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Why Do the Feds Keep RFP Issuance Dates a Secret? The Upcoming FY ’14 GEAR UP and YouthBuild RFP Illustrate the Obvious

An oddity of the Federal grant making process is that projected RFP issuance dates are usually kept secret.* Two cases in point illustrate how this works: the FY ’14 Department of Education GEAR-UP and Department of Labor YouthBuild competitions.

Last week, former clients contacted us about both programs. Both clients are well-connected with the respective funders and strongly believe that the RFPs will be soon issued, likely by the end of the month. We believe them, as both were seeking fee quotes to write their GEAR-UP or YouthBuild proposal. The challenge both face, however, is that the Department of Labor and Department of Education typically only provide about a 30-day period between RFP publication and the deadline. So, if you’re an average nonprofit not connected to the funding source, you can easily be blindsided by a sudden RFP announcement.

I’ve never understood why the Feds do this. Hollywood studios announce film premieres weeks and sometimes months in advance to build buzz. You know that when Apple holds an event at the Moscone Center, new products will be launched. Unlike most humans, though, the Feds think it’s a good idea to keep the exact timing of new funding opportunities a secret. This is beyond stupid, but they have been this way since I looked at my first Federal Register about 40 years ago. I don’t expect anything to change soon.

When we learn about likely upcoming RFPs, we usually note them in our free weekly Email Grant Alerts and, for particularly interesting announcements, at this blog. The best advice I can give you comes from that intrepid reporter Ned “Scotty” Scott at the end of Howard Hawks’s great 1951 SF film, The Thing from Another World:** “Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”

* There are many oddities; this is just one.

** This movie has it all: monster loving scientist who spouts lots of stentorian Dr. Frankenstein bon mots about the importance of science, a rakish and fearless hero, a hot babe in a pointy bra, weird SF music, a claustrophobic setting that’s a precursor to “Alien” and many other movies, and James Arness (yes, that James Arness) as “The Thing.”

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The Narrative Should Use the Headers the Funder Says It Should Use: HRSA’s Health Start Initiative (HSI)

A few days ago I was describing some of the weirder sections in HRSA’s Healthy Start Initiative: Eliminating Disparities in Perinatal Health (HSI) program to my fiancée, and between the time I started and the time she fell asleep I mentioned that a proposal’s disjointedness often comes not from the writer but from the RFP. Proposals aren’t written for humans; they’re written for bureaucrats. That’s true for most federal proposals, some state proposals, fewer local proposals, and least of all for reasonably unstructured foundation proposals.

Way back in 2012 we wrote “Upward Bound means more narrative confusion,” which described how that RFP “practically hide[s] the location of the material you’re supposed to respond to.” Today I’d like to talk about an exciting, sexy, related topic: HSI (which is due tomorrow). Like Upward Bound, it has two logical places that a moderately intelligent writer could use to structure the narrative: the first is on page 22 of the RFP, which says things like: “INTRODUCTION — Corresponds to Section V’s Review Criterion 1.”

Notice the language used: “Corresponds to Section V’s Review Criterion 1.” Review Criterion 1 starts on page 43, and it has very clear section headers that could be used to structure a fairly clean and clear proposal. I was tempted to use them and I bet a lot of other people have used them in the past, since HRSA put a simple but easily missed instruction on page 22: “Use the following section headers for the Narrative.”

That instruction should be and is the end of the debate. Because of it, anyone who uses the page 43 Review Criteria is doing it wrong. As always with grant writing, it may be possible to do it wrong and then get funded anyway, but you should always err on the side of obeying the RFP.

As you might imagine, we’ve had some… discussions… around this issue with clients. I’ll leave the nature of those discussions intentionally euphemistic, but in the meantime I will note that they should not have been as long or contentious as they were.

HRSA proposals are particularly finicky with narrative starts. The Nursing Workforce Diversity (NWD) Program, for example, has the same weird, bifurcated structure, in which the narrative beings on page 10 and the review criteria on page 21. It isn’t as monstrous as HSI—the final submission package is 65 pages max, as opposed to HSI’s 100 pages, and the RFP is correspondingly shorter—but it does the same confusing thing.

From a writer’s perspective, the (imperfect) solution is to write with the mandated narrative headers and then make sure that the response hits all the review criteria. If it doesn’t, pick up some of the language from the response and then use that as a jumping off section for a paragraph. For example, HSI has a review criterion that starts, “The extent to which the proposed quality improvement plan describes an ongoing/continuous overall management approach…” and you should answer it by saying, “The proposed project will implement a quality improvement plan describes an ongoing/continuous overall management approach by creating a database that will be used by CHWs to…”

That’s a nice thing to do for the reviewers, because it allows them to check the box and ideally give you the maximum number of points possible. It would be even smarter to make the narrative instructions and review criteria identical, but HRSA evidently isn’t yet that evolved—which makes our job harder. But if we wanted an easy job, we would have become lion tamers.

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January Links: Apprenticeships, Empathy, Cars, Drugs, Mattresses, Guns, Antibiotics & Sex, and More!

* Where Factory Apprenticeship Is Latest Model From Germany, which the U.S. ought to be doing.

* The global poverty rate has dropped by half since 1950. File this under “good news which is rarely broadcast.”

* “The Other Side of the Story: When I was fourteen, I had a relationship with my eighth grade history teacher. People called me a victim. They called him a villain. But it’s more complicated than that.” Not surprisingly, she would deny to others what she had for herself.

* Great news for pot smokers: drug cartels are building massive underground railroads into the U.S. to transport goods that Americans desperately want to buy.

* Cars Kill Cities.

* How to design happier cities.

* Jane Fonda’s foundation forgets to make donations.

* How Tuft & Needle is disrupting the wildly corrupt mattress industry; I’d buy from them next time I need a mattress.

* The media doesn’t talk about suicide in relation to statistics about suicide with guns, which are are nonexistent or bad.

* “No Antibiotics, No Sexual Revolution,” or, “how the legal system is holding back medical innovation.” See also Alex Tabarrok’s wonderful, short book Launching the Innovation Renaissance.

* “Chicago girl’s rape near a school ‘Safe Passage’ route alarms parents.” So much for the concept of “safe passages” as a method for ensuring child safety.

* Camille Paglia on Rob Ford, Rihanna and rape culture.

* People are moving to Florida because it’s cheap.

* We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn: At colleges today, all parties are strongly incentivized to maintain low standards. Having been on both ends of the college teaching / learning experience, I’ve rarely read a more true article. I’m just not convinced that today is much different than 50 years ago, except for having much higher financial stakes on both sides of the table.

* Brad Pitt charity under fire after Katrina victims’ homes begin to rot. Call it another example of the Good Intentions Paving Company, as coined by Saul Bellow.

* “Brooklyn’s Median Household Income Is Less Than $45,000: So how can anyone afford to live there?” The partial answers are large amounts of public housing, Section 8 certificates and families doubling up or “hot-sheeting” [free proposal term here]. There are really two markets: an unregulated market with proverbially “crazy rents,” and a market for people with connections.

* “Chessmaster or Pawn: Now, It’s China’s Turn,” which is the sort of detailed, fascinating, and unexpected post that makes James Fallows’s blog worth reading.

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Cold Wave Means More Clients and More Grant Needs for Nonprofits in Wintry States and the Sunbelt

I woke early this morning, as I’m wrestling with an NIH proposal with a very short deadline. A peek at Facebook revealed a post by a friend making fun of the hysterical news stories about cold in the Midwest and Great Plains in January. They’re just more man-does-not-bite-dog story. But news outlets always like to say, a la Rod Stewart in Mandolin Wind, it’s “the coldest winter in almost 14 years” or whatever.

My pal Barry is my age and, like me, grew up in Minneapolis and went to the University of Minnesota; he got sick of the awful winters and decamped to So Cal. In my case, and as recounted in “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal,” I left Minneapolis almost exactly 40 years ago, during another deepfreeze event in which the temperature had not gotten above zero for about two weeks. As Bob Dylan rapped in “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” I knew it was blowing me southwest to LA.

Between 1974 and 2014 the 24-hour Internet news cycle began, and now the media is ceaselessly screaming about the cold weather. At this moment, tens of thousands of residents of cold weather states are saying to themselves, and as B. Dylan also sang in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “I do believe I’ve had enough.” They’ll be hitching up the wagons and heading south soon, another episode in the population shift over recent decades to the Sunbelt. While there are many reasons why Americans relocate, including selected jobs, like tech in Seattle and Silicon Valley and lower cost housing in much of Texas, it’s hard to argue against the appeal of warmth and sun when shoveling snow out of your driveway yet again.*

This winter- and housing-cost inspired migration has serious implications for nonprofits at both ends.

For nonprofits in wintry states, and particularly for those in rural areas or depressed urban centers, long-underway trends mean that their target populations will get even older, sicker and poorer than they already are, as the young, more affluent and healthier residents move. (There are some exceptions, like New York City and Boston in the last two decades or so.)

For example, we are currently working on a project for a large nonprofit in a rural Midwestern state. In their service area, which has already been devastated by years of outmigration, the median age in 40,compared the national median of 37.2. The median household income is only about 75% of the national median. Nothing is going to get better in this vast, sparsely populated region, as the only real sources of jobs are working for government agencies, hospitals, schools, and nonprofits. The area was originally settled for reasons related to agriculture and railroads. As those sectors have become less important to the economy in the last century, our client’s service area has suffered.

For the nonprofit and public service providers, demographic and economic reality means ever-increasing service demands amid a failing tax base. In other words, more economic misery and fewer resources. Outside of attempting to develop new businesses and attempting to attract highly innovative people from places like New York and Seattle—which is at best a multi-decade process—the only answer for these strapped agencies is more grant writing, trying to secure federal, state and foundation grants because there are few businesses or wealthy individuals to seek donations from.

For nonprofits in Sunbelt states, the in-migration means tens of thousands of new residents, many of whom have little if any social or family connections. While some, like retirees with somewhat secure pensions and savings, will be relatively okay financially, many others, including younger people and middle agers with low skill sets, will be initially strapped and almost all will be adrift in a new community.

Local nonprofits and public agencies will see service demands rise, particularly for job training, family disfunction, substance abuse, domestic violence, and homelessness. It’s a lot easier to be homeless in Santa Monica than Duluth in January. Most Sunbelt cities, like Phoenix and Miami, are still recovering from the housing collapse of the Great Recession, which limits property and other tax revenues for services. Thus, service providers in these ares will also need to ramp-up grant writing to meet new needs.

For myself, it’ll be about 75 degrees in Sunny Santa Monica today, and as I walk my faithful Golden Retriever Boogie to the beach later, I’ll reflect on the half-frozen 22-year old long-haired, bearded kid, leaving Minneapolis in a rusty and unreliable ’65 Bug on a bitterly cold afternoon four decades ago. As Buckaroo Banzai put it, “no matter where you go, there you are.”

* For purposes of dramatic license, I’m leaving out the North Dakota fracking boom, which is drawing thousands of workers to the Great Frozen North. But, many will end up in California, after they gain experience and savings and California eventually permits fracking.