Posted on 4 Comments

Seliger’s Believe it or Not Tales from the World of Grant Writing: Recovery Act Weatherization Training Centers and TAACCT

As a kid, I loved reading Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Who knew if these fantastic stores were true, but they were true enough to capture my imagination when I was about ten. Today, I experience lots of hard-to-believe tales as a grant writer, and I thought I would share a few.

Faithful readers may recall “Why Winning an Olympic Gold Medal is Not Like Getting a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Grant;” in 2010, I wrote about having to tell a client that a high point total does not always ensure getting particular grant, including a Department of Education PEP grant. What I didn’t put in that post was an important fact: our client insisted on including program elements that were certain to reduce the point total. Although I advised her of this, she insisted on including them anyway, and the grant was not funded.

A few months ago, we were hired to edit a new client’s previously submitted but unfunded PEP proposal for this year’s RFP process. We didn’t write the original and substantially rewrote the narrative. It was funded for about $1.5 million over five years, perhaps in part because this PEP client took our advice on which program elements should be included. In addition, the project concept was unique in that it involved providing services to elementary-age children in private schools and public high school students.

In other words, the concept was different, and in grant writing, different is often good because it wakes the reviewers up. I used PEP as my example in the old post, however, not because of the project concept issue, but because funding decisions for this program are particularly opaque. As I wrote then, getting any grant proposal funded is more than telling a compelling story—a submitted proposal has to be technically correct and the applicant has to be lucky with respect to a whole host of factors, like geography, applicant believability, need, mood of the reviewers and similar stuff.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago. We wrote a proposal earlier this year for another Department of Education program: Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC). In this case, the proposal one was point shy of a perfect score and was still not funded. I’m not sure why because this client provides a range of wraparound supportive services for at-risk youth and young adults in a very economically disadvantaged part of a large city (another free proposal phrase) and we’ve written many funded grants for the organization over the years. The Executive Director was incredulous, as was I, and I could not offer her any solace—other than the grant making process often appears random, even though it is not random to the funders, who always have reasons, other than the stated ones, for making the decisions they do.

Last year, however the randomness of the grant making process, however, worked in this client’s favor. We wrote a Department of Energy Recovery Act – Weatherization Assistance Program Training Centers proposal for her. The grant was funded for $1,000,000, even though this organization had no real background in weatherization job skills training. All of the other grantees were experienced weatherization job skills training providers, as were probably almost all the other applicants. This means the proposal we wrote stood out from the crowd, like the second PEP client I discussed above.

Now on to my last weird tale for the day. Earlier this year, we wrote a Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT—now that’s a mouthful) program. Despite the odd name, TAACCT (rhymes with cat…?) is really just a vocational training program for community colleges.

What’s interesting about TAACCT is that the underlying federal legislation and regulations specify that at least one TAACCCT grant is supposed to be made in every state—but grants were only awarded in 33 states. So much for regs! The proposal we wrote was for a consortium of community colleges in a suburban area near a collection of very large cities and urban counties. Our client was politically very well connected, the project concept was also fairly unusual, and the proposal technically correct. Seems like the odds should have been pretty good. In this state, only one TAACCCT grant award was made: to a tiny community college in a rural area. My guess is that the Department of Labor received several grants from the big cities and other entities in which our client was located and decided not to fund any of them, choosing instead to fund an obscure rural college—that way, all the big city applicants would be equally mad.

While all of these tales may make you laugh or cry, they should not prevent your organization from applying for grants. Since one cannot know which organizations will manage to submit technically correct proposals, how program officers will interpret regs, or much of anything else, all you can do is decide to apply and submit the best proposal you can—and submit it on time.

Think of how delighted the small community college was at beating out much bigger institutions. Or how great our client felt when she got the news about the Weatherization grant. Clients new and old often ask me to handicap the odds of a particular proposal being funded and I always tell them, “I am a grant writer, not a fortune teller.” Go after the grants your organization wants and needs, disregarding oddsmakers, soothsayers and the The Voice of Doom.

Posted on 2 Comments

Why Academics Don’t Always Make Good Social and Human Services Grant Writers

People with advanced degrees and university professors are (presumably) good at lots of things, like publishing the original research they’re trained to produce, but they aren’t always good grant writers—especially for the kinds of social and human service proposals that Seliger + Associates often writes. I think there are lots of reasons for this:

  • Academics often don’t like or respond well to short deadlines. Having a four- to six-week turnaround time simply isn’t enough. Having a one- to two-week turnaround time, which we sometimes do, is even harder. And a lot of people, academics included, don’t have the right stuff.
  • You don’t have to be an expert to write on a subject, but academics are culturally encouraged to make claims only in areas they have studied deeply. This means they often sneer at dilettante journalists, but journalism is actually the field most analogous to grant writing, and sometimes being an expert can actually impede your ability as a grant writer by making you too enmeshed in the area. Reviewers won’t have the same expertise as you, and the assumptions you hold might not be the ones everyone else holds. What you really need to do is tell a story—and experts are often better at making find-grained distinctions of fact or opinion than telling stories. We discuss the problems of experts in National Institute of Health (NIH) Grant Writers: An Endangered Species or Hidden Like Hobbits?. (Note that this paragraph won’t necessarily apply if you’re seeking advanced research grants).
  • Academics love committees and process. Both are lovely in their time and place, but writing a proposal isn’t one of them, and a love of committees sometimes leads to the critical mistake of trying to divide writing tasks.
  • A lot of academics have no idea how social and human services are actually delivered. They know how such services should be delivered in theory, but the gap between theory and practice is wider in practice than in theory. They haven’t read Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development or Every Proposal Needs Six Elements: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The Rest is Mere Commentary.
  • Academics are sometimes prone to hand-waving, which I witnessed in my own department’s colloquium and described in Grant Advice is Only as Good as the Knowledge Behind It.
  • The goal is to get the money, not to be right.

This last one is especially significant, and we’ve talked about it before in The Real World and the Proposal World and The Worse it is, the Better it is: Your Grant Story Needs to Get the Money. If your goal is to get the money, you should disregard data that doesn’t support the idea that your service area needs the money and highlights the idea that service area does. You shouldn’t lie, but the judicious selection of facts and ideas to support the narrative you’re trying to develop will help your application.

As mentioned above, grant writing, especially for social and human services, is more than anything else about telling stories. Sometimes stories aren’t entirely factual, or miss an important part of the whole picture, but they’re what proposals (and journalism feature stories) are made of. So if you can get important-sounding opinions from misery professionals but not much about data, use the important-sounding opinions. Sometimes they’re not very far from “research” anyway. Here’s how you get data: take a bunch of opinions, collate them, publish them, and call them data. A lot of peer-reviewed articles basically amount to this. You can spend loads of time searching for research to support your organization’s need and come up with nothing or with weak research. If so, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and massage what you’ve got. A lot of academics can’t, or won’t, do that.

To be sure, I’m confident that there are some academics and professors out there who would make or are lovely grant writers. But we’ve witnessed a sufficient number of failed grant writing attempts by academics to doubt most are good at it. If you have an academic writing social or human service proposals, especially if it’s the academic’s first time doing so, make them read this post.