Tag Archives: Proposals

Stay the Course: Don’t Change Horses (or Concepts) in the Middle of the Stream (or Proposal Writing)

Before you start writing a proposal, it’s good idea to understand the project concept and stick with this concept throughout the various drafts. If you don’t, the probability of creating an incomprehensible mess is high. In other words, it is a spectacularly bad idea to make big changes during the final stages of finishing the proposal.

This simple truth was reinforced during the recent HUD SuperNOFA season, when we experienced the grant equivalent of The China Syndrome. We were writing a proposal for one of the SuperNOFA programs on behalf of a public sector client for whom we had written the same proposal twice previously. Both those applications were funded. The program itself was and is very complex, and it requires close collaboration between city and county entities to meet HUD requirements.

Since we were familiar with our client’s past approach and our contact person did not correct us during our scoping session, we wrote the first and second drafts based on what we thought was the project concept. After she reviewed the second draft, I got a panicked phone call from our client telling me that she had decided to radically change the service delivery model, even though we were within three or four days of the deadline. I told her this was a very bad idea for all kinds of reasons, but she persisted—with predictably disastrous results. Although the proposal got submitted, it was a nail-biter and probably went in with lots of mistakes.

Here’s why . . .

Most proposals have intertwined narratives in which program elements are threaded throughout the document. In the example above, one major issue was a collaborator, and our client decided change its role at the last minute. While I made a yeoperson’s effort to find and correct all of these instances, it is likely that some were missed, meaning that the proposal probably went in with internal inconsistencies.

Such gaffes are not obvious if one has read the draft proposal a dozen times, but they will stand out like neon lights to a reviewer and lead to lowered points, if not outright laughter in the event that a group is reviewing the proposal. The particular change she made also affected the budget and budget narrative. For HUD proposals, there are up to four budget forms that must be completed, in addition to the budget narrative, so a last minute change may introduce budget errors. In federal grant reviewing, budgets are usually not scored, but inconsistencies between budget forms and the narrative can be a fast way to the exit.

The HUD example was a grants.gov submission, causing another major problem. As faithful readers will recall from “Grants.gov Lurches Into the 21st Century,” Grants.gov allows itself up to 48 hours to declare that an acceptable upload has been received. Thus, we always recommend that grants.gov deadlines be moved up 2 – 3 days to allow for file corruption, server downtime, etc.

Our client had us making last minute changes to the proposal up to the night before the deadline, which meant the application kit file was not ready for upload until the morning of the due date. Of course, when she tried to upload the file, grants.gov rejected it. It took all day and hours on the phone with grants.gov tech support for her to resolve the problem. If she had not insisted on major last minute changes, the upload attempt would have been done two days earlier and the problem resolved without drama. Since the proposal request was $3 million, there was a lot on the line.

The moral of this sad tale: get the project concept straight at the start and resist the urge to change directions near the end of the process. Successful grant writers must be single-minded to produce a technically correct proposal on time. Radical alterations to the proposal concept at the last minute is a variation on “The Perils of Perfectionism.” Grant writers should work on a proposal until they’ve worked on it enough, then button it up, submit it in time to easily meet the deadline and retire to a nearby bar for a cocktail or two. Try a Negroni which is an excellent way to get over a stressful proposal writing experience.


EDIT: You can find a follow-up describing how this experience ends in “Now It’s Time for the Rest of the Story.”

Market Tanks, Donors Disappear, Corporate Givers Vanish: Not to Worry, This is a Great Time to Write Proposals

“Dow Down 500! Dow UP 400! Lehman Brothers Bankrupt! President Proposes $700 Billion Bailout!”* It’s not been easy reading the morning paper the last few weeks without spilling my coffee. This morning’s Wall Street Journal featured Nonprofits Brace for Slowdown in Giving, a scary article about the prospect of nonprofits not being able to raise funds. The intrepid reporters, Mike Spector and Shelly Banjo, say:

The failure of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and pain at other big firms threaten to cut into the corporate and individual donations that more than a million nonprofit organizations rely on for basic operations and charitable programs.

Then assorted nonprofits are trotted out with tales of woe and portents of looming, dire cuts to staff and programs. The United Way of New York City is even going to sponsor “a town hall meeting on the future of nonprofits.” Yikes—maybe the sky is falling. But the magic words “grants” and “grant writing” were absent. The article assumes, like most Americans, that nonprofits exist solely with donations, art auctions, direct mail and the like, forgetting the vast amount of funding available in the form of grants from federal, state and local governments, as well as foundations. While it will undoubtedly be harder for a nonprofit to get a wealthy donor to part with their money, particularly one with ties to the financial sector, there are plenty of foundations, including those related to such booming industries as oil and technology, with tons of grant funds available, as well as billions from all levels of government.

Nonprofit executives should stop worrying about their Christmas card sale fundraiser or silent auction of obscure art pieces by even more obscure artists and get busy conducting grant source research and grant writing, especially because the federal year ends September 30 and the flood of FY ’09 RFPs will arrive in short order like the buzzards returning to Hinckley, Ohio. In addition, the current chaos in the financial and housing sectors are sure to result in new programs and higher levels of funding for some existing programs, particularly those in various economic development and job training programs. For example, I would expect the Public Works and Economic Development Program of the Economic Development Administration (EDA) to get a big boost in its appropriation, which EDA will try mightily to spend quickly for the same reason nonprofits should spend their grant funds quickly. Seliger + Associates wrote lots of funded EDA grants in the mid-1990s, following the last big recession, for projects ranging from street construction in LA to rehabilitating a salmon cannery in Alaska. Similarly, expect lots of new money to be available from the Department of Labor for Youthbuild and other training programs. The bailout bill currently being negotiated between the Bush administration and Congress should be lit up like a Christmas tree with shiny “grant ornaments” before passing.

Even if I am wrong, however, and no new programs or unexpected funding results from the emerging recession, there are still plenty of grant funds available for nonprofits willing to put in the hard work to find them and apply. When economic times are good, it’s relatively easy for almost any nonprofit to lure the usual suspects** into donating. But times are not good; so, if want to keep your nonprofit going, stop worrying and start (grant) writing.


* My favorite quote on government funding was by the late Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who famously may or may not have said,“A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money”.

** For a mind bending experience even harder than understanding federal regulations, see a truly great and surreal film, The Usual Suspects. Who was Keyser Soze, anyway?

What Does a Grant Proposal Look Like Exactly? 13 Easy Steps to Formatting a Winning Proposal

I was having dinner with some friends who are consultants for a multinational company, and they wanted to know who handles the “graphics” in our proposals. They are used to preparing elaborate business presentations and were startled to learn that the proposals we prepare are usually simple text documents. That got me thinking about how proposal styles have come full circle and we’ve gone Back to the Future, thanks largely to digital submission requirements.

When dinosaurs walked the earth and I started writing proposals in the early 1970s, I literally wrote them—long hand on legal pads. When I was finished, I would either type them, or, if I was lucky enough to be working for an agency that had a secretary, the proposals would be typed for me. In either case, the proposals more or less looked like ransom notes, with blotchy corrections (anyone old enough to remember Liquid Paper?) and virtually no formatting, except for using tabs and the hyphen key (—–) to create separator lines. The good news was that proposals were much shorter, since they were so hard to physically produce. Eventually I moved up the managerial food chain and earned a secretary with short hand skills. I got pretty good at dictating proposals, but they still looked pretty much like high school term papers when typed.

Flash forward to more “thrilling days of yesteryear” (which started every episode of my favorite TV shows as a kid: The Lone Ranger), when we were starting our business in 1993 and PCs had come of age. We began producing fairly elaborate proposals, with color covers, pie charts, embedded org charts and flow diagrams (using Object Linking and Embedding technology), comb binding and professional appearance. We kept upgrading our color printers and the proposals were getting pretty slick as we mastered the art of formatting.

Now enter The Time Tunnel with me (another guilty TV pleasure from the ’60s) again and emerge around 2001, when we ran into digital submissions. The Feds rolled out two different digital submission platforms, finally settling on grants.gov, while state/local agencies and foundations came up with endless variations. Given the vagaries of the divers digital submission systems, however, we soon learned that there was little point in dressing up our proposals, since the chance of file corruption was simply too great. The formatting party stopped, and once again our proposals are simple text documents, stripped of the bells and whistles. Yes, I know Acrobat can be used to tart-up proposals, but one dirty little secret is that most digital submissions are not reviewed digitally, but are printed and xeroxed—so much for saving trees—and Acrobat does not always faithfully reproduce the original formatting. This is a potential sink-the-ship problem when, for example, there are page limits.

So, in this age of digital submissions, what should a proposal look like? Simple and neat is the best approach. Here are some tips to make sure that your proposals are easy to read and look great:

  • Read the RFP carefully for formatting instructions and follow them precisely. For example, if the RFP says the proposal is to be double spaced, and does not make an exception for tables, double space all tables, no matter how silly this looks. The Department of Education, for example, will often reject proposals for non-compliance for just such nitpicking instructions.
  • It is generally not a good idea to bind or staple proposals, unless otherwise directed in the RFP (e.g., sometimes a 3-ring binder will be required). Instead, fasten with a binder clip or rubber bands.
  • If you want to use a cover page, keep the fonts and colors subdued. An agency logo is a nice touch, but skip the photos unless they are highly evocative.
  • Make sure you put the agency name and program title/RFP number in the header on each page. Make sure they are right.
  • Avoid odd fonts and stick with Times New Roman when space is an issue or Arial if you have lots of room. The new default font for Microsoft Word, Cambria, is probably also okay.
  • Learn to love outlines. If the RFP has an outline format, reproduce it. If not, develop a simple outline format of your own, indenting .2 or .25 inches as the outline descends. It is easy to do this in Word by using paragraph styles. Make Outline 1 “A” with no indent, Outline 2, “1” with a .2 indent, Outline 3 “a” with .4 indent and so forth.
  • Never use the tab key or multiple spaces for indentation purposes. Just set up additional paragraph styles to align text paragraphs with outline styles (see above).
  • Use tables, rather than charts, unless you are positive the reviewers will not be xeroxing the proposal. Also, it is generally not worth the time to format charts. Instead, put your time into research and writing.
  • Avoid bold, ALL CAPS, underlining and other forms of text screaming, with the exception of bolding/underlining the start of outlined/bulleted section. If your words are good enough, the reader will get the idea, and, if they’re not, all the bolding in the world won’t matter.
  • We prefer justified text, but some may disagree on stylistic grounds.
  • Do not try to squeeze extra words in by kerning the text or narrowing the margins. This will simply make the proposal hard to read, which is not a good idea, since you want reviewers to savor every golden word. We almost never use less than one inch margins all around or tighten the text.
  • Place footnotes at the bottom of each page or on a literature citation page, which is easily done in Word.
  • Finally, buy a sequentially numbering stamp and paginate each page. This way, when the reviewers drop the proposal on the floor, it can be reassembled. This also helps when creating a table of contents.

There you have it—13 easy steps to proposal formatting. Simple, clean, and consistent are your best friends with formatting, because they help the formatting get out of the way of what matters: the text. Now, go forth and write.

Know Your Charettes! Especially Near the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) Program

It’s not unusual for an RFP to ask how community feedback was incorporated into the design of a project, and a good answer is to have some form of group activity feedback meeting. Notice the last four words: “group activity feedback meeting.” What a vile phrase, even by proposal standards. Don’t use such a phrase—call them Community Meetings, Participant Committees, Group Action Committees, or something more recondite like charrette (“a final, intensive effort to finish a project, esp. an architectural design project, before a deadline”), which is my favorite term. I’ve even seen it used outside of proposals, which is especially amusing because when I first heard “charrette” years ago I suspected that Isaac had made it up.

He hadn’t, though, and the word is sufficiently but not overly esoteric to make it an interesting addition to a proposal, like capers to a recipe. The idea behind the word is often needed, whether before or after a project begins. For example, group meetings can “occur” before the project begins to show that the community is interested in the program the applicant seeks to implement. (I put scare quotes around occur because I suspect such meetings are written about somewhat more often than they are actually held.) Not surprisingly, most community groups find that free money from the government is a good thing, and Tim Harford discussed this tendency in The Logic of Life. One way to strength a proposal narrative is to include a description of the charrette that came to this conclusion.

The same thinking can apply to groups formed after the project begins. For example, a Project Advisory Committee (PAC) composed of participants, staff, collaborators, and other members of the community can help provide a continuous feedback loop to constantly improve. 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.

To give a specific example of where charrettes could see action, I’ll return to an RFP mentioned previously. I made fun of the California 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) – Elementary & Middle Schools program, but you could cite charrettes in section 1.c., which wants you to “[d]escribe how you assessed the needs and strengths of your community […]” and section 1.e., which wants you to “[b]riefly discuss the proposed process for conducting, and the results of, your needs assessment for family literacy services.”

In either case, an applicant could say that a community charrette found significant demand for the learning center proposed. Charrette members concluded would help make the community more livable, cure cancer, and perhaps save the world from global warming. I can’t imagine why a real group of community members would ever decide, for example, that the community doesn’t need more money, and ideally someone else’s money, but I guess it’s conceivable, like a reduction in government spending not forced by revenue problems or a time portal opening in my backyard. Back on point: the needs assessment can describe how the charrette brings together key stakeholders—e.g., business persons, nonprofit and faith-based organization representatives, community leaders, and the like—and then announce how much they want that money, meaning that the proposal springs from authentic desire, while the applicant is merely the body through which the charrette’s will is implemented.


On a historical note, the whole charrette in public service concept got started in earnest with the War on Poverty and the idea that the poor and disadvantage should have a say in how public and other money is spent. The goal was to create “workable plan committees” and the like for civic leaders and their constituents, and the key phrase was”” maximum feasible involvement”” of the poor. Daniel Moynihan‘s book, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, is actually a play on this term. As the review, published in 1970, says:

[…] Moynihan traces the development of the community action approach. From the gray areas program of the Ford Foundation, through the Mobilization for Youth in New York City, on to the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, there emerged the ideas of the urgency for localized, community-based programs aimed at the involvement of youth in constructive, problem-solving activity. This stream of development was in the background of the community action orientation of the War on Poverty.

The Goal of Writing Objectives is to Achieve Positive Outcomes (Say What?)

Writing the goals and objectives section of a grant proposal is usually a daunting task for the novice grant writer. Compounding the challenge is that almost every government or foundation Request for Proposal (RFP) requires some statement of goals and objectives, and if not required, should be included in most cases. So, here is a short course in how to get over this hurdle.

First, it is critical that one does not confuse goals, objectives, and methods. A goal is an overall statement of intent, such as, “The overarching goal of the LHEAP (Left Handed Enrichment Action Project) initiative is to improve educational outcomes for at-risk left-handed youth in southwest Dubuque.” Note: I don’t mean to keeping picking on Dubuque in my posts, it’s just that as a kid growing up in Minneapolis with a kosher butcher father who always seemed to be ordering meat from a packing plant in Dubuque, it remains an exotic locale in my mind. Sorry for the Proustian reverie (In Search of Lost Time) and back to the subject at hand.

In contrast to goals, objectives are specific, measurable and time-framed products or outcomes of activities proposed for funding through the grant. Objectives are often separated into “process objectives” (sometimes called “formative”) and “outcome objectives” (sometimes called “summative”). Process objectives could include such statements as, “LHEAP will serve a minimum of 100 targeted left-handed youth annually.” Outcome objectives could include such statements as, “A minimum 10% increase in scores on the standardized Iowa Test of Arcane Academic Knowledge will be achieved annually by left-handed students who participate in project activities for a minimum of 10 hours per week over the nine-month school year. Methods are ways of accomplishing objectives, such as conducting individual assessments, providing tutoring, mentoring youth with mentors, offering family literacy to parents/caregivers, etc. Keep methods out of the goals/objectives section and discuss them in the project description section.

The secret to writing effective goal/objective sections is to use the time-honored KISS method, which is to “keep it simple stupid.” At the risk of going Proustian again, I first heard this term in Air Force basic training and it fits perfectly to this aspect of grant writing (for a nice discussion of the KISS method and the virtues of simplicity in general see a post on Ed Sim’s Blog (BeyondVC). By keeping it simple, I mean try hard to state a minimum number of goals (one simply stated goal is ideal), because a separate set of process and outcome objectives is needed for each goal statement. If you have multiple goals, you end up with something like this:

Goal 1

Project Objective 1.1

Process Objective 1.2

Outcome Objective 1.1

Outcome Objective 1.2

Goal 2

Project Objective 2.1

Process Objective 2.2

Outcome Objective 2.1

Outcome Objective 2.2

And so on.

You can see that with four or five goal statements, the objectives will be repetitive and you will likely not only confuse yourself, but also the reader. Having multiple goals also unnecessarily complicates writing evaluation sections (I will soon write a post on how to draft evaluation sections, another novice proposal writer nightmare). So, unless the RFP requires multiple goals, keep it simple and try not to confuse goals, objectives and methods.

Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World

Almost every grant proposal requires some form of needs assessment. More or less, the sentiment one must get across it that “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine,” as REM says. Essentially, the object is to make problems look overwhelming, but solvable with just a dollop of grant funds. So, how does a grant writer do this?

Start by making the end appear nigh, which requires a needs assessment. Look at the Census data available at American Fact Finder, which has a variety of geographic choices (e.g. county, city, zip code, census tract, etc.). It is almost always best to match the project target area with a census data geographic area to make assembling data easier, regardless of whether the census area perfectly matches the area you want to serve. Try not to make the target area, “the Westside of Dubuque,” unless that happens to conform with four census tracts. Most geographic areas have 2000 Census data, as well as estimates for 2005. Pick the date that is to your advantage, and being to your advantage means making the situation look worse. For example, if incomes have been trending downward and unemployment upward due to plant closings, the 2005 data may be better. Announce that, if current trends continue, Dubuque may be abandoned completely in 2010 because there are too few jobs, but the situation can be improved with the requested grant.

Once you have your target area, find useful socioeconomic indicators like ethnic breakdown, median family income, age cohort percentages, percent of people living below poverty, percent with disabilities, etc. Only include data that supports your case. A winning grant proposal is not like a thesis, so you are under no obligation to use all available data. Also, it is critical that you provide some data on a larger area for comparison purposes, so your readers understand the relative problems. This can be the city, the county, state or even national data—pick whichever makes your situation look worst, meaning with the greatest discrepancy between the target area and the larger sample. It doesn’t really matter which geographic level you compare to, as long as you can say something to effect of, “The target area median family income is just 2/3 that of Los Angeles County.” Depending on the target population, it may be advantageous to compare data for a particular ethnic group to all residents. For example, if the target area includes a significant African American population with lower incomes, you can set up tables showing African American indicators versus white indicators for the same geographic area, in essence comparing the target area to itself. American Fact Finder has a handy tool on the left button bar for “Fact Sheet for a Race, Ethnic or Ancestry Group” that makes this easy to do.

FactFinder

(Click here to see the full image.)

You can also use census data to obfuscate the actual reality in the target area. For example, in many Southern California cities there are high percentages of Asian Americans, who in some communities have higher-than-average incomes. This can be used for statements such as, “over two in five residents is a person of color.” For better or worse, most grant reviewers will usually associate persons of color with lower incomes and higher risk factors whether this is true or not. Grant reviewers seldom have a deep background in statistics and they probably don’t even know statistics for journalists let alone real statistics. Even if they do, everything starts to become a haze after reading a dozen federal proposals that can be onerously long, so most reviewers are apt to begin looking more for conclusions than data not long into the process. Do you somehow fulfill the checkbox that asks whether educational attainment is lower in the target area than the nation? If so, give ’em five points and move on.

Other good sources of data include state and local departments of education. Some states and school districts have better data engines than others. For example, the California Department of Education has a great site, DataQuest, but other states’s data system are, as Borat would say, “not so much”. If a good data engine/warehouse is not available, find the school/district reports cards mandated by the federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation. Many districts try to hide these reports, as they are often unflattering after you get past the mission/vision statement platitudes, but if you dig hard enough you will find them. If necessary, call the statistics unit at the district or state and force the reports out of them.

Once you have data, only use what helps the argument. So, if test scores for certain grades are low relative to the county or state, use those, not all test scores. If you want to use dropout data, use the four-year derived rate, not the single year, which will be much lower. In some states, such as Illinois, drop out data is wildly understated, due to the way the state treats students who are no longer in school, so if you have to use it, underscore this fact. Health data, including disease incidence, mortality, etc., can usually be found at state and local health department web sites, while crime and gang data are typically found at police department web sites.

If you’re having difficulty building your argument with data, a good technique is to call local “experts” for quotes. For example, find and call the police unit responsible for gang suppression in your target area, then ask leading questions. Invariably, the officer will tell horror stories about rampant gang activity. Just ask if you can quote her and she will almost always agree. It’s always fun to include the names of some local gangs in your proposal for a dash of reader titillation. This is particularly important if the reader is on proposal 35 out of 40 and just wants to go find the hotel bar. You can also find the name of any large social service provider or city official in the target area (other than the one for whom you are working) and ask them about local problems with the target population. For example, if you seek information about at-risk youth services and you talk to the local Boys and Girls Club executive director or city parks director, this person will almost always say that new problems are erupting every minute while their funding is declining.

This gives you the opportunity to write something like, according to Conrad Cuttlebone, YMCA Director, “there are many more latch-key kids in the community since the Hindenburg Dirigible Factory closed, and we’re seeing many more cases of domestic violence, while at the same time the county cut our funding by 50%.” When all else fails, you can simply write, “although specific target area level data is not available, the agency knows anecdotally that teen pregnancy is on the rise, mirroring national trends.” Of course, you can do this even if the local area doesn’t match national trends, as most reviewers don’t have the vaguest idea about national trends for anything.

In other words, while it is not a good idea to make up data, it’s perfectly fair to exaggerate problems through obfuscation and specious analysis. You’re generally rewarded for such effects: the worse the target area, the more likely you are to get points, and the more likely you are to be funded.

The gentle art of writing needs assessments really comes down to painting word pictures that combine cherry-picked data with opinions and anecdotes strung together to meet the expectations of reviewers, who assume something terrible must be going on in your community, or you would be doing almost anything other than writing a grant proposal, such as watching my favorite college football team, the KU Jayhawks, trounce Virginia Tech in the upcoming Orange Bowl. Rock! Chalk! Jayhawk! KU!