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Links: Keys to organizational success, changing the college narrative, a Dept. of Labor (DOL) RFP, and more!

* “Willingness to look stupid,” which is often key to getting things done and learning new things.

* “Is College Worth It? A Comprehensive Return on Investment Analysis.” Depends on the degree, above all else, but at least a third of degrees aren’t worth it in financial terms. If you were told to take out $50,000 of debt for a one-third chance that you’ll never make anything from that debt, would you take the risk? For as long as I’ve been grant writing, “Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree.” We’ll know things have really changed when the Dept. of Education changes its perspective and emphasizes skills more than degrees.

* “Plans for Telosa, a $400-billion new city in the American desert, unveiled.” I’d move there: Phoenix, but with better urban design and transit. Sounds great! There is the minor issue that, historically, attempts at building utopian cities in America have all failed badly, no matter the intent. Will this one be different?

* “The housing theory of everything: Western housing shortages do not just prevent many from ever affording their own home. They also drive inequality, climate change, low productivity growth, obesity, and even falling fertility rates.” Housing shortages are entirely self-imposed, too.

* “On the Link Between Great Thinking and Obsessive Walking.”

* “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College: ‘I Just Feel Lost’: The number of men enrolled at two- and four-year colleges has fallen behind women by record levels, in a widening education gap across the U.S.” Colleges and universities, or “institutions of higher education” (IHEs—as they’re known in the business), are used to setting up special programs and services targeting women: “Some schools are quietly trying programs to enroll more men, but there is scant campus support for spending resources to boost male attendance and retention.” But note: “Yet skyrocketing education costs have made college more risky today than for past generations, potentially saddling graduates in lower-paying careers—as well as those who drop out—with student loans they can’t repay.” Word about the dangers of college is getting out: going, taking out loans that can’t be discharged through bankruptcy, and not graduating is extremely perilous.

* “The feared eviction ‘tsunami’ has not yet happened. Experts are conflicted on why.” So why have we been denying landlords’ property rights for so long? This also demonstrates that many of self-described “experts” don’t actually know much.

* “So You’re About To Be Cancelled: A group called Counterweight assists people whose bosses and co-workers are forcing them to endorse ‘social-justice’ beliefs.”

* “Increased politicization and homogeneity in NSF grants.” This is, needless to say, bad, for science and our society.

* There is a Dept. of Labor RFP from Aug. 10 for “Improving Gender Equity in the Mexican Workplace.” I’m not sure why that activity would be in the DOL’s purview, however worthy said activity might otherwise be. We like to point out silly seeming RFPs when we see them.

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Congress finally passes the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Is this 2021, or 2009, or is it deja vu all over again?

After six months of either negotiations or bizarre political theater, depending on your point of view, Congress finally passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, aka “the Infrastructure Bill;” it could have been named, “The Grant Seekers and Grant Writers Full Employment Act of 2021.” While analyses very, it seems that less than $200 million of the $1.2 trillion in the Bill will fund rail, bridges, roads, harbors, and other items that most people recognize as “infrastructure,” and the rest is a hodgepodge of other stuff too numerous to list here.

I’ve seen this movie: in 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). That opus was also a boon for grant seekers and grant writers and—as Yogi Bera is said to have said, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

Like with the ARRA, the Infrastructure Bill is a good example of the legislative log-rolling and sausage-making needed to get major legislation passed. After the dust clears, I’ll write another post about grant programs that are actually in the bill, but it obviously has huge funding authorizations for a cornucopia of project types in most federal departments.

As a former redevelopment director for CA cities and a long-time grant writing consultant, I found President Obama and Vice President Biden’s insistence in 2009 that the ARRA would fund “shovel ready projects” to be hilarious: given the labyrinth of environment reviews, local zoning issues, and ever-present NIMBYs ready to sue, “shovel ready” has little real-world meaning. Even Obama eventually admitted as much in 2012 when the feds couldn’t get the money spent quickly enough. Reforming the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) to increase project velocity would be a good place to start; without regulatory reform, infrastructure construction is likely to remain overly slow, bureaucratic, and expensive—all of these are components of “the great stagnation“. Given the 2009 experience, I was equally amused to watch now President Biden in a presser this week claiming that the Infrastructure Bill would have quick, positive impacts on American’s daily lives. Maybe in a couple of years it will have positive, noticeable impacts on daily lives, but it’ll have no impact on the current twin scourges of rapid inflation and supply chain woes.

Still, the Infrastructure Bill, like the ARRA, will eventually unleash a tsunami of RFPs when the federal departments complete rule-making. There’s no ready reserve of program officers waiting to be thrown into the fray, so the process of moving from legislation to RFPs will occur at the typical federal glacial pace, no matter what Transportation Department Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other administration officials say on the Sunday morning news shows. Remember that, as Patrick Collison and others pointed out in their discussion of their Fast Grants foundation program, during the pandemic, an NIH grant “application will typically result in a decision after something between 200 and 600 days.” And that’s during the pandemic, when every day really counts. If a pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands and hospitalized millions more can’t inspire the lethargic federal bureaucracy towards greater speed, what can?

I just watched a press conference with Commerce Department Secretary Gina Raimondo, who was asked when broadband funding under the Infrastructure Bill would actually be available. After hemming and hawing for a few minutes, she finally admitted she didn’t know but that it would be “well into 2022.” She has no idea when the money will actually flow and probably feels she has limited ability to make it flow. We wrote our first of many ARRA funded proposals in 2009—and our last in in 2017! I’m guessing we’ll be writing Infrastructure Bill proposals for the rest of the decade. SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet effort began initial planning in 2014, moved towards development in 2017, and began deploying satellites in 2019—in other words, it deployed novel technologies and platforms in less time than terrestrial broadband funding is likely to reach consumers.

Still, there’ll be a frenzy of applicants waiting at the federal trough: during the ARRA era, we wrote tons of proposals for various alternative energy and EV battery projects, mostly working for start-ups that emerged like March tulips from the snow as soon as the bill passed. We’re already getting calls from similar outfits, but I have to tell them: relax, you can’t get your snout in the grant trough till the RFPs appear, which they will in the coming months and years. The ARRA included some fairly odd funding, including huge funding for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs)—and FQHCs become our largest client category as a result. For some reason, the ARRA also had lots of funding for the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW), so, for a couple of years we wrote many proposals for domestic violence programs. I’m sure there are similar grant nuggets in the Infrastructure Bill, since lobbyists have had plenty of time to work their magic.

If you’re the CEO of a nonprofit or an energy business or a city manager/public works director, you should not stand around the grant trough with your tongue out. Instead, here’s what we’re telling our clients and callers about the Infrastructure Bill:

    • Finalize your project concept, including doing as much preliminary work as you. If it’s a capital project, get site control, finish your working drawings, and obtain a building permit. If it’s a non-capital project like environmental justice or something to do with climate change, decide on the target area, strategies, and line up partners.
    • Look for detailed analyses of the Bill to figure out which federal agencies and state agencies (for pass-through formula allocation grants) will have funding that matches your project concepts, get on email lists to make sure you don’t miss an RFP, and check grants.gov and trade association websites routinely.
    • If you don’t have a specific project in mind, dream up a couple that match available funding. Someone is going to get the grants—and it might as well be your agency.

The Infrastructure Bill is more like the ARRA than the three huge COVID relief bills that Congress passed starting in March 2020. Because the country was facing a real existential threat and there wasn’t time for lobbyists and sausage making, most of the funding in those bills was directly appropriated to specific entities and industries like cities, school districts, FQHCs, airlines, etc., or as individual income supports, like extended unemployment and SNAP (food stamps). Those bills produced relatively few RFPs for discretionary grants and many organizations only had to stand around and wait for the money to fall on their heads. The Infrastructure Bill will likely not be like that, except that much of the funding will be pass-through grants to states, which will then issue their own RFPs, complicating and lengthening the application process. This time around, your organization will have to work to get the grants.

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Grant writers and climate change: The Department of Energy’s Direct Air Capture program

The Department of Energy (DOE) just issued an unusual RFP, for a subject I can’t recall seeing the DOE previously wanting to fund fund: direct air capture (DAC) of CO2, the whole name of which will exhaust even patient readers: “Direct Air Capture Combined With Dedicated Long-Term Carbon Storage, Coupled to Existing Low-Carbon Energy.” Right now, DAC is in its infancy; this 2019 article summarizes the DAC situation, and Stripe Climate covers the overall need for DAC; Seliger + Associates hasn’t yet worked on a DAC project, although we have worked on projects related to geothermal energy, lithium metal, lithium batteries, flow batteries, resource recovery, and probably a few more I’m leaving out.* In these assignments, we utilize the approach described in “How we write scientific and technical grant proposals,” and we’re eager to work on DAC projects—if you’ve found your way here and are looking for a DOE grant writing, by all means give us a call at 800.540.8906 ext. 1, or email us at seliger@seliger.com. DAC’s immaturity makes it a particularly striking area for work, and, while the DOE program only has five awards available, it does have $15 million for grants “to better understand system costs, performance, as well as business case options for existing DAC technologies co-located with low-carbon thermal energy sources or industrial facilities.”

Specific activities are listed, too: “The objective of this FOA is to execute and complete front-end engineering design (FEED) studies of advanced DAC systems capable of removing a minimum of 5,000 tonne/yr. net CO2 from air based on a life cycle analysis (LCA), suitable for long duration carbon storage (i.e., geological storage or subsurface mineralization) or CO2 conversion/utilization (e.g., including, but not limited to, synthetic aggregates production, concrete production, and low carbon synthetic fuels and chemicals production).” It’s likely that the firms specializing in FEED don’t specialize in grant writing or storytelling, and that’s where we come into play.

DAC is still extremely expensive and infeasible on a scale that would affect global climate change, but it’s also getting cheaper fast—and that’s the same pattern of falling costs we’ve seen with batteries, solar, and wind—all of which have consistently fallen in price far faster than even their most ardent advocates would’ve hoped. Solar, wind, and batteries now appear to have a lower levelized cost of energy (LCOE) than methane plants, in many parts of the world, and, if another power source deals with baseload power, they can provide around 50% of total energy.

Ideally, forty years ago, humans would’ve collectively acted on the need for carbon emission reductions by building out nuclear power, introducing carbon taxes, and taking similar measures. We collectively did the opposite, and global CO2 levels are now in the 420 parts per million (ppm) range, and they’re almost certainly going to rise above 500 ppm in the coming decades. Pre-industrialize global CO2 rates were in the 230 – 250 ppm range, and, the last time carbon dioxide ppm was this high, the world was in the range of five degrees celsius warmer than it is now—or has been through human history. In the scheme of the world economy, $15 million isn’t a lot—but it’s a start.

*Several times over the years, we’ve gotten calls from inventors pitching the elusive perpetual motion machine. While fun to talk to these guys (and they’re always guys) we’ve so far declined to accept one of these jobs!

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Head Start grant writers and early childhood education program staffing woes

Head Start grantees are likely suffering, and grant writers looking to produce Head start budgets in the future are going to have to change, according to an article with a title that is exhaustingly long but still conveys the general point: “‘The pay is absolute crap’: Child-care workers are quitting rapidly, a red flag for the economy: Child care employment is still down more than 126,000 positions as workers leave for higher-paying positions as bank tellers, administrative assistants and retail clerks. Parents are struggling to return to work as daycare and after-school programs dwindle.”

Baseline pay for Head Start frontline workers has never been high, based on the budgets we’ve prepared and been given by our clients. But Head Start generally won’t increase grants to grantees who’re unable to hire workers in with their budget, and there is a minimum staff-to-child ratio—so grantees can’t simply deploy fewer staff for the same number of kids. I’m supposed to be the guy with the answers, but in this situation I’m not sure what grantees are going to do, or can do. Money for staffing is the big problem right now among Head Start and other similar early childhood education providers:

day care workers typically make about $12 an hour for a demanding job year-round. Public schools and other employers, which are also scrambling to hire workers, are poaching child-care staffers by offering thousands of dollars more a year and better benefits. A nearby Dunkin’ starts pay at $14 an hour.

If you’re paying less than fast food, you’re going to have trouble keeping and recruiting early childhood education staff, and there is no clear way around that blunt fact.

More than a third of child-care providers are considering quitting or closing down their businesses within the next year, as a sense of hopelessness permeates the industry, according to a report last month from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

It’s possible some of those providers will attempt to convert to Head Start operations, but many probably can’t, because some other organization already holds the local Head Start contract.

Although this article focuses on worker wages, the other big problem is rent: almost all municipalities have draconian rules around new construction and parking minimums, and those bad policies raise the cost of land and especially new buildings. The “yes in my backyard” (YIMBY) movement has arisen to attempt to combat unfair land-use laws, but the legislative process is slow and Head Start operators need relief now. Tech companies and the like may be able to pass those high land and rent costs onto customers, but low-margin businesses like Head Start or daycare can’t, so they merely suffer. There is a parent-and-family-focused argument for land-use reform, though relatively few people are making it (apart from me!). Still, “The housing theory of everything: Western housing shortages do not just prevent many from ever affording their own home. They also drive inequality, climate change, low productivity growth, obesity, and even falling fertility rates” covers the topic. We’re not only short of housing—we’re also short of commercial buildings, like child-care facilities. In rural areas, most Head Start operators have no problems finding facilities. In urban ones, it can be excruciatingly difficult, due to local public policy.

The WaPo article focuses more than it should on shoving more public money into the problem; while that would be nice, so would cutting the cost of non-staff childcare costs—like rent—through land-use reform. Overall, we’re not far off from the inflation worries Isaac described a few weeks ago.

One woman says:

“Our country needs to look at what we really value. We should value our youngest learners,” Cover said. “Our youngest kids should be cared for and educated in settings that are no less than what they receive in K-12 school districts.”

Amen. But our youngest learners don’t vote, and our oldest do. There’s a cliche in economics and politics that goes something like, “Don’t tell me what you value, just show me your budget.” A cursory look at both federal and most state budgets reveal what we really value, as opposed to what we say we value.

This post first appeared on Grant Writing Confidential. Call us at 800.540.8906 for a fast, free fee-quote on any grant writing assignment.

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Grant writers should recognize the real purpose of NOAA’s “Environmental Literacy Program”

Most social and human service agencies probably won’t notice the recently published National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funding opportunity for the “Environmental Literacy Program: Increasing community resilience to extreme weather & climate change” program—how many nonprofits are tracking NOAA, which is probably doing interesting work that is nonetheless not relevant to a typical nonprofit’s workflow? But the “Environmental Literacy Program” is different, and those same social and human service agencies should slow down and look at this one, because the program has $5 million available for 12 grants up to $500,000 to have local community members “participate in formal and/or informal education experiences that develop their knowledge, skills, and confidence” that will help them become knowledgeable about environmental issues.” Oh yeah? What’s that mean, in practice?

Smart nonprofit executive directors who read this description will sit up straighter and think, “walkin’ around money,” because the rest of the description says participants will do things like “participate in formal and/or informal education experiences that develop their knowledge, skills, and confidence to: 1) reason about the ways that human and natural systems interact globally and locally.” In other words, a grantee for this program is nominally going to do some outreach and education, neither of which will be measured. In practice, a grantee will hire a few staff, like outreach workers and peer educators, who are (of course, of course!) going to do some environmental literacy—but they’re also going to be talking to people about what else they need. If there’s a class of 15 low-income youth officially getting “environmental literacy education,” and one mentions that her mom lost her job because the kid’s little brother needs to be watched during the day, the program staff is going to try to hook mom up with a Head Start slot and other supportive services. How else can one stretch these amorphous dollars? Well, environmental education is going to involve practicing reading skills (“What does this sentence about carbon emissions differences between bikes and cars imply?”). A canny nonprofit may do “environmental literacy” and per-capitated tutoring services paid for by a state or county at the same time, using the same staff person. Or, a nonprofit that is losing a grant to provide healthcare navigation services for Medicaid and insurance exchanges may re-train “Healthcare Navigators” to instead become “environmental literacy specialists,” and part of the intake flow for the environmental literacy education will involve checking the status of health insurance: are some participants eligible for Medicaid but not enrolled? Time to enroll them, and make sure their families are on the rolls of the local FQHC. As we’ve written about before walkin’ around money grants are very important because they become the glue that holds the agency together and if effect can be a form of paying for indirect costs.

The funding agency—NOAA—for this program may be unusual, but the ends to which the money will be put are not. This is also the kind of grant opportunity that’s easy to miss, but that we include in our email grant newsletter. Executive directors know that grants like “Environmental Literacy Education” help the doors stay open and the staff stay employed. The official purposes and the true purposes of the grant may differ.

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Inflation poses potentially major challenges for nonprofits and their budgets

The United States is currently experiencing the highest measured inflation rate since the early ’80s, although it may have moderated a bit recently. We see this in our business—all of our many software-as-a-service (“SaaS” in tech nomenclature) subscriptions have gone up by at least 10% in the past six months, our costs for consumable supplies and equipment have also risen, and anyone who’s been to the used car lot, supermarket, etc., sees it in their daily lives. Still, while there are many articles on inflation in the media, I’ve yet to read one that discusses the significant and deleterious impact of inflation on nonprofits. I was the Executive Director of the Hollywood-Wilshire Fair Housing Council in the late ’70s, and then a full-time grant writer, so I experienced first-hand hyper inflation. Back then, we learned quickly that budgets had to account for inflation, and inflation expectations affected everything we did.

As we’ve written many times, most nonprofits depend on only four revenue streams, no matter how big or small the nonprofit: grants, fee-for-service contracts / third-party reimbursements, fund raising / donations, and, for a few, membership dues. A tiny number of nonprofits have endowments, but, if you’re Princeton or the Met, you don’t really have the problems and challenges normal nonprofits do. Inflation will negatively all of these streams:

  • Grants: Inflation will have the biggest impact on grants. When a nonprofit gets a grant award, the award is based on the proposed budget, and the proposed budget may be modified somewhat during the contract negotiation process. Still, the grant will be a fixed amount, either annually or for the budget period, and grant contracts rarely, if ever, include a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) provision. If the grant is, for example, $500,000 annually for five years, and inflation runs at 5% per year, the last year of the grant is going to be much harder to implement than the first.* While it’s usually possible to get approval to move money among budget line items, you can’t go to your program officer and say, “Hey, we now have to pay our Outreach Workers $20/hour because they can make $18/hour at McDonalds” or “our rent went up by $500/month” to get relief. You’re stuck (or a similar, six-letter word that starts with “f” and ends with “ed”). Because inflation has been low, most nonprofit Executive Directors and Boards have never experienced rapid inflation. Not much can be done with existing grants, but in writing future grants, it’ll be critical to propose budgets and services taking into account anticipated inflation. Since an estimated 10% of the American economy is conducted by nonprofits, multiply the impact of inflationary thinking by thousands of nonprofits. The Federal Reserve had to raise interest rates to 20% in the early ’80s to break the inflationary cycle, and that could happen again.
  • Fee-for-Service Contracts and Third-Party Reimbursements: Unlike grants, fee-for-service contracts for things like foster care, home healthcare, some substance abuse treatment, etc., typically reimburse nonprofits at a specific rate for services rendered, which are often capitated (“per head”) or a fixed price for a unit of service rendered. Like grants, such contracts will not usually have built-in COLA provisions. If the contract is based a capitated rate or unit of service provided, inflation will quickly screw this up. A nonprofit may be able to renegotiate contract rates, since in cases where specialized services are provided (e.g., foster care), the contracting agency may need the nonprofit more than the nonprofit needs the contract. Third-party reimbursements, like Medicaid for FQHCs, are even more problematic, as these cannot not be renegotiated and there will be a lag before rates catch up with inflation, if they ever do.
  • Fund Raising / Donations: Let’s say tickets for your nonprofit’s annual “Gala” have been $100 for the last five years. Due to inflation (e.g. venue rent, food, celebrity honorariums/goody bags, etc., cost increases), you may need to charge $150 to net enough money to make the exercise worthwhile. Some number of your supporters will be priced out, if their own wages or investment income aren’t keeping up. Back in my Fair Housing days, most of our fund raising involved overpriced tickets to plays and concerts, Christmas card sales, etc., and, as inflation went up, we netted less and less money. The same is true for donations; as folks’ real incomes are depressed due to inflation, they’re likely to donate less and the amount they donate will be worth less to the nonprofit. Essentially, this becomes a downward spiral, which caused me to start writing more grants to keep the Fair Housing staff on board and the lights on.
  • Membership Dues: A few nonprofits like environmental organizations or Boys and Girls Clubs, are able to charge membership dues. Like with fund raising and donations, however, inflation will make these agencies need to raise their dues to preserve their “buying power,” but dues increases will likely run into resistance from their members. Many members also likely cancelled during the pandemic; Jake had a YMCA gym membership that he cancelled in April 2020 and never restarted. Inflation erodes real incomes as people’s salaries buy less stuff and wage increases typically lag inflation increases. So, membership dues are easier to cut from a family’s budget that say new school clothes for the kids.

Nimble nonprofits will plan for inflation now, just as smart countries planned for pandemics before the pandemic hit. A good strategy is to seek grants that offer “walking around money.” These are grants for nebulous, rather than specific, services and in effect can be used to support other staff and indirect costs. It’s also important to get a Federally Approved Indirect Cost Rate or include a de minimus indirect rate (10%) in your grant budget, if the RFP allows this. Nonprofits will want and need grant revenue that isn’t tied to providing specific services.

Nonprofits that don’t realize the world is quickly changing due to inflation will be in for a rude awakening. As Bette Davis says in the wonderful 1950 comedy All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”


* While one can include COLA increases in grant budgets (e.g., 3% annual salary increases), this doesn’t help, because the maximum grant amount is usually fixed. Furthermore, complex budgets violate Seliger + Associates’ basic advice to use the KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid—or “Sally” if you want to be nice) method in grant writing when possible.

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Links: The hospital monopoly problem, the housing construction problem, and more problems (and some good news)!

* “Hospitals Have Started Posting Their Prices Online. Here’s What They Reveal.” That headline isn’t great, and a lot of hospitals aren’t yet posting prices, because they’ve not been forced to. Still, price transparency should aid in lowering healthcare costs. See also “Hospitals and Insurers Didn’t Want You to See These Prices. Here’s Why,” which is outrageous, but also fascinating. While most people who haven’t had to deal with a mammoth, unexpected healthcare bill, preliminary data show that “hospitals are charging patients wildly different amounts for the same basic services: procedures as simple as an X-ray or a pregnancy test.”

* “A City’s Only Hospital Cut Services. How Locals Fought Back. Apollo-owned LifePoint is embroiled in a dispute in central Wyoming that now stretches to Washington.” Why are the healthcare prices too damn high? Healthcare is the field with real monopoly problems: at least federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) offer alternatives for primary care.

* “ The Housing Market Is Crazier Than It’s Been Since 2006: Limited inventory, low interest rates and bidding wars are driving prices sky-high. ‘It’s just taken a little bit of the joy out of the process.’” We need to build a lot more housing and liberalize zoning laws, so that we’re not stuck in a negative, single-family-only equilibrium—which is where the vast majority of the country is right now.

* “College Enrollment Slid This Fall, With First-Year Populations Down 16%.” One wonders if this will lead to lower tuition costs, but likely not as colleges seem to ignore supply and demand issues.

* “Large variation in earnings returns among postgraduate degrees, with returns of more than 15% for masters in business and law, but negative returns for many arts and humanities courses.” Getting most kinds of masters degrees is a bad choice.

* “The ‘Target Husk’ in Hollywood Opens at Last, 12 Years After Work Began.” We don’t want to collect too many stories about California’s dysfunctions, but this one is impressive: “While the project was supported by then-Councilman Eric Garcetti and a number of community members who turned out at planning meetings, some residents weren’t impressed with the plans. Just weeks after the council’s approval, two lawsuits were filed. While independent, both complaints made similar accusations: that the city had violated rules in granting Target several variances, that the structure was too tall, and that the proposal failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.” If you are wondering why California can’t build transit and lacks affordable housing, this story is a microcosm for those larger issues. Snake Plisken knew this decades ago in Escape from Los Angeles, one of Isaac’s favorite b-movies.

* Stripe now offers carbon sequestration services. Cool!

* Phoenix, the Capital of Sprawl, Gets a Radically Car-Free Neighborhood. The story concerns Culdesac’s development, which sounds incredibly charming.

* “Is This the End of College as We Know It? For millions of Americans, getting a four-year degree no longer makes sense. Here’s what could replace it.”

* “Intellectual Freedom and the Culture Wars.” Compatible with my experiences.

* The NSF has an RFP out called “Smart and Connected Communities:” I find the implication that most communities are, by apparent contrast, dumb and disconnected to be notable.

* Why Ne York’s mob mythology endures.

* “Reinventing Racism—A Review.” Something is likely to replace the college system as we know it.

* Jesse Singal’s book The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills is coming out soon: you’ll see many social and human service programs implicitly mentioned in it.

* “Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, JPMorgan End Health-Care Venture Haven: Company had targeted innovations in primary care, insurance coverage, prescription drug costs.” In other words, healthcare reform is so hard that even Amazon doesn’t think it can do it.

* “WhatsApp gives users an ultimatum: Share data with Facebook or stop using the app.” Time to switch to Signal?

* “The People the Suburbs Were Built for Are Gone:” on efforts to build places that are good for humans to live.

* “I helped build ByteDance’s censorship machine.” ByteDance is the parent company of TikTok.

* “Oregon Is Blazing a Psychedelic Trail: A very promising mental health experiment is taking shape in the West.”

* “Telemedicine Will Be Great After Covid, Too: Pandemic-fueled innovations like remote consultation and licensing reform are good for doctors, patients and public health.” That would be nice.

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“Fast Grants,” slow grants, HRSA grants, and COVID-19

In “What We Learned Doing Fast Grants,” Patrick Collison, Tyler Cowen, and Patrick Hsu do something I can’t recall ever seeing any funder, foundation or government, do: write a post-mortem on their giving process and describe what the process has taught them. Their second sentence says, “From the beginning, the institutional response has been lethargic.” I can’t recall ever seeing any funder, foundation or government, emphasize speed: most emphasize process. Speed is rarely a consideration in most grant making efforts—though it should be. Presumably grants are being made to address some critical issue, but what’s being left undone, based on slowness? Most federal grant proposals have an evaluation section, but few, if any, federal funders appear to evaluate themselves.

Most grants, from a funder’s perspective, are about signaling and covering one’s potential downside risk—a point I’ve seen few others make. That works sub-optimally, but seemingly well enough, in normal times. In times of crisis, though, the patterns and habits developed in normal times can be not only dysfunctional, but disastrous. I don’t think the average funder or applicant is much attuned to this issue, which makes me pessimistic about change. Yet the COVID-19 epidemic shows that the costs of overall bureaucratic lethargy is high:

we found that scientists — among them the world’s leading virologists and coronavirus researchers — were stuck on hold, waiting for decisions about whether they could repurpose their existing funding for this exponentially growing catastrophe.” Essentially, no one would, or could, make decisions. Tech companies have evolved the concept of the “directly responsible individual” (DRI): something that government strives not to identify. Without a DRI, no one can be blamed. Notice: “About 10 days after having the original idea, we launched.

The phrase “tech companies have evolved” is key here: evolution is built into the nature of private companies, because the badly managed ones die. One good thing about the nonprofit grant system is that a sufficiently dysfunctional nonprofit will also die, and grant making offers a feedback loop, however tenuous. Universities, though, rarely die. Do they reform? Some of the statements are grimly comical, like: “For example, SalivaDirect, the highly successful spit test from Yale University, was not able to get timely funding from its own School of Public Health, even though Yale has an endowment of over $30 billion.” So while I’ve been critical of government, and the authors are implicitly as well, universities don’t come out looking good either.

The authors report:

“We found it interesting that relatively few organizations contributed to Fast Grants. The project seemed a bit weird and individuals seemed much more willing to take the ‘risk’. (That said, a few institutions did contribute substantial amounts, and we’re very grateful to those that did.)”

I’m not aware of any large foundations that have attempted anything similar, although some likely have, and I don’t know about them. Most grant funding comes from the federal government and, because of the federal government’s sheer size, will for the foreseeable future. Foundations and corporate giving sources have their place—and it’s an important place, as Fast Grants demonstrates—but, barring some kind of major change, we’re unlikely to ever see such sources surpass government grants. The authors say: “[T]here are probably too few smart administrators in mainstream institutions trusted with flexible budgets that can be rapidly allocated without triggering significant red tape or committee-driven consensus.” They’re right.

If you’re interested in the behavior of institutions during the pandemic—which is to say, institutional failure during the pandemic—Michael Lewis’s book The Premonition: A Pandemic Story is excellent. Most government institutions were and perhaps are too used to “business as usual” to respond to business not as usual. FQHCs reacted better than most parts of government, but were hobbled by the usual problems of conflicting information and lack of access to personal protection equipment (PPE) in the early stages of the pandemic.

I’m unaware of any comprehensive accounting of the CDC’s actions or lack thereof during the pandemic, especially one that names names. Most of us know the CDC failed, but not the specifics of the organization’s internal workings. Fast Grants was and is an effort to compensate for government failures and slowness.

In non-emergency situations, science funding can work somewhat well. The Department of Energy’s ARPA-E programs have, going back for more than a decade, accelerated the transition towards low-carbon energy solutions (and we’ve written a lot of ARPA-E grants and SBIRs): but making those decisions slowly won’t kill hundreds of thousands of people, and leave millions hospitalized.

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The 3-point revolution in basketball: a lesson for grant seekers and grant writers

I’m old enough to remember the time (not that long ago) when the most important player on most basketball teams was the low-post man, often a back-to-basket center, like George Mikan (the original), Kareem, Wilt, Shaq, etc. That was upended a few years ago with the 3-point shot revolution pioneered by the Golden State Warriors (think Seth Curry, Klay Thompson, etc.). The 3-point shot was added in 1979, but it took basketball experts almost 40 years to figure out that it’s more efficient for players to take more 3-point shots than 2-point shots, even if the shooting percentage for 3-pointers is lower. Maybe humans are less rational than the classical model suggests, if it took so long for teams to optimize for a change, even in a relatively small, controlled environment like pro basketball.

Greater efficiency is achieved by 3-point shooting even if fewer balls technically go through the hoop: we can apply a similar idea or set of ideas to grant writing. It’s more efficient for a nonprofit to submit more proposals rather than spending too much time and resources polishing a smaller number of proposals. We’ve been through many client-induced “polishing” and extensive “editing” exercises with proposals, and they typically generate diminishing returns. Imagine the Lakers rebounding at the Jazz basket and having to take a shot at their end within the 24 second shot clock: the point guard could spend 22 seconds working the ball into a low-post player, who (hopefully) takes a high percentage shot, or the point guard could quickly dribble to the 3-point line, hand off to the shooting guard who takes a 3-point shot at the 6 second mark. While the completion percentage is much lower, this results in many more possessions and opportunities to shoot and score.

In grant seeking, a nonprofit could have its grant writer work tirelessly to polish one grant proposal or have the grant writer do a credible, but maybe not perfect, job on three proposals during the same “grant writing shot clock.” The second approach is likely to produce more funded grants than the first approach, largely because you’re taking more shots on goal. As hockey GOAT Wayne Gretzky famously put it, “I missed 100% of the shots I didn’t take.” Moreover, there’s a lot of noise in the grant evaluation process, just as there is in dating, jobs, and many other human endeavors. The people who succeed most in dating or jobs typically try a lot of different things, knowing that many possible romantic prospects will not like them, for whatever internal reason, and the same is true of employers.

In grant writing terms, and as we periodically blog about, “many shots” means avoiding the perils of perfectionism. It doesn’t matter how perfect the proposal is if you miss the deadline. Also, it’s best to understand that grant reviewers will not study your proposal like the Talmud. At most, the reviewers, who are likely reading dozens of proposals, might spend a half hour reviewing your 40-page opus. As long as the proposal is technically correct and tells a compelling story, it’s probably good enough, since funding decisions go well beyond the proposal itself, including such unknowable considerations as location (urban vs. rural), target population, ethnicity, number of similar applicants, and, the old standby, politics.* There’s likely a pin map in the Under Assistant Secretary’s office to figure out which high scoring proposals will actually be funded (too many in red state Texas, then let’s move a couple to purple state Arizona in anticipation of the 2022 midterms).

Like NBA players who practice long hours to improve their 3-point shooting, your grant writer should be able to get better and faster at writing proposals. Writing proposals, though, is a job that’s hard and drives many grant writers or prospective grant writers mad, or encourages them to leave the business—which is why we have the business we do.


  • At least with federal programs, and large state programs, this is almost never any RFPs of the “let me give you $10,000 in unmarked bills, or bitcoin” variety, but rather of the “Texas is getting five grants, and California zero? That needs to be better balanced” variety.
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The latest Service Area Competitions (SAC) from HRSA are here, and the FQHC Shuffle

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

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

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

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

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