Monthly Archives: January 2009

Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass

Last week, I wrote about Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed, but smart nonprofits won’t sit around whining about dwindling donations while Congress vacillates. Instead, like Jay-Z, you need to brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders.*

In that spirit, take a look at a great grant opportunity currently available that will help get your mind off your funding troubles: the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP). The RFP for this federal gem was just issued by the Department of Education and 95 grants up to $500,000 may be awarded this year to fund physical education activities for school-age children and youth during the school day and after school. Among the many aspects of the program that make it so attractive are that eligible applicants include nonprofits and school districts; in addition, the funds can be used for staff, exercise equipment, nutrition education and lots of other things that most schools and youth service providers already do. If your donations are down and you want to keep the young folk busy, consider the Carol M. White PEP.

It also dovetails with the current interest in childhood obesity. Recent trends seem to indicate that as our children’s test scores decline, their waistlines expand, creating a wonderful opportunity for program development. As Jake wrote about in Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts, program purposes change as issues rise and fall in the public conscientiousness. One can take an old program, such as the Carol M. White PEP, and spin the proposal story toward pushing back** against childhood obesity. The Carol M. White PEP’s original purpose was to provide non-traditional physical activities and replace P.E. programs cut from school district budgets. With rising childhood obesity rates and the increased media emphasis on them, adding those additional issues to a proposal will freshen the project concept while getting funds for activities your agency is probably already doing anyway.*** If your after school supervisor is about to lose their job due to funding cuts, one could give them a new title, like Physical Fitness Coordinator, for a Carol M. White program, and, voila—no layoff. We’ve written funded Carol M. White PEP proposals over the years and recently wrote a large, funded Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) proposal about childhood obesity—so we know the childhood obesity issue is rapidly growing and can easily be baked into your Carol M. White PEP proposal (puns intended).

I thought about how nonprofits can use existing grant programs like Carol M. White and others to keep the lights on after reading Bear Market for Charities by Mike Spector in the January 24, 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Spector tells the sad tale of disappearing donations to the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) because of the economic meltdown. We’ve never been hired by HCZ, so I am not directly familiar with them, but a look at their website tells me they’re likely a fairly typical multi-program youth services agency of the kind we work for all across the country. What is most interesting about the WSJ article is what it doesn’t say about HCZ’s funding. The words “grants” and “contracts” aren’t mentioned, implying that HCZ might flounder without increased donations.

HCZ, however, operates two charter schools, which means it receives “average daily attendance” fees for each enrolled student. Even if Merrill Lynch is no longer among the living and Bernie Madoff may have made off with some of HCZ’s endowment, it is still getting somewhere north of $5K/year for every student in its charter schools. The agency also provides services to foster kids, meaning that they probably have substantial contracts with the the city and state of New York, both of which have boatloads of funds for foster children and other at-risk youth services. HCZ probably also has other grants, and one could find them by requesting the agency’s federal 990 form or an audited copy of its budget. Mr. Spector’s article perpetuates the media myth that nonprofits are wholly dependent on donations. While I am sure HCZ misses the former largesse from the Wall Street crowd and their associated corporations, I assume that the CEO, Geoffrey Canada, is busy seeking grants, especially because HCZ is about as good an applicant for programs like the Carol M. White PEP and RWJF as one is likely to find.

When you can no longer pick the low hanging fruit of donations from wealthy benefactors, it is time to brush the dirt off your shoulders and start writing proposals. As the aphorism goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Otherwise, your nonprofit may just slip beneath the waves.


* According to “Obama Has Jay-Z on His IPod and The Moves To Prove It” from the Washington Post, this song is a favorite of President Obama, so it seems I share two interests with the new Pres: rap music and community organizing experience. There’s nothing like Jay-Z and Dr. Dre to put me in the mood to write about at-risk youth.

** We’ve noticed that the phrases “push back” (or “pushback”) and “pushing back” have suddenly become very common in print and broadcast reporting, so as stewards of the language, we are trying to fit them into just about every proposal we write, along with “transformative,” courtesy of the successful Obama campaign.

*** This is a big grant no-no called “supplantation.” In a future post I will explain how you can explain away supplantation in your grant writing anyway.

Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed*

One of our favorite marketing sloganspie-1over the years has been, “We help you get your piece of the grant pie.” Well, Congress is cooking up the mother of all grant pies with the “infrastructure” component of President Obama’s stimulus package. If you’re wondering how your agency can get a bite of this tasty treat, you’re not alone. Peter Sanders and Christopher Conkey of the Wall Street Journal report in Mayors Struggle to Get Piece of Stimulus that even Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been unable to figure out how to get his fork in. I think Mayor Villaraigosa actually knows perfectly well how to step up to feed at the federal trough but was just being coy for a reporter not steeped in the ways of government largesse. After all, Mayor Villaraigosa was Speaker of the California House of Representatives and knows more than most about this topic. Essentially, the Mayor is unhappy that President Obama has said to no to earmarks, so he can’t just hang his favorite projects on the bill like Christmas ornaments. Instead, he and his minions will have to work for the money—no wonder he’s unhappy. For those readers not in the know, here is how the stimulus funds are likely to find their way to you . . .

Despite all the breathless reporting on the stimulus package, no story I’ve seen explains how thunder in Washington, DC will make it rain Pennies from Heaven** in Los Angeles. The answer depends on how the feds decide to get the money on the street, which will be in the bill that eventually emerges from Congress. Here are the four basic possibilities, assuming no earmarks:

1. Congress can fund programs, new or old, to be administered at the federal level through some sort of competitive RFP processes. In this case, any eligible entity can pitch any eligible project by submitting a proposal, which is more or less the way most discretionary grant dollars are distributed.

2. Congress could use the existing Economic Development Administration (EDA) Public Works and Economic Development Program to fund infrastructure and facility projects. Unlike any other federal agency, however, EDA uses a byzantine system of regional Economic Development Representatives (EDRs), which have to agree to pass your project up the food chain by inviting a “pre-application.” To get this invitation to the big dance, the project generally has to be listed in the region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), which replaced the earlier Overall Economic Development Plan (OEDP) process. We’ve threaded our way through this particular maze many times, resulting in lots of funded EDA grants; although it’s daunting at first, it is eminently doable.

3. Congress can block grant funds to the states, who can then use existing systems to distribute the funds. For example, highway transit funds could be sent to states’ transportation departments, which could then fund projects ranked on the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) (see here for the California version of this). It’s not quite that simple because some regional TIPs feed into statewide TIPs, but the main point is that the project has to be on the relevant TIP(s) to get federal transportation dollars.

4. Congress can block grant funds to the states and/or large cities and counties, who can then run RFP processes to dole out the money, more or less in the way that Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds are distributed. For that matter, Congress could simple dump money into the CDBG pipeline, since every eligible jurisdiction already has a Consolidated Plan with dozens of prioritized projects they lack money to fund. I don’t think this will happen, because it is too simple, and where’s the fun in that?

Confused yet? Actually, all of this is fairly straight forward in the sense that the feds have to use one or more of these methods to get the money on the street. Your question involves the the best way to get in position for to catch the funds that are about to be pitched for infrastructure and facility projects. To do so, follow these easy steps:

1. Finalize the project design for any infrastructure-style project you have simmering and get as many of the permits and approvals as you can in the time you have. For example, having all environmental approvals and a building permit is ideal. Remember that federal funding typically triggers National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and, for those of you in California, California Environmental Policy Act (CEQA) requirements.

2. If you are a nonprofit, school district or college, see if you can entice the local city or county to be the applicant and fiscal agent for the project.

3. Develop submittal plans for all of the above options. The agencies that move fastest with the most “cooked” projects are likely to be funded.

After you’ve baked your project, lie down in a comfortable place with a good book*** while waiting for the legislation to emerge. Since we are not lobbyists, we never look at pending legislation early-bird-color-j-pegand instead wait for the sausage to be extruded. Until the stimulus bill is actually signed into law, no one can say exactly how an agency can apply. But it will be the Oklahoma Land Rush as soon as the ink is dry, so, “Start Your Engines!” As always, like Maimonides, Seliger + Associates is ready to offer a guiding hand to help you get your piece of the stimulus bill pie.

EDIT: See additional posts on this topic: Looking at the Stimulus Bill from a Grant Writer’s Perspective and Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass.


* My apologies to Maimonides for lifting this line.

** This is one of my favorite, if somewhat disturbing, movies from the early 1980s—another time of recession. The movie harkens back to the Depression, making it great viewing for the current economic meltdown. To paraphrase another song from the ’30s, “Brother, can you spare a trillion.”

*** I’ve been reading Love in the Time of Cholera. Nothing like Gabriel García Márquez to get me in the mood for the magical realism of the federal grant making process.

January Links: A Genuine Surprise in a Request for Plain English, no Free Grant Writing Lunches, and More on Specious Statistics

* We argued that There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing, and the New York Times in part explains why in When to Work for Nothing (answer: almost never). In addition, the article says you should seldom work for getting “paid in exposure.”

* Many of you probably read the disturbing article in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere about how “Murders of Black Teens Are Up 39% Since 2000-01:”

The data confirm a pattern identified earlier this year by The Wall Street Journal, which found that while most communities in the U.S. were seeing a decline in homicides, many African-American neighborhoods were continuing to see an increase. The Northeastern University research shows that the pattern is more pronounced among juveniles.

What the article doesn’t tell you is that said murders have substantially—probably by more than half—since 1993. However, Freakonomics points out what’s wrong with the scaremongering implied in the WSJ:

This figure presents homicide rates by age for blacks from 1976 to 2007. The dominant pattern in this picture is the huge spike in black youth homicides in the early 1990’s. The phenomenon captured in the scary New York Times graphic above corresponds to the barely perceptible rise in the black circles at the far right of the figure.

[…]

According to U.S. Census data, the number of blacks aged 15 to 19 rose by about 15 percent between 2000 and 2007.

So even if any individual black teen’s propensity for crime was unchanged over this time period, the aggregate amount of black-teen crime would have risen by 15 percent. In other words, in that New York Times graphic on perpetrators, just based on changes in population, the number of perpetrators would have been expected to rise from a little over 800 to nearly 1,000. Knowing that, the actual rise to roughly 1,150 doesn’t seem that noteworthy.

Nonetheless, if you’re writing a proposal, you’d do well to ignore the sensible Freakonomics pieces and quote the WSJ or NYT liberally, since they are authoritative and your chief responsibility is making sure that your grant story gets the money.

* In April 2008, we wrote a post on FEMA Tardiness, Grants.gov, and Dealing with Recalcitrant Bureaucrats, in which I described FEMA’s failure to use Grants.gov to announce the Assistance to Firefighters Grants program; the post illustrates the problems discussed in Grants.gov Lurches Into the 21st Century.

To FEMA’s credit, an administrator named R. David Paulison responded to a letter I sent, and Paulison said that FEMA disseminated information about the Assistance to Firefights Grants program through other channels. But, if I send him the firefighter department I’m associated with, he’d consider allowing a late application. Obviously I’m not associated with a fire department, but perhaps this means FEMA will issue the announcement on Grants.gov in a timely manner next year. Still, the letter Paulison sent me is dated December 5, indicating that perhaps FEMA’s tardiness problems haven’t exactly been solved, given that I sent my letter in April.

* Like the businesses they’re bailing out and the nonprofits they’re funding, federal and state governments are not looking good. Note in particular the last line of the linked post.

* RFPs are normally written in bizarre doublespeak, as we’ve amply documented. But in the DARPA Broad Agency Announcement NanoThermal Interfaces (NTI) MTO (warning: .pdf link), Isaac found something he’s never seen over 35 years and thousands of RFPs—a request for simplicity:

Statement of Work (SOW) – In plain English, clearly define the technical tasks/subtasks to be performed, their durations, and dependencies among them.

Presumably, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—the same guys who laid the foundation for the Internet—has among the brightest technical lights in the U.S. government working for it. If they request sections of highly technical proposals in plain English, perhaps the Department of Education should learn something from them, instead of ceaselessly requiring proposals written in educrat. Foundation proposals will occasionally request summaries or even proposals in relatively clear language, but more often than not, their guidelines look as though HUD rejects got into the review process.

Sometimes one will find proposal narrative guidelines almost as long as the page limits on the narrative itself; I can’t think of an immediate example save YouthBuild, as the narrative section of SGA is about 17 double spaced pages for 20 pages of required narrative. Finding another example would require digging through the voluminous (albeit digitally so, these days) RFP archives that make even seasoned grant writers blanch. Regardless, when you can find a request for real writing, savor it: you’ve got a rare dish you won’t taste often.

* Occasionally we’ll post examples of bureaucratic silliness and obtuseness, and I ran into a great example with the The Service Area Competition – Additional Service Areas funding opportunity. If you read the “Additional Information on Eligibility” section, you’ll see that it defines eligible applicants as “Public or nonprofit private entities, including tribal, faith-based and community-based organizations; and Organizations proposing to serve the same service area and/or populations identified in Appendix F,” without saying what the program is actually designed to do. And two paragraphs mention Appendix F at least half a dozen times. So I downloaded the 153-page file and searched for Appendix F, expecting a cornucopia of possible applicants but instead found four: La Pine, OR, Charleston, SC, Marchester, NH, and Miles City, MT.

Wouldn’t it have been easier simply to write those four applicants in the description on the website? And what makes these incredibly narrow areas important enough to justify their own funding announcement? I don’t know for sure, but if I were to wager, I would guess that HRSA, for whatever reason, wants to wire money for specific organizations in each area, and that whichever organizations know they’re getting the money just need to turn in something mostly correct to collect.

* A point Isaac has made many times in private now finds expression on a blog: senior bureaucrats, not political appointees, really run things in Washington.

* The New York Times discusses the “Evidence Gap” in “Drug Rehabilitation or Revolving Door?“, with the article strongly implying “revolving door.” Note this piece:

Yet very few rehabilitation programs have the evidence to show that they are effective. The resort-and-spa private clinics generally do not allow outside researchers to verify their published success rates. The publicly supported programs spend their scarce resources on patient care, not costly studies.

And the field has no standard guidelines. Each program has its own philosophy; so, for that matter, do individual counselors. No one knows which approach is best for which patient, because these programs rarely if ever track clients closely after they graduate.

(Emphasis added. We’ve discussed why that is in Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation and, to a lesser extent, in What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP. The whole article illustrates the problems with evaluations that we describe in the two posts above.)

* New York Times columnist Nick Kristof describes what might be called the charity paradox, whereby those who do good deeds are supposed to be utterly saintly while those in business are supposed to be utterly rapacious, in The Sin in Doing Good Deeds. The column, naturally, attempts to reconcile the two. We discuss similar issues in Foundations and the Future, which was published about a year ago.

* More on questionable abstinence studies, this time from the Washington Post, which says “Premarital Abstinence Pledges Ineffective, Study Finds; Teenagers Who Make Such Promises Are Just as Likely to Have Sex, and Less Likely to Use Protection, the Data Indicate.” Read What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP for more on the smoke surrounding abstinence education, whether in favor or against. Remember too that, if you’re writing a proposal for an abstinence program, Your Grant Story Needs to Get the Money—so if the data don’t support the RFP you’re writing for, don’t use them.