Category Archives: Stimulus

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.

Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass

Last week, I wrote about Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed, but smart nonprofits won’t sit around whining about dwindling donations while Congress vacillates. Instead, like Jay-Z, you need to brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders.*

In that spirit, take a look at a great grant opportunity currently available that will help get your mind off your funding troubles: the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP). The RFP for this federal gem was just issued by the Department of Education and 95 grants up to $500,000 may be awarded this year to fund physical education activities for school-age children and youth during the school day and after school. Among the many aspects of the program that make it so attractive are that eligible applicants include nonprofits and school districts; in addition, the funds can be used for staff, exercise equipment, nutrition education and lots of other things that most schools and youth service providers already do. If your donations are down and you want to keep the young folk busy, consider the Carol M. White PEP.

It also dovetails with the current interest in childhood obesity. Recent trends seem to indicate that as our children’s test scores decline, their waistlines expand, creating a wonderful opportunity for program development. As Jake wrote about in Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts, program purposes change as issues rise and fall in the public conscientiousness. One can take an old program, such as the Carol M. White PEP, and spin the proposal story toward pushing back** against childhood obesity. The Carol M. White PEP’s original purpose was to provide non-traditional physical activities and replace P.E. programs cut from school district budgets. With rising childhood obesity rates and the increased media emphasis on them, adding those additional issues to a proposal will freshen the project concept while getting funds for activities your agency is probably already doing anyway.*** If your after school supervisor is about to lose their job due to funding cuts, one could give them a new title, like Physical Fitness Coordinator, for a Carol M. White program, and, voila—no layoff. We’ve written funded Carol M. White PEP proposals over the years and recently wrote a large, funded Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) proposal about childhood obesity—so we know the childhood obesity issue is rapidly growing and can easily be baked into your Carol M. White PEP proposal (puns intended).

I thought about how nonprofits can use existing grant programs like Carol M. White and others to keep the lights on after reading Bear Market for Charities by Mike Spector in the January 24, 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Spector tells the sad tale of disappearing donations to the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) because of the economic meltdown. We’ve never been hired by HCZ, so I am not directly familiar with them, but a look at their website tells me they’re likely a fairly typical multi-program youth services agency of the kind we work for all across the country. What is most interesting about the WSJ article is what it doesn’t say about HCZ’s funding. The words “grants” and “contracts” aren’t mentioned, implying that HCZ might flounder without increased donations.

HCZ, however, operates two charter schools, which means it receives “average daily attendance” fees for each enrolled student. Even if Merrill Lynch is no longer among the living and Bernie Madoff may have made off with some of HCZ’s endowment, it is still getting somewhere north of $5K/year for every student in its charter schools. The agency also provides services to foster kids, meaning that they probably have substantial contracts with the the city and state of New York, both of which have boatloads of funds for foster children and other at-risk youth services. HCZ probably also has other grants, and one could find them by requesting the agency’s federal 990 form or an audited copy of its budget. Mr. Spector’s article perpetuates the media myth that nonprofits are wholly dependent on donations. While I am sure HCZ misses the former largesse from the Wall Street crowd and their associated corporations, I assume that the CEO, Geoffrey Canada, is busy seeking grants, especially because HCZ is about as good an applicant for programs like the Carol M. White PEP and RWJF as one is likely to find.

When you can no longer pick the low hanging fruit of donations from wealthy benefactors, it is time to brush the dirt off your shoulders and start writing proposals. As the aphorism goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Otherwise, your nonprofit may just slip beneath the waves.

* According to “Obama Has Jay-Z on His IPod and The Moves To Prove It” from the Washington Post, this song is a favorite of President Obama, so it seems I share two interests with the new Pres: rap music and community organizing experience. There’s nothing like Jay-Z and Dr. Dre to put me in the mood to write about at-risk youth.

** We’ve noticed that the phrases “push back” (or “pushback”) and “pushing back” have suddenly become very common in print and broadcast reporting, so as stewards of the language, we are trying to fit them into just about every proposal we write, along with “transformative,” courtesy of the successful Obama campaign.

*** This is a big grant no-no called “supplantation.” In a future post I will explain how you can explain away supplantation in your grant writing anyway.

Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed*

One of our favorite marketing sloganspie-1over the years has been, “We help you get your piece of the grant pie.” Well, Congress is cooking up the mother of all grant pies with the “infrastructure” component of President Obama’s stimulus package. If you’re wondering how your agency can get a bite of this tasty treat, you’re not alone. Peter Sanders and Christopher Conkey of the Wall Street Journal report in Mayors Struggle to Get Piece of Stimulus that even Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been unable to figure out how to get his fork in. I think Mayor Villaraigosa actually knows perfectly well how to step up to feed at the federal trough but was just being coy for a reporter not steeped in the ways of government largesse. After all, Mayor Villaraigosa was Speaker of the California House of Representatives and knows more than most about this topic. Essentially, the Mayor is unhappy that President Obama has said to no to earmarks, so he can’t just hang his favorite projects on the bill like Christmas ornaments. Instead, he and his minions will have to work for the money—no wonder he’s unhappy. For those readers not in the know, here is how the stimulus funds are likely to find their way to you . . .

Despite all the breathless reporting on the stimulus package, no story I’ve seen explains how thunder in Washington, DC will make it rain Pennies from Heaven** in Los Angeles. The answer depends on how the feds decide to get the money on the street, which will be in the bill that eventually emerges from Congress. Here are the four basic possibilities, assuming no earmarks:

1. Congress can fund programs, new or old, to be administered at the federal level through some sort of competitive RFP processes. In this case, any eligible entity can pitch any eligible project by submitting a proposal, which is more or less the way most discretionary grant dollars are distributed.

2. Congress could use the existing Economic Development Administration (EDA) Public Works and Economic Development Program to fund infrastructure and facility projects. Unlike any other federal agency, however, EDA uses a byzantine system of regional Economic Development Representatives (EDRs), which have to agree to pass your project up the food chain by inviting a “pre-application.” To get this invitation to the big dance, the project generally has to be listed in the region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), which replaced the earlier Overall Economic Development Plan (OEDP) process. We’ve threaded our way through this particular maze many times, resulting in lots of funded EDA grants; although it’s daunting at first, it is eminently doable.

3. Congress can block grant funds to the states, who can then use existing systems to distribute the funds. For example, highway transit funds could be sent to states’ transportation departments, which could then fund projects ranked on the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) (see here for the California version of this). It’s not quite that simple because some regional TIPs feed into statewide TIPs, but the main point is that the project has to be on the relevant TIP(s) to get federal transportation dollars.

4. Congress can block grant funds to the states and/or large cities and counties, who can then run RFP processes to dole out the money, more or less in the way that Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds are distributed. For that matter, Congress could simple dump money into the CDBG pipeline, since every eligible jurisdiction already has a Consolidated Plan with dozens of prioritized projects they lack money to fund. I don’t think this will happen, because it is too simple, and where’s the fun in that?

Confused yet? Actually, all of this is fairly straight forward in the sense that the feds have to use one or more of these methods to get the money on the street. Your question involves the the best way to get in position for to catch the funds that are about to be pitched for infrastructure and facility projects. To do so, follow these easy steps:

1. Finalize the project design for any infrastructure-style project you have simmering and get as many of the permits and approvals as you can in the time you have. For example, having all environmental approvals and a building permit is ideal. Remember that federal funding typically triggers National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and, for those of you in California, California Environmental Policy Act (CEQA) requirements.

2. If you are a nonprofit, school district or college, see if you can entice the local city or county to be the applicant and fiscal agent for the project.

3. Develop submittal plans for all of the above options. The agencies that move fastest with the most “cooked” projects are likely to be funded.

After you’ve baked your project, lie down in a comfortable place with a good book*** while waiting for the legislation to emerge. Since we are not lobbyists, we never look at pending legislation early-bird-color-j-pegand instead wait for the sausage to be extruded. Until the stimulus bill is actually signed into law, no one can say exactly how an agency can apply. But it will be the Oklahoma Land Rush as soon as the ink is dry, so, “Start Your Engines!” As always, like Maimonides, Seliger + Associates is ready to offer a guiding hand to help you get your piece of the stimulus bill pie.

EDIT: See additional posts on this topic: Looking at the Stimulus Bill from a Grant Writer’s Perspective and Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass.

* My apologies to Maimonides for lifting this line.

** This is one of my favorite, if somewhat disturbing, movies from the early 1980s—another time of recession. The movie harkens back to the Depression, making it great viewing for the current economic meltdown. To paraphrase another song from the ’30s, “Brother, can you spare a trillion.”

*** I’ve been reading Love in the Time of Cholera. Nothing like Gabriel García Márquez to get me in the mood for the magical realism of the federal grant making process.