On the Subject of Crystal Balls and Magic Beans in Writing FIP, SGIG, BTOP and Other Fun-Filled Proposals

I’ve noticed a not-too-subtle change in RFPs lately—largely, I think, due to the Stimulus Bill—that requires us to drag out our trusty Crystal Ball, which is an essential tool of grant writing. Like Bullwinkle J. Moose, we gaze into our Crystal Ball and say,”Eenie meenie chili beanie, the spirits are about to speak,” as we try to answer imponderable questions. For example, our old friend the HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 (NSP2) wants:

A reasonable projection of the extent to which the market(s) in your target geography is likely to absorb abandoned and foreclosed properties through increased housing demand during the next three years, if you do not receive this funding.

How many houses will be foreclosed upon, but also absorbed, in our little slice of heaven target area in 2012? If I was smart enough to figure this out, I’d be buying just the right foreclosed houses in just the right places, instead of grant writing. People much smarter than us who were predicting in 2005 how many houses they’d need to absorb in 2009 were tremendously, catastrophically wrong, which is why we’re in this financial mess in the first place: you fundamentally can’t predict what will happen to any market, including real estate markets. Consequently, HUD’s question is so silly as to demand the Crystal Ball approach, so we nailed together available data, plastered it over with academic sounding metric mumbo jumbo, and voila! we had the precise numbers we needed. In other words, we used the S.W.A.G. method (“silly” or “scientific wild assed guess,” depending on your point of view). I have no idea why HUD would ask applicants a question that Warren Buffett (or, Jimmy Buffet for that matter, who may or may not be a cousin of Warren) could not answer, but answer we did.

You can find another example of Crystal Ball grant writing in the brand new and charmingly named Facility Investment Program (FIP), brought to us by HRSA, which are for Section 330 providers (e.g. nonprofit Community Health Centers (CHCs)). We’re writing a couple of these, which requires us to drag out the ‘ol Crystal Ball again, since the applicant is supposed to keep track of the “number of construction jobs” and “projected number of health center jobs created or retained.”

I just lean back, imagine some numbers and start typing, since there is neither a way to accurately predict any of this nor a way to verify it after project completion. HRSA is new to the game of estimating and tracking jobs, so they make it easy for us overworked grant writers and applicants by not requiring job creation certifications. Other agencies, like the Economic Development Administration (EDA), which has been about the business of handing out construction bucks for 40 years, are much craftier. For instance, the ever popular Public Works and Economic Development Program requires applicants to produce iron-clad letters from private sector partners to confirm that at least one permanent job be created for every $5,000 of assistance. We’ve written lots of funded EDA grants over the years, and the inevitable job generation issue is always the most challenging part of the application. HRSA will eventually wise up when they are unable to prove that the ephemeral construction and created/retained jobs ever existed. Alternately, they might wise up when they realize the futility of the endeavor in which they’re engaged, but I’m not betting on it.

This tendency to ask for impossible metrics is always true in grant writing, as Jake discussed in Finding and Using Phantom Data, but sometimes it’s more true than others. I ascribe the recent flurry to the Stimulus Bill because more RFPs than usual are being extruded faster than usual, resulting in even less thought going into them than usual, forcing grant writers to spend even more time pondering what our Crystal Balls might be telling us.

Since the term “Crystal Ball” began popping up whenever I scoped a new proposal with a client, I got to thinking of other shorthand ways of explaining some of the more curious aspects of the federal grant making process to the uninitiated and came up with “Magic Beans,” like Jack and the Beanstalk. We’re writing many proposals these days for businesses, who have never before applied for federal funds, for programs like the Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) Program, and the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) of the National Telecommunications & Information Agency.

When scoping such projects, I am invariably on a conference call with a combination of marketing and engineer types. The marketing folks speak in marketing-speak platitudes (“We make the best stuff,” even if they don’t know what the stuff is) and the engineers don’t speak at all. So, to move the process along, and to get answers to the essential “what” and “how” of the project concept, I’ve taken to asking them to, in 20 words or less, describe the “Magic Beans” they will be using and what will happen when the magic beans are geminated after that long golden stream of Stimulus Bucks arcs out of Washington onto their project. This elicits a succinct reply, I can conclude the scoping call, and we can fire up the proposal extruding machine.

So use your Magic Beans to climb the federal beanstalk and reach the ultimate Golden Goose, keeping your Crystal Ball close at hand.

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