Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Art of the Grant Proposal Abstract is Like the Art of the Newspaper Story Lead

Proposal abstracts are funny beasts: they’re supposed to summarize an entire proposal, presumably before the reader reads the proposal, and they’re often written before the writer writes the proposal. Good abstracts raise the question of whether one really needs to read the rest of the document. While RFPs sometimes provide specific abstract content—in which case you should follow the guidance—an abstract should answer the 5Ws and H: Who is going to run the program? Who is going to benefit and why? What will the program do? Where will it occur? When will it run, both in terms of services and length of the project? Why do you need to run it, as opposed to someone else? How will you run it?

Whenever I write an abstract, I ask myself the questions listed above. If I miss one, I go back and answer it. If you can answer those questions, you’ll at least have the skeleton of a complete project. If you find that you’re missing substantial chunks, you need to take time to better conceptualize the program and what you’re doing (which might itself make a useful future blog post).

As you write, start with the most relevant information. A good opening sentence should identify the name of the organization, the type of the organization if it’s not obvious (most of our clients are 501(c)3s, for example, and we always state this to make sure funders know our clients are eligible), the name of the project, what the project will do (“provide after school supportive services” is always popular), and who the project will serve. The next sentence should probably speak to why the project is needed, what it will accomplish, and and its goals. The next should probably list objectives. And so on. By the time you’ve answered all the questions above, you’ll have about a single-spaced page, which is usually as much space as is allowed for abstracts in most RFPs. At the end, since this is probably the least important part, you should mention that your organization is overseen by an independent board of directors, as well as its size, and a sentence about the experience of the Executive Director Project Director (if known).

If you’ve taken a journalism class, you’ve been told that the lead of news articles should be the most important part of the story. When someone important has died, don’t wait until the fourth paragraph to tell your busy reader what their name was and what they accomplished in life. Treat proposals the same way. For that matter, treat blog posts the same way, which we try to do.

You’ll have to find an appropriate level of detail. The easiest way to find that level is to make sure you’ve answered each of the questions above and haven’t gone any longer than one page. If you have, remove words until you’re on a single page. You don’t need to go into the level of specificity described in “Finding and Using Phantom Data in the Service Expansion in Mental Health/Substance Services, Oral Health and Comprehensive Pharmacy Services Under the Health Center Program,” but a mention of Census or local data won’t hurt, if it can be shoehorned in. Think balance.

Here’s one open secret about reading large numbers of documents at once: after you’ve read enough, you begin to make very fast assessments of that document within a couple of sentences. I don’t think I learned this fully until I started grad school in English lit at the University of Arizona. Now I’m on the other side of the desk and read student papers. Good papers usually make themselves apparent within the first page. Not every time, but often enough that it’s really unusual to experience quality whiplash.

To be sure, I read student essays closely because I care about accurate grading, and there is the occasional essay that starts out meandering and finds its point halfway through, with a strong finish. But most of the federal GS 10s, 11s, and 12s reading proposals aren’t going to care as much as they should. So first impressions count for a lot, and your abstract is your first impression. Like drawing a perfect circle, writing a perfect abstract is one of these things that seems like it should be easy but is actually quite hard. We’ve given you an outline, but it’s up to you to draw the circle.

Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets

Many novice grant writers, and more than a few old hands, are terrified of federal grant budgets. Oddly, I find budget development one of the easiest aspects of grant writing, so I thought I would provide Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets:

* When you first read the RFP, ignore the budget instructions, except for the following: what is the maximum grant allowed, is the maximum grant for an annual budget or project period, is there a minimum, and what are the eligible and ineligible cost items? These answers are all you’ll need to develop the project concept and write the first two drafts of the narrative. When the second draft of the narrative is finished and incorporates changes to the first draft from all interested readers, you’ll have a more or less complete narrative description of the project concept, including a staffing plan. Budget development time will arrive.

* Learn to love the SF 424A, which is, as it sounds, the federal Standard Form (“SF”) for budgeting. The SF 424A is part of the SF 424, which is the basic “Application for Federal Assistance” or cover sheet used for most federal grant applications. This being the federal government, there are of course many different versions of the not-quite-Standard Form SF 424 and 424A, including alternate versions used by the Department of Education, HUD, DHHS, etc., as well as hard copy and Grants.gov versions.

But all SF 424A variants share common “Object Cost Categories”, which are found on Section B of the form. Object Cost Categories are the categories into which you have to allocate all budget line items. You’ll notice that the SF 424A Section B includes Object Cost Categories summary input boxes for grant costs only, which means you’ll have to create a line item budget using Excel or a similar program to calculate the Object Cost Category subtotals—unless you love using a pencil, legal pad and calculator and want to return to the Disco Era.

Once you have a line item spreadsheet created using the Object Cost Categories in column one, add as many columns as you need for the number of years. Keep in mind that you will usually need three columns for each budget year (“Federal,” “Non-Federal” and “total”), as well as three columns for the multi-year total, unless it is a one-year grant. Even though the SF 424A Section B only requests information for use of grant funds, you’ll need the non-federal amount to fill in the SF 424 and Section A of the SF 424A (I know there’a a lot of “A’s” and “B’s”” in all of this, but welcome to federal grant writing), as well as for the budget narrative (see below).

It’s always handy to have two or three calculation columns as well, which enable readers to easily see how you developed each line item (e.g., 12 mo. x $4,000 = $48,000 for the salary of the Project Director). Having been in business for 18 years, we have lots of SF 424A templates to use as a starting point, but I’ve never seen the feds bother to make one available. As far as I can tell, no one has told federal grant making agencies that Excel exists and it is still 1977 at the Department of Education.

* Now that you have a spreadsheet, it’t time to dream up the costs. That’s right, I said “dream up.” This is because federal budgets are rarely scored and all you really have to accomplish is stay within any maximum/minimum amounts and eligible/illegible item instructions in the RFP (see step one above) and make sure the budget is consistent with the narrative (this is why it is a waste of time to work on the budget until the narrative is gelled). “Consistency” means, for example, that if the narrative lists two Outreach Workers and a van for them to cruise around in, the budget needs to have these two positions listed under the Personnel Object Cost Category and a van lease under the Contractual Object Cost Categories. Most human services program budgets are composed of about 75% personal/fringe benefit costs and 25% everything else.

Thus, start with personnel and estimate salary costs, based on your agency’s current salary structure, calls to other agencies or the ever popular WAG method. Keep in mind that a person year is 2,080 hours, meaning that 1.5 FTE Outreach Workers can be calculated as 3,120 hours x $15/hour. Fringe benefits are expressed as a percent of salaries. Depending on the agency, fringes usually range from 15% to 30%. Part-time employees, interns and the like who do not receive full benefits are best listed in the Other Category, using an hourly rate jacked up by a dollar or two per hour to account for their reduced benefits.

* Once the Personnel and Fringe Benefits Categories are complete, it’s time for the rest. We rarely have more than about 15 line items beyond Personnel and Fringe in our budgets because it is a waste of time to have 100 line items. Remember, the budget is usually not scored, you’ll have to create a Budget Narrative (see below), and the more line items you have, the more complex the Budget Narrative becomes. Also, after you receive a Notice of Grant Award, you’ll have to negotiate a real budget with a federal Budget Officer anyway.

* The Travel Category usually includes milage reimbursement (always a popular line item with staff) and travel for conferences (an even more popular line item with staff). Your agency probably has a reimbursement rate of around .50/mile and, depending where you are in the country, $1,500 – $3,000 / person trip is about right for conference travel and per diem.

* We rarely use the Equipment Category in federal grants and you should avoid it as well. This is because the feds consider anything with a unit cost of less than $5,000 to be a “supply” and you can buy $4,999 copiers the same way you buy paper clips. As soon as the unit cost goes over $5,000, you enter the realm of federal purchasing rules, which is not a place you want to be. This is one reason vehicles and other big ticket items are better proposed as leases, even though it may make little economic sense. Remember, you are in the Proposal World, not the Real World.

* The Supplies Category is used for consumables and things most normal people would think of as equipment,but cost less than $5,000 each. Consultants, partner subcontracts, leases and similar items go into the Contractual Category. Construction is another Category we rarely use. Most federal grant programs specifically preclude the use of grant funds for construction and, guess what, there is yet another budget form, the SF 424C, for construction programs, which I will ignore in this post. Any quasi-construction “paint-up/fix-up costs,” modular buildings, etc., that you think you can squeeze by your Budget Officer should be put in the Other Category. The Other Category is loaded up with anything that doesn’t fit in the other Categories, including matching funds from your agency and partners, if applicable. This leaves the Indirect Charges Category.

Unless your agency has a federally approved indirect cost rate, based on an approved cost allocation plan, $0 is the correct entry for this Category. If you have an approved rate, it will be expressed as a percent of salary costs, total direct costs or whatever your rate approval letter states in the Indirect Charges Category. If you don’t have an approved rate and want to claim administrative costs, they would be placed as individual line items in the Other Category, assuming the RFP states that administrative costs are allowable. Typical administrative line items would be accounting, payroll, janitorial, purchasing, personnel administration, etc.

* It’s time for the fun-filled budget narrative. Typically, the feds do not provide a format for the budget narrative, instead going on for pages about what the narrative is supposed to include. If you want to return to the Disco Era I mentioned above, you could respond with something like the following for every line line item, ending up with a 25 page budget narrative:

Two Outreach Workers are needed to reach out to the target population because the target population is difficult to reach, doesn’t trust the government and is too busy doing other things to readily accept wraparound supportive services without being dragged to the intake center. The Outreach Workers will conduct outreach, using the Project NUTRIA van (see the Van Lease line item below in the Contractual Category for more detail), since the project area is pretty big and outreach will be conducted mostly at night, when it is also pretty scary. By having two Outreach Workers, outreach will be able to be conducted seven days per week for at least ten hours per day . . . and so on. Cost calculated as follows: 2 Outreach Workers x $2,500/mo. each x 12 months = $60,000. This salary is reasonable, based on salaries paid to Outreach Workers by the applicant and other agencies in Owatonna.

It’s easy to see how the above can get pretty tedious to write and even more tedious to read, particularly since the explanation for why Outreach Workers are needed should already be in the narrative. Instead of all this regurgitated drivel, we usually present our budget narrative in one of two ways: a “Narrative Justification” column in the Excel spreadsheet or a Word table that models the spreadsheet.

For the above example, the narrative justification would read something like this: “Two Outreach Workers to conduct outreach and intake, as detailed in the attached Project Narrative, 2 @ $30,000/yr.” That’s it. In 18 years of presenting simple and easy-to-understand budget narratives, I’ve yet to see any review comments that said the proposal would have been funded if only it had included an incomprehensible 25 page single spaced budget narrative instead of a one page Excel spreadsheet or two page Word table.

Now that you know how to tackle the federal budgeting challenge, go forth and budget.

EDIT: If you’re into budgets—and really, who isn’t?—you should also check out our “Quick Guide to Developing Foundation Grant Budgets.”

January Links: Health Care, the Affordable Care Act Teaching Health Center, the Maternal and Child Health Pipeline Training Program, and more

* Isaac was interviewed on Nonprofit Spark Radio.

* As Ranks of Insured Expand, Nation Faces Shortage of 150,000 Doctors in 15 Years: “A shortage of primary-care and other physicians could mean more-limited access to health care and longer wait times for patients.” Limited access to care health care is already here—not because of insurance, per se, but because many people on Medicare/Medicaid simply can’t find providers who take either.

* As Grant Writing Confidential readers already know from reading “Be Nice to Your Program Officer: Reprogrammed / Unobligated Federal Funds Mean Christmas May Come Early and Often This Year,” unspent grant dollars tend to get spent. Politicians evidently don’t know that or don’t want to admit this, as evidenced in “Unspent Stimulus Tough to Retrieve” from the Wall Street Journal.

* The New York Times: “Consumer advocates fear that the health care law could worsen some of the very problems it was meant to solve — by reducing competition, driving up costs and creating incentives for doctors and hospitals to stint on care, in order to retain their cost-saving bonuses.”

* Strapped Cities Hit Nonprofits With Fees.

* The [Unjust] war against cameras:

Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.

* Modern Parenting: If we try to engineer perfect children, will they grow up to be unbearable? Fortunately, I do not believe this was a problem for me growing up.

* You should blog even if you have no readers.

* Eminent domain now effectively has no limits, and that’s definitely a bad thing.

* A study confirms every suspicion you ever had about high-school dating.

* The last time the Maternal and Child Health Pipeline Training Program appeared in the Seliger Funding Report was 2005. Unless we managed to miss a year, it’s been a while since we’ve seen this program.

* The challenge to German liberalism, which may have its lessons for the United States as well.

* The Problem of Measurement in evaluating teachers, with these problems still being better than no measurement at all, which currently exists.

* A hacker’s guide to tea. This is really worth reading—who knew that “Tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid that promotes mental acuity. The combination of L-theanine and caffeine creates a sense of ‘mindful awareness.’ ”

* Apparently, the Nissan Leaf is pretty good.

* Touching Your Junk: An Ontological Complaint.

* To mildly alleviate the doctor shortage mentioned above, HRSA released the Affordable Care Act Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education Payment Program. But there’s something unusual about this RFP: HRSA says $230,000,000 is available for 10 awards of up to $900,000 each. We sent out this caveat in the Seliger Funding Report:

Note that the bizarre numbers in the amount ($230M), number available, and max grant size are HRSA’s (10 x $900,000 = $9M; where are the other $221M?).

* This is not good but, regardless of whether it’s good, may simply be the new state of things: “In essence, we have seen the rise of a large class of “zero marginal product workers,” to coin a term. Their productivity may not be literally zero, but it is lower than the cost of training, employing, and insuring them.

* Not Really ‘Made in China’: The iPhone’s Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics. The short version: beware trade statistics, especially those related to manufacturing.

* The Future of China? Look at Mexico.

* Department Of Education Study Finds Teaching These Little Shits No Longer Worth It.

* Close the Washington Monument.

* Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer.

As Predicted in January 2010, the “R” Word, Rescission, is Finally Here

Every January for the past three years, I’ve written a post about why it’s a great time to apply for federal and state grants. Here I go again: this post explains why nimble organizations will start the New Year by kick-starting their grant writing efforts, albeit for a different reason than in past Januarys.

Now that Congress is back in session, the federal deficit and spending are at the front and center of political debates. Patrick O’Connor and Janet Hook covered this in their January 3,2011 Wall Street Journal article, “Congress Targets Spending”. They write:

. . . Republicans in the House say they plan to move on to offer a far more sweeping package of “recissions,” or elimination of spending previously approved, that will aim to bring domestic spending back to where it was before Mr. Obama became president.

Ah, there’s the “R” word, rescission.* Faithful readers will recall that I predicted this in a post I wrote almost a year ago, “Federal Budget Freeze Prospect Making You Shiver? Don’t Panic Until You Hear the “R” Word: Rescission.” As I wrote then, rescission should “strike fear into your hearts” because the potential creates vast uncertainty in federal grant writing and state grant seeking (many state grants are derived from formula federal grants). I have no idea which grant program budget authorizations, if any, will actually be rescinded—which requires making it through the House, Senate and presidential signature—but, given the tenor of the political debate, I assume at least some will.

One of the things that makes the prospect of rescissions this year so curious is the fact that Congress never adopted a FY 2011 budget, opting instead for a series of Continuing Resolutions, the latest of which will expire in March (see this recent post on the subject, “No FY 2011 Federal Budget? As Is Said in Jamaica, No Problem Mon!“). Thus, rescissions could begin in the most recent CR, which is more or less the FY 2010 budget, or may be included in a FY 2011 budget, if a budget is actually adopted in March.

For grant seekers, the important part in all of this budget mumbo-jumbo is the critical need to respond to every RFP that appears in the next few months, because the program may be rescinded or otherwise subject to the budget axe. Federal and state agencies will be scrambling to issue RFPs ahead of possible rescissions because they know that the applicant pool will become a built-in lobbying force against rescissions. Every program officers want greater budget authority, not less.

In essence, the more RFPs that are issued and the more applicants there are for programs, the lower the probability that rescissions will harm a funding agency’s program. In counterpoint, some nonprofits will be scared away from responding to RFPs because they think their funding might be rescinded. The nonprofits that apply despite the potential for rescission will have a better chance for funding, particularly if they scream at their representatives to preserve budget authority for programs of interest. Since grant applicants are not shy and elected officials, regardless of party, are inherently interested in spending OPM (“other people’s money”), there should be lots of grants for those organizations who hop on every grant bus that trundles by in the coming months.

One possible program that’s a good target for rescission appeared in this week’s e-mail grant newsletter: HRSA’s Affordable Care Act: Health Center Planning Grants. It’s a planning grant program, which means that it won’t affect services that are already being delivered directly to people. More importantly, however, it’s also part of the Affordable Care Act, which lots of incoming congresspeople oppose, and one way to attack previously passed legislation is by refusing to fund it—or to rescind whatever money is already allocated to it. Only $10 M is available, and the maximum grant amount is just $80,000. Rescinding its funding wouldn’t cause a lot of problems but would show symbolic unhappiness about the Affordable Care Act.


* There seems to be a bit of confusion about spelling “rescission.” My spell checker likes “rescission,” but sharp-eyed readers will note the WSJ spells it “recission.” To paraphrase one of my favorite actor / singers (oh, and he also danced a bit), Fred Astaire to Ginger Rogers in “Shall We Dance”, “You like potato and I like potaeto,You like tomato and I like tomaeto; You like recission, I like rescission; Potato, potaeto, tomato, tomaeto, recission, rescission! Let’s [not] call the whole thing off!”. Given the tough economic times, it seems appropriate to think of a song from a 1937 movie.

Sign Me Up for Wraparound Supportive Services, But First Tell Me What Those Are

Most social and human services get delivered in one of two ways: on a drop-in basis or a case-managed basis. The latter is often characterized as “wraparound supportive services,” and is the subject of this post. If you’ve ever been to a Boys and Girls Club or YMCA, you’ve received services on a “drop-in” basis, which means you usually don’t have someone reminding you to do things or recommending that you do them. In high school, I’d swim and practice Tang Soo Do at a YMCA, and taking punches (with padding!) made me want to return for more. Note that we don’t recommend this approach for most drop-in programs unless you have an unusual audience in mind.

The alternative involves wraparound supportive services, which are intended to help an individual or family achieve some overarching goal by offering a suite of services over a period of time, based on needs identified through a comprehensive assessment. The basic idea behind Talent Search, for example, is to make sure that at-risk youth with college potential actually go to college. One could theoretically run a Talent Search program on a YMCA-style model, where you offer academic enrichment, PSAT and SAT prep classes, college tours, life skills training, and what not to whoever happens to wander past the school library that day. But most offer wraparound supportive services instead.

Why? The problem is that many high school students are like I was: indifferent. They’ll see a flyer or be told by a teacher they should do Talent Search program. Then they go home and play computer games or smoke pot or whatever and forget about all this Talent Search nonsense because Halo 3 is more immediately satisfying, while college, if it’s visible at all, is off in the blurry distance.

Colleges, of course, like forward planning and high GPAs, so if you want to go to a four-year school, waking up in October of your senior year isn’t going to help you much, even if you’re smart and have a lot of potential. I spent most of my first two years of high school not doing much of anything for no particular reason. Students like me (back then) won’t by and large spend much time in drop-in programs, which sometimes end up primarily helping the kinds of students who don’t need that much help anyway.

In response to these kinds of pressures, a lot of organizations offer wraparound supportive services. As the name implies, this entails wrapping the participant up with all the kinds of things they might need: referrals to drug or mental health treatment, transportation assistance, and life skills training (basically small group process for things like stress management, nonviolent conflict resolution, relationships, anger management, and so forth). Usually there’s a staff person, often called a Case Manager, Counselor, or Coach, charged with doing intake, developing an assessment to figure out who needs services (this would be part of steps 2 and 3 in Project Nutria), creating a supportive services plan, monitoring activities, and overseeing follow-up. Since most free social and human service programs have more people who want to participate than slots, the idea is to provide coordinated, concentrated services to a smaller number of clients instead of scattering a smattering of services across many.

Most importantly, the Case Manager will keep an eye on each participant and try to shepherd them through the program. If Student Joe promised to do Talent Search at least until he graduates from high school, then Case Manager Jane will make sure he’s attending activities and making progress toward his goals. She’ll also help him pick activities and get help with other things he needs—like legal services for the Minor in Possession he gets after the Homecoming Dance—as new crises arise.

Sometimes funders will sneak a requirement to provide wraparound supportive service in through backdoors, like “collaboration” (see “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” for more). The The Full-Service Community Schools (FSCS) program provides a case in point. It specifies:

The Full-Service Community Schools (FSCS) program, which is funded under FIE, encourages coordination of academic, social, and health services through partnerships between (1) Public elementary and secondary schools; (2) the schools’ local educational agencies (LEAs); and (3) community-based organizations, nonprofit organizations, and other public or private entities. The purpose of this collaboration is to provide comprehensive academic, social, and health services for students, students’ family members, and community members that will result in improved educational outcomes for children.

Whoever wrote FSCS wants every obvious social problem to have a solution, only the solution is supposed to come from nominal “partners” who usually don’t get a piece of the grant pie. The partner is supposed to magically provide the referral service through some other imagined funding stream. And guess who’s going to tell Joe to visit the community-based organization that will provide him with whatever he needs? Jane. Joe doesn’t know the services exist, and if he does, he probably won’t know how to access them.

The dirty little secret of wraparound supportive services is that they can very seldom be sustained over the long or short term. If you really have a case manager, an education specialist, a child care consultant, a life coach, etc., you have to pay for all those positions. Virtually no grant will actually cover the full costs, and organizations also face trade-offs between the number of people who can be served through wraparound supportive services versus drop-in offerings. If you need case managers as well as all the other positions that need to be staffed, you’re naturally not going to be able to serve as many people because the cost per person rises.

As a result, more wraparound supportive services happen in the proposal world than the real world. A lot of RFPs want you to say you’ll provide wraparound supportive services even if the funding agency knows you can’t really provide them or doesn’t provide enough funding to make such services happen.

To some extent, these problems can be mitigated through the ever-promising referrals to other agencies in the target area: promise that you’re going to send John to the local drug rehab organization for that, the local community college or Workforce Investment Act (WIA) One-Stop Center for job training, and so on. That’s what the FSCS RFP is shooting for. But local “partners” have their own problems, their own full caseloads, and their own oversubscribed services that lead to waiting lists, which is how you get the kinds of problems already mentioned in our collaboration post.

Still, many RFPs want you to propose wraparound supportive services, which you can’t do unless you know what the term means. Now that you do, remember to include such services in your proposal.