Author: Jake Seliger

The latest Service Area Competitions (SAC) from HRSA are here, and the FQHC Shuffle

2020 was a peculiar year for many reasons great and small, one of the small reasons germane to grant writers and Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) being that HRSA deferred Service Area Competitions (SAC), allowing FQHCs to skip the typical application, or re-application, process. For those of you unfamiliar with FQHCs, they’re the nonprofit healthcare providers that are designed to accept any patient, regardless of ability to pay, and that specialize in Medicaid patients, or helping the uninsured sign up for Medicaid. FQHCs and their counterparts, FQHC Look-Alikes, have significant advantages over typical nonprofit or for-profit primary healthcare providers in that they get higher reimbursement rates from Medicaid, protection from medical malpractice lawsuits, access to the 340B low-cost medication program, and a few other advantages—including eligibility for Section 330 grants via the SAC process, which offer between hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars per year in funding. Every (or almost every) geographical area in the country is supposed to be covered by a SAC and most FQHCs must submit a competitive SAC proposal every three years to keep their Section 330 grants.

Delaying SACs seemed like a reasonable idea during the pandemic, and their return is likely to herald some changes. We talk to lots of FQHCs, and it seems that some of the incumbents are weaker than they were, or discombobulated by the pandemic. Others, however, seem to have been strengthened, particularly those that moved expeditiously to telemedicine, which let them keep up their patient loads, while others have struggled with telemedicine. It’s often not apparent from the outside what’s happening on the inside of FQHCs. Some that may seem weak are likely strong, and vice-versa. That’ll make this SAC season unusual and interesting, and I’d not be surprised to see larger-than-average turnover in SAC grants. Because each SAC covers a specific geography, any new applicant is by definition trying to take over the designation from an existing grantee. We’ve heard the SAC process called “the FQHC shuffle.” Most FQHCs succeed in getting their SAC proposals approved and Section 330 grants renewed, but a significant portion don’t; most of us wouldn’t want to play a game we don’t think we’ll win.

We’ve worked with FQHCs on both sides of the SAC shuffle: incumbents worried about upstarts, and upstarts interested in taking over the incumbents’s service area and Section 330 grants. Losing a Section 330 grant can be an FQHC’s death knell: while SACs typically compose less than 20% of an FQHC’s budget, and often less than 10%, they often function as the glue holding the organization above the water level. Lose the SAC, and the overall revenue decline may be small, but that revenue may also be the revenue that keeps the organization in the black. During uncertain times like the present, an alert organization may be able to make progress that would be more difficult in other times.

Three of the eight planned FY ’22 SAC NOFOs have been issued so far: you can see whether your organization’s service area is up for renewal in HRSA’s massive SAC lookup table. The rest will be issued in the coming weeks or months. Is your FQHC or would-be FQHC ready to act?

Although the pandemic is receding, we’re still living in a strange time: the nonprofit winners have a lot of cash; some nonprofits, however, are gone. The next generation of nonprofit startups haven’t wholly started up yet. This is a propitious time to pursue change. We’ve been talking to a lot of callers about what’s happening in the present and what the future might hold.

More networking, less working: DHHS’s “No Wrong Door Community Infrastructure Grants” RFP

The Administration for Community Living just issued an RFP for what appears to be a new grant program: No Wrong Door Community Infrastructure Grants, which offers grants “to support the development and enhancement of Network Lead Entities (NLEs) which are providing key access functions within a community such as coordination of information and referral, screening, care coordination, care transitions, eligibility and enrollment, and person centered planning.” If your eyes glaze over and you’ve quit reading already, I understand—all those verbs are abstract, and none say something like “construct new housing” or “offer opioid treatment.” They’re all process objectives and no outcome objectives; applicants don’t need to show or pretend to show that 70% of participants held a job six months after the end of project participation.

But if you’re a wily nonprofit executive director, you’re probably stroking your chin and thinking about whether you can round up a herd of partners to apply. No Wrong Door is mostly of interest because it appears to be a “walkin’ around money” program: applicants spend time “networking” and “building networks,” which usually means taking people out to lunch, holding catered meetings, strolling into other organizations with boxes of donuts, hiring new staff people (who can ideally do some direct service delivery as well, but quietly), and so on. At the end of the project, there’ll be a report describing how amazingly successful all that networking has been, and how the network will strengthen the community’s capacity to do all kinds of marvelous and wonderful things in the future, none of which are measurable. When the funding stops, ideally the staff will be trained to do some other useful stuff for the organization that hired it. That’s why this is walkin’ around money for nimble nonprofits that understand the word salad from the RFP quoted in the first paragraph.

A lot of organizations are really sustained with this kind of “glue” funding, which plugs other revenue gaps and allows it to operate more effectively than it would otherwise. Grants like No Wrong Door help pay for services to people whose reimbursements cover 85% of the costs—not 100%. Don’t be fooled by the No Wrong Door description. If you’re a nonprofit, and you can get some letters of support from the usual suspects in your service area, this is the kind of grant that’s easy to overlook but can be surprisingly valuable.

“Currently, [Census] data is not loading properly:” DOL’s YouthBuild FY ’21

Needs assessment experts and data nerds know that factfinder.census.gov, the old primary portal into Census data, is dead, while the new census data portal, data.census.gov, is only somewhat alive. Last year, I started a post about the ways that data.census.gov is broken, but I abandoned it because it was too boring, even for me; last year, data.census.gov was hellaciously slow, often taking 10 seconds for a query (a needs assessment may require dozens or hundreds of queries), and many internal links simply didn’t work. Some of that seems to have been fixed: back then, for example, trying to find specific sub-data sets, like educational attainment, for a given zip code, didn’t work. I sent some feedback to the Census contact person, who was very helpful, and eventually most of the problems disappeared.

But not all, it seems; this year’s DOL YouthBuild NOFA includes a humorous instruction regarding data requirements: pages 84 – 86 offer a 20-step algorithm for acquiring poverty data. That the algorithm has 20 steps and three pages is obviously bizarre: instruction 17 notes, “A table will come up showing the Total Population, the Number in Poverty, and the Poverty Rate. Currently, the data is not loading properly and at first only the overall U.S. data will load and you will not be able to scroll any further to the right to see anything else.” Oh? “Currently, the data is not loading properly:” that seems as if it could be the theme of the new Census interface.

About 10 years ago, there was a popular link-sharing site called Digg, and it introduced a now-notorious redesign that users hated, and those users consequently abandoned it en masse, leading to the rise of Reddit, a now-popular link-sharing site. If Digg had been more careful, it probably would have maintained its previous site design for those who wanted it, while introducing its new site design as a default, but not mandatory, experience. And then Digg would likely have iterated on the new design, figuring out what works. Reddit has somewhat learned this lesson; it now has two interfaces, one primarily living at old.reddit.com, which is maintained for people highly familiar with “the old Reddit,” and a newer one that is available by default at reddit.com. This bifurcation strategy allows a smooth transition between interfaces. The Census didn’t follow this strategy, and instead killed the old interface before the new one was really ready. Thus, bugs, like the bugs I’ve noticed, and bugs like those the Dept. of Labor noticed and mentioned specifically in YouthBuild NOFA. The more general lesson is fairly clear: be wary of big user interface changes. If you need Census data, though, you’ll have to use the interface, as is, since it’s the only one available.

For some reason—perhaps latent masochism?—Isaac continues to use MS Office 365 Outlook (not the free version) as an email client, instead of Apple’s Mail.app, or Thunderbird, and he tells me that every time he opens Outlook, he gets an invitation to try “the new Outlook” interface. So far, he’s resisted, but he also points out that most change is positive: when S + A started in 1993, there was effectively no commercial Internet, and the only way to get Census data was to go to Census Office, if you were near a big enough city, city hall, or a large library, where it was possible to thumb through the impenetrable Census books and maps. After a year or two in business, some vendor got the idea of putting the 1990 Census data on CDs (remember those), for quite a high price. Even though S + A was struggling to control costs, he bought the CDs, since they were better than hours in a Census Office or library. But then he had to buy, and install, CD drives in the Pentium PCs (remember those) we used. A couple of years later, he stumbled into a Census data portal set up by a random university, which worked! So, he tossed the CDs. When the 2000 Census came out, the feds essentially copied the university’s interface, creating factfinder.gov, and all was well until data.census.gov came alone. It’ll probably be better than the old interface, at some point.

Complaining is easy and making things better is hard. In the Internet era, both complainers and makers have been empowered, and I appreciate the difference between the two. People who have fundamental responsibility for a product, service, or organization, including the responsibility for making hard decisions that aren’t going to be popular with everyone, have a different perspective than those who can just complain and move on. So I don’t want to be a drive-by complainer, as so many are on “social” media, which seems poisonous to institutional formation and coherence. But, despite those caveats, the instruction from DOL regarding the Census being broken is perversely funny.

Links: COVID’s effects on mental health, job training in construction, and far more!

* “A Hidden Cost of Covid: Shrinking Mental-Health Services: Mental-health treatment has become harder to find just as the coronavirus pandemic has driven higher demand for such services and hospitals place a high priority on handling the next Covid-19 surge.” This is consistent with what we’ve heard from FQHCs and other mental health provider clients.

* “Prefab was supposed to fix the construction industry’s biggest problems. Why isn’t it everywhere? The Canadian company Bone Structure can produce zero net energy homes months faster than a traditional builder. But its challenges highlight the difficulty of disrupting the entrenched construction industry.” High construction costs have important implications for job-training programs like YouthBuild, several DOL H1-B job training programs, the recent DOL Strengthening Community Colleges Training Grants, and the like: the skills needed in the construction industry are likely to change as modular housing takes off. Notice:

The bigger problem they needed to solve was labor. There have been shortages in labor and skilled tradespeople in the homebuilding industry for years, as workers have fled construction jobs tied to the volatile housing market in the years since the great recession and shifted to higher-paying jobs in other sectors. More than 80% of builders have reported shortages of framing crews and carpenters, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Availability of labor remains builders’ top concern.

If housing developers can’t get skilled persons, they’re going to shift more towards modular.

* “Here’s how DOE’s first crop of risky energy tech has done: Comparing 2009 ARPA-E winners to peers yields a mixed bag.” We’ve written a bunch of ARPA-E, and SBIR/STTR applications, so this one is of particular interest to us. The answer seems to be, “Better than expected” overall. We also seem to have been added to a bunch of SBIR/STTR grant-writer lists, as we’re getting more calls for these projects than we used to. Many startup founders and expert engineers are not writing experts too.

* Rachel Harmon on policing. Much more substantive on this important topic than most of what you’ve read in the media or, worse, on Twitter.

* Don’t believe the China hype. Maybe.

* “Millions of abandoned oil wells are leaking methane, a climate menace.” All energy sources have serious externalities, and relatively few discussions offer an even and total treatment of them.

* Dropbox is a total mess. This matches our experience: we use Dropbox internally but probably won’t indefinitely, due to the said mess. Peak Dropbox was, for us, about five or six years ago, when it was easy to share files with a link but Dropbox hadn’t started putting a bunch of random stuff where the MacOS Finder should be. The simplicity is declining.

* “People Have Stopped Going to the Doctor. Most Seem Just Fine. Do Americans really need the amount of treatment that our health care system is used to providing?” Although I don’t have an immediate citation to this effect, my impression is that people who don’t actively have anything wrong with them don’t need to see doctors regularly—and that includes the elderly.

* Can philosophy make people generous?

* Why does DARPA work? Much more interesting than the title may suggest, and congruent with the link above regarding ARPA-E winners.

* “Losing the Narrative: The Genre Fiction of the Professional Class.” Overstated, yes, but among the most interesting essays I’ve read in a long time, and I read a lot.

* “Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Activities in Kansas” is (or was) in Grants.gov, and it’s a favorite recent RFP. I’m reminded of Isaac’s fondness for “giant animal” movies (think Lake Placid, Them!, Godzilla, Attack of the Killer Shrews, etc.), although this project is likely for more terrestrial issues.

* How you attach to people may explain a lot about your inner life.

* Licensed to Pill, on the roll from prescribing and prescriptions in the opioid epidemic.

* Might buildings can 3-d print houses—even the roof. See also the second link in this batch.

* “The Underemployment Crisis: Even before the pandemic, roughly one in ten workers wanted to log more hours.” I don’t see how public policy substantially alters this one.

* Zillow research finds that the strength (or weakness) of housing markets is about the same in urban and suburban areas, despite the many stories and claims about “fleeing the city.” But, “Metro-level discrepancies exist as well, especially in San Francisco and New York, showing that not all urban cores are keeping pace with hot suburban markets.”

* “Silicon Valley and Wall Street Elites Pour Money Into Psychedelic Research: Donors raise $30 million for psychedelic nonprofit to complete clinical trials around drug-assisted psychotherapy for trauma.” Coming to an FQHC near you!

* “The Service Economy Meltdown: As companies reconsider their long-term need to have employees on site, low-wage workers depending on office-based businesses stand to lose the most.”

Deciding on the grant proposal structure: ACF’s recent Early Head Start (EHS) application illustrates the challenge

Many RFPs don’t simply and directly state, “Use the following header pattern in your response to the narrative questions.” Why don’t funders tell applicants which header pattern to use? Bureaucracy, legal requirements, funder indifference, signaling: whatever the reason(s), we’ve run into a bunch of program RFPs recently that don’t explicitly state what headers should be used (like the Small Business Innovation and Research grants (SBIRs) we wrote about last week). In structuring responses to confusing RFPs, there are two main schools of thought: one is to use the general headers found in the RFP, and then reply to all the sub-questions in paragraph form. The other school of thought is to use the general headers and every sub-header found either the narrative instructions (if there are any) or the review instructions (if there are any of those). Neither approach is necessarily “right.”

The recent ACF Early Head Start (EHS) RFP, for which we just wrote a proposal, offers a good example of this challenge. Like SBIRs, the EHS RFP has, bafflingly, two sets of narrative instructions: on Adobe page 35, under “Approach” and the other on Adobe page 57, under “Application Review Criteria.” Neither is quite canonical—in other words, the instructions don’t say, in big bold type, “USE THIS HEADER SET.” Instead, ACF offers maddening ambiguity. Perhaps this maddening ambiguity is deliberate, but is more likely due to this fact: the folks who write the RFPs never write the proposals in response and, as bureaucrats, likely they simply don’t care.

Regardless, one has to decide whether it’s better to use just top-level outlines, like “1. Community Need and Objectives, 2. Program Design and Approach,” or sub-header outlines, like “1. Community Need and Objectives, a. the proposed service area and location(s) where services will be delivered.” We chose to mostly follow page 57, while still referencing material on page 35. As with SBIRs, though, there is no 100% right answer, because neither the NIH or ACF give applicants one—but both could reject applications that don’t follow the weakly specified instructions.

Confusing NIH and other Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) application guidance

In theory, an “application guide” for a Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) grant from a federal agency is meant to make the application process easier: the applicant should presumably be able to read the application guide and follow it, right? Wrong, as it turns out. The difficulties start with finding the application guide and associated RFP (or “FOA,” Funding Opportunity Announcement in NIH-land) . If you go to grants.gov today, Sept. 9, dear reader, and search for “SBIR,” you’ll get 74 matching results—most for National Institutes of Health (NIH) programs, which we’ll use as an example for the sake of this exercise, and because I worked on one recently. I’m going to use “PA-18-705 SBIR Technology Transfer (R43/R44 Clinical Trial Not Allowed)” program, which has download instructions at Grants.gov. When you download and review the “instructions,” however, you’ll find this complication:

It is critical that applicants follow the SBIR/STTR (B) Instructions in the SF424 (R&R) SBIR/STTR Application Guide (//grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/url_redirect.htm?id=32000)except where instructed to do otherwise (in this FOA or in a Notice from the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts (//grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/)). Conformance to all requirements (both in the Application Guide and the FOA) is required and strictly enforced.

Notice that the URLs in the quoted section are incomplete: it’s up the applicant to track down the true SBIR application guide and correct FOA. I did that, but the tricky phrase is “follow the SBIR/STTR (B) Instructions […] except where instructed to do otherwise.” For the particular NIH application we were working on, the FOA and the Application Guide disagreed with each other concerning how the narrative should be structured and what an applicant needed to include in their proposal. So what’s an applicant, or, in this case, a hired-gun grant writer, to do? With some SBIRs, there is no canonical set of questions and responses: there’s the “general” set of questions and the FOA-specific set, with no instructions about how reconcile them.

To solve this conundrum, I decided to develop a hybridized version for the proposal structure: I used the general narrative structuring questions from the application guide, and I tacked on any extra questions that I could discern in the program-specific FOA. The only plausible alternative to this hybridized approach would have been to contact the NIH program officer listed in the FOA. As an experienced grant writer, however, I didn’t reach out, because I know that program officers confronted with issues like this will respond with a version of “That’s an interesting question. Read the FOA.”

The challenge of multiple, conflicting SBIR guidance documents isn’t exclusive to the NIH: we’ve worked on Dept. of Energy (DOE) SBIRs that feature contradictory guides, FOAs/RFPs, and related documents. It takes a lot of double checking and cross checking to try to make sure nothing’s been missed. The real question is why inherently science-based agencies like NIH and DOE are seemingly incapable of producing the same kind of single RFP documents typically used by DHHS, DOL, etc. Also, it’s very odd that we’ve never worked on an SBIR proposal for which the federal agency has provided a budget template in Excel. In the NIH example discussed above, the budget form was in Acrobat, which means I had to model it in Excel. Excel has been the standard for spreadsheets/budgets since the ’80s.

We (obviously) work on grant applications all the time, and yet the SBIR reconciliation process is confusing and difficult even for us professional grant writers. The SBIR narratives, once we understand how to structure them, usually aren’t very challenging for us to write, but getting to the right structure sure is. For someone not used to reading complicated grant documents, and looking at SBIR guidance documents for the first time, the process would be a nightmare. Making SBIRs “easier” with extra, generic application guides that can be unpredictably superseded actually makes the process harder. This is good for our business but bad for science and innovation.

HUD’s Lead Hazard Reduction grant program and the hazards of government autopilot

The NOFA for HUD’s Lead Hazard Reduction (LHR) grant program just came out, and it has $275 million to undertake, as usual, “comprehensive programs to identify and control lead-based paint hazards in eligible privately-owned target housing.” LHR NOFAs are issued every year or two, which is fine, but those of you who are alive and able to read or access the Internet are probably aware that there’s another health hazard out there this year, and it’s a health hazard that’s probably more urgent than lead-based paint—lead-based paint has been illegal in the US since 1980 and HUD’s been funding LHR grants for at least 30 years (we know, because we’ve written so many funded LHR proposals). It’s hard to believe that there’re all that many housing units left in the US with lead-based paint, but HUD soldiers on.

Sure, lead is a health hazard, but COVID-19 is also a health hazard; if I had to bet which one most persons would consider more hazardous right now, I’d bet on COVID-19. $275 million may be a small amount of money by federal standards, but I wonder how much the staff at HUD thought about whether public housing authorities (PHAs) and cities want to work on lead abatement this year, versus how much they’d like and need to work on COVID-19 abatement; $275 million can buy a lot of masks, education, and tests (although tests are still in short supply right now). It’s not really the fault of HUD bureaucrats, since LHR grants have been authorized by Congress for for decades and Congress usually just keeps funding programs like this, no matter what’s going on in the real world. Nonetheless, it would seem to me that a simple, bipartisan vote to amend the underlying legislation would be relatively easy—instead, LHR, at this point, is indicative of the dangers of government autopilot. Autopilot is fine in clear, consistent weather, but it can be disastrous during unpredictable storms—and the world has been hit by a storm in 2020.

I’m not presenting an argument against lead-hazard control: I don’t know enough to say whether lead-hazard control remains, in the absence of a pandemic, a (relatively) good idea or a (relatively—compared to other health-related activities) bad idea. I’ll posit, however, that a lot more people are going to die and suffer from COVID-19 this year, than will die or suffer from lead-based paint, and the failure to change course in the face of new events is evidence of deeper malaise.

Links: The online ad bubble, funny RFPs, college grads and job training, the nature of behavioral health, and more!

* “The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising.” One could alternately ask, “What do we really know about the effectiveness of digital advertising?” The answer seems to be, “Not much.” The idea that many companies throw away tens or hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and in some cases more, seems barely believable.

* One of my favorite recent RFPs is for “Strengthening U.S.-Ukraine Business Relations while Addressing Social Issues through ‘Serious Game Jam.'” That’s from the Dept. of State, and it has $100,000 to “introduce U.S. companies to the Ukrainian gaming industry and promote good corporate governance by creating a platform for U.S. developers to collaborate with their Ukrainian counterparts on tackling social issues through ‘serious games.'”

* You may have heard that 41% of college grads are working jobs that don’t require the degree. What should this do to our view on college for everyone, as a panacea to our economic woes? In other education news, “U.S. Higher Education Has a Foreign Money Problem“—but this is mostly the rich, highly marketed schools. Having been a part of higher ed for a long time, I favor a much stronger push towards apprenticeships and vocational education. Lots of people don’t like sitting still and doing abstract symbol manipulation, and we should stop pretending that those personality traits are key to a meaningful life.

* “The evidence for evidence-based therapy is not as clear as we thought.” That shouldn’t, for now, stop you from citing CBT, MET, etc. in your SAMHSA proposals. It still seems, however, that we don’t really know what makes therapy work or how it should work: we’re still leaping in the dark. Colorado, however, looks like it will, in November, decriminalize psychedelics, and a number of research projects are using psychedelics for therapy.

* Owning a car hurts your health. “Beijing has limited the number of new car permits it issues to 240,000 a year… Those permits are issued in a monthly lottery with more than 50 losers for every winner.” Older winners gained more than 20 pounds, compared to the control group of non-winners. Given COVID-19 social distancing and fears, it may be a while until mass transit gains its recent luster.

* Book Review: Just giving. I was surprised by the first quarter of the review and didn’t see the shift coming, although in retrospect I should have.

* Why the US sucks at building public transit. If we could get better at this, we could slash many households’s transit costs and thus free up more money for anything and everything else. Except for endless COVID-19 news, which is scaring most people off of public transit, even though wearing masks on public transit appears to prevent COVID from spreading.

* “Why Japan is obsessed with paper.” I have complained periodically about American publishers not being obsessed with paper at all, and the crappy paper quality used in most books. The New York Review of Books books are among the notable exceptions.

* “In the Future, Everything Will Be Made of Chickpeas.” One hopes. A pressure cooker helps.

* “In Philanthropy, Race Is Still a Factor in Who Gets What, Study Shows.” This is the New York Times, after all.

* For over a decade, the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico has been the epicenter of the American oil boom. Now, it’s the epicenter of its demise. I’ve read versions of this article a couple times already. The Permian Basin could be going back the back economic times that served as the backdrop for the book, movie, and great TV series, Friday Night Lights.

* Can genetic engineering bring back the chestnut tree? If so, that would be great news: chestnuts produce lots of cheap food and good wood. And, then there’s Jurassic Park style dinosaurs. Maybe they’ll love to eat genetically engineered chestnuts.

* The Early Days of China’s Coronavirus Coverup. If not for Chinese censorship, the rest of the world might have been much better prepared.

* The new language of telehealth. Maybe.

* “Exclusive: Tesla’s secret batteries aim to rework the maths for electric cars and the grid.” Maybe. It does seem that nickel and low-cobalt batteries are coming. The second-life systems are also hugely impressive: one rarely appreciated reason to pick electric vehicles is that their batteries can be repurposed for grid storage when the car itself reaches end-of-life. Here is one story on how “Millions of used electric car batteries will help store energy for the grid.”

* Cities are transforming as electric bike sales skyrocket. It is now possible to buy very good electric bikes for $1,500 retail and less-good ones for about $1,000. In this case, COVID-19 terror should help.

* The pandemic is bringing us closer to our robot takeout future?.

* MacOS 10.15: Slow by design. Thankfully I haven’t “upgraded,” although this is not an actual upgrade. We have written periodically about how we use Macs at Seliger + Associates, but we may need to re-think that usage given Apple’s direction.

Generalized human and social services: ACF READY4Life and Fatherhood FIRE RFPs

Astute newsletter readers saw two useful Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Office of Family Assistance (OFA) RFPs with lots of money available (albeit with overly long names) in our last edition: Fatherhood – Family-focused, Interconnected, Resilient, and Essential (Fatherhood FIRE) and Relationships, Education, Advancement, and Development for Youth for Life (READY4Life). Both have grants to $1.5 million for family formation and resilience services. A phrase like “family formation and resilience services” should make smart nonprofit Executive Directors sit up and take notice, because we’ve seen fewer overt generalized human services grants over the past few years—the kind of grants that we sometimes call “walkin’ around money.

Smart organizations figure out that these kinds of grants can be used to fill in the cracks of an organization’s budget, because the project concepts that can be funded are broad. Also, in most cases, only a process evaluation (e.g., number of outreach contacts made, number of referrals, etc.) is feasible, since there’s usually no way to tract outcomes. In the ’90s and ’00s we saw more broad, general-purpose RFPs, but we’ve seen fewer since the Great Recession. The feds seem to have lost interest in many kinds of general-purpose grants and have instead been targeting particular services, like primary health care and job training.

Many organizations are already doing things like fatherhood and family development, but without calling their activities “fatherhood and family development.” Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), for example, often serve low-income patients who are impoverished by single parenthood, usually in a female-headed household. Nimble FQHCs should apply for READY4Life, Fatherhood FIRE, and similarly nebulous grant programs, since they can re-brand their existing Case Managers and Patient Navigators as “Family Support Coordinators” and “Parenting Specialists.” Obviously, the FQHC wouldn’t say as much in the proposal—that would be supplantation—but, in the real world, a lot of organizations keep their lights on and their clients happy using these strategies.

Organizations apart from FQHCs should be doing this too. Job training and homeless services providers, for example, often work with populations that need family reunification training, and the organizations are already often providing wraparound supportive services. Funders love synergistic proposals that say things like, “We’re going to do job training services for ex-offenders, and those ex-offenders will also be eligible for Fatherhood FIRE services in order to ensure that they remain in their children’s lives.”

Increased funding for generalized human services typically follows some kind of seismic societal shock. Seliger + Associates began in 1993, soon after the Rodney King verdict civil unrest, which was soon followed by the onset of mass school shootings with Columbine. Then came the Great Recession: the feds respond to social turmoil with huge new grant programs (21st Century Community Learning Centers was an example) and big budget increases for existing programs (like the 2009 Stimulus Bill). With the COVID-19 crisis, the cycle is repeating. Since March, three giant stimulus bills have been passed, with at least one more likely. The enormous civil unrest and protests unfolding after the recent police killing of George Floyd will likely lead to grant programs too; the feds’s objective is to get grants on the streets quickly to nonprofits, which act as a kind of buffer to politicians.

With growing “defund the police” sentiment in big, left-leaning cities, politicians are engaging in a sort of bidding war with proposed police budget cuts; politicians say some version of, “We want to redirect huge amounts of police budgets to solving the underlying problems that generate crime.” Translated, this means, “We plan to fund local nonprofits to conduct some kind of human services.”

Foster Family Agencies (FFAs) and why political rhetoric rarely focuses on child abuse

Tyler Cowen asks an interesting question: “Why the low status of opposition to child abuse?” A reader speculates that, on the cultural left, “the highly visible progressive segment that drives wokeness, is culturally powerful, etc.” does not emphasize child abuse, and, “while there’s nothing obviously wrong with their attention to sexual and racial discrimination, the energy put into it is disproportionate to the massive social cost of child abuse.” One possible answer to this query is that, as Cowen posits, “virtually everyone is against child abuse, so opposing it doesn’t make anyone significant look worse.” Another reader lists some reasons the political right could be quiet, and he says that “you can’t even think of a solution [to child abuse] by reasoning from your political views.” I’d venture another component: detecting child abuse is frequently hard because it occurs inside the home and away from most eyes, plus, once it has been unambiguously detected—what then?

What’s the alternative when the family is abusive, or, more readily and frequently, borderline abusive? Many GWC readers already know that the existing foster family system (FFS) can be characterized in a variety of ways, but “harmonious, well-funded, and functional” are rarely among them. Something like “completely f-ed up” is probably more common, in candid conversation if not publicly.* Most foster “family parents” are in effect small businesses in that they receive monthly payments from the contracting foster family agency (FAA),** which are higher for higher-risk kids. With several high-risk kids in the household, monthly payments can rise into the thousands of dollars—the foster kids know this and know they are, in some respects, a commodity. Still, some foster parents are saints (if you are one or know one and you are about to leave a comment, let me say that I’m aware of great and loving foster families) but most are running a very small enterprise on a tight margin. Plus, as much as I hate to say it, some number of foster families are motivated by the the very unattractive, horrific, and illegal impulses that you might imagine motivate them. To counteract bad actors, one needs a whole massive bureaucratic oversight machine, which is itself expensive, invasive, and onerous—and it discourages the well-meaning people who might otherwise participate. Most of us don’t want our homes randomly invaded by snooping, judging strangers.

We’ve worked for many FFAs over the years, and every FFA has the same publicly stated goal, which is aligned with the mission of county child protective services agencies: to facilitate family reunification, whenever possible. Birth families and/or relatives have to be very bad for the kid(s) to be worse off than they are in foster care, given the well-known shortcomings of the FFS. The honest FFAs will admit as much, again off the record. For family reunification, DHHS even has an RFP on the street, “Quality Improvement Center on Family-Centered Reunification.” It only has one grant available, which means it’s wired, so we’re unlikely to write one of these, though we’ve written other proposals in this genre.

It’s also important to understand that FFAs are themselves thin-margin businesses, which are often organized as nonprofits in only the most nominal of senses. The FFS in most states uses contracts with FFAs that reimburse the FFAs for the actual number and types of kids placed and the length of the placement. It is in effect a reimbursed per-capita arrangement that incentivizes the FFA to keep their census of placements as high as possible to cover fixed costs like staff and endlessly recruiting, training, and monitoring foster families. The many things that can go wrong with this structure are fairly obvious.

I have seen occasional articles like “The Best Thing About Orphanages:”

Duke University researchers issued the first report on their multiyear study of 3,000 orphaned, abandoned and neglected children in developing countries in Africa and East and South Asia. About half were reared in small and large “institutions” (or orphanages) and half in “community” programs (kin and foster care). Contrary to conventional wisdom, the researchers found that children raised in orphanages by nonfamily members were no worse in their health, emotional and cognitive functioning, and physical growth than those cared for in their communities by relatives. More important, the orphanage-reared children performed better than their counterparts cared for by community strangers, which is commonly the case in foster-care programs.

I don’t have a final answer to this issue, but orphanages have such bad PR in the United States that I doubt they’ll ever be seriously tried. Any politician who seriously proposes trying them is going to be compared to a Dickens villain and will likely be courting career suicide (on the other hand, I never thought we’d see legal marijuana, and here we are). The last major politician to make a pitch for orphanages was Newt Gingrich in 1990s, and that went nowhere (“[Gingrich] dared to suggest that some welfare children would be better off in private orphanages. In making his off-the-cuff comments, he ignited a media and policy firestorm, the general tone of which was best captured by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who dubbed the idea ‘unbelievable and absurd'”). Still, given our work with FFAs, I would favor some experimentation in the direction of orphanages, as long as they were re-branded with some clever moniker (“Growth Homes?”). Having a large number of adults watching each other and the kids is probably at least not worse than the current system, although I don’t see orphanages as a panacea. There is no panacea and some problems lack solutions.

All the problems above around foster care enumerated above are only exacerbated by teenagers, who are technically legally “children” but who often have non-childish impulses, are hard to control, and often run away. Even a 13 or 14 year old boy can be six feet tall and weigh 160 pounds or more. Girls present a different set of challenges.

Ideally, most political stances come with a set of solutions, but orphanages have a bad rap, more money would help the current system without alleviating its most pressing problems, and abused kids and FFAs are not large enough interest groups for their votes to be salient to politicians. There are lots of problems that we as a society prefer to sweep under the rug and not think about—it appears, for example, that “Air Pollution Reduces IQ, a Lot.” We could fix a lot of air pollution by depreciating gasoline-powered cars, but most people would prefer to ignore the issue and the incredible damage we do to kids’s health through cars. Animal meat processing factories are another example: if you kick a dog in public, you might be arrested and charged with a crime, but most of us prefer to ignore the horrific things that happen in meat processing factories. Foster care is yet another area in which we hope for the best and prefer not to know too much about what’s really happening.

While I was writing the precursors to this post, I also realized something unusual about grant writing: I don’t know exactly how to describe the vantage point we have, but it’s not a common one: we’re in this purgatory that’s not where most people thinking about social science and government policy reside. We’re in an intellectual and observational place halfway between the on-the-ground implementers and the in-the-tower legislators and academics. We’re not called on to dream up new programs, ideas, problems, or data, like academics and legislators, but we’re also much closer to the problem space, while not being completely mired in immediate day-to-day experience. Because we’re at a higher level of abstraction than most implementers, we can see comparisons that on-the-ground people sometimes miss, while still seeing enough of the ground floor to have a better idea what’s going on than some academic/legislator-types do. Almost no one asks us what we’ve seen and what we can see across organization types—for example, at one point, “We imagined foundations would hire us to help improve RFPs/funding guidelines. We were wrong.” That essay was written in 2015 and since then, zero funders have sought feedback. I’m not sure what to do with this observation, apart from noting that we see some things other people miss.


* We learn many interesting things from clients, most of which we can’t say publicly. Silence is one of our virtues.

** You can tell that we’re dealing with government because of the number of acronyms in play.