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The effects of early childhood education programs don’t look good: a large, randomized pre-kindergarten study

There’s a large, new study out on the “Effects of a statewide pre-kindergarten program on children’s achievement and behavior through sixth grade,” and it’s important and unusual because of its results: it finds that pre-k education doesn’t help later educational or behavioral achievement and, if anything, hurts later student achievement. This study is also significant due to its comprehensiveness; the study follows 3,000 kids, who appear to be randomly assigned to pre-k services or not, and the study follows those kids for a long period of time—at least seven years, it seems, and possibly longer. I’ve not got the full manuscript yet but am seeking a copy. Most education studies are observational, in that they observe two or more cohorts, but they don’t use randomized controls, like this one does, and observational studies are particularly prone to bias. The new study is also pre-registered—that is, the authors say what they’re looking for, what success looks like, and how they’re going to measure success before they get their data. There’s a “replication crisis” in social science and medicine, because it’s possible to torture a positive result out of all sorts of data, and this study avoids most if not all of the common pitfalls.

The study’s abstract says:

Data through sixth grade from state education records showed that the children randomly assigned to attend pre-K had lower state achievement test scores in third through sixth grades than control children, with the strongest negative effects in sixth grade. A negative effect was also found for disciplinary infractions, attendance, and receipt of special education services, with null effects on retention

Wow: that’s counter to the intuition of most people, politicians involved in early childhood education, and “common wisdom.” The study is not the last word—no study is—but it is persuasive. For most practitioners, this won’t be immediately relevant, because Head Start and Pre-K For All aren’t likely to see real changes in the near term. But we may see the political winds change over time.

This post is not a policy recommendation: as grant writers, we don’t do policy recommendations, although I do think a lot of students are in college who’d be better served by alternatives, and yet society as a whole hasn’t yet figured that out or properly grokked it, even as total student loans owed passes $1 trillion. But, if America wants to do some form of daycare for all (“universal daycare”), as is proposed in the stalled Build Back Better legislation, that’s a fine goal and we should call it that, instead of pretending it’s possible to have academic, “educational” experiences for the vast majority of kids under the age of five. Four-year olds are not falling “behind,” because, except in the case of unusual prodigies, there is nowhere to fall behind. If anything, excess regimentation and premature optimization are likely to be bigger problems than “falling behind.”

I’ve long been somewhat suspect of early childhood “education”—not from studies per se, but from being around small children. Most don’t have the executive function to do much in the way of what might be called “education.” Trying to create “education” in the sense that we see with older kids or adults seems improbable for very young children. The veneer of “education” using “curriculums” like “The Creative Curriculum” and “The Creative Curriculum GOLD” that we cite in grant proposals seems faintly ridiculous; whether or not a four-year old can identify different kinds of leaves or songs or animals by name doesn’t seem to indicate how that four-year old will do in middle or high school, or college. But there’s a lot of social and economic anxiety around class, economic achievement, and housing; we’ve collectively adopted policies focused on creating scarcity, not abundance, and that’s resulted in intense, and probably pointlessly intense, competition in many fields.

Trying to indoctrinate small children into social, academic, and economic competition culture seems difficult to me, and yet that’s been one response to scarcity policies. Making early childhood teachers, who are really more like caregivers in the classroom, have degrees or advanced degrees seems like a way of raising the cost of childcare without providing much in benefits; everyday human experience seems to be sufficient for taking care of small kids. Maybe small kids are learning cultural markers and such in the early early childhood education setting that will help them later, but, if so, that later help isn’t showing up in the data. There’s a lot of desire to make education a panacea for various kinds of social and economic inequality, but that desire keeps running up against uncomfortable ideas (I won’t call them “truths,” although some might).

Head Start was launched in 1965 as on the initial programs in President Johnson’s “War on Poverty;” if there’s been a large boost in real educational attainment (which is different from “degrees achieved”), I’ve not seen it. I’ve been teaching college undergrads since 2008, and in that time my anecdotal impression is that smartphones and social media have been net bad for learning, noting however that some people do leverage Internet technologies to learn more and faster than they could without. Anecdotes are not data, but, since the late ’90s and early ’00s, we here at Seliger + Associates Grant Writing have been writing proposals for programs like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC), and in that time we’ve not seen learning substantially improve from the dissemination of computers and the Internet. In 2013, I wrote a post about a pair of studies finding that computer access appears, if anything, to lower educational attainment. In 2015, I wrote about Kentaro Toyama’s book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology. “Computers in education” is not the same thing, obviously, as early childhood education, but both are attempts at improving education and life outcomes that are popular but may not be efficacious. If you work in the education industry with students ages 10 or higher—ages old enough for smart phones to have penetrated the population—ask those around you to look at their Apple “Screen Time” app or Android “Digital Wellbeing” controls. Those show how many minutes or hours a day a smartphone is being used, and what a person is doing on that phone. From what I’ve observed, very few people are using the book apps, the Duolingo systems for language learning, or Anki for space-repetition learning. Ask around, see what you find. Think about what that might mean.

Real education is hard. I’ve tried to impart some to students. Probably it’s always been hard and always will be. We should collectively try to do better while also understanding what might be limited, what might be futile, and what might be counterproductive. I’m struck by, at the college level, how little time is spent trying to learn how to teach more effectively, and friends who teach in K – 12 often report the same.

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How to prepare a DOT “Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity” (RAISE) application

NOTE: This “how to” post is a companion to “The Dept. of Transportation (DOT) issues first RFP under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE). You should probably read that post first, which was posted yesterday.

The recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) has $1T (yes, that’s a “trillion”) for a cornucopia of funding from DOT, DOE, and other Federal agencies. BIL authorizes grants for an array of infrastructure projects, including lead water pipe replacement, high-speed internet, transportation and public transit, airports, passenger rail, electric-vehicle charging stations, electric utility infrastructure, environmental remediation, and the development of time machines (okay, I made up the last entry to see if you’re paying attention).

DOT just issued the first RFP under the new BIL (see note and link above), and a flood of other infrastructure RFPs will be published in the coming months: do as much as can be reasonably be completed in advance, even though you won’t know the specific requirements until the RFP is available. Follow these action steps and you’ll be ready to submit technically correct applications without organizational hysteria as the deadline approaches:

  • Designate a project manager or, as Apple and other tech companies refer to this person, the “Directly Responsible Individual” (DRI).
  • Most funding under the BIL will be for planning and/or development of some sort of physical improvement, structure, or facility. This kind of proposal is very different than a typical human services or R & D proposal: the narrative sections are usually relatively short and often are not composed of a single narrative, but rather are disjointed responses to highly specific questions scattered throughout the RFP; these small narratives may have to be included in different sections of the final application. Severe word or character counts restrictions will likely apply for each narrative section, making it harder to tell a coherent “narrative story” about the project and engage the imagination of the readers who will score the proposal. There should be a section for an abstract or project summary, which may be the grant writer’s only opportunity to draft a topic paragraph that answers the six essential questions that every proposal must include: Who, What Where, When, Why, and How (the 5 Ws and H). If there’s no abstract or project summary, find a place somewhere to include this topic paragraph. The final application, when printed out by the funder*, will look like a layer cake with the narratives interspersed with a myriad of forms, drawings, and exhibits that can easily run to over 200 pages. It is crucial that the RFP application instructions be closely followed, as no matter how great the project concept or the political juice behind it are, the application will not be scored and will be tossed if it’s deemed technically deficient. In most cases, you will not have an opportunity to correct deficiencies.
  • Make sure that your agency can demonstrate site control in the form of a title, right-of-way easement, lease or lease-option. If leased, the term of the lease must be longer than the useful life of the proposed capital improvement(s).
  • Hire an architectural and/or engineering firm to conduct design studies and eventually working drawings needed to obtain a building permit. Due to concerns over climate change and sustainability, select an architect/engineer who will design to meet high-level LEED “green building” standards.
  • Have the architect/engineer develop a master timeline to take the project from concept to moving dirt and establish the critical path for project completion. Once the timeline is set, the DRI should convene the first of a series of “all hands” meetings involving key internal and external stakeholders (e.g., utility company representatives, fire department, etc.). As the project moves forward, keep your eye on the critical path and adjust the timeline frequently. The DRI must keep the project moving forward.
  • Make sure that the architect/engineer interfaces with the jurisdiction’s planning department and/or building department to understand the land use and zoning constraints on the site, as well as the level of environmental review that will be needed. Determine required hearings and discretionary permits/approvals and the anticipated timing of getting the permits/approvals (add these to the project timeline). Depending on the project concept, county, state, and/or federal permits/approvals may be necessary (e.g., EPA, State Office of Historic Preservation “SHPO”, etc.)
  • Have the architect/engineer prepare a conceptual site plan for agency review and, eventually, a second trip the planning/building departments for a reality check. The DRI should schedule any necessary pre-building permit public hearings. The public hearings will need to be formally noticed and widely advertised–these hearings will be where cranky, angry local NIMBYs will show up to complain. No matter how altruistic the project seems, assume that there will be organized opposition and develop a plan to co-opt the opposition or at least address their concerns. We’ve constructed a legal world in which building anything, anywhere, is dragged down by this process, to the detriment of all of us, but Seliger + Associates doesn’t make the rules, we just write the proposals.
  • If feasible, given the project timeline and anticipated RFP release, have the architect/engineer prepare detailed working drawings, based on the conceptual plan (as revised) and apply for a building permit. While not always possible, the best way to demonstrate project feasibility to a funder is having obtained a building permit. This makes it possible to use the ever popular “but for” argument in your proposal: “but for only the grant, the project can be immediately implemented.” This argument is a variation on President Obama’s “shovel ready projects” argument when the 2009 Stimulus Bill was passed.

If all of the above steps are completed, you still won’t have a shovel-ready project; instead, you’ll have an “on the shelf” project and will vastly increase the likelihood of a positive funding decision, as funders for these kind of projects prefer applications that look like they can be quickly started. No funder wants to approve a grant for a project that can’t be built expeditiously—or built at all.

Generally, with an on-the-shelf project, the only step needed after the grant is awarded is to conduct a public-bid process to select the general contractor. A complete application without gotchas and fumbling is the way to soften the stone-like hearts of funder decision makers as they imagine attending the ground breaking ceremony with President Biden and, ideally, Kim Kardashian on hand.

 


* While Seliger + Associates and our readers live in the digital world of 2022, for many federal agencies it’s still 1997. Although most federal proposals are digital uploads, in many cases the proposals are printed out for review and scoring. Thus, all attachments should be 8 1/2″ x 11″ and reviewers will likely view the proposal in grey-scale print outs, not on the 27″ iMacs and 24″ Dell side monitors we use, so beautiful color graphics may be wasted.

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How to fund a Juneteenth Day Black Rodeo (Hint: not via grants, this time)

In addition to our usual calls (e.g.,substance abuse disorder treatment, workforce development, at-risk youth services*, etc.), we sometimes get inquiries from folks seeking more esoteric grants–some favorites include R & D for the eternally elusive perpetual motion machine and expeditions to find the Lost City of Z. Last week, we got a call from a self-described black cowboy (let’s call him “Tex”) in Texas who wants $50K to fund a Juneteenth Day Black Rodeo.**

While we’ve been referencing Juneteenth celebrations in the outreach or needs assessments sections of certain proposals for years, most Americans, including many African Americans, outside of Texas and the Old South had never heard of Juneteenth until it suddenly became a new national holiday last year. Since it’s not cost effective to hire S + A to secure the ~$50K in grants the caller sought, I was ethically bound to decline the assignment. Still, Tex was a reasonable guy with a pretty good idea for a community celebration; he called on a slow day, so I took about half an hour to give Tex free advice on how to fund his vision of a Juneteenth Black Rodeo, which is plausible, just not with grants. Here’s my advice, which can be applied many similar local events or small human services programs:

      • Fiscal Agent: Find a local nonprofit to serve as the fiscal agent to handle and account for donations and make them tax deductible to the donor.
      • Website and Social Media: Create a simple website and set up accounts with the usual social media suspects. Find a local artist to draw a catchy logo. It should be easy to garner attention for this unique project: who doesn’t like a black cowboy (such as Deets in the epic Western novel and mini-series Lonesome Dove), combined with a rodeo?
      • Initial Event Planning: I asked Tex if he had a Stetson, Justin boots, big belt buckle, horse trailer, and pickup truck. He said yes to each in turn. Perfect! Select a Saturday for the initial public event. Send out press releases to local and selected national media (Daily Mail, etc.) and use social media starting a couple of weeks in advance to get the word out. But don’t send anything to the big box store that is your first target. Check with local cops and city to see if any permits are required, but it may be best to skip this in hopes that a media grabbing attempt will made to stop you. That would really get media attention, as they drag you and the horse to the hoosegow!
      • Roll Out Event: Put on the gear, put the horse in the trailer, and park the F-150 two blocks from the biggest Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club in town, but out of sight. Get the horse out and trot around the corner to the front of the store slowly. Then make a big fuss about tying the horse to something. A couple of Black pals in cowboy/rodeo outfits on their own horses would also be desirable, if possible. Try get to a Black “Rodeo Queen” to carry a flag. Get someone to video the whole thing surreptitiously. At this point, you should be surrounded by a herd of parents, kids, media, and more, all going bonkers, and dozens will be using their phones to video and upload the spectacle, increasing the chances of scoring a viral video. Place colorful flyers, a banner with your cool logo, and info sign-up sheet on a folding table staffed with with your pals. Have them circulate in the crowd with actual feedbags to collect donations. Put on your best John Wayne face, stride forcefully into the store to the manager. The manager will be dumbfounded by the unexpected hoopla. Explain politely, but loudly, what you’re doing and ask for an immediate donation of $5,000. You’ll likely get at least a $1,000 on the spot just to get you to go away. Make sure to tell the manager that they’ll get acknowledgment on signage at the Rodeo. Edit and post videos on your social media accounts immediately. With luck, you’ll soon be on the locally produced morning shows, and maybe national shows. Keep your buckle polished just in case.
      • Rinse and Repeat: Do several more of the above events around town until its gets stale. After that, just walk unannounced into car dealers, banks, big retail stores, etc. making a pitch directly face-to-face with the manager. Most of these kinds of entities have budgets for making small donations to local nonprofits and events and will make donations of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for the asking, as long as you have a fiscal agent for the donation.
      • Ongoing: Set up a GoFundMe Page to publicize the effort after you’ve developed a sufficient level of awareness and use social media to flog that page.

    You can modify the above strategies for any local effort that doesn’t need more than $100K annually. Except for the social media and GoFundMe aspects, this is how I often raised money in the mid 1970s (yes, I’m that old) when I was Executive Director of the Hollywood-Wilshire Fair Housing Council and on the Board of the Harbor Free Clinic in Los Angeles.


    * The recently released FY ’22 Department of Labor FOA replaces the term “at-risk youth” with “opportunity youth.” Now you know.

    ** To fully enjoy this post, listen to “Ghetto Cowboy” by Bone Thugs N Harmony, from 1998.

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Head Start grantees and early childhood education program staffing woes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One woman says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inflation poses potentially major challenges for nonprofits and their budgets

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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New combo COVID-19 stimulus bill and budget bill have tons of grant “ornaments”

The latest COVID-19 Stimulus Bill was signed into law Dec. 27, which, combined with the FY ’21 budget authorization bill, represents a burst of new grant activity. Congress loves to cobble together fantastically complex budget legislation, as this practice, called adding special interest “ornaments,” gives members lots of room for plausible deniability about voting for them; some of the new discretionary provisions include:

    • $82B for “education,” including $54B for K-12 schools and $23B for colleges/universities. Some of these funds will be distributed on a formula basis, likely via pass-throughs to state education agencies, but the rest should be awarded through competitive RFPs, either direct federal applications or RFPs run by the states.
    • $7B for expanding access to “high-speed internet connections,” including subsidies for low-income families. This provision also include $300M for building out broadband infrastructure in rural areas and $1B for tribal broadband programs. We wrote many broadband infrastructure grants following the 2009 Stimulus Bill during the Great Recession.
    • $70B for a slew of “public health measures,” including $20B for “test and trace” programs and “billions for combating the disparities facing communities of color.” This is another way of saying “walking around money” for nonprofits and local public agencies.
    • $10B for child care providers. We write many early childhood education proposals, including Head Start, Early Head Start, Universal Pre-K, etc., and this set of funding provisions will likely be similar. Furthermore, it’s probable that both non-profit and for-profit entities will be eligible, since much of the non-Head Start child care industry is operated by for-profits.
    • $35B for “wind, solar, and other clean energy projects.” These funds will likely be distributed through the Department of Energy, ARPA-E and similar funding agencies.
    • $400M for food banks and $175M for nutrition programs under the Older Americans Act, which will probably be distributed via programs like Meals on Wheels.
    • $5B for the “entertainment industry,” including cultural institutions like theater groups, museums, etc.
    • $14B for public transit.

Some of the other features, listed here more for amusement than anything else, include: a statement of policy regarding the succession or reincarnation of the Dalai Lama; the establishment of two new Smithsonian museums; giving West Virginia a national park; banning the USPS from mailing electronic vaping products; the decriminalization of various minor violations, including the transportation of water hyacinths, alligator grass, or water chestnut plants across state lines and the unauthorized use of the Swiss coat of arms, the 4-H Club emblem, the “Smokey Bear” character or name, the “Woodsy Owl” character, name or slogan, or “The Golden Eagle Insignia; the establishment of an anti-doping program for horse racing; a bunch of foreign aid programs for things like gender studies in Pakistan; and, my personal favorite, a 180-day countdown underway for the Pentagon and spy agencies to reveal what they all know about UFOs.

In other words, the Mulder and Scully Act of 2020” is hidden in this bill. During a conversation with Tyler Cowen, former CIA director John Brennan recently commented on UFOs, saying that he’s “seen some of those videos from Navy pilots, and I must tell you that they are quite eyebrow-raising” and that, after sifting the evidence, “I think some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.”

We’ll write another follow-up post or two on this topic, as the 6,000 page bill is fully digested.

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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.