Category Archives: RFPs

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

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

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

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

First SAMHSA COVID-19 FOA out,”Emergency COVID-19,” but the deadline is April 10

With the recent passage of the $2 trillion CARES Act to provide COVID-19 relief, we’ve been closely monitoring the issuance of RFPs. On April 2, SAMHSA issued its first FOA (SAMHSA-speak for RFP) under the Act, “Emergency Grants to Address Mental and Substance Use Disorders During COVID-19.” But the submission due date is April 10, which is just 8 days from the posting. This is a model for what other federal coronavirus-related RFPs will likely look like. Although the RFP length is long, most of the content is SAMHSA boilerplate, and the narrative only needs to be 10 pages. Projects are expected to start by May 31. A May 31 start date may seem slow in this time of war, but it’s incredibly fast by the standards of federal agencies.

Only states, territories, and Indian Tribes are eligible applicants. We’re pointing this program out because RFPs for which nonprofit and public agencies are eligible will likely follow in the coming days, issued from a variety of federal agencies. If you’re a nonprofit, you need to be ready to act fast. Some nonprofits aren’t poised to act. We got a query email, for example, from a nonprofit back on March 3. I sent a fee-quote letter and follow-up email that day. The nonprofit disappeared, then, on March 25, sent an email asking for a further call two to three weeks later. Six or more weeks to make a decision to apply may work in normal times, but a culture of inactivity during a crisis is a real liability.

Why we like writing SAMHSA proposals: the RFP structure is clear and never changes

We wrote our first funded Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) grant about 25 years ago, and there’s something notable about SAMHSA: unlike virtually all of their federal agency sisters, SAMHSA RFPs are well structured. Even better, the RFP structure seemingly never changes—or at least not for the past quarter century. This makes drafting a SAMHSA proposal refreshingly straightforward and enables us, and other competent writers, to (relatively) easily and coherently spin our grant writing “Tales of Brave Ulysses.” The word “coherently” in the preceding sentence is important: RFPs that destroy narrative flow by asking dozens of unrelated sub-questions also destroy the coherence of the story the writer is trying to tell and the program the writer is trying to describe. SAMHSA RFPs typically allow the applicant to answer the 5Ws and H.

A SAMHSA RFP almost always uses a variation on a basic, five element structure:

  • Section A: Population of Focus and Statement of Need
  • Section B: Proposed Implementation Approach
  • Section C: Proposed Evidence-Based Service/Practice
  • Section D: Staff and Organizational Experience
  • Section E: Data Collection and Performance Measurement

While SAMHSA RFPs, of course, include many required sub-headers that demand corresponding details, this structure lends itself to the standard outline format that we prefer (e.g., I.A.1.a). We like using outlines, because it makes it easy for us to organize our presentation and for reviewers to find responses to specific items requested in the RFP—as long as the outlines make sense and, as noted above, don’t interrupt narrative flow. In this respect, SAMHSA RFPs are easy for us to work with.

In recent years, SAMSHA has also reduced the maximum proposal length (exclusive of many required attachments) from 25 single-spaced pages to, in many cases, 10 single-spaced pages. Although it’s generally harder to write about complex subjects with a severe page limit than a much longer page limit, we’re good at packing a lot into a small space.* A novice grant writer, however, is likely to be intimidated by a SAMHSA RFP, due to the forbidding nature of the typical project concept and the brief page limit. In our experience, very long proposals are rarely better and are often worse than shorter ones.

We haven’t talked in this post about what SAMHSA does, because the nature of the organization’s mission doesn’t necessarily affect the kinds of RFPs the organization produces. Still, and not surprisingly, given its name, SAMSHA is the primary direct federal funder of grants for substance abuse and persistent mental illness prevention and treatment. With the recent and continuing tsunami of the twin co-related scourges of opioid use disorder (OUD) and homelessness, Congress has appropriated greater funding for SAMHSA and the agency is going through one of its cyclical rises in prominence in the grant firmament. Until we as a society get a handle on the opioid crisis, SAMHSA is going to get a lot of funding and attention.


* When writing a short proposal in response to a complex RFP, keep Rufo’s small luggage in Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road in mind: “Rufo’s baggage turned out to be a little black box about the size and shape of a portable typewriter. He opened it. And opened it again. And kept on opening it–And kept right on unfolding its sides and letting them down until the durn thing was the size of a small moving van and even more packed.” The bag was bigger on the inside than the outside, like a well-written SAMHSA proposal.

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.

HRSA makes it hard to target Ryan White Part C EIS “New Geographic Service Areas” applications

FQHCs and other HIV services providers have likely seen the recently issued HRSA “Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program Part C HIV Early Intervention Services Program: New Geographic Service Areas” NOFO and thought, “looks promising.” As usual, though, a potential applicant ought to first check the eligibility criteria. In this case, on page 3 the NOFO cryptically says, “[See Section III-1 of this notice of funding opportunity (NOFO), formerly known as the funding opportunity announcement (FOA), for complete eligibility information.]” Okay. That section says:

Newly proposed service areas must not geographically overlap with existing RWHAP Part C EIS service areas as defined in Appendix B in NOFO HRSA-18-001, HRSA-18-004, and HRSA-18-005.

Okay. So if you up those other NOFOs you’ll find a long table of current providers; the table isn’t organized in a coherent fashion, except by state. There’s no map or list of potentially qualifying zip codes, only a list of current providers and some poorly described service areas for their Ryan White Part C EIS grants. In many places, like big cities, it’s hard to tell which areas/neighborhoods might qualify as new service areas.

Still, the NOFO also listed a webinar, which occurred today. Despite knowing that bidders conferences are a usually waste of time, I participated anyway, and when the presenters finally finish regurgitating the NOFO I asked, “Will HRSA produce a map of areas that it currently considers underserved? That would help a lot, especially in dense urban areas like New York City.” The leader said, “No. The NOFA does not identify specific areas that are underserved. It’s up to the applicant to demonstrate need in a particular service area.” HRSA won’t produce a map showing allowed areas or even a map of currently served areas. Applicants just have to guess. Thanks, HRSA. Helpful as usual.

If you’re interested in the New Geographic Service Areas program and you read the Q & A when it’s released, you may find the question from yours truly. I sometimes tell students that formulating good questions can be as hard as giving good answers. In this case, the answer would’ve been more useful than the question—had it been forthcoming.

L.A. digs a hole more slowly than economics fills it back in: The Proposition HHH Facilities Program RFP

As newsletter subscribers know, last week the City of Los Angeles released the “Proposition HHH Facilities Program FY 2017-18 Request for Proposals for the FY 2018-19 Bond Issuance.” That program is an excellent opportunity for nonprofit and public agencies looking for capital funding. There was $85 million available in 2016, and this year there may be more. Even better, grants to $3.5M are up for grabs.

Prop HHH funding is a great opportunity for nonprofits involved in homeless services, since it provides capital funding for facilities, which don’t have to including housing units. As we’ve written before, facility grants are usually much harder to get than grants for the services provided at the facility. Also, the RFP states:

The Prop HHH Facilities Program is intended to fund the acquisition and/or improvement of real property for facilities (hereinafter referred to as “project(s)”) that provide services or goods to, or otherwise benefit, persons experiencing homelessness, chronic homelessness, or at risk of homelessness (hereinafter referred to as “homeless”).

The key phrase is “at risk of homelessness,” which makes almost any LA human services provider potentially eligible for a Prop HHH grant, not just traditional homeless services providers. This is because clients of most L.A. human providers are well below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG). Given the very high rents in LA, this means they likely pay well over the federal/state/local standard of housing affordability of 30% on gross income for housing costs (e.g., rent, utilities, etc.).

From a grant writing point of view, this means they’re pretty much all all at risk of homelessness. Whether obvious or not, many of these clients are, have been, or will be episodically homeless (e.g., living in cars, motels, family members, shelters, etc.).

From a larger perspective, though, Prop HHH is also like digging a tiny hole in the housing affordability problem, while the rest of L.A.’s rules and regulations act as a dump truck filling that hole back in. You may ask what that means. One good explanation comes from Reddit, of all places, as this architect explains why virtually all new housing units in L.A. are “luxury” units. As he says, “EVERYTHING built in LA is defined by parking, whether we like it or not.” Moreover:

In making our assessments as to required space for parking, the typical calculation is that each full parking stall will require 375sf of space (after considering not just the space itself but also the required drive aisle, egress, out of the structure, etc. So that 800sf apartment is actually 1175 sf to build. [. . .]

So not only is 32% of your apartment just for your car and otherwise useless, but its also by far the most expensive part of that apartment to build.

It’s not possible to build enough housing for middle-income people in L.A., let alone low-income or homeless people, because of parking and outdoor space requirements. The City of L.A. is doing useful work for a handful of nonprofits with Prop HHH, but unless the City changes its parking requirements, there isn’t much real change that’s going to happen. The high cost of free parking is real. In the proposal world, though, none of these problems and trade-offs exist. In the real world, however, a couple hundred million dollars to build a couple hundred units (or even a thousand units) isn’t going to do much for homelessness in a city of four million and a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) of twelve million. In 1970, L.A. was zoned for ten million people. Today, with our vastly inferior technology, it’s zoned for four million and change. Until the city fixes zoning, it’s not going to fix homelessness.

Basically, it’s impossible to build enough housing for people in L.A. because it costs so much to also build housing for cars.* As grant writers, however, we love to see new programs like Prop HHH that’ll provide “walkin’ around money” for LA nonprofits.


* Seattle is a little better off, but it still has many perverse zoning issues, which I wrote about comprehensively in “Do millennials have a future in Seattle? Do millennials have a future in any superstar cities?” The short version of that highly detailed article is that many cities severely restrict housing supplies; in the face of rising demand, this raises the cost of housing.

LAHSA’s Continuum of Care (CoC) RFP illustrates the challenge of handling RFP amendments

Last week I wrote about challenge of handling RFP Amendments, and I observed that local RFPs tend to have more amendments than state or federal RFPs. Right on schedule, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA—the Continuum of Care entity for LA County) illustrated the point.

On August 3, LAHSA published the FY ’17 RFP for New CoC projects to provide services to people experiencing episodic or chronic homelessness,* with an August 14 deadline. Then LAHSA almost immediately began issuing a series of amendments (we’re up to three) and one clarification (so far). If you’re the grant writer applying for a CoC project, you not only have to deal with a surprise deadline only 11 days away and the complexities of writing a proposal that conforms to both the LAHSA RFP and the underlying HUD FY ’17 CoC NOFA (notice of funding availability; this is HUD-speak for RFP), but also the stream of amendments. Since no one has hired us to write the proposal yet, I haven’t looked closely at the amendments, other than to see if the deadline has been extension. Tomorrow we might still get a late-breaking amendment that extends the deadline. C’mom LAHSA, go for it!


* Free proposalese language update: In the last year or so, we’ve noticed a change in the language used in many human services RFPs. There are no longer any homeless persons in America. Instead, there are “persons experiencing episodic or chronic homelessness.” Try using that phrase 20 times in a ten-page proposal.

Grant writing help series: Tips for handling RFP amendments

We’ve written many times about contradictory and occasionally incoherent RFPs. To add to the grant writer’s burden, government funders often issue amendments—sometimes right before the deadline. The feds are less prone to issue amendments than local funders; as one moves down the food chain to state and county / city funders, the potential for amendments increases greatly. I’ve got no idea why this is, but it is.

We’ve seen a bunch of important RFP amendments in projects we’ve worked on lately, and those got me thinking about the issue. Here are some handy tips for handling RFP amendments:

  • If possible, sign up to receive email notifications. This is fairly easy in the federal system but highly variable at the state and local levels.
  • Remember your last visit to the DMV or DMV website? Government notification systems are not the same as you’ll find at Amazon, FedEx, or even Fandango. Since the system may be unreliable, you should go back to the funder web site several times before the deadline to check for amendments, even if you’ve signed up for notifications.
  • When you find an amendment, review it carefully, as the notice, if there is one, may not be complete or even accurate. Among items to look for are a deadline extension, clarification of confusing or contradictory RFP language, changes in the required proposal format (e.g., max page/character lengths, order of responses, fonts, etc.), additional requirements (e.g., new forms or budget instructions, new letters of commitment, changed required attachments, etc.). The best way to do this, assuming you have at least two large monitors, like our offices, is to put the RFP on one monitor and the amendment on the second. Go through the amendment, finding each relevant section of the RFP, and mark-up the RFP. Then, make sure your draft—no matter what stage it is in—matches both the RFP and amendment. If you find yet another conflict, you must immediately email the funder program office, which will trigger yet another amendment.
  • While looking for amendments, also look for a Q and A page on the funder website. Some funders will post questions received about the RFP, along with answers. Don’t however, get your hopes up, as the answers usually are something along the lines of, “Interesting question, refer to page 147 of the RFP.”
  • While we advise our clients to submit proposals a couple of days in advance of the deadline, there is no advantage in submitting a proposal more than about three days in advance. Otherwise, you might have try to “un-submit” the proposal if there is a late breaking amendment. Also, being first in line doesn’t help, as funders never release proposals to reviewers until the deadline passes.

A few months ago, we were writing a proposal for a for-profit client in a Northeaster state, which was seeking a Department of Homeland Security contract for facility hardening. There were ultimately seven amendments, each of which significantly changed the proposal response, and a couple of which came after the original deadline, meaning that we actually prepared three “final” proposals for this assignment. The punch line is that, ultimately, DHS cancelled the RFP process and decided not to make any grants!

In grant writing, it pays to heed the advice of “Oscar” in Robert Heinlein’s 1963 science fiction classic, Glory Road, which I’ll paraphrase as, “all bureaucracies consist of a Surprise Department, a Practical Joke Department, and a Fairy Godmother Department.” In grant writing, the Fairy Godmother Department is only open one day per year, so mostly you’re at the mercy of the Surprise and Practical Joke Departments.

Favorite odd-but-mandatory proposal forms: LA Slavery and New York Northern Ireland edition

Experienced grant writers know that all proposal instructions must be followed as precisely as possible (though they can also be contradictory—a problem we discovered in a recent Department of Education RFP). Perhaps because of that principle, funders (or their political masters) also get the chance to include absurd or bizarre forms with RFPs. Some of our favorites include ones from City of Los Angeles Departments, since the City requires that firms it contracts with, including nonprofits, certify that the organization wasn’t been involved in slavery. For those of you keeping track at home, slavery ended in the United States in 1865 and Seliger + Associates was founded in 1993.

Today was I working on behalf of a New York client and ran into the “Empire State After-School Program,” which is a fairly standard after school program not so different from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program or many other, similar programs. But this one is issued by the state of New York, and, amid the pile of pretty typical required documents (like “Non-Collusive Bidding Certification Required by Section 139d of the State Finance Law (OCFS-2634)”) was one that caught my attention: “MacBride Fair Employment Principles in Northern Ireland (OCFS-2633).”

Northern Ireland?

I was curious enough to follow the link to the form and found that grantees for this program apparently must certify as to whether it has ever conducted business in Northern Ireland. If it has, these instructions apply, and the applicant:

Shall take lawful steps in good faith to conduct any business operations that it has in Northern Ireland in accordance with the MacBride Fair Employment Principles relating to non-discrimination in employment and freedom of workplace opportunity regarding such operations in Northern Ireland, and shall permit independent monitoring of its compliance with such principles.

I don’t know what discriminatory practices might be common in Northern Ireland. Nor do I know why New York State in particular is concerned with this tiny corner of the world. Out of curiosity, I checked the CIA World Factbook, and it says that Ireland’s entire population is a smidgen under five million, or about 60% the size of New York City’s alone.

Somewhere back there in the haze of New York political history must be some Irish-related controversy that lives on, to this day, in the form of a form that random nonprofits providing after-school services must include or risk being rejected as technically incorrect. Keep in mind that in the good old days of 1931, the Empire State Building was built in one year and 45 days. I’m pretty sure the developer did not have to fill out a Slavery or Northern Ireland form, which likely speedup up the process. Sometimes I see the more absurd aspects of grant writing and think about cost disease and how computers have paradoxically made grant writing worse.

Maybe reading is harder than I thought: On “The Comprehensive Family Planning and Reproductive Health Program”

We very occasionally pay attention to bidders conferences; usually, however, we usually avoid them for the reasons last discussed in “My first bidders conference, or, how I learned what I already knew.” Despite knowing that bidders conferences are mostly a waste of time, we’re sufficiently masochistic careful enough that we’ll occasionally look into one anyway.

New York State’s “Comprehensive Family Planning and Reproductive Health Program” bidders conference was a special example of silly because it literally consisted of the presenter reading from slides that regurgitated the RFP. As the “conference” went on, it became steadily more apparent that the conference would literally only consist of . . . repeating what’s in the RFP. This is as informative as it sounds.

After 20 minutes of listening to the presenter read, I gave up. I can read it myself. Still, as I shook my head at the seemingly pointless waste of time, my mind drifted back to some of my experiences teaching college students, and I have to wonder if the presenter read the RFP as a defensive strategy against inane questions that could easily be answered by the RFP. Something similar happens to me in class at times.

One recent example comes to mind. I had a student who seemed not to like to read much (note: this is a problem in English classes), and one day I handed out an essay assignment sheet with specific instructions on it. I told students to read it and let me know if they had questions. This student raised her hand and I had a conversation that went like this:

Student: “Can you just go over it in general?”
Me: “What’s confusing?”
Student: “I mean, can you just say in general what the assignment is about?”
Me: “That’s what the assignment sheet is for.”
Student: “I don’t understand. Can you go over it?”
Me: “What part confuses you?”
Student: “The entire thing.”
Me: “Which sentence is confusing to you?”
Student: “Can you just go over it in general?”

This was not a surrealist play and by the end of the exchange—I did not reproduce the whole exchange—I was somewhat confused, so I began reading each individual sentence and then checking in with the student. This was somewhat embarrassing for everyone in the class but I didn’t really know what else to do.

When I got to the end of the assignment sheet, the student agreed that it was in fact clear. I know enough about teaching not to ask the obvious question—”What was all this about?”—and yet I’ve had enough of those experiences to identify, just a little, with the people running the world’s boringest* bidders conferences.


* Not an actual word, but I think it fits here.