Monthly Archives: December 2013

The unsolvable standardized data problem and the needs assessment monster

Needs assessments tend to come in two flavors: one basically instructs the applicant to “Describe the target area and its needs,” and the applicant chooses whatever data it can come up with. For most applicants that’ll be some combination of Census data, local Consolidated Plan, data gathered by the applicant in the course of providing services, news stories and articles, and whatever else they can scavenge. Some areas have well-known local data sources; Los Angles County, for example, is divided into eight Service Planning Areas (SPAs), and the County and United Way provide most data relevant to grant writers by SPA.

The upside to this system is that applicants can use whatever data makes the service area look worse (looking worse is better because it indicates greater need). The downside is that funders will get a heterogeneous mix of data that frequently can’t be compared from proposal to proposal. And since no one has the time or energy to audit or check the data, applicants can easily fudge the numbers.

High school dropout rates are a great example of the vagaries in data work: definitions of what constitutes a high school dropout vary from district to district, and many districts have strong financial incentives to avoid calling any particular student a “dropout.” The GED situation in the U.S. makes dropout statistics even harder to understand and compare; if a student drops out at age 16 and gets a GED at 18 is he a dropout or a high school graduate? The mobility of many high-school age students makes it harder still, as does the advent of charter schools, on-line instruction and the decline of the neighborhood school in favor of open enrollment policies. There is no universal way to measure this seemingly simple number.*

The alternative to the “do whatever” system is for the funder to say: You must use System X in manner Y. The funder gives the applicant a specific source and says, “Use this source to calculate the relevant information.” For example, the last round of YouthBuild funding required the precise Census topic and table name for employment statistics. Every applicant had to use “S2301 EMPLOYMENT STATUS” and “S1701 POVERTY STATUS IN THE PAST 12 MONTHS,” per page 38 of the SGA.

The SGA writers forgot, however, that not every piece of Census data is available (or accurate) for every jurisdiction. Since I’ve done too much data work for too many places, I’ve become very familiar with the “(X)” in American Factfinder2 tables—which indicates that the requested data is not available.

In the case of YouthBuild, the SGA also specifies that dropout data must be gathered using a site called Edweek. But dropout data can’t really be standardized for the reasons that I only began to describe in the third paragraph of this post (I stopped to make sure that you don’t kill yourself from boredom, which would leave a gory mess for someone else to clean up). As local jurisdictions experiment with charter schools and online education, the data in sources like Edweek is only going to become more confusing—and less accurate.

If a YouthBuild proposal loses a few need points because of unavailable or unreliable data sources, or data sources that miss particular jurisdictions (as Edweek does) it probably won’t be funded, since an applicant needs almost a perfect score to get a YouthBuild grant. We should know, as we’ve written at least two dozen funded YouthBuild proposals over the years.

Standardized metrics from funders aren’t always good, and some people will get screwed if their projects don’t fit into a simple jurisdiction or if their jurisdiction doesn’t collect data in the same way as another jurisdiction.

As often happens at the juncture between the grant world and the real world, there isn’t an ideal way around this problem. From the perspective of funders, uniform data requirements give an illusion of fairness and equality. From the perspective of applicants trapped by particular reporting requirements, there may not be a good way to resolve the problem.

Applicants can try contacting the program officer, but that’s usually a waste of time: the program officer will just repeat the language of the RFP back to the applicant and tell the applicant to use its best judgment.

The optimal way to deal with the problem is probably to explain the situation in the proposal and offer alternative data. That might not work. Sometimes applicants just get screwed, and not in the way most people like to get screwed, and there’s little to be done about it.


* About 15 years ago, Isaac actually talked to the demographer who worked at the Department of Education on dropout data. This was in the pre-Internet days, and he just happened to get the guy who works on this stuff after multiple phone transfers. He explained why true, comprehensive dropout data is impossible to gather nationally, and some of his explanations have made it to this blog post.

No one ever talks to people who do stuff like this, and when they find an interested party they’re often eager to chat about the details of their work.

You Don’t Have to be in a Shithole Nonprofit

Seliger + Associates’s main offices recently moved to Downtown Santa Monica. Those of you who have visited Santa Monica recently know that the area has finally upzoned (which is great) and has tons of new buildings that make it somewhat urban. Santa Monica has some of the world’s most valuable real estate, so insisting on one- or two-story houses makes no sense, but that’s classic American urban policy.

(In addition to five- and six-story apartment buildings, Santa Monica is also now filled with $30 plates of pasta and $5 cups of pour-over coffee, but that’s a separate issue.)

Isaac found a European tailor near the office who’s had a shop in Downtown Santa Monica for over 30 years. One day, Isaac asked Gabor if he loves the new developments, since the tailor now has a ton of customers within walking distance. He does. What did Downtown Santa Monica used to be like? Gabor just said, “The houses were shitholes.”

We’re naturally telling this story for a reason. We’ve heard the same kind of description from some clients when they discuss their own agencies. But nonprofits are more like businesses than most people realize. If you don’t like your neighborhood, you might have to wait decades for the political winds to shift regarding development.

But if you don’t like the nonprofit you’re working for,* grab a hammer and go build your own. You’re not beholden to the existing nonprofit. Maybe you can do a better job. Nonprofits aren’t that hard to start, and if you don’t want to deal with the paperwork, you can hire an account or lawyer to do it for you. People create nonprofits all the time.

Think your local nonprofit is a shithole or is otherwise doing a lousy job? Go do it better down the street. We’ve worked for a number of nonprofits started by disgruntled members of the dominant nonprofit who then went on to compete for the same kinds of grants. Dominant nonprofits are often made lazy by success and start to forget that success is never final.


* Or the one serving your neighborhood. Plenty of nonprofits start this way.

Vice President Biden Announces $100 Million for Mental Health Services — or Did He?

The White House just published this breathless news release announcing $100 Million for Mental Health Services. As soon as I spotted this, I tweeted it, even though I knew immediately that the announcement was not as it seems.

Unlike virtually every other press release you’ve ever seen, this one curiously lacks a contact phone number, email address or even name—apart from Vice President Biden, who probably won’t be returning your voicemails. Short of calling the White House and asking to speak to Uncle Joe, there’s no easy way to get more information about grant availability for new mental health services.

The announcement has two parts: $50 million for “mental health services at Community Health Centers” from DHHS and $50 million to “improve mental health facilities” in rural areas from the Department of Agriculture. But no information on actual RFPs or even program names are included.

What gives?

With respect to the “new” funding for Community Health Centers (CHCs), which are nonprofit providers largely funded by HRSA, the $50 million does not appear to be new at all. Rather, it was apparently authorized by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) three years ago. From time to time, HRSA issues RFPs for CHCs to expand services, including mental health services (think of the New Access Points program, which we wrote about at the link). The ACA, in addition to being a landmark piece of legislation, was also a vehicle for creating budget authority—including this $50 million. At some point in FY ’14, HRSA will probably issue an RFP for CHCs to propose new mental health services programs, but this is not new funding.

Regarding the second pot of money, it may seem odd that the Department of Agriculture has $50 million for mental health facilities—but not to me. The Department of Agriculture has had the Rural Development (RD) office for decades, which, among other things, provides grants and loans for all kinds of rural community facilities—including mental health facilities.

Although not stated in the news release, I assume this $50 million is just part of RD’s existing funding appropriation, not new funding. The challenge RD faces, however, is finding projects to fund. This is because the real problem in rural areas is not building the facility—it’s operating the facility. So Steele County in Minnesota could apply for an RD grant and/or loan (most RD projects are offered a combination of both) to build a mental health center in Owatonna, but how would they staff it over time? By definition, rural areas are sparsely populated, the tax base is thin, and most counties and cities have trouble keeping open the facilities they have.

I’m sorry to have given readers the above bad news about phantom funding. While I’m glad that Vice President Biden decided to issue a press release saying that the sun rises in the east, in the world of grant writing, what really matters are RFPs.

If there is no link to a RFP or information about when one will be released, there really is no news. In this case no news is not good news.

HRSA’s Healthy Start Initiative Inadvertently Illuminates* How Grant Funding Decisions are Actually Made

Our old pals at HRSA just issued the FY ’14 Healthy Start Initiative (HSI) Funding Opportunity Announcement (“FOA,” which is HRSA-speak for RFP). HSI has over $81 million up for grabs for a wide array of project concepts that will

reduce disparities in infant mortality and adverse perinatal outcomes by: 1) improving women’s health, 2) promoting quality services, 3) strengthening family resilience, 4) achieving collective impact, and 5) increasing accountability through quality improvement, performance monitoring, and evaluation.

There’s an interesting twist to the funding distribution of HSI, however. Most RFPs contain some version of the following, which we’re taking from the recently issued Department of Labor Youth CareerConnect SGA (Solicitation for Grant Applications, which is DOL-speak for RFP):

The Grant Officer may also consider other factors such as geographic balance; the availability of funds; and representation among various H-1B industries/occupations.

This more or less means that DOL can fund any technically correct proposal that reaches the point funding threshold, without justifying its reasoning to anyone. This inherent uncertainty about which good proposals will be funded makes applicants nervous and can discourage some applicants from even applying. Let’s say you run a rural nonprofit that does youth job training. You might feel you can’t compete against big city applicants and give up Youth CareerConnect before you start. If one were cynical, one could say that’s exactly why this weasel language is almost always found in RFPs. Still, it’s usually worthwhile for that rural nonprofit to apply anyway, since it might be a token rural nonprofit that gets funded to provide rural/urban balance.

The HSI FOA is different. HSI will award grants up to $2 million/year for five years. But the $82 million in available HSI funds and the large size of the grants are not what makes this FOA particularly interesting. Instead, it’s the way HSI funds will be parceled out, which the FOA clearly states—instead of hiding behind the kind of typical RFP language cited above for Youth CareerConnect. Three award levels will be made:

  • Level 1, Community-Based (basically a local program): $51.75 million with 69 grants to $750K/year for five years)
  • Level 2, Enhanced Service (local plus building a community collaborative): $12 million with 10 grants to $1,200,000/year for five years
  • Level 3, Leadership and Mentoring (local plus collaborative plus establishing a center for regional/statewide support): $18 million with 9 grants to $2,000,000/year for five years

Even better, 35 Level-1 grants are reserved for rural projects, while five level 1 grants are reserved for US/Mexico border projects (which is another way of saying these five are reserved for projects targeting Hispanics).

With this information, it’s much easier for potential applicants to try to divine their relative chances of being funded. Different applicant types have guaranteed funding streams, instead of the usual implicit assurances.

As a hoary (“hoary,” not whorey; there is a difference, usually) grant writer, however, I don’t think it’s all that useful to try to handicap your chances of success. Despite the FOA’s slicing and dicing on awards to be made, you can’t know how many applicants will compete at the various levels. You also can’t know in advance how many technically correct proposals will actually be submitted. Remember: if the proposal is not deemed technically correct, it never gets scored.**

Getting that technically correct proposal completed and out the door won’t be easy for many organizations. HRSA only allowed 43 days between the FOA publication on December 5 and the deadline of January 17, the Holidays are coming up and, at 73 single-spaced pages, the FOA is incredibly complicated. It’s so complicated that mistakes were made and HRSA has already published a major modification, in the form of a revised FOA and application kit file.

The short deadline, holiday season and mind-numbing FOA will probably combine to reduce the number of technically correct proposals that are submitted. All you have to do is be the exception: set aside your holiday plans, study the revised FOA, write a compelling proposal and submit a technically correct grants.gov kit file at least 48 hours ahead of the January deadline. The money, however, will go to those who forego vacations (or hire consultants like us) and get the job done.


* It is generally not a good idea to use alliteration in proposals, but I couldn’t resist in this headline.

** We should note, however, that we’ve written and turned in numerous proposals for applicants that were technically ineligible, only to have the applicant be funded. We’ve also turned in proposals with missing elements, like mandatory letters of support that the applicant couldn’t secure, and seen them funded. When we think an organization is ineligible for a grant, we tell them—but they sometimes tell us in turn that they want to apply anyway. Occasionally that attitude works out.