Category Archives: Grants

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.

Washington Post’s story on rural health care ignores Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) — huh?

Eli Saslow recently wrote a 3,500-word Washington Post story about rural healthcare in “Urgent needs from head to toe’: This clinic had two days to fix a lifetime of needs.” Although it reads like a dispatch from Doctors Without Borders in Botswana, Saslow is describing rural Meigs County TN. Rural America certainly faces significant unmet healthcare needs, but this piece has a strange omission: it doesn’t mention Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs).

The Tennessee Primary Care Association reports over 30 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) operating over 200 health clinics in the state, most in rural areas—including at least four in or near Meigs County! FQHCs are nonprofits that receive HRSA Section 330 grants to provide integrated primary care, dental care, and behavioral health services to low-income and uninsured patients. FQHCs also accept Medicaid and, in rural areas, are usually the main primary care providers, along with ERs.

Federal law requires FQHCs to provide services under a sliding-fee scale, with a nominal charge for very-low-income patients—in theory, at least, FQHCs never turn patients away due to lack of ability to pay. Similarly, federal law requires ERs to treat everyone, regardless of income and/or insurance status. Unlike ERs, however, FQHCs provide a “medical home” for patients. There are over 1,400 FQHCs, with thousands of sites, both fixed and mobile, to better reach isolated rural areas like Meigs County. We should know—we’ve written dozens of funded HRSA grants for FQHCs, including many serving rural areas like Meigs County.

The story’s hero is Rural Area Medical (RAM), a nonprofit that appears to set up temporary clinics under the free clinic model. Free clinics emerged from the runaway youth health crisis of the late 60s, starting in the Summer of Love in San Francisco—I was on the board of a free clinic over 40 years ago and understand the model well. While there are still over 1,400 official free clinic sites, free clinics largely depend on volunteer medical staff, may not accept Medicaid, and have insecure funding because they rely on donations (often from their volunteers) to keep the lights on. To operate, a free clinic must necessarily devote much of its resources away from direct services to maintaining volunteers and fundraising, like any nonprofit that depends on volunteer labor (think Habitat for Humanity).

Unlike FQHCs, free clinics patients don’t have a designated primary care provider (PCP), since a given doc or NP might be volunteering or not on a given day—like an ER, free clinic patients lack a true medical home. Free clinics aren’t generally eligible to participate in the federally subsidized 340B Discount Pharmacy Program, so patients don’t have access to long-term, low-cost medications. Free clinics, while once the only source of healthcare for many uninsured, have now mostly been overtaken by FQHCs, much as the days of the independent tutor ended with the coming of public schools. We’ve worked for a few free clinics over the years, and most were struggling to stay open and provided erratic services. Their executive directors could feel which way the wind is blowing and consequently many were trying trying to become FQHCs.

I wonder: has RAM applied to become an FQHC and open a permanent site in Meigs County? I don’t know anything about Meigs County, and it’s possible that the local FQHCs are incompetent or poorly run and could use some new competitors. HRSA just had a New Access Points (NAP) competition, with over $200 million to found and fund new sites. If the the healthcare situation is dire in Meigs County, applying for NAP grant makes much more sense than setting up shop for a weekend. Does RAM refer patients to local FQHCs? That may be a more efficacious long-term solution than the superman approach of flying in, saving the day, and flying out (imagine if education worked the same way, with itinerant teachers stopping by to give a lecture on geometry one day, Shakespeare’s sonnets the next, and the gall bladder the day after).

The original story is great as human interest, but it doesn’t go into root causes. Some consulting organization created the “Five Whys” strategy or methodology, which holds that, for any given problem, it’s often not useful to look at a single moment or cause of failure or inadequacy. Rather, systems enable failure, and for any given failure, it’s necessary to look deeper than the immediate event. Some of the other underlying problems in this story include the American Medical Association (AMA), which controls med school slots, and the individual medical specialty associations, which control residency slots. The U.S. has been training too few doctors and doing an inadequate job getting those doctors into residency for decades. Detail on this subject is too specific for this piece, but Ezekiel Emanuel has a good article on the subject; med school needs to be integrated with undergrad and needs a year lopped off it. The way medical training works right now is too expensive and too long, creating physician shortages—especially in the places that need physicians most. The supply-demand mismatch raises the costs of physician services and mean that physicians charge more for services than they otherwise would.

Rural areas have also faced decades of economic headwinds, with young adults moving to job centers, leaving an aging-in-place population that needs many support services; declining tax base from manufacturing leaving for emerging countries; the opioid epidemic; and so on. While I wouldn’t expect Saslow to fully cover such factors, context is missing and at least a passing reference to FQHCs would make sense.

Another piece of the evaluation puzzle: Why do experiments make people unhappy?

The more time you spend around grants, grant writing, nonprofits, public agencies, and funders, the more apparent it becomes that the “evaluation” section of most proposals is only barely separate in genre from mythology and folktales, yet most grant RFPs include requests for evaluations that are, if not outright bogus, then at least improbable—they’re not going to happen in the real world. We’ve written quite a bit on this subject, for two reasons: one is my own intellectual curiosity, but the second is for clients who worry that funders want a real-deal, full-on, intellectually and epistemologically rigorous evaluation (hint: they don’t).

That’s the wind-up to “Why Do Experiments Make People Uneasy?“, Alex Tabarrok’s post on a paper about how “Meyer et al. show in a series of 16 tests that unease with experiments is replicable and general.” Tabarrok calls the paper “important and sad,” and I agree, but the paper also reveals an important (and previously implicit) point about evaluation proposal sections for nonprofit and public agencies: funders don’t care about real evaluations because a real evaluation will probably make the applicant, the funder, and the general public uneasy. Not only do they make people uneasy, but most people don’t even understand how a real evaluation works in a human-services organization, how to collect data, what a randomized controlled trial is, and so on.

There’s an analogous situation in medicine; I’ve spent a lot of time around doctors who are friends, and I’d love to tell some specific stories,* but I’ll say that while everyone is nominally in favor of “evidence-based medicine” as an abstract idea, most of those who superficially favor it don’t really understand what it means, how to do it, or how to make major changes based on evidence. It’s often an empty buzzword, like “best practices” or “patient-centered care.”

In many nonprofit and public agencies, evaluations and effectiveness are the same: everyone putatively believes in them, but almost no one understands them or wants real evaluations conducted. Plus, beyond that epistemic problem, even if evaluations are effective in a given circumstance (they’re usually not), they don’t necessarily transfer. If you’re curious about why, Experimental Conversations: Perspectives on Randomized Trials in Development Economics is a good place to start—and this is the book least likely to be read, out of all the books I’ve ever recommended here. Normal people like reading 50 Shades of Grey and The Name of the Rose, not Experimental Conversations.

In the meantime, some funders have gotten word about RCTs. For example, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Assistance’s (BJA) Second Chance Act RFPs have bonus points in them for RCTs. I’ll be astounded if more than a handful of applicants even attempt a real RCT—for one thing, there’s not enough money available to conduct a rigorous RCT, which typically requires paying the control group to follow up for long-term tracking. Whoever put the RCT in this RFP probably wasn’t thinking about that real-world issue.

It’s easy to imagine a world in which donors and funders demand real, true, and rigorous evaluations. But they don’t. Donors mostly want to feel warm fuzzies and the status that comes from being fawned over—and I approve those things too, by the way, as they make the world go round. Government funders mostly want to make congress feel good, while cultivating an aura of sanctity and kindness. The number of funders who will make nonprofit funding contingent on true evaluations is small, and the number willing to pay for true evaluations is smaller still. And that’s why we get the system we get. The mistake some nonprofits make is thinking that the evaluation sections of proposals are for real. They’re not. They’re almost pure proposal world.


* The stories are juicy and also not flattering to some of the residency and department heads involved.

The weakness of the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Program, in a paragraph

We’re fans of the Community Development Financial Institutions Program (CDFI), which usually has tens (or hundreds) of millions of dollars available annually “to promote economic revitalization and community development” through investment in local startups and businesses. The CDFI Program—notice the capital “P”—is separate from the CDFIs themselves, which are local organizations that offer loans and investments in local companies and are certified as CDFIs by the Department of the Treasury.

I was thinking about CDFIs when I read “How the 22-year-old founders of Brex built a billion-dollar business in less than 2 years,” which is an interesting story in its own right but also says this:

As founders themselves, Dubugras and Franceschi were hyper-aware of a huge problem entrepreneurs face: access to credit. Big banks see small businesses as a risk they aren’t willing to take, so founders are often left at a dead-end. Dubugras and Franceschi not only had a big network of startup entrepreneurs in their Rolodex, but they had the fintech acumen necessary to build a credit card business designed specifically for founders.

Those “Big banks” are exactly who CDFIs are supposed to compete with. Yet the CDFI program has been operating since 1994 and was a much-ballyhooed part of President Clinton’s domestic policy agenda. Over the years, the CDFI Program has largely faded from view, although we still write CDFI proposals every couple years. Still, access to credit remains a massive problem—and one that the Brex founders have tackled, even though CDFIs were (and are) well-placed to do exactly what Brex did.

It’s distressing that, even after decades of CDFI, high-quality entrepreneurs are still struggling to get capital out of existing financial institutions. If I were a CDFI manager in charge of the next program application, I would both cite this article and describe how my CDFI will avoid the traditional Catch-22 of banking and loans: the only entities that can get the loan are the ones that don’t really need it. Venture capital is one way to break that Catch-22. But there ought to be others.

CDFIs have potential. The “weakness” in the title of this post is not meant to be a sign of just another person on the Internet, calling names. It’s meant to be addressed by CDFIs themselves in the next funding round.

I’ve never heard of a startup applying for funding from a CDFI. Doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, but it is notable. If you know of any that have, please leave a not in the comments.

In addition, it’s notable that most corporate credit cards are still… not very friendly, to speak euphemistically. We know from experience. Maybe we’ll be applying for a Brex card in the near future.

The DOL FY ’18 YouthBuild FOA is out and a dinosaur program is again relevant

The Department of Labor (DOL) just issued the FY ’18 YouthBuild FOA. YouthBuild, which has been around for about 25 years,* is relevant for the first time in about ten years. We’ve written around 30 funded YouthBuild proposals, including, in 1994, the very first funded YouthBuild proposal in Southern California; we’ve also written many posts about YouthBuild.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, YouthBuild has seemed like an anachronism—with the collapse of the housing and real estate markets, there have been legions of unemployed construction workers, so what was the point in training yet more? Still, hundreds of YouthBuild grantees persisted, as did thousands of other workforce development agencies. And we’ve continued to write YouthBuild proposals, although we’ve had to stretch our skills to create plausible outcomes for newly minted construction workers in a world that didn’t need them. It helped that in FY 2014, as as we wrote about in the post linked to above, DOL removed the need to include Labor Market Information (LMI) data, since at that time it was about impossible to demonstrate that construction jobs actually existed in most parts of the US.

Flash forward to 2018, and it’s hard not to notice the construction boom. Cranes dominate most skylines and there’s new life for manufacturers in the Midwest rust belt. Even Detroit, which has been in economic decline since the Nixon administration, is reportedly coming out of its slumber.**

The national unemployment rate dropped to 3.9% in April, something else that hasn’t been seen for decades. As grant writers, however, we know that there’s a disconnect between this widely reported statistic and reality, given the huge number of working age youth and young adults who are not in the job market—many due to conditions of disability—and thus not counted in the conventional unemployment rate. The new challenge in writing a YouthBuild proposal is cobbling together unemployment data to support project need. But DOL is helping out with the following curious direction from this year’s FOA regarding unemployment data requirements:

The national unemployment rate for youth ages 16 – 24 against which DOL will evaluate applicants is: 13.8 percent (using 1-year American Community Survey (ACS) estimates as of 2016).

This year, YouthBuild applicants must use two-year old unemployment data, though current data would paint a much brighter picture. For most low-income urban and rural communities, and especially urban communities of color, we won’t have much trouble demonstrating youth unemployment well above this odd threshold. This is done through the magic of manipulating target area census tracks/zip codes, as needed, to create an especially bleak youth unemployment picture.

We don’t know if DOL intentionally made it easier to demonstrate need to encourage more YouthBuild applicants or if it’s just bureaucratic randomness.


* More or less as long as Seliger + Associates

** Randomly, Detroit and Compton are the only big cities with mostly residents of color I can think of in which we’ve never had a client. To correct this, I’ll offer a 20% discount on a YouthBuild application to any client in Detroit or Compton that comes along.

USDA Community Connect program: Technological change and bringing broadband to rural America

The USDA just released the Community Connect Grant program RFP, which has $30 million to fund 15 projects that will provide broadband in underserved rural communities. We’ve written a bunch of proposals related to rural Internet access, most during the heyday of the Stimulus Bill around 2010. Almost all of those projects involved, on some level, either digging a trench or stringing a wire. Both activities are very, very expensive, so not that many people can be served.

Google has discovered as much, albeit in urban areas: the company famously launched an effort to roll out gigabit fiber Internet about eight years ago, but relentless and ferocious legal and regulatory pressure from incumbents has led the company to scale back its plans. The combination of regulatory capture from other Internet providers and the inherent cost of digging and stringing defeated even Google.

But, at the same time, Google has also announced plans to offer wireless gigabit services in some cities, by placing antennas on the roofs of multifamily buildings and using an antenna-to-antenna system to bypass the digging-or-stringing-a-wire problem.

By now, you can probably see where I’m going. In the old world—like, the world of ten years ago—Community Connect-style programs only really worked with wires. But today, wired hubs combined with radios or lasers may allow projects to deploy broadband to far more locations with far less funding. I can’t speak to the technical feasibility of such projects (though we often write scientific and technical grants). But it doesn’t take an electrical engineering degree to know that “costs less” and “provides more” is a winning argument. I think that smart rural utilities will be looking into wireless systems for last-mile connections. The technology, it would appear, is here; it wasn’t in 2010. As you can likely tell from the title of this post, grant writers who can argue that the technology is here should be able to demonstrate cost benefits over fully wired systems.

We may also be in an interregnum period: While SpaceX has proposed low-latency satellite Internet, that technology is in the prototype stage and is not here yet. Ten years from now, low-orbit satellites may provide latency times as low as 25ms.

Overall, technological change should drive a change in the way Community Connect proposals are written. Many human-service grant programs change very little over time; eight or nine years ago, we began mentioning social media in proposals, but for the most part human service programs have the same fundamental structure: an organization gets some people with problems to come to a facility to receive some services, or the organization sends some expert workers to people with problems to receive some services. Even today, however, most human services nonprofits don’t make much use of social media in service delivery, although it is often used for volunteer recruitment, donations, etc. Technical grant proposals like those being written for Community Connect, though, can and should be driven by technical change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bad news in new tax bill for nonprofits that depend on small- to medium-sized donations

I recently wrote about Bad and good news for FQHCs in the latest Republican tax bill, and last week, the Republican tax bill passed under its official title, “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” (TCJA). Like it or not, the TCJA is now law and I’m continuing to look at its implications for nonprofits and grant seeking. As reported by the Washington Post, “Charities fear tax bill could turn philanthropy into a pursuit only for the rich.”

Why? The combination of doubling the standard deduction and limiting the deductibility state/local taxes and mortgage interest will likely significantly reduce charitable donations by middle and upper middle income Americans. Those people would need very high deductions to bother itemizing, so many won’t. That’s very bad news for smaller to mid-size nonprofits that depend on donations.

Unlike businesses, which can enter new markets and develop new products, nonprofits have relatively few revenue possibilities (the main ones they do have are listed at the link). In addition to grants and fee-for-service contracts (e.g., foster care, substance abuse treatment, homeless shelter beds, etc.), these are limited to membership dues (for member organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs, animal rescues, etc.), fundraisers, and donations. The latter three will be impacted by the TCJA.

While every nonprofit executive director dreams of landing a donor “whale,” mega-donors are not only rare but tend to give to larger and well-connected nonprofits (the rarely acknowledged “swamp” of philanthropy, if you will). The booming stock market and lowered corporate tax rate will likely to produce more whales, but many of these will donate to corporate or family foundations—not garden variety human services nonprofits toiling away in relative obscurity. We’ve had many conversations with executive directors whose nonprofits are doing good work but find it hard to translate “good work” into “increased donations.”

Nonprofit executive directors will have to make a choice that will become more acute in 2018: cast off in the whale boat to search for Moby-Dick or chase schools of small donation fish. The former strategy is usually pointless and the later is time consuming work that will become harder as many Americans realize that there won’t be a tax deduction reward because they won’t itemize.

The silver lining is that foundation portfolios are being engorged by the historically high bull market. They’ll also receive huge donations from corporations and the upper-income people, who will get much of the direct benefits from the TCJA. No matter what, foundations must distribute 5% of their assets every year, and we offer foundation appeals in part with that in mind to clients.

Also, federal spending on discretionary grant programs continues to rise and most states should see increased tax revenue, some of which will be allocated to grant programs. As budgetary chaos subsides, federal agencies will resume normal RFP patterns.

“Provide project details in 500 characters or less”

Today I was working on a foundation proposal submission and came across one of my favorite questions ever: “What are you requesting? Provide details (500 characters).”

Right. You, the funder, are going to get TONS of detail in. . . 500 characters. This post, up to the preceding sentence, is about 250 characters, or half the length of the possible answer. Twitter has recently shocked the media world by shifting from its 140-character standard to its 280-character long-form. So the applicant is to “provide details” in the space of two tweets.

I think whoever wrote that question wasn’t thinking about what they were writing or was thinking about it and decided, “Whatever, I’m going to have some fun with this.” It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen an Easter Egg in an RFP.

Grant writing during an economic boom: primary health care, substance abuse, homeless services, job re-training, and foundations

In 2010, I wrote “Grant Writing from Recession to Recession,” and last week the Bureau of Economic Analysis announced that GDP increased by 3% in each of the last two quarters. The stock market is rocketing upward.

This post is the obverse of my 2010 post; while grant seeking and grant writing are eternal, they’re different during economic lows and highs. As we’ve written many times before, nonprofits typically derive revenue from a mix of donations, membership dues, third-party reimbursements (e.g., Medicaid, substance abuse treatment, etc.), fee-for-service contracts (e.g., foster care, home health care, etc.), government grants, and foundation grants.

As the economy takes off, nonprofits will see increased donations, fundraising revenue, and/or membership dues, as people either have more disposable income or think they do. Still, it’s a shortsighted nonprofit that puts too many revenue strategy eggs in the donation / fundraising / membership dues basket—any number of impossible to predict black-swan events could occur, or the economy could just fizzle back into the slow growth pattern of the recent decade. Donations and membership dues could disappear in a flash, just like they did in 2008 – 10.

Nonprofits that provide some kind of heath care should see a big uptick in third-party reimbursements and fee-for-service contracts, particularly regarding Medicaid services (FQHCs for example), opioid-use disorder (OUD) treatment, and HIV services. Despite eight years of political posturing, it looks like some version of Obamacare and expanded Medicaid is here to stay. Also, with more Americans now dying annually from ODs than car crashes, there’ll be big increases in funding for OUD treatment and HIV services, since HIV transmission is closely linked to the injection drug use that is at the center of OUD.

This brings us to grants. Despite rumors, the Trump administration and Republican congress have not decreased federal funding for discretionary grant programs. The FY ’18 Federal Fiscal Year began on October 1. Since 1998, Congress has funded the federal government via a series of Continuing Resolutions (CRs), rather than passing actual budgets. In general, CRs use a “baseline budgeting” concept, which means that the FY ’18 CR, which just passed Congress last week, mostly continues funding levels for discretionary grant programs from the previous CR, adjusted upward for inflation.

Since every Federal program has a strong lobby and highly paid lobbyists, Congress rarely makes significant, real spending cuts. Instead, if anything happens, Congress might restrict the rate of federal spending growth—but not adjust the underlying, baseline level. Funding for the NEA, public broadcasting, etc., will not be eliminated or even reduced. These parts of the government are popular symbolic targets, but virtually all of the growth in the federal budget comes from Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. Any budget hawk that doesn’t propose reductions to the first two is simply not serious.

There are actually more federal grant dollars up for grabs in FY ’18 than in FY ’17. The same will be true for grants from most states and big cities/counties, as tax revenues will climb with the rising economic tide. Counterintuitively, there’ll probably be less competition for most RFPs. With the better economy, some nonprofits will forgo submitting competitive grant proposals, choosing to pick the new low hanging fruit of donations, membership dues, and fundraising. Smart nonprofits will, however, go after every plausible government grant opportunity, since there’s no good reason not to and some organization is going to get the grants.

In the coming years, the big grant opportunities will likely be in primary health care, substance abuse treatment, Ryan White services, homeless services, and job re-training. One of the oddities of America at the moment is that homelessness continues to increase, despite a pretty good economy. Many cities, like Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco have passed, or proposed, big new local taxes to fund homeless services, in addition to the federal McKinney Act Programs through HUD. With respect to re-training, despite low unemployment rates, about 90 million working age Americans remain out of the workforce for reasons ranging from former incarceration to less than catastrophic disabilities to outmoded work skills or something.

The workforce must adjust to the rise of robots and AI-related manufacturing and services, which means lots of grants will be available for job training and re-training project concepts. Nimble nonprofits, who traditionally have been involved in such services as housing, prisoner reentry, family support, after school programs, teen pregnancy prevention and the like, would be wise to change their missions to go where the money will be.

Foundation grants will also be a good target. By federal law, foundations are required to spend at least 5% of their endowments annually on grants. With the huge stock market run, foundations will be flush with investment earnings that must be distributed through grants. Go get ’em tiger.