Monthly Archives: August 2017

L.A. digs a hole more slowly than economics fills it back in: The Proposition HHH Facilities Program RFP

As newsletter subscribers know, last week the City of Los Angeles released the “Proposition HHH Facilities Program FY 2017-18 Request for Proposals for the FY 2018-19 Bond Issuance.” That program is an excellent opportunity for nonprofit and public agencies looking for capital funding. There was $85 million available in 2016, and this year there may be more. Even better, grants to $3.5M are up for grabs.

Prop HHH funding is a great opportunity for nonprofits involved in homeless services, since it provides capital funding for facilities, which don’t have to including housing units. As we’ve written before, facility grants are usually much harder to get than grants for the services provided at the facility. Also, the RFP states:

The Prop HHH Facilities Program is intended to fund the acquisition and/or improvement of real property for facilities (hereinafter referred to as “project(s)”) that provide services or goods to, or otherwise benefit, persons experiencing homelessness, chronic homelessness, or at risk of homelessness (hereinafter referred to as “homeless”).

The key phrase is “at risk of homelessness,” which makes almost any LA human services provider potentially eligible for a Prop HHH grant, not just traditional homeless services providers. This is because clients of most L.A. human providers are well below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG). Given the very high rents in LA, this means they likely pay well over the federal/state/local standard of housing affordability of 30% on gross income for housing costs (e.g., rent, utilities, etc.).

From a grant writing point of view, this means they’re pretty much all all at risk of homelessness. Whether obvious or not, many of these clients are, have been, or will be episodically homeless (e.g., living in cars, motels, family members, shelters, etc.).

From a larger perspective, though, Prop HHH is also like digging a tiny hole in the housing affordability problem, while the rest of L.A.’s rules and regulations act as a dump truck filling that hole back in. You may ask what that means. One good explanation comes from Reddit, of all places, as this architect explains why virtually all new housing units in L.A. are “luxury” units. As he says, “EVERYTHING built in LA is defined by parking, whether we like it or not.” Moreover:

In making our assessments as to required space for parking, the typical calculation is that each full parking stall will require 375sf of space (after considering not just the space itself but also the required drive aisle, egress, out of the structure, etc. So that 800sf apartment is actually 1175 sf to build. [. . .]

So not only is 32% of your apartment just for your car and otherwise useless, but its also by far the most expensive part of that apartment to build.

It’s not possible to build enough housing for middle-income people in L.A., let alone low-income or homeless people, because of parking and outdoor space requirements. The City of L.A. is doing useful work for a handful of nonprofits with Prop HHH, but unless the City changes its parking requirements, there isn’t much real change that’s going to happen. The high cost of free parking is real. In the proposal world, though, none of these problems and trade-offs exist. In the real world, however, a couple hundred million dollars to build a couple hundred units (or even a thousand units) isn’t going to do much for homelessness in a city of four million and a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) of twelve million. In 1970, L.A. was zoned for ten million people. Today, with our vastly inferior technology, it’s zoned for four million and change. Until the city fixes zoning, it’s not going to fix homelessness.

Basically, it’s impossible to build enough housing for people in L.A. because it costs so much to also build housing for cars.* As grant writers, however, we love to see new programs like Prop HHH that’ll provide “walkin’ around money” for LA nonprofits.


* Seattle is a little better off, but it still has many perverse zoning issues, which I wrote about comprehensively in “Do millennials have a future in Seattle? Do millennials have a future in any superstar cities?” The short version of that highly detailed article is that many cities severely restrict housing supplies; in the face of rising demand, this raises the cost of housing.

HRSA sort of “Streamlines” FY ’18 Service Area Competition (SAC) NOFOs

As happens every year about this time, HRSA has been issuing Service Area Competition (SAC) Notices of Funding Funding Opportunities (NOFOs). As we’ve written before, HRSA requires Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs—otherwise known as Section 330 grantees) to compete every three years against non-grantees to keep their Section 330 grants. About one-third of the approximately 1,400 FQHCs must submit a technically correct SAC proposal every year.

We’re in the early stages of the FY ’18 SAC derby and, while the process is more or less the same this year, we came across this, on page 3 of this year’s NOFOs:

The Project Narrative has been streamlined to reduce applicant burden, more closely align with Health Center Program requirements as defined by statute and regulation, and simplify the collection of information.

(Emphasis added.)

Sounds great in theory, but let’s take a closer as what passes for streamlining in HRSA-land. The term “NOFO” replaces HRSA’s longstanding practice of calling their RFPs Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs). Thus, HRSA has replaced one pointless three-letter acronym with a similarly pointless four-letter acronym. In they had to change the acronym, why not just use the more common acronym “RFP?”

The FY ’17 SAC FOAs were 73 single-spaced pages, while the FY ’18 NOFOs are 67 single-spaced pages (NOFO length does not include the 365 single-spaced Service Area Announcement Table). It also doesn’t include the 66-page, single-spaced HRSA SF-424 Two-Tier Application Guide (love the doc name). The Guide has intricate formatting instructions for all HRSA grant submissions but often conflicts with the instructions with particular NOFOs, like SAC. Then there’s the voluminous underlying regs for the Section 330 program, but counting these pages would like counting grains of sand on Santa Monica beach.

In summary, HRSA has shaved six pages off of the 498 pages of instructions, not counting regs, or a generous 1.2%! We must applaud HRSA for this Herculean streamlining effort!

To be fair to HRSA, some items previously required of all applicants, like floor plans, no longer must be submitted by current grantees. Also, current grantees don’t have to answer a few of the repetitive questions in the Program Narrative. Still, the SAC applications may not exceed 160 pages “when printed by HRSA.” Despite the digital application upload process, HRSA still prints and copies proposals for reviewers to read in hard copy—partying just like it’s 1999. This is a good reason to avoid color graphics in federal proposals, as most will be printed and copied in grayscale for reviewers.

For FY ’18, HRSA also still requires a two-step application process: the first step in a relatively simply application uploaded through grants.gov, while the second step is the fiendishly complicated online application through HRSA’s Byzantine Electronic Handbooks (EHB) system.

Without doing a deep dive into the SAC NOFOs, a couple of features remaining in the FY ’18 NOFOs illustrate why HRSA using the term “streamlined” might be euphemistic.

There’s a convoluted section of the Project Narrative called “Governance,” where applicants must explain how their governance structure meets complex Section 330 requirements. For current grantees—some of which have received SAC grants for decades—this is odd, since these applicant couldn’t have been funded before if they didn’t meet these requirements. Also, even current grantees must upload copies of their articles of incorporation and bylaws as attachments. One would think that after, say, four SAC grants, HRSA probably doesn’t need another copies of the Owatonna Community Health Center’s articles and bylaws (I made this up, but there probably is a FQHC in Owatonna, MN).

Also, in addition to the grants.gov application file, Abstract, Project Narrative, and Budget/Budget Narrative, the EHB application includes 13 required forms and 12 required attachments for all applicants, including existing grantees.

Put the most important thing in the first sentence

Did you know Dave Barry used to teach business writing? Neither did I. But he did and in this conversation with Tyler Cowen he points to the most consistent problem he sees with business writers, which is the same problem we see in the writing of so many of our clients (and their supposed grant writers); this is a long quote but it encapsulates so much of grant writing that I’m not going to cut it:

COWEN: What’s the main thing they get wrong from the business mentality?

BARRY: OK, the most consistent mistake . . . not mistake, but inefficiency of business writing — and it was very consistent — is the absolute refusal on the part of the writer to tell you right away what message he or she is trying to deliver. I used to say to them, “The most important thing you have to say should be in the first sentence.” And “Oh, no, you can’t. I’m an engineer. We did a 10-year study, this is way too complicated.”

And inevitably, they were wrong. Inevitably, if they really thought about it, they were able to, in one sentence, summarize why it was really important. But they refused to do that because the way they found out was by spending 10 years of study and all this data and everything, and that’s the way they wanted everyone to look at what they did. They wanted their supervisors to go plowing through all they had done to come to this brilliant conclusion that they had come to.

COWEN: Through their history, through their thought patterns.

BARRY: Drag everybody through it. And it was the one thing the newspaper people were taught to do that made more sense. You don’t have your reader’s attention very long, so get to the point. I found it was very difficult to get even really smart businesspeople to get to the point. Sometimes it was because they really couldn’t tell you what the point was.

What I wanted to say, but rarely felt comfortable saying, was, “If you don’t know what the point is, then you can’t really write this report.” But it was always too complicated for a layperson like me to understand. That was the way they did it. I was being hired by their bosses to tell them, “No, we want you to write clearly, and we want you to get to the point.”

Barry worked for newspapers for many years, which means he learned about the 5Ws and H (that linked post of ours, by the way, is one of the most-read we’ve ever produced). The most important sentences comes first, and every sentence after it should appear in declining importance. If you have to cut a proposal to make the page or character counts work, you should be able to cut each section from the bottom up.

It’s almost always possible to make even very technical subjects somewhat comprehensible to the generally educated and reasonably intelligent lay reader. That engineers or executive directors often haven’t learned to do so doesn’t meant they’re dumb (they’re not)—it just means they’ve never learned how to write. Which is fine: I’ve never learned how to write a compiler or build a bridge that doesn’t collapse. An intelligible description for regular readers will obviously lose important technical nuances, but in many cases that’s desirable rather than bad.

Part of the reason we can write scientific and technical grant proposals effectively is because we’re good at understanding technical concepts, picking out the most important parts, and then putting those important parts in the right order the RFP. We often get something technically incorrect in first drafts, in which case our client corrects us. Still, we are very good at telling compelling stories that will get scientific and engineering proposals funded. We have the business we do for many reasons, one being that we’re good at putting things in the right order in proposals. Proposals that aren’t structured properly because they don’t get to the point are often unreadable.

The first sentence of this post is the title. And it is the most important sentence: “Put the most important thing in the first sentence.” If you learn how to do this, you’ll be ahead of 80% of grant writers and would-be grant writers. Most proposals prepared by other “grant writers” fail the first-sentence test.

LAHSA’s Continuum of Care (CoC) RFP illustrates the challenge of handling RFP amendments

Last week I wrote about challenge of handling RFP Amendments, and I observed that local RFPs tend to have more amendments than state or federal RFPs. Right on schedule, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA—the Continuum of Care entity for LA County) illustrated the point.

On August 3, LAHSA published the FY ’17 RFP for New CoC projects to provide services to people experiencing episodic or chronic homelessness,* with an August 14 deadline. Then LAHSA almost immediately began issuing a series of amendments (we’re up to three) and one clarification (so far). If you’re the grant writer applying for a CoC project, you not only have to deal with a surprise deadline only 11 days away and the complexities of writing a proposal that conforms to both the LAHSA RFP and the underlying HUD FY ’17 CoC NOFA (notice of funding availability; this is HUD-speak for RFP), but also the stream of amendments. Since no one has hired us to write the proposal yet, I haven’t looked closely at the amendments, other than to see if the deadline has been extension. Tomorrow we might still get a late-breaking amendment that extends the deadline. C’mom LAHSA, go for it!


* Free proposalese language update: In the last year or so, we’ve noticed a change in the language used in many human services RFPs. There are no longer any homeless persons in America. Instead, there are “persons experiencing episodic or chronic homelessness.” Try using that phrase 20 times in a ten-page proposal.

Grant writing help series: Tips for handling RFP amendments

We’ve written many times about contradictory and occasionally incoherent RFPs. To add to the grant writer’s burden, government funders often issue amendments—sometimes right before the deadline. The feds are less prone to issue amendments than local funders; as one moves down the food chain to state and county / city funders, the potential for amendments increases greatly. I’ve got no idea why this is, but it is.

We’ve seen a bunch of important RFP amendments in projects we’ve worked on lately, and those got me thinking about the issue. Here are some handy tips for handling RFP amendments:

  • If possible, sign up to receive email notifications. This is fairly easy in the federal system but highly variable at the state and local levels.
  • Remember your last visit to the DMV or DMV website? Government notification systems are not the same as you’ll find at Amazon, FedEx, or even Fandango. Since the system may be unreliable, you should go back to the funder web site several times before the deadline to check for amendments, even if you’ve signed up for notifications.
  • When you find an amendment, review it carefully, as the notice, if there is one, may not be complete or even accurate. Among items to look for are a deadline extension, clarification of confusing or contradictory RFP language, changes in the required proposal format (e.g., max page/character lengths, order of responses, fonts, etc.), additional requirements (e.g., new forms or budget instructions, new letters of commitment, changed required attachments, etc.). The best way to do this, assuming you have at least two large monitors, like our offices, is to put the RFP on one monitor and the amendment on the second. Go through the amendment, finding each relevant section of the RFP, and mark-up the RFP. Then, make sure your draft—no matter what stage it is in—matches both the RFP and amendment. If you find yet another conflict, you must immediately email the funder program office, which will trigger yet another amendment.
  • While looking for amendments, also look for a Q and A page on the funder website. Some funders will post questions received about the RFP, along with answers. Don’t however, get your hopes up, as the answers usually are something along the lines of, “Interesting question, refer to page 147 of the RFP.”
  • While we advise our clients to submit proposals a couple of days in advance of the deadline, there is no advantage in submitting a proposal more than about three days in advance. Otherwise, you might have try to “un-submit” the proposal if there is a late breaking amendment. Also, being first in line doesn’t help, as funders never release proposals to reviewers until the deadline passes.

A few months ago, we were writing a proposal for a for-profit client in a Northeaster state, which was seeking a Department of Homeland Security contract for facility hardening. There were ultimately seven amendments, each of which significantly changed the proposal response, and a couple of which came after the original deadline, meaning that we actually prepared three “final” proposals for this assignment. The punch line is that, ultimately, DHS cancelled the RFP process and decided not to make any grants!

In grant writing, it pays to heed the advice of “Oscar” in Robert Heinlein’s 1963 science fiction classic, Glory Road, which I’ll paraphrase as, “all bureaucracies consist of a Surprise Department, a Practical Joke Department, and a Fairy Godmother Department.” In grant writing, the Fairy Godmother Department is only open one day per year, so mostly you’re at the mercy of the Surprise and Practical Joke Departments.