cutting lines

Date: May 11, 2017

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When the Rules Don’t Matter

Fourth in a series on grant writing for social justice – 

A pair of fascinating words coming back into wide use from the Italian language is “furbo” and “fesso.” The closest literal definition could be “clever person” and “foolish person,” but the context from archaic literature makes for a richer meaning about winning and losing.

A furbo is not necessarily smart, but he is more likely to be able and willing to skirt the rules to get better things faster. A fesso is certainly not stupid, but is bound by principle or ability to follow the rules and get what he is given. The famous analogy – understood well by anyone who’s been at an Italian airport – is the furbo finding a way to cut the line while the fesso goes dutifully to the end to wait.

Petty furbi (the plural makes them sound cuter) are easy to brush off, especially since fessi who call them out are condemned as tattle-tales. But the more creative furbi, such as embezzlers and tax dodgers, cause great harm to any system by making it more unequal.

The political economist Mancur Olson would refer to them as “free-riders,” while Karl Marx would have some more insulting terms. A fun new way of seeing furbi versus fessi in America – related to why the terms are coming back in vogue – is “trumps” versus “chumps.”

The current president would no doubt be proud of being a furbo: he found ways of paying as little tax as possible, he flouted rules and laws to build his personal properties and brand, and he regularly mocks those who refused to do the same. The rise of the furbo to the top ranks of the government, which used to stand for protecting fessi from their excesses, is a frightening episode to those used to following the rules. And it holds great opportunity for the leaders and writers not afraid to get in touch with their inner furbo.

Am I telling you to lie? No. Am I telling you to cheat? No. Am I telling you to take opportunities away from others who need them? Definitely not. But there’s no advantage is being the last person following the rules when no one even remembers what they are. If no one is under the speed limit on the highway, it’s safer to drive faster. If cars don’t act like your bike is a vehicle, get up on the sidewalk. And if no one cares about the attractive details of your proposal ever making it to reality, know how to get ahead.


  1. It’s “the bottom line” for a reason.

Budgets and schedules are finicky documents, and their accuracy is initially loose. Early cost and time estimates are almost never close to what a project will cost, and if they are, it’s because there is give and take between line items or sections. Contingencies are always expected to be part of a plan, and a grant provider will rarely care about one item going over if the bottom line stays the same.

If you are more confident on a specific budget item, inflate it. The overage may be invaluable when something else costs more than you expect. If you have anything to explain – which is becoming rarer – be honest about the motivation later, or simply focus on anything that was done early or under budget. Once a project has been funded, especially started and showing results, there will be less of a reason to have a problem with these specifics.


  1. Know the right aspects to showcase.

Industries end up with certain informational preferences: try getting a digital design role with a major tech company or well-funded startup without a publicly-available online portfolio. Most applicants with a perfectly acceptable portfolio that is emailed as a PDF don’t even know why they never heard back. As a result, the smart applicant always has a public collection that covers every aspect of a job they would want to do.

Applying for a grant which covers a lot of material outside your or your organization’s comfort zone is exciting, but no funder wants excitement. They want to believe they’re getting exactly what you are proposing. Make sure your public face includes confident details about every aspect of the project’s requirements. If you’ve even done the right research to build those details, you’re off to a good start if you get funded.


  1. Don’t cross the line.

Lying and cheating is always the wrong choice, and grant writers will always pay for it. The furbo argument is about valuing the shared space that we live and work in, and realizing there’s no advantage in making a solitary stand to devalue it. Self-sabotage lies on both sides of this fine line. When you can’t rely on the rules or the other players, you have an extra responsibility to find the limits of your proposal amid the blurs.

And being a furbo doesn’t mean doing less work. Do extra research on the industrial and regulatory space around your project. Look at any public information on successful (and even failed) grant applications similar to yours. Think about how “real” the details were so you can start thinking about the room you have to make the best proposal while avoiding lying, cheating, and making promises you can’t keep.



Do you want an equitable world? Maybe rules so positive that no one would want to bend them? Perhaps single-payer health insurance so no one gets better care than anyone else? Tough. If we had those things, grant writers would mostly be out of a job because we wouldn’t have to fight inequality. If you want to win in a world of furbi, being a fesso is not an option. Save your rule-following for airport lines. Or don’t. Know how to win, and practice until you can’t lose.

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