Monthly Archives: May 2009

You know you’re a grant writer if a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Service Area Competition (SAC) deadline vexes you

You know you’re a grant writer if… You’re reading the Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA) Service Area Competition (SAC) and discover that the deadline is July 6.

You’re frustrated because Monday, July 6 is a holiday for most people: the Fourth of July is Saturday, so the “holiday” part is the Monday after, which means that you won’t get much tech support if you need it on that Monday. You probably won’t get any tech support on Friday, July 3, either, since everyone in the federal government will probably have left—most of the Feds count that Friday as the holiday this year.

The real deadline is probably closer to July 2, chiefly because whatever genius at HRSA picked this deadline probably didn’t realize it was a holiday weekend, or simply decided to play a cruel trick on applicants. There are two possible reasons for this snafu: incompetence or malice. Neither portrays HRSA in a positive light. Oh, and applicants for this program are “Section 330” nonprofit community health centers, which are perhaps not the best targets for a HRSA practical joke, especially given how tremendously complex and difficult the applications are.

You know you’re a grant writer if… the same SAC RFP further irritates you because you have to submit a preliminary application using Grants.gov for a June 23 deadline, then submit the full application using HRSA’s Electronic Hand Books (EHB) system with a deadline of July 6 July 2. In other words, you have to learn yet another esoteric electronic system, although one that’s at least somewhat easier than Grants.gov.

You know you’re a grant writer if… you find Grants.gov’s failures and quirks amusing, causing you to write about them with some frequency.

You know you’re a grant writer if… the budget you receive from your client has no relationship to the narrative you’ve written, based on what the client told you in the first place. Actually, the budget has nothing to do with little if anything to do with anything whatsoever.

You know you’re a grant writer if… you’re the only person in America working on a holiday, other than cops and escorts.

You know you’re a grant writer if… you don’t even realize that tomorrow is a holiday—Memorial Day—and have to be told to hold the Seliger Funding Report for another day.

You know you’re a grant writer if… you’re outraged when you find that a deadline is on the holiday you hadn’t realized was there (see: first paragraph, above).

You know you’re a grant writer if… you’re inclined to write lists regarding when you know you’re a grant writer, and you actually think they’re amusing.

Late May Links: Stimulus and American Recovery and Relief Act (ARRA) Madness, Free Money Wannabes, Economic Recovery, Grants.gov and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and More

* The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report stating that “Consistent Policies [Are] Needed to Ensure Equal Consideration of Grant Applications.” No? Really? It goes on:

[A]pplicants lack a centralized source of information on how and when to use [Grants.gov] alternatives, rendering them less effective than they otherwise might be in reducing the strain on a system already suffering from seriously degraded performance. Moreover, inconsistent agency policies for grant closing times, what constitutes a timely application, when and whether applicants are notified of the status of their applications, and the basis on which applicants can appeal a late application create confusion and uncertainty for applicants […]

The primary question I have is, “How does this differ from business-as-usual?”

(Hat tip to the WSJ’s Washington Wire Blog, where I also get a shout-out. See also Isaac’s quote in “Economic-Stimulus Cash Is Moving Slowly“)

* Texas released the first stimulus bill pass-through RFP we’ve seen in the form of the Target Tech in Texas (T3) Collaborative Grant. This is an example of the long delays between allocation and implementation that Isaac wrote about in Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing. If you’ve seen other stimulus bill pass-through funds in genuine RFP form, let us know!

* If you’re wondering why California’s legislature and bureaucracy is so dysfunctional, the Economist has some answers in “The ungovernable state.” It probably understates the importance of Prop 13 but still offers a better overview of the situation than most of the reporting we’ve seen so far. This story explains Schwarzenegger Puts Legacy on the Line With Budget Vote better than the Schwarzenegger story itself, which has this money quote: “For Mr. Schwarzenegger, a defeat would mark a repeat of the hard lesson learned by many of his predecessors: California is essentially ungovernable, especially during an economic crisis.”

* A page one Wall Street Article called “Crazy-Quilt Jobless Programs Help Some More Than Others” notes some of the bizarre disparities that arise in jobless programs; apparently, if a Department of Labor office decides that you’ve been laid off because you’re one of the “manufacturing and farm workers who lose jobs due to imports or production shifts out of the country,” you get two years of extra assistance.

Applications are already overwhelming the Labor Department, where just three “certifying officers” sign off on trade-adjustment petitions. In 2007, the most recent year tracked, the trio ruled on 2,222 petitions, approving 1,449. (The Agriculture Department signs off on a smaller number of TAA benefits for fishermen and farmers.) Hundreds are currently pending, including from Georgia-Pacific Corp., Mercedes-Benz, Bobcat Co. and Dell.

“We are drowning,” says Elliott Kushner, a certifying officer who has been inspecting TAA applications for 30 years.

* The risk of Federal debt is a wildly under-appreciated problem that might very rapidly and unpleasantly become extraordinarily appreciated. Consider yourself warned.

* Under the department of “Who knew?”: Tax information for Parents of Kidnapped Children.

* Get your free money! (or not): Slate asks, What’s the deal with those stimulus scams that are all over the Internet? and answers its own question in the headline: they’re scams. Take notice, those of you searching for free grant samples and the like.

* Along similar lines, someone found us by searching for “grants that are actually free.” Perhaps the Costco Samples post linked to above will encourage them to give up.

* I keep being tempted by the Amazon Kindle, despite my many posts on the Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and other problems with the device. Then I see a post like “Amazon has banned my account – my Kindle is now a (partial) brick” and all those bad feelings return. The poster in question apparently returned too many items to Amazon, causing them to suspend his account and causing his Kindle to stop working.

* Slate reports that efforts are underway to change California state law that effectively prohibits firing bad teachers. The full article is at the L.A. Times: “Firing tenured teachers can be a costly and tortuous task.”

* The New York Times notices that J-Schools are Playing Catchup because of changes in journalism. Strangely enough, the Times seems to imply that journalism might become more like something akin to Grant Writing Confidential: people who find niches and then write the hell out of their subject.

* Wall Street Journal reporter Louise Radnofsky reports that “States Can Use Stimulus Money to Track Their Stimulus Spending.” From our perspective, the most interesting sentence is this one: “Many cash-strapped states had worried that without money upfront, they couldn’t set up offices to coordinate stimulus spending or hire independent auditors” because it implies that states still aren’t spending the money they’ve been passed by Congress, which goes back to the numerous posts we’ve written on the subject of how stimulus funds will be spent and in what sort of timeframe.

* On the value of a liberal arts education:

The great value of a liberal arts education is that it prepares you to be relatively happy even if you find yourself working in a corrugated cardboard factory. Partly because books are cheap, and cultivating the ability to take great pleasure in a well-crafted novel lowers you hedonic costs down the road. But more broadly because the liberal arts might be descibed as a technology for extracting and constructing meaning from the world. If you know your Hamlet, you know that’s all the difference between a prisoner and a king of infinite space.

(Those of you are loyal GWC readers might tie this into One of the Open Secrets of Grant Writing and Grant Writers: Reading.)

* The economic downturn is hitting Mongolia with zud:

Falling demand for cashmere among recession-hit shoppers in the West is cutting into earnings among nomadic herders in Mongolia, whose goats produce the soft fiber used in high-end sweaters, scarves and coats. The result: herder loan defaults.

Mongolians are calling the current situation a financial zud, invoking a local term for unusually harsh winters that devastate herds. After Mr. Sodnomdarjaa couldn’t pay back a $2,700 loan, he says bank officials pressed him to sell his livestock — which he used as collateral. The bank says he misrepresented the number of animals he owned, which he denies. Now a judge has ordered the seizure of Mr. Sodnomdarjaa’s family home — a tent — if he doesn’t come up with the rest of the money soon.

* Speaking of economic downturns, Derek Thompson’s “Can the Oil Shock Alone Explain the Financial Crisis?” is a fascinating post that has relatively little to do with grant writing:

Hamilton went back to 2003, when crude oil was around $30 a gallon and forecast what an oil shock like the one we experienced in 2007-08 (when oil peaked around $140) would do to GDP. He graphed the result through the end of 2008 and, lo and behold, it was damn close to actual GDP. As though there were no such thing as a collaterized debt obgligation in the first place! […]

Perhaps you’ll join me in thinking: Huh? Are we really to believe that this whole thing was caused by oil shocks? I mean, it certainly makes you appreciate the mess Detroit is in, but really. How anti-climactic. It makes this crisis seem so … 1970s.

* Txting and sex ed at the New York Times.

* Mark Cuban writes “A Note to Newspapers:”

I’ve always been a believer that Amazon has excelled not just because they have great customer service and decent prices, but because they have those, PLUS they have my credit card on file. It’s easier to buy from Amazon than it is to go to the store.

* Megan McArdle writes “Economy Ends; Women and Minorities Affected Most.”

* Edward Glaeser, who is perhaps my favorite economist, asks why, if the world is so flat, “Has Globalization Led to Bigger Cities?” His answer:

Globalization and technological change have increased the returns to being smart; human beings are a social species that get smart by hanging around smart people. A programmer could work in the foothills of the Himalayas, but that programmer wouldn’t learn much. If she came to Bangalore, then she would figure out what skills were more valuable, and what firms were growing, and which venture capitalists were open to new ideas in her field…

Knowledge moves more quickly at close quarters, and as a result, cities are often the gateways between continents and civilizations.

This, incidentally, is also why I don’t expect schools to go digital, or universities as they exist to shrivel and die as commentators have implied. If knowledge moves more quickly, one can also expect the relative value of places like universities to grow.

And pay special attention to this bit:

Abundant land hides many sins, including the failures of government. But when people crowd into cities, the costs of governmental failure become painful and obvious.

* I used the delightful word “bogosity” in a recent post, and now Language Log has a whole lot more on that term.

* Although we don’t often cover international grant-related issues, Please Stop Building Schools in Iraq and Afghanistan stands out as an example of the genre:

Here’s a general rule that applies to basically every development program in every poor country in the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan: want to do something nice and useful for these people? Don’t build them a school. Believe it or not, people in poor countries actually have buildings. And they are capable of building more of them. They know how to do it, and it usually, for fairly simple economic reasons, does not cost more in any country to build a building than local people can afford. You know what they don’t know how to do? Teach science and math and English. And often, employing a trained teacher does cost more than they can afford in a small village, because such people are scarce, and it’s hard to spare extra labor in subsistence economies. If you want to spend your money on education, don’t build them a school; pay to train some teachers, and then pay the teachers’ salaries.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) Appears at Last

Subscribers to the Seliger Funding Report saw that the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) is this week’s featured grant. The program is significant and worth examining for a few reasons, including the massive amount of money available (nearly $2 billion) and how it illustrates some of the problems with disseminating and spending stimulus money in a timely manner.

The idea behind the stimulus funding is that it’s supposed to happen quickly. Last December, Isaac wrote a post on the subject:

Our client has been going to endless meetings to discuss the NSP program and is still waiting around for the amended action plans to be approved. […]

This sad tale of woe does not make me optimistic about the really big stimulus programs that will emerge from Congress shortly. While it will be Fat City for grant writers and lots of grants will be available for frisky nonprofit and public agencies, don’t expect the funds to fix many problems.

It’s now six months later, and the RFP has finally hit the street. The deadline is July 17, which is sweet for the agencies applying but not so good on the timeliness front. Once awards are made, contracts are signed, and programs begin operating in earnest, it could well be December again. Isaac also quoted a Wall Street Journal article from December that’s as timely today as it was then, which should demonstrate the sense of urgency emanating from HUD.

Another point: HUD has apparently abandoned Grants.gov. You won’t find the actual RFP on Grants.gov—you’ll only find a link to hud.gov/recovery. Even then, the RFP is still difficult to find because you’ll find a giant scrolling banner, a link to a press release, and a news story about NSP, which is why we always include links, like the the one in the first paragraph of this post, that go straight to the RFP. In addition, HUD will only accept paper submissions:

Deadline for Receipt of Application: July 17, 2009. Applications must be received via paper submission to the Robert C. Weaver HUD Headquarters building by 5:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. […]

Timely submission shall be evidenced via a delivery service receipt or a postal receipt with date and time stamp indicating that the application was delivered to a carrier service at least 48 hours prior to the application deadline…

Those of you with a sense of history and irony will find this amusing because was among the first (if not the first) agencies to require Grants.gov submissions. That HUD won’t even accept them anymore might tell you something about the Grants.gov problems we’ve discussed extensively.

Finally, this application is an example of HUD going both ways with funding distribution: some NSP funds are being passed through to states and counties via block grant, as described in Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed, while this program notice says that “NSP2 funds will be awarded through competitions whose eligible applicants include states, units of general local government, nonprofits, and consortia of nonprofits. Any applicant may apply with a for-profit entity as its partner.” Sounds good to us!

Professional Grant Writer At Work: Don’t Try Writing A Transportation Electrification Proposal At Home

Seliger + Associates was recently hired to edit a proposal for the charmingly titled U.S. Department of Energy National Energy and Technology Laboratory Recovery Act-Transportation Electrification (NETLRATE)* program. We edit proposals all the time; the unusual part of this assignment is our client, which is a successful tech company with lots of engineer types instead of the human service folks who typically hire us. The CEO told me that his company has experience in submitting business proposals to tech and manufacturing companies and would have no problem writing the proposal. They just wanted us to review it, but the resulting fiasco demonstrates why our client would have been much better served to simply hire us to write the entire proposal, even though we know little about electric vehicles (as I discussed in No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer). But, as with the advice Wavy Gravy gave at Woodstock about watching out for the brown acid, “it’s your trip.”

A week or two went by, with the Seliger + Associates team using our secret proposal production machine to extrude applications. The deadline for our DOE client to email his draft came and went. Two days later, and within a week of the deadline, the draft appeared in my inbox, along with the 41-page, single-spaced Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA). The email said we should look at page 33 of the FOA, which our client used as a guide to prepare the draft. I looked and found the ever-popular “review criteria.” Here is a snippet (it actually goes on for two pages):

Evaluation Criteria for Area of Interest 1, 2, and 3

Criterion 1: Technical Approach and Project Management Weight: 40%
• Responsiveness and relevance to the programmatic research goals and requirements identified in this announcement for this area of interest, including rationale for the vehicle and/or infrastructure design
• Demonstrated knowledge and understanding of vehicle design and manufacturing, related past and current work and how the proposed effort builds on or expands from these prior efforts to ensure a production-intent design, i.e., their adaptation of and application to specific vehicle propulsion systems and platforms
• Degree and source of the identified risk in demonstrating the proposed technology, including definition of potential technology deficiencies along with proposed solutions to mitigate the risk;
• Innovativeness of the proposed technology

I immediately knew that our client, no matter how smart and experienced a businessperson he is, had fallen into The Danger Zone of Common RFP Traps I wrote about last year. RFPs often include convoluted criteria that unnamed “reviewers” will supposedly use to score the proposal, which are often separate from the instructions for the proposal itself.

The problem is that such criteria are invariably hidden somewhere in the bowels of the RFP and may or may not be referenced in the RFP completion instructions. I did what I always do to find the instructions and searched for “pages” and “page,” and uncovered detailed instructions on how to construct the NETLRATE proposal on page 22 of the FOA. Here is a nugget from the four pages of instructions:

The project narrative must include:

• Project Objectives: This section should provide a clear, concise statement of the specific objectives/aims of the proposed project.

• Merit Review Criterion Discussion: The section should be formatted to address each of the merit review criterion and sub-criterion listed in Part V.A. Provide sufficient information so that reviewers will be able to evaluate the application in accordance with these merit review criteria. DOE WILL EVALUATE AND CONSIDER ONLY THOSE APPLICATIONS THAT ADDRESS SEPARATELY EACH OF THE MERIT REVIEW CRITERION AND SUB-CRITERION.

• Relevance and Outcomes/Impacts: This section should explain the relevance of the effort to the objectives in the program announcement and the expected outcomes and/or impacts.

The second bullet point references the “criterion discussion,”** where our client should have placed his 15-page, single-spaced narrative. He did not realize that there were instructions, so this would have been hard to do. But his draft included an abstract, the instructions for which are also on page 22. This means he must have seen the instructions without fully realizing what they were.

That was his first major problem. The second was the draft itself, which was filled with the kind of self-congratulatory public relations happy talk that one finds in news releases and brochures. While coherent and well written, it wasn’t proposalese. Rather, it reiterated the “a delicious lunch was served” formulations that every freshman journalism student learns not to write. And the proposal did not follow the pattern of the four criteria pages and 40 or so bullet points. The response was technically incorrect and would probably not be evaluated, per the second bullet point in the above FOA quote.

Within two minutes of opening the file, I realized that our client had misunderstood the FOA and had written a marketing piece, not a proposal. Since we don’t hide from our clients, I called our contact and gave him the bad news that there was no point in having us edit his draft, as it was formatted wrong and written like a press release. He took it well and didn’t try to shoot the messenger, which is a not uncommon reaction to bad news. As Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” Callahan says in Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” and our contact now does.

Instead of wasting our time and his money on pointless editing, I rewrote the Abstract to reflect the instructions along with the ever popular “5 Ws and the H” and produced a detailed outline of the proposal with about a dozen Word paragraph styles*** following the pattern of the completion instructions. I also wrote lots of connector phrases and left assorted blanks for him to fill in, which is a paint by numbers approach to grant writing (this reference shows you how old I am).

Due to other writing commitments caused by our old friend the Stimulus Bill, we couldn’t spend any more time on this project, no matter how much our client was willing to pay, as we never accept assignments we can’t complete. With a $16 million grant on the line, it would have been much more cost effective for our client to have hired us to write the entire proposal in the first place. You may have noticed the small text that scrolls at the bottom of TV ads showcasing cars like the new 2011 FiCrysler Electric Eel roadster tearing across the desert at at 150 MPH, stating “Professional driver on closed course, do not attempt.” When it comes to grant writing, spend your time working on things you know how to do and hire a pro.


* This acronym is not actually used in the FOA. I just wanted to see what it would look like. Let’s try pronouncing it: “nettlerate?” I would have changed the name to National Action to Make America Special through Transportation Electricfication (NAMASTE). Maybe I’ve spent too much time watching Lost or perhaps I just need a calming Sanskrit word after too much fevered Stimulus Bill grant writing.

** Obviously no English majors were involved in the production of this FOA, as I believe the work they were looking for is “criteria,” when referring to “criterion” in the plural, although saying “criterion” makes me feel vaguely intellectual.

ibm-1-small-3*** While the draft proposal was written in Word, no paragraph styles were used. Instead, he used the default “normal” style for everything, along with tab stops. This proposal looked like it had been typed by the curvy secretary, Joan Hollway, on my favorite TV program, Mad Men, using an IBM Selectric typewriter. We have a Selectric III (distinguished from the Selectric II by the spacey orange backlight on the tab bar). We rescued this remarkable example of industrial design 15 years ago, and it still performs flawlessly when called upon every couple of months to complete a paper form. It gets serviced every three years. We’ll be able to keep it until the last typewriter repairman dies, at which point we will use it as a boat anchor, since it weighs about 50 pounds. Incidentally, you can get a similar feel on some modern keyboards, like the IBM Model M / Unicomp Customizer.

Fake Requests for Proposals (RFP) Notices Gain Popularity

When I was a kid, Isaac liked to quote the famous line from Ian Fleming’s James Bond book, Goldfinger: “The first time is happenstance. The second time is coincidence. The third time is enemy action” (that’s how I remember it, anyway, and I don’t have a copy of Goldfinger handy to check the quote). Actually, Isaac still says that not infrequently, and I’m going to appropriate it for this post, since I’m noticing a pernicious trend in the form of fake grant announcements, or announcements of announcements, in the Federal Register.

We discussed this particular irritating brand of federal idiocy in “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:”

There’s also another other curious thing about th[e] 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.

Non-RFP RFPs, or non-announcement announcements, seem to be becoming more popular, like the outbreak of swine flu. Reading Grant Writing Confidential will help immunize you from this malady, but not from the itching, sweating, and swearing it might cause. For another example of it, check out the Solicitation for Proposals for the Provision of Civil Legal Services, which says: “The Request for Proposals (RFP) will be available April 10, 2009.” But April 10 has come and gone, and as far as I can tell a genuine RFP still hasn’t arrived. Now we’ve passed happenstance and entered the land of circumstance.

But the latest iteration of my favorite program to pick on, the Assistance to Firefighters Grants Program (AFG), includes this in its first full paragraph on page two:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $210 million in funding to DHS to construct new fire stations or modify existing fire stations. That funding opportunity will be announced in the near future and will NOT be part of this offering. Under the funding opportunity presented in this guidance, the AFG will only fund projects that do not alter the footprint or the profile of an existing structure. Projects for modifications that involve altering the footprint or the profile of an existing structure or projects that involve construction of new facilities will fall under a different funding opportunity.

(See some earlier posts on the AFG here and here.)

As Goldfinger would say, this is now enemy action. I wouldn’t be surprised if phantom announcements become more common as the kinds of deadlines buried somewhere in the Stimulus Bill American Recovery and Relief Act approach federal agencies like a swarm of swine flu virus particles from a gigantic congressional sneeze.

Foreign Language Assistance Program: Local Educational Agencies, Courtesy of the English Department

In the funding announcement for the Foreign Language Assistance Program: Local Educational Agencies, notice that the subagency under the Department of Education is the Office of English Language Acquisition. I can’t be the only one who finds it amusing that the Office of English Language Acquisition is in charge of a program for learning foreign languages, or that this structure comes courtesy of our much-mocked friends at the Department of Education.