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Prospecting for Grants: Be a Bear and Bite that Salmon, Any Salmon

A recent email from a prospective client got me to thinking about the best time to prospect and apply for grants.

Our would-be client presented the idea of hiring us to his board. One board member pointed out that the organization lacked a current strategic plan, the last one having expired at the end of 2010 while the new one not be approved until the end of 2011. Our client asked me:

Do you think trying to write foundation proposals without a strategic plan will be a hindrance?

I responded . . .

I don’t think that lack of a current strategic plan is an impediment to seeking foundation or government grant support. The status of the organization’s planning process can be included or not included in any proposal, at your direction. If the funder requests information about your organization’s strategic planning process, it would be our job as grant writers to address the question.

Or, as John Lennon put it in “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

The best time to prospect and apply for grants is always now, not at the end of an introspective planning process, no matter how well-intentioned—just like the best time to start writing a novel is now, the best time to start exercising is now, and so on. Strategic planning is a fine activity for a nonprofit, provided they have plenty of money and lots of time.

As I’ve been blogging about for the past three years, however, the continuing economic malaise means that most nonprofits have little extra money and are so overwhelmed with increased service demands that staff and board members are too exhausted to contemplate developing a plan for 2016—first the organization has to survive 2011. The very uncertain future of the discretionary federal budget funds (e.g., grant programs), combined with the roller coaster stock market (which impacts foundation endowments), make this a especially bad time to miss grant opportunities.

Obviously, I’m not a big fan of strategic planning. Leaving aside my view and whether strategic planning for nonprofits is efficacious, strategic plans have little to do with grant writing. While some federal RFPs and the occasional foundation guidelines will want some info on an organization’s planning process, funders are usually much more interested in what the organization has done, the need for the proposed service/activity, and plausibility of the project concept than the kind of generalities that are found in most strategic plans. And, as I pointed out in my email above, a good grant writer can fairly easily turn a marginal planning process into an passable one through the magic of proposalese.

Which brings me back to the question of grant prospecting. When talking to clients, I often describe the challenges faced by nonprofits and public agencies seeking grants as being analogous to those Alaskan bears we’ve all seen fishing for salmon.

Imagine you’re a bear standing by an icy Alaskan stream, and you’re pretty hungry after sleeping for six months. You could jump into the stream, try to bite the first salmon* that swims by and 20 more in a row, catching a few and missing most. Or you could first study the kind of salmon that might be found in the river, do a cost-benefit analysis of trying to catch sockeye versus pink salmon, decide that you only want sockeye, wait to look for somewhere the sockeye might to be likely to appear, mosey down to the river, and then bite a sockeye when you finally spot one. It might take awhile to get ready to go down to river and even longer until a sockeye swims by. But the planned sockeye has the potential to be the perfect lunch, provided you can catch it.

Bear # 1 will probably be full of salmon and lounging in the sun sending Tweets long before bear # 2 spots her first sockeye—and longer still until she actually catches one.

Let’s imagine two organizations, one called “Overworked and Chaotic Human Services” (OCHS) and the other “Well-Planned Human Services” (WPHS) in the context of our bears.

OCHS constantly looks for grant opportunities to fund its current services and any other services it could plausibly provide. Like bear # 1, OCHS closely monitors federal, state, local and foundation funding “streams” and tries to bite lots of “grant salmon.” Most of the time it comes up with water, but it manages to secure the occasional grant salmon, adjusting its programming to whatever grant salmon it catches. Although OCHS is pretty much willing to eat any grant salmon, the organization also closely monitors emerging trends and anticipates which grant salmon will swim by and when. It just doesn’t stop fishing while contemplating future grant salmon runs.

WPHS is tightly focused on delivering certain services and has a comprehensive overlapping five-year strategic planning process to ensure that the organization knows what it wants to do. Like bear # 2, it takes a long time for WPHS to actually get to the funding streams because it’s absorbed in delivering particular services and planning its organizational future. When it does take a dip into funding streams looking for sockeye, it may find out that the sockeye run was yesterday and there won’t be another one until next year. If this happens, it could become a very thin bear.

The prospective client, who declined to hire us during his organization’s strategic planning process, is like bear # 2. Over the years, we’ve worked for both kinds of bear clients and presently have one that is a bear # 2. Most nonprofits take the “let’s bite any salmon” approach. I think this produces better results. When I was a young grant writer during the Carter administration and writing proposals for a single nonprofit or public agency as an employee, I learned to dive into all funding streams at all times, giving my employer the best chance to get grant salmon.

In a future post, I will provide some tips on how to prospect for grant salmon. But, like most aspects of grant writing, one can only learn this by doing. Taking a two- or three- or five-day training course on grant prospecting, which lots of training outfits offer, will not teach you how to find and catch grant salmon. You have to be hungry and be willing to get your feet wet, or hire someone like us to dive in and bite the passing grant salmon for you. Just don’t be bear # 2, sitting by the funding stream and navel gazing, while the salmon grants swim by.

* Years ago, we wrote several funded proposals for an Alaskan Native organization to support the transition of their failing salmon canning business enterprise into a smoked salmon business. I had the opportunity to visit the cannery and learned quite a bit about salmon fishing, albeit by Alaskan Natives, not bears.

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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.

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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.