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High Noon at the Grant Writing Corral: Staring Down Deadlines

Jake gave me a DVD edition of High Noon for Father’s Day, in which Gary Cooper’s Marshall Will Kane must face Frank Miller and his henchmen at exactly noon when their train arrives.* Tension builds as Marshall Kane realizes that none of the town folk will help him and that he must stand alone in the street while the large clock at the town square ticks relentlessly toward noon. This theme is played out endlessly in other Westerns, like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral—another favorite.

This scenario of a person alone with a ticking clock is exactly the situation faced by a grant writers on a deadline, although I must admit that I have never actually been shot at by a pistol-wielding HUD program officer. A deranged client once threatened my life, but this is a subject for another post. Grant writers should deal with the ticking clocks of RFPs by making sure they can work under extreme time pressure. If the idea of an absolute deadline gives you the willies, run for congress instead, where the dates are always mobile. In other words, if you don’t function well with absolute deadlines, give up, find something else to do, hire us, or work in some other administrative function. In epic fantasy and capital-R Romance, not everyone can or should fight the dragon, and it takes Beowulf to kill Grendel. If you’re ready to continue the quest, however, here is my handy guide to slaying RFP monsters while avoiding resorting to the use of strong drink:

1. Construct a proposal preparation timeline backwards, giving at least a two day cushion for hard copy submissions (this gives the FedEx plane a day for engine trouble, a day for the hurricane to pass, etc.) and a three day cushion for submissions (this provides a day or two to resolve file upload/server problems). How much time should be allocated for achieving proposal preparation milestones (e.g., completing the first draft, review time for various drafts, etc.) depends on many variables, including how fast a writer you are, how complex the RFP is, how much research has to be done, how many layers of management have to review the drafts, etc. Most proposals can be easily completed in four to six weeks from initial project conception to hatching the proposal egg.

2. Scope the project thoroughly with whoever knows the most about the idea and give them an absolute deadline for providing background info (e.g., old proposals, studies, reports, back of the napkin doodles and the like). Make sure you know the answers to the 5Ws and the H (who, what, when, where and how—the subject of next week’s post). Tell them that the minute you start writing, you will no longer look at any background info that comes in later.

3. Assume that, regardless of any representations made by the Executive Director, City Manager, Project Director, et al, writing the proposal will be entirely up to you. Like Marshall Kane, you’ll be alone in the street facing the deadline, unless you have a handy partner like I do to serve as Doc Holliday to my Wyatt Earp.

4. Don’t do anything on the project for a few days to a few weeks, depending on how much time you have, letting the project idea percolate in your subconscious while you work on other things.

5. Write the first draft, incorporating whatever background info you have, the banalities of the RFP, and your hopefully fertile imagination (see Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development for thoughts on fleshing out a project concept).** When you write, try to write everything at once with the minimum number of possible breaks and interruptions. Avoid distractions, as Paul Graham advises in that link. Depending on the complexity and length of proposal and necessary research, the first draft should take anywhere from about six to 30 hours.

This is a broad range, but there is a spectacular difference between drafting a proposal to the Dubuque Community Foundation and HRSA. When you’re done, and only when you’re done with the first draft, send the draft proposal to the contact person with an absolute deadline for returning comments. Assuming there is enough time, it is best to allow at least a week for everyone involved to review the first draft. Always insist on a single set of comments, as some people like chocolate, some like vanilla and some don’t eat ice cream at all. Comments from multiple readers will also have you changing “that” to “which” and back again.

6. Read Proust, learn to understand cuneiform or do whatever else you do while not writing proposals.

7. When you have comments, write the second draft. This is last time you should agree to make major changes in the project concept. So, if the contact person tells you the target population is now left-handed at-risk youth from East Dubuque, instead of right-handed at-risk teen moms from West Dubuque as originally scoped, let them know that, if you make the change, you are not going back to right-handed youth in the final draft—the more conceptual changes that are made in later drafts, the harder it is to thread the changes throughout the proposal and associated documents (e.g. budget, budget narrative, etc.). The net result of late changes is usually internal inconsistencies, which is a fast way to lose points and sink a submission. Once again, provide an absolute deadline for returning comments, shorter than the time allowed for review of the first draft. Remind your contact that you are only looking for major errors, typos and the like. This is not the time to add a soliloquy on tough times in Dubuque. If your contact person has a hard time meeting deadlines, call or send e-mails and faxes with reminders that dallying may jeopardize meeting the submission deadline, which after all is the point of the exercise. We don’t view these reminders as CYA (cover your ass) stuff because, unlike internal grant writers, we are focused entirely on completing the assignment, not proving the guilt of others in a failed submission process. Keep in mind that your contact person is extremely unlikely to be as good as hitting deadlines as you are, so be gentle with initial reminders, rising to SCREAMS as the deadline bears down on you like the famous scene of the train finally arriving at 12:00 in High Noon, shot looking down the tracks straight at the onrushing locomotive.

8. Time to read Proust again.

9. Write the final draft when you have comments. Ignore pointless text changes like “that” to “which,” adding redundant adjectives, etc. Instead, focus on getting the document “right enough” and technically correct for submission in time to meet the deadline (see The Perils of Perfectionism).

Grant writing is all about meeting deadlines just like Westerns are all about facing the bad guys when they show up. It doesn’t matter how perfect the proposal is if you miss the deadline. Making sure you don’t miss it requires forward planning, hitting internal deadlines, avoiding procrastination and not wasting time in internal navel gazing or donut eating sessions. If you indulge those vices the proposal will never be finished. It many seem daunting to confront the anxieties of immovable deadlines with potentially millions of dollars and the needs of hundreds or thousands of people at stake, but, in over 35 years of proposal writing, I’ve never missed a deadline and neither should you.

* If you like High Noon, you’ll love the unusual scifi remake, Outland, with Sean Connery reprising the Gary Cooper role as Marshall O’Niel on a distant mining colony somewhere in deep space. Outland replaces the town square clock with a digital clock and adds a reasonable amount of gratuitous nudity, but confirms that the original Star Wars is not the only great Western set in space.

** I could not resist the bad pun for those of you brave enough to look at tasty nutria recipes.

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Adventures in Bureaucracy and the Long Tale of Deciphering Eligibility: A Farce Featuring the Department of Education’s Erin Pfeltz

There are numerous good reasons why we often make fun of the Department of Education. One recently appeared in the Seliger Funding Report. Subscribers saw the “Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies for Planning, Program Design, and Implementation and for Dissemination” program in the June 16 newsletter. The eligibility criteria for it, however, are somewhat confusing:

Planning and Initial Implementation (CFDA No. 84.282B): Non-SEA eligible applicants in States with a State statute specifically authorizing the establishment of charter schools and in which the SEA elects not to participate in the CSP or does not have an application approved under the CSP.

So we have two criteria:

1) States that authorize charter schools and

2) That don’t participate in the CSP.

Since it is not abundantly clear which states are eligible, the RFP also lists the states participating in the CSP:

Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin.

Great! But does the Department of Education have a list of those that authorize charter schools and don’t participate? To find out, I called Erin Pfeltz, the contact person, but she didn’t answer, so I left a message and sent the following e-mail as well:

I left a voicemail for you a few minutes ago asking if you have a list of states in which organizations are eligible for the “Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies for Planning, Program Design, and Implementation and for Dissemination.”

If so, can you send it to me?

She replied a day and a half later, too late for the newsletter:

The information in the federal register notice includes a list of states which currently have an approved application with the CSP ( Non-SEA applicants in those states should contact their SEA for information related to the CSP subgrant competition. More information on the Charter Schools Program can be found at

I replied with some quotes from the RFP and then said:

The RFP gives us a list of states that do participate in the CSP. My question is whether you have a list of states that a) have authorized charter schools and b) do not have an application approved under the CSP.

In other words, which states do not authorize charter schools?

Erin responded:

States without charter school legislation are: Alabama, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Maine, Montana, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia.

And then I responded:

Subtracting those states and the ones that already participate in the CSP program leaves me with NV, AZ, WY, OK, IA, MO, MS, NH, RI, HI, AND AK.

So states from these states and only these states are eligible. Is that correct?

She said:

Eligible applicants from these states would be able to apply.

Notice the weasel words: she didn’t say that the states I listed were the actual and only ones eligible. So I sent back yet another note asking her to verify that and she replied “For the current competition, only eligible applicants from these states would be able to apply.”

Beautiful! Finally! After a half dozen or so e-mails, I extracted the crucial eligibility information. Based on her tenacious and expert obfuscation, she deserves to promoted, possibly to Undersecretary for Obscure RFP Development (isn’t it obvious that I’m only talking about the current competition, not every conceivable competition?).

Wouldn’t it have been easier if the initial RFP simply stated the eligible states? The obvious answer is “yes,” but it also wouldn’t leave room for potential mistakes from the Department of Education. Instead, the RFP eligibility is convoluted and hard to understand for reasons known chiefly to bureaucrats; when I asked Erin, she wrote, “The states are listed in that way to encourage eligible applicants whose states have an approved CSP grant to contact their state departments of education.” Maybe: but that reason smacks of being imagined after the fact, and the goal could’ve been more easily accomplished by just listing the 11 eligible states and then saying, “Everyone else, contact your SEA.” But the Department of Education has no incentive to make its applications easier for everyone else to understand—and it doesn’t.

When I wrote about Deconstructing the Question: How to Parse a Confused RFP and RFP Lunacy and Answering Repetitive or Impossible Questions, I was really writing about how needlessly hard it is to understand RFPs. This is another example of it, and why it’s important for grant writers to relax, take their time, and make sure they understand every aspect of what they’re reading. If you don’t, you shouldn’t hesitate to contact the funding organization when you’re flummoxed.

The material most people read most of the time, whether in newspapers, books, or blogs, is designed to be as easily comprehended as possible. Many things produced by bureaucracies, however, have other goals in mind—like laws, for example, which are designed to stymie clever lawyers rather than be understood by laymen. Such alternate goals and the processes leading to bad writing are in part explicated by Roger Shuy in Bureaucratic Language in Government & Business, a book I’ve referenced before and will no doubt mention again because it’s so useful for understanding how the system that produces RFPs like the one for the Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies come about and why correspondence with people like Erin can be frustrating, especially for those not schooled in the art of assertiveness.* In grant writing, assertiveness is important because confused writing like the eligibility guidelines above is fairly common—like missing or broken links on state and federal websites. I recently tried finding information about grant awards made by the Administration for Children and Families, but the link was broken and the contact page has no e-mail addresses for technical problems. I sent an e-mail to their general address two weeks ago anyway and haven’t heard anything since.

Were it more important, I’d start making calls and moving up the food chain, but in this case it isn’t. Regardless, tenacity and patience are essential attributes for grant writers, who must be able to navigate the confused linguistic landscape of RFPs.

* Sorry for the long sentence, but I just dropped into a Proustian reverie brought on by RFPs instead of madeleines. Perhaps one of you readers can translate this long-winded sentence into French for me.