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Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development

June 30th, 2008 · by Isaac Seliger · 9 Comments

Grant writers are often called on to develop project concepts with little or no input from clients or program specialists. In other words, we often invent the project concept as we write, within the confines of those pesky RFPs. We do it by taking one or more problems and applying standard implementation approaches to produce the ever-popular, but elusive “innovative” project concept. To illustrate how this slight-of-hand, or, perhaps more appropriately, slight-of-mind, is done, I have developed the fictitious Project NUTRIA to solve the problem of rampaging rodents, homelessness, job training, vacant houses, nutrition, and, yes, even global warming.*

This project idea emerged from a recent Seattle PI article, “Seattleites take up arms against ‘rat’ as big as cat.” Variations on the theme of rampaging “invasive species” show up all the time, whether it be kudzu, walking carp, or, today, nutria. These unappealing fellows apparently leave a path of destruction from Louisiana to Seattle, much like Godzilla in Tokyo but on a smaller scale. I chuckled over the breathless prose about a rodent with a very long tail, and concluded this latest crisis makes a pretty good starting point for a tale about conceptualizing project development.

Let’s assume nutria have invaded my favorite example town, Dubuque, and a new nonprofit—Citizens Against Nutria-Dubuque Organization (CAN-DO)—has formed to fight this scourge. Since not many funders are likely to be all that interested in nutria eradication, CAN-DO broadens the project scope to address other pressing community concerns and comes up with the following initiative, Project NUTRIA (Nutria Utilization and Training Resources for Itinerant Americans).

Here is the expanded project service delivery model:

1. Conduct a survey to identify nutria habitat and overlay the map with the recent survey of the homeless to determine proximity of both target populations. Graphics may be useful here.

2. Conduct street-based outreach to recruit individuals experiencing homelessness to be trained as Nutria Relocation Specialists (NRSes) and Nutria Processing Specialists (NPSes).

3. At the CAN-DO action center, provide NRSes with appropriate training in humane nutria capture and termination strategies, and provide NPSes with training in the fine art of deconstructing nutria.

4. NRSes capture nutria and prepare them for transport to a local processing facility, to be established in a property that is vacant because of the sub-prime lending crisis.

5. NPSes process the nutria meat into recipe-sized packages and prepare the fur for sale to US-based manufacturers of sporty lightweight garments—thus helping retain American jobs. This could lead to further job training possibilities, but I’ll leave them out for simplicity.

6. Conduct an information campaign to educate low-income residents about the many tasty ways of serving their families economical and nutritious nutria-based meals. If you don’t think people eat nutria, see this unappealing Nutria Recipe Page. My favorite recipe—based solely on descriptions—is for “Stuffed Nutria Hindquarters,” but I am not brave enough to find out exactly what the hindquarters are stuffed with. You could say, “I don’t give a rat’s ass,” but that might be inappropriate in a grant proposal.

7. Distribute the processed nutria meat, with a special emphasis on individuals experiencing homelessness,** TANF recipients, WIC program participants, and other income-challenged populations. Many job training programs for the homeless involve food service, and there are a number of cafes around the country, such as Seattle’s FareStart, that feature formerly homeless employees in training. Sounds like a good outlet for nutria. Also, I am sure there is a similar nonprofit restaurant in LA that foodies would flock to for a bit of the newly trendy nutria kabobs.

8. Advocate for better utilization of nutria as a way of combatting global warming. Unlike cows and chickens, the nutria raise themselves, so no unnecessary carbon is released in providing the hungry with a low fat, high protein food source.

These steps would be incorporated in a project timeline and dressed up with objectives, an evaluation section and all the other features of a well constructed proposal.

The point of this exercise is to remind grant writers that project concepts can often be made to appeal to different funding audiences by tweaking the proposal to meet the priorities of the funder. For example, if the Project NUTRIA proposal was being sent to EPA, the environmental benefit would be stressed. If it was being sent to the Department of Labor, the job training aspect would be emphasized, and so on. While it is always a good idea to have a specific focus for your proposal, it is also possible to address more than one problem, particularly to appeal to a broader range of funders.

I know frequent readers have been waiting for my movie pick relating to Project NUTRIA: it’s Attack of the Killer Shrews, one of my favorite B horror movies of the ’50s. In this incredibly low-budget film, shrews the size of German Shepherds—they actually appear to be dogs wearing overcoats—slowly eat their way through a group trapped on an island, as the cast ominously blames the giant rodents on nuclear bomb tests. Maybe sudden climate change will make our nutria grow to the size of Golden Retrievers. But, hey, that just means more work for the NRSes and NPSes. Also, in editing this, Jake reminded me of the background ads in the science fiction B-movie Judge Dredd that say, “Eat recycled food. It’s good for the environment and okay for you”. I took Jake to see this movie when he was about eight and was apparently already in training to be a grant writer, as he filed away an interesting factoid for future use.

EDIT: In “Why Soup Kitchens Serve So Much Venison,” Henry Grabar reports that “a growing percentage of [venison served to the homeless and needy] comes from the suburbs of American cities, at the unlikely but unmistakably American intersection of bow hunting, pest control and hunger relief.” There are too many deer and too many hungry people, which means both problems can be solved at once. There isn’t any news about workforce development, however.


* Note to animal rights folks, homeless advocates, et al: this is parody and no harm was done to actual nutria or homeless in the writing of this blog post.

** Free grant writing tip: this is currently the most politically correct term for the homeless, as it implies that homelessness just happened; as grant writers, we always seek emerging politically correct terms. Nominations are appreciated. If we get enough of them, whether in comments or by e-mail, expect a post on the subject.

Tags: Grants · How-to