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CURMUDGEONRY
Doctor, Lawyer, Beggarman, Grant-writer
Pretty please with sugar on it?

by Barnabas
January 14, 2004

Doctor, Lawyer, Beggarman, Grant-writer_Barnabas-Pretty please with sugar on it?
“[the foundation] lacks a professional grant writer who could secure the funds that would enhance the organization’s shoestring budget...” — North Parker, Fall, 2003
Foundations give money away (e.g. the Ford Foundation), or receive the money given ( e.g. “My Alma Mater Foundation”). The first sort of foundation “makes grants available,” then gives or withholds its funds on the basis of the grant applications that come in. In these applications, grant-writers compete with each other. From the samples I’ve seen, the job of the professional grant-writer includes the following.
  1. Using long and lofty words to make it sound as though We Really Know What We Are Talking About.
  2. Turning hopes into facts: To say “We will” instead of the more honest—and accurate — “We Plan to.”
  3. Thinking Big.
In the competition for limited funds, mere homely facts won’t cut it. It’s almost as though the donors reward what we used to call “snow jobs.” If the lawyer who wins big bucks for his client and firm is called a rainmaker, as in John Grisham’s novel of that name, then the professional grant-writer is a snow machine. What's scary is that pandering to grant-givers, writing into applications what they want to hear, may actually alter or compromise the mission of the grant-seeking institution or enterprise.

The foundation cited by North Parker is a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to distributing holiday gifts to needy children. It had lost its warehouse space and needed to replace it.

What they lack is a warehouse, not a writer. Most real needs are like this one, and may be simply stated. Professional grant-writers step in when you want to dress up the facts — either because you know that the facts alone do not merit the grant, or because you want to get more money than the facts alone justify. The skill of grant-writing is not devoted to stating needs clearly; anybody who has passed freshman English should be able to do that. Rather, it is devoted to meeting and defeating *other* grant applications. Since the funds are limited, the reasons for giving to you must prevail over the reasons to give to others. The skill lies in saying it without sounding like you’re saying it. Ethically, this is a long distance from the words of Jesus, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no, because anything else comes from the evil one.”

Since the competition is between grant applications, the result may well be that those who get the money are not those who need it most or use it best; the money goes instead to the best applications. It’s a rough parallel with job-seeking. The pool of workers is divided into two parts: those skilled in getting a job and those skilled in doing a job. Occasionally they’re the same people; but when they are not, guess which ones get the jobs!

Two memories from my youth come to mind. There used to be contests in which consumers were invited to write a letter telling why they liked a given product “in twenty-five words or less.” My father developed skills in writing these sentences, and won some prizes doing so - including the full service of stainless steel tableware with which we began our marriage.
Maybe he liked the product, but he didn’t have to. All he had to know was how to say that he liked the product.

The second memory is a composite. At its center is a mischievous adult opening a bag of candy in the presence of children. This person doesn’t distribute the candy, but waits for the children to ask for it. Of course they have to say “Please.” Then he lessens their dignity even more by getting them to say “Pretty please with sugar on it.”

This memory gives away my age; most modern children wouldn’t put up with it. I remember one toddler, not two years old, presenting a orange to his mother’s friend in a silent request for her to peel it for him. She said, “I will if you give me a kiss.” Without a sound he took the orange to an older child who would peel the orange, period.

I wonder if a child of my generation, taught that it was reasonable to say “pretty please with sugar on it, ” grew up to invent the profession of grant-writing.

About the Author:
Barnabas is currently an officer of a small non-profit that depends for its funding on grants - it's either that, or close up shop. Another officer writes the applications. In the meantime, Barnabas will continue to bite the hand that feeds him.


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