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Why Seliger + Associates never esponds to RFPs/RFQs for grant writing services

Faithful readers know we regularly discuss RFPs, NOFAs, FOAs, SGAs—or whatever other acronym funders might dream up to denote that grant funds are available (Jake in particular likes to fulminate about bizarre RRPs). Despite marinating in a stew of RFPs, however,  Seliger + Associates never responds to grant writing service RFPs/RFQs (“Requests for Qualifications”), and there are two basic reasons why.

The first reason is the most important: I know from over 15 years of working for various California cities, mostly in management, that RFQs/RFPs for professional services are easily wired, with “wired” meaning that one firm is going to get the contract regardless of who submits a response. I’m not talking about Sopranos-style wiring in which the public official can expect a visit from Paulie Walnuts if the wiring job isn’t done right: the real process is more anodyne. Usually, the public official knows a certain consultant and thinks the local firm can get it done and makes sure that the local boys get the gig.

A city might also want a local consultant but need bids from qualified out-of-towners to provide cover, so a favored firm is identified before the “open” competition. Many public agencies are required to run a bid process before selecting a consultant (or vendor), and the public official in change of the RFP/RFQ process structures the document to produce the desired outcome. This is usually done by putting requirements into the document that favor the fair-haired bidder.

For example, we recently received an RFQ from a city, and 25% of the available point total was for “knowledge of the local community,” while just 25% was for “grant writing experience.” This RFQ was obviously wired for a local grant writer, as we’d receive zero points for local knowledge. So why should we bid and provide cover for the public officials?

Another favored approach is to require the successful bidder to meet regularly with agency staff in person, making it impossible for a non-local bidder to compete, due to travel costs.Other techniques are subtler, like having a ringer on the selection committee.

We receive at least a dozen RFP/RFQ notices per year. I assume this happens because we’re such a well-qualified and -known firm that we would provide exceptional cover for wired bidding processes. Not being stupid or naive, at least in this respect, we always send more or less the following response: We won’t respond to this RFP, but we’ll be happy to provide a fee quote if your process fails. This does work: the local guys often can’t get the job done. Many public agencies eventually hire us after running a true, or true-seeming, RFP/RFQ process. Years ago, when we first started, we sometimes submitted real bids—but we never got the job.

The second reason is also significant: having been in business for since 1993, we simply don’t have to respond to RFPs/RFQs. We think we’re the best grant writing outfit there is. We’re like Astronaut Gordon Cooper, who answered a reporter’s question concerning who was the greatest fighter pilot he ever saw: “You’re looking at him!“* Responding to RFPs/RFQs wastes our time, and, like lawyers and escorts, grant writers are all about billable hours. Unlike architects, engineers, accountants and similar personal services consultants, who have tons of competition and must respond to RFPs/RFQs, we provide a unique service with few qualified competitors. Don’t believe me? Search online for grant writers and see what you get.

Despite our hard-nosed attitude, we’ve worked for hundreds of public agencies, including cities, counties, housing authorities, redevelopment agencies, and state governments. We can do so without responding to RFPs/RFQs because some public agencies have minimum contract amounts before bidding kicks in, which means they don’t have to go through a RFP/RFQ or public bid process. Additionally, all public agency purchasing rules have an exception for what is known in the trade as a “sole-source contract.” Public agencies occasionally face unexpected emergencies and can’t wait for a bid process. They also sometimes have unique needs—like, say, grant writing—for which there are so few qualified bidders that there is no point in running a competition.

As long as the public official is willing to place herself on the line, nothing prevents her from hiring us under a sole-source contract. When I was a public official and wanted to hire a favored consultant, I simply explained what I wanted to do to the City Manager and City Attorney, wrote the argument in a City Council staff report (if needed—usually it wasn’t), and signed the contract.

This is a lot less work than orchestrating a phony RFP/RFQ process. Since I know from experience that the sole-source approach is always available, and our services and fees are cleverly hidden in plain sight on our website, any public official who wants to go through an RFP/RFQ process is probably trying to wire it. The only way to win is by not playing the game.

* In the terrific film version of The Right Stuff, Dennis Quaid delivers this line as “Who was the best pilot I ever saw? Well, uh, you’re lookin’ at ‘im”, with a boyish charm I could never achieve even when I was a charming boy.

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Acronym Confusion at the Department of Education: Does i3 Mean “Innovation through Institutional Integration” or “Investing in Innovation Fund?”

(EDIT: Note that the i3 RFP discussed below has finally been released, as discussed at the link.)

The “Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program” program solicitation says that it’s part of the “Institutional Integration (I3)” program, which immediately made me think of the i3 programs that Isaac wrote about here. I sent him an e-mail saying, “the i3 RFPs are starting to be released!”

“Not so fast, young Skywalker,” he replied (young Skywalker is how the Emperor and Darth Vader refer to Luke in Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi): the Department of Education must be running out of acronyms, because I3 is different from i3. The first stands for “Innovation through Institutional Integration,” while the second stands for “Investing in Innovation Fund.” The only difference between the two acronyms is the capitalization of the letter “i.” Maybe someone is taking lessons from Steve Jobs.

I can’t be the only person who is going to be confused, given the similarity. Since millions of potential acronyms exist out there, how does the Department of Education come up with two nearly identical acronyms for programs that already sound similar? If they must recycle an acronym, they should pick ECOMCOM (Emergency Communications Control), the central mystery in the pretty good 1964 film, Seven Days in May.

Perhaps the Department of Education is using Unix-style case-sensitive acronyms, in which you have to pay attention to whether you’re getting a capital-I cubed or a lower-case-i cubed. As the Wikipedia entry on filenames says, “In most file systems in Unix-like systems… upper-case and lower-case are considered different, so that files MyName and myname would be valid names for different files concurrently in the same directory.” When you’re thinking Department of Education, think Unix, with all the user friendliness that entails. Consider this a public service announcement that clarifies the difference.

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When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually)

Faithful readers know that I’m very fond of what used to be called “B movies,” so it should be no surprise that I also love movie trailers. The otherwise forgettable 1998 remake of Godzilla featured one of the best theatrical trailers I’ve seen: old guys are fishing off an East River pier in Manhattan. One hooks something big, his pole bends, the camera moves to the water where a huge wake is forming, and Godzilla’s head emerges. Fade to black with gigantic type across the screen: “SIZE DOES MATTER.” The audience went wild.

Too bad the actual movie was awful.

The question of size in grant writing was posed by a reader in a comment on “Health Care Reform Means Green Grass & High Tides for Grant Writers.” Michael Leza wrote:

I’ve seen you say before that a good way to get into grant writing is to volunteer to write grants for small local non-profits. Do these kind of non profits have a realistic chance of getting funded or is this more of an exercise in going through the motions and learning the process? Would some of these big health care reform/stimulus bills be a more likely source of grants for these kinds of organizations, or would it be easier to try and apply for a more established grant (be it federal or otherwise)?

Michael is wondering if it is worth volunteering to write proposals for a small nonprofit in hopes of becoming a paid grant writer. Since only small nonprofits are likely to take him up on his offer, he probably doesn’t have any choice. But his question suggests the larger issue of whether the size of the applicant organization, and by extension the age and experience of the applicant, matters in applying for grants. Like most questions regarding grant writing, quantum effects cloud the answer, but in most cases size doesn’t matter. In some cases it helps if the applicant for a grant program is new and/or has no track record, as long as the applicant meets basic eligibility criteria. How is this possible?

Let’s take a real world example of a tiny faith-based nonprofit organization in Watts that came to us about 10 years ago for help in writing a LA County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) proposal to provide services for students at Jordan High School, which more or less is the definition of a high-risk high school. What made this interesting is that DCSF was re-bidding a contract it had had for years with an extremely well-known and very large nonprofit in Watts that has been scooping up city, county, federal and foundation grants since the Watts Rebellion in 1965 (those readers who know South Central will know which agency I’m writing about).

Our prospective client, a minister, asked if I thought he could compete for this grant against the local heavyweight champ of nonprofits. I told him that he was man of faith, and if he had faith in his organization, so did we, and we could write a competitive application that would put him in the ring, a nonprofit Rocky against a nonprofit Apollo Creed. Like Rocky, our client won the grant.

While we wrote a great proposal, it was likely funded because the incumbent large organization probably thought they had the grant in the bag and threw together a lame proposal. DCFS may al so have been tired of funding the same organization. Grantees that get repeated grants often end up becoming lazy: they don’t file reports on time and/or start fighting with the funding source. In other words, they act like a typical teenager. This opens up opportunities for new and frisky applicants to successfully compete for grants. The punch line is that once this small nonprofit got their DCFS grant, they used our grant writing skills to develop into a large, multi-program agency with lots of grant funds.

The same principle that size doesn’t usually matter in applying for grants is also true regarding small public agencies. Two examples will demonstrate this. I’ve already mentioned one before in Blue Highways: Reflections of a Grant Writer Retracing His Steps 35 Years Later, which involved us writing a funded $250,000 Department of Education Goals 2000 proposal for a tiny school district with just over 100 students in rural Oklahoma. We were able to make the client competitive against giant applicants like Chicago Public Schools by emphasizing the oddity of their situation: the District wanted to implement bilingual education because of an avalanche of immigrant workers arriving in the community for jobs at an about to open industrial-sized hog farm.

This year, we wrote a funded $1,500,000 HUD Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) program grant for a small, rural city in California that caters to thousands of seasonal tourists. We usually write LBPHC proposals for much larger cities like Boston, but HUD apparently bought our argument that this city, although small in comparison to most LBPHC grantees, has a big lead problem and could implement a believable abatement program. We amped up the proposal by tying the lead problem to the current foreclosure mess (it never hurts to play up any related media-inspired hysteria you can find in a proposal). It also helped that our client had never before had a direct HUD grant, since all of their previous HUD awards were passed through the California Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Small Cities Program. I think HUD is always looking to fund new applicants for LBPHC and other long-in-the tooth grant programs and was pleasantly startled to get a credible proposal from an unlikely applicant.

As long as your organization meets basic eligibility for a given grant competition and avoids the “silly factor” that Jake wrote about last week in So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For? And Who’s the Competition?, get busy and write. As with many things in life, it doesn’t much matter how big the applicant is, as long as the grant writer knows how to use his skills to craft a compelling argument. With luck, the funder will see the application as an opportunity to fund someone new, while using grant funds to meet a real local need.

For an example of this principle in action, check out the Innovative Arts Ideas, which goes so far as to explicitly say, “Great ideas can start anywhere, so the challenge is open to everyone – established arts institutions, independent artists of all types, businesses and service organizations.” So they’re searching for very small organizations or individuals, as well as large, established organizations.

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So, how much grant money should I ask for? Who’s the competition?

Clients often ask how much money they should request. Our standard answer: ask for the maximum because zeroes are cheap.

As with many aspects of grant writing, there is no right answer. But, all other things being equal, you might as well ask for the maximum amount available, since you do the same amount of work in preparing the proposal regardless of the dollar amount requested, and there doesn’t seem to be any relationship between the size of a grant request and the probability of being funded.

Let’s say you’re applying to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) Mentoring Initiative for Foster Care Youth program. The maximum you can seek is $500,000. In the vast majority of cases, you’re better off applying for $500,000, instead of, say, $50,000, because you’re unlikely to be harmed by asking for the max. If OJJDP likes your organization and application but thinks you’re requesting for too much, they might knock your award down some, but they’re unlikely to reject you outright.

Once again: zeros are cheap, and it takes just as much effort to write a proposal for $50,000 as it does for $500,000.

The big exception to this is the “silly” factor. Does your organization have an annual budget of $200,000? If so, proposing a $5 million/year budget is going to make the reviewer roll her eyes and perhaps share your folly with her colleagues. You don’t want to elicit the laughter, as Dr. Evil does in Austin Powers when he asks for too little (or much) money:

In the “1969” section of the video, he asks for $100 billion dollars, and everyone thinks it’s hilarious because of how absurd the request is. You don’t want to create the same effect in grant reviewers.

Foundations are trickier than most government grants because foundations usually don’t have maximum caps on requests. But you can almost always find their range of awards, and if the Peoria Foundation usually makes awards between $10,000 and $75,000, you probably don’t want to ask for $300,000. If you conduct detailed research on each foundation, you’ll find a list of their recent awards (this is what we do as part of our foundation work). You might ask the Peoria Foundation for $50,000 toward a project, but don’t seek an order-of-magnitude difference from their usual neighborhood of funding. And if you’re seeking foundation funding, make sure you read Isaac’s post, “PSST! Listen, Do You Want to Know a Secret? ? Do you Promise Not to Tell? Here’s How to Write Foundation Proposals.”

Sometimes federal agencies specify a minimum grant request. For example, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, 2009 (warning: .pdf link) had almost $2 billion available, with a minimum request of $5 million. So to apply for NSP 2 funds, the applicant had to be reasonably large to be believable in spending $5 million. By the way, NSP 2 was intended to address the ongoing foreclosure crisis and the applications were due July 17, as discussed in this post. Apparently, HUD doesn’t know about the foreclosure crisis, since the award announcement has still not been made. But, as Isaac observed of the original version of the program, NSP 1, which was an entitlement rather than a competitive program: HUD’s track record at quickly responding to this crisis isn’t exactly stellar.

Clients will also ask if they should apply to programs with very large amounts of money or very small amounts available. There’s (usually) no particular advantage in going one way or another. Large amounts often mean that many more agencies will apply, increasing the competitiveness. But unless you have some kind of inside knowledge about who the competition will be, it doesn’t make much sense to assume that a big pot of money will necessarily be more viable. It can be, but won’t always be. The Basic Center Program, which is brought to you by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), has $13,377,274 available this year. Aside from this being a strange number—what’s wrong with rounding to $13,377,000? Am I really going to miss the extra $274?—it has 91 awards. Organizations that apply for the Basic Center Program are probably doing so just to find some federal money, and if a few thousand organizations apply, it might become very competitive.

Finally, it can also be worth applying for competitions that have relatively small amounts available. For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) often runs highly specific competitions with relatively small amounts of money and numbers of grants, such as the currently open Offender Reentry Program (ORP). This year, there is $13 million available and 33 awards. So, why would an organization bother applying for a ORP grant? First, they might actually be interested in serving former prisoners. But, additionally, they probably know that if they get a SAMHSA grant, their organization’s credibility with other funders goes through the roof. Over the years, we have successfully written funded SAMHSA proposals in which only 10 or 12 awards were made and watched as our clients use the SAMSHA grant to leverage other substance abuse treatment grants and contracts.

Thus, it often pays to apply for fairly obscure grants with small amounts money on the line. But when you do, remember that zeroes are still cheap.

EDIT: You should also read Isaac’s post, “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually).” Sometimes funder representatives will be obnoxious and refuse to tell—as we discuss in “How Much Money You Should Ask For—and National Mentoring Programs, with Improving Literacy Through School Libraries Program as a Bonus.”