Monthly Archives: June 2011

Unicorn Spotted in the LA Times: A Large Nonprofit Gives Back Huge Federal Grants

In the 280 or so years I’ve spent grant writing (grant writing years should be considered as dog years because of endless deadlines and dumb RFPs), I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a nonprofit that voluntarily gave back significant federal grants.

Faithful readers will know that I use the term “unicorn” for anything I find exceedingly unlikely in the fun-filled world of grant writing (see, for example, “No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer“). I nearly choked on my daily ration of Chemex-brewed coffee on Saturday morning when I spotted this “unicorn” story by Alexandra Zavis in the LA Times: Homeless shelter to drop government-funded programs. How can this be?

The Union Rescue Mission (URM) is a giant homeless services provider in L.A. It is obviously a faith-based organization (FBO). Remember that there are two kinds of FBOs. The first kind gives you a bowl of soup when you’re hungry, and the second kind gives you a bowl of soup when you’re hungry but makes you listen to a sermon before you get the soup. URM is presumably the second kind, which means it is not directly eligible for government grants because it intertwines service delivery with religion.

The first kind of FBO is often eligible for government grants, and we often work for those FBOs. To get around the pesky problem of grant eligibility, URM apparently set up another nonprofit, EIMAGO, to serve as the grant applicant and recipient for federal grants. This is not unusual. EIMAGO is described in the article, however, as a secular “subsidiary” of URM. Nonprofits don’t usually describe affiliated organizations as “subsidiaries,” preferring “affiliate,” “partner,” etc., to preserve at least an appearance of independence and deflect the impression that the “subsidiary” exists only as a grant conduit.

Leaving aside the relationship of URM and EIMAGO, the article says that Alan Bates, URM President and apparently spokesperson for EIMAGO, says that they (URM or EIMAGO?) can no longer operate government-funded programs because the costs are not fully covered and it takes months to get paid:

Bales said the Christian mission has been using private donations to supplement the government contracts operated by its secular subsidiary, EIMAGO. “In the last six or seven years, we have subsidized those operations about $4.5 million because we never get enough money from the government to operate the programs as they should be operated,” he said.

But, Bates also goes on to say that “no one would be forced onto the streets because of the decision.”

Let’s do a small Gedankenexperiment or “thought experiment” to test the logic of the article.

1. URM/EIMAGO exist to help the hungry and the homeless.

2. Joe is hungry and homeless and needs three hots and a cot, as they say in the shelter biz.

3. URM/EIMAGO gets $100/day in federally derived grant funds to take care of Joe, and the money comes from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA, which is the primary homeless grant spigot in LA County), FEMA, Department of Veterans Affairs, HUD, or another government agency.

4. For whatever reason (extra piece of mystery meat in the stew, designer blanket, one too many case managers, etc.), URM/EIMAGO spends $105/day taking care of Joe, meaning they have to get Harry to donate $5 to URM/EIMAGO to keep Joe fed and housed.

5. URM/EIMAGO says its too tough to get $5/day out of Harry to supplement the $100/day from Uncle Sam to take care of Joe, so they are going to reject the $100/day from Uncle Sam.

6. Without $100/day from Uncle Sam, how much will URM/EIMAGO have to get from Harry to take care of Joe?

$105/day. If you grasped this point, you are quicker on the uptake than the reporter. Without the federal grants, URM/EIMAGO is either going to serve a lot fewer Joes or will need to find a lot more Harrys. This is why I’ve never run across any large profit that would voluntarily cancel federal grants—or any grants for that matter. URM/EIMAGO is a unicorn.

In addition to pointing out the logic problem presented above and highlight an unusual unicorn story, this post is really intended for those nonprofits who want to become “multi-program, multi-funded agencies,” and particularly nonprofits that aim to supplement project grants, general purpose grants and donations with contracts for capitated services (e.g., most homeless services, primary health care, substance abuse treatment, foster care, etc.). For these grantees, which provide a service for some agreed upon per head/per day/per visit/per whatever fee, the capitated payments, like other grant funds, are often fungible (Jake covered fungible grants last year in “Supplementing Versus Supplanting Grant Funds: Examples from the Rural Housing and Economic Development Program and the Capital Fund Recovery Competition Grants“).

In the case of a soup kitchen, you could ask: which dollar bought the carrots in the stew that Joe is eating? The LAHSA grant, the Department of Veterans Affairs Grant, the donation from Harry? Nobody knows. For that matter, Joe is fungible. If he’s a veteran, the agency can claim him on their Vets grant, if he’s an ex-offender, he could be tallied on their Department of Justice grant, if he has a substance abuse challenge, he could be covered by a CSAT grant, or, ideally, all three.

One of the unspoken realities of running large nonprofits is that clever multi-funded, multi-program agencies can often pay for services for a particular individual more than once, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by accident. Funders don’t seem to care, as long as this is never stated in grant proposals or reports and reporters are too naive to inquire.

I don’t know anything about URM/EIMAGO other than what I gleaned from this article, as we’ve never worked for either organization. To forestall the potential lawyer inquiry, I am not making any accusations about either organization, which I am sure are great service providers. The situation described in the LA Times article seems implausible to me, particularly given this quote from it: “The mission’s difficulties come at a time when many nonprofits are struggling to raise the funds they need to keep up with demand for their services in a bad economy.” Seems like someone at URM has been reading Grant Writing Confidential, as I have been making this point for over two years. It’s a bad time to be trying to replace hard-to-get grant funds with even harder-to-get donations.

The article also provides an opportunity to illustrate how larger nonprofits often use multiple grant sources to keep the lights on. For those newer and more nimble nonprofits in L.A. that want to provide homeless services, it looks like you’ll have an opportunity to dine on the LAHSA grants that URM/EIMAGO rejects. Some agency is going to need to serve the legions of hungry and homeless in L.A. Go get your bowl of LAHSA grant soup!

Project GEESE is Project NUTRIA At a Table Near You. Also, HRSA’s Service Area Competition (SAC) FOA is out

According to the New York Times, “the city’s too fertile and apparently pesky geese will soon face a grim fate, but will not go to waste: They will go to feed hungry Pennsylvanians.” I’m not making this up.

The idea might sound familiar to Grant Writing Confidential readers. Isaac wrote a post called “Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development,” which describes how to conceptualize project development while parodying some of the crazy concepts we see bandied about. A nutria, for those who don’t know, is basically a very big rat, and they were apparently terrorizing Seattle not long ago. So Isaac suggested that low-income and/or homeless individuals be trained to capture the nutria and turn them into food.

This was (mostly) a joke.

The New York Times article, however, indicates that something quite similar is actually happening. No word on whether there’s a job training element to the proposed project or an acronym. If whoever runs this program needs an acronym, we’re willing to contribute one gratis: Project GEESE (Geese Expeditiously Evicted and Served to Everyone). You could change “Evicted” to “Eviscerated.” No word yet regarding whether any of the unsuspecting geese will force fed first to produce foie gras, which I’ve eaten once and would not care to eat again.

Furthermore, you may want to take a gander at this article article from a different source, which claims that “Due to strict New York guidelines regulating the processing and distribution of goose meat, local authorities finally decided to send them off to Pennsylvania, which already has an established protocol for distributing slaughtered geese.” Who knew? So there’s a bureaucratic perspective to this feathered tale as well.

In other acronym-related news, the Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA) Service Area Competition (SAC) Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) has been announced, which you should celebrate by asking WTF took so long and ordering some BBQ.

EDIT: In “Why Soup Kitchens Serve So Much Venison,” Henry Grabar reports that “a growing percentage of [venison served to the homeless and needy] comes from the suburbs of American cities, at the unlikely but unmistakably American intersection of bow hunting, pest control and hunger relief.” There are too many deer and too many hungry people, and they intersect here.

Processes and Outcomes: The Shape of Another Grant Wave, featuring HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative

Social and human service proposals are usually geared toward outcomes: you’re going to get a grant to provide after school services to at-risk youth, which will reduce the number of them who drop out of high school or get unfortunate tattoos they’ll later regret by 25%. To apply, you’re going to write a proposal based loosely on the same format discussed in “Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development,” except you’re going to give academic enrichment and life skills training to at-risk youth instead of having them hunt nutria.

But you’ll sometimes face RFPs that don’t want you to provide direct services: they want you to improve your organization’s process, evaluate community needs, or otherwise do something to that effect. You’ll get RFPs that ask you to primarily engage in process: developing curricula, engaging in social change, running planning charettes, and so forth. Process grants are designed to further the organization’s capability—they might be for training staff, for coordinating development, or community engagement.

We’ve seen more of those RFPs lately. For example, the Promise Neighborhoods Program doesn’t require you to provide services—it requires you to evaluate your neighborhood and see what kinds of services it might need. The RFP is almost all needs section and very little project description.

This is also true of its more recent cousins. You can expect RFPs that emphasize things like “planning” to be mostly process oriented. This week’s Grant Alert e-newsletter, for example, contains the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative–Planning Grants, which certainly means “planning” as opposed to “implementation.”

In process grants, you should remember that activities, outcomes, and objectives are often all the same: you’re planning what to do later, not what’s going to happen now. Your “outcome” is whether you planned successfully. Part of your job, as a grant writer, is to realize which you’re doing. Outcome-oriented programs are far more common than process-oriented ones, but if you’re applying for a process-oriented program, don’t write it like you’re focused on outcomes. Sure, you might want to mention ultimate outcomes, but you primarily want to discuss the journey to get there.

EDIT: For another example, consider the USDA’s 2010 program, Hunger-Free Communities Grants:

There are two models of grants: planning and assessment grants and implementation grants. A community may only apply for one model of grant as part of this grant solicitation; however, those communities receiving a planning and assessment grant may apply for an implementation grant in a future year if additional funds are made available to continue this program.

The difference between this USDA RFP and many others is that this one makes explicit what many others assume the grant writer knows.

Grant-seeking dinosaurs look up: The bright light in the sky is an asteroid

For reasons not clear to me, I am on the (usually) happy-talk email distribution list of Dorothy Stoneman, doyenne of YouthBuild USA, the trade group for the 273 or so YouthBuild providers across America. I’ve never met Dorothy, who is generally affable in her emails and is a tireless advocate and change agent (note: the preceding phrase is a free example of proposolese for you to use at your discretion, although I prefer “tireless organizational change agent” to really get grant reviewers hot and steamy).

Since Congress began its on- and off-again assault on discretionary spending last fall, Dorothy’s periodic emails have become increasingly strident and alarmist, perhaps for good reason. Although we’ve written dozens of funded YouthBuild proposals over the years, including two in the most recent funding round, training at-risk youth and young adults for construction trade careers seems a little odd in the face of the collapse of the housing market. America has many problems at the moment, but a lack of affordable housing and skilled construction workers are not among them.

Dorothy’s June 5 call-to-arms communique says:

In the FY11 House budget in process before the November 2010 elections, the US Department of Labor (DOL) would have received $120M for the YouthBuild program. But after the elections, when the House changed hands, the House re-did the budget and funding for YouthBuild was eliminated.After a grueling negotiation, in which the Senate and the Administration supported YouthBuild, the final budget included $80 million for YouthBuild in DOL. This was a $47.5M cut from the funds appropriated in Fiscal Year 2010. (FY10). As a direct result, in May, one hundred twenty one (121) of DOL’s 226 previously-funded YouthBuild grantees lost their funding. Only 105 YouthBuild programs are funded by DOL for 2011-2013 [Shameless Plug: two of these courtesy of Seliger + Associates grant writing prowess!]. Hundreds of organizations applying for the first time were also turned down. Can you imagine the devastation to those 121 communities of losing this pathway out of poverty for the most disadvantaged young adults? Imagine the heartbreak of the adults* who have worked so hard and fought to bring these opportunities to the young people in their communities?

According to Dorothy, the end of the world is nigh for YouthBuild grantees and the at-risk young folk who presumably will end badly without YouthBuild training. I imagine Gene Wilder in Woody Allen’s hilarious “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex” Drinking Woolite from a bottle after he loses his literally beloved sheep, Daisy.

Dorothy shouts about the deleterious impact of lowered YouthBuild funding on “America’s most disadvantaged communities” (another proposalese gem); she advises lovelorn YouthBuild grantees and supporters to call their congresspeople and senators, of course, to beg for more YouthBuild funding. Call me cynical, but I think the chance of increased funding for YouthBuild is about zero.

Dorothy’s breathless email immediately conjured up the classic cartoon image of a gaggle of brontosauruses (née brontosauri, much like “Winklevi?”) peacefully munching on treetops as that bright light in the sky gets bigger during the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction. All the lobbying by Brontosauri in the USA would not have helped 65 million years ago, and YouthBuld grantees are experiencing a K-T event whether or not they want to admit it. I know, because I can read the grant tea leaves and I’ve talked to about a half-dozen YouthBuild grantees in the last month.

Here’s what we recommend to our YouthBuild and other clients who provide job training:

* Apply for YouthBuild and whatever other job training grants are still available, as it takes government agencies a bit of time to turn the Titanic. Keep in mind, however, that it is fairly pointless to train people for jobs that don’t exist. For example, most Workforce Investment Act (WIA) programs, whether funded by the Department of Labor or a local Workforce Investment Board (WIB), offer grants via reimbursement only if the agency meets its performance targets. Since agencies conducting construction training are spectacularly unlikely to meet performance targets, there is little point in receiving such an award.

These days most training providers offer training for low-level health care and service sector jobs (e.g., push the cash register button with the picture of a cheeseburger when you sell a cheeseburger, etc.). Although YouthBuild is not directly performance-based, we’ve noticed that our YouthBuild clients are emphasizing their ability to get their graduates into community college, a DOL-accepted though rarely discussed YouthBuild program outcome, instead of placing them in a “career ladder job with living wage potential in the world of work” (another free proposalese phrase—there’s one in every box of GWC).

* While waiting around for job training grants, turn your YouthBuild program from a brontosaurus into a fleet-footed mammal by using the agency’s skills and track record to provide remedial education and related supportive services. Since every YouthBuild program has the same three components—adult basic education (ABE), job training and leadership development (YouthBuild-talk for wraparound supportive services)— kick out the middle leg, making the tricycle a bicycle, and go after programs like the Department of Education’s Upward Bound program, for which an RFP with about $350 million up for grabs should be issued in a couple of months. Or form a partnership with an LEA and take a flyer on the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, which has an RFP with $172 million on the street as I write this.

With almost one-third of American youth failing to graduate from high school and many graduates unable to read or write, it’s fairly obvious that there are going to be many grant opportunities for remedial education over the next few years. Even the usually indefatigable Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is soon going to issue waivers to all public schools from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind requirement that all children pass proficiency tests. Without the waivers, 83% of American public schools would be labeled as “failing” next year (I am not making this up).

Or watch for the cascade of discretionary grant programs authorized and funded under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare,” or the Grant Writer’s Relief Act, as we call it around the office). The Affordable Care Act is larded with grant opportunities, many of which involve “outreach.” That’s another way of saying “walkin’ around money for clever mammalian nonprofits.”

In face of rapid grant climate change, it is not a good idea to either continue nibbling on tree tops or run around in pointless circles as the asteroid looms. Get busy, re-think your agency’s strengths, and unleash your inner grant writer. Let the Dorothy Stonemans of the world, who have a real vested interest in keeping YouthBuild (YouthBuild USA, for example, is not going to sell many licenses to use the word “YouthBuild” to nonprofits without the DOL program) and similar archaic funding programs going. Instead, widen your agency’s funding streams beyond job training. There are tons of grants available, even if you have to root around to find them, rather than blissfully picking off the last choice leaf on a withering treetop.


*Note to Would Be Grant Writers: Do not use this kind of overwrought lingo in your proposals. Whenever I read, “the heartbreak of _______________,” I think of the Heartbreak of Psoriasis TV commercials that ran when I was a teenager. I didn’t know what psoriasis was, but I did know that not having a date to my Junior Prom at age 15, not a skin condition, was genuine heartbreak. I did, however, get asked to the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance that year, so all was not lost.

Surfs Up: Seliger + Associates Is Back Where We Started From (More or Less): California

A guilty pleasure during the mid-2000s was watching The O.C. with our then-high-school-age twins. Between the typical nighttime soap opera plot twists, the series produced occasional insights, had appealing actors and perpetuated the “endless summer” mythology of Southern California that we mine with good effect in counterpoint when writing needs assessments for LA-area clients. But best of all were the indie rock songs, and best of these was the theme, “California.” From an aerial position, the camera pans over incredible Newport Beach bluff-top houses during the opening credits as one-hit wonders Phantom Planet cries:

We’ve been on the run
Driving in the sun
Looking out for #1
California here we come
Right back where we started from.

After leaving California on the day of O. J. Simpson’s slow speed-speed chase in 1994, Seliger + Associates has come right back where we started from. Well, not exactly—it’s Huntington Beach in SoCal, not Danville in NoCal, but close enough. Faithful readers will know that we and our business have migrated over the years from NoCal to Seattle to Tucson to Surf City.

When I was at Sandburg Junior High in Golden Valley, a beach-deprived suburb of Minneapolis, I was a big fan of the Beach Boys. I was even bigger fan of Jan and Dean, who recorded Surf City. To paraphrase Brian Wilson, who wrote the lyrics, now that we’ve gone to Surf City, we hope it’s “two grants for every client.”

Faithful readers will also know that when I travel by car, I observe the passing scenes of Americana with a grant writer’s eye. This relatively short move confirms that, like Mark Twain, the rumors of the death of the Great Recession are greatly exaggerated. As I did when I drove from Seattle to Tucson two years ago, I saw many signs of economic dislocation on my way to Surf City a few weeks ago—vacant and abandoned buildings and folks in broken down cars at rest areas that evoke the the Joads, although it was hard to say whether they were fleeing from or to California. Even in LaLa Land, it is obvious from empty retail and office space, car lots with few vehicles and fewer shoppers, $1 meal deals, and a dearth of help wanted signs that good times have not arrived outside the precincts of the New York Times and Federal Reserve spokespeople.

Bad economic news is, of course, good news for grant writers, as I’ve been blogging about for the last three years. Seliger + Associates has been busy churning out proposals, which is the primary reason readers have not seen a post from me for a few weeks. Now the move is more or less complete, and we’ve just about caught up with deadline obligations. I will get back to writing at least a post every two weeks or so.

There is lots of interesting news that impacts grant writers and grant seekers. Perhaps the most important is the incredible number of RFPs on the street, which will be true throughout the summer, and the reality that Congress will significantly decrease discretionary spending for FY ’12 as part of a debt ceiling deal with the Obama administration. I’ve written about the former repeatedly in recent months and will write about the latter soon. But, now, I think it’s time to power down the iMac, leave the office, go home, put on my baggies, and take the puppy to the Huntington Dog Beach, easily the best dog beach in the world, to see if the Surf’s Up:

A Question for Talmudists and Lawyers Regarding HUD’s Healthy Homes NOFA

I’m working on a HUD Healthy Homes proposal, and sections b and c of “Rating Factor 1: Capacity of the Applicant and Relevant Organizational Experience” requires responses to these sentences:

Relevant Organization Experience (6 points). Describe your recent, relevant, and successfully demonstrated experience in undertaking eligible program activities.

and:

Past Performance of the Organization (6 points). Applicants will be rated on documenting previous experience in successfully operating similar grant programs.

The exam question: What is the difference between the information being requested in each section?

Bonus section: How can you answer both while also staying within the 20-page limit for the narrative?