Monthly Archives: December 2015

Is Violent Crime Going Up or Down in America? Nobody Actually Knows, But the Debate Illustrates How Grant Proposal Needs Assessments are Written

One of our past posts described how to write proposal needs assessments. A spate of recent articles on the so-called Ferguson Effect provides a good example of how proficient grant writers can use selected data and modifying words to shape a needs assessment to support whatever the project concept is.

Last week Heather Mac Donald’s Wall Street Journal editorial “Trying to Hide the Rise of Violent Crime” claimed that violent crime is rising, due to “the Ferguson Effect,” but that “progressives and media allies” have launched a campaign to deny this reality. Right on cue, the New York Times ran a front page “news” story telling grumpy New Yorkers that “Anxiety Aside, New York Sees Drop in Crime.” Both articles cite the same Brennan Center for Justice study, Crime in 2015: A Preliminary Analysis, to support their arguments.

This reminds me of the old joke about how different newspapers would report that the end of the world will happen tomorrow: the New York Times, “World Ends Tomorrow, Women and Minorities Hurt Most;” the Wall Street Journal, “World Ends Tomorrow, Markets Close Early;” and Sports Illustrated, “Series Cancelled, No World.” One can frame a set of “facts” differently, depending on one’s point of view and the argument being made.

Neither the NYT or WSJ writers actually know if violent crime is going up or down in the short term. Over the past few decades, it is clear that crime has decline enormously, but it isn’t clear what causal mechanisms might be behind that decline.

Perhaps, like Schrödinger’s cat being alive and dead at the same time to explain quantum mechanics, crime is up and down at the same, depending on who’s doing the observing and how they’re observing.

One of the challenges is that national crime data, as aggregated in the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system, is inherently questionable. First, police departments report these data voluntarily and many crimes are subject to intentional or unintentional miss-categorization (was it an assault or aggravated assault?) or under/over reporting, depending on how local political winds are blowing (to see one public example of this in action, consider “NYPD wants to fix stats on stolen Citi Bikes,” which describes how stealing a Citi Bike counts as a felony because each one costs more than $1,000). A less-than-honorable police chief, usually in cahoots with local pols, can make “crime rates” go up or down. Then there is the problem of using averages for data, which leads to another old joke about the guy with his head in the oven and his feet in the freezer. On average, he felt fine.

But from your perspective as a grant writer, the important question isn’t whether crime rates decline or whether “the Ferguson Effect” makes them fall. If residents of a given city/neighborhood feel vulnerable to perceived crime increases, the increases are “real to them” and can form the basis for a project concept for grants seeking. Plus, when data to prove the need is hard to come by, we sometimes ask our clients for anecdotes about the problem and add a little vignette to the needs assessment. A call to the local police department’s gang unit will always produce a great “end of the world” gang issue quote from the Sergeant in charge, while a call to the local hospital will usually yield a quote about an uptick in gun shoot victims being treated, and so on. Sometimes in proposals anecdotes can substitute for data, although this is not optimal.

Within reason and the rather vague ethical boundaries of grant seeking and writing, a good grant writer can and should pick and choose among available data to construct the needs assessment argument for funding anything the agency/community sees a need for.

For example, if we were writing a proposal for an urban police department to get more funds for community policing, we would use up or down crime rate data to demonstrate the need for a new grant. If the crime is trending down, we’d use the data to argue that the police department is doing a good job with community policing but needs some more money to do an even better job, while being able to provide technical assistance to other departments. If the crime data is trending upward, we’d argue that there’s a crisis and the grant must be made to save life and limb. If we were working for a nonprofit in the same city that wants grants for after school enrichment for at-risk youth, we’d cherry-pick the crime data to argue that a nurturing after-school setting is necessary, to keep them protected from the false allures of gangs, early risky sexual experimentation, and/or drugs.

Most grant needs assessments are written backwards. One starts with the premise for the project concept and structures the data and analysis to support the stated need. It may be hard for true believers and novice grant writers to accept, but grant writing is rarely a blue sky/visioning exercise. The funder really sets the parameters of the program. The client knows what they want the grant for. It’s the job of the grant writer to build the needs assessment by including, excluding, and/or obfuscating data. This approach works well, because most funders only know what the applicant tells them in the proposal. Some grant programs, like our old pals DOL’s YouthBuild and ED’s Talent Search, try to routinize needs assessments and confound rascally grant writers by mandating certain data sets. We’re too crafty, however, and can usually overcome such data requirements through the kind of word and data selections that Mac Donald cites in her article.

Links: Elon Musk’s secret sauce, philanthropy and controversy, healthcare, fashion, electric cars, maternal morality, and more!

* Elon Musk’s secret sauce, and what makes him such an effective human being. I wonder about the extent to which his methods and philosophies are teachable to others.

* Philanthropy Should Be Controversial.

* “Police violence in Alabama:” note: “there’s no law that allows cops to beat or shock you because they don’t like your attitude.” Why do cops not realize this, or still behave this way if they do? Cops beat people for the sake of it. They are sometimes out of control and a virtually unchecked power unto themselves.

* Fresh Climate Data Confirms 2015 Is Hotter Than Any Other Year in Human History.

* Charities Givewell.org would like to see.

* A history of men’s boots and shoes, and why modern ones are so good; the piece is fascinating but in a way that’s hard to describe effectively.

* “Many Say High Deductibles Make Their Health Law Insurance All but Useless;” alternately, one could read this as “At the margin, revealed preferences show that people don’t want as much healthcare as many eggheads imagined.” The reporter of course chooses not to explore this possibility.

* “Saudi Arabia, an ISIS that has made it.” In political discussions I often point out that Saudi Arabia’s tone, values, and policies are diametrically opposed to the ones espoused by the American and European governments that often support it.

* California’s DOT Admits [the obvious:] That More Roads Mean More Traffic.

* Why car dealers are reluctant to sell electric cars, a bit of ill news.

* Dream of New Kind of Credit Union Is Extinguished by Bureaucracy.

* What happens to countries that vote for socialists.

* Why is the maternal mortality rate going up in the United States? Paging Healthy Start Initiative grantees.

* Why Chris Blattman worries that experimental social science is headed in the wrong direction. This is important for nonprofit and public agencies and echoes, lightly, some points we’ve made in, for example, “Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation.”

* Is There a Future for the Professions?

* “Leaving it behind: How to rescue people from deep poverty—and why the best methods work.” This is less America-centric than most pieces we link to but is interesting, or should be interesting, to all.

* “Think Systems When You Write You Prepare Your Proposal, and a Tale From the Medical Trenches.”

HRSA Randomizes FQHC Program Officers, Likely Trading One Set of Problems for Another Set of Problems

In days of yore, most federal grantees had a dedicated program officer who handled budget issues, contract amendments, reports, and the like; the program officer would often conduct site visits, getting to know the executive director and the nuances of the agency and target area. This system began to atrophy during the Reagan administration with cutbacks to federal travel budgets, and today grantees rarely if ever see their program officer. For example, we’ve written many funded YouthBuild proposals for a South Central LA nonprofit, which hasn’t had a site visit from their HUD program office in 20 years of implementing over ten rounds of YouthBuild funding. Still, most grantees develop a virtual relationship with a specific program officer.

We write many HRSA proposals and were surprised to learn during a scoping call with the CEO of a long-time FQHC client that HRSA has changed this system. Instead of having an assigned program officer, HRSA program officers are now randomized. This means that when an FQHC—which often juggles multiple HRSA grants—has an issue, the problem is randomly assigned to one of a pool of program officers. This is more or less the system used when one waits in line at the DMV or Katz’s Delicatessen. At the DMV, this prevents a clerk from issuing fake drivers licenses for a bribe and the counter man at Katz’s from adding a little extra corned beef to his pal’s sandwich every day at lunchtime.

I assume the same reasoning applies at HRSA: randomizing program officers presumably is aimed at preventing special treatment for favored FQHCs or, I suppose, outright graft. Avoiding special treatment has a cost, though, as it’s likely to wildly increase inefficiency and systemic friction. One sees such problems most clearly in defense contracting, but any large bureaucracy can develop them.

In a randomized oversight management system, the program officer handling a particularly issue will have no agency background or context for the problem. I’m sure that HRSA management thinks thinks will lead to “fair” treatment for all grantees, while minimizing the potential for corruption, but it will also clog the system. HRSA program officers are probably GS 11s and 12s and, like most bureaucrats, they aren’t especially motivated to quickly solve grantee problems. Relationships with the grantees can improve motivation because most of us don’t want to be considered jerks by people we know and have repeated interactions with (why this is true is beyond the scope of this post, but Joseph Henrich’s account in The Secret of Our Success is recommended; it’s also a popular book written by a scholar, not a self-help book). Program officers get paid every two weeks, whether they solve problems or create them, as long as their breath clouds a mirror (to prove they’re still alive) when the paychecks are passed out.

HRSA is changing one set of real or imagined problems for a different set of problems. An unintended consequence of this change is also likely to be more congressional interference.

Why? Let’s say you’re the CEO of the fictional Owatonna Community Health Center and need a rapid decision to amend the agency’s NAP grant budget. In the Ancien Régime, the experienced program officer could probably be sweet-talked into a quick budget revision because of the interpersonal relationship and agency knowledge. In the new system, however, the program officer might put the request under her coffee cup and leave for five days of training, followed by vacation. Why does she care about what some random FQHC in Minnesota or wherever thinks or does?

Without any other recourse, the panicked CEO is likely to call their congressperson’s district office for relief, which will result in a field deputy harassing upper level HRSA management in Washington. This will lead to more friction and bad vibes, as management puts the congressionally-induced hammer to the program officer. The program officers will become even more bureaucratic in response, and they’ll make sure every last rule gets followed. Meticulously following rules is actually a CIA-approved method for organizational sabotage. No, seriously, it is: follow the preceding link.

We’ve written about the challenges of managing grants before. Like grant writing, grants management involves a specific set of skills and experience. Anything that makes managing grants harder is not going to help HRSA or FQHCs in the long run.

We imagined foundations would hire us to help improve RFPs/funding guidelines. We were wrong.

Twenty and change years ago, Isaac was starting Seliger + Associates and expected to be hired by foundations and perhaps even some government agencies who might want help streamlining their RFPs or funding guidelines. Seliger + Associates has unusual expertise on grants, grant writing, and RFPs, which could, in theory, make helping funders part of the firm’s regular practice. Isaac imagined that funders would want real world feedback  to improve the grant making process, make themselves more efficient and efficacious, ensure their money was being channeled in useful directions, and so forth. Even in the early days of Seliger + Associates, we knew a lot that could help funders, and we waited for the calls to start coming.

I was about ten at the time. Now I’m considerably older and we’ve long since stopped waiting. Funders, it turns out, strictly follow the golden rule in this respect: he who has the gold makes the rules. Funders routinely ask applicants and other stakeholders about how to make the world a better place, but they have no interest at all in talking to the people who could conceivably help them most with respect to the funding process. Isaac’s initial expectation turned out to be totally wrong.

Isaac and I were talking about the vast silence from funders in light of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that he and his wife, Pricilla Chan, plan to donate tens of billions of dollars to nonprofits in the coming decades through newly formed Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) LLC.* That’s a laudable effort and we’re happy they’re doing this. Still, we wonder if they’ll talk to people who toil daily in the grant writing mines to make sure that the funding guidelines CZI uses and the RFPs CZI issues are grounded in the reality of what would make it easiest to identify applicants most likely to achieve their charitable purposes with the minimum friction for nonprofits. Based on past experiences, we doubt it.

Despite the headlines you may have read, philanthropy as we know it is quite resistant to change—especially on the government side. On the private sector side, signaling and status are far more important than efficiency. Gates and Zuckerberg may be challenging the signaling dynamic, and we’re on their side in that respect, but we think signaling is too ingrained in human nature to have much effect. Overcoming signaling is hard at best and impossible at worst. Look at the way ridiculous SUVs continue to be a status-raiser among many suburbanites for one obvious, easy example of this at work. Geoffrey Miller’s book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior details many others.


* The name of the LLC, “CZI,” amuses us: it’s an unpronounceable acronym that sounds like a Cold-War-era Soviet ministry. The first rule of developing grant-related acronyms to to make them pronounceable.