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Sometimes Technology Makes Things Harder: Foundation Proposal Submission Edition

February 21st, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 4 Comments

In ye olden days when dragons flew the sky and grain was still milled with water wheels, most foundations only accepted paper submissions. Most also had relatively straightforward instructions that were reasonably simple; since the submissions were done through paper, applicants could create an attractive, well-formatted submission document.

Today things are different. Amazon delivery drones fly the sky and human-like creatures wear Google glasses on the streets, which make them look like Borg extras from Star Trek. Foundations, meanwhile, have created far more work and hassle for applicants by deploying online proposal submission systems that are harder to use and more time-consuming than paper-based submission.

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier. Sometimes it does: Facebook now makes it simple to stalk former lovers and discover that, yes, they have indeed gotten fat. But technology doesn’t automatically make our lives easier. Foundations have used technology to take what used to be a reasonably coherent exercise—like “write a three- to five-page proposal”—but they’ve chopped it up and made it incoherent. Now most foundation submissions mandate tiny input boxes with lots of arbitrary character or word limitations.

There are numerous problems with the new systems. Their space limitations are frequently absurd. They might say, “two thousand characters for the needs assessment.” But is that two thousand characters with or without spaces? Different systems use different counting conventions and sometimes don’t say whether they count spaces. The length itself is absurd: two thousand characters is a third of a page. If there are five detailed questions from the foundation about the applicant and project concept, the funder is going to get disjointed, unsatisfying answers that attempt to hit all the questions.

Since none of this can be formatted, it looks like a ransom note when printed—the sort of thing that you’d receive from a Nigerian Prince who has a bank account he can’t access. A lot of systems also won’t let applicants move forward without a value in the input box. So you have to put a placeholder there to move forward and see the whole application (we like “Jack Bauer,” “Tony Almeida,” and “Chloe O’Brien” from 24 as placeholders. But then applicants must make sure that there are no placeholders left in by accident in the upload. Question: “Who is the CEO?” Answer: “Jack Bauer,” could be a problem.

In addition, each foundation has a different system with different questions and restrictions. It’s always been true that foundation submission requirements vary; since they have the gold they make the rules. But while there used to be length variations and some oddball questions (“Do any employees of the corporation sponsoring the foundation volunteer with the applicant nonprofit?”), applications were more similar than different. The Himmelfarb Family Foundation wanted three pages and the Worcester Community Foundation wanted five, but the overall structure was similar.

Now foundations are more different than similar and their online systems present all kinds of roadblocks. With almost all these online systems, applicants start by answering a bunch of questions (“Are you a 501(c)3?”). Fair enough, we guess. Then when an applicant logs out and returns, they have to answer the same questions again! Once isn’t enough! Applicants have to answer five different times.

We’ve been doing foundation proposals for over twenty years. The current trend is making things worse, not better. Technology does not automatically make things better. The best foundation submission is about five single-spaced pages with reasonable headers that explain clearly and concisely the “Who, What, Where, When, Why and How” of a project. A project that can’t be explained in five pages is probably too complicated. We call the initial foundation submission document we recommend a “foundation letter proposal.”

We get it: foundations want to be hip and say they have an online system. But the systems they implement are usually terrible and counterproductive. Virtually every person submitting a foundation proposal is getting paid from somewhere. Every minute they spend fiddling with the foundation’s online system is a minute they’re not spending on service provision. Do foundations care? Probably not, but they should.

→ 4 CommentsTags: Advice · Foundations · Stories

What Happens If You Have a Party and No Girls Show Up? HRSA’s Healthy Start Initiative (HSI) FOA Tries Again

February 17th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

We just finished working on proposals for HRSA’s Healthy Start Initiative (HSI); we’ve written funded HSIs before, so we’re very familiar with the program. HSI, however, just reappeared as a Valentine’s Day Present, with a new deadline of March 31 and almost $40 million available. That link goes to the RFP.

What gives?

The RFP answers:

The number of applications received. . . was much less than expected. As a result, HRSA anticipates that funds will be available to support additional applicants after completing reviews and funding decisions of applications submitted for [HSI].

HRSA didn’t get enough applications—they threw a party and no girls showed up, which is strange because HRSA is trying to give away money. We can speculate on why HRSA didn’t get enough applications, or technically correct applications, starting with: The RFP was difficult. We worked on HSI over the holidays; a lot of people probably gave up and went back to the celebrations, or turned in technically incorrect proposals.

In honor of HRSA and drinking over the holidays, we’ll offer a 10% discount to anyone who wants to apply for HSI this time around. Call us at 800.540.8906 for a free quote.

We know that programs have been re-released one after another before, though we can’t think of any examples right now. Those other ones must have taken place before we started the blog, because we can’t find any posts on this particular topic. Chalk it up to the inherent weirdness of Federal grant making. As Winston Churchill is said to have said of the Russians, “It is a a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

→ No CommentsTags: Government · Programs

Fallible FedEx and Federal Deadlines

February 16th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · 2 Comments

Some things just can’t happen unless the time is right. When we dreamt up Seliger + Associates about 21 years ago, all grant proposal submittals were paper-based, usually involving an original with wet signatures and multiple copies—sometimes as many as ten, despite the Federal Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980. In the early stages of Seliger + Associates, we were based in the Bay Area, most of our clients were in LA, and most of the funders were in LA City and County departments—or Sacramento (CA state grants) and Washington, DC. It would not have been possible for Seliger + Associates to thrive without these three crucial elements: “800″ phone service, a fax line and, most importantly, FedEx, or, as it was still known in 1993, “Federal Express.”

By 1993, it was pretty easy to get toll-free service and, at that time, “800″ numbers were it (no 866, 888, etc.). The 800 number was essential, as we knew the office would be mobile and an 800 could be piggy-backed or associated with any phone number. Once we had an 800 number, it would follow us wherever we went—and it has, from the Bay Area to Seattle to Tucson and now Santa Monica. I sometimes get phone calls from clients I haven’t spoken to for ten or fifteen years because they remember the 800 number, which has appeared on tens of thousands of marketing flyers, letters, and business cards that lurk in hidden places and offices throughout America.

Fax machines were also ubiquitous by 1993, and they were state-of-the-art for instant document transmission. All we needed was a second phone line and a fax machine to easily send and receive proposal drafts to clients.

FedEx, however, was the real key to business success: it enabled us receive overnight payments (always important to a consultant) and background info from clients. We could overnight finished proposals to funders. The best part of FedEx was that it seemed, at least to us, to be 100% reliable. In fact, I can’t remember a single incidence of FedEx failing to deliver a package, as promised—until last week. [1]

Here is the sad tale of FedEx the fallen . . .

While almost all federal, state and local proposals are now submitted electronically, for some unknown reason the New York City Department of Education apparently thinks it’s time to party like 1999 and required hard copies for the 2014 Universal PreKindergarten (UPK) RFP process. The deadline was last Friday—February 14.

For local government funders, we typically produce hardcopies in LA, rather than our satellite office in New York, and ship them to our client, who then hand-deliver the submission package. This helps maintain our transparency as ghost writers. Being prudent grant writers, we finished the submission package last Monday and took it to the local FedEx office at about 4:45 PM—30 minutes in advance of what we thought was the 5:15 PM deadline for East Coast priority next-day deliver.

FedEx, however, decided at some point during the day to move up the drop off deadline to 4:30 PM without changing the automated telephone recording for this location. We had called earlier in the day (once again being prudent) and heard the recording, which confirmed the erroneous 5:15 PM deadline. When we got to FedEx, a gaggle of incredulous shippers like us were yelling at the hapless counter guy.

Since the RFP deadline was Friday, we thought a Wednesday delivery would be okay—and, of course, there was nothing we could do about it.[2] I called FedEx central anyway and was told the problem was “a snow storm expected in Indianapolis”—the FedEx hub through which the package was being routed.

We returned to the local FedEx office with the package on Tuesday and off it went. Unfortunately by then, the snow storm had actually hit Indianapolis, delaying FedEx plane departures in the middle of the night. The FedEx plane was hours late getting to Newark and by the time the package got to the NYC sort facility, the drivers had already left on their rounds.

I didn’t figure this out until 10:00 AM PST on Wednesday and spent an hour or so working my way up the food chain to a FedEx supervisor, who said, more or less, that I could go piss up a rope because the package wouldn’t be delivered until Thursday. I was indignant, because in days of yore, a FedEx supervisor would have moved heaven and earth to get a package delivered, even if meant having local FedEx managers use their own cars for delivery. The company culture has changed.

The supervisor did, however, say that our client could go to the sort facility and pick up the package. I called the client, who said she would go retrieve it. By the time she got there, FedEx had apparently gotten enough complaining phone calls from angry shippers and sent the late packages out with a wave of unscheduled afternoon trucks.

The package was now on a truck, not at the sort facility, so our client went back to her office, which is in a private school building. By then the blizzard was bearing down on NYC. At 5:00 our client and most other staff left the building. Of course FedEx delivered the package at 5:15 to the security guard, who was the only person left at the school. The package was locked in the school building, which was naturally closed on Thursday, due to the now very real blizzard.

As the Vince, pitchman for Shamwow[3], used to say “are you following me, camera guy?” The package that was supposed to be delivered by FedEx on Tuesday was actually not received by our client until Friday morning, just a few hours ahead of the deadline.

But on Thursday, the NYC DOE issued an amendment extending the deadline until this Tuesday, February 18, because of the blizzard that had been harassing this proposal all last week.

A couple of takeaways from this bizarre story: FedEx has turned into a bureaucracy and is longer as infallible as it once seemed. FedEx employees used to care about their sacred mission, much as Google employees are said to today; now they seem to be punching the clock. Just as we advise our clients to always upload grants.gov submissions at least 48 hours in advance of the deadline to allow for upload issues, give yourself a couple of days of slack for hard copy submissions being sent via FedEx.[4]

Having given this advice, however, it is also not a good idea to submit proposals more than two days in advance. Funders will sometimes issue last minute amendments to RFPs. In the case of the NYC DOE RPF I’ve been discussing, the last minute amendment was a deadline extension, but it could have been some other, crucial change. If you’ve already submitted a proposal—hard copy or digital—early, and a subsequent amendment is issued, then in technical terms, you be screwed. You generally can’t un-submit a proposal.


[1] Oddly enough, Jake just had FedEx miss a delivery as well. He ordered a Tom Bihn Cache, which should have arrived in New York from its manufacturing point outside of Seattle before Jake’s recent trip to Boston. The package didn’t show up, however, and when Jake called FedEx with the tracking number the person who answered said he couldn’t find the package’s location in the system and suggested that Jake file a claim for a lost package.

Jake sent an e-mail to Tom Bihn, figuring that they should take care of it, and eventually the package did show up—just not in time for his trip. Nonetheless, the experience doesn’t inspire confidence in the company, especially since their customer service reps don’t even know what their system messages mean.

[2] We have a Force Majeure— sometimes referred to as an “act of God”—clause in our contracts for just this reason.

[3] My daughter bought Shamwows for me as a gag gift a few years ago, because she knew how much I enjoyed Vince’s infomercials. They turned out to be a very good product. No one, however, has yet bought me a Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman, made famous by Ron Popeil, the original informercial pitchman.

[4] Amazingly, there are still some federal programs, particularly in that bastion of innovation, the Department of Education, requiring hard copy submissions.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Clients · Deadlines · Government · Stories

Don’t Trust What You Read in Grants.gov: Personnel Development To Improve Services and Results for Children With Disabilities

February 9th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

This week’s e-mail grant newsletter includes an RFP called “Personnel Development To Improve Services and Results for Children With Disabilities–Personnel Preparation in Special Education, Early Intervention, and Related Services.” Click the link and you’ll notice that there are nine grants available and $250,000 in “Estimated Total Program Funding;” those of us who can do simple math will think, “Gee, a little over $25,000 per grant: that’s not much money and consequently not a very interesting program.”*

But read the RFP itself and you’ll see there is actually $12,500,000 available, spread across 50 grants and four different sub-awards. The program suddenly got a lot more interesting and the maximum award amount is $250,000 per year, for up to five years. Now things have gotten really interesting. A lot of organizations that would pass on $25,000 now want to apply.

The topic of “don’t trust grants.gov” is becoming part of a continuing series, since these mistakes are shockingly common. If you see a program that looks appealing, always read the RFP. Not doing so could be a million-dollar mistake.


* Isaac is fond of quoting the Grandmaster Flash song, “White Lines,” which sits at an unusual intersection between rap and disco and contains the astute observation that “The money gets divided / The women get excited.” Note that the next couplet reminds us of the likely consequences: “Now I’m broke and it’s no joke / It’s hard as hell to fight it, don’t buy it!”

Without much money to be divided, no one gets excited.

→ No CommentsTags: Government · Grants.gov · Programs

Job Training Grants are the Church of What’s Happening Now: State of the Union and CA Career Pathways

February 3rd, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · No Comments

Although I gave up watching State of the Union speeches about 20 years ago—they’re always boring and bombastic—this year’s rendition included a hearty endorsement of federal job training efforts. President Obama observed that, with more than 30 existing discretionary federal job training programs, the subject is bit confusing, and he detailed Uncle Joe Biden to study the matter with an aim toward simplifying things.

Call me cynical, but I have zero confidence that our VP can or will simplify job training programs. I wrote my first job training proposal 40 years ago, when I worked for Mayor Bradley shortly after arriving from the Great Frozen North. The proposal was for the fed’s first, and perhaps best, general purpose* job training program: the late Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program.

Unlike later federal efforts, CETA actually provided funding for public agencies and nonprofits to train and hire the unemployed. Although I never had a CETA job, I knew lots of people—most of them liberal arts grads like me—who got their career start with CETA. Since CETA was fairly successful, Congress, of course, got rid of it, replacing CETA with the Job Training and Partnership Act (JTPA) in 1982. JTPA was a definite step backwards, as it created a whole ecosystem of local and regional public/private boards around the country to pass out JTPA funds, which quickly became boondoggles. The idea of directly funding jobs was lost and replaced with the goal of “job development.”

Job development is like telling a teenager outside of a school dance that there are girls inside somewhere, while CETA provided the unemployed with a date with a “sure thing.” Big difference.

JTPA was such a fiasco that it was replaced with the even more convoluted and confusing Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998. Despite its many flaws and limited virtues, WIA remains the primary federal job training funding vehicle. Given President Obama’s SOTU remarks and an ever-increasing pool of Americans who have dropped out of the workforce, WIA has been an obvious failure.

To get biblical, CETA begat JTPA, which begat WIA. There are also dozens of other federal job training programs. Almost every federal grant program that aims to help, among others, any at-risk child over the age of 12, young adults, women, ex-offenders and garden-variety adults, includes some aspect of job readiness and/or vocational skills training, either directly or by referral.

As a grant writer, I’m all for a plethora of job training programs. Why have 30 job training programs when 40 will do? A Wall Street Journal editorial this morning concludes that there are 47 federal job training programs, not 30, as President seems to think. My guess is that when Uncle Joe starts looking through the federal grant attic, he’ll find more than 47. The WSJ points out correctly that not a single job training program measures success by work workers hired. This is what makes job training grant proposals so much fun to write and why agencies should make every effort to get job training grants: there’s no way to evaluate success! And there’s less impetus to do so.

The states are also in the job training biz big time. For example, California just issued a RFP for an entirely new program, the California Career Pathways Trust, which has $247 million in precious state funds up for grabs. (California is also spending $60 billion on a so-called high speed rail system, so perhaps the Golden State is rolling in dough.)

Job training grants are ubiquitous and, no matter what Uncle Joe’s task force discovers or attempts to report, smart nonprofits, school districts and other public agencies will answer the challenge and apply for the huge grants that are and will be available in the job training trough in the coming months and years. As we’ve written about before, grant seeking organizations have to learn how to surf the grant waves. To quote Flip Wilson, job training grants are the church of what’s happening now.


* Federal jobs programs go all the way back to the Depression-era WPA, which focused on jobs, not training. By the time of the Great Society in 1965, the grant pendulum had swung to job training with the creation of Job Corps, which is still among the living. This is fairly amazing, since Job Corps spends about $79,000 per trainee to prepare 16 – 24 year olds for a minimum wage job. It is cheaper to send a kid to the University of Chicago than to Job Corps. If the “16 – 24″ age sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same age range for our old pal YouthBuild. Actually, one can think of YouthBuild as Job Corps Lite, since it’s more or less the same program without a residential living component.

→ No CommentsTags: Advice · Government · Grants · Programs

Why Do the Feds Keep RFP Issuance Dates a Secret? The Upcoming FY ’14 GEAR UP and YouthBuild RFP Illustrate the Obvious

January 26th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · 1 Comment

An oddity of the Federal grant making process is that projected RFP issuance dates are usually kept secret.* Two cases in point illustrate how this works: the FY ’14 Department of Education GEAR-UP and Department of Labor YouthBuild competitions.

Last week, former clients contacted us about both programs. Both clients are well-connected with the respective funders and strongly believe that the RFPs will be soon issued, likely by the end of the month. We believe them, as both were seeking fee quotes to write their GEAR-UP or YouthBuild proposal. The challenge both face, however, is that the Department of Labor and Department of Education typically only provide about a 30-day period between RFP publication and the deadline. So, if you’re an average nonprofit not connected to the funding source, you can easily be blindsided by a sudden RFP announcement.

I’ve never understood why the Feds do this. Hollywood studios announce film premieres weeks and sometimes months in advance to build buzz. You know that when Apple holds an event at the Moscone Center, new products will be launched. Unlike most humans, though, the Feds think it’s a good idea to keep the exact timing of new funding opportunities a secret. This is beyond stupid, but they have been this way since I looked at my first Federal Register about 40 years ago. I don’t expect anything to change soon.

When we learn about likely upcoming RFPs, we usually note them in our free weekly Email Grant Alerts and, for particularly interesting announcements, at this blog. The best advice I can give you comes from that intrepid reporter Ned “Scotty” Scott at the end of Howard Hawks’s great 1951 SF film, The Thing from Another World:** “Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”


* There are many oddities; this is just one.

** This movie has it all: monster loving scientist who spouts lots of stentorian Dr. Frankenstein bon mots about the importance of science, a rakish and fearless hero, a hot babe in a pointy bra, weird SF music, a claustrophobic setting that’s a precursor to “Alien” and many other movies, and James Arness (yes, that James Arness) as “The Thing.”

→ 1 CommentTags: Government · Grants · Housing · RFPs

The Narrative Should Use the Headers the Funder Says It Should Use: HRSA’s Health Start Initiative (HSI)

January 20th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 2 Comments

A few days ago I was describing some of the weirder sections in HRSA’s Healthy Start Initiative: Eliminating Disparities in Perinatal Health (HSI) program to my fiancée, and between the time I started and the time she fell asleep I mentioned that a proposal’s disjointedness often comes not from the writer but from the RFP. Proposals aren’t written for humans; they’re written for bureaucrats. That’s true for most federal proposals, some state proposals, fewer local proposals, and least of all for reasonably unstructured foundation proposals.

Way back in 2012 we wrote “Upward Bound means more narrative confusion,” which described how that RFP “practically hide[s] the location of the material you’re supposed to respond to.” Today I’d like to talk about an exciting, sexy, related topic: HSI (which is due tomorrow). Like Upward Bound, it has two logical places that a moderately intelligent writer could use to structure the narrative: the first is on page 22 of the RFP, which says things like: “INTRODUCTION — Corresponds to Section V’s Review Criterion 1.”

Notice the language used: “Corresponds to Section V’s Review Criterion 1.” Review Criterion 1 starts on page 43, and it has very clear section headers that could be used to structure a fairly clean and clear proposal. I was tempted to use them and I bet a lot of other people have used them in the past, since HRSA put a simple but easily missed instruction on page 22: “Use the following section headers for the Narrative.”

That instruction should be and is the end of the debate. Because of it, anyone who uses the page 43 Review Criteria is doing it wrong. As always with grant writing, it may be possible to do it wrong and then get funded anyway, but you should always err on the side of obeying the RFP.

As you might imagine, we’ve had some… discussions… around this issue with clients. I’ll leave the nature of those discussions intentionally euphemistic, but in the meantime I will note that they should not have been as long or contentious as they were.

HRSA proposals are particularly finicky with narrative starts. The Nursing Workforce Diversity (NWD) Program, for example, has the same weird, bifurcated structure, in which the narrative beings on page 10 and the review criteria on page 21. It isn’t as monstrous as HSI—the final submission package is 65 pages max, as opposed to HSI’s 100 pages, and the RFP is correspondingly shorter—but it does the same confusing thing.

From a writer’s perspective, the (imperfect) solution is to write with the mandated narrative headers and then make sure that the response hits all the review criteria. If it doesn’t, pick up some of the language from the response and then use that as a jumping off section for a paragraph. For example, HSI has a review criterion that starts, “The extent to which the proposed quality improvement plan describes an ongoing/continuous overall management approach…” and you should answer it by saying, “The proposed project will implement a quality improvement plan describes an ongoing/continuous overall management approach by creating a database that will be used by CHWs to…”

That’s a nice thing to do for the reviewers, because it allows them to check the box and ideally give you the maximum number of points possible. It would be even smarter to make the narrative instructions and review criteria identical, but HRSA evidently isn’t yet that evolved—which makes our job harder. But if we wanted an easy job, we would have become lion tamers.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Advice · Government · Grants · Nonprofits · Programs

January Links: Apprenticeships, Empathy, Cars, Drugs, Mattresses, Guns, Antibiotics & Sex, and More!

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

* Where Factory Apprenticeship Is Latest Model From Germany, which the U.S. ought to be doing.

* The global poverty rate has dropped by half since 1950. File this under “good news which is rarely broadcast.”

* “The Other Side of the Story: When I was fourteen, I had a relationship with my eighth grade history teacher. People called me a victim. They called him a villain. But it’s more complicated than that.” Not surprisingly, she would deny to others what she had for herself.

* Great news for pot smokers: drug cartels are building massive underground railroads into the U.S. to transport goods that Americans desperately want to buy.

* Cars Kill Cities.

* How to design happier cities.

* Jane Fonda’s foundation forgets to make donations.

* How Tuft & Needle is disrupting the wildly corrupt mattress industry; I’d buy from them next time I need a mattress.

* The media doesn’t talk about suicide in relation to statistics about suicide with guns, which are are nonexistent or bad.

* “No Antibiotics, No Sexual Revolution,” or, “how the legal system is holding back medical innovation.” See also Alex Tabarrok’s wonderful, short book Launching the Innovation Renaissance.

* “Chicago girl’s rape near a school ‘Safe Passage’ route alarms parents.” So much for the concept of “safe passages” as a method for ensuring child safety.

* Camille Paglia on Rob Ford, Rihanna and rape culture.

* People are moving to Florida because it’s cheap.

* We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn: At colleges today, all parties are strongly incentivized to maintain low standards. Having been on both ends of the college teaching / learning experience, I’ve rarely read a more true article. I’m just not convinced that today is much different than 50 years ago, except for having much higher financial stakes on both sides of the table.

* Brad Pitt charity under fire after Katrina victims’ homes begin to rot. Call it another example of the Good Intentions Paving Company, as coined by Saul Bellow.

* “Brooklyn’s Median Household Income Is Less Than $45,000: So how can anyone afford to live there?” The partial answers are large amounts of public housing, Section 8 certificates and families doubling up or “hot-sheeting” [free proposal term here]. There are really two markets: an unregulated market with proverbially “crazy rents,” and a market for people with connections.

* “Chessmaster or Pawn: Now, It’s China’s Turn,” which is the sort of detailed, fascinating, and unexpected post that makes James Fallows’s blog worth reading.

→ No CommentsTags: Links

Cold Wave Means More Clients and More Grant Needs for Nonprofits in Wintry States and the Sunbelt

January 5th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · No Comments

I woke early this morning, as I’m wrestling with an NIH proposal with a very short deadline. A peek at Facebook revealed a post by a friend making fun of the hysterical news stories about cold in the Midwest and Great Plains in January. They’re just more man-does-not-bite-dog story. But news outlets always like to say, a la Rod Stewart in Mandolin Wind, it’s “the coldest winter in almost 14 years” or whatever.

My pal Barry is my age and, like me, grew up in Minneapolis and went to the University of Minnesota; he got sick of the awful winters and decamped to So Cal. In my case, and as recounted in “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal,” I left Minneapolis almost exactly 40 years ago, during another deepfreeze event in which the temperature had not gotten above zero for about two weeks. As Bob Dylan rapped in “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” I knew it was blowing me southwest to LA.

Between 1974 and 2014 the 24-hour Internet news cycle began, and now the media is ceaselessly screaming about the cold weather. At this moment, tens of thousands of residents of cold weather states are saying to themselves, and as B. Dylan also sang in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “I do believe I’ve had enough.” They’ll be hitching up the wagons and heading south soon, another episode in the population shift over recent decades to the Sunbelt. While there are many reasons why Americans relocate, including selected jobs, like tech in Seattle and Silicon Valley and lower cost housing in much of Texas, it’s hard to argue against the appeal of warmth and sun when shoveling snow out of your driveway yet again.*

This winter- and housing-cost inspired migration has serious implications for nonprofits at both ends.

For nonprofits in wintry states, and particularly for those in rural areas or depressed urban centers, long-underway trends mean that their target populations will get even older, sicker and poorer than they already are, as the young, more affluent and healthier residents move. (There are some exceptions, like New York City and Boston in the last two decades or so.)

For example, we are currently working on a project for a large nonprofit in a rural Midwestern state. In their service area, which has already been devastated by years of outmigration, the median age in 40,compared the national median of 37.2. The median household income is only about 75% of the national median. Nothing is going to get better in this vast, sparsely populated region, as the only real sources of jobs are working for government agencies, hospitals, schools, and nonprofits. The area was originally settled for reasons related to agriculture and railroads. As those sectors have become less important to the economy in the last century, our client’s service area has suffered.

For the nonprofit and public service providers, demographic and economic reality means ever-increasing service demands amid a failing tax base. In other words, more economic misery and fewer resources. Outside of attempting to develop new businesses and attempting to attract highly innovative people from places like New York and Seattle—which is at best a multi-decade process—the only answer for these strapped agencies is more grant writing, trying to secure federal, state and foundation grants because there are few businesses or wealthy individuals to seek donations from.

For nonprofits in Sunbelt states, the in-migration means tens of thousands of new residents, many of whom have little if any social or family connections. While some, like retirees with somewhat secure pensions and savings, will be relatively okay financially, many others, including younger people and middle agers with low skill sets, will be initially strapped and almost all will be adrift in a new community.

Local nonprofits and public agencies will see service demands rise, particularly for job training, family disfunction, substance abuse, domestic violence, and homelessness. It’s a lot easier to be homeless in Santa Monica than Duluth in January. Most Sunbelt cities, like Phoenix and Miami, are still recovering from the housing collapse of the Great Recession, which limits property and other tax revenues for services. Thus, service providers in these ares will also need to ramp-up grant writing to meet new needs.

For myself, it’ll be about 75 degrees in Sunny Santa Monica today, and as I walk my faithful Golden Retriever Boogie to the beach later, I’ll reflect on the half-frozen 22-year old long-haired, bearded kid, leaving Minneapolis in a rusty and unreliable ’65 Bug on a bitterly cold afternoon four decades ago. As Buckaroo Banzai put it, “no matter where you go, there you are.”


* For purposes of dramatic license, I’m leaving out the North Dakota fracking boom, which is drawing thousands of workers to the Great Frozen North. But, many will end up in California, after they gain experience and savings and California eventually permits fracking.

→ No CommentsTags: Grants · Stories

The Unsolvable Standardized Data Problem and the Needs Assessment Monster

December 30th, 2013 · by Jake Seliger · 1 Comment

Needs assessments tend to come in two flavors: one basically instructs the applicant to “Describe the target area and its needs,” and the applicant chooses whatever data it can come up with. For most applicants that’ll be some combination of Census data, local Consolidated Plan, data gathered by the applicant in the course of providing services, news stories and articles, and whatever else they can scavenge. Some areas have well-known local data sources; Los Angles County, for example, is divided into eight Service Planning Areas (SPAs), and the County and United Way provide most data relevant to grant writers by SPA.

The upside to this system is that applicants can use whatever data makes the service area look worse (looking worse is better because it indicates greater need). The downside is that funders will get a heterogenous mix of data that frequently can’t be compared from proposal to proposal. And since no one has the time or energy to audit or check the data, applicants can easily fudge the numbers.

High school dropout rates are a great example of the vagaries in data work: definitions of what constitutes a high school dropout vary from district to district, and many districts have strong financial incentives to avoid calling any particular student a “dropout.” The GED situation in the U.S. makes dropout statistics even harder to understand and compare; if a student drops out at age 16 and gets a GED at 18 is he a dropout or a high school graduate? The mobility of many high-school age students makes it harder still, as does the advent of charter schools, on-line instruction and the decline of the neighborhood school in favor of open enrollment policies. There is no universal way to measure this seemingly simple number.*

The alternative to the “do whatever” system is for the funder to say: You must use System X in manner Y. The funder gives the applicant a specific source and says, “Use this source to calculate the relevant information.” For example, the last round of YouthBuild funding required the precise Census topic and table name for employment statistics. Every applicant had to use “S2301 EMPLOYMENT STATUS” and “S1701 POVERTY STATUS IN THE PAST 12 MONTHS,” per page 38 of the SGA.

The SGA writers forgot, however, that not every piece of Census data is available (or accurate) for every jurisdiction. Since I’ve done too much data work for too many places, I’ve become very familiar with the “(X)” in American Factfinder2 tables—which indicates that the requested data is not available.

In the case of YouthBuild, the SGA also specifies that dropout data must be gathered using a site called Edweek. But dropout data can’t really be standardized for the reasons that I only began to describe in the third paragraph of this post (I stopped to make sure that you don’t kill yourself from boredom, which would leave a gory mess for someone else to clean up). As local jurisdictions experiment with charter schools and online education, the data in sources like Edweek is only going to become more confusing—and less accurate.

If a YouthBuild proposal loses a few need points because of unavailable or unreliable data sources, or data sources that miss particular jurisdictions (as Edweek does) it probably won’t be funded, since an applicant needs almost a perfect score to get a YouthBuild grant. We should know, as we’ve written at least two dozen funded YouthBuild proposals over the years.

Standardized metrics from funders aren’t always good, and some people will get screwed if their projects don’t fit into a simple jurisdiction or if their jurisdiction doesn’t collect data in the same way as another jurisdiction.

As often happens at the juncture between the grant world and the real world, there isn’t an ideal way around this problem. From the perspective of funders, uniform data requirements give an illusion of fairness and equality. From the perspective of applicants trapped by particular reporting requirements, there may not be a good way to resolve the problem.

Applicants can try contacting the program officer, but that’s usually a waste of time: the program officer will just repeat the language of the RFP back to the applicant and tell the applicant to use its best judgment.

The optimal way to deal with the problem is probably to explain the situation in the proposal and offer alternative data. That might not work. Sometimes applicants just get screwed, and not in the way most people like to get screwed, and there’s little to be done about it.


* About 15 years ago, Isaac actually talked to the demographer who worked at the Department of Education on dropout data. This was in the pre-Internet days, and he just happened to get the guy who works on this stuff after multiple phone transfers. He explained why true, comprehensive dropout data is impossible to gather nationally, and some of his explanations have made it to this blog post.

No one ever talks to people who do stuff like this, and when they find an interested party they’re often eager to chat about the details of their work.

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