Monthly Archives: March 2008

Grants.gov Lurches Into the 21st Century

Change is coming, albeit slowly, to Grants.gov, the the online system for Federal submissions. But, as with all things grants, the change is confusing at best.

When the feds first started transitioning to electronic submissions five or six years ago, different agencies used different approaches, resulting in general chaos. Eventually, Grants.gov became the default gateway. While the concept of Grants.gov isn’t bad (the applicant downloads an “application kit file”, fills out some forms and attaches locally generated files before uploading the whole mess), the reality is cumbersome. This is because until recently Grants.gov exclusively used a creaky program named “PureEdge Viewer,” which does not support Mac OS X, Windows Vista, or Linux and is as easy to use as a nuclear submarine. Using the PureEdge Viewer is like gazing into the world of computing circa 1996, but it more or less works.

One fun aspect of submitting through Grants.gov is that the system generates a total of three emails after upload to confirm the upload process, but gives itself 48 hours to do so. Thus, the real world deadline for Grants.gov submissions is actually two days in advance of the published deadline, since, unless there is a system meltdown, the funding agency is unlikely to give you any slack. So, if the upload gets screwed up, you’re generally screwed as well. And, of course Grants.gov tech support (actually provided by IBM) is closed on weekends, making Monday submissions especially festive. Finally, the Grants.gov tech support people have no knowledge of the funding programs and the program officers at the funding agencies have little if any technical knowledge. This sets up a perfect opportunity for being bounced back and forth between the two, making a call to Grants.gov tech support a virtual guarantee of frustration. Calling Grants.gov is like being in a Mac Guy commercial with two Windows guys and no Mac Guy*.

Now, the good news: for what seems like forever, Grants.gov has been “testing” the PureEdge Viewer replacement, which is Adobe Reader 8.1.2, meaning that the submission system is finally being dragged in the 21st Century. The testing is apparently over and Grants.gov now says: “Applicants are required to have a compatible version of Adobe Reader installed to apply for grant applications.” Sounds good, since Adobe supports Vista, OS X, and Linux, but the euphoria will cease when you look further down the page and find out: “Please note, not all applications are provided in Adobe Reader, so it is recommended to also have the PureEdge Viewer installed.” As usual, the feds givith and the feds taketh away, because not all agencies will use Adobe and we’re in for even more confusion with Grants.gov trying to manage two different systems at once. Every time the feds create a unified standard, they change it later. Call me crazy, but I predict even more chaos, particularly since HUD, a notoriously dysfunctional agency even by federal standards, is the guinea pig and will use Adobe for all SuperNOFA submissions this year.

I remember when HUD first used Grants.gov a few years ago and the process for all of their submissions got mucked up somehow, resulting in extensions and re-submissions for every SuperNOFA program. History could repeat itself, as after 30+ years of working with HUD, I have every confidence in their ability to screw up the submission process. If you’re applying for a HUD grant this year, I recommend uploading at least a week early.

We’ll keep you posted on our experience with the new and perhaps improved Grants.gov system. We still prefer using paper submissions, when allowed, as we know exactly what they will look like on the other end and, furthermore, I am 100% certain that no federal proposals are being reviewed on computer screens (think about the oddball collection of 14″ CRTs likely to be found in the bowels of HUD central and you can assume everything is being printed out at the other end anyway). With a paper submission, you know what you sent and what the agency received. With an electronic submission, you have the ever popular GIGO, “garbage in/garbage out,” problem.


*An aside for those of you who are panting for an obscure movie reference—the first movie role of Justin Long’s, who plays the Mac Guy, was the obsessed young fan in the great Star Trek spoof, Galaxy Quest, with its pearls of wisdom for all grant writers, “Never give up, never surrender!”

Reading Difficult RFPs and Links for 3-23-08

* We’ve talked before about how difficult reading RFPs can be. The Section 514, 515, and 516 Multi-Family Housing Revitalization Demonstration Program (MPR) gives a particularly good example of how an application can hide who might actually be eligible for the grant. The program is supposed to support rural multi-family housing (which seems like an oxymoron anyway—don’t rural areas, by definition, have enough space to build all the single-family housing they need?), and the application eligibility says:

(1) Eligibility under 7 CFR 3560.55; however, the requirements described in 7 CFR 3560.55(a)(5) pertaining to required borrower contributions and 7 CFR 3560.55(a)(6) pertaining to required contributions of initial operating capital are waived for all MPR proposals.

So we have to go find whatever 7 CFR 3560.55 is. Google brings up this .pdf file. And the very first thing this section tells us is:

Applicants for off-farm labor housing loans and grants should also refer to § 3560.555, and applicants for on-farm
labor housing loans should refer to § 3560.605.

So we should go look somewhere else for eligibility! Does anyone at the USDA actually read these notices and think about what it’s like for whoever is on the other end? I’m just trying to figure out if organizations other than public agencies or nonprofits are eligible to apply, and I think “”§ 3560.55 Applicant eligibility requirements (5)” tells me: “With the exception of applicants who are a nonprofit organization, housing cooperative or public body, be able to provide the borrower contribution from their own resources.” If nonprofits and public organization are excepted, it would appear that private organizations are eligible. If only the initial funding announcement had just said so.

It’s also difficult to gauge what this program actually does, and if I were a reporter, I might start sniffing around for past winners and looking for Tony Soprano-style connections. Sure, this sounds paranoid, but then you read about what goes on at HUD and think maybe it’s not.

* In a Giving Carnival post, we discussed why people give and firmly answered, “I don’t know”. Now the New York Times expends thousands of words in an entire issue devoted to giving and basically answers “we don’t know either.” An article on measuring outcomes is also worth reading, although the writer appeared not to have read our post on the inherent problems in evaluations.

* Perpetual government programs of the sort we describe in Zombie Funding – Six Tana Leaves for Life, Nine for Motion, Déjà vu All Over Again—Vacant Houses and What Not to Do About Them, and Phoenix Programs also occur in other countries. An example comes by way of Megan McArdle:

THANKS TO Alain Destexhe, a Belgian senator (and that rarest/loneliest of beings, a Belgian free market liberal), for today’s fact of the day. Mr Destexhe reports on his blog that the Belgian central bank still employs more than 2,000 people, even though it has not had a currency to oversee since 1999, when Belgium joined the euro.

* What is up with the guys at the Grant Institute? We’ve written three posts (here, here, and here) about how useless grant training seminars are. But Anthony Jones works for them and sent me a form e-mail announcing that “The Grant Institute: Certificate in Professional Program Development and Grant Communication will be held in Houston, Texas, April 21 – 25, 2008.” The cost: a mere thousand dollars. Your grand buys courses like one “centered around expert communication principles, this class will change the way students conceptualize grant proposals and other fundraising tools.” Whatever that means. Clearly they have at least one grant writer working for them.

Furthermore, Anthony’s e-mail states that “You have received this invitation due to specific educational affiliation.” I’d love to know who that affiliate is.

* NPR learns about vacant housing problems without reading Déjà vu All Over Again—Vacant Houses and What Not to Do About Them. C’mon guys: this isn’t the first time housing problems like the present ones have existed.

* Freakonomics wants to know what can be done to close the achievement gap between white and Asian students versus Black and Hispanic students. Actually, Freakonomics ignored Asians and Hispanics of any race, who between them represent 19.2% of the population, or about 57,000,000 people. But people interested in this problem should still read it.

* Dropout rate numbers are notoriously unreliable, and the New York Times tells us why. For academic research that observes the same thing, see The American High School Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels. For example:

(a) the true high school graduation rate is substantially lower than the official rate issued by the National Center for Educational Statistics; (b) it has been declining over the past 40 years; (c) majority/minority graduation rate differentials are substantial and have not converged over the past 35 years […]

The Last Word on Grant Writing Credentials: Awards Are Only as Good as the Organization Giving Them

On a software blog, I found this post concerning an author who’d given himself an award:

‘You know, there were two strange things about that award, …Firstly, after I awarded it to myself, I felt oddly elated, as if some august academic body had suddenly realised my true worth as an author and had strained every sinew to ensure that my talent was acknowledged.’

Pause

‘… and what was the other strange thing?’

‘You are the first person ever to have asked me precisely what award it was that I’d won. Everybody else has just taken it for granted.’

‘I work in IT. It makes one cautious of trusting qualifications and awards.’

Consider this in light of Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain and its follow-up, both of which discuss how certifications, credentials, and the like are only as good as the knowledge they represent and the organization issuing them. With many credentials, bogus language cloaks what’s really happening—for another example of the same phenomenon, check out this post from Joel Spolsky.

Anyway, the point Isaac made regarding the degrees that matter is a good one: the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. matter, but even then only to a limited extent. People of varying talents earn those degrees, which are in turn only as rigorous as the classes taken. Not so long ago I was an undergrad, and almost all of us had mental hierarchies of teachers and classes, and anyone who wanted to avoid harder teachers/classes could. It’s simply not very difficult to get a degree in many majors, especially in the liberal arts. Of course, there are many good people who graduate with liberal arts degrees, but many is not the same at as all. We’ve all probably met incompetent college graduates, and I’ve met head-in-the-clouds Ph.D.s. There is no alphabet soup behind a person’s name that really guarantees that person’s skill.

You only have what Mr. Spolsky would call “weak indicators.” Given how imperfect college degrees are as indicators of skill, and how much effort goes into them, you shouldn’t be surprised that so many other “credentials” are even worse. Tautologically, only skill can show skill, and the best indication of a person’s skill is that person’s track record. Want to discover if you or someone you know can write a proposal? Give them an RFP, a deadline, a computer, Internet access, as much coffee as they want and see if they produce a proposal. If so, they’re a grant writer, and you can give them another. If not, use your best Donald Trump voice to say “You’re fired!”, send them to the Department of Education (as Isaac suggested), and go on to the next resume or consultant in your pile. Eventually you’ll probably find a grant writer.

The Danger Zone: Common RFP Traps

When first looking at a RFP, it is a good idea to remember Robbie the Robot from Lost in Space (the 60’s TV show, not the terrible movie remake) shouting “Danger Will Robinson,”* because when you open a RFP, you’re entering THE DANGER ZONE.

Those innocent looking RFPs are filled with traps. For example, if you are responding to a RFP that was previously issued and you have a proposal from a past submission, you will typically find that the funder has changed the RFP slightly, often in a subtle way. This might be by changing the order of questions, using different headers or outline patterns, requiring a specific font, and the like. Since such changes usually are not substantive, I assume that this is done to trap novice or lazy applicants who just copy the previous proposal and change the date. It may be that program officers are basically bored and have nothing better to do, so they find cheap thrills in this, like rabbits racing across the road in front of a car. So, even if you submitted the same project concept for the same program last year, make sure that you carefully go through the RFP to find these public sector equivalents of “easter eggs”. It’s also a good idea, of course, to update the data, polish your text, and find all those typos that slipped through the last editing process.

Another RFP trap is repetitive questions. It is not unusual to find the same question, more or less, asked several times. Whether this is an intentional trick or an artifact of committee members writing different RFP sections, they can be a real challenge for the grant writer, particularly if there are page limits. So, what to do? If there is room, simply rewrite the first answer over and over again. I know this results in a pretty boring read, but occasionally, such as with some HUD programs, reviewers may only read particular sections. The alternative, which we use when there are space limitations, is to refer back to the original answer (e.g., As noted above in Criterion 1, Section 6.a and Criterion 2, Section 2.c, Citizens for a Better Dubuque has extensive existing referral relationships with the full range of youth providers, which will be utilized to provide project participants with service beyond the project scope. Wow, what a great proposal sentence! Feel free to steal it.). However you handle the problem, never ignore questions, as this practice runs the risk of missing points or having the proposal declared technically deficient and not scored at all.

Sometimes, the RFP asks lots of obtuse questions, but never specifically explicitly asks what you plan to do or how you plan to do it. I know this seems incredible, but the Department of Education, for example, often has RFPs like this. In this case, pick any spot you like and insert the project description (e.g., Within the above context of how the Dubuque After School Enrichment Initiative is articulated with Iowa learning standards, the following describes how academic enrichment services will be delivered:). No, this is not a smiley face, just a colon followed by a closed parenthesis. If I was going to use an emoticon, it would have a frowney face to evoke reading RFPs.

One of my favorite RFP traps is to find different instructions for ordering responses in different parts of the RFP. For example, there may be a series of outlined questions, followed by a series of criteria that ask the same questions, more or less, but in a different order. Since, unlike Schrodinger’s cat, the proposal can only have one “state,” the grant writer has to pick one to follow. Before plunging into the writing, it’s not a bad idea to contact the program officer to raise this conundrum. Unfortunately, even if you are able to find the program officer, your question will usually be met with either giggles or a cold, “read the RFP, it’s all there.” In either case, you’re back to having to pick one of the two orders.

Finally be afraid, be very afraid of RFPs for newly minted programs. This is because the writers of RFPs for new programs usually have no idea what they want from applicants. We’ve been working, for example, on a $8 million proposal being submitted to a California state agency on behalf of a public sector client. The program is new and the RFP is a mess in terms of conflicting guidance, hidden requirements and so on. Since there were some aspects of the RFP that were beyond even our amazing deductive abilities, after leaving several messages over a week, we finally got the program officer on the phone. He sheepishly admitted that they had “forgotten” to include some of the instructions but planned to see what they got in responses and fix the RFP next year. It was good to find an honest man in Sacramento, and we put the submission package together in the most logical manner we could. Hopefully the state agency will straighten out the RFP next year.

We have seen our approach used in subsequent RFPs before, so this is not impossible. We wrote the first HUD YouthBuild proposal funded in Southern California in response to the first funding round in 1993. Not surprisingly, the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA: HUD-speak for RFP), was a complete nightmare and we had to develop a response format more or less on our own, after a number of unproductive calls to HUD. Fortunately, when the next Youthbuild NOFA was issued, it bore a remarkable resemblance to our submission in terms of how the proposals were to be organized. It is always fun to drag the bureaucracy toward enlightenment, so matter how hard the slog. YouthBuild moved to the Department of Labor in FY 2007, and, yes we successfully made the transition by writing yet another funded YouthBuild proposal last year, bringing our total of funded YouthBuild proposals to a baker’s dozen or so, proving that the funding agency is largely irrelevant to the grant writing process.


* Robbie actually made his screen debut in the wonderful 1956 film Forbidden Planet.

Perfectionism Revisited

Earlier I wrote about The Perils of Perfectionism, in which I made the case for just getting it done with regards to proposal writing. Now I’ve found another example of the same idea in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. The narrator says: “As they keep telling you in Basic, doing something constructive at once is better than figuring out the best thing to do hours later.” Extend “hours” to “weeks” and the same is true of grant writing, where too much dithering can lead to missing the deadline.

On another note, a commenter said, “[Do you think we should t]hrow caution to the wind??? Really? Just do it? Don’t be methodical???” “The Perils of Perfectionism” isn’t arguing that you should put no effort into proposals any more than Studio Executives, Starlets, and Funding argues that it’s impossible to gauge whether your grant writing is effective or impossible to decide what programs organizations should apply for. With “The Perils of Perfectionism,” it’s wrong to apply either/or logic because a continuum exists; you, the applicant or the grant writer for the applicant, needs to keep the ultimate goal in mind: getting funded. If you become obsessed with creating the perfect application, you might never get it done, thus defeating the purpose of the exercise. If you don’t finish the proposal and submit it on time, you can’t get funded, and if you spend too much time in search of the perfect support letter, or the perfect data, or worry too much about comma placement two days before the application is due, you won’t finish your application. The best rule of thumb: make the proposal as good as you can within time and other constraints and then move on. You should try to complete the best proposal you can, which isn’t the same as throwing caution to the wind, but you also need to be cognizant of time.

Being cognizant of time and other limitations might also mean that you’re better off applying for two programs rather trying to perfect one application. This idea, like many of the ones I’m describing in this post, is a special case of the 80/20 rule (also called the Pareto principle), which basically states that 80% of the time on a project can be consumed by the last 20% of the work, and vice-versa. It’s sometimes also called the 90/10 rule; computer programmers deal with it all the time. For grant writers, this means that rather than spending 80% of your time trying to make a proposal 20% better, you might be better of trying to apply to two programs and making both applications 90% good rather than striving toward the unreachable 100%.

Notice that I use “might” repeatedly: that’s because I don’t know what might arise in every instance and general principles don’t apply to every specific situation. But I do know that the only organizations that earn funding are the ones that get proposals submitted, which is something you should keep in mind when you allocate your time and resources. I also know that you need to have some idea of the parameters involved in writing proposals if you’re going to understand the trade-offs faced in preparing and applying for grants. If you’re aware of the perils of perfectionism, you’ll be better equipped to make decisions about how to allocate resources (including time) and how to maximize your organization’s chance of being funded.