Monthly Archives: March 2009

March Links: Stimulus Madness, Grants.gov, Health Care and More!

* We wrote about how to get your piece of the stimulus pie, noting that better-prepared organizations are more likely to be funded. Now the Washington Post reports that “Much in Obama stimulus bill won’t hit economy soon:”

It will take years before an infrastructure spending program proposed by President-elect Barack Obama will boost the economy, according to congressional economists.

[…]

Less than half of the $30 billion in highway construction funds detailed by House Democrats would be released into the economy over the next four years, concludes the analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. Less than $4 billion in highway construction money would reach the economy by September 2010.

* At The New Yorker, Steve Coll decided to blog the Stimulus Bill. Good luck on your journey! I, for one, would prefer not to wander in the desert for 40 years, but I’m glad someone else is willing to do so and perhaps bring something enlightening down from the mountain at the end. From his first post:

I particularly like the turn from the setting to the main title: “Begun and held at the City of Washington on Tuesday, the sixth day of January, two thousand and nine…An Act.” It’s all very grand—and a long way from the aesthetics of Fox News or MSNBC, which is how we usually encounter this material, in a summary of a summary.

And so, herewith launches an irregular series about the stimulus bill. I will read all of it, carefully, so that you don’t have to, and every so often I will stop and try to write something useful. It seems doubtful that the full law will prove either as funny or as morally edifying as the Old Testament, but I will do what I can.

* The Washington Post reports that Grants.gov Strains Under New Demand:

An early casualty of the stimulus package was identified by the Office of Management and Budget this week when OMB Director Peter Orszag told agency heads to plan for a possible meltdown of the government’s online grantmaking portal… “Grants.gov continues to experience system slowness due to the high volume of users,” the Grants.gov blog advised readers Tuesday.

The question is, how will we be able to distinguish new problems from business as usual?

* From the department of unintended consequences: “Doctor-Owned Hospitals Fare Poorly in Child Health Bill” says:

A bill making its way through Congress to provide more low-income children with health-insurance coverage could spell financial trouble for scores of hospitals owned by physicians.

The number of doctor-owned hospitals has tripled to about 200 since 1990, but they have long been mired in controversy. Supporters say these hospitals, which often focus on one or two lucrative services, such as cardiac care or orthopedics, are highly efficient, saving expenses for both patients and insurance programs, including Medicare.

Critics say physicians who refer patients to hospitals in which they have an ownership stake drive up costs, because they order more tests or perform unnecessary surgery. They argue that the physician-owned hospitals also cherry-pick the healthiest patients, which hurts the finances of other hospitals, the majority of which are nonprofits.

* More on unintended consequences and kids in “New Law Cripples Small and Independent Children’s Toy and Clothing Makers:”

The gist is that the new regs impose debilitating new testing requirements on anyone who makes, markets, or sells toys to to children. The bill is a hysteria-filled reaction to last year’s China lead scare, and its reach is really pretty incredible. Thrift stores, libraries, independent toymakers, people who hand-make toys and clothes to sell online, and on down the line are all going to be affected. It’s going to put thousands of people out of business. Just what the economy needs.

As is the case with most new regulations, the one group that won’t have any problem complying will be the giant toy companies—the very companies responsible for the lead scare that inspired the legislation in the first place.

* The New York Times is In Search of the Just-Right Desk. They neglect the best desk of all, however, which is one with a Humanscale keyboard system attached to it. The 5G system can be found for $225 – $300, and once one has it, the only question is having a surface on which to mount it. We wrote about such equipment issues in Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have.

* Although the Wall Street Journal editorial page is a notoriously lousy place to seek informed or balanced opinions, it does have a useful piece about What Medicaid Tells Us About Government Health Care. Ignore the political slams and focus on the parts about access to care:

The federal and state governments are equally culpable for the program’s troubles. The federal government matches state Medicaid spending, paying an average of 57% of costs. States expand enrollment in order to qualify for more federal aid. Insurance coverage has become the end itself, with states spreading resources widely but thinly — without enough attention to the quality of care, accessibility, or whether coverage was actually improving health. States have no obligation to rigorously measure health outcomes in order to qualify for more federal money.

One major healthcare problem in the United States is insufficient access to care, and in particular to specialty care. While insurance rates get enormous amounts of media coverage, virtually no one discusses how hard it can be to use public insurance like Medicare/Medicaid because relatively few providers accept them. We’ve worked for clients in relatively large cities that lack an adequate number of basic specialists like ob/gyns and cardiologists, and often have no practices that will accept Medicare/Medicaid. As the editorial notes, the preference for these programs has been on enrolling the maximum number of people—sometimes at the expense of the quality of care given:

For its part, the federal government has often prevented the states from taking steps to fix their own Medicaid programs, such as by devising outcome-based standards for evaluating performance, and de-emphasizing the goal of growing the number of covered people to focus more on improving the health of those served.

* Elsewhere in the WSJ, an article discusses “Heroin Program’s Deadly Toll: Needle Exchanges Save Lives but May Imperil Workers:”

Worker drug abuse is “a huge problem,” says Jon Zibbell, the founder of a Massachusetts drug users’ coalition who is now an assistant professor at Skidmore College. “We prevent [overdoses] among our clients,” he says. “So we should try to prevent them among our workers.”

Studies suggest that needle exchanges work. In San Francisco, Chicago and New Mexico, heroin-related deaths dropped after users were taught how to administer an anti-overdose medication to each other. In New York City, the rate of new HIV infections among injection-drug users dropped more than 75% between 1995 and 2002 as the number of clean needles distributed doubled, according to a study by epidemiologists there.

Many needle-exchange programs employ recovering addicts who might not always be as recovering as they say. This is a near-universal tactic in service delivery under the theory that those who can empathize with a person’s struggle are better able to help that person and to provide a positive role model.

* Ever wondered why people can’t give unused airline tickets or frequent flyer miles to you? So did the WSJ, and in “Why Fliers Can’t Donate Unused Tickets” Scott McCartney explains that airlines make a lot of money from unused tickets and would rather make specious security and technical arguments than allow greater customer choice.

* Note to the person who found our site by searching repeatedly for “grant writeting in la.”: you’ve correctly realized that you need help with writeting writing.

* In other search news, someone found us by searching for “should we hire a grant writer?” Being grant writers, our answer is almost always yes, but one can find more on this subject in a tangentially related post on “Why Can’t I Find a Grant Writer? How to Identify and Seize that Illusive Beast.” This subject might also become a post of its own at some point: watch this space for more.

* In still more search news, someone else found us by searching for “free grant writing software.” Software isn’t going to help you: learning how to write, however, will. But there are a number of lovely free and open source pieces of writing software, including AbiWord and OpenOffice.org. In the paid but inexpensive world, I’m fond of the Mac program Mellel.

* Why is the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) giving out money for the Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Education Program, which is designed “to improve the preparation of students, particularly women and minorities, in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)?” Isn’t that the Department of Education’s job? It’s a good example of a point we occasionally make: just because a federal, state, local, or foundation/corporate giving resource doesn’t appear to fund in your area doesn’t mean they won’t issue an RFP in it anyway.

* If you think running your program is hard, consider the Chiricahua Leopard Frog Conservation project, which “will involve hand removal of frogs and monitoring refuge sites to determine status of the Chiricahua Leopard frog and possible re-invading bullfrogs.” Where do I sign up?

* The New York Times is smart enough to try following federal money to A.I.G., as reported in “Where Taxpayers’ Dollars Go to Die.” They should try the same with federal grant programs.

* State smiling lessons for liquor store employees in Pennsylvania. Good luck! One of the nice parts about moving from Seattle to Tucson was the civilized practice of selling booze in grocery stores, which Washington State lacks.

* One of the very few genuinely intelligent recent articles about the financial mess: The Problem With Flogging A.I.G.:

By week’s end, I was more depressed about the financial crisis than I’ve been since last September. Back then, the issue was the disintegration of the financial system, as the Lehman bankruptcy set off a terrible chain reaction. Now I’m worried that the political response is making the crisis worse. The Obama administration appears to have lost its grip on Congress, while the Treasury Department always seems caught off guard by bad news.

And Congress, with its howls of rage, its chaotic, episodic reaction to the crisis, and its shameless playing to the crowds, is out of control. This week, the body politic ran off the rails.

There are times when anger is cathartic. There are other times when anger makes a bad situation worse. “We need to stop committing economic arson,” Bert Ely, a banking consultant, said to me this week. That is what Congress committed: economic arson.

* Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Dambisa Moyo examines Why Foreign Aid Is Hurting Africa: Money from rich countries has trapped many African nations in a cycle of corruption, slower economic growth and poverty. Cutting off the flow would be far more beneficial. He also wrote the book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa

* Your eyes might deceive you: Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick asks: “Have the Eyes Had It?
Is our eyewitness identification system sending innocents to jail?
” The answer, according to her article, is yes.

A Primer on False Notes, Close Reading, and The Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) Program, or, How to Seize the Money in 42 Easy Steps

All three of you masochistic enough to read the Federal Register on a regular basis might have noticed that the Economic Development Administration (EDA) posted a couple of notices about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 Recovery Act Funding, which exemplifies many of the trends we’ve been discussing while also showing that it’s business as usual at EDA. To explain why this announcement is particularly sneaky, we’ll have to explain it and how EDA works.

The Grants.gov notifications says:

EDA is soliciting applications for the EDA American Recovery Program under the auspices of [the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965] PWEDA. Specifically, the [RFP] pertains to applications for funding under EDA’s Public Works and Economic Adjustment Assistance programs only.

Ah ha! Money for economic development and job training. This sounds like a new program—but it’s not, or at least not as new as it sounds. To the uninitiated, this seems like a standard announcement for a federal program except for the rolling deadline. The sneaky part comes from the way EDA funds projects: rather than accepting a batch of proposals in response to a set deadline/RFP process, grading them, and then issuing funding notices, EDA requires that you apply to the “Economic Development Representative” (EDR) for your region (you can find a list of them at the bottom of the “Announcement of Federal Funding Opportunity” (FFO) (warning: .pdf link), which is yet another way of saying RFP). EDA has used more or less the same byzantine funding system since the late 1960s, which the application explains on pages 12 – 13 with all the traditional clarity of federal lingo. We’ll break it down in steps:

Each application package is circulated by a project officer within the applicable EDA regional office for review and comments. After all necessary information has been obtained, the application is considered by the regional office’s investment review committee (IRC), which is comprised of regional office staff. The IRC discusses the application and evaluates it…

So you submit the application, the EDR reviews it, and “checks it for eligibility,” according to Arizona and Western Washington EDR Jacob Macias, who I spoke to via phone on Wednesday, March 11 (he’ll appear later in this story).

Assuming your EDR accepts the initial proposal:

The IRC recommends to the Regional Director whether an application merits further consideration, documenting its recommendation. For quality control assurance, EDA Headquarters reviews the IRC’s analysis of the project’s fulfillment of the investment policy guidelines set forth below … After receiving quality control clearance, the Selecting Official, who is the Regional Director, considers the evaluations provided by the IRC and the degree to which one or more of the funding priorities provided below are included, in making a decision as to which applications merit further consideration.

To summarize: you submit the application to the EDR. The EDR obtains the necessary information. The IRC reviews the application. If the IRC thinks your app is kosher, it goes to the Regional Director, and, apparently, to the EDA’s headquarters. Oh, yeah, and:

To limit the burden on the applicant, EDA requests additional documentation only if EDA determines that the applicant’s project merits further consideration. The Form ED-900 provides detailed guidance on documentation, information, and other materials that will be requested if, and only if, EDA selects the project for further consideration. EDA will inform the applicant if its application has been selected for further consideration or if the application has not been selected for funding.

That bolded section is critical. In words other than those used by the RFP, the initial submission is really a pre-application: you’ll be submitting what amounts to a letter of interest or a letter of intent to the EDR, along with a few forms, to see if he or she (I’ll go for “he,” since I spoke with Macias) wants you to submit a full proposal. If he doesn’t, you’re screwed. He’s the first gatekeeper. When potential clients call to discuss applying to EDA, Isaac tells them that they effectively have to be “invited” by their EDR, since if they’re not invited in some way there’s no point in chasing EDA money; only if the EDR likes your project, you have juice in Washington, or you have juice with the Regional Director should you pursue it. Once you’re invited to submit a full proposal, in most cases, the project will eventually be funded, although it may languish in the pipeline waiting for EDA to get additional appropriations.

But if you don’t read the passage above carefully and know how EDA tends to work, you might end up submitting a full proposal that’ll never be funded. And one reason you need your EDR behind the project is that EDA already has a bunch of proposals that could be sped or slowed or funded or not at the pace of EDRs. When I called Macias earlier this week, he said that he had “a number of proposals in here” in various stages of completion that need to be “cleaned up” or are missing documentation or whatever.

Unlike other federal proposals, with EDA you don’t just send everything you’ve got and that’s that: there’s a bunch of back and forth. Suddenly, the standard deadline system of most federal grant programs begins to look pretty good, since they’re built on the gladiator model in which the Emperor (or, in this case, program officer) simply gives your project a thumbs up or thumbs down. You enter the grant arena, say “Morituri te salutant” (“Those who are about to die salute you”) and find out what happens.

Anyway, Macias thinks that “maybe five” EDA applications have been sent to DC and still not wholly funded. There are seven EDRs for the Western region. If he’s representative of the whole, that means there are 35 or more applications sent to Washington D.C. but still unfunded. And that’s only a single region, which includes the megatropolis of California, where there are no doubt more projects than Arizona and Western Washington. Macias couldn’t even tell me how many projects had been submitted in the Western Region. He’s probably right that no one really knows the answer; it could be as high or as low as the EDRs want it to be, or as high and as low as the funding allows. The important thing from the perspective of an applicant is that some of those projects being “cleaned up” could probably be cleaned up really, really quickly if necessary.

Another question: why does no one know the answer to this question? Wouldn’t it be in EDA’s best interest to know so they can plan accordingly? Wal-Mart tends knows how many pairs of socks it has at every location and Dell magically gets almost every computer order right. But the EDA doesn’t seem to know, or at least Macias isn’t telling if they do, but I’d tend to take his assertion at face value. In the new found federal interest in transparency, one wonders why EDA doesn’t just post a list of pending projects by region on their website, so that applicants could better determine their chances of being funded before cozying up to the EDR with flowers and chocolates. I may submit a FOIA request to EDA to see just how many projects are already waiting to be funded and how that compares to the amount of money just announced. When I get an answer, I’ll post it.

Whatever the number of unfunded EDA projects, it’s probably high enough that, with a stimulus-related cash infusion, EDA could probably simply fund more projects in the pipeline rather than encourage new proposals if the organization felt so inclined. So your EDR better believe in your project if you want to be funded. That’s just how it goes, and the RFP is something of a slight-of-hand trick, since you still have this Texas two-step to get the money. The EDA programs are continuing opportunities for which there always some amount of funds available. Thus the announcement in question is misleading, if not outright disingenuous.

But if you haven’t been dealing with EDA for years, you wouldn’t know the deal and might take the announcement at face value. Isaac confirmed the actual nature of the EDA beast in a conversation he had this week with highly placed manager in a state economic development office, which is considering hiring us to write some of their ARRA proposals. The topic turned from the Department of Labor to EDA, at which point this fellow, who also has years of experience with EDA, described EDA as a “heiney-kissing” exercise requiring lots of trips to the regional office to sweet talk the EDR and Regional Director.


 

These EDA issues are also indicative of what Isaac wrote earlier in “Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing“:

… [I]t’s going to take quite a while to get the money to the streets. Most Federal agencies usually take anywhere from three to six months to select grantees and probably another three months to sign contracts. My experience with Federal employees is that they work slower, not faster, under pressure… there are no bonuses in the Federal system for work above and beyond the call of duty.

This program shows how long it will take the funds to hit the street for a new applicant, since the EDA pipeline is frequently a long one, running as it does from the local EDR to the Regional Director to Washington back to the Regional Director and back to Washington, with each one taking a piece along the way;* it’s like writing a dissertation, in which every committee member must be satisfied before you can graduate.

In addition, notice some key words in the EDA’s initial, March 5 announcement of the Recovery Act Funding: “[I]t takes a minimum of 90 days from EDA’s receipt of a complete application until award, when funds are obligated.”

There’s also another other curious thing about this March 5 announcement: it was an announcement of an announcement: “Under a forthcoming federal funding opportunity (FFO) announcement, EDA will solicit applications for the EDA American Recovery Program under the auspices of PWEDA.” This is like sending an announcement of a forthcoming invitation to a party—why not simply make the announcement, especially since the two followed each other within days? The situation could be fundamentally irrational, or there could be some unknown statutory requirement hidden in the legislative language, or someone at the EDA could have simply been tipsy while entering Grants.gov information.

The answer came from an EDA representative. Isaac traded some emails with Jamie Lipsey, the EDA contact person, about the pre-announcement announcement. She sent back the following to his initial query:

Under a forthcoming federal funding opportunity (FFO) announcement, EDA will solicit applications for the EDA American Recovery Program under the auspices of PWEDA. Specifically, the forthcoming FFO will pertain to applications for funding under EDA’s Public Works and Economic Adjustment Assistance programs only. EDA will not accept applications until the FFO is published. The FFO will be posted on www.grants.gov as soon as it is available.

When Isaac replied by essentially saying, “huh?”, Lipsey simplified it to this:

Perhaps I should have summed up: under the Recovery Act and guidance provided by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), EDA was required to post the status of our recovery announcement on www.grants.gov by March 5, 2009. I believed the posting did that clearly in stating that the FFO announcement was forthcoming and that applications would not be accepted until it was published, which should happen next week.

Ah: so EDA got around the deadline through the pre-announcement. As so often happens, the agency protects its turf and itself, effectively executing the pre-announcement as a cover-your-ass (CYA) maneuver with the beauty of a dancer’s pirouette. I gave this post a long and convoluted title in honor of the length necessary to explain what the EDA is actually like.

Despite all the issues discussed above, EDA grants are still very much worth applying for, and if you’re interested in doing so you should call us. Isaac has been writing funded EDA applications for 30 years and knows how to warm the stone-like hearts of the elusive EDRs.


 

* Actually, the EDA application process can be even more complicated than summarized above and described in the FFO. In many cases, before the EDR will accept a pre-application, the project has to be ranked in the regional Community Economic Development Strategies (CEDS). The CEDS process replaced the former process, which was called the Overall Economic Development Planning (OEDP) process, in 1999. The FFO is silent on the subject of CEDS. Perhaps CEDS has gone the way of the OEDP, or maybe EDA is saving this nugget for the EDRs to drop on applicants. EDA is like the lyrics of the theme song of the 1968 movie classic (and the dopey 1999 remake), The Thomas Crown Affair, Windmills of Your Mind: “Round, like a circle in a spiral, Like a wheel within a wheel / Never ending or beginning / On an ever spinning reel …”.

Grants.gov and deadline goofs

Isaac wrote about the dangers of online submissions in “Grants.gov Lurches Into the 21st Century,” which says that real world deadlines should be at least two days before the actual deadline to ensure that your proposal is actually received. This will help you avoid latency and response problems when every other applicant rushes to upload their application at the last minute.

Occasionally Grants.gov goofs result in postings like one regarding the Department of Education’s Charter School Programs (CSP; CFDA 84.282A):

The original notice for the FY 2009 CSP competition established a January 29, 2009, deadline date for eligible applicants to apply for funding under this program. For this competition, applicants are required to submit their applications electronically through the Governmentwide Grants.gov site (www.Grants.gov). Grants.gov experienced a substantial increase in application submissions that resulted in system slowness on the deadline date. For this reason we are reopening and establishing new deadline dates for the FY 2009 competition for CSP. Applicants must refer to the notice inviting applications for new awards that was published in the Federal Register on December 15, 2009 (73 FR 76014) for all other requirements concerning this reopened competition. The new deadline dates are: Deadline for Transmittal of Applications: February 25, 2009.

The odd thing, of course, is that whoever operates Grants.gov must know deadline days will result in a submission flood, and yet when that flood predictably comes everyone seems flummoxed. Sometimes, but not always, the funding agency responds by allowing more time. It’s not apparent what factors, if any, Grants.gov or program personnel consider in deciding whether to extend the deadline, and this opaqueness means that you have to assume that no deadlines will be extended. Isaac wrote about a lucky circumstance in “Now It’s Time for the Rest of the Story:”

[…] our client didn’t even know that HUD had received the proposal until about two weeks before the funding notification. It seems that she did not receive the sequence of emails from grants.gov confirming receipt of the proposal. She called and sent emails to grants.gov and HUD, which generated responses along the lines of, “we can’t find any record of it.”* This went on for about two months. Adding to the festivities, it turned out that there were problems with other applicants that day at grants.gov, so HUD re-opened the competition for a short period of time to allow these applicants to re-submit. Our client called the HUD Program Officer to discuss the re-submission process, at which point she was quickly told, “You don’t have to, we have your proposal and it’s already scored.” Two weeks later, she got a call from her congressman letting her know she’s been funded.

But you can’t rely on lucky circumstances. Just as the stimulus bill probably isn’t going to function as advertised and popularly portrayed and FEMA can’t seem to run the Assistance to Firefighters (AFG) program well, Grants.gov isn’t going to yield the efficiency gains it theoretically should. And if stimulus-funded programs begin pouring forth from Washington, the traffic on Grants.gov is only going to grow.

There’s a lesson to take from this: Grants.gov submissions are as arbitrary and disorganized as paper submissions, but it’s vastly harder to prove that you actually submitted a proposal using Grants.gov. In modern times the postal system and FedEx have rarely—if ever—been so overwhelmed that they couldn’t deliver packages (exceptions being obvious weather issues like hurricanes), and even when they became overwhelmed, one can still show proof of submission. With Grants.gov, that luxury is gone. Be warned.

The Office of Community Services Rides the Stimulus Wave with Funding for Community Economic Development Projects, But Is It 1965 or 1975 Again?*

The Office of Community Services (OCS) just issued its FY ’09 RFP for Community Economic Development Projects (CED), which has about $87M available for Community Development Corporations (CDCs)** over three years, with 47 awards grants of up to $800,000/year for three years to be made. While not strictly part of the Stimulus Bill (now formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009), a close reading of the RFP shows that OCS wants to do its part in stimulating the economy. In Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed, I observed that there are only four major ways of distributing stimulus dollars, one being:

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.

Now we have a live example of this occurring in the sense that OCS is targeting CED funding for projects that complement President Obama’s recession-fighting efforts.

CDCs are eligible for the program, and OCS defines them as “A private, non-profit corporation governed by a board of directors consisting of residents of the community and business and civic leaders, which has a principal purpose of planning, developing, or managing low-income housing or community development activities.” This means lots of nonprofits are eligible applicants if they are involved in community development, economic development, job training and the like, provided that such purposes are included in their by-laws. Even certain faith-based organizations (FBOs) can also be a CDC.

The CED program is the discretionary part of OCS’s larger Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), which funds through formula grants to states, big cities and urban counties. An interesting aspect of OCS is that it succeeds the almost forgotten, but not by me, Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) that was created in 1964 to fund local “War on Poverty” programs. The shock troops used then by OEO and now by OCS to battle poverty are local Community Action Programs (CAPs), which are sometimes referred to as Community Action Agencies (CAAs) or colloquially as “CAP Agencies.” I was at one time a Poverty Warrior, since my first job upon arriving in LA in 1974 was with the Long Beach Commission on Economic Opportunities, a CAP Agency that was long ago absorbed by the City of Long Beach. One of my surprises in starting this business in 1993 was discovering that about 850 CAP agencies still quietly operated across America. We’ve worked for lots of them over the years. OCS has historically favored funding CAP agencies. While all CAP agencies are CDCs according to the OCS definition, many other nonprofits can also be considered CDCs.

(After reading the above paragraph, you’ll probably understand why we’ve created a page devoted to grant writing acronyms, since keeping CDCs, CAAs, CED, and CAPs might become difficult.)

CED is a great way for the right kind of nonprofit to access direct federal discretionary funds without having to muck around with local funding processes and the inevitable local politics they involve. If your agency can somehow be construed to be a CDC, this is a fantastic opportunity because almost any job-generating project concept can be funded. It’s sort of the ultimate “walking around” money for certain nonprofits. As such, it’s time for the fast and furious grant writing we predicted last month.


* Another Reader Contest Opportunity : Since the economy began to tank a few months ago, I’ve been trying to decide if it’s 1965 or 1975 again. Writing about OCS and CAP agencies makes me think it’s 1965, with lots of money streaming out of DC and a couple of wars going on. But maybe 1975 is better because that was also a time of money flowing from DC to counter the mid-1970s recession and general malaise—this was the heyday of the EDA Local Public Works Program that funded tons of city halls and similar projects—amid lots of doom and gloom (see “The Return of the Paranoid Style” in The Atlantic for why movies might get better during bad times). Since it may be 1975, I just watched one of my favorite movies of 1975: the hilarious modern Western Rancho Deluxe. See Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Harry Dean Stanton and Slim Pickens as they rustle up a cure for the economic blues gripping Wyoming. We invite readers to submit brief comments on why they think 2009 is more like 1965 or 1975. The winner will receive a Humphrey for President Button or a Whip Inflation Now Button, depending on the year selected (alas, I don’t actually have the buttons. But you should play anyway).

** Of course, other federal departments, such as EDA and HUD, use slightly different definitions for CDCs just to add confusion to the already confusing process of understanding government systems.

The Stimulus Bill Meets Santa Claus Meets American Idol in Virginia

I thought that I wouldn’t have to write any more posts on the Stimulus Bill, but like Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III, “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.” The curious way the Commonwealth of Virginia has decided to solicit ideas for how to spend its piece of the Stimulus Pie drags me back in. At stimulus.virginia.gov, you will find the following statement as of March 1, 2009: “The Commonwealth has developed a website for citizens, groups, localities, and others to use to share project proposals for funding from the federal stimulus package.” If you send your email address, you will be directed to a site that allows you to pitch your own idea.

What’s fun about this is the lack of any prerequisites whatsoever—meaning one could presumably present any idea. Even better, the “application” consists of contact info and a 750 character project description. That’s right, characters, not words. Now, I’m all for brevity in grant writing, but this may be taking things a bit too far. To illustrate, I will reduce the fictitious Project Nutria described in “Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development,” which I created to show how a grant writer develops a project idea, to about 750 characters:

Citizens Against Nutria–Dillwyn Organization (CAN-DO) proposes Project NUTRIA (Nutria Utilization and Training Resources for Itinerant Americans). This innovative initiative will empower City of Dillwyn (Buckingham County) residents to fight the scourge of rampaging nutria, while also combating homelessness and stimulating the economy. This will be accomplished by training homeless persons to catch and process nutria, with the nutria meat feeding and the fur clothing the growing ranks of unemployed. An estimated 12,000 nutria will be transformed into food and clothing by 10 formerly homeless persons, providing sustenance and winter coats for 200 unemployed persons during the project year. Thus, Project NUTRIA is a win-win-win-win for Dillwyn and will aggressively utilize limited Commonwealth Stimulus dollars.

While a few legitimate project concepts might be submitted by public and nonprofit agencies that do not understand the grant making process, the vast majority are going to be from individuals. Proposed projects will likely be fairly unusual (e.g., landing strips for UFOs, expeditions to find the Lost City of Z,* etc.) or heartfelt personal testimonies (e.g., house repossessed, lost jobs, too many bills, medical problems, etc.). This “application process” is silly on its face in that no guidelines are provided, no explanation of the various pots of money that compose Virginia’s slice of the Stimulus Pie (e.g. transportation funds, Medicaid reimbursements, et) is offered, and no details about who will evaluate the proposals, how they will be evaluated or when they will be evaluated, is provided.

The impression given is that the Commonwealth has one big tub of money, and someone—presumably Governor Tim M. Kaine—will ladle it out like grant soup to lucky residents. Since this is not how grant making works, I assume this whole exercise is a PR ploy to enable state bureaucrats to say that the Commonwealth is being inclusive in gathering input into the Stimulus spending process. This is not much different from telling kids to write down their Christmas wish list and mailing the letters to Santa Claus, care of the North Pole.

Why not go all the way and turn it into American Stimulus Idol? Instead of having folks describe their idea in 750 boring characters, Governor Kaine should invite all applicants to the statehouse for judging in person by Randy, Paula and Simon. To save travel expenses in this down economy, we’ll do without the superfluous Kara and Ryan. Thousands of applicants can make signs and bring their moms. When they finally make it to the judging, their requests could be presented in songs, skits, iambic pentameter, or, to save time, haiku.** This will give Randy the opportunity to say something like, “Dogg, that plan to use high school students to deliver surplus MREs from Iraq to the homeless is OUT THE BOX,” or Simon to say, “It’s really all just karaoke, isn’t it,” and, of course, Paula will want to fund all the ideas because all the presenters just “look so sweet.” After the top 36 are picked, Virginians can call in to select their favorites, with the top vote getters receiving pillow cases stuffed with cash handed over personally by Governor Kaine. That’s what I would call real citizen participation!

Before everyone gets excited, realize that this is satire. I am trying to point out that it is a disservice to everyone to foster the myth that state or local government agencies will use the Stimulus Bill money to fund randomly proposed projects. As any experienced grant writer knows, grants are typically made to 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations and public agencies, not individuals, unincorporated associations or most businesses, and almost always in response to highly structured RFPs.

A state government perpetuating the myth that grant funds are there to be plucked from government money trees helps no one. We get several calls every day from persons who think “the government” is going to give them a grant to pay down their credit cards, help them start a nail parlor business, buy a home for their grandmother with disabilities, and the like. We have the grim duty of telling them that no such grants exist. As the economy worsens and ill-conceived attempts at promoting the wonders of the Stimulus Bill unfold, we expect to receive more pleas like this. The Commonwealth of Virginia should simply state the categories of Stimulus funding they have, eligibility requirements, real application instructions, and timelines. In other words, if money is available, shut up and issue RFPs.

Also, as much fun as it would be and as tempting as it is, I am not suggesting that joke proposals be submitted to the Commonwealth. When I was a frisky young grant writer, I must admit I actually did write and submit a bogus proposal. About 30 years ago, I was the Grants Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, CA. I wrote numerous proposals, many of which were funded because at the time Lynwood faced just about every socioeconomic problem imaginable and was a funder’s dream applicant. Along came a RFP from the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a regional planning body.*** Without going into too much boring detail, the RFP had to do with a California planning concept called positive “fair share communities,” as determined by whether the city was doing their “fair share” to provide affordable housing and make housing available to minority groups.

Since Lynwood had lots of poor folks and residents of color, I deemed it a “negative fair share” community, as it was in effect providing affordable housing for such cities as Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Laguna Beach. Because we couldn’t get grant funds for increasing the supply of affordable housing, I developed a joke project, which I called LHOOP (Lynwood Housing Opportunity Outreach Program), in which I proposed buying a fleet of vans and taking Lynwood residents on tours to see what life was like in affluent cities, including picnics at Zuma Beach in Malibu, shopping at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, and the like. I actually wrote and submitted the proposal, without telling the City Manager, just to see what happened. It was written tongue-in-cheek, more or less like Project NUTRIA, and much to my surprise, SCAG ranked it very high and wanted to fund it, so I had to pull it before I got caught. Think of this as the grant writing equivalent of the hilarious Social Text Affair. As with most of my grant writing tales, there is a follow-on story.

In 2001, HUD issued a NOFA for something called the Housing Search Assistance Program (HSAP), which was more or less my Project LHOOP idea. We were doing a lot of work for a housing authority at the time, which shall remain nameless. I told them about the NOFA and we wrote a $1,000,000 funded HSAP proposal for the housing authority and a collaborating nonprofit, based largely on the Project LHOOP concept. It shouldn’t be long before the Virginia issues an RFP to get rid of those pesky nutria and I can unleash Project NUTRIA on the real world. By the way, don’t bother looking for another HSAP NOFA, as this program was one and done effort by HUD. Expect the same to happen to Virginia’s stimulus program.


* Many want to find the Lost City of Z, which is purported to be the mythical El Dorado. We were contacted by one such fellow about 10 years ago who was on his way to find it and looking for grants. He did not have a nonprofit, so, as much as I loved the idea of working on the project, I had to tell him sadly that he was out of luck with respect to grants. David Grann just wrote a new book on the fascinating Lost City of Z which was reviewed in the March 1 issue of the New York Times Sunday Book Review: “On the Road to El Dorado.” Since grant writers are metaphorically searching for the Lost City of Gold, it should make a good read for those of us in the profession.

** Reader Challenge: Take my 750 Project Nutria example and turn it into haiku. This is your chance to get poetry published and the winner will receive an 8″ x 10″ glossy photo of Governor Kaine, which may or may not be signed, depending on the Governor’s sense of humor. You can leave example haikus in the comments section.

*** SCAG is one of a herd of so-called “Councils of Government” (COGS) that were created in the late 1960s to handle regional planning activities, a concept then quite in vogue, as well as the long-forgotten OMB A-95 process, which I might cover in a future post on grant nostalgia. COGs still grind away in anonymity throughout the US, having evolved to provide a cornucopia of unusual services and programs. If you don’t believe me, find a couple of local COGs and look at what they do. COGs are an object lesson in bureaucracies and their Darwinian evolutionary strategies, since such organizations typically find new ecological niches to occupy when their original purpose is lost in the climate change of time.