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Substance Abuse Disorder/Opioid Use Disorder (SUD/OUD): Traditional treatment versus harm reduction for grant writers

We’ve been writing Substance Use Disorder / Opioid Use Disorder (SUD/OUD) treatment grant proposals since 1993, so we’ve been at it for long enough to see waves of funder preferences around approaches come and go. SUD/OUD are hard problems, and made harder because of the misinformation and disinformation about Oxycodone and Oxycontin that Purdue Pharma and its subsidiaries spread for decades, in a way that’s likely worse than the way the cigarette companies once marketed their wares.

For the first 20 years or so in business, the SUD/OUD treatment grant proposals we wrote were usually based on the standard “Step-Down” paradigm, in which people with addiction receive treatment along a continuum of care from a high level of care and then “step down” to lower care levels in increments, leading to eventual recovery and self-care. Following engagement, referral, or self-presentation and development of an individual treatment plan (ITP), the step-down levels are more or less like this:

  • Detoxification/hospitalization
  • Inpatient treatment
  • Intensive outpatient treatment
  • Outpatient treatment, often including 12-Step peer support groups and, for those with OUD, medication assisted treatment (MAT)
  • Recovery and self-care

The levels can be further broken down, but the above is a common schema. As patients move down the treatment continuum, they usually receive case-managed wraparound supportive services—like legal assistance, workforce development, primary/dental care, affordable housing, etc.— at least until they are in recovery and have been “clean and sober” for six to twelve months. The “affordable housing” part has gotten much harder, though, because most cities use zoning laws to restrict the supply of housing, which causes prices to rise, which makes a given housing unit difficult for a grant-funded organization, or a person with drug addiction, to afford. Also, it’s an unfortunate reality that most people with SUD/OUD will relapse multiple times, sending them to the top of the treatment pyramid again. In this way, step-down treatment is something like the classic board game Chutes and Ladders I played as a kid. “Step down” was the main “treatment game” available for decades, although methadone was sometimes used for what we now call OUD.

About ten years ago, we began noticing a difference in SAMSHA, HRSA, and other RFPs for SUD/OUD: those agencies now want usually applicants to augment treatment to include “harm reduction.” As defined and described by SAMHSA, “Harm reduction is critical to keeping people who use drugs alive and as healthy as possible, and is a key pillar in the multi-faceted Health and Human Services’ Overdose Prevention Strategy.” Most of our clients resisted this shift but have gradually gotten on board the harm reduction train as pure harm reduction RFPs, like SAMHSA’s “FY ’22 Harm Reduction NOFO,” began to appear. The shift isn’t surprising, because in grant seeking it pays to follow the golden rule. No, not that golden rule, this one: “The people with the gold make the rules.”

Harm reduction projects usually involve a van-based outreach model in which Peer Support Workers (PSWs) go in teams to what are termed “hot spots” to engage people living with SUD/OUD. “Hot spots” include places like homeless encampments, shelters, parks, etc. The outreach effort can be either obvious (e.g., signage on the van and PSWs in logo t-shirts) or on the down low (e.g., plain white van and PSWs in street clothes), or a hybrid version using magnetic signs placed on the van, or removed from it, depending on the needs of a particular location on a given day. The PSWs distribute harm reduction supplies like clean syringes (with or without exchange), alcohol swabs, sterile water ampules, spoons, fentanyl test strips, sharps containers, and condoms, along with emergency food, clothing, hygiene items, and so forth. The outreach van is also used to provide some direct services in the field like wound care, rapid HIV tests, and naloxone administration.

The most extreme version of harm reduction are safe injection sites: while these are illegal in most of America because the drugs themselves are technically illegal, if widely available, three safe injection sites have recently and prominently opened, two in NYC and one in San Francisco. One key problem with a safe injection site initiative is that few businesses or residents want one near them, much like no one wants to be in proximity of a methadone clinic, so permitting is a real challenge. We’ve yet to write a safe injection site proposal but likely soon will.

A key difference between the standard treatment model and the harm reduction model is that clients are typically not tracked (when Joe or Mary shows up for supplies, their identity isn’t verified and they aren’t entered into a client database for tracking), and, most significantly, services aren’t case-managed. PSWs will offer “warm handoffs” for follow-up treatment like MAT and other center-based services, but there’s no automated follow-up from the harm reduction team.

We’re just grant writers, so we don’t have an immediate opinion as to whether step-down treatment or harm reduction is more efficacious, and most studies on the subject are somewhat questionable, although every treatment/harm reduction proposal we write claims the project design uses “evidence-based practices” (EBPs). When in doubt, claim both “evidence” and “innovation” for your program, leaving aside that those two are often mutually exclusive. If your agency provides SUD/OUD treatment, consider adding a harm reduction component, as this is clearly where the feds are going with grant funds. A cynic might conclude that the feds are pushing harm reduction because it’s much cheaper than providing longitudinal case-managed treatment, but we’ll leave that conclusion to others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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The Dept. of Transportation (DOT) issues first RFP under the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law:” “Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity” (RAISE)

The Department of Transportation (DOT) just issued an RFP for the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) Grants program; this being the federal government, the actual name of this program is the “Local and Regional Project Assistance Program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (“Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’)”, which is even longer than the short title we shoehorned into the title of this post. Why have one program name when two will do?

Although RAISE isn’t a new program, this RFP is significant because it appears to be the first one issued under the recently passed “Infrastructure Bill.” While in FY ’20 there was a paltry $1B available for RAISE, this year there’s $1.5B (and yes, that’s “billion”). The max grants are $5M in urban areas and $1M in rural areas, so hundreds of RAISE grants will be made. The RFP says RAISE grants may be used for “surface transportation infrastructure projects that will have a significant local or regional impact.” The deadline isn’t yet published, curiously, but there’ll be an update notice published on Jan. 30 in grants.gov that should have the deadline.

Eligible applicants include states, local governments, transportation districts and agencies—including ports, and Indian Tribes. While nonprofits aren’t directly eligible, they could be part of an applicant consortium and receive sub-grants for things like environmental justice, equity, workforce development, ethnic-specific community outreach and engagement, etc.

RAISE and other transportation programs, new and old, to be funded by the Infrastructure Bill, are really aimed at what is sometimes called the Concrete Lobby. The Concrete Lobby is an unholy alliance of construction companies, developers, local elected officials and appointed bureaucrats, unions, investment banks, lobbyists, chambers of commerce, and similar self-interested parties. In many ways, the Concrete Lobby is an analog of the Military-Industrial Complex that likes politicians who like foreign wars, so the government will buy more bullets. In this case, the Concrete Lobby wants the government to “buy more concrete.”

When I was a Community Development Director for CA cities in the 1980s, we always paid close attention to local Concrete Lobby members because they could easily and often would hand-pick candidates for local office, disrupting planning and redevelopment efforts (despite their efforts, though, local municipalities still severely restrict housing construction). Environmental groups and other NIMBYs typically opposed the Concrete Lobby, using tools like the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and State Offices of Historic Preservation (SHPO) to tie up or defeat local development projects, including those aimed at transit and transportation.* We see the results today: traffic gridlock and spectacularly high housing prices that hurt the poor the most, but hurt almost everyone. Depending on how the city I was working for felt about a particular project, we’d either support or surreptitiously attempt to sabotage environmental and NIMBY opposition. If you’re an environmental activist, keep in mind that, while you’re playing a one to five year game, the Concrete Lobby and their sycophants in government are playing a 30 to 50 year game.

With so much grant money now sloshing around looking for transportation projects and the rise of “woke environmentalism,” I’m guessing that the Concrete Lobby will try to co-opt opposition by most environmental groups with visions of subcontracts, as well as the virtue signaling sacraments of environmental justice and the suddenly popular shibboleth of “equity.” If you represent an eligible applicant for RAISE grants or a nonprofit interested in subcontracts, this is the time to look for good project concepts. We’ll soon post a companion article on how to develop a competitive grant proposal for RAISE and its ilk. These kinds of proposals are very different than typical human services proposals as the narratives are short, but the attachments are huge, resulting in what we call “layer cake” applications.


* When I was Community Development Director for the City of San Ramon in the San Francisco East Bay around 1990, we worked hard to get the regional transit authority to add bus lines through San Ramon to connect to the BART heavy rail system. We imagined that our largely upper middle class and progressive residents would love the idea of reducing use of cars for commuting. They were environmentalists, right? Wrong! Within two weeks of the new buses, which were standard size or larger articulated buses, rolling though town, about 200 people in matching anti-bus t-shirts showed up at a city council meeting denouncing the intrusive buses that were keeping them awake at night and “ruining their quality of life.” I had the thankless task of facing this mob. The City Council immediately caved and directed me to renegotiate with the transit authority. The result was to remove most trunk bus lines and add a few mini-buses, which defeated the point of connecting to BART for commuting.

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How many troubled Head Start programs are out there? Looking at ACF’s re-bid practices

Diligent grants.gov readers will occasionally see a bunch of notices for individual service areas for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Head Start Program. Recently, for example, a dozen Head Start RFPs were issued, for places like “Kent and Sussex Counties, Delaware” or “Bates, Cass, Cedar, Henry, St. Clair and Vernon Counties, Missouri.” I did some research on grantees in those areas and found that many Head Start programs in them had been taken over by something called the “Community Development Institute” (CDI) Head Start, which appears to be an ACF multi-area Head Start grantee whose job is to take over the miscreant Head Start programs and operate them until a new local operator can be found, wrangled, tackled, press-ganged, etc. To understand what’s going on, it’s necessary consider the long history of Head Start and its kin, Early Head Start.

Head Start, one of the original “War on Poverty” programs, has been around since 1965; ACF says over 1 million children are enrolled in Head Start annually, and there are Head Start programs in most parts of inhabited America—urban, suburban and rural. Many Head Start programs are operated by the 1,000 or so Community Action Agencies (CAAs), another 1965 War on Poverty relic, funded through the DHHS Office of Community Services (OCS).

Head Start grantees, like HRSA-funded Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), aren’t guaranteed funding and must periodically compete in new RFPs processes. But not every area has a competent grantee in it—particularly in sparsely populated rural areas or extremely poor areas, where services are often most needed. We’ve worked on numerous projects for organizations that are working through various permutations of this problem, our favorite being a SAC applicant who forgot to apply for their Section 330 grant when their Service Area Competition (SAC) NOFO was open, causing the applicant’s HRSA program officer to call, after the deadline, to say, “Where is your application?” HRSA allowed a late application, which is unusual, and we were able to write their SAC proposal in less than a week. These aren’t ideal or recommended conditions, however.

Searching local news in many of the counties listed by ACF as needing new Head Start grantees yields articles about whatever is going on at these troubled Head Start grantees, but those local news articles lack detail. Still, the regularity with which ACF issue these service area level RFPs shows the challenges not just of getting a Head Start grant, but of running the program successfully. Overall, Head Start is one of the few federal grant-funded programs that shows up regularly in popular media in heartwarming feature stories about low-income kids learning in a nurturing environment—and that sometimes happens. Head Start has also been the subject of much research, which increases its visibility. The research has generated much debate about Head Start’s efficacy at improving educational outcomes for at-risk kids; given its long history, the grandparents or great grandparents of kids in Head Start today were also very likely were in Head Start. Intergenerational Head Start enrollment doesn’t necessarily argue for the program’s real impact, but we’ll leave discussions of “impact” for another post.

Head Start is as much a jobs program as it is an early childhood education program. Head Start grants fund tens of thousands of jobs for low-income folks to work as non-credentialed or lightly credentialed “teachers.” These jobs have traditionally been filled mostly by single moms, whose kids are usually enrolled in Head Start. Thus, the local Head Start programs meet two critical needs in low-income communities—heavily subsidized early childhood education (or “child care” for the cynics) and reliable, easy-entry jobs with some career-ladder potential. Thus, when a Head Start program goes under, it can be a real crisis in low-income and especially low-income rural areas, which is probably why ACF tries to use the Community Development Institute and similar outfits to plug gaps. If any readers have a good story to tell about recycling of Head Start grants, write a guest post and we’ll post it anonymously.

Need your Head Start, or any other proposal, written? Call us at 800.540.8906 ext. 2, or send an email to seliger@seliger.com.

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Congress finally passes the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Is this 2021, or 2009, or is it deja vu all over again?

After six months of either negotiations or bizarre political theater, depending on your point of view, Congress finally passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, aka “the Infrastructure Bill;” it could have been named, “The Grant Seekers and Grant Writers Full Employment Act of 2021.” While analyses very, it seems that less than $200 million of the $1.2 trillion in the Bill will fund rail, bridges, roads, harbors, and other items that most people recognize as “infrastructure,” and the rest is a hodgepodge of other stuff too numerous to list here.

I’ve seen this movie: in 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). That opus was also a boon for grant seekers and grant writers and—as Yogi Bera is said to have said, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

Like with the ARRA, the Infrastructure Bill is a good example of the legislative log-rolling and sausage-making needed to get major legislation passed. After the dust clears, I’ll write another post about grant programs that are actually in the bill, but it obviously has huge funding authorizations for a cornucopia of project types in most federal departments.

As a former redevelopment director for CA cities and a long-time grant writing consultant, I found President Obama and Vice President Biden’s insistence in 2009 that the ARRA would fund “shovel ready projects” to be hilarious: given the labyrinth of environment reviews, local zoning issues, and ever-present NIMBYs ready to sue, “shovel ready” has little real-world meaning. Even Obama eventually admitted as much in 2012 when the feds couldn’t get the money spent quickly enough. Reforming the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) to increase project velocity would be a good place to start; without regulatory reform, infrastructure construction is likely to remain overly slow, bureaucratic, and expensive—all of these are components of “the great stagnation“. Given the 2009 experience, I was equally amused to watch now President Biden in a presser this week claiming that the Infrastructure Bill would have quick, positive impacts on American’s daily lives. Maybe in a couple of years it will have positive, noticeable impacts on daily lives, but it’ll have no impact on the current twin scourges of rapid inflation and supply chain woes.

Still, the Infrastructure Bill, like the ARRA, will eventually unleash a tsunami of RFPs when the federal departments complete rule-making. There’s no ready reserve of program officers waiting to be thrown into the fray, so the process of moving from legislation to RFPs will occur at the typical federal glacial pace, no matter what Transportation Department Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other administration officials say on the Sunday morning news shows. Remember that, as Patrick Collison and others pointed out in their discussion of their Fast Grants foundation program, during the pandemic, an NIH grant “application will typically result in a decision after something between 200 and 600 days.” And that’s during the pandemic, when every day really counts. If a pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands and hospitalized millions more can’t inspire the lethargic federal bureaucracy towards greater speed, what can?

I just watched a press conference with Commerce Department Secretary Gina Raimondo, who was asked when broadband funding under the Infrastructure Bill would actually be available. After hemming and hawing for a few minutes, she finally admitted she didn’t know but that it would be “well into 2022.” She has no idea when the money will actually flow and probably feels she has limited ability to make it flow. We wrote our first of many ARRA funded proposals in 2009—and our last in in 2017! I’m guessing we’ll be writing Infrastructure Bill proposals for the rest of the decade. SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet effort began initial planning in 2014, moved towards development in 2017, and began deploying satellites in 2019—in other words, it deployed novel technologies and platforms in less time than terrestrial broadband funding is likely to reach consumers.

Still, there’ll be a frenzy of applicants waiting at the federal trough: during the ARRA era, we wrote tons of proposals for various alternative energy and EV battery projects, mostly working for start-ups that emerged like March tulips from the snow as soon as the bill passed. We’re already getting calls from similar outfits, but I have to tell them: relax, you can’t get your snout in the grant trough till the RFPs appear, which they will in the coming months and years. The ARRA included some fairly odd funding, including huge funding for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs)—and FQHCs become our largest client category as a result. For some reason, the ARRA also had lots of funding for the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW), so, for a couple of years we wrote many proposals for domestic violence programs. I’m sure there are similar grant nuggets in the Infrastructure Bill, since lobbyists have had plenty of time to work their magic.

If you’re the CEO of a nonprofit or an energy business or a city manager/public works director, you should not stand around the grant trough with your tongue out. Instead, here’s what we’re telling our clients and callers about the Infrastructure Bill:

    • Finalize your project concept, including doing as much preliminary work as you. If it’s a capital project, get site control, finish your working drawings, and obtain a building permit. If it’s a non-capital project like environmental justice or something to do with climate change, decide on the target area, strategies, and line up partners.
    • Look for detailed analyses of the Bill to figure out which federal agencies and state agencies (for pass-through formula allocation grants) will have funding that matches your project concepts, get on email lists to make sure you don’t miss an RFP, and check grants.gov and trade association websites routinely.
    • If you don’t have a specific project in mind, dream up a couple that match available funding. Someone is going to get the grants—and it might as well be your agency.

The Infrastructure Bill is more like the ARRA than the three huge COVID relief bills that Congress passed starting in March 2020. Because the country was facing a real existential threat and there wasn’t time for lobbyists and sausage making, most of the funding in those bills was directly appropriated to specific entities and industries like cities, school districts, FQHCs, airlines, etc., or as individual income supports, like extended unemployment and SNAP (food stamps). Those bills produced relatively few RFPs for discretionary grants and many organizations only had to stand around and wait for the money to fall on their heads. The Infrastructure Bill will likely not be like that, except that much of the funding will be pass-through grants to states, which will then issue their own RFPs, complicating and lengthening the application process. This time around, your organization will have to work to get the grants.

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Grant writers and climate change: The Department of Energy’s Direct Air Capture program

The Department of Energy (DOE) just issued an unusual RFP, for a subject I can’t recall seeing the DOE previously wanting to fund fund: direct air capture (DAC) of CO2, the whole name of which will exhaust even patient readers: “Direct Air Capture Combined With Dedicated Long-Term Carbon Storage, Coupled to Existing Low-Carbon Energy.” Right now, DAC is in its infancy; this 2019 article summarizes the DAC situation, and Stripe Climate covers the overall need for DAC; Seliger + Associates hasn’t yet worked on a DAC project, although we have worked on projects related to geothermal energy, lithium metal, lithium batteries, flow batteries, resource recovery, and probably a few more I’m leaving out.* In these assignments, we utilize the approach described in “How we write scientific and technical grant proposals,” and we’re eager to work on DAC projects—if you’ve found your way here and are looking for a DOE grant writing, by all means give us a call at 800.540.8906 ext. 1, or email us at seliger@seliger.com. DAC’s immaturity makes it a particularly striking area for work, and, while the DOE program only has five awards available, it does have $15 million for grants “to better understand system costs, performance, as well as business case options for existing DAC technologies co-located with low-carbon thermal energy sources or industrial facilities.”

Specific activities are listed, too: “The objective of this FOA is to execute and complete front-end engineering design (FEED) studies of advanced DAC systems capable of removing a minimum of 5,000 tonne/yr. net CO2 from air based on a life cycle analysis (LCA), suitable for long duration carbon storage (i.e., geological storage or subsurface mineralization) or CO2 conversion/utilization (e.g., including, but not limited to, synthetic aggregates production, concrete production, and low carbon synthetic fuels and chemicals production).” It’s likely that the firms specializing in FEED don’t specialize in grant writing or storytelling, and that’s where we come into play.

DAC is still extremely expensive and infeasible on a scale that would affect global climate change, but it’s also getting cheaper fast—and that’s the same pattern of falling costs we’ve seen with batteries, solar, and wind—all of which have consistently fallen in price far faster than even their most ardent advocates would’ve hoped. Solar, wind, and batteries now appear to have a lower levelized cost of energy (LCOE) than methane plants, in many parts of the world, and, if another power source deals with baseload power, they can provide around 50% of total energy.

Ideally, forty years ago, humans would’ve collectively acted on the need for carbon emission reductions by building out nuclear power, introducing carbon taxes, and taking similar measures. We collectively did the opposite, and global CO2 levels are now in the 420 parts per million (ppm) range, and they’re almost certainly going to rise above 500 ppm in the coming decades. Pre-industrialize global CO2 rates were in the 230 – 250 ppm range, and, the last time carbon dioxide ppm was this high, the world was in the range of five degrees celsius warmer than it is now—or has been through human history. In the scheme of the world economy, $15 million isn’t a lot—but it’s a start.

*Several times over the years, we’ve gotten calls from inventors pitching the elusive perpetual motion machine. While fun to talk to these guys (and they’re always guys) we’ve so far declined to accept one of these jobs!

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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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“Fast Grants,” slow grants, HRSA grants, and COVID-19

In “What We Learned Doing Fast Grants,” Patrick Collison, Tyler Cowen, and Patrick Hsu do something I can’t recall ever seeing any funder, foundation or government, do: write a post-mortem on their giving process and describe what the process has taught them. Their second sentence says, “From the beginning, the institutional response has been lethargic.” I can’t recall ever seeing any funder, foundation or government, emphasize speed: most emphasize process. Speed is rarely a consideration in most grant making efforts—though it should be. Presumably grants are being made to address some critical issue, but what’s being left undone, based on slowness? Most federal grant proposals have an evaluation section, but few, if any, federal funders appear to evaluate themselves.

Most grants, from a funder’s perspective, are about signaling and covering one’s potential downside risk—a point I’ve seen few others make. That works sub-optimally, but seemingly well enough, in normal times. In times of crisis, though, the patterns and habits developed in normal times can be not only dysfunctional, but disastrous. I don’t think the average funder or applicant is much attuned to this issue, which makes me pessimistic about change. Yet the COVID-19 epidemic shows that the costs of overall bureaucratic lethargy is high:

we found that scientists — among them the world’s leading virologists and coronavirus researchers — were stuck on hold, waiting for decisions about whether they could repurpose their existing funding for this exponentially growing catastrophe.” Essentially, no one would, or could, make decisions. Tech companies have evolved the concept of the “directly responsible individual” (DRI): something that government strives not to identify. Without a DRI, no one can be blamed. Notice: “About 10 days after having the original idea, we launched.

The phrase “tech companies have evolved” is key here: evolution is built into the nature of private companies, because the badly managed ones die. One good thing about the nonprofit grant system is that a sufficiently dysfunctional nonprofit will also die, and grant making offers a feedback loop, however tenuous. Universities, though, rarely die. Do they reform? Some of the statements are grimly comical, like: “For example, SalivaDirect, the highly successful spit test from Yale University, was not able to get timely funding from its own School of Public Health, even though Yale has an endowment of over $30 billion.” So while I’ve been critical of government, and the authors are implicitly as well, universities don’t come out looking good either.

The authors report:

“We found it interesting that relatively few organizations contributed to Fast Grants. The project seemed a bit weird and individuals seemed much more willing to take the ‘risk’. (That said, a few institutions did contribute substantial amounts, and we’re very grateful to those that did.)”

I’m not aware of any large foundations that have attempted anything similar, although some likely have, and I don’t know about them. Most grant funding comes from the federal government and, because of the federal government’s sheer size, will for the foreseeable future. Foundations and corporate giving sources have their place—and it’s an important place, as Fast Grants demonstrates—but, barring some kind of major change, we’re unlikely to ever see such sources surpass government grants. The authors say: “[T]here are probably too few smart administrators in mainstream institutions trusted with flexible budgets that can be rapidly allocated without triggering significant red tape or committee-driven consensus.” They’re right.

If you’re interested in the behavior of institutions during the pandemic—which is to say, institutional failure during the pandemic—Michael Lewis’s book The Premonition: A Pandemic Story is excellent. Most government institutions were and perhaps are too used to “business as usual” to respond to business not as usual. FQHCs reacted better than most parts of government, but were hobbled by the usual problems of conflicting information and lack of access to personal protection equipment (PPE) in the early stages of the pandemic.

I’m unaware of any comprehensive accounting of the CDC’s actions or lack thereof during the pandemic, especially one that names names. Most of us know the CDC failed, but not the specifics of the organization’s internal workings. Fast Grants was and is an effort to compensate for government failures and slowness.

In non-emergency situations, science funding can work somewhat well. The Department of Energy’s ARPA-E programs have, going back for more than a decade, accelerated the transition towards low-carbon energy solutions (and we’ve written a lot of ARPA-E grants and SBIRs): but making those decisions slowly won’t kill hundreds of thousands of people, and leave millions hospitalized.