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In grant seeking, cloning is the use of proposal templates taken to its extreme limits. So far as I know it is not yet a technical term in common use in grant writing.


Using a clone to apply for a grant is bad practice from the start. Like the use of templates, it rarely yields a grant. And when a funder does award a grant for a clone, as often as not its recipient sooner or later comes to regret its good fortune.


This post is the second in a series about the use of templates, clones, and boilerplate in grant writing.



Cloning happens when reviewers for a single competition encounter two or more proposals — from ostensibly different applicants — that repeat each other in so many ways that they may as well be one and the same proposal.


The Oxford Dictionary  defines a ‘clone’ as ‘a person or thing regarded as an exact copy of another’ and it defines ‘to clone’ as to ‘make an identical copy of’ something. In the context of grant seeking, a cloned proposal — as I use the term — is one whose content is precisely the same as one or more others or one that is so nearly the same that it is all but indistinguishable from those others.


Reviewing Cloned Proposals

Upon occasion, technical reviewers, working either alone or on a panel, may encounter two or more cloned proposals during a single proposal review period. The first clone is likely to get as unbiased, thorough, and objective a review as it would if it were a unique proposal. It will do so since it will appear to each reviewer who reads and scores it to be a unique and custom-created grant application.


An attentive reviewer, upon noting that a second proposal seems to be a clone of the first, may feel shortchanged or deprived of the stimulation that comes from reading one unique proposal after another. If possible, the reviewer may try to verify the perception that the second proposal is a clone. In some reviews, looking at both proposals side by side will be possible; in others, it will not.


Sooner or later the reviewer may recognize the same language, the same formats, and the same errors in the second proposal as in the first. Even if the format differs, the content may read the same so often as to appear for all practical purposes to be identical to the first. Upon recognizing the repetitiousness of content, the reviewer may become more critical in commenting and scoring and may search far more diligently for reasons to adjust scores downward. Even if reviewers have been instructed explicitly to review each proposal on its own merits, they may question the credibility of both applicants and their entire proposals, and they may resent having to read and rate mere clones.


If on the same day or the next day the same reviewer encounters a third proposal that is a clone of others before it, the consequences for that hapless applicant may become grim indeed. By this time, even the most self-disciplined of reviewers may begin to feel so bored with the proposal that he or she may search relentlessly for reasons to give it a low score. The reviewer may also feel compelled to call attention to the cloning to a review panel monitor, or to a review proctor, or to a program officer. Program staff may still direct all reviewers to score every clone from otherwise eligible applicants, but such directives may not deter those reviewers from registering their displeasure through their scoring.


Cloning and Ethics

Each applicant that submits a cloned proposal runs many risks. Among the risks are low review scores, reviewers’ recommendations to deny funding, and a blot on its credibility and reputation with the grant program and/or the grant maker. Anyone who furnishes a cloned proposal to two or more clients — with or without prior explicit disclosure of the practice to all parties involved — puts his or her interests ahead of the clients’ interests.


This post discusses professional codes of ethics in grant writing. It is one of an ongoing series on Grant Writing as a Career. Earlier posts discussed several kinds of grant writing consultants’ services and various fees they may charge for them.


Professional Codes of Ethics:

As professions, Law and Medicine, among many others,  have long had codes of ethics. Formal adoption of such a code is a mark of maturity in domains of human inquiry and practice. In recent decades, grant writing has joined the ranks of such domains. Many of its practitioners, organized into associations, now espouse and enforce a code of ethics as a set of norms to govern their professional conduct.


Both how and when a client pays a contractor for developing a proposal are enduring focuses of ethical concern in grant writing. One of the most persistent questions surrounds the use of deferred payments, or compensation based upon either contingencies or commissions.


Grant writing consultants’ websites may declare: “For ethical reasons, we do not work for a contingency fee, commission, or percentage of grant award.” They may also assure potential clients that: “We do not accept projects that are unlikely to be funded and do not require a finder’s fee or contingency fee.”


Such declarations and assurances are consistent with the ethical positions of several professional associations. On the practice of deferred payment, the Grant Professionals Association, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and the American Grant Writers’ Association are in complete agreement. As a matter of ethics, all of them require their members in good standing to eschew deferred payment arrangements.


Reasons for Ethical Concerns:

One reason that deferred payment is unethical is said to be the nature of the client. Often the consultant’s client is a small rural school district or a small and/or new non-profit organization. It is argued that such clients cannot afford to pay exorbitant fees to obtain grants. High fees would siphon funds away from tackling the acute and chronic needs of the clients’ beneficiaries. However, the associations’ ethical rules are universal; they do not vary with the nature of the client – large or small, for-profit or non-profit. The possible effects of deferred payments on particular clients’ working assets do not appear decisive in adopting such rules.


Another reason that deferred payment is unethical is said to be out of concern about its actual source. Problems can arise if a client plans to pay a consultant out of a future grant award. Many grant makers and grant programs prohibit using their funds for this purpose, although exceptions do exist. Using a grant award this way may create a breach of trust with the grant maker. It risks post-award revocation or rescission of the grant and risks losing the grant maker as a continued source of future grants. It also risks moving beyond the consultant and client failing to observe a code of ethics and becoming a violation of law.


Of course, there are other reasons that deferred payments raise ethical issues. Some of these will be the focus of later posts in this series.

This post discusses commission-based compensation for grant writers. It is one of an ongoing series on Grant Writing as a Career. Earlier posts discussed hourly fees and flat fees, consultant retainer fees and prospect research fees, proposal review and editing fees, ordinary and general consulting business expenses, and contingency fees.


As previously noted, the odds of a given proposal being funded vary with the program, the funder, and the competition at the time of application. They vary with the applicant’s experience as a grant seeker, its track record in managing prior grant awards, and the merits of its problem-solving strategies. Seldom is a proposal’s positive outcome a certainty.


Commission-Based Compensation:

Contrasted with zero-sum contingency fees, another type of arrangement for deferred compensation pays the consultant a modest upfront fee, such as $2,500 or so per proposal. The client then agrees to pay a further commission upon notification or receipt of funding – either as a fixed sum or as a percentage of the amount of a grant award.


Consultants may state their deferred payment options on their websites. One consultant’s schedule – discoverable online – combined a fee with a commission in this way:

  • 60% of estimated fees due in advance (and)
  • 8% of awards over $75,000
  • 10% of awards between $25,000 and $74,999
  • 12% of awards between $10,000 and $24,999
  • 15% of awards between $500 and $9,999


In addition to the ‘estimated base fees,’ at the minimum points in each range, this option would amount to surcharges of:

  • $6,000 (at 8% of $75,000)
  • $2,500 (at 10% of $25,000)
  • $1,200 (at 12% of $10,000)
  • $75 (at 15% of $500)


With larger grants (such as those of $100,000 or more per year), percentage-based commissions more typically range from 1% to 5% of the total grant awarded.


Problems and Pitfalls of Commissions:

A budget is ‘padded’ when a line item is calculated at a higher amount than it should be or is introduced in its entirety when it is not necessary. Commission-based deferred payment arrangements may tempt proposal developers to pad their budget requests so that their pay-offs become that much larger. In the illustration above, from 8% to 15% of each dollar of padding would benefit the consultant, not the client.


Such padding goes beyond representing a cushion to account for annual cost inflation in certain items in a multiyear proposal (e.g., in salaries and fringe benefits). It also goes beyond realistic uncertainties in the future costs of certain requested products or services (e.g., those of computers or of airfares).


From the start, padding may be evasive or deceptive in its origins and its intent. At best it may be merely naïve. A client with severely limited financial resources may be more tempted than others to pad its grant budgets in order to pay a consultant’s commission. Whether naïve or deliberate, it is a bad practice since grant makers hold padded budgets in universal contempt.


This post discusses contingency fees. It is one of an ongoing series on Grant Writing as a Career. Earlier posts discussed hourly fees and flat fees, consultant retainer fees and prospect research fees, proposal review and editing fees, and ordinary and general consulting business expenses.


The odds of a given proposal being funded vary with the program, the funder, and the competition at the time of application. They vary with the applicant’s experience as a grant seeker, its track record in managing prior grant awards, and the merits of its problem-solving strategies. Seldom is a proposal’s positive outcome a certainty.


Contingency Fees:

Most grant writers value their work highly enough to require hourly or per diem or per-project compensation, rather than accept deferred payment made contingent upon grants being awarded. And most clients value consultants’ expertise and work products highly enough to pay for them upfront as agreed upon in a contract. However, there are exceptions.


Some clients expect consultants to develop a grant proposal for free and to get paid only if or when it is funded. They do so even though their personnel don’t work for free or on contingency themselves. Such clients shift to the consultant the risk of a grant not being awarded. Often, although not always, the same clients expect, sometimes naively, to use part of a grant, if awarded, to pay the consultant. This all-or-nothing arrangement makes any payment contingent upon the outcome of a grant proposal.


Zero-Sum Risks:

Some consultants are averse to the risk that they will earn nothing for creating a proposal; others accept the risk. Those who write proposals as a sidelight tend to be less risk-averse than those for whom writing proposals is a primary source of income.


Contingencies may leave a consultant penniless while the client walks away with a completed proposal. Such work-products often can be reworked and submitted to the same funder or to others. The arrangement implies that the value of a consultant’s time, effort, and work-product is zero. Such undertakings become speculative at best and desperate at worst.


In addition to undervaluing the consultant’s expertise, clients too often try to pay for a funded grant out of the grant itself. Such an expectation is problematic at best. In the federal grant context, cost principles in OMB Circulars A-21 and A-122 prohibit the recovery of costs (including grant writing costs) incurred before a grant award unless the sponsoring agency allows those costs. Whether such pre-award costs are allowable is stated in the proposal solicitation. In the private sector, foundations may exclude both pre-award and post-award proposal development as allowable costs. As a rule, they also tend to abhor the use of their grant awards to pay contingency fees or commissions to grant writers.


A later related post will discuss commissions, ethics, and pre-award cost recovery.


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