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Another (and Exhaustively Named) Insider RFP: CMS Transforming Clinical Practice Initiative (TCPI), Support and Alignment Network (SAN)

October 26th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

We may be seeing an increase in “insider” RFPs.

By “insider” RFPs, we mean RFPs that don’t allow any random nonprofit to compete. HUD’s Continuum of Care (CoC) program (explained at the link) is an example: a nonprofit already has to be a CoC member to get a Cut of the Cash (which is another sort of “CoC”), which naturally creates barriers for new organizations that wish to try to do things better or at least differently than the existing funded organizations. The grant system as we presently know it got started in earnest in the ’60s because it was believed that local organizations were better suited to figure out what needed to be done than centralized federal bureaucrats. In addition, the threat of funding stream removal may make local organizations more disciplined than government bureaucracies—an idea that anyone who has dealt with a DMV may appreciate.

But designating small groups of eligible applicants is one way to get around open competition, particularly if the eligibility details are cryptic. As you may imagine given the title of this post, we have an example in mind: the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) just issued the Transforming Clinical Practice Initiative (TCPI), Support and Alignment Network (SAN) FOA. Unless you’re already a professional organization or medical specialty group you’ll probably have no idea what it means to:

leverage primary and specialist care transformation work and learning in the field. The action by PTNs and SANs is planned to contribute to the overall operational efficiency and movement of the clinician practices through the 5 Phases of Transformation and their achievement of the TCPI goals.

I love leveraging transformations in order to effect effective and immediate action by PTNs and SANs and BBQs. Don’t you? “Cryptic” does not do this acronym stew justice.

In short, this is another insider RFP. For, say, organizations devoted to nurses, there are only going to be a handful of eligible applicants, because there are only so many nursing organizations that could be construed to be eligible applicants.

For applications like TCPI SAN, some interesting competitive dynamics can still take place within warring fiefdoms. For example, there are at least two large general-purpose national nurse organizations or trade groups, which we know because we’ve worked with one. Not surprisingly the two groups don’t like each other very much. As often happens, one likes one set of ideals that the other opposes, and vice-versa. Also not surprisingly, they fight for the same dues, grant opportunities, and foundation support; though both want to cast their aspersions as ideological or intellectual in nature, it’s always a good idea to follow the money too.*

In addition, there might be specialists within specialists groups. Is nursing the right level of specialty, or is oncology nursing? Is the association of surgeons correct, or the association of neurosurgeons? Those are the distinctions that’ll come into play in TCPI grant applications. We look forward to grabbing our axes, forming a shield wall, and fighting to the end.**


* A theme you should notice running throughout Grant Writing Confidential and indeed world history itself. How much of the 100 Years War was about the souls of English- and Frenchmen and the merits of Protestantism versus Catholicism, and how much was about money, trade, land, and political control? Today most historians probably argue as the latter, but almost any battle, whatever else it may be about, will also be cast as a war of ideas. Ideas are easier to fight and die for.

** I’ve been watching Vikings, which is set in an imagined 800 AD and in which a lot of characters die unpleasant deaths. The link also goes to the Blu-Ray version, which is to say the European version, which is to say a version much better and realer than the one that airs on American TV.

→ No CommentsTags: Grants · Programs

Grant Writing Confidential Goes to the Movies Part 3: Ghostbusters (Who Ya Gonna Call? Program Officers!)

October 19th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · No Comments

Ghostbusters was Jake’s favorite movie when he was a child. He watched the video at least a hundred times and it remains a classic of its type.* As Ray Parker put it in his incredibly catchy, eponymous Ghostbusters theme song, “When there’s something strange in the neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!” There’s a Koanic simplicity in this advice: when you have a problem, call the expert, not someone pretending to be the expert.

I was reminded of this over the summer, because we wrote proposals for clients applying to several federal grant programs with incredibly complex RFPs and underlying guidelines, including the HRSA New Access Point (NAP) and the Early Head Start (EHS) programs. Our clients for these assignments all had unusual or complex project concepts that required closely reading and carefully interpreting the RFPs and regs. The RFPs and regs raised issues for both our clients, though we can’t specify what those issues are; trust us when we say that they were real.

Our standard advice to clients in this situation—and as we’ve we’ve written about many times—is to immediately contact the Program Officer listed in the RFP and pop any questions about vague descriptions or apparent conflicts. At Seliger + Associates, we almost never contact Program Officers directly, since they rarely pay attention to consultants. Instead, we coach our clients on how to pose the question and get as clear a written interpretation as possible.

But our NAP and EHS clients didn’t want to contact the Program Officers; instead, they sought guidance from their state association, which are effectively trade groups for grantees. For large programs, like HRSA Section 330 and Head Start, networks of state and national organizations have grown up, which provide technical assistance and the ever-popular grantee conferences. An example is the Community Health Care Association of New York State, which is composed of Section 330 providers in New York and assorted hangers-on (note that we did not write a NAP proposal in New york this year—and I found CHSNYS through a Google search). When a big RFP for NAP, Head Start and similar federal programs comes along, these associations put on a full-court press to “help” applicants in their states prepare proposals. This help does not mean writing the proposal, although sometimes the association will provide data and research citations. The technical assistance usually involves meetings, Powerpoint presentations, webinars and so on.

Applicants rarely realize, however, that their association provides the same help to all agencies in their state. Rather than being truly interested in their particular agency submitting a technically correct proposal, the association is more like a mom passing out orange slices at a middle school swim meet—they want all agencies to come in first. Like a swim meet, however, and human nature being what it is, some applicants are favored by the “moms” and get extra orange slices, while others get orange-dyed onion slices.

We had a NAP client a few years ago in a western state that ran into active opposition from the state association because the association staff hated our client. I know this for a fact, because the association Executive Director told me so! Despite the association’s animus and refusal to provide a support letter, we wrote a compelling proposal, which was funded, much to the annoyance of the association, which then had to include our client.

The basic problem in asking associations or consultants for RRP interpretation is simple: they don’t work for the federal agency. Their opinions regarding a particular RFP don’t mean anything. The only way to get an interpretation of an RFP is by asking the Program Officer in writing and getting a written reply. Even then, the response is likely to say something like “this is subject to the guidelines, as published in the Federal Register.” Over the years, we’ve helped our clients thread their way through this process many times, including instances in which the federal agency published a correction to the RFP (as Jake writes at the link). A published RFP amendment is the gold standard for RFP interpretation.

Be careful in taking the advice of your state association, no matter how much fun their conferences are. When there’s something strange in a RFP neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Program Officers!


* I recently saw the grandaddy of ghost/comic films, 1940′s The Ghost Breakers, with the hilarious Bob Hope, exquisitely beautiful Paulette Goddard and a very young Anthony Quinn. If you like Ghostbusters, you’ll love The Ghost Breakers. It’s little non-PC, but the movie was made in 1940.

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HUD Gets Back in the Job Training Biz: “Jobs Plus Pilot Program” NOFA Released

October 8th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · 2 Comments

HUD just issued a NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability, which is HUD-speak for RFP) for the Jobs Plus Pilot Program. There’s $24 million up for grabs, with grants to $3 million, for Public Housing Authorities/Indian Housing Authorities (PHAs/IHAs). While the issuance of a new HUD NOFA is not usually all that interesting, this one is because it represents a shift in HUD’s priorities.

As I wrote last February, job training is one of the current favored project concepts in grant making. There are at least 47 federal job training programs, or possibly 48 including the newly minted Jobs Plus. You may not remember, though I do, that President Obama made a big fuss about job training in his most recent State of the Union address and vowed to unleash Vice President Biden to study federal job training initiatives in hopes of simplifying things.

Right.

That was the last I heard of this noble quest, and, as far as I can tell, the herd of federal job training programs continue to thunder across the plain. It’s job training business as usual, with the random new program tossed in for good measure.

This is not, however, what made me notice this notice.

At one time HUD had several competitive job training programs, including our old friend YouthBuild, which HUD managed for about 12 years. Suddenly, in the waning days of the reign of George Bush the Younger, Congress got the bright idea that maybe it isn’t such a good approach to have HUD, which is supposed to be involved in housing, fund job training programs. Not a bad reform, since HUD’s job training grant programs were not coordinated with other federal job training programs, particularly the ones operated by the Department of Labor. YouthBuild and other HUD job training programs were eventually transferred to DOL in a previous effort to “simplify things.” Now that eight years or so of DOL running former HUD job training programs have passed, it seems perfectly appropriate to make things more complex again by having HUD manage yet another job training program.

A cursory look at the Jobs Plus Pilot reveals that there’s not much new here, since it’s more or less a rehash of the “workfare” job training concept that emerged from the 1996 compromise Welfare Reform legislation negotiated by President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich. The basic idea was (and is) to tie public income supports, like TANF, to job training. This naturally works better when the economy is producing lots of entry-level jobs.

In the case of Jobs Plus, the target population is residents of the 250 or so remaining large public housing projects* that survived the lunacy of the now almost forgotten HOPE VI program that funded the demolition of thousands of public housing units across America. Even though we wrote some HOPE VI proposals, it always struck me as incredibly stupid to tear down the housing of last resort for the poorest Americans. The good news now is that, if your public housing development still stands, HUD is willing to toss you a job training bone. Of course, there’s nothing to prevent public housing residents from accessing the myriad of job training programs surrounding them. As a grant writer, however, I agree and have to ask, “why have 47 job training programs when 48 will do?”


* When writing a grant proposal about public housing, never use the term “housing project.” Instead, these are always referred to by the more PC “housing development.” Of course, I’m a geezer who grew up in the very poor North Minneapolis neighborhood adjacent to the huge Sumner Field Homes and associated public housing high rises.

I used to play at the Sumner Field park and kid and adults referred to this area as “the projects.” I’ve been to re-education camp since then and banished “projects” from my proposals. By the way, if you follow this link you’ll learn that a huge HOPE VI grant was used to destroy the entire Sumner Field Homes and associated buildings in 1998, displacing 97% of the over 3,300 poor residents in the name of the “new urbanism.” Not to worry: a much smaller mixed-use development replaced it, but there is no word on what happened to the thousands of residents who were tossed out.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Government · HUD · Programs

We’re Not Taking Sides: We’re Describing How Grant Programs, Like Those Related to Domestic Violence, Get Funded

September 30th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

In Isaac’s post about the NFL spurring new interest in domestic violence, he points out the likely public response to the issue: more grant money. He’s showing what is likely to happen, and he is tracing the formation of a new grant wave—as we have done before.

We want to clarify one point: we aren’t trying to minimize domestic violence as an issue. Our purpose in writing this blog is never to minimize or maximize issues. In one of our oldest posts, “What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP,” our goal was not to minimize or maximize teen sex education either: it was to describe real-world issues grant writers face. The job of the grant writer is first and foremost to tell the funder what they want to hear. A secondary job, however, is figuring out what project concepts and services are likely to be funded.

Depending on your perspective, the “right” issue may be highly fundable at a given moment, or the “wrong” issue might be. By definition, not every issue can be prominent at any given time—the word “prominent” does itself imply that an issue is necessarily and in some objective sense more important than another issue. It just means that some impetus or news or ideas have lifted it. If you’re a nonprofit, there is a limited amount that you can do to go against a particular funding tide.

→ No CommentsTags: Clients · Foundations · Grants

“You Can’t Shovel Tens Pounds of Shit in a Five Pound Bag:” The New York Times Ignores CHCs, Section 330 Providers, and HRSA

September 29th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 2 Comments

In “For Many New Medicaid Enrollees, Care Is Hard to Find, Report Says,” Robert Pear discovers something that has long been obvious to our many Community Health Clinic (CHC) clients: having insurance doesn’t mean you can see a doctor. Many if not most doctors won’t see Medicaid patients. CHCs, however, are a class of primary care organization designed specifically for Medicaid patients and the uninsured. We’ve written numerous Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) proposals for CHCs, and everyone one of those proposals is supposed to expand access to care. This year’s New Access Point (NAP) program, for example, has $100 million available. Pear apparently does not know that CHCs exist and are funded through HRSA mostly to serve Medicaid patients.

The bigger problem regarding real-world healthcare is the number of doctors. Any discussion about the difficulty of finding care that doesn’t mention the limits on the supply of doctors is specious at best. There have been around 100,000 residency slots since the 1980s. Medical schools stopped expanding long ago. These facts are well-known to experts. Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners are to some extent filling in the gap, but in most states they still must practice under a doctor.

Our CHC clients’ biggest problem is rarely recruiting patients—when you subsidize goods or services, people consume more—it’s finding doctors. CHCs usually serve a high-need, difficult-to-treat population. Consequently, physicians often prefer to seek higher pay and lower stress jobs. Although there are lots of people trying to go to medical school—in Educating Physicians: A Call for Reform of Medical School and Residency, the authors note that 42,000 people applied for 18,000 medical school spots, and that at least 30,000 were likely qualified to become doctors—med school and residency act as bottlenecks to this process.

You can give every person health insurance without ensuring that they’ll actually get care, much like you can give everyone a degree without ensuring they have a brain. In the United Kingdom, care gets rationed through wait times. In the U.S., a similar dynamic is happening via provider shortages. While it is laudable that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) significantly increased the number of Americans covered by Medicaid, the landmark legislation did little to increase the number of providers to serve the newly insured. Or, as they used to say in the old days, you can’t shovel ten pounds of shit into a five pound bag. It’s a vulgar phrase but applicable to this article and the overall challenge of helping the newly insured actually access affordable, quality healthcare.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Government · healthcare · Media

NFL PR Fiasco Creates Great New Funding Opportunities for Domestic Violence Nonprofits

September 25th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · 1 Comment

Unless you’ve been on Venus for the past few weeks, you’ve been engulfed in a tidal wave of bad news from the NFL* parade of domestic violence players/perpetrators. Leaving aside the spectacularly inept response of the suddenly hapless Commissioner Roger Goodell and the apparent media surprise that pro football players are pretty violent guys, this episode has suddenly thrust domestic violence back into the public consciousness for the first time in years.

When we started Seliger + Associates 21 years ago, there was a lot of interest in and funding for domestic violence, and we wrote lots of proposals for nonprofits involved in domestic violence prevention and treatment. In 1994, Congress passed the then-landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), unleashing a torrent of federal funds—including state pass-through funding. Foundations became interested in supporting the emerging infrastructure of domestic violence prevention and treatment providers.

While the VAWA still exists—it was reauthorized by George Bush the Younger in 2005—and there was a spike in funding during the Stimulus Bill bonanza six years ago, the issue largely faded into the general human services background. We rarely get calls from domestic violence providers these days and only occasionally write a proposal that involves domestic violence, even peripherally. The rise and subsidence of domestic violence is a pretty good example of the grant waves we’ve written about.

Since Commissioner Goodell has unintentionally prolonged the recent domestic violence PR fiasco, assisted by a parade of NFL players who seem to love to beat their girlfriends/wives/children, politicians, the domestic violence “industry,” and media pundits have responded with outrage and thinly veiled demands for additional funding. Joseph Epstein wrote an excellent essay in the WSJ on the media and political moral preening of this story. The punch line, so to speak, is that the top three most viewed TV programs last week, during the height of the moral outrage, were Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football and Sunday Night Football.

Right on cue, Goodell announced that the NFL would form a Domestic Violence Advisory Board and fund the National Domestic Violence Hotline and a couple of other national advocacy organizations. We’re all for new funding for nonprofits, but this is less about the NFL’s dubious good intentions and is largely to placate NFL advertisers, like Nike and Bud Light, who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on ads. The advertisers are not amused. Also, each NFL team has local advertisers, and Radisson Hotels quickly pulled their advertising for the Vikings following child abuse charges filed against star running back Adrien Peterson. There are likely other similar examples by now.

For nonprofits involved with domestic violence, this a rare and golden opportunity to seek funding from nervous corporate advertisers and foundations. When conducting grant source research, we usually closely examine the charitable purposes, funding objectives and past grants of foundations and corporate giving programs. If your agency wants to fund domestic violence initiatives now, however, we’ll forget that approach for moment. Instead, we would (and you should) look for corporations that advertise with the NFL and its teams, along with large local and national hand-wringing foundations, regardless of what their funding priorities supposedly are.

As the old saw about lawyers goes: “When the law is on your side, argue the law. When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When neither is, pound the table.” Nonprofits involved in domestic violence should pound the table and seek funds from this army of new potential funders. Don’t wait. The news cycle will change in a few weeks and the media herd will move on to the next expose. Public interest is fickle. On the other hand, the NBA season starts soon, so maybe there’ll be new revelations to keep interest going and new funding for domestic violence.


* This is not the first time the NFL has been linked with domestic violence. For years, particularly around the time of the original VAWA legislative debate in Congress in the early ’90s, persistent media reports claimed a huge rise in domestic violence complaints on Super Bowl Sunday. Although this fairy tale was debunked as a hoax years ago, it still pops up. Domestic violence occurs every Sunday, and every day of the week for that matter. Professional football has nothing to do with it, except that some NFL players—like other members of American society—perpetrate it.

It’s also not obvious that your boss should police your private life.

→ 1 CommentTags: Uncategorized

Collaboration Again: A Story From the Trenches

September 20th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

We’re working on a project for a client who needs two things: a lot of data that isn’t easily publicly available and the dreaded letters of collaboration from other local providers (which we’ve written about in the context of Susan G. Komen, Mark Zuckerberg, and Community-Based Job Training). We have to be vague on the details, but our client initially planned to serve a reasonable service area, and we wrote a draft proposal reflecting our client’s plan.

The plan didn’t survive contact with the enemy, however. Our client’s so-called “collaborators” sabotaged the proposed project service area: They refused to sign letters of collaboration unless our client reduced the proposed service area to stay off their “turf.” So much for collaboration among nonprofits. The overall concept of collaboration, as required in most proposals these days, is ludicrous. It’s the equivalent of Burger King getting to veto a McDonald’s location. Alternately, it’s the equivalent of the contemporary market for broadband Internet access, which is totally broken, as demonstrated by the link.

Still, our client can’t effectively get the grant without letters offered by the client’s competitors, who ganged up on our client. She had to change the proposed service and we had to revise the draft to reflect this. The losers are of course the low-income and underserved residents of the removed part of the service area, who will have one fewer option for help and who don’t get a voice in this process, which is occurring entirely behind closed doors.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: forcing nonprofits to “collaborate” makes no more sense than forcing businesses to collaborate.

→ No CommentsTags: Advice · Clients · Government

September Links: Why We Judge, Laptops in Classrooms, Debtors’ Prisons, the Folly of the War on Drugs, and More!

September 14th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

* “Big chains pay better than mom and pop stores,” which is counter to the dominant narrative.

* “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League: The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies,” which matches my (anecdotal) experience.

* Suburban sprawl and bad transit can crush opportunity for the poor.

* “Study: Decriminalizing prostitution could drastically cut HIV infections,” which is sufficiently obvious that I almost don’t want to include it.

* “Another Challenge of Parenting While Poor: Wealthy Judges;” this sort of point is under-understood.

* To the surprise of no one: “Why a New Jersey school district decided giving laptops to students is a terrible idea.”

* “Why So Many People Care So Much About Others’ Sex Lives,” which makes a number of points I’ve observed at various times in various places.

* We updated our post “There Will Be No Fighting in the War Room: An Example of Nonprofit Non-Collaboration in Susan G. Komen for the Cure.”

* Weird program alert: why is the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture running a grant program for Sexual Assault Prevention Research (SAPR)? Isn’t that a bit outside their purview?

* “A brash tech entrepreneur thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries. What if he’s right?”

* Did you know that Texas has an official, state-funded Emancipation Juneteenth Commission?

* Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison.

* Video shows St. Louis police murdering a man.

* “Multiple Lovers, Without Jealousy: Polyamorous people still face plenty of stigmas, but some studies suggest they handle certain relationship challenges better than monogamous people do;” has anyone written the great polyamorous novel? Could anyone?

* Disturbing stats on black-white inequality. See also Ta-Nehisi Coates, as recommended by commenter James, “

* “Elder Statesmen Declare a War on the ‘War on Drugs:’ What took them so long?” Excellent question.

* Foundation priorities can change rapidly, Ebola edition.

* In our favorite weird grant of the month, the Department of the Interior, National Parks Service has announced a single grant for the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum.

→ No CommentsTags: Links

In Forming a Nonprofit Board, Think “Goldilocks”

September 7th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · 1 Comment

When forming a new nonprofit, one of the first issues confronting the sponsor as they apply for a state charter and draft articles of incorporation and bylaws is: How many board members should the new organization have? As with most things relating to nonprofits and grant writing, while there’s no definitive right answer, there are some good answers.

Some states will approve a new profit with just a single board member—and the inherent simplicity and control of a single board member often appeals to a founder—this is a fast way to the exit when you apply for IRS 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. Other founders, particularly true believers, will think they should have huge boards, perhaps as many as 25 or 30. Unless you’re really good at herding cats, this is an equally bad idea. The care and feeding of 15 or 20 board members is an enormous task and raises the real potential that you might get booted out of your own nonprofit in a coup* when grant money finally arrives. In addition, more opinions does not necessarily result in a better outcome and often results in a worse outcome than fewer. Whatever number of board members you pick, it’s critical that you be able to maintain control of the board.

If one board member is too few and twenty five too many, what’s the Goldilocks number? When we used to set up nonprofits in an earlier incarnation of Seliger + Associates**, we always recommended five, seven or nine members. An odd number of board members prevents tie votes. Five is generally enough to pass the IRS believability test. Also, IRS regs require that not more than half the board be “interested parties,” so you have to go beyond your mother-in-law for members and getting five can be a challenge. With a five member board, only two can be interested parties. Any number of board members more than nine will get unmanageable very fast. In this case, bigger is definitely not better.

Moving beyond the size issue, consider the quality of the members. It’s good if the majority of board does not have the same last name. Many foundation and some government funders will request board member affiliations. Having well-respected, un-indicted business leaders, clergy, public officials and so on is usually better than having all average Joes and Josephines. Still, it’s good grant PR to have one or two potential consumers of whatever service you’re providing. For example, if the organization will be providing affordable health care, have one or two potential patients on the board. Unless you’re forming a national/regional organization or one with a highly specific purpose like research for a obscure medical condition, claim that the board is “community-based,” and plausible evidence of that claim is an advantage. Local residents are usually better than distant “experts,” even in situations where that makes no sense.

One effective approach is to have a small, community-based, but still “respected” board of five members and a much larger “advisory board” of big shots that look good on letterhead and your website. The advisory board doesn’t actually have any power and doesn’t do much except lend their credibility and hopefully a donation every year. The advisory board idea is very common in Los Angeles, as there are many has-been actors and other entertainment industry types who’re willing to serve on advisory boards, as long as they don’t have to do anything. New York has ladies who lunch.


* It’s not uncommon for founders to get booted off their own board or for some board members to be kicked by other members in a putsch. I know because it happened to me when I was in my early 20s and still starry-eyed. I’ve heard lots of similar horror stories from clients over the years. Nonprofit boards can be intensely political, especially because the stakes are often so small.

** We no longer form nonprofits in most circumstances. As we’ve written before, it’s best to use an attorney or accountant who is familiar with nonprofits to help with the paperwork and approvals needed to form a new nonprofit.

→ 1 CommentTags: Advice · Nonprofits · Questions

New York City is Having Trouble Giving Away Free Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) Slots—And an Early Head Start (EHS) Note

September 1st, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 2 Comments

We’ve written many City of New York Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) proposals—as well as various Head Start, Early Head Start and other early childhood education proposals—so we read with interest Katie Taylor’s recent NYT story “In First Year of Pre-K Expansion, a Rush to Beat the School Bell.” New York City is apparently having a tough time giving away valuable free stuff. They City and its legion of grantees have to hire “enrollment specialists”—who we like to call “Outreach Workers” in proposals—to convince people to take the free slots.* The situation is so extreme that we have to use italics.

Since it costs NYC taxpayers about $8,000/slot to provide UPK and the parents pay nothing, it may seem odd that parents aren’t lining up to get valuable free stuff. Usually it’s easy for providers to recruit parents for early childhood education programs that are paid via OPM (“Other Peoples’s Money“). Since Mayor de Blasio is a textbook modern progressive, it is probably inconceivable to him that low-income parents wouldn’t see the inherent wisdom in sending their kids off to UPK. He says:

“Parents get what this means for their kids,” the mayor said. “They understand the difference between their child getting a strong start and not getting it.”

Right. If this is true, why the need for enrollment specialists?** The answer is complex but essentially comes down to the reality that not all parents, low-income or otherwise, want their kids in a public program. Reasons are varied but include general disinterest of parents in their kids’s lives, which is demonstrated by the fairly low enrollment rates in many states in the nominally priced Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Some parents, particularly single moms, may have a boyfriend who is dealing or otherwise up to no good and doesn’t want to raise the attention of city officials if little Johnny brings a bag of meth to preschool or shows up with bruises.

The mom herself may be alcohol or drug addled. Many parents also have informal childcare support provided by older siblings, extended family, or neighbors, who are easier to access than getting the kid dressed and accompanied to formal, institutionalized preschool (“It takes a village to raise a child”). Some parents also realize there actually isn’t much education going on in UPK and similar classrooms, as demonstrated by relatively weak outcomes evaluations of the grandaddy of such efforts, Head Start, which we’ve discussed before.

There may be religious issues, as many UPK providers are run by faith-based organizations. If you’re a Catholic immigrant from Guatemala, you may not be all that enthusiastic about sending your kid to a UPK program run by an ultra Orthodox Jewish school (or vice-versa; in the proposal world diversity and ethnic harmony are universal, but the real world is often more complex). It’s an open and unsurprising secret that many faith-based early childhood education providers prefer kids of their own religion. Like many aspects of human service delivery, this is never stated in a proposal.

There is another interesting moment in Taylor’s story: “It is critical to Mr. de Blasio’s credibility that the program ultimately be seen as successful.” The key words are “be seen as.” The program doesn’t have to be successful; it only must be perceived that way, and particularly by voters. That’s true of virtually every government-funded grant program—see comment about Head Start, above. Smart applicants know this and tailor their proposals, reports, marketing, and other material appropriately. In the grant world there are no failures; there are only programs that need more money and time to thrive with ever-greater success, leading to a glorious future when the next five-year plan has been fulfilled.

One can see this principle at work in “Thoughts on the DOL YouthBuild 2012 SGA: Quirks, Lessons, and, as Always, Changes,” where we describe how “the DOL is implicitly encouraging applicants to massage data.” One of our clients didn’t realize this and submitted self-reported data that did not conform to the DOL’s highly improbable standards. DOL doesn’t want to know the truth, assuming there is such a thing in this circumstance; the DOL wants to be told that they’re still the prettiest girl at the dance. When we wrote their next YouthBuild proposal, we obfuscated the outcome with through the magic of grant writing. The agency was funded.

In general we are not hugely optimistic that early childhood education is going to have the widespread salutary effects regularly attributed to it by its defenders. But we stand ready, as always, to write early childhood education proposals, keeping the story intact. If someone is paying you to tell them what they want to hear, you should be prepared to tell them what they want to hear.


* In any capitated service program like UPK, the participants are usually referred to in proposalese as occupying “slots,” however impersonal this sounds. A childcare center that serves 100 kids is referred to as having “100 slots.”

** Another quote from the NYT article:

“Good morning,” she said, approaching a young couple at a playground in Brownsville this month. “Do you know any 4-year-olds?”

Is the same sort of thing that people who call themselves “pick-up artists” or “gamers” do. Shanté Jones, the person quoted in the story, probably isn’t as polished, but I hope she has read How to Win Friends and Influence People. I prefer the pre-1981 edition which is less politically correct but also a useful reminder of what people, or at least one person reflecting on his cultural milieu, thought in the 1930s. “Cultural milieu” is also a good proposal phrase.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Education · Government · Grants · Programs