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On the importance of internal consistency in grant proposals

Grant writing, like most artistic pursuits, is an essentially solitary endeavor. No matter how many preliminary group-think planning meetings or discussions occur, eventually one person will face a blank monitor and contemplate an often cryptic, convoluted RFP.*

As a consequence of being written by a single person, most proposal first drafts are fairly internally consistent. A grant writer is unlikely to call the person in charge of the proposed initiative, “Program Director” in one section and “Project Director” in another, or randomly use client/participant/student interchangeably. Inconsistencies, however, tend to emerge as the proposal goes through various drafts to get to the submission draft.

Let’s say three readers edit the first draft: Joe doesn’t like chocolate, MaryLou doesn’t like vanilla and Sally doesn’t like ice cream. Joe’s edits might change Program Director to Project Coordinator for some arcane reason, but only in some sections, while the other readers may make similar changes, some of which might be valid and some capricious. As the proposal goes through the remaining drafts, these inconsistencies will become embedded and confusing, unless the grant writer is very careful to maintain internal consistency; a change on page 6 has to be made on pages 12, 15, and 34. Even if the grant writer is careful, as she revises the drafts, it will become harder and harder for her to spot these problems because earlier drafts become entangled with later ones.

Inconsistencies often crop up in project staffing, for example. Most proposals have some combination of threaded discussions of what the project staff is going to do, along with a staffing plan (usually includes summary job descriptions), organization chart, line-item budget, budget narrative, and/or attached actual position descriptions. If the staffing plan lists three positions, but the budget includes four and the budget narrative five, it’s “Houston, we have a problem time.” To a funding agency reviewer, these inconsistencies will stand out like neon signs, even if the grant writer can no longer see them. While some inconsistencies probably don’t matter much, some could easily be “sink the ship” errors.

In our consulting practice, we typically only prepare three drafts: the first, second and final or submission draft. We also provide clients with drafts in both Word and Acrobat, and we strongly suggest that only the Acrobat version be given to the reader list. This enables our contact person to return a single revised Word version and control the internal editing process.

But, like many of our suggestions, this is often ignored, so the final edited version we get from clients often has these various consistency problems in terms of both language and formatting. We overcome these by having the final draft flyspecked by one of our team members who has not closely read previous drafts. We also carefully compare the final draft to RFP requirements with respect to section headers, outline format, required attachments and so on. Nonetheless, we aren’t perfect and sometimes a sufficiently altered proposal can’t be effectively made consistent again.

Here’s another technique we often suggest to our clients to ferret out inconsistencies in language and formatting in final drafts: give the draft to someone who has good reading/writing skills but has never read the proposal and has no direct knowledge of the project concept, the services provided by your agency, or the RFP. For this person ignorance is strength. A retired uncle or aunt who taught high school English is perfect for this role. Such a reader will not only spot the inconsistencies, but will also likely find logic errors and so on.

Still, it’s important to complete this process well before the deadline. The closer the deadline looms, the more you risk either blowing the deadline or creating worse problems for yourself. A day or two before the deadline is a poor choice for making serious changes—which we’ve seen numerous clients attempt, and drastic last-minute changes rarely turn out well.

* This assumes you haven’t made the mistake of parceling out different proposal sections for different people to write—as is said, a camel, not a horse, will inevitably result from this dubious practice.

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Links: Cash Transfers, Bike Life, Car Costs, FQHCs, Save the Movie!, Homelessness, and More!

* Dear governments: Want to help the poor and transform your economy? Give people cash. This reminds me of the people I knew in high school and college who wanted to “volunteer” or “build houses” in some developing country over spring break; I would usually say something like, “I bet poor people would much rather have the thousands of dollars it takes to fly you there, house you, feed you, and secure you than they want you.” This did not make me popular but is still nonetheless a sentiment I stand by.

* The Netherlands is swamped by bikes, which is pretty cool.

* AAA says that the TCO of a car is $9,000 a year. This and the above link demonstrate that one way to increase the real wealth of many low-income people might be to change the fabric of U.S. cities from one that favors cars to one that favors bikes.

* The secret to Danish happiness; not all lessons transfer but I take Citi Bike (for which I’ve signed up) and similar efforts as a small step in a positive direction.

* “The Humanist Vocation;” I would add that the humanities are extremely important, but the humanities as currently practiced in most universities are not, and the distinction is a key one for understanding why many people may be turning away from them.

* Divorce, Custody, Child Support, and Alimony in Denmark, which arguably has better outcomes than the U.S.

* “A Louisville Clinic Races to Adapt to the Health Care Overhaul,” yet the article fails to even mention FQHCs / Section 330 Providers. Another reporter who is clueless about how human services are actually delivered and the world of grants.

* A Cruel and Unusual Record: The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.

* The End of Car Culture; I view this as a positive development.

* The Best Hope for France’s Young? Get Out.

* Thoughts about rice and men.

* How government co-opted charities. Isaac has more or less been telling me this since I was knee-high to a HUD NOFA.

* “Has peak oil been vindicated or debunked?” A little of both, but mostly vindicated.

* Save the Movie! The 2005 screenwriting book that’s taken over Hollywood—and made every movie feel the same.

* Wealth taxes: A future battleground.

* Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea To Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, And Tenure-Less Historians.

* “In Vancouver, Traffic Decreases as Population Rises.”

* “Hawaii buys homeless people one-way tickets out of town,” which reminds me of a favorite argument about affordable housing: there’s actually a lot of affordable housing in the U.S., it’s just unevenly distributed because most people who nominally care about affordable housing don’t really care about the underlying price structure or those who are priced out. One way to solve the affordable housing problem in places like New York and San Francisco is to buy houses in, say, Detroit, and move people there.

* How the Mars Spirit Rover died, an unexpected moving piece.

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Teams don’t write grants: individual writers do, one word at a time

Teams don’t write proposals. If you hear about a team that is writing a proposal, that translates roughly to “lots meetings are being held, but no one is actually working on the proposal.”

We sometimes hear people at nonprofit and public agencies talk about how they’ve assembled a “team” to write a proposal. For some reason, proposals written by “teams” have a habit of a) not getting done, b) if they are done, being done unevenly at best, and/or c) creating permanent acrimony among team members.

Do you remember “group work” when you were in middle and high school, which meant that one responsible person did the entire project while the other members goofed off and then took as much credit as they could? That’s what you’ll get with proposal writing assignments, only the stakes are higher.

Every time we hear about proposal writing teams, we know that the person talking doesn’t know how proposals actually get written and is probably working on a proposal that won’t be submitted anyway.

For example, we were recently working on a large federal grant proposal for a school district in the midwest. Throughout the engagement, our contact person keep talking about “the team” that was working on the proposal from their end. When the proposal was nearly done—on the Sunday before the deadline—I heard from out contact person, who finally admitted that “the team” had abandoned her and she had to more or less pull an all-nighter by herself to ensure that we were able to finish the submission package.

Saying that you’re “assembling a team” sounds good: one imagines the innumerable scenes in movies and TV shows in which the ultimate crime or cop group gets wrangled together for one big or one last job.* The members look suitably grizzled. They all have nifty specialties. These days there’s inevitably a hacker who can magically “bypass building security.” The leading men are dapper and debonair, the leading women beautiful and feisty. Unfortunately, in the real world, writing is still best done by a single person who can keep the narrative complexity of a difficulty response in their head.

We’ve written about how to write a proposal before, most notably in “One Person, One Proposal: Don’t Split Grant Writing Tasks.” We’re writing about it again because we see the same set of mistakes again and again.

If you’re drafted into a “grant writing team,” be aware that you’ll probably have one of two roles: You’ll end up writing the vast majority of the proposal, or trying to make yourself look good while someone else writes the vast majority of the proposal. No amount of dividing up tasks will solve the essential problem of facing a blank screen, a full RFP, and starting to type.

Isaac’s favorite example of this comes from The Magnificent Seven, which is actually a good movie. The first thirty or so minutes of the movie consists of Yul Brynner collecting his expert gunmen. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, most nonprofit and public agencies don’t have the same needs as a Mexican village beset by bandits. Usually. Those that do, however, might be the subject of another post.

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Grant Writing Acronyms Explained and a Bonus in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill

We’ve added a link to “Acronyms” in Grant Writing Confidential’s header. The new page defines and explains many of the fun acronyms used by grant writers, so if you ever read in an RFP or elsewhere that “a CBO has been dispatched for BBQ to IHEs and the DOL ASAP,” you’ll know that “a community-based organization has been dispatched for barbeque needed by the institutes of higher education and the Department of Labor as soon as possible.”

I’ll reiterate what the post itself says: “More acronyms will be added over time; if you have a suggestion, don’t hesitate to e-mail Jake Seliger.”

On an unrelated note, in “Looking at the Stimulus Bill from a Grant Writer’s Perspective” Isaac predicted:

And any programs that get stripped out of the Stimulus Bill will no doubt re-emerge shortly in new appropriations bills after the dust settles and the press corps has moved on to the next crisis.

That was published Feb. 4. Today, on Feb. 24, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published “Democrats Unveil Spending Bill for Rest of Fiscal ’09,” which says that “House leaders released a $410 billion spending plan for the rest of fiscal 2009, with increases proposed for long-neglected Democratic priorities ranging from health care to education to public housing.” In addition, “The omnibus package […] would raise overall spending by 8.7% from 2008.” In other words, some programs that the Stimulus Bill missed will probably be funded in the new appropriation bill.