Monthly Archives: August 2015

Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Grant Proposal Staffing Plans

The staffing plan is usually one of the easier and shorter parts of the grant proposals. That’s because the project description will usually imply the staffing plan. For example, a project that conducts “outreach” or health navigation is going to consist of a director or supervisor or some sort, possibly an marketing specialist to create and execute ads, and some number of navigators or outreach specialists.* There may also be an administrative assistant or data clerk.

For healthcare projects run by a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), though, a staffing plan might consist primarily of healthcare providers: two doctors, three physicians assistants, two nurses, a patient care assistant (PCA), a case manager, and front office staff.

It’s a almost always a good idea to propose a full-time Project Manager or Project Coordinator or Program Director or some similar position, unless the budget is too small. Many federal RFPs require a full-time manager or an explanation of why this is not considered necessary.

Most staffing plans follow a generic bulleted format in which a position is listed (like a Program Director), a percentage of time devoted to the project is listed (like 100%), a description is offered (like “Will oversee day-to-day activities”) and minimum qualifications established (like “must have at least three years of relevant management experience, along with at least a B.A. (M.A. preferred) in an appropriate field”). In many staffing plans for new programs, most staff members will be unknown, with the possible exception of the Program Manager. Consequently, you should put in a line that says something like, “Staff members will be hired following an open and fair recruitment process, in keeping with the organization’s Personnel Policy.”

That may not strictly be true—we’re well aware that many organizations have candidates in mind for particular positions—but it should be part of the proposal anyway. If it sounds like you’ve already hired and are already paying your potential staff members, you raise the dreaded specter of supplantation.

Most staff positions in most proposals should have three to four short sentences about what the staff person will do. In many cases, the explanation will be obvious even by the standards of doltish federal grant reviewers. For example, if you’re running an after school education program, you might have a listing like “Teachers (300%): At least three full-time, state-certified teachers will be hired to provide educational enhancement to at-risk youth. Teachers will cover reading, math, cuneiform, Python, and art, as noted in the project description. Teachers will have at least one year of relevant experience, as well as a bachelor’s degree in an appropriate field.” You can also say that all staff will have at least 20 hours of pre-service training, and in that training they will learn effective teaching techniques, why they should not sext with students, and how to handle disciplinary issues.

As noted above, shorter is generally better. Also, the staffing level should be large enough to cover the plausible range of activities but small enough to not go over the budget. For particularly small programs, like those with less than $100,000 per year, 1.5 or 2 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) staff might be appropriate. In most social and human service programs, personnel costs will be largest cost category, since each warm body is going to cost a minimum of $30,000 per year, plus benefits, which can exceed 30% for some nonprofits and most public agencies. Each body adds up to lots of costs fast. A good rule of thumb is to assume about 80% of the budget for salaries and benefits, with 20% for everything else. There are exceptions—many job training proposals like YouthBuild include participant stipends, which can easily consume 25% of the budget—but relatively few proposed projects have this kind of large, non-personnel budget cost.

It’s also a good idea to have avoid oddball percentages in your staffing plan. Don’t say someone is going to have 17% or 4% of their time devoted to the project. Most positions are full-time (100%), half-time (50%), or, in rare cases, quarter-time (25%). If you have to calculate positions on an hourly basis, keep in mind that the federal standard is 2,080 person hours in a person year. Thus, a .5 FTE = 1,040 hours.

Evaluators and other consultants (e.g. social media consultants, curriculum consultants, etc.) can be listed in the staffing plan in the proposal narrative but generally are not included in the Personnel Object Cost Category in the budget, as they will usually be hired on an hourly basis or via a subcontract. In federal budgets, these are included in the Contractual or Other Object Cost Categories.

Finally, remember that in federal budgeting, the most important part of proposal staffing plans/budgets is that the proposed services discussed in the project description be plausible. Staffing plans and budgets don’t have to be exactly match reality and will likely change, as the grantee will have to negotiate a detailed budget after the notice grant award is received. Still, they have to meet the plausibility test that reviews will apply.


* Always check the acronyms for proposed positions. For example, it would not be a good idea to list Community Outreach Workers for a women’s health outreach project, as you would be proposing hiring COWs. Another unintentionally funny position name we see fairly often is Peer Outreach Workers (POWs).

Wraparound supportive services and Zuckerberg’s school reform donations

This is one of series of technical posts that explain key grant writing concepts. Today’s lesson concerns the concept of wraparound supportive services, which we include in every human services grant proposal we write—as we first wrote about in “Sign Me Up for Wraparound Supportive Services, But First Tell Me What Those Are.”

I was reminded of the importance of wraparound supportive services because of Dale Russakoff’s book The Prize, which is reviewed in today’s New York Times Sunday Book Review by Alex Kotlowitz. The Prize details the attempt of politicians (Cory Booker and Chris Christy) to turn the incredibly bad Jersey City public school system around over the past five years, largely using a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It seems that Mr. Zuckerberg’s huge donation was ineffective:

When Zuckerberg declared his grant, the agenda was pretty clear: Turn the Newark schools around in five years and make it a national model. But from the get-go, there seemed little agreement as to how best to proceed. More than anything, Christie wanted to break the hold of the entrenched teachers’ unions. Booker wanted more charter schools. Zuckerberg wanted to raise the status of teachers and to reward teaching that improved students’ performance . . . “I’m not giving anything away by telling you that this bold effort in Newark falls far short of success.”

While I haven’t read the book, the review illustrates the naivety of new tech billionaire philanthropists regarding how public agencies and nonprofits actually work, as I wrote about before with respect to Sean Parker’s new foundation. More interestingly, the NYT review ends by telling us that Zuckerberg is doubling down on his public school reform efforts by giving $120 million to “high poverty” schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, despite the apparent fiasco in Jersey City. I’ll give him props for persistence, particularly when I read this at the end of the review:

This time, though, they declared their intent to include parents and teachers in the planning process. But more to the point, a key component to their grants includes building “a web of support for students,” everything from medical to mental health care. Zuckerberg came to recognize that school reform alone isn’t enough, that if we’re going to make a difference in the classroom, we also need to make a difference in the lives of these children, many of whom struggle against the debilitating effects of poverty and trauma. Here is where this story ends — but also where the next story begins.

To a grant writer, Zuckerberg’s insight about a “web of support for students” and Kotlowitz’s breathless look to the future illustrate that neither knows much about public education in Title I schools, which is how the US Department of Education, as well as state and local education agencies, designate “high poverty schools.” The feds have been giving boatloads of extra money to Title I schools since 1965, with no more obvious success than Zuckerberg experienced in Jersey City. Most Title I schools already offer variations on the kind of “web of support” that Zuckerberg is planning for targeted Bay Area schools. In addition, an army of nonprofit human services providers in the Bay Area do exactly the same thing for at-risk youth. We’ve worked for many of them. These nonprofits will certainly be interested in grants from the Zuckerberg donation to provide yet more wraparound supportive services.

Wraparound supportive services for at-risk low-income students is not an innovation. Also, referral for wraparound supportive services is usually required in most federal RFPs and foundation guidelines. But what are wraparound supportive services?

They’re any kind of helper services other than the primary service proposed for funding with the grant. For example, in a youth job training proposal, one would propose a wraparound supportive service of referral for substance abuse treatment, while in a youth substance abuse treatment proposal, one would propose a wraparound supportive service of job training.

The basic idea is that all targeted populations for any human services grant proposal face a panoply of problems beyond the specific issue at hand—a 16-year-old high-school student at risk of dropping out probably has substance abuse issues, involvement in the juvenile justice system, no job skills and so on. Since there’s never enough grant money to solve every problem faced by the client, the grant writer claims something like, “clients will receive the full range of case-managed wraparound supportive services to meet needs beyond the project scope identified in their individual intake assessment by referral to appropriate collaborating public and private service providers.” [free proposal sentence here]

Typical wraparound supportive services include: pre-employment skills training, job training, job placement, assistance with legal problems, tattoo removal, primary health care, dental care, behavioral health services, remedial education leading to a GED/high school diploma, life skills training, and anything else you want to toss in the mix. The keys are: assessment at intake, development of an Individual Supportive Services Plan, referral to meet identified needs, case management to verify that services are being accessed and follow-up (usually for 12 months). In many cases, the proposal includes letters of support from referral agencies to demonstrate that these mythical supportive services will actually be available. In the real world, who knows how much of this occurs, but in the proposal world, all of this works seamlessly.

A version of wraparound supportive services is presumably what Zuckerberg has in mind as the “web of support” for the students at his targeted Title I Bay Area schools. He’s in for a couple of surprises. First, providing actual case-managed services is very expensive, as the Case Manager to client ratio shouldn’t be more than about 1: 20 if the program is going to have any hope of impact.

In addition, most of these youth will have already had plenty of wraparound supportive services, beginning with Head Start and continuing on in their Title I schools. There’s no shortage of Case Managers in low-income communities. There is a shortage of motivation and properly aligning incentives.

In some human proposals, we’ve even proposed a sort of “Super Case Manager” to wrangle all of the Case Managers and other helper adults in the young person’s life. It’s not unusual for an at-risk youth to have Case Managers from the foster care system, family court, juvenile justice, welfare and schools, all vying for their attention. The young person may have trouble finding time to go to school, given the endless case management meetings and referral services she must attend. But this is real world stuff. Keep wraparound supportive services in your grant proposals and don’t tell Zuckerberg. He’ll find out soon enough.

Links: Occupational licensing, infantilization, L.A.’s self-inflicted housing crisis, Colorado and birth control, better condoms, energy, and more!

* Bess Stillman’s med school, nursing school, and medical residency admission essay writing firm now has a website. She is to application essays what we are to grant writing: the best.

* “The President’s economics team is taking on occupational licensing.” Anyone who cares about low-income workers’s real income and about moving from the gray market to the conventional labor market should cheer this.

* Laura Kipnis On How Campus Feminism Infantilizes Women.

* We have many readers and clients in L.A., who will doubtlessly be interested in “The incredible shrinking megacity: How Los Angeles engineered a housing crisis: Los Angeles used to be the promised land for America’s homeowners. Now it’s tearing at the seams.” Twenty years ago Isaac left L.A. (for the first time) for precisely these reasons.

* “New design could finally help to bring fusion power closer to reality.” Commercial-scale fusion would ameliorate numerous political and environmental problems.

* Colorado’s Effort Against Teenage Pregnancies Is a Startling Success. See also our 2008 post, “What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP.”

* “The rush from judgment,” or, how being superficially non-judgmental can be barbaric and foolish. In your proposals, though, always say that staff will be non-judgmental.

* Sea levels will rise much more rapidly than anticipated.

* Energy, by Sam Altman, a hard problem and one related to the fusion link above.

* “The Pecking Disorder: Social Justice Warriors Gone Wild: Culture wars over ‘social justice’ have been wreaking havoc in many communities, including universities and science fiction fandom.” Social Justice Warriors don’t matter outside of academia and government, but inside they can wreck a lot of havoc. Always be wary of zealots.

* The Electric Car: “The electric car is going to take over the world. Soon. Let me explain.” Linear versus discontinuous effects are under appreciated. Everyone who has driven a Tesla says it’s the best car ever. The mass-market version is supposed to arrive in 2017. See also “How Tesla Will Change The World,” which is long but clever.

* “The old suburban office park is the new American ghost town.” Too many parking lots and too few interconnections to rail.

* “It’s worse than Jerry Seinfeld says: PC is undermining free speech, expression, liberties.” I’ve felt these currents throughout my time as a professor.

* Rooftop solar is booming. But it may be more vulnerable than you think. See also “The Miracle of SolarCity: Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX are impressive. But the solar company he founded with his cousins could be transformational.”

* Doing Good Better, on effective altruism and how to get better margins on giving. The sort of thing every potential donor should read. Despite decades in the grant writing business, we’ve never gotten a call from a donor looking for advice.

* “We’ve been cheated out of condoms that actually feel good during sex.” Another of these very important yet totally underrated issues. Issues around reproduction touch almost every aspect of income inequality, real earning power, and education—topics vital to many grant programs.

* “Rising Rents Outpace Wages in Wide Swaths of the U.S.;” national policy focuses on ownership while facts-on-the-ground demand more focus on renting. This is a key and neglected affordability issue.

* “Warren Buffett’s Family Secretly Funded a Birth Control Revolution: In the past decade, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation has become the most influential supporter of research on IUDs and expanding access to the contraceptive.”

* “Success Academy Posted Its Latest Test Scores. The Results Are Astounding: New York’s largest charter network outperformed traditional public schools in wealthy zip codes.”

* “How RED Cameras Changed The [Movie] Game.” If you like movies and TV shows you need to read this.

Hard Times for Housing Nonprofits and the New York Times Provides a Pretty Good Example of Proposalese

Last week a former client and a prospective client called; both of their nonprofits have been involved in affordable housing development, foreclosure assistance, fair housing counseling and the like, but both have also seen their grant and other resources wither in recent years. Housing nonprofits are experiencing the negative side of the grant waves we’ve written about. Right now there isn’t a lot of government or foundation funds available for affordable housing issues: the Great Recession is officially over*, the foreclosure crisis has receded in most places, and the policy view of housing affordability has mostly shifted from social/legal/regulatory concerns (e.g., overt housing discrimination, redlining, predatory lending/foreclosures, etc.) to economic concerns, as best articulated by Matt Yglesias in The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think. The biggest affordability challenge is the inability to build housing at all in many superstar cities, like L.A., New York, and Seattle, due to NIMBY problems.

My advice to both callers was the same: they can a) change the mission of their nonprofit to something being pushed by the grant waves (e.g., job training, primary health care, re-integration of ex-offenders, supplemental education for out-of-school youth and young adults, etc.), b) put their nonprofit into suspended hibernation while waiting for the grant gods to once again smile on affordable housing, or c) try to use the emerging theme of continuing housing segregation that has risen in public consciousness through incessant media coverage of public outrage and civil disturbances in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore following police violence against unarmed African American youth.

Today, the New York Times published “An Indelible Black-and-White Line,” which illustrates pretty well how to build a grant needs argument around the civil disturbances and obvious housing segregation in most American cities. This paragraph from the article could have been ripped from our proposals:

“Such is the case in Ferguson. The part where Mr. Brown died is a predominantly black east side neighborhood where residents have complained of police harassment and high crime in a cluster of apartments that stretches into the census tract with the most Section 8 renters in Missouri. Life is much different just two miles away in the city’s amenity-filled central business district, surrounded by pockets of predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods with sturdy brick and clapboard homes.”

We often use variations on the life-is-different riff when writing about disadvantaged target neighborhoods embedded in affluent cities.

The article is a pastiche of misinformation and half-truths that conflates the history of Section8 Housing Certificates with desegregation efforts, fair housing, income equality, and general malaise in low-income communities. Section 8 was not created as a “tool for desegregation,” as stated in the article. The primary tool for desegregation in the 1970s and 1980s was school busing, not Section 8. Section 8 was a Nixon/Ford era reform that was supposed to encourage private developers to build more affordable housing. In the early days of the Reagan administration in the mid-80s, Section 8 was expanded as direct HUD financing programs for affordable housing developments were largely eliminated.

It wasn’t until the Clinton era that Section 8 was seen as something of a desegregation tool, but this shift occurred primarily within the context of then new HUD HOPE VI Program, (or “Hopeless VI,” as we used to call it around the office). This bizarre program resulted in the demolition of thousands of last-resort public housing units, replacing the original developments with “mixed-income” developments and providing Section 8 Certificates (now known as Housing Choice Vouchers or “HCV”) for poor, mostly African Americans, residents displaced by HOPE VI.

But Section 8 never resulted in many new housing units being built, so HCV holders were (and are) forced to compete with working poor and middle-class renters for the same limited pool of housing. Landlords will avoid accepting HCVs if they can—not necessarily because they’re racist (although they might be), but because the building/unit has to pass a HUD inspection to be certified for Section 8. The building and unit also have to undergo annual re-inspections.

Most landlords won’t sign up for this unless they’re having difficulty renting the units. They also prefer wealthier tenants with good histories, when those tenants are available. That’s why Section 8 units end up being in less desirable neighborhoods. The other reality is that the HCV holders often self-segregate for social, cultural and family reasons. While a single mom may be able to use her HCV in a nice, affluent suburb, that won’t help her much if her support system for childcare (e.g., extended family members) is back in the lower-income community she’s leaving. Also, she might not want be far from her church and friends. Whole Foods probably doesn’t sell chitlings** or chicken necks.

The Times article avoids all of these details and instead concocts a witch’s brew that explains all of the ills of low-income African American neighborhoods away by blaming everything on Section 8 caused segregation. While this is mostly nonsense, it’s perfect reasoning for a grant proposal for housing nonprofits—like my two callers last week—trying to get funding. We’ll use these concepts for any housing related proposals we write in the coming months.

If this stuff gets past the editors at the New York Times it’ll definitely get past foundation program officers, who don’t know any more than editors and probably know even less.


* In our grant proposals, no matter what is actually going on with the economy, the target neighborhood is always being buffeted by the current recession, the lingering effects of the last recession and/or the looming next recession.

** Anyone who’s worked and/or lived in African American communities like I have, knows that chitlings remain a favored delicacy. To test your knowledge, take the somewhat out of date, but still fun Chitling Test (also known as the Dove Counterbalance General Intelligence Test). I had the privilege of being a colleague of the test’s creator, Adrian Dove, in the mid-1970s, when we both worked in Mayor Tom Bradley’s office. Here’s a sample question: “Cheap chitlings (not the kind you purchase at a frozen food counter) will taste rubbery unless they are cooked long enough. How soon can you quit cooking them to eat and enjoy them? (a) 45 minutes, (b) 2 hours, (c) 24 hours, (d) 1 week (on a low flame), (e) 1 hour.”

How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse

In most ways computers have made our lives better. In some, however, they’ve made our lives worse.* In grant writing, computers have enabled a level of neurotic, anxious behavior that was simply impractical before frictionless communications. Some of those problems include:

1. More drafts.

Isaac existed before computers. Well, technically, so did I, but I wasn’t writing proposals. In the pre-computer era, most proposals only went through two drafts: a first and a final. First drafts were written long-hand on legal pads, dictated, or roughly typed. The second/final draft would be typed by a secretary with great typing skills. Still, the final draft usually had typos, “white out” blotches and lacked any formatting apart from paragraph indents and tabs to create “tables.” Since proposals couldn’t logistically go through numerous drafts or interim drafts, two drafts were sufficient.

The perpetual editing make possible by computers also means that we can do something, someone else can do something (that is possibly wrong), and then we have to fix the messed up problems. Versioning can be endless, and in the last couple of months we’ve gotten into several seemingly unhappy versioning loops with clients. Versioning loops don’t make anyone happy, but the easy editability of documents means that it’s tempting for everyone to have a say (and everyone to make edits that later have to be carefully reverted). Computer editing also makes it more tempting to change project concepts mid-stream, which is not a good idea.

2. Longer drafts.

In keeping with point one, proposals can now be much, much longer. We’ve worked on some Head Start drafts that topped out around 100 pages. That’s ridiculous, but computers make it possible in general to write far longer drafts. “Longer” is not necessarily “better.” A longer draft has more room for internal inconsistencies (of the sort that can kill your application, as described at the link).

Longer drafts fatigue writer and reader. We’re the iron men of writers, so we of course never feel fatigue. But few writers are as sharp at page 80 of a proposal as they are at page 10. Few readers read page 80 with the same care as page 10. Isaac and occasionally speculate about how funny it would be to drop a sentence, late in a proposal, like “I’ll give you $20 if you read this sentence” or “Don’t you think 50 Shades of Grey really does have a legitimate point?” We’d never do that, but we bet that if we did, few reviewers would notice.

3. More screwing around and eternal availability.

In ye olden days, one had to call someone to express an idea or make a change or just to badger them. Since fax machines weren’t common until the 80s, drafts to other offices/readers had to be mailed or sent by courier. Copies were harder to make, so editors had to do one review, not 12. Today we’re available for eternal electronic pinpricks via email, and yet every pinprick has a cost. We mostly ignore those costs, but they add up.

It’s easier to spend way too much time changing “that” to “which” and “which” to “that.” Sometimes such changes are appropriate but too many of them lead to tremendous drag on the entire project. They cost scarce attention.

4. Convoluted instructions.

Before computers, attachments were (generally) fewer, RFPs were shorter, and instructions were clearer because 20 people didn’t have the opportunity to “contribute” their thoughts and words. Now instructions can be infinitely convoluted, weird data sources can be more easily managed, and random attachments of almost infinite size can be ordered.

Sometimes, too, applicants will be tempted to add extra attachments because they can. Don’t do that.

5. Data mandates that don’t exist, or don’t exist properly.

We’ve written before about phantom data and its attendant problems. Computers and the Internet often tempt funders into asking for more esoteric data. Before the Internet, most data had to be manually, laboriously extracted from Census tables and similar paper-based sources. This meant long hours at a library or Census office. Now it’s possible to request all sorts of weird data, and sometimes that data can’t be found. Or, if various applicants do find it, it comes from all sorts of methodologies that may not be comparable. Poverty rates are one good example of this. Is the 2013 poverty rate 14.5% or 4.8%? Depends on the data used. And that’s for a well-known metric! Others are worse.

6. Email has also shifted the “Cover-Your Ass” (CYA) memo to the “CYA” email.

The famous CYA memo predates email, but email has made conversations that would once have been ephemeral permanent. Anything you say or write can be used to hang you, as innumerable politicians (like former Congressman Weiner) and everyday people have learned. This has consequences of all sorts, as teenagers have discovered in the course of sexting and as even spies have learned (that link goes to an article about a totally crazy hit the Israelis pulled in Dubai: if you abandon this post to read it, I wouldn’t blame you at all).

Permanent records mean that nothing can be ignored and that everything can be interpreted in the worst possible light. It is now possible for clients to send us (and us to send them) dozens of emails in a way that never happened in the snail-mail world. In a snail-mail world, each missive took a day or two send, receive, and reply.

The new email world means we—and clients—can waste fantastic amounts of time mulling over minor issues and misunderstandings via email. Anything sent by email lives forever, so it must be written with great care because it can later be used to hang the writer. Every word has to be considered as if it would be judged by a judge and jury. That means a level of precision is necessary in a way that wouldn’t be necessary on a phone call.

7. Conclusion

In Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, Kentaro Toyama writes: “It’s often said that technology is a cost-saver; or that ‘big data’ makes business problems transparent; or that social media brings people together; or that digital systems level playing fields. These kinds of statements are repeated so often that few people question them. Yet none of them is a die-cast truth.” Toyama is right, and we’ve witnessed the problems of relentless communication, which let people endlessly niggle over minor, unimportant points, while misunderstanding bigger, more important pictures.

This post is an attempt to share the bigger picture.


* For one example of how things are worse, see Alone Together by Sherry Turkle or Man Disconnected: How technology has sabotaged what it means to be male by Philip Zimbardo. We aren’t luddites and aren’t condemning technology—indeed, our business couldn’t exist as it does without technology—but we are cognizant of the drawbacks.