Monthly Archives: November 2012

Teams don’t write grants: individual writers do, one word at a time

Teams don’t write proposals. If you hear about a team that is writing a proposal, that translates roughly to “lots meetings are being held, but no one is actually working on the proposal.”

We sometimes hear people at nonprofit and public agencies talk about how they’ve assembled a “team” to write a proposal. For some reason, proposals written by “teams” have a habit of a) not getting done, b) if they are done, being done unevenly at best, and/or c) creating permanent acrimony among team members.

Do you remember “group work” when you were in middle and high school, which meant that one responsible person did the entire project while the other members goofed off and then took as much credit as they could? That’s what you’ll get with proposal writing assignments, only the stakes are higher.

Every time we hear about proposal writing teams, we know that the person talking doesn’t know how proposals actually get written and is probably working on a proposal that won’t be submitted anyway.

For example, we were recently working on a large federal grant proposal for a school district in the midwest. Throughout the engagement, our contact person keep talking about “the team” that was working on the proposal from their end. When the proposal was nearly done—on the Sunday before the deadline—I heard from out contact person, who finally admitted that “the team” had abandoned her and she had to more or less pull an all-nighter by herself to ensure that we were able to finish the submission package.

Saying that you’re “assembling a team” sounds good: one imagines the innumerable scenes in movies and TV shows in which the ultimate crime or cop group gets wrangled together for one big or one last job.* The members look suitably grizzled. They all have nifty specialties. These days there’s inevitably a hacker who can magically “bypass building security.” The leading men are dapper and debonair, the leading women beautiful and feisty. Unfortunately, in the real world, writing is still best done by a single person who can keep the narrative complexity of a difficulty response in their head.

We’ve written about how to write a proposal before, most notably in “One Person, One Proposal: Don’t Split Grant Writing Tasks.” We’re writing about it again because we see the same set of mistakes again and again.

If you’re drafted into a “grant writing team,” be aware that you’ll probably have one of two roles: You’ll end up writing the vast majority of the proposal, or trying to make yourself look good while someone else writes the vast majority of the proposal. No amount of dividing up tasks will solve the essential problem of facing a blank screen, a full RFP, and starting to type.

Isaac’s favorite example of this comes from The Magnificent Seven, which is actually a good movie. The first thirty or so minutes of the movie consists of Yul Brynner collecting his expert gunmen. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, most nonprofit and public agencies don’t have the same needs as a Mexican village beset by bandits. Usually. Those that do, however, might be the subject of another post.

HUD’s Confusing Continuum of Care (CoC) Program Explained

HUD just released the FY ’13 Continuum of Care (CoC) Program NOFA, with $1.6 billion available for an array of housing and related services for the homeless. But the process of trying to access that money is deliberately confusing. We’re going to explain how it works in this post, mostly for our own amusement but also in an attempt to educate readers.

“CoC” is the acronym for the federal Continuum of Care program. But “CoC” is also the acronym used for local Continuum of Care programs, as well as local or regional Continuum of Care bodies. To access federal CoC grant funds to help implement the local CoC program, potential applicants—like garden-variety nonprofits—have to go through the local CoC body, which is usually a joint powers authority set up to access federal CoC dollars by local governments, or, in some cases, the state itself. That’s a lot of CoCs, any way you look at it.

Since there is no shortage of acronyms, it would have been nice if the GS-15s at HUD had done a little CoC differentiation to reduce the confusion. Regardless of the nomenclature confusion, most nonprofit or public agencies (which are eligible CoC grantees) cannot apply directly to HUD. Rather, the CoC application has to be first submitted to the local CoC and approved for inclusion in the master CoC application sent in by the CoC.*

Astute readers who know anything about bureaucratic processes are now thinking that the CoC local body system created by HUD sounds like a recipe for confusion and potential collusion, at best.

Those readers are correct. The CoC system has become, in effect, a cartel, with each local CoC able to encourage local providers it likes and discourage ones it doesn’t like, or discourage ones that are not part of the current service delivery system. HUD has in effect created a class of self-perpetuating apparatchiks. This is the flip-side of mandating collaboration: your putative collaborators can easily take you out at the kneecaps, and it’s an example of the problems we’ve written about in “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals?” and “Following up on Collaboration in Proposals and How to Respond to RFPs Demanding It.”

The fundamental problem here is that the local CoC can stifle subsidiary organizations, and that stifling is mandated by the CoC NOFA itself:

24 CFR 578.9 requires CoCs to design, operate, and follow a collaborative process for the development of an application in response to a NOFA issued by HUD. As part of this collaborative process, CoCs should implement internal competition deadlines to ensure transparency and fairness at the local level.

If you, a potential applicant, didn’t hear about the “internal competition deadline,” you can’t apply. And those deadlines aren’t published in any regularized way or forum, like, say, the Federal Register. Because you have to do the local submission to be part of the CoC’s HUD submission, it makes it more complicated for a garden variety nonprofit to get a CoC grant. Though we’d definitely be interested in working for some malcontent organization that wants to submit a local proposal at the risk of rejection, then appeal to HUD with a claim that the local organization is failing to perform its duties, no one has called us with this proposition yet, though the situation is probably common in the CoC / homeless services world. These are the kinds of stories that, if we had any real reporters left in America, would be covered in the media.

We have some history with CoC, which was originally part of the Reagan era McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.” Congress passed it in 1987. The original CoC program consisted of three separate grant programs: the Supportive Housing Program, the Shelter Plus Care Program, and the Single Room Occupancy Program. When Seliger + Associates was getting started, one of the first funded proposals we wrote was a $3,000,000 Supportive Housing grant for a nonprofit in Northern California. This was a direct HUD submission, as it was before the local CoC body infrastructure was created.

For reasons that are not clear to us, during the tenure of Andrew Cuomo, or Frankenstein as we used to refer to him around the office because of his uncanny resemblance to our bolt-necked friend, these programs were pumped up as part of Clinton-era response to the “homeless problem” of that time and the CoC system was birthed. As a result, a new layer of bureaucracy began to be consolidated, running parallel to the city, county or state level (in this respect, CoCs are a bit like Community Action Agencies).

We’ve interacted with this new layer of bureaucracy. Although we have written CoC applications in many states, we are most familiar with Los Angeles’s CoC—the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). This bureaucratic gem sprung forth fully grown from LA City and County at the behest of HUD about 15 years ago like Athena from the head of Zeus. It now has a $73,000,000 budget and over 100 steely-eyed bureaucrats, but LAHSA is virtually unknown outside of the homeless services provider community.

When HUD changed the rules, there had to be a Continuum of Care Plan for a local area in order for an applicant to be eligible (LAHSA is in charge of the plan in most of L.A. County). And the applicant had to fit into the Plan. Isaac actually wrote a nominal statewide Continuum of Care Plan for Arkansas around 1997 for a housing authority applicant, because Arkansas didn’t want to do one, but our client couldn’t apply without one. So, we just wrote a CoC Plan to enable our client to apply.

Eventually, the local-level CoCs got consolidated in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, if you weren’t part of the Continuum of Care syndicate in the mid-90s, you might still not be. But almost no one understands this, and the only people who do are the people working for the local CoCs. In the case of LAHSA, only three of of the 88 municipalities in Los Angeles County—Long Beach, Glendale, and Pasadena—have opted out of LHASA and have their own CoC bodies. In Pasadena, it’s the Pasadena Housing and Homeless Network. We assume an interest in the administrative overhead that is gleaned from being designated as a CoC has something to do with the three LAHSA outliers in the LA County CoC ecosystem.

By now, CoC operates somewhat like passthrough funds, except that it isn’t part of the two other federal Block Grant systems: Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from HUD and the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) from the Office of Community Services (OCS).

This raises the obvious question: Why isn’t the CoC grant program part of either CDBG or CSBG? For example, every jurisdiction that receives a CDBG Block Grant must prepare a Consolidated Plan every five years, with annual Action Plan updates. If you browse through any Consolidated Plan, you’ll notice an emphasis on homelessness and homeless programs. But, instead of using the existing system, a parallel system has been legislated into existence, with the usual set of costs and confusions. This post is designed to dispel some of the confusions. But we don’t have the power to dispel the costs.

* I wrote this sentence to see how many times I could work “CoC” into it.

December Links: Dubious Education Policies, FEMA, Writing, School Reform, Manufacturers, Quiet, Dan Savage, the Security Ratchet, and More!

* This is not an Onion story: “Florida’s plan to measure students by race riles education experts.”

* From an interview with Michael Bloomberg:

If every time you want to do something, they demand the final results, when you’re just sort of feeling your way and trying to evolve, it’s hard to govern. When we live in a world — in medicine, or in science, you go down a path and it turns out to be a dead end, you really made a contribution, because we know we don’t have to go down that path again. In the press, they call it failure. And so people are unwilling to innovate, unwilling to take risks in government.

Your nonprofit or public agency is subject to the same forces. Don’t be seduced by a program or RFP’s stated desire for innovation: in the vast majority of federal and state grant programs, the funding agency expects you to do exactly what everyone else is doing (remember: grant writing is about “thinking inside the box“). We’re not endorsing these perverse incentives, but we are noticing them. Our post “What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP” also discusses these issues.

* The Joy of Quiet, which I often seek and too little find.

* How manufacturers and community colleges are teaming up, German-style, to create high-paying factory jobs. Good! We’ve pretty clearly got a problem with the way we treat college education in the United States.

* SAMHSA finally discovers, about eight years late.

* Obama phones? That, at least, is what they’re called in the community.

* If “The Bipartisan Security Ratchet” doesn’t scare you, it should:

The United States government, under two opposed increasingly indistinguishable political parties, asserts the right to kill anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror. It asserts the right to detain anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror, and to do so based on undisclosed facts applied to undisclosed standards in undisclosed locations under undisclosed conditions for however long it wants, all without judicial review.

* Anti-poverty volunteer keeps profit from homeless New Jersey man’s house sale.

* A couple years ago, we almost worked for these guys, who are now, unfortunately, declaring bankruptcy. At the time we had too many other clients to accept their assignment.

* “Why school reform is impossible.” Maybe.

* “As we watch computing become a central part of the language of science, communication, and even the arts and humanities, we will realize that students need to learn to read and write code because — without that skill — they are left out of the future.

* “How American Health Care Killed My Father,” and what to do about it. Unfortunately, we haven’t done the things we should have done and should be doing, as discussed in the article.

* “Write My Essay, Please! These days, students can hire online companies to do all their coursework, from papers to final exams. Is this ethical, or even legal?” This supports Bryan Caplan’s theory that much of education is about signaling.

* It was only a matter of time: Tuition by Major.

* “You Should Repeatedly Read Cochrane’s ‘After the ACA.’

* “Dan Savage: The Gay Man Who Teaches Straight People How to Have Sex.”

* “Another ex-chairman rebuffs CalOptima’s demand for money” shows how corruption can work in nonprofits; the more interesting question is why and how the story ended up in The Orange County Register. That story can often be as interesting as the corruption story itself, but it isn’t told here.

* “Overall, I am for betting because I am against bullshit. Bullshit is polluting our discourse and drowning the facts. A bet costs the bullshitter more than the non-bullshitter so the willingness to bet signals honest belief.” That’s from Tyler Cowen, “A Bet is a Tax on Bullshit.”

* The FEMA office in Jersey City was closed because of the storm.

* Ian McEwan: “Some Notes on the Novella.” Wow. Sample: “How often one reads a contemporary full-length novel and thinks quietly, mutinously, that it would have worked out better at half or a third the length. I suspect that many novelists clock up sixty thousand words after a year’s work and believe (wearily, perhaps) that they are only half way there. They are slaves to the giant, instead of masters of the form.” Yes.

The Bizarre RTTT-D RFP Competition Lurches to the Finish

Feeling like exhausted runners at the finish of the now-cancelled New York City Marathon, we recently met the then-deadline for a couple of Department of Education Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) proposals we’ve been slaving over for the last few weeks. To say this RFP was complex is to not do justice to the word, as it consisted of the 101-page Notice from the Federal Register, as well as the 116-page Application Guidelines, the 33-page FAQ file, and nested Excel budget worksheets.

It is a seldom equaled collection of educatorese, bureaucratese, embedded forms, contradictory directions, and plain stupidity. I’m not sure I’ve seen the like of it in 40 years of grant writing and 20 years at the helm of the good ship Seliger + Associates, and I’ve seen a lot. But, like Phidippides at the first Marathon, we made it to the finish line.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of this oddball RFP process were the submission requirements. For reasons obscured by the fog of government ineptitude, the Department of Education chose not to use its G5 system, which recently replaced their “eGrants” digital submission portal, or our old pal,

Instead, we were suddenly back in 1997, with a requirement for an original and two hard copies, along with the proposal files on a CD! I guess the Department of Education has not read the digital memo about saving paper. One proposal we completed was 270 pages, with appendices. Another was 170 pages.

The 270 page Sumo-sized proposal was so fat that we couldn’t find big enough binder clips and had to roll with gigantic rubber bands for fasteners. In the 250 pages of assorted directions, including detailed directions for burning the CD, they forgot to say where the appendix file was supposed to go. Plus, the final document was supposed to be submitted in Adobe Acrobat, be “readable,” and be paginated. We are pretty handy with Acrobat, know how to do this manipulation, and have the hardware horsepower to handle and print massive files (try spooling a 270 page print file with dozens of embedded images or knitting together 25 Acrobat files into a single 33-meg file), so we figured out a workable approach.

But this would have been daunting or virtually impossible for the average civilian grant submitter. Of course, most of this folderol was completely unnecessary, but where’s the fun in a simple and straightforward RFP process to the Philosopher Kings at the Department of Education. Oh, but it does keep us in business, so I guess I should be grateful for endemic (free proposal word here) bureaucratic myopia.

As we were finishing these proposals, it because clear that Hurricane Sandy was going to hit the Northeast. Even though Washington is nowhere near the coast, the feds shut down last Monday, October 29, and Tuesday, October 30—the day of the original RTTT-D deadline. The brave GS-11s and 12s at the Department of Education quickly flung out an email extending the deadline, as they raced back to their cozy burrows. Even though we correctly guessed that the deadline would be extended, we prudently acted as if it wouldn’t be (this is always a good idea in grant writing), and our proposals were winging their way to D.C. via FedEx by the time the extension was announced (Jake wrote more about this and the other strange effects in “Hurricane Sandy and the Election Combine to Blow Away the RFPs.”

After a cocktail or three to contemplate RTTT-D, it was time to sweep up the shop floor and tackle our next set of deadlines. Such is the life of grant writing consultants. Our road always brings us forward and seldom leaves us much time to reflect.

Hurricane Sandy and the Election Combine to Blow Away the RFPs

Dedicated readers of our e-mail grant newsletter have probably noticed how slender it’s been over the last four weeks. The newsletter isn’t slender because we’re reluctant to share grant opportunities with you—it’s slender because federal and state governments haven’t been issuing very many RFPs, and they’ve been issuing even fewer interesting RFPs of the sort that nonprofit and public agencies are likely to apply for. Whatever the merits of, say, the Tunisia Community College Scholarship Program or Research Using Biosamples from Selected Type 1 Diabetes Clinical Studies, they’re undeniably specialized programs that are unlikely to interest the vast majority of our subscribers.

Like any good grant Kremlinologists, we have to admit that we don’t know everything and can only make reasonable inferences based on limited data. With that caveat in mind, our best guess about the RFP drought is that DC has been hit with two major punches: Hurricane Sandy and the election. The former hasn’t done too much damage to Washington itself, but preparing for it set the city back by a couple of days, and the Northeast corridor still hasn’t recovered. The situation is sufficiently bad that deadlines are also being extended because of the chaos in the Northeast. The Race To The Top—District (RTTT-D) program, for example, had its deadline extended, but at first the Department of Education didn’t give a new deadline. The actual extension dates—Nov. 2 for everyone else and Nov. 7 for those affected by Sandy—took a couple of days.

The election shouldn’t directly impact the grant cycle, but it does because DC is a company town, and everyone in the town is waiting to see what’s going to happen at the top. Although the civil service employees who actually run grant competitions won’t be directly affected by the winners and losers of Tuesday’s elections, their political appointee masters will be, and the tenor of what’s happening in each department may change. As a result, it’s not infrequent to see this kind of federal torpor right before an election, and that, we think, is why you’ve seen such thin newsletters recently. Not to worry, though, because there should be a “storm surge” of RFPs when the bureaucracy rises from its election lassitude.