Monthly Archives: June 2010

Supplementing versus supplanting grant funds

In “Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass,” Isaac included a footnote that says “This is a big grant no-no called ‘supplantation.’ In a future post I will explain how you can explain away supplantation in your grant writing anyway.”

This is that post, except I’m writing it instead of him, so one might say I am supplanting him. Or am I supplementing him? Read on to find out.

Supplanting Versus Supplementing: A Key Distinction

A grant applicant always, always, always should assure the funding source that funding of any kind will supplement, not supplant, existing programs. Some RFPs make this explicit; for example, the HUD NOFA for the Capital Fund Recovery Competition Grants says on page 26:

No Supplanting of Funds. The applicant must certify that: (1) the CFRC funds, if awarded, will not supplant expenditures from other Federal, State, or local sources or funds independently generated by the grantee; and (2) the CFRC funds, if awarded, will not supplant any leverage related to this grant, if any (that is, the grantee must have pursued and secured leverage to the fullest extent possible in order to ensure that expenditures from other Federal, State, or local sources or funds independently generated by the grantee are not supplanted).

Last year we had a client who decided that he wanted to fund his existing staff positions with a new HUD Rural Housing and Economic Development Program grant. That’s a big no-no: it’s supplantation, and if he tells HUD that he wants to use their money to replace the money he’s already got, at best they’ll deduct it from his budget. At worst, they’ll reject the proposal outright. It’s also possible that they won’t notice until after the grant is awarded and implemented, and if our client is unlucky enough to get a program audit they could demand repayment of the grant amount that “supplanted” existing funding. This is the same as a college student asking his mom to supplant her $100 to cover his cell phone bill so that he can use the original $100 on beer. Moms know not to fall for this and so do most funders.

Still, there are ways of getting around this proposal world problem. For example, one could announce that people already employed by the agency will spend 10 – 20% of their time managing the proposed program, so that money should come from the grant. If an organization has enough major grants, they might cover 100% of management team salaries. Actually, some agencies claim more than 100% of the time of certain staff, which is another no-no and an issue that we’ll cover in a future post. Another method is to give multiple job titles: previously, an existing staff person was a Housing Counselor, and now she is a Program Specialist for Client Assistance. Suddenly, she’s being paid because she’s in a new position related to the new grant.

Why Supplantation Happens Anyway

Although the rules usually forbid it, supplantation happens all the time anyway, mostly because money is fungible—meaning that many organizations just have a big money pot at the center of their financial systems, so money goes in one side and out the other, making it almost impossible to determine whose dollar was spent on what.*

So if you have a grant and you need, say, new computers, you might put them in the budget for the grant—and those computers no longer need to come from your equipment replacement fund. And does the Executive Director spend “15%” of their time on the grant? That’s another small but real amount of money that doesn’t have to come from the central pile. Do you have a Program Director? Put her in charge of the new program, and hire someone else in her place. Technically none of that is supplantation, because it’s part of what you need to run the program.

I explained all this to my girlfriend, who asked why the rules about supplantation exist. The answers:

  • They work sometimes and aim to prevent egregious abuses;
  • The rules weed out unsophisticated applicants who announce they’re going to stop using local funds and donations and start using Federal dollars;
  • Such rules pass the New York Times test, which means that the funding agency or the funded agency aren’t as likely to see themselves on the front page of the Times, if a nonprofit proposes to do Bad Things (the theme song from my guilty pleasure, True Blood) with their money.

* There is an approach called Fund Accounting, which is supposed to overcome fungibility but often doesn’t. Think of the Social Security “Lockbox” debate of a few years ago. How exactly do the feds account for your FICA contributions? That’s fungibility writ large.

Here They Come: RFPs Are Thundering Down the Plain, So Look out for the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP), Upward Bound, Choice Neighborhoods, REACH CORE and More

In the somewhat interminable but occasionally engaging Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner finally ingratiates himself with his Sioux neighbors by telling them that the “tatonka” (buffalo) are suddenly thundering nearby. Last February, I asked Where Have All the RFPs Gone? Well, the FY ’10 grant tatonka are finally here and the distant noise you hear is the sound of federal grant opportunities. Work fast, because this herd will have come and gone by the end of the federal fiscal year on September 30.

For example, the Department of Education finally issued RFPs for the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP), the High School Graduation Initiative, Personnel Development To Improve Services and Results for Children With Disabilities, and the Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education (FIPSE) last week.

In 2008, the FIPSE RFP was issued on March 21. This year, it was issued on June 14. Under normal circumstances, this could be chalked up to random variation in funders. This year, that’s much less likely because of the stimulus madness that continues to work through the federal system. The good news about FIPSE: in 2008 it had $2,584,000 for seven grants. This year it has $27,307,000 for 37 grants. This isn’t the only program that’s seen a massive money increase: Personnel Development To Improve Services and Results for Children With Disabilities has gone from $1,500,000 in total funding to $22,900,000.

We heard from a client recently (we wrote their funded Upward Bound proposal in the last funding round about four years ago) that RFPs for both Upward Bound and Talent Search will soon be issued by the Department of Education. It is unusual for RFPs for two “TRIO” programs to be issued in one fiscal year, but this is no usual year.

On the community development front, HUD has about 35 or so competitive grant programs, but only one or two NOFAs (HUD-speak for “RFP”) have been issued this year, which means there are more than 30 to go. Another client, for whom we wrote a funded Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) Program proposal last year, was just at the grantee meeting. The HUD program officer told the group that all of the NOFAs are late this year (duh!) but would be issued with short turnarounds—just like the Department of Education RFPs listed above. Expect to hear HUD hooves in the distance for such old faves LBPHC, Healthy Homes, various Housing Choice Voucher—formerly called Section 8— programs and lots more soon. There will be a HUD NOFA stampede.

In a tease of goodies to come, HUD just released a “Pre-NOFA” for an entirely new competitive program, Choice Neighborhoods. This is not to be confused the Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhood Program, for which the RFP process concludes next week, even though both are new programs that can be used to fund more or less the same activities. Choice Neighborhoods will have $65,000,000 up for grabs once the HUD program officers can shovel the NOFA out the door, which should be within a few weeks. I’ve never seen a “Pre-NOFA” before, but once again this is an unusual year with strange portents in the grant world. I guess a Pre-NOFA is like getting one of those annoying “Save May 12, 2018 for Hershel Himmelfarb’s Bar Mitzvah” in the mail. This is HUD’s way of saying, “Stay tuned––MONEY COMING, MONEY COMING.”

I love the Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods programs because both offer planning and implementation grants, so grantees can keep the party going for years. Not to be outdone, HRSA also just issued an announcement for the wonderfully named Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health for Communities Organized to Respond and Evaluate (REACH CORE) Program. REACH CORE grantees get two-year, $400,000 planning grants followed by multi-million dollar five-year implementation grants. Seven year grants! Now this is worth competing for.

Looks to me like it is a fine grant hunting season this summer. Get out your virtual Sharps 50 Caliber Buffalo Rifle in the form of a trusty iMac or MacBook out and start plinking. You’ll be exhausted, but you’ll have a week or two at the start of October before the FY ’11 RFPs start down the chute.

Grant Writing Confidential Scoops the Wall Street Journal and More on Being Creative in Finding Funds During the Great Recession

As the editor of my high school newspaper—the Cooper High School Hawk’s Quill—and a short-lived college journalism major, I take great delight in scooping the Wall Street Journal. Shelly Banjo wrote Donations Slip Amid Anxiety on June 9, which said:

For the second year in a row, philanthropy has seen the deepest decline ever recorded by the Giving USA Foundation, which has tracked annual giving since 1956. Donations fell 3.6% to $303.75 billion last year, down from $315 billion in 2008, according to the latest Giving USA study, released Wednesday. In 2008, they were down 2%.

Faithful readers will note that I made more or less the same point in my May 29 blog post, Tough Times for Folks Means More Grant Writing for Nonprofits, although with more humor and helpful advice. If one read Ms. Banjo’s article and knew little about nonprofits, one would get the impression that the end is nigh. This is because her article, like most stories about nonprofits, perpetuates the conventional wisdom that all nonprofits depend exclusively on donations, which is simply not true.

As I pointed out in my post, while donations are important, particularly for certain kinds of nonprofits, most human services providers support their service through grants, fee-for-service contracts, third-party payers and/or quasi-business enterprises, in addition to donations.* These alternative revenue streams, which can be ramped-up when donations are down, are not mentioned by Ms. Banjo and the cast of nonprofit “experts” she quotes and data she cites.

Although new contributions to foundations may be down, foundations still must give away 5% or so of their endowment every year, and the feds, through the Stimulus Bill and lots of other appropriations, have keep the grant spigot wide open. Cagey nonprofit executive directors are busy writing grant proposals and dreaming up other revenue strategies, not wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over declines in donations. But not in the conventional wisdom world of newspaper writers.

A second Wall Street Journal article by Jennifer Levitz and Stephanie Simon on June 12, “A School Prays for Help”, confirms the importance of getting creative during tough times. While this article mostly discusses public schools, police departments and other public agencies seeking alternative funding sources, the same concepts apply to nonprofits.

In this article, the writers describe how some schools are getting local churches to “adopt” them and other strategies for what amounts to advertising in order to supplement limited tax dollars. Nonprofits can do the same sorts of things instead of just waiting around for donations to pickup.

One of the several odd aspects of a church providing donations to a public school, however, is that the church itself is a nonprofit that depends almost exclusively on donations from its members. Why would they do this? One reason could be that the church expects to get new members from school parents and staff, and they will eventually try to extract donations from the new members. In other words, the church and the school are probably competing for donor dollars and the church may be taking the longer view that investing a small amount of its money now, derived from its members, will result in more members and more money later.

While most nonprofits and public agencies like to present themselves as collaborating, in reality they compete with one another for donations, grants, and all kinds of resources. I pointed this out in 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, a post that generated quite a comment thread.

Some readers understood my point, while other denounced me as a hopeless cynic. Of course, I am a hopeless cynic, but nonprofits and public agencies are largely in competition, and the ongoing economic mess just makes this competition rise to surface, like the somewhat baleful giant crocodile in the best “big animal” movie of recent years, Lake Placid.


* Jake also wrote about funding sources in Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun.

Following up on Collaboration in Proposals and How to Respond to RFPs Demanding It

Isaac’s post “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” generated a lot of interesting comments. I responded to a couple of them, and I’d also like to offer one point of clarification to the original post: Isaac wasn’t saying collaboration is always a waste of time, bad, or whatever. If a genuine need for collaboration exists, it makes sense to collaborate.

I can’t think of an obvious, specific example of this off the top of my head, but I’m sure some exist. Still, the problem that Isaac points out remains: requiring collaboration for the sake of collaboration has a number of problems with it, which he enumerated, and often goes against the incentives that many nonprofit and public agencies have, especially regarding their own self-interest. As a result, the demand for extensive collaboration widens the gap between the real world and the proposal world.

As I said in the comments section of the post, I get the impression that some commenters are True Believers. It’s all well and good to be a True Believer, as long as being one doesn’t interfere with one’s ability to write proposals that will get an organization funded—and hence keep its doors open.

A couple specific points that I responded to:

“In this way, even if a collaboration folds, duplication of future efforts may be reduced.”

Duplication of effort isn’t a major problem with social services because there are almost always more people chasing the service than there are slots. The desire for free services will always be greater than the supply.

In addition, collaboration itself is a cost in the form of chasing letters and contacts.

Still, as @Nikki # 3 points out, not all collaboration is meaningless — when there is a genuine problem that needs multiple entities to solve it, people will tend to cooperate. Forcing that model on all problems is the problem.

Another person said:

“It is short sighted to think that any one organization can provide the complete continuum of services needed by the target population.”

In the proposal world, you’re right. In the real world, there is no continuum of services and the target population is far vaster than the organizations providing services. This probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, since if you’re offering products or services that are subsidized or free, you will almost always have more people chasing them than you can handle. Dan Ariely discusses the love of free in his book Predictably Irrational, which is very much worth reading.

If you’re offering something that’s subsidized or free, there will almost always be more demand of it than you can provide—just like there are always more nonprofits chasing donations than there are millionaires to make those donations, as we’ve pointed out before. Chances are good that providers of virtually any service are running at or over capacity; they don’t need more people to provide services too, unless there’s money attached to the provision of those services.

Deadlines are Everything, and How To Be Amazing

I was reading Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days when I came across an interview with Philip Greenspun in which he describes part of what made ArsDigita so successful:

The third element is just meeting the deadlines. If we’d said we were going to do something by a certain date, we did it, and the customers were stunned.

He goes on to say that “There was so much repeat business because customers would be amazed that we delivered on time and that it was more or less what they wanted and actually usable for the end user.”

That shouldn’t be amazing, but it often is because we’re used to dealing with stuff that doesn’t work very well and businesses that over-promise and under-deliver, if they deliver at all.

Think of airlines, which specialize in jerking you around and making you feel like everyone else paid less for their ticket than you did. Or, of consultants who set unrealistic deadlines for deliverables and then make endless excuses when they miss their often self-imposed deadlines.

Or think of car dealerships.

I’ve been trying to buy or lease a car, and probably a Toyota Prius, so I can look down on my neighbors for destroying the environment. And I hear they—the cars, not the neighbors—get good mileage. Anyway, car dealerships are on my mind because buying a car is a miserable, maddening, opaque experience. The salesmen—and they’re almost always men—lie constantly. They make things up. Last week, one of them showed me his super secret invoice price that he couldn’t possibly go below… until he did. Then he decided he was sick.

Then whoever he handed me off to couldn’t produce actual lease terms. Then I got a third guy from the same dealership who loaded a lease that should’ve had, at most, $1,799 in drive-off costs with $4,500 in drive-off costs. Another dealership had a Prius II in “Barcelona Red,” the color I wanted… with an extra $2,000 in dealer options I didn’t. I wasted half an hour there. By the time I left, I no longer wanted to buy anything.*

What’s really amazing is that car dealers stay in business. But they do, because someone with less tenacity or more money will simply put up with the dance. I know car dealers are just engaging in sophisticated forms of market segmentation, and they’re playing a much longer game than I am.

That being said, they make buying a new car as pleasant as a visit to the dentist, at least for me (Isaac actually likes wrangling car dealers, and I will leave you to decide what this says about his personality). Toyota spends billions of dollars a year trying to convince people that they’re a nice company, and then I go through the showroom wringer and come out hating them, even though I intellectually know that corporate has little to do with how the dealership down the street behaves.

Contrast the buying-a-car experience with what getting a proposal written is like with Seliger + Associates. We post our fees on our website. If you call us and say, “I want an Office of Community Services’ (OCS) Community Economic Development Projects proposal,” you generally get a price quote right then. If you’re not eligible for a program or if you’re running a business that is ineligible for grants, we tell you.

In Founders at Work, Paul Graham described the way he managed to sell Viaweb, his early software for building online stores:

I found I could actually sell moderately well. I could convince people of stuff. I learned a trick for doing this: to tell the truth. A lot of people think that the way to convince people of things is to be eloquent—to have some bag of tricks for sliding conclusions into their brains. But there’s also a sort of hack that you can use if you are not a very good salesman, which is simply tell people the truth. Our strategy for selling our software to people was: make the best software and then tell them, truthfully, ‘this is the best software.’ And they could tell we were telling the truth”

Notice that: he learned a trick for selling things—”tell the truth.” That this is considered a trick should make it obvious that something is profoundly wrong in a lot of businesses. Car dealers basically make everything they do a series of lies, hoops, and tricks, such that, after having to deal with them, I assume they’re lying most of the time.

Seliger + Associates also has a simple procedure: tell the truth and write proposals. If you hire us, we complete a compelling proposal on time. We never miss deadlines and never make excuses.

People are amazed! We hit deadlines, and that’s enough to impress them because so many of their experiences with employees, other grant writers, and consultants are apparently so lousy that they’ve come to expect a lack of follow through. We’ve never missed a deadline. Did I mention that already? It’s worth repeating, because deadlines are the essence of grant writing. If you’re a grant writer working for an organization and you want to be a star, never miss a deadline.

Almost everyone else does. Most deadlines imposed by businesses are artificial—get this report to me by Friday. If you don’t until Monday, it doesn’t matter. With grant writing, it does, and if you hit deadlines, you’re an unusual person.

You’ll also be a competent one. Off the top of my head, I can remember only a handful of times that I’ve been completely delighted by competence. Starwood Hotels come to mind: if you call the reservation number, whoever is on the other end will do whatever he or she can to make sure you get what you want. I had to visit Seattle last December and managed to stay in the W Hotel at a very good rate because of the friskiness of the phone rep. That kind of thing happens so rarely that I’m writing about it now.

Most of the time, you call a company’s number and get interminable music punctuated by “We appreciate your business,” which is a transparent lie, because if it were true, I wouldn’t be on hold. One car salesman said to me, “What can I do to earn your business?” just after I’d complained about another dealership and just before I discovered his own dissembling. It’s incredibly frustrating. Here’s a clue to car salesmen: try telling the truth. One good reason to tell the truth, which Isaac has told me since I was young, is that, if one tells the truth, one does not need to remember what is said to this person or that person.

Philip Greenspun understood that basic dynamic when he started ArsDigita. We understand it too. The simple thing to do is tell the truth and do what you say you’re going to do. If you do, people will be amazed, and you’ll be a superstar grant writer. This is true in human service delivery, grant writing, software development, and any number of other fields.


* Dan Ariely spends some time slagging Audi’s customer service in his new book, The Upside of Irrationality, which, like Predictably Irrational, is very much worth reading. Anyway, he describes how his effectively new car mysteriously halted on the way to Boston, leaving him in the lurch, and the indifference that Audi shows. We used to have a Passat, and, later, an Audi TT convertible, both of which were spectacularly unreliable and convinced my family not to buy any more Audis or Volkswagons.