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Getting in the mood for grant writing: Illustrations from DOL YouthBuild and SAMHSA TCE-HIV

Maybe its because I’m somehow no longer 35* and might be as old as dirt, but TV ads seem entirely focused on buying/hoarding gold, reverse mortgages, probiotics, the odd Cialis couple holding hands in a bathtub and lots of others for “getting in the mood.” That got me thinking about getting in the mood for grant writing.

While getting in the mood for grant writing does not involve a little blue pill or turning on a red light bulb like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, here are some of the ways we use at the Seliger Industrial Grant Foundry and Word Works:

  • Decide if you’re an early morning or night owl writer. I like to start writing early, as my muse seems to depart around cocktail hour. Jake, however, only has one eye open until noon most days and is more of a midnight rambler writer.
  • Develop a writing pattern—say, write four hours, then go to Go Get Em Tiger for an iced macadamia milk latte, then another four hours shackled to your iMac.
  • Jake and I generally don’t use outlines, being stream of consciousness writers, and we just start writing (we use the RRP as a surrogate outline). Others may want to outline each RFP section, starting by putting the headers and sub-headers into a Word doc and then outlining the responses thematically. They may also want to find/organize the data and citations for the needs assessment (e.g. census data, labor market information, etc.). No matter how the RFP is organized or what your writing style is, you must always find a way include the 5 Ws and the H in your first draft. RFP writers often forget to ask all six.
  • As you write, keep in mind that you’re in the proposal world, not the real world. When writing the “what” section, for example, distinguish the applicant’s current efforts and future activities. The current efforts are whatever the agency is doing now that relate to the project concept, while future efforts are what the grant will fund. One way to keep this straight is to be careful with the present versus future tense. This will also help you avoid inadvertently implying the dreaded supplantation issue.
  • With respect to the “what” section, different RFPs/project concepts require different emphases. For example, in a workforce development proposal like our old DOL pals YouthBuild and Reentry Projects (RP), training sites and employer commitments are very important. In contrast, when writing a SAMHSA TCE-HIV proposal, if the agency lacks full capacity to deliver all required services, it is critical to detail the partner(s) providing HIV and substance abuse treatment.

As in all writing projects, the key to writing grant proposals is to actually complete the first draft in time to meet your deadline, no matter what your writing style and habits are. There is no substitute for doing this.

* In most fiction involving a male hero (or anti-hero) protagonist—like James Bond or most of Elmore Leonards books—the lead character is almost always described as being about 35 years old—old enough to be knowledgable, and irascible, but young enough to still be dashing and handsome.

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No Calls, No Bother: “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” and the Grant Writer’s Work

In “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” Paul Graham writes

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour. [. . .]

But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

People who make things are often experiencing flow, which is sometimes called “being in the zone.” It’s a state of singular concentration familiar to writers and other makers. Managers may experience it too, but in different ways, and their flow emerges from talking to another person, or from productive meetings—but a tangible work product rarely emerges from those meetings.

In part because of the maker’s schedule and the manager’s schedule, we try not to bother our clients. When we write proposals, we schedule a single scoping call, which is a little bit like being interviewed by a reporter. During that call we attempt to answer the 5Ws and H—who, what, where, when, why, and how—and hash out anything unique to a particular RFP or client. We ask our clients to send any background information they might have, like old proposals or reports. And then our clients usually don’t hear from us until the first draft of the proposal is finished.

Just because we’re not noisy doesn’t mean we’re not busy, however. We’re writing during that quiet period. Writing works best when it’s relatively uninterrupted. If you’re a part-time grant writer in an organization, you may be used to phone calls and emails and crises and all manner of other distractions that hit you at least once an hour. In those conditions you’ll rarely if ever reach a consistent state of flow. These problems have scuppered more than one proposal, as we know from candid conversations with clients’s on-staff grant writers.*

We only have a single scoping call or scoping meeting because we know we’re better off writing the best proposal we can given what we know than we are attempting to call our clients every hour when we don’t know something. Our methods have been developed over decades of practice. They work.

Writing isn’t the only field with flow issues. Software famously has this problem too, because in a way every software project is a novel endeavor. Software is closer to research than to manufacturing. Once you have a manufacturing process, you can figure out the critical path, the flow of materials, and about how many widgets you can make in a given period time. That’s not true of software—or, in many cases writing. This list of famous, failed software projects should humble anyone attempting such a project.

Ensuring that a project, like a proposal, gets done on time is simply quite hard (which is part of the reason we’re in business: we solve that problem). But it can be done, and we work to do it, and one way is by ensuring that we don’t waste our clients’s time.

We don’t call ourselves artists, at least in this domain, but, as Joe Fassler says, “Great Artists Need Solitude.” Writers need solitude. The best work gets done in chunks of undisturbed time—for Neal Stephenson, those chunks need to be about four hours, which sounds pretty close to the way we write.

* People are often surprised that we get hired by organizations that have full-time grant writers already on staff. But this is actually quite common.

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Processes and Outcomes: The Shape of Another Grant Wave, featuring HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative

Social and human service proposals are usually geared toward outcomes: you’re going to get a grant to provide after school services to at-risk youth, which will reduce the number of them who drop out of high school or get unfortunate tattoos they’ll later regret by 25%. To apply, you’re going to write a proposal based loosely on the same format discussed in “Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development,” except you’re going to give academic enrichment and life skills training to at-risk youth instead of having them hunt nutria.

But you’ll sometimes face RFPs that don’t want you to provide direct services: they want you to improve your organization’s process, evaluate community needs, or otherwise do something to that effect. You’ll get RFPs that ask you to primarily engage in process: developing curricula, engaging in social change, running planning charettes, and so forth. Process grants are designed to further the organization’s capability—they might be for training staff, for coordinating development, or community engagement.

We’ve seen more of those RFPs lately. For example, the Promise Neighborhoods Program doesn’t require you to provide services—it requires you to evaluate your neighborhood and see what kinds of services it might need. The RFP is almost all needs section and very little project description.

This is also true of its more recent cousins. You can expect RFPs that emphasize things like “planning” to be mostly process oriented. This week’s Grant Alert e-newsletter, for example, contains the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative–Planning Grants, which certainly means “planning” as opposed to “implementation.”

In process grants, you should remember that activities, outcomes, and objectives are often all the same: you’re planning what to do later, not what’s going to happen now. Your “outcome” is whether you planned successfully. Part of your job, as a grant writer, is to realize which you’re doing. Outcome-oriented programs are far more common than process-oriented ones, but if you’re applying for a process-oriented program, don’t write it like you’re focused on outcomes. Sure, you might want to mention ultimate outcomes, but you primarily want to discuss the journey to get there.

EDIT: For another example, consider the USDA’s 2010 program, Hunger-Free Communities Grants:

There are two models of grants: planning and assessment grants and implementation grants. A community may only apply for one model of grant as part of this grant solicitation; however, those communities receiving a planning and assessment grant may apply for an implementation grant in a future year if additional funds are made available to continue this program.

The difference between this USDA RFP and many others is that this one makes explicit what many others assume the grant writer knows.

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Think Systems When You Write You Prepare Your Proposal, and a Tale From the Medical Trenches

A friend of mine just applied to medical residencies, and in the process he worked himself into a lather over what specialty he wanted to choose and how he should order his preferred programs. He made a nearly fatal mistake of the kind many grant applicants do: he waited until the last minute to make a decision and submit his choices.

Medical residencies are disseminated through a mechanism called the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP), which is about as user-friendly as a double-edged sword with no hilt. This means he should’ve taken extra care by double checking every step of the application process and leaving himself at least a 48-hour window between the deadline and submission, which is a two-step, unintuitive process.

This being Grant Writing Confidential, you can probably already guess that he didn’t do that. Instead he waited until five minutes before the deadline. Over a couple months, I kept encouraging him to set a goal and create objectives, along with a timeline. That’s because I’ve seen Seliger + Associates prepare innumerable proposals and know what happens as a deadline approaches: panic. And panic isn’t conducive to clear thinking or good decision making.

Anyone who’s applied to a college knows that you need a large number of persnickety documents in the exact order and quantity the college demands. Those of you who’ve prepared a grant proposal should be thinking, “That sounds just like a proposal!” It’s also just like a medical residency. If you fail to do precisely what you’re supposed to, you’ll simply be out of luck. The main difference with grant applications is that a) they’re even more persnickety than colleges and b) a lot of agencies prepare them over and over again.

The weaker agencies panic each time and use the “hope and pray” method, which entails a lot of chaos. Smart agencies develop systems to prevent mistakes and ensure applications are submitted on time. They don’t procrastinate. They double check everything, then have a second person check too; it’s easy to miss a sentence or a document or a requirement. They learn from mistakes so they don’t make them again.

When you hire Seliger + Associates, part of what you get is a built-in anti-procrastination device. You’re not just buying our expertise, but the processes we’ve developed. If you, like most of my students, wait until the last minute to write your proposal (or paper), you’re more likely to miss critical parts of the RFP or nuances that might be essential to being funded. You’re going to miss a document that could get your application rejected. You’re going to be overwhelmed when you don’t need to, like my friend the soon-to-be doctor.

There’s nothing stopping you from doing all this on your own, of course, just as there’s nothing stopping my students from writing their papers early. It’s just that most people don’t make lists, don’t get someone knowledgable to back check their work, and don’t prepare in advance. As the big day inevitably approaches, they grow steadily more crazed. They’re more likely to make mistakes, and if they make a bad one, they’ll sink their million dollar grant ship.

In the case of my friend, his medical residency application was in jeopardy because of delays and self-imposed indecision. Innumerable nonprofits suffer the same malady every year. Don’t be one of them: design systems that ensure you get your work done methodically and in advance. If you can’t do it yourself, hire someone who will. Don’t be like my friend the medical resident and dither unless you want to harm your own chances of success for no reason at all.

And the friend did get into a great residency, which confirms the old adage that sometimes “luck beats skill.”