Category Archives: Grants

More networking, less working: DHHS’s “No Wrong Door Community Infrastructure Grants” RFP

The Administration for Community Living just issued an RFP for what appears to be a new grant program: No Wrong Door Community Infrastructure Grants, which offers grants “to support the development and enhancement of Network Lead Entities (NLEs) which are providing key access functions within a community such as coordination of information and referral, screening, care coordination, care transitions, eligibility and enrollment, and person centered planning.” If your eyes glaze over and you’ve quit reading already, I understand—all those verbs are abstract, and none say something like “construct new housing” or “offer opioid treatment.” They’re all process objectives and no outcome objectives; applicants don’t need to show or pretend to show that 70% of participants held a job six months after the end of project participation.

But if you’re a wily nonprofit executive director, you’re probably stroking your chin and thinking about whether you can round up a herd of partners to apply. No Wrong Door is mostly of interest because it appears to be a “walkin’ around money” program: applicants spend time “networking” and “building networks,” which usually means taking people out to lunch, holding catered meetings, strolling into other organizations with boxes of donuts, hiring new staff people (who can ideally do some direct service delivery as well, but quietly), and so on. At the end of the project, there’ll be a report describing how amazingly successful all that networking has been, and how the network will strengthen the community’s capacity to do all kinds of marvelous and wonderful things in the future, none of which are measurable. When the funding stops, ideally the staff will be trained to do some other useful stuff for the organization that hired it. That’s why this is walkin’ around money for nimble nonprofits that understand the word salad from the RFP quoted in the first paragraph.

A lot of organizations are really sustained with this kind of “glue” funding, which plugs other revenue gaps and allows it to operate more effectively than it would otherwise. Grants like No Wrong Door help pay for services to people whose reimbursements cover 85% of the costs—not 100%. Don’t be fooled by the No Wrong Door description. If you’re a nonprofit, and you can get some letters of support from the usual suspects in your service area, this is the kind of grant that’s easy to overlook but can be surprisingly valuable.

New $1.9T COVID bill, American Rescue Plan Act, signed: grant seekers and grant writers pay heed!

In January, I wrote “New Combo COVID-19 stimulus bill and budget bill will have tons of grant ‘ornaments’.” Two months later, and Congress passed and President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).* You know you have a significant spending bill when NPR calls the bill “colossal.” I’ve been writing grant proposals since dinosaurs walked the earth (in fact, about the same year Biden entered the Senate!) and to paraphrase Jeff Lynnes ELO masterpiece Do Ya, “I never seen nothing like this”.

Despite the bill’s name, much of the spending dumps huge amounts of money into existing and new programs, rather than direct COVID relief. As grant writers, we’re not professionally interested in odd items like direct subsidies to farmers of color or the potential upending of Clintons’ 1996 welfare reform by providing “child tax credits” that are actually in effect direct welfare payments. We’re professionally interested in funding for dozens, maybe hundreds, of discretionary/competitive grant programs authorized by ARPA.

ARPA is something like 5,000 pages, so we’re depending on others to figure out what’s in it regarding discretionary/competitive grant program funding. Here’s some of the nuggets we’re found so far:

  • $80,000,000 for mental and behavioral health training for health care professions, paraprofessionals, and public safety officers.
  • $40,000,000 for health care providers to promote mental and behavioral health among their health professional workforce.
  • $30,000,000 for local substance use disorder services like syringe services programs and other harm reduction interventions.
  • $50,000,000 for local behavioral health needs.
  • $30,000,000 for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), to address mental health issues among school-aged youth.
  • $20,000,000 for youth suicide prevention.
  • $420,000,000 for expansion grants for certified community behavioral health clinics.
  • $128B for state education agencies, 90% to be passed through to local education agencies (school districts), some likely via RFPs.
  • $15B for the Child Care & Development Block Grant program, with much of this to be passed through via RFPs.
  • $1.4B for existing Older Americans Act (OAA) programs.
  • $25B for a new grant program for “restaurants and other food and drinking establishments.” We’ll drink to that! We’ve never written proposals for for-profit restaurants, but we could (we have written proposals for re-entry programs and the like that use their own restaurants for food-service job training).
  • $1.5B for something called the SBA Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program.
  • $7.5B for the CDC to track, distribute, and administer COVID-19 vaccines, some of which is likely be available via RFPs, particularly to Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and local public health agencies.
  • $7.6B in “flexible emergency COVID-19 funding” for FQHCs, although it’s not clear if this will be by formula or RFP.

We may update this list as more info emerges, and you should watch for press releases from state funding agencies and trade groups in your areas of service delivery for other summaries. If you see good summaries, send them to us.

In 2009, the last time we saw this kind of federal spending, I wrote “Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing.” That bill was $900M and we wrote our last proposal for funding authorized by it in 2016—eight years after it passed! It’s going to take many years for all of the ARPA funding to wash through the system, so it’ll be raining ARPA RFPs for at least the rest the decade.

Most of what I wrote in 2009 is still true in that the funding agencies usually don’t get more staff, even though they’re suddenly responsible for vastly increased RFP processes, including reviewing the thousands of proposals that will be submitted and administering the thousands of new grants to be made. Federal Program Officers and Budget Officers are going to be overloaded, which likely means less thorough review of proposals and subsequent grant contracts and limited oversight. If you run a nonprofit or public agency, there’ll never be a better time to aggressively seek grants.


  • As grant writers, we’re always amused by new government acronyms. In this case, some 25-year-old recent Ivy League grad, who works for a congressional committee, likely came up with ARPA, though there’s already a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which is it itself a major federal grant-making entity. It would be fun if ARPA has new funds for DARPA, like a Matryoshka or Russian Nesting Doll.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grant writing in another time of civil disturbances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Less obvious things that impact human services during the coronavirus pandemic

The news about coronavirus focuses rightly on life and death and the struggles of hospitals, as well the need for social distancing and the suspensions of large gatherings. Emergency measures that last for a few weeks are one thing, but it looks like this crisis may continue for several months. While the media is generally doing a good job of crisis coverage, some aspects of particular interest to nonprofit human services providers are being narrowly covered at best.

For example, arrests by the LAPD are dropping, and many court systems are deferring or dismissing non-felony cases, since no one wants coronavirus to rip through jails. It’s hard to say what lowered policing and low-level case dismissal means: maybe many arrests were bogus in the first place. But maybe they weren’t, and we’re likely going to see substantially increased crime as people adjust to this new normal—most big city cops aren’t arresting people, even for such fairly serious crimes as burglary and car break-ins. It’s also possible that petty crime—and even crime in general—will decline because would-be criminals are at home and either don’t want to get coronavirus themselves, or they know most people are holed up at home, and many of those holed up at home are armed. It’s beyond the purview of our knowledge and subject matter to discuss this in detail, but there’s also a lively debate about whether most crime is premeditated versus simply persons seeing what they perceive as opportunity and then acting on it.

Some incarcerated persons are already being released early; released arrestees and, more importantly, recently released prisoners need something productive to do and to earn legitimate income—which usually means case-managed job training and placement of some kind. We’ve written many funded proposals for services for ex-offenders and, even in good times, this is not an easy population to work with. The unemployment rate is likely 10% and may spike as high as 20% in the coming months, further complicating matters. In the short term, however, there’ll be huge need, and likely lots of grant money available, to provide these services. Training and placement, alway challenging, will be hard, given social distancing, but some nonprofits have to try, perhaps with sufficient social distancing measure and/or tele-case management.

Another issue: thousands of 12-Step Program meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous, are being cancelled—and these programs are based mostly on in-person peer support. Behavioral health provides will have to suspend in-person individual and group sessions, leaving millions more with SUD/OUD and/or severe and persistent mental illness (SPMI) more or less on their own. Add the incredible stressors of job/income loss, stay-at-home orders, and the like to addiction and mental health issues, and a huge human toll is likely. We’ve seen estimates that 10% of the US population has mental health or substance abuse challenges that are mitigated by in-person support. Most people don’t get the same effects from digital communications tools that we do from in-person interaction. Still, this is an opportunity for nimble nonprofits to seek foundation and government grants to establish or scale-up tele-behavioral health services.

Lots of people have realized that shuttered movie theaters may never recover; fewer people are thinking openly about what we ought to be doing with the most vulnerable persons who are facing serious disruptions, on top of the obvious coronavirus disruptions.

Community foundations and grants that are more work than they’re worth

We get calls from some (inexperienced) potential clients who want to pursue “community foundation” grants, which are usually small grants that range up to $5,000 or $10,000, but we almost always tell them the same thing: those grants aren’t worth chasing. We’ve mentioned that, in grant writing, zeroes are cheap, and many very large grants aren’t much harder to get, and to manage, than smaller grants.

Something unusual, however, just happened: We got a phone call from a community foundation CEO who is unhappy because he’s finding small grants harder and harder to give away. It seems that this community foundation offers free grant writing training to local nonprofit leaders in hopes of helping them understand how to write proposals, but the nonprofit executive directors still can’t be bothered to fill out the foundation’s relatively simple applications for the small grants it offers. The foundation is trying to get the local nonprofits to seek funding from it, but they won’t, because of the problems I mention in the first paragraph. While we love work, there’s nothing we could do for this foundation to solve this problem—we said him that the foundation should make the grants larger and they’ll get more applications. Alternatively, just give the money away without an application.

We also got a recent call from a client who is now turning down these kinds of smaller grants. Why would an organization turn down money? Because, the client said, by the time the she applies, deals with the bureaucracy, gets the money, and accounts for the money, there is little or no real money left to provide services—it’s all gone into administration. Dedicating management resources for $500,000 or million-dollar grants makes sense. Dedicating management resources for $5,000 grants doesn’t.*

Community foundations that want to make an impact are better off just sending the check to the nonprofits they already like without requiring an application. Or, they could invite nonprofits to submit applications they’re already submitting. For example, we recently worked on a SAMHSA Strategic Prevention Framework – Partnerships for Success (SPF-PFS) application; a community foundation interested in opioid use disorder (OUD) prevention and treatment could say to a local nonprofit, “If you’re already applying for a grant and send it to us, we’ll review it too, just using our own criteria.” Emailing a copy of an existing grant is easy—it would be something like the college Common Application in college admissions, but for grants. As far as I can remember, we’ve never seen a foundation do this.

I feel bad for community foundations that are trying to give away money unsuccessfully—but there is (rarely) such thing as a free lunch, and nonprofits know that friction costs are real.


* As Isaac relates in the very first post we put up, back in 2007, the first grant proposal he wrote in 1972 was for $5,000. That made sense then, as $5K was real money in 1972, but it’s not any more.

Don’t split target areas, but some programs, like HRSA’s Rural Health Network Development (RHND) Program, encourage cherry picking

In developing a grant proposal, one of the first issues is choosing the target area (or area of focus); the needs assessment is a key component of most grant proposals—but you can’t write the needs assessment without defining the target area. Without a target area, it’s not possible to craft data into the logic argument at is at the center of all needs assessments.

To make the needs assessment as tight and compelling as possible, we recommend that the target area be contiguous, if at all possible. Still, there are times when it is a good idea to split target areas—or it’s even required by the RFP.

Some federal programs, like YouthBuild, have highly structured, specific data requirements for such items as poverty level, high school graduation rate, youth unemployment rates, etc., with minimum thresholds for getting a certain number of points. Programs like YouthBuild mean that cherry picking zip codes or Census tracts can lead to a higher threshold score.

Many federal grant programs are aimed at “rural” target areas, although different federal agencies may use different definitions of what constitutes “rural”—or they provide little guidance as to what “rural” means. For example, HRSA just issued the FY ’20 NOFOs (Notice of Funding Opportunities—HRSA-speak for RFP) for the Rural Health Network Development Planning Program and the Rural Health Network Development Program.

Applicants for RHNDP and RHND must be a “Rural Health Network Development Program.” But, “If the applicant organization’s headquarters are located in a metropolitan or urban county, that also serves or has branches in a non-metropolitan or rural county, the applicant organization is not eligible solely because of the rural areas they serve, and must meet all other eligibility requirements.” Say what? And, applicants must also use the HRSA Tool to determine rural eligibility, based on “county or street address.” This being a HRSA tool, what HRSA thinks is rural may not match what anybody living there thinks. Residents of what has historically been a farm-trade small town might be surprised to learn that HRSA thinks they’re city folks, because the county seat population is slightly above a certain threshold, or expanding ex-urban development has been close enough to skew datasets from rural to nominally suburban or even urban.

Thus, while a contiguous target area is preferred, for NHNDP and RHND, you may find yourself in the data orchard picking cherries.

In most other cases, always try to avoid describing a target composed of the Towering Oaks neighborhood on the west side of Owatonna and the Scrubby Pines neighborhood on the east side, separated by the newly gentrified downtown in between. If you have a split target area, the needs assessment is going to be unnecessarily complex and may confuse the grant reviewers. You’ll find yourself writing something like, “the 2017 flood devastated the west side, which is very low-income community of color, while the Twinkie factory has brought new jobs to the east side, which is a white, working class neighborhood.” The data tables will be hard to structure and even harder to summarize in a way that makes it seem like the end of the world (always the goal in writing needs assessments).

Try to choose target area boundaries that conform to Census designations (e.g., Census tracts, Zip Codes, cities, etc.). Avoid target area boundaries like a school district enrollment area or a health district, which generally don’t conform to Census and other common data sets.