Three Grantwriting Mistakes Nonprofits Make

mistakes grantwriters make

I guest blogged yesterday on about business plan mistakes that I see often as a judge for the social venture track of NYU’s business plan competition.  While the post addressed mistakes made by for-profit ventures and nonprofit social ventures, a lot of the mistakes that I see – and lessons learned – apply equally to nonprofits writing grant proposals to fund new programs.

Mistake #1: Developing a solution that’s in search of a problem.  Fundraising consultant Pamela Grow referred to this problem in an email yesterday as “If you build it, they will come.”  In fact, they won’t.  Too many nonprofits (like for-profit social ventures) come up with a great idea that should be of great value to their constituents.  Smart people get together in conference rooms and come up with great ideas.  They see problems their constituents are experiencing, and come up with solutions – all without getting input from said constituents.  In for-profits, this generally results in creating a product or service without a clear market.  In nonprofits, this can result in either creating a product or service without a clear group of people who will use it – or in creating a product or service without a clear source of funding.  Either result has problems, and both can be avoided by getting input for the relevant constituents along the way.  If you develop the service, will the people in your service area use it?  What will compel them to do so?  What might get in the way, and how can you overcome it?  Will they be willing and able to pay for it?  If not (which is frequently the case), how will you cover those costs?  Launching the program without knowing that you’ll be able to get sufficient support to make is sustainable, often manifest in saying, “Oh, we’ll just get a grant to cover those costs,” can be more harmful than beneficial to your constituents if you are then unable to secure funding.

Mistake #2: Claiming you have no competition.  Many grant proposals ask grant applicants to discuss their competition.  It may well be that there isn’t another organization in your service area doing exactly what your organization is proposing, but that doesn’t mean that you do not have any competition.  There’s direct competition, indirect competition, and there’s the status quo.  Think about your constituents.  What are they doing now?  Are there other organizations providing a similar service that is meeting the same – or a similar – need?  Even if there aren’t similar services being offered in your service area, your constituents are spending time and sometimes money on other things that will have to be displaced by your service.  You need to know – and be able to describe – what those things are, as well as any other services that compete more directly with what you’re proposing.

Mistake #3: Grant applicants must clearly articulate their theory of change.  Different organizations have different ways of framing theories of change and the social impact that is expected to result from the program or service being developed.  Whatever it’s presenting a theory of change, articulating SMART objectives, building logic models, or something else, it’s critical to be able to articulate the impact your organization is trying to achieve, how you plan to achieve it, and how you plan to measure the results of your activities.  In grant proposals, look for any specific requirements articulated by the foundation to which you’re applying; many foundations have specific formats in which they prefer to see goals, outcomes, and theories of change addressed.

What are some common mistakes you have seen – or made – in grant applications?  Feel free to share in the comments below.


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Author: Dahna Goldstein
February 22, 2013, 10:30 AM

Not Getting Enough Funder Love? Try These Grantwriting Tips

grantseeking tips

I’ve written before about grant dating (here, and here, among other places).  As strange as it seems, the grantseeking process does bear some resemblance to dating, so revisiting it on Valentine’s Day seemed apropos.

So if things are not working out in your pursuit of a funder marriage, it may be because your dating approach needs to be adjusted.  Here are a few tips to help you get to that long-term funder relationship:

  • Make sure you’re dating the right foundations.  A good relationship starts with meeting the right foundations.  If you have nothing in common, the chances are not good that a relationship will work out.  You can start by doing thorough research on the foundations you’re approaching.  Study their mission statements and their guidelines.  See which organizations they’ve funded in the past, and which organizations they’re currently funding.  Do your programs seem like a good fit?  Trying to fit square pegs into round holes by tweaking your program descriptions to meet funding requirements that you don’t naturally fit is not a recipe for a lasting relationship.
  • Make sure you’re speaking their language.  Many foundations have specific requirements for grant applications – everything from the specific information that they want to receive (specific questions to answer, issues to address, documents to provide) to when and how they want to receive it.  Be sure that the request you’re putting together meets those requirements, whatever they are.  (And we’ll be happy to show you how PhilanTrack can help you manage multiple proposals to multiple foundations.)
  • It’s not all about you.  Many nonprofits take an “it’s not you, it’s me” approach to writing grant proposals.  They talk extensively about their programs, their constituents, their successes, their plans.  While grant applications should absolutely include those things, they also need to position your programs in terms of the foundation’s priorities and its mission.  One of the things Marty Teitel talks about in his book “The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants” is the importance of aligning the proposal with what the foundation – and the people in the foundation, including both the program officer and the directors – is trying to accomplish.  Part of the grantwriter’s job is to make it easy for the proposal reader to see how the program in question will help the foundation further its own goals.
  • Presentation matters.  Think about how you’re coming across.  Just as you would probably choose your outfit carefully for your first date, think about how you’re presenting yourself to a funder.  Is your proposal well written?  Is it persuasive?  Your organization can be doing great work, but if you don’t convey it clearly, you’ll have a hard time getting it funded.  Program officers and trustees generally read many more proposals than they are able to fund.  Think about it from their perspective – it’s so much better to read a proposal that is well written!  Have someone else proof-read your submission to make sure there aren’t any mistakes and that the prose is clear, and supported by relevant quantitative information.  First impressions matter!
  • Once you’re in a relationship, don’t neglect your funder.  Funder relationships, like all relationships, take time and care.  Don’t take your funder for granted.  If the funder asks for updates, provide them in a timely manner, and with the information requested.  Don’t overwhelm the funder with communications (they don’t need to be copied on every email that you send to your supporters), but keep them up to date on key developments that relate to the grant they’ve given you, even if there isn’t a report due for a few months.  Of course, if a funder makes it clear that they don’t want to hear from you aside from reports, then respect that (some funders need their space).
  • If it doesn’t work out, ask for feedback to help your next relationship.  Sometimes funders will break up with you for no reason – or what seems to be no reason.  Maybe you’ve been in a relationship for several years and the board decides to change priorities in a way that no longer includes your organization’s mission and programs.  It can be heartbreaking, but it happens, and there isn’t much you can do about it.  But sometimes, funders will break up with you for a clear and explainable reason.  While they may be inclined to spare your feelings by not coming right out and telling you the reason for the breakup, it’s frequently worth asking the question.  The truth may hurt, but it might help position you for greater success as you pursue your next funder relationship.

Feel free to share your grant dating tips in the comments below!


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Author: Dahna Goldstein
February 14, 2013, 10:30 AM

Please Take the Spring 2013 State of Grantseeking Survey

grantseeking questions

Twice a year, PhilanTech partners with our friends at GrantStation to survey nonprofits about the current state of grantseeking in the U.S.  We've gained valuable insights in the five reports that we have published to date, which we are happy to share with the nonprofit sector to help inform grantseeking strategies.

We've just opened the Spring 2013 State of Grantseeking survey, and hope that you'll take a few minutes to take the survey.

We've added some questions this year, based on feedback from the last survey in which we specifically asked what additional questions respondents would like us to include to ensure the survey is addressing the grantseeking issues that are most pressing for their organizations.  Those questions are:

  • What is the household income in your service area?
  • How would you describe your organization's location or service area? (rural, urban, etc.)
  • With which racial or ethnic group do those in your service area most identify?
  • Is your organization well known in your service area?
  • What is the age of your organization?

Please take five minutes and complete the survey before March 15.  Results will be published on both the PhilanTech and GrantStation websites.  Survey respondents can request an advance copy of results when completing the survey.

If you haven't already, you can download the Fall 2012 State of Grantseeking Report here.

Happy grantseeking!


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Author: Dahna Goldstein
February 13, 2013, 01:54 PM

What Grantseekers Can Learn from Lance Armstrong

Lance Armtrong

It was hard to miss the news last week that Lance Armstrong finally admitted to doping during his legendary cycling career that included seven Tour de France wins.  The admission was a significant let down for many people who not only believed Armstrong’s claims of innocence, but also idolized him because of his incredible athletic achievements, his successful battle against testicular cancer, and subsequent good work done by Livestrong, the cancer support organization he founded and championed.

There may not be much of a silver lining in what has undoubtedly been a spectacular fall from grace, but here are a few lessons that grantseekers can learn from Lance Armstrong:

  • Don’t do illegal, immoral, or prohibited things.  That may seem obvious, but there are some pretty critical ways nonprofits can get in trouble, like spending restricted funds for a purpose other than what was designated by the donor.  (There are other, obviously illegal things, too, like stealing money from the organization.)  Don’t do them.  And keep a keen eye out for others in your organization who might be at risk of doing something illegal, immoral, or otherwise just wrong for your organization.
  • If something goes wrong, don’t lie about it.  In the process of running a grant-funded program, something may well go wrong.  Things frequently do.  When someone on your team makes a mistake, or something unexpectedly bad happens with a grant-funded program, come clean about it immediately to the funder.  Don’t hide it and hope the funder never finds out.  Getting caught in a lie will only compound the problem, and pretty much sink any chance you might have of receiving future support from the funder (and possibly from any other funder, if the word gets out).
  • Winning at any expense isn’t worth the cost.   The old adage that cheaters never prosper rings true in the grantseeking world.  Misrepresenting your organization’s abilities, or doing something that undermines your competition will only come back to hurt you in the end.  Yes, grants are competitive.  Yes, you need to do something to make your proposal, organization, and programs stand out, but do it honestly, and by highlighting your strengths rather than misrepresenting them or denigrating others
  • It’s not always a good thing to be interviewed by OprahSeveral nonprofits had great success after Oprah appearances.  While Oprah may no longer be the primary aspiration for publicity-seeking nonprofits, many nonprofits still seek that one big media break that will make their organization a household name.  But not all publicity is good publicity.  Appearing on a major media outlet – or being interviewed by a celebrity interviewer – can bring both fame and infamy to your organization.  Just be sure that the publicity you’re seeking is for the right reasons and that the coverage will be positive, otherwise it can do more harm than good to both your grantseeking efforts (if the foundation has heard of you because of a negative news expose, you’re not going to get that grant) and to your organization as a whole.

Feel free to add any other grantseeking lessons learned from Lance Armstrong in the comments.


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Author: Dahna Goldstein
January 22, 2013, 11:38 AM

Three Myths and One Truth about Foundation Grantseeking

grant writing

In preparation for next week’s webinar on winning foundation grants, I’ve been reading Martin Teitel’s book, The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants: A Foundation CEO Reveals the Secrets Your Need to Know.  While all webinar attendees will receive a copy of the book, in addition to hearing from the author, I thought I’d share a few nuggets inspired by the book to start the year.

Without further ado, three myths and one truth about foundation funding:

  • Myth #1 - Foundation boards rubber stamp staff recommendations.  Foundation boards are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the organization is a good steward of the donor's funds and that it pursues its mission objectives.  The board ultimately makes funding decisions.  Staff (when the foundation has staff) work diligently to evaluate proposals and prepare recommendations to boards.  But that doesn't mean that the board will necessarily approve every recommended grant.  Foundation staff can certainly influence board decisions (and the degree to which the board accepts staff recommendations varies from foundation to foundation), but part of the job of the grantwriter is to help the foundation staff tell the prospective grantee's story well to help make the case to the board for funding.
  • Myth #2 - Good writing doesn't matter if your organization is doing good work.  Think of a grant proposal as a journalistic apiece.  It should be clear, concise, to the point.  Your organization's grant request has a limited window of opportunity to stand out from the many proposals on the program officer's desk.  You may be doing great work, but if it isn't clearly conveyed in your proposal or LOI, the program officer (or ED or trustee) reading your information won't be able to easily see what is compelling and why your organization should benefit from the limited resources the foundation is able to invest. Good writing matters.  Spend time on your summary or LOI to help your organization make a strong first impression and encourage your reader to want to engage further.
  • Myth #3 - Progress reports don't matter.  Many foundations require progress reports.  Many nonprofits neglect to submit them (or neglect to submit them on time, or put much thought/effort into them).  Those same nonprofits tend to think that foundations don't read the reports, so the reports don't matter.  While that may unfortunately be true in some cases, in many others the progress report can play a significant role in determining whether your organization will receive future funding from a foundation.  Neglecting to submit a progress report (or doing a cursory job) conveys a lack of respect and follow-through to the foundation, which is not the impression you want to leave with someone you're hoping will fund your organization in the future.
  • A Truth - Understanding the motivations of both the foundation as an organization and the program officer as an individual is important.  Foundations have missions to pursue -- and donor intent to support.  Program officers are inundated with requests and have to make a case to their board for why a given proposal should be funded.  What that implies is that a) nonprofits need to be attentive to the foundation's mission and requirements, and b) grantwriters should think about the reader while writing proposals.  To elaborate a bit: if what you're proposing isn't aligned with the foundation's mission and stated strategies, it isn't going to get funded, and it's not a good use of your time -- or the foundation's -- to put a lot of effort into a request.  Foundation priorities can change.  Take the time to review current priorities and requirements before starting a grant proposal.  And be sure that what you're writing/presenting is clearly aligned with those priorities and requirements.  In terms of the program officer, remember that he or she will a) be reading tons of proposals, b) will need to be able to easily summarize what your organization is doing, why it's aligned with the foundation's mission and something that should be funded.  Help your reader help you by giving them clear, compelling prose, backed up with just enough data, to make a case for why your organization should receive a grant. 

Please join us next Tuesday to hear directly from the author about what grantseekers need to know about foundation funding.


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Author: Dahna Goldstein
January 09, 2013, 11:30 AM

State of Grantseeking - Fall 2012

State of Grantseeking Fall 2012

PhilanTech and GrantStation are pleased to announce the release of the State of Grantseeking Fall 2012 Report.

The fifth semi-annual survey provides a snapshot of grantseeking activities and challenges in the US.  Like with past reports, grantseeking remains challenging for nonprofits.  The combination of the economic environment - and resulting cuts in expenses, both by grantmakers and by the grantseekers themselves - and the process of seeking and obtaining grants continue to test nonprofits.

Other findings from the survey included:

  • Almost one quarter of respondents told us that their greatest challenge in grantseeking was the lack of time and/or staff.
  • The number of grants from all levels of government increased by 6.1%.
  • Private foundations were less likely to be the source of the largest grant award than previously reported in The State of Grantseeking surveys, regardless of organization size as defined by annual budget.
  • The median largest grant in the first six months of 2011 was $39,000; the median largest grant for that same period of 2012 was $50,000.

As with past surveys, respondents maintained a sense of optimism, with 71% reporting that grant funding would increase or stay the same in the next 6 months.

The next State of Grantseeking survey will be conducted in early 2013.

Download the State of Grantseeking Fall 2012 Report now!

Author: Dahna Goldstein
November 26, 2012, 01:30 PM

Atoning for Grantwriting Transgressions

Atoning for Grantwriting Transgressions

This week marked Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish tradition.  As you may know, Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, a day in which atoning for one's sins of the previous year creates a path to forgiveness, and the opportunity to begin the new year (celebrated last week) with a clean slate.

One of the unique elements of Yom Kippur is a type of communal atonement.  Many of the prayers recited are in first person plural, ways "we" have transgressed, rather than ways "I" have transgressed. 

And so it is in the spirit of Yom Kippur that I offer the following grantwriting transgressions we, a community of grantseekers, may have made in the past year.  Note: atonement is only meaningful when it is accompanied by a good faith promise to do better in the coming year, to not repeat the mistakes and transgressions of the past year.

In no particular order:

  • We have failed to respect the funder's stated requirements.  Many funders clearly state on their websites (and/or in other publications) what they will and will not fund, what their priorities are, and how they prefer to be contacted.  Not following whatever guidelines have been set by the funder virtually guarantees your proposal will not get funded, and yet many nonprofits still think that the guidelines do not apply to them, or that the grantmaker will be persuaded once they have had a chance to see how amazing the nonprofit's work is.
  • We have failed to communicate quickly with the funder if something goes wrong.  Put yourself in the funder's shoes.  They've just invested a good bit of money in your organization.  Yes, it's a grant, but they're invested in the success of your organization and programs, and the impact you're having on the communities you serve.  If it were your investment, wouldn't you want to know if something was not going as expected?  Surprising the funder in your final report with news about something that happened early in the grant will not endear you to that funder.  Looking at it another way, your funder can be a valuable partner.  If something is not going as planned, the funder may be able to help.  Perhaps the foundation has access to resources that can be useful.  Perhaps a grant to another organization in the past experienced similar problems and found a creative solution.  If you don't take the initiative to communicate with the funder, you'll never know.
  • We have failed to attempt to maintain a relationship after a proposal was declined.  Sometimes a rejected proposal means "I don't want to date, but we can still be friends."  Sometimes it doesn't (and you don't want to become a stalker), but trying to learn from the declination can be very helpful.  Funder priorities can change.  Your program might change.  In a year or two, perhaps you and the funder will be better suited to each other.  If you don't stay in touch, you'll never know.  (Again, I'm not advocating stalking here -- and be respectful of a funder's stated preferences for contact in terms of both frequency and medium -- but occasional updates to a not-right-now funder can be valuable in the future.)
  • We have made unrealistic promises to try to get the grant.  Under promising and over delivering can make your organization look good.  Over promising and under delivering will inevitably cause more harm than good.  Overpromising might get you the grant, but at what cost?  You may have to change your organization's priorities to meet the grant's requirements (which may not be the best thing to do for your mission).  Or if you don't then keep the promises you've made, it will be very hard to get back in that funder's good graces (even if you atone for your sins).  So don't do it.
  • We have failed to calculate the full cost of the grant before deciding whether or not to pursue it.  I've written before about the cost of managing grants.  Not all grants are created equal in terms of the amount of effort (read: cost) to pursue, get, and manage the grant.  While funders bear some of the responsibility for this (see next week's post), grantseekers also have a responsibility to view their time as a valuable resource, and evaluate the cost -- and opportunity cost -- associated with dedicating that precious resource to a pursuit that is likely to have a low return.  Before jumping into a grant application, think about whether the expected value of that grant (if you get it) is enough to justify the cost, or whether your resources better spent pursuing other funding opportunities.

Coming next week, atoning for grantmaking transgressions (since it is not only grantseekers who should seek forgiveness and strive to do better next year).

Feel free to add your own grantseeking transgressions in the comments.

Author: Dahna Goldstein
September 28, 2012, 11:06 AM

Grantwriting Tips - When Bad Things Happen to Good Email Addresses


My last post was about how PhilanTech's support email was spoofed.  It was an unfortunate experience, and one from which I learned several lessons that are surprisingly applicable to grantwriting:

  • When things go wrong, acknowledge them, fix them, and move on.  While you're not likely to face the same situation we did a few weeks ago (hopefully), it's possible something will go wrong in a grant-funded project, or in a project that you're hoping will be grant funded.  Many of us have a tendency to avoid talking about things that don't go well (and many nonprofits fear that foundations will not be willing to fund them if something in the project hasn't been successful.  More about that another time).  But avoiding talking about something doesn't make the issue go away, and embracing it and demonstrating an understanding of the issue and what you'll do in the future to avoid a similar issue goes a long way.  Obviously, just saying that something went wrong isn't sufficient.  Dig in to understand what went wrong and why, and clearly communicate what you are doing to ensure it won't happen again in the future.
  • Communicate often.  The people who were the recipients of the spoofed emails were not PhilanTech clients or users, so this isn't directly applicable to our particular case, but a good lesson nonetheless.  Funders generally require at least one annual report. If something does go wrong with your funded program, don't wait until you submit the final report to let the funder know.  Stay in touch with your funder (and you can ask them about the best modes and frequency of communication) and let them know how things are going so that they are able to share in your successes, and they are not surprised by challenges when they read the year-end report (and when they might simultaneously be considering future funding).
  • More isn't always better.  We've been trying to figure out why our email was spoofed.  It's the kind of thing that happens to Microsoft or Google, but not generally to small nonprofit software companies.  In trying to find a cause, we discovered something unusual: the "contact us" page on our website comes up first if you Google a particular common phrase (which I'm a bit reluctant to post here, since it was the prevalence of that keyword, we think, that made us a target).  While many organizations (companies and nonprofits) strive for good search engine optimization so that their website will be at the top of the list when people search for particular terms, it was not a good thing in this case.  For your grantwriting, highlight the things that are meaningful - to you, to your constituents, and to your prospective funder.  Highlighting the things that are the most or the biggest isn't necessarily helpful if they aren't the right things to highlight.

What do you think?  What are lessons you've learned from bad experiences that impact your approach to grantwriting?


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Author: Dahna Goldstein
August 16, 2012, 03:52 PM

A Program Officer's Pet Peeves - Grantwriting Tips

This is a guest post by Theresa Sondys


As a foundation program officer, I am often asked what it takes to write a winning grant request. It may be easier to tell you the faults that will most certainly make it a losing one.

5. Say what? Avoid using overly academic, abstract, vague or pontificating language. Make the proposal easy to read and understand for anyone. What we don’t understand we don’t fund.

4. Budget Woes. The budget should be well-justified, show both revenues and expenses, and – most importantly – add up properly. After all, if you can’t manage your money, why should we give you any of ours?

3. What are you going to do? The key to a strong proposal is proving the likelihood that it will achieve its goals. When you write your objectives, follow the acronymic advice: “Keep them S-I-M-P-L-E.” Your objectives should be:

  • Specific – precisely what you intend to change through the project
  • Immediate – the time frame during which a problem will be addressed
  • Measurable – exactly how you will measure success
  • Practical – how each objective is a real solution to a real problem
  • Logical – how each objective systematically contributes to achieving your overall goal(s)
  • Evaluable – how much change has to occur for the project to be effective

2. A proposal that doesn’t fit – Research potential funders thoroughly and contact the funder to clear up any questions in your mind. Make sure your proposal matches the funder’s mission and objectives. Never ignore a funder’s guidelines in the hopes of ‘fitting’ your program into their niche. It almost never works.

1. Follow the instructions – When dealing with any funder, read the instructions before applying – then follow them (i.e., if the instructions say to double space the proposal, don’t single space.) Some foundations will throw out your proposal for this small, seemingly unimportant error.

 Theresa Sondys

Theresa L. Sondys is the Senior Program Officer of Metro Health Foundation, a Detroit-based private philanthropy dedicated to helping metropolitan Detroit organizations meet the community’s health needs. Theresa does extensive work in the southeastern Michigan community. She is currently a member of the board of directors of The MINDS Program, President-Emeritus of Hamtramck United Social Services (a/k/a HUSS); and has served as president and chairman of various non-profit boards and coalitions. A woman of many talents, Theresa has held a variety of different positions including Legal Secretary, Administrative Manager, and Inspector for Nonconforming Material on a nuclear power construction site. An accomplished vocalist and author of two novels (The Pink Lady and Star-Crossed Murders), she is also an experienced speaker who has taught  workshops and seminars on Program Planning, Introduction to Proposal Writing, Grant-Writing, etc. Mother of two children, Theresa will be celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary later this summer.

Author: Dahna Goldstein
June 26, 2012, 12:00 PM

The State of Grantseeking - Spring 2012

state of grantseeking spring 2012

PhilanTech and GrantStation are pleased to announce the release of the State of Grantseeking Spring 2012 Report.

Ongoing declines in government and other funding and the resulting decreases in fundraising staff and resources continue to challenge grantseekers.  The 812 survey respondents indicated that the size and number of grants awarded are not keeping pace with the increased demands for their services.

Other findings from the survey included:

  • Most organizations applied for the same number or more grants, and increased efforts resulted in more grants for 31% of respondents, an improvement of 5% since the last survey.
  • The average size of grants increased from the same period last year.
  • Larger organizations struggled more with economic conditions, whereas smaller organizations continue to struggle more with the mechanics of grantseeking.
  • Despite ongoing reductions in government grants and increased competition for all types of grants, 78% of respondents felt optimistic that their grant funding would increase or continue at the same level for the next six months.  This represents a slight decrease in optimistic responses since the Fall 2011 survey.

The survey was open in February and March 2012.  While nonprofit organizations of all sizes responded to the survey, the majority could be considered small to mid-sized organizations:

  • 43% had one to five staff members.
  • Over half (63%) had budgets under $1,000,000.

The next State of Grantseeking survey will be conducted starting in August 2012.

Download the full State of Grantseeking Report.
Author: Dahna Goldstein
May 10, 2012, 11:36 AM

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