Tag Archives: Proposals

Seliger + Associates enters grant writing oral history (or something like that)

Seliger + Associates has been toiling away in the grant writing salt mines for over two decades, and last week we got hired to review and edit a new client’s draft proposal for a federal program we’ve been writing for years.* They emailed their draft and we were delighted to see that it’s actually based on a proposal we wrote for some forgotten client ten to fifteen years ago. While the proposal has morphed over the years, we could easily find passages I likely wrote when Jake was in middle school.

We’ve encountered sections of our old proposals before, but this example is particularly obvious. The draft was also written to an archaic version of the RFP, so it included ideas that were important many years ago but that have since been removed or de-emphasized. We of course fixed those issues, along with others, but we also left some our our golden historic phrases intact for the ages. This version will undoubtedly also linger on into the future.

We’re part of what might best termed the “oral history” of grant writing. We’re the Homer of the grant world, which is a particularly apt comparison because “Homer” may have been more than one person. For the first ten years or so of being in business, our drafts were most sent by fax, but we sent final files on CDs. For the past decade we’ve been emailing Word versions of all narratives and Excel budgets. Our proposals have probably been traded by nonprofits all over the country like Magic: The Gathering Cards.** Still, unlike some other grant writers who will remain nameless, we never post or sell our proposals. But it seems that the digital age has caught up with us anyway.

In some ways, seeing shades of our old proposals makes me feel proud, as our impact will likely last as long as there are RFPs—which is another way of saying forever.

We don’t know what strange ways brought the proposal we wrote to our current client. We’ve had hundreds of clients and written many more proposals of all stripes, and even if we wanted to trace its lineage we couldn’t.

As we’ve written before, grant writing at its most basic level is story telling. Now our stories have assumed a digital afterlife of their own. While Titanic is not my favorite film or movie theme, I’ll paraphrase Celine Dion, as it does seem that . . .”our proposal words will go on and on.”


* Faithful readers will probably know which program I’m discussing, but we’ll keep it on the down low to protect the guilty and and punish the innocent.

** When Jake was about 11, and just before his unfortunate discovery of video games, he was a huge Magic player and was always after me to buy yet more cards. As I recall, he and his little pals endlessly traded Magic cards for “value” that completely eluded me, a classic clueless dad. Eventually Jake grew up and lost interest, at which point the value of the cards became zero for him.

The unsolvable standardized data problem and the needs assessment monster

Needs assessments tend to come in two flavors: one basically instructs the applicant to “Describe the target area and its needs,” and the applicant chooses whatever data it can come up with. For most applicants that’ll be some combination of Census data, local Consolidated Plan, data gathered by the applicant in the course of providing services, news stories and articles, and whatever else they can scavenge. Some areas have well-known local data sources; Los Angles County, for example, is divided into eight Service Planning Areas (SPAs), and the County and United Way provide most data relevant to grant writers by SPA.

The upside to this system is that applicants can use whatever data makes the service area look worse (looking worse is better because it indicates greater need). The downside is that funders will get a heterogeneous mix of data that frequently can’t be compared from proposal to proposal. And since no one has the time or energy to audit or check the data, applicants can easily fudge the numbers.

High school dropout rates are a great example of the vagaries in data work: definitions of what constitutes a high school dropout vary from district to district, and many districts have strong financial incentives to avoid calling any particular student a “dropout.” The GED situation in the U.S. makes dropout statistics even harder to understand and compare; if a student drops out at age 16 and gets a GED at 18 is he a dropout or a high school graduate? The mobility of many high-school age students makes it harder still, as does the advent of charter schools, on-line instruction and the decline of the neighborhood school in favor of open enrollment policies. There is no universal way to measure this seemingly simple number.*

The alternative to the “do whatever” system is for the funder to say: You must use System X in manner Y. The funder gives the applicant a specific source and says, “Use this source to calculate the relevant information.” For example, the last round of YouthBuild funding required the precise Census topic and table name for employment statistics. Every applicant had to use “S2301 EMPLOYMENT STATUS” and “S1701 POVERTY STATUS IN THE PAST 12 MONTHS,” per page 38 of the SGA.

The SGA writers forgot, however, that not every piece of Census data is available (or accurate) for every jurisdiction. Since I’ve done too much data work for too many places, I’ve become very familiar with the “(X)” in American Factfinder2 tables—which indicates that the requested data is not available.

In the case of YouthBuild, the SGA also specifies that dropout data must be gathered using a site called Edweek. But dropout data can’t really be standardized for the reasons that I only began to describe in the third paragraph of this post (I stopped to make sure that you don’t kill yourself from boredom, which would leave a gory mess for someone else to clean up). As local jurisdictions experiment with charter schools and online education, the data in sources like Edweek is only going to become more confusing—and less accurate.

If a YouthBuild proposal loses a few need points because of unavailable or unreliable data sources, or data sources that miss particular jurisdictions (as Edweek does) it probably won’t be funded, since an applicant needs almost a perfect score to get a YouthBuild grant. We should know, as we’ve written at least two dozen funded YouthBuild proposals over the years.

Standardized metrics from funders aren’t always good, and some people will get screwed if their projects don’t fit into a simple jurisdiction or if their jurisdiction doesn’t collect data in the same way as another jurisdiction.

As often happens at the juncture between the grant world and the real world, there isn’t an ideal way around this problem. From the perspective of funders, uniform data requirements give an illusion of fairness and equality. From the perspective of applicants trapped by particular reporting requirements, there may not be a good way to resolve the problem.

Applicants can try contacting the program officer, but that’s usually a waste of time: the program officer will just repeat the language of the RFP back to the applicant and tell the applicant to use its best judgment.

The optimal way to deal with the problem is probably to explain the situation in the proposal and offer alternative data. That might not work. Sometimes applicants just get screwed, and not in the way most people like to get screwed, and there’s little to be done about it.


* About 15 years ago, Isaac actually talked to the demographer who worked at the Department of Education on dropout data. This was in the pre-Internet days, and he just happened to get the guy who works on this stuff after multiple phone transfers. He explained why true, comprehensive dropout data is impossible to gather nationally, and some of his explanations have made it to this blog post.

No one ever talks to people who do stuff like this, and when they find an interested party they’re often eager to chat about the details of their work.

The Difference Between Being “Involved” in Grants and Being a Grant Writer

Most people who claim to be grant writers or “involved” in grants don’t actually write proposals. They’re more often engaged in things like grant management, the distribution of grant funds, or development (fund raising), which are important but very different things than grant writing.

Grant writing means you sit down and write a proposal. Grant management means you oversee funding; file reports; help with evaluations; hire staff; and the like. Notice that “write proposals” is not on the list. Also, some people who say they’re involved with grants are actually on the funder side of things, which means they might help write RFPs or evaluate proposals, but again: those skills are very different and of limited use when actually confronted by a proposal in the wild. Someone who writes proposals can of course be involved in grant management, but it seldom goes the other way around; if you’re going to be a grant writer, you have to be able to pass the test Isaac proposed in “Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain:”

If we ever decide to offer a grant writing credential, we would structure the exam like this: The supplicant will be locked in a windowless room with a computer, a glass of water, one meal and a complex federal RFP. The person will have four hours to complete the needs assessment. If it passes muster, they will get a bathroom break, more water and food and another four hours for the goals/objectives section and so on. At the end of the week, the person will either be dead or a grant writer, at which point we either make them a Department of Education Program Officer (if they’re dead) or give them a pat on the head and a Grant Writing Credential to impress their mothers (if they’ve passed).

You don’t need to pass that kind of arduous test to manage grants, issue RFPs, or review applications.

Last weekend, for example, I met a couple who said they knew a lot about grant writing and were “in” grants. Compared to a random person on the street, they did know a lot: one of them works for a regional government transportation authority and has probably helped disseminate hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in transportation funding. The other works as a development director for a university. Together, they have about 40 years of combined experience in “grants.” It turns out, however, that neither have ever even once done what I was doing about twenty minutes before I began this post: writing a proposal. Development directors often do everything in the universe to shake money out of donors except write proposals; that may be why we’ve worked for a fair number of development directors over the years. And program officers, who pass out grant funds, might write RFPs, but never the responses.

I wish more people who worked “in” or around grant writing had the experience of actually writing a proposal, because if they had, I suspect we’d get better RFPs. I’m also reminded of the theory / practice divide that arises in so many academic disciplines. Psychology, for example, has a large number of people who do a lot of research but don’t see patients, and a large number who see patients and don’t do research. Naturally, the researchers often think of the practitioners as mere carpenters and the practitioners often think of researchers as mandarins who don’t understand what life on the ground is like. Both are probably somewhat right some of the time.

Something similar happens in English: a lot of English departments these days are bifurcated between the people in “creative writing” and literature. The creative writers—novelists, poets, and so forth—produce the stuff that the literary critics and theorists ultimately discuss; I suspect there, too, the world would be a better place if critics and theorists actually took a serious stab at producing original work. If they did, many might not hold the sometimes implausible opinions they do. They’re like RFP writers who know everything the world about grant writing except what it’s like to stare down a nasty, confused, contradictory RFP. You probably wouldn’t want to eat at a restaurant run by a chef who never tastes his own food, but that’s the situation one often gets with grant writing.

There’s a moral to this story: be wary of people who say they know a lot about grant writing, since they often know a lot about everything but grant writing.

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 Grants.gov-like 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.”

Politics and Proposals Don’t Mix: Your Politics (or Your Organization’s) Shouldn’t Matter in Grant Writing, and Neither Should Elections

Ed Nelson asks, “Do conservative non-profits get grants or are federal grants such an anathema to them, [and] they choose not to apply?” I want to answer, but the question itself feels wrong because politics shouldn’t be an issue in human service delivery. Politics and political views matter in Congress, which decides what kinds of programs to fund, and can matter in federal rule making that ultimately leads to RFPs being issued, but by the time an RFP is issued, political questions have been resolved and implementation is everything.*

So “conservative” nonprofits are just as likely to get grants as “liberal” ones, but even if your organization has a political bent among your staff, you shouldn’t put that in the proposal. Besides, I’m not sure there’s a “conservative” or “liberal” way, for example, to provide construction skills and academic training (YouthBuild) or to repair low-income housing to fix safety hazards (Healthy Homes)—to name two programs we’ve worked on recently. Both programs are designed to be fairly narrow: you conduct outreach, you do an intake assessment, you select participants, you do things to/with participants, and they come out over the other end better. There isn’t a lot of room for politics.

Even in programs where you can talk about divisive political issues, you’re often better off taking pains not to. For example, we work for a large number of Community Health Clinics (CHCs), as well as organizations that provide various kinds of sex or abstinence education (one such RFP inspired this post on proposal research). We never ask about our clients’ views on one of the most divisive political issues in America because their views don’t matter for proposals. In fact, I’m taking pains to avoid that word starting with “a,” lest the comments section turn into a flamewar. You’ve heard the word before, it has talismanic properties among both left and right, and we never use it in proposals. Neither should you. You don’t know who’s going to read the proposal, their political leanings, or how your implied politics might affect your score. We’ve also never seen an application that specifically addresses the procedure in question.

In addition, nonprofits, especially the 501(c)3s we most often work for, aren’t supposed to engage in lobbying or other overtly political behaviors. If you’re with a nonprofit, you’re supposed to be helping people and/or achieving your charitable purpose. So you should concentrate on that in your proposal.

One other observation about politics and proposals: you should also avoid assuming that the nonprofit apocalypse is upon us or nonprofit salvation is nigh due to a particular election.

Isaac likes to point out that he got out of the grant writing game in the early 1980s partially because he was tired of it at the time and partially because he thought Reagan would kill too many discretionary grant programs. The latter, it turns out, was not only wrong, but hilariously wrong, and when he started Seliger + Associates in 1993, the most astonishing thing was how little grant writing had changed from the 1970s to the 1990s—and this trend continues to the present.

In the decade and change I’ve been paying attentions to grants and grant writing, I’ve heard a great deal of teeth gnashing about politics, but every week I compile the Seliger Funding Report and find the federal government, as well as states and foundations, have issued RFPs for new and existing discretionary grant programs regardless of the party in power or the divisions in government. Whatever the disagreements between the major political parties in the United States, both love discretionary grant programs, which persist across decades of political oscillation.**

Lots of people with passionate political feelings and views write blogs expressing those views, inflict them on friends and family, and post snarky Facebook updates about candidates and election results. Those are lovely, appropriate forums for such sentiments. Your grant application is not. Whether you’re to the right of Attila the Hun or to the left of Marx (Karl, not Groucho), leave those opinions out of your proposal.


* And implementation is, or should be, non-partisan.

** Note too Isaac’s post, “Reformers Come and Go, But HUD Abides,” which is essentially about the tendency of federal agencies and program to persist over time.

How to Write About Grant Writing and How to Learn About Grant Writing Via Blogging

In “Twentysomething: Making time for a blog and a full-time job,” Ryan Healy says that one should create deadlines, skip days when necessary, and remember why one blogs. It’s good advice, and we try to follow it.

Grant Writing Confidential has one big advantage over similar blogs: we’re extremely specific about programs, RFPs, problems, and solutions; notice our recent post about HRSA and Section 330 grantees. Grant writing is all about ignoring generalities (except for this generality) and attending to specifics.

But the bigger lesson is this: good blogging and good grant writing share a lot of characteristics, and this post explores this intersection. Get better at one and you’ll probably get better at the other.

Other Grant Writing Blogs

When grant writing blogs feature lots of hand waving, they’re signaling that their writers are not detail oriented or aren’t real grant writers. The latter problem is especially obvious in the age of the Internet, where your work is in front of the audience. If you’re not actually writing proposals (and writing about writing proposals), people will figure it out.

Most grant writing blogs aren’t interesting or informative, and I wish more were. But this also creates an opportunity for us: we’re more personable than others and slide into spaces left by less interesting bloggers. There aren’t many (good) grant writing blogs, since most of them don’t do the kinds of things we talk about in “How to Write a “Juicy” Nonprofit Blog — or a Blog of Any Kind.”

Uncertainty

One valuable thing I learned from Isaac is the ability to admit ignorance and say that I don’t know, which he does to clients regularly. I get the impression many other grant writers and consultants don’t. But you can’t find out how things work if you don’t tell people when you don’t understand something. When I called around getting quotes for Xeroxes and phone systems, broadcasting how little I knew about that particular domain helped me get a better sense of what I was looking for. Journalists use the same tactic. Chris Matthews calls it “hanging a lantern on your problems” in his wonderful book Hardball. I have a signed copy that’s falling apart because I’ve read it so many times and the book has so changed my thinking—less about politics the sport than about the politics inherent in life.

In How to be more interesting to other people, Penelope Trunk says:

That’s the part we should talk about when we talk about ourselves. If you limit the conversation, discussing only what you are certain about, then there’s no chance to stand on equal footing with your conversation partner. You stand on equal footing when you both reveal your struggles with what you don’t know yet, and the conversation can contribute to the answer.

Trunk has all kinds of useful posts about blogging, but some are more useful than others. In How to write a blog post people love, she gives five pieces of advice, each of which is bolded, with my commentary after it:

1. Start strong.

Every newspaper person knows the lead sells the rest of the story. We try to start off with a pithy sentence that ideally encapsulates the post itself or draws readers in through stories. Sometimes this works better than others.

2. Be short.

Admonishing people to “be short” works better for some blogs than others. Blogs with a mass, relatively low skill audience are probably better off with this than other blogs, and some topics are genuinely complex—like many of the subjects we discuss. I would amend this to say, “be as short as possible and no shorter.” For her, the right length is usually shorter than it is for us. Grant Writing Confidential posts are often long because grant writing is a complex subject.

3. Have a genuine connection.

This is vacuous and could be rolled into the fourth category.

4. Be passionate.

I would argue that passion helps writers of any sort, but it should be tempered with expertise. Don’t be a True Believer, and make sure you internal critic is always on the job (we sometimes call this “self-consciousness” or “self-awareness”). Indeed, passion without expertise probably dooms many blogs: it’s easy to skate along the surface of something, like a dilettante with an idea, but difficult to bring something genuinely new and engaging to a world (ditto for grant proposals). This is another thing that sets GWC apart from most blogs that cover grant writing and nonprofits, which seem to thrive on vague generalities, “a delicious lunch was served,” formulations, and too few real-world examples. These problems blend into the next category.

5. Have one good piece of research.

You need a good piece of research, but blogs often misrepresent research or reference it in such a facile way that they barely need it. And remember that your grant story needs to get the money. Trunk’s last link in this post stinks of this problem:

I can virtually guarantee that the research behind “The smell of pizza makes men want to have sex” is not nearly as strong as Trunk’s uncritical acceptance of it implies. This goes back to the “expertise” issue.

Granted, maybe Trunk is right about some of these issues—I wonder how many people read to the end of this post. Those who don’t, miss the big point: this advice is also good for writing proposals and virtually all kinds of writing.

Following up on Collaboration in Proposals and How to Respond to RFPs Demanding It

Isaac’s post “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point” generated a lot of interesting comments. I responded to a couple of them, and I’d also like to offer one point of clarification to the original post: Isaac wasn’t saying collaboration is always a waste of time, bad, or whatever. If a genuine need for collaboration exists, it makes sense to collaborate.

I can’t think of an obvious, specific example of this off the top of my head, but I’m sure some exist. Still, the problem that Isaac points out remains: requiring collaboration for the sake of collaboration has a number of problems with it, which he enumerated, and often goes against the incentives that many nonprofit and public agencies have, especially regarding their own self-interest. As a result, the demand for extensive collaboration widens the gap between the real world and the proposal world.

As I said in the comments section of the post, I get the impression that some commenters are True Believers. It’s all well and good to be a True Believer, as long as being one doesn’t interfere with one’s ability to write proposals that will get an organization funded—and hence keep its doors open.

A couple specific points that I responded to:

“In this way, even if a collaboration folds, duplication of future efforts may be reduced.”

Duplication of effort isn’t a major problem with social services because there are almost always more people chasing the service than there are slots. The desire for free services will always be greater than the supply.

In addition, collaboration itself is a cost in the form of chasing letters and contacts.

Still, as @Nikki # 3 points out, not all collaboration is meaningless — when there is a genuine problem that needs multiple entities to solve it, people will tend to cooperate. Forcing that model on all problems is the problem.

Another person said:

“It is short sighted to think that any one organization can provide the complete continuum of services needed by the target population.”

In the proposal world, you’re right. In the real world, there is no continuum of services and the target population is far vaster than the organizations providing services. This probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, since if you’re offering products or services that are subsidized or free, you will almost always have more people chasing them than you can handle. Dan Ariely discusses the love of free in his book Predictably Irrational, which is very much worth reading.

If you’re offering something that’s subsidized or free, there will almost always be more demand of it than you can provide—just like there are always more nonprofits chasing donations than there are millionaires to make those donations, as we’ve pointed out before. Chances are good that providers of virtually any service are running at or over capacity; they don’t need more people to provide services too, unless there’s money attached to the provision of those services.

The Real World and the Proposal World

In the Ghostbusters movie, there’s a scene where Ray (played by Dan Aykroyd) tells Gozer to get off an apartment building. He then makes a critical mistake:

Gozer: [after Ray orders her to re-locate] Are you a God?
[Ray looks at Peter, who nods]
Dr. Ray Stantz: No.
Gozer: Then… DIE!
[Lightning flies from her fingers, driving the Ghostbusters to the edge of the roof and almost off; people below scream]
Winston Zeddemore: Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say “YES”!

(I’ve yet to have anyone ask me if I’m a god, but I’ve definitely got my answer prepared.)

Ray’s focus on the immediate truth is an error given his larger purpose, which, if I recall correctly from hazy memories, has something to do with closing inter-dimensional portals that let the ghost world or hell or something like that open into our world. Bear in mind I probably haven’t seen Ghostbusters since childhood, but I did see it about 75 times. Before the Ghostbusters can close the portal, the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man arrives and is about 20 stories tall, causing a great deal of screaming and running on the part of New Yorkers, who get their own opportunity to flee from the equivalent of Godzilla.

Anyway, the important thing isn’t just the trip down memory lane, but Ray’s key mistake: thinking that he should give a factual answer, rather than a practical answer. The grant writing world has a similar divide, only we deal with the “real world” and the “proposal world.” The real world roughly corresponds to what a funded applicant will actually do if they’re funded by operating the program. The proposal world refers to what the RFP requires that the applicant say she’ll do, along with a stew of conventional wisdom, kabuki theater, prejudice flattering, impractical ideas nicely stated, exuberant promises, and more.

Astute readers will have noticed that we keep referring to the proposal world in various posts. A few examples:

  • From What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals?: “In the proposal world where Seliger + Associates lives, collaborations are omnipresent in our drafts, and we spin elaborate tales of strategic planning and intensive involvement in development of project concepts, most of which are woven out of whole cloth to match the collaborative mythology that funders expect […]”
  • From Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun: “In many if not most human services RFPs, you’ll find an unintentionally hilarious section that neatly illustrates the difference between the proposal world and the real world: demanding to know how the project will be sustained beyond the end of the grant period.”
  • From Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation: “In the proposal world, the grant writer states that data will be carefully tracked and maintained, participants followed long after the project ends, and continuous improvements made to ensure midcourse corrections in programs when necessary […] In the real world of grants implementation, evaluations, if they are done at all, usually bear little resemblance to the evaluation section of the proposal, leading to vague outcome analysis.”
  • From Know Your Charettes!: “Once again, I’m sure more nonprofits write about PACs than actually run them, but the proposal world is not always identical to the real world, which is one reason I was so surprised to read about the design charrette I linked to in the first paragraph.”

In all these examples, the proposal world entails telling the funder what they want to hear, even if what they want to hear doesn’t correspond all that well to reality.

Funders want to imagine that programs will continue when funding ends, but if a funding stream disappears, it’s not easy to replace; as Isaac said last week, “[…] it is vastly easier to form new nonprofits than it is to find millionaires and corporations to set up foundations to fund the avalanche of new nonprofits.” There are more nonprofits chasing millionaires to keep programs going than there are millionaires to fund those programs.

Evaluations that really matter demand lots of advanced math training and scrupulous adherence to procedures that most nonprofits just don’t have in them (don’t believe me? Read William Easterly’s What Works in Development?: Thinking Big and Thinking Small). The extensive community planning that most RFPs demand is too time and cost intensive to actually undergo. Besides, who is going to be opposed to another after school or job training program? The answer, of course, is no one.

In the proposal world, elaborate outreach efforts are necessary to make the community aware of the proposed project. In the real world, almost every provider of services is so overwhelmed with people who want those services that, even with additional funding, the provider still won’t be able to accept everyone who might be helped.

In the proposal world, everyone in the community gets a voice and a chance to sit on the Participant Advisory Council (PAC). In the real world, even if someone is sitting on the council and espouses a radical new idea, the constraints of the proposal requirements (“you must serve a minimum of 200 youth with three hours of academic and life skills training per year, using one of the approved curricula…”) means that idea will probably languish. Also, the PAC is likely to meet a few times every year instead of every month to provide “mid-course corrections,” as promised in the proposal.

If you’re a grant writer or an applicant who has hired a grant writer, your job is to get the money, and getting the money means being able to distinguish between the proposal world and the real world and present the former as it should be presented. This doesn’t mean that you should be stealing the money in the real world (hint: a Ferrari is probably not necessary for client transport and Executive Director use) or wildly misusing it (hint: skip claiming the Cancun Spring Break extravaganza as “research”), but it does mean that there’s a certain amount of assumed latitude between what’s claimed and what is actually done.

Many grant novices fail to understand this or experience cognitive dissonance when they read an RFP that makes wildly implausible demands. Once you realize that the RFP makes those demands because it’s dealing with the proposal world, as imagined by RFP writers, rather than the real world, as experienced by nonprofit and public agencies, you’ll be much happier and much better able to play the proposal world game.

When someone from the proposal world asks, “Are you a god?” the answer is always “yes,” even if you’re actually just a guy with a silly contraption strapped to your back who is desperately trying to save the world.

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.