Author: Isaac Seliger

Funders sometimes force grantees to provide services they don’t want to: FQHCs and Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)

We often remind clients that those with the gold make the rules. Accepting a government grant means the applicant must sign a grant agreement, in which the applicant agrees not only to provide wherever services were specified in the proposal, but also abide by a myriad of regulations and laws. While many applicants will tussle with a funder over the budget, there’s rarely any point in trying to modify the boiler plate agreement—just like one can’t modify Apple or Facebook’s Terms of Service.

In addition to the specific terms of the grant agreement, grantees quickly become subject to other influences from the funder—when the Godfather makes you an offer you can’t refuse, you know that eventually you’ll be told to do something you’d otherwise not much want to do. While a federal agency is unlikely to place a horse’s head in a nonprofit Executive Director’s bed, the grantee might end up having to provide an unpalatable service.

A case in point is HRSA’s relatively recent (and divisive) endorsement of Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for treating opioid use disorder (OUD). Since HRSA is the primary FQHC funder, it is essentially their Godfather and has great influence over FQHCs. In the past few years, HRSA has strongly encouraged FQHCs to provide MAT. The CEOs of our FQHC clients have told us about HRSA pressure to start offering MAT. It seems that, even after several years of cajoling, only about half of our FQHC clients provide MAT, and, for many of these, MAT is only nominally offered. Other clients see offering MAT as a moral imperative, and we’ll sometimes get off the phone with one client who hates MAT and then on the phone with another client who sees not providing MAT as cruel.

“MAT” generically refers to the use of medications, usually in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, for the treatment of substance use disorders (SUD). For OUD, this usually means prescribing and monitoring a medication like Suboxone, in which the active ingredients are buprenorphine and naloxone. While Suboxone typically reduces the cravings of people with OUD for prescribed and street opioids (e.g., oxycontin, heroin, etc.), it is itself a synthetic opioid. While MAT replaces a “bad opioid” with a “good opioid,” the patient remains addicted. Many FQHC managers and clinicians object to offering MAT for OUD, for a variety of medical, ethical, and practical reasons:

  • Like its older cousin methadone, as an opioid, Suboxone can produce euphoria and induce dependency, although its effects are milder. Still, it’s possible to overdose on Suboxone, particularly when combined with alcohol and street drugs. So it can still be deadly.
  • While MAT is supposed to be combined with some form of talking or other therapy, few FQHCs have the resources to actually provide extensive individual or group therapy, so the reality is that FQHC MAT patients will likely need Suboxone prescribed over the long term, leaving them effectively addicted. We’re aware that there’s often a wide gap here between the real world and the proposal world.
  • Unless it’s combined with some kind talking therapy that proves effective, MAT is not a short-term approach, meaning that, once an FQHC physician starts a patient on Suboxone, the patient is likely to need the prescription over a very long time—perhaps for the rest of their life. This makes the patient not only dependent on Suboxone, but also dependent on the prescriber and the FQHC, since few other local providers are likely to accept the patient and have clinicians who have obtained the necessary waiver to prescribe it. Suboxone users must be regularly monitored and seen by their prescriber, making for frequent health center visits.
  • As noted above, prescribed Suboxone can, and is often, re-sold by patients on the street.
  • Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, most FQHC health centers prefer to look like a standard group practice facility with a single waiting room/reception area. Unlike a specialized methadone or other addiction clinic, FQHC patients of all kinds are jumbled together. That means a mom bringing her five-year old in for a school physical could end up sitting between a couple of MAT users, who may look a little wild-eyed and ragged, making her and her kid uncomfortable. Since FQHCs usually lack the resources for anything beyond minor paint-up/fix up repairs, there is simply no way around this potential conflict.

Given the above, many FQHC CEOs remain resistant to adding the challenges of MAT to the many struggles they already face. Still, the ongoing pressure from HRSA means that most FQHCs will eventually be forced to provide at least a nominal MAT program to keep their HRSA Program Officer at bay. The tension between a typical mom and her five-year old against a full-fledged behavioral and mental health program is likely to remain, however. Before you leave scorching comments, however, remember that we’re trying to describe some of the real-world trade-offs here, not prescribe a course of action. What people really want in the physical space they occupy and what they say they want in the abstract are often quite different. You can see this in the relentless noise around issues like homeless service centers; everyone is in favor of them in someone else’s neighborhood and against them in their own neighborhood. Always pay attention to what a person actually does over a person’s rhetoric.

Don’t split target areas, but some programs, like HRSA’s Rural Health Network Development (RHND) Program, encourage cherry picking

In developing a grant proposal, one of the first issues is choosing the target area (or area of focus); the needs assessment is a key component of most grant proposals—but you can’t write the needs assessment without defining the target area. Without a target area, it’s not possible to craft data into the logic argument at is at the center of all needs assessments.

To make the needs assessment as tight and compelling as possible, we recommend that the target area be contiguous, if at all possible. Still, there are times when it is a good idea to split target areas—or it’s even required by the RFP.

Some federal programs, like YouthBuild, have highly structured, specific data requirements for such items as poverty level, high school graduation rate, youth unemployment rates, etc., with minimum thresholds for getting a certain number of points. Programs like YouthBuild mean that cherry picking zip codes or Census tracts can lead to a higher threshold score.

Many federal grant programs are aimed at “rural” target areas, although different federal agencies may use different definitions of what constitutes “rural”—or they provide little guidance as to what “rural” means. For example, HRSA just issued the FY ’20 NOFOs (Notice of Funding Opportunities—HRSA-speak for RFP) for the Rural Health Network Development Planning Program and the Rural Health Network Development Program.

Applicants for RHNDP and RHND must be a “Rural Health Network Development Program.” But, “If the applicant organization’s headquarters are located in a metropolitan or urban county, that also serves or has branches in a non-metropolitan or rural county, the applicant organization is not eligible solely because of the rural areas they serve, and must meet all other eligibility requirements.” Say what? And, applicants must also use the HRSA Tool to determine rural eligibility, based on “county or street address.” This being a HRSA tool, what HRSA thinks is rural may not match what anybody living there thinks. Residents of what has historically been a farm-trade small town might be surprised to learn that HRSA thinks they’re city folks, because the county seat population is slightly above a certain threshold, or expanding ex-urban development has been close enough to skew datasets from rural to nominally suburban or even urban.

Thus, while a contiguous target area is preferred, for NHNDP and RHND, you may find yourself in the data orchard picking cherries.

In most other cases, always try to avoid describing a target composed of the Towering Oaks neighborhood on the west side of Owatonna and the Scrubby Pines neighborhood on the east side, separated by the newly gentrified downtown in between. If you have a split target area, the needs assessment is going to be unnecessarily complex and may confuse the grant reviewers. You’ll find yourself writing something like, “the 2017 flood devastated the west side, which is very low-income community of color, while the Twinkie factory has brought new jobs to the east side, which is a white, working class neighborhood.” The data tables will be hard to structure and even harder to summarize in a way that makes it seem like the end of the world (always the goal in writing needs assessments).

Try to choose target area boundaries that conform to Census designations (e.g., Census tracts, Zip Codes, cities, etc.). Avoid target area boundaries like a school district enrollment area or a health district, which generally don’t conform to Census and other common data sets.

Why we like writing SAMHSA proposals: the RFP structure is clear and never changes

We wrote our first funded Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) grant about 25 years ago, and there’s something notable about SAMHSA: unlike virtually all of their federal agency sisters, SAMHSA RFPs are well structured. Even better, the RFP structure seemingly never changes—or at least not for the past quarter century. This makes drafting a SAMHSA proposal refreshingly straightforward and enables us, and other competent writers, to (relatively) easily and coherently spin our grant writing “Tales of Brave Ulysses.” The word “coherently” in the preceding sentence is important: RFPs that destroy narrative flow by asking dozens of unrelated sub-questions also destroy the coherence of the story the writer is trying to tell and the program the writer is trying to describe. SAMHSA RFPs typically allow the applicant to answer the 5Ws and H.

A SAMHSA RFP almost always uses a variation on a basic, five element structure:

  • Section A: Population of Focus and Statement of Need
  • Section B: Proposed Implementation Approach
  • Section C: Proposed Evidence-Based Service/Practice
  • Section D: Staff and Organizational Experience
  • Section E: Data Collection and Performance Measurement

While SAMHSA RFPs, of course, include many required sub-headers that demand corresponding details, this structure lends itself to the standard outline format that we prefer (e.g., I.A.1.a). We like using outlines, because it makes it easy for us to organize our presentation and for reviewers to find responses to specific items requested in the RFP—as long as the outlines make sense and, as noted above, don’t interrupt narrative flow. In this respect, SAMHSA RFPs are easy for us to work with.

In recent years, SAMSHA has also reduced the maximum proposal length (exclusive of many required attachments) from 25 single-spaced pages to, in many cases, 10 single-spaced pages. Although it’s generally harder to write about complex subjects with a severe page limit than a much longer page limit, we’re good at packing a lot into a small space.* A novice grant writer, however, is likely to be intimidated by a SAMHSA RFP, due to the forbidding nature of the typical project concept and the brief page limit. In our experience, very long proposals are rarely better and are often worse than shorter ones.

We haven’t talked in this post about what SAMHSA does, because the nature of the organization’s mission doesn’t necessarily affect the kinds of RFPs the organization produces. Still, and not surprisingly, given its name, SAMSHA is the primary direct federal funder of grants for substance abuse and persistent mental illness prevention and treatment. With the recent and continuing tsunami of the twin co-related scourges of opioid use disorder (OUD) and homelessness, Congress has appropriated greater funding for SAMHSA and the agency is going through one of its cyclical rises in prominence in the grant firmament. Until we as a society get a handle on the opioid crisis, SAMHSA is going to get a lot of funding and attention.


* When writing a short proposal in response to a complex RFP, keep Rufo’s small luggage in Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road in mind: “Rufo’s baggage turned out to be a little black box about the size and shape of a portable typewriter. He opened it. And opened it again. And kept on opening it–And kept right on unfolding its sides and letting them down until the durn thing was the size of a small moving van and even more packed.” The bag was bigger on the inside than the outside, like a well-written SAMHSA proposal.

Washington Post’s story on rural health care ignores Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) — huh?

Eli Saslow recently wrote a 3,500-word Washington Post story about rural healthcare in “Urgent needs from head to toe’: This clinic had two days to fix a lifetime of needs.” Although it reads like a dispatch from Doctors Without Borders in Botswana, Saslow is describing rural Meigs County TN. Rural America certainly faces significant unmet healthcare needs, but this piece has a strange omission: it doesn’t mention Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs).

The Tennessee Primary Care Association reports over 30 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) operating over 200 health clinics in the state, most in rural areas—including at least four in or near Meigs County! FQHCs are nonprofits that receive HRSA Section 330 grants to provide integrated primary care, dental care, and behavioral health services to low-income and uninsured patients. FQHCs also accept Medicaid and, in rural areas, are usually the main primary care providers, along with ERs.

Federal law requires FQHCs to provide services under a sliding-fee scale, with a nominal charge for very-low-income patients—in theory, at least, FQHCs never turn patients away due to lack of ability to pay. Similarly, federal law requires ERs to treat everyone, regardless of income and/or insurance status. Unlike ERs, however, FQHCs provide a “medical home” for patients. There are over 1,400 FQHCs, with thousands of sites, both fixed and mobile, to better reach isolated rural areas like Meigs County. We should know—we’ve written dozens of funded HRSA grants for FQHCs, including many serving rural areas like Meigs County.

The story’s hero is Rural Area Medical (RAM), a nonprofit that appears to set up temporary clinics under the free clinic model. Free clinics emerged from the runaway youth health crisis of the late 60s, starting in the Summer of Love in San Francisco—I was on the board of a free clinic over 40 years ago and understand the model well. While there are still over 1,400 official free clinic sites, free clinics largely depend on volunteer medical staff, may not accept Medicaid, and have insecure funding because they rely on donations (often from their volunteers) to keep the lights on. To operate, a free clinic must necessarily devote much of its resources away from direct services to maintaining volunteers and fundraising, like any nonprofit that depends on volunteer labor (think Habitat for Humanity).

Unlike FQHCs, free clinics patients don’t have a designated primary care provider (PCP), since a given doc or NP might be volunteering or not on a given day—like an ER, free clinic patients lack a true medical home. Free clinics aren’t generally eligible to participate in the federally subsidized 340B Discount Pharmacy Program, so patients don’t have access to long-term, low-cost medications. Free clinics, while once the only source of healthcare for many uninsured, have now mostly been overtaken by FQHCs, much as the days of the independent tutor ended with the coming of public schools. We’ve worked for a few free clinics over the years, and most were struggling to stay open and provided erratic services. Their executive directors could feel which way the wind is blowing and consequently many were trying trying to become FQHCs.

I wonder: has RAM applied to become an FQHC and open a permanent site in Meigs County? I don’t know anything about Meigs County, and it’s possible that the local FQHCs are incompetent or poorly run and could use some new competitors. HRSA just had a New Access Points (NAP) competition, with over $200 million to found and fund new sites. If the the healthcare situation is dire in Meigs County, applying for NAP grant makes much more sense than setting up shop for a weekend. Does RAM refer patients to local FQHCs? That may be a more efficacious long-term solution than the superman approach of flying in, saving the day, and flying out (imagine if education worked the same way, with itinerant teachers stopping by to give a lecture on geometry one day, Shakespeare’s sonnets the next, and the gall bladder the day after).

The original story is great as human interest, but it doesn’t go into root causes. Some consulting organization created the “Five Whys” strategy or methodology, which holds that, for any given problem, it’s often not useful to look at a single moment or cause of failure or inadequacy. Rather, systems enable failure, and for any given failure, it’s necessary to look deeper than the immediate event. Some of the other underlying problems in this story include the American Medical Association (AMA), which controls med school slots, and the individual medical specialty associations, which control residency slots. The U.S. has been training too few doctors and doing an inadequate job getting those doctors into residency for decades. Detail on this subject is too specific for this piece, but Ezekiel Emanuel has a good article on the subject; med school needs to be integrated with undergrad and needs a year lopped off it. The way medical training works right now is too expensive and too long, creating physician shortages—especially in the places that need physicians most. The supply-demand mismatch raises the costs of physician services and mean that physicians charge more for services than they otherwise would.

Rural areas have also faced decades of economic headwinds, with young adults moving to job centers, leaving an aging-in-place population that needs many support services; declining tax base from manufacturing leaving for emerging countries; the opioid epidemic; and so on. While I wouldn’t expect Saslow to fully cover such factors, context is missing and at least a passing reference to FQHCs would make sense.

The movement towards a $15 minimum hourly wage and the Pre-K For All program in NYC


Over the last few years, the highly marketed $15/hour minimum wage has had remarkable success: it, along with the recent economic boom and historically low unemployment rates, have increased wages for some unskilled/low skill workers in some areas. Last week, though, I was developing a budget for a federal grant proposal on behalf of a large nonprofit in NYC. The federal program requires the use of “Parent Mentors”, which is another way of saying “Peer Outreach Worker.” So two full-time equivalent (FTE) Parent Mentors went into the budget.

“Peer” staff are not professionals—college degrees or formal work experience aren’t typically required. Instead, the peer is supposed to have life experience similar to the target population (e.g., African American persons in recovery for a substance abuse disorder treatment project in an African American neighborhood) or street credentials (“street cred”) to relate to the target population (e.g., ex-gang-bangers to engage current gang-bangers). In most human services programs, the peer staff are supervised by a professional staff person with a BA, MSW, LCSW, or similar degree. While the peer staff are at the bottom of the org chart, in many cases, they’re much more important to getting funded and operating a successful program than the 24-year-old recent Columbia grad with a degree in urban studies or psychology, as the “supervisor” is often afraid to go out into the community without a peer staff person riding shotgun. The situation is analogous to a first-year military officer who is technically superior to a 15-year enlisted veteran sergeant.

There are 2,080 person hours in a person year, so, at $15/hour, one FTE peer worker is budgeted at $31,200/year. If a nonprofit operates in an area with a $15/hour minimum wage, that’s the lowest salary that can be legally proposed. For many nonprofits, actual salaries for entry-level professional staff are about $30,000 to $35,000 per year. One might say, “No problem, just raise the professional salaries to $40,000.” This is, however, not easily done, as the maximum grants for most federal and state programs have not been adjusted to reflect minimum wages in places like New York or Seattle. If the nonprofit has been running a grant-funded program for five years, they’ve probably been paying the peer workers around $10/hour, and the new RFP very likely has the same maximum grant—say, $200,000—as the one from five years ago. That means one-third fewer peer workers.

If a Dairy Queen (I’m quite fond of DQ, like Warren Buffet) is suddenly confronted by the much higher minimum wage, they can try making the Blizzards one ounce smaller, skipping the pickles on the DQ Burgers, or buying a Flippy Burger Robot, and laying off a couple of 17-year olds. Nonprofits can’t generally deploy any of these strategies, as the service targets in the RPF are the the same as they ever were. For “capitated programs” like foster care, the nonprofit has to absorb rising costs, because they have a fixed reimbursement from the funder (e.g., $1,000/month/foster kid to cover all program expenses); we’re also unlikely to see robot outreach workers any time soon.

Most nonprofits also depend to some extent on fundraisers and donations. It’s hard enough to extract coin from your board and volunteers, so having a “New Minimum Wage Gala” is not likely to be a winning approach. Some higher-end restaurants in LA have added surcharges for higher minimum wages and employee health insurance, a practice I find annoying (just raise the damn pasta price from $20 to $22 and stop trying to virtue signal—or make me feel guilty). That avenue is typically closed to nonprofits, because the whole point is to provide no-cost services, or, in cases like Boys and Girls Clubs, very low-cost fees ($20 to play in the basketball league). Some organizations charge nominal membership fees, which are often waived anyway.

The nonprofit and grant worlds move much slower than the business world, and I guess we’ll just have to wait for the funders to catch up with rising minimum wages. In the meantime, some nonprofits are going to go under, just like this US News and World Report article that reports, “76.5 percent of full-service restaurant respondents said they had to reduce employee hours and 36 percent said they eliminated jobs in 2018 in response to the mandated wage increase” in New York City. More grants will also likely end up going to lower-cost cities and states, where it’s possible to hire three outreach workers instead of two outreach workers.

We write lots of Universal Pre-K (UPK) and Pre-K For All proposals in NYC and few, if any, of our early childhood education clients over the years have paid their “teachers” or “assistant teachers”—who are mostly peer workers with at most a 12-week certificate—$15/hour. There’s a new NYC Pre-K For All RFP on the street, and, if we’re hired to write any this year, the budgeting process will be interesting, as the City has minimum staffing levels for these classrooms, so staff cannot be cut.

Some organizations will get around the rules. Many religious communities are already “familiar,” you might say, with ways of getting around conventional taxation and regulatory rules. Their unusual social bonds enable them to do things other organizations can’t do. Many religious communities also vote as blocks and consequently get special dispensation in local and state grants and contracts. We’ll also likely end up seeing strategies like offering “stipends” to “parent volunteers” to get around the “wage” problem. For most nonprofits in high-minimum-wage areas, however, the simple reality is that fewer services will be provided per dollar spent.

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.

Grant writing and cooking: Too many details or ingredients is never a good idea

As a grant writer who also likes to cook, I understand the importance of simplicity and clarity in both my vocation and avocation: too much detail can ruin the proposal, just as too many ingredients can produce a dull dish. Ten years ago, I wrote a post on the importance of using the KISS method (keep it simple, stupid—or Sally, if you don’t like the word “stupid”) in grant writing. We recently wrote an exceedingly complex state health care proposal for a large nonprofit in a Southern state, but even complex proposals should be as simple as possible—but no simpler.

As is often the case with state programs, the RFP was convoluted and required a complex needs assessment. Still, the project concept and target area were fairly straightforward. We wrote the first draft of the needs assessment in narrative form, rather than using a bunch of tables. There’s nothing intrinsically better or worse about narrative vs. tables; when the RFP is complex, we tend toward narrative form, and when the project concept and/or target area are complex, we often use more tables. For example, if the target population includes both African American and Latino substance abusers in an otherwise largely white community, we might use tables, labeling columns by ethnicity, then compare to the state. That’s hard to do in narrative form. Similarly, if the target area includes lots of counties, some of which are much more affluent than others, we might use tables to contrast the socioeconomic characteristics of the counties to the state.

Many grant reviewers also have trouble reading tables, because they don’t really understand statistics. Tables should also be followed by a narrative paragraph explaining the table anyway.

So: our client didn’t like the first draft and berated me for not using tables in the needs assessment. The customer is not always right, but, as ghostwriters, we accommodate our clients’s feedback, and I added some tables in the second draft. Our client requested more tables and lots of relatively unimportant details about their current programming, much of which wasn’t germane to the RFP questions. Including exhaustive details about current programming takes the proposal focus away from the project you’re trying to get funded, which is seldom a good idea. It’s best to provide sufficient detail to answer the 5 Ws and the H), while telling a compelling story that is responsive to the RFP.

Then, stop.

The client’s second draft edit requested yet more tables and a blizzard of additional, disconnected details. Our client disliked it the third draft. We ended up writing five drafts, instead of the usual three, and the proposal got steadily worse, not better. As chef-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck* is said to have said, “Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors – it’s how you combine them that sets you apart.” Attempting to use all the flavors at once usually results in a kitchen disaster.

A given section of a proposal should be as short as possible without being underdeveloped. Changes from draft to draft should also be as minimal and specific as possible.


* Jake sort-of-met Wolfgang, albeit before he was born. His mom was eight months pregnant with him when we went to Spago for dinner. Wolfgang was there in his Pillsbury Doughboy getup, and, despite not being celebrities, he couldn’t have been nicer and made a big deal out of a very pregnant woman dining at his place. I think he wanted his food to induce labor, but that didn’t happen for a couple of weeks; instead, Nate ‘n’ Al’s Deli (another celebrity hangout in Beverly Hills), was the culprit. A story for another day.

The DOL FY ’18 YouthBuild FOA is out and a dinosaur program is again relevant

The Department of Labor (DOL) just issued the FY ’18 YouthBuild FOA. YouthBuild, which has been around for about 25 years,* is relevant for the first time in about ten years. We’ve written around 30 funded YouthBuild proposals, including, in 1994, the very first funded YouthBuild proposal in Southern California; we’ve also written many posts about YouthBuild.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, YouthBuild has seemed like an anachronism—with the collapse of the housing and real estate markets, there have been legions of unemployed construction workers, so what was the point in training yet more? Still, hundreds of YouthBuild grantees persisted, as did thousands of other workforce development agencies. And we’ve continued to write YouthBuild proposals, although we’ve had to stretch our skills to create plausible outcomes for newly minted construction workers in a world that didn’t need them. It helped that in FY 2014, as as we wrote about in the post linked to above, DOL removed the need to include Labor Market Information (LMI) data, since at that time it was about impossible to demonstrate that construction jobs actually existed in most parts of the US.

Flash forward to 2018, and it’s hard not to notice the construction boom. Cranes dominate most skylines and there’s new life for manufacturers in the Midwest rust belt. Even Detroit, which has been in economic decline since the Nixon administration, is reportedly coming out of its slumber.**

The national unemployment rate dropped to 3.9% in April, something else that hasn’t been seen for decades. As grant writers, however, we know that there’s a disconnect between this widely reported statistic and reality, given the huge number of working age youth and young adults who are not in the job market—many due to conditions of disability—and thus not counted in the conventional unemployment rate. The new challenge in writing a YouthBuild proposal is cobbling together unemployment data to support project need. But DOL is helping out with the following curious direction from this year’s FOA regarding unemployment data requirements:

The national unemployment rate for youth ages 16 – 24 against which DOL will evaluate applicants is: 13.8 percent (using 1-year American Community Survey (ACS) estimates as of 2016).

This year, YouthBuild applicants must use two-year old unemployment data, though current data would paint a much brighter picture. For most low-income urban and rural communities, and especially urban communities of color, we won’t have much trouble demonstrating youth unemployment well above this odd threshold. This is done through the magic of manipulating target area census tracks/zip codes, as needed, to create an especially bleak youth unemployment picture.

We don’t know if DOL intentionally made it easier to demonstrate need to encourage more YouthBuild applicants or if it’s just bureaucratic randomness.


* More or less as long as Seliger + Associates

** Randomly, Detroit and Compton are the only big cities with mostly residents of color I can think of in which we’ve never had a client. To correct this, I’ll offer a 20% discount on a YouthBuild application to any client in Detroit or Compton that comes along.

No children allowed in the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Families and Children

Anyone who writes a few proposals will soon discover the disconnect between the bureaucrats who write RFPs and those of us who write the proposal responses. We’ve discussed poorly written RFPs before and part of the reason that RFPs are often badly written, contradictory, confusing, etc., is that the bureaucrats responsible for the RFPs never try to write a proposal in response. These (usually faceless) government program officers are also just doing a job they’ve been assigned to—they don’t any more interested in the services being provided through the grant program than an L Train Operator in NYC is interested in why the hapless riders on their train. It’s just a job!

We’ve seen this basic idea reinforced numerous times, but a recent bureaucrat encounter reminded me of my favorite example. In the Spring of 1993, Seliger + Associates was newly formed and I was struggling to find clients, run the business, and write proposals as a “one man band.” This was long before the advent of email and the Internet, so seeking clients and completing proposals involved lots more time and shoe leather than today. Since I was then working out of a home office and my then-wife was working to bring home some turkey bacon, I also played Mr. Mom—not a great movie, but on point for this post.

We were living in the East Bay Area then, and most of our initial clients were there or in LA—I flew down to LA at least once a week. A nonprofit in San Francisco that worked with African American teen moms hired me to write a proposal from the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Families and Children. Due to a less-than-cooperative client (some things never change), the proposal wasn’t finished until around noon on the day it was due. In those distant days, all proposals were submitted in hard copy form, typically an original and up to ten copies. This meant a trip to Kinkos (now FedEx Office), since I couldn’t yet afford a giant Xerox machine.

Naturally it was a school holiday and Jake, who was still in elementary school, and his two younger siblings were home that day. So I had to button up the original “running master”* of the finished proposal, toss the three kids into the Volvo 240 wagon, and race to Kinkos to get the submission copies made, while trying to keep the kids from destroying the store. Then it was a dash through the always-crowded Caldecott Tunnel and across the Bay Bridge to get to the Mayor’s Office in San Francisco by 5:00 PM. Feeling like the protagonist in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” (“made the bus in seconds flat”), I got the car parked, kids wrangled, and took the entourage up the office on the fifth floor.

I stood in line at the counter waiting with other applicants to turn in the submission package and get a time-stamped receipt. By this point, it was around 4:45 and, I was fairly anxious and the kids were impatiently wanting their promised ice cream cones and acting like, well, kids. Still, I managed to keep them and myself more or less calm while waiting. After about five minutes, a very officious woman emerged from an office, strode around the counter, focused her beady eyes on us, and loudly announced that we had to leave immediately, as “no children were allowed in the Mayor’s Office of Children and Families.” I told her, equally loudly, how stupid this was, pointing to the sign identifying the office. I received cheers and applause from the other applicants in line, and got the proposal submitted (and eventually funded).

The point of this story is that this city bureaucrat, whose job it was to help at-risk children in the abstract, was offended by confronting real children. Keep the reality that government grant reviewers are only very rarely true believers in your cause, or any cause. That’s one reason we recommend writing proposals in the plain style rather than any florid style that assumes sympathy on the part of the reader. Most readers are going to be more like that San Francisco city bureaucrat than the rare careful reader who cares about the project.

 * A “running master” is now mostly archaic term for the paginated stack of papers, including copies of signed forms/letters of support, the proposal narrative, and attachments, that is used to make or “run” the required submission copies. Once the run is complete, the original wet-signed forms and letters are substituted in one of the copies, recreating the original. Then “ORIGINAL” is hand written in large blue print at the top of that copy.

Nonprofit royalty exist, but you’re unlikely to be the next Duchess of At-Risk Youth Services

I had coffee with a friend who was in LA from NYC, and he’s the development director of a huge arts organization in NYC that raises $50M annually, mostly from large foundations, “whale” donors, ticket sales, and a soupçon of grants (not one of our clients). Over our iced macadamia milk lattes (this is LA after all) at Go Get Em Tiger, he told me he’s making his annual trek to LA to meet and show the flag with a big entertainment-related foundation that funds his agency. He was invited to various “industry events” that us mere mortals read about in TMZ. I said he’s a member of the nonprofit royalty.

“What’s that?” he asked.

Imagine you’re looking down on a vast savanna. Roaming are the 1.5 million 501(c)(3) US nonprofits (thousands of new ones bubble into existence every year, while some starve to death). Let’s deduct two-thirds of these as either being very small or too inert to be of interest. That leaves maybe 500K active nonprofits scurrying around the plain looking for donation and grant grubs, mice, rabbits, and the occasional elk. Most of these nonprofits are doing good works in primary health care, at-risk youth services, workforce development, other human services, the arts, and so on. While most have relatively modest annual operating budgets, say less than $5M, some, like big FQHCs, have annual operating budgets north of $50M. No matter how large, however, these are still commoners, battling with one another for donations, grants, third-party payers, and the like.

Among the nonprofit herd, however, stride a very smaller number of nonprofit royalty, like my friend’s agency in NYC. Royal nonprofits are funded by fawning large foundations, public agencies, and donations from the carriage trade (in LA, this means entertainment and tech folk, while in NYC this means hedge-fund types).* For the nonprofit royals, much of their revenue is derived from relationships, individual and organizational. Management staff and board members of the royals go to the same events as their target funders, probably went to the same colleges, and send their kids to the same private schools. Royals have access to celebrities at galas that they can dangle in front of potential funders—pssssst, Meryl Streep and Al Gore will be at the VIP party after our annual gala, and a donation of only $50K gets you in the VIP door.

A nonprofit does not have to be “born” royal, although it helps if the founder is a royal herself, can sweet talk some royals to serve on the board, or arrives at the the right moment to address a suddenly attractive cause. Examples of fortuitous nonprofit start-ups include Komen for the Cure, Wounded Warriors Project, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the like. Nonprofit royals usually grow into their status, rise above the nonprofit herd through hard work, relentless PR, providing great services, and more than a bit of luck.

The “luck” element is important, and you’re likely familiar with analogous stories from the movie biz. Meghan Markle was just another beautiful actress, one of thousands in LA, when she was auditioning for bit parts 15 years ago, and now she’s set to marry Prince Harry. Grace Kelly from Philly had only been acting for six years when she married Prince Rainier in 1956. Both became literal royals.

The same process can unfold with nonprofits. Geoffrey Canada took the rather mundane work of helping at-risk kids and their families to nonprofit royaldom with the Harlem Children’s Zone over 30 years (he’s also not a client). Like in Hollywood, only a tiny percent of. nonprofits start with or ever achieve this rarefied status—and they must work incredibly hard to maintain that position, albeit in ways different than conventional nonprofits. For most aspiring actors, it’s best to have a fallback career plan, and for nonprofits, it’s best to assume you’re part of the herd, not the royalty.

This is why we advise our clients to forget about trying to get foundation and government grants based on relationships (unless they already have preexisting relationships). All large foundations have frontline program officers whose main job is to talk nicely with nonprofits seeking grants and point them to their guidelines. It’s pretty hard to schmooze your way to big foundation grants, as the program officers have heard it all before. The only real way to achieve this is via relationships that already exist. For example, there’s an organization called Cancer for College that offers scholarships to childhood cancer survivors. The founder was a college frat buddy of Will Farrell. That’s not going to be true of the vast majority of nonprofits.

Most government grant officers, meanwhile, are bureaucrats with little, if any, interest in which applicant get funded—the system is actively designed to be impersonal in order to prevent corruption. Also, virtually every politician, and their field deputies, will wholeheartedly gush over any idea you bring to them, pat you on the head, tell you you that you have to wait for an RFP, like everyone else, as they show you the door (and likely invite you to a fundraiser). This is why there’s little point in getting support letters from politicians for proposals, as they will generally provide them to any agency that asks.

There are exceptions in the government grant world, especially at the local level, where patronage and cronyism is evident. Many NYC and LA City and County RFPs are not entirely competitive, as the pols, and the program officers, know that favored constituency groups (e.g., African Americans, Hispanics, Orthodox Jews, etc.) and a few connected applicants need to be funded.

Since seeking grants through relationships and royalty status is not going to work for most nonprofits, what’s an agency to do? It’s not complex, but it is hard to execute: select services that are needed and your organization can plausibly deliver, conduct detailed grant source research, and submit compelling and technically correct proposals on time. It you do that often enough, who knows, your agency might become the Duchess of At-Risk Youth Services, joining the royal court with Duke Geoffrey Canada.


* Amazon’s pretty good series, Mozart in the Jungle about a fictional version of the NY Philharmonic, has some storylines that fairly accurately depict how nonprofit royals use relationships to snare big donors (everyone in NYC wants to drink mate tea with Maestro Rodrigo). The series is based on the eponymous but very different memoir by Blair Tindall.