How to write grant proposal work plans

In addition to the ever-present requirement for a project narrative, some RFPs require a “work plan.” For many novice grant writers, confronting the work plan raises a sense of dread similar to having to prepare a logic model. Unlike logic models, which involve a one-page diagram that displays project elements in a faux flow-chart format, work plans are usually structured as multi-column tables, like the simple illustration in this PDF (or try here for the Word version).

As the attached file shows, the work plan usually contains a blank for goals, with blanks for objectives under each goal and activities for each objective. Other columns may include timeframes, responsibilities, deliverables, data to be collected, and so on.

While it’s possible to create a 10- or even 20-page work plan (the work plan is usually not not counted against the project narrative page limit), there’s little reason to do so, unless you’re required to by the RFP. Instead, one overarching goal statement is generally enough. A goal statement might be, for example:

The project goal is to improve employment and life outcomes for formerly incarcerated cyclops by providing a range of culturally and linguistically appropriate wraparound supportive services.

Use that goal to develop three or four specific and measurable objectives, along with three or four activities for each objective. This will result in a work plan ranging from one to five pages. Each additional goal will (probably pointlessly) increase the page count and the chance to create continuity errors. A compact work plan will clearly summarize why and how the project will be implemented and it will be easy for readers/scorers to understand. That’s enough for a work plan.

It’s easy to introduce continuity errors between the workplan and narrative because goals, objectives, activities, timelines, etc., may be sprinkled throughout the narrative, budget, logic model, and/or forms, depending on the RFP requirements. Details in the work plan must be precisely consistent with all other proposal components. The more you edit each proposal draft, the less you will be able to spot internal inconsistencies within the narrative or between the narrative and the work plan. Inconsistencies will, however, stand out in neon to a reviewer reading the entire proposal for the first time.

We’re experienced grant writers, so we draft work plans after the second proposal draft is completed. But novice grant writers will find it useful to draft the work plan before writing the first draft, as this will help you organize the draft. Novices should also read differences among goals, objectives and activities before tackling the work plan.

Some Positive Changes in Federal Grant Grants.Gov Submission Requirements Emerge

Faithful readers know that I’ve been writing federal grant proposals since the last ice age.* For most of the last four decades, federal grant writing has changed little, other than in obvious tech-related ways—computers, online databases, quick and reliable digital literature/data searches, easy access to applicant background info and so on. I recently realized that incremental changes, glacial in speed though they may be, have begun to have a cumulative impact on the way in which proposals, and especially federal grant proposals, are prepared.

The biggest change in federal proposal preparation was the switch from hard copy to digital submissions, starting around 12 years ago. While at first there were a number of portals developed by various federal agencies, over the years most, but not all, have switched to Grants.Gov. For the first five or so years, Grants.Gov was incredibly badly coded, and the upload process was often uncertain and dicey. In recent years, the reliability of Grants.Gov has improved dramatically and the required attachments mercifully streamlined.

In the bad old days of paper submissions, federal agencies usually required a zoo of attachments, like target area maps, evaluator CVs, key staff resumes, job descriptions, organization charts, evidence of 501(c)3) status, bylaws, financial statements, letters of support, MOUs, and the dreaded logic model. The narratives themselves were long, like attention spans back in those days, with maximums sometimes reaching 50 single-spaced pages. It was not uncommon to end up with a 150-page grant application, which usually had be submitted with a “wet-signed” original and up to ten copies. Sometimes the FedEx boxes we shipped to HUD or the Department of Education weighed over ten pounds.

In the early days of Grants.Gov, these attachment requirements continued, making the upload process very complicated (try uploading a 10 megabyte financial statement attached to a Grants.Gov kit file for example) and sometimes impossible, as there might not be an attachment slot for a given required attachment. As time passed, federal RFPs began to strip away attachments or even require only a couple of consolidated attached files. This is much simpler and makes the grants.gov kit file preparation easier and significantly more reliable.

Most federal agencies have also reduced the maximum length of the narrative and settled on a double-spaced, single-sided page formatting convention. For example, Department of Labor proposals now usually have 20 double-spaced page maximums for narratives. Before you say “hallelujah,” however, keep in mind that the RFPs themselves have not gotten any shorter–an RFP could easily be 150 pages, with the questions to be answered in the 20-page narrative actually being many pages longer than the maximum allowed response. It is often harder to write a shorter narrative of, say, 20 pages, than 40 pages, because the writer faces the “building-a-ship-in-a-bottle” problem. Furthermore, despite severe page limitations, all of the headers/sub-headers must be included to enable reviewers to easily find your responses.

Other interesting RFP changes involve the objective and evaluation sections, which are sometimes combined and always intertwined. Until recently, most RFPs let the grant writer essentially make up the objectives. Now, however, many ED programs like Student Supportive Services and HRSA programs like New Access Points provide more or less fill-in-the-blank objectives. I’m fairly sure this trend is to facilitate “apples-to-apples” comparisons by reviewers, but whatever the reason, it makes it easier to stay within the page limit. While evaluation section requirements used to be astoundingly complex, these days, RFP evaluation instructions tend to be much more straightforward and linked to specified objectives.

Now for the bad news. The budget and budget narratives sections have changed little. Grants.Gov kit files still use a variation of the venerable SF-424A budget form, which is actually a summary of federal object cost categories. To create the 424A, any sane person would use an Excel template. The only people in the US who do not seem to grasp the concept of a spreadsheet are federal RFP writers. There is still no federal Excel SF-424A template provided, although we use versions that we’ve developed over the years.** A well-laid-out Excel line-item budget not only displays each line item within each cost category, but it can also double as the budget narrative. See further in “Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets.”

The budget narrative instructions in almost all federal RFPs are written as if the response is to be done on a typewriter, circa 1975. The budget narrative is also often excluded from the narrative page limit, with no page limit on the budget narrative. Although we would never do this, we’ve seen proposals from our clients in which the budget narrative is longer than the program narrative. Don’t do this—unless you think the tail wagging the dog is a good approach to life.


* Forty-four years to be exact, but who’s counting?

** We always provide clients with a draft budget in a handy reusable Excel template—which is one good reason to hire us!

A Short Post on Writing Short

Writing short is on my mind today.

I’ve been working a Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood proposal this week (see this recent post for more on the program). The FOA states the “application limit is 40 pages total,” including the abstract, narrative, logic model, mandatory letters of support/MOUs, budget, budget narrative and table of contents. Basically, everything except standard forms is counted in the page limit. Oh, did I mention the narrative has to be double spaced? After leaving room for the assorted attachments, maybe 25 double-spaced pages are left for the narrative.

For all of you aspiring grant writers out there in blogland, here is today’s assignment: download the FOA and try to respond to the 43 page, single-spaced FOA with 25 double-spaced pages, including the needs assessment, research citations, program design, work plan, management structure, agency background, evaluation section and a short discussion of rapid climate change (the last one is not in the FOA, but is included by me to see if you are still awake). To say this is not an easy task is something of an understatement—it’s like building a ship in a bottle or tracing the Sistine Chapel ceiling on a cocktail napkin.

Here’s how we do this bit of legerdemain . . .

We write short in the same way that a 10 MB mp3 version of This Magic Moment* more or less conveys the same sound as the 100 MB original .wav file. There are lots of bits missing, which annoys audiophiles, but most listeners enjoy the song anyway, along with the 10,000 other songs on their iPhone. Without mp3 or an equivalent compression technology, you wouldn’t be able to store those 10,000 songs in your shirt pocket.

In writing a narrative with a severe page restriction, the grant writer has to write in a very organized manner with repetitive themes but leave out most detail. The reader, particularly a grant reviewer who is reading essentially the same narrative over and over again, will fill in the detail from her experience, just like a mp3 listener will not notice the lack of highs and lows while boogying down the strand in Huntington Beach on a skateboard.

In this kind of writing exercise, we also use as few section headers and bullets as possible but maximize the use of tables. Tables can usually, but not always (warning: always check the RFP/FOA/NOFA for this fine point), be single spaced. It pays to re-read Hemingway and write in short Hemingway-like sentences. Always keep your story foremost. Reduce the amount of space you allocate to telling the funder how wonderful your agency is. Write the first draft longer, say, 35 pages in this example, as it is easier to remove words than add them in subsequent drafts.

Less experienced grant writers will try to cram by removing spacing lines, kerning the text, having tables extend into the usually required 1″ margins, and so on. Resist this urge, as such tricks will not only make the document unreadable, but may make reviewers think you are cheating.

When polishing the final draft, be ruthless in removing excess words. Make sure the proposal is responsive in terms of page length and formatting requirements while still being readable and selling the need, the project design, and a thorough understanding of the program guidelines. If you are in love with your words, it is hard to cut them, but cut them you must to have a technically correct and fundable proposal. Novel writers use the term “kill your darlings,” because they know how important it is to cut anything extraneous.

The topic of short writing was also on my mind because I received first draft comments on a foundation proposal draft we wrote a few weeks ago. The draft was 16 pages, double spaced, even though most foundations will not accept an initial proposal longer than five single spaced pages. I wrote the draft long because I know the client is passionate about his program and and wants to explain every nuance of the project concept. Here is a extract from his response email to me on the first draft: “It was extremely challenging to reduce the number of pages while also adding information that I believe is very important. I was not successful in getting the proposal down to 10 pages.” I will shorten the next draft to five single spaced pages, because I know that excessive details are not important important to most foundations. Whatever the project concept, foundation reviewers will have most likely already read many versions of it, since there are few new problems and even fewer new ways of solving problems. The funder will, however, react positively to compelling need and clear expository writing—not 10,000 more words and exclamation points.

For two great examples of exquisite short writing, read Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. If President Lincoln could encapsulate the tragedy of the Civil War in 272 words and Dr. King could explain the Civil Rights Movement in a few short pages, surely you can write a Fatherhood proposal in 25 double-spaced pages, or a youth after school enrichment project in ten.


* This overwrought tune by Jay & the Americans—a favorite group of mine when I was in junior high school—happened to pop up on Pandora while I was writing this post. “This Magic Moment” could refer to the exact moment when one finishes the first draft of a complex proposal, as happened to me earlier today, so that I could hit the surf for an hour on a on a boogie board.

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 Community Based Abstinence Education Program (CBAE) from the Administration on Children, Youth and Families is a complicated, confusing, and poorly designed RFP based on suspect premises. That makes it an excellent case study in how to deal with a variety of grant writing problems that relate to research, RFP construction, and your responses.

CBAE is simple: you’re supposed to provide abstinence and only abstinence education to teenagers. That means no talk about condoms and birth control being options. In some ways, CBAE is a counterpoint to the Title X Family Planning funding, which chiefly goes to safe-sex education and materials rather than abstinence education. Its premise is equally simple: if you’re going to have sex, use condoms and birth control. Congress chooses to fund both.

Were I more audacious regarding CBAE proposals, I’d have used George Orwell’s 1984 as a template for the programs, since almost everyone in the novel conforms to the numbing will of an all-powerful state and many belong to the “Junior Anti-Sex League,” complete with scarlet sashes. I hope someone turned in a CBAE application proposing scarlet sashes for all participants.

More on point, however, page two of the RFP says:

Pursuant to Section 510(b)(2) of Title V of the Social Security Act, the term “abstinence education,” for purposes of this program means an educational or motivational program that: […]

(B) Teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children

Who is enforcing this “expected standard?” Society in general? A particular person in society? But it gets better:

(D) Teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;

This requirement ignores decades of anthropological research into indigenous societies as well as plenty of research into our own society, which Mary Roach described in Bonk, Alfred Kinsey described using imperfect methods in his famous but flawed research in the 50’s, and that Foucault described in his History of Sexuality. It also ignores the sexuality of other cultures and even our own, as discussed in books like Conceiving Sexuality: Approaches to Sex Research in a Postmodern World, or, better yet, Culture, Society and Sexuality: A Reader, which describes the way societies and others build a social model of sex. Through the CBAE program, Congress is building one such model by asserting it is true and using “expected standard” language, without saying who is the “expecting” person or what is the “expecting” body. It’s an example of what Roger Shuy calls in Bureaucratic Language in Government and Business a term that “seems to be evasive,” as when insiders “use language to camouflage their message deliberately, particularly when trying to avoid saying something unpleasant or uncomfortable.” In this case, the evasion is the person upholding the supposed standard.

Furthermore, the abstinence conclusion isn’t well supported by the research that does exist, including research from previous years of the program, which is at best inconclusive. A Government Accountability Office report (warning: .pdf file) says things like, “While the extent to which federally funded abstinence-until-marriage education materials are inaccurate is not known, in the course of their reviews OPA [Office of Population Affairs] and some states reported that they have found inaccuracies in abstinence-until-marriage education materials. For example, one state official described an instance in which abstinence-until-marriage materials incorrectly suggested that HIV can pass through condoms because the latex used in condoms is porous.”

The one comprehensive study that has been conducted by a nonpartisan firm is called “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs” by Mathematica Public Research, which was spun off from the guys who brought us the Mathematica software. The study was prepared for DHHS itself, and it says such encouraging things as, “Findings indicate that youth in the program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age.” The programs it studied are based around the same methods that the CBAE demands organizations use, all of which boil down to inculcating a culture of fear of sex outside of marriage. The social stigma the program recommends is based around STDs and whether you’ll get into college (although an editorial in the L.A. Times argues otherwise), and, to a lesser extent, altering peer norms. Still, even in Puritan times this was not entirely effective, as Bundling by Henry Stiles explains. The practice meant sleeping in the same bed with one’s clothes on, as a solution to the problems of inadequate heat and space. But, as Jacques Barzun says in From Dawn To Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, “Experience showed the difficulty of restraint and […] the rule was made absolute that pregnancy after bundling imposed marriage […] So frequent was this occurrence that the church records repeatedly show the abbreviation FBM—fornication before marriage.”

There are counter-studies that purport to show abstinence education as effective, like this one from a crew that, not surprisingly, is selling abstinence education materials. But it, like most others, has little bon mots amid its intimidating numbers and verbose language like, “In addition, the high attrition rate limits our ability to generalize the findings to a higher-risk population” (strangely enough, the .pdf file is set to disallow copying and pasting, perhaps to discourage irate bloggers like myself). But the study doesn’t list the attrition rate, making it impossible to tell how severe the problem is. In addition, even if it did, the population selected might also suffer from cherry picking problems of various kinds: that is to say, organizations are more likely to serve the participants who are most likely to be receptive to services and, concomitantly, less likely to do things like have early sex. This is an easy and tempting way to make a program look good: only let the kids in who are likely to benefit. And it’s a hard problem to tease out in studies.

So be wary of dueling studies: if you don’t read these carefully, it’s easy to accept their validity, and even if you do read them carefully, it’s easy to nitpick. This is why peer review is so helpful in science and also part of the reason evaluations are so difficult. Furthermore, many of the studies, including Heritage’s, come from biased sources, a problem Megan McArdle writes about extensively in a non-abstinence-related context. (See her follow-up here). Most of you justifiably haven’t followed the blizzard of links I put up earlier or read the books I cited for good reason: who has the time to sift through all this stuff? No one, and even pseudoscience combined with anecdote like this article in New York Magazine has an opinion (hint: be wary of anyone whose title has the word “evolutionary” in it).

Given this research, which is hard to miss once you begin searching for information about the efficacy of abstinence instruction, how is a grant writer to create a logic model that, as page 44 says, should list “[a]ssumptions (e.g., beliefs about how the program will work and is supporting resources. Assumptions should be based on research, best practices, and experience)”? (emphasis added).

Two words: ignore research. And by “ignore research,” I mean any research that doesn’t support the assumptions underlying the RFP. If you want to be funded, you simply have to pretend “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs” or the GAO study don’t exist, and your proposal should be consistent with what the RFP claims, even if it’s wrong. This is, I suspect, one of the hardest things for novice grant writers to accept, which is that you’re not trying to be right in the sense of the scientific method of discerning the natural world through experimentation. You’re trying to be right in the Willie Stark sense of playing the game for the money. No matter how tempting it is to cite accurate research that contradicts the program, don’t, unless it’s to knock the research.

Remember too that the grant writer is to some extent also a mythmaker, which is a subject Isaac will address more fully in a future post. The vital thing to consider is that the mythology you need to create isn’t always the same as the reality on the ground. As in politics, the way events are portrayed are often different than how they actually are. David Broder wrote an article on the subject of inventing political narratives, which occasionally match reality; your job as a grant writer is inventing grant narratives. We hope these match reality more often than not. Sometimes the myth doesn’t, as in this application, and when that happens, you’re obligated to conform to the RFP’s mythology, even if it isn’t your own.

The second part of this post continues here.

Links: Job training, affordable housing, smart toilets, freedom of speech, zoning’s steep price, and more!

* “Indiana tries to certify skills rather than a college degree.”

* “Solarcoaster: The Promise and Pitfalls of Rooftop Solar Jobs.” Useful especially for job training providers. Solar technician and wind-power related jobs are popular career paths because they’re part of growing and green industries.

* Researchers replicate the Milgram Experiment. A timely piece that I wish wasn’t timely. Remember that you still have control over you.

* “Now You Can Live in a Remodeled Shipping Container: Boxouse is selling solar-powered mobile homes equipped with Alexa and is readying a smart toilet.” An interesting concept for anyone working in affordable housing, especially in rural areas. Also, it would be interesting to experience a “smart” toilet. I was reminded of Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted.

* “Middlebury’s Statement of Principle: Learning is possible only where free, reasoned and civil speech is respected.” Though lunatics make the news about academia with distressing frequency, most academics are actually reasonable. But “reasonable” is rarely newsworthy.

* “What If Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?” Sounds stupid but isn’t.

* “Americans’ Shift To The Suburbs Sped Up Last Year,” mostly because building there is legal; we are all paying zoning’s steep price.

* “Eligible founder Katelyn Gleason’s plan to upend the billion dollar medical billing industry.” That would be fantastic.

* “How the Internet Gave Mail-Order Brides the Power“—one of these counterintuitive results. We’ve worked on human- and sex trafficking projects.

* An antidote for the Affordable Care Act: Cash-only medicine with transparent pricing.”

* “Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever: Can billions of dollars’ worth of high-tech research succeed in making death optional?” Fascinating throughout, but “immortality” strikes me as the sort of thing that will become the Cold Fusion of the 21st Century: Always 20 years off.

* “Humans produce so much stuff that we’re creating a new geological layer.” Which might be kinda cool in some ways.

* “How Utah Keeps the American Dream Alive.” Unexpected throughout.

* Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse.”

* “Americans have become lazy and it’s hurting the economy,” on Tyler Cowen’s book The Complacent Class. The book is excellent and I write more about it here.

* “The Nightmare Scenario for Florida’s Coastal Homeowners: Demand and financing could collapse before the sea consumes a single house.” Definitely one of those, “Don’t say we didn’t warn you” scenarios.

Grant Writing Links: Prosperity Despite Heroin, Bedrooms, Drug War Danger, Google Fiber, Real Prosperity, DuckDuckGo and More

* “Despite Heroin Epidemic, Vermont Is Prospering.” The heroin story may be a bogus trend story, but it’s also possible that many people can enjoy drugs responsibly and be otherwise functional.

* Are Bedrooms Superfluous? The next-generation Murphy bed.

* “How the Drug War Disappeared the Jury Trial,” which everyone needs to read and which should also scare everyone who does read it; at what point did the “War on Drugs” become more dangerous than drugs themselves?

* Fight poverty by giving poor people money.

* Why Google Fiber will never come to Seattle; this is both important and depressing.

* “Why Does A Good Kettle Cost $90+?” Since I started drinking tea I have wondered about this and now have an answer. The Hacker News discussion is also good, except for the top comment.

* “The federal government has spent nearly a billion dollars to help poor couples stay together—with almost nothing to show for it. So why aren’t we pulling the plug?” One could ask the same question and give the same answers for any number of federal (and state, and local) programs that fail the same test.

* Divorce Corp: A Movie Review, which is really a society review that should scare you.

* Real Prosperity:

Munk points out that it’s easy to help people have more stuff than they otherwise would have. That’s called charity. The much harder challenge–and the one Sachs tackled–is creating growth, the possibility of future improvement.

* “Fight Over Effective Teachers Shifts to Courtroom.” Brilliant.

* “How the left’s embrace of busing hurt the cause of integration;” file under “unintended consequences.”

* The terrifying surveillance case of Brandon Mayfield.

* “High cost of ‘affordable’,” or in the words of Tyler Cowen, “How to build truly cheap housing for the poor.” We have the technologically necessary to lower housing costs in many places like Portland, Seattle, New York, and L.A.—we just choose, politically, not to deploy it, per Matt Yglesias’s recent article “How Bill de Blasio Can Fix NYC Housing: He needs to build more of it—a lot more.”

* Inside DuckDuckGo, Google’s Tiniest, Fiercest Competitor, which I use as my primary search engine:

How could DuckDuckGo, a tiny, Philadelphia-based startup, go up against Google? One way, he wagered, was by respecting user privacy. Six years later, we’re living in the post-Snowden era, and the idea doesn’t seem so crazy. [. . .] Simply put, they’re hardcore about privacy.

* “A Star in a Bottle: An audacious plan to create a new energy source could save the planet from catastrophe. But time is running out.”

* Wisconsin tires of public-sector union rent-seeking and offers a model for other states.

* “What good are children?

March Links: Reinventing Philanthropy, Bureaucrats in Action, Urbanism and Environment, Abstinence Education on Valentine’s Day, and More

* Google Finds It Hard to Reinvent Philanthropy. Seliger + Associates unsurprised.

* Bureaucrat acts like a jerk and attempts to silence smart guy. News at 11:00.

* Southwest Airlines pilot holds plane for murder victim’s family. Wow.

* Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period.

* FYI: US manufacturing still tops China’s by nearly 46 percent, at least as measured by dollar output.

* The most amusing recent grant title: “Developing High-Throughput Assays for Predictive Modeling of Reproductive and Developmental Toxicity Modulated Through the Endocrine System or Pertinent Pathways in Humans and Species Relevant to Ecological Risk Assessment.” Say it three times fast.

* You Can’t Be Against Dense, Urban Development and Consider Yourself an Environmentalist.

* An important rap song: Julian Smith’s “I’m Reading a Book,” complete with bagpipes at the end.

* The Facebook fast, with lessons learned.

* What do twin adoption studies show?

* The quality of nonfiction versus fiction. We don’t think it matters much what grant writers read as long as they do read.

* Slate’s review of Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation: “[. . . ] The Great Stagnation makes an ambitious argument whose chief present advantage (and greatest eventual liability) is that it’s impossible to assess in real time.” This might be the most important book of the year, and at the very least is dense with argument and novel thought.

* Why I don’t care very much about tablets anymore, from Jon Stokes, except I never did care about tablets in the first place. A sample:

A Google Image search turns up the above, quite typical picture of a scribe practicing his art. You’ll notice that the scribe’s desk contains two levels, where the topmost level holds an exemplar document and the bottom holds the document that he’s actually working on. The scribe in the picture could be a copyist who’s making a copy of the exemplar, or he could be a writer who’s using the top copy as a source or reference. Either way, his basic work setup is the same as my modern monitor plus keyboard setup, in that it’s vertically split into two planes, with the top plane being used for display and the bottom plane being used for input.

The key here is that the scribe’s hands aren’t in the way of his display, and neither are mine when I work at my desktop or laptop. My hands rest on a keyboard, comfortably out of sight and out of mind.

With a tablet, in contrast, my rather large hands end up covering some portion of the display as I try to manipulate it. In general, it’s less optimal to have an output area that also doubles as an input area. This is why the mouse and keyboard will be with us for decades hence—because they let you keep your hands away from what you’re trying to focus on.

When you write a full proposal on a tablet, let me know. And not just as a stunt to say, “I could do it,” either.

* Why publishers are scared of ebooks—the standard reasons and Amanda Hocking as symbol.

* In an amusing twist, Texas publishes its Abstinence Education Services RFP on Valentine’s Day.

Grants.gov and the GAO, Volunteer Broadband Reviewers for BTOP and BIP, Job Retraining, Grant Writers, and More

* More news on Grants.gov and the Government Accountability Office: Grants.gov Has Systemic Weaknesses That Require Attention. Glad someone in Washington is finally paying attention; Stanley J. Czerwinski is the contact person, so I sent him an e-mail pointing out our earlier posts on the subject, but he hasn’t responded.

Part of the report’s introductory sentence is particularly amusing: “Grants.gov has made it easier for applicants to find grant opportunities and grantors to process applications faster, applicants continue to describe difficulties registering with and using Grants.gov, which sometimes result in late submissions.” It’s true, but I’d note regarding the first part that while it’s easier to find grant opportunities, it’s still often not easy; for example, searching using Google’s restricted site feature is often faster and better than using Grants.gov’s built-in search function.

* Speaking of which, I like this headline: Contract to Upgrade Recovery.gov Stimulates Criticism.

* William Easterly explains Sachs Ironies: Why Critics are Better for Foreign Aid than Apologists:

Official foreign aid agencies delivering aid to Africa are used to operating with nobody holding them accountable for aid dollars actually reaching poor people. Now that establishment is running scared with the emergence of independent African voices critical of aid, such as that of Dambisa Moyo.

* The Dept. of Commerce and USDA must be really desperate if they’re requesting volunteers to review applications. We’re writing a Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) and a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) application, which makes this announcement salient to us.

* The Services for Victims of Human Trafficking program (warning: .pdf) has an unusual deadline feature: it gives 7/13/2009 as the deadline for “Online Registration,” and 7/16/09 for the application itself. But smart applicants should move both those back by at least two days to avoid the inevitable rush.

* Now here’s a great idea for a government requirement: New bill wants fiber conduit built into every road project:

The bill would require new federal road projects to include plastic conduits buried along the side of the roadway, and enough of them to “accommodate multiple broadband providers.” Conduits must meet industry best practices for size and depth, and road builders must include hand holes and manholes along the route to gain access to the conduit. Each conduit will also include a pull tape for fishing new fiber through the line.

Most of the cost to deploy new fiber is the digging and repaving work, so putting in conduit when the ground is already torn up has a certain logic to it. It’s a relatively cheap idea, but one that Eshoo hopes will help US broadband.

Given the lousy shape of U.S. broadband deployment, which Ars Technica has covered in depth, that help would be much appreciated.

* Job Retraining May Fall Short of High Hopes, says the New York Times. This is the kind of article you would never cite in a job training proposal, unless it’s to knock it down, in which case you shouldn’t cite it in the first place. Nonetheless, those of you running job training programs ought to read it.

* Uber-geek publisher and all star Tim O’Reilly (I own a few of his technical books) on The Benefits of a Classical Education.

* Ars Technica reports that GE is throwing its weight behind smart grids. That’s probably good news for Smart Grid Investment Grant Program (SGIG) applicants.

* Ed Glaeser encourages us to put trains where the people are. That this isn’t self-evident is indicative of federal involvement.

* I hadn’t realized it till now, but two years ago the Wall Street Journal published “A Passion for the Keys: Particular About What You Type On? Relax — You’re Not Alone” regarding the fanaticism certain people feel for their keyboards. As writing a review of the Model M-inspired Unicomp Customizer taught me, I am very much note alone. Anyone who spends a lot of time typing should read both articles; even better, they might like this review of the Kinesis Advantage ergonomic keyboard.

* According to “Tax Breaks Under the Microscope” in Slate, nonprofit hospitals are much like their regular counterparts:

But research shows that nonprofit hospitals behave no differently from for-profit ones. And in some cases, nonprofits have been caught mistreating the poor for the sake of financial gains. One example: A nonprofit academic hospital in Connecticut aggressively pursued “deadbeat” elderly patients by placing liens on their homes. More recently, several nonprofit Chicago hospitals were reportedly transferring uninsured patients to the county emergency room.

* State governments are behaving with even less foresight than usual; according to a Salon post quoting the San Jose Mercury News, “In 1980, 17 percent of the state budget went to higher education. By 2007, that had fallen to 10 percent — the same as prisons and parole.” And 2007 predated the current crisis, showing that the trend away from higher education funding is accelerating.

* In one of many bizarre twists surrounding stimulus funding, California’s El Dorado County has rejected $1.6 million in stimulus funding:

The Board of Supervisors last week twice rejected what staff members described as no-strings-attached funding.

“It’s as close to a no-brainer as I’ve ever seen come before this board,” Richard Meagher of the Affordable Housing Coalition of El Dorado said of a grant application that could have put local contractors to work rehabilitating foreclosed houses and made the dwellings available to moderate and low-income homebuyers.

But Supervisor Jack Sweeney characterized himself as a “free-market person” and argued that many current economic ills are a result of government’s intrusion into society.

This seems bizarre even by the standards of local government. I’d bet that Sacramento Bee reporter Cathy Locke either knows something she couldn’t write about or that there’s otherwise something deeper beneath this story.

* Fascinating: Japan and Korea’s hidden protectionist measures prevented U.S. companies from competing in their home markets, and the English-language press largely ignored the story. Compare this to the story told in David Halberstam’s The Reckoning.

* Gas and the suburbs.

* New York remains rich in the ultimate resource: human capital. But the high cost of housing and high taxation levels remain threats. This is by one of my favorite economists, Edward Glaeser.

* Self-esteem has gone up in the United States; achievement has not.

* If The Onion wrote stories about grant titles, I wouldn’t know whether to believe Grants to Manufacturers of Certain Worsted Wool Fabrics is a real program or something dreamt up by satire writers.

* More porn means less rape? Maybe, and the writer cites some experiments that exploit natural variations, a lá Freakonomics, to get there. Expect to hear more on this subject in the coming years.

* I found Developing And Writing Grant Proposals while searching the other day, and love the sometimes-comical advice they give. It starts in the second paragraph, which says “Individuals without prior grant proposal writing experience may find it useful to attend a grantsmanship workshop,” a topic Isaac has dealt with, as have I.

* Megan McArdle writes about When Blogs Were Young. Compare that to my post, “You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Journal Tells You,” which is by far the most visited of any we’ve published.

Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing

The passage of the Stimulus Bill corresponded almost perfectly with Valentine’s Day, a perhaps unintended but still humorous outcome. While I have not had time to dig through the 1,100 page bill, I know that funding for enough grant programs, new and old, survived to keep grant writers busy, busy, busy. But my topic today is not to peek into the candy store to drool over the tasty funding treats, but rather to consider how the Feds are going to actually shovel $800,000,000,000 out the door.

Since the bill was first proposed, I have been concerned about the logistics of funding distribution and have fired off numerous emails to reporters at the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post to try to get them to cover the “how” of the 5 W’s and the H. While I am unsure whether it was a result of my emails, Stephen Power and Neil King, Jr., finally did so with an illustrative piece in the February 13, 2009 issues of the WSJ called “Next Challenge on Stimulus: Spending All That Money.” The reporters take the reader through the tortured process of a Minnesota company trying to access a large Department of Energy (DOE) Loan Guarantee.

Although this company applied during a previous funding round, the Stimulus Bill includes billions more for this initiative, which is supposed to fund the kind of “green, energy-efficient” businesses and jobs that President Obama heralds. As of today, the DOE actually has an open competition for this program. What’s particularly fun is that we happen to be writing a proposal for the DOE Loan Guarantee program. While a non-disclosure agreement prevents me from discussing the project on which we are working, I am very familiar with RFP, which was originally issued on September 22, 2008 with a deadline of December 31—but it was extended to the end of February. I guess the DOE hasn’t gotten the memo from the White House about how growing green jobs helps solve the economic crisis. But I digress.

This RFP is one of the most complicated RFPs I have ever encountered and is filled with confusing directions, references to obscure regulations that are not included in the package, bizarre questions, and so on. It also requires the applicant to produce a dizzying array of attachments, certifications, etc. In other words, the DOE has made it about as difficult as they can to get loan funds, which makes great work for grant writers but presumably discourages applicants. And, remember, these are loans that have to be repaid, not grant funds.

The WSJ story recounts the sad tale of Sage Electrochromatics’ attempts to get its hands on the loan proceeds. Although the loan guarantee was long ago approved, the company won’t see the money until the end of this year at the earliest. The reporters use Sage’s experience to discuss the challenge to be faced by applicants for Stimulus Bill funds. As one who wrote his first funded Department of Energy grant in 1979 during the last energy crisis for the long gone Electric Vehicle Demonstration Program, I know this is not a new situation, as Federal bureaucrats are usually in no mood to work quickly. But the story does raise the specter of what is going to happen, or more likely not happen, when the ink dries on the Stimulus Bill.

Most folks don’t understand and the press rarely covers how, in most cases funds have to be appropriated, regs written, RFPs issued, applications submitted, applications reviewed and ranked, award letters sent out, final budgets negotiated and contracts signed to spend money. The key personnel in this folderol are the small number of Program Officers in the various Federal departments who manage the process. Unfortunately, we don’t have a National Guard of Program Officers who train one weekend a month shuffling papers to be ready to answer the call. That means Federal agencies will find themselves up to their eyeballs in spending authority with existing staff levels pegged at much smaller budgets.

As a result—and despite the best intentions of our President and Congress—it’s going to take quite a while to get the money to the streets. Most Federal agencies usually take anywhere from three to six months to select grantees and probably another three months to sign contracts. My experience with Federal employees is that they work slower, not faster, under pressure, and there is no incentive whatsoever for a GS-10* to burn the midnight oil. Federal staffers are just employees who likely don’t share the passion of the policy wonks in the West Wing or the grant applicants. They just do their jobs, and, since there are protected by Civil Service, they cannot be speeded up. Also, there are no bonuses in the Federal system for work above and beyond the call of duty.

Let’s take my old friend YouthBuild in the Department of Labor, which was transferred out of HUD a few years ago. The deadline for the FY ’09 YouthBuild program was January 15, so there are hundreds of applications sitting under half-filled coffee cups and stale donuts in the sub-basement of the DOL building in various stages of review for the $59,000,000 – $70,000,000 then available (the range comes from Senate/House conflicts in the original appropriations bill). Along comes the Stimulus Bill, which adds $50,000,000. Now we’re talking as much as $120,000,000 for YouthBuild, or well over twice the amount awarded in the last funding cycle in FY ’07.

The question is, what is DOL going to do? It has two choices: (1) more applications that were submitted in January could be funded; or (2) there could be another funding round, opening up the competition and allowing new applications. Logic says door number one, but if I know my federal bureaucrats correctly, door number two will be picked, because this will spread out the work load for the Program Officers and will give DOL time to hire more staff, so that existing Program Officers don’t end up with twice the grantee caseload. Too few Program Officers also increases the potential for fraud, which will already be heightened because of the unprecedented money flood. I’ll let readers know if I am right or wrong.

Of course in addition to more money for YouthBuild and other existing programs, there is funding for lots of entirely new programs, such as the HUD $2,000,000,000 Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), which no one knows how to implement, and $500,000,000 to provide job training through the “Green Jobs Act” under DOL auspices. NSP is in HUD, which means they will have to take staff from the dozens of other competitive HUD grant programs, which are about to issue FY ’09 NOFAs, to hasten this one. When last I visited NSP in December, ‘Tis the Season for Government Folly, Fa La La La La La La La L.A.!, not a single NSP dollar had been spent since the program’s original “emergency” passage in August, and I believe no dollar has yet been spent.

For grant applicants, this means that agencies should apply for as many grants as they can, taking great care to make sure that the applications are technically correct. Since many applicants will believe the stimulus hype and assume that everything will be funded, the majority of applications are likely to be incomplete or incoherent. Because federal reviewers will be told to get the money out as fast as possible, the review is likely to be primarily checklist-oriented, with the Program Officers throwing the garbage proposals over their shoulders. Thus, this is not the time for amateur hour submissions. While it is always important to fly speck your submissions, it will be essential if you want to “have it all.” As the inimitable Vin Diesel says to heart throb Paul Walker in The Fast and the Furious, “If you have what it takes . . . you can have it ALL!”**


* GS refers to “General Schedule” pay grades for Federal employees, which range from GS-1 to GS-15. Most Program Officers are probably GS-8s to GS-11s. Here’s a fun site for calculating GS pay grades. For example, in 2004, a GS-10 working in DC would have made $46,000 to $59,000. The GS-10 is probably stuck in a cubical with a 14″ CRT and Pentium II, along with mismatched furniture, since it is unlikely that any federal managers read about the tools of the trade. This is not exactly a princely sum and probably less than wonderful working conditions—so how likely is it that they will suddenly spring to life to spend the Stimulus package quickly?

** As luck would have it, the original cast has gathered for Fast & Furious, which opens in April. One can only hope that the plot involves Paul Walker getting a Department of Energy grant to build the “ten second car” he owes Vin. After all, electrics have lots of low end torque and street racers only have to go 1/4 mile, so the 40 mile range wouldn’t be a problem. The tag line for the new movie is, “New Model. Original Parts.” This could also be used to describe the somewhat less than successful attempts at changing Washington evident in the Stimulus Bill passage.