Monthly Archives: November 2013

November Links: Vaccines Are Important, Education Reform, the Future of the World, Broadband, Cities, and More!

* Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) of Tennessee’s preschool program show that preschool doesn’t appear to improve the later school performance of those enrolled, or much of anything else.

* CDC: Many U.S. Girls Not Getting HPV Vaccine Despite Its Effectiveness.

* “A bachelor’s degree could cost $10,000 — total. Here’s how.” The short version is, “Unbundling.” I think we’re going to see some version of this tried in various places, and in the next decade we’re going to see a lot of universities change.

* Average Is Over—if We Want It to Be.

* Oklahoma senator calls out Congress for blowing money on ‘fruity’ grants.

* Which Job Skills Will Be Most Important In The Coming Years?

* “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” As an additional explanation, see Philip Greenspun, “Women in Science.”

* Travel is much more boring and aggravating than people give it credit for.

* What we eat affects everything.

* If You Aren’t Technical, Get Technical. One could also replace “technical” with “literate,” although “technical” certainly has more immediate financial returns.

* The unbelievably brilliant ad campaign by Eat24, a food delivery service: “How to Advertise on a Porn Website.” Note that this is safe for work, provided you don’t work in a religious organization or elementary school.

* The most important piece and yet likely to be the least read: “We’ve Reached ‘The End of Antibiotics, Period.’

* A sad day for the OS X users among us: “Pages 5: An unmitigated disaster.”

* L.A. to unleash city-wide gigabit broadband. Awesome. Also on the good news front: “Fed up with slow and pricey Internet, cities start demanding gigabit fiber.”

* Woman from MTV demands free stuff.

* Reducing the federal prison population, which should be a major goal.

* A reinvented skillet. Isaac is skeptical because he says you can buy a perfectly good Lodge cast iron pan made in Tennessee for about $20, but I want to believe.

* Complementing the second link: “The Cancer Vaccine: Only one in three American girls is vaccinated against HPV. That will mean thousands of gratuitous cancer deaths. Why?

* “What are some of the biggest problems with a guaranteed annual income?” Isaac is very fond of the guaranteed annual income model, which was last a prominent idea in the early 70s, when he was in college, but has become a more interesting proposition as of late.

* “Simple answers to the questions that get asked about every new technology,” in comic form.

* The American Police State: A sociologist interrogates the criminal-justice system, and tries to stay out of the spotlight.

* “Overall, we Americans have a stronger attachment to U.S. dominance than to fair play or anyone’s rights.”

* “Why Aren’t Cities Taller?” The answer has important and under-appreciated implications for poverty and real wealth, and the link is connected to the link above: “Average Is Over—if We Want It to Be.”

Youth CareerConnect Program: The Department of Labor Provides An Early Holiday Present

The holidays come early year with this tasty new* program from the elves at the Department of Labor (DOL) Employment and Training Administration (ETA): the Youth CareerConnect Program.** There’s $100,000,000 up for grabs, with 25 to 40 grants to be awarded—in other words, serious money. Sequestration hasn’t been a horror story for nonprofit and public agencies—the federal trough is full and there’s always for one more nonprofit snout.

Read the RFP. You’ll realize you’ve seen this movie before—but just because the plot is stale doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see yet another version of boy meets girl. Youth CareerConnect funds small learning communities, career-focused curricula, employee partnerships, high school diplomas or equivalents, industry-recognized credentials, work readiness, low-income participants (including females and minorities), and (wait for it), wraparound supportive services. It’s like YouthBuild but without the construction training, or like prisoner reentry without prisoners, or community colleges without the community college.

The services may elicit a yawn but the money won’t. If your agency runs YouthBuild or almost any other training or supportive services for at-risk youth or young adults, this is a wonderful grant opportunity that could be run by almost any youth services nonprofit. Remember, though, that you should get going before your Thanksgivukkah turkey and latkes put you to sleep, because the deadline is January 27. All I can say to my pals at DOL ETA, is Gobbletov!

EDIT: As I noted in “Are You Experienced? Face Forward—Serving Juvenile Offenders SGA: A New Department of Labor Program That Mirrors YouthBuild,” it’s almost always a good idea to apply for the first funding round of a new program. The reasons are too many and varied to repeat here, but the original post is worth reading carefully for anyone debating about whether their agency should apply.

In addition, it’s worth noting that page 16 of the Youth CareerConnect SGA forbids community colleges from applying. That’s curious, because community colleges are probably the most plausible candidates for running YCC programs. They’re probably excluded because community colleges are the only eligible applicants for the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Grant Program, which is essentially the same thing as YCC, except that it has even more money available. DOL just wants to spread the wealth to other organizations.


* It’s “new” in the sense that the title is new and the hundred million has been freshly allocated, but anyone who has ever provided job training services should recognize the melody, beat, and lyrics.

** I particularly like the way DOL has run Career and Connect together to form an allusion of speed and urgency with CareerConnect.

Reflections of a Grant Writer on the 50th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination

Like all Americans who were alive at the time, I clearly remember the moment I learned of President Kennedy’s assassination. Fifty years ago I was a 12 year old in 7th grade social studies at the now-closed Carl Sandburg Junior High* in Golden Valley, Minnesota. The terrible news came over the loudspeaker. The girls immediately burst into tears and the boys didn’t do anything (we were 12-year-old boys and in that era, boys didn’t cry in public).

You know what happened after, and there is no point in me recounting the obvious. But it is important for anyone involved in grants and nonprofits to know that the assassination set in motion a series of events that created world of grants that has consumed my career.

President Johnson, reaping a wellspring of good will after Dallas and an unprecedented election victory in 1964, got Congress to pass the various pieces of the War on Poverty legislation in 1964 and 1965 that created the first of the major discretionary grant programs that have become the lifeblood of nonprofits. Before the War on Poverty, most nonprofits depended on donations and/or memberships, or were closely tied to religious denominations. They were much smaller than they are today. They were much fewer. As the Great Society unfolded, the feds (and eventually state and local governments) increasingly began to “hire” nonprofits to provide ever expanding services—and grant writing became central to the work and life of nonprofits.

This transformation began unintentionally with the JFK assassination and has evolved haphazardly. It was largely complete by the time I wrote my first grant proposal as a 21-year-old budding community organizer nine years later. To learn about how I got started, read the first ever Grant Writing Confidential post from almost exactly six years ago on November 29, 2007: “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal.”


* When I looked up this reference, I found to my surprise that Sandburg Junior High, which had become Sandburg Middle at some point, closed in 2010, exactly 50 years after it had opened: yet another anniversary, but one that presumably goes unmarked by anyone who didn’t attend the school.

Lessons from the ObamaCare Rollout Fiasco for Grant Writers

Regardless of one’s politics or policy preferences, it’s painful to watch the ongoing Affordable Care Act rollout fiasco.* Developing healthcare.gov is obviously a complex undertaking. One thing lost in the cacophony over the botched rollout is that many large scale IT projects fail to launch successfully, with www.heathcare.gov being the most widely publicized example this year.

We recently wrote some proposals for an electronic health record (EHR) development project on behalf of a California hospital. When scoping the project, our client told a story about a very large Los Angeles hospital that spent several years and $34 million rolling out an EHR system that its doctors refused to use. This well-known hospital failed to involve the docs—the users, in other words—in system development and the whole system had to be trashed.

Since President Obama and his team—or the L.A. hospital—presumably didn’t set out to create a debacle, there are lessons to be learned for anyone involved in complex project development, including grant writers. Perhaps the most of obvious is to make sure that one person is in charge. This echos Steve Jobs’s insistence on a Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) (to use the Apple-speak) for all projects. That ensures that one person has their head cut off in the event of failure, and beheading tends to focus the mind. If your agency is going to be serious and successful in grant seeking, either hire a competent staff grant writer or consultant and hold them responsible for getting job done.

For nonprofits, which often have fairly chaotic, or, to be less pejorative, “egalitarian” management structures, this simple strategy is frequently overlooked in proposal writing. Without a DRI, proposal planning meetings are likely to drift, with the management team espousing great, but vague, thoughts and the worker bees afraid to say they don’t understand what is wanted. Frequently their fears are well-founded, since nothing concrete has been specified by management.

The result is typically conflict and confusion, which results in a poorly written, incoherent and/or technically incorrect proposal, if the proposal gets finished at all. Most of our clients are astounded when we scope a project in an hour-long phone call and produce a more or less on-target first draft without any angst or finger pointing. Some details may be wrong, in which case they’re fixed in the next draft. It’s really not hard, because we assume the role of a DRI, get the job done, and don’t make excuses. We ask direct questions to elicit specific answers to the five Ws and the H that are central to proposal development or any information gathering effort. When in doubt we let the RFP dictate the proposal, instead of trying, probably futilely, to dictate the program to the funder.


* Otherwise known as “Obamacare.”

Foundations Give Away Five Percent Of Their Assets a Year: Typhoon Haiyan Shows Why You Should Act Now, Not Later

As you’ve probably noticed if you’re reading any news, typhoon Haiyan likely killed at least 10,000 people in the Philippines. That’s obviously a human tragedy, but there’s one small implication for nonprofit: it pays to apply for foundation funding sooner, rather than later.

The reason is simple. Foundations react to the news cycle. They also give out a limited amount of money every year. When the biggest typhoon in history hits the Philippines, funders are going to redirect a lot of their giving to victims of the typhoon. Since they’re only required to give away five percent a year, and almost no foundations give more, there is usually a finite amount of money that any individual foundation will spend in a given year. By definition, any dollar that goes to one purpose can’t go to another.

(We should clarify that we’re not criticizing foundations for donating to typhoon victims. We are, however, pointing out that in any given quarter, foundation priorities might change.)

Nonprofits that applied for foundation funding three months ago probably had their proposals evaluated on their merits without the typhoon impetus hanging over them. Incidentally, it takes us about three to four months to complete a foundation appeal, which means anyone who hires us tomorrow shouldn’t be strongly affected. But any nonprofit that spent the last year “planning” or “developing” or whatever has just seen the likelihood of its foundation appeal working decline if they submit next week.

The same thing happened, on a larger scale, after 9/11: that tragedy sucked up a huge amount of donations and foundation funding for the rest of the year. The many local, national, and international problems that nonprofit and public agencies had been addressing on 9/10 didn’t go away on 9/12. But many foundations focused on the event that dominated the news, rather than quieter needs that might make the back pages of newspapers and the bottom of websites—if they’re covered at all.

Again, we’re not trying to diminish what happened on 9/11. But we are trying to provide some context from a grant seeker’s perspective. It’s also worth noting that, as Ken Stern describes in “With Charity For All,” donations to 9/11-based causes hit diminishing returns quickly. In other words, there were too many dollars chasing too few effective charitable opportunities. Organizations like the Red Cross, which realized as much, redirected some donations to other causes and then got blasted in the media.

I mentioned above that important problems don’t go away even when major tragedies like typhoon Haiyan or 9/11 occur. My favorite example of underappreciated statistics involves cars. Pop quiz: do you know how many people died in car-related events last year? Around 30,000, which is actually down from the 40,000 people who used to routinely die in car-related events, but it’s still about ten times greater than the number of people who died on 9/11. Despite these facts, auto deaths get nowhere near the press that 9/11 did.

Almost no one is deeply engaged in rethinking our urban and transportation infrastructure to reduce reliance on cars and, as Matt Yglesias says in The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think, increase real incomes by lowering housing costs in major cities. (The book, by the way, is brilliant, short, and worth reading, since its main subject touches on so many economic and political issues in contemporary life.)

The contrast between the reaction to a major event like 9/11 and typhoon Haiyan and to everyday events like the deaths of innumerable people in cars demonstrates the power of unusual stories to shape funder priorities. As a society we’re willing to tolerate 30,000 people dying in and around cars every year because those deaths happen across dispersed geographic areas and 365 days a year. That doesn’t get the reaction of a single, horrifying incident. Most nonprofits are working on relatively everyday struggles around poverty, crime, research, and so on. They don’t have the advantage of every news outlet in the world shining an intense light on their cause. Both their timing in applying for funding and the content of their proposals should reflect that.

FEMA’s Assistance for Firefighters Grants (AFG) Appears On Time

Years ago we had a series of spats with the Assistance To Firefighters Grants (AFG) program contact person, for reasons detailed in “Blast Bureaucrats for Inept Interpretations of Federal Regulations* and “FEMA and Grants.gov Together at Last,” both of which have a lot of complaining but also have a deeper lesson: it pays to make noise when federal and other bureaucrats aren’t doing their jobs. If nothing else, the noise makes it more likely that those bureaucrats will do their jobs right in the future.*

For us, that future is now. A new AFG RFP was just issued. While it has a short 30-day deadline, it appeared in the Grants.gov database in a timely manner. Now fire departments that want to apply will have a fair shot. And pretty much every fire department should apply: there are 2,500 grants available. I don’t know how many fire departments there are in the U.S., but I do know that 2,500 is appreciable portion of them and that 2,500 isn’t a typo—at least on our part.


* Plus, complaining is sometimes satisfying.

Don’t Trust Grants.Gov, Which Makes a $200,000,000 Mistake: An Example from the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education (THCGME) Program

I’m preparing our weekly e-mail grant newsletter and see the Affordable Care Act – Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education (THCGME) Program, which, according to Grants.gov, has $20,250,000 available. Twenty million: that’s not bad but isn’t spectacular either. Good enough to include in the newsletter, especially since it appears that community health centers (CHCs) and organizations that partner with CHCs are good applicants.

Then I hunt down the RFP, which is located at an inconvenient, non-obvious spot.* The second page of the RFP says there is $230,000,000 available—about ten times as much as the Grants.gov listing. That’s a huge difference. So huge that I’m using bold, which we normally eschew because it’s primarily hacks who have to resort to typographical tricks to create impact. But in this case, the magnitude of the difference necessitates extreme measures.

If you see an RFP that looks interesting, always track down the source, even if the amount of money available or number of grants available doesn’t entice you. Don’t trust grants.gov. As with chatting up strangers in a bar, you never know what you’ll find when you look deeper.


* This is why subscribing to our newsletter is a good idea: I do this kind of tedious crap so you don’t have to.

The Weird Case of SUNY Geneseo’s RFP for Grant Writers

We received this “RFP for Grant Writing & Related Consulting Services” from SUNY Geneseo:

That SUNY Geneseo RFP

It’s gotta be the Ron Jeremy of consulting RFPs—even by the standards of public agencies, it’s massive. At least a hundred pages. It’s also only available as a hard copy and was sent to our New York office, so we can’t provide a link. That alone signals that something is amiss: anyone who wants the best services possible should also want to disseminate their RFP as widely as possible. And SUNY Geneseo sent this sumo-sized document via UPS overnight delivery—they must not have read the memo about not wasting dead trees and running up shipping costs. It must still be 1996 in Geneseo.

SUNY Geneseo, however, doesn’t seem to want wide distribution of this RFP, and we have a pretty good theory about why. A few years ago Isaac wrote a post about why we don’t respond to RFPs/RFQs for grant writers (and, implicitly, why any grant writing consultants reading this shouldn’t either). The only exception is when we’re told that the RFQ is already wired for us, in which case we’re happy to apply.* In the case of SUNY Geneseo, there’s almost certainly a local firm or person they’re already going to hire. They just need to get a couple stooge bids.

Most RFQs and RFPs like this have some telltale signs that the local boys are going to win—usually something about the requirement that the consultant be available for in-person meetings, or have knowledge of local operations, or a similar formulation.

Public organizations with mandatory bid processes almost always also have the option of executing “sole-source contracts,” which get past the usual bidding rules. In this case, the contract authority at SUNY Geneseo probably doesn’t want to go through the institutional hassles of getting a sole-source contract, so she’s instead using the stooge method. Isaac actually sent the contract authority an e-mail asking about their convoluted RFP process, and their contact person claimed they “can’t do sole-source contracts.” This is nonsense, of course, as government agencies routinely use sole-source contracts for all kinds of specialized and emergency situations.

I’m not sure how many stooges she’ll find. The SUNY application itself is sufficiently complex that, were we writing a response for clients, we’d probably charge at least $5,000 to complete it. We’re not going to—instead, we’re going to real work, and we recommend that you do the same and that you not fall for the unsolicited RFP/RFQ trap.

EDIT: We’re obviously not the only ones curious—we’ve been getting search engine hits for the phrase “geneseo rfp”. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, since we’re the number one hit for the phrase on Google and the number two hit on Duck Duck Go, which is a search engine with one delightful feature: it doesn’t log searches. Your fascination with Miley Cyrus is safe with it.


* Though we did once get into a situation in which a public agency told us on the QT that the RFQ was wired for us, we submitted an application, and then they picked someone else anyway! We were angry for the usual reasons, the most obvious being that when we say we’ll do something, we do it.