January 25th, 2015 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments
* “Demography Is Rewriting Our Economic Destiny,” an under-appreciated and significant issue; this can be read profitably in tandem with Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.
* “Decades-long Arrest Wave Vexes Employers: Companies Struggle to Navigate Patchwork of Rules That Either Encourage or Deter Hiring Americans With Criminal Records;” if a third of Americans have arrest records something is seriously wrong with our society. Articles like this also explain the many prisoner re-entry and vocational training RFPs out there.
* “The Innovative Art of the Book-Preserving Underground: How do illustrations for new editions of Farenheit 451 or Breakfast at Tiffany’s stay fresh? Artists for The Folio Society remain true to the text.” I’ve bought Folio Society books.
* “Americans aren’t getting married, and researchers think porn is part of the problem,” which must be read skeptically.
* “The Henry Ford of Books,” about James Patterson, who is not good at sentences but perhaps he knows as much: “he is philosophical about his critics, in particular critics of his craft. Patterson decided long ago that he’d rather be a successful popular novelist than a mediocre literary one.”
* “How to be an expert in a changing world,” which, like many Graham essays, is about more than it appears to be about; this for instance applies to artists: “Good new ideas come from earnest, energetic, independent-minded people.” That is also where new nonprofits often come from.
* “The Birdcage: How Hollywood’s toxic (and worsening) addiction to franchises changed movies forever in 2014.” Here is me on Birdman and note too that the author is nostalgic for a time when movies were central to the culture, which hasn’t been true for at least a decade.
* “Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School: New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire.” See also our post “Trying to Give Away Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) or Early Head Start (EHS).”
* The Unappreciated Success Of Charter Schools.
* Incredible NYC pictures taken from 7,500 feet.
* The Scourge of Edu-speak, which is all over our education proposals—because funders demand it. No one individually likes it yet the system conspires to produce it.
* I Was Arrested for Learning a Foreign Language. Today, I Have Some Closure.
January 19th, 2015 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments
Being too knowledgeable can actually hurt your proposal.
At first glance that seems wrong: Isn’t knowing more better than knowing less? Does anyone want to hire a web developer who says he doesn’t know how databases work? In most situations these questions have obvious answers, but in writing knowing too much can be a hindrance rather than a help because you’ll assume that the reader has information the reader doesn’t actually have.
You’ll know so much that you’ll assume others know what you do. You’re a wizard. But non-wizards haven’t spent years studying your arcane subject, and they need extra mental scaffolding to understand it. This problem is even worse when you’re on a team of wizards, and you’re surrounded by other technical experts. You’ll begin to subconsciously think that everyone knows what you know (certain fields, like medicine, seem particularly subject to this problem).
We’ve read numerous proposals, provided by clients, that are riddled with internal acronyms, knowledge, and arcane systems. Readers don’t automatically know that your CBO will interface with the BSSG to commit to TCO improvements. Readers won’t automatically know that the HemiSystem is clearly better than the Vaso Company’s product. Readers need to build up to knowledge of the BSSG and HemiSystem.
The vast majority of proposals are read by non-wizards, and even peer-reviewed proposals are often also read by non-peers. “Peer” can be surprisingly vague (this is especially dangerous in writing National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), or Small Business Research and Investment (SBIR) proposals). A technical “peer: may still be far enough away from a particular problem area to not know the nuances of the specific proposal topic area. It’s often better to err on more clarifying explanation rather than less.
There is no easy cure for this problem. Awareness helps—hence this post; we’re trying to make you a better writer and improve your life—but isn’t perfect. Feedback helps but also isn’t perfect. Wizards also tend to ignore the value of non-wizard feedback—if you’re not part of the guild, you don’t know enough to contribute—and that can create an echo chamber.
One strategy: give a proposal written by a wizard to an intelligent non-wizard and ask them to read it and mark confusing places, or stop when they stop understanding. If the reader stops midway through the abstract, there’s likely a problem. Another strategy is to have a non-subject area expert write the proposal—that, in essence, is what we do, and what many journalists do. We’re not experts in orthopedic surgery, or construction skills, or medical device development (to name three subjects we’ve worked in) and we don’t pretend to be. But we are experts at organizing information and telling stories. We’re experts in acquiring specialized knowledge and organizing that knowledge. That is itself a distinct skill and it’s one we have.
Even we can be susceptible to the curse of knowledge, however, and we watch for it in our proposals. You should watch for it in yours, and you should read experts at translating specialized knowledge into the public term’s. Physicist Brian Greene is famously good at this, and books like The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory are excellent.
We’re also not the first to notice the curse-of-knowledge problem: Steven Pinker discusses it in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Should you meet anyone cursed with knowledge, give them Pinker’s book. But although you can give a book, you can’t force someone to learn. That has to come from within. People who don’t read aren’t committed to knowledge. That’s just the way it is.
Tags: Advice · Grants · Writing
January 11th, 2015 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments
We worked on a bunch of New York City Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) and federal Early Head Start (EHS) proposals last year, so we read with interest Katie Taylor’s NYT story “In First Year of Pre-K Expansion, a Rush to Beat the School Bell.” New York is apparently having a tough time giving away valuable free stuff. The City and/or its UPK grantees have had to hire “enrollment specialists”—who we like to call “Outreach Workers” in proposals—to convince people to take the slots.*
This is strange: imagine Apple trying to give away MacBooks and having trouble finding enough takers. The 5th Avenue Apple Store would become even more of a disaster zone than it already is.
Usually it’s not hard to maintain a waiting list for UPK or EHS, but keeping the census up can be difficult. Parents sometimes enroll their kids and then don’t actually bring the kids (this is a specific example of the more general problem of people not valuing what they don’t pay for). Nonetheless, the need to advertise free stuff contradicts the de Blasio quote in the story:
“Parents get what this means for their kids,” the mayor said. “They understand the difference between their child getting a strong start and not getting it.”
There is another interesting moment in the story: “It is critical to Mr. de Blasio’s credibility that the program ultimately be seen as successful.” The key words are “be seen as.” The program doesn’t have to be successful; it only must be perceived that way. That’s true of virtually every government-funded grant program.
Smart applicants know his and tailor their proposals, reports, marketing, and other material appropriately. In the grant world there are no failures; there are only programs that need more money and time to thrive with ever-greater success, leading to a glorious future when the next five-year plan has been fulfilled.
One can see this principle at work in “Thoughts on the DOL YouthBuild 2012 SGA: Quirks, Lessons, and, as Always, Changes,” where we describe how “the DOL is implicitly encouraging applicants to massage data.” One of our clients didn’t realize this and submitted self-reported data not to the DOL’s highly improbable standards. Our client didn’t realize that the DOL doesn’t want to know the truth; the DOL wants to be told that they’re still the prettiest girl at the dance.
In general we are not hugely optimistic that early childhood education is going to have the widespread salutary effects regularly attributed to it by its defenders. But we stand, as always, on the side of truth and the side of the organizations we work for—our job is always to get the money and let researchers fight it out elsewhere.**
EDIT: At Slate Alison Gopnik adds that “New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire.” Presumably anyone who has spent any amount of time around two to five year olds is aware of the… challenges… in the approaches mandated by UPK and EHS.
* Incidentally, this:
“Good morning,” she said, approaching a young couple at a playground in Brownsville this month. “Do you know any 4-year-olds?”
Is the same sort of thing that people who call themselves “pick-up artists” or “gamers” do. Shanté Jones probably isn’t as polished, but I hope she has read How to Win Friends and Influence People. I prefer the pre-1981 edition which is less politically correct but also a useful reminder of what people, or at least one person reflecting on his cultural milieu, thought in the 1936s. “Cultural milieu” is also a good proposal phrase.
** James Tooley’s book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves is also good on this subject.
Tags: Advice · Education · Grants · Media
January 5th, 2015 · by Isaac Seliger · No Comments
While most federal grant proposals are submitted directly to the federal agency funding source, some require the blessing of a local gatekeeper. It pays to play nice with such gatekeepers. We’ve seen a number of local gatekeepers evolve over the years:
- Continuum of Care (CoC): As we’ve written before, CoCs are the gatekeepers to most HUD grants for homeless services. Unless the CoC includes you in their master HUD application, you have no chance of getting McKinney Act funding.
- Ryan White Act: Ryan White Act grants provide funding for HIV/AIDs services. Such funds flow through local governments and Ryan White regional coordinating bodies. To gain access to most Ryan White dollars, it is imperative to get the support of the local Ryan White gatekeeper, no matter how innovative or needed your proposed project.
- Economic Development Agency (EDA): EDA grants are one of the best ways to pay for infrastructure projects, but first you have to sweet-talk the usually formidable local/regional Economic Development Representative (EDR). Without the support of your EDR, EDA will likely toss your application.
- Rural Development (RD): The Department of Agriculture’s RD programs are the best way of funding community development and affordable housing projects in rural areas. Much like an EDR, support of the local RD Program Officer is essential to access RD loans and grants.
- Workforce Development Board: The bulk of federal job training funds are derived from the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). Not only do Local Workforce Development Boards (WDBs), which are sometimes called Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs), control much of WIA funding, but they are also often required parters for other Department of Labor job training grants.
It’s an unfortunate aspect of human nature that people with power tend to exercise it. Gatekeepers like these, whether it be a consortium (CoC) or an individual (EDR) can easily turn into petty tyrants. For many novice grant seeking agencies, this can be like being suddenly thrust into Game of Thrones, with shifting alliances, real or imagined slights, grudges and so on.
To get many federal grants, you have to learn to keep your eye on the prize and thread your way past gatekeepers. Compounding the problem is that in many cases, you not only need the gatekeeper to access a particular grant, but may also need them to form the alleged collaborations that are required by many federal RFPs. The frequent DOL requirement for a letter of support from the local WDB/WIB noted above is a case in point.
Tags: Advice · Government · Grants
December 29th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 1 Comment
Mark Peters and David Wessel’s “More Men in Prime Working Ages Don’t Have Jobs: Technology and Globalization Transform Employment Amid Slow Economic Recovery” is an article you’ve already read 10,000 times, and the intro, as usual, is a dubious vignette:
Mark Riley was 53 years old when he lost a job as a grant writer for an Arkansas community college. “I was stunned,” he said. “It happened on my daughter’s 11th birthday.” His boss blamed state budget cuts.
If there’s a growing industry in America, it’s software development. If there’s an industry growing very fast but slower than software development, it’s grant writing. If Riley really can’t find a job as a grant writer—or become a consultant—there’s something amiss with him, not the industry. At Seliger + Associates we hear all the time about how nonprofit and public agencies can’t find good grant writers. Axiomatically those nonprofit and public agencies aren’t paying enough to attract qualified candidates—anytime you read about an alleged “shortage” of employees mentally ask yourself, “at what price?”—but nonetheless we are skeptical that most qualified grant writers can’t find work.
Usually the laid-off-and-can’t-find-work stories are about workers in manufacturing or middle-level office jobs, and that convention exists for a reason: “>many of those jobs are genuinely disappearing, and the workers in them are either moving up to higher skill jobs, or down. That Peters and Wessel would choose a grant writer as an example is bizarre. That such a convention exists at all is also one small datum that explains why Ezra Klein is trying to build a new kind of news organization, one that perhaps would eliminate the convention altogether or at least deploy it more intelligently.
Tags: Media · Nonprofits
December 22nd, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments
A month ago we published “Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree,” and last week the Department of Education obliged by publishing the Student Support Services (SSS) RFP. This is one of the TRIO programs, which we’ve also written about before. These programs are explicitly about getting kids to graduate college:
The purpose of the SSS Program is to increase the number of disadvantaged, low-income college students, first-generation college students, and college students with disabilities in the United States who successfully complete a program of study at the postsecondary level.
And “complete a program of study” means, ultimately, “four-year college.” But community colleges are still great applicants because they can argue that they’re a vital step on the road to the four-year degree.
SSS is a particularly interesting program, however, because of the dollars involved: $300 million of them, with grants of $220,000/year for five years. For community colleges, who are among the better applicants for SSS, that’s a lot of money. The clients we’ve worked for who’ve gotten SSS grants have always been very happy with them.
The other interesting part of the program is the RFP release date, which happened right before Christmas break, when many college applicants go into sleep mode until after the new year. The deadline is February 2nd, so for many potential college applicants, this means effectively less than four weeks to write what is a fairly complex proposal. You can thank the ED for this lump of coal in applicants’ stockings.
Tags: Education · Grants · Programs
December 16th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 1 Comment
We’re interested in the Department of Labor’s “American Apprenticeship Initiative” (AAI) because it uses a word that rarely appears in the education media, federal grants, or foundation priorities: “apprenticeship.”
Apprenticeship has the ring of an out-of-circulation word, like “aesthete” or “monocle.”* Apprenticeships were common until the 20th Century, when either formal education or industrial blue-collar manufacturing jobs largely replaced them in the United States. But the number of manufacturing jobs has been declining for decades—and those that remain tend to require advanced skills—which has left formal education as the primary way we, as a society, take people aged 13 and up and try to turn them into productive—in the economic sense—adults.
The problem, however, is that a lot of people are poorly suited to sitting still and quietly for long periods of time while conducting abstract symbol manipulation. I’ve written about this issue before, in “Taking Apprenticeships Seriously: The need for alternate paths,” and a rare media account that discusses apprenticeship appeared in The Atlantic: “Why Germany Is So Much Better at Training Its Workers.” Apprenticeships haven’t gotten the attention they deserves. College dropout rates remain stubbornly high, and the solution favored by the feds is better college preparation and more wraparound supportive services in college (we discussed this in “Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree“). So far that hasn’t worked out well.
I’ve got an unusual perspective on formal education and college because in grad school I taught freshmen at the University of Arizona. The experience was educational for me for many reasons, one being that many if not most students seemed to have no idea about why they were in college or what precisely they were supposed to do there. Many didn’t particularly like being in classrooms, and it showed. Not surprisingly, only something like half of U of A freshmen complete a degree with six years. Students who don’t complete degrees get saddled with enormous debts and no degrees to show for it.
Not everyone is well-suited to the college environment, and that isn’t me being an elitist jerk. It’s an observation that should be obvious to everyone who has taught at a non-elite college. We—again, as a society—should have a viable system for training people who don’t like abstract symbol manipulation. They can learn and do useful things. I’m well-suited to abstract symbol manipulation—that’s my entire job—but I can acknowledge that many people aren’t.
The apprenticeship model and the university model should have porous borders—people who realize they don’t want to be apprentices should be able to pursue university education, and those in universities who realize they’d rather become electricians should be able to do that. Right now, however, public policy is oriented almost entirely towards the university model, to the detriment of many of those who don’t fit the model. We’re pleased to see the AAI as being an exception to the general principle.
* Though graduate school is still conducted largely in the apprenticeship model, which is sometimes acknowledged, since in a way no one really knows how to teach research or writing—they’re both taste-based skills, which makes them inherently difficult to teach.
Tags: Education · Foundations · Government · Grants
December 12th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments
Sharp-eyed readers of our email grant newsletter know that the last few months have seen few juicy federal RFPs appear. That’s not because we’re not looking for them—we are—but because Congress’s deadlock has meant that few federal agencies have been eager to put on RFP processes for programs that until funding for this fiscal year is assured.
But as of December 11, Congress finally passed a spending bill—and it doesn’t even appear to be a Continuing Resolution (CR), which has been the primary way Congress has conducted business over the last half decade. You might notice that the last link in the preceding sentence goes back to 2010.
It’s hard to say whether we’ll see more CRs in the next two years, but with Republicans controlling the House and Senate in the next Congress while a Democrat holds the White House, we’re betting on “yes.”
Tags: Advice · Budgets · Government
December 1st, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 2 Comments
This post is going to start in an incredibly boring fashion and then twist: Virtually every human and social service proposal, regardless of the target population, should at least nod to cultural sensitivity and related matters. Many RFPs specifically require applicants to address how project staff will be trained in cultural sensitivity and diversity to provide what is usually termed “culturally appropriate and specific services.”
But sometimes the impulse towards cultural sensitivity can go terribly wrong.
For one example of “cultural sensitivity gone wrong” check out “‘Bootie’ problem at CMS? Mom says offensive question went too far” or “Wrong Answer To The Wrong Question About A Big Bootie On High School Biology Test.” Both concern a question on a high school test about genetics:
LaShamanda has a heterozygous big bootie, the dominant trait. Her man Fontavius has a small bootie which is recessive. They get married and have a baby named LaPrincess” the biology assignment prompts students.
The assignment then continues to ask, “What is the probability that LaPrincess will inherit her mama’s big bootie?
Here at Seliger + Associates, we don’t have any more details about the story apart from what we see in the media, and it would not shock us if this story is a hoax or if there is more going on than what appears in these news blurbs.* The more you know about the media the more skeptical you should be of any given story.
Nonetheless, let’s take this at face value and attempt to imagine what might have been going through the teacher’s mind: first off, the teacher said the worksheet “had been passed down to her by other teachers,” which indicates that she might not have looked closely at it. Since I’ve taught plenty of college classes, I can vouch for an instructor’s desire to use what’s been tested and teach efficiently. Secondly, though, she’s probably been hearing discourse and through mandated professional development about cultural sensitivity and incorporating non-dominant or non-Anglo cultures into her teaching for her entire career.
We’re not trying to defend the teacher, but we are saying that her thinking may be understandable, even if the execution is misplaced. Her conundrum, if it exists, can be stated simply: Where does cultural sensitivity end and cultural appropriation or cultural insensitivity begin?
We have no idea, and neither do most people, because each case has to be judged one by one. We don’t have a pithy answer to this conundrum. The need for introducing concepts around cultural sensitivity is real, but so is the danger of being offensive, either inadvertently or, conceivably, advertently. In the proposal world, the easiest way to avoid this problem is by praising and promising cultural sensitivity training without specifying what that will mean on the ground, which can help grant writers avoid obvious gaffes. As a grant writer you don’t want to introduce a big bootie-style problem into your proposal, but you also can’t ignore funders’s requirements. These requirements can sometimes lead to mistakes like the one described in the news articles above.
* Which often happens; it’s not uncommon for contemporary novels, like Tom Perrotta’s Election, Anite Shreve’s Testimony, or Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities to exploit the gap between shallow media understanding of an event and deeper understanding of an event.
Tags: Advice · Grants · Writing
November 24th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · 4 Comments
Titanic is not actually one of my favorite movies, but I’m going to use it to illustrate a critical aspect of grant writing: you’ve got to know when you’re about to commit a sink the ship mistake. We’ve written about aspects of this before (see here, here, or here), but the issue is worth emphasizing because it arises so often.
We all remember the hapless Titanic passengers, whether it be the swells in first class epitomized by the beautiful Kate Winslet or the proles in steerage personified by Leonardo DiCaprio. As least as depicted in the movie, they all bought into the White Star Line’s “unsinkable” PR BS. In Titanic, the movie, the only person who understands the minor problem of the iceberg is the ship’s designer. He responds to a passenger screaming incredulously “But the ship can’t sink” by saying, “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can… and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.”
Grant writers are the architects of a given proposal writing assignment. As one, it’s your job to steer clear of sink-the-ship problems, even if the captain (executive director) wants to sail blithely into a field of metaphorical icebergs. Here are some common sink the ship problems we see:
- Propose a budget that exceeds the maximum grant amount or is below the minimum grant amount.
- Propose a match that is below the minimum required match. Or fail to understand how the match should be calculated.
- Fail to include letters of commitment or MOUs from required partners.
- In hard copy submissions, fail to include required signature pages.
- In online/upload submissions, fail to include required attachments, including the voluminous federal certifications required by grants.gov.
- Exceed the page limit maximum and/or often-hidden formatting requirements (e.g. font type and size, double spacing, pagination, file naming and so on).
- Fail to include required attachments specified in the RFP (e.g., service area map, data tables, site plans for construction projects, etc.).
- Propose service delivery to an ineligible target area or target population.
- Be an ineligible applicant.
- Miss the deadline, which is the ultimate sink the ship problem.
Any of the above will most likely get your proposal tossed during the initial technical review and it will not be scored. You will have hit an iceberg, or, if you like this metaphor better, dealt yourself the Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200 card.
As professional grant writers, we make every effort (free proposal phrase here) to avoid the above by closely reading the RPP and preparing a “documents memo” for our clients. This is a checklist for required submission package items and guides our clients on what they should worry about during the drafting process. While many RFPs include “checklists,” these are often incomplete and/or inconsistent with the RFP. As President Reagan famously put it about negotiating with the Soviet Union, “trust, but verify.”
While it pays to be very careful to avoid a sink-the-ship problem, many grant writers and executive directors instead focus on non-sink-the-ship problems at late stages of the application process. Here are some examples we run into frequently:
- Excessively worrying about word choices. Although it always best to use good grammar, using “that” instead of “which” or “client” instead of “participant” are not important after the first draft.
- Spending inordinate time preparing fancy color charts and graphs. While the formatting should look pleasing, putting ribbons on your proposal pig may backfire, as your your agency may look “too good” to readers, or create a huge file that may result in upload problems at grants.gov and other upload sites.
- Including endless descriptions of how wonderful the agency and executive director are. One paragraph is usually enough for the entire management team and a couple of pages of agency background is all that is needed. When writing about the agency, use specifics regarding programs, number of clients served and outcomes, instead of PR babble. Save this stuff for your annual holiday appeal letter.
- Adding attachments that are not requested in the RFP. A screen shot of the executive director on “Oprah” or “Dr. Oz” won’t help you get funded, but they will generate amusement on the part of readers. Remember, you never what to submit a proposal that will be passed around by reviewers saying, “get a load of this one!”
- Wasting time and space with letters of support from elected officials. Most grant reviewers know that virtually any applicant can get a letter from their congressperson/senator just by asking. This is not how influence is peddled in Washington.
Like most of our advice on the technical aspects of grant writing, avoiding a sink the ship problem is pretty simple. Read the RFP carefully, prepare a checklist with responsibilities and timeframes, write a compelling proposal, and submit a technically correct proposal a couple days ahead of the deadline. The challenge is all in the execution.
Tags: Advice · Grants