing. They’re a subset of grants, and we discuss an example of a fellowship program below.

* We were advised to “value the process” of finding a grant. While I’m not entirely sure what that means, I’ll go ahead and disagree with it anyway because the process is a means to the end. You need to value the outcome. The process of applying for a grant can’t be neglected, but it’s less important to do the process well than it is to, say, turn in the application on time.

* Paying close attention to reviewer feedback. This issue should be very familiar to faithful readers. To quote one of Isaac’s recent posts:

The primary reason for not taking reviewer comments seriously is the nature of the people reviewing it. Any proposal is read at a point in time by a set of reviewers, who are likely reading other proposals submitted for the same competition and may or may not be interested in the task at hand. For example, if the proposal is read by five peer reviewers brought to D.C. by DHHS, one may be hung over from bar hopping the night before in Georgetown, one may be anxious to meet their Aunt Martha for dinner, a third may be itching to get to the Air and Space Museum before it closes, and two might be vaguely interested in the review process. And, of the last two, one may have gotten a speeding ticket in your jurisdiction 20 years ago and hates the city.

The same applies to graduate students or anyone else engaging in grant writing.

* Make the grant be whatever you want. Although you shouldn’t apply for grants of any sort you have no intention of running, you should still stretch your program concept to fit guidelines to the extent you can, as we discuss in Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts:

If you were a suburban school district trying to fund, say, an art programs, and you read the Federal Register, you might’ve noticed new funding or shifts in emphasis. You could’ve combined your art program with nominal academic support, thus widening your program focus enough to make a plausible applicant for the 21st CCLC program and thus getting the money to carry out your central purpose: art.

* Failure to customize applications. Linda emphasized several points that were completely correct: one must pay attention to rules, guidelines, and requirements for a particular program, whether government or foundation. With the latter, a blanket pitch to foundations is most likely to result in total rejection; each foundation has its own persnickety needs and requirements, and anything sent to a particular foundation should be customized to those requirements. As a result, you’re better off sending a small number of applications to a limited number of foundations and making sure those applications follow the foundation’s guidelines precisely. This is a corollary of another thing Linda said, which is that one should seek good matches in funding. Come to think of it, this is also a pretty good rule for dating.

* The difference between the grant and real worlds. Just as you should stretch ideas to fit program guidelines, you should also realize that the grant world and real world aren’t necessarily the same things. We discuss the issue in Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation and Know Your Charettes!. As Linda said, programs like the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program are supposed to help you finish school faster because you have money and thus should be able to focus on your work. But the reality is that many recipients finish their Ph.Ds. slower because they don’t have a financial ax looming over their neck. This is the kind of reality you shouldn’t mention in your application, because you’re building an argument that needs to agree with the premise of the program, even if everyone knows what really tends to happen.

* Persistence. As Isaac often tells prospective clients, he’s a grant writer and not a fortune teller and thus doesn’t know whether any particular agency will be funded for a particular grant because too many factors outside the applicant’s control can change whether a grant is funded or not. The best one can do is turn in a complete and technically accurate proposal and hope for the best. That’s true of any individual proposal. Nonetheless, over the long term, the organizations that get funded are the persistent ones that never give up and continually refine their approach and work to improve their grant writing skills. The same is true of graduate students and individuals. As Randy Pausch says in The Last Lecture, barriers and walls are there to show how badly you want something. It’s true of grant writing, job searching, novel publishing, date finding, and a variety of other complex undertakings with multiple interlocking parts based on imperfect knowledge and equally imperfect judgment.

Now, it’s true that the seminar might have been helpful for someone who’d never heard the term “grant” or “fellowship” and had never even thought about the issue. But even so, it wasn’t maximally helpful. Had Linda been more knowledgeable about particular grant programs graduate students in English are eligible to apply for, it could have been better. If she’d had a potential program most of us were eligible for, she could have assigned all of us to prepare application packages. Now that would be useful. Part of the problem is that very few programs exist for graduate students who aren’t writing their dissertation: as a result, graduate students might spend too much time searching for opportunities that don’t exist. One program that does, for example, is the aforementioned Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program. It’s only available for first-year students, however, and the deadline for it has already passed, which is a good metaphor for the seminar’s overall utility.

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Self-Efficacy is underrated

I’ve written about the foolishness of trying to use self-esteem as a metric (“Self-Esteem—What is it good for?“), as well as the impossible question, “Who gets funded?” (“Rock Chalk, Jayhawk—Basketball for Grant Writers“). Now “If at First You Don’t Succeed, You’re in Excellent Company” blends both subjects; the author, Melinda Beck, relates how Julie Andrews was “not photogenic enough for film,” publishers rejected J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel multiple times, and—my favorite—Decca Records passed on the Beatles.

The common thread in these tales of success arising out of initial failures is a concept psychologists call “self-efficacy,” meaning that one has a strong belief in one’s capabilities to do specific things (e.g. Lennon and McCartney had a pretty good idea that could write and play great pop songs, but probably not become professional soccer players), as opposed to the generalized feelings of self-worth that are typical of those with high self-esteem. Moreover, a person works to incorporate feedback and develop their skills, rather than assuming that one’s skills and abilities are fixed. RFPs often reference building “self-esteem” among, say, at-risk youth, but I have never seen a reference to self-efficacy or its cousin resilience, which seem more important as metrics of societal success.

Grant writers should use self-efficacy instead of self-esteem in program models. Let’s consider Project DARN (Dubuque Action and Referral Network), which provides after school enrichment for teens. Instead of trying to get the participants to feel good about themselves by somehow increasing their self-esteem, the project will help each youth find something they’re good at and foster that skill so they actually have a reason to feel positive beyond simply existing. As the WSJ article states, “‘It’s easy to have high self-esteem — just aim low,’ says Prof. Bandura, who is still teaching at Stanford at age 82.” For example, if Joe likes playing computer games, a project staff person could see if he has a knack for programming, and if so, find a mentor from a local software company. This might set Joe on a path to a living wage job, as opposed to having him chant, “we’re all special” in a group. This could help differentiate the Project DARN model from others, and it may actually help your participants.

Self-efficacy isn’t just useful for participants—it’s also a key trait for grant writers trying to get their program funded. If you believe in the organization and the services it provides and have or will develop the skills to write compelling proposals, you should keep trying. The key thing you should do is learn from failure, as Michael Jordan has said: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. That’s why I succeed.” Eventually, if you find the right RFPs or foundations, work diligently at improving your writing skills, and tailor your proposals and programs to available funding sources, your program will be funded.

It’s not enough just to want the money—you also have to want to change and improve your proposals or programs, which too many organizations seem unwilling to do, as the innumerable schools with great mission statements and high dropout rates show. Or, better yet, those districts have ironically named “successful school guides” even as their students fail almost every ability test imaginable.