Category Archives: Stimulus

President Obama Announces That “Now is the Time to Stop Gun Violence.” It is?

In response to the recent Sandy Hook massacre, the Obama Administration has launched a marketing and legislative campaign called “Now is the time—to do something about gun violence” (if the website doesn’t load quickly or properly, download the .pdf from us), but the most interesting parts of the plan for nonprofit and public agencies are likely to be the least discussed in the media. Presumably the proposals to ban high-capacity magazines and mandate background checks on gun buyers will generate the usual responses on news sites and Facebook, but there’s also a section devoted to “Making schools safer” and “Increasing access to mental health services”—both of which mean money, as we predicted in “Sandy Hook School Shootings Tragedy Likely to Lead to New Grant Opportunities for School Security, After School and Mental Health Project Concepts.”

Though you won’t find most of this information emphasized in the major media coverage, a lot of the money will go to school districts and police departments. For example, “Now is the time” proposes a bunch of money for schools, including:

  • “Congress should provide $30 million of one-time grants to states to help their school districts develop and implement emergency management plan.”
  • “The Administration is proposing a new, $50 million initiative to help 8,000 more schools train their teachers and other school staff to implement [safety] strategies.”
  • “The Administration is calling for a new initiative, Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), to provide this training and set up systems to provide [mental health] referrals.”
  • “Congress should provide $25 million to offer students mental health services for trauma or anxiety, conflict resolution programs, and other school-based violence prevention strategies.”

Not all of these programs will necessarily be funded, but they’re the kinds of programs that are hard to oppose:* Democrats in Congress and the Obama Administration will argue that voting against whatever bills get cooked up are votes against kids and cops, both of whom poll well.

These programs are also cheap (by Congressional standards), which makes them politically palatable. Discussing the political possibilities for gun safety rules is beyond the scope of this blog, but there is a chance that Congress will attempt to separate the grant programs from the gun safety rules.

In addition to grants for school districts, the Community-Oriented Policing Services Program (COPS) will “provid[e] a preference for grant applications that support school resource officers.” Plus, many of the schools that submit proposals to “a new Comprehensive School Safety program,” will also need letters of support from police departments (and the sub-contracts that often go with those letters), because the program

will help school districts hire staff and make other critical investments in school safety. The program will give $150 million to school districts and law enforcement agencies to hire school resource officers, school psychologists, social workers, and counselors.

At one point, there was a variant of COPS that was designed specifically for School Resource Officers (“SROs” in the trade); we wrote a couple of them years ago, but the program disappeared and apparently isn’t remembered by the White House staffers who wrote the the Plan.

(A word on COPS: Not all departments love COPS grants, because almost all police departments are unionized, making it very difficult to lay off cops if or when money streams dry up. If you hire a cop for three years, you’ve got her for thirty. As a result, most departments, regardless of what they say about making sure their application will supplement, not supplant, existing officers, only hire cops who they already wanted to hire. Or they use the money to re-hire cops who’ve already been laid off).

Taken together, this suite of proposals should get cities, school districts, police departments, and their nonprofit partners thinking about how they’ll respond when RFPs start hitting the streets.

EDIT: Smart applicants to these kinds of programs should also be thinking about the kinds of language they want to use in proposals for programs that are designed to address contentious issues, because linguistic framing can be an important aspect of proposal success. To see one example of linguistic framing, read Molly Ball’s “Don’t Call It ‘Gun Control’,” which is about the failure of the term “gun control” in the political and marketing arenas. We’ve written about such issues tangentially, in “What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP,” but the topic as a whole might merit a post of its own.


* Programs that are “hard to oppose” tend to be attached to large-scale Federal efforts, even if you don’t read about them in newspapers; in 2009, for example, Isaac wrote “Looking at the Stimulus Bill from a Grant Writer’s Perspective,” which mentions how the Stimulus Bill was lit up with ornaments for construction spending, COPS, YouthBuild, PHAs, NSP, and other programs.

Congresspeople like to include discretionary grants in larger bills because the Congressperson can then go home and announce that they got millions of dollars for cause X. From the Federal point of view, this money doesn’t mean a lot but does give them some political cover. From an applicant’s point of view, however, programs like these offer a way to fund activities that simply wouldn’t be funded otherwise, or that would have to come from more important funding streams.

Cliff Diving: Sequestration and A New Year’s Resolution for Nonprofits and Local Public Agencies Worried About the Fiscal Cliff and Grants

EDIT: It looks like we’re not going over the supposed cliff. But much of the analysis below will remain relevant in the coming years, as political fights about debt, spending, and taxation continue.

EDIT 2: The analysis below has been augmented with “Sequestration Still Looms Over the Grant World: Two Months and Counting.”

I find it hard to believe, but as I write this post in the waning hours of Sunday in the waning days of 2012, it seems that the President and Congress are actually going to do a Thelma and Louise and send us collectively off the dubiously named “fiscal cliff.”

If this happens, we may see sequestration. As I understand the implications of sequestration on domestic discretionary spending, including funding for block granted and competitive grant programs, this would mean at least an 8.8% haircut across the federal spending board. Since we’re now already three months into the FY ’13 budget year, however, there are only nine months left, meaning that the cutbacks could be as high as 15%.

Now, what “across the board” means is still subject to interpretation, as this has not actually been done before. One assumes current grantees would get an immediate budget reduction notice, while open RFP competitions might be scaled back. There would also significant impacts for federal sub-grantees for such locally administered block granted programs as CDBG, CSBG, OAA, and so on. The mechanics of sequestration are subject to murky federal regulations and a cadre of anonymous GS-12 and GS-13 budget officers spread across the departments, who are going to be in particularly bad moods coming back after their Christmas holidays to this morass.

The short-term impact of sequestration for garden-variety nonprofits and public agencies that have direct or indirect federal contracts, or are vying for discretionary grant funds, is sure to be confusion in the short term and chaos over the medium term. But—and this is big “but” (so to speak)—it’s not the end of the world. To quote REM, “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.” While media pundits and trade association/advocacy groups will make a lot of noise, the grant world will return to normalcy once the temporary Federal crisis passes.

Despite sequestration and ongoing budget battles, I think significant cutbacks in federal funding for discretionary grants are unlikely, as least for the next few years. What is more likely is a slowing of the increase in federal spending, or as it is more popularly called in a phrase I’m beginning to intensely dislike, “bending of the cost curve.” Keep in mind that we have not had a federal budget in four years and probably won’t have one anytime soon, as the feds will continue to operate with continuing resolutions and baseline budgeting. Thus, unless there is a sudden come to Jesus moment among Democrats and Republicans, it will be the same as it ever was.

This brings me to my suggested New Year’s resolution for nonprofits and local public agencies–take a hard look at your current programs and new initiatives in the planning stages. While there will still be plenty of RFPs available, the competition for government grants is sure to be more intense as the nation stares down its tax and spending challenges.* Seek foundation grants too; as the economy has staggered out of the Great Recession, foundations have recovered investment losses and are going full steam in grant making.

For those nonprofits that survive mostly on donations, a bigger issue is the potential of limits on the charitable tax deduction, which we wrote about recently in “Nonprofit ‘Whales’ May Face Extinction with Potential Tax Law Changes.” In other words, diversify and your organization will thrive in the exciting new year.


* Free proposal word here. In grant writing, there are never any problems, only challenges.

Why Did the City of Los Angeles Really Lose Out on Stimulus Money?

I find it grimly hilarious, in a Catch-22 way, the City of Los Angeles’ City Controller, Wendy Greuel, realized that a “lack of oversight” cost the City an estimated $125,000,000 in stimulus money because the City failed to pursue all the funding it was eligible to receive.

This isn’t a surprise to Seliger + Associates, as we’re on the pre-approved grant writing vendor list for the City and didn’t receive any calls or RFPs from the City inquiring if we had the capacity to prepare one or more grant applications, as we have in the past. And if we had, this is the daunting gantlet we would have faced before writing a single word in the grant proposal:

  • the City has separate pre-approved lists for almost every City department;
  • apparently none are in a database easily accessed by departments that need grant writing assistance;
  • just because you have been approved by one department of the City, does not mean that you will not have to prepare and submit, almost, if not exactly the same paperwork for each and every department you want to work for.

If you bill by the hour, you could go out of business just preparing paperwork.

Then, if you’re chosen to bid on the specific job, you have to again fill out the same/similar paperwork again to turn in with your bid documents.
These problems, combined with the incompetence or laziness cited in the article, are the real reason the City lost out on more than $125,000,000 in stimulus funds. The City hasn’t realized that every check has a cost.

Nonprofits, however, can learn something important from this: pursue every opportunity you can. Be nimble, like a small business, instead of sclerotic, like the City of Los Angeles.

A WSJ Article Illustrates the Program Officer Problem

I just posted “Where Have All the RFPs Gone?,” in which I speculated that the lateness of federal RFPs this fiscal year is probably due to the fact that overworked program officers are still chewing through last year’s proposals. Imagine my surprise when I read “Staffing Woes Hinder Job-Boosting Program” by Michael Aneiro in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. He discovered a HUD program that is way behind in reviewing applications because of a lack of staff to do the reviews.

Even better, while HUD has more money than usual for this Federal Housing Administration (FHA) program, an appropriation for additional staff was not made, so the same number of program officers, fiscal officers and lawyers have to do vastly more work. Since federal employees do not work by the piece, the same number of reviewers have to review more applications, which means they get stuck in the system. All of this will eventually be digested, even as hundreds of new FY ’10 RFPs are published in the coming months.

Where Have All the RFPs Gone?

Subscribers to our Free Grant Alerts will probably have noticed relatively few large federal RFPs so far in this fiscal year, which began October 1. To paraphrase Peter, Paul & Mary, Where Have All The RFPs Gone?. I assume this dearth is because federal program officers are still churning through the tidal wave of Stimulus Bill proposals submitted in the last fiscal year. I predicted this problem in Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing and said . . .

Unfortunately, we don’t have a National Guard of Program Officers who train one weekend a month shuffling papers to be ready to answer the call. That means Federal agencies will find themselves up to their eyeballs in spending authority with existing staff levels pegged at much smaller budgets.

Since federal agencies are running their regular programs while trying to spend additional Stimulus Bill funding and implementing entirely new programs, one imagines that our cadre of GS 10s and 11s, who are supposed to move the endless paperwork associated with shoveling federal funds out the door, simply have not gotten around to the FY ’10 RFP processes.

For example, just about every LEA and youth services nonprofit is waiting breathlessly for the Department of Education’s enormous and well-publicized Investing in Innovations (i3) Fund to be issued. The i3 program website still says, “The Department of Education anticipates accepting applications in early 2010, with all applications due in early spring of 2010. The department will obligate all i3 funding by September 30, 2010.” Hmmmm. Early 2010 has come and gone, so there is no chance that having proposals due in “early spring” is going to happen. But the Department of Education will still try to obligate i3 funds by the end of the fiscal year. This means that when the i3 RFP is finally issued, it will be during a fantastically busy time because the Department of Education has not issued most of their other programs either.

One indicator of the likely chaos at the Department of Education: the planned competitions for the Talent Search (TS) and Education Opportunity Centers (EOC), two of the very large “TRIO Programs”, “have been delayed. At this time, the Department expects to have a closing date for TS and EOC applications in fall 2010.” No sign yet of the annual RFP process for the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) either. We’ve been hired to write several PEP proposals and have been told by clients that the RFP will be issued in early April. On the PEP website, the last “funding status” information is from 2006!

The Department of Education is not alone in being tardy this year. We have yet to see any of the 30 or so NOFAs that HUD issues every year, any SAMHSA RFAs, few Department of Labor SGAs and almost no Department of Energy FOAs. We are also waiting for the DHHS Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (OAPP) to issue the FY ’10 RFP for their new teen pregnancy program. It was funded in the DHHS departmental budget authorization last fall but has yet to emerge. This program will be sex education/family planning-based, rather than abstinence-based, which has been the federal funding focus in teen pregnancy in recent years.

We know OAPP is coming because one of our clients, for whom we have written funded abstinence-based grants was contacted by their OAPP Program Officer to encourage them to switch approaches and apply for the new program. We’ve been hired to write the proposal when OAPP awakes from its slumber. As is said in Jamaica, “Soon come.” Just for fun, follow this link to the DHHS “FY ’10 Grants Forecast Page” and see what you get. That’s right, a blank page! This is not unusual, as most federal agencies will not tell you in advance when RFPs will be issued.

While you’re waiting for FY ’10 RFPs to blossom, figure out what funds will be available for your organization in the next several months and do everything you can to get ready to write the proposals. For most federal programs, the application period this year will be short.

Health Care Reform Means Green Grass & High Tides for Grant Writers

One of the great ’70s arena anthem songs was the Outlaws’ Green Grass & High Tides, or as it was often misheard, “Green Grass & High Times Forever.” It seems that whichever health care reform bill staggers across the Congressional finish line will make it Green Grass & High Tides for grant writers, since all versions contain lots of hidden grant nuggets. I’m too busy writing proposals for such fun-filled RFPs as HRSA’s Nurse Education, Practice and Retention (NEPR) Program and SAMHSA’s Offender Reentry Program to flyspeck a couple of 2,000 page health care bills looking for prospective grant programs. Fortunately, I came across “Numerous Grant Programs Fatten Cost of Health Care Reform,” which does the heavy lifting for me. Here are some of the new grant programs that may burst forth in 2010:

  • Demonstration Program to Promote Access for Medicare Beneficiaries With Limited English Proficiency (LEP): Section 1222 of the House bill would create three-year grants for nonprofits to offer interpreter services to help LEP residents communicate with medical providers. This is clearly aimed at Section 330 community and rural health centers that provide Medicaid services, often for LEP populations. We work for lots of Section 330 providers, so we love this program concept.
  • Early Childhood Home Visitation Program: Section 2951 of the Senate bill would authorize grants to nonprofits for early childhood visitation programs. The programs would be aimed at improving maternal and newborn health, preventing child injuries and abuse,improving school performance, reducing domestic violence, and improving family economic self-sufficiency. There is $1.5 billion for this gem over five years. We’ve written tons of proposals over the years for similar programs, which are usually called “demonstration homemaker” services. I’ve never seen any data that suggests that such programs work, but they are great ways of employing lots of low-skill workers, usually low-income women, to go into the homes of other low-income women and tell them how to fold their laundry. This ever popular family support service already exists in most American communities. Since Senators must know this, I can only assume that the program will be “walkin’ around money” for the thousands of nonprofits that provide family supportive services through contracts with city, county and state agencies.
  • Grants to Promote Positive Health Behaviors and Outcomes: Section 2530 in the House bill authorizes the award of grants to promote healthy behaviors in medically underserved areas, including education about the risks associated with poor nutrition, tobacco use, lack of exercise and other health problems. I could list about 25 existing federal program that already do this, but the nice part about the federal trough is that there is always room for one more program.
  • Healthy Teen Initiative Program to Reduce Teen Pregnancy: Section 2526 of the House bill establishes a new program to provide $150 million in grants for schools, non-profits and other groups for educational programs to reduce teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The feds have been funding various teen pregnancy and STD prevention programs for the past 35 years, vacillating between sex education and abstinence approaches, depending on which party controls Congress. We write teen pregnancy prevention programs regularly, so I am very familiar with the data and have yet to see any evidence that such programs do anything except keep armies of earnest, newly minted college grads employed as health educators.

I could go on, but I think readers will get the idea that there are dozens of new grant horses being saddled up in the health reform effort, as well as other emerging federal legislation. I recently wrote about a huge new education program named i3, in Same As It Ever Was: Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), Student Support Services (SSS), TRIO, and More to Come and am tickled to learn that new health related programs are not far behind. If your organization does job training, not education or health services, and you’re feeling left out of the party, not to worry, Congress feels your pain. The LA Times reports that Democrats Work On Multibillion-dollar Jobs Package, so your time is nigh.

I’m hoping for a resurrection of the Nixon-era Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which was perhaps the all time best grant program for nonprofit and public agencies, since all it did was provide money to hire people. I wrote many funded CETA proposals in the ’70s and knew lots of unemployed liberal arts grads who entered the government/nonprofit world through CETA slots and clawed their way into permanent jobs, including the holy grail of civil service status. Unlike the Stimulus Bill, it was easy to count jobs created by CETA, as grantees just had to count new noses around the conference table.

For the past year or so, I’ve written many posts on how this is the best time ever to go after grants and the hits keep on coming. Seliger + Associates stands ready to shoulder the burden of writing proposals for the newest crop of federal grants, which indeed seem to be the same as they ever were.

Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) is the same as it ever was

As grant writers, we usually don’t pay much attention to new grant programs as they move through the regulation writing process, since we are focused on writing proposals, not the policy minutia of federal regs. A caller last week, however, got me to look at the birthing of the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), and I fell in love with this cute little grant puppy, eyes closed and all.

I immediately liked the fact that a lower case “i” is used in the name, which leads me to believe that perhaps archey the cockroach of archey and mehitabel fame, who jumped from the top of a typewriter to write his stories and couldn’t use the shift key, was involved in the development of the program. Part of the almost already forgotten American Recovery and Relief Act (ARRA, or otherwise known as the Stimulus Bill), i3 will offer up $650 million to “start or expand research-based innovative programs that help close the achievement gap and improve outcomes for students.” This is music to a grant writer’s ears because we could make just about any education project concept work for this nebulous description. Even better, both Local Education Agencies (“LEAs” = school districts in FedSpeak) and nonprofits are eligible.

This is just the latest in a long series of Department of Education grant programs that purport to do more or less the same thing, with few discernible results. i3 projects are supposed to:

  • improve K-12 achievement and close achievement gaps;
  • decrease dropout rates;
  • increase high school graduation rates; and
  • improve teacher and school leader effectiveness.

If there are any “research-based” strategies to accomplish any of the above, let me know, because in 38 years of writing endless Department of Education proposals, I’m not aware of them. If you think I am just a cynical grizzled grant writer, take a gander at the first four of the eight goals for the definitely forgotten Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which was passed in 1994 with much folderol:

By the Year 2000 –

  • All children in America will start school ready to learn.
  • The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.
  • All students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics an government, economics, the arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation’s modern economy.
  • United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.

While Goals 2000 didn’t achieve any of its goals, or much of anything else in the real world for that matter, we wrote lots of funded Goals 2000 proposals and look forward to a target rich environment when the i3 RFP is published this winter. Perhaps archey should have named this effort “goals2010imeangoals2020imeandgoals2030” instead, or for that matter, g2. Attention school district and education-oriented nonprofits: as the Captain of the U-Boot in Das Boot said, “Good Hunting.”

While Secretary Duncan announced i3, and to paraphrase Joni Mitchell in a “Free Man in Paris” the rest of the Department of Education “grantmaker machinery behind the popular program” continues to rumble on. A case in point is the Student Support Services (SSS) program, for which a RFP was recently issued with a due date of December 14. There is $268 million available for SSS, but no fanfare from Secretary Duncan.

Why? It’s simple–nobody pays attention to the old dog when a new puppy appears. SSS is one of the seven “TRIO” programs that fund various initiatives to “assist low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and individuals with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to postbaccalaureate programs.” We’ve written lots of funded TRIO grants over the years. Some TRIO programs, like SSS, are aimed at college students, while others, like Talent Search and Upward Bound, focus on middle and high school students. Hmmm, methinks I could write an i3 proposal that mimics a TRIO proposal without the Department of Education figuring it out.

The reason that SSS causes little excitement, despite the enormous amount of money available, is that it’s been around since the Johnson administration! Everyone is rushing around to pat the i3 puppy on the head, while the old dog SSS barely gets noticed. At Seliger + Associates, however, we love all Department of Education dogs equally and are carefully grooming proposals for our SSS clients while we wait for i3 to be whelped.

I could go on with other Department of Education programs that have more or less the same purpose as i3 (e.g., Title I, Title III, No Child Left Behind, Smaller Learning Communities, Partnership Academies), but you get the idea. Regardless of the likely failure of this latest education reform effort, i3 is another great example of why this is such a wonderful time for grant writing, as I’ve been writing about in various blog posts since the Great Recession started a year ago. Given the various youth and other recession-based horror stories I cited recently in There’s Something Happening Here, But You Don’t Know What It Is, Do You Mr. Jones?, you can be assured that many more grant programs are gestating as I write this. The time to plan (or apply) is now, so that your public agency or nonprofit organization can swoop in. As the Talking Heads put it in “Once in a Lifetime”, for the Department of Education and other federal agencies, it’s “same as it ever was.”

Seliger + Associates writes a $2.5 million, funded Department of Energy (DOE) Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) proposal

A $2.5 million Department of Energy Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) proposal we wrote for an electric utility company was funded last week, and, while we write lots of funded proposals, this one was especially gratifying. Faithful readers will remember that last April I wrote No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer; I wrote it because I was constantly explaining to callers who’d been overcome with Stimulus Bill Fever that Seliger + Associates can write almost any DOE proposal, even though we’d never written one and didn’t have any technical background in energy-related project concepts.

The SGIG program came along with $4 billion to enable electric utilities to add whiz bang features to their distribution systems. The enormous amount of money, along with the the media Stimulus Bill hype, produced a flood of callers. Most were inventors, start-up companies, quick-buck artists and dreamers, but among the assorted flotsam and jetsam were calls from three qualified SGIG applicants—electric utility companies.

All three had more or less the same reaction to my pitch: “Since you’re just a general purpose grant writing firm and don’t have electrical engineers on staff, what makes you think you can write a SGIG proposal?” My response became: read the above blog post and accept at face value my observation that, in almost 17 years of being in business, we’d never run across a topic we couldn’t write to, assuming we’re provided with technical content, fava beans* and a fine Chianti (the last two are a test to see if you’re paying attention: they actually come from Hannibal Lector discussing how to enjoy liver). Basically, I said the same thing I often tell potential clients: hiring us is a lot like Demi Moore in Ghost being advised by Whoopi Goldberg—if you want to see Patrick Swayze again, you’re going to have to believe. Similarly, the client has to suspend their own preconceptions, which are usually misconceptions, about grant writing, to believe we can write on any topic for any funder.

Two of the qualified SGIG callers did not “believe” and presumably kept searching in the forest for the perfect, but ephemeral, grant writing “unicorn” I described in my original post. One caller became our sole SGIG client for this funding round. The application process culminated in a finely crafted proposal that went in on the deadline day. Flash forward to this week, when I took a small break from toiling over a hot Los Angeles County Area Agency on Aging Supportive Services Program (SSP) proposal to check Cnn.com to see if space aliens had landed on the White House lawn or what have you. President Obama was off somewhere announcing the SGIG awards, so I immediately found the DOE press release to see which applications were funded and saw the proposal we wrote.** I also checked for the other two utility companies, which were not on the list. Perhaps they never found their unicorn, or the unicorn they found turned out be be just a pony with a party hat.

Score one for our general purpose grant writing approach. Still, the writing process for the SGIG was complicated by the fact our client, an electric utility, had never submitted a federal proposal but had lots of bright and talented staff and consultants, so we were endlessly explaining and defending the “Seliger method” for writing proposals. Fortunately for the client, who paid us on hourly basis, we could simply say, read blog post x, rather than forcing us to tediously explaining why we were doing what we were doing or not doing at $200/hour.

I would like to share more about the proposal, but I can’t because we signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). I think, however, that the proposal was funded because of a “national security” argument we developed that the client had not considered. Once again, to paraphrase what I wrote last May in another post on writing DOE and similar high-tech proposals, Professional Grant Writer at Work: Don’t Try This At Home, Seliger + Associates is tanned, fit, relaxed and ready. Now that a DOE proposal we wrote has been funded, we could always claim to be “experts,” but we’ll just keep on keepin’ on as general purpose grant writers to get our clients “tangled up in green.”


* I love to cook, and when Jake and his siblings were little kids, I got it in my head to make fresh fava beans a few times. This exhausting process involves shelling, blanching, and peeling before one gets around to the actual cooking. Like other tasty but enervating recipes I’ve tried over the years (e.g., mousaaka, chili rellenos, etc.), if you get in the mood to make fava beans, lie down until the feeling passes and take yourself to a fine Italian restaurant, like Angelini Osteria in West Hollywood or Vivace and its sister Vivace Pizzeria in Tucson.

** As is often the case, our client forgot to let us know that the SGIG proposal we wrote was funded, so I had to dig around to find out. I know the client knew because federal funding agencies always send an award letter to the applicant and almost always lets their congressperson know about the grant before the press release is sent out. This is why the applicant’s congressional district number is required on the SF424. I am used to clients forgetting who wrote their funded proposals and, as pros, we do not need “attaboys.”

There’s Something Happening Here, But You Don’t Know What It Is, Do You Mr. Jones?*

I felt like I was living Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man as I read the following news stories this week:

  • Thousands mob Detroit center in hopes of free cash. The City of Detroit has a $15 million Stimulus Bill grant to “prevent homelessness” and cluelessly announced that people could come to the Downtown Coho Convention Center to apply for a $3,000 housing assistance voucher. Something got lost in the translation and 35,000 folks showed up expecting to get a $3,000 check on the spot. At most, the City may eventually help up to 5,000 people with this program. Being a typical federal program, however, there’s a means test and lots of rules, so most of the would-be applicants have no hope of getting help. But the rumor on the street was that “Obama money” was there to be had and the stampede started, with the Detroit Police Gang Unit called out to restore order.

    Was any of this necessary? Of course not, but is an example of what I warned about last March in The Stimulus Bill Meets Santa Claus Meets American Idol in Virginia: At best it is disingenuous and, in this case, positively dangerous, to mislead the average Joe into thinking that they are somehow going to directly get a slice of the Stimulus Bill pie. The “official” unemployment rate in Detroit is 28%, which means the actual rate is probably about 40%. Seems more than a little cruel to wave a phantom $3,000 in front of thousands of desperate people, but I am sure the same pattern is unfolding all around the country (email me any examples you’ve come across, or leave a comment). The whole business reminds me of the Federal Free Cheese giveaways of the early 1980s recession, but at least then you got a five-pound block of Velveeta for your troubles. If I had written the City of Detroit proposal that resulted in the $15 million grant that spawned this fiasco, I would have included 5,000 blocks of cheese in the budget just for old times’ sake.

  • Holder, Duncan plan to fight Chicago teen violence: The senseless beating death of 16-year-old honor student Derrion Albert by other teens was captured on cell phone video, unlike the murders of 29 other school kids so far this year in Chicago. I guess the video component woke up Washington. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was previously the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Superintendent for many years but apparently never noticed the violence in his schools, and Attorney General Eric Holder were dispatched to find out what’s happening in Chicago. But the meeting with city politicos, school officials and parents from Christian Fenger Academy High School (where Derrion was a student) was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in the Loop, not the High School! I have a feeling not too many of the parents had ever been to the Four Seasons.It seems that while Duncan and Holder are concerned, they are not concerned enough to actually set foot on the South Side. Incidentally, at the exact time the croissants were being passed around at the meeting and stern looks exchanged, a violent fight involving dozens of students broke out at Fenger Academy.

    So perhaps it was prudent to keep our Education Secretary and Attorney General out of harm’s way and in the Green Zone while visiting Chicago, like Vice President Biden does when he drops into Baghdad. Not surprisingly, Duncan and Holder have promised “$25 million in next year’s budget for community-based crime prevention programs, Holder said. Duncan said an emergency grant of about $500,000 would go to Fenger for counselors or other programs.”**I guess the message to school principals facing budget shortfalls across America is to make sure all student beatings/murders are videotaped and broadcast around the country. Since we’ve written many funded proposals for youth violence prevention, mentoring, etc. for clients on the South Side of Chicago and frequently churn the very depressing school data from CPS, I looked briefly at the 2008 Fenger Academy High School Report Card. Two percent of students meet or exceed state academic standards (this has actually gone down by 80% from 10% in 2006) and 0% (that’s right: zero) of students exceed the math, science or writing standards. Violence is clearly only one of the school’s many challenges. Statistics like this are what makes writing proposals involving Chicago Public Schools such a mixed pleasure: it’s easy to make a case for the proposal, but it’s hard to imagine the people behind the statistics.

  • New Hampshire prosecutor: Evidence does not support death penalty charge: Four teenagers decided to stab a woman and her daughter to death in what seems to be a random attack in rural New Hampshire, which is apparently not as bucolic as its seems. This incident recalls the Leopold and Loeb thrill killings of 1924 and the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. The four teen suspects apparently admitted the crime, saying more or less that they just wanted to kill somebody. I guess after school recreation opportunities in rural New Hampshire were not challenging enough for this quartet.
  • California’s Zigzag on Welfare Rules Worries Experts: To save $375 million, California has taken the workfare out of its CalWorks “welfare reform” program that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). California no longer requires welfare recipients to attend training or get a job to get a check. Let’s party like its 1989!While the story is interesting on many levels, reporter Erik Eckholm doesn’t understand one very real impact of this starling change. The $375 million California is “saving” are the vouchers that would have been used by CalWorks participants to pay for participant training, along with child care while they are in training. Over the past ten years, an enormous infrastructure of mostly nonprofit training and child care providers has grown up around the country that are fed by these vouchers. Without the vouchers, these providers will not be able to continue to provide services and will have to lay off hundreds, if not thousands of child care and other workers, many of whom originally were CalWorks participants themselves. I guess they can re-apply for CalWorks, only this time they won’t have to work, squaring the circle.

Since I am not a coy tunesmith like Bob Dylan, I will plainly read the tea leaves about what the above stories mean for all of you Mr. Jones out there: a second wave of Stimulus Bill type grant opportunities is coming, although Congress is unlikely to bill the bill(s) as such. Instead, the effort will be couched in such proposalese as “safety net funding,” “community violence prevention” and the like. Unemployment is still rising, the Great Recession is more of a Depression in many of the communities for which we write proposals and teens go on violent rampages.

The Obama administration is already testing the waters—at the risk of overwhelming you with random news stories, see Obama Aides Act to Fix Safety Net. As is the case with most publicized social problems, the government response to crises is more grant programs. A case in point: I mentioned the Columbine Massacre previously. The federal response then was to ramp up funding for all kinds of youth programs, and in particular my personal favorite, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) Program. For years after Columbine, we wrote dozens of funded 21st CCLC, youth mentoring and similar proposals. Some were for agencies serving the neighborhood in which Chicago’s Fenger Academy is located.

In August 2008, when the economy began to crumble and long before the words “Stimulus Bill” had been penned by anyone, I held a staff meeting in which I told the Seliger + Associates team that a wave of new grant opportunities was coming. We advised our retainer clients and started blogging on the subject. The wave turned out to be a tsunami of grant availability unseen since the Ford and Carter administrations. Another wave is building. Smart nonprofits, cities, counties and school districts will rub on their Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax and start paddling to meet the wave. There are going to be enormous opportunities to fund all kinds of human services, community development and economic development programs in the next year or two, just as there has been since last winter.

As faithful readers will know, we’ve been furiously writing proposals. In the past week, we’ve learned that three disparate proposals we wrote recently have been funded: $1,500,000 for a California city under the HUD Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program, $500,000 for an Ohio nonprofit under the Department of the Treasury Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Program, and $300,000 for a Wisconsin nonprofit under the HUD Rural Housing and Economic Development (RHED) Program. This is partially a consequence of skill, but also one of awareness: when the waves are good, it’s time to surf.

This remains the best time in 30 years to seek grant funds and, and if my finely tuned grant antenna is working as it has for 38 years, it’s only going to get better in the coming months. Keep in mind that the new federal fiscal year started October 1, appropriation bills are emerging from Congress, and all representatives and many senators have to gear up their election campaigns with the prospect of double digit unemployment, weak economic growth and both urban and rural youth violence exploding across America. Bad news, as illustrated above, is good news in the wonderful world of grants, so don’t wait for the actual grant tsunami to crash over your head. Instead, make sure your organization takes full advantage of this reality now by researching and applying for grants.


* The perhaps apocryphal backstory of this biting song is that Dylan may or may not have written it after being interviewed by a particularly clueless Time Magazine reporter for Dylan’s wonderfully obtuse 1965 Time Magazine interview.

** I am delighted to read about a new $25 million community violence prevention grant program. Here’s a small sample of the dozens of existing federal grant programs that aim to do more or less the same thing (pssst—keep these a secret as we don’t Secretary Duncan or Attorney General Holder to know about them):

  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) Program
  • Juvenile Mentoring (JUMP) Program
  • Title V Delinquency Prevention Program
  • Recovery Act Edward Byrne Memorial Competitive Grant Program
  • TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) Program
  • I could go on. Nonetheless, I’m all in favor of new grant programs, so all I can say to Duncan and Holder is rock on!

    On the Subject of Crystal Balls and Magic Beans in Writing FIP, SGIG, BTOP and Other Fun-Filled Proposals

    I’ve noticed a not-too-subtle change in RFPs lately—largely, I think, due to the Stimulus Bill—that requires us to drag out our trusty Crystal Ball, which is an essential tool of grant writing. Like Bullwinkle J. Moose, we gaze into our Crystal Ball and say,”Eenie meenie chili beanie, the spirits are about to speak,” as we try to answer imponderable questions. For example, our old friend the HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 (NSP2) wants:

    A reasonable projection of the extent to which the market(s) in your target geography is likely to absorb abandoned and foreclosed properties through increased housing demand during the next three years, if you do not receive this funding.

    How many houses will be foreclosed upon, but also absorbed, in our little slice of heaven target area in 2012? If I was smart enough to figure this out, I’d be buying just the right foreclosed houses in just the right places, instead of grant writing. People much smarter than us who were predicting in 2005 how many houses they’d need to absorb in 2009 were tremendously, catastrophically wrong, which is why we’re in this financial mess in the first place: you fundamentally can’t predict what will happen to any market, including real estate markets. Consequently, HUD’s question is so silly as to demand the Crystal Ball approach, so we nailed together available data, plastered it over with academic sounding metric mumbo jumbo, and voila! we had the precise numbers we needed. In other words, we used the S.W.A.G. method (“silly” or “scientific wild assed guess,” depending on your point of view). I have no idea why HUD would ask applicants a question that Warren Buffett (or, Jimmy Buffet for that matter, who may or may not be a cousin of Warren) could not answer, but answer we did.

    You can find another example of Crystal Ball grant writing in the brand new and charmingly named Facility Investment Program (FIP), brought to us by HRSA, which are for Section 330 providers (e.g. nonprofit Community Health Centers (CHCs)). We’re writing a couple of these, which requires us to drag out the ‘ol Crystal Ball again, since the applicant is supposed to keep track of the “number of construction jobs” and “projected number of health center jobs created or retained.”

    I just lean back, imagine some numbers and start typing, since there is neither a way to accurately predict any of this nor a way to verify it after project completion. HRSA is new to the game of estimating and tracking jobs, so they make it easy for us overworked grant writers and applicants by not requiring job creation certifications. Other agencies, like the Economic Development Administration (EDA), which has been about the business of handing out construction bucks for 40 years, are much craftier. For instance, the ever popular Public Works and Economic Development Program requires applicants to produce iron-clad letters from private sector partners to confirm that at least one permanent job be created for every $5,000 of assistance. We’ve written lots of funded EDA grants over the years, and the inevitable job generation issue is always the most challenging part of the application. HRSA will eventually wise up when they are unable to prove that the ephemeral construction and created/retained jobs ever existed. Alternately, they might wise up when they realize the futility of the endeavor in which they’re engaged, but I’m not betting on it.

    This tendency to ask for impossible metrics is always true in grant writing, as Jake discussed in Finding and Using Phantom Data, but sometimes it’s more true than others. I ascribe the recent flurry to the Stimulus Bill because more RFPs than usual are being extruded faster than usual, resulting in even less thought going into them than usual, forcing grant writers to spend even more time pondering what our Crystal Balls might be telling us.

    Since the term “Crystal Ball” began popping up whenever I scoped a new proposal with a client, I got to thinking of other shorthand ways of explaining some of the more curious aspects of the federal grant making process to the uninitiated and came up with “Magic Beans,” like Jack and the Beanstalk. We’re writing many proposals these days for businesses, who have never before applied for federal funds, for programs like the Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) Program, and the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) of the National Telecommunications & Information Agency.

    When scoping such projects, I am invariably on a conference call with a combination of marketing and engineer types. The marketing folks speak in marketing-speak platitudes (“We make the best stuff,” even if they don’t know what the stuff is) and the engineers don’t speak at all. So, to move the process along, and to get answers to the essential “what” and “how” of the project concept, I’ve taken to asking them to, in 20 words or less, describe the “Magic Beans” they will be using and what will happen when the magic beans are geminated after that long golden stream of Stimulus Bucks arcs out of Washington onto their project. This elicits a succinct reply, I can conclude the scoping call, and we can fire up the proposal extruding machine.

    So use your Magic Beans to climb the federal beanstalk and reach the ultimate Golden Goose, keeping your Crystal Ball close at hand.