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Federal Budget Freeze Prospect Making You Shiver? Don’t Panic Until You Hear the “R” Word: Rescission

President Obama highlighted his proposed partial “freeze” on discretionary federal spending during his State of the Union address last week, which set off a flurry of predictable wrangling among Democratic and Republican members of Congress (for a pretty good summary of what’s going on, see Democrats, Republicans Spar Over Cutting Deficit). While talk of budget freezes may make most grant applicants start to get the sniffles, there is little to worry about at the moment.

So far, President Obama is talking about freezing some domestic spending programs in FY ’11, which doesn’t start until October 1. He also seems to love spending for things like education, stimulating jobs, green energy, etc. The proposed FY ’11 budget, which debuted February 1, shows increases in a number of discretionary programs along with freezes in others. But remember that appropriations for most domestic discretionary programs in the current FY ’10 budget are wildly higher than in the FY ’09 budget. At the moment, there are unprecedented amounts of money available for all kinds of initiatives. As I wrote last September in “Graffiti, Windmills, CAP Agencies, and an Answer to the Question As to Whether This is 1975 or 1965,” “This really is the best of times for grant applicants, so let’s all party like its 1965.” Or, to paraphrase Max in Where the Wild Things Are,* “Let the wild grant writing rumpus continue.”

Despite the happy talk above, however, there is one not-so-minor thing to worry about—the dreaded “R” word. No, not the recession “R” word, which, as I have pointed out repeatedly, is actually good for grant writing. I’m talking about “rescission”. Rescission should strike fear into your hearts, as shown in the following Congressional definition:

“Rescission–The cancellation of budget authority previously provided by Congress. The Impoundment Control Act of 1974 specifies that the President may propose to Congress that funds be rescinded. If both Houses have not approved a rescission proposal (by passing legislation) within 45 days of continuous session, any funds being withheld must be made available for obligation.”

Since the Democrats control both houses of Congress, and assuming that President Obama is good at herding cats, he could propose rescission of any authorized spending program anytime he wants to. As with so many aspects of grant writing, I actually experienced a budget rescission when I was a Community Organizer Intern in 1972 in North Minneapolis, as noted in my first post, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal.” When I started work, one of my first tasks was to explain to low-income homeowner applicants for home rehabilitation loans that they could not get their money because the funds had been rescinded by President Nixon. At that time, there was nothing Congress could do about a rescission, which led to the 1974 law that requires Congress to go along with a presidential rescission. Given the hysteria that is building over the huge budget deficits, compounded by the upcoming election, a successful rescission is quite possible, and much more worrisome that supposed spending freezes.

This means that if your organization—nonprofit, public agency or eligible business—is thinking about applying for a grant, stop thinking and start writing.

* I have fond memories of reading “Where the Wild Things Are” to Jake and my other kids when they were two or three. It’s one of the best children’s books ever.

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How’d You Like a 20% Discount on Grant Writing? You Got It, As Long as You are Willing to Go Against Conventional Wisdom!

Jake wrote recently about the perils of being too creative as a grant writer in Never Think Outside the Box: Grant Writing is About Following the Recipe, not Creativity. This post elaborates on the invisible fence of “Convention Wisdom” (CW) that forces us grant writers to remain in the box.

CW is an amorphous blob of assumed correctness that ping pongs through the media, popular culture, academia and everything else in America, even though aspects of it may be proven wrong. Two examples from recent newspaper articles will demonstrate how hopelessly wrong CW can be:

1) Foster Care and Orphanages: The CW about foster care is that the system, although flawed, is a much better alternative than orphanages, which conjure up Dickensian images of underfed orphans cowering in dark rooms. Although a quick Google search confirms that no one seems to really know how may kids are in foster care in America, a good guess is about 600,000. Richard. B. McKenzie, a UC-Irvine professor who grew up in an orphanage in the 1950’s, tackles the foster care/orphanage CW in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Best Thing About Orphanages.” Professor McKenzie cites a 2009 Duke University study of 3,000 orphaned children in Africa and Asia and states:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the researchers found that children raised in orphanages by nonfamily members were no worse in their health, emotional and cognitive functioning, and physical growth than those cared for in their communities by relatives. More important, the orphanage-reared children performed better than their counterparts cared for by community strangers, which is commonly the case in foster-care programs.

Professor McKenzie surveyed 2,500 alumni of American orphanages and found they generally did much better than their peers in the general population across a range of educational attainment, income, happiness and related indicators. In other words, orphanages, which have largely disappeared from America and been replaced by foster care, actually did a reasonably good job given the circumstances in nurturing orphans. Having written dozens of proposals addressing the needs of foster youth over the years, I know that outcomes are not good for kids in the system. In 17 years of being in business, however, no one has ever approached us to write a proposal for an orphanage.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is one of the largest private funders for child service programs. A search of their website for “orphanages” produces two hits, both in Romania, while a search for “foster care” produces 230 hits! I have a pretty good idea of how the CW thinkers at the Casey Foundation would react to a proposal to set up a new orphanage in Owatonna*: shock and horror! But they’d probably happily fund yet another “innovative” program to provide wrap around supportive services for foster kids.

2) Endangered Salmon: While living in Seattle for 15 years, I became accustomed to waking up pretty much every morning to another newspaper story about endangered salmon. Several years ago, there was even an attempt to OK killing sea lions because they were eating too many salmon, although I don’t believe a whisker on a single sea lion was actually ever harmed. I nearly fell off my chair when I read this piece in the January 21, 2010 Wall Street Journal: Fish Boom Makes Splash in Oregon. Despite the CW about the end of salmon runs on the West Coast, this year there are so many steelhead and their cousins that in some creeks, “you could literally walk across on the backs of Coho,” according to Grant McOmie, outdoors correspondent for a television news team in Portland. As the article states:

In 2007, one state office warned, “Populations of anadromous [or oceangoing] fish have declined dramatically all over the Pacific Northwest. Many populations of Chinook, Coho, chum and steelhead are at a tiny fraction of their historic levels.” The year before that, a naturalist in Seattle wrote: “It is hard to find the silver lining in a situation as dire as the collapse of wild salmon off the Oregon and California coasts.”

It turns out that the CW about salmon in Oregon is kind of fishy. This looks like a good opportunity for an enterprising homeless services provider in Portland to use the service delivery model I developed satirically in Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development. I’ll give you the acronym at no charge: Project FISH (Feed the Indigent/Salmon for Homeless). The grant writer for this proposal could make tidy use the old aphorism, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.”

It is almost never a good idea to go against your understanding of the presumed CW of the reviewers in writing a grant proposal. Not only do you have to stay inside in the box, as Jake wrote, you actually have to stay in a corner of the box. A case in point:

We’ve written lots of funded proposals for anti-tobacco/anti-smoking proposals over the years, particularly in California, which at one time had tons of money for such initiatives. About ten years ago, we were hired to write three proposals to prevent youth smoking in California by three different agencies for the same state RFP. While two of the clients were fairly typical youth service organizations, one was different. This nonprofit was interested in only working with white kids, which they deemed “Euro-Americans.” We almost never get good data sources from our clients, but this client provided peer-reviewed studies confirming that, with the exception of Native American youth, white teenagers in California were much more at risk for smoking than African American, Asian or Latino kids.

I told the client, however, that he would be going against CW about smoking and ethnicity and he would likely not be funded—especially if we wrote the proposal using the term “Euro-American” with a focus on white teenagers. He insisted, and we wrote it the way he wanted, using his terrific citations in one of the best needs assessments we’ve ever written. Not only was the proposal not funded, but it was also completely trashed in written reviewer comments our client later gave me. The reviewers were outraged that the agency would focus on white kids, instead of youth of color, and claimed a lack of data, despite the citations we included. In other words, their CW was so strong, they did not recognize the statistics provided right under their noses. The punch line is that the other two proposals we wrote for this competition focused on African American and Latino youth, respectively, used more or less the same service delivery approach as the first proposal and had entirely specious data that we cobbled together.

They were funded.

Now, about that discount. We’re willing to provide a 20% discount off our standard fee for a foundation appeal to the first qualified client who wants to fund an orphanage, salmon to feed the homeless or some other anti-CW project concept that we find intriguing. This means we’ll conduct basic research to identify a prospect list, complete detailed research to narrow down the list, write a foundation letter proposal (about five single spaced pages) and prepare 10 finished foundation proposals to the best identified sources for $5,600, a $1,400 discount from our standard fee of $7,000 for this type of assignment! If we get anyone to take us up on this offer, I’ll post updates on the outcome.**

* We were recently hired by a client in Owatonna, a small town about 40 miles south of Minneapolis. I have fond memories of Owatonna, since I used to go there frequently with my dad in the late 1950s to get live turkeys from a farm for our family kosher meat market. It was fun for a six-year-old to try to catch a turkey that was bigger than himself—with a poultry hook. Owatonna is also mentioned in one of Jake’s favorite childhood movies, Hot Shots. At the start of this hilarious parody, Charlie Sheen is Topper Harley, a troubled fighter pilot trying to recover his mojo in an Indian village, when a character speaks a series of faux Indian words that are actually town names in Minnesota, including Owatonna. The sequel, Hot Shots! Part Deux, is also lots of fun.

** The client must be a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Seliger + Associates will, at its sole discretion, determine if the client is qualified and the project concept is appropriate for this offer.

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January 2010 Links: Foundation Giving, Weatherization, Science, Borders, and More

* Drop in Foundation Giving May Be Steeper than Anticipated. Those of you who want a piece of the action should 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.

* You’ve gotta love the convoluted program titles used by the feds, or, in this case, the Department of Energy, which is offering “Recovery Act – Weatherization Assistance Program Training Centers And Programs grants.”

Whoever wrote the RFP also conflates goals and objectives. They should read Isaac’s post “The Goal of Writing Objectives is to Achieve Positive Outcomes (Say What?),” which is much clearer than its intentionally verbose title.

* It turns out that microfinance isn’t a silver bullet. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, microfinance involves making very small loans to very poor people in developing countries; Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank won a Nobel Peace Prize for inventing and/or popularizing the practice.

* One person wrote us an e-mail we responded to, and in a follow-up he said:

Thanks for the info, and I look forward to reading the blog post. I’ve learned more about grants and grant writing from reading your blog than I did earning my B.S. in Emergency Admin. and Planning.

Now that’s a compliment! Depressingly enough, the last section is probably true.

* Along the same lines as above, but from a Tweet: “Not to send business elsewhere, but I highly recommend this #grant newsletter: #foundations.”

* Megan McArdle says that jobs programs don’t work from a macroeconomic perspective:

Even if you could surmount union opposition, the federal government has an ever-increasing thicket of red tape that makes such a thing impractical. It takes months to get hired for a job with the federal government. It takes months to ramp up a new program. By the time you’d gotten your NWPA through Congress over strenuous union objections, appointed someone to head it, set up the funding and hiring procedures, and actually hired people, it would be 2011. Maybe 2012. Perhaps you could waive all the civil service and associated procedure surrounding federal hiring, but I don’t see how.

* will close for four days in February. When is the last time intentionally closed at all?

* Terrorists hurt America most by making it close its borders. In other words, the United States is doing more harm through its reaction to terrorism than the terrorism itself has done, in part because terrorism is highly visible, reported, and immediately obvious while the effects of making border crossing more difficult are diffuse and too seldom discussed.

* For Elderly in Rural Areas, Times Are Distinctly Harder. Do you suppose the reporter has seen or read The Last Picture Show?

* “[…] neither private or public sector efforts are going to take a significant bite out of the digital divide in the foreseeable future.” Sounds like a call for more grant programs. The only really awesome municipal broadband I’ve seen is in Monticello, Minnesota.

* “[Prostitution] involves a good or service (or whatever you want to call it) — sex — which, when undertaken for free by consenting adults is legal but which becomes illegal when money changes hands. Can you think of other goods and services that share this trait?

Me neither.

* In Latino Gardens, Vegetables, Good Health and Savings Flourish.

* Remember: If you apply for a grant program, you might actually win and then have to run said program. This comes up by way of “In Race for U.S. School Grants Is a Fear of Winning:” “One major concern is that should Illinois succeed in the national competition for Race to the Top money, it might not have the ability to finance the long-term costs of any new programs once the federal money has been spent.”

* Prohibition: A Cautionary Tale.

* Prisons or colleges? California “chooses” prisons because of structural issues relating to prison guards’ unions, politics, and laws, all of which interact with one another to produce a nasty outcome. See how at the link.

* Why public domain works matter.

* U.S. Keeps Science Lead, But Other Countries Gain. Compare this to Neal Stephenson’s excellent piece in the New York Times, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.”

* According to the New York Times: The Obama administration’s $75 billion program to protect homeowners from foreclosure has been widely pronounced a disappointment, and some economists and real estate experts now contend it has done more harm than good. They’re referring to the Making Home Affordable program.

* Why you should use the revolving doors.

* How China wrecked the Copenhagen talks. See also James Fallows’ excellent commentary.

* Manzi’s error: economic growth rate differences between America and Europe are almost entirely explained by population growth rate differences.

* “15th Century Greenland has something in common with IBM in 1980: a belief that historically successful behavior will succeed in the future.”

* A crime theory demolished (or at least altered):

The recession of 2008-09 has undercut one of the most destructive social theories that came out of the 1960s: the idea that the root cause of crime lies in income inequality and social injustice. As the economy started shedding jobs in 2008, criminologists and pundits predicted that crime would shoot up, since poverty, as the “root causes” theory holds, begets criminals. Instead, the opposite happened. Over seven million lost jobs later, crime has plummeted to its lowest level since the early 1960s. The consequences of this drop for how we think about social order are significant.

* News from Seattle: Rainier Beach High School anti-drug mentor also a dealer, police allege.

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Never Think Outside the Box: Grant Writing is About Following the Recipe, not Creativity

A New Yorker cartoon I like:

never think outside the box

If you write proposals, don’t be this cat.

Any time you’re writing to an RFP—which, for grant writers, is virtually all the time—you’re required to respond to the RFP. If the RFP says, “give services to 300 participants per year,” you should say in your proposal that you’re going to serve 300 participants per year, not 30 or 3,000. If the RFP says, “run a three-year program,” propose a three-year program, not a five-year program. I could go on indefinitely in this vein, but I shouldn’t have to. The point is simple: do exactly what the RFP says you should do. As a grant writing rat in an RFP Skinner Box, you get the treat (money) by pressing the bar (following RFP directions), not by running in circles trying to get out of the box.

Clients sometimes direct us not to do what the RFP says, even when we advise them that it is best to follow the RFP. Ignoring the RFP instructions almost guarantees they won’t be funded; Isaac has already written about one example in True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales:

Writing a YouthBuild proposal is very much a “cookbook” exercise in that the DOL pretty much tells applicants what they want applicants to do, and successful proposals have to regurgitate this stuff within the absurdly short page limit and the obtuse data required by the funder. In other words, if you want a YouthBuild grant, you should, as Rupee says, just Do the Damn Thing.

The clients for the four funded proposals listened to us, and we were able to craft compelling, technically correct proposals that warmed the stone-like hearts of the DOL reviewers. In contrast, our True Believer client had a vision of how she could use a YouthBuild grant to attack a whole slew of problems faced by at-risk youth in her rural community. Almost none of what she wanted to do, however, had anything to do with YouthBuild, and she fought us throughout the proposal development process. We did our best to make the proposal fundable to no avail. Despite her passion and commitment, no YouthBuild funds are available today to help the young folks she cares so much about.

A more recent example involved a Department of Education program in which the exact student cohorts to be served are mandated in RFP, as well as the underlying legislation and regulations. It doesn’t get any more specific than this. For reasons that were not made clear to us, our client insisted on removing one of the specified student cohorts from the draft proposal, even though we told him that he could save the postage, as the proposal will likely be deemed technically incorrect, which it is, and be thrown out before it is scored. This particular RFP also includes specific fill-in-the-blanks objectives, which were to be replicated word for word in the proposal. In the first draft, our client modified the wording of the objectives.

While some RFPs provide significant latitude in program design, many do not and are essentially cookbooks. If you have a cookbook RFP, follow the cookbook. For example, YouthBuild demands that participants being trained in the construction trades have on-site training experiences in the construction/rehabilitation of low-income housing, so you shouldn’t propose a retail mall as a training site, no matter how good an idea that might be to the Executive Director or Board. On a similar subject, remember that every question in the RFP applies to you, no matter how dumb it may seem, how repetitive it may be, or how little you think it should apply. I explain how this works in RFP Lunacy and Answering Repetitive or Impossible Questions.

Part of not thinking outside the box includes telling the funding agency what they want to hear. One such example is the infamous “sustainability” sections that many federal RFPs include, which we wrote about in detail here. These sections require applicants to state how they will sustain the project after federal funding ends. As Isaac said in the post:

For the vast majority of nonprofits applicants […] grants and donations [are the only viable financial resources available]. If we know this simple truth, how come foundation and federal program officers seem clueless? If the agency had the couple hundred thousand dollars sitting around to fund a given program, it wouldn’t need the grant and wouldn’t apply.

Furthermore, the major cost for most human service providers are staff salaries and other operating costs. So it’s improbable that you’ll just need a bunch of money to get off the ground; although startup costs are real, they’re still dwarfed by staffing and ongoing operations costs in most cases. There might be a hypothetical dream project out there, somewhere, that just needs that DHHS grant to get started and then can run indefinitely off of revenue, but we’ve never seen it.

If you don’t like an RFP’s inane restrictions, remember the golden rule, as articulated in Studio Executives, Starlets, and Funding: “He who has the gold makes the rules.”

Very occasionally, you have to invent a box for yourself because the funder hasn’t given it to you. Foundations will do this by not putting a maximum cap on requests and/or by having maddeningly opaque guidelines. In such cases, you should look at how much they’ve previously offered in funding; if they’ve historically made grants in the $10,000 – $50,000 range, asking for $400,000 is unlikely to work (for more on this topic, see my post “So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For?“).

Most of the time, however, you’ll be given a box, and if you step outside it, you’re not going to be praised like a precocious high school student. You’re going to be treated like a cat who’s decided to show its creativity by ignoring the litter box. The RFP is your litter box. Ignore it at your peril.

EDIT 1/25/2010: Isaac wrote a follow-up to this post regarding the importance of conventional wisdom, even when it’s wrong. Debunk conventional wisdom on your blogs and through your other writing. Repeat it in proposals.

EDIT 2: For another example of the principles above at work, see “What happens to doctors who think outside the box?” Answer: nothing good, much of the time. If you’re looking to understand the many problems in medicine, this is an excellent starting point, both for the specific event and for the general principles inferred from that event.