December 22nd, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments
A month ago we published “Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree,” and last week the Department of Education obliged by publishing the Student Support Services (SSS) RFP. This is one of the TRIO programs, which we’ve also written about before. These programs are explicitly about getting kids to graduate college:
The purpose of the SSS Program is to increase the number of disadvantaged, low-income college students, first-generation college students, and college students with disabilities in the United States who successfully complete a program of study at the postsecondary level.
And “complete a program of study” means, ultimately, “four-year college.” But community colleges are still great applicants because they can argue that they’re a vital step on the road to the four-year degree.
SSS is a particularly interesting program, however, because of the dollars involved: $300 million of them, with grants of $220,000/year for five years. For community colleges, who are among the better applicants for SSS, that’s a lot of money. The clients we’ve worked for who’ve gotten SSS grants have always been very happy with them.
The other interesting part of the program is the RFP release date, which happened right before Christmas break, when many college applicants go into sleep mode until after the new year. The deadline is February 2nd, so for many potential college applicants, this means effectively less than four weeks to write what is a fairly complex proposal. You can thank the ED for this lump of coal in applicants’ stockings.
Tags: Education · Grants · Programs
December 16th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 2 Comments
We’re interested in the Department of Labor’s “American Apprenticeship Initiative” (AAI) because it uses a word that rarely appears in the education media, federal grants, or foundation priorities: “apprenticeship.”
Apprenticeship has the ring of an out-of-circulation word, like “aesthete” or “monocle.”* Apprenticeships were common until the 20th Century, when either formal education or industrial blue-collar manufacturing jobs largely replaced them in the United States. But the number of manufacturing jobs has been declining for decades—and those that remain tend to require advanced skills—which has left formal education as the primary way we, as a society, take people aged 13 and up and try to turn them into productive—in the economic sense—adults.
The problem, however, is that a lot of people are poorly suited to sitting still and quietly for long periods of time while conducting abstract symbol manipulation. I’ve written about this issue before, in “Taking Apprenticeships Seriously: The need for alternate paths,” and a rare media account that discusses apprenticeship appeared in The Atlantic: “Why Germany Is So Much Better at Training Its Workers.” Apprenticeships haven’t gotten the attention they deserves. College dropout rates remain stubbornly high, and the solution favored by the feds is better college preparation and more wraparound supportive services in college (we discussed this in “Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree“). So far that hasn’t worked out well.
I’ve got an unusual perspective on formal education and college because in grad school I taught freshmen at the University of Arizona. The experience was educational for me for many reasons, one being that many if not most students seemed to have no idea about why they were in college or what precisely they were supposed to do there. Many didn’t particularly like being in classrooms, and it showed. Not surprisingly, only something like half of U of A freshmen complete a degree with six years. Students who don’t complete degrees get saddled with enormous debts and no degrees to show for it.
Not everyone is well-suited to the college environment, and that isn’t me being an elitist jerk. It’s an observation that should be obvious to everyone who has taught at a non-elite college. We—again, as a society—should have a viable system for training people who don’t like abstract symbol manipulation. They can learn and do useful things. I’m well-suited to abstract symbol manipulation—that’s my entire job—but I can acknowledge that many people aren’t.
The apprenticeship model and the university model should have porous borders—people who realize they don’t want to be apprentices should be able to pursue university education, and those in universities who realize they’d rather become electricians should be able to do that. Right now, however, public policy is oriented almost entirely towards the university model, to the detriment of many of those who don’t fit the model. We’re pleased to see the AAI as being an exception to the general principle.
* Though graduate school is still conducted largely in the apprenticeship model, which is sometimes acknowledged, since in a way no one really knows how to teach research or writing—they’re both taste-based skills, which makes them inherently difficult to teach.
Tags: Education · Foundations · Government · Grants
December 12th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments
Sharp-eyed readers of our email grant newsletter know that the last few months have seen few juicy federal RFPs appear. That’s not because we’re not looking for them—we are—but because Congress’s deadlock has meant that few federal agencies have been eager to put on RFP processes for programs that until funding for this fiscal year is assured.
But as of December 11, Congress finally passed a spending bill—and it doesn’t even appear to be a Continuing Resolution (CR), which has been the primary way Congress has conducted business over the last half decade. You might notice that the last link in the preceding sentence goes back to 2010.
It’s hard to say whether we’ll see more CRs in the next two years, but with Republicans controlling the House and Senate in the next Congress while a Democrat holds the White House, we’re betting on “yes.”
Tags: Advice · Budgets · Government
December 1st, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 2 Comments
This post is going to start in an incredibly boring fashion and then twist: Virtually every human and social service proposal, regardless of the target population, should at least nod to cultural sensitivity and related matters. Many RFPs specifically require applicants to address how project staff will be trained in cultural sensitivity and diversity to provide what is usually termed “culturally appropriate and specific services.”
But sometimes the impulse towards cultural sensitivity can go terribly wrong.
For one example of “cultural sensitivity gone wrong” check out “‘Bootie’ problem at CMS? Mom says offensive question went too far” or “Wrong Answer To The Wrong Question About A Big Bootie On High School Biology Test.” Both concern a question on a high school test about genetics:
LaShamanda has a heterozygous big bootie, the dominant trait. Her man Fontavius has a small bootie which is recessive. They get married and have a baby named LaPrincess” the biology assignment prompts students.
The assignment then continues to ask, “What is the probability that LaPrincess will inherit her mama’s big bootie?
Here at Seliger + Associates, we don’t have any more details about the story apart from what we see in the media, and it would not shock us if this story is a hoax or if there is more going on than what appears in these news blurbs.* The more you know about the media the more skeptical you should be of any given story.
Nonetheless, let’s take this at face value and attempt to imagine what might have been going through the teacher’s mind: first off, the teacher said the worksheet “had been passed down to her by other teachers,” which indicates that she might not have looked closely at it. Since I’ve taught plenty of college classes, I can vouch for an instructor’s desire to use what’s been tested and teach efficiently. Secondly, though, she’s probably been hearing discourse and through mandated professional development about cultural sensitivity and incorporating non-dominant or non-Anglo cultures into her teaching for her entire career.
We’re not trying to defend the teacher, but we are saying that her thinking may be understandable, even if the execution is misplaced. Her conundrum, if it exists, can be stated simply: Where does cultural sensitivity end and cultural appropriation or cultural insensitivity begin?
We have no idea, and neither do most people, because each case has to be judged one by one. We don’t have a pithy answer to this conundrum. The need for introducing concepts around cultural sensitivity is real, but so is the danger of being offensive, either inadvertently or, conceivably, advertently. In the proposal world, the easiest way to avoid this problem is by praising and promising cultural sensitivity training without specifying what that will mean on the ground, which can help grant writers avoid obvious gaffes. As a grant writer you don’t want to introduce a big bootie-style problem into your proposal, but you also can’t ignore funders’s requirements. These requirements can sometimes lead to mistakes like the one described in the news articles above.
* Which often happens; it’s not uncommon for contemporary novels, like Tom Perrotta’s Election, Anite Shreve’s Testimony, or Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities to exploit the gap between shallow media understanding of an event and deeper understanding of an event.
Tags: Advice · Grants · Writing
November 24th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · 5 Comments
Titanic is not actually one of my favorite movies, but I’m going to use it to illustrate a critical aspect of grant writing: you’ve got to know when you’re about to commit a sink the ship mistake. We’ve written about aspects of this before (see here, here, or here), but the issue is worth emphasizing because it arises so often.
We all remember the hapless Titanic passengers, whether it be the swells in first class epitomized by the beautiful Kate Winslet or the proles in steerage personified by Leonardo DiCaprio. As least as depicted in the movie, they all bought into the White Star Line’s “unsinkable” PR BS. In Titanic, the movie, the only person who understands the minor problem of the iceberg is the ship’s designer. He responds to a passenger screaming incredulously “But the ship can’t sink” by saying, “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can… and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.”
Grant writers are the architects of a given proposal writing assignment. As one, it’s your job to steer clear of sink-the-ship problems, even if the captain (executive director) wants to sail blithely into a field of metaphorical icebergs. Here are some common sink the ship problems we see:
- Propose a budget that exceeds the maximum grant amount or is below the minimum grant amount.
- Propose a match that is below the minimum required match. Or fail to understand how the match should be calculated.
- Fail to include letters of commitment or MOUs from required partners.
- In hard copy submissions, fail to include required signature pages.
- In online/upload submissions, fail to include required attachments, including the voluminous federal certifications required by grants.gov.
- Exceed the page limit maximum and/or often-hidden formatting requirements (e.g. font type and size, double spacing, pagination, file naming and so on).
- Fail to include required attachments specified in the RFP (e.g., service area map, data tables, site plans for construction projects, etc.).
- Propose service delivery to an ineligible target area or target population.
- Be an ineligible applicant.
- Miss the deadline, which is the ultimate sink the ship problem.
Any of the above will most likely get your proposal tossed during the initial technical review and it will not be scored. You will have hit an iceberg, or, if you like this metaphor better, dealt yourself the Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200 card.
As professional grant writers, we make every effort (free proposal phrase here) to avoid the above by closely reading the RPP and preparing a “documents memo” for our clients. This is a checklist for required submission package items and guides our clients on what they should worry about during the drafting process. While many RFPs include “checklists,” these are often incomplete and/or inconsistent with the RFP. As President Reagan famously put it about negotiating with the Soviet Union, “trust, but verify.”
While it pays to be very careful to avoid a sink-the-ship problem, many grant writers and executive directors instead focus on non-sink-the-ship problems at late stages of the application process. Here are some examples we run into frequently:
- Excessively worrying about word choices. Although it always best to use good grammar, using “that” instead of “which” or “client” instead of “participant” are not important after the first draft.
- Spending inordinate time preparing fancy color charts and graphs. While the formatting should look pleasing, putting ribbons on your proposal pig may backfire, as your your agency may look “too good” to readers, or create a huge file that may result in upload problems at grants.gov and other upload sites.
- Including endless descriptions of how wonderful the agency and executive director are. One paragraph is usually enough for the entire management team and a couple of pages of agency background is all that is needed. When writing about the agency, use specifics regarding programs, number of clients served and outcomes, instead of PR babble. Save this stuff for your annual holiday appeal letter.
- Adding attachments that are not requested in the RFP. A screen shot of the executive director on “Oprah” or “Dr. Oz” won’t help you get funded, but they will generate amusement on the part of readers. Remember, you never what to submit a proposal that will be passed around by reviewers saying, “get a load of this one!”
- Wasting time and space with letters of support from elected officials. Most grant reviewers know that virtually any applicant can get a letter from their congressperson/senator just by asking. This is not how influence is peddled in Washington.
Like most of our advice on the technical aspects of grant writing, avoiding a sink the ship problem is pretty simple. Read the RFP carefully, prepare a checklist with responsibilities and timeframes, write a compelling proposal, and submit a technically correct proposal a couple days ahead of the deadline. The challenge is all in the execution.
Tags: Advice · Grants
November 16th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 3 Comments
Certain things about grant writing can only be learned by reading between the lines: that requires reading individual RFPs carefully, reading many RFPs, interacting with various organizations, interacting with program officers, and the like. This is a post about reading Department of Education (DOE)* RFPs, which means reading “between the lines;” whatever else a particular DOE RFP may require, they really want kids to graduate from four-year colleges. Almost every DOE program—whether it targets four year olds, eight year olds, or eighteen year olds—has to claim that it’ll make more kids attend and graduate from a four-year college.**
The graduate-from-college goal comes from the DOE’s relentless focus on the fact that college graduates on average make a lot more money than non-college graduates. This, however, may be a causation fallacy—college graduates are different in many other respects from people who haven’t finished college—but if you’re writing a DOE proposal, you’re not trying to debate or change policy. You’re trying to give the funder what they want, and the DOE wants college graduates. Bryan Caplan is writing a book called The Case Against Education that argues education is actually a signaling arms race and that most education is socially wasteful and not particularly useful.
I don’t want to start a dispute about the correctness of Caplan’s claims or the DOE’s view in this forum—I’m being descriptive, not proscriptive, here—but I do want you to know that there is a big, often unstated corollary to almost any DOE grant program. It may be true that DOE is behind the times and has forgotten that college is probably not a panacea for economic inequality. It is true, however, that both the American political left and the American political right are broadly pro-education, since they associate education with both work and opportunity.
Your proposal should be broadly pro-college whether you’re a nonprofit, a Local Education Agency (LEA), or an Institution of Higher Education (IHE), and you should definitely announce that your program will increase college attendance and graduation rates. That’s true even for an elementary school project: argue that your program will cause today’s six year olds to graduate in sixteen years. Will your program actually increase the number of graduates? Maybe. In the real world no one really tracks the outcomes of the product of individual school districts and even if they did, that information might not be real useful: what happens if a kid moves three times and has three different school district experiences, and the graduating school is the very last one? These kinds of issues arise in many evaluation sections, and we bring the issue up because it’s a specific example of the general principle that evaluation sections are more theater than reality.
As we’ve written before, there are various “grant waves” that strike due to changes in the economy, changes in what the commentariat is discussing, changes in technology, or changes in policy / politics. From 2000 – 2008, for example, a series of programs to prevent teen pregnancy through abstinence education were big. Since the Great Recession, job training has gotten big. Next year it may be something else. Regardless of the changes, however, you should try to see them coming and be aware of what’s happening in the larger world.
Incidentally, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is always about two things: getting people insured and providing enhanced access to primary health care for low-income people. If you see a HRSA program, include those two components. The first has really come to the fore since the ACA passage. The second has been around longer but has arguably grown in prominence. I’m writing this at the end of 2014. In four years HRSA and DOE may have different priorities. But for now, you’re going to be a more successful applicant if you promise what we’re suggesting you promise.
* There are actually two federal “DOEs,” the Department of Education and the Department of Energy. Take it up with your congressperson.
** I don’t mean to slight community colleges, but DOE wants kids to get four-year degrees, not two-year degrees or certificates. Community colleges can’t get no respect (though they do get a fair amount of grant money). Once again, take it up with your congressperson.
About 20 years ago Isaac went to a bidders’ conference in Seattle about the DOE’s Student Support Services (SSS) program, which funds community colleges and is one of the several “TRIO” programs. The program officers droned on about pointless, obfuscated minutia; the audience was naturally beyond bored. Suddenly, a very large man sitting next to Isaac stood up and said loudly more or less: “Why do you guys keep jabbering on. You just want more kids to graduate from a four-year college. Isn’t that the whole point of TRIO?”
The audience sprang to life with applause, as the program officers admitted that was the case. Isaac talked to the guy afterward, and he’d been running a TRIO program in Illinois for years and knew SSS better than the presenters. Isaac says this is the only time he ever learned anything useful at a bidder’s conference—and this nugget was really revealed between the lines.
Tags: Advice · Education · Government
November 9th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 1 Comment
Last month Isaac wrote about how the Jobs Plus Pilot Program show that HUD is getting back into jobs training. Now we’ve run into another odd job training program, and it too has an exhaustive name: Innovative Public Transportation Workforce Development Program (Ladders of Opportunity Initiative). The program offers funding to “to provide information, education, technical assistance, and peer support to families of children and youth with special health care needs (CYSHCN [which I defy anyone to pronounce]) and professionals who serve such families,” just like many other federal job-training programs.*
But why is the new program being done via the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and not the Department of Labor? We actually don’t have a good answer to this and would also ask: What happened to WIA, which is supposed to fund most job training initiative?
There’s another odd part of the program: FTA is the funder, but eligible applicants are not limited to local transit agencies. Instead, any public agency, nonprofit organization or Indian tribe is eligible to apply. This program is worth a close look, if your agency is involved in job training and there happens to be a local mass transit provider handy.
* Despite the similarities between this program and many others, however, you should declare that any program you propose is “innovative.”
November 2nd, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · No Comments
Almost all federal budgets require applicants to complete the ever-popular SF-424, which has been the cover page for federal grant applications since the Carter administration. The “SF” stands for “Standard Form,” but at the link you’ll find many variants of this “standard” form (don’t ask why). Regardless of the version, the SF-424 includes sub-forms, including the SF-424A, which is a summary of federal “Object Cost Categories.” The “Program Income” Object Cost Category is found near the bottom of every SF-424A.
The Program Income Object Cost Category represents revenue generated by grant implementation, but in most cases it’s a bad idea to declare any Program Income on the SF-424A. Even if Program Income exists, you shouldn’t list it because Program Income is in effect a deduction from the grant request. Let’s say that the Boys and Girls Club of Milaca, Minnesota* is seeking a grant to provide mentoring services for at-risk kids. All Boys and Girls Clubs charge nominal membership dues and/or user fees, although the dues/fees are often waived for various reasons. Still, Clubs charge dues/user fees to support operations and to make parents/caregivers** feel they’re paying for something. People value something they pay for, even when they pay very little, much more than something they don’t. Our applicant Boys and Girls Club would probably want to try to get the parents/caregivers of mentees (yes—this is right word) to pay dues, but this should never be shown on a SF-424A.
We’ll explain why by using a thought experiment.
Assume the mentor program grant request is $200,000. If $5,000 is shown as Program Income from dues, what is the size of the grant needed to implement the project? The answer is of course $195,000.
Almost all grant budgets are based on a “but for” or “gap” analysis—in other words, but for the grant, the project cannot be implemented or the grant represents the missing funding gap (see also our post on the dreaded supplantation concept). For most human services proposals, the grant always equals the size of the “but for” or “gap.” In addition to helping build the need argument, most federal agencies don’t want program income to be included in the proposal budget, as such income would also need to be tracked during project implementation. This would complicate reporting. The legal fiction is that there is no Program Income; both applicants and federal funding agencies usually agree to look the other way.
As in most grant writing generalities, there are exceptions to the No Program Income rule I’ve just illustrated. A good example is a HRSA Section 330 proposal budget for primary health care, which must show income for third-party payers like Medicaid and private insurance. Another example is the HUD Section 202 affordable housing development program. In Section 202 budgets, Section 8 rental income must be shown to demonstrate project feasibility. Affordable housing grants use the “but for” and/or gap analysis in supporting cash flow statements. Unlike privately funded market rate housing cash flow statements, however, which show an excess of income over expenses to prove feasibility, publicly funded affordable housing cash flow statements always show infeasibility. The infeasibility must be solved, or the gap closed, by the grant request.
Our advice to clients regarding Program Income is always, “when in doubt, leave it out,” but we’re just lowly grant writing consultants and our clients are free to ignore our advice, which they often do.
For example, last year we wrote a Family & Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) Transitional Living Program (TLP) for Homeless & Runaway Youth proposal for a very large homeless youth services provider in a big midwest city. Our client, like most similar faith-based homeless services providers, charges nominal rent to homeless youth living in their transitional housing facility and also requires that the residents work part time.
While this may be a good policy to encourage self-reliance among homeless youth, it’s a very bad idea to include this Program Income in the TLP SF-424A. TLP grants are supposed to help youth with no resources whatsoever and to house the most needy—not the ones who can work part-time or somehow have money for rent.
It was very difficult getting our client to understand this conundrum until we pointed out that they were inadvertently proving they didn’t need the grant amount requested, while opening themselves up to being seen as “cherry picking” the best homeless youth clients. I’ll leave the perils of implied cherry-picking in grant writing to another post, but cherry-picking is also usually a fast way to the exit in grant seeking.
If you want to include program income anyway, you should at least increase the total program budget so that the grant amount requested remains at the maximum allowable amount.
* When I was a kid growing up in Minneapolis in the late 50s, my dad was a big wrestling fan and I often accompanied him to watch wresting matches live at the very dingy Minneapolis Auditorium. One of my favorite wrestlers was Tiny Mills, “King of the Lumberjacks.” Tiny was kind of a good bad guy and was always introduced as being “formerly from Alberta, Canada, but now hailing from Milaca, Minnesota.” For some reason I found this endlessly amusing, only learning later as a teen going on road trips that Milaca is actually a charming town in North Central Minnesota on the way to the beautiful Lake Mille Lacs.
** In writing proposals about at-risk children and youth, always refer to them as having “parents/caregivers,” not just “parents,” to account for those living with grandparents or in foster care.
Tags: Budgets · Government · Grants
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.
Tags: Grants · Programs
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.