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Learn How Things Work, Including Grants and Grant Writing

We regularly get e-mails and phone calls from people who think they can get money for nothing. They don’t know anything about how grants or grant writing works and apparently don’t want to learn. This is mind-boggling to me because it means such people are wasting their time and wasting our time for no particular reason.

People call or write to ask about grants for their small businesses, for child care, to pay their bills, and all kinds of other stuff, even when we say—right on our website—that most businesses and individuals aren’t eligible for grants and that we work primarily for nonprofit and public agencies. Such people are asking to be taken by unscrupulous sharks because they don’t know any better. Almost every legitimate grant writer has statements like ours on their website. We write posts (like this one) on our blog. So why keep sending the emails and calling?

Max Klein’s post “Drug dealers shouldn’t make iPhone apps” gives us a partial answer. He says:

I’ve been noticing that a great deal of successful people are very consistent in what they do and in their approach. For example, a weather man. You will see him having weather kits, weather shows, etc. It’s all about the weather. That’s what people know him for. And he leverages his knowledge to move horizontally in the weather space.

Then he tells a hilarious story about a guy in Bali who rents body boards, is a part-time gigolo, and wants to open a brothel. Klein says:

I spluttered: Why in heavens name don’t you start a motorcycle shop or something and make money legally?

He gave me an answer that is one of the most important sentences I have ever heard:

“What do I know about selling motorcycles? I know about selling bodies, that’s what I do, it’s what I’m good at, and I’m not going to throw away all I have learned over these years and do something where I have absolutely no experience.”

This is brilliant and lots of people don’t do it. They want to throw away whatever they’ve learned to chase grants, or they don’t want to learn anything in the first place. If you’re going to chase grants and you’re reading this, you should start by reading every single post in the archives of this blog. When you’re done, you will know have a reasonable understanding of grant writing and what is possible. If you don’t want to believe us, type “grant writing blog” into the search engine of your choice and read what others have to say.

In an alternate world, I am a famous and successful novelist exchanging bon mots with Jon Stewart and Christopher Hitchens. Obviously I’m not—at the moment, anyway—but in working toward that goal, I’ve read a lot about how writing and publishing works. Blogs have been great for this because they’re often written by people in the industry, and the writers have no reason to put a smiley face on things, unlike writers of how-to-get-published books that want to sell you books and make you believe in your dreams, however improbable, poorly conceived, or poorly executed.

Agent blogs like Nathan Bransford, Betsy Lerner, Janet Reid, and Dystel & Goderich have been incredibly useful. There are others as well. Taken together, they explain what it’s like to be on the other end of the slush pile (pretty ugly) and what catches their eye (voice and writers who’ve done their homework). They explain how publishing works. The novelist Charlie Stross has been explaining how the publishing industry is changing. And so on. Janet Reid also runs a blog named Query Shark, which is a snarky what-not-to-do guide for writing query letters.

If you read all this material, you’ll start to understand what you’re supposed to do if you want any shot whatsoever at getting published. If you don’t, the chances of you remaining in your current, unpublished state rise considerably because you’ll never get past the initial query letter hurdle because you don’t know anything about what you’re trying to do.

Callers to Seliger + Associates, however, routinely demonstrate that they know nothing about what they’re trying to do, and we see the unfortunate results. (Note that if you’re with a nonprofit or public agency, the preceding sentence doesn’t apply to you, and you shouldn’t hesitate to call.) Not long ago, we got an especially strange e-mail from someone who says she is a student in criminology, but has written a cookbook and also has a “business plan and letter of intent for the cookbook.” The e-mail is poorly written and says things like, “I am needing a grant to help pay for this,” which is the kind of mistake that, if my freshmen students make it often enough, means they’ll fail my class. She says, “So, What I am asking is for $10,000.00.” Asking for $10K from us? From someone else? I have no idea.

Maybe this is just the Dunning-Kruger Effect at work (“our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.” Read that again). Or maybe it’s something more.

Our correspondent should learn about what she’s trying to do, because no one is going to give her money or help her based on the query she sent. If she’s looking for financial aid, her college has an office dedicated to that task. This is basic, basic stuff. I have no idea if the woman who wrote to us knows anything about any domain, but she definitely knows as little about grant writing as I know about forestry management. In her email, she also says “This is very important to me,” which is patently untrue, because when something is very important to a person, they research the subject and pay very close attention to what they’re doing. When something is important, a person takes a lot of time to do it well or learn how to do it well. If she doesn’t, then at best she’ll fail in her stated goal and at worse she’ll pay money to someone and get nothing in return.

The guy in Bali has spent years learning about the body trade, and he’s not going to throw that knowledge away by diving into some other field. The woman writing to us should take the same lesson to heart. I realize this is probably shouting into the void, since you, dear reader, are already reading Grant Writing Confidential and thus less likely to make these kinds of egregious, wasteful errors. But now at least I have somewhere to point people.

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Does Seliger + Associates “Care” About Our Clients?

After almost 17 years in business, I thought I’d been asked every possible question (the common ones are answered on our web page). As a result, most initial phone calls are fairly routine. So I was rendered almost speechless—a very uncommon occurrence—when chatting last Monday with two nonprofit founders. About 10 minutes into the call, one guy asked, “If we were to call a sample of your clients, would most say that Seliger + Associates cares about them?”

This stopped me for about 10 seconds, and I responded by paraphrasing former President Clinton‘s answer about Monica Lewinsky and sexual activity: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘care’ is.” We don’t care about clients in the way he meant—that is to say, our clients are not family or close friends, and we don’t care about our clients as a parent might care how a child does in school or one might care about the outcome of a friend facing a marriage crisis. We’re not invested emotionally in clients, which I told the callers. But we do care, albeit in a different way.

I’m sure they were surprised, since they are very much the “true believers” described in “True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales,” and they were incredulous that, not only would I not say I would “care” about them as clients, but that I also was not immediately captivated by their project concept. I went on to explain that, while we don’t really “care” about our clients, we care very much about what we do for our clients, as well as the impact of our efforts. We’re professionals who always try to provide a consistently high level of services to all clients. This means we care about doing the best possible work.

In the True Believers post, I referred to us as “paladins” in the context of the 50s TV Western, but we could also be seen as in reference to classic definition of a “paladin” as a defender or champion, albeit with words and a Mac rather than a broadsword and a warhorse. The Magnificent Seven, which is a remake of the Japanese classic Seven Samurai, illustrates this. In The Magnificent Seven, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, who was never more cool in a movie, lead seven gunslingers (or paladins) to save a Mexican village from a band of outlaws.

The Magnificent Seven respect their task exactly as Seliger + Associates treats its clients: they provide their “service” dispassionately, but with precision. Even when the villagers betray them, The Magnificent Seven return one last time to fight the bad guys—not to save the villagers, but to demonstrate their commitment to their craft, despite the certainty that most will die. As Steve McQueen’s Vic says early in the movie of their business, “We deal in lead, friend.” Well, we deal in words and we’ll do just about anything to get the job done.

A case in point: several months ago, we wrote a HUD Rural Housing and Economic Development (RHED) proposal for a nonprofit. This was during the rapid-fire deadlines caused by Stimulus Bill madness. The client, who we’ve worked for over the years, produced match letters which we thought were wrong and would torpedo the proposal (in short, he wanted to use millions of dollars in financing commitments for future affordable housing transactions that had nothing to do with the project).

Even though we were under extreme deadline pressure, we spent a day patiently explaining what was wrong with his approach, getting him to reconsider his match letters and reworking the fantastically complex HUD budget forms. In other words, we went back to the village when we could’ve just let him hang. Last week, our client called to tell us ecstatically that he was funded for $300,000.

Would he have been funded if the original letters were used? Maybe, but I doubt it. Did we have to spend an extra day on his project? No. Do we care about his agency? You decide. Incidentally, our client is so happy that he wants to send us a present. I’m going to tell him to keep the fruit basket, because like Chris, Vin, Bernardo, Lee, Harry, Brit (James Coborn’s first role in which he has exactly seven spoken words, but nearly steals the movie), and Chico, as well as a host of other Western heros and anti-heroes, doing our job well for a reasonable fee is reward enough for this small band of paladins.

EDIT: Or, as Steven Pressfield puts it, “There’s a phenomenon in advertising called Client’s Disease. Every client is in love with his own product. The mistake he makes is believing that, because he loves it, everyone else will too.”

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Zombie Funding

Programs can be engorged with money one year and fall off priority lists the next. The Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program/Fire Prevention and Safety Grants demonstrates this better than almost any other, as it had more than $500,000,000 available in 2006—and this year it has all of $2,750,000 (warning: .pdf link). In other words, the Department of Homeland Security, or Congress, or someone, ran out of money for or interest in firefighters.

This absurdly abrupt change in funding also demonstrates why you should apply for attractive funding opportunities as soon as you see them because they might be gutted next year. While old programs are seldom outright eliminated, it’s not unusual for zombie funding sources to keep lurching about without real funding. Occasionally they’ll spring back to life with an infusion of cash, but this is unusual without some impetus.

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About Us

Seliger + Associates provides comprehensive grant writing, grant source research and related services for public and nonprofit agencies throughout the United States. Formed in 1993, we have had over 500 clients in 40 states and have written over $175,000,000 in funded grants.

This blog is maintained by Isaac and Jake Seliger. Isaac has been working in nonprofit and public agencies for more than 35 years, and in that time he’s written hundreds of proposals. He has probably seen every manner of proposal blunder imaginable and has seen endless grant fads come and go, and you will have a chance to read his observations, reminiscences and anecdotes, while picking up useful tips gleaned from a lifetime of staring down proposal deadlines.

His son, Jake, is fond of telling potential clients that while some people grow up with parents who own Italian restaurants and thus inherit recipes for marina sauce, and others have parents who are developers and thus know their cities’ zoning laws intimately, he was raised by a clan of grant writers who were eager for the next round of YouthBuild or SAMHSA grants to be released. As a result, his knowledge of grant writing is broader and deeper than anyone else his age. He also operates Seliger Editing & Writing and writes the literary blog The Story’s Story.