Monthly Archives: January 2019

Links: Price transparency in healthcare?, collaboration, debt, the good life, and more!

* “A Billionaire Pledges to Fight High Drug Prices, and the Industry Is Rattled.” This would be very good: healthcare costs are eating the world.

* Collaboration Again: A Story From the Trenches.

* “GM’s electric bikes unveiled.” File under “Headlines I never thought I’d see outside of The Onion.”

* “Cultural barriers still stand in the way of HPV vaccine uptake.” Most importantly, “Every year, nearly 34,000 cases of cancer in the US can be attributed to HPV, the human papillomavirus. The CDC estimates that vaccination could prevent around 93 percent of those cancers.” We should be getting vaccinated. This is an easy healthcare win, and a way to easily reduce healthcare costs.

* “Six Secrets from the Planner of Sevilla’s Lightning Bike Network.” Reducing car usage is another easy cost win. There are two ways to improve well-being: increase incomes and decrease costs. Almost no one talks about the latter. We should talk more about it.

* “Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year.” An evergreen article. Imagine if 70,000 people were killed by opioid overdoes in the United States every year. Oh wait, that’s actually happening too.

* Single-Family Home Zoning vs. ‘Generation Priced Out.’

* “Doctors Are Fed Up With Being Turned Into Debt Collectors.” Maybe we ought to go back to a world of transparent pricing, paid in advance?

* “Why Cities Must Tackle Single-Family Zoning.” Useful for anyone who thinks their rent is too damn high (like I do).

* “Oil Demand for Cars Is Already Falling: Electric vehicles are displacing hundreds of thousands of barrels a day, exceeding expectations.” We get too little good news; here is some.

* “The Creation of Deviance,” note: “The activities of university administrators may also fit a larger pattern, one in which agents of social control readily create the need for their own services.”

* Scott Alexander: “Preschool: I Was Wrong.” See also us on Universal Pre-Kindergarten and Early Head Start (EHS).

* “Wall Street Rule for the #MeToo Era: Avoid Women at All Cost.” It’s like no one imagined unintended consequences, or understands that incentives affect behavior.

* Greenhouse Gas Emissions Rise Like a ‘Speeding Freight Train’ in 2018.

* “‘Forget About the Stigma’: Male Nurses Explain Why Nursing Is a Job of the Future for Men.” I wrote an essay, “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school,” that also covers germane points.

* “Workers are ghosting their employers like bad dates?” Ghosting is bad for the ghoster and ghostee, in my view.

* Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers. I liked Nashville.

* Why are construction costs rising?

* Repl.it: Get your ideas out there. What the kids are apparently using to learn how to code.

* 2018 Was the Year of the Scooter?

* The World’s Leading Electric-Car Visionary Is Wan Gang, not Elon Musk?

* “Two Roads for the New French Right,” a much deeper, more substantive piece than the headline implies.

* Hospital prices are about to go public. Good news if true. We’ve written quite a bit, perhaps too much, on the topic.

* “A tour of elementary OS, perhaps the Linux world’s best hope for the mainstream.” It is strange to me that Linux still has so many problems for mainstream use and users.

* “Retraining Programs Fall Short for Some Workers: The goal was to help displaced workers gain skills in new industries. But studies show people are earning less or failing to find work.” This will not shock existing training providers. Re-training is hard, and the older the workers being re-trained, the harder the process is. Careers also tend to have arcs. At some point, if haven’t ascended sufficiently, you’re unlikely to ever build up the ability to do so. I think about myself and writing: it took me about ten years of continuous practice to become a competent writer. Ten years. And that seems to be a common fact for highly skilled people. Medical school + residency is seven years. Law school is only three years, but most lawyers take another five or so years to get really good at their jobs.

* Nuclear energy is key to saving the planet.

* “How economic theory and the Netflix Prize could make research funding more efficient.” The journal article is here. Looks like a good idea to us: some signaling is inevitably wasteful but may also be useful. In the grant world, however, there is far too much wasteful signaling. In this respect, the grant world resembles the heavily-marketed college admissions world.

More on developing federal grant budgets: Stay in the proposal world, not the operations world

This is an update to our popular post “Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets.” While that post provides a step-by-step description of how to develop a federal grant proposal budget, it assumes that the budget preparer understands the difference between the real world and the proposal world. Experts in real-world budgets are often too sophisticated for the proposal world.

When we’re hired to complete a federal proposal, we send our client an Excel template that models the SF-424 budget form found in all grants.gov WorkSpace applications. Recently, we’ve been working for a series of large nonprofits and public agencies that have skilled Chief Financial Officers (CFOs). Most of these CFOs, however, have little or no understanding of proposal budgeting, as they’re accustomed to detailed operational budgets. Yet they’re often charged with filling out a proposal budget.

Even if we discuss the proposal world with the CFO first, the completed template we receive back is usually way too detailed, because it reflects actual program operations, not the idealized proposal world. This not only makes preparing the associated budget narrative/justification far too complex, but also means the budget presentation won’t display well when saved as the required .pdf for attachment to the kit file. The budget will also confuse proposal reviewers (which is never a good idea while being very easy to do), as most of them are not accountants, CFOs, etc.

So how do you keep your budget anchored in the proposal world?

  • Keep the number the number of line items short—around, say, 20. If you use 40 line items, the spreadsheet bloat will be very difficult to format in a way that is readable and meets RFP formatting requirements (unless you’re a wiz at Excel, which almost no one—including us and the CFOs we encounter—is).
  • Only include staff and line items that will be charged to the grant (and match, if required).
  • Personnel line items must match the staffing plan in the narrative. Resist the urge to load up the budget with small FTEs (2% to 20%) of lots of existing administrators/managers, as this will make your agency look bureaucratic (not a good idea, even if it is) and clog the budget narrative. Large numbers of small FTEs are what a federally approved Indirect Cost Rate is for. If your agency has at least one existing federal grant, get an approved Indirect Cost Rate, which is not that difficult, and many of your proposal budgeting woes will be solved.
  • Unless the RFP requires it, don’t line-item fringe benefits. These can usually be lumped together as a the percent of salaries your fringe benefit package equates to. For most nonprofits, this will be in the 18% to 30% range. Anything above 30% will probably generate unwanted attention from grant reviewers, even if that is what you pay. If the fringe benefit rate is relatively high, this should be explained in the budget narrative (e.g. lower salaries, high local costs, need to retain staff, etc.).
  • For multi-year budgets, don’t include expected yearly salary increases or annual inflators; this is too detailed and will, again, result in a very complicated budget justification. Inflation in the current environment is low. In a high-inflation environment like the ’70s, this advice would be different.
  • Regarding the “Other” Object Cost Category on the SF-424A, it’s unnecessary to break down line items too far. For example, lump together facility costs (e.g., rent, utilities, security, janitorial, maintenance, etc.), or communications (e.g., landline and cell phones, mailings, etc.) into single line items. Try to consolidate.
  • If feasible, try to make the total annual budget level for each project year. This can be a bit challenging, if, for example, the project involves start-up costs (e.g., buying staff furniture, hiring a web designer/social media consultant, etc.) in year one. The way to do this is to increase some other line item(s) in the out years to keep the budget level. Level annual budgets will make the budget easier to write and understand.
  • Make one line item your plug number to enable reconciliation to the maximum allowed grant and/or level annual amounts in multi-year grants. The plug number should be in the Other Object Cost Category and could be advertising, communications, or similar line items that look OK with an odd number in different years. Reviewers are aware of plug numbers and won’t hold reasonable plug numbers against you.

The proposal budget is just a financial plan that supports the proposed project activities, not a detailed expression of an operational situation. Following the notice of grant award, your agency will have to negotiate the actual budget in the contract anyway.

In most cases, the grantee can move 10% of the total grant among line items by notifying the federal program officer or requesting larger budget changes to reflect operations in the real world as the project is implemented. Unless you ask to swap an Outreach Worker for a lease on a Tesla for the Executive Director, the program officer will likely go along with your plan, as most simply don’t care what you do so long as the grant doesn’t end up in BuzzFeed, Politico, or the New York Times. Program officers want to make sure you are reasonable implementing a proposed project, but they don’t care about relatively small changes in operations-level detail. Fighting over small details in a proposal budget is a foolish thing to do, as is including small line items. Get the big picture right and the details will shake out during implementation.

When you hire consultants, you’re hiring them for all the mistakes they’ve ever seen (and made)

When you hire a lawyer, part of who you’re hiring is someone who has made thousands of mistakes in law school and as a young lawyer. Lawyers, like doctors and other professionals, learn in an apprentice-style system that incorporates the mistakes made by their mentors. Proto-lawyers also make some mistakes of their own—and, ideally, have those mistakes corrected by senior lawyers, and learn to not make those mistakes in the future. Most people don’t think about hiring a person or team specifically for their mistakes, yet this is a useful way to think about most professional services, including our personal favorite: grant writing consultants.

When you’re hiring a grant writer, you’re really hiring the experience that grant writer has. It isn’t impossible to hire a college intern or recent journalism grad and get funded; we’ve seen it happen and heard stories from clients. But the intern and inexperienced writers will make mistakes more experienced people won’t. We’ve written numerous posts about subtle mistakes that are easy to make in all aspects of the grant pipeline, from the needs assessment to the program design to the submission process. It’s also possible to get a competent junior person to write a couple of proposals, but grant writing is very hard and over time they tend to demand more money—or leave. That’s why you have trouble hiring grant writers. Many interns will write a proposal or two, but when they learn how hard and under-appreciated the job is, they often want money commensurate with difficulty. The inexperienced tend to make mistakes; the experienced grant writers tend to charge accordingly.

We are still not perfect (no one is; if anyone think they are, refer to “the perils of perfectionism“). But we have learned, through trial and error, how to make many fewer mistakes than novice or somewhat experienced grant writers. It’s not conceptually possible to eliminate all errors, but it is possible to avoid many errors that scupper most would-be grant writers.

If your organization can get a recent English major to write successful proposals for little or nothing, you should do that. But we’ve also heard from a lot of organizations that have “whoever is around” write, or attempt to write, their proposals, only to fail. Experience matters. You can get the magic intern, but more often you get someone who is overwhelmed by the complexity of a given writing assignment, who doesn’t understand human services or technical projects, is simply terrified by absolute deadlines, etc.

Let’s take as an example a common error that we’ve seen in a spate of recent old proposals provided by clients. Most include some variation, made by inexperienced writers, who want to write that “we are wonderful,” “we really care,” and the like in their proposals. This is a violation of the writing principle “Show, don’t tell.” Most of the time, you don’t want to tell people you’re wonderful—you want to show them that you are. “We are wonderful” statements are empty. “We served 500 youth with ten hours of service per week, and those services include x, y, and z” statements have objective content. It’s also harder to accurately describe what specific services an organization is providing than it is to say subjectively, “We are wonderful and we care.” Whatever is rare is more valuable than that which is common.

The above paragraph is just one example of the kind of errors novices make that experts tend not to. Attempting to enumerate all errors would be book-length if not longer. Experienced grant writers will avoid errors and offer quality almost instinctively, without always being able to articulate every aspect of error vs. optimality.