Retool your gray matter with JONATHAN O'BRIEN and win more grant money!

January 2009
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Grants and Success Rates
Posted by: Jon @ 2:35 am

I talk to a lot of people who write a lot of grants but don’t necessarily win a lot of grants. That’s like saying we talk to a lot of major league baseball hitters who get a lot of at-bats but don’t necessarily get many hits. It goes with the territory. Three hits out of every ten at bats in the majors and a player is signing autographs on one hundred dollar bills at the All-Star game. Two hits out of ten and the ex-player is studying for the Post Office workers exam.

Baseball has what is called the Mendoza line, that unofficial benchmark (a .200 average) where if a player’s average is above that mark they keep him in the big leagues. If it’s below that mark. . .well, then it’s time to go back down to the minor leagues . . .or play for the Dodgers.

Grant writers have the equivalent of a batting average — a success rate — usually expressed in terms of a percentage. But asking a grant writer about their success rate is like asking a car salesman how business is (couldn’t be better) or a fading movie star how many of his movies were hits (all of them were in Europe, of course) — optimism is blended with reality quicker than coffee and sugar on New Year’s morning. So how do you judge a grant writer’s success? More in the next blog.


Grants for Libraries - Thinking Outside the Bookshelves Part 4
Posted by: Jon @ 6:27 am

Q. What are the three things grant applicants can do to better their chances of receiving funding?

A. Compartmentalize. Be specific. Avoid asking for general funds to do general things or operational tasks. View your agency like a department store and asks for grant funds to support the efforts of one of those departments. Grants are about requesting a specific amount of money to address a specific problem with a specific solution that will help a specified target population.

Second, don’t view grants as financial band aids. Few grants are awarded to participants who are running out of money, are victims of budget cuts or are in the red because of some kind of finacial mismanagement.

Third, view grants as seed - or start up - money to be used for starting up an existing program expanding an existing program that will continue long after the initial grant period expires. Funders don’t want to think that the only way your program will exist as long as they keep throwing money your way. So, for example, if you are asking for grant funds for a new technology lab – your ask would be greatly enhanced if you could tell them: we have a roster of volunteer experts to maintain the equipment, furniture has been donated, we have another donor who will pay for software site licenses, and we have a list of volunteers who will staff the lab and make sure equipment is used properly. All we need now is the money to buy the computers and hardware and we’re off and running. Funders love to be the last piece of the puzzle.

Q. Why are you at ALA this year?

A. We’re convinced ALA attendees will find the book of interest on three levels. First, as a book that fills an unmet need; that is, its approach is offbeat, easy-to-follow and accessible to all. It doesn’t read like a textbook nor does it feel like it’s written in a foreign language that can be deciphered by only a select few. One of the most common pieces of feedback we get is, “I didn’t know the subject of grant writing could be so entertaining.” On another level, attendees will find the book of value for their own cause. Who at this conference isn’t looking for additional funds and supports for their special project or program? And if everyone here is applying for the same grants, then who is going to stand apart from the pack? How are you going to beat your competition? Reading RIGHT BEFORE YOU WRITE will help answer those questions. Third, this is the way for attendees to help other nonprofits and worthy causes in their community. Put this book on your shelf and promote it as a resource that makes a process known only by an elite group of grant writers available to every one.

Grants for Libraries - Thinking Outside the Bookshelves Part 4
Posted by: Jon @ 6:25 am

Q. You promised to share “three reasons your past grant proposals may not have been funded.”

A. We just talked about one of them. In my book, I devote at least three chapters to the concept of collaboration with the basic theme, “collaborate or die.” Funding agencies frown upon applicants who try to make a go of it alone. You are expected to collaborate with new partners in new ways. Ultimately, the process of coming up with a fundable concept is really the process of building a new, or expanding an existing, collaborative. Second, most applicant don’t do their homework; that is, research funding agency guidelines to determine exactly what type of programs they do and do not fund. All this information is available in the application and guidelines. Third, they don’t apply. Seriously, most applicants don’t win awards because somewhere along the way they throw in the towel and don’t bother to apply. Understandably, the process can be daunting. But that’s why we published the book, to offer people a step-by-step guide to coming up with a winning concept and then applying for funds in a way that’s going to beat out the competition.

Q. There’s that word competition again. Many don’t apply because the competition is so great and it’s just a crapshoot.

A. It’s only a crapshoot if you write crap. Seriously, I’ve been on the other side of the desk, reading and selecting grants, many times and I can tell you that 80% of submission are sub-par. Why? Applicants haven’t thought it through. They don’t get it right before they write. So, while you may read that for any given grant there may be , let’s say, 200 applicants for five grant awards, I can tell you with great certainty that maybe 40, at best, will be seriously considered. Then, another 25% of those don’t align with the funding agency’s guidelines. Now we’re down to 30-to-1 odds. More than 20% of those will not qualify for technical reasons such as nonprofit status, geographic locations, etc. Now we’re down to 26 and I guarantee more than half of those will be weeded out because their applications lack one of the seven key components to a winning grant applicant. I call those Jon’s Almost World Famous Seven Cs and they are the core of my new book. Now it’s down to 10-to-1. And those ten applications are all excellent candidates to be seriously considered for funding. But then it’s out of your control and – as I say in the book – “in the hands of the Grant Gods.” What we can control is getting to the “seriously considered for funding stage.”

More about this in the next Blog and in my new book: RIGHT BEFORE YOU WRITE: The Groundbreaking Process Used To Win More Than $385 In Competitive Grant Awards.

Grants for Libraries - Thinking Outside the Bookshelves Part 3
Posted by: Jon @ 6:22 am

Q. Now that we have the concept where do we find grant money?

A. One place is all the usual suspects. Most governmental agencies and libraries are bombarded with announcements about grants. Then, you can easily occupy several days by searching the Internet for “grants,” “grant resources,” “grant funds,” etc. Also there are many grant writing firms that compile ListServs about upcoming grants and they are happy to have you on their emailing list. These are usually update and reliable. Just keep in mind they also want you to become overwhelmed, give up and hire them to do all the work. My experience with library staff is that they don’t think outside-the-box, toward more untraditional grant sources.

Q. For example?

A. I’ll give you three.

After school funds. These are some of the most lucrative and consistent funding streams flowing into communities right now. And with a new administration on the horizon, there’s talk of this money being doubled. So what I’ve done in the past is partner up local libraries with local after school programs and had them submit joint applications. After school participants can make regular visits to their local library for reading groups, research, to help out staff, to use technology – and any other number of limitless activities.

Second, corporate sponsorships. Most large corporations have local and/or national community giving divisions. And what I’ve learned over the years is that for some reasons schools and libraries seldom apply. They see themselves as government entities and corporations only giving to the private sector, and that’s not true. Often the application process to these corporations is very simple and the awards long-term and generous.

Third, technology grants. Again, the mindset of many libraries is to apply for money from those grants earmarked technology for libraries only. That is too limiting. There are many other sources. Let’s go back to education grants again. Libraries can partner with schools and say “you help us get money for new computers and we will put all your reading and math programs software on our library computers so students and families can access them at any time. ” It’s a win-win for everyone involved. I guess what I’m saying is that libraries shouldn’t limit themselves to grants that they think are exclusively for libraries only.

Think beyond the bookcases, reach out to new partners. Be creative. Come up with a new concept. That’s what wins grants.

More about this in the next Blog and in my new book: RIGHT BEFORE YOU WRITE: The Groundbreaking Process Used To Win More Than $385 In Competitive Grant Awards.

Grants For Libraries - Thinking Outside the Bookshelves Part 2
Posted by: Jon @ 5:18 am

Q. So it’s not about the writing?

A. Make no mistake, funding agencies expect proposals to be clear, uncluttered, easy-to-follow, concise and compelling – meaning persuasive and creative. They don’t give bonus points for big words are technical jargon and they certainly aren’t impressed with anyone who tries to come across as a professional writer. It’s all about the concept and how well the applicant documents a need and how creatively they will address those needs through the proposed program.

Q. Where does one who has interest in applying for a grant but has never done so begin?

A. They can begin by not making a mistake made my most applicants, focusing on finding where the grant money is and then throwing together a program that they think will win them some of that money. Instead, they should begin where most professional grant writers and grant winners begin – with a concept or an idea. And that seed of that concept germinates from need. At your local level, determine a specific need, discuss why that need is currently not being addressed, come up with a specific solution and ask for a specific amount of money to help fund the activities that will lead to that solution. That’s the concept – and that should be the first step.

More about this in the next Blog and in my new book: RIGHT BEFORE YOU WRITE: The Groundbreaking Process Used To Win More Than $385 In Competitive Grant Awards.

Grants for Libraries: Thinking Outside the Bookshelves - Part 1
Posted by: Jon @ 10:14 pm

After completing an interview for an article for the upcoming American Library Association Mid-Winter meeting this month in Denver, I thought the content would be appropriate to anyone with a good heart and a good cause.

Q. What can you offer attendees beyond what the ALA Website offers, which has an entire section devoted to “Grants and Fellowships.”?

A. The ALA site, and others like it, do a great job of offering a comprehensive list of traditional grant resources. And most applicants think that their primary task is to solve the mystery of where the grant money is and follow the guidelines, fill out the application and roll the dice. Unfortunately, “most” applicants don’t win. That’s because they don’t get it right before they write. The critical factor is not to find out where the money is. Instead, it’s coming up with a program and proposal that’s compelling, competitive and creative enough to stand out from others and matches the vision of the person or place that’s giving out the grant money. All this should occur before any actual writing begins.

Q. Writing – the W-word – not all of us are professional writers or technical writers, so how can we compete with professional grant writers?

A. You don’t have to be a professional grant writer. You don’t have to be able to afford to hire a professional grant writer. You just have to THINK like a grant writer. And that’s what my new book is about, demystifying the whole grant research and writing process so anyone with a good heart and a good cause can tap into some of the $500 billion dollars in grant funds that’s out there each year. The book revolves around a topic we all love and are experts in – movies. I incorporate my background as a professional screenwriter and teacher to show how the FUNdamental principles of storytelling and screenwriting can be applied to the process of telling the story of your grant proposal. It’s all about the concept and strategizing – work that should take place before any writing begins.

More about this in the next Blog and in my new book: RIGHT BEFORE YOU WRITE: The Groundbreaking Process Used To Win More Than $385 In Competitive Grant Awards.