The 2020 presidential election and grants: A tsunami of RFPs is likely, no matter who wins

America is a day away from what one of my adult kids calls, “this shit-show election.” A bit harsh for me, but certainly, as Jerry Seinfeld might call it, a Bizzaro World election. Still, from a grant seeker’s or grant writer’s perspective, a tsunami of RFPs is likely roaring toward us.

Despite media speculation, the amount of grant funds available almost inexorably goes up; this is due partially to the fact that the federal budget is a baseline, not a zero-based, system. The budget for the federal FY ’21, which began October 1, is essentially the FY ’20 budget, with a cost of living bump and whatever Congress added for COVID-19 and pet interests. With the possible exception of the first two years of the Reagan administration, I don’t think there’s ever been an actual, substantial reduction in federal discretionary grant spending. When your read the inevitable NYT or Washington Post story following a Republican victory about looming “budget cuts,” what’s usually being proposed is a percentage cut to planned spending increases—not actual cuts.

Despite endless polls and punditry, no one knows how the presidential and congressional elections will turn out. But consider, from a grant-seeking perspective:

    • By almost any measure, 2020 is the Year of Chaos and upper level bureaucrats (GS 14s and 15s) who run federal grant making agencies are both overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis and frozen in place by the last months of this election cycle. Many of the Republican political appointees (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Funny Walks, ect.) are busy updating their resumes, or are busy with clandestine political work. There have been way fewer FY ’21 RFPs issued so far than would normally be the case by this time of year. When the election miasma lifts in a week or two, the federal bureaucracy will be shoveling RFPs out the door to catch up.
    • In the run-up to the elections, the last multi-trillion dollar COVID-19 relief bill wasn’t passed, yet America is experiencing another series of spikes, which will likely lead to more lockdowns and ongoing economic misery. A huge new relief bill will likely pass during the lame duck session, and it will in turn likely be studded with what are called “Christmas ornaments”—special interest funding items placed amid the larger bill components. Some of the basic relief funding, as well as some the ornaments, should result in new discretionary grants—either for existing programs or new ones that Congress dreams up. These RFPs will add to the torrent of already authorized FY ’21 funding.
    • Even if Trump pulls out a victory, there’ll be many new faces in House and especially the Senate, because there are many more contested races than usual this year. It’ll be almost irresistible for the departing members, as well as the ones who survive, to authorize more FY ’21 spending for discretionary grant programs during the lame- duck session. Congress can pass new budget authorization bills at any time, as long as the spending bill starts in the House, and what better time than just before you return home to look for work after losing an election? Almost all polls find, however, that Democrats likely to keep the House, but the Senate is still in tea leaf reading mode.

The coming RFP flood presents real-world challenges for many nonprofits. The first three COVID-19 bills had many programs (meaning, more-or-less automatic funding without an RRP process) for certain types of grant recipients, and especially for healthcare providers like hospitals and FQHCs. This money is running out and, while it has to some extent cushioned the immediate negative impacts of COVID-19, most nonprofit management teams have been thrown into chaos, with disrupted fundraising plans, curtailed local revenue for city/county funded contracts for human services, and layoffs—often at the same time as service demands have increased. Many nonprofits will lack the internal resources or focus to go after new grants, because management is too busy keeping their boat afloat. This is good news for the nonprofits with the energy (or consultants like us) to gin up technically correct grant proposals in next few months, since the competition should be less for any given RFP process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Don’t believe the China hype. Maybe.

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

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

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

* Can philosophy make people generous?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* The new language of telehealth. Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grant writing in another time of civil disturbances

Once again, I find myself writing grant proposals during a time of tragic civil disturbances across America.* My entire life and career have been shadowed by such events. I came of age in the 1960s, a time of extreme social unrest, both race-related—like the 1965 Watts Rebellion—as well as often violent anti-Vietnam protests. I went to my first civil rights march in Paducah, KY in 1965 (my older brother was working for the then-new Job Corps there) and participated in many anti-war marches while in college at the University of Minnesota. As I wrote about in my first GWC post in 2007, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal,” I got my grant writing start working as a community organizer in North Minneapolis in 1972. I grew up in North Minneapolis, when it was a Jewish, trending Black, ghetto, and the community was devastated by what were then called “race riots” in 1967 and 1968. In 1972, my job was to try to get some local businesses going again, as North Minneapolis hadn’t recovered—and, in many ways, it still hasn’t recovered.

In 1992, the genesis of what ultimately became Seliger + Associates was born out of the ashes of the civil disturbances following the Rodney King verdict. I happened to be visiting friends in the Hollywood Hills when the disturbances began, and we could see the fire burning across South LA and Koreatown that night from their deck. Based on my experiences over the years, I assumed that huge amounts of federal grant funds would follow soon, and that it might be a good time to ditch my career as as city-slug community development director and try setting up a grant writing business instead. I did just that in 1993 and discovered that there was indeed a market for good grant writing consultants. The timing was also propitious because the incipient Internet allowed us to work for people across the country in a way that wasn’t possible before it.

Flash forward: in 2014, I wrote a post about about grant writing and the Ferguson, MO civil disturbances in which I noted that grant money follows major incidences of civil unrest. The government only has two real tools to use in this situation: the stick of yet more policing (the problems of which are readily observable in the news) or the carrot of grant funds to help the affected communities recover.

As I write this, civil unrest is unfolding from Minneapolis to NYC, LA, and much of the rest of America, following the obvious, videotaped murder of George Floyd.** These horrific images are juxtaposed with the inspiring images of the first manned SpaceX/NASA launch. It’s very troubling to realize that, while much has changed since I was a high school freshman in 1965, some things haven’t; then, I was listening to Barry McGuire’s huge hit single, “Eve of Destruction“: “You may leave here for four days in space, but when you return it’s the same old place.” The reference is to the Gemini 4 flight and civil rights marches/violence of the era. Feels like we’re poised on another Eve of Destruction.

Unlike Ferguson in 2014 and LA in 1992, today’s situation is more like the huge unrest that followed MLK’s assassination in 1968 in that it has radiated out to more than 40 cities and, after five nights of burning and looting, shows no sign of abating. This is unfolding after months of COVID-19 lockdowns, and those most harmed by both the virus and the lockdowns have been low-income communities of color. I’ve worked in and around these communities for over four decades: when the lockdowns began, I thought and discussed privately (but not in a post) that this could lead to great civil unrest. I wasn’t talking about the gun guys marching in front of state capitols, but rather what erupted last week in Minneapolis. While I couldn’t predict the spark, I suspected civil unrest would follow. Force millions of low-income workers to stay at home in overcrowded housing, while their jobs and incomes evaporate, and this outcome should not be surprising. If it wasn’t George Floyd, it would have been something else. I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time when I was a teen and it rings true today: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water but fire next time.”

The combination of civil unrest and tens of thousands of small businesses closing in places like South Minneapolis and Flatbush in Brooklyn will be devastating for years and possibly decades to come. As noted in a recent New York Times article, “According to one recent poll, nearly 40 percent of adults living in cities have begun to consider moving to less populated areas because of the outbreak. In New York, where I live, roughly 5 percent of the population — or about 420,000 people — have already left.” For the near term, gentrification and densification of cities, big and small, is over.

Still, the twin scourges of COVID-19 and civil unrest will present great grant opportunities for nimble nonprofits, cities, and other public agencies. The three COVID-19 relief bills passed so far are raining over $2 trillion on the country, much in the form of grants, with a fourth bill likely to pass soon. We’ve been writing COVID-19 proposals furiously for two months and know that at least $2.4 million in COVID-related grants we’ve written has already been funded. The inevitable huge increase in available federal grant money, due to the civil unrest, will soon follow. If you run a nonprofit, city department, or school district, once you’re done mourning for George Floyd and recovered from the shock of COVID-19, be ready. The grant waves this time will likely center on primary health care, behavioral health services, workforce development, and economic development. It’s not inconceivable that we’ll eventually address the underlying pathologies that have bedeviled American history since before the country’s founding. But I’ve been hoping for that for decades and it remains elusive.


* For purposes of this post, I’m focusing on the negative aspects of what’s happening, not the legitimate underlying protests against police brutality. I’ll leave the details of those issues to others, while noting that police unions create systemic challenges around dealing with police misconduct; the Supreme Court’s doctrine of qualified immunity is the other challenge. The date stamps on both those links are from years ago; knowledge about these problems has circulated among intellectuals and policy nerds for years.

** On a personal note, I took my Golden Retriever to doggy day care Sunday morning, which I do most Sundays. The store, Posh Pet, is just off the part of Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood that was trashed Saturday night. When I got there, I found this sign in the window: “We have dogs here. Please don’t break window.” The glass door was smashed and the business completely looted. No idea what happened to the dogs being boarded. This small business was barely hanging on, due to COVID-19. Now, it may never reopen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

You’d think there’s no pandemic going on: The FCC shuts down its COVID-19 Telehealth grant submission portal

One of the bigger and more interesting RFPs on the street right now is the FCC’s “COVID-19 Telehealth Program,” which has $200 million available for obvious purposes—but grants are being accepted, reviewed, and approved on a first-come, first-served basis (federal RFPs usually have a fixed due date).* Lots of FQHCs are also implementing, or trying to implement, telehealth programs on the fly, since COVID-19 has hit them with a structural double whammy: patients with COVID-19 need to be isolated as much as possible from other patients, and other patients are avoiding health clinics for fear of catching COVID-19. This has had the unexpected side effect of lowering patient volumes at FQHCs, which, like other healthcare providers, have reacted by laying off staff. You’d intuitively think that, during a pandemic, the need for healthcare staff would expand, but that’s not happened outside of NYC intensive care units.

So the FCC program is designed to help FQHCs and other providers move relatively quickly to telehealth, which may help FQHCs achieve a higher patient volume. On Saturday we were working to backcheck a client’s online FCC application, since it’s our standard practice to make sure that applications are as complete and technically accurate as possible before client upload. But when we tried to log into the FCC’s application site, we were hit by a message telling us that the FCC had closed its application portal for maintenance. Is shutting a site down for “maintenance” still necessary in 2020? The error message felt very 2003, and, as you probably know, we’re in the midst of a pandemic, when every day counts. I guess FCC didn’t get the pandemic memo.

Eventually the site came back up, but its closure seems like a metaphor for many of the challenges we, as a society, are collectively facing from bureaucrats during these strangest of times.

The FCC COVID-19 Telehealth grant program is also unusual because it specifically says that applicants can only buy Internet-connected telehealth equipment—meaning blood pressure cuffs or pulse oximeters that automatically relay information to healthcare providers. I’ve seen budgets for how much these devices cost, and they’re crazy expensive, as most medical devices are. But: did you know that something as simple as an Apple Watch can function as a pulse oximeter—except that FDA regulations are blocking this use? This is the same FDA whose regulations stopped independent labs from rolling out virus testing in February. We try not to link outrage stories here, but it’s hard to read “The Infuriating Story of How the Government Stalled Coronavirus Testing” without being justifiably outraged.

Today, pointless FDA regulations are blocking people from using a relatively cheap and widely available device from being deployed in a medical context. Apple.com lists “Series 5” Apple Watches at $399 and they’re shipping today (there’s been a pulse ox shortage). Our FQHC clients already know this, but pulse oxes are useful for determining whether a COVID-19 patient needs to be hospitalized, or needs supplemental oxygen. Most COVID-19 patients can recover on their own without medical intervention, but low blood oxygenation is a key danger metric: a normal blood oxygenation level is around 95 – 100. If a patient’s oxygenation level consistently falls below 90, that patient likely needs advanced care. Most households have a thermometer, but relatively few have pulse oxes. Many COVID-19 patients are suffering from what doctors are calling “silent hypoxia,” in which the patient is essentially suffocating but doesn’t realize they’re suffocating, and pulse ox data can tell the patient whether they need to go in to see their doc or to an ER. It would be relatively easy for Apple to allow Apple Watch users to link their health data with a healthcare provider, and for the healthcare provider go get an alert if a patient’s blood oxygenation level drops below 92 or 90. Cheap solutions exist but the FDA keeps us from implementing them.


* Other federal departments have been funding similar telehealth-related grants programs: for example, the USDA has $40 million available via the “Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants.” Those grants aren’t due until July 13, however.