Tag Archives: weatherization

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.”

January 2010 Links: Foundation Giving, Weatherization, Science, Borders, and More

* Drop in Foundation Giving May Be Steeper than Anticipated. Those of you who want a piece of the action should read Isaac’s post PSST! Listen, Do You Want to Know a Secret? Do you Promise Not to Tell?* Here’s How to Write Foundation Proposals.

* You’ve gotta love the convoluted program titles used by the feds, or, in this case, the Department of Energy, which is offering “Recovery Act – Weatherization Assistance Program Training Centers And Programs grants.”

Whoever wrote the RFP also conflates goals and objectives. They should read Isaac’s post “The Goal of Writing Objectives is to Achieve Positive Outcomes (Say What?),” which is much clearer than its intentionally verbose title.

* It turns out that microfinance isn’t a silver bullet. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, microfinance involves making very small loans to very poor people in developing countries; Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank won a Nobel Peace Prize for inventing and/or popularizing the practice.

* One person wrote us an e-mail we responded to, and in a follow-up he said:

Thanks for the info, and I look forward to reading the blog post. I’ve learned more about grants and grant writing from reading your blog than I did earning my B.S. in Emergency Admin. and Planning.

Now that’s a compliment! Depressingly enough, the last section is probably true.

* Along the same lines as above, but from a Tweet: “Not to send business elsewhere, but I highly recommend this #grant newsletter: https://seliger.com/ #foundations.”

* Megan McArdle says that jobs programs don’t work from a macroeconomic perspective:

Even if you could surmount union opposition, the federal government has an ever-increasing thicket of red tape that makes such a thing impractical. It takes months to get hired for a job with the federal government. It takes months to ramp up a new program. By the time you’d gotten your NWPA through Congress over strenuous union objections, appointed someone to head it, set up the funding and hiring procedures, and actually hired people, it would be 2011. Maybe 2012. Perhaps you could waive all the civil service and associated procedure surrounding federal hiring, but I don’t see how.

* Grants.gov will close for four days in February. When is the last time Amazon.com intentionally closed at all?

* Terrorists hurt America most by making it close its borders. In other words, the United States is doing more harm through its reaction to terrorism than the terrorism itself has done, in part because terrorism is highly visible, reported, and immediately obvious while the effects of making border crossing more difficult are diffuse and too seldom discussed.

* For Elderly in Rural Areas, Times Are Distinctly Harder. Do you suppose the reporter has seen or read The Last Picture Show?

* “[…] neither private or public sector efforts are going to take a significant bite out of the digital divide in the foreseeable future.” Sounds like a call for more grant programs. The only really awesome municipal broadband I’ve seen is in Monticello, Minnesota.

* “[Prostitution] involves a good or service (or whatever you want to call it) — sex — which, when undertaken for free by consenting adults is legal but which becomes illegal when money changes hands. Can you think of other goods and services that share this trait?

Me neither.

* In Latino Gardens, Vegetables, Good Health and Savings Flourish.

* Remember: If you apply for a grant program, you might actually win and then have to run said program. This comes up by way of “In Race for U.S. School Grants Is a Fear of Winning:” “One major concern is that should Illinois succeed in the national competition for Race to the Top money, it might not have the ability to finance the long-term costs of any new programs once the federal money has been spent.”

* Prohibition: A Cautionary Tale.

* Prisons or colleges? California “chooses” prisons because of structural issues relating to prison guards’ unions, politics, and laws, all of which interact with one another to produce a nasty outcome. See how at the link.

* Why public domain works matter.

* U.S. Keeps Science Lead, But Other Countries Gain. Compare this to Neal Stephenson’s excellent piece in the New York Times, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.”

* According to the New York Times: The Obama administration’s $75 billion program to protect homeowners from foreclosure has been widely pronounced a disappointment, and some economists and real estate experts now contend it has done more harm than good. They’re referring to the Making Home Affordable program.

* Why you should use the revolving doors.

* How China wrecked the Copenhagen talks. See also James Fallows’ excellent commentary.

* Manzi’s error: economic growth rate differences between America and Europe are almost entirely explained by population growth rate differences.

* “15th Century Greenland has something in common with IBM in 1980: a belief that historically successful behavior will succeed in the future.”

* A crime theory demolished (or at least altered):

The recession of 2008-09 has undercut one of the most destructive social theories that came out of the 1960s: the idea that the root cause of crime lies in income inequality and social injustice. As the economy started shedding jobs in 2008, criminologists and pundits predicted that crime would shoot up, since poverty, as the “root causes” theory holds, begets criminals. Instead, the opposite happened. Over seven million lost jobs later, crime has plummeted to its lowest level since the early 1960s. The consequences of this drop for how we think about social order are significant.

* News from Seattle: Rainier Beach High School anti-drug mentor also a dealer, police allege.