Monthly Archives: April 2013

You Don’t Forget Your First RFP Amendment Post: DOL’s Face Forward Expands Eligibility Requirements

I got my first federal RFP amended last week.

It’s a bit like being blooded when you’re in the Mafia: the tenth time is just standard procedure, but the first time is special.* Isaac, for instance, has gotten numerous RFPs amended, which is always fun because our clients are amazed by our wizardly abilities.

The original version of DOL’s Face Forward Serving Juvenile Offenders Grants SGA said this about the eligible service population:

An individual may participate in a project funded under these grants if he/she: is between the ages of 16 and 24 on the date of enrollment [. . . and ] has never been involved with the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system.

That’s a big problem for a lot of applicants: in New York and North Carolina, youth ages 16 and up are no longer considered juveniles and are therefore adjudicated by the adult justice system.** The original SGA also states that participants must be “currently involved or has been involved in the juvenile justice system or is currently a candidate for diversion under state guidelines for juvenile diversion Programs.” In most states, 16- and 17-year-old youth would be adjudicated within the juvenile justice system for minor crimes, but that’s not true in all states.

Even if a New York nonprofit identifies youth who were adjudicated by the juvenile justice system prior to age 16, most of those youth are likely to have also been involved in the adult system. Few at-risk youth give up criminal behavior at age 16 without supportive services. This is of course the whole point of Face Forward.

As a result, the original rules would make most New York and North Carolina nonprofits effectively ineligible for Face Forward, because they won’t be able to get enough mandatory participants.

I called and sent an e-mail to Mamie Brown (the Face Forward contact person) outlining the problem. She didn’t return my call but did send back an e-mail that completely ignored the point I described above, and she helpfully said, “Please review the Eligibility Requirements in Section III. 3 a) Eligible Participants of the SGA which clearly states who can participate and receive services under this grant. For your convenience the SGA specifically states [. . . ]”

Yes, thank you, I can read.

Whenever a contact person does this, it’s time to look for decisions makers or (unlike most Program Officers) at least a thinking human being. We decided to shoot for either an undersecretary in the DOL, or, since Face Forward is officially being offered by the Employment Training Administration, we decided to try for Assistant Secretary Jane Oates.

There are two dangers in this kind of bureaucratic wasp-nest poking: getting someone too low on the totem pole, who won’t make any decisions (that’s Mamie) or someone too high, who has no idea what the hell is going on in the bowels of the organization and will often be unwilling to respond until the lower echelons have been exhausted.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to jump straight to the top, but in this case we decided an intermediate person. If the intermediate person hadn’t been helpful, we would at least have her name and correspondence when we went further up the chain.

Anyway, I called Oates and left a message, then sent an e-mail. She was quiet for a few days, which is reasonable and not uncommon: she has to figure out what’s going on herself and formulate a response. But the deadline was approaching, so I also called and wrote New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s office. Senators and House members sometimes become involved in grant program rules if they think their home states aren’t getting a fair shot at the money.

Why? Because Senators and House members love to crow about all the money “they” got for their states and districts. We’ve actually had clients whose first notification of grant award came not from the federal agency, but from reporters calling because a Senator put out a press release about how he got more money for the state. Never mind that he had no bearing on the proposal and that letters from Congresspeople are worthless to applicants: the only thing Congresspeople love more than credit for getting money is money itself.

I don’t know if the person I found at Schumer’s office actually did anything, but a couple days after I contacted them Face Forward Amendment One appeared. The amendment changed “has never been involved with the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system; and has never been convicted of a sexual offense other than prostitution” to “has never been convicted within the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system; and has never been convicted of a sexual offense other than prostitution.”

That works for us. The new criteria makes it easier for our Face Forward clients to recruit eligible participants. Plus, in the real world of providing human services, most nonprofits are going to interpret plea bargains for minor crimes in the adult system as not being convictions—but rather, only being “involvement.”

I even got a nice e-mail from Eric Luetkenhaus, the DOL Grant Officer/Chief, about the amendment. When I wrote back to him and Oates saying to say thanks, I received an even more unusual e-mail from Oates: “Thanks to Eric and his team for fixing this but most of all Jake thanks for bringing this to our attention.” Wow! Usually, federal agencies hate issuing amendments, and we’ve never gotten an attaboy from a federal office before. Being as writers who are either a) well-versed in Federal matters or b) cynics (you decide), we were pleasantly shocked.

This story contains a recipe for how to get RFPs amended. If you want to try, you have to start by making sure there’s something wrong or contradictory in an RFP. If the RFP is okay, you obviously don’t need to amend it. Once you’ve determined that there’s a real problem, however, here’s a guide for public RFPs:

1. Start by calling and e-mailing the program contact. These days, most listed contacts don’t like to answer their phones and actually interact with the grimy, ugly public, members of which tend to do annoying things like ask follow-up questions. Consequently, they’ll probably ignore your calls, and you’ll need to send an e-mail. That’s what I did in this case, and I got the language of the RFP spit back to me by Mamie. First contact is unlikely to generate a useful response: the safest thing for a program officer to do is repeat back the language of the RFP. Consequently, that’s what they’ll almost always do (this is also why bidders’ conferences are generally useless for anything other than schmoozing).

2. Be reasonable. Most program officers face the public, and, while most of the public is reasonable, one crazy person can take a disproportionate amount of time and energy. Your goal is to come across as thoroughly reasonable as possible. If you’re not a good writer, find someone in your organization who is, and get them to write the e-mail. Be sure to directly quote from the RFP sections that concern you. Your freshman English teacher was right: quotation really is better and stronger than paraphrase.***

3. Get a response from the underling. This will show the decision maker you eventually reach that you’ve done your homework and, again, that you’re reasonable. Almost all contact people will behave like Mamie.

4. Be polite, but firm and specific. The “polite” part is key, again, because you can’t actually make a federal bureaucrat do anything they don’t want to do. You need to make sure that you’re perceived as reasonable. If you’re not, you’ll get justifiably binned as a loony. But you should also be firm: you want a change to be made for reasons X, Y, and Z.

5. If that doesn’t work, or doesn’t work expeditiously, try calling and writing your Congressperson or Senator. Some will be indifferent, but you should try to find the field officer or field deputy who deals with the federal agency that issued the RFP. The first person you talk to won’t be a decision-maker; their job will be to screen lunatics and to route constituents. You want to be routed to the right person, and frequently you won’t know who that is before you start. Again, your goal is to be scrupulously polite and reasonable, because the public-facing parts of the Congressperson’s office is designed to weed out lunatics.

Taken together, these steps won’t actually take much time, and they should yield results. But they won’t always. If they don’t, don’t yell and scream and holler. Back down and go back to whatever you’d normally be doing. The minute you start screaming, you’ve probably lost. If you get to the top bureaucrat, you’re probably stuck, and probably stuck permanently. But more often than not, genuine mistakes will be rectified—provided you know how to push effectively.


* Although I don’t have guys named Jimmy Caprese and Big Pussy congratulating me.

** As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” We want teenagers to be adults when they commit crimes and “children” when they have sex, which tells you more about our culture than about teenagers.

And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

Laws, including those embodied in Face Forward, reflect race and gender norms: white girls are the primary target of age-of-consent laws, while African American youth are the target of laws around crime and delinquency. The contradictory trends are readily explained by something rather unpleasant in society.

*** Having taught freshmen English to hundreds of students, I know well the skepticism they feel when I tell them about the powers of quotation.

Are You Experienced? Face Forward—Serving Juvenile Offenders SGA: A New Department of Labor Program That Mirrors YouthBuild

Despite all the teeth gnashing and flailing of arms over the recent sequestration non-calamity, the Department of Labor has found $26,000,000 to issue an SGA (DOL-speak for “RFP”) announicng an entirely new program: Face Forward-Serving Juvenile Offenders, with grants up to a million dollars. In the face of all this squawking, honking and flapping of wings over the budget, DOL has birthed an entirely new grant program. As a grant writer, I’m kvelling like I would be from seeing a grandchild from one of my kids. Even better, this bouncing baby grant program is almost a dead ringer for its teen sibling and our favorite DOL program, YouthBuild. Why? Because:

  • The target population is at-risk youth ages 16 – 24.
  • It mandates basic skills instruction leading to a GED.
  • It mandates job training services, leading to an “industry-recognized” credential, whatever that is. But—and this is a big butt—you don’t have to focus on construction training, which makes the job training piece much easier to conceptualize and implement.
  • It mandates case-managed wraparound supportive services—including mentoring, “Individual Career Plans” (ICPs), leadership development activities, and so on.

As Jimi Hendrix sang, “Are You Experienced?” If the above sounds familiar, you are experienced with YouthBuild and a myriad of other job training programs for at-risk youth and young adults. While Face Forward applicants have to propose serving at-risk youth and young adults that have been or are being adjudicated in the juvenile justice system, many prospective YouthBuild clients meet the Face Forward eligibility criteria.

If your agency is a current or former YouthBuild grantee, you’re probably a great applicant for Face Forward—you already have the organizational outreach, partnership and case management infrastructure in place, as well as a documented record of success at engaging and training at-risk youth and young adults.

Even better is the fact that Face Forward is a new program. It’s always a good idea to apply for a grant program in its first first funding round if you’re even vaguely eligible. The opportunity simply doesn’t come along very often, and when it does, you should go for it. You shouldn’t wait around for new grant programs—as we said, there aren’t that many. We wrote a funded YouthBuild proposal for an LA area client almost 20 years ago, during the very first YouthBuild funding round, and the agency continues to be a strong YouthBuild provider to this day. Essentially, YouthBuild has become a grant annuity for this nonprofit.

During the first funding cycle, there are no former or grantees to compete against, and the funding source has no idea what a good proposal is supposed to look like. In this case, DOL seems to be clueless that they’ve accidentally cloned YouthBuild, so it should be possible to throw your old YouthBuild proposal into the proposal blender and pour out a more or less compelling Face Forward proposal.

If you don’t know how to do this without letting DOL know what you’re up to, call us and we’ll do the mixing and baking. Here is an important caveat, however: do not say that your Face Forward proposal copies the methodology in your YouthBuild program. This will make DOL feel sad and ordinary. Instead, tout how innovative and unique your approach is, even if it’s the same old same old. The DOL Face Forward staffers want to think they’re your only girlfriend. Don’t disabuse them of this quaint notion. You want them batting their eyes and fanning themselves furiously as they read your proposal. Think of this as grant writing foreplay.

Now, back around to the SGA,which contains this wonderful nugget: applicants have to partner with “American Job Centers (AJC), formerly One-Stop Career Centers or Local Workforce Investment Boards.” As an American, I feel better that we’ve tossed out the obnoxious One-Stop Career Center name and replaced it with the much more sonorous name: AJC (I can already imagine an aria about it).

This raises the question as to whether there is a federal office somewhere that specializes in changing program names for no apparent reason. Since I’m old as mud, I’ve seen federal job training programs morph from Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) in 1973 to Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) in 1982 to the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998. To paraphrase The Who, in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” There is nothing new in Face Forward. But you’re not going to say that in your proposal.

“Estimate” Means “Make It Up” In the Proposal and Grant Writing Worlds

Many RFPs ask for data that simply doesn’t exist—presumably because the people writing the RFPs don’t realize how hard it is to find phantom data. But other RFP writers realize that data can be hard to find and thus offer a way out through a magic word: “estimate.”

If you see the word “estimate” in an RFP, you can mentally substitute the term “make it up.” Chances are good that no one has the numbers being sought, and, consequently, you can shoot for a reasonable guess.

Instead of the word “estimate,” you’ll sometimes find RPPs that request very specific data and particular data sources. In the most recent YouthBuild funding round, for example, the RFP says:

Using data found at http://www.edweek.org/apps/gmap/, the applicant must compare the average graduation rate across all of the cities or towns to be served with the national graduation rate of 73.4% (based on Ed Week’s latest data from the class of 2009).

Unfortunately, that mapper, while suitably wizz-bang and high-tech appearing, didn’t work for some of the jurisdictions we tried to use it on, and, as if that weren’t enough, it doesn’t drill down to the high school level. It’s quite possible and often likely that a given high school is in a severely economically distressed area embedded in a larger, more prosperous community is going to have a substantially lower graduation rate than the community at large. This problem left us with a conundrum: we could report the data as best we could and lose a lot of points, or we could report the mapper’s data and then say, “By the way, it’s not accurate, and here’s an alternative estimate based on the following data.” That at least has the potential to get some points.

We’ve found this general problem in RFPs other than YouthBuild, but I can’t find another good example off the top of my head, although HRSA New Access Point (NAP) FOAs and Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) RFPs are also notorious for requesting difficult or impossible to find data.

If you don’t have raw numbers but you need to turn a proposal in, then you should estimate as best you can. This isn’t optimal, and we don’t condone making stuff up. But realize that if other people are making stuff up and you’re not, they’re going to get the grant and you’re not. Plus, if you’re having the problem finding data, there’s a decent chance everyone else is too.

Always Tell the Grant Writer: What We Don’t Know Can Hurt You

If you read legal thrillers, you know that clients chronically give incomplete information to their attorneys—which, in legal thrillers, inevitably makes the attorney look stupid in the eyes of people she respects (like, say, judges). Keeping secrets from attorneys also seldom works in the client’s favor: it’s almost always better for the client and the lawyer to disclose that, yes, you were sleeping with the wife, the sister, and the mother on the day in question. Besides, the lawyer has seen or heard or done worse anyway.

Better to look bad in the eyes of the lawyer than to be convicted.

We often analogize what we do to what lawyers do, because there are so many similarities: our clients are really buying our expertise more than they’re buying our work products; we prepare written documents on abstruse topics that nonetheless shape much of the world; we sometimes bill by the hour; and we often give opinions about courses of action. Those opinions may turn out to be wrong*, usually for reasons beyond our control, but they’re based on decades of experience in preparing grant applications.

In addition to those similarities, our clients should tell us as much as they can. If they don’t, we’re more likely to (unintentionally) make mistakes that could screw up their application. Or we’re like to stumble, accidentally,** into what they’re trying to hide. They’re rarely hiding anything as salacious as sleeping with the wife, the sister, and the mother—which is why people write legal thrillers and not grant thrillers—but what they do hide can scupper or weaken their application.

A mistake can lead to embarrassment and the potential loss of millions of dollars. So, when you’re in doubt, err on the side of honesty and disclosure to your grant writer. Save the dubious stories or evasions for your Board of Directors.

(There are stories behind the general principle above, but grant writers are also like lawyers in that we know when to be discreet. We don’t name names and, when it would hurt our clients to tell a story, we don’t tell it—even if the clients aren’t paying us anymore.)


* In The Fellowship of the Ring Frodo encounters a group of high elves tarrying in Middle-earth before they depart forever, and he asks one of them what he should do: he is being pursued by dark riders and Gandalf has not arrived:

‘… The choice is yours: to go or wait.’ [Gildor said.]
‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo, ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’
‘Is it indeed?’ laughed Gildor. ‘Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; how should I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship’s sake give it.’

“All courses may run ill:” it is true in Middle-earth, grant writing, and life.

** We don’t go looking for dirt and neither should you. For one thing, there’s plenty of it in plain sight.