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Volunteers: Nonprofits Really Want Their Money, Not Their Bodies

April 20th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

Today’s New York Times has a rarely expressed view (and, almost as rarely, a view that we share): that volunteering is largely a waste of time. In it, Aaron Hurst quotes an anonymous nonprofit executive director saying that “If I get another volunteer I am going to go out of business.”

It’s a common misconception that volunteers help nonprofits to do work that wouldn’t get done otherwise. But volunteers are actually there to keep them involved in the organizations and for purposes of seeking donations—or buying tickets for galas, art auctions, and so forth. The more contact a volunteer has with an organization, the more likely they are to donate. Nonprofits, like other businesses, need money in order to carry out their activities effectively—not untrained volunteers. Volunteer labor is often not worth the money that’s paid for it.

Decades ago, Isaac was the Executive Director of a nonprofit called the Hollywood-Wilshire Fair Housing Council, and he learned quickly to dislike volunteers. Volunteers didn’t know anything about fair housing and rarely had the skills that matched what the nonprofit needed. This is intuitive in your own life. Let’s say you need to get divorced. If a plumber shows up and says, “Gee, I’ll help with the divorce paperwork,” you’re going to be pretty unhappy with the outcome (so is the judge who has to read pleadings written by a plumber). If you have a clogged toilet you are not likely to want a lawyer in a $1,000 suit standing there charging you $350 an hour to scratch his head and ask which side of the plunger goes down.

When Isaac worked in Fair Housing, he realized how much time he spent messing around with volunteers relative to the amount of real work that got done. To him it seemed a waste of time, especially because volunteers would often screwup the work that then had to be redone by staff—but because they were volunteers, no one could say, “You screwed that up and need to do it right.” Consequently, volunteering comes to resemble a game in which volunteers are praised for doing almost anything, no matter how ineptly or counterproductively, like many public school students.

It can be more expensive to do something with volunteers than it is to do something without, in the same way that giving canned food to the homeless is much, much less efficient than giving them equivalent cash.

Wrangling and deploying volunteers is difficult. Let’s say you want to hand out flyers. You have to give them T-shirts, get them breakfast, and transport them—and handing out flyers is not usually fun and exciting. Volunteers who get bored just leave. Mixing volunteers and paid staff in the same activity tends to demoralize both groups, since paid staff are having otherwise paid hours stolen from them, and volunteers feel like they’re not doing work that wouldn’t get done otherwise.

Many would-be volunteers also find working with kids and helping the next generation to be more satisfying than working with average adults or “elders.”* But working with kids today means police background checks, constant supervision, and limited if any one-on-one time. Arranging the police background checks can be expensive and time consuming, and the costs for screwing up the background checks or not doing them properly could be catastrophic.

Finally, as Tyler Cowen points out in Average is Over, low-skill labor is not in short supply. The number of people willing to work for $9 an hour is high. The news is filled with stories about 20,000 people applying to work at every new Wal-Mart. In addition, anyone who wants to learn about teamwork or whatever else volunteering is supposed to teach can try working at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart. Those places are as good as anyone for learning such virtues and at least as good as volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.

To return to Hurst, he also says something that’ll resonate with our readers:

Working in a nonprofit is no guarantee of having meaning in your daily life. Many nonprofit employees lack purpose in their work. Their organization may be doing inspiring work in the world, but the day-to-day job doesn’t generate much involvement.

Find meaning elsewhere. There is nothing intrinsically not-meaningful in working for a corporation. In the past decade who has provided more net happiness to the world: Apple Computer or every nonprofit in America? It’s not an answerable question but one could create a reasonable set of arguments for each side in a debate.

In the grant world, there seems to be a general trend away from volunteering: we don’t see many RFPs that require volunteers or even mention volunteers. But almost every proposal requires collaboration with other organizations. That’s ascendent. When even the Department of Labor or Education stops talking about volunteers, you know the idea is dead.


* Free proposal word here; I prefer the more accurate, direct term “old people.”

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Vaporware, the Media, and the Dept. of Labor’s “Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training” (TAACCCT) Grant Program

April 16th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

The Associated Press is bringing vaporware, an annoying feature of the tech world, to grants: in “Obama, Biden announce $600M for competitive job grants,” an anonymous AP reporter manages to spend 746 words blathering on about job training grants (a topic almost as dear to our hearts as shocking celebrity nudes is to Us Weekly), but the reporter doesn’t manage to learn or say the obvious: name of the program. All that the reporter manages is “Applications were to be available starting Wednesday and due by July 7.”

Which is completely wrong.

Fortunately, the Department of Labor’s website has a little more detail in their exhaustively headlined story, “$450M in US Labor Department grants available to expand job-driven training partnerships between community colleges and employers,” but the DOL says that the program is called “Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training”—which readers of our e-mail grant newsletter ought to already recognize at TAACCCT. (The DOL pronounces it “tacit,” though we sometimes use more colorful pronunciations.)

More fortunately still, Grants.gov actually rode to the rescue with the full SGA today: “Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grants Program.” There are 50 grants available with grants to $20,000,000.

If you’re a community college and reading this notice, you want to apply for this program. Pity that you won’t learn as much from the popular press reporting. There are some mildly better articles—like Maya Rhodan’s in Time—but most of what you see in the media about TAACCT is garbage.

EDIT: The last TAACCCT reference we can find is from 2011, when it appeared in our e-mail newsletter; that year even had $500 million available, but the RFP for this year actually says $450 million available.

→ No CommentsTags: Advice · Government · Grants · Job Training

Don’t Overmatch: You Need to Look Like You Need the Money

April 13th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

As you no doubt know, many grant programs require matching funds, and we’ve exposed the secrets of matching funds. But in that post we didn’t mention one other key aspect of matching funds: don’t overmatch.

If there’s a 10% match, get a 10% match—and no more. There’s a signaling hazard: If you come up with a 90% match when only 10% is required, you’re demonstrating that you don’t need the money because you already (theoretically) have the money necessary to run the program. This in turn implies the dreaded supplantation problem, which is about as welcome in grant proposals as Sauron is in Gondor.

Beyond that top level reason, there are others. Let’s say you have a $250,000 project cost and in your proposal you say that a huge match will bring the project cost to $450,000. Somehow get funded anyway: now you’ll have to spend $450,000 on the project as part of the contract with the funder. Whatever you say the project cost is, that must be the project cost in the eyes of the Federal government. If you happen to get a project audit, you’re going to have to account for every dollar of $450,000. In the real world, people who happen to have an extra $200,000 sitting around can just add it to the program anyway, without promising to the Federal government that they’ll spend the extra $200,000.

There’s also the fact that funders calculate matches in two different ways: as a percentage of the grant or as a percentage of the total project cost. The first is easy to calculate: 10% of a $1,000,000 grant = $100,000. In the second method, however, its not quite as simple: Assume a $1,000,000 grant and a required match of 10% of the total project cost.

If you propose a $100,000 match in this scenario, you’re actually proposing a 9% match ($100,000/$1,100,000 = 9%). To get to a 10% match, the match must be $110,000 ($1,000,000 grant + $110,000 match = $1,110,000 total project cost and .10% of $1,110,000 =$110,000). Always make sure you know which method is being used by the funder before you start gathering match letters. In scenario two, if you document a $100,000 match, the proposal will likely be rejected as technically deficient and not scored. In Monopoly terms, you do not pass go and do not collect $200.

The only exception to the rule that says you should avoid overmatching happens when a program offers extra points for extra leveraging. YouthBuild is a prime example. In this case, if the required match is 10% but there are bonus points for a 25% match, applicants should find a larger match—but only to the point that gets the extra points.

In general, though we counsel clients not to overmatch. But, as we’ve said before, we’re like lawyers: we offer our clients advice, based on our 20 plus years of business experience, and they’re free to accept or reject it. Our advice is good and if we say that a thing should without doubt be done one way and not another its prudent to follow of advice (there are many other occasions in which there is no right answer, only sets of tradeoffs, and when that’s true we describe the tradeoffs). We were once working for a rural school district on a Department of Education proposal. The superintendent wanted to claim the value of all of their school buildings as a match, and therefore wanted to offer something like a $20 million match. We counseled him not to, and he didn’t.

The grant was funded.

In addition, take care about where the match is coming from. In most cases, federal dollars cannot be directly matched with other federal dollars, usually with the exception of CDBG funds. If you do, and anyone notices, your application will again likely be thrown out.

Anyway, there’s a pernicious line of thinking that goes like this: if some is good, more must be better, right? Wrong: if you take more Tylenol than you’re supposed to you could end up dead or on the waiting list for a liver transplant. Working out or running is great, until you lift so heavy or run so far that you hurt yourself.*

Maybe the overmatching rule seems unreasonable. Much of the grant world is a set of imagined behaviors and situations that don’t correspond well to reality. The matching fund process is one of those fictions that applicants have to go through, like a marriage of convenience to get a visa, to get to the end goal of the money—or, in the case of the marriage of convenience, to get to America.**


* Having done this recently, it’s a salient example that’s on my mind.

** I’m reading a wonderful book called A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward, which is a collection of pithy advice columns for Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland in the early 20th Century, so the idea of making it to the promised land of America is on my mind.

But many of the immigrants discovered that, although America was a much better place than Czarist Russia (it’s also a better place than contemporary Russia for that matter), the streets were not and are not paved with gold, and all of God’s children have problems. In my own family, lore has it that one set of my grandparents used a marriage of convenience to escape Nazi Germany.

→ No CommentsTags: Advice · Clients · Government · Grants

Guest Post: Tales of the Grant Manager

April 4th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

This guest post was inspired by “Grant Writer Vs. Grant Management: Two Essential Nonprofit Job Functions Separated by a Common Word” and describes what a Grant Manager does and how that differs from what grant writers do. Like many of our guest posts, it is published anonymously to protect the guilty and the innocent.

I’ve been a Grant Manager for about two years. I had spent much of my career as a public sector urban planner, but the Great Recession devastated the planning field. Like a lot of planners, I was on the chopping block for a layoff. I ended up taking a position as Grant Manager for a medium-sized community development nonprofit with a really excellent reputation.

As a planner I’d written plenty of grants, so it was all old hat. Before I joined my current organization, there were two grant-related positions, both vacant when I started: a Grants Manager and a Contracts Administrator, with the former handling new funder research and proposal writing and the latter dealing with outcomes management. But I was left to do both tasks. The higher-ups in the organization thought that both functions could be managed by one staff person (me) temporarily, and, if it worked out, permanently.

It was completely unmanageable. Those first few months were a blur. I was fortunate in that the organization eventually authorized me to interview candidates. When I was attempting to do two jobs, 60+ hour weeks were the norm.

There was just not enough time to pursue new sources of funding, write the proposals, pull together the umpteen redundant attachments for each proposal, AND ensure that we are doing everything that we said we would do in our existing grant agreements and contracts. The latter function requires a whole separate set of skills, as you have to pry reams of time-sensitive (and when involving individual clients, often confidential) data out of staff that are already overworked to begin with. It’s easy to become the person that program staff dreads to speak to. It takes a certain personality to get that information without becoming as welcomed as a knock on the door from the KGB.

Fortunately, I managed to hire someone who is absolutely excellent at every aspect of the work. He and I are such a good team that we should be able to wear capes to work, honestly. We make up for one another’s weaknesses—I’m a stronger writer and he’s an ace at data analysis, spreadsheets, etc. He and I cross train one another whenever possible, which certainly comes in handy during vacations, or when a big deadline looms and it’s “All Hands on Deck” to get a giant Federal proposal out the door or to get an annual performance report compiled and submitted on time.

An example of the kind of skills one needs as a Grants Manager: I was at a recent info session conducted by a longtime government funder with whom we were seeking renewed funding. As soon as the presentation starts, the government rep conducting the session says “Now everyone, I want to emphasize that this is all just an informal conversation—we’re all here to do everything we can to serve our clients, so no secrets in this room—we are all on the same team”.

Present at this session were staff from several other nonprofit organizations seeking this same funding—of those present, only my organization and one other nonprofit were current grantees. The other two attendees were gunning to replace us. Like chickens who get to vote on dinner, we were not in favor of serving ourselves.

A staffer from one of the non-funded nonprofits asks the government rep, “So, based on the amount of potential funding available, how many clients should we plan to serve?” The gov’t rep smiles and says “we want to see what you all come back with.” Surprisingly, the staffer from the other current vendor says “we serve around 30 per year.” I’m sitting there thinking two things at the same time: “why would you surrender this critical piece of information so easily? Dumb.” and “is this some kind of eleven dimensional chess move?”

The eyes of the other nonprofit reps and the government rep all turn to me, so I state “yeah, we serve the same number”—which was the truth, but not a piece of data I had planned to surrender. There was no getting out of it. Thankfully, I was able to get through the meeting without having to give up any other “secrets,” so to speak.

This was one of those situations where you can win the battle, but lose the war—I could’ve said nothing, or said a number lower or higher than the truth—but the government rep knows how many clients its vendors serve. There was no winning, and it doubtlessly would’ve been worse had I said nothing, because we are “all on the same team” – even though the reality is that we’re actually at each other’s throats to get the same pot of funding to pay for staffing, fringe, OTPS, and all of the other things you need to make a nonprofit work. It’s a subtle dance, for sure.

Meanwhile, as I’m doing that, my Contracts guy is back at the office harassing program staff (in the most charming and diplomatic way possible) for data needed for a quarterly report, so it’s all good.


Got something to say about grants, grant writing, nonprofits, or government? Send us an e-mail. We’re always interested in hearing from other people with unusual knowledge and acerbic wit.

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Yet Another Grant Writing Lesson from KU Basketball: Don’t Expect a Savior

March 30th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · No Comments

Faithful readers will know that I’m a KU Jayhawks basketball fan and that I’ve written a few posts, like this one, relating KU’s basketball fortunes to grant writing.

This year, the Jayhawks were bounced from the NCAA tournament last weekend in the round of 32. A disappointing and inglorious end to an altogether lackluster season, given that KU had freshman phenom Andrew Wiggins, the number one 2013 college prospect, who was billed as the “Canadian LeBron” and showcased on the cover of SI before playing a college game. As the season unfolded, it became very obvious very quickly that Wiggs, despite his skill, was no LeBron and was amazingly inconsistent.

In this era of “One and Done” (OAD) college basketball players, all big-time basketball coaches face a dilemma: should they go all out to sign a OAD kid like Wiggs or build the team around mid-level players who are likely to stick around for two to four years? Head Coach Bill Self (HCBS) has been at KU since 2003—around the same time the NBA forbade players from entering the draft straight out of high school (as Kobe Bryant and LeBron did), causing OAD college players to become common.

For the first few yeas, HCBS recruited lesser talents but did very well overall, including winning the NCAA title in 2008. Starting in 2010, however, he seemed to switch gears and recruited a succession of OADs, including Josh Shelby, Ben McLemore, and Wiggs this year. Each of these can’t-miss players turned out to be less than overwhelming as big-time college players. KU actually did better without OADs.

As I write this, the Final Four teams for this year are set: U Conn, Florida, Wisconsin and Kentucky. With the exception of Kentucky, whose coach John Calipari is perhaps the biggest OAD recruiter of all, the rest take the alternate, “let’s recruit quality, but non-phenom, players” route. This is particularly true of Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, who only recruits players that commit to staying for four years. After 13 straight years of NCAA Tournament frustration, Coach Ryan’s old-school approach finally paid off with a Final Four birth. Next week, we’ll see is this basketball tortoise beats Coach Calipari, the ultimate basketball hare.

This basketball stuff has plenty to do with grant writing. In the nonprofit world, it’s easy to be seduced by the prospect of a superstar fund raising or grant writing savior, who’s going to magically make money rain from the heavens. While those of us at Seliger + Associates like to think we’re about as good as it gets regarding grant writers, we’re not going be be your savior. As Elvis Costello put it, walking on water won’t make me a miracle man. Like a quality college basketball team, building a successful grant writing effort involves more than the grant writer.

Chemx photoFor example, while we can write a compelling proposal about anything for any funder, we can’t get the letters of commitment that may be required and we can’t hit the grants.gov submit button for you. As we’re written about many times, grant writing, like all writing and most artistic pursuits, is inherently a solitary activity—one person, one computer and lots of coffee made in the best ever Chemex Coffeemaker,* but the grant submission process is a team effort.

It’s helpful to have your target area/target population data assembled for analysis by the grant writer, someone to charm potential collaborators, a finance person who understands the agency’s budget needs and a system for tracking grant outcomes. Just as every coach in American says at some point, “there’s no ‘I’ in team,” there’s no “I” in grant (I know there’re two “i’s” in writing). Having been a consultant for 21 years, I could tell lots of stories of clients who have mistaken us for miracle workers, but I don’t kiss and tell. Usually.

Grant writing isn’t the only field that suffers from the New Jesus complex, but it’s the one we’re most familiar with and we’ve seen may New Jesuses come and go from various organizations. Quality organizations don’t spring from the efforts of a single individual working over a short period of time.

It’s best to build a grant writing and grant management team for the long haul, not to chase this year’s championship, no matter how real or ephemeral. A good grant writer like us can get you to the Final Four, but the most successful “individuals” are surrounded by a good team if they’re going to win it all, year after year.


* If a Chemex was good enough for James Bond in From Russia, with Love, it’s good enough for me. I’ve been using one for about 40 years, but then again, I also like my martinis—shaken not stirred. Bonus points for any readers who remember who Captain Nash was. Hint: beware of a guy who orders red wine and fish. To quote J. Bond, “I should have known.”

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Counting the OJJDP Second Chance Act Chances

March 29th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

There are a lot of second chances in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) Second Chance Act programs. The latest to the hit the street is the Comprehensive Statewide Juvenile Reentry Systems Reform Planning Program, which proves that OJJDP doesn’t just inflict unwieldy acronyms on itself but also brands its programs the same way (“CSJRSRPP,” anyone?).

This latest program has relatively limited eligibility, however: only “state juvenile correctional agencies, juvenile justice agencies that oversee the reentry process for youth placed in local correctional facilities post-disposition, or the state planning agency” (or organizations partnering with one of those) can get a grant.

But don’t be discouraged by narrow eligibility requirements. CSJRSRPP isn’t the only Second Chance Act program: others include “Technology Careers Training Demonstration Projects for Incarcerated Adults and Juveniles,” “Mentoring Grants to Nonprofit Organizations,” “Reentry Program for Adult Offenders with Co-Occurring Substance Abuse and Mental Health Disorders,” and, more simply, “Prisoner Reentry Initiative.”

Organizations interested in prisoner reentry—which should be a lot of organizations, because it and job training are among current grant waves—just need to find the particular program or programs that work for them. Just being a “Second Chance Act” program isn’t enough. But these programs have enough money available to make them worth not just knowing about but studying for any organization even remotely interested in the subject.

→ No CommentsTags: Advice · Government · Grants · Programs

A Report from the Front: Close Reading This Year’s DOL YouthBuild Solicitation for Grant Applications (SGA)

March 24th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

We wrote the very first funded YouthBuild grant for a Southern California client in 1994 and have written funded YouthBuild proposals for virtually every funding round since, which means that we have an unusually nuanced perspective on changes over time.* We’ve noticed two big changes and one minor change in this year’s SGA: market labor market information (LMI) data is out, green construction skills training is out, and the SGA is less structured.

Why?

First, LMI data has been a prominent feature of every YouthBuild SGA since the program was transferred from HUD to DOL about ten years ago. Applicants were supposed to demonstrate that construction skills were in high demand in their area, usually using phantom data, since the LMI data provided by states—the only source for such info—lags the real market by at least a couple years.

Those of you who have been alive and reading any news in the period from 2009 – 2013 know that Bad Things happened to the housing market. Household formation dropped like my Manhattan off a rooftop bar,** housing prices plummeted, and developers stopped building new housing or rehabilitating existing housing. Some went bankrupt. Today’s labor market data probably indicates that there is little support for the need for more construction workers. Requiring data that won’t support need anywhere makes YouthBuild as a program look stupid, and as all political observers know the ideal way to avoid information that makes you look stupid is to pretend it doesn’t exist.

LMI data has always been dubious because no one has a crystal ball; macro data doesn’t tell you much. Forward projections rarely work, and as Nassim Taleb points out (in colorful language) in The Black Swan, no one knows what’s going to happen in markets, labor or otherwise. It’s inherently not possible to know.

Jobs are growing at the low end (in healthcare, service, etc.) and, to a lesser but real extent, the very high end (technology, engineering). But no one can really take a large number of low-income high school dropouts and get them ready to work for Facebook or build the next WhatsApp. Entry-level jobs in fast food or caring for old folks, however, don’t demand a lot of training.

Secondly, green construction training is missing. Training for so called “green jobs” and “green construction skills” first appeared in YouthBuild SGAs about five or six years ago, more or less corresponding with the start of the Obama administration and the Stimulus Bill. As best we can tell, nobody’s talking about green jobs after the A123 Battery debacle and the like, and “green jobs” were never well-defined; “green practices” make more sense, but they really mean energy efficiency, which has been around since the energy shocks of the mid 1970s: double or triple-paned windows, high-efficiency appliances, and perhaps most importantly multi-family housing.

As Edward Glaeser points out in Triumph of the City, multi-family housing is by far the greenest way to live by all sorts of metrics. I’m living in New York on the 22nd floor of an apartment building; because New York’s density means that public transportation works, I don’t own a car. No one lives a greener lifestyle than me (I enjoy patting myself on the back).

To tie points one and two together, I’ll note that Isaac lives in Downtown Santa Monica, where many new multifamily buildings are going up. He got to talking to a foreman on one of the projects, and the foreman said that the buildings aren’t even really built on-site anymore: components come in larger and larger pieces, and then they’re assembled like Tinker Toys. The real greening of those building isn’t happening on-site; it’s happening in distant factories. And these buildings just don’t require as many people to build because so much is done off-site.

In much of the U.S., the real need for housing choice and affordable housing starts at the regulatory level, not the worker level. Matt Yglesias’s The Rent is Too Damn High observes that, in many places, permitting and local development rules hold back affordable housing because they restrict supply in the face of growing demand. New York and Seattle need to be able to create new housing before they need more construction workers. The Federal government has limited control over local land-use practices.

Finally, the SGA’s narrative section is less structured than it used to be. This is mostly a grant wave. Any program narrative can be more structured or less structured. The more structured program narratives will say things like “2. Program Design” then “a. Education and Occupational Skills Training” and then “Factor one: The evidence that the type of academic instruction offered…” Less structured program narratives will say things like, “What’re you going to do once you get all those damn kids in a room?” and let the applicant bloviate as long or as short as the applicant wishes.

We tend to like the latter version better, both because it’s more fun to write and because the resulting proposal tends to be more fun to read. Funders, however, can’t resist meddling and directing, so they tend to like to tell applicants what to do.


* If I live long enough maybe I’ll write the very last YouthBuild funded grant application.

** It was an accident.

→ No CommentsTags: Government · Grants · HUD · Programs

My First Bidders Conference, Or, How I Learned What I Already Knew

March 14th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

In January I went to and got kicked out of my first bidders conference. For those of you not familiar with the practice, bidders conferences are largely pointless schmooz-fests for potential grant applicants. Aside from being there to show the flag to program officers and to preen in front of potential competitors, bidders conferences are useless, because almost every RFP will issue a disclaimer like this one:

if the NYCDOE issues an addendum with a digest of the inquiries made and answers given at the pre-proposal conference, proposers shall rely on the information contained in such addendum rather than those given orally at the conference.

So applicants can’t rely on anything that’s said at a bidders conference. They can only rely on the words in the RFP. As a result, going to a bidders conference will at best confuse them. Anyone who sees something amiss in an RFP would be better served to seek an amendment rather than pester the low-level bureaucrats at a bidders conference. Bidders conferences are great for grant writing consultants, however, because they gather a lot of potential clients in one small space.

Back to my story about being ejected. I arrived at the New York City Department of Education’s (NYC DOE) Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) bidders conference a few minutes early, with marketing fliers in one hand and business cards in the other. Almost no one else was there, so I chatted with the staffers hanging out. There were at least four and maybe half a dozen DOE staff there. I had no idea what they were doing, other than make-work.

People slowly started showing up. A staffer said I could leave flyers next the sign-in table. I said hi and chatted with whoever was wandering by until an older DOE staffer showed up, grabbed the flyers, and brought them over to the recycling bin. I asked her not to chuck them—we put time and energy to getting them made! She gave them back and told me to leave.

As usual I played jailhouse lawyer—public facility, First Amendment, etc.—but she wasn’t having any of it and found a fat security rent-a-cop guy (the conference was being held in downtown Brooklyn at a small college auditorium) who had no doubt kicked many people out of many places.

I left, though I suspect that there’s a real First Amendment case to be made: I wasn’t interfering with the proceedings and it’s a public meeting. But my goal was to get nonprofits to hire us to write their UPK proposals, not be an ACLU test case.*

It was January in New York, which meant that nasty weather was a possibility and that day it was indeed raining. Nonetheless the attendees did show up and took my flyers, which, in keeping with our general style, are bright, eye-catching and obnoxious (but very effective).

About 30 to 40 percent of the bidders looked at me like I’d just taken a dump in front of them. Another 20 or so percent were actively excited. The rest seemed confused. By and large, nonprofit personnel don’t want to be seen consorting with grant writers, much as married men don’t want to be seen with ladies of the evening, so they don’t want to smile and say hi. One woman asked where we were three years ago, when she’d first gotten her UPK contract. Grant writing is one of those things, like house cleaning, that people want to pay someone else to do.

Despite the reactions I got in the flesh, I can say that based on the number of calls we got and UPK proposals we wrote, it’s apparent that a lot of people liked us regardless of how they behaved with their peers watching.

I look forward to the next Bidder’s Conference. When I was too young to attend these events, Isaac used to go to them wearing a brightly colored Seliger + Associates T-shirt, emblazoned with our logo, 800 number and slogan, “We know where the money is!”

We did then and still do.


* I am an ACLU member: I may disagree with what you see but will fight for your right to say it.

→ No CommentsTags: RFPs · Stories

Grant Writer Vs. Grant Management: Two Essential Nonprofit Job Functions Separated by a Common Word

March 9th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · 4 Comments

George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde allegedly said, “England and America are two nations separated by a common language.” “Grant Writer” and “Grant Manager” are two allegedly related functions separated by a common word: grant. Many nonprofits and public agencies combine the functions of Grant Writer and Grant Manager into a single position, often called the Grant Coordinator.

This is not a good idea.

This bit of common organizational stupidity was recently brought up by a faithful reader, frequent commentator and now-former grant writing consultant competitor (we’ll call him Milo). As Milo put it in an email, after several years of being a grant writing consultant, he’s given up* and decided to “come in from the [consulting] cold.” He’s been offered a job at a fairly large nonprofit ($13 million annual budget) as their combined Grant Writer/Grant Manager, even though he has no management experience.

Milo’s question: “At what size do nonprofit organizations typically make grant development and management separate jobs?” Unlike with new latest remake of Godzilla, size does not matter and I advised him that nonprofits and public agencies, small and large, usually combine these disparate functions, apparently only because the word “grant” is in both job titles. I assume this happens because most senior managers actually have no idea of what a grant writer does.

Having had the unenviable experience of having been the “Grant Coordinator,” albeit over 35 years ago when I worked for the woebegone City of Lynwood, I assured Milo that grant writing has little to do with grant management. As GWC readers know, a grant writer is essentially a Steppenwolf—a solitary figure who spends long hours alone sitting at a computer, churning out proposals. Coffee, snacks, and books go in and a proposal comes out.

To be a grant writer, one has to like working alone, be a good and fast writer, be unafraid of deadlines and have an active imagination about how to structure programs in the proposal world. The job of a grant manager, by contrast, is all about extracting fiscal and program information from line staff regarding existing grants and then regurgitating the info back to funders on convoluted forms and stultifying reports that nobody reads.

The grant writer is usually respected and/or feared by other staff, as they are the organization’s warrior, whose job is to conduct single mortal combat with a RFP dragon, over and over again, to keep the paychecks flowing and the lights on. The grant manager is typically hated and shunned by line staff, since the grant manager is always badgering them for performance data, and, even worse, outcome data. In military terms, the grant writer is the tip of the spear and the grants manager is a classic REMF (“Rear Echelon Mother Fucker”).

Assuming one has the skills and no fear of working without a net, it’s much more fun to be a grant writer than a grant manager. To use a scientific terms, being a grant manager blows.


* I wish Milo well. Having been in business for 21 years, we’ve seen lots of consulting competitors rise and and eventually give up. Being a grant writer is hard, but being a successful grant writing consultant is much harder, as Milo and many others have learned.

→ 4 CommentsTags: Advice · Nonprofits · Questions

Grant Writing Links: Prosperity Despite Heroin, Bedrooms, Drug War Danger, Google Fiber, Real Prosperity, DuckDuckGo and More

March 5th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

* “Despite Heroin Epidemic, Vermont Is Prospering.” The heroin story may be a bogus trend story, but it’s also possible that many people can enjoy drugs responsibly and be otherwise functional.

* Are Bedrooms Superfluous? The next-generation Murphy bed.

* “How the Drug War Disappeared the Jury Trial,” which everyone needs to read and which should also scare everyone who does read it; at what point did the “War on Drugs” become more dangerous than drugs themselves?

* Fight poverty by giving poor people money.

* Why Google Fiber will never come to Seattle; this is both important and depressing.

* “Why Does A Good Kettle Cost $90+?” Since I started drinking tea I have wondered about this and now have an answer. The Hacker News discussion is also good, except for the top comment.

* “The federal government has spent nearly a billion dollars to help poor couples stay together—with almost nothing to show for it. So why aren’t we pulling the plug?” One could ask the same question and give the same answers for any number of federal (and state, and local) programs that fail the same test.

* Divorce Corp: A Movie Review, which is really a society review that should scare you.

* Real Prosperity:

Munk points out that it’s easy to help people have more stuff than they otherwise would have. That’s called charity. The much harder challenge–and the one Sachs tackled–is creating growth, the possibility of future improvement.

* “Fight Over Effective Teachers Shifts to Courtroom.” Brilliant.

* “How the left’s embrace of busing hurt the cause of integration;” file under “unintended consequences.”

* The terrifying surveillance case of Brandon Mayfield.

* “High cost of ‘affordable’,” or in the words of Tyler Cowen, “How to build truly cheap housing for the poor.” We have the technologically necessary to lower housing costs in many places like Portland, Seattle, New York, and L.A.—we just choose, politically, not to deploy it, per Matt Yglesias’s recent article “How Bill de Blasio Can Fix NYC Housing: He needs to build more of it—a lot more.”

* Inside DuckDuckGo, Google’s Tiniest, Fiercest Competitor, which I use as my primary search engine:

How could DuckDuckGo, a tiny, Philadelphia-based startup, go up against Google? One way, he wagered, was by respecting user privacy. Six years later, we’re living in the post-Snowden era, and the idea doesn’t seem so crazy. [. . .] Simply put, they’re hardcore about privacy.

* “A Star in a Bottle: An audacious plan to create a new energy source could save the planet from catastrophe. But time is running out.”

* Wisconsin tires of public-sector union rent-seeking and offers a model for other states.

* “What good are children?

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