February 15th, 2015 · by Isaac Seliger · No Comments
As we’ve written before, it’s important to carefully follow RFP directions when writing any proposal. Still, many RFPs are poorly written, repetitive, and often contradictory. If one finds a significant issue in the RFP, the only recourse is to contact the Program Officer listed in the RFP and ask for clarification in writing. If you get a response at all, it’s likely to be along the lines of “read the RFP.”
While this becomes pretty frustrating pretty fast, stay cool and use common sense in writing your proposal narrative and developing the budget. Let’s think about cost-per-participant issues as one example. In responding to RFPs for most human services project concepts, it’s pretty easy to figure out the capitated (“per head”) cost of delivering the proposed service. For example, if you propose to provide job training to 100 folks over three years and request a $1,000,000 grant, the cost per trainee is $10,000. The key is to make sure that your proposed service delivery model and budget are in line with funder expectations.*
Some RFPs provide specific guidance on the cost per client, such as the DOL’s YouthBuild program, which specifies around $17,000/trainee. Until about 10 years ago, when HUD stopped administering YouthBuild, it was about $30,000/trainee. The primary reason for the dramatic drop was that DOL finally figured out that grantees could easily satisfy the remedial education/GED component of YouthBuild by using a partnering charter school that receives Average Daily Attendance (ADA) funds—at no cost to YouthBuild.
This also creates a nice way of covering the required YouthBuild match. The YouthBuild match requirement has become sort of a legal fiction. Many SAMHSA RFPs include capitated funding ranges that vary by type of service (e.g., outpatient, intensive outpatient and so on). To have any hope of being funded, the budget has to hit those targets.
In some cases, however, the RFP doesn’t directly state a capitated rate. Often, it’s possible to figure out what the funding agency expects, if the overall impact is discussed (e.g., train 10,000 veterans) and dividing this info into the total amount available. In contrast, the ED Student Support Services RFP mandates the maximum grant and maximum number of participants, so it’s fairly obvious what the capitated rate should be, even though the RFP doesn’t explicitly state the capitated rate. One could propose a lower capitated rate, but why would you?
If you have no clue from the RFP regarding an appropriate implied capitated rate, you’re back to using common sense. Let’s say you’re a one high school local education agency (LEA or school district) in rural California with 500 students and one counselor. The counselor’s salary is $50,000/year, so the district is in effect spending $500/year/student on counseling, but wants to expand counseling because of a school gun violence incident, bullying outreach or whatever.
As luck would have it, the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling (ESSC) grant program does just that. In developing your ESSC proposal and budget, however, it’s a good idea to keep reality in mind and use common sense. If you propose a $500,000 annual ESSC grant, that would be a ten-fold increase over current service delivery levels and probably would not be well-received, even though the ESSC RFP does not specify a capitated rate for expanded counseling services. Instead, a $200,000 annual grant, along with an innovative approach to counseling, would be a more reasonable approach.
* You’ll learn how to calibrate expectations for cost through experience and through looking at a lot of RFPs.
Tags: Budgets · Clients · Grants
February 8th, 2015 · by Jake Seliger · 1 Comment
It seems intuitive that having more time to complete a task would result in a better final product. But in grant writing—and other fields—that’s sometimes not the case.
The reason is simple: more time sometimes allows organizations to edit their proposals into oblivion or let everyone contribute their “ideas,” no matter poorly conceived or how poorly the ideas fit the proposal. We’ve been emphasizing these issues a lot recently, in posts like “On the Importance of Internal Consistency in Grant Proposals” and “The Curse of Knowledge in the Proposal World,” because consistency is incredibly important yet hard to describe concisely. Good proposals, like good novels, tend to emerge from a single mind that is weaving a single narrative thread.
The same person who writes the initial proposal should ideally then be in charge of wrangling all comments from all other parties. This isn’t always possible because the grant writer is often under-appreciated and has to accept conflicting orders from various stakeholders elsewhere in the organization. One advantage we have as consultants is that we can impose internal deadlines for returning a single set comments on a draft proposal on clients that otherwise might tend towards disorder. Sometimes that also makes clients unhappy, but the systems we’ve developed are in place to improve the final work product and increase the likelihood of the client being funded.
Short deadlines, by their nature, tend to reduce the ability of everyone to pour their ideas into a proposal, or for a proposal to be re-written once or repeatedly by committee. If the organization is sufficiently functional to stay focused on getting the proposal submitted, regardless of what else may be occurring, the proposal may turn out better because it’ll be more consistent and decision makers won’t have too much time to futz with it.
You’ve probably heard the cliché, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” It exists for a reason. You may also have seen baseball games in which delays let the coach have enough thinking time to think himself into a bad pitcher or hitter change. Although every writer needs at least one editor, a single person should be responsible for a proposal and should also have the authority and knowledge necessary to say “No” when needed.
Tags: Advice · Clients · Grants · Writing
February 1st, 2015 · by Isaac Seliger · 1 Comment
As we’ve written about before, grant writing, like most artistic pursuits, is essentially a solitary endeavor. No matter how many preliminary group-think planning meetings or discussions occur, eventually one person will face a blank monitor and contemplate an often cryptic, convoluted RFP.*
As a consequence of being written by a single person, most proposal first drafts are fairly internally consistent. A grant writer is unlikely to call the person in charge of the proposed initiative, “Program Director” in one section and “Project Director” in another, or randomly use client/participant/student interchangeably. Inconsistencies, however, tend to emerge as the proposal goes through various drafts to get to the submission draft.
Let’s say three readers edit the first draft: Joe doesn’t like chocolate, MaryLou doesn’t like vanilla and Sally doesn’t like ice cream. Joe’s edits might change Program Director to Project Coordinator for some arcane reason, but only in some sections, while the other readers may make similar changes, some of which might be valid and some capricious. As the proposal goes through the remaining drafts, these inconsistencies will become embedded and confusing, unless the grant writer is very careful to maintain internal consistency; a change on page 6 has to be made on pages 12, 15, and 34. Even if the grant writer is careful, as she revises the drafts, it will become harder and harder for her to spot these problems because earlier drafts become entangled with later ones.
Inconsistencies often crop up in project staffing, for example. Most proposals have some combination of threaded discussions of what the project staff is going to do, along with a staffing plan (usually includes summary job descriptions), organization chart, line-item budget, budget narrative, and/or attached actual position descriptions. If the staffing plan lists three positions, but the budget includes four and the budget narrative five, it’s “Houston, we have a problem time.” To a funding agency reviewer, these inconsistencies will stand out like neon signs, even if the grant writer can no longer see them. While some inconsistencies probably don’t matter much, some could easily be “sink the ship” errors.
In our consulting practice, we typically only prepare three drafts: the first, second and final or submission draft. We also provide clients with drafts in both Word and Acrobat, and we strongly suggest that only the Acrobat version be given to the reader list. This enables our contact person to return a single revised Word version and control the internal editing process.
But, like many of our suggestions, this is often ignored, so the final edited version we get from clients often has these various consistency problems in terms of both language and formatting. We overcome these by having the final draft flyspecked by one of our team members who has not closely read previous drafts. We also carefully compare the final draft to RFP requirements with respect to section headers, outline format, required attachments and so on. Nonetheless, we aren’t perfect and sometimes a sufficiently altered proposal can’t be effectively made consistent again.
Here’s another technique we often suggest to our clients to ferret out inconsistencies in language and formatting in final drafts: give the draft to someone who has good reading/writing skills but has never read the proposal and has no direct knowledge of the project concept, the services provided by your agency, or the RFP. For this person ignorance is strength. A retired uncle or aunt who taught high school English is perfect for this role. Such a reader will not only spot the inconsistencies, but will also likely find logic errors and so on.
Still, it’s important to complete this process well before the deadline. The closer the deadline looms, the more you risk either blowing the deadline or creating worse problems for yourself. A day or two before the deadline is a poor choice for making serious changes—which we’ve seen numerous clients attempt, and drastic last-minute changes rarely turn out well.
* This assumes you haven’t made the mistake of parceling out different proposal sections for different people to write—as is said, a camel, not a horse, will inevitably result from this dubious practice.
Tags: Advice · Grants · Writing
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 · 4 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.com 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, however, 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 qualified grant writers can’t find work. The key word in the preceding sentence is of course “qualified.”
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 · 2 Comments
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