June 18th, 2013 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments
June 12th, 2013 · by Isaac Seliger · No Comments
Another week, another huge ACA / ObamaCare RFP announced. This time it’s Health Care Innovations Awards Round Two. There’s $900,000,000 up for grabs, with grants to $25,000,000. These eye popping numbers are big enough to seize the attention of even this grizzled grant writer.
The purpose of this very attractive RFP is to:
The second round of Health Care Innovation Awards will fund applicants who propose new payment and service delivery models that have the greatest likelihood of driving health care system transformation and delivering better outcomes for Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP beneficiaries in four Innovation Categories.
This string of policy buzz words doesn’t really say anything other than that applicants are supposed to do something that will somehow lower undefined health care costs born by public insurance programs, while at the same time magically improving undefined outcomes. This is great news for applicants because almost anything can be proposed. It’s even better news for grant writers, as we can wax eloquently in health policy mumbo jumbo while spinning grant Tales of Brave Ulysses (I used this quote before, as well, but it just seems so damn perfect here). Speaking of quotes, I’ve cited the late, lamented Senator Everett Disksen before, but it applies here too: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” This program is another example of the talk about sequestration and budget deficits having little effect on actual federal grant funding: the grant spigot is on at ObamaCare and it’s a gusher.
Every type of applicant is eligible: nonprofits, IHEs (Institutions of Higher Education, otherwise known as “colleges or university” but in bureaucrat-speak), Indian tribes, businesses and your Aunt Martha, as individuals are eligible applicants. Think of it as another Oklahoma Land Rush of grant opportunities.
As faithful readers know, I’ve been writing grant proposals since dinosaurs walked the earth and I can’t remember another grant program that has had so much money available, so little direction, and so broad an eligible applicant pool.
If your organization or your Aunt Martha have any bright ideas on improving Medicare, Medicaid and/or CHIP service delivery and costs, you should not let this opportunity pass. The deadline is August 15, so, for a change, there’s plenty of time to plan the project concept and write the proposal. A word of caution, however: a mandatory letter of intent to apply must be submitted by June 28. LOIs are easy to draft, so you should work most di di mau on the letter to reserve your place at this incredibly tasty grant trough.
Tags: Government · Grants
June 2nd, 2013 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments
Ken Stern’s With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give is really about a single, fundamental issue and its implications: funders are the real “clients” of most nonprofits, yet their desires dominate everything that nonprofits do. He says that “The care and feeding of donors who make highly personal gifts can distract from the core charitable purposes and matters of organizational effectiveness.” But in many ways the “care and feeding” of those donors is, or becomes, the organization’s real mission. Organizations that don’t attend to their funding streams aren’t going to keep their doors open.
As a result, With Charity For All is really about reforming funder priorities, especially among foundation, corporate giving, and wealthy individual donors.
That’s a laudable goal. Right now, however, most donors donate based on emotional connections rather than cost-benefit analyses. In one example, Stern describes how “Katrina was a gold rush for the nonprofit community; hundreds of organizations descended on the Gulf Coast.” But most of those organizations weren’t effective—including the Red Cross, as Stern describes in detail. When we judge by intentions more than effectiveness, we don’t actually care about effectiveness, and funders don’t look at what happens to their money after the donations; they’re busy basking in the afterglow. Moreover, Stern says:
For most charities, the story from the front lines is the most important measure of success, one that typically confirms the importance of the work and reassures stakeholders. Empirical and research studies are to be avoided as expensive, distracting, and potentially dangerous. In some ways, the charitable world exhibits and almost medieval aversion to scientific scrutiny and accountability.
Does this sound familiar? To regular readers it should, since we’ve long argued that your grant story needs to get the money and that most funders don’t value evaluations. Most donors and grant makers care only superficially about results. Nonprofits that have embraced “empirical and research studies” have mostly been outcompeted by those that tell happy stories.
That’s a problem from the perspective of those receiving services, however. Using the Red Cross as an example, which couldn’t act effectively after 9/11 and then planned to use 9/11 funds to improve organizational effectiveness, only to be bashed by the press, Stern goes on to say that there is
a bedrock and simplistic assumption that has long shackled the charitable world: that money spent on direct services is the only worthy use of charitable funds, while money invested in organizational effectiveness is to be kept as close to zero as possible. It is an equation widely accepted by the donating public, by the press, by charity watchdogs, by government regulators, and by most charities themselves. To keep overhead costs down, charities forgo necessary investments with devastating and sometimes deadly results.
This is sensational but sometimes true. Still, on a smaller scale than the Red Cross, we see lots of money subtly diverted in various ways into organizational effectiveness: the van bought for one program ends up being used for another. Project staff on one program also spend time working in another. Technically these sorts of things are often against funding rules, but better organizations ignore them so they can get stuff done.
Ignoring funder rules is often rewarded, as we discuss in point three of this post.
With Charity for All is hardly the only book to observe perverse incentives among nonprofits: The Robin Hood Rules for Smart Giving says in its introduction:
The idea behind this book is that philanthropists cannot settle for choosing programs merely because they generate important benefits. They must hold out for funding only those programs that do the most good per dollar of costs. Otherwise money is wasted, which is an unforgivable mistake given yawning social needs.
“An unforgivable mistake?” I won’t be inviting Weinstein and Bradburd, the authors, to dinner, and I suspect a lot of foundation directors won’t either. Still, their take is so similar to Stern’s that it merits a mention, especially because reality on the ground indicates that philanthropists can and do “settle for choosing programs merely because they generate important benefits.”
Despite Stern’s disapproval of current funder priorities, it’s important for organizations that want to succeed quickly learn how to tell happy stories—and when not to. Most proposals submitted to state and federal organizations, for example, are designed to avoid stories about particular individuals; the RFPs tend to be so fragmented that it’s difficult or impossible to tell a coherent story. Moreover, most government programs want a story about (possibly illusory) effectiveness, much more than they want stories about identifiable humans. Remember that these are bureaucrats we’re talking about, not normal people. It’s also not clear how much government spending is actually about solving social ailments, versus accomplishing other goals. I don’t want to say more about that here, because it’s venturing too close to the political quicksand that we studiously avoid, but the point remains and should be obvious to anyone involved with in grant writing and organization funding.
There are frustrating parts of With Charity For All, especially when Stern’s evidence or discussion is thin. For example, he says:
There is little credible evidence that many charitable organizations produce lasting social value. Study after study tells the opposite story: or organizations that fail to achieve meaningful impact yet press on with their strategies and services despite significant, at times overwhelming, evidence that they don’t work.
None of these studies are cited in a footnote. No specific organizations are cited. This narrative is little better than the charities-are-ineffective narrative. Still, charities are organizations that, on a basic level, must take in more money than they spend. Consequently, charities, like all entities, are perfectly capable of failing, and they must adapt to their environment. Like pretty much everyone who looks into this matter, I agree that charities should spend more time genuinely evaluating themselves, but that requires that their funders also become more interested in doing so. GiveWell.org is one effort to do so, and this book is an attempt to raise the profile of profiling nonprofits. Nonetheless, in a discussion about how to measure effectiveness, it’s discouraging to see references to “study after study” only to find zero studies cited.
It’s also not entirely true that “The nonprofit field is extraordinarily stagnant, even though tens of thousands of new charities are created each year and billions of dollars of grants and donations annually flow to American charities.” The word “stagnant” is probably wrong: although tens of thousands of new nonprofits ones are created, tens of thousands of old ones close. As I said above, a nonprofit that can’t take in more money than it spends won’t exist for long, and that’s part of what makes nonprofits dynamic. Now, it may be that funders are rewarding behaviors that may not be optimal in terms of achieving preferred outcomes, but that’s a separate issue that shouldn’t be conflated with dynamism per se.
In a moment of dubious interpretation, Stern writes:
At the core of our charitable system is the notion that charities perform critical social functions and thereby save the government and the taxpayer the effort and expense of providing the service. But the charitable sector is filled with organizations doing things that no government would care to do and that would scandalize taxpayers if they understood they were underwriting this effort.
I’m not sure “the notion that charities [. . .] save the government [. . . ] effort and expense” is at “the core of our charitable system:” is there a “core of our charitable systems?” Core isn’t the right word, or mental model; we have a series of post-hoc rationalizations. One of those post-hoc rationalizations is a larger sense that government can’t do or think of everything that should be done on a not-for-profit basis; groups of individuals should be able to come together to do stuff that’s worth doing but that won’t necessarily return money to “shareholders.” Not everything worth doing needs to be provided by the government and not everything provided by the government is necessarily worth doing.
Those are statements of general principle, however, and Stern goes on to describe how the college football bowl system consists of dubious nonprofits running, for example, “the Allstate Sugar Bowl” and making a lot of tax-free money in the process. Big-time college sports in general have only the flimsiest patina of amateurism left in them, and by now they should be spun off from their nominal university owners and made to pay players just like every other employers.
The idea that big time football or basketball schools (like Isaac’s favorite, the University of Kansas Jayhawks) should pay their coaches millions of dollars and their players “scholarships” is ludicrous, but those specific examples don’t necessarily mean all organizations doing things government shouldn’t should also be treated and taxed like conventional businesses. For example, the Mozilla Foundation provides an open-source web browser and is dedicated to freedom on the Internet. I don’t necessarily think the U.S. government should start its own web browser division, but most people would probably agree that Mozilla is a reasonable charitable endeavor.
(Regular readers have noticed that this post is a bit different than most of our posts: we’re reviewing a book instead of discussing direct experience, telling stories, or writing about RFPs. We’d love to hear your comments, and, if you know of any other books we should be reading, let us know about those too. Although we’re mostly content producers, occasionally we leave our iMacs, retire to a comfortable chair, and enjoy a book, along with a well-made cocktail or three.)
Tags: Education · Grants · Media · Nonprofits · Research
May 19th, 2013 · by Isaac Seliger · No Comments
In a recent post about the new ObamaCare Health Navigators program, I said that it looks like classic grant walking around money that should be of great interest to almost all nonprofits and many public agencies, regardless of whether or not they’ve ever done any health related activities. This particular RFP is for the 34 states that are not setting up their own Health Insurance Exchanges.
The other 16 states are doing their own “thang,” to quote The Isley Brothers, with respect to ObamaCare outreach and education. In California, this effort is the wonderfully named “Covered California,” which sounds more like a teen pregnancy prevention program than something about affordable health insurance.
Last week I received a call from a prospective client who was interested in applying to the Covered California Outreach and Education Grant Program, which is California’s equivalent to the federal Health Navigators program. My caller was out of luck because the RFP process concluded in March. But there’ll be additional RFPs, so I advised him to watch the skies for the next RFP. One interesting point about the California RFP process: the organizations that submitted Letters of Intent are conveniently available at the above download link in the first sentence.
Look at the Letter of Intent (“LOI”) list and the phenomena of walking around money will be instantly illustrated. Prospective applicants included a cornucopia of nonprofit and pubic agencies, many of which seemingly have much to do with health insurance needs. Here’s a few that caught my eye in the 13 pages of would-be applicants:
The Actors Fund, Rancho Santiago Community College District, California Association of Black Pastors, Apple Valley Chamber of Commerce, San Bernardino Employment Training Agency, Union of Pan Asian Communities, Office of Small Business of the City and County of San Francisco, County of Ventura Area Agency on Aging, Partnership for Affordable Housing, Rasin City Elementary School District, Jamboree Housing Corporation, California Latino Water Coalition (who knew there was such a thing as “Latino water”), Girls After School Academy, the California Teachers Association, SIEU Locals 521 and 99, and—my personal favorite—The California Restaurant Association.
Based on a close reading of that list, it should be obvious that California organizations recognize a gravy train when they see one. As I said in my earlier post, if you like grants—and who doesn’t?—squeeze in close and get your snout in the Health Navigator trough. This free-for-all is too good to pass up.
Tags: Government · Grants · Programs · RFPs
May 12th, 2013 · by Isaac Seliger · No Comments
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) just issued the Street Outreach Program (SOP) FY ’13 Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA),* which offers an opportunity for us to describe a common funder program paradigm: outreach. Last week, faithful readers will recall that we blogged about yet another outreach program: Health Navigators.
Not all of our readers are likely hip to outreach program design. In essence, all outreach programs use more or less the same design and have changed little since the halcyon days of outreach of the 1970s. Actually, this is not entirely true: these days a soupçon of social media should be added to the outreach stew, but otherwise things remain the same.
Unless there is a static client input stream (e.g., domestic violence offenders being court-referred), almost all human services programs require some outreach component; even if the RFP doesn’t require one, smart, imaginative grant writers will include outreach anyway. An SOP or Health Navigator proposal is just a gigantic outreach effort, but the basic structure of outreach can be applied to most any project design.
The point of outreach is to connect some target population with something that is supposed to improve their life outcomes (free proposal phrase here). Within this context (another free proposal phrase here), there are two basic types of outreach: local and regional/statewide. Local outreach almost always includes:
- One-on-one information meetings conducted with the staff of other providers to give them the good news about the program, so that they will refer their eligible clients.
- Presentations to community groups, faith-based organizations and any other group that has a constituency that could benefit from the program, or, barring that, any other constituency that can be gathered in one place at one time.
- Press releases to whatever print media that remains alive in your target area.
- Radio and TV public service announcements (PSAs), although these have largely been superseded by YouTube uploads.
- Direct mailings and email blasts, using as many mailing lists as you can find and/or develop.
- Widespread distribution of posters and other printed material touting the project’s message, ideally in every language spoken by the target population, up to and including Elbonian.
- The ever-popular “street-based” outreach, which requires a brave Outreach Worker to actually leave the comforts of their warm agency nest and venture out to where the target population hangs out: parks, community centers, welfare offices, public housing projects, liquor store parking lots, minimarts, barber shops, and so so.
- Use of Facebook, Twitter, group texting, and whatever other new media seems plausible. We are often tempted to include a social media tool that doesn’t actually exist.
- The only real question is whether to use a dedicated outreach worker, usually a peer of the target population, or a portion of the time of other proposed staff. Keep in mind that having a dedicated outreach person can lead to unfortunate acronyms like “Peer Outreach Worker” (POW), or even worse (particularly for female target populations): a Community Outreach Worker. You’ve been warned, watch your acronyms!
For regional/statewide outreach initiatives like Health Navigators, one or both of the following complications are usually added to make the funder think you’ll actually find eligible clients in distant places:
- Propose a hub-and-spoke system with a circuit riding Outreach Worker. Your agency is the hub in Minneapolis and you find collaborators in Owatonna, Climax, Blue Earth, and Sleepy Eye Minnesota, to periodically host an Outreach Worker. She’s in Blue Earth on Tuesdays, Climax on Thursdays, and so forth. When in Sleepy Eye, the Outreach Worker reaches out, using the above toolkit. If you’re really frisky, you can open small site offices in other towns, so the Outreach Worker has a place to nest and preen while visiting.
- Use a train-the-locals approach in which your Outreach Worker trains staff or volunteers from indigenous organizations in the region to conduct the various outreach strategies, using social media to watch over her dispersed brood.
Now you know how to develop an outreach component. No need to convene a group-think, draw circles and arrows on white boards, and eat donuts. To quote the Bare Naked Ladies, “Its all been done before.”
* For those of you keeping score, this makes it the DHHS ACF FYSB SOP FOA. I know, it looks like cryptography, but the acronym is actually just your tax dollars at work.
Tags: Advice · Government · Grants · How-to · RFPs
May 5th, 2013 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments
* Great news: we’re (slowly) moving toward a world where education looks at competency, not hours with ass-in-seat. This is flying under the radar of the national press but is hugely important, especially for nonprofits involved with education.
* Get LED lightbulbs. I use Switch LED bulbs, which are ludicrously expensive upfront but pay for themselves within a couple months.
* Possibly related to the above, Human extinction is an underrated threat.
* “News is bad for you [. . .] The real news consists of dull but informative reports circulated by consultancies giving in-depth insight into what’s going on. The sort of stuff you find digested in the inside pages of The Economist. All else is comics.”
* Last year we posted “Have you seen a Federal agency request a low-quality program?“, and this week we saw another example in HUD’s “Transformation Initiative: Sustainable Communities Research Grant Program,” which says that the NOFA offers “researchers the opportunity to submit grant applications to fund quality research under the broad subject area of sustainability.” This would be far more notable if the program offered money for low-quality research.
* “The Shadowy Residents of One Hyde Park—And How the Super-Wealthy Are Hiding Their Money.” I don’t think I’d want to live in a $5M+ apartment even if I had the money for it.
* How marriage changes relationships and gender dynamics (maybe); actual title includes the phrase “the boob test.”
* Seattle Needs to Welcome Growth and Get Over Itself.
* Detroit locals unhappy about the manager who is supposed to clean up the mess made by politicians elected by Detroit locals.
* What are foundations for? A theoretical discussion of problems many of you experience on a daily basis.
* “A Childless Bystander’s Baffled Hymn;” sample: “Why all the choices — ‘What would you like to wear?’— and all the negotiating and the painstakingly calibrated diplomacy? They’re toddlers, not Pakistan.”
* Austin gets Google Fiber, becomes a more attractive place to live.
* American Indians move to cities and face new challenges.
* Women and the crab basket effect.
* “New Publisher Authors Trust: Themselves.” File this under “Calling Captain Obvious.”
* The future of U.S. space policy, a topic that is under-discussed yet very important. This might be related to “News is bad for you,” above.
* Is China covering up another flu pandemic?
* “Will Congress exempt itself from ACA exchanges?” If so, this tells you more about the exchanges aspect of ObamaCare than any statement on the part of Congresspeople could.
* “One look at why income inequality is growing,” hat tip and headline tip Tyler Cowen.
* “Why still so few use condoms;” spoiler: because it doesn’t feel as good.
* “Topless Jihad: Why Femen Is Right.”
* “Nobody Walks in L.A.: The Rise of Cars and the Monorails That Never Were” but should have been.
* “Who Killed The Deep Space Climate Observatory?” This story, along with pathetic “Superconducting Super Collider” debacle, is the sort of thing that, if the U.S. really does take an intellectual and cultural backseat to the rest of the world, will be cited by future historians as examples of how the U.S. turned away from the very traits and behaviors that made it successful in the first place. “Who Killed the Deep Space Climate Observatory?” is also an example of how the real news is very seldom the news you read in the headlines.
* “Documentary ‘Aroused’ explores what makes women turn to porn careers.”
* David Brooks: “Engaged or detached?” “Writers who are at the classic engaged position believe that social change is usually initiated by political parties [. . .] the detached writer wants to be a few steps away from the partisans. [. . . ] She fears the team mentality will blinker her views.” Read the whole thing because the context is important, but as a writer I lean heavily towards the “detached” point of view.
* “[A]rtists and writers love to cast gigantic stores as misbegotten cathedrals.” I’m guilty as charged.
May 2nd, 2013 · by Isaac Seliger · 2 Comments
Despite sequestration and budget worries, the Feds are churning out a new grant program every month or so; today, let’s consider this tasty if poorly named treat from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service: “PPHF – 2013 – Cooperative Agreement to Support Navigators in Federally-facilitated and State Partnership Exchanges.” The trade name for this FOA is “Health Navigators,” and it is the first of what should be a tsunami of federal and state FOAs designed to help clueless Americans understand how to access the cornucopia of subsidies and benefits glittering like tiny jewels in the 25,000 pages (so far) of the byzantine Affordable Health Care Act (“ObamaCare”) regulations.
ObamaCare is roaring at us from the distance and is supposed to arrive at the station on January 1, 2014. Without getting too far inside baseball, the subsidies and Medicaid expansion at the heart of ObamaCare are supposed to provide health insurance for millions of uninsured Americans. These programs are structured as a series of state-run Health Insurance Exchanges. Somewhere along the way, however, only 16 states actually opted to set up their own exchanges, with the balance deciding to join the Federally-facilitated and State Partnership Exchanges.
The new Health Navigators program has $54,000,000 up for grabs for nonprofits in the 34 states without Exchanges. If you’re in a state with a proto-Exchange, like California or New York, don’t worry—they’ll issue their Health Navigator FOAs.
In the federal program, however, here’s a section that should warm the cockles of the stone-like heart of even the most jaded nonprofit Executive or, in my case, grizzled grant writer:
Section 1311(i) of the Affordable Care Act requires each Exchange to develop and implement Navigator grant programs. This funding opportunity announcement (FOA) is open to . . . serve consumers in States with an FFE or State Partnership Exchange. As health reform implementation continues, consumers will need to understand new programs, take advantage of consumer protections, and navigate the health insurance system to find the most affordable coverage that meets their needs. Exchange Navigators are intended to assist consumers in those areas.
Health Navigator grantees will be responsible for ObamaCare outreach and education to uninformed populations—which is just about anybody in America, since nobody understands it. Maybe a few health policy wonks do.
If there is any nonprofit Executive Director reading this post who doesn’t think their agency could run a Health Navigator program, call me, because you’ve missed one essential aspect of human service providers: virtually all nonprofits do some kind of outreach and education. This makes the Health Navigator program an exceptionally great opportunity, and perhaps the best in recent memory, for getting “walkin’ around money“—a grant concept we’ve written about before.
Although the Health Navigator FOA clearly presents a very attractive grant opportunity on the street, with its promise of walking around money for vaguely defined and impossible-to-measure activities (just the kind we love to write proposals about and our clients love to operate), the real reason to apply now is to be on the ground floor of this emerging class of grants. As I noted in my recent blog about another new grant program, Face Forward, it is always a good idea to apply for the first funding round of any new grant program.
In the case of the Health Navigators FOA, this general principle is even more important because ObamaCare has created an entirely new class of service delivery organizations—”Health Navigators”—which is presumably going to provide never-ending grant competitions.
This reminds me of about 20 years ago, when the HIV/AIDS crisis was in the full bloom of its first major publicity salvo and a mounting public outcry. The Feds responded with Ryan White Act grants. The agencies that originally received Ryan White and similar HIV/AIDS grants formed what we termed an “AIDS Mafia” that slurped up all the available HIV/AIDS grant funds.
If your agency was not in the local AIDS Mafia, your chances of getting grants was very low. The same thing happened about 18 years ago with HUD McKinney Act Homeless Assistance Grants (and we’ve written about the knock-on effects in “HUD’s Confusing Continuum of Care (CoC) Program Explained“). As with Ryan White, it soon became obvious that if you weren’t part of the Homeless Mafia, your agency would not be likely to get HUD homeless grants.
I think the same will be true for Health Navigator grants: if you want to get your organization’s snout into the ObamaCare trough, make sure you apply for this first Health Navigator funding round. When you get funded, your agency will instantly become an expert! In grant writing, I sometimes refer to programs like this as grant herpes: it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Tags: Advice · Government · Grants · Nonprofits · Programs · RFPs
April 24th, 2013 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments
I got my first federal RFP amended last week.
It’s a bit like being blooded when you’re in the Mafia: the tenth time is just standard procedure, but the first time is special.* Isaac, for instance, has gotten numerous RFPs amended, which is always fun because our clients are amazed by our wizardly abilities.
The original version of DOL’s Face Forward Serving Juvenile Offenders Grants SGA said this about the eligible service population:
An individual may participate in a project funded under these grants if he/she: is between the ages of 16 and 24 on the date of enrollment [. . . and ] has never been involved with the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system.
That’s a big problem for a lot of applicants: in New York and North Carolina, youth ages 16 and up are no longer considered juveniles and are therefore adjudicated by the adult justice system.** The original SGA also states that participants must be “currently involved or has been involved in the juvenile justice system or is currently a candidate for diversion under state guidelines for juvenile diversion Programs.” In most states, 16- and 17-year-old youth would be adjudicated within the juvenile justice system for minor crimes, but that’s not true in all states.
Even if a New York nonprofit identifies youth who were adjudicated by the juvenile justice system prior to age 16, most of those youth are likely to have also been involved in the adult system. Few at-risk youth give up criminal behavior at age 16 without supportive services. This is of course the whole point of Face Forward.
As a result, the original rules would make most New York and North Carolina nonprofits effectively ineligible for Face Forward, because they won’t be able to get enough mandatory participants.
I called and sent an e-mail to Mamie Brown (the Face Forward contact person) outlining the problem. She didn’t return my call but did send back an e-mail that completely ignored the point I described above, and she helpfully said, “Please review the Eligibility Requirements in Section III. 3 a) Eligible Participants of the SGA which clearly states who can participate and receive services under this grant. For your convenience the SGA specifically states [. . . ]”
Yes, thank you, I can read.
Whenever a contact person does this, it’s time to look for decisions makers or (unlike most Program Officers) at least a thinking human being. We decided to shoot for either an undersecretary in the DOL, or, since Face Forward is officially being offered by the Employment Training Administration, we decided to try for Assistant Secretary Jane Oates.
There are two dangers in this kind of bureaucratic wasp-nest poking: getting someone too low on the totem pole, who won’t make any decisions (that’s Mamie) or someone too high, who has no idea what the hell is going on in the bowels of the organization and will often be unwilling to respond until the lower echelons have been exhausted.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to jump straight to the top, but in this case we decided an intermediate person. If the intermediate person hadn’t been helpful, we would at least have her name and correspondence when we went further up the chain.
Anyway, I called Oates and left a message, then sent an e-mail. She was quiet for a few days, which is reasonable and not uncommon: she has to figure out what’s going on herself and formulate a response. But the deadline was approaching, so I also called and wrote New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s office. Senators and House members sometimes become involved in grant program rules if they think their home states aren’t getting a fair shot at the money.
Why? Because Senators and House members love to crow about all the money “they” got for their states and districts. We’ve actually had clients whose first notification of grant award came not from the federal agency, but from reporters calling because a Senator put out a press release about how he got more money for the state. Never mind that he had no bearing on the proposal and that letters from Congresspeople are worthless to applicants: the only thing Congresspeople love more than credit for getting money is money itself.
I don’t know if the person I found at Schumer’s office actually did anything, but a couple days after I contacted them Face Forward Amendment One appeared. The amendment changed “has never been involved with the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system; and has never been convicted of a sexual offense other than prostitution” to “has never been convicted within the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system; and has never been convicted of a sexual offense other than prostitution.”
That works for us. The new criteria makes it easier for our Face Forward clients to recruit eligible participants. Plus, in the real world of providing human services, most nonprofits are going to interpret plea bargains for minor crimes in the adult system as not being convictions—but rather, only being “involvement.”
I even got a nice e-mail from Eric Luetkenhaus, the DOL Grant Officer/Chief, about the amendment. When I wrote back to him and Oates saying to say thanks, I received an even more unusual e-mail from Oates: “Thanks to Eric and his team for fixing this but most of all Jake thanks for bringing this to our attention.” Wow! Usually, federal agencies hate issuing amendments, and we’ve never gotten an attaboy from a federal office before. Being either a) well-versed in Federal matters or b) cynics (you decide), we were pleasantly shocked.
This story contains a recipe for how to get RFPs amended. If you want to try, you have to start by making sure there’s something wrong or contradictory in an RFP. If the RFP is okay, you obviously don’t need to amend it. Once you’ve determined that there’s a real problem, however, here’s a guide for public RFPs:
1. Start by calling and e-mailing the program contact. These days, most listed contacts don’t like to answer their phones and actually interact with the grimy, ugly public, members of which tend to do annoying things like ask follow-up questions. Consequently, they’ll probably ignore your calls, and you’ll need to send an e-mail. That’s what I did in this case, and I got the language of the RFP spit back to me by Mamie. First contact is unlikely to generate a useful response: the safest thing for a program officer to do is repeat back the language of the RFP. Consequently, that’s what they’ll almost always do (this is also why bidders’ conferences are generally useless for anything other than schmoozing).
2. Be reasonable. Most program officers face the public, and, while most of the public is reasonable, one crazy person can take a disproportionate amount of time and energy. Your goal is to come across as thoroughly reasonable as possible. If you’re not a good writer, find someone in your organization who is, and get them to write the e-mail. Be sure to directly quote from the RFP sections that concern you. Your freshman English teacher was right: quotation really is better and stronger than paraphrase.***
3. Get a response from the underling. This will show the decision maker you eventually reach that you’ve done your homework and, again, that you’re reasonable. Almost all contact people will behave like Mamie.
4. Be polite, but firm and specific. The “polite” part is key, again, because you can’t actually make a federal bureaucrat do anything they don’t want to do. You need to make sure that you’re perceived as reasonable. If you’re not, you’ll get justifiably binned as a loony. But you should also be firm: you want a change to be made for reasons X, Y, and Z.
5. If that doesn’t work, or doesn’t work expeditiously, try calling and writing your Congressperson or Senator. Some will be indifferent, but you should try to find the field officer or field deputy who deals with the federal agency that issued the RFP. The first person you talk to won’t be a decision-maker; their job will be to screen lunatics and to route constituents. You want to be routed to the right person, and frequently you won’t know who that is before you start. Again, your goal is to be scrupulously polite and reasonable, because the public-facing parts of the Congressperson’s office is designed to weed out lunatics.
Taken together, these steps won’t actually take much time, and they should yield results. But they won’t always. If they don’t, don’t yell and scream and holler. Back down and go back to whatever you’d normally be doing. The minute you start screaming, you’ve probably lost. If you get to the top bureaucrat, you’re probably stuck, and probably stuck permanently. But more often than not, genuine mistakes will be rectified—provided you know how to push effectively.
* Although I don’t have guys named Jimmy Caprese and Big Pussy congratulating me.
** As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” We want teenagers to be adults when they commit crimes and “children” when they have sex, which tells you more about our culture than about teenagers.
And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[...] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [....]”
Laws, including those embodied in Face Forward, reflect race and gender norms: white girls are the primary target of age-of-consent laws, while African American youth are the target of laws around crime and delinquency. The contradictory trends are readily explained by something rather unpleasant in society.
*** Having taught freshmen English to hundreds of students, I know well the skepticism they feel when I tell them about the powers of quotation.
Tags: Advice · Government · Grants · How-to · Programs
April 14th, 2013 · by Isaac Seliger · 2 Comments
Despite all the teeth gnashing and flailing of arms over the recent sequestration non-calamity, the Department of Labor has found $26,000,000 to issue an SGA (DOL-speak for “RFP”) announicng an entirely new program: Face Forward-Serving Juvenile Offenders, with grants up to a million dollars. In the face of all this squawking, honking and flapping of wings over the budget, DOL has birthed an entirely new grant program. As a grant writer, I’m kvelling like I would be from seeing a grandchild from one of my kids. Even better, this bouncing baby grant program is almost a dead ringer for its teen sibling and our favorite DOL program, YouthBuild. Why? Because:
- The target population is at-risk youth ages 16 – 24.
- It mandates basic skills instruction leading to a GED.
- It mandates job training services, leading to an “industry-recognized” credential, whatever that is. But—and this is a big butt—you don’t have to focus on construction training, which makes the job training piece much easier to conceptualize and implement.
- It mandates case-managed wraparound supportive services—including mentoring, “Individual Career Plans” (ICPs), leadership development activities, and so on.
As Jimi Hendrix sang, “Are You Experienced?” If the above sounds familiar, you are experienced with YouthBuild and a myriad of other job training programs for at-risk youth and young adults. While Face Forward applicants have to propose serving at-risk youth and young adults that have been or are being adjudicated in the juvenile justice system, many prospective YouthBuild clients meet the Face Forward eligibility criteria.
If your agency is a current or former YouthBuild grantee, you’re probably a great applicant for Face Forward—you already have the organizational outreach, partnership and case management infrastructure in place, as well as a documented record of success at engaging and training at-risk youth and young adults.
Even better is the fact that Face Forward is a new program. It’s always a good idea to apply for a grant program in its first first funding round if you’re even vaguely eligible. The opportunity simply doesn’t come along very often, and when it does, you should go for it. You shouldn’t wait around for new grant programs—as we said, there aren’t that many. We wrote a funded YouthBuild proposal for an LA area client almost 20 years ago, during the very first YouthBuild funding round, and the agency continues to be a strong YouthBuild provider to this day. Essentially, YouthBuild has become a grant annuity for this nonprofit.
During the first funding cycle, there are no former or grantees to compete against, and the funding source has no idea what a good proposal is supposed to look like. In this case, DOL seems to be clueless that they’ve accidentally cloned YouthBuild, so it should be possible to throw your old YouthBuild proposal into the proposal blender and pour out a more or less compelling Face Forward proposal.
If you don’t know how to do this without letting DOL know what you’re up to, call us and we’ll do the mixing and baking. Here is an important caveat, however: do not say that your Face Forward proposal copies the methodology in your YouthBuild program. This will make DOL feel sad and ordinary. Instead, tout how innovative and unique your approach is, even if it’s the same old same old. The DOL Face Forward staffers want to think they’re your only girlfriend. Don’t disabuse them of this quaint notion. You want them batting their eyes and fanning themselves furiously as they read your proposal. Think of this as grant writing foreplay.
Now, back around to the SGA,which contains this wonderful nugget: applicants have to partner with “American Job Centers (AJC), formerly One-Stop Career Centers or Local Workforce Investment Boards.” As an American, I feel better that we’ve tossed out the obnoxious One-Stop Career Center name and replaced it with the much more sonorous name: AJC (I can already imagine an aria about it).
This raises the question as to whether there is a federal office somewhere that specializes in changing program names for no apparent reason. Since I’m old as mud, I’ve seen federal job training programs morph from Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) in 1973 to Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) in 1982 to the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998. To paraphrase The Who, in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” There is nothing new in Face Forward. But you’re not going to say that in your proposal.
Tags: Advice · Government · Grants
April 7th, 2013 · by Jake Seliger · 1 Comment
Many RFPs ask for data that simply doesn’t exist—presumably because the people writing the RFPs don’t realize how hard it is to find phantom data. But other RFP writers realize that data can be hard to find and thus offer a way out through a magic word: “estimate.”
If you see the word “estimate” in an RFP, you can mentally substitute the term “make it up.” Chances are good that no one has the numbers being sought, and, consequently, you can shoot for a reasonable guess.
Instead of the word “estimate,” you’ll sometimes find RPPs that request very specific data and particular data sources. In the most recent YouthBuild funding round, for example, the RFP says:
Using data found at http://www.edweek.org/apps/gmap/, the applicant must compare the average graduation rate across all of the cities or towns to be served with the national graduation rate of 73.4% (based on Ed Week’s latest data from the class of 2009).
Unfortunately, that mapper, while suitably wizz-bang and high-tech appearing, didn’t work for some of the jurisdictions we tried to use it on, and, as if that weren’t enough, it doesn’t drill down to the high school level. It’s quite possible and often likely that a given high school is in a severely economically distressed area embedded in a larger, more prosperous community is going to have a substantially lower graduation rate than the community at large. This problem left us with a conundrum: we could report the data as best we could and lose a lot of points, or we could report the mapper’s data and then say, “By the way, it’s not accurate, and here’s an alternative estimate based on the following data.” That at least has the potential to get some points.
We’ve found this general problem in RFPs other than YouthBuild, but I can’t find another good example off the top of my head, although HRSA New Access Point (NAP) FOAs and Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) RFPs are also notorious for requesting difficult or impossible to find data.
If you don’t have raw numbers but you need to turn a proposal in, then you should estimate as best you can. This isn’t optimal, and we don’t condone making stuff up. But realize that if other people are making stuff up and you’re not, they’re going to get the grant and you’re not. Plus, if you’re having the problem finding data, there’s a decent chance everyone else is too.
Tags: Advice · Government · Grants · How-to · Questions