Category Archives: Stimulus

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.

Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing

The passage of the Stimulus Bill corresponded almost perfectly with Valentine’s Day, a perhaps unintended but still humorous outcome. While I have not had time to dig through the 1,100 page bill, I know that funding for enough grant programs, new and old, survived to keep grant writers busy, busy, busy. But my topic today is not to peek into the candy store to drool over the tasty funding treats, but rather to consider how the Feds are going to actually shovel $800,000,000,000 out the door.

Since the bill was first proposed, I have been concerned about the logistics of funding distribution and have fired off numerous emails to reporters at the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post to try to get them to cover the “how” of the 5 W’s and the H. While I am unsure whether it was a result of my emails, Stephen Power and Neil King, Jr., finally did so with an illustrative piece in the February 13, 2009 issues of the WSJ called “Next Challenge on Stimulus: Spending All That Money.” The reporters take the reader through the tortured process of a Minnesota company trying to access a large Department of Energy (DOE) Loan Guarantee.

Although this company applied during a previous funding round, the Stimulus Bill includes billions more for this initiative, which is supposed to fund the kind of “green, energy-efficient” businesses and jobs that President Obama heralds. As of today, the DOE actually has an open competition for this program. What’s particularly fun is that we happen to be writing a proposal for the DOE Loan Guarantee program. While a non-disclosure agreement prevents me from discussing the project on which we are working, I am very familiar with RFP, which was originally issued on September 22, 2008 with a deadline of December 31—but it was extended to the end of February. I guess the DOE hasn’t gotten the memo from the White House about how growing green jobs helps solve the economic crisis. But I digress.

This RFP is one of the most complicated RFPs I have ever encountered and is filled with confusing directions, references to obscure regulations that are not included in the package, bizarre questions, and so on. It also requires the applicant to produce a dizzying array of attachments, certifications, etc. In other words, the DOE has made it about as difficult as they can to get loan funds, which makes great work for grant writers but presumably discourages applicants. And, remember, these are loans that have to be repaid, not grant funds.

The WSJ story recounts the sad tale of Sage Electrochromatics’ attempts to get its hands on the loan proceeds. Although the loan guarantee was long ago approved, the company won’t see the money until the end of this year at the earliest. The reporters use Sage’s experience to discuss the challenge to be faced by applicants for Stimulus Bill funds. As one who wrote his first funded Department of Energy grant in 1979 during the last energy crisis for the long gone Electric Vehicle Demonstration Program, I know this is not a new situation, as Federal bureaucrats are usually in no mood to work quickly. But the story does raise the specter of what is going to happen, or more likely not happen, when the ink dries on the Stimulus Bill.

Most folks don’t understand and the press rarely covers how, in most cases funds have to be appropriated, regs written, RFPs issued, applications submitted, applications reviewed and ranked, award letters sent out, final budgets negotiated and contracts signed to spend money. The key personnel in this folderol are the small number of Program Officers in the various Federal departments who manage the process. 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.

As a result—and 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. Federal staffers are just employees who likely don’t share the passion of the policy wonks in the West Wing or the grant applicants. They just do their jobs, and, since there are protected by Civil Service, they cannot be speeded up. Also, there are no bonuses in the Federal system for work above and beyond the call of duty.

Let’s take my old friend YouthBuild in the Department of Labor, which was transferred out of HUD a few years ago. The deadline for the FY ’09 YouthBuild program was January 15, so there are hundreds of applications sitting under half-filled coffee cups and stale donuts in the sub-basement of the DOL building in various stages of review for the $59,000,000 – $70,000,000 then available (the range comes from Senate/House conflicts in the original appropriations bill). Along comes the Stimulus Bill, which adds $50,000,000. Now we’re talking as much as $120,000,000 for YouthBuild, or well over twice the amount awarded in the last funding cycle in FY ’07.

The question is, what is DOL going to do? It has two choices: (1) more applications that were submitted in January could be funded; or (2) there could be another funding round, opening up the competition and allowing new applications. Logic says door number one, but if I know my federal bureaucrats correctly, door number two will be picked, because this will spread out the work load for the Program Officers and will give DOL time to hire more staff, so that existing Program Officers don’t end up with twice the grantee caseload. Too few Program Officers also increases the potential for fraud, which will already be heightened because of the unprecedented money flood. I’ll let readers know if I am right or wrong.

Of course in addition to more money for YouthBuild and other existing programs, there is funding for lots of entirely new programs, such as the HUD $2,000,000,000 Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), which no one knows how to implement, and $500,000,000 to provide job training through the “Green Jobs Act” under DOL auspices. NSP is in HUD, which means they will have to take staff from the dozens of other competitive HUD grant programs, which are about to issue FY ’09 NOFAs, to hasten this one. When last I visited NSP in December, ‘Tis the Season for Government Folly, Fa La La La La La La La L.A.!, not a single NSP dollar had been spent since the program’s original “emergency” passage in August, and I believe no dollar has yet been spent.

For grant applicants, this means that agencies should apply for as many grants as they can, taking great care to make sure that the applications are technically correct. Since many applicants will believe the stimulus hype and assume that everything will be funded, the majority of applications are likely to be incomplete or incoherent. Because federal reviewers will be told to get the money out as fast as possible, the review is likely to be primarily checklist-oriented, with the Program Officers throwing the garbage proposals over their shoulders. Thus, this is not the time for amateur hour submissions. While it is always important to fly speck your submissions, it will be essential if you want to “have it all.” As the inimitable Vin Diesel says to heart throb Paul Walker in The Fast and the Furious, “If you have what it takes . . . you can have it ALL!”**


* GS refers to “General Schedule” pay grades for Federal employees, which range from GS-1 to GS-15. Most Program Officers are probably GS-8s to GS-11s. Here’s a fun site for calculating GS pay grades. For example, in 2004, a GS-10 working in DC would have made $46,000 to $59,000. The GS-10 is probably stuck in a cubical with a 14″ CRT and Pentium II, along with mismatched furniture, since it is unlikely that any federal managers read about the tools of the trade. This is not exactly a princely sum and probably less than wonderful working conditions—so how likely is it that they will suddenly spring to life to spend the Stimulus package quickly?

** As luck would have it, the original cast has gathered for Fast & Furious, which opens in April. One can only hope that the plot involves Paul Walker getting a Department of Energy grant to build the “ten second car” he owes Vin. After all, electrics have lots of low end torque and street racers only have to go 1/4 mile, so the 40 mile range wouldn’t be a problem. The tag line for the new movie is, “New Model. Original Parts.” This could also be used to describe the somewhat less than successful attempts at changing Washington evident in the Stimulus Bill passage.

Looking at the Stimulus Bill from a Grant Writer’s Perspective

Since last I wrote about the Stimulus Bill in Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting, the House has passed its version and the bill is staggering through the Senate. It’s amusing to watch various senators say, like Captain Renault in my favorite movie, Casablanca, that they are “shocked, shocked to find pork in the Stimulus Bill.” Just as there is likely to be gambling at Rick’s Café Américain, one is likely to find more than a few curious items in the largest spending bill ever considered by Congress. But, as a grant writer, what interests me is not what politicians and pundits say, since one person’s “stimulus” is another’s “pork,” but what grant programs will shower funds on those applicants nimble enough to gather up the “golden crumbs.”*

I found a pretty good synopsis (warning: .pdf file) of the House’s version of the Stimulus Bill at the website of the D.C. lobbying firm The Ferguson Group.** This handy analysis is organized by Federal agency and program, new or proposed. In looking at this analysis, I focused on the word “competitive,” because this means that eligible applicants will be able to apply directly to the relevant Federal agency, instead of going through some form of local or state RFP process as I described in Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed. Here are examples of proposed competitive funding:

  • $300M in the Department of Commerce for “Construction of Research Facilities.” Sounds like a winner for colleges and universities!
  • $1B to resurrect the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services program, which had been left for dead during the Bush years.*** We wrote many COPS grants during the Clinton years for law enforcement agencies, so this will be like greeting an old friend.
  • $50M in additional funding for another old friend, the Department of Labor’s YouthBuild program.
  • $750M in the Department of Labor for worker training for high growth and emerging industries, along with another $2B to be passed through to states for various training programs under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) / Workforce Investment Board (WIB) systems.
  • $1B in HUD for capital projects conducted by Public Housing Authorities (PHAs).
  • $4.15B in HUD for two new Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) initiatives. The difference between these two types of NSP grants isn’t clear, but both differ from the NSP program approved by Congress last fall, which is an entitlement program for CDBG-eligible jurisdictions. My guess is that this is an attempt to get “walking around money” to non-CDBG jurisdictions. I know this is confusing, but welcome the to world of grant programs and endless, sometimes overlapping acronyms.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Even better, though, is a requirement in the bill that “competitive grant funding shall be awarded within 90 days of enactment (if there was no funding in FY 2008, then funding shall be awarded within 120 days).” As soon as President Obama signs the bill, the RFPs will be landing like the meteorites in Starship Troopers.

Some of the nuggets in the House version will not survive Senate negotiations—but many will. For a good analysis of current state of the Senate version, see this article in the February 4, 2009 Washington Post, “Senate Lacks Votes to Pass Stimulus: Democrats Trying to Trim $900 Billion Plan to Gain GOP Support” by Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane. Don’t let your heart be too troubled by this piece, however, as our good senators will likely add one program for every one they remove. And any programs that get stripped out of the Stimulus Bill will no doubt re-emerge shortly in new appropriations bills after the dust settles and the press corps has moved on to the next crisis.

My advice is to get ready to rock ‘n roll with furious grant writing. At Seliger + Associates, our Macs are locked and loaded. Let the games begin!


* Tom Wolfe uses golden crumbs as a metaphor in his wonderful novel, Bonfire of the Vanities to describe bond traders, but it also applies nicely to grant applicants. As Sherman McCoy explains: “Just imagine that a bond is a slice of cake, and you didn’t bake the cake, but every time you hand somebody a slice of cake a tiny little bit comes off, like a little crumb, and you can keep that.” Replace “bond” with “federal program” and the same concept applies.

** It’s good to see that The Ferguson Group appears to be thriving in this time of much negative press about lobbyists. I worked closely with Bill Ferguson, the founder and owner, when I was the Development Director for the City of Inglewood in the 1980s. Bill was Inglewood’s lobbyist and I spent lots of time in D.C. with him as I tried to extract various goodies out of the Feds as he built his business.

*** Jake wrote about what he called Phoenix Programs, while I wrote about them in Zombie Funding – Six Tana Leaves for Life, Nine for Motion, so you know that it is not uncommon for the dead program to walk once more among us.