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Reformers come and go, but HUD abides

Sudhir Venkatesh*, a Columbia University Sociologist, wrote “To Fight Poverty, Tear Down HUD,” and in it he suggests imploding HUD (like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project) to increase regional collaboration. Having just finished a HUD proposal, it made me think about HUD’s evolution and previous attempts to reform the agency. Venkatesh gives a brief overview of HUD’s emergence in 1965 and its mission to carry on the Progressive Era’s notion that slums are the root of urban problems, rather than the inhabitants—see here for detail. Still, Venkatesh argues that HUD had outlived its usefulness and needs to be eliminated or reconstructed.

He uses the HOPE VI Program as a supportive example. Jake briefly covered Hope VI in “On Gangs and Proposals,” and the program more or less pays housing authorities to tear down public housing and replace projects with “mixed-income” developments, resulting in outcomes like those described in “American Murder Mystery.” Regardless of whether Venkatesh thinks HOPE VI and other competitive** HUD programs can be used to dismantle the agency, he’s wrong about the potential for reform because of the Godzilla of HUD, The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program.

CDBG agglomerates dozens of competitive HUD programs as they existed in the early 1970s into a single grant, awarded without competition to eligible cities and counties. Being designated as “CDBG-eligible” is the local jurisdictional equivalent of being elected Prom Queen. CDBG jurisdictions can spend the money however they want, provided that the use can somehow be justified under one of the eight statutory CDBG requirements—meaning that just about anything can be made CDBG eligible through the jurisdiction’s “Five-Year Comprehensive Plan” and associated “Annual Action Plans.”***

Thus, local officials often use CDBG funds as “walking around money” for favored nonprofits in the name of “developing viable communities,” which is the stated purpose of CDBG. The witch’s brew of local politicians, other people’s money, hand-in-the-till nonprofits and a plethora of interest groups involved in CDBG means that there is zero chance of HUD going away. I’ve watched the “let’s get rid of HUD” movement for years, starting in 1980 with the Reagan Revolution**** (he gave up), Jack Kemp’s appointment as HUD Secretary by Bush 41 (failed at achieving promised reforms), and most recently, HUD being on Newt Gingrich’s hit list in 1994 (HUD survived to fight another day, while Newtie ended up bloviating on Fox News and writing historical novels of questionable literary merit).

Not only has HUD lived on, with the help of its legion of CDBG-engorged supporters, but it actually continues to grow, throwing off new programs like the small monsters sloughing off the Big Guy in my favorite recent Big Animal movie, Cloverfield. We’ve come full circle: the CDBG program was created to unify a bunch of categorical programs to give local officials the ability to address their pressing local needs, and now the CDBG program, along with a couple dozen assorted competitive programs, hangs on the HUD funding tree like Christmas ornaments.

While Venkatesh can speculate on dismantling HUD or using the block grant approach “to provide incentives for municipal and county governments to collaborate,” HUD is a permanent fixture of the grant landscape because it was created to solve some of the problem he identifies, and the result of a supersized CDBG program is likely to be even more walking around money and self-interested entities at the CDBG trough, not more collaboration between cities and counties. To paraphrase, “Reformers Rail, but HUD Abides.”

* Venkatesh wrote a terrific book on life on the streets in Chicago’s Southside, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, which mirrors my experience growing up and later working as a community organizing intern in the North Minneapolis ghetto. Would-be grant writers should read it.

** Grant writing tip: government agencies mostly make two kinds of grants, formula (the grantee does nothing to get them money other than open its mouth like Jabba the Hut) and competitive (applicants submit proposals that are evaluated against one another). One will occasionally see a hybrid version, a competitive process in which the grant amount is based on a formula of some sort, but most grant writers won’t encounter this chimera.

*** I’ve read dozens of Comprehensive Plans from all around the country over the years, and, despite supposedly being individually written to reflect the jurisdiction’s unique problems, they are basically all the same—a rehash of census data, oddball stats on homeless issues and the like, and a pastiche of platitudes designed to get HUD to okay the plan and uncork CDBG funds. In other words, the local CDBG planning process is at best a cookbook exercise.

**** See Stockman’s The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, which is a great political read and covers the first failed attempt to disassemble HUD. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men complements it.

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Every Proposal Needs Six Elements: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The Rest is Mere Commentary.

In writing a grant that describes a program, you, the writer, are actually telling a story you want readers to believe. To do so, you need to make it as complete as possible. Journalists know that an effective lead paragraph in a news story tells the reader who, what, where, when, why, and how (together, the six are usually referred to as 5Ws and H) as quickly and concisely as possible. Well-written, interesting grant proposals should do the same for their readers, although not in the first paragraph. Before you start writing, you should be able to write a simple, declarative sentence answering each question.

Isaac pointed out in “Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain” that “A good way to start [learning how to write grants] is to take English composition or Journalism classes at a local college to sharpen your writing skills.” Journalism has a lot of overlap with grant writing—except that good journalism strives to be factually balanced and accurate, while grant writing strives to depict absolute need through the creative, but never outright dishonest, use of selected facts. At least, that’s what grant writers should do if they want their organizations to be funded.

The next section discusses each element in more detail:

Who: Two separate aspects of the “who” need to be covered: your organization/partners and the population to be served. Most grant applications will have a section on the applicant’s background. Give a brief history of your organization, its management structure, some of the other programs it runs, and its purpose. Do a briefer history for key partners, if space permits.

The other aspect is the group to be served. What demographic, cultural, educational, and other challenges set your target population apart from society at large? Why have you selected this population? What expertise makes you likely to serve them well?

What: You should be able to describe succinctly what you are going to do. For example, if you want to run an ever-popular afterschool program, describe the components of your program; you might say, “Project LEAD will offer academic enrichment and life skills training. The academic enrichment will include three hours per week of tutoring and three hours per week of educational games. Life skills training will include…” Almost all human service delivery projects have five fundamental components: outreach, intake/assessment, services, follow-up, and evaluation. Note that Isaac represented all these steps in his theoretical Project NUTRIA.

Where: Unless you plan to serve the galaxy, define your target area. “Inner-city Baltimore” might be one designation and “Zip codes 98122 and 98112” another. This is often included in the “Who” section and almost always in the needs assessment section. You should also describe where project services will be delivered. To continue the example above, if Project LEAD activities take place in school buildings, say so, and why the building was selected, and if they take place in a community center, describe the community center, including its facilities and equipment, and why it was selected.

When: Like “who,” “when” also has two components: the project timing/length and the hours/times for service delivery/activities. Most projects proposed for grant funding will have a project period—say, three years. You should construct a timeline, whether included as an actual table or not, demonstrating when activities will start. Don’t forget the steps necessary before service delivery starts, such as hiring and assigning staff, formalizing the partnership structure, etc. The timeline should also contain significant milestones, like stabilized case load, completion of the “Action Plan,” etc.

In addition, you must describe when project services will actually be delivered; for example, Project LEAD might operate from 3 – 7 p.m. during the academic year and from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. during the summer.

Why: Your project should have some rationale behind it. The Request For Proposals (RFP) often gives a rationale that you must follow, but you should be able to explain factors like:

* Why you are targeting who you are targeting?
* Why you have decided on what you will do?
* Why you will provide services in a particular place?
* Why you have decided on particular times?

Take each “W” and then ask yourself why you described them in the way you did. The “why” should be emphasized in the needs assessment section and also threaded through other sections.

How: You should decide how your project will be implemented. This incorporates all the previous elements and explains, for example:

* How you will engage the target population.
* How will individuals be assessed and admitted?
* How you will provide services.
* How you will retain participants.
* How you will evaluate the project’s effectiveness.

It should explain all aspects of the mechanics of how a project will be carried out, and it should also demonstrate that the applicant has thoroughly considered the details of the project implementation strategy. This section will usually be called something like the “Project Description.”

For an example of an RFP that just asks for the 5Ws and H, see SAMHSA’s infrastructure grants:

Your total abstract should not be longer than 35 lines. It should include the project name, population to be served (demographics and clinical characteristics), whether the application is proposing service expansion, service enhancement, or both, strategies/interventions, project goals and measurable objectives, including the number of people to be served annually and throughout the lifetime of the project, etc. In the first five lines or less of your abstract, write a summary of your project that can be used, if your project is funded, in publications, reporting to Congress, or press releases.

The project name is part of the what. The population is the “who” with demographics as part of the “why,” and the proposal for expansion, enhancement, or both is also part of the “what,” while “strategies/interventions” is part of the “how.” Goals and measurable objectives are partially “what” (i.e. what will your outcomes be) and partially “why” (i.e. these explain why things will improve). As you might notice, SAMHSA forget “where,” although one could shoehorn that into the “population to be served” section, as well as “when.” As a grant writer, your job is to be smarter than the RFP writers** by realizing what they missed and filling the requests they tried to convey between the lines.

The deeper and more complete you can make the story you tell, the better off you’ll be. This is part of the reason internal inconsistencies can be so damning: if you say you’ll serve 20 individuals per month in one place, 20 families per month in another, and 40 individuals per quarter in another, you’re waking the reader from their fictional dream and casting doubt on whether you really understand what you’re doing. Even if an internal inconsistency is minor, finding one will make the reader doubt everything else you propose.

Keeping in mind the 5Ws and H will help you maintain consistency, because if you decide at the front end what those will be, you should find it easier to build supportive evidence around it at the back end. Even dim-witted RFP writers have figured this out, which is why many RFPs ask for a project abstract or summary: to get you to conceive of what the project will entail before you get mired in details.

In virtually any narrative section of a proposal, you should be able to say which of the 5Ws or H you’re addressing. If you keep them in mind as you write, you’ll be writing a better, more consistent proposal.

* A well-written abstract/executive summary will actually contain an abbreviated version of the 5Ws and H.

** This isn’t hard in general, particularly if the RFP writer is in the Department of Education; nonetheless, you need to manifest that intelligence by knowing when the RFP writer has screwed up, which occurs frequently.

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High Noon at the Grant Writing Corral: Staring Down Deadlines

Jake gave me a DVD edition of High Noon for Father’s Day, in which Gary Cooper’s Marshall Will Kane must face Frank Miller and his henchmen at exactly noon when their train arrives.* Tension builds as Marshall Kane realizes that none of the town folk will help him and that he must stand alone in the street while the large clock at the town square ticks relentlessly toward noon. This theme is played out endlessly in other Westerns, like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral—another favorite.

This scenario of a person alone with a ticking clock is exactly the situation faced by a grant writers on a deadline, although I must admit that I have never actually been shot at by a pistol-wielding HUD program officer. A deranged client once threatened my life, but this is a subject for another post. Grant writers should deal with the ticking clocks of RFPs by making sure they can work under extreme time pressure. If the idea of an absolute deadline gives you the willies, run for congress instead, where the dates are always mobile. In other words, if you don’t function well with absolute deadlines, give up, find something else to do, hire us, or work in some other administrative function. In epic fantasy and capital-R Romance, not everyone can or should fight the dragon, and it takes Beowulf to kill Grendel. If you’re ready to continue the quest, however, here is my handy guide to slaying RFP monsters while avoiding resorting to the use of strong drink:

1. Construct a proposal preparation timeline backwards, giving at least a two day cushion for hard copy submissions (this gives the FedEx plane a day for engine trouble, a day for the hurricane to pass, etc.) and a three day cushion for submissions (this provides a day or two to resolve file upload/server problems). How much time should be allocated for achieving proposal preparation milestones (e.g., completing the first draft, review time for various drafts, etc.) depends on many variables, including how fast a writer you are, how complex the RFP is, how much research has to be done, how many layers of management have to review the drafts, etc. Most proposals can be easily completed in four to six weeks from initial project conception to hatching the proposal egg.

2. Scope the project thoroughly with whoever knows the most about the idea and give them an absolute deadline for providing background info (e.g., old proposals, studies, reports, back of the napkin doodles and the like). Make sure you know the answers to the 5Ws and the H (who, what, when, where and how—the subject of next week’s post). Tell them that the minute you start writing, you will no longer look at any background info that comes in later.

3. Assume that, regardless of any representations made by the Executive Director, City Manager, Project Director, et al, writing the proposal will be entirely up to you. Like Marshall Kane, you’ll be alone in the street facing the deadline, unless you have a handy partner like I do to serve as Doc Holliday to my Wyatt Earp.

4. Don’t do anything on the project for a few days to a few weeks, depending on how much time you have, letting the project idea percolate in your subconscious while you work on other things.

5. Write the first draft, incorporating whatever background info you have, the banalities of the RFP, and your hopefully fertile imagination (see Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development for thoughts on fleshing out a project concept).** When you write, try to write everything at once with the minimum number of possible breaks and interruptions. Avoid distractions, as Paul Graham advises in that link. Depending on the complexity and length of proposal and necessary research, the first draft should take anywhere from about six to 30 hours.

This is a broad range, but there is a spectacular difference between drafting a proposal to the Dubuque Community Foundation and HRSA. When you’re done, and only when you’re done with the first draft, send the draft proposal to the contact person with an absolute deadline for returning comments. Assuming there is enough time, it is best to allow at least a week for everyone involved to review the first draft. Always insist on a single set of comments, as some people like chocolate, some like vanilla and some don’t eat ice cream at all. Comments from multiple readers will also have you changing “that” to “which” and back again.

6. Read Proust, learn to understand cuneiform or do whatever else you do while not writing proposals.

7. When you have comments, write the second draft. This is last time you should agree to make major changes in the project concept. So, if the contact person tells you the target population is now left-handed at-risk youth from East Dubuque, instead of right-handed at-risk teen moms from West Dubuque as originally scoped, let them know that, if you make the change, you are not going back to right-handed youth in the final draft—the more conceptual changes that are made in later drafts, the harder it is to thread the changes throughout the proposal and associated documents (e.g. budget, budget narrative, etc.). The net result of late changes is usually internal inconsistencies, which is a fast way to lose points and sink a submission. Once again, provide an absolute deadline for returning comments, shorter than the time allowed for review of the first draft. Remind your contact that you are only looking for major errors, typos and the like. This is not the time to add a soliloquy on tough times in Dubuque. If your contact person has a hard time meeting deadlines, call or send e-mails and faxes with reminders that dallying may jeopardize meeting the submission deadline, which after all is the point of the exercise. We don’t view these reminders as CYA (cover your ass) stuff because, unlike internal grant writers, we are focused entirely on completing the assignment, not proving the guilt of others in a failed submission process. Keep in mind that your contact person is extremely unlikely to be as good as hitting deadlines as you are, so be gentle with initial reminders, rising to SCREAMS as the deadline bears down on you like the famous scene of the train finally arriving at 12:00 in High Noon, shot looking down the tracks straight at the onrushing locomotive.

8. Time to read Proust again.

9. Write the final draft when you have comments. Ignore pointless text changes like “that” to “which,” adding redundant adjectives, etc. Instead, focus on getting the document “right enough” and technically correct for submission in time to meet the deadline (see The Perils of Perfectionism).

Grant writing is all about meeting deadlines just like Westerns are all about facing the bad guys when they show up. It doesn’t matter how perfect the proposal is if you miss the deadline. Making sure you don’t miss it requires forward planning, hitting internal deadlines, avoiding procrastination and not wasting time in internal navel gazing or donut eating sessions. If you indulge those vices the proposal will never be finished. It many seem daunting to confront the anxieties of immovable deadlines with potentially millions of dollars and the needs of hundreds or thousands of people at stake, but, in over 35 years of proposal writing, I’ve never missed a deadline and neither should you.

* If you like High Noon, you’ll love the unusual scifi remake, Outland, with Sean Connery reprising the Gary Cooper role as Marshall O’Niel on a distant mining colony somewhere in deep space. Outland replaces the town square clock with a digital clock and adds a reasonable amount of gratuitous nudity, but confirms that the original Star Wars is not the only great Western set in space.

** I could not resist the bad pun for those of you brave enough to look at tasty nutria recipes.

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Adventures in Bureaucracy and the Long Tale of Deciphering Eligibility: A Farce Featuring the Department of Education’s Erin Pfeltz

There are numerous good reasons why we often make fun of the Department of Education. One recently appeared in the Seliger Funding Report. Subscribers saw the “Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies for Planning, Program Design, and Implementation and for Dissemination” program in the June 16 newsletter. The eligibility criteria for it, however, are somewhat confusing:

Planning and Initial Implementation (CFDA No. 84.282B): Non-SEA eligible applicants in States with a State statute specifically authorizing the establishment of charter schools and in which the SEA elects not to participate in the CSP or does not have an application approved under the CSP.

So we have two criteria:

1) States that authorize charter schools and

2) That don’t participate in the CSP.

Since it is not abundantly clear which states are eligible, the RFP also lists the states participating in the CSP:

Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin.

Great! But does the Department of Education have a list of those that authorize charter schools and don’t participate? To find out, I called Erin Pfeltz, the contact person, but she didn’t answer, so I left a message and sent the following e-mail as well:

I left a voicemail for you a few minutes ago asking if you have a list of states in which organizations are eligible for the “Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies for Planning, Program Design, and Implementation and for Dissemination.”

If so, can you send it to me?

She replied a day and a half later, too late for the newsletter:

The information in the federal register notice includes a list of states which currently have an approved application with the CSP ( Non-SEA applicants in those states should contact their SEA for information related to the CSP subgrant competition. More information on the Charter Schools Program can be found at

I replied with some quotes from the RFP and then said:

The RFP gives us a list of states that do participate in the CSP. My question is whether you have a list of states that a) have authorized charter schools and b) do not have an application approved under the CSP.

In other words, which states do not authorize charter schools?

Erin responded:

States without charter school legislation are: Alabama, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Maine, Montana, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia.

And then I responded:

Subtracting those states and the ones that already participate in the CSP program leaves me with NV, AZ, WY, OK, IA, MO, MS, NH, RI, HI, AND AK.

So states from these states and only these states are eligible. Is that correct?

She said:

Eligible applicants from these states would be able to apply.

Notice the weasel words: she didn’t say that the states I listed were the actual and only ones eligible. So I sent back yet another note asking her to verify that and she replied “For the current competition, only eligible applicants from these states would be able to apply.”

Beautiful! Finally! After a half dozen or so e-mails, I extracted the crucial eligibility information. Based on her tenacious and expert obfuscation, she deserves to promoted, possibly to Undersecretary for Obscure RFP Development (isn’t it obvious that I’m only talking about the current competition, not every conceivable competition?).

Wouldn’t it have been easier if the initial RFP simply stated the eligible states? The obvious answer is “yes,” but it also wouldn’t leave room for potential mistakes from the Department of Education. Instead, the RFP eligibility is convoluted and hard to understand for reasons known chiefly to bureaucrats; when I asked Erin, she wrote, “The states are listed in that way to encourage eligible applicants whose states have an approved CSP grant to contact their state departments of education.” Maybe: but that reason smacks of being imagined after the fact, and the goal could’ve been more easily accomplished by just listing the 11 eligible states and then saying, “Everyone else, contact your SEA.” But the Department of Education has no incentive to make its applications easier for everyone else to understand—and it doesn’t.

When I wrote about Deconstructing the Question: How to Parse a Confused RFP and RFP Lunacy and Answering Repetitive or Impossible Questions, I was really writing about how needlessly hard it is to understand RFPs. This is another example of it, and why it’s important for grant writers to relax, take their time, and make sure they understand every aspect of what they’re reading. If you don’t, you shouldn’t hesitate to contact the funding organization when you’re flummoxed.

The material most people read most of the time, whether in newspapers, books, or blogs, is designed to be as easily comprehended as possible. Many things produced by bureaucracies, however, have other goals in mind—like laws, for example, which are designed to stymie clever lawyers rather than be understood by laymen. Such alternate goals and the processes leading to bad writing are in part explicated by Roger Shuy in Bureaucratic Language in Government & Business, a book I’ve referenced before and will no doubt mention again because it’s so useful for understanding how the system that produces RFPs like the one for the Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies come about and why correspondence with people like Erin can be frustrating, especially for those not schooled in the art of assertiveness.* In grant writing, assertiveness is important because confused writing like the eligibility guidelines above is fairly common—like missing or broken links on state and federal websites. I recently tried finding information about grant awards made by the Administration for Children and Families, but the link was broken and the contact page has no e-mail addresses for technical problems. I sent an e-mail to their general address two weeks ago anyway and haven’t heard anything since.

Were it more important, I’d start making calls and moving up the food chain, but in this case it isn’t. Regardless, tenacity and patience are essential attributes for grant writers, who must be able to navigate the confused linguistic landscape of RFPs.

* Sorry for the long sentence, but I just dropped into a Proustian reverie brought on by RFPs instead of madeleines. Perhaps one of you readers can translate this long-winded sentence into French for me.