Links: Don’t steal the grant money, where the jobs are, fun grant programs, ameliorating homelessness, and more!

* Don’t embezzle grant funds. If your organization gets grant funding but can’t carry out the proposed services, just admit it and give the money back—or at least stop taking the money. This ought to go without saying and without federal prosecutors getting involved. And, an excellent way of meeting the local US Attorney is to steal grant funds. Some grantees find themselves unable to execute the grant-funded activity, and, while that isn’t optimal, it is okay.

* We have a massive truck driver shortage, and pay is increasing, albeit too slowly, given that shortage. Contrary to the hype, we still appear to be quite far from automating trucking and many other in-demand jobs.

* “There’s a high cost to making drugs more affordable for Americans.” Almost no one is talking about this. We can likely force the cost of today’s drugs and treatments lower—but at the cost of not having new drugs and treatments tomorrow. This seems like a poor tradeoff to me, although that’s a philosophical point. The interesting thing is that no one advocating for price controls admits the tradeoff.

* “Resistance to Noncompete Agreements Is a Win for Workers.” This is an area where the left and right are aligned: the left worries about worker rights, and the right (putatively) worries about free markets. Banning both is a win for left or right.

* My favorite recent grant program: “Supporting Economic Empowerment in the Pakistan Film Industry.” We really want to be hired to write a proposal for this one!

* “Fears grow over ‘food swamps’ as drugstores outsell major grocers: With CVS selling more groceries than Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s combined, researchers fear food ‘deserts’ are becoming ‘swamps’ of processed food.” Another handy proposal term. Both Isaac and I have noticed the expanding food selection at local drug stores.

* More Millennials Are Dying ‘Deaths of Despair,’ as Overdose and Suicide Rates Climb. See also the book Lost Connections.

* “Americans Need More Neighbors: A big idea in Minneapolis points the way for other cities desperately in need of housing.” Obvious but needs to be repeated, as bad land zoning is at the root of many problems in individual cities and America as a whole today. We feel some of the effects when we work on projects like Prop HHH proposals in Los Angeles. If it’s not possible to build a sufficient amount of new housing, then many actors are going to bid up the price of existing housing, and homeless service providers are rarely the top bidder.

* “Los Angeles Is in Crisis. So Why Isn’t It Building More Housing? Rising rents are feeding a surge in homelessness.” The Atlantic is now on the beat Seliger + Associates has been covering for years. These links are congruent with the links immediately above.

* “An Addiction Crisis Disguised as a Housing Crisis: Opioids are fueling homelessness on the West Coast.” Or, as I’d put it, “Both at once, and interacting with each other.”

* The Machiavelli of Maryland: Edward Luttwak is adviser to presidents, prime ministers – and the Dalai Lama. Hugely entertaining, and via MR.

* “Why Transparency on Medical Prices Could Actually Make Them Go Higher.” I’ve long been a price-transparency proponent, but maybe I’m wrong.

* “Housing crisis: Why can’t California pass more housing legislation?” This is much of the reason homelessness is increasing in California: it’s almost illegal to build housing for humans.

* “Why mention the Affordable Care Act (ACA) when Democrats can debate shiny new Medicare-for-all?” I post this not for the political valence but for the discussion of what has and has not changed in healthcare over the last decade; in many ways, there’s been less change than both ACA proponents hoped for and opponents feared.

* Why Are U.S. Drivers Killing So Many Pedestrians? “If anything else—a disease, terrorists, gun-wielding crazies—killed as many Americans as cars do, we’d regard it as a national emergency.” Maybe the automotive era was a terrible, murderous mistake.

* “Progressive Boomers Are Making It Impossible For Cities To Fix The Housing Crisis: Residents of wealthy neighborhoods are taking extreme measures to block much-needed housing and transportation projects.” Not far from what you’ve been reading here for years, but the news is getting out there.

* “Live carbon neutral with Wren: Offset your carbon footprint through a monthly subscription.” Many people wonder what they as individuals can do. Here is one answer.

* “The numbers are in: SF homeless population rose 30% since 2017.” While people are slowly but surely linking SF’s terrible zoning rules with its extraordinary homelessness challenges (just like L.A.), the city isn’t moving fast enough to make real changes. Interesting fact: about one in 100 San Francisco “residents” lack a place to live. And there is purported to be more dogs than kids living in SF.

* “FBI investigating tattooed deputy gangs in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.” This is almost unbelievable, but here it is.

* The radical case for teaching kids stuff. Relevant to those of you running early childhood education programs like Head Start and UPK.

* “Seliger + Associates enters grant writing oral history (or something like that).” This is a favorite essay, as since then we’ve seen, many times, our own phrases and proposal structures come back to us, like ships in a bottle dropped at sea that then wash up on our shores.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another piece of the evaluation puzzle: Why do experiments make people unhappy?

The more time you spend around grants, grant writing, nonprofits, public agencies, and funders, the more apparent it becomes that the “evaluation” section of most proposals is only barely separate in genre from mythology and folktales, yet most grant RFPs include requests for evaluations that are, if not outright bogus, then at least improbable—they’re not going to happen in the real world. We’ve written quite a bit on this subject, for two reasons: one is my own intellectual curiosity, but the second is for clients who worry that funders want a real-deal, full-on, intellectually and epistemologically rigorous evaluation (hint: they don’t).

That’s the wind-up to “Why Do Experiments Make People Uneasy?“, Alex Tabarrok’s post on a paper about how “Meyer et al. show in a series of 16 tests that unease with experiments is replicable and general.” Tabarrok calls the paper “important and sad,” and I agree, but the paper also reveals an important (and previously implicit) point about evaluation proposal sections for nonprofit and public agencies: funders don’t care about real evaluations because a real evaluation will probably make the applicant, the funder, and the general public uneasy. Not only do they make people uneasy, but most people don’t even understand how a real evaluation works in a human-services organization, how to collect data, what a randomized controlled trial is, and so on.

There’s an analogous situation in medicine; I’ve spent a lot of time around doctors who are friends, and I’d love to tell some specific stories,* but I’ll say that while everyone is nominally in favor of “evidence-based medicine” as an abstract idea, most of those who superficially favor it don’t really understand what it means, how to do it, or how to make major changes based on evidence. It’s often an empty buzzword, like “best practices” or “patient-centered care.”

In many nonprofit and public agencies, evaluations and effectiveness are the same: everyone putatively believes in them, but almost no one understands them or wants real evaluations conducted. Plus, beyond that epistemic problem, even if evaluations are effective in a given circumstance (they’re usually not), they don’t necessarily transfer. If you’re curious about why, Experimental Conversations: Perspectives on Randomized Trials in Development Economics is a good place to start—and this is the book least likely to be read, out of all the books I’ve ever recommended here. Normal people like reading 50 Shades of Grey and The Name of the Rose, not Experimental Conversations.

In the meantime, some funders have gotten word about RCTs. For example, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Assistance’s (BJA) Second Chance Act RFPs have bonus points in them for RCTs. I’ll be astounded if more than a handful of applicants even attempt a real RCT—for one thing, there’s not enough money available to conduct a rigorous RCT, which typically requires paying the control group to follow up for long-term tracking. Whoever put the RCT in this RFP probably wasn’t thinking about that real-world issue.

It’s easy to imagine a world in which donors and funders demand real, true, and rigorous evaluations. But they don’t. Donors mostly want to feel warm fuzzies and the status that comes from being fawned over—and I approve those things too, by the way, as they make the world go round. Government funders mostly want to make congress feel good, while cultivating an aura of sanctity and kindness. The number of funders who will make nonprofit funding contingent on true evaluations is small, and the number willing to pay for true evaluations is smaller still. And that’s why we get the system we get. The mistake some nonprofits make is thinking that the evaluation sections of proposals are for real. They’re not. They’re almost pure proposal world.


* The stories are juicy and also not flattering to some of the residency and department heads involved.

Links: Housing, grant size, the perils of EMRs, the nature of energy, addiction and treatment, and more!

* Death by a thousand clicks: How electronic medical record (EMR) systems went wrong. We’ve written so many proposals involving EMR systems, and yet it seems they’ve had little if any positive impact on the overall landscape, in terms of health or cost.

* “California Has a Housing Crisis. The Answer Is More Housing.” One of these obvious things, yet here we are.

* “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually).”

* “A $20,243 bike crash: Zuckerberg hospital’s aggressive tactics leave patients with big bills. I spent a year writing about ER bills. Zuckerberg San Francisco General has the most surprising billing practices I’ve seen.” Remember how we wrote about the need for price transparency? This is another specific instance of that general point.

* Waymo’s CEO says autonomous cars “will always have constraints.” They are not a panacea for urban transit and are not going to be here in the next five years, and they will likely be weather-dependent.

* Is fusion power much closer to becoming reality than is commonly anticipated? If so, it will solve or substantially ameliorate the world’s energy problems, along with the geopolitical conflicts fueled by the world’s desire for oil.

* “Firms Learn That as They Help Charities, They Also Help Their Brands.” This is firmly “dog bites man” story instead of a “man bites dog” story, but there it is.

* “California will sue Huntington Beach over blocked homebuilding.” Good news.

* “Most People With Addiction Grow Out of It,” something not widely appreciated in the larger culture and a factoid we never include in the many SUD/OUD treatment proposals we write.

* Public Education’s Dirty Secret. Congruent with my experiences.

* “Is the Revolution of 3D-Printed Building Getting Closer?” Let’s hope so, as that would likely substantially decrease construction costs.

* Japanese urbanism and its application to the Anglo-World.

* “Climeworks: The Tiny Swiss Company That Thinks It Can Help Stop Climate Change.” Not just the usual.

* From Literature to Web Development: My first 6 weeks at Lambda School.

* * “A Radically Moderate Answer to Climate Change.” You may be getting tired of reading about nuclear power, yet we still seem as a culture not to be paying attention to it. See also “Nuclear goes retro — with a much greener outlook.”

* “This is Roquette Science: How computerized arugula (aka roquette) farms take over the world.”

* How to Create Reality: “So a funny thing happened on Twitter this week, which almost changed the world a little bit. Someone sent me a beautiful 3-D mockup of a fictional, car-free city of 50,000 people, set in the scenic nook of land* between Boulder, Colorado and Longmont, where I live.”

* “Science, Small Groups, and Stochasticity.” In short, we are doing the structure of science wrong.

* “The corporations devouring American colleges.” Colleges are businesses with extremely good PR and marketing arms.

* “The Streets Were Never Free. Congestion Pricing Finally Makes That Plain..” Seems obvious to me.

* “The antibiotics industry is broken—but there’s a fix.”

* “The 2008 financial crisis completely changed what majors students choose.” How could it not?

* “Lambda, an online school, wants to teach nursing.” Good. Competing with existing schools is a feature, not a bug. See also that other link about Lambda School, above.

* Most of America’s Rural Areas Are Doomed to Decline. Basically, agriculture now accounts for perhaps 2% of the workforce; manufacturing accounts for less than 15% of the workforce, and even as manufacturing has increased in value produced, it hasn’t much increased in jobs.

* “Considerations On Cost Disease‘s” money shot:

So, to summarize: in the past fifty years, education costs have doubled, college costs have dectupled, health insurance costs have dectupled, subway costs have at least dectupled, and housing costs have increased by about fifty percent. US health care costs about four times as much as equivalent health care in other First World countries; US subways cost about eight times as much as equivalent subways in other First World countries.

I worry that people don’t appreciate how weird this is.

“How Jeff Bezos Turned Narrative into Amazon’s Competitive Advantage”

How Jeff Bezos Turned Narrative into Amazon’s Competitive Advantage” should be mandatory reading for anyone in nonprofit and public agencies, because narrative is probably more important for nonprofits than conventional businesses; conventional businesses can succeed by pointing to product-market fit, but nonprofits typically don’t have that metric. Nonprofits have to get their stories out in other ways than profit-loss statements or sales.

Bezos is Amazon’s chief writing evangelist, and his advocacy for the art of long-form writing as a motivational tool and idea-generation technique has been ordering how people think and work at Amazon for the last two decades—most importantly, in how the company creates new ideas, how it shares them, and how it gets support for them from the wider world.

New ideas often emerge from writing—virtually everyone who has ever written anything substantive understands this, yet it remains misunderstood among non-writers. Want to generate new ideas? Require writing. And no, “Powerpoint” does not count:

“The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related,” he writes, “Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”

I’m not totally anti-Powerpoint—I have seen books about how to do it well—but Powerpoint does not substitute for narrative (in most cases). Most people doing Powerpoint have not read Edward Tufte or adequately thought through their rationale for choosing Powerpoint over some other communications genre, like the memo. The other day I did an online grant-writing training session for the state of California for 400 people, and the guy organizing it expected me to do a Powerpoint. I said that using a Powerpoint presentation to teach writing is largely useless (he seemed surprised). Instead, I did a screencast, using a text editor as my main window, in which I solicited project ideas and RFPs germane to the viewers. I picked a couple and began working through the major parts of a typical proposal, showing how I would construct an abstract using the 5Ws and H, and then how I would use those answers to begin fleshing out typical narrative sections in the proposal. Because it was screencast, participants can re-watch sections they find useful. I think having a text document and working with actual sentences is much closer to the real writing process than babbling on about a prepared set of slides with bullet points. The talk was less polished than it would have been if I’d prepared it in advance, but writing is inherently messy and I wanted to deliberately show its messiness. There is no way to avoid this messiness; it’s part of the writing process on a perceptual level. It seems linked to speech and to consciousness itself.

To return to the written narrative point, written narrative also allows the correct tension between individual creativity and group feedback, in a way that brainstorming sessions don’t, as the article explains. Most human endeavors involving group activity require some tension between the individual acting and thinking alone versus being part of a pair or larger group acting in concert. If you are always alone, you lose the advantage of another mind at work. If you are always in a group, you lack the solitude necessary for thinking and never get other people out of your head. Ideal environments typically include some “closed door” space and some “open door” serendipitous interaction. Written narrative usually allows for both.

Nonprofit and public agencies that can’t or won’t produce coherent written documents are not going to be as successful as those that do. They aren’t going to ensure key stakeholders understand their purpose and they’re not going to be able to execute as effectively. That’s not just true in grant writing terms; it’s true in organizational terms. Reading remains at present, the fastest way to transmit information. If you’re not hiring people who can produce good stuff for reading, you’re not effectively generating and using information within your organization.

Coding school is becoming everyone’s favorite form of job training

For many years, construction skills training (often but not always in the form of YouthBuild) was every funder’s and every nonprofit’s favorite form of job training, often supplemented by entry-level healthcare work, but today the skill de jour has switched to software, programming, and/or coding. Case in point: this NYT article with the seductive headline, “Income Before: $18,000. After: $85,000. Does Tiny Nonprofit Pursuit Hold a Key to the Middle Class?” While the article is overwhelming positive, it’s not clear how many people are going to make it through Pursuit-like programs: “Max Rosado heard about the Pursuit program from a friend. Intrigued, he filled out an online form, and made it through a written test in math and logic…” (emphasis added). In addition, “Pursuit, by design, seeks people with the ‘highest need’ and potential, but it is selective, accepting only 10 percent of its applicants.” So the organization is cherry-picking its participants.

There’s nothing wrong with cherry-picking participants and most social and human service programs do just that, in the real world. As grant writers who live in the proposal world, we always state in job training proposals that the applicant (our client) will never cherry-pick trainees, even though they do. In the article, important details about cherry-picking are stuck in the middle, below the tantalizing lead, so most people will miss them. I’m highlighting them because they bring to the fore an important fact in many social and human service programs: there is a tension between access and success. Truly open-access programs tend to have much lower success rates; if everyone can enter, many of those who do will not have the skills or conscientiousness necessary to succeed. If an organization cherry-picks applicants, like Pursuit does, it will generally get better success metrics, but at the cost of selectivity.

Most well-marketed schools succeed in “improving” their students primarily through selection effects. That’s why the college-bribery scandal is so comedic: no one involved is worried about their kid flunking out of school. Schools are extremely selective in admissions and not so selective in curriculum or grading. Studies have consistently suggested that where you go to school matters much less than who you are and what you learn. Such studies don’t stop people from treating degrees as status markers and consumption goods, but it does imply that highly priced schools are often not worth it. Thorstein Veblen tells us a lot more about the current market for “competitive” education than anyone else.

My digs at well-marketed schools are not gratuitous to the main point: I favor Pursuit and Pursuit-like organizations and we have worked for some of them. In addition, it’s clear to pretty much anyone who has spent time teaching in non-elite schools that the way the current post-secondary education system is set up is nuts and makes little sense; we need a wider array of ways for people to learn the skills they need to thrive. If Pursuit and Pursuit-like programs are going to yield those skills, we should work towards supporting more of them.

It is almost certainly not existing schools that are going to boost more people into the middle class, as they’ve become overly bureaucratic, complacent, and sclerotic; see also Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education on this subject. While many individuals within those systems may want change, they cannot align all the stakeholders to create change from within. Some schools, especially in the community-college sector, are re-making themselves, but many are not. In the face of slowness, however, nimble nonprofits and businesses should move where this grant wave is going.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Price transparency in healthcare?, collaboration, debt, the good life, and more!

* “A Billionaire Pledges to Fight High Drug Prices, and the Industry Is Rattled.” This would be very good: healthcare costs are eating the world.

* Collaboration Again: A Story From the Trenches.

* “GM’s electric bikes unveiled.” File under “Headlines I never thought I’d see outside of The Onion.”

* “Cultural barriers still stand in the way of HPV vaccine uptake.” Most importantly, “Every year, nearly 34,000 cases of cancer in the US can be attributed to HPV, the human papillomavirus. The CDC estimates that vaccination could prevent around 93 percent of those cancers.” We should be getting vaccinated. This is an easy healthcare win, and a way to easily reduce healthcare costs.

* “Six Secrets from the Planner of Sevilla’s Lightning Bike Network.” Reducing car usage is another easy cost win. There are two ways to improve well-being: increase incomes and decrease costs. Almost no one talks about the latter. We should talk more about it.

* “Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year.” An evergreen article. Imagine if 70,000 people were killed by opioid overdoes in the United States every year. Oh wait, that’s actually happening too.

* Single-Family Home Zoning vs. ‘Generation Priced Out.’

* “Doctors Are Fed Up With Being Turned Into Debt Collectors.” Maybe we ought to go back to a world of transparent pricing, paid in advance?

* “Why Cities Must Tackle Single-Family Zoning.” Useful for anyone who thinks their rent is too damn high (like I do).

* “Oil Demand for Cars Is Already Falling: Electric vehicles are displacing hundreds of thousands of barrels a day, exceeding expectations.” We get too little good news; here is some.

* “The Creation of Deviance,” note: “The activities of university administrators may also fit a larger pattern, one in which agents of social control readily create the need for their own services.”

* Scott Alexander: “Preschool: I Was Wrong.” See also us on Universal Pre-Kindergarten and Early Head Start (EHS).

* “Wall Street Rule for the #MeToo Era: Avoid Women at All Cost.” It’s like no one imagined unintended consequences, or understands that incentives affect behavior.

* Greenhouse Gas Emissions Rise Like a ‘Speeding Freight Train’ in 2018.

* “‘Forget About the Stigma’: Male Nurses Explain Why Nursing Is a Job of the Future for Men.” I wrote an essay, “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school,” that also covers germane points.

* “Workers are ghosting their employers like bad dates?” Ghosting is bad for the ghoster and ghostee, in my view.

* Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers. I liked Nashville.

* Why are construction costs rising?

* Repl.it: Get your ideas out there. What the kids are apparently using to learn how to code.

* 2018 Was the Year of the Scooter?

* The World’s Leading Electric-Car Visionary Is Wan Gang, not Elon Musk?

* “Two Roads for the New French Right,” a much deeper, more substantive piece than the headline implies.

* Hospital prices are about to go public. Good news if true. We’ve written quite a bit, perhaps too much, on the topic.

* “A tour of elementary OS, perhaps the Linux world’s best hope for the mainstream.” It is strange to me that Linux still has so many problems for mainstream use and users.

* “Retraining Programs Fall Short for Some Workers: The goal was to help displaced workers gain skills in new industries. But studies show people are earning less or failing to find work.” This will not shock existing training providers. Re-training is hard, and the older the workers being re-trained, the harder the process is. Careers also tend to have arcs. At some point, if haven’t ascended sufficiently, you’re unlikely to ever build up the ability to do so. I think about myself and writing: it took me about ten years of continuous practice to become a competent writer. Ten years. And that seems to be a common fact for highly skilled people. Medical school + residency is seven years. Law school is only three years, but most lawyers take another five or so years to get really good at their jobs.

* Nuclear energy is key to saving the planet.

* “How economic theory and the Netflix Prize could make research funding more efficient.” The journal article is here. Looks like a good idea to us: some signaling is inevitably wasteful but may also be useful. In the grant world, however, there is far too much wasteful signaling. In this respect, the grant world resembles the heavily-marketed college admissions world.

More on developing federal grant budgets: Stay in the proposal world, not the operations world

This is an update to our popular post “Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets.” While that post provides a step-by-step description of how to develop a federal grant proposal budget, it assumes that the budget preparer understands the difference between the real world and the proposal world. Experts in real-world budgets are often too sophisticated for the proposal world.

When we’re hired to complete a federal proposal, we send our client an Excel template that models the SF-424 budget form found in all grants.gov WorkSpace applications. Recently, we’ve been working for a series of large nonprofits and public agencies that have skilled Chief Financial Officers (CFOs). Most of these CFOs, however, have little or no understanding of proposal budgeting, as they’re accustomed to detailed operational budgets. Yet they’re often charged with filling out a proposal budget.

Even if we discuss the proposal world with the CFO first, the completed template we receive back is usually way too detailed, because it reflects actual program operations, not the idealized proposal world. This not only makes preparing the associated budget narrative/justification far too complex, but also means the budget presentation won’t display well when saved as the required .pdf for attachment to the kit file. The budget will also confuse proposal reviewers (which is never a good idea while being very easy to do), as most of them are not accountants, CFOs, etc.

So how do you keep your budget anchored in the proposal world?

  • Keep the number the number of line items short—around, say, 20. If you use 40 line items, the spreadsheet bloat will be very difficult to format in a way that is readable and meets RFP formatting requirements (unless you’re a wiz at Excel, which almost no one—including us and the CFOs we encounter—is).
  • Only include staff and line items that will be charged to the grant (and match, if required).
  • Personnel line items must match the staffing plan in the narrative. Resist the urge to load up the budget with small FTEs (2% to 20%) of lots of existing administrators/managers, as this will make your agency look bureaucratic (not a good idea, even if it is) and clog the budget narrative. Large numbers of small FTEs are what a federally approved Indirect Cost Rate is for. If your agency has at least one existing federal grant, get an approved Indirect Cost Rate, which is not that difficult, and many of your proposal budgeting woes will be solved.
  • Unless the RFP requires it, don’t line-item fringe benefits. These can usually be lumped together as a the percent of salaries your fringe benefit package equates to. For most nonprofits, this will be in the 18% to 30% range. Anything above 30% will probably generate unwanted attention from grant reviewers, even if that is what you pay. If the fringe benefit rate is relatively high, this should be explained in the budget narrative (e.g. lower salaries, high local costs, need to retain staff, etc.).
  • For multi-year budgets, don’t include expected yearly salary increases or annual inflators; this is too detailed and will, again, result in a very complicated budget justification. Inflation in the current environment is low. In a high-inflation environment like the ’70s, this advice would be different.
  • Regarding the “Other” Object Cost Category on the SF-424A, it’s unnecessary to break down line items too far. For example, lump together facility costs (e.g., rent, utilities, security, janitorial, maintenance, etc.), or communications (e.g., landline and cell phones, mailings, etc.) into single line items. Try to consolidate.
  • If feasible, try to make the total annual budget level for each project year. This can be a bit challenging, if, for example, the project involves start-up costs (e.g., buying staff furniture, hiring a web designer/social media consultant, etc.) in year one. The way to do this is to increase some other line item(s) in the out years to keep the budget level. Level annual budgets will make the budget easier to write and understand.
  • Make one line item your plug number to enable reconciliation to the maximum allowed grant and/or level annual amounts in multi-year grants. The plug number should be in the Other Object Cost Category and could be advertising, communications, or similar line items that look OK with an odd number in different years. Reviewers are aware of plug numbers and won’t hold reasonable plug numbers against you.

The proposal budget is just a financial plan that supports the proposed project activities, not a detailed expression of an operational situation. Following the notice of grant award, your agency will have to negotiate the actual budget in the contract anyway.

In most cases, the grantee can move 10% of the total grant among line items by notifying the federal program officer or requesting larger budget changes to reflect operations in the real world as the project is implemented. Unless you ask to swap an Outreach Worker for a lease on a Tesla for the Executive Director, the program officer will likely go along with your plan, as most simply don’t care what you do so long as the grant doesn’t end up in BuzzFeed, Politico, or the New York Times. Program officers want to make sure you are reasonable implementing a proposed project, but they don’t care about relatively small changes in operations-level detail. Fighting over small details in a proposal budget is a foolish thing to do, as is including small line items. Get the big picture right and the details will shake out during implementation.