Author: Isaac Seliger

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.

Seliger + Associates’ 25th Anniversary: A quarter century of grant writing

My first post, on Nov. 29, 2007, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal,” tells the story of how I became a grant writer (when dinosaurs walked the earth); 500 posts later, this one covers some of the highs and lows of grant writing over the past 25 years, since I founded Seliger + Associates.

Let me take you back to March 1993 . . . President Clinton’s first year in office, Branch Davidians are going wild in Waco, Roy Rogers dies, Intel ships its first Pentium chips, Unforgiven wins the Oscar for Best Picture, and Seliger + Associates is founded. The last item caused no disturbances in the Force or media and was hardly noticed. Still, we’ve created a unique approach to grant writing—although we’re not true believers, I like to think we’ve made a difference for hundreds of clients and their clients in turn.

When I started this business, the Internet existed, but one had to know how to use long forgotten tech tools like text-based FTP servers, “Gopher,” dial-up modems, and so on. While I taught myself how to use these tools, they weren’t helpful for the early years, even though the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, was launched in late 1993. I used a primitive application, HotMTML Pro, to write the HTML code for our first web site around the same time. I didn’t understand how to size the text, however, so on the common 12″ to 14″ monitors of the day, it displayed as “Seliger + Ass”. It didn’t much matter, since few of our clients had computers, let alone Internet access.

Using the Wayback Machine, I found the first, achieved view of our website on December 28, 1996, about two years after we first had a Web presence. If this looks silly, check out Apple.com’s first web archive on October 22, 1996. You could get a new PowerBook 1400 with 12 MB of RAM and a 750 MB hard drive for only $1,400, while we were offering a foundation appeal for $3,000!

Those were the days of land line phones, big Xerox machines, fax machines, direct mail for marketing, FedEx to submit proposals, going to a public library to use microfiche for research data, waiting for the Federal Register to arrive by mail about a week after publication, and an IBM Selectric III to type in hard copy forms. Our first computer was a IMB PS 1 with an integrated 12″ monitor running DOS with Windows 3.1 operating very slowly as a “shell” inside DOS.

Despite its challenges, using DOS taught me about the importance of file management.

As our business rapidly in the mid to late 1990s, our office activities remained about the same, except for getting faster PCs, one with a revolutionary CD-ROM drive (albeit also with 5 1/14″ and 3.5″ floppy drives, which was how shrink-wrapped software was distributed); a peer-to-peer coax cable network I cobbled together; and eventually being able to get clients to hire us without me having to fly to them for in-person pitch meetings.

It wasn’t until around 2000 that the majority of our clients became computer literate and comfortable with email. Most of our drafts were still faxed back and forth between clients and all proposals went in as multiple hard-copy submissions by FedEx or Express Mail. For word processing, we used WordPro, then an IBM product, and one that, in some respects, was better than Word is today. We finally caved and switched to Macs and Office for Mac around 2005.

Among the many after shocks of 9/11, as well as the bizarre but unrelated anthrax scare, there were enormous disruptions to mail and Fedex delivery to government offices. Perhaps in recognition of this—or just the evolving digital world—the feds transitioned to digital uploads and the first incarnation of grants.gov appeared around 2005. It was incredibly unreliable and used an odd propriety file format “kit file,” which was downloaded to our computers, then proposal files would be attached, and then emailed to our clients for review and upload. This creaky system was prone to many errors. About five years ago, grants.gov switched to an Acrobat file format for the basket-like kit file, but the upload / download drill remained cumbersome. On January 1, 2018, grants.gov 3.0 finally appeared in the form of the cloud-based WorkSpace, which allows applications to be worked on and saved repeatedly until the upload button is pushed by our client (the actual applicant). But this is still not amazon.com, and the WorkSpace interface is unnecessarily convoluted and confusing.

Most state and local government funding agencies, along with many foundations, also moved away from hard copy submissions to digital uploads over the past decade. These, of course, are not standardized and each has its owns peccadilloes. Incredibly, some funders (mostly state and local governments and many foundations) still—still!—require dead tree submission packages sent in via FedEx or hand-delivered.

There have of course been many other changes, mostly for the better, to the way in which we complete proposals. We have fast computers and Internet connections, cloud-based software and file sharing, efficient peripherals, and the like. Grant writing, however, remains conceptually “the same as it ever was.” Whether I was writing a proposal long hand on a legal pad in 1978, using my PS 1 in 1993, or on my iMac today in 2018, I still have to develop a strong project concept, answer the 5 Ws and H within the context of the RFP structure, tell a compelling story, and work with our clients to enable them to submit a technically correct proposal in advance of the deadline.

Another aspect of my approach to grant writing also remains constant. I like to have a Golden Retriever handy to bounce ideas of of, even though they rarely talk back. My last Golden mix, Boogaloo Dude, had to go to the Rainbow Bridge in November. Now, my fourth companion is a very frisky four-month old Golden, Sedro-Woolley, named after the Cascades foothill town to which I used to take Jake and his siblings fishing when they were little and Seliger + Associates and myself were still young.

 

SAMHSA’s Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBRIT) and FQHCs

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) just issued the FY ’18 Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA): it has $35 million for five-year grants up to about $1 million per year for assessment/referral to substance abuse treatment—and, most interestingly for our discussion, FQHCs are listed among the laundry list of eligible applicants.

SAMHSA is pointing the way forward for many substance abuse providers: become an FQHC. This may seem odd, because FQHCs are supposed to be primary health care providers, while substance abuse treatment is not considered primary healthcare and is usually provided by narrowly focused agencies. But the depth of the opioid epidemic, in tandem with the overall growth of healthcare funding, means that many substance abuse providers are being pushed towards becoming FQHCs—even as many FQHCs are also being encouraged to expand into substance abuse treatment. And we know that, when it comes to the Feds, “encouraged” is often a euphemism for “get ‘er done.”

Many FQHCs, of course, don’t want to be substance abuse providers—but, as programs like SBRIT show, the amount of money available may be too tempting to refuse. Right now, it’s also tough for FQHCs to stretch their Section 330 grants to provide fully integrated behavioral heath services, including substance abuse treatment. HRSA occasionally issues Notices of Funding Opportunities (NOFOs) for FQHCs to enhance behavioral health services, but the operative word is “occasionally,” and there’s not enough HRSA funding for behavioral health services.

Few, if any, of our FQHC clients, have had SAMSHA grants and most are reluctant to apply. This may be a case of grant “tunnel vision” in which FQHCs focus on HRSA in the same way that public housing authorities (PHAs) often tether themselves to HUD grants. The wider grant universe, however, provides opportunities for diversity that can help organizations weather shifts in funder priorities. And to paraphrase a salesman’s advice given to William Holden’s Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, “As long as the lady is paying for it, why not take the Vicuna?”

Bad news in new tax bill for nonprofits that depend on small- to medium-sized donations

I recently wrote about Bad and good news for FQHCs in the latest Republican tax bill, and last week, the Republican tax bill passed under its official title, “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” (TCJA). Like it or not, the TCJA is now law and I’m continuing to look at its implications for nonprofits and grant seeking. As reported by the Washington Post, “Charities fear tax bill could turn philanthropy into a pursuit only for the rich.”

Why? The combination of doubling the standard deduction and limiting the deductibility state/local taxes and mortgage interest will likely significantly reduce charitable donations by middle and upper middle income Americans. Those people would need very high deductions to bother itemizing, so many won’t. That’s very bad news for smaller to mid-size nonprofits that depend on donations.

Unlike businesses, which can enter new markets and develop new products, nonprofits have relatively few revenue possibilities (the main ones they do have are listed at the link). In addition to grants and fee-for-service contracts (e.g., foster care, substance abuse treatment, homeless shelter beds, etc.), these are limited to membership dues (for member organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs, animal rescues, etc.), fundraisers, and donations. The latter three will be impacted by the TCJA.

While every nonprofit executive director dreams of landing a donor “whale,” mega-donors are not only rare but tend to give to larger and well-connected nonprofits (the rarely acknowledged “swamp” of philanthropy, if you will). The booming stock market and lowered corporate tax rate will likely to produce more whales, but many of these will donate to corporate or family foundations—not garden variety human services nonprofits toiling away in relative obscurity. We’ve had many conversations with executive directors whose nonprofits are doing good work but find it hard to translate “good work” into “increased donations.”

Nonprofit executive directors will have to make a choice that will become more acute in 2018: cast off in the whale boat to search for Moby-Dick or chase schools of small donation fish. The former strategy is usually pointless and the later is time consuming work that will become harder as many Americans realize that there won’t be a tax deduction reward because they won’t itemize.

The silver lining is that foundation portfolios are being engorged by the historically high bull market. They’ll also receive huge donations from corporations and the upper-income people, who will get much of the direct benefits from the TCJA. No matter what, foundations must distribute 5% of their assets every year, and we offer foundation appeals in part with that in mind to clients.

Also, federal spending on discretionary grant programs continues to rise and most states should see increased tax revenue, some of which will be allocated to grant programs. As budgetary chaos subsides, federal agencies will resume normal RFP patterns.

Language update for grant writers: the CDC has a new list of seven forbidden words/terms

The Washington Post reports that “CDC gets list of forbidden words” from its political masters. We find it hard to judge how serious the list is, because knowledge of the ban itself is only by way of “an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing”—not exactly an authoritative source for final policy. Still, the article has been making the rounds and the supposedly forbidden terms are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”* As grant writers, we’re always sensitive to the vagaries of evolving language and ideas, as you can see from our 2014 post “Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing.”

(EDIT: It appears that “After firestorm, CDC director says terms like ‘science-based’ are not banned.” Alternately, it’s also possible that the word ban was being discussed, but the reaction to the leak caused the CDC to can it.)

While most PC language emerges from the political left, this CDC directive comes from the Trump administration. There’s a bit of humor in this, as right-wing commentators often cite the PC “language police,” raising the dire specter of Orwell’s 1984 and his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” It seems the wingtip is now on the other political foot.

Still, the CDC banned words are standard proposalese that we frequently use in CDC, HRSA, and many other proposals. Some combination of these words are also found in virtually every RFP. “Evidence-based practice” (EBP) is so ubiquitous as to be cliché, even though RFPs rarely define what is supposed to constitute a given EBP. I find this true: “When I see the words used by others, my immediate reaction is to think someone is deploying it selectively, without complete self-awareness, or as a bullying tactic, in lieu of an actual argument, or as a way of denying how much their own argument depends on values rather than science.” People who understand EBPs just cite the evidence and let the evidence speak for itself; people who don’t use the term EBPs as a conceptual fix-all.

Despite the putative ban, grant writers should continue to use these buzzwords, because proposal reviewers—both federal program officers and peer reviewers—expect to read them. Reading them is a good substitute for thinking about what they mean. In addition, there’s often a disconnect between the political appointees (e.g., Deputy Under Assistant Secretary for Obscure Grant Programs), who nominally run federal agencies, and the career civil servants or lifers who actually operate the agencies. Lifers often refer to the political appointees as “the summer help,” since they come and go with new administrations—or more frequently. Peer reviewers are practitioners, who are likely to be PC in the extreme and unlikely to attend to most administration instructions. As grant writers, our audience is composed of reviewers, not the summer help, so that’s who we’ll continue to write to.

For those of us of a certain age, it’s also ironic that the CDC picked seven words to ban, instead of six or eight, given comedian George Carlin’s 1972 monologue “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.”


* Mother Jones has a parody of this kerfuffle with seven replacements for the banned words: vulnerable=snowflake, entitlement=welfare, diversity=anti-white, transgender=deviant, fetus=unborn child, evidence-based=elitist, and science-based=atheist.