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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 grant writers and early childhood education program staffing woes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One woman says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inflation poses potentially major challenges for nonprofits and their budgets

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

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

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

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

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


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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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