Monthly Archives: May 2008

Further Information Regarding the Department of Redundancy Department

Last week I discussed repetitive RFP questions and where they spring from, and this week, in honor of the RFPs themselves, I’ll go over the issue from the angle of SAMHSA‘s “Targeted Capacity Expansion Program for Substance Abuse Treatment and HIV/AIDS Services (Short Title: TCE/HIV)RFP (warning: .pdf link). It’s a model of modern inanity and also rich in the oddities that can make grant writing difficult or rewarding. The narrative allows 30 single-spaced pages to answer six pages of questions, and the RFP keeps reiterating the focus on client outreach and pretreatement services. These concepts are pounded in over and over again. Nonetheless, “Section C: Proposed Implementation Approach” asks in its first bullet, on page 25:

Describe the substance abuse treatment and/or outreach/pretreatment services to be expanded or enhanced, in conjunction with HIV/AIDS services, and how they will be implemented.

I then describe how this will be accomplished in great, scrupulous detail, including the outreach to be used and why it will be effective. Nonetheless, the penultimate bullet says on page 26:

Provide a detailed description of the methods and approaches that will be used to reach the specified target population(s) of high risk substance abusers, their sex partners, and substance abusing people living with AIDS who are not currently enrolled in a formal substance abuse treatment program. Demonstrate how outreach and pretreatment projects will make successful referrals to substance abuse treatment.

This is part of the substance abuse and/or outreach/pretreatment service to be expanded, and, as such, it has already been answered. This repetition seems to be a symptom of using last year’s RFP to build this one, as the last two bullets are new, and I’m willing to bet that whoever wrote this RFP didn’t realize that the question had already been implicitly asked in the first bullet. Regardless, if they wanted to explicitly ask this question, the RFP writer should’ve incorporated it into the first bullet instead of making the applicant refer back to the first bullet while also reiterating what the first bullet said. Isaac warned you not to submit an exact copy of a proposal you submitted the year before without making sure that it conforms to this year’s guidelines. If only RFP writers would give us the same courtesy.

Nonetheless, they often don’t, which leads to repeated questions and ideas. This example isn’t as egregious as some, but it is still bad enough to merit a post—and advice on what to do.

The best way of dealing with a problem like this is to note that you’ve already answered the question, but you should be sure to name where you answered it; for example, one might say that the second question had already been answered in Section D, as part of the second bullet point. This gives specific directions to the exact place where the question has already been answered and avoids having to repeat the same thing verbatim. If the proposal had no page limits, one could write “as previously noted in Section C…” and then copy, paste, and rewrite it slightly to prevent the reader from falling into a coma. Granted, such rewrites might cause the writer to fall into a coma, but I’m not sure this would negatively affect quality.

You should be aware that this odd quality of RFPs asking repetitive questions is distressing in its ubiquity. It happened in the Service Expansion in Mental Health/Substance Services, Oral Health and Comprehensive Pharmacy Services application and in numerous other RFPs. Don’t fear those questions and try not to become overly frustrated by them. Just don’t ignore them. No matter how seemingly asinine a question in an RFP is, you must answer it anyway. In an older post I mentioned two forms of the golden rule:

The golden rule cliche says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The almost-as-old, snarky version goes, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” If you want to make the rules about who gets funded, you have to lead a federal agency or start a software company, make more money than some countries’ GDP, and endow a foundation.

You want the gold and therefore have to follow the rules of those who distribute the filthy lucre. So answer the repetitive questions, no matter how silly it is. When you’ve written enough proposals, you’ll realize that RFP writers make mistakes like the one listed all the time. Your job, as the grant writer, is to work around those mistakes, even when an RFP asks the exact same question. In one finally bout of silliness, the TCE/HIV RFP confidentiality section on page 29 asks:

Describe the target population and explain why you are including or excluding certain subgroups. Explain how and who will recruit and select participants.

Compare this to Section A, “Statement of Need,” and the first bullet point, which begins: “Describe the target population […]” Why they need to know the target population twice is a fine question. Or, I could say, explain why they need to know the target population again. There, I’ve just mirrored the problem by asking the same question twice, so I guess it’s time for me to apply for a job as a RFP writer for the Department of Education.

Yet there’s one other structural problem bothers me: page five tells the applicant the groups that must be targeted. These groups are so broad that they encompass an enormous swath of the population, which would be a fine subject for another post, but the question in the confidentiality section comes after SAMHSA tells us who we must serve, then asks us who will be served and why, even though the RFP has already asked and SAMHSA has already dictated who will be served. I’m guessing applicants are likely to swear they’ll only serve eligible populations because they want the money, even though they can’t say that. Applicants who want the money answer earnestly. Too bad RFP writers don’t have to respond to the drivel they all too often emit, as there might be fewer outright bad RFPs issued.

RFP Lunacy and Answering Repetitive or Impossible Questions: HRSA and Dental Health Edition

I’ve talked before about RFP absurdity, and now I’ll talk about lunacy more generally: the HRSA “Service Expansion in Mental Health/Substance Services, Oral Health and Comprehensive Pharmacy Services” program (see the RFP in a Word file here) asks in Section 2.6, “Applicant describes how oral health services will be provided for special populations, such as MSFWs, homeless clients, and/or public housing residents.” The services provided are supposed to be dental—teeth cleaning, cavity filling, bridges, etc., and last time I checked, teeth cleaning is the same for pretty much everyone: you go in, sit on an uncomfortable chair, and let the dental hygienist muck around in your mouth. The RFP writer is probably trying to say, “How will you recruit these hard-to-reach populations and make sure they get their teeth cleaned?”

Furthermore, the question the RFP writer probably means to ask in Section 2.6 has probably already been asked in Section 2.5: “Applicant demonstrates how the oral health services will take into account the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse patients.” Here, once again, as far as I know “special populations” are like the rest of us—do the homeless need their teeth cleaned in some special kind of way? Don’t culturally and linguistically diverse populations also need, um, you know, clean teeth?

These two questions are also odd because they presume to demonstrate extraordinary sensitivity but actually implies that the homeless, public housing residents, and the like aren’t human like the rest of us. Every human has about the same dental procedure performed: a dental hygienist or dentist evaluates you by examining your mouth, screens for oral cancer, scrapes the plaque off, takes X-rays, and then decides what to do next. If you need a root canal, you get a root canal. As Shylock says in “The Merchant of Venice,” “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you clean our teeth, do we not have fresh breath?” Okay, the last rhetorical question is an insertion, but it shows what’s so wrong with the presumptions behind the RFP and the way those presumptions weaken the RFP itself.

Questions like 2.4 are almost as bad: “Applicant also describes how the oral health service will be delivered within the context of the patient’s family and community to address specialized oral health needs.” Oral health service is usually delivered within the context of an operatory, where the dental hygienist and dentist work on your mouth. It’s not usually, so far as I know, delivered along with a Big Mac at McDonald’s. I answered this query by writing:

Oral health service will be delivered within the context of the patient’s family and community by understanding, respecting, and integrating both family and community life into the continuum of dental care. This means that extended family will be included in the care process to the extent necessary, and community norms will be evaluated and respected in providing care.

I have no idea what this means, as when I have a toothache I normally am not terribly interested in what my family or community says—I’m interested in what a dentist says she’ll do to fix it. But regardless of what it means, it’s one of three questions in the RFP that essentially ask the same question. When you’re confronted with page limitations and repetitive questions, you have two fundamental choices: repeat what you said, either verbatim or in slightly different words, or refer to the answers given in preceding statements. In general, we think it’s better to repeat what was said previous, or at least repeat portions of it if possible, because the reviewer will at least be able to put a check in the box indicating that the question was answered. It’s in front of the reviewer, which is particularly important if different reviewers are reading different proposal sections.

But in situations with extreme page limitations, we will sometimes refer to previous answers. But to do so, it’s vital that you pinpoint the section where the preceding answers occurred. Don’t just say, “as stated above,” unless what you’ve stated is immediately above. Say, for example, that, “as stated in Section 2.4, we’re committed to delivering services to special populations in the context of family and community…” That way, if the reviewer is bold enough to look at the preceding section, the reviewer might actually be able to find the relevant material. No matter how long and dreary the proposal, it’s incumbent on the grant writer to go find where the material exists and leave a pointer to that material in the later section. It’s also vital to answer the question rather than just observing, no matter how accurately, that the question has already been answered, which is a fast way to lose points by acting superior to the reviewer.

No matter how repetitive a question might be, you should answer it.


Why so many RFPs are so poorly constructed is a fine question and one I wish I could answer well. One assumption is that the people who write RFPs almost never respond to them, or, if they ever do have to respond to respond, it’s to someone else’s RFP. With that in mind, the best rational reason I can imagine is that it’s hard to figure out who would be best at delivering services and who most needs services. The problem is similar to figuring out how much to pay should be offered in a large organization. Tim Harford discusses it in The Logic of Life:

All the problems of office life stem from the same root. To run a company perfectly you would need to have information about who is talented, who is honest, and who is hardworking, and pay them accordingly. But much of this vital information is inherently hard to uncover or act upon. So it is hard to pay people as much or as little as they truly deserve. Many of the absurdities of office life follow logically from attempts to get around that problem […] (89)

The various levels of government don’t have perfect information about who will use grant funds well, and hence they issue byzantine RFPs to try and extract this information by force. But I’m not convinced funders are really getting anything better than they would if they issued a one-page RFP that said, “Provide dental health to at-risk populations. Tell us who, what, where, when, why, and how you’re going to provide them in a maximum of 30 double-spaced pages. You must submit by June 13. Good luck!” Instead, we get mangled RFPs like the one mocked above and blog posts that, like this one, are designed chiefly to demystify a process that shouldn’t be shrouded in the first place.

Self-Efficacy is underrated

I’ve written about the foolishness of trying to use self-esteem as a metric (“Self-Esteem—What is it good for?“), as well as the impossible question, “Who gets funded?” (“Rock Chalk, Jayhawk—Basketball for Grant Writers“). Now “If at First You Don’t Succeed, You’re in Excellent Company” blends both subjects; the author, Melinda Beck, relates how Julie Andrews was “not photogenic enough for film,” publishers rejected J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel multiple times, and—my favorite—Decca Records passed on the Beatles.

The common thread in these tales of success arising out of initial failures is a concept psychologists call “self-efficacy,” meaning that one has a strong belief in one’s capabilities to do specific things (e.g. Lennon and McCartney had a pretty good idea that could write and play great pop songs, but probably not become professional soccer players), as opposed to the generalized feelings of self-worth that are typical of those with high self-esteem. Moreover, a person works to incorporate feedback and develop their skills, rather than assuming that one’s skills and abilities are fixed. RFPs often reference building “self-esteem” among, say, at-risk youth, but I have never seen a reference to self-efficacy or its cousin resilience, which seem more important as metrics of societal success.

Grant writers should use self-efficacy instead of self-esteem in program models. Let’s consider Project DARN (Dubuque Action and Referral Network), which provides after school enrichment for teens. Instead of trying to get the participants to feel good about themselves by somehow increasing their self-esteem, the project will help each youth find something they’re good at and foster that skill so they actually have a reason to feel positive beyond simply existing. As the WSJ article states, “‘It’s easy to have high self-esteem — just aim low,’ says Prof. Bandura, who is still teaching at Stanford at age 82.” For example, if Joe likes playing computer games, a project staff person could see if he has a knack for programming, and if so, find a mentor from a local software company. This might set Joe on a path to a living wage job, as opposed to having him chant, “we’re all special” in a group. This could help differentiate the Project DARN model from others, and it may actually help your participants.

Self-efficacy isn’t just useful for participants—it’s also a key trait for grant writers trying to get their program funded. If you believe in the organization and the services it provides and have or will develop the skills to write compelling proposals, you should keep trying. The key thing you should do is learn from failure, as Michael Jordan has said: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. That’s why I succeed.” Eventually, if you find the right RFPs or foundations, work diligently at improving your writing skills, and tailor your proposals and programs to available funding sources, your program will be funded.

It’s not enough just to want the money—you also have to want to change and improve your proposals or programs, which too many organizations seem unwilling to do, as the innumerable schools with great mission statements and high dropout rates show. Or, better yet, those districts have ironically named “successful school guides” even as their students fail almost every ability test imaginable.