Friday, September 30, 2011

The Golden Age of Grant Writing

I started writing grants back in the mid 90’s and it was a time I fondly think of as the “Golden Age” of grant writing. The government was using grants to experiment with new programs and do social and educational research. There was a lot of money out there. And there were a lot of clients.

A headline came to me via email this morning about proposed budget cuts to educational programs (STEM Ed. Among Cuts Sought in Draft House Budget Plan).  The article made me nostalgic for the Golden Age. I see bad news in that headline on several levels but on a business level, it's another cut to the business I love, grant writing.

During the Golden Age, money was flowing and the streets were paved with gold. I grabbed the proverbial brass ring and launched into a full time grant writing job at a private company leaving the cushy, secure and boring existence of public employment.

I was suddenly working 60 hours a day. I was crushed with work. I was drinking from a fire hose. This went on for about a decade. I had no trouble getting contracts. I never marketed my services beyond handing out a business card (which I often forgot to carry).

Today, I spend part of my time writing copy for marketing. I’m pretty sure I stink at it. Oh, I have good ideas (I think) and I make cool graphics (I think), but the truth is that I am not an advertising Madman. Nonetheless, marketing is now an ongoing conversation here in the office. But I would much rather write grants full time. I know there's supposed to be an ROI to Marketing, however, it never feels like it's worth it. What happened to the fire hose?

The Golden Age of grant writing ended for social and educational programs for several reasons:

• After two decades of research (80’s and 90’s), the government “owns” the answers to all the important questions, it now knows “what works”. Grants encouraging innovation are no longer necessary. The focus of grants now is to implement everything they “discovered” during the Golden Age. Applicants these days are expected to implement “research-based” programs and “proven models" regardless of the lack of wisdom in forcing square pegs into round holes;

• The economy collapsed. Money shrank back from “the street” on all levels. The faucets got turned off in the private sector, the nonprofit sector, and the government sector. Everyone suffered and is still, grants are no different. The Golden Age ended in 2008;

• The market became flooded with “grant writers”. When I started, it was hard to find a grant writer so there was a gap in the market. I filled it. Today there’s a grant writer under every rock and some of them slithered in there and are none too ethical. You’ll read about these in the newspapers from time-to-time. It is also harder today to ferret out who is a good grant writer and who should be writing marketing copy. That’s because everyone’s success rate post-Golden Age has taken a hit. Fewer grants and more applicants means fewer applications are successful, it’s not calculus. Even a stellar writer can find his/her success rates falling. Success today is more dependent than ever before on having clients with the right need and the right demographic, geographic, and organizational profile.

I am still young (ish) and hoping to be around for the next Golden Age. It’s coming because the people are not too certain that the government really has the answers. That realization, I hope, encourages a new round of research to spur innovation and new ideas. Even if the “old” ideas worked back in the 80’s and 90’s, conditions continue to change, demographics shift, knowledge evolves, proclivities of the younger generation are not what they were in the 80’s. Learning styles, resources, technology and social needs evolve over time.

I hope that the melt-down of “No Child Left Behind” and the ever-diversifying demographics of the country are evidence that the next generation of researchers, teachers, social workers, and the like need grant funding to seek new answers. Bring on that next Golden Age, I need some relief from marketing.

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Photo Credit - Macin Smolinski

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Script Writing vs. Grant Writing

I attended a script writing seminar recently in Los Angeles. I went because I wanted to see what writers from another genre talk about and I glad I attended. It was fascinating and thrilling to be with a group of authors. Grant writers tend to be reclusive folks and don’t tend to flock together. One of the authors presenting on one of the three panels quipped, “You probably became writers to get away from people, but I hate to tell you, being a script writer means you’ll have to work with people all the time.”
Two things occurred to me when I heard her say that.  First, that I love writing because it is solitary. I enjoy being alone and it’s probably why I enjoy the solitude of the mountains so much. I do my best writing when I am not bothered by people making demands on me. I write best when my mind is uncluttered, with the TV off, the phone silenced, and no event to prepare myself to attend.
The second thing that occurred to me is that I used to have a naive solitary vision of what a grant writer does, sits blissfully writing brilliant narratives in a cedar-paneled alcove perched overlooking the ocean. Ahhh… well, we’re allowed our little fantasies, right?
Alas, reality intruded on my vision, just like script writers, there is a lot of interaction with people during the grant process.  You must talk to people to obtain a contract. You must engage with people to plan, sometimes a lot of people. You must engage with people to review and revise the proposal. The end of the process leaves you alone again, grinding out the final proposal; but it’s a brief interlude, and actually only a prelude to starting the process all over again. Before the glow of submittal leaves your rosy cheeks, you are right back into meeting with people again!
Don’t get me wrong, I am not misanthropic. I enjoy people’s company and seek it out when I want it. But there is something magical for me in the solitary writing process that is necessary and wonderful at the same time. Passing time within the written word, within the conceptualization and the phrasing brings joy to me that non-writers can’t understand, especially people who thrive on conversation the way I thrive on composition.
A comical statement by another author at the seminar stuck in my mind, “If you want to be a script writer and you didn’t come from a dysfunctional family, I feel sorry for you.” By this she meant that a dysfunctional background gives a writer knowledge that is useful for producing fictional narratives, because they’re always written around solving a problem. Dysfunctional families have lots of problems to solve.
I think the benefits of dysfunctional experience applies to grant writing. Grants are often written to solve a problem too; but instead of coming from a dysfunctional family, a grant writer benefits if they have worked in a dysfunctional organization. I have that in spades (one public organization I worked for went bankrupt [for the record, I was not the cause]). I’ve seen every aspect of organizational management done wrong, so it’s easier for me to envision a better way and describe it in my narratives.
I was pleased to learn at the seminar that my background blesses me in both genres (don’t worry, I am not telling tales out of school, my family won’t argue the point). Perhaps I am destined to write a script one day: who knows where a writer’s path will lead?

If You Liked This Post, You Will Enjoy:
Grant Writing is No Mystery
Grant Writing: Fact or Fiction?

(For the Record - Consultant Derek Link authored this post, so the Grant Goddess' family should neither remove her from their Christmas shopping list nor "unfriend" her on Facebook.)

Photo Credit - Craig Purdum

About Creative Resources & Research

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Woodland, CA, United States
Creative Resources and Research is a consulting firm specializing in grant writing, grant seeking, program evaluation and professional development training. We have worked with hundreds of clients including public and private schools, school districts, universities, non-profit organizations, and social service agencies throughout California, securing over $155 million from federal, state and private foundation funding sources over the past decade. Our primary grant writers and program evaluators have over 50 years of combined experience in the education and social services fields. At CRR we prefer a personal approach to the clients we work with; by developing long term relationships, we are better suited to match client’s needs with available funding sources. We provide a variety of services to help assist you, including grant writing, evaluation consulting, professional development opportunities, and workshops.