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Rock Chalk, Collapse: Another Grant Writing Lesson from Basketball as Seen in the Investing in Innovation (i3) and Administration for Native Americans Social and Economic Development Strategies (ANA SEDS) Programs

For KU basketball fans, the unthinkable happened yesterday. Our beloved Jayhawks, pre-season Number One and end-of-season Number One in the polls, winner of the Big 12 regular season and tournament and picked by the Bracketologist-in-Chief, President Obama, to win the NCAA championship, lost in the second round to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). Despite all the predictions and prognostications over the past year, KU still had to win its tournament games but ran into a feisty foe in 9th seeded UNI and lost.

Faithful readers will remember that I drew lessons for grant writers from KU’s spectacular championship win two years ago in Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, KU! — Lessons from Basketball for Grant Writers. There is also a significant lesson to be learned from KU’s improbable flop this year. Although KU has been the favorite all year, the would-be NCAA champion must win six games in a row, sometimes against teams like UNI that haven’t gotten the memo saying they can’t win. The same phenomenon often happens in grant writing. Two cases on point:

* Our new-old friend, Investing in Innovation Fund (i3): We’ve blogged about i3 several times. This is an enormous program with huge grants that has been tantalizing LEAs and youth services nonprofits since the Stimulus Bill passed last year. I’ve had lots of recent calls along the lines of, “Will our organization have any chance of funding, since there’ll be so many applicants?” My usual response is more or less the following:

Sure, at this moment, 5,000 organizations probably think they will apply. By the time the May 11 deadline arrives, 2,000 of these will have given up, so maybe 3,000 applications will go in. Since the RFP is fantastically complex, about half of the submitted applications will be thrown out as technically incorrect. The Department of Education says 220 grants will be made. Instead of an individual applicant’s odds of being funded being 4.4%, the odds are probably three times higher, or 14.6%.

But this assumes that all scored applicants have the chance of being funded, which is of course not true, as funding decisions involve lots of factors other than raw scores, such as geography, politics, service to racial and ethnic groups, past funding history and on and on. Nonetheless, many applicants will be scared away because of the assumed competition. About two weeks ago, I received a call from the development director of a large ethnic-specific advocacy organization headquartered in D.C., with affiliates around the country. He told me the organization planned to submit three i3 proposals and I gave him the fee quotes.

This week, he called me back to let me know that for internal reasons, they’ve decided to not submit any i3 proposals, even though the Department of Education has informally encouraged them to apply. This is an example of three of the 5,000 possible applications melting away before the deadline. The same pattern is unfolding across the country and who know how many other organizations will give up before May 11.

* Our old-old friend, the Administration for Native Americans Social and Economic Development Strategies (ANA SEDS) Program: This program has been around for decades and we’ve written lots of funded ANA SEDS grants over the years. For whatever reason, when the ANA SEDS FOA was issued a few weeks ago, there turned out to only be $6,500,000 available, which is substantially less in previous years. Right on schedule, I received a phone call from the executive director of a Native American organization who wanted a fee quote but was concerned about whether they should apply because “there is so little money available this year.” I asked her if she thought other possible applicants would also be discouraged by the small amount of money up for grabs. She said yes and I said she had answered her own question: the small amount available probably means fewer applicants, improving her chances. She hired us.

Whether there is lot of money (i3) or little money (ANA SEDS) to be had in a given RFP process, don’t be discouraged if it is a program that your organization wants to run (and read our previous two posts on the subject). No matter what the imagined odds, apply anyway. Just as teams have to play the games to win the NCAA Tournament, your organization cannot get a grant unless a technically correct and compelling proposal is prepared and submitted on time.

Poor little UNI could have forfeited the game in the face of mighty KU, but they played well enough to win on that particular day, even though they probably will lose the next ten in a row. David only needed one well placed stone to take down Goliath, and your organization only needs one well prepared proposal to bag a big federal grant. Although I am a KU fan, if I was scoring yesterday’s game in the way a reviewer scores a federal proposal, I would have given the game to UNI, even if KU had caught them at the end, because they played a better game.

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All’s Well That Ends Well: A Tale of Hope on the Grant Writing Trail

All’s Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s “problem comedies” that may actually be a tragedy, and it comes to mind as an apropos title for a comedic tale that illustrates one of the many odd aspects of grant writing: why there is little reason to read comments provided by reviewers regarding an unfunded federal proposal*. Such comments, which may be mildly amusing or maddeningly frustrating to read, are usually useless in terms of improving the proposal for another submission. A long-time client’s experience demonstrates this.

Faithful readers will have followed Jake’s two-part deconstruction of the wondrous CBAE RFP, “What to do When You Still Must Fight Through a Poorly Organized RFP: Part II of a Case Study On the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP.” This RFP  has been more or less the same for the last several years and pretty much sums up everything that is wrong with most federal RFP processes. Consequently, when a client called last week to discuss a possible new assignment, I was tickled to learn that their agency received a CBAE grant this year.

We wrote their CBAE proposal last year, which was not funded. The client received very negative reviewer comments on the ’07 proposal. Reviewers hated it. My advice to the client at that time was to ignore the comments and submit the proposal again this year. They submitted a proposal this year, virtually unchanged from the one that was trashed, and they were funded.

The primary reason for not taking reviewer comments seriously is the nature of the people reviewing it. Any proposal is read at a point in time by a set of reviewers, who are likely reading other proposals submitted for the same competition and may or may not be interested in the task at hand.

For example, if the proposal is read by five peer reviewers brought to D.C. by DHHS, one may be hung over from bar hopping the night before in Georgetown, one may be anxious to meet their Aunt Martha for dinner, a third may be itching to get to the Air and Space Museum before it closes, and two might be vaguely interested in the review process. And, of the last two, one may have gotten a speeding ticket in your jurisdiction 20 years ago and hates the city. Or, the proposals could be read by federal zombies**, who are disinterested in everything placed before their noses other than donuts. In other words, one has no control over who reviews proposals and what kind of mood they might be in.

Also, just like with job interviews, in which the time of day may make all the difference, a proposal read first thing in the morning by bright-eyed reviewers will likely fare differently than one read by the same bleary group just before the cocktail hour. If that weren’t enough, the values of one reviewer one year might differ greatly from the values of another reviewer another year, and the priorities of the agency might shift slightly from year to year, meaning that a proposal that they hate one year they might love the next. If you submit a complete, well-written, and technically correct proposal, you’ve done as much as you can, and the vagaries of the reviewer can doom or save your application.

It’s pointless to agonize over grant reviewer comments. When our clients send them to us, we look at them briefly to see if there was something obviously wrong with the proposal, but usually there are either just points assigned to various sections or cryptic comments like, “collaboration not demonstrated,” even though there were ten letters of collaboration attached, a list of partners included in the narrative, etc. Sometimes reviewer comments can be either unintentionally hilarious or tragic, depending on your point of view, which brings us back to the Bard.

A case in point: About eight years ago, we wrote a proposal to the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) Social and Economic Development Strategies (SEDS) program on behalf of an Alaskan Native village north of the Arctic Circle for a social development project. The proposal was not funded and the client faxed the review comments to us. Imagine our surprise when the comments talked about the poorly developed project concept of trying to attract tourists to a remote desert area in Arizona! Clearly, the reviewers mixed up at least two proposals and associated the wrong comments with the proposal we had written. We advised our clients to contact ANA, which, in the true spirit of helping vulnerable Alaskan Natives, refused to accept an appeal for what was obviously a major error. Perhaps a better Shakespeare title for this post would be Love’s Labour’s Lost.

* As the King says, perhaps ironically, at the end of the play, “All yet seems well, and if it end so meet [fittingly], / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.”

** While not generally a fan of zombie movies, the most fun iteration in recent years is certainly Shaun of the Dead in which the eponymous hero has trouble at first distinguishing his slacker friends from zombies rising from the grave like grant reviewers emerging from the sub-basement at DHHS after a long day of reading proposals and stampeding to the closest Happy Hour.