Category Archives: Clients

When you hire consultants, you’re hiring them for all the mistakes they’ve ever seen (and made)

When you hire a lawyer, part of who you’re hiring is someone who has made thousands of mistakes in law school and as a young lawyer. Lawyers, like doctors and other professionals, learn in an apprentice-style system that incorporates the mistakes made by their mentors. Proto-lawyers also make some mistakes of their own—and, ideally, have those mistakes corrected by senior lawyers, and learn to not make those mistakes in the future. Most people don’t think about hiring a person or team specifically for their mistakes, yet this is a useful way to think about most professional services, including our personal favorite: grant writing consultants.

When you’re hiring a grant writer, you’re really hiring the experience that grant writer has. It isn’t impossible to hire a college intern or recent journalism grad and get funded; we’ve seen it happen and heard stories from clients. But the intern and inexperienced writers will make mistakes more experienced people won’t. We’ve written numerous posts about subtle mistakes that are easy to make in all aspects of the grant pipeline, from the needs assessment to the program design to the submission process. It’s also possible to get a competent junior person to write a couple of proposals, but grant writing is very hard and over time they tend to demand more money—or leave. That’s why you have trouble hiring grant writers. Many interns will write a proposal or two, but when they learn how hard and under-appreciated the job is, they often want money commensurate with difficulty. The inexperienced tend to make mistakes; the experienced grant writers tend to charge accordingly.

We are still not perfect (no one is; if anyone think they are, refer to “the perils of perfectionism“). But we have learned, through trial and error, how to make many fewer mistakes than novice or somewhat experienced grant writers. It’s not conceptually possible to eliminate all errors, but it is possible to avoid many errors that scupper most would-be grant writers.

If your organization can get a recent English major to write successful proposals for little or nothing, you should do that. But we’ve also heard from a lot of organizations that have “whoever is around” write, or attempt to write, their proposals, only to fail. Experience matters. You can get the magic intern, but more often you get someone who is overwhelmed by the complexity of a given writing assignment, who doesn’t understand human services or technical projects, is simply terrified by absolute deadlines, etc.

Let’s take as an example a common error that we’ve seen in a spate of recent old proposals provided by clients. Most include some variation, made by inexperienced writers, who want to write that “we are wonderful,” “we really care,” and the like in their proposals. This is a violation of the writing principle “Show, don’t tell.” Most of the time, you don’t want to tell people you’re wonderful—you want to show them that you are. “We are wonderful” statements are empty. “We served 500 youth with ten hours of service per week, and those services include x, y, and z” statements have objective content. It’s also harder to accurately describe what specific services an organization is providing than it is to say subjectively, “We are wonderful and we care.” Whatever is rare is more valuable than that which is common.

The above paragraph is just one example of the kind of errors novices make that experts tend not to. Attempting to enumerate all errors would be book-length if not longer. Experienced grant writers will avoid errors and offer quality almost instinctively, without always being able to articulate every aspect of error vs. optimality.

Seliger + Associates’ 25th Anniversary: A quarter century of grant writing

My first post, on Nov. 29, 2007, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal,” tells the story of how I became a grant writer (when dinosaurs walked the earth); 500 posts later, this one covers some of the highs and lows of grant writing over the past 25 years, since I founded Seliger + Associates.

Let me take you back to March 1993 . . . President Clinton’s first year in office, Branch Davidians are going wild in Waco, Roy Rogers dies, Intel ships its first Pentium chips, Unforgiven wins the Oscar for Best Picture, and Seliger + Associates is founded. The last item caused no disturbances in the Force or media and was hardly noticed. Still, we’ve created a unique approach to grant writing—although we’re not true believers, I like to think we’ve made a difference for hundreds of clients and their clients in turn.

When I started this business, the Internet existed, but one had to know how to use long forgotten tech tools like text-based FTP servers, “Gopher,” dial-up modems, and so on. While I taught myself how to use these tools, they weren’t helpful for the early years, even though the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, was launched in late 1993. I used a primitive application, HotMTML Pro, to write the HTML code for our first web site around the same time. I didn’t understand how to size the text, however, so on the common 12″ to 14″ monitors of the day, it displayed as “Seliger + Ass”. It didn’t much matter, since few of our clients had computers, let alone Internet access.

Using the Wayback Machine, I found the first, achieved view of our website on December 28, 1996, about two years after we first had a Web presence. If this looks silly, check out Apple.com’s first web archive on October 22, 1996. You could get a new PowerBook 1400 with 12 MB of RAM and a 750 MB hard drive for only $1,400, while we were offering a foundation appeal for $3,000!

Those were the days of land line phones, big Xerox machines, fax machines, direct mail for marketing, FedEx to submit proposals, going to a public library to use microfiche for research data, waiting for the Federal Register to arrive by mail about a week after publication, and an IBM Selectric III to type in hard copy forms. Our first computer was a IMB PS 1 with an integrated 12″ monitor running DOS with Windows 3.1 operating very slowly as a “shell” inside DOS.

Despite its challenges, using DOS taught me about the importance of file management.

As our business rapidly in the mid to late 1990s, our office activities remained about the same, except for getting faster PCs, one with a revolutionary CD-ROM drive (albeit also with 5 1/14″ and 3.5″ floppy drives, which was how shrink-wrapped software was distributed); a peer-to-peer coax cable network I cobbled together; and eventually being able to get clients to hire us without me having to fly to them for in-person pitch meetings.

It wasn’t until around 2000 that the majority of our clients became computer literate and comfortable with email. Most of our drafts were still faxed back and forth between clients and all proposals went in as multiple hard-copy submissions by FedEx or Express Mail. For word processing, we used WordPro, then an IBM product, and one that, in some respects, was better than Word is today. We finally caved and switched to Macs and Office for Mac around 2005.

Among the many after shocks of 9/11, as well as the bizarre but unrelated anthrax scare, there were enormous disruptions to mail and Fedex delivery to government offices. Perhaps in recognition of this—or just the evolving digital world—the feds transitioned to digital uploads and the first incarnation of grants.gov appeared around 2005. It was incredibly unreliable and used an odd propriety file format “kit file,” which was downloaded to our computers, then proposal files would be attached, and then emailed to our clients for review and upload. This creaky system was prone to many errors. About five years ago, grants.gov switched to an Acrobat file format for the basket-like kit file, but the upload / download drill remained cumbersome. On January 1, 2018, grants.gov 3.0 finally appeared in the form of the cloud-based WorkSpace, which allows applications to be worked on and saved repeatedly until the upload button is pushed by our client (the actual applicant). But this is still not amazon.com, and the WorkSpace interface is unnecessarily convoluted and confusing.

Most state and local government funding agencies, along with many foundations, also moved away from hard copy submissions to digital uploads over the past decade. These, of course, are not standardized and each has its owns peccadilloes. Incredibly, some funders (mostly state and local governments and many foundations) still—still!—require dead tree submission packages sent in via FedEx or hand-delivered.

There have of course been many other changes, mostly for the better, to the way in which we complete proposals. We have fast computers and Internet connections, cloud-based software and file sharing, efficient peripherals, and the like. Grant writing, however, remains conceptually “the same as it ever was.” Whether I was writing a proposal long hand on a legal pad in 1978, using my PS 1 in 1993, or on my iMac today in 2018, I still have to develop a strong project concept, answer the 5 Ws and H within the context of the RFP structure, tell a compelling story, and work with our clients to enable them to submit a technically correct proposal in advance of the deadline.

Another aspect of my approach to grant writing also remains constant. I like to have a Golden Retriever handy to bounce ideas of of, even though they rarely talk back. My last Golden mix, Boogaloo Dude, had to go to the Rainbow Bridge in November. Now, my fourth companion is a very frisky four-month old Golden, Sedro-Woolley, named after the Cascades foothill town to which I used to take Jake and his siblings fishing when they were little and Seliger + Associates and myself were still young.

 

FQHCs, Reproductive Health/Family Planning Services, and Planned Parenthood: An Uneasy but Symbiotic Relationship, Centered on Title X Funding

We often write about Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), in part because we often work for them in part because FQHCs illustrate many challenges facing other nonprofits. This post discusses a service that FQHCs could provide but mostly choose not to—a common circumstance among certain classes of nonprofits, like foster family agencies and substance abuse treatment providers.

To understand the dilemma, you have to know that the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) funds FQHCs under Section 330 of the Public Health Services Act and FQHCs are sometime referred to as “Section 330 providers.” While FQHCs do collect copays and most take insurance, a large chunk of their funding comes directly and indirectly (via Medicaid) from the feds. FQHCs are mandated to provide “integrated full life-cycle care” (HRSA-lingo here), including reproductive health/family planning services. Still, many of our FQHC clients are skittish about promoting these services and are consequently reluctant to seek other grants to support family planning.

Thus, FQHCs have effectively ceded the huge pot of Title X family planning grants ($288 billion in 2016) to specialized family planning clinics, which are mostly but not exclusively operated by local affiliates of Planned Parenthood. While Planned Parenthood provides great women’s reproductive and related preventative health care, with an emphasis on low-income women and girls, unlike FQHCs, their clinics do not provide full life-cycle care.

From what we can tell, FQHCs and Planned Parenthood clinics seem to operate in a symbiotic, but parallel manner, in which both stay out of each other’s turf (if you have even more specialized knowledge about this situation, feel free to leave a comment). There are about 650 Planned Parenthood clinics, which serve about 2.5 million women annually with family planning services (this does not include abortions). In contrast, there are about 1,400 FQHCs, which serve about 17 million patients annually, and these numbers are growing rapidly due to the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. More than 50% of FQHC patients are women, so let’s call it 9 million. FQHCs serve many more women than Planned Parenthood, but readers would never know this from the media.

While I don’t know this for sure, one presumes this is because, bureaucratically speaking, there are at least two parts to Planned Parenthood that are structured separately: the family planning side, which is touted by progressives, and the abortion side, which is demonized by some conservatives. The nascent FY ’18 federal budget battle between the Trump administration/Republicans and Democrats is being fought partially over Title X funding. The media usually obfuscates the Tile X grant aspect, focussing instead on the much more sensational issue of Planned Parenthood funding.

I assume that, if Congress passed legislation making Planned Parenthood ineligible for Title X (unlikely but possible), other providers, like FQHCs, would start applying for Title X grants. In other words, no matter what happens, as far as I know, there are no proposed cuts to Title X (again, if you have specialized knowledge, leave a comment). It’s just a question of which agencies will provide Title X funded services and how those agencies will link with Planned Parenthood, which presumably would continue as the nation’s main abortion provider.

I know the potential competition between FQHCs and Planned Parenthood clinics is a big issue for Planned Parenthood, as Title X provides more or guaranteed funding to keep the lights on—a concern for all nonprofits. This basic issue was confirmed by several interesting pieces I found and that the Alan Guttmacher Institute published (it’s more or less the research affiliate of Planned Parenthood).* For example, this article makes the curious argument that FQHCs couldn’t expand to provide family planning service now being provided by Planned Parenthood:

FQHCs are an integral part of the publicly funded family planning effort in the United States, but it is unrealistic to expect these sites to serve the millions of women who currently rely on Planned Parenthood health centers for high-quality contraceptive care.

As a grant writer, I admire the carefully crafted but entirely specious reasoning, which reminds me of our needs assessments, I’m pretty confident that FQHCs would have no trouble picking up the slack and the Title X grants—if they wanted to. We have some FQHC clients with over 40,000 patients, and at that size they can begin to resemble something larger than a community clinics. At the moment, they’re mostly reluctant to tangle with Planned Parenthood—but, again, they could.

And they might.


* The Guttmacher Institute is a great source, albeit one with a point of view, for studies and data relating family planning, teen pregnancy, and the like. We sometimes use their citations in writing needs assessments. If you’re curious about research organizations with a point of view, Daniel Drezner’s book The Ideas Industry is good.

How we write scientific and technical grant proposals

We’re not scientists or engineers and yet we routinely write scientific and technical proposals. First-time callers are often incredulous at this ability; how can we, with no expertise in a given scientific or technical field, write a complex grant proposal in that field? Though it seems impossible, we do it.

We can write those proposals because we’re expert grant writers—and we’re also like journalists in that we’re very good at listening to what we’re told and reshaping what we’re told into a coherent narrative that covers the 5Ws and H. We do rely on technical content from our clients, and most clients have something—journal articles, concept papers, Powerpoint slides, etc., that describes their technology and proposed research design. We’re very good at reading that material and understanding the rules it offers, the challenges it presents, and the constraints of the problem space.

Once we understand those things, we’re also good at understanding the principles as our clients describe them. So if our clients tell us that Process A and Process B yields Outcome C and Outcome D, we’ll keep repeating that until we see a moment in their background material that says Process A and Process B yield Outcome E, at which point we’ll raise the issue with the actual experts (sometimes the technical experts realize that something is amiss). There are many specific examples of this I could give, but I won’t in this public forum because we respect our clients’ privacy. We also often often sign NDAs, so you’ll have to accept somewhat abstract and contrived-feeling examples.

large_hadron_colliderWhile we’re very good at following the rules our clients give us, we generally won’t uncover specific technical issues that other technical experts might. We’re not chemists or materials scientists or programmers, so it’s possible for a howler to sail right past us; we rely on our clients to understand their own technical processes and the basic physical laws of chemistry, physics, biology, etc. That being said, we do have a basic understanding of some aspects of science—we’ve gotten calls from spurious inventors trying to get us to work on their perpetual motion machines (I’m not making this up), but for the most part we rely on our clients’ deep technical background.

Oddly, sometimes our relative scientific ignorance is actually a virtue. We often ask questions that make our clients really understand what they’re doing and what they’re proposing. Sometimes we uncover hidden assumptions that need to be explained. Other times we find logic or conceptual holes that must be plugged. Having a total outsider come in and tromp around can improve the overall project concept, because we clarify what is actually going on and ask questions that more experienced people might not—but that grant reviewers might. It’s possible to be too close to a set of ideas or problems, and in those situations outsiders like us can be useful.

As I’ve written throughout this post, our ability to write scientific and technical proposals is predicated on our clients’ technical background. For that reason we generally don’t offer flat-fee bids on technical jobs because we don’t know how much background material we will receive or when we will receive it. For most social and human service grants, we’re able to accurately estimate how many hours a given project will take us, based on our past experience and our understanding of the field. We can and often write quite complex social and human service grants with near-zero background from our clients. But we’re not able to do that for projects related to new drugs, new solar technologies, and the like. We also don’t know how usable and coherent the background material our clients provide will be; coherent, usable materials can dramatically shorten our work time, while the opposite will obviously lengthen it.

We’re also very good at storytelling. A compelling proposal, even a highly technical one, needs to make an argument about why funding the proposal will lead to improvement innovations, breakthroughs, or improvements. Most scientific and technical experts have not spent much time honing their general writing or storytelling skills. We have, and we’re aware that, to most people, data without stories is not compelling. We often find that our clients know a huge amount of useful, vital information and have great ideas, but that those same clients can’t structure that information in a way that makes it viable as a proposal. We can do that for them.*

Occasionally, potential clients tell us that they somehow want a domain expert who is also a grant writer. We wish them luck, and often they call back after a day or two, unable to find what they’re looking for; we’ve written about related topics in “National Institute of Health (NIH) Grant Writers: An Endangered Species or Hidden Like Hobbits?” There are no hybrid grant writers and physicists (or whatever) because the market for that niche is too small to have any specialists in it. Being an expert grant writer is extremely hard and being an expert physicist is also extremely hard. The overlap between those two is so tiny that most organizations are better off hiring an expert grant writer and helping the grant writer learn just enough to write the proposal.


* Not everyone is good at everything, and we all reap gains from trade and specialization. We’re very good grant writers but we can’t explain what’s happening at the Large Hadron Collider or write useful open source software.

Photo courtesy of and copyright by “Image Editor.”

Lawyers misread RFPs all the time. They rarely improve the grant writing process

Occasionally clients want their lawyers to read RFPs or our draft proposals or both. This is almost always a waste of time of time and money, because a) most lawyers have no special expertise or experience in grant writing/reading RFPs, b) lawyers are not magical, and c) there is usually no good reason for lawyers to be involved in the process:

* Most lawyers have no special expertise or experience: There are no law school classes on grant writing or reading RFPs. The field is still blessedly unregulated, and the scourge of occupational licensing has not arrived. Someone who is a lawyer may also be a grant writer, but the fields are not linked in any way and a generic lawyer is going to have to learn a lot about RFPs, grant-maker machinations, and the like if they’re going to be a productive grant writer (or reader). Most aspects of practicing law and/or going to law school don’t provide such training.

* Lawyers are not magical. I went to law school for a year and met lots of lawyers and proto-lawyers. Lawyers are just people who’ve spent at least three years in law school. By now, many of the people who start law school are adversely selected for intelligence, because smart people realize that most law schools are scams and most law school grads don’t even get jobs that require J.D.s (Paul Campos is a law professor and wrote Don’t Go to Law School (Unless), a book that details why and how in greater detail than I can). Even those who aren’t adversely selected for intelligence do not necessarily learn more than people who’re studying reading, writing, and related topics via methods other than law school.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with lawyers, and if you’re arrested or sued, you should hire one. But many lawyers are not geniuses and are not better readers or writers than anyone else. In ye olden days, lawyers could simply apprentice to another lawyer and/or “read the law” in order to take the bar and start work. That system is much saner than the occupational licensing system that we have for lawyers now, and that system is mostly designed to benefit law school professors who get cush jobs teaching the next generation of lawyers. Today, lawyers are people with the time, money, inclination, and/or delusion necessary to spend three years and too many dollars in law school.

* There is no good reason for lawyers to be involved. We’ve written at least $275 million in funded proposals that we know about and probably that much in proposals that we don’t know about because clients often don’t tell us when they’ve been funded. Few lawyers have been involved in the preparation of the applications we’ve worked on. They add nothing to the process and can frequently make it more onerous, without adding value.

In most instances, hiring a lawyer or telling a lawyer to read an RFP or proposal is a way of lining a lawyer’s pockets. Most lawyers will (unsurprisingly) favor such an outcome, and they’re more than happy to hold your hand for as long as you want your hand held.

But you don’t need them to do grant writing. If you’re engaging in a complex real estate transaction, or you’ve been arrested, or you’re getting divorced, hire a lawyer. Those are circumstances in which a lawyer might add value to the process. Grant writing is not such a circumstance.

They only see the final proposal: Make sure you submit something to funders

This may seem obvious, but bear with me: Funders only see the final proposal you submit. They don’t see how hard you may have worked, the number of drafts you’ve completed, or how much you may have fought with your colleagues during drafting.

Even if the grant writing and assembly process goes bad, you should still submit the proposal anyway; we’ve said similar things in many posts, like “Deadlines are Everything, and How To Be Amazing.” If you don’t submit a proposal on time, you cannot be funded no matter how great the need or wonderful the project concept. If you do submit, however, funding is always possible, even if you are dispirited by the journey there. We’ve seen many internally dysfunctional organizations get funded because they managed to get something submitted, with our help, cajoling, and, near the deadline itself, outright hectoring. We’ve seen zero organizations, functional or not, get funded if they do not submit.

Many grant writing processes are ugly on the inside: Filled with recriminations, unhappiness, fights, bitterness, and so on. But the final product can, if the participants focus on the prize, turn out well regardless of the weakness of initial wrangling.

As it is in many places, The Lord of the Rings is relevant here. You may remember the hellacious journey of Sam and Frodo into and then through Mordor. Their process is, in modern terms, sub-optimal: they are hungry, thirsty, and exhausted throughout; they are opposed by Orcs, Nazgûl, and other foul creatures; the Ring continually tempts Frodo and calls out to its master; and the will of both Sam and Frodo is nearly crushed. Yet their quest is achieved because they persevere.

The process of destroying the Ring is daunting but the outcome is good, or at least an improvement over having all Middle Earth smothered by the darkness of Sauron, who would make all its people slaves. In grant writing, ugly processes can still sometimes yield funded programs. While we always strive to work with our clients to ensure technically correct submission packages that are internally consistent, this is not always possible due to missing support letters, committed matches, etc. Still, we’ve seen some technically incorrect proposals get funded, either through the magic of our grant writing, the ineptness of the reviewers or other opaque factors. Don’t forget that, even in the darkness that sometimes sets in a week before the deadline.

In many things in life, the people who succeed at whatever they attempt are the ones who are most determined to succeed and most determined to grind out a victory. Perseverance is underrated still.

It’s possible to get re-programmed funds, if you’re tight with your federal agency program officer

In 2010 Isaac wrote “Be Nice to Your Program Officer: Reprogrammed / Unobligated Federal Funds Mean Christmas May Come Early and Often This Year,” and that post is important for the context of this story. We’ve written several funded grants for the same federal program for the same client over the last few years. The client is a national trade group, and last week our client contact called because he’d just gotten a random call from his program officer offering a large tranche of re-programmed funds. That money doesn’t come with any strings beyond the general restrictions on the initial grant-funded program. It’s also a sure thing, which is a rare, valuable thing in the grant world.*

Organizations that get re-programmed funds still have to submit a proposal (which may be short). However short, the proposal for re-programmed funds must be technically correct and usually has a quick turnaround time (this always happens near the end of the federal fiscal year, which is September 30). As a cautionary note, we’ve seen clients who’ve messed up their wired, re-programmed applications. Overall, though, the amount of effort required is usually far smaller than a conventional, competitive grant program.

When Isaac worked for the City of Inglewood in the 1980s, the FAA (yes, the Federal Aviation Administration) gave Inglewood re-programmed funds almost every year for about eight years. That happened because the City of Los Angeles had to relocate several thousand families to extend one LAX runway on the Pacific Ocean side. You can see the vacant land when you take off from LAX and just before the plane crosses the beach.

At the same time, Inglewood, where Isaac was the Redevelopment Manager, was removing about 800 families from under the flight path to the east of LAX, near The Forum and the site of the new LA Rams stadium, for redevelopment. To keep Inglewood from joining all the other players who were suing LAX over the runway extension, a deal was struck in which LAX convinced the FAA to accept grant applications from Inglewood for wholesale land acquisition with “noise mitigation” being the ruse or quid pro quo.

All of this was on the down low, of course, and Isaac wrote all the FAA proposals, which totaled over $25 million. The FAA liked Inglewood, mostly because it could spend the money quickly while accounting for it, so Isaac got a call every August from the FAA program officer asking if Inglewood wanted additional re-programmed funds. The answer was always… yes. Sometimes, all you have to do is not screw it up.


* And bars after 11 on a Saturday night.

More on Federally Approved Indirect Cost Rates in Developing Federal Grant Proposal Budgets: De Minimus has Arrived

We’ve written about federally approved indirect cost rates before in developing federal grant proposal budgets; I thought there was nothing more to say of this bit of grant writing arcana, but I was wrong.

In general, indirect costs are an agglomeration of “keeping the lights on” costs that are lumped together is a single line item, below the total direct costs in a Federal SF-424A budget form. Since I began writing proposals during Nixon administration,* it was generally necessary for the nonprofit or public agency applicant’s CFO to prepare a “cost allocation plan,” separating the organization’s operating budget into direct costs (e.g., program service staff, client/participant services costs, etc.) and indirect costs (e.g., administrative staff, facility maintenance, etc.).

To claim an indirect cost rate in a federal grant budget, this cost allocation plan must be submitted to the cognizant federal agency, which is the federal department/agency that provides the greatest amount of grant funding to the organization. For example, the cognizant agency for a job training provider would likely be the Department of Labor (DOL), while for an FQHC it would be HRSA.

There’s a Catch-22, however: the organization had to have a federal grant to have a cognizant federal agency to apply to for approval of a cost allocation plan. Thus, non-federal grantees, or ones who never bothered to get an approved cost allocation plan, were basically out of luck regarding indirect costs. There was a workaround: additional line items for administrative costs could broken out. Still, it’s easier to blob a single, indirect-cost line item than it is to include numerous administrative costs, which complicate the budget and narrative while raising uncomfortable questions.

It seems that, while I wasn’t looking, the Feds, and in particular the DOL, has introduced the concept of de minimus into indirect costs. “De minimus” is a Latin expression often used in legal matters to denote something that is too trivial to consider.

We recently completed a DOL proposal for a large nonprofit in a big midwestern city. The client, who we’ve worked for for years, has had lots of federal grants but never applied for an approved indirect cost rate. Since I knew this, I left out indirect costs in the draft budget, putting in a slew of direct cost line items instead. A closer reading of the RFP, however, revealed this nugget:

If you meet the requirements to use the 10 percent de minimis rate as described in 2 CFR 200.414(f), then include a description of the modified total direct costs base.

Apparently the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) was changed in 2014, allowing a 10% de minimus indirect rate in lieu of an approved rate. Amazing! This old dog has learned a new trick.

Federally approved indirect costs rates can vary from 15% for a small human services nonprofit up to 80% for a university or hospital (think of all the building upkeep, squadrons of deans and hospital administrators, free lunches, etc.). In my experience, however, most Federal agencies will not approve an indirect cost line item more than about 15% for most human services programs, no matter the approved rate. We’ve worked for a large East Cost substance abuse treatment provider that has a Federally approved indirect of 42%, but they never got more than 15% on their federal grants. So the 10% de minimus rate mirrors reality, which is always a surprise in matters relating to the Feds.


* Yes, I’m a geezer.

Who are the HRSA peer reviewers? An anecdote from the New Access Points (NAP) Program

Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) know that the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), like some other federal agencies, uses peer reviewers for proposals. That can lead to some entertaining coincidences and collisions. We were recently hired by a client who had previously served on a review panel for the last New Access Points competition. In talking with him, I mentioned that we’d written a funded NAP proposal about a year ago for a client in an unusual location. It turned out that our new client had been on the review panel for that proposal (which, fortunately, was funded).

Peer review can in effect shrink the size of the grant world. Peer reviewers also (usually) know something about the programs and processes being discussed, which isn’t necessarily the case with staff reviewers. In some funding agencies, like the Department of Labor, peer reviewers generally aren’t used; if there aren’t enough reviewers, the DOL may grab staffers from other federal agencies to review proposals. That implies grant writers should explain more about basic ideas, rather than assuming that reviewers actual understand the program they’re reviewing. So for staff-reviewed proposals, it’s a good idea to explain more than might be necessary in peer reviewed proposals, since the staffers may not be up-to-date on, say, prisoner reentry common practices, or the finer parts of the parole system.

Because of the small-world effect in peer-reviewed proposals, it can be particularly important to turn in high-quality proposals, because you never know when your proposal is going to act as an inadvertent resume. If you’re part of the Greater Seattle FQHC and someone from the Greater Nashville FQHC reads and likes your proposal as a reviewer, you may much later get a call from them offering you a job.

Don’t underestimate the power of “avoiding social embarrassment” in the list of motivations underlying human behavior.

In grant writing, you don’t have to be great; you only have to be better than the other guy

You don’t need to submit the perfect grant application (assuming the “perfect application” even exists); you just need to be better than the other guy.

A story: Years ago we we wrote a string of funded grants for a majority-minority California city. The city was not particularly well run and some of its workers were indicted for corruption. But the feds kept pouring money into the city because, while it was messed up, it was still better run than other majority-minority cities at that time. The city wasn’t going to win any good government awards, but it was less corrupt than the alternatives. So the proposals we wrote got funded because the feds wanted to fund a majority-minority city somewhere west of the Mississippi and there weren’t (and still aren’t) many choices.

This pattern repeats itself. A couple years ago we wrote a funded HRSA Service Area Competition (SAC) proposal for a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in a medium-sized city.* In and of itself this isn’t interesting, because we write lots of funded HRSA proposals. This FQHC client, however, failed to tell us that, as we wrote the first draft, some of their officers were being indicted on corruption charges. Our FQHC client had competition from another large, local nonprofit, which applied for the same SAC grant.

Given our client’s legal problems, we figured they’d never get their SAC grant renewed. We were wrong.

We later discovered why HRSA funded our client: The other SAC applicant was facing corruption charges too, and it had a big federal grant pulled. Our HRSA client kept getting funded because, it was probably the lesser of two evils, and HRSA had to fund someone. Without a SAC grantee in the city, at least 15,000 Medicaid patients would’ve had nowhere to go for primary care.

What makes this story even more fun is the the second nonprofit was also a former client, albeit for a non-HRSA grant. And, of course, the second client also didn’t tell us about their corruption woes when we were writing their proposal.

One sees this general principle in other areas. Tech workers, for example, are now increasingly fleeing Silicon Valley. San Francisco’s draconian land-control policies mean that expanding housing supply is almost impossible. Restricting supply in the face of rising demand causes prices to rise. Silicon Valley’s situation is uniquely insane on the national stage, as this article describes.

Seattle—while not exactly a paragon of good, fast local governance—is allowing more housing units to be built than San Francisco, and it’s even building underground light rail services that are getting done on-time and under-budget. Light rail construction is going so well that residents want more transit tunneling. There is also no income tax in Washington State, which makes Seattle a much less expensive place to live than the Bay Area. Consequently, tech companies and tech workers are leaving California for Seattle—not because Seattle is perfect, but because it’s better and more functional than its southern neighbor. Even highly paid tech workers are voting with their wallets and feet.

Analogies to dating are so obvious that I won’t belabor them here, although I will say that Briefly noted: Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game is an excellent take on the subject.

Potential clients often ask us whether they should apply for a particular grant. We can never tell them definitively, but we do say that if they don’t apply, they definitely won’t get funded. We’ve seen numerous apparent underdogs get funded because they applied and the presumed favorites didn’t, or because they applied and the presumed favorites messed up their application, or because they applied and the funder was sick of the presumed favorite. To get funded, you don’t necessarily have to be the “best,” whatever that may mean. You only have to be better than the other guy.


* At least one Section 330 SAC grant is available for virtually every geographic area in the United States; those grants are used to fund primary healthcare services for predominantly low-income people. Without them, many large FQHCs would not be able to operate. Funded FQHCs must compete to keep their Section 330 funding about every three years when HRSA issues a new SAC RFP for their area.