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So, are Seliger + Associates’s grant writing fees too high, too low, or just right?

Last Monday, the executive director of a Community Health Center (CHC) in a western city called me for a HRSA New Access Points (NAP) proposal fee quote—a fairly routine call. I gave him the quote, told him how we do what we do oh-so-well, and he agreed to hire us. As my kids liked to say when they were in high school, “it’s all good.” Just before I signed off, however, our new client startled me by asking, “By the way, how come your fees are so cheap?”

Wow! This query surprised me, as I always thought our fees were relatively high compared to our alleged competition. So, I did a little riff on how we price jobs. I also offered to raise the fee, if he wanted to feel like he was buying the best, but he declined. In our view the fee is about right for this kind of assignment with about eight weeks to complete.

On Tuesday, I was on the loading dock checking in a new shipment of gerunds when the phone rang. I put down my bailing hook, took off my work gloves, and answered. It was a call back from a national nonprofit in Washington D.C. that wants to outsource their grant writing functions. I had talked to an underling the previous week, and she was calling back with the big boss man to grill me about what we do, how we do it, and what we charge. I spent a half hour giving my standard pitch and fielding rapid fire questions with aplomb. After 20 years of pitching, I’ve pretty much heard every possible permutation of questions and have ready answers. The queso grande, however, was going at me hammer and tongs and was giving me the verbal equivalent of what Elmore Leonard calls the Big Yard stare.

I thought I was doing all right when he said, “How come your fees are so high? You’re three times as expensive as the other grant writers we’re interviewing.” On Monday, we’re too cheap and on Tuesday, we’re too expensive! I said that he was in the Mercedes dealership and must have gotten lost on him way to the Hyundai dealership across the street. I told him what we think of our competition—which is not much, based on the websites we’ve seen and the proposals we’ve been given by clients. Finally, I reminded him that our fees are cleverly hidden in plain sight on our website. If he was looking for the 99-cent store of grant writers, he was wasting our collective time.

The interview ended shortly thereafter. I guess he thought I was going to collapse in the face of pressure and give him a two-thirds discount.* As John Wayne said in my favorite Western, The Searchers, “That’ll be the day.”

These two anecdotes show that one person’s cheap consultant is another person’s expensive grant writer. We post our fee ranges on our website in part to avoid sticker shock. Most of our competitors, however, either post nothing about fees or write in vague generalities. I assume this is because they don’t know what their time is worth or charge by the hour.** We’ve been in business for 20 years, so we must be hitting the sweet spot of pricing—or we would have disappeared along the way, as so many of our would-be competitors have.

When you’re seeking hundreds or thousands or millions of dollars in grants, you can hire a consultant because they’re cheap or you can hire a consultant because they’re good. But when the difference in fees is a couple of thousand dollars, and the difference in outcomes is measured in hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, you know who to call.

* He might also already have another grant writer he wants to hire, or he might be engaging in some weird interpersonal battle with his employee, or have some other consideration in mind. We don’t know enough to know what’s really going on, but in many situations nominal price considerations are actually a cover for other motivations. We’ve written about one example of this in “Why Seliger + Associates Never Responds to RFPs/RFQs for Grant Writing Services,” which we noted that “RFQs/RFPs for professional services are easily wired, with ‘wired’ meaning that one firm is going to get the contract regardless of who submits a response.”

** Charging by the hour makes sense in some circumstances—we sometimes work on an hourly basis—but for many assignments a flat-fee arrangement better aligns our interests and our clients’ interests. Many would-be grant writers charge by the hour because they know they can’t actually complete a full proposal, even if they say they can and will. For us, charging a flat fee for many assignments signals that we’re going to get the job done.

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That’ll Be The Day: Searching for Grant Writing Truths in Monument Valley

Faithful readers know of my Blue Highways post about driving to LA with my daughter following her college graduation last spring. This is my year for road trips, as I recently drove with Jake from Seattle to his new life as a English Literature Ph. D. candidate at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I insisted on a somewhat circuitous route via Salt Lake City, eventually winding up driving on a quintessential blue highway through one of my favorite places—Monument Valley.* Many readers would immediately recognize Monument Valley because they’ve been there vicariously in endless Westerns and other movies, particularly seven films directed by John Ford. To most most of the world’s movie fans, Monument Valley is the American West. One of the most interesting aspects of visiting or staying in Monument Valley is that one hears a cacophony of languages, since it is so popular with European and other foreign tourists.**

John Ford’s greatest Western is undoubtedly The Searchers, an epic tale of single-minded determination that shows off Monument Valley in all the glory of VistaVision. I got out the commemorative DVD of The Searchers that Jake gave me a few years ago and watched it again with a fried who’d never seen it. He was impressed, as most are by the striking themes and images. John Wayne’s maniacal lead character, Ethan Edwards, spends five years tearing around Monument Valley looking for his kidnapped niece, Debbie, played by a young and beautiful Natalie Wood. Accompanying Ethan is Debbie’s naive, but equally determined, half-brother, Martin Pauley, played by Jeffrey Hunter.*** The movie’s tension is built around whether Ethan will kill Debbie, because of the implied “fate worse than death” she has presumably suffered at the hands of her American Indian captors, or if Martin protect her from Ethan’s wrath. I will not spoil the outcome, except to note the last scene, which is of Ethan standing alone in the doorway of the ranch house framing Monument Valley in the distance, having rejected the comforts of hearth and family for the anti-civilization of the wilderness:

This is one of the best ending images of any movie, as it establishes the otherness of the character in the best tradition of Cooper’s Natty Bumpo in The Leatherstocking Tales.

This has much to do with grant writing: throughout the movie, Ethan teaches Martin how to stick with a challenge, tossing off the most famous line of the movie, “That’ll be the day,” when confronted with suggestions that he give up, can’t possibly find Debbie, etc. Grant writers, who must persevere to complete the proposal no matter what happens, need this attitude as well. Just as for Ethan, the task is all about finding Debbie, the grant writer’s job is to complete a technically correct proposal in time to meet the deadline no matter what.

We keep harping on the importance of meeting deadlines in this blog, but this really is the heart of grant writing. So, the next time someone tells you that you’ll never finish your needs assessment, budget narrative, or attachments, just lean back in your Aeron chair like John Wayne in the saddle, and say, “That’ll be the day.” In addition, the way Ethan informally tutors Martin during The Searchers illustrates how grant writing is best learned: by hanging around an accomplished grant writer. Perhaps instead of the foolish grant writing credentials we like to poke fun at, we should start a medieval-style Grant Writing Guild in which we indenture would-be grant writers at age 12, since apprenticeship is a pretty good model for learning such obscure skills as grant writing, glass blowing, horse-shoeing and seafaring. That could lead to a great memoir entitled, “Two Years Before the RFP.”**** For more on the subject of never giving up, see Seth Grodin’s blog post, The secret of the web (hint: it’s a virtue).

* For those planning to visit Monument Valley, try to a get a room at Goulding’s Lodge, the historic inn on the Navajo Reservation that was used by John Ford and many other filmmakers as a base for operations. The Lodge has an unsurpassed view of the Valley, along with a small but engaging museum.

** Jake and I helped a Swiss crew push their rather odd looking solar powered car out of a ditch. Like John Ford, they could find no better backdrop than the Valley for showcasing their work.

*** TV cognoscenti will remember that Jeffrey Hunter was the original captain in the pilot for Star Trek.

*** I’ve never actually read Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, but I lived in San Pedro many years ago and this book arose endlessly in cocktail party chatter. I’m not sure anyone has actually read it in about 100 years, but I am sure I will hear from at least one devoted Dana fan.