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Teenage Pregnancy Prevention and the Replication of Evidence-based Programs: the Research and Demonstration Programs and Personal Responsibility Education Program are Two RFPs that Provide a “Madeleine Moment” for a Grizzled Grant Writer

Everyone has a Madeleine Moment from time to time, when a breakfast pastry or, for an old grant writer, an RFP, sends one into a reverie. I experienced a Madeleine Moment recently when the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) issued two RFPs, one for Teenage Pregnancy Prevention: Replication of Evidence-based Programs and one for Replication of Evidence-based Programs and Teenage Pregnancy Prevention: Research and Demonstration Programs and Personal Responsibility Education Program.

There’s nothing like $100 million for the same old teen pregnancy prevention ideas that I used to write proposals about during the latter days of the Nixon administration to get the juices flowing. When we started Seliger + Associates 17 years ago, there was still lots of money for teen pregnancy prevention programs that provided “medically accurate” information, like the requirements of the two new RFPs. “Medically accurate” is a euphemism for teaching about family planning, which is also a euphemism for teaching about contraception, condoms, and birth control pills. In the old days, referral for what was termed “clinical services” (e.g., family planning services, which meant birth control pills) was typically mandatory.

About ten years ago, the pendulum shifted and suddenly there was no more money for the medically accurate/clinical referral approach to teen pregnancy prevention project concepts. We started writing endless “abstinence” education proposals instead, in which birth control could never be mentioned and clinical referrals could never be made.

The new RFPs, compared to old version of medically accurate RFPs, do not want information on clinical referrals for the teens. So the proposal can discuss how the young folk will be told about birth control and family planning but not actually mention how they might actually receive birth control services. To be charitable to the GS 11s who wrote these RFPs, both include the following coded statement:

As appropriate and allowable under Federal law, applicants may provide teenage pregnancy prevention related health care services and/or make use of referral arrangements with other providers of health care services(e.g., substance abuse, alcohol abuse, tobacco cessation, family planning, mental health issues, intimate partner violence), local public health and social service agencies, hospitals, voluntary agencies, and health or social services supported by other federal programs (e.g., Medicaid, SCHIP, TANF) or state/local programs.

Note that “family planning” is stuck randomly between “tobacco cessation” and “mental health issues”. Reminds me of the scene in American Graffiti in which Toad is trying to buy booze for the blond bombshell he just met and says to the suspicious store clerk, “Let me have a Three Musketeers, and a ball point pen, and one of those combs there, a pint of Old Harper, a couple of flash light batteries and some beef jerky.” Why is referral for family planning, arguably the most important aspect of teen pregnancy prevention, not required and only mentioned once in a laundry list of referral services in the RFPs? Because the unstated but obvious implication is that family planning (clinical) referrals mean not only birth control pills for the young ladies, but possibly referrals for “you know what” if the birth control fails.

Writing one of these proposals is a bit of a Kabuki exercise. For staff who actually run supportive services programs for teens, this obfuscation about family planning and Title X is nonsense, since they know the feds actually spend about $300 million dollars annually funding “family planning” services under Title X of the Public Health Service Act. And they have since 1980. Over 4,500 family planning clinics, many run by Planned Parenthood, receive federal funding for birth control and related services, but you’d never know it from these two new OAH RFPs, which pretend Title X doesn’t exist.

We’re writing a few of these new-fangled (or new-old-fangled) teen pregnancy prevention proposals, which for us just means taking a short stroll down memory lane to The Thrilling Days of Yesteryear!.* I don’t have a dog in the “medically accurate” versus “abstinence” versus “clinical referral” fight and don’t wish to raise the ire of advocates with this post. I’m just a grizzled grant writer who wants to help you young whippersnappers out there understand that grant writing moves in waves, as Jake describes at the link. What was old is new again and whatever you’re writing today, you’ll write again someday, when the pendulum inevitably swings back.

*As far as I am concerned, Clayton Moore will always be the one and true Lone Ranger. Hi Yo Silver, Away!

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The Real World and the Proposal World

In the Ghostbusters movie, there’s a scene where Ray (played by Dan Aykroyd) tells Gozer to get off an apartment building. He then makes a critical mistake:

Gozer: [after Ray orders her to re-locate] Are you a God?
[Ray looks at Peter, who nods]
Dr. Ray Stantz: No.
Gozer: Then… DIE!
[Lightning flies from her fingers, driving the Ghostbusters to the edge of the roof and almost off; people below scream]
Winston Zeddemore: Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say “YES”!

(I’ve yet to have anyone ask me if I’m a god, but I’ve definitely got my answer prepared.)

Ray’s focus on the immediate truth is an error given his larger purpose, which, if I recall correctly from hazy memories, has something to do with closing inter-dimensional portals that let the ghost world or hell or something like that open into our world. Bear in mind I probably haven’t seen Ghostbusters since childhood, but I did see it about 75 times. Before the Ghostbusters can close the portal, the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man arrives and is about 20 stories tall, causing a great deal of screaming and running on the part of New Yorkers, who get their own opportunity to flee from the equivalent of Godzilla.

Anyway, the important thing isn’t just the trip down memory lane, but Ray’s key mistake: thinking that he should give a factual answer, rather than a practical answer. The grant writing world has a similar divide, only we deal with the “real world” and the “proposal world.” The real world roughly corresponds to what a funded applicant will actually do if they’re funded by operating the program. The proposal world refers to what the RFP requires that the applicant say she’ll do, along with a stew of conventional wisdom, kabuki theater, prejudice flattering, impractical ideas nicely stated, exuberant promises, and more.

Astute readers will have noticed that we keep referring to the proposal world in various posts. A few examples:

  • From What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals?: “In the proposal world where Seliger + Associates lives, collaborations are omnipresent in our drafts, and we spin elaborate tales of strategic planning and intensive involvement in development of project concepts, most of which are woven out of whole cloth to match the collaborative mythology that funders expect […]”
  • From Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun: “In many if not most human services RFPs, you’ll find an unintentionally hilarious section that neatly illustrates the difference between the proposal world and the real world: demanding to know how the project will be sustained beyond the end of the grant period.”
  • From Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation: “In the proposal world, the grant writer states that data will be carefully tracked and maintained, participants followed long after the project ends, and continuous improvements made to ensure midcourse corrections in programs when necessary […] In the real world of grants implementation, evaluations, if they are done at all, usually bear little resemblance to the evaluation section of the proposal, leading to vague outcome analysis.”
  • From Know Your Charettes!: “Once again, I’m sure more nonprofits write about PACs than actually run them, but the proposal world is not always identical to the real world, which is one reason I was so surprised to read about the design charrette I linked to in the first paragraph.”

In all these examples, the proposal world entails telling the funder what they want to hear, even if what they want to hear doesn’t correspond all that well to reality.

Funders want to imagine that programs will continue when funding ends, but if a funding stream disappears, it’s not easy to replace; as Isaac said last week, “[…] it is vastly easier to form new nonprofits than it is to find millionaires and corporations to set up foundations to fund the avalanche of new nonprofits.” There are more nonprofits chasing millionaires to keep programs going than there are millionaires to fund those programs.

Evaluations that really matter demand lots of advanced math training and scrupulous adherence to procedures that most nonprofits just don’t have in them (don’t believe me? Read William Easterly’s What Works in Development?: Thinking Big and Thinking Small). The extensive community planning that most RFPs demand is too time and cost intensive to actually undergo. Besides, who is going to be opposed to another after school or job training program? The answer, of course, is no one.

In the proposal world, elaborate outreach efforts are necessary to make the community aware of the proposed project. In the real world, almost every provider of services is so overwhelmed with people who want those services that, even with additional funding, the provider still won’t be able to accept everyone who might be helped.

In the proposal world, everyone in the community gets a voice and a chance to sit on the Participant Advisory Council (PAC). In the real world, even if someone is sitting on the council and espouses a radical new idea, the constraints of the proposal requirements (“you must serve a minimum of 200 youth with three hours of academic and life skills training per year, using one of the approved curricula…”) means that idea will probably languish. Also, the PAC is likely to meet a few times every year instead of every month to provide “mid-course corrections,” as promised in the proposal.

If you’re a grant writer or an applicant who has hired a grant writer, your job is to get the money, and getting the money means being able to distinguish between the proposal world and the real world and present the former as it should be presented. This doesn’t mean that you should be stealing the money in the real world (hint: a Ferrari is probably not necessary for client transport and Executive Director use) or wildly misusing it (hint: skip claiming the Cancun Spring Break extravaganza as “research”), but it does mean that there’s a certain amount of assumed latitude between what’s claimed and what is actually done.

Many grant novices fail to understand this or experience cognitive dissonance when they read an RFP that makes wildly implausible demands. Once you realize that the RFP makes those demands because it’s dealing with the proposal world, as imagined by RFP writers, rather than the real world, as experienced by nonprofit and public agencies, you’ll be much happier and much better able to play the proposal world game.

When someone from the proposal world asks, “Are you a god?” the answer is always “yes,” even if you’re actually just a guy with a silly contraption strapped to your back who is desperately trying to save the world.

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So What Are You Supposed to do to Respond to the Community Resilience and Recovery Initiative (CRRI) program RFP?

Subscribers to our email Grant Alert Newsletter will see a link to the Community Resilience and Recovery Initiative (CRRI), which is a program designed to provide “Grants to strength families, communities, and the workforce through appropriate, evidence-based interventions.” What does that mean applicants should actually propose to do?

You won’t really find out based on SAMHSA’s grant announcement, which says that you’re supposed to do things like “Reduce depression and anxiety” and “Reduce excessive drinking (and other substance use if the community chooses)” without saying how that is to be done. In other words, whoever wrote the announcement page forgot to answer the 5Ws and H.

From SAMHSA’s page you can download the application kit file, which has lots and lots of stuff about how important evidence is (“The CRRI will use a place-based strategy to implement multiple evidence-based interventions targeted to four levels in the community”), and how important strengthening communities are (“The intent of the program is to help communities mobilize to better manage behavioral health issues despite budgetary cuts in existing services and to promote a sense of renewal and resilience”), and so on, but no definitions of what it means to “promote a sense of renewal and resilience.” Grants are for $1.4 million—maybe you should use that for 20 giant potlucks.

In reading through the RFP, you’ll find several references to “Section I-2.2.” If you search for “2.2,” you’ll finally find what SAMHSA actually wants you to implement:

  • Triple P – Positive Parenting Program
  • Strengthening Families Program
  • Families and Schools Together
  • The JOBS Program
  • Coping with Work and Family Stress
  • Coping and Support Training (CAST)

In other words, it wants a mix of supportive family and jobs services. Even then, the RFP doesn’t tell you what these various programs entail—instead, it tells you go visit yet another website. If you want to figure out what SAMHSA actually wants you to do, you’ll have to drill through at least three levels of cruft: the announcement itself, the RFP, and then the highly intuitive “National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) Web site.”

Alas, the National Registry website isn’t easily reduced to a description appropriate for the newsletter. That’s why you’ll find our somewhat vague description in our newsletter, which mirrors the vagueness of the RFP itself. It seems to me that CRRI is really just Walking Around Money to do “something about substance abuse” for the big cities and counties that are eligible for this odd program.

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What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point

Among the many oddities of writing proposals is that most RFPs require that the applicant demonstrate extensive collaborations or form partnerships. I don’t know why RFPs demand this, because it is unlikely that a collaboration between McDonald’s and Burger King would result in a better burger (McWhopper?). The feds specifically preclude businesses from “collaborating” through a host of laws designed to protect competition. But in the world of nonprofits and public agencies, alleged collaborations and partnerships are demanded.

A case in point is the Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training Program, for which we are writing a proposal on behalf of a very large community college district. This SGA (“Solicitation of Grant Availability,” since DOL disdains the pedestrian term, “RFP”) has a long-winded section on required “partnerships and strategic planning” for a competitive proposal. What makes this funny is that the primary applicants for this program are community colleges, which are key local training providers and presumably have the capacity to simply operate yet another training effort all by themselves.

Our client, for example, has over 100,000 students in dozens of certificate and degree programs. Why would a community college district like this need to collaborate with any other entity, especially considered the administrative overhead necessary, unless it was in a mood to do so? All colleges and universities compete constantly with one another for students, endowments, star faculty, state and private operating funds, grants and, for that matter, high quality basketball players. In preparation for tonight’s NCAA Championship Game, I don’t think Duke’s crusty and cagey Coach K will have met with Butler’s young phenom coach Brad Stevens to discuss a collaborative game plan or share recruiting ideas for the incoming class.

In the proposal world where Seliger + Associates lives, collaborations are omnipresent in our drafts, and we spin elaborate tales of strategic planning and intensive involvement in development of project concepts, most of which are woven out of whole cloth to match the collaborative mythology that funders expect (remember: your grant story needs to get the money). In many ways, grant writers are myth makers, or maybe more appropriately myth tellers, sort of like West African “griot” who pass on ancestral knowledge, albeit in written rather than verbal form. At some point, I’ll write a long post on grant writer as myth teller, but in the context of collaboration, this particular myth only goes back about 20 years or so.

I don’t recall any interest among funders in having nonprofits collaborate with each other when I first started writing human services proposals in the early 1970s. The first whiff of collaboration I encountered was something called the “A-95 Review Process” when I was the Grants Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, CA in the late 70’s. This Carter-era gem required local governments to circulate their draft grant proposals to other government agencies for review and comment before submission, which made pre-computer grant writing deadlines really hard to meet. In LA, this function was handled by the wonderfully named SCAG (Southern California Association of Governments), which published a weekly compendium of proposed grant applications. A-95 was supposed to encourage cities to collaborate with each other. At Lynnwood, we reviewed the SCAG A-95 bulletin closely to see if we could screw up a competing city’s proposal by commenting and forcing them to respond in hopes of getting them to blow the deadline, while we got ours in on time. Competing cities responded in kind, so this attempt at intergovernmental cooperation quickly devolved into a farce.

In 1982, the profoundly dumb A-95 process was junked by the Reagan Administration in favor of Executive Order 12372, which let the states decide which proposals to review and how to do the review, while making both public agencies and nonprofits participate. I’m fairly confident that virtually all of the thousands of EO 12372 notifications we sent to states on behalf of clients since 1993 were simply thrown out. I can only recall one incident, about 12 years ago, in which our client actually received an inquiry from the EO 12372 notice we sent in. Over the years, all but 10 states have abandoned EO 12372, though you’ll still see it immortalized on every SF-424, which is the cover sheet for most federal proposals. So much for forced planning and collaboration at the federal and state level.

From 1978 to 1993, I worked for cities and, to the extent I wrote proposals, I wrote them mostly for economic development and affordable housing programs. When I started Seliger + Associates in 1993 and returned to writing human services proposals, about the only thing that surprised me was that government and foundation funders had discovered the wonders of collaboration during my 15-year hiatus. We’ve developed lots of ways of conforming to the mythology of collaboration through clever and obfuscating proposalese, because our clients typically compete tooth and nail with other providers for grants, donations, volunteers, and, in some cases, clients, particularly those with third-party payers (think substance abuse treatment and primary health care). The alleged “collaborations” we conjure up last just long enough to get the grant and are usually confirmed by “letters of commitment” attached to the proposal. I hate to break it to the funders, but agencies trade these letters with one another like the Magic: The Gathering cards that Jake collected when he was about 10.

The only folks who do not seem to be in on the collaboration joke are funders, who earnestly believe in the myth that nonprofits should collaborate, like kindergartners told to share. I even recently spotted a reference about “administrative collaboration” in The Grantsmanship Center’s “Centered” newsletter, quoting The Nonprofit Times as follows: “As the recession saps their grantmaking capacity, many funders are directly or indirectly urging their grantees to cooperate or collaborate more.” I have news for The Grantsmanship Center and The Nonprofit Times: funders were just as in love with collaboration before the Great Recession and will likely remain so when good times return. Keep in mind that it is vastly easier to form new nonprofits than it is to find millionaires and corporations to set up foundations to fund the avalanche of new nonprofits. So why would an average nonprofit want to help the agency down the street?

Adding to the humorous aspect of the faux foundation concern for collaboration is that foundations actually compete one another for prestige, telegenic grantees and the like. Or have you ever wondered why it is necessary for a foundation like the MacArthur Foundation to “advertise” their support for PBS programming at the start and the end of the program?

Funders are just as interested in playing the status and competition game as any other kind of organization. But if they want to pretend that nonprofit and public agencies collaborate, then nonprofit and public agencies will happily maintain the facade to get funded.

EDIT: You can read more about these problems in “Following up on Collaboration in Proposals and How to Respond to RFPs Demanding It” and “There Will Be No Fighting in the War Room: An Example of Nonprofit Non-Collaboration in Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” both of which offer further examples of dubious collaboration run amok.