Monthly Archives: February 2010

Where Have All the RFPs Gone?

Subscribers to our Free Grant Alerts will probably have noticed relatively few large federal RFPs so far in this fiscal year, which began October 1. To paraphrase Peter, Paul & Mary, Where Have All The RFPs Gone?. I assume this dearth is because federal program officers are still churning through the tidal wave of Stimulus Bill proposals submitted in the last fiscal year. I predicted this problem in Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing and said . . .

Unfortunately, we don’t have a National Guard of Program Officers who train one weekend a month shuffling papers to be ready to answer the call. That means Federal agencies will find themselves up to their eyeballs in spending authority with existing staff levels pegged at much smaller budgets.

Since federal agencies are running their regular programs while trying to spend additional Stimulus Bill funding and implementing entirely new programs, one imagines that our cadre of GS 10s and 11s, who are supposed to move the endless paperwork associated with shoveling federal funds out the door, simply have not gotten around to the FY ’10 RFP processes.

For example, just about every LEA and youth services nonprofit is waiting breathlessly for the Department of Education’s enormous and well-publicized Investing in Innovations (i3) Fund to be issued. The i3 program website still says, “The Department of Education anticipates accepting applications in early 2010, with all applications due in early spring of 2010. The department will obligate all i3 funding by September 30, 2010.” Hmmmm. Early 2010 has come and gone, so there is no chance that having proposals due in “early spring” is going to happen. But the Department of Education will still try to obligate i3 funds by the end of the fiscal year. This means that when the i3 RFP is finally issued, it will be during a fantastically busy time because the Department of Education has not issued most of their other programs either.

One indicator of the likely chaos at the Department of Education: the planned competitions for the Talent Search (TS) and Education Opportunity Centers (EOC), two of the very large “TRIO Programs”, “have been delayed. At this time, the Department expects to have a closing date for TS and EOC applications in fall 2010.” No sign yet of the annual RFP process for the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) either. We’ve been hired to write several PEP proposals and have been told by clients that the RFP will be issued in early April. On the PEP website, the last “funding status” information is from 2006!

The Department of Education is not alone in being tardy this year. We have yet to see any of the 30 or so NOFAs that HUD issues every year, any SAMHSA RFAs, few Department of Labor SGAs and almost no Department of Energy FOAs. We are also waiting for the DHHS Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (OAPP) to issue the FY ’10 RFP for their new teen pregnancy program. It was funded in the DHHS departmental budget authorization last fall but has yet to emerge. This program will be sex education/family planning-based, rather than abstinence-based, which has been the federal funding focus in teen pregnancy in recent years.

We know OAPP is coming because one of our clients, for whom we have written funded abstinence-based grants was contacted by their OAPP Program Officer to encourage them to switch approaches and apply for the new program. We’ve been hired to write the proposal when OAPP awakes from its slumber. As is said in Jamaica, “Soon come.” Just for fun, follow this link to the DHHS “FY ’10 Grants Forecast Page” and see what you get. That’s right, a blank page! This is not unusual, as most federal agencies will not tell you in advance when RFPs will be issued.

While you’re waiting for FY ’10 RFPs to blossom, figure out what funds will be available for your organization in the next several months and do everything you can to get ready to write the proposals. For most federal programs, the application period this year will be short.

Take Time to Develop a Proposal Timeline

Many RFPs require that you include a timeline that will describe when your project will actually unfold—remember that the “when” section is part of the 5Ws and H. Even if the RFP writers forget to require a timeline, you should include one anyway, either under the “Project Description” or “Evaluation” sections because the timeline will clarify both your own thinking and the reviewer’s understanding of how you plan to sequence activities and achieve milestones.

Think of your project timeline as something like the timelines cops are always trying to establish in police procedurals. A shocking crime is committed—perhaps a socialite is killed. A rogue cop on the outs with the department is trying to solve the case. The night of the murder, the husband was at a charity ball, while the ex-husband was at the gym, while the husband’s jealous lover was at a taqueria. Could the husband have slipped away between the main course and the souffle? Did the ex-husband have time between 9:45 and 10:45 to slip out of the racquetball game, run over to the condo, and do the deed? In asking these questions, the cop is always trying to figure out if the crime is plausible. He—and he is almost always a “he”—is checking the believability of the tales he’s constructing. When you write a timeline for a proposal, you’re trying to do the same, only for the future. You’re trying to convince yourself, and the reviewer, that you’re believable in doing the job (except in this case the job is human services, not murder, for most nonprofit and public agencies).

Doing a timeline right requires a number of elements, including:

  • Startup Period: You probably can’t start delivering services on the day you execute the contract with the funder. Chances are good that you’ll need staff, training, space, and maybe more. Some RFPs will dictate how long your startup period should last, either from the notice of grant award or from the execution date of your contract. Usually they’ll demand somewhere around 90 days, which is fairly reasonable if it’s from the date you’ve executed your contract. Even if the funder doesn’t include a minimum or maximum startup period, you should. Unless otherwise directed by the RFP or client, we usually include a 90 day startup period.
  • Staff Recruitment/Assignment and Training: Make sure to provide for staff recruitment/assignment and preservice training in the startup period, as well as periodic or annual refresher training. Funders love professional development as much as mystery writers love plot twists, so serve it up in your timeline.
  • Outreach Start: Many if not most projects will involve some effort to get the word out to the target population. You’ll probably need to start outreach prior to the start of service delivery. Outreach is usually an ongoing activity; I might eventually write a post about everything that outreach should entail.
  • Project Oversight/Participant Committee: Most projects should have some form of participant, staff, and community oversight committee mentioned in their proposal. The formation and meeting facilitation of such committees should be reflected in the timeline.
  • Referral and Intake: Once you’ve made the target population and other providers aware of your project, you need some system for deciding who gets services and who doesn’t. Put referral and intake in between outreach and service delivery.
  • Services Start: Whatever services you’re providing should have a start date, often three months after the project begins. In many projects, service delivery is ongoing. In others, the referral/take process is done on a “batch” basis, repeating annually or periodically, rather than ongoing. This is how many job training programs work.
  • Evaluation: Your project should have some form of annual evaluation. The timeline should include some time for developing the evaluation criteria, conducting the evaluation and preparing/disseminating the evaluation reports.

Those are the basic elements for a human services timeline, like the one that might go with Isaac’s hypothetical Project NUTRIA. If you’re doing a capital campaign, you’d have a different set of milestones relating to construction, like permits, architecture, engineering, the commencement of construction, burying the body of Ralph “Ralphie” Cifaretto in the foundation for Tony Soprano, and so on, but the same basic idea would remain: you’d enumerate significant steps in your project, without going into too much minutia. Most of our of timelines are 10 – 15 rows, which is enough to give the general idea while avoiding specifics the client might not want to meet.

You also have to decide how to lay your timeline out. We used to make elaborate Visio drawings, and if we did the same thing today we’d use Omnigraffle Pro. But with the rise of online submissions, it’s too dangerous to use anything but tables in Word; now we usually make tables with three columns: the “date” column, with the number of project months it will take something to happen; a “milestone” column that will say something like “evaluation begins” and a “description” column that will say something like, “The evaluation, to be conducted by an expert evaluator selected through an open bidding process, will examine both process and outcome measures, as described in section 4.b.” If required by the RFP, we will also include a “responsibility” column or similar. For most projects, it’s absolutely not necessary, and is likely to time wasting and counter-productive, to use such professional scheduling software as Microsoft Project or Primavera. Such software will drive you nuts and, if embedded in a Word document, will probably bork the upload process.

Timelines don’t have to be extraordinarily complex, but they do have to match what you’ve written in other sections of the proposal. Internally inconsistent proposals will often be rejected because they fail to make sense, which is one danger of doing when you split a proposal among multiple writers (see more about this in “Stay the Course: Don’t Change Horses (or Concepts) in the Middle of the Stream (or Proposal Writing)“).

If you have no idea what should go into your timeline, it’s probably means your narrative lacks cohesion. Sometimes you’ll find that writing the timeline reminds you of something that should go elsewhere in the narrative, which is another use for them: back checking your own work, just as the cops in police procedures use timelines to make sure their own logic is sound. Your job might be slightly easier and less likely to leave a crazed serial killer on the loose, but it’s still important to do it well if you’re going to get the money.

How to Write About Something You Know Nothing About: It’s Easy, Just Imagine a Can Opener

One of the many interesting aspects of running a general-purpose grant writing firm is that we are often called upon to write complex proposals covering subjects about which we know little or nothing, as I discussed in No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer. In the interest of “transparency,” perhaps the most overused and least realized word of the last few years, here’s how this is possible.

Start by reading the RFP very carefully. In many cases, the RFP will say exactly what the applicant is supposed to do, as I described tangentially regarding the Department of Labor’s YouthBuild program in True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales. State RFPs for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC), a federal pass-through program from the Department of Education, often do the same thing. In such “cookbook” RFPs, precise descriptions of how the program should run, including detailed activities and metrics, are presented in plain, albeit bureaucratic, English. In extreme cases, simply copy the listed activities and re-write in breathless proposalese and, voila, you have your program description.

Occasionally, however, even mature cookbook programs like YouthBuild get updated, requiring going deeper than just reading the RFP recipe. For example, the last YouthBuild RFP in FY 2009 required for the first time that YouthBuild trainees be trained for “green jobs” and that labor-market information (LMI) be provided to support the need for these green jobs. Two minor problems: the RFP failed to provide a definition of green jobs. And states do not track such data because nobody knows what a green job is.

Don’t believe me? Google the phrase, “federal green job definition” and see what you get. I just did and found this hilarious or depressing, depending on your point of view, Christian Science Monitor article, Obama to create 17,000 green jobs. What’s a green job?. The article discusses President Obama’s recent announcement of “17,000 green jobs” being created. Then the article states, “Which is great, except that no one can count green jobs because, fundamentally, no one knows what a green job is.” Since I didn’t know what a green job was and apparently neither did the Department of Labor, for purposes of writing the YouthBuild proposals we completed last year, we simply referred to a lot of green-sounding jobs that we dreamed up (e.g., Weatherization Specialist, Solar Panel Installer, Wind Turbine Mechanic, etc.) and cobbled together vague LMI data to support our imaginary green job career paths (think phantom data). We must have done something right, as four out of the five proposals were funded.

Given the above, I was delighted when the Department of Energy recently released a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). Last year’s Stimulus Bill brought this program to life. WAP will fund training to prepare low-income people for careers as Weatherization Specialists. We squared the circle by writing a WAP proposal, even though we knew nothing about weatherization. We accomplished this slight-of-hand by looking at a link the DOE thoughtfully buried in the FOA for suggested curriculum for the training. A general knowledge of job training for hard-to-train participants and a quick re-write of the curriculum later, and the program description was extruded from our solar-powered proposal writing machine (we used to use diesel, but switched to solar to create more green jobs).

Here’s another example. We just completed writing a proposal for the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which funds fairly esoteric water quality research. Once again, we knew nothing about this topic. In an unusual circumstance, we actually received great technical content from the PI on the project, who is a biology professor at the public university which hired us. He was very skeptical about our ability as general purpose grant writers to write a scientific research proposal until I told him he just had to provide us with a bulleted list of the five W’s and the H. Then the light went on for him. I received a couple of pages of bullet points a few days later. We fired up the proposal machine and out popped the project description. After the PI read our second draft, he sent an e-mail that said, “I do think it [the proposal] is going together nicely.” Another convert to the Seliger method.

To summarize the above meandering, here is how one writes about an unfamiliar topic:

  • Look for clues in the RFP and any provided links.
  • Visualize how the project would work within the context of your individual life experiences. Even though I have no idea what a Weatherization Specialist does, I have plenty of experience in trying to keep the rain out of the several houses I owned in Seattle.
  • Use your imagination. I have no idea of how stream sampling is actually performed, but I guessed correctly that undergrads would dip little bottles into the stream and take copious field notes. The only thing that surprised me is that the notes are not entered into a handheld computer, but carefully written long hand in notebooks, just like in Charles Darwin’s day. Apparently, the lilly pad is not ready for the iPad.
  • Leave lots of blanks in your first draft for your client or whoever actually knows something about the project and is willing to read the draft, such as, “Stream sampling will be conducted on a _____ basis by ______________ at _________ locations by the light of the full moon.”*
  • Ask for technical content. If not, write the first draft with even more blanks, as above, and hope the content appears in the comments on the first draft. Should you not receive any technical content, write everything in generalities or guess. Since many proposals are reviewed by people with limited or no understanding of the topic, your guesses may get the job done.

No matter what strategies you use to write about a completely unfamiliar topic, the grant writer’s task is to provide a complete and technically responsive proposal, not run the program after the grant is awarded. So be creative! To illustrate the point, here is an old joke about traffic engineering consultants who develop statistical models that will predict how many people will turn left at a given intersection on Wednesday afternoon in 2030:

Two traffic engineers are stranded on a desert island with several hundred cans of food and no can opener. One looks at the other and says, “what should we do?” The other smiles and says, “imagine a can opener.”

Start imagining can openers and you will be fine.


* No, I would not actually put in “by the light of the full moon.” But since there is a dreadful remake in the theaters now of one of my favorite horror movies, The Wolfman, I was reminded of Lon Chaney, Jr. as the afflicted Larry Talbot, who is told that “even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Tools, Grant Writing, and Small Businesses: How to Buy a Phone System

When Seliger + Associates moved its intergalactic headquarters to Tucson, we also decided to buy a new phone system under the assumption that prices were relatively low and hiring someone to set up our old system again would prove sufficiently difficult and expensive to justify buying a new one.

Doing so is harder than it looks—just like buying a copy machine, which I explained at the link. Most of us, if we’ve worked in institutions or large business, are used to having a phone magically appear on our desks. But if we’re suddenly in a group of, say, five or ten, someone has to buy the phone system. This time around, that person was me.

There are a few basic strategies that small organizations can use for phones these days: (1) they can use their existing cell/mobile/home phones, (2) they can use Internet lines through outfits like Vonage, Skype, and Google Voice, (3) they can buy a Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) “box” through companies like Digium, or (4) they can buy a box that works with copper lines through Nortel, Avaya, and the like.

One of the biggest problems is simply understanding the difference among these approaches. Another is understanding the differences between a) the manufacturers of these systems and b) the vendors who actually sell / install them.

We ultimately went with option 4 and purchased an Avaya system that runs through plain old telephone system (POTS) lines. We did so largely because it’s probably the most reliable. In addition, we previously owned an ancient Avaya system and already had the mandatory, very expensive proprietary handsets. Here are the issues with the first three alternatives:

1) It’s tempting for small businesses and nonprofits to use personal phones as their primary business lines as well. Don’t do that if you can avoid it; if you don’t believe me, go read Personal Phone Numbers For Business, Yeah That Was A Mistake… on BigStartups.com. A quote:

[T]hrough the magic of the Internet and networked computer systems, contact information tends to get syndicated to dozens of places when it is first entered. Often it does not get updated when the original source does.

Once you start using personal numbers for business, it’ll be hard to stop. That’s one reason to get an 800 number if you’re facing customers: it will be portable wherever you might move. Our 800 number—800-540-8906, for those of you wondering—has followed Seliger + Associates from northern California to Seattle to Tucson. If you use personal numbers, people will also be able to figure out that you’re primarily using cell phones, and you’ll look unprofessional or amateurish. Also, do you really want to field fevered phone calls from crazed clients at 3:00 A.M.?

2) Consumer VoIP outfits like Vonage, Skype, and Google Voice have problems of their own. Vonage customer service is notoriously terrible. Skype is okay, especially for international calls, but doesn’t transfer calls from receptionist areas to back areas easily, doesn’t have professional voicemail (as far as I know), and has no real customer service when something breaks. Google Voice requires existing phone lines. All of these problems can be overcome, but if the overriding goal is never to have to think about phones, this isn’t the way to go.

3) Outfits like Digium are okay, and its vendors sell boxes that sit somewhere in your office. You plug existing landlines in or set them up boxes with Internet access. These systems are slightly less expensive than the solution we went with, but it was harder to find vendors for this, and we didn’t want to have the same points of failure for Internet access and phones. In other words, even if there is a power outage that takes down Internet service, we still have an option, since phone systems using POTS lines like Avaya will still produce a dial tone at the point where the POTS lines go into the Avaya box.

That left us with copper providers.

Phone systems have a zillion features; look at some of them here, although beware that the link goes to a vendor website. As I said earlier, perhaps the hardest part of dealing with phones involves finding out who sells them: the big manufacturers are Avaya, Nortel, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Mitel. The best way to start getting prices is by searching for “Avaya Vendor,” “Nortel Vendor,” and so on in Google. Then call the manufacturer to find a local vendor. These pages are probably going to be hard to navigate and understand. Once you have a list of resellers, you’ll have to call each one for a quote. Some manufacturers have multiple vendors in your area. You’ll need to know things like:

* How many lines you want.
* How many handsets you need.
* How far you might need your system to expand—will you need four lines, or forty?
* How many voicemail boxes do you need?
* The number of technicians and/or service people the vendor has, along with their location.
* The cost of a 36 month lease, a 60 month lease, and whether it’s a regular lease or a “fair market value” lease.
* The bottom line cost of outright purchasing a system.
* Installation fees.
* The warranty.
* Timing—when can it be installed?

Once you start asking these questions, you’ll be inundated with information and quotes that are hard to compare. You should build a spreadsheet in Excel or another spreadsheet program. Mine has about 30 rows and 12 columns. In addition, almost all of this has to be done by phone: that’s why it will probably take at least a full day of work just to get bids, understand the systems you’re dealing with, and figure out who the vendors in your area are.

If you’ve read this, however, you at least have a place to start and know a few of the questions you’ll want to ask. Perhaps the best thing you can do is ask a lot of questions of your local vendors and preface those questions with, “I’ve never done this before, so explain the choices in terms a novice can understand.” (You can also ask questions in the comments section of this post.) Like car dealers, some vendors will try to upsell you, or tell you that you need more of a system than you think you do. By the same token, as with car dealers, patience and fortitude might be the difference of thousands of dollars. Like a car, you will live with your small business phone system for years, so take the time to get it right.

What Three Years of Grant Writing Looks Like

Two days ago, Isaac told me his keyboard was broken. Yesterday, I stopped by the office to take a look and try cleaning it. This, gentle reader, is what I found; more sensitive individuals may wish to avert their eyes:

dirty_mac_keyboard

That’s three years of proposal-writing detritus beneath the keys, as well as a warning about the hazards of Diet Coke and Trader Joe’s trail mix. Hundreds of proposals have probably been written over the course of this keyboard’s life.

Consider yourself warned, and educated too: if you have a keyboard that isn’t functioning properly, you can pop the keys off using a butter knife. Submerge them in soapy water, agitate, rinse the keys, and leave them to dry overnight. Clean the board itself with a q-tip or paper towel, taking care not to get inside the key wells themselves. Don’t submerge the board, which might harm its electronics. Then reattach the keys.

In Isaac’s case, the keyboard works. This is doubly good because he likes the Apple wireless keyboard depicted, but Apple no longer sells this model. Now the company offers chiclet keyboards, so finding the older white ones isn’t easy.

(I, on the other hand, preferred the One True Keyboard, or the IBM Model M, until I tried the Kinesis Advantage. People who spend a lot of time typing are apt to have strong opinions about their keyboards.)