Monthly Archives: February 2015

Standard At-Risk Youth or Ex-Offender Empowerment Program: Improve Lives Through “X!”

A standard pitch for at-risk youth empowerment grant proposals is simple: We’ll give youth access to X, and through their love of or learning about X they’ll become better students / scholars / workers / people. “X” can be any number of things: To name a few of the projects we’ve worked on over the years, X can be horseback riding, chess, job skills, academic skills, computer programming, music, outdoor activities, art, photography, or sports. Existing organizations of various sizes attempt to improve lives through X; one of the oldest approaches are police athletic leagues (PALs), which try to get kids to stay out of trouble by learning about and playing sports with cops.

Another example is classical music exposure, which sometimes includes playing an instrument. Various symphonies are engaged in this project by sponsoring youth orchestras or having their players perform for high school students who secretly likely aspire to be Lady Gaga or Kendrick Lamar, not learn to play the oboe.* Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Philharmonic conductor, is famously interested in the youth orchestras.

Still, in the memoir Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, these endeavors are not portrayed as admirable by Blair Tindall; in her rendition art may encourage drug use rather than dissuading students from it. Nonetheless, it also appears that a disproportionate number of highly paid programmers, engineers, and nerds more generally are involved with music, and correlation must imply causation, so we as a society think getting kids involved with music is a Good Thing. Which it probably is! We don’t want to seem overly cynical, and really, who is against music?

Sometimes the youth involved in a particular program have other issues (e.g., foster care, differently abled, cancer, etc.), and sometimes the target population is people with other kinds of life challenges. For example, ex-offenders are a common group, with prisoner re-entry programs becoming more popular in recent years. In addition, not any value can be substituted for “X;” we’ve yet to work on any programs that offer, say, pole-dancing lessons, such that through their earthly love of each other youth will stay out of other trouble.

Programs that bring “X” to youth all have in common taking kids or other targeted high-risk groups out of their normal environments and putting them in a different environment that exposes them to new ideas and skills. Do such efforts work? It’s hard to say: programs like these got started in the Progressive Era, with efforts like the Boy Scouts, PALs and different programs have been emphasized at different times and in different places. Their purposes have changed over time, depending on what society happens to be anxious about at a given moment.

Today, not that many people (with money) care about exposure to rural environments, such as 4H agriculture programs, and so forth. But they care a lot about job training and/or workforce development. They care about education, which they link to job training and/or workforce development. If you’ve got a program that involves education, job training, and/or workforce development, consider whether it takes kids, ex-offenders or other high-risk groups out of their normal environments. If it does, you’ve got an important, time-honored claim: that by giving access to X you’ll also improve Y.

And if you want to do more than claim the mantle of innovation—which as a baseline we recommend you all do—consider this pattern in human services and what, if anything, you might do to break it.

EDIT: In Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a mid-sized beautiful book, Cheryl Strayed describes how she ended up working as  “youth advocate” for girls with serious problems and seriously messed-up families. She writes:

I was meant to silently, secretly, covertly empower them by taking them to do things they’d never done at places they’d never been. I took them a rock-climbing gym and to the ballet and to a poetry reading at an independent bookstore. The theory was that if they liked to pull the weight of their blossoming girl bodies up a faux boulder with little pebble-esque plastic hand- and footholds then perhaps they would not get knocked up. If they glommed on to the beauty of art witnessed live—made before their very eyes—they would not become meth addicts and steal someone’s wallet and go to jail at the age of fifteen.

Instead, they’d grow up and get a job at Walmart.

Strayed would get this post. At least one of the girls, we learn by the end of the essay, succeeds. One senses the combination of desperation and hope Strayed feels. She writes too that the work was “the best job I ever had but I only stayed for one year. It was a heavy gig and I was a writer and so I left it for less emotionally taxing forms of employment so I could write.” How many of us can blame her? She gets the Sisyphean task, but unlike Sisyphus she occasionally gets to leave the rock at the top of the mountain.


* Whatever the merits of the oboe; we respect it as an instrument and do not wish to denigrate any oboists among our readership.

When All Else Fails, Use Common Sense In Writing Proposals and Developing Budgets

As we’ve written before, it’s important to carefully follow RFP directions when writing any proposal. Still, many RFPs are poorly written, repetitive, and often contradictory. If one finds a significant issue in the RFP, the only recourse is to contact the Program Officer listed in the RFP and ask for clarification in writing. If you get a response at all, it’s likely to be along the lines of “read the RFP.”

While this becomes pretty frustrating pretty fast, stay cool and use common sense in writing your proposal narrative and developing the budget. Let’s think about cost-per-participant issues as one example. In responding to RFPs for most human services project concepts, it’s pretty easy to figure out the capitated (“per head”) cost of delivering the proposed service. For example, if you propose to provide job training to 100 folks over three years and request a $1,000,000 grant, the cost per trainee is $10,000. The key is to make sure that your proposed service delivery model and budget are in line with funder expectations.*

Some RFPs provide specific guidance on the cost per client, such as the DOL’s YouthBuild program, which specifies around $17,000/trainee. Until about 10 years ago, when HUD stopped administering YouthBuild, it was about $30,000/trainee. The primary reason for the dramatic drop was that DOL finally figured out that grantees could easily satisfy the remedial education/GED component of YouthBuild by using a partnering charter school that receives Average Daily Attendance (ADA) funds—at no cost to YouthBuild.

This also creates a nice way of covering the required YouthBuild match. The YouthBuild match requirement has become sort of a legal fiction. Many SAMHSA RFPs include capitated funding ranges that vary by type of service (e.g., outpatient, intensive outpatient and so on). To have any hope of being funded, the budget has to hit those targets.

In some cases, however, the RFP doesn’t directly state a capitated rate. Often, it’s possible to figure out what the funding agency expects, if the overall impact is discussed (e.g., train 10,000 veterans) and dividing this info into the total amount available. In contrast, the ED Student Support Services RFP mandates the maximum grant and maximum number of participants, so it’s fairly obvious what the capitated rate should be, even though the RFP doesn’t explicitly state the capitated rate. One could propose a lower capitated rate, but why would you?

If you have no clue from the RFP regarding an appropriate implied capitated rate, you’re back to using common sense. Let’s say you’re a one high school local education agency (LEA or school district) in rural California with 500 students and one counselor. The counselor’s salary is $50,000/year, so the district is in effect spending $500/year/student on counseling, but wants to expand counseling because of a school gun violence incident, bullying outreach or whatever.

As luck would have it, the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling (ESSC) grant program does just that. In developing your ESSC proposal and budget, however, it’s a good idea to keep reality in mind and use common sense. If you propose a $500,000 annual ESSC grant, that would be a ten-fold increase over current service delivery levels and probably would not be well-received, even though the ESSC RFP does not specify a capitated rate for expanded counseling services. Instead, a $200,000 annual grant, along with an innovative approach to counseling, would be a more reasonable approach.


* You’ll learn how to calibrate expectations for cost through experience and through looking at a lot of RFPs.

Shorter Deadlines Are Sometimes Better for Organizations and Grant Writers

It seems intuitive that having more time to complete a task would result in a better final product. But in grant writing—and other fields—that’s sometimes not the case.

The reason is simple: more time sometimes allows organizations to edit their proposals into oblivion or let everyone contribute their “ideas,” no matter poorly conceived or how poorly the ideas fit the proposal. We’ve been emphasizing these issues a lot recently, in posts like “On the Importance of Internal Consistency in Grant Proposals” and “The Curse of Knowledge in the Proposal World,” because consistency is incredibly important yet hard to describe concisely. Good proposals, like good novels, tend to emerge from a single mind that is weaving a single narrative thread.

The same person who writes the initial proposal should ideally then be in charge of wrangling all comments from all other parties. This isn’t always possible because the grant writer is often under-appreciated and has to accept conflicting orders from various stakeholders elsewhere in the organization. One advantage we have as consultants is that we can impose internal deadlines for returning a single set comments on a draft proposal on clients that otherwise might tend towards disorder. Sometimes that also makes clients unhappy, but the systems we’ve developed are in place to improve the final work product and increase the likelihood of the client being funded.

Short deadlines, by their nature, tend to reduce the ability of everyone to pour their ideas into a proposal, or for a proposal to be re-written once or repeatedly by committee. If the organization is sufficiently functional to stay focused on getting the proposal submitted, regardless of what else may be occurring, the proposal may turn out better because it’ll be more consistent and decision makers won’t have too much time to futz with it.

You’ve probably heard the cliché, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” It exists for a reason. You may also have seen baseball games in which delays let the coach have enough thinking time to think himself into a bad pitcher or hitter change. Although every writer needs at least one editor, a single person should be responsible for a proposal and should also have the authority and knowledge necessary to say “No” when needed.

On the importance of internal consistency in grant proposals

Grant writing, like most artistic pursuits, is an essentially solitary endeavor. No matter how many preliminary group-think planning meetings or discussions occur, eventually one person will face a blank monitor and contemplate an often cryptic, convoluted RFP.*

As a consequence of being written by a single person, most proposal first drafts are fairly internally consistent. A grant writer is unlikely to call the person in charge of the proposed initiative, “Program Director” in one section and “Project Director” in another, or randomly use client/participant/student interchangeably. Inconsistencies, however, tend to emerge as the proposal goes through various drafts to get to the submission draft.

Let’s say three readers edit the first draft: Joe doesn’t like chocolate, MaryLou doesn’t like vanilla and Sally doesn’t like ice cream. Joe’s edits might change Program Director to Project Coordinator for some arcane reason, but only in some sections, while the other readers may make similar changes, some of which might be valid and some capricious. As the proposal goes through the remaining drafts, these inconsistencies will become embedded and confusing, unless the grant writer is very careful to maintain internal consistency; a change on page 6 has to be made on pages 12, 15, and 34. Even if the grant writer is careful, as she revises the drafts, it will become harder and harder for her to spot these problems because earlier drafts become entangled with later ones.

Inconsistencies often crop up in project staffing, for example. Most proposals have some combination of threaded discussions of what the project staff is going to do, along with a staffing plan (usually includes summary job descriptions), organization chart, line-item budget, budget narrative, and/or attached actual position descriptions. If the staffing plan lists three positions, but the budget includes four and the budget narrative five, it’s “Houston, we have a problem time.” To a funding agency reviewer, these inconsistencies will stand out like neon signs, even if the grant writer can no longer see them. While some inconsistencies probably don’t matter much, some could easily be “sink the ship” errors.

In our consulting practice, we typically only prepare three drafts: the first, second and final or submission draft. We also provide clients with drafts in both Word and Acrobat, and we strongly suggest that only the Acrobat version be given to the reader list. This enables our contact person to return a single revised Word version and control the internal editing process.

But, like many of our suggestions, this is often ignored, so the final edited version we get from clients often has these various consistency problems in terms of both language and formatting. We overcome these by having the final draft flyspecked by one of our team members who has not closely read previous drafts. We also carefully compare the final draft to RFP requirements with respect to section headers, outline format, required attachments and so on. Nonetheless, we aren’t perfect and sometimes a sufficiently altered proposal can’t be effectively made consistent again.

Here’s another technique we often suggest to our clients to ferret out inconsistencies in language and formatting in final drafts: give the draft to someone who has good reading/writing skills but has never read the proposal and has no direct knowledge of the project concept, the services provided by your agency, or the RFP. For this person ignorance is strength. A retired uncle or aunt who taught high school English is perfect for this role. Such a reader will not only spot the inconsistencies, but will also likely find logic errors and so on.

Still, it’s important to complete this process well before the deadline. The closer the deadline looms, the more you risk either blowing the deadline or creating worse problems for yourself. A day or two before the deadline is a poor choice for making serious changes—which we’ve seen numerous clients attempt, and drastic last-minute changes rarely turn out well.


* This assumes you haven’t made the mistake of parceling out different proposal sections for different people to write—as is said, a camel, not a horse, will inevitably result from this dubious practice.