Monthly Archives: March 2010

Links: Middle America, phony grant writers, federal spending, and more

* The decline of Middle America and the problem of meritocracy has some observations about small towns similar to what Isaac wrote in “Blue Highways: Reflections of a Grant Writer Retracing His Steps 35 Years Later.”

* Deficit Hawk Turns Dove at Home:

Mr. Conrad’s career shows how hard it is to trim spending, even for those committed to beating down the deficit. Lawmakers from both parties routinely scramble to protect or increase funding for home-state projects. Not since 1965 has Congress approved a budget smaller than the prior year’s.

Emphasis added. Budgets have been expanding for the last 45 years, although I doubt that number is adjusted for inflation.

* Scary, yet fascinating: “A Nation of Racist Dwarfs: Kim Jong-il’s regime is even weirder and more despicable than you thought.”

* The Seattle Times says a phony grant writing scam was operating in the city.

* The Fall of the House of Kennedy links current politics to JFK’s executive order that allowed the unionization of the federal workforce.

* I’ve seldom read a more hilarious yet intellectually engaged post than Miley Cyrus and American Exceptionalism.

* “But green jobs have become the ginseng of progressive politics: a sort of broad-spectrum snake oil that cures whatever happens to ail you.” And remember that no one appears to know what precisely a green job is.

* How Nokia helped Iran “persecute and arrest” dissidents.

* “What’s a Degree Really Worth?” The answer might be “not as much as you think;” still:

Most researchers agree that college graduates, even in rough economies, generally fare better than individuals with only high-school diplomas. But just how much better is where the math gets fuzzy.

But the article doesn’t deal with a) how much different majors earn and b) what students gain outside of mere earning power, which might not translate directly into money. The first is particularly significant: hard science majors tend to make way more than liberal arts majors like me.

* More gangs use Twitter, Facebook, apparently not realizing that both services track your IP address and leave law enforcement an easy evidence trail.

(I can imagine the headline from The Onion: “Area Gang Issues Threats in 140 Characters or Less.”)

* “The Real Danger of Debt: The United States is deep in the red — and doesn’t have the political tools to get out.”

* Tony Judt on “Girls! Girls! Girls!,” which is actually about academic sexual politics a la Blue Angels and Straight Man.

* TSA arrests a student for having Arabic flash cards. Something must be very, very wrong with that institution.

* Rethinking [Dumb] Sex Offender Laws for Teenage Texting.

* Worries about drugs in “middle-class America” have persisted for decades—at least since the 1960s, as Eric Schlosser shows in Reefer Madness. Here’s the latest: “
A lethal business model targets Middle America
: Sugar cane farmers from a tiny Mexican county use savvy marketing and low prices to push black-tar heroin in the United States.”

Isaac recently finished a book named Methland that describes the spectacularly negative impact of meth on small towns in the Midwest.

* The Wall Street Journal says that “Mergers, Closings Plague Charities.” But why would nonprofits having financial difficulties during the Great Recession be surprising? Even though the Conventional Wisdom is that charities “collaborate,” in reality they compete for grants, donations, volunteers, etc. Just like businesses, some with fall or rise in the face of uncertain economic times.

Rock Chalk, Collapse: Another Grant Writing Lesson from Basketball as Seen in the Investing in Innovation (i3) and Administration for Native Americans Social and Economic Development Strategies (ANA SEDS) Programs

For KU basketball fans, the unthinkable happened yesterday. Our beloved Jayhawks, pre-season Number One and end-of-season Number One in the polls, winner of the Big 12 regular season and tournament and picked by the Bracketologist-in-Chief, President Obama, to win the NCAA championship, lost in the second round to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). Despite all the predictions and prognostications over the past year, KU still had to win its tournament games but ran into a feisty foe in 9th seeded UNI and lost.

Faithful readers will remember that I drew lessons for grant writers from KU’s spectacular championship win two years ago in Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, KU! — Lessons from Basketball for Grant Writers. There is also a significant lesson to be learned from KU’s improbable flop this year. Although KU has been the favorite all year, the would-be NCAA champion must win six games in a row, sometimes against teams like UNI that haven’t gotten the memo saying they can’t win. The same phenomenon often happens in grant writing. Two cases on point:

* Our new-old friend, Investing in Innovation Fund (i3): We’ve blogged about i3 several times. This is an enormous program with huge grants that has been tantalizing LEAs and youth services nonprofits since the Stimulus Bill passed last year. I’ve had lots of recent calls along the lines of, “Will our organization have any chance of funding, since there’ll be so many applicants?” My usual response is more or less the following:

Sure, at this moment, 5,000 organizations probably think they will apply. By the time the May 11 deadline arrives, 2,000 of these will have given up, so maybe 3,000 applications will go in. Since the RFP is fantastically complex, about half of the submitted applications will be thrown out as technically incorrect. The Department of Education says 220 grants will be made. Instead of an individual applicant’s odds of being funded being 4.4%, the odds are probably three times higher, or 14.6%.

But this assumes that all scored applicants have the chance of being funded, which is of course not true, as funding decisions involve lots of factors other than raw scores, such as geography, politics, service to racial and ethnic groups, past funding history and on and on. Nonetheless, many applicants will be scared away because of the assumed competition. About two weeks ago, I received a call from the development director of a large ethnic-specific advocacy organization headquartered in D.C., with affiliates around the country. He told me the organization planned to submit three i3 proposals and I gave him the fee quotes.

This week, he called me back to let me know that for internal reasons, they’ve decided to not submit any i3 proposals, even though the Department of Education has informally encouraged them to apply. This is an example of three of the 5,000 possible applications melting away before the deadline. The same pattern is unfolding across the country and who know how many other organizations will give up before May 11.

* Our old-old friend, the Administration for Native Americans Social and Economic Development Strategies (ANA SEDS) Program: This program has been around for decades and we’ve written lots of funded ANA SEDS grants over the years. For whatever reason, when the ANA SEDS FOA was issued a few weeks ago, there turned out to only be $6,500,000 available, which is substantially less in previous years. Right on schedule, I received a phone call from the executive director of a Native American organization who wanted a fee quote but was concerned about whether they should apply because “there is so little money available this year.” I asked her if she thought other possible applicants would also be discouraged by the small amount of money up for grabs. She said yes and I said she had answered her own question: the small amount available probably means fewer applicants, improving her chances. She hired us.

Whether there is lot of money (i3) or little money (ANA SEDS) to be had in a given RFP process, don’t be discouraged if it is a program that your organization wants to run (and read our previous two posts on the subject). No matter what the imagined odds, apply anyway. Just as teams have to play the games to win the NCAA Tournament, your organization cannot get a grant unless a technically correct and compelling proposal is prepared and submitted on time.

Poor little UNI could have forfeited the game in the face of mighty KU, but they played well enough to win on that particular day, even though they probably will lose the next ten in a row. David only needed one well placed stone to take down Goliath, and your organization only needs one well prepared proposal to bag a big federal grant. Although I am a KU fan, if I was scoring yesterday’s game in the way a reviewer scores a federal proposal, I would have given the game to UNI, even if KU had caught them at the end, because they played a better game.

Grant Notes: Foundation Funders Find Us and the Helping Organizations and Programs Expand (HOPE III)

Something unusual happened recently. Actually, it’s not just unusual, but unprecedented. In the 12 years we’ve been sending out our e-mail grant newsletter, no funder has written to point out their RFP or program. Last week, not just one, but two of them did. It would be more accurate to say that some kind of PR firms hired by the foundations contacted us, but even so, I’m impressed and surprised because in all the years we’ve been putting together the grant newsletter, we’ve had to do all the research necessary to find the RFPs contained in it each week.

If this week marks a permanent change, it will certainly be for the better: readers will find out about grant opportunities they might have otherwise missed, while foundations will (hopefully) receive better applications than they otherwise would have.

Still, in “Foundations and the Future” I wrote that “we’ve never been called by funders asking how the process might be improved is zero. Never. Not once.” That’s still true, but maybe at some point that will change too.

On a separate note, I’d like to make an entry in the annals of poorly named programs: what might you guess the Helping Organizations and Programs Expand (HOPE III) program does? I didn’t have the slightest idea; HUD’s HOPE VI program funds the redevelopment of public housing projects, so I thought perhaps HOPE III would be related.

But I was wrong: instead, HOPE III is about studying crime victims. This is one reason we have a headline/teaser at the top of each grant in the newsletter: we try to pithily describe what each grant does, so you’ll be able to figure out if you want to actually apply for it, rather than hiding its purpose in the description or a nondescript name. Now that we have pegged HOPE III and HOPE VI, perhaps a knowledgeable reader can let us know what happened to HOPEs I, II, IV, V, and so on.

The Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) Notice Inviting Applications Finally Appears

NOTE: The Notices Inviting Applications (NIA) for Fiscal Year 2011 are now available. It took the Department of Education a year and three months to issue the second round, but I suppose that’s better than never.

Subscribers to our e-mail grant newsletter saw that the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) RFP was (finally) released on Friday by the Department of Education, with a deadline of May 11. We’ve already written about i3 twice, including a post about its similarity to other Department of Education programs, like Goals 2000. We’ve also found one nasty trick in the RFP in our first reading.

Virtually every Department of Education RFP has a section at the start that clearly states what types of organizations are eligible applicants. This one doesn’t. Instead, the i3 RFP says on page 8 of 29 that:

Applicant means the entity that applies for a grant under this program on behalf of an eligible applicant (i.e., an LEA or a partnership in accordance with section 14007(a)(1)(B) of the ARRA).

What’s a partnership? Are nonprofits on their own eligible? If you find section 14007 in the American Recovery and Relief Act full text, you’ll see that the legislation is completely clear that an eligible entity is:

(A) a local educational agency; or
(B) a partnership between a nonprofit organization and—
(i) one or more local educational agencies; or
(ii) a consortium of schools.

(Emphasis added.)

So an LEA has to be involved for a nonprofit to apply, but presumably several schools could apply even if their respective districts were not involved in the project. Interesting, but curious. The text at the very beginning of the RFP lists the entities blockquoted above but doesn’t specifically say they are the eligible organizations. There are probably other gotchas too, despite the fact that ARRA was passed in February 2009. We first wrote about i3 in November 2009. The proposals won’t be reviewed until July 2010—almost 18 months after ARRA, which was designed to provide immediate stimulus fund to the economy, passed in Congress.

Another notable aspect to the i3 application process is that the grant writer has to understand the relevant sections of 407-page ARRA, the 29-page RFP, the 76-page application with lots of complex forms, and (get ready for it) the 212-page Final Priorities Notice. While i3 is a great opportunity with tons of money up for grabs, preparing a technically correct proposal will be fantastically complicated and not for the faint-of-heart or inexperienced grant writer. If you’ve never written a Dept. of Education proposal before, this is not a good starter. Isaac uses three monitors as a matter of course; I use two; but you probably need five to have all these documents open at once. Writer beware.

How Not to Get a Grant

Usually I write posts about how to get grants. Today I thought I would give some surefire ways to not get a grant . . .

  • Call/email/meet with a field deputy in the office of your senator, congressperson, governor, mayor, or city councilperson. Regardless of the project idea, the field deputy will be polite, encouraging, tell you how much the elected official would be willing to support your project, and give you vague generalities about grant programs. They will not, however, tell you to apply for program x, which is due on date y. Instead, they will spin Tales of Brave Ulysses, pat you on the head and send you off to make room for the next supplicant. In other words, you won’t get a grant, but you will have a new feeling of self-importance and, likely, an invitation to the politician’s next fund raiser.
  • Apply to government programs for which your organization is not eligible because you think the funder will recognize the critical importance of your project concept. The funder will throw out your proposal, but you will have achieved the high moral ground by Speaking Truth to Power, or as the Firesign Theater put it, providing Shoes for Industry.
  • Find the contact information for tons of foundations and send the same proposal to 100 foundations without looking at their guidelines. All of your proposals will be tossed without being read because you did not respond to what the funder wants, but you will have that same sense of satisfaction one gets from reorganizing one’s book/CD/shoe collection. You can also impress your board members by telling them how many proposals you submitted over the weekend and how bleary-eyed you are.
  • Fail to include attachments required by the RFP/guidelines because you think the requirement is dumb or is too much work. Also, ignore signature pages and the frequent requirement for a “wet signature”. Instead, depend on the funder giving you the benefit of the doubt, which they won’t do.
  • Include lots of unrequested stuff, like the ever-popular client testimonials, awards and newspaper clippings. And, don’t forget that DVD of your appearance on Oprah. This will demonstrate your inability to read guidelines, making it very easy for the initial reviewer to toss your proposal over their shoulder before it is read or scored.
  • Propose that you will use the requested grant to make grants to others. This way, you’ll be telling the funder that you should decide how their money is used. After all, why would a foundation that gives scholarships not want your organization to stand between them and needy students?
  • Submit a 40-page full proposal to a foundation that requests a two-page letter of inquiry because you couldn’t possibly summarize your brilliant project concept. You fail to remember that perhaps the greatest speech ever delivered is Lincoln’s 256 word Gettysburg Address. A foundation program officer who receives 50 proposals every week certainly wants to spend several hours savoring your profundities.
  • Propose using virtually the entire grant as a subcontract to another organization or vendor. This will make the funder understand that the role of your organization is to do nothing but apply for the grant and hand over the money to someone else to run the program. This is exactly what funders want in a grantee—complete abdication of organizational responsibility.
  • For electronic submissions, create fantastically complex files with embedded pictures, charts, etc., and make sure the file size exceeds 10 mb. Always wait until five minutes before the deadline before uploading. This way, you are virtually guaranteed to create corrupted files, which cannot be uploaded in time to meet the deadline. Then you can contact the funder and weep about the unfairness of the process, which they will ignore.
  • For paper submissions, use fancy binders, lots of color, and spend an inordinate amount of time on the presentation package. This will ensure that the funder realizes you don’t need the money and that you can focus on all the wrong aspects of grant writing by concentrating on style over substance.

I could go on with lots of other ways to ensure that your organization will not be funded, but you probably get the idea by now. If you actually want to get funded, read the technical posts we’re written and watch for future tips. Prepare the application according to the funder’s guidelines, no matter how obtuse. Learn how to write. Practice for years. Then you’ll know about the pitfalls listed above.

A WSJ Article Illustrates the Program Officer Problem

I just posted “Where Have All the RFPs Gone?,” in which I speculated that the lateness of federal RFPs this fiscal year is probably due to the fact that overworked program officers are still chewing through last year’s proposals. Imagine my surprise when I read “Staffing Woes Hinder Job-Boosting Program” by Michael Aneiro in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. He discovered a HUD program that is way behind in reviewing applications because of a lack of staff to do the reviews.

Even better, while HUD has more money than usual for this Federal Housing Administration (FHA) program, an appropriation for additional staff was not made, so the same number of program officers, fiscal officers and lawyers have to do vastly more work. Since federal employees do not work by the piece, the same number of reviewers have to review more applications, which means they get stuck in the system. All of this will eventually be digested, even as hundreds of new FY ’10 RFPs are published in the coming months.