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What to do When You Still Must Fight Through a Poorly Organized RFP: Part II of a Case Study On the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP

This is the second of two posts; the first appears here.

In addition to being unsupported by the research demanded by the program, as described in this post, the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program (CBAE) RFP is also poorly organized. It separates concepts and ideas that belong together for no apparent reason. This is most evident in its pursuit of the “A – H criteria” on page 2, the evaluation criteria on pages 5 – 8, and the “13 themes” on page 11. Each corresponds to parts of what appear to be the narrative on pages 52, 51, and 52, respectively. This raises the obvious question of why the RFP writers didn’t simply integrate the A – H, evaluation, and 13 themes criteria in a single spot, rather than referring endlessly back and forth between them. In addition, since the evaluation section on pages 5 – 8 tells you what you have to do for an evaluation, it might’ve been wise to just tell the applicant how to run the evaluation, rather than have the applicant pretend they’re going to design their own evaluation.

Still, this raises another important grant writing point, which is that you should, whenever possible, take elements from the RFP and regurgitate them in your proposal, like a mother bird vomiting up dinner for her young. The easiest way to conform to the RFP and program requirements is to do exactly what the requirements tell you to do in language that mirrors but does not copy the RFP. Page 7 of CBAE says:

In addition, successful applicants will be required to administer a 10-item survey to all participants as a pre-test and post-test when appropriate (e.g., when students are participating in a curriculum- based program). They will also be required to administer a post-post test to a representative sample of participants six months and/or 12 months after completion of the abstinence education program.

Such a passage can be easily rewritten as part of the evaluation section, and it’s an easy way to gain points. When RFPs give you lemons, make lemonade, and this RFP certainly gives a lot of lemons.

Notice, however, that three paragraphs above I said “what appears to be the narrative.” That’s because two sections of the RFP could arguably be the narrative: one that starts on page 41 under the header “Part II GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS FOR PREPARING A FULL PROJECT DESCRIPTION,” and another that starts on page 48 under “EVALUATION CRITERIA.” But the one that says evaluation criteria doesn’t refer to the evaluation you’re going to run—it refers instead to how the funding agency is going to decide whether you should be funded. In other, recursive, words, they’re going to use their evaluation criteria to evaluate your evaluation criteria. Simple, right? Welcome to grant writing.

The question for the grant writer is how to choose whether to write to the narrative directions on page 41 or page 48. When in doubt, try to mimic as closely as possible whatever checklist the reviewers will use. That makes it easy for them to see that you’ve hit all the elements, and it’s more important to hit the right elements, even poorly, than hit the wrong elements well. This is another RFP trap, and a variation on some of the traps described in the linked post; I’d also bet it was constructed using the methods described in Inside the Sausage Factory and how the RFP Process leads to Confused Grant Writers.

The CBAE RFP has other traps:

*The required abstract has directions placed randomly on page 24. Miss those and your application could be thrown out. Why don’t they put the instructions with the rest of the narrative instruction? Beats me.

* Another items problem that isn’t a trap, exactly, but worth observing, is that ACF has apparently realized the drawbacks Isaac enumerated about Page 28 says: “Applicants may submit their applications in electronic format through (see Electronic Submission section) and/or in hard copy (see Section IV.3).”

* If those weren’t enough, the RFP also implies on page 5 one potential ordering for the evaluation. But it implies another on page 43, under the “General Instructions for Preparing a Full Project Description.” Yet page 28 says one should “[a]rrange all materials in the order listed in the Application Content section above.” Above, on page 25, we find yet another potential way of ordering the evaluation. We didn’t figure this out from the RFP, though—we called ACF to ask about the section order and a staffer tell us that our responses to the evaluation criteria in the RFP could go in any order. This alleviated the problem of the order in the narrative section, which originally asked for the needs assessment, then the evaluation, then the approach, otherwise known as “what you’ll do.” But how are you supposed to describe how you’re going to conduct the evaluation if you haven’t described what you’re going to evaluate? Not clearly, anyway. The mixed up order is yet another example of the carelessness of whoever wrote this RFP.

Finally, the header that appears on page 10 says: “Successful Abstinence Education Curriculum.” This is another ironic title, since the RFP is filled with references to trying to evaluate the effectiveness of the program. Yet the header presumes that abstinence education will be successful, and the content it lists shows what elements have to be included. But if we don’t know whether programs with these elements work, how can we know that it will be successful? The answer is, of course, that we can’t. Isaac wrote in Self-Efficacy—Oops, There Goes Another Rubber Tree Plant about “those districts have ironically named “successful school guides” even as their students fail almost every ability test imaginable.” The same concept applies here: the RFP defines what kind of abstinence education will be “successful,” then tells you what to do, then expects you to tell them what you’re going to do, and then expects all this to be evaluated to figure out whether it’s successful. Follow all that? Neither do I, and I just wrote it. No wonder the bureaucrats who prepared this RFP confused themselves and applicants.

The organization of this RFP might be an example of the frustrations that come from abstinence—it’s a case of mental masturbation. The writers probably thought about a joke regarding masturbation from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: at least it’s sex with someone I love.

EDIT, August 2012: In “Parents Just Don’t Understand: A sociologist says American moms and dads are in denial about their kids’ sexual lives,” Sinikka Elliott argues about comprehensive sex education and abstinence education:

One side is saying, ”Well, they need to abstain. That’s a surefire way that they’re gonna be safe,” and the other side is saying, “They’re not gonna abstain and so they need contraceptive information.” They were basing their argument on the same things: the teen pregnancy rates, the STI rates.

Neither focuses much on pleasure, as Elliott points out.

Perhaps the most hilarious thing about the CBAE RFP is how long virginity has been ineffectively pitched in Western society. Foucault and Barzun show that in part, and now Orwell does too in his Essays, this one dating from 1947:

We shall never be able to stamp out syphilis and gonorrhea until the stigma of sinfulness is removed from them. When full conscription was introduced in the 1914 – 1918 war it was discovered, if I remember rightly, that nearly half the population suffered from some form of venereal disease, and this frightened the authorities into taking a few precautions […]

You can’t deal with these diseases so long as they are thought of as visitations from God, in a totally different category from all other diseases […] And it is humbug to say that “clean living is the only remedy.” You are bound to have promiscuity and prostitution in a society like ours, where people mature sexually at about fifteen and are discouraged from marrying till they are in their twenties […] (1217-8).

The purpose in observing this is not to endorse Orwell’s perspective, but to point out, as Isaac often does, that the kind of debates that spur RFPs and social policy and all the rest are very seldom new ones, and the various remedies offered are equally ancient.

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