Category Archives: Stimulus

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.

    The Stimulus Bill Enters the Bizarro World

    We’ve been up to our elbows writing Stimulus Bill proposals for a couple of months now with no end in sight and the oddities are beginning to pile up. Here are a few:

    * We’re working on a HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 (NSP 2) proposal for a California city. Nothing is particularly unusual about the 194 page NOFA—except that no budget forms are required. For the last ten years or so, HUD has required a mind numbing coterie of complex budget forms, including SF424A, HUD CB and HUD CBW, along with a detailed budget narrative. While NSP2 provides grant awards with a minimum of $5,000,000, a simple “blob” table, with no line item detail or justification, is the only required budget document. Better still, HUD is allowing applicants to take a 10% administrative rake off the top, so a grantee can pocket $500,000 on a $5,000,000 grant without any explanation. When we couldn’t find budget instructions or forms in the NOFA, we sent an inquiry to the NSP2 Program Officer, Jessi Molinengo, and received the following response:

    On page 24, IV.3.a, The NOFA states that you will indicate how you will use NSP2 funds by providing a list or table showing the amount of funds budgeted for each eligible use and CDBG eligible activity.

    Duh. We’d already figured that out and were incredulous that HUD would give up on any pretense of accountability and transparency, but apparently HUD has contracted ARRA-flu and entered the Bizarro World.* But if that’s all they want, that’s all we’ll give them. After all, one of Seliger + Associates’ grant writing rules is the Golden Rule: “The folks with gold make the rules.”

    * We just finished a proposal for the Tribal Title IV-E Plan Development Grant Program on behalf of an Indian Tribe. Through a series of mishaps, our client, who had decided to send in the finished proposal themselves, wanted to FedEx the submission package on the day it was due in D.C. We told them to save the cost, as the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) would reject it for being late. Our contact person was very unhappy, so I told him to try calling ACF. He did, and they agreed to take the proposal late. Once again, we’re in the Bizarro World, as I have never seen this happen in 37 years of grant writing.

    * We wrote four funded Department of Labor YouthBuild proposals for the most recent RPF cycle that completed last January. This is nothing new, as we’ve written lots of funded YouthBuild proposals over the years. What is surprising is that one of our clients sent us a email blast he received from the DOL YouthBuild Program Officer, Anne Stom, breathlessly announcing an avalanche of new Stimulus Bill grants pouring out of D.C.:

    Today, the US Department of Labor – Employment and Training Administration announced an exciting new grant opportunity – five distinct Green Jobs Workforce Development grant solicitations. As a current or new Youthbuild grantee, you are eligible to seek funding for green jobs training, capacity building, and other programs under these SGAs, and we encourage you to go for it!

    Note Anne’s giddy enthusiasm. Communiques from federal officials are usually written in the droll style of Ben Stein, but this one could have been delivered by Vince Shlomi, the ShamWow Guy.**

    The Stimulus Bill is distorting the Federal grant making process and is apparently also taking its toll on grant writers. I received the following email from a faithful GWC reader who wishes to remain anonymous:

    I was wondering if you would consider writing about how to handle the increased load and stress of the grant writing related to the stimulus funding, and people’s desire for grant writers to go after every available prospect no matter the health and well being of their staff. What have you found over the years about this issue? I am working at a Settlement House and my staff is dropping like flies, and I recently had a doc tell me I have to reduce the stress. I am not sure how that is even possible in this career.

    The short answer to the problem of stress and grant writing is that there is no answer. If one cannot handle the stress of endlessly recurring deadlines, then this is the wrong career choice. Personally, endless deadlines are what I like most about grant writing, because there is a finite aspect to completing grant proposals. When we’ve finished yet another proposal and the deadline has arrived, we can turn off the proposal extruding machine, leave the office, go home and retire to the pool to gaze at ever-changing Catalina Mountains and enjoy an Aviation cocktail or three.***

    On the serious side, an agency shouldn’t wildly apply for grants just because the money is there, since you might get funded and actually have to run the program. Although the Stimulus Bill is like a smorgasbord for applicants, try not to overload your plate, even if Program Officers like Anne Stom are screaming at you, “Eat, eat, you’re so thin!”

    Last February, I predicted this Stimulus madness in Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing. At Seliger + Associates, we are writing faster and furiouser, but we handle the stress by not accepting assignments we cannot complete, even if it means we turn down work. At the moment we’re not taking assignments with deadlines before early to mid August and it has been that way for months. We keep our eye on the prize, which is to prepare well written, technically correct proposals that put our clients in the running to be funded. If you’re an applicant, remember that it is better to submit one or two carefully crafted proposals than a dozen half-baked ones. You’ll get more grant funds and your grant writer will not run away to become a circus clown.


    * Like Jerry Seinfeld, I was a big fan of Superman comics (Batman who?) when I was a kid and loved that he resurrected the Bizarro World in his TV series.

    ** My daughter bought me a box of ShamWows for my birthday and they work great. Now, if one of the kids will buy me a Slap Chop, I’ll have it all. To quote Vince, “Are you following me, camera guy?” [Editor Jake’s note: this is not going to come from me.]

    *** To make serious cocktails like The Aviation, one needs exotic ingredients like Maraschino Liqueur and Creme de Violette, which means one needs a great liquor store. After years of putting up with state owned liquor stores in the hopelessly provincial Washington, I was delighted to be introduced to the exceptional Rum Runner by Jake after arriving in Tucson, which is well-stocked and run by pros who will track down any spirit you need to lift your spirits after a hard day slaving over hot proposals.

    Talk of the Nation, The Department of Education’s Arne Duncan, and Stimulus Slowness

    On the way to Seliger + Associates’ new Tucson offices last week, I listened to Neal Conan conduct an interview with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that illustrates problems with both Stimulus Bill (ARRA) passthrough funding and media coverage of contentious issues.

    Issue One: Stimulus Bill Distribution

    Conan said that education stimulus funding to states had become entangled in bureaucratic morasses. Well, he actually cited NPR education reporter Claudia Sanchez’s reporting on how little stimulus money had gone anywhere because of disagreements about distribution, but I think my first sentence is more accurate. Duncan countered said that 25 states had applied and that more than $20 billion had gone “out the door.”

    But neither number means much: which 25 states had applied? The big ones, or the small ones? How much had they distributed downwards? Why are states turning down federal money? And what does this say for the timeliness of the stimulus bill? In a February 16, 2009 post, Isaac wrote:

    … despite the best intentions of our President and Congress—it’s going to take quite a while to get the money to the streets. Most Federal agencies usually take anywhere from three to six months to select grantees and probably another three months to sign contracts. My experience with Federal employees is that they work slower, not faster, under pressure, and there is no incentive whatsoever for a GS-10* to burn the midnight oil.

    We’re now in June, and Duncan is proud that 25 states have applied and/or been approved for Stimulus Bill funding by the Department of Education. But “applying for or being approved” is another fairly pointless metric. It’s analogous to the Secretary saying that he’s proud that 25 million teenagers are in high school, when the actually important metric is how many graduate.

    It seems likely that the inevitable bureaucratic snafus accompanying efforts like the Stimulus Bill are occurring as predicted in our Blog, since no the Feds seem unable to accurately detail the only metrics that matter, how much Stimulus Bill money has actually been spent and what jobs resulted.

    Issue Two: The Need for Precision

    The second big issue is what else Duncan talked about, or rather didn’t, regarding education: specifics. Many of his points were platitudes that anyone can agree with. Who doesn’t want high-performing schools, excellent teachers, demanding curricula, and so forth? Can I see a show of hands? Will the party against those features please say so on its platform? This is symptomatic of the larger focus on “what” people want, rather than how it is to be accomplished.

    The big contention regarding education and so many other programs operated by government or nonprofit agencies aren’t about the “what” we want done—good schools, etc.—but on the how. Will yet another round of educational reform mean being able to hire and fire teachers at will? Convert more schools into charter schools of offer vouchers? Pour more money into existing systems? Train teachers? Lower class size? Fragment existing school districts? At least in the fifteen minutes I heard, Duncan answered none of these questions. This holds an important lesson for grant writers: if you’re working on a problem, it’s not enough to emphasize the “what”—you need to cover the “how” as well. If you’re not telling the funding source what Project Nutria will do, you haven’t told them anything useful.

    A Bonus Link

    (As a side note, I later heard “Funds would brighten solar industry” on the subject of delays in stimulus funding for that sector. The piece quotes Mike Finocchario, president of Schott Solar, saying, “There’s a slowdown in the marketplace, people basically waiting to see what the stimulus package is going to provide for them.”)

    The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) Appears at Last

    Subscribers to the Seliger Funding Report saw that the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) is this week’s featured grant. The program is significant and worth examining for a few reasons, including the massive amount of money available (nearly $2 billion) and how it illustrates some of the problems with disseminating and spending stimulus money in a timely manner.

    The idea behind the stimulus funding is that it’s supposed to happen quickly. Last December, Isaac wrote a post on the subject:

    Our client has been going to endless meetings to discuss the NSP program and is still waiting around for the amended action plans to be approved. […]

    This sad tale of woe does not make me optimistic about the really big stimulus programs that will emerge from Congress shortly. While it will be Fat City for grant writers and lots of grants will be available for frisky nonprofit and public agencies, don’t expect the funds to fix many problems.

    It’s now six months later, and the RFP has finally hit the street. The deadline is July 17, which is sweet for the agencies applying but not so good on the timeliness front. Once awards are made, contracts are signed, and programs begin operating in earnest, it could well be December again. Isaac also quoted a Wall Street Journal article from December that’s as timely today as it was then, which should demonstrate the sense of urgency emanating from HUD.

    Another point: HUD has apparently abandoned Grants.gov. You won’t find the actual RFP on Grants.gov—you’ll only find a link to hud.gov/recovery. Even then, the RFP is still difficult to find because you’ll find a giant scrolling banner, a link to a press release, and a news story about NSP, which is why we always include links, like the the one in the first paragraph of this post, that go straight to the RFP. In addition, HUD will only accept paper submissions:

    Deadline for Receipt of Application: July 17, 2009. Applications must be received via paper submission to the Robert C. Weaver HUD Headquarters building by 5:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. […]

    Timely submission shall be evidenced via a delivery service receipt or a postal receipt with date and time stamp indicating that the application was delivered to a carrier service at least 48 hours prior to the application deadline…

    Those of you with a sense of history and irony will find this amusing because was among the first (if not the first) agencies to require Grants.gov submissions. That HUD won’t even accept them anymore might tell you something about the Grants.gov problems we’ve discussed extensively.

    Finally, this application is an example of HUD going both ways with funding distribution: some NSP funds are being passed through to states and counties via block grant, as described in Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed, while this program notice says that “NSP2 funds will be awarded through competitions whose eligible applicants include states, units of general local government, nonprofits, and consortia of nonprofits. Any applicant may apply with a for-profit entity as its partner.” Sounds good to us!

    Professional Grant Writer At Work: Don’t Try Writing A Transportation Electrification Proposal At Home

    Seliger + Associates was recently hired to edit a proposal for the charmingly titled U.S. Department of Energy National Energy and Technology Laboratory Recovery Act-Transportation Electrification (NETLRATE)* program. We edit proposals all the time; the unusual part of this assignment is our client, which is a successful tech company with lots of engineer types instead of the human service folks who typically hire us. The CEO told me that his company has experience in submitting business proposals to tech and manufacturing companies and would have no problem writing the proposal. They just wanted us to review it, but the resulting fiasco demonstrates why our client would have been much better served to simply hire us to write the entire proposal, even though we know little about electric vehicles (as I discussed in No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer). But, as with the advice Wavy Gravy gave at Woodstock about watching out for the brown acid, “it’s your trip.”

    A week or two went by, with the Seliger + Associates team using our secret proposal production machine to extrude applications. The deadline for our DOE client to email his draft came and went. Two days later, and within a week of the deadline, the draft appeared in my inbox, along with the 41-page, single-spaced Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA). The email said we should look at page 33 of the FOA, which our client used as a guide to prepare the draft. I looked and found the ever-popular “review criteria.” Here is a snippet (it actually goes on for two pages):

    Evaluation Criteria for Area of Interest 1, 2, and 3

    Criterion 1: Technical Approach and Project Management Weight: 40%
    • Responsiveness and relevance to the programmatic research goals and requirements identified in this announcement for this area of interest, including rationale for the vehicle and/or infrastructure design
    • Demonstrated knowledge and understanding of vehicle design and manufacturing, related past and current work and how the proposed effort builds on or expands from these prior efforts to ensure a production-intent design, i.e., their adaptation of and application to specific vehicle propulsion systems and platforms
    • Degree and source of the identified risk in demonstrating the proposed technology, including definition of potential technology deficiencies along with proposed solutions to mitigate the risk;
    • Innovativeness of the proposed technology

    I immediately knew that our client, no matter how smart and experienced a businessperson he is, had fallen into The Danger Zone of Common RFP Traps I wrote about last year. RFPs often include convoluted criteria that unnamed “reviewers” will supposedly use to score the proposal, which are often separate from the instructions for the proposal itself.

    The problem is that such criteria are invariably hidden somewhere in the bowels of the RFP and may or may not be referenced in the RFP completion instructions. I did what I always do to find the instructions and searched for “pages” and “page,” and uncovered detailed instructions on how to construct the NETLRATE proposal on page 22 of the FOA. Here is a nugget from the four pages of instructions:

    The project narrative must include:

    • Project Objectives: This section should provide a clear, concise statement of the specific objectives/aims of the proposed project.

    • Merit Review Criterion Discussion: The section should be formatted to address each of the merit review criterion and sub-criterion listed in Part V.A. Provide sufficient information so that reviewers will be able to evaluate the application in accordance with these merit review criteria. DOE WILL EVALUATE AND CONSIDER ONLY THOSE APPLICATIONS THAT ADDRESS SEPARATELY EACH OF THE MERIT REVIEW CRITERION AND SUB-CRITERION.

    • Relevance and Outcomes/Impacts: This section should explain the relevance of the effort to the objectives in the program announcement and the expected outcomes and/or impacts.

    The second bullet point references the “criterion discussion,”** where our client should have placed his 15-page, single-spaced narrative. He did not realize that there were instructions, so this would have been hard to do. But his draft included an abstract, the instructions for which are also on page 22. This means he must have seen the instructions without fully realizing what they were.

    That was his first major problem. The second was the draft itself, which was filled with the kind of self-congratulatory public relations happy talk that one finds in news releases and brochures. While coherent and well written, it wasn’t proposalese. Rather, it reiterated the “a delicious lunch was served” formulations that every freshman journalism student learns not to write. And the proposal did not follow the pattern of the four criteria pages and 40 or so bullet points. The response was technically incorrect and would probably not be evaluated, per the second bullet point in the above FOA quote.

    Within two minutes of opening the file, I realized that our client had misunderstood the FOA and had written a marketing piece, not a proposal. Since we don’t hide from our clients, I called our contact and gave him the bad news that there was no point in having us edit his draft, as it was formatted wrong and written like a press release. He took it well and didn’t try to shoot the messenger, which is a not uncommon reaction to bad news. As Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” Callahan says in Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” and our contact now does.

    Instead of wasting our time and his money on pointless editing, I rewrote the Abstract to reflect the instructions along with the ever popular “5 Ws and the H” and produced a detailed outline of the proposal with about a dozen Word paragraph styles*** following the pattern of the completion instructions. I also wrote lots of connector phrases and left assorted blanks for him to fill in, which is a paint by numbers approach to grant writing (this reference shows you how old I am).

    Due to other writing commitments caused by our old friend the Stimulus Bill, we couldn’t spend any more time on this project, no matter how much our client was willing to pay, as we never accept assignments we can’t complete. With a $16 million grant on the line, it would have been much more cost effective for our client to have hired us to write the entire proposal in the first place. You may have noticed the small text that scrolls at the bottom of TV ads showcasing cars like the new 2011 FiCrysler Electric Eel roadster tearing across the desert at at 150 MPH, stating “Professional driver on closed course, do not attempt.” When it comes to grant writing, spend your time working on things you know how to do and hire a pro.


    * This acronym is not actually used in the FOA. I just wanted to see what it would look like. Let’s try pronouncing it: “nettlerate?” I would have changed the name to National Action to Make America Special through Transportation Electricfication (NAMASTE). Maybe I’ve spent too much time watching Lost or perhaps I just need a calming Sanskrit word after too much fevered Stimulus Bill grant writing.

    ** Obviously no English majors were involved in the production of this FOA, as I believe the work they were looking for is “criteria,” when referring to “criterion” in the plural, although saying “criterion” makes me feel vaguely intellectual.

    ibm-1-small-3*** While the draft proposal was written in Word, no paragraph styles were used. Instead, he used the default “normal” style for everything, along with tab stops. This proposal looked like it had been typed by the curvy secretary, Joan Hollway, on my favorite TV program, Mad Men, using an IBM Selectric typewriter. We have a Selectric III (distinguished from the Selectric II by the spacey orange backlight on the tab bar). We rescued this remarkable example of industrial design 15 years ago, and it still performs flawlessly when called upon every couple of months to complete a paper form. It gets serviced every three years. We’ll be able to keep it until the last typewriter repairman dies, at which point we will use it as a boat anchor, since it weighs about 50 pounds. Incidentally, you can get a similar feel on some modern keyboards, like the IBM Model M / Unicomp Customizer.

    Fake Requests for Proposals (RFP) Notices Gain Popularity

    When I was a kid, Isaac liked to quote the famous line from Ian Fleming’s James Bond book, Goldfinger: “The first time is happenstance. The second time is coincidence. The third time is enemy action” (that’s how I remember it, anyway, and I don’t have a copy of Goldfinger handy to check the quote). Actually, Isaac still says that not infrequently, and I’m going to appropriate it for this post, since I’m noticing a pernicious trend in the form of fake grant announcements, or announcements of announcements, in the Federal Register.

    We discussed this particular irritating brand of federal idiocy in “A Primer on False Notes, Close Reading, and The Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) Program, or, How to Seize the Money in 42 Easy Steps:”

    There’s also another other curious thing about th[e] March 5 announcement: it was an announcement of an announcement: “Under a forthcoming federal funding opportunity (FFO) announcement, EDA will solicit applications for the EDA American Recovery Program under the auspices of PWEDA.” This is like sending an announcement of a forthcoming invitation to a party—why not simply make the announcement, especially since the two followed each other within days? The situation could be fundamentally irrational, or there could be some unknown statutory requirement hidden in the legislative language, or someone at the EDA could have simply been tipsy while entering Grants.gov information.

    Non-RFP RFPs, or non-announcement announcements, seem to be becoming more popular, like the outbreak of swine flu. Reading Grant Writing Confidential will help immunize you from this malady, but not from the itching, sweating, and swearing it might cause. For another example of it, check out the Solicitation for Proposals for the Provision of Civil Legal Services, which says: “The Request for Proposals (RFP) will be available April 10, 2009.” But April 10 has come and gone, and as far as I can tell a genuine RFP still hasn’t arrived. Now we’ve passed happenstance and entered the land of circumstance.

    But the latest iteration of my favorite program to pick on, the Assistance to Firefighters Grants Program (AFG), includes this in its first full paragraph on page two:

    The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $210 million in funding to DHS to construct new fire stations or modify existing fire stations. That funding opportunity will be announced in the near future and will NOT be part of this offering. Under the funding opportunity presented in this guidance, the AFG will only fund projects that do not alter the footprint or the profile of an existing structure. Projects for modifications that involve altering the footprint or the profile of an existing structure or projects that involve construction of new facilities will fall under a different funding opportunity.

    (See some earlier posts on the AFG here and here.)

    As Goldfinger would say, this is now enemy action. I wouldn’t be surprised if phantom announcements become more common as the kinds of deadlines buried somewhere in the Stimulus Bill American Recovery and Relief Act approach federal agencies like a swarm of swine flu virus particles from a gigantic congressional sneeze.

    No More Ball of Confusion: The Reality of the Grant Making Process is Really Simple and I’m the Guy to Explain It to You

    • In the April 20, 2009 Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Williamson wrote “Stimulus Confusion Frustrates Business,” in which she states “Confusion over how to go after money allocated to various stimulus programs appears to be clouding corporate efforts to plan ahead . . .”
    • In the April 12, 2009 New York Times, Kirk Johnson wrote “Waving a Hand, Trying to Be Noticed in the Stimulus Rush,” which concerns a nonprofit group stumbling around looking behind the refrigerator looking for stimulus funds like our faithful Golden Retriever, Odette, sniffing after the scent of the salami she was tossed yesterday, and thinking, “it’s just got be here somewhere.” Kirk states, “Whether the stimulus even has a place for the ideas [the nonprofit] is pursuing is not clear.” Both the reporter and the nonprofit smell the grant salami, but can’t quite find it, while Odette eventually gives up and rolls on her back.

    Sense a trend? I could cite a dozen other similar stories in which talented reporters interview presumably bright individuals, none of whom find the Stimulus Bill salami, but you get the idea: no one in the media is writing “how” stories about the ways federal funds are distributed. Instead, endless “who,” “what,” “where” and “when” articles are published, leaving readers to assume the whole process, is, as the Temptations sang when I was in high school in 1968, just a Ball of Confusion. To quote:

    Evolution, revolution, gun control, sound of soul.
    Shooting rockets to the moon, kids growing up too soon.
    Politicians say more taxes will solve everything.
    And the band played on.
    So, round and around and around we go.
    Where the world’s headed, nobody knows.
    Oh, great googalooga, can’t you hear me talking to you.
    Just a ball of confusion.

    Every time I see a “ball of confusion” story about the Stimulus Bill, I write the same note to the reporter . . . “call me and in 15 minutes, I will explain how federal funding actually is distributed.” Few call, perpetuating the “ball of confusion” story line. Like Tiny Mills, my favorite professional wrestler when I was a kid growing up in the late ’50s in Minneapolis, used to say when being interviewed by announcer Marty O’Neil, “I’m all burned up, Marty, I’m all burned up.” Since I’m all burned up about the slipshod Stimulus Bill reporting, here is the shorthand version of the federal funding process (and even this is a slightly simplified version):

    • Imagine Barney Frank (if you are a Democrat) or John Boehner (if you are a Republican) waking up one morning with a bright idea to solve some real or imagined problem in American by taking money from Peter to help Paul.*
    • The bright idea is turned into a bill, which both houses of Congress pass and the President signs.
    • Funding authorization for the newly minted program is included in a budget authorization bill. In some cases, the legislation creating the program and funding are in the same bill. The recently passed ARRA (“Stimulus Bill”) both creates new programs with funds authorized for the new programs and authorizes additional funding for existing programs. An example of the first case is the Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) Program, which was originally created in 2007 but substantially modified with additional funding in the ARRA. An example of the second case is the Department of the Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Program, which received an extra $100 million under the ARRA. A new NOFA was just issued with a deadline of May 27.
    • The new program is assigned to a Federal agency, which in turns assigns existing or new staff as Program Officers for the program.
    • Along with the requisite donut eating and mindless meetings, draft regulations are written and passed among Beltway types (e.g., legislation staff, “evil” lobbyists, interest groups, etc.) for informal review and comment. After the draft regulations are made as obtuse as possible, they are published in the Federal Register for public comment, usually for 30 days.
    • Final regulations are then published, usually featuring detailed explanations of why all the public comments are stupid and pointless, meaning the final regs are generally about the same as the draft regs. This is because interested parties have already taken their shots during the informal review process and Program Officers don’t care about what folks in Dubuque think anyway. It may take a federal agency anywhere from 30 days to 180 days to publish draft regs, and the review comment period is usually 30 days. The final regs will usually appear about 30 – 60 days later. The SGIG Program mentioned above is still in the informal regulatory review stage. A client sent us the draft regs, and they are a mess (the reasons why would be a post in itself). The FOA is being drafted simultaneously with the regs to speed up the process and the FOA is supposed to be published in June.
    • After the program regs are finalized, there are two possibilities, as follows:
      • (1) If the program is a federal pass-through to the states, the money is made available for the states to distribute, using an existing or new system, and based on some formula. Most of the so-called “infrastructure” funding in the Stimulus Bill was allocated this way, allowing the feds to more or less wash their hands of the process and say, “we’ve allocated the money with lightening speed and it’s not our fault if the states are too dumb to spend it quickly.” These pass-through Stimulus Bill funds go the relevant agencies in each state, with highway construction funds to the State Transportation Department, water/sewer funds to the State Water Department, UFO landing strip construction funds to the State Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs, and so on. I will eventually write a detailed post on how states distribute funds, but I digress.
      • (2) If the program involves direct submission to the federal agency, the Program Officers draft a RFP/NOFA/SGA/FOA or what have you, which is the document that applicants will actually use as the guidelines for spinning their tales of woe and need. RFPs are sometimes published in the Federal Register, made available through Grants.gov, FedBizOpps.gov, and/or in even more obscure ways. As Jake has previously noted, Grants.gov is the central repository for all Federal grant information, except when it isn’t.**
    • Applicants prepare and submit proposals in response to the RFPs. This is what Seliger + Associates does endlessly. Depending on the funding agency, the amount of hysteria surrounding the grant program and the underlying problem it is supposed to solve, the length of time allowed for submission varies from about two weeks to three months, with 45 days being typical. In the case of new programs, where new regs and RFPs have been drafted, one can usually expect several modifications to the RFP to be published, as mistakes and inconsistencies are identified. Since we spend much of our time deciphering arcane RFPs, we often have the thankless task of letting the Program Officer know that they have screwed up their RFP. In making these calls, we usually receive snarls and growls, not attaboys in return. We don’t do this out of civic duty, but to protect our client’s interest by not having the Program Officer declare a do over and start the RFP process again.
    • Once the RFP deadline arrives, the process submerges into the murky waters of Washington, but the review process goes more or less as follows:
      • 1. Applications are “checklist reviewed” to make sure the applicant is eligible, the forms are signed, etc. In most cases, if the application is technically incorrect, it is summarily rejected. You do not pass Go and you do not get $200, but you will eventually get a charming “thanks for the lousy application” form letter. Certain funding agencies, such as HUD, may send a deficiency letter, giving the applicant one more chance to sign the forms or what have you.
      • 2. Applications that pass the technical checklist are reviewed on “merit.” These reviews can be done by the Program Officers, by “peer reviewers” (nonprofit and public agency managers lured to Washington by per diem and a $100/day honorarium) or by other Federal employees dragooned into the task. The last is the worst alternative, because the shanghaied bureaucrats will know nothing about the program and will be annoyed at having been roused from their slumber. Think of Smaug the Dragon in The Hobbit, who always slept with one eye half-open.
      • 3. The applications will be scored on some scale and, in most cases, allegedly against criteria in the RFP. The applications will be ranked by their score, at which point our old friend, politics, rears its ugly head again. Most RFPs contain language along the lines of “The Secretary reserves the right to make funding recommendations based on geography and other factors.” While the Secretary of Whatever can basically fund any agency she bloody well feels like, as a practical matter this means that the funds are spread to many states for applicants in big cities, towns and rural areas and for projects that are perceived to help certain populations of interest. One could have a highly ranked application but still not be funded due to the vagaries of the approval process. If it is good news, the applicant might get a congratulations call from their House Rep or Senator’s office before the notice of grant award letter shows up. Some our of clients have reported reading press releases in local papers from their elected representatives before they were officially notified of being funded. While most Federal agencies aim for about a 90 day review process, about three – nine months is more typical. Using six months is a good standard.
    • The grant award letter will include instructions to contact the Budget Officer who has been assigned to the application. This being the Federal government, the award being offered may be the exact amount requested, or less than requested, or even more than requested.
    • You’re not done yet because the applicant must “negotiate” a contract with the Budget Officer. If the Budget Officer thinks the budget originally submitted was not prepared in accordance with Federal budgeting rules, or is just having a bad day, he will demand that you modify your budget or prove that it is reasonable. I have lots of funny stories about this process, but will save them for future posts. After the budget is agreed, the rest of the contract is negotiated. Allow two months for the contracting process.
    • Congratulations, you’ve fallen across the finish line. Since Federal funds cannot usually be expended before contract is signed, most recipients will not begin project implementation until the money is actually available, so another three months can be added to hire staff, teach them where the restrooms are, arrange for donuts to be delivered for weekly staff meetings and the like. Keep in mind that, if the money is for construction of something, add additional time for environmental reviews, permits, bidding and yet more contracts!

    How much time is likely to go by before funds for new programs in the Stimulus Bill actually start stimulating something other than reporter’s imaginations? Adding it all up, I’ve got:

    • 3 months to develop regulations
    • 2 months to develop the RFP
    • 1.5 months for submission of applications
    • 6 months for application review
    • 5 months for contracting/start-up activities

    If all goes right—and it almost never does—it takes at least one year for a Federal grant program to move from congressional approval/budget authorization to walkin’ around money for nonprofits. Keep in mind that this is for a program involving direct Federal competition. In the case of state pass-through programs, an additional one to three years can be added, depending on state budgeting and other processes. We’ll be writing “Stimulus Bill” proposals in the twilight of President Obama’s first term!


    * As George Bernard Shaw famously quipped, “The government who robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”

    ** The CDFI Program is a good example of how Federal agencies sometimes “forget” to publish their grant opportunities in grants.gov or the Federal Register. As noted above, the Department of the Treasury received $100 million in extra Stimulus Bill funds for this program and decided to use $45 million to fund additional applications for the last funding round, which closed in October. The funding announcements for the October round have not yet been made, so for those of you counting, six months has gone by since the application deadline. Even though there is much gnashing of teeth in the media about banks not lending, the Treasury Department itself is taking forever to get its funds on the street.

    The other $55 million in CDFI Stimulus Bill funds have been set aside for new applicants in a supplemental funding round, which has been rumored for two months. The NOFA was finally issued on April 21, with a deadline of May 27, but was only placed on an obscure part of the CDFI web site, if one drills down to “News and Events.” It is not listed on the “How to Apply Page,” which includes timely info on the deadline for last October. Nor was it published on Grants.gov or in the Federal Register. If there are any aspiring Woodward or Bernstein type investigative reporters out there, you might want to find out why the Department of Treasury did as little as possible to let potential applicants know about this very sweet pot of gold. With all the fuss and bother over the Stimulus Bill, one would have thought the Department of the Treasury would have been trumpeting the availability of these funds.

    A Primer on False Notes, Close Reading, and The Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) Program, or, How to Seize the Money in 42 Easy Steps

    All three of you masochistic enough to read the Federal Register on a regular basis might have noticed that the Economic Development Administration (EDA) posted a couple of notices about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 Recovery Act Funding, which exemplifies many of the trends we’ve been discussing while also showing that it’s business as usual at EDA. To explain why this announcement is particularly sneaky, we’ll have to explain it and how EDA works.

    The Grants.gov notifications says:

    EDA is soliciting applications for the EDA American Recovery Program under the auspices of [the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965] PWEDA. Specifically, the [RFP] pertains to applications for funding under EDA’s Public Works and Economic Adjustment Assistance programs only.

    Ah ha! Money for economic development and job training. This sounds like a new program—but it’s not, or at least not as new as it sounds. To the uninitiated, this seems like a standard announcement for a federal program except for the rolling deadline. The sneaky part comes from the way EDA funds projects: rather than accepting a batch of proposals in response to a set deadline/RFP process, grading them, and then issuing funding notices, EDA requires that you apply to the “Economic Development Representative” (EDR) for your region (you can find a list of them at the bottom of the “Announcement of Federal Funding Opportunity” (FFO) (warning: .pdf link), which is yet another way of saying RFP). EDA has used more or less the same byzantine funding system since the late 1960s, which the application explains on pages 12 – 13 with all the traditional clarity of federal lingo. We’ll break it down in steps:

    Each application package is circulated by a project officer within the applicable EDA regional office for review and comments. After all necessary information has been obtained, the application is considered by the regional office’s investment review committee (IRC), which is comprised of regional office staff. The IRC discusses the application and evaluates it…

    So you submit the application, the EDR reviews it, and “checks it for eligibility,” according to Arizona and Western Washington EDR Jacob Macias, who I spoke to via phone on Wednesday, March 11 (he’ll appear later in this story).

    Assuming your EDR accepts the initial proposal:

    The IRC recommends to the Regional Director whether an application merits further consideration, documenting its recommendation. For quality control assurance, EDA Headquarters reviews the IRC’s analysis of the project’s fulfillment of the investment policy guidelines set forth below … After receiving quality control clearance, the Selecting Official, who is the Regional Director, considers the evaluations provided by the IRC and the degree to which one or more of the funding priorities provided below are included, in making a decision as to which applications merit further consideration.

    To summarize: you submit the application to the EDR. The EDR obtains the necessary information. The IRC reviews the application. If the IRC thinks your app is kosher, it goes to the Regional Director, and, apparently, to the EDA’s headquarters. Oh, yeah, and:

    To limit the burden on the applicant, EDA requests additional documentation only if EDA determines that the applicant’s project merits further consideration. The Form ED-900 provides detailed guidance on documentation, information, and other materials that will be requested if, and only if, EDA selects the project for further consideration. EDA will inform the applicant if its application has been selected for further consideration or if the application has not been selected for funding.

    That bolded section is critical. In words other than those used by the RFP, the initial submission is really a pre-application: you’ll be submitting what amounts to a letter of interest or a letter of intent to the EDR, along with a few forms, to see if he or she (I’ll go for “he,” since I spoke with Macias) wants you to submit a full proposal. If he doesn’t, you’re screwed. He’s the first gatekeeper. When potential clients call to discuss applying to EDA, Isaac tells them that they effectively have to be “invited” by their EDR, since if they’re not invited in some way there’s no point in chasing EDA money; only if the EDR likes your project, you have juice in Washington, or you have juice with the Regional Director should you pursue it. Once you’re invited to submit a full proposal, in most cases, the project will eventually be funded, although it may languish in the pipeline waiting for EDA to get additional appropriations.

    But if you don’t read the passage above carefully and know how EDA tends to work, you might end up submitting a full proposal that’ll never be funded. And one reason you need your EDR behind the project is that EDA already has a bunch of proposals that could be sped or slowed or funded or not at the pace of EDRs. When I called Macias earlier this week, he said that he had “a number of proposals in here” in various stages of completion that need to be “cleaned up” or are missing documentation or whatever.

    Unlike other federal proposals, with EDA you don’t just send everything you’ve got and that’s that: there’s a bunch of back and forth. Suddenly, the standard deadline system of most federal grant programs begins to look pretty good, since they’re built on the gladiator model in which the Emperor (or, in this case, program officer) simply gives your project a thumbs up or thumbs down. You enter the grant arena, say “Morituri te salutant” (“Those who are about to die salute you”) and find out what happens.

    Anyway, Macias thinks that “maybe five” EDA applications have been sent to DC and still not wholly funded. There are seven EDRs for the Western region. If he’s representative of the whole, that means there are 35 or more applications sent to Washington D.C. but still unfunded. And that’s only a single region, which includes the megatropolis of California, where there are no doubt more projects than Arizona and Western Washington. Macias couldn’t even tell me how many projects had been submitted in the Western Region. He’s probably right that no one really knows the answer; it could be as high or as low as the EDRs want it to be, or as high and as low as the funding allows. The important thing from the perspective of an applicant is that some of those projects being “cleaned up” could probably be cleaned up really, really quickly if necessary.

    Another question: why does no one know the answer to this question? Wouldn’t it be in EDA’s best interest to know so they can plan accordingly? Wal-Mart tends knows how many pairs of socks it has at every location and Dell magically gets almost every computer order right. But the EDA doesn’t seem to know, or at least Macias isn’t telling if they do, but I’d tend to take his assertion at face value. In the new found federal interest in transparency, one wonders why EDA doesn’t just post a list of pending projects by region on their website, so that applicants could better determine their chances of being funded before cozying up to the EDR with flowers and chocolates. I may submit a FOIA request to EDA to see just how many projects are already waiting to be funded and how that compares to the amount of money just announced. When I get an answer, I’ll post it.

    Whatever the number of unfunded EDA projects, it’s probably high enough that, with a stimulus-related cash infusion, EDA could probably simply fund more projects in the pipeline rather than encourage new proposals if the organization felt so inclined. So your EDR better believe in your project if you want to be funded. That’s just how it goes, and the RFP is something of a slight-of-hand trick, since you still have this Texas two-step to get the money. The EDA programs are continuing opportunities for which there always some amount of funds available. Thus the announcement in question is misleading, if not outright disingenuous.

    But if you haven’t been dealing with EDA for years, you wouldn’t know the deal and might take the announcement at face value. Isaac confirmed the actual nature of the EDA beast in a conversation he had this week with highly placed manager in a state economic development office, which is considering hiring us to write some of their ARRA proposals. The topic turned from the Department of Labor to EDA, at which point this fellow, who also has years of experience with EDA, described EDA as a “heiney-kissing” exercise requiring lots of trips to the regional office to sweet talk the EDR and Regional Director.


     

    These EDA issues are also indicative of what Isaac wrote earlier in “Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing“:

    … [I]t’s going to take quite a while to get the money to the streets. Most Federal agencies usually take anywhere from three to six months to select grantees and probably another three months to sign contracts. My experience with Federal employees is that they work slower, not faster, under pressure… there are no bonuses in the Federal system for work above and beyond the call of duty.

    This program shows how long it will take the funds to hit the street for a new applicant, since the EDA pipeline is frequently a long one, running as it does from the local EDR to the Regional Director to Washington back to the Regional Director and back to Washington, with each one taking a piece along the way;* it’s like writing a dissertation, in which every committee member must be satisfied before you can graduate.

    In addition, notice some key words in the EDA’s initial, March 5 announcement of the Recovery Act Funding: “[I]t takes a minimum of 90 days from EDA’s receipt of a complete application until award, when funds are obligated.”

    There’s also another other curious thing about this March 5 announcement: it was an announcement of an announcement: “Under a forthcoming federal funding opportunity (FFO) announcement, EDA will solicit applications for the EDA American Recovery Program under the auspices of PWEDA.” This is like sending an announcement of a forthcoming invitation to a party—why not simply make the announcement, especially since the two followed each other within days? The situation could be fundamentally irrational, or there could be some unknown statutory requirement hidden in the legislative language, or someone at the EDA could have simply been tipsy while entering Grants.gov information.

    The answer came from an EDA representative. Isaac traded some emails with Jamie Lipsey, the EDA contact person, about the pre-announcement announcement. She sent back the following to his initial query:

    Under a forthcoming federal funding opportunity (FFO) announcement, EDA will solicit applications for the EDA American Recovery Program under the auspices of PWEDA. Specifically, the forthcoming FFO will pertain to applications for funding under EDA’s Public Works and Economic Adjustment Assistance programs only. EDA will not accept applications until the FFO is published. The FFO will be posted on www.grants.gov as soon as it is available.

    When Isaac replied by essentially saying, “huh?”, Lipsey simplified it to this:

    Perhaps I should have summed up: under the Recovery Act and guidance provided by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), EDA was required to post the status of our recovery announcement on www.grants.gov by March 5, 2009. I believed the posting did that clearly in stating that the FFO announcement was forthcoming and that applications would not be accepted until it was published, which should happen next week.

    Ah: so EDA got around the deadline through the pre-announcement. As so often happens, the agency protects its turf and itself, effectively executing the pre-announcement as a cover-your-ass (CYA) maneuver with the beauty of a dancer’s pirouette. I gave this post a long and convoluted title in honor of the length necessary to explain what the EDA is actually like.

    Despite all the issues discussed above, EDA grants are still very much worth applying for, and if you’re interested in doing so you should call us. Isaac has been writing funded EDA applications for 30 years and knows how to warm the stone-like hearts of the elusive EDRs.


     

    * Actually, the EDA application process can be even more complicated than summarized above and described in the FFO. In many cases, before the EDR will accept a pre-application, the project has to be ranked in the regional Community Economic Development Strategies (CEDS). The CEDS process replaced the former process, which was called the Overall Economic Development Planning (OEDP) process, in 1999. The FFO is silent on the subject of CEDS. Perhaps CEDS has gone the way of the OEDP, or maybe EDA is saving this nugget for the EDRs to drop on applicants. EDA is like the lyrics of the theme song of the 1968 movie classic (and the dopey 1999 remake), The Thomas Crown Affair, Windmills of Your Mind: “Round, like a circle in a spiral, Like a wheel within a wheel / Never ending or beginning / On an ever spinning reel …”.

    The Stimulus Bill Meets Santa Claus Meets American Idol in Virginia

    I thought that I wouldn’t have to write any more posts on the Stimulus Bill, but like Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III, “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.” The curious way the Commonwealth of Virginia has decided to solicit ideas for how to spend its piece of the Stimulus Pie drags me back in. At stimulus.virginia.gov, you will find the following statement as of March 1, 2009: “The Commonwealth has developed a website for citizens, groups, localities, and others to use to share project proposals for funding from the federal stimulus package.” If you send your email address, you will be directed to a site that allows you to pitch your own idea.

    What’s fun about this is the lack of any prerequisites whatsoever—meaning one could presumably present any idea. Even better, the “application” consists of contact info and a 750 character project description. That’s right, characters, not words. Now, I’m all for brevity in grant writing, but this may be taking things a bit too far. To illustrate, I will reduce the fictitious Project Nutria described in “Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development,” which I created to show how a grant writer develops a project idea, to about 750 characters:

    Citizens Against Nutria–Dillwyn Organization (CAN-DO) proposes Project NUTRIA (Nutria Utilization and Training Resources for Itinerant Americans). This innovative initiative will empower City of Dillwyn (Buckingham County) residents to fight the scourge of rampaging nutria, while also combating homelessness and stimulating the economy. This will be accomplished by training homeless persons to catch and process nutria, with the nutria meat feeding and the fur clothing the growing ranks of unemployed. An estimated 12,000 nutria will be transformed into food and clothing by 10 formerly homeless persons, providing sustenance and winter coats for 200 unemployed persons during the project year. Thus, Project NUTRIA is a win-win-win-win for Dillwyn and will aggressively utilize limited Commonwealth Stimulus dollars.

    While a few legitimate project concepts might be submitted by public and nonprofit agencies that do not understand the grant making process, the vast majority are going to be from individuals. Proposed projects will likely be fairly unusual (e.g., landing strips for UFOs, expeditions to find the Lost City of Z,* etc.) or heartfelt personal testimonies (e.g., house repossessed, lost jobs, too many bills, medical problems, etc.). This “application process” is silly on its face in that no guidelines are provided, no explanation of the various pots of money that compose Virginia’s slice of the Stimulus Pie (e.g. transportation funds, Medicaid reimbursements, et) is offered, and no details about who will evaluate the proposals, how they will be evaluated or when they will be evaluated, is provided.

    The impression given is that the Commonwealth has one big tub of money, and someone—presumably Governor Tim M. Kaine—will ladle it out like grant soup to lucky residents. Since this is not how grant making works, I assume this whole exercise is a PR ploy to enable state bureaucrats to say that the Commonwealth is being inclusive in gathering input into the Stimulus spending process. This is not much different from telling kids to write down their Christmas wish list and mailing the letters to Santa Claus, care of the North Pole.

    Why not go all the way and turn it into American Stimulus Idol? Instead of having folks describe their idea in 750 boring characters, Governor Kaine should invite all applicants to the statehouse for judging in person by Randy, Paula and Simon. To save travel expenses in this down economy, we’ll do without the superfluous Kara and Ryan. Thousands of applicants can make signs and bring their moms. When they finally make it to the judging, their requests could be presented in songs, skits, iambic pentameter, or, to save time, haiku.** This will give Randy the opportunity to say something like, “Dogg, that plan to use high school students to deliver surplus MREs from Iraq to the homeless is OUT THE BOX,” or Simon to say, “It’s really all just karaoke, isn’t it,” and, of course, Paula will want to fund all the ideas because all the presenters just “look so sweet.” After the top 36 are picked, Virginians can call in to select their favorites, with the top vote getters receiving pillow cases stuffed with cash handed over personally by Governor Kaine. That’s what I would call real citizen participation!

    Before everyone gets excited, realize that this is satire. I am trying to point out that it is a disservice to everyone to foster the myth that state or local government agencies will use the Stimulus Bill money to fund randomly proposed projects. As any experienced grant writer knows, grants are typically made to 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations and public agencies, not individuals, unincorporated associations or most businesses, and almost always in response to highly structured RFPs.

    A state government perpetuating the myth that grant funds are there to be plucked from government money trees helps no one. We get several calls every day from persons who think “the government” is going to give them a grant to pay down their credit cards, help them start a nail parlor business, buy a home for their grandmother with disabilities, and the like. We have the grim duty of telling them that no such grants exist. As the economy worsens and ill-conceived attempts at promoting the wonders of the Stimulus Bill unfold, we expect to receive more pleas like this. The Commonwealth of Virginia should simply state the categories of Stimulus funding they have, eligibility requirements, real application instructions, and timelines. In other words, if money is available, shut up and issue RFPs.

    Also, as much fun as it would be and as tempting as it is, I am not suggesting that joke proposals be submitted to the Commonwealth. When I was a frisky young grant writer, I must admit I actually did write and submit a bogus proposal. About 30 years ago, I was the Grants Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, CA. I wrote numerous proposals, many of which were funded because at the time Lynwood faced just about every socioeconomic problem imaginable and was a funder’s dream applicant. Along came a RFP from the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a regional planning body.*** Without going into too much boring detail, the RFP had to do with a California planning concept called positive “fair share communities,” as determined by whether the city was doing their “fair share” to provide affordable housing and make housing available to minority groups.

    Since Lynwood had lots of poor folks and residents of color, I deemed it a “negative fair share” community, as it was in effect providing affordable housing for such cities as Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Laguna Beach. Because we couldn’t get grant funds for increasing the supply of affordable housing, I developed a joke project, which I called LHOOP (Lynwood Housing Opportunity Outreach Program), in which I proposed buying a fleet of vans and taking Lynwood residents on tours to see what life was like in affluent cities, including picnics at Zuma Beach in Malibu, shopping at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, and the like. I actually wrote and submitted the proposal, without telling the City Manager, just to see what happened. It was written tongue-in-cheek, more or less like Project NUTRIA, and much to my surprise, SCAG ranked it very high and wanted to fund it, so I had to pull it before I got caught. Think of this as the grant writing equivalent of the hilarious Social Text Affair. As with most of my grant writing tales, there is a follow-on story.

    In 2001, HUD issued a NOFA for something called the Housing Search Assistance Program (HSAP), which was more or less my Project LHOOP idea. We were doing a lot of work for a housing authority at the time, which shall remain nameless. I told them about the NOFA and we wrote a $1,000,000 funded HSAP proposal for the housing authority and a collaborating nonprofit, based largely on the Project LHOOP concept. It shouldn’t be long before the Virginia issues an RFP to get rid of those pesky nutria and I can unleash Project NUTRIA on the real world. By the way, don’t bother looking for another HSAP NOFA, as this program was one and done effort by HUD. Expect the same to happen to Virginia’s stimulus program.


    * Many want to find the Lost City of Z, which is purported to be the mythical El Dorado. We were contacted by one such fellow about 10 years ago who was on his way to find it and looking for grants. He did not have a nonprofit, so, as much as I loved the idea of working on the project, I had to tell him sadly that he was out of luck with respect to grants. David Grann just wrote a new book on the fascinating Lost City of Z which was reviewed in the March 1 issue of the New York Times Sunday Book Review: “On the Road to El Dorado.” Since grant writers are metaphorically searching for the Lost City of Gold, it should make a good read for those of us in the profession.

    ** Reader Challenge: Take my 750 Project Nutria example and turn it into haiku. This is your chance to get poetry published and the winner will receive an 8″ x 10″ glossy photo of Governor Kaine, which may or may not be signed, depending on the Governor’s sense of humor. You can leave example haikus in the comments section.

    *** SCAG is one of a herd of so-called “Councils of Government” (COGS) that were created in the late 1960s to handle regional planning activities, a concept then quite in vogue, as well as the long-forgotten OMB A-95 process, which I might cover in a future post on grant nostalgia. COGs still grind away in anonymity throughout the US, having evolved to provide a cornucopia of unusual services and programs. If you don’t believe me, find a couple of local COGs and look at what they do. COGs are an object lesson in bureaucracies and their Darwinian evolutionary strategies, since such organizations typically find new ecological niches to occupy when their original purpose is lost in the climate change of time.