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How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse

August 2nd, 2015 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

In most ways computers have made our lives better. In some, however, they’ve made our lives worse.* In grant writing, computers have enabled a level of neurotic, anxious behavior that was simply impractical before frictionless communications. Some of those problems include:

1. More drafts.

Isaac existed before computers. Well, technically, so did I, but I wasn’t writing proposals. In the pre-computer era, most proposals only went through two drafts: a first and a final. First drafts were written long-hand on legal pads, dictated, or roughly typed. The second/final draft would be typed by a secretary with great typing skills. Still, the final draft usually had typos, “white out” blotches and lacked any formatting apart from paragraph indents and tabs to create “tables.” Since proposals couldn’t logistically go through numerous drafts or interim drafts, two drafts were sufficient.

The perpetual editing make possible by computers also means that we can do something, someone else can do something (that is possibly wrong), and then we have to fix the messed up problems. Versioning can be endless, and in the last couple of months we’ve gotten into several seemingly unhappy versioning loops with clients. Versioning loops don’t make anyone happy, but the easy editability of documents means that it’s tempting for everyone to have a say (and everyone to make edits that later have to be carefully reverted). Computer editing also makes it more tempting to change project concepts mid-stream, which is not a good idea.

2. Longer drafts.

In keeping with point one, proposals can now be much, much longer. We’ve worked on some Head Start drafts that topped out around 100 pages. That’s ridiculous, but computers make it possible in general to write far longer drafts. “Longer” is not necessarily “better.” A longer draft has more room for internal inconsistencies (of the sort that can kill your application, as described at the link).

Longer drafts fatigue writer and reader. We’re the iron men of writers, so we of course never feel fatigue. But few writers are as sharp at page 80 of a proposal as they are at page 10. Few readers read page 80 with the same care as page 10. Isaac and occasionally speculate about how funny it would be to drop a sentence, late in a proposal, like “I’ll give you $20 if you read this sentence” or “Don’t you think 50 Shades of Grey really does have a legitimate point?” We’d never do that, but we bet that if we did, few reviewers would notice.

3. More screwing around and eternal availability.

In ye olden days, one had to call someone to express an idea or make a change or just to badger them. Since fax machines weren’t common until the 80s, drafts to other offices/readers had to be mailed or sent by courier. Copies were harder to make, so editors had to do one review, not 12. Today we’re available for eternal electronic pinpricks via email, and yet every pinprick has a cost. We mostly ignore those costs, but they add up.

It’s easier to spend way too much time changing “that” to “which” and “which” to “that.” Sometimes such changes are appropriate but too many of them lead to tremendous drag on the entire project. They cost scarce attention.

4. Convoluted instructions.

Before computers, attachments were (generally) fewer, RFPs were shorter, and instructions were clearer because 20 people didn’t have the opportunity to “contribute” their thoughts and words. Now instructions can be infinitely convoluted, weird data sources can be more easily managed, and random attachments of almost infinite size can be ordered.

Sometimes, too, applicants will be tempted to add extra attachments because they can. Don’t do that.

5. Data mandates that don’t exist, or don’t exist properly.

We’ve written before about phantom data and its attendant problems. Computers and the Internet often tempt funders into asking for more esoteric data. Before the Internet, most data had to be manually, laboriously extracted from Census tables and similar paper-based sources. This meant long hours at a library or Census office. Now it’s possible to request all sorts of weird data, and sometimes that data can’t be found. Or, if various applicants do find it, it comes from all sorts of methodologies that may not be comparable. Poverty rates are one good example of this. Is the 2013 poverty rate 14.5% or 4.8%? Depends on the data used. And that’s for a well-known metric! Others are worse.

6. Email has also shifted the “Cover-Your Ass” (CYA) memo to the “CYA” email.

The famous CYA memo predates email, but email has made conversations that would once have been ephemeral permanent. Anything you say or write can be used to hang you, as innumerable politicians (like former Congressman Weiner) and everyday people have learned. This has consequences of all sorts, as teenagers have discovered in the course of sexting and as even spies have learned (that link goes to an article about a totally crazy hit the Israelis pulled in Dubai: if you abandon this post to read it, I wouldn’t blame you at all).

Permanent records mean that nothing can be ignored and that everything can be interpreted in the worst possible light. It is now possible for clients to send us (and us to send them) dozens of emails in a way that never happened in the snail-mail world. In a snail-mail world, each missive took a day or two send, receive, and reply.

The new email world means we—and clients—can waste fantastic amounts of time mulling over minor issues and misunderstandings via email. Anything sent by email lives forever, so it must be written with great care because it can later be used to hang the writer. Every word has to be considered as if it would be judged by a judge and jury. That means a level of precision is necessary in a way that wouldn’t be necessary on a phone call.

7. Conclusion

In Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, Kentaro Toyama writes: “It’s often said that technology is a cost-saver; or that ‘big data’ makes business problems transparent; or that social media brings people together; or that digital systems level playing fields. These kinds of statements are repeated so often that few people question them. Yet none of them is a die-cast truth.” Toyama is right, and we’ve witnessed the problems of relentless communication, which let people endlessly niggle over minor, unimportant points, while misunderstanding bigger, more important pictures.

This post is an attempt to share the bigger picture.


* For one example of how things are worse, see Alone Together by Sherry Turkle or Man Disconnected: How technology has sabotaged what it means to be male by Philip Zimbardo. We aren’t luddites and aren’t condemning technology—indeed, our business couldn’t exist as it does without technology—but we are cognizant of the drawbacks.

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More on Using the Critical Path Method (CPM) in Grant Writing

July 26th, 2015 · by Isaac Seliger · 1 Comment

This post expands on an issue raised in “No Calls, No Bother: ‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule’ and the Grant Writer’s Work.” Specifically, the critical path method (CPM), which is a jargon-sounding acronym that actually conveys useful information. CPM has been around for decades and is commonly used in construction, software development, and manufacturing. CPM can also be used effectively in developing human service project concepts and writing compelling grant proposals that accurately reflect the project concept. We write proposals for some federal programs, like the Department of Labor YouthBuild program and the HRSA Service Area Competition (SAC), that are essentially cookbooks. YouthBuild and SAC proposals should reflect standard project concepts required by the funder.

But most federal and state RFPs, as well as foundation guidelines, allow the applicant some creative leeway. In these situations, our clients often only have a general idea of their project concept until they read our first proposal draft. This first draft conforms to the often conflicting RFP/guidelines structure but also expresses the key 5 Ws and H that every proposal should delineate.

First drafts often make the lightbulb go off, and the client will make complex and sometimes contradictory or irrelevant changes to the draft—but ignore what’s really important, like missing data, required partners, management staff experiences, etc. This is likely because most nonprofits don’t use CPM, relying instead on brainstorming and visioning exercises led by organizational development facilitators or, even worse, the management team.

Here’s how to use and think about CPM in grant writing:

  • Figure out the critical path. This starts with identifying required proposal elements and attachments. To be considered for any grant, a proposal must first be deemed technically correct by the funding agency following submission. To assist our clients, we email a documents memo immediately after we scope the project concept. A member of our team goes through the RFP in great detail, marking up relevant sections. The documents memo is prepared based on this close reading and sent to the client; it is a bulleted list that includes items needed to complete the submission package. In effect the documents memo is not only a check list but a layout of the critical path to achieve the goal of submitting a technically correct application in advance of the deadline. Still, many clients ignore all or parts of the documents memo until near the deadline, focusing instead on non-critical path issues like how changing “which” to “that,” inserting PR boilerplate randomly in the draft, and the like.
  • Make sure the proposal includes relevant data to build the needs statement logic argument. Our first drafts usually have data we’ve found along with blanks for any information we can’t have, like socioeconomic characteristics of current clients or client outcome metrics. In second drafts, we only leave in critical blanks, and any that remain unknown get re-written as generalities in the final draft.* Some final proposals are sent in missing obvious CPM elements, because, as bad as this is, it’s better than blowing the deadline. We’ve seen proposals that are missing critical pieces get funded anyway.
  • Look for internal inconsistencies in the narrative, which will creep in through edits by multiple editors/readers from your agency as the narrative goes from first to final draft. Then make sure the narrative is consistent with the budget, budget narrative, org chart, job descriptions and other attachments. This sounds easy but readers generate opinions exponentially, not linearly.
  • Make sure the proposal has all required attachments, no matter what, such as letters of support and/or collaboration, financial statements, audits, 501(c)(3) letters of determination, etc. This is where the check list aspect of the documents memo comes in handy.
  • Resist the urge to include non-requested attachments unless the RFP/guidelines specifically allow this. Even then, be judicious in selecting attachments. No grant reviewer wants to see a newspaper clipping of your Executive Director smiling on the Oprah set. For online submissions like grants.gov, it’s important that the complete application file doesn’t bloat to 20 MB by including huge attachments like drawings/pictures/videos, or you might encounter upload challenges.
  • Carefully follow formatting instructions regarding font type and size, margins, page limits, character/word count limits for online submissions that have text input boxes, etc.

As daunting a gauntlet** as the above may seem, it’s actually not that hard if you approach the process with CPM in mind and keep your eye on the prize of winning the grant, not internal management egos. Grant writing is about methodical attention to detail more than it is about anything else. A grant proposal is many things, but it is definitely not a PR piece.


* We a prepare first, second and final draft. More drafts are not needed and don’t help, as the more drafts and readers you have, the more inconsistencies are likely to creep in. You won’t see them because you’ll have read the drafts too many times, but they’ll stand out in neon to a fresh grant reviewer.

** The correct usage is actually gantlet, but gauntlet reads and sounds better and has become accepted usage.

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More on Developing Federal Grant Budgets: Stay in the Proposal World, Not the Operations World

July 19th, 2015 · by Isaac Seliger · 1 Comment

This is an update to our popular post “Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets.” While that post provides a step-by-step description of how to develop a federal grant proposal budget, it assumes that the budget preparer understands the difference between the real world and the proposal world. In preparing proposal budgets, experts in real-world budgets are often too sophisticated for the proposal world.

When Seliger + Associates is hired to write a federal proposal, we send our client an Excel template that models the SF-424 budget form found in all grants.gov application kit files. Recently, we’ve been working for a series of large nonprofits and public agencies that have skilled Chief Financial Officers (CFOs). The challenge, however, is that most of these CFOs have little or no understanding of proposal budgeting, as they’re accustomed to detailed operational budgets.

Even if we discuss the proposal world with the CFO first, the completed template we receive back is usually way too detailed, because it reflects actual program operations, not the idealized proposal world. This not only makes it unnecessarily difficult to prepare the associated budget narrative/justification, but also makes it hard to get the budget presentation to display well when saved at the required .pdf for attachment to the kit file. It will confuse proposal reviewers (which is never a good idea while being very easy to do).

Here are some additional tips to keep your federal budget anchored in the proposal world, where it belongs:

  • Minimize the number the number of line items—around, say, 20. If you use 40 line items, the spreadsheet bloat will be very difficult to format in a way that is readable and meets RFP formatting requirements (unless you’re a wiz at Excel, which almost no one, including us and the CFOs we encounter, is).
  • Only include staff and line items that will be charged to the grant (or match, if required).
  • Personnel line items must match the staffing plan in the narrative. Resist the urge to load up the budget with small FTEs (2% to 5%) of lots of existing administrators/managers. This will make your agency look bureaucratic (not a good idea, even if it is) and clog the budget narrative. Large numbers of small FTEs are what a federally approved Indirect Cost Rate is for. If your agency has at least one existing federal grant, get an approved Indirect Cost Rate, which is not that difficult, and many of your proposal budgeting woes will be solved.
  • Unless the RFP requires it, don’t line-item fringe benefits. These can usually be lumped together as the percent of salaries your fringe benefit package equates to. For most nonprofits, this will be in the 18% to 30% range. Anything above 30% will probably generate unwanted attention from grant reviewers, even if that is what you pay. If the fringe benefit rate is relatively high, this should be explained in the budget narrative (e.g. lower salaries, high local costs, need to retain staff, etc.).
  • For multi-year budgets, don’t include expected yearly salary increases or annual inflators; this is too detailed and will again result in a very complicated budget justification. Inflation in the current environment is low. In a high-inflation environment like the ’70s, this advice would be different.
  • Regarding the “Other” Object Cost Category on the SF-424A, it’s unnecessary to break down line items too far. For example, lump together facility costs (e.g., rent, utilities, security, janitorial, maintenance, etc.), or communications (e.g., landline and cell phones, mailings, etc.) in single line items.
  • If feasible, try to make the total annual budget level for each project year. This can be a bit challenging, if, for example, the project involves start-up costs (e.g., buying staff furniture, hiring a web designer/social media consultant, etc.) in year one. The way to do this is to increase some other line item(s) in the out years to keep the budget level. Level annual budgets will make the budget narrative easier to write and understand.
  • Make one line item your plug number to enable reconciliation to the maximum allowed grant and/or level annual amounts in multi-year grants. The plug number should be in the Other Object Cost Category and could be advertising, communications, or similar line items that look OK with an odd number in different years. Reviewers are aware of plug numbers and won’t hold reasonable plug numbers against you.

Always remember that the proposal budget is just a financial plan that supports the proposed project activities, not a detailed expression of an operational situation. Following notice of grant award, your agency will have to negotiate the actual budget in the contract anyway.

Also, in most cases, the grantee can move 10% of the total grant among line items by notifying the federal program officer or requesting larger budget changes to reflect operations in the real world as the project is implemented. Unless you ask to swap an Outreach Worker for a lease on a Tesla for the Executive Director, the program officer will likely go along with your plan, as most simply don’t care what you do so long as the grant doesn’t end up in BuzzFeed, Politico, or the New York Times.

→ 1 CommentTags: Advice · Budgets · Stories

Be “Experienced” and “Innovative” at the Same Time

July 15th, 2015 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

Certain buzzwords and buzz-ideas take over the grant world (and the larger world) at various times. “Innovation” is one concept everyone loves. According to Google’s Ngram viewer, “innovation” has appeared to triple in popularity over the last two centuries. Way back in 2010 we wrote “Change for Change’s Sake in Grant Proposals: When in Doubt, Claim Your Program is Innovative.” That’s still true today and will likely be true for many years to come. But being “innovative” often feels contrary from being “experienced.”

Innovators are often the brash upstarts, while experienced applicants are supposed to apply their knowledge of the past to the problems of the present.* As we wrote in “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually)” and “So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For? And Who’s the Competition?“, the size and experience of an agency will often dictate the logic argument made for why a given proposal should be funded.

Arguing that you have experience providing similar services is at odds with claims about being radically innovative. Markets depend on creative destruction, and the grant system exists in part to facilitate the exit of sclerotic nonprofits and the creation of nimbler nonprofits. Consider, this from “How Tesla Will Change the World:”

Over time, big industries tend to get flabby and uncreative and risk-averse—and if the right outsider company has the means and creativity to come at the industry with a fresh perspective and rethink the whole thing, there’s often a huge opportunity there.

Fortunately for grant writers and applicants, very few funders are going to think that hard about the distinction between innovation and experience: we’ve never heard that any of our clients have had a funder point out this conundrum to them. Funders are managed by humans—mostly, anyway—and like most humans their motivations are not only obscure to observers, and also often to themselves. So a good grant writer can still argue that the applicant is somehow both innovative and experienced. The number of truly “innovative” programs we’ve seen is quite small, but that’s because social and human services attempt to get people to behave in ways that they don’t feel like behaving.**


* As, for example, Steven Berlin Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From.

** When I wrote this post I was thinking about “In Grant Writing, Longer is Not Necessarily Better.”

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Links: Sex Offender Registries, Why We Can’t Read Anymore, New, Dumber War on Sex Workers to Replace Dumb War on Drugs, Why Tech Will Never Fix Education, and More!

July 5th, 2015 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

* “Teenager’s Jailing Brings a Call to Fix Sex Offender Registries,” a point that seems completely obvious to anyone paying attention. We wrote about a similar issue in footnote to this post. Those of you who are writing Healthy Marriage or Pathways to Fatherhood Grants may wish to cite this.

* “Why can’t we read anymore?” Long attention spans are one of our competitive advantages: see also “One of the Open Secrets of Grant Writing and Grant Writers: Reading.” I think attention control is an increasingly valuable job market skill; most of the programmers I know speak of it reverently too.

* For the love of God, rich people, stop giving Ivy League colleges money. The words “diminishing returns” aren’t used explicitly but are implied throughout.

* With Tesla Entering Market, Hopes for Home Batteries Grow.

* “Don’t Be So Sure the Economy Will Return to Normal,” from Tyler Cowen (An unusual perspective, as always). See also my 2013 discussion of his book Average is Over.

* “Are You a Shadow Worker?” Social site moderators are, which is one reason they are often so bad.

* Andrew Ng: “Inside The Mind That Built Google Brain: On Life, Creativity, And Failure,” which is brilliant throughout; I note this: “When I talk to researchers, when I talk to people wanting to engage in entrepreneurship, I tell them that if you read research papers consistently, if you seriously study half a dozen papers a week and you do that for two years, after those two years you will have learned a lot. This is a fantastic investment in your own long term development.”

* “GMO Scientists Could Save the World From Hunger, If We Let Them.”

* From “The department of unintended consequences:” “It turns out that generous maternity leave and flexible rules on part-time work can make it harder for women to be promoted — or even hired at all.” Basic economics holds that making something more expensive means less of it is consumed. Many legislators (and by extension voters) do not understand this.

* Why Technology Will Never Fix Education.”

* “Germany passes Japan to have world’s lowest birth rate;” the real problem in the developed world is underpopulation, not overpopulation.

* It’s Not Uber’s Fault the Job Market Is So Lousy That People Want to Drive for Uber.

* The myth of the Manhattan construction boom.

* “America’s Newest War: As the war on drugs loses its luster, legislators are intent to make the same mistakes with sex workers.”

* The Education Myth.

* “Things I Learned about Credit Bureaus This Week.” This is the sort of thing that would appear in major newspapers, if we had any real journalists left. Sadly we don’t.

* State tax rates discussed and explained by Scott Sumner, or “What’s wrong with Louisiana?” The post is fascinating, contrary to what you may believe based on the title.

* “Why Startups Love Moleskines;” I prefer Rhodia.

* “Everything we have been told about drugs and drug addiction and how society should deal with them is wrong, says the British author and journalist John Hari. He chooses the best books on the War on Drugs.”

* CA Labor Commission Has Just Killed Uber, Though It May Take Years to Bleed Out; note particularly: “the government is making it nearly impossible to employ low-skilled labor.” That is essentially what’s happened in much of Europe.

* “Peter Thiel and thinking for yourself.”

* Ford’s latest e-bike prototype features ‘eyes-free navigation’ and a ‘no sweat’ mode. The biggest problem with the story is the lack of price. If this were $1,000 it would be interesting. Any more than that and the bike has Segway’s problems and no probable solution to them.

* Google Project Fi review. It’s the plan that uses WiFi first and data networks second, which should bring cell phone bills to the $20 – $30 per month range. This is likely to be a big deal. It’ll be interesting to see if the next iPhone supports Project Fi.

* 11 things ultra-productive people do differently, perhaps most importantly: “They fight the tyranny of the urgent.” Second most important: “They don’t multitask.”

* In 1900, Los Angeles had a bike highway — and the US was a world leader in bike lanes. Wow. Shocking to me too.

* Solar power still needs to get much cheaper. Are perovskites the answer?

* ‘Affirmative Consent’ Will Make Rape Laws Worse.

* Europe’s soft underbelly: “For many decades, Italy has been doing the things that American progressives would recommend, pouring lots of fiscal stimulus into the south, to build up the economy. But nothing seems to work.” What gives?

* Road kill: Despite improvements, driving in America remains extraordinarily dangerous. That about 30,000 Americans die in car accidents every year is one of my favorite fun facts for discussions about threats, dangers, urban planning, and so forth. Despite the recent spake of shark attacks at North Carolina this summer, one is much more likely to die in car accident on the way to the beach than be a tasty appetizer for a hungry shark.

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Sean Parker Writes about the New Group of Billionaire Hacker Philanthropists and Forms The Parker Foundation with $600M

June 28th, 2015 · by Isaac Seliger · 1 Comment

Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame is a very smart guy, and he recently wrote “Philanthropy for Hackers;” the essay posits that newly minted tech billionaires are “hackers,” like himself, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Google guys, who collectively represent a new wave in philanthropy:

The barons of this new connected age are interchangeably referred to as technologists, engineers and even geeks, but they all have one thing in common: They are hackers. Almost without exception, the major companies that now dominate our online social lives (Facebook, Twitter, Apple, etc.) were founded by people who had an early association with hacker culture . . . Hackers share certain values: an antiestablishment bias, a belief in radical transparency, a nose for sniffing out vulnerabilities in systems, a desire to “hack” complex problems using elegant technological and social solutions, and an almost religious belief in the power of data to aid in solving those problems . . . At the same time, they are intensely idealistic, so as they begin to confront the world’s most pressing humanitarian problems, they are still young, naive and perhaps arrogant enough to believe that they can solve them.

The above paragraph, as well as most of Parker’s other points, are true and well considered (and they complement our review of Ken Stern’s With Charity for All). Perhaps more importantly, Parker is walking the walk by funding the newly minted Parker Foundation with $600 million. It’s great that billionaire hackers are learning to give away their money (and there are only so many 1,000 foot yachts and $50M penthouses one can buy—even billionaires reach diminishing marginal utility for luxury goods).

Parker does not, however discuss how average nonprofits funded by these new foundations would actually deliver human services to address humanitarian problems. While this might have not made the editorial cut, I suspect that he’s probably not too familiar with most nonprofits and how they work. Maybe he is only looking for Givewell.org-style nonprofits.

A quick look at The Parker Foundation website reveals that this is a foundation that does not accept unsolicited proposals. While there are some interesting thoughts and a clever PERT diagram on the site, there are no submission guidelines. Although not explicitly stated, The Parker Foundation has to find your nonprofit and contact you, instead of your agency submitting a proposal. This reverse access to funding logic is used by a fair number of foundations, whether they are old school or nouveau riche. But I’ve never understood why anyone thinks this approach is a good idea.

This approach to giving away foundation grants reminds me of the hokey ’50s TV series, The Millionaire. Every week the eccentric millionaire gave $1 million to some sad case person he’d never met to help them solve their life crisis. This was more or less a scripted version of another odd ’50s reality style series Queen for a Day.* It seems that Sean and/or the probably also idealistic foundation staff believe they can somehow not only identify important humanitarian problems, but also which nonprofits are likely to have good solutions. I have no idea how they do this, since, as Jake wrote, evaluating human services programs is hard to do.

I’m often asked by clients how to cozy up to funders like The Parker Foundation (or the much larger Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in most cases also does not accept unsolicited proposals). I tell them they should hang out at private airport terminals, since Sean, Bill or Melinda are unlikely to be found in a middle coach commercial airline seat waiting to be chatted up—think private jets and other places rich folk hang. The sad truth is that, unless you happen upon a foundation founder at Trader Joe’s**, you’ll just have to hope that one of their foundation program officers stumbles across your nonprofit. This, of course, is particularly unlikely to happen to a newly formed nonprofit, which is actually more likely to have an innovative idea than an established nonprofit with a social media consultant to get them noticed.

Seliger + Associates could have helped The Parker Foundation design their grant application process and submission guidelines to reflect the way human services are actually delivered. Only one foundation in 22 years has contacted us about helping them with their grant submission process, however, and they didn’t hire us. Whether or not the source of a foundation’s assets is a successful hacker billionaire like Parker or a more pedestrian scion of the Walton clan, the foundations themselves invariably have founders, board members and staff, who don’t have a frame of reference for nonprofit culture and are idealists, or as we call them true believers. True believers, however, don’t run most nonprofits and, unlike most foundation funders, experienced nonprofit managers know the difference between the real world and the proposal world. Nonprofits often game, deliberately or not, the good intentions of idealistic funders.


* My mom was a huge fan of both shows and I actually went to a taping of Queen for a Day in Minneapolis when I was about 5—she was astounded that her sad tale of woe, submitted on an index card before the taping, didn’t result in her being selected to receive a dime store tiara, dozen long stemmed roses and whatever else the Queen got that day.

** When Jake was a teen, we lived in Bellevue, WA, close to the headquarters of Microsoft. Neighbors and friends told stories of running into Bill at the Dairy Queen or the lunch buffet at an Indian restaurant near the Microsoft campus. Although Jake loved that buffet and DQ, and we often went to both, we never ran into Bill. I did, however, sometimes run into Steve Balmer, but I’ll save that story for another post.

→ 1 CommentTags: Advice · Education · Foundations · Links

Use Microsoft Word (Until Further Notice)

June 21st, 2015 · by Jake Seliger · 1 Comment

You should use Microsoft Word to write your proposals. There are many other fine word processors out there—I’m personally fond of Scrivener for some tasks—and online tools like Google Docs are becoming more popular. But in the grant world everyone—especially funders—have standardized on Word and remain using Word, because of path dependence.

The last couple of generations of Word interchange files easily and seamlessly. They retain formatting and special characters and so forth. As we’ve written about before, proposals should be written by a single person, but they may be read by dozens of people. Word has reasonably good facilities, in the form of Track Changes, for ensuring that it’s possible to collect and reconcile comments. File format converters often don’t work very well. Formatting is often lost or corrupted in the conversion process. Proposals are hard enough as it is without inducing technical problems.

Funders also want to receive either Word files or PDFs as uploaded files. You must send funders proposals in the required format or your proposal will be rejected out of hand.

We have loads of complaints about Word: its paragraph style system is difficult. For many years we used a program called Lotus WordPro, not above, but WordPro lost and Word won, so we gave up. If you’re working on proposals, you need a copy of Word for the foreseeable future. Sorry. It’s true. In some domains online systems may be better than Word. Grant writing isn’t one of those domains and won’t be for the foreseeable future. Like it or not, Word seems to be here to stay.

Word for OS X still crashes with distressing frequency, which is amazing given how long smart software engineers have been working on it. I’m writing this sentence on June 3, and Word just crashed as I tried to quit it. Data wasn’t lost—which is good, because I was also editing a YouthBuild proposal and had Auto Save enabled—but it’s notable that a program like Word is still not as good as it should be. I can be angry about Word, but because of the ecosystem around it I can’t get away from it. Neither can you. Don’t try. Not now. Not if you have to collaborate with more than one or two people.

You may have already intuited this, but in this post, as with so many posts, we speak from hard experience.

→ 1 CommentTags: Advice · Clients · Grants · Writing

In Grant Writing, Longer is Not Necessarily Better

June 14th, 2015 · by Jake Seliger · 1 Comment

If you’re buying apples, more apples are (usually) better. A faster processor in your iMac is (usually) better. Same for a higher capacity hard drive. But longer is not necessarily better with, say, books. Few readers think, “Gee, this 1,200-page novel is intrinsically better than a 350-page novel.”* They also don’t think a 1,200-page novel is worth three times as much as a 350-page novel. Readers want a novel length appropriate to the story and material. Fiction writers often gravitate towards either short stories or novels. For example, Mary Gaitskill’s collection Bad Behavior: Stories is excellent, and I say this as someone who prefers novels. Gaitskill’s novels, however, are not the best. Some writers can go short or long but she doesn’t appear to be one.

You can see where I’m going with this point. Longer grant proposals are not necessarily better than shorter ones and in many circumstances are worse. This is clearest in foundation proposal writing, where five single-spaced pages are more than enough for an initial submission narrative. Many foundations actually require less than five pages.

bad_behavior_coverWhen we conduct a foundation appeal, we write an final draft that’s about five single-spaced pages and ultimately use that version to customize proposals to the best five or ten foundation sources we identify. Clients often want us to write longer proposals, but we strongly suggest that foundation proposals be no longer than five pages, since most foundations will reject anything longer and even those that technically accept longer unsolicited proposals rarely read them.

To understand why, let’s look at the process from the funder’s perspective. A foundation may get hundreds of proposals every quarter. Each proposal probably gets read initially by an intern or junior staff person who does a reality check to see if the proposal meets the foundation’s basic guidelines. A foundation that only funds in Texas and gets a proposal from a nonprofit in California will chuck the latter. A foundation that only funds healthcare but gets a proposal for after school services will chuck the latter. Proposals that are simply incoherent or incomprehensible will get chucked.

Once the sanity check has been conducted, however, dozens or hundreds of viable proposals may remain. Each overlong proposal costs foundation officers time. Each proposal that isn’t clear and succinct increases its odds of getting rejected because the reader doesn’t have the time or inclination to figure out what the writer is babbling about. For this reason the first sentence is by far the most important sentence in any proposal.

The same thing is as true, and maybe even more true, of government proposals. There, reviewers may have to slog through dozens or hundreds of pages for each proposal. We’d like to imagine each reviewer considering each proposal like a work of art, but more likely than not they behave like you do in a bookstore. A good bookstore has tens of thousands of titles. How do you choose one? By browsing a couple of books based on covers or staff recommendations or things you’ve heard. Proposal reviewing is closer to bookstore browsing than we’d like to admit, and good proposals shouldn’t be any longer than they have to be. Shorter proposals are a gift to reviewers, and they’ll appreciate any gift you can give them. Anyone who has reviewed grants understands this. Over-long proposals are a failure of empathy on the part of the writer for the reader.

While you should never go over the specified page limit, in many circumstances being under the page limit is desirable. When you write a proposal you are no longer in school and will no longer get brownie points by baffling reviewers with bullshit.

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever heard: “Omit unnecessary words.” Right up there with “Omit unnecessary words”, however, is: “When you’re done, stop.” Arguably the latter advice is a special case of the former. Many novice writers experience ending anxiety, which may occur in part as an artifact of “the way schools are organized: we get trained to talk even when we have nothing to say.” When you have nothing more to say, say nothing.


* Though physical books also have some cost limitations based on binding processes. Books that are longer than something like 418 printed pages are more expensive to print than books that are shorter (for most commercial publishers). Commercial publishers will use formatting tricks when possible to get a book under that number of pages, and, if they have to go over, they’ll go way over.

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Seliger + Associates Enters Grant Writing Oral History (Or Something Like That)

May 31st, 2015 · by Isaac Seliger · No Comments

Seliger + Associates has been toiling away in the grant writing salt mines for over two decades, and last week we got hired to review and edit a new client’s draft proposal for a federal program we’ve been writing for years.* They emailed their draft and we were delighted to see that it’s actually based on a proposal we wrote for some forgotten client ten to fifteen years ago. While the proposal has morphed over the years, we could easily find passages I likely wrote when Jake was in middle school.

We’ve encountered sections of our old proposals before, but this example is particularly obvious. The draft was also written to an archaic version of the RFP, so it included ideas that were important many years ago but that have since been removed or de-emphasized. We of course fixed those issues, along with others, but we also left some our our golden historic phrases intact for the ages. This version will undoubtedly also linger on into the future.

We’re part of what might best termed the “oral history” of grant writing. We’re the Homer of the grant world, which is a particularly apt comparison because “Homer” may have been more than one person. For the first ten years or so of being in business, our drafts were most sent by fax, but we sent final files on CDs. For the past decade we’ve been emailing Word versions of all narratives and Excel budgets. Our proposals have probably been traded by nonprofits all over the country like Magic: The Gathering Cards.** Still, unlike some other grant writers who will remain nameless, we never post or sell our proposals. But it seems that the digital age has caught up with us anyway.

In some ways, seeing shades of our old proposals makes me feel proud, as our impact will likely last as long as there are RFPs—which is another way of saying forever.

We don’t know what strange ways brought the proposal we wrote to our current client. We’ve had hundreds of clients and written many more proposals of all stripes, and even if we wanted to trace its lineage we couldn’t.

As we’ve written before, grant writing at its most basic level is story telling. Now our stories have assumed a digital afterlife of their own. While Titanic is not my favorite film or movie theme, I’ll paraphrase Celine Dion, as it does seem that . . .”our proposal words will go on and on.”


* Faithful readers will probably know which program I’m discussing, but we’ll keep it on the down low to protect the guilty and and punish the innocent.

** When Jake was about 11, and just before his unfortunate discovery of video games, he was a huge Magic player and was always after me to buy yet more cards. As I recall, he and his little pals endlessly traded Magic cards for “value” that completely eluded me, a classic clueless dad. Eventually Jake grew up and lost interest, at which point the value of the cards became zero for him.

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Good Needs Assessments Tell Stories: Data is Cheap and Everyone Has It

May 26th, 2015 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

If you only include data in your needs assessment, you don’t stand out from dozens or hundreds of other needs assessments funders read for any given RFP competition. Good needs assessments tell stories: Data is cheap and everyone has it, and almost any data can be massaged to make a given target area look bad. Most people also don’t understand statistics, which makes it pretty easily to manipulate data. Even grant reviewers who do understand statistics rarely have the time to deeply evaluate the claims made in a given proposal.*

Man is The Storytelling Animal, to borrow the title of Jonathan Gottschall’s book. Few people dislike stories and many of those who dislike stories are not neurologically normal (Oliver Sacks writes movingly of such people in his memoir On the Move). The number of people who think primarily statistically and in data terms is small. Chances are they don’t read social and human service proposals. It’s safe to assume that your reviewer is among the vast majority of people who like stories, whether they want to like stories or not. You should cater in your proposal to the human taste for stories.

We’re grant writers, and we tell stories in proposals for the reasons articulated here and other posts. Nonetheless, a small number of clients—probably under 5%—don’t like this method (or don’t like our stories) and tell us to take out the binding narrative and just recite data. We advise against this, but we’re like lawyers in that we tell our clients what we think is best and then do what our clients tell us to do.

RFPs sometimes ask for specific data, and, if they do, you should obviously include that data. But if you have any room to tell a story, you should tell a story about the project area and target population. Each project area is different from any other project area in ways that “20% of the project area is under 200% of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL)” does not capture. A story about urban poverty is different from a story about recent immigration or a story about the plant closing in a rural area.

In addition, think about the reviewers’ job: they read proposal after proposal. Every proposal is likely to cite similar data indicating the proposed service area has problems. How is the reviewer supposed to decide that one area with a 25% poverty rate is more deserving than some other area with a 23% poverty rate?

Good writers will know how to weave data in story, but bad writers often don’t know they’re bad writers. A good writer will also make the needs assessment internally consistent with the rest of the proposal (we’ve written before “On the Importance of Internal Consistency in Grant Proposals“). Most people think taste is entirely subjective, for bad reasons that Paul Graham knocks down in this excellent essay. Knowing whether you’re a good writer is tough because you have to know good writing to know you’re a bad writer—which means that, paradoxically, bad writers are incapable of knowing they’re bad writers (as noted in the first sentence of this paragraph).

In everyday life, people generally counter stories with other stories, rather than data, and one way to lose friends and alienate people is to tell stories that move against the narrative that someone wants to present. That’s how powerful stories are. For example, “you” could point out that Americans commonly spend more money on pets than people in the bottom billion spend on themselves. If you hear someone contemplating or executing a four- or five-figure expenditure on a surgery for their dog or cat, ruminate on how many people across the world can’t afford any surgery. The number of people who will calmly think, “Gee, it’s telling that I value the life of an animal close at hand more than a human at some remove” is quite small relative to the people who say or think, “the person saying this to me is a jerk.”

As you might imagine, I have some firsthand investigative experience in matters from the preceding paragraph. Many people acquire pets for emotional closeness and to signal their kindness and caring to others. The latter motive is drastically undercut when people are consciously reminded that many humans don’t have the resources Americans pour into animals (consider a heartrending line from “The Long Road From Sudan to America:” “Tell me, what is the work of dogs in this country?”).

Perhaps comparing expenditures on dogs versus expenditures on humans is not precisely “thinking statistically,” but it is illustrative about the importance of stories and the danger of counter-stories that disrupt the stories we desperately want to tell about ourselves. Reviewers want stories. They read plenty of data, much of it dubiously sourced and contextualized, and you should give them data too. But data without context is like bread instead of a sandwich. Make the reviewer a sandwich. She’ll appreciate it, especially given the stale diet of bread that is most grant proposals.


* Some science and technical proposals are different, but this general point is true of social and human services.

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