Tag Archives: True Believers

Repurpose: The Word of the Decade and a Word for Nonprofits to Live By

During this seemingly endless period of economic stagnation, “repurpose” has emerged as the word of the decade. Repurpose is omnipresent. My wife recently “repurposed” a duvet that our dog had chewed by patching the hole and stuffing it into a new cover she made from some leftover fabric from a long-forgotten sewing project. Angus Loten’s recent WSJ article, “When Cost Cuts Fail… Drastic Measures, tells the tale of small businesses repurposing their entire business model to stay afloat. It seems we are all repurposing: in some cases voluntarily, like my wife who enjoys interior design, and in more cases involuntarily, like the businesses in the WSJ story and the many unfortunate workers who are being repurposed into consumers at food pantries and human services providers by long-term unemployment.

In many ways (consider this another free proposal transition phrase), nonprofits are really small businesses, even if they are run by True Believers. Like small business, nonprofits have formal or informal business plans; resources in the form of cash reserves, facilities, equipment, human capital, and organizational experience; target markets and customers; “angel investors” in the form of consistent volunteers and donors; and, although they operate as “tax exempt,” nonprofits are responsible for payroll taxes, gas taxes, utility taxes and user fees (thinly disguised taxes enacted by strapped local governments), meaning their tax burden is not zero as is often imagined.

One big difference between the challenged small businesses discussed in the WSJ story above and most nonprofits is that nonprofits usually lack the ability to obtain lines of credit to carry the agency during difficult times and are more likely to quickly cut staff and programs than businesses that depend on personnel to generate revenue. As the nonprofit cuts staff and programs, it loses its organizational credibility among its consumers, remaining funders and, most importantly, future funders. This can become a death spiral for a nonprofit. Since the Great Recession hit, we have worked for some hollowed-out nonprofits that at one time had fairly broad programming but are now more or less shells. Through the magic of grant writing, we can make them appear whole, at least in the proposal world. It is better for the organization and the populations they serve, however, to repurpose themselves before they become nonprofit versions of the ghosts in Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place, who take a while to realize they’re already dead.*

Whether they realize it or not, many nonprofits will either have to repurpose themselves by seeking new grants, making better use of social media and accepting the changes that have arrived in the nonprofit world.

If you’re running a nonprofit, a staff member sitting in a strategy meeting, or a board member, find a way to repurpose your nonprofit. Look at the resources you have, your nonprofit competitors, the challenges emerging in your community and the endless possibilities of new federal, state, local and foundation grants. Get going. As I have been blogging about for months, the most nimble nonprofits will transition part or all of their suite of services (another free proposal phrase) and will emerge different but stronger when the economy eventually recovers. I just didn’t have the right word for this process, but thanks to my wife and the WSJ, I do now: repurpose.


* Like the rest of human existence, when a old nonprofit does not repurpose itself and goes under, it will provide a niche for a new nonprofit, since presumably the problems it was addressing still exist in its target community. See this post I wrote on the subject last November: “Grant Writing from Recession to Recession: This is a Great Time to Start a New Nonprofit.”

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.

How to Write About Something You Know Nothing About: It’s Easy, Just Imagine a Can Opener

One of the many interesting aspects of running a general-purpose grant writing firm is that we are often called upon to write complex proposals covering subjects about which we know little or nothing, as I discussed in No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer. In the interest of “transparency,” perhaps the most overused and least realized word of the last few years, here’s how this is possible.

Start by reading the RFP very carefully. In many cases, the RFP will say exactly what the applicant is supposed to do, as I described tangentially regarding the Department of Labor’s YouthBuild program in True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales. State RFPs for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC), a federal pass-through program from the Department of Education, often do the same thing. In such “cookbook” RFPs, precise descriptions of how the program should run, including detailed activities and metrics, are presented in plain, albeit bureaucratic, English. In extreme cases, simply copy the listed activities and re-write in breathless proposalese and, voila, you have your program description.

Occasionally, however, even mature cookbook programs like YouthBuild get updated, requiring going deeper than just reading the RFP recipe. For example, the last YouthBuild RFP in FY 2009 required for the first time that YouthBuild trainees be trained for “green jobs” and that labor-market information (LMI) be provided to support the need for these green jobs. Two minor problems: the RFP failed to provide a definition of green jobs. And states do not track such data because nobody knows what a green job is.

Don’t believe me? Google the phrase, “federal green job definition” and see what you get. I just did and found this hilarious or depressing, depending on your point of view, Christian Science Monitor article, Obama to create 17,000 green jobs. What’s a green job?. The article discusses President Obama’s recent announcement of “17,000 green jobs” being created. Then the article states, “Which is great, except that no one can count green jobs because, fundamentally, no one knows what a green job is.” Since I didn’t know what a green job was and apparently neither did the Department of Labor, for purposes of writing the YouthBuild proposals we completed last year, we simply referred to a lot of green-sounding jobs that we dreamed up (e.g., Weatherization Specialist, Solar Panel Installer, Wind Turbine Mechanic, etc.) and cobbled together vague LMI data to support our imaginary green job career paths (think phantom data). We must have done something right, as four out of the five proposals were funded.

Given the above, I was delighted when the Department of Energy recently released a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). Last year’s Stimulus Bill brought this program to life. WAP will fund training to prepare low-income people for careers as Weatherization Specialists. We squared the circle by writing a WAP proposal, even though we knew nothing about weatherization. We accomplished this slight-of-hand by looking at a link the DOE thoughtfully buried in the FOA for suggested curriculum for the training. A general knowledge of job training for hard-to-train participants and a quick re-write of the curriculum later, and the program description was extruded from our solar-powered proposal writing machine (we used to use diesel, but switched to solar to create more green jobs).

Here’s another example. We just completed writing a proposal for the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which funds fairly esoteric water quality research. Once again, we knew nothing about this topic. In an unusual circumstance, we actually received great technical content from the PI on the project, who is a biology professor at the public university which hired us. He was very skeptical about our ability as general purpose grant writers to write a scientific research proposal until I told him he just had to provide us with a bulleted list of the five W’s and the H. Then the light went on for him. I received a couple of pages of bullet points a few days later. We fired up the proposal machine and out popped the project description. After the PI read our second draft, he sent an e-mail that said, “I do think it [the proposal] is going together nicely.” Another convert to the Seliger method.

To summarize the above meandering, here is how one writes about an unfamiliar topic:

  • Look for clues in the RFP and any provided links.
  • Visualize how the project would work within the context of your individual life experiences. Even though I have no idea what a Weatherization Specialist does, I have plenty of experience in trying to keep the rain out of the several houses I owned in Seattle.
  • Use your imagination. I have no idea of how stream sampling is actually performed, but I guessed correctly that undergrads would dip little bottles into the stream and take copious field notes. The only thing that surprised me is that the notes are not entered into a handheld computer, but carefully written long hand in notebooks, just like in Charles Darwin’s day. Apparently, the lilly pad is not ready for the iPad.
  • Leave lots of blanks in your first draft for your client or whoever actually knows something about the project and is willing to read the draft, such as, “Stream sampling will be conducted on a _____ basis by ______________ at _________ locations by the light of the full moon.”*
  • Ask for technical content. If not, write the first draft with even more blanks, as above, and hope the content appears in the comments on the first draft. Should you not receive any technical content, write everything in generalities or guess. Since many proposals are reviewed by people with limited or no understanding of the topic, your guesses may get the job done.

No matter what strategies you use to write about a completely unfamiliar topic, the grant writer’s task is to provide a complete and technically responsive proposal, not run the program after the grant is awarded. So be creative! To illustrate the point, here is an old joke about traffic engineering consultants who develop statistical models that will predict how many people will turn left at a given intersection on Wednesday afternoon in 2030:

Two traffic engineers are stranded on a desert island with several hundred cans of food and no can opener. One looks at the other and says, “what should we do?” The other smiles and says, “imagine a can opener.”

Start imagining can openers and you will be fine.


* No, I would not actually put in “by the light of the full moon.” But since there is a dreadful remake in the theaters now of one of my favorite horror movies, The Wolfman, I was reminded of Lon Chaney, Jr. as the afflicted Larry Talbot, who is told that “even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

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.”

True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales

Like Spartacus in the eponymous movie*, we’ve been toiling in the grant salt mines for over 16 years. Over that time, about two-thirds of our clients have been nonprofits, while the rest are a mix of public agencies and—in a recent change due to the Stimulus Bill—for-profit businesses. The popular imagination thinks that all nonprofits are run by grim-jawed, speech-making advocates for whatever issue they address, a myth that is reinforced by the occasional movie or TV show that ventures into the nonprofit world. In reality, most nonprofits operate like small businesses (or large businesses in the case of hospitals, the AARP, etc.), and save their outrage for public hearings, fund raising letters and the like. There is another breed of nonprofit, however, and over the years, I estimate about 10% of our nonprofit clients have been what we term True Believers.

True Believer clients are almost always represented by a highly excitable Executive Director or Board Member, who tries to convey their passion to us in hopes of converting us, eliciting a better deal, drawing more attention to their project, or who knows what else. Whatever the cause espoused, however, we remain dispassionate, make sure all the proposals we turn in are as complete and technically correct as we can make them, and try to treat all clients in the same professional manner. Among other things, this means that we don’t adjust our fees based on the problem being addressed, which often confounds our True Believer clients because they typically cannot imagine that others don’t share their consuming interest. Funders almost never share the True Belief, which can be a problem for clients who think the power of their story will overcome, say, the required budget forms, and we often have to calm True Believers down enough to help them separate their imaginings from the cold reality of the grant making process. Two examples of True Believers come to mind, one of which ended badly for the client and one of which turned out amazingly well:

During the FY ’09 hunting season for the Department of Labor (DOL) YouthBuild program, five nonprofits hired us. Four were fairly standard issue nonprofits, while a True Believer ran the fifth. Four of the five proposals were funded—see if you can guess what happened.

Writing a YouthBuild proposal is very much a “cookbook” exercise in that the DOL pretty much tells applicants what they want applicants to do, and successful proposals have to regurgitate this stuff within the absurdly short page limit and the obtuse data required by the funder. In other words, if you want a YouthBuild grant, you should, as Rupee says, just “Do the Damn Thing.” The clients for the four funded proposals listened to us, and we were able to craft compelling, technically correct proposals that warmed the stone-like hearts of the DOL reviewers. In contrast, our True Believer client had a vision of how she could use a YouthBuild grant to attack a whole slew of problems faced by at-risk youth in her rural community. Almost none of what she wanted to do, however, had anything to do with YouthBuild, and she fought us throughout the proposal development process. We did our best to make the proposal fundable to no avail. Despite her passion and commitment, no YouthBuild funds are available today to help the young folks she cares so much about.

For about as long as we’ve been in business, the City of Los Angeles has made grants through its Neighborhood Action Program (NAP). In the early years of our business, the majority of our clients were in L.A. and we wrote lots of funded NAP grants, which are more or less “walkin’ around” money for nonprofits. By this, I mean that the funded nonprofits use the money on purposes ranging from whatever programs they’re operating to whatever the hell they feel like doing. Not surprisingly, Executive Directors love NAP grants. The most recent NAP RFP process was in 2002, and, as usual, we wrote several funded NAP grants. One of them was for a True Believer. For some bureaucratic reason, the City of L.A. decided that the 2002 NAP competition was for an eight month period with a maximum grant of $100,000. When our True Believer client came to us, he wanted to know if it was “worthwhile” to hire us to chase after what seemed like a relatively small grant. I told him that, if he wanted to establish the bona fides of his nonprofit, he would have to get a government grant at some point to demonstrate his organization’s ability to manage grant funds. Why not start with NAP, which has essentially no oversight? In this case, the Executive Director put aside his passion, listened to us and let us develop a proposal carefully crafted to score highly in the competition. By following our advice and the RFP requirements, his proposal was funded.

As the late great Billy Mays used to say, “But, wait, there’s more!” L.A. City, in its infinite wisdom or political machinations, decided to keep re-funding the 2002 NAP grantees every year until this year! This means that our True Believer client and other clients we wrote NAP proposals for in 2002 have gotten something like a million dollars each in walkin’ around money over seven years. Not bad for a $5,000 or so investment in grant writing fees! The City of L.A. is planning a new NAP RFP process this month, and the RFP will be issued in a couple of weeks—this time for another “one-year” grant period, which I assume will morph into multi-year contracts. We’ll be writing another proposal for our True Believer, who has lost much of his True Belief enthusiasm, and once again will be trying to explain to a new crop of True Believers in L.A. how to get funded and why it is worthwhile to go after a NAP grant.

If you are a True Believer, keep your eye on the prize and understand that, although your own passion might be great, others won’t necessarily share it. No matter how much your cause means to you and your colleagues, unless you succeed at getting grants, you’ll be stuck chasing donations and your nonprofit will never achieve the goals you’ve set for it. As Jake explained in “Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun,” it’s pretty tough to keep a nonprofit going on bratwurst, car washes, and hope. You’re not going to reach as many people if you don’t have the organizational capacity to do so. Put aside your passion long enough to write proposals that are aimed at the funder’s guidelines, not your parochial view of the universe.


* This movie is so great that it’s hard to know where to start, but my favorite scenes involve Tony Curtis as Antonius the slave, using his wonderful Brooklyn accent to intone, “I am a sinGer of sonGs,” as well as bantering coquettishly with Laurence Oliver’s Crassus about the relative merits of oysters versus snails.