Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

FQHCs, Reproductive Health/Family Planning Services, and Planned Parenthood: An Uneasy but Symbiotic Relationship, Centered on Title X Funding

We often write about Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), in part because we often work for them in part because FQHCs illustrate many challenges facing other nonprofits. This post discusses a service that FQHCs could provide but mostly choose not to—a common circumstance among certain classes of nonprofits, like foster family agencies and substance abuse treatment providers.

To understand the dilemma, you have to know that the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) funds FQHCs under Section 330 of the Public Health Services Act and FQHCs are sometime referred to as “Section 330 providers.” While FQHCs do collect copays and most take insurance, a large chunk of their funding comes directly and indirectly (via Medicaid) from the feds. FQHCs are mandated to provide “integrated full life-cycle care” (HRSA-lingo here), including reproductive health/family planning services. Still, many of our FQHC clients are skittish about promoting these services and are consequently reluctant to seek other grants to support family planning.

Thus, FQHCs have effectively ceded the huge pot of Title X family planning grants ($288 billion in 2016) to specialized family planning clinics, which are mostly but not exclusively operated by local affiliates of Planned Parenthood. While Planned Parenthood provides great women’s reproductive and related preventative health care, with an emphasis on low-income women and girls, unlike FQHCs, their clinics do not provide full life-cycle care.

From what we can tell, FQHCs and Planned Parenthood clinics seem to operate in a symbiotic, but parallel manner, in which both stay out of each other’s turf (if you have even more specialized knowledge about this situation, feel free to leave a comment). There are about 650 Planned Parenthood clinics, which serve about 2.5 million women annually with family planning services (this does not include abortions). In contrast, there are about 1,400 FQHCs, which serve about 17 million patients annually, and these numbers are growing rapidly due to the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. More than 50% of FQHC patients are women, so let’s call it 9 million. FQHCs serve many more women than Planned Parenthood, but readers would never know this from the media.

While I don’t know this for sure, one presumes this is because, bureaucratically speaking, there are at least two parts to Planned Parenthood that are structured separately: the family planning side, which is touted by progressives, and the abortion side, which is demonized by some conservatives. The nascent FY ’18 federal budget battle between the Trump administration/Republicans and Democrats is being fought partially over Title X funding. The media usually obfuscates the Tile X grant aspect, focussing instead on the much more sensational issue of Planned Parenthood funding.

I assume that, if Congress passed legislation making Planned Parenthood ineligible for Title X (unlikely but possible), other providers, like FQHCs, would start applying for Title X grants. In other words, no matter what happens, as far as I know, there are no proposed cuts to Title X (again, if you have specialized knowledge, leave a comment). It’s just a question of which agencies will provide Title X funded services and how those agencies will link with Planned Parenthood, which presumably would continue as the nation’s main abortion provider.

I know the potential competition between FQHCs and Planned Parenthood clinics is a big issue for Planned Parenthood, as Title X provides more or guaranteed funding to keep the lights on—a concern for all nonprofits. This basic issue was confirmed by several interesting pieces I found and that the Alan Guttmacher Institute published (it’s more or less the research affiliate of Planned Parenthood).* For example, this article makes the curious argument that FQHCs couldn’t expand to provide family planning service now being provided by Planned Parenthood:

FQHCs are an integral part of the publicly funded family planning effort in the United States, but it is unrealistic to expect these sites to serve the millions of women who currently rely on Planned Parenthood health centers for high-quality contraceptive care.

As a grant writer, I admire the carefully crafted but entirely specious reasoning, which reminds me of our needs assessments, I’m pretty confident that FQHCs would have no trouble picking up the slack and the Title X grants—if they wanted to. We have some FQHC clients with over 40,000 patients, and at that size they can begin to resemble something larger than a community clinics. At the moment, they’re mostly reluctant to tangle with Planned Parenthood—but, again, they could.

And they might.


* The Guttmacher Institute is a great source, albeit one with a point of view, for studies and data relating family planning, teen pregnancy, and the like. We sometimes use their citations in writing needs assessments. If you’re curious about research organizations with a point of view, Daniel Drezner’s book The Ideas Industry is good.

Hard Times for Housing Nonprofits and the New York Times Provides a Pretty Good Example of Proposalese

Last week a former client and a prospective client called; both of their nonprofits have been involved in affordable housing development, foreclosure assistance, fair housing counseling and the like, but both have also seen their grant and other resources wither in recent years. Housing nonprofits are experiencing the negative side of the grant waves we’ve written about. Right now there isn’t a lot of government or foundation funds available for affordable housing issues: the Great Recession is officially over*, the foreclosure crisis has receded in most places, and the policy view of housing affordability has mostly shifted from social/legal/regulatory concerns (e.g., overt housing discrimination, redlining, predatory lending/foreclosures, etc.) to economic concerns, as best articulated by Matt Yglesias in The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think. The biggest affordability challenge is the inability to build housing at all in many superstar cities, like L.A., New York, and Seattle, due to NIMBY problems.

My advice to both callers was the same: they can a) change the mission of their nonprofit to something being pushed by the grant waves (e.g., job training, primary health care, re-integration of ex-offenders, supplemental education for out-of-school youth and young adults, etc.), b) put their nonprofit into suspended hibernation while waiting for the grant gods to once again smile on affordable housing, or c) try to use the emerging theme of continuing housing segregation that has risen in public consciousness through incessant media coverage of public outrage and civil disturbances in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore following police violence against unarmed African American youth.

Today, the New York Times published “An Indelible Black-and-White Line,” which illustrates pretty well how to build a grant needs argument around the civil disturbances and obvious housing segregation in most American cities. This paragraph from the article could have been ripped from our proposals:

“Such is the case in Ferguson. The part where Mr. Brown died is a predominantly black east side neighborhood where residents have complained of police harassment and high crime in a cluster of apartments that stretches into the census tract with the most Section 8 renters in Missouri. Life is much different just two miles away in the city’s amenity-filled central business district, surrounded by pockets of predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods with sturdy brick and clapboard homes.”

We often use variations on the life-is-different riff when writing about disadvantaged target neighborhoods embedded in affluent cities.

The article is a pastiche of misinformation and half-truths that conflates the history of Section8 Housing Certificates with desegregation efforts, fair housing, income equality, and general malaise in low-income communities. Section 8 was not created as a “tool for desegregation,” as stated in the article. The primary tool for desegregation in the 1970s and 1980s was school busing, not Section 8. Section 8 was a Nixon/Ford era reform that was supposed to encourage private developers to build more affordable housing. In the early days of the Reagan administration in the mid-80s, Section 8 was expanded as direct HUD financing programs for affordable housing developments were largely eliminated.

It wasn’t until the Clinton era that Section 8 was seen as something of a desegregation tool, but this shift occurred primarily within the context of then new HUD HOPE VI Program, (or “Hopeless VI,” as we used to call it around the office). This bizarre program resulted in the demolition of thousands of last-resort public housing units, replacing the original developments with “mixed-income” developments and providing Section 8 Certificates (now known as Housing Choice Vouchers or “HCV”) for poor, mostly African Americans, residents displaced by HOPE VI.

But Section 8 never resulted in many new housing units being built, so HCV holders were (and are) forced to compete with working poor and middle-class renters for the same limited pool of housing. Landlords will avoid accepting HCVs if they can—not necessarily because they’re racist (although they might be), but because the building/unit has to pass a HUD inspection to be certified for Section 8. The building and unit also have to undergo annual re-inspections.

Most landlords won’t sign up for this unless they’re having difficulty renting the units. They also prefer wealthier tenants with good histories, when those tenants are available. That’s why Section 8 units end up being in less desirable neighborhoods. The other reality is that the HCV holders often self-segregate for social, cultural and family reasons. While a single mom may be able to use her HCV in a nice, affluent suburb, that won’t help her much if her support system for childcare (e.g., extended family members) is back in the lower-income community she’s leaving. Also, she might not want be far from her church and friends. Whole Foods probably doesn’t sell chitlings** or chicken necks.

The Times article avoids all of these details and instead concocts a witch’s brew that explains all of the ills of low-income African American neighborhoods away by blaming everything on Section 8 caused segregation. While this is mostly nonsense, it’s perfect reasoning for a grant proposal for housing nonprofits—like my two callers last week—trying to get funding. We’ll use these concepts for any housing related proposals we write in the coming months.

If this stuff gets past the editors at the New York Times it’ll definitely get past foundation program officers, who don’t know any more than editors and probably know even less.


* In our grant proposals, no matter what is actually going on with the economy, the target neighborhood is always being buffeted by the current recession, the lingering effects of the last recession and/or the looming next recession.

** Anyone who’s worked and/or lived in African American communities like I have, knows that chitlings remain a favored delicacy. To test your knowledge, take the somewhat out of date, but still fun Chitling Test (also known as the Dove Counterbalance General Intelligence Test). I had the privilege of being a colleague of the test’s creator, Adrian Dove, in the mid-1970s, when we both worked in Mayor Tom Bradley’s office. Here’s a sample question: “Cheap chitlings (not the kind you purchase at a frozen food counter) will taste rubbery unless they are cooked long enough. How soon can you quit cooking them to eat and enjoy them? (a) 45 minutes, (b) 2 hours, (c) 24 hours, (d) 1 week (on a low flame), (e) 1 hour.”

How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse

In most ways computers have made our lives better. In some, however, they’ve made our lives worse.* In grant writing, computers have enabled a level of neurotic, anxious behavior that was simply impractical before frictionless communications. Some of those problems include:

1. More drafts.

Isaac existed before computers. Well, technically, so did I, but I wasn’t writing proposals. In the pre-computer era, most proposals only went through two drafts: a first and a final. First drafts were written long-hand on legal pads, dictated, or roughly typed. The second/final draft would be typed by a secretary with great typing skills. Still, the final draft usually had typos, “white out” blotches and lacked any formatting apart from paragraph indents and tabs to create “tables.” Since proposals couldn’t logistically go through numerous drafts or interim drafts, two drafts were sufficient.

The perpetual editing make possible by computers also means that we can do something, someone else can do something (that is possibly wrong), and then we have to fix the messed up problems. Versioning can be endless, and in the last couple of months we’ve gotten into several seemingly unhappy versioning loops with clients. Versioning loops don’t make anyone happy, but the easy editability of documents means that it’s tempting for everyone to have a say (and everyone to make edits that later have to be carefully reverted). Computer editing also makes it more tempting to change project concepts mid-stream, which is not a good idea.

2. Longer drafts.

In keeping with point one, proposals can now be much, much longer. We’ve worked on some Head Start drafts that topped out around 100 pages. That’s ridiculous, but computers make it possible in general to write far longer drafts. “Longer” is not necessarily “better.” A longer draft has more room for internal inconsistencies (of the sort that can kill your application, as described at the link).

Longer drafts fatigue writer and reader. We’re the iron men of writers, so we of course never feel fatigue. But few writers are as sharp at page 80 of a proposal as they are at page 10. Few readers read page 80 with the same care as page 10. Isaac and occasionally speculate about how funny it would be to drop a sentence, late in a proposal, like “I’ll give you $20 if you read this sentence” or “Don’t you think 50 Shades of Grey really does have a legitimate point?” We’d never do that, but we bet that if we did, few reviewers would notice.

3. More screwing around and eternal availability.

In ye olden days, one had to call someone to express an idea or make a change or just to badger them. Since fax machines weren’t common until the 80s, drafts to other offices/readers had to be mailed or sent by courier. Copies were harder to make, so editors had to do one review, not 12. Today we’re available for eternal electronic pinpricks via email, and yet every pinprick has a cost. We mostly ignore those costs, but they add up.

It’s easier to spend way too much time changing “that” to “which” and “which” to “that.” Sometimes such changes are appropriate but too many of them lead to tremendous drag on the entire project. They cost scarce attention.

4. Convoluted instructions.

Before computers, attachments were (generally) fewer, RFPs were shorter, and instructions were clearer because 20 people didn’t have the opportunity to “contribute” their thoughts and words. Now instructions can be infinitely convoluted, weird data sources can be more easily managed, and random attachments of almost infinite size can be ordered.

Sometimes, too, applicants will be tempted to add extra attachments because they can. Don’t do that.

5. Data mandates that don’t exist, or don’t exist properly.

We’ve written before about phantom data and its attendant problems. Computers and the Internet often tempt funders into asking for more esoteric data. Before the Internet, most data had to be manually, laboriously extracted from Census tables and similar paper-based sources. This meant long hours at a library or Census office. Now it’s possible to request all sorts of weird data, and sometimes that data can’t be found. Or, if various applicants do find it, it comes from all sorts of methodologies that may not be comparable. Poverty rates are one good example of this. Is the 2013 poverty rate 14.5% or 4.8%? Depends on the data used. And that’s for a well-known metric! Others are worse.

6. Email has also shifted the “Cover-Your Ass” (CYA) memo to the “CYA” email.

The famous CYA memo predates email, but email has made conversations that would once have been ephemeral permanent. Anything you say or write can be used to hang you, as innumerable politicians (like former Congressman Weiner) and everyday people have learned. This has consequences of all sorts, as teenagers have discovered in the course of sexting and as even spies have learned (that link goes to an article about a totally crazy hit the Israelis pulled in Dubai: if you abandon this post to read it, I wouldn’t blame you at all).

Permanent records mean that nothing can be ignored and that everything can be interpreted in the worst possible light. It is now possible for clients to send us (and us to send them) dozens of emails in a way that never happened in the snail-mail world. In a snail-mail world, each missive took a day or two send, receive, and reply.

The new email world means we—and clients—can waste fantastic amounts of time mulling over minor issues and misunderstandings via email. Anything sent by email lives forever, so it must be written with great care because it can later be used to hang the writer. Every word has to be considered as if it would be judged by a judge and jury. That means a level of precision is necessary in a way that wouldn’t be necessary on a phone call.

7. Conclusion

In Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, Kentaro Toyama writes: “It’s often said that technology is a cost-saver; or that ‘big data’ makes business problems transparent; or that social media brings people together; or that digital systems level playing fields. These kinds of statements are repeated so often that few people question them. Yet none of them is a die-cast truth.” Toyama is right, and we’ve witnessed the problems of relentless communication, which let people endlessly niggle over minor, unimportant points, while misunderstanding bigger, more important pictures.

This post is an attempt to share the bigger picture.


* For one example of how things are worse, see Alone Together by Sherry Turkle or Man Disconnected: How technology has sabotaged what it means to be male by Philip Zimbardo. We aren’t luddites and aren’t condemning technology—indeed, our business couldn’t exist as it does without technology—but we are cognizant of the drawbacks.

More on Using the Critical Path Method (CPM) in Grant Writing

This post expands on an issue raised in “No Calls, No Bother: ‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule’ and the Grant Writer’s Work.” Specifically, the critical path method (CPM), which is a jargon-sounding acronym that actually conveys useful information. CPM has been around for decades and is commonly used in construction, software development, and manufacturing. CPM can also be used effectively in developing human service project concepts and writing compelling grant proposals that accurately reflect the project concept. We write proposals for some federal programs, like the Department of Labor YouthBuild program and the HRSA Service Area Competition (SAC), that are essentially cookbooks. YouthBuild and SAC proposals should reflect standard project concepts required by the funder.

But most federal and state RFPs, as well as foundation guidelines, allow the applicant some creative leeway. In these situations, our clients often only have a general idea of their project concept until they read our first proposal draft. This first draft conforms to the often conflicting RFP/guidelines structure but also expresses the key 5 Ws and H that every proposal should delineate.

First drafts often make the lightbulb go off, and the client will make complex and sometimes contradictory or irrelevant changes to the draft—but ignore what’s really important, like missing data, required partners, management staff experiences, etc. This is likely because most nonprofits don’t use CPM, relying instead on brainstorming and visioning exercises led by organizational development facilitators or, even worse, the management team.

Here’s how to use and think about CPM in grant writing:

  • Figure out the critical path. This starts with identifying required proposal elements and attachments. To be considered for any grant, a proposal must first be deemed technically correct by the funding agency following submission. To assist our clients, we email a documents memo immediately after we scope the project concept. A member of our team goes through the RFP in great detail, marking up relevant sections. The documents memo is prepared based on this close reading and sent to the client; it is a bulleted list that includes items needed to complete the submission package. In effect the documents memo is not only a check list but a layout of the critical path to achieve the goal of submitting a technically correct application in advance of the deadline. Still, many clients ignore all or parts of the documents memo until near the deadline, focusing instead on non-critical path issues like how changing “which” to “that,” inserting PR boilerplate randomly in the draft, and the like.
  • Make sure the proposal includes relevant data to build the needs statement logic argument. Our first drafts usually have data we’ve found along with blanks for any information we can’t have, like socioeconomic characteristics of current clients or client outcome metrics. In second drafts, we only leave in critical blanks, and any that remain unknown get re-written as generalities in the final draft.* Some final proposals are sent in missing obvious CPM elements, because, as bad as this is, it’s better than blowing the deadline. We’ve seen proposals that are missing critical pieces get funded anyway.
  • Look for internal inconsistencies in the narrative, which will creep in through edits by multiple editors/readers from your agency as the narrative goes from first to final draft. Then make sure the narrative is consistent with the budget, budget narrative, org chart, job descriptions and other attachments. This sounds easy but readers generate opinions exponentially, not linearly.
  • Make sure the proposal has all required attachments, no matter what, such as letters of support and/or collaboration, financial statements, audits, 501(c)(3) letters of determination, etc. This is where the check list aspect of the documents memo comes in handy.
  • Resist the urge to include non-requested attachments unless the RFP/guidelines specifically allow this. Even then, be judicious in selecting attachments. No grant reviewer wants to see a newspaper clipping of your Executive Director smiling on the Oprah set. For online submissions like grants.gov, it’s important that the complete application file doesn’t bloat to 20 MB by including huge attachments like drawings/pictures/videos, or you might encounter upload challenges.
  • Carefully follow formatting instructions regarding font type and size, margins, page limits, character/word count limits for online submissions that have text input boxes, etc.

As daunting a gauntlet** as the above may seem, it’s actually not that hard if you approach the process with CPM in mind and keep your eye on the prize of winning the grant, not internal management egos. Grant writing is about methodical attention to detail more than it is about anything else. A grant proposal is many things, but it is definitely not a PR piece.


* We a prepare first, second and final draft. More drafts are not needed and don’t help, as the more drafts and readers you have, the more inconsistencies are likely to creep in. You won’t see them because you’ll have read the drafts too many times, but they’ll stand out in neon to a fresh grant reviewer.

** The correct usage is actually gantlet, but gauntlet reads and sounds better and has become accepted usage.

Some Positive Changes in Federal Grant Grants.Gov Submission Requirements Emerge

Faithful readers know that I’ve been writing federal grant proposals since the last ice age.* For most of the last four decades, federal grant writing has changed little, other than in obvious tech-related ways—computers, online databases, quick and reliable digital literature/data searches, easy access to applicant background info and so on. I recently realized that incremental changes, glacial in speed though they may be, have begun to have a cumulative impact on the way in which proposals, and especially federal grant proposals, are prepared.

The biggest change in federal proposal preparation was the switch from hard copy to digital submissions, starting around 12 years ago. While at first there were a number of portals developed by various federal agencies, over the years most, but not all, have switched to Grants.Gov. For the first five or so years, Grants.Gov was incredibly badly coded, and the upload process was often uncertain and dicey. In recent years, the reliability of Grants.Gov has improved dramatically and the required attachments mercifully streamlined.

In the bad old days of paper submissions, federal agencies usually required a zoo of attachments, like target area maps, evaluator CVs, key staff resumes, job descriptions, organization charts, evidence of 501(c)3) status, bylaws, financial statements, letters of support, MOUs, and the dreaded logic model. The narratives themselves were long, like attention spans back in those days, with maximums sometimes reaching 50 single-spaced pages. It was not uncommon to end up with a 150-page grant application, which usually had be submitted with a “wet-signed” original and up to ten copies. Sometimes the FedEx boxes we shipped to HUD or the Department of Education weighed over ten pounds.

In the early days of Grants.Gov, these attachment requirements continued, making the upload process very complicated (try uploading a 10 megabyte financial statement attached to a Grants.Gov kit file for example) and sometimes impossible, as there might not be an attachment slot for a given required attachment. As time passed, federal RFPs began to strip away attachments or even require only a couple of consolidated attached files. This is much simpler and makes the grants.gov kit file preparation easier and significantly more reliable.

Most federal agencies have also reduced the maximum length of the narrative and settled on a double-spaced, single-sided page formatting convention. For example, Department of Labor proposals now usually have 20 double-spaced page maximums for narratives. Before you say “hallelujah,” however, keep in mind that the RFPs themselves have not gotten any shorter–an RFP could easily be 150 pages, with the questions to be answered in the 20-page narrative actually being many pages longer than the maximum allowed response. It is often harder to write a shorter narrative of, say, 20 pages, than 40 pages, because the writer faces the “building-a-ship-in-a-bottle” problem. Furthermore, despite severe page limitations, all of the headers/sub-headers must be included to enable reviewers to easily find your responses.

Other interesting RFP changes involve the objective and evaluation sections, which are sometimes combined and always intertwined. Until recently, most RFPs let the grant writer essentially make up the objectives. Now, however, many ED programs like Student Supportive Services and HRSA programs like New Access Points provide more or less fill-in-the-blank objectives. I’m fairly sure this trend is to facilitate “apples-to-apples” comparisons by reviewers, but whatever the reason, it makes it easier to stay within the page limit. While evaluation section requirements used to be astoundingly complex, these days, RFP evaluation instructions tend to be much more straightforward and linked to specified objectives.

Now for the bad news. The budget and budget narratives sections have changed little. Grants.Gov kit files still use a variation of the venerable SF-424A budget form, which is actually a summary of federal object cost categories. To create the 424A, any sane person would use an Excel template. The only people in the US who do not seem to grasp the concept of a spreadsheet are federal RFP writers. There is still no federal Excel SF-424A template provided, although we use versions that we’ve developed over the years.** A well-laid-out Excel line-item budget not only displays each line item within each cost category, but it can also double as the budget narrative. See further in “Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Federal Grant Budgets.”

The budget narrative instructions in almost all federal RFPs are written as if the response is to be done on a typewriter, circa 1975. The budget narrative is also often excluded from the narrative page limit, with no page limit on the budget narrative. Although we would never do this, we’ve seen proposals from our clients in which the budget narrative is longer than the program narrative. Don’t do this—unless you think the tail wagging the dog is a good approach to life.


* Forty-four years to be exact, but who’s counting?

** We always provide clients with a draft budget in a handy reusable Excel template—which is one good reason to hire us!

NFL PR Fiasco Creates Great New Funding Opportunities for Domestic Violence Nonprofits

Unless you’ve been on Venus for the past few weeks, you’ve been engulfed in a tidal wave of bad news from the NFL* parade of domestic violence players/perpetrators. Leaving aside the spectacularly inept response of the suddenly hapless Commissioner Roger Goodell and the apparent media surprise that pro football players are pretty violent guys, this episode has suddenly thrust domestic violence back into the public consciousness for the first time in years.

When we started Seliger + Associates 21 years ago, there was a lot of interest in and funding for domestic violence, and we wrote lots of proposals for nonprofits involved in domestic violence prevention and treatment. In 1994, Congress passed the then-landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), unleashing a torrent of federal funds—including state pass-through funding. Foundations became interested in supporting the emerging infrastructure of domestic violence prevention and treatment providers.

While the VAWA still exists—it was reauthorized by George Bush the Younger in 2005—and there was a spike in funding during the Stimulus Bill bonanza six years ago, the issue largely faded into the general human services background. We rarely get calls from domestic violence providers these days and only occasionally write a proposal that involves domestic violence, even peripherally. The rise and subsidence of domestic violence is a pretty good example of the grant waves we’ve written about.

Since Commissioner Goodell has unintentionally prolonged the recent domestic violence PR fiasco, assisted by a parade of NFL players who seem to love to beat their girlfriends/wives/children, politicians, the domestic violence “industry,” and media pundits have responded with outrage and thinly veiled demands for additional funding. Joseph Epstein wrote an excellent essay in the WSJ on the media and political moral preening of this story. The punch line, so to speak, is that the top three most viewed TV programs last week, during the height of the moral outrage, were Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football and Sunday Night Football.

Right on cue, Goodell announced that the NFL would form a Domestic Violence Advisory Board and fund the National Domestic Violence Hotline and a couple of other national advocacy organizations. We’re all for new funding for nonprofits, but this is less about the NFL’s dubious good intentions and is largely to placate NFL advertisers, like Nike and Bud Light, who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on ads. The advertisers are not amused. Also, each NFL team has local advertisers, and Radisson Hotels quickly pulled their advertising for the Vikings following child abuse charges filed against star running back Adrien Peterson. There are likely other similar examples by now.

For nonprofits involved with domestic violence, this a rare and golden opportunity to seek funding from nervous corporate advertisers and foundations. When conducting grant source research, we usually closely examine the charitable purposes, funding objectives and past grants of foundations and corporate giving programs. If your agency wants to fund domestic violence initiatives now, however, we’ll forget that approach for moment. Instead, we would (and you should) look for corporations that advertise with the NFL and its teams, along with large local and national hand-wringing foundations, regardless of what their funding priorities supposedly are.

As the old saw about lawyers goes: “When the law is on your side, argue the law. When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When neither is, pound the table.” Nonprofits involved in domestic violence should pound the table and seek funds from this army of new potential funders. Don’t wait. The news cycle will change in a few weeks and the media herd will move on to the next expose. Public interest is fickle. On the other hand, the NBA season starts soon, so maybe there’ll be new revelations to keep interest going and new funding for domestic violence.


* This is not the first time the NFL has been linked with domestic violence. For years, particularly around the time of the original VAWA legislative debate in Congress in the early ’90s, persistent media reports claimed a huge rise in domestic violence complaints on Super Bowl Sunday. Although this fairy tale was debunked as a hoax years ago, it still pops up. Domestic violence occurs every Sunday, and every day of the week for that matter. Professional football has nothing to do with it, except that some NFL players—like other members of American society—perpetrate it.

It’s also not obvious that your boss should police your private life.

Grant Notes: Foundation Funders Find Us and the Helping Organizations and Programs Expand (HOPE III)

Something unusual happened recently. Actually, it’s not just unusual, but unprecedented. In the 12 years we’ve been sending out our e-mail grant newsletter, no funder has written to point out their RFP or program. Last week, not just one, but two of them did. It would be more accurate to say that some kind of PR firms hired by the foundations contacted us, but even so, I’m impressed and surprised because in all the years we’ve been putting together the grant newsletter, we’ve had to do all the research necessary to find the RFPs contained in it each week.

If this week marks a permanent change, it will certainly be for the better: readers will find out about grant opportunities they might have otherwise missed, while foundations will (hopefully) receive better applications than they otherwise would have.

Still, in “Foundations and the Future” I wrote that “we’ve never been called by funders asking how the process might be improved is zero. Never. Not once.” That’s still true, but maybe at some point that will change too.

On a separate note, I’d like to make an entry in the annals of poorly named programs: what might you guess the Helping Organizations and Programs Expand (HOPE III) program does? I didn’t have the slightest idea; HUD’s HOPE VI program funds the redevelopment of public housing projects, so I thought perhaps HOPE III would be related.

But I was wrong: instead, HOPE III is about studying crime victims. This is one reason we have a headline/teaser at the top of each grant in the newsletter: we try to pithily describe what each grant does, so you’ll be able to figure out if you want to actually apply for it, rather than hiding its purpose in the description or a nondescript name. Now that we have pegged HOPE III and HOPE VI, perhaps a knowledgeable reader can let us know what happened to HOPEs I, II, IV, V, and so on.

Consultants, Employees, and More: Should We Hire a Grant Writer? And How Will Our Agency Complete Proposals?

People regularly discover Grant Writing Confidential by searching for “should we hire a grant writer?” Being grant writers, our answer is almost always “yes.” On a less glib level, virtually every nonprofit organization has to write proposals, which means that someone will either have to write proposals in addition to their regular work or write them full-time. If your organization decides to hire a grant writer, it can go one of two fundamental routes: hire a staff person or hire a consultant (it’s slightly more complex because a staff person could be hired from outside the organization or trained from within, but ignore that distinction for now).

We’ve already effectively covered hiring employees in “Why Can’t I Find a Grant Writer? How to Identify and Seize that Illusive Beast.” Now we’re going to talk in more depth about consulting: the benefits, drawbacks, and caveats. To some extent, grant writing lends itself to consulting in the same way most organizations hire lawyers by the hour or on retainer rather than employing their own: jobs tend to be self-contained, expertise is of paramount importance, and so forth.

The biggest advantage to hiring a real grant writing consultant is that the job will get done. Seliger + Associates has been in business for almost 17 years and never missed a deadline. Since the goal of writing proposals is to get the money, that should be of paramount importance, and it’s surprising how many would-be grant writers fail to turn in complete and technically correct proposals prior to deadlines. In nonprofits, it’s not uncommon for a job to be unfinished or for a technically incomplete application to be turned in; this is especially problematic among novice grant writers, as we wrote about here.

This leads to the next point: hiring a consultant means that someone is going to sit down and write the proposal, rather than have endless meetings discussing what the proposal should be like. Organizations that assign group writing projects often encounter the donut-eating problem, and if they end up with anything at the end, it’s often a franken-proposal cobbled together from mismatched parts. This is a major mistake novice and even experienced agencies make. Consultants won’t make it, or at least shouldn’t, since if they do they won’t be in business long.

If don’t hire us, you might hire consultants who can’t get the job done. If so, it’s relatively easy to hire and fire the grant writer at will. This is much harder with a permanent employee. If you make someone an employee and discover six months later that the employee has spent more time playing solitaire and mastering online poker than preparing proposals, that person can often be hard to fire for reasons of morale and law, especially if that person has a litigious disposition. If your consultant is no good, you just cancel their retainer or hire someone else for the next job.

A consultant also doesn’t have to deal with institutional politics, or deals with them in a different way; one commenter to our post on True Believers and grant writing wrote:

[The realities of fundraising are] more complex when you are not a consultant. Though I would like to be writing grants, in truth most of my time is spent in meetings with the True Believers at my organization.
The worst is when a True Believer wants to shape a proposal based on their True Belief, and you are lesser in status and title in the hierarchy, so have to go along with something you know will not be funded.

Finally, the diverse experience many consultants have can be a bonus, as exposure to different ideas, trends, and kinds of work can filter into other proposals. So can knowledge of funding “gotchas”—for example, we’ve figured out how to use Grants.gov and why it’s important to turn in applications before the deadline. You don’t want to make a million-dollar mistake from someone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of application systems.

The major con to hiring a professional grant writer is the lack of institutional memory that using an external grant writer entails. In other words, people within the organization might not remember how or why a proposal was completed or where to start next time. A lesser “con” might be that they find someone who advertises him or herself as a grant writer but actually can’t finish proposals; we’ve occasionally been hired by organizations that have fallen into this trap.

In addition, it might be slightly more expensive to hire a consultant than to have a permanent employee, if you have an employee who can actually write a large number of proposals under tight deadlines. Very few people seem to be able to do this, however, which is why I emphasize it with italics. Many of those who claim to be able to consistently write deadline proposals probably can’t.

A client with an in-house grant writer recently hired us for an assignment, and their in-house grant writer called looking for advice long after the job was over. We’re in the writing business, not the giving-free-advice business, but Isaac talked to him for a bit. Last week, the in-house grant writer called back to say that he wanted to work for us, indicating that he hadn’t read our website and that he’s probably not too busy at his present “full-time” grant writing position.

If you’re an organization looking for a grant writer, you also consider your location. In a high-need or rural area, it might be hard or impossible to find candidates who are willing to live and work locally. Many of our retainer clients over the years have looked for a full-time grant writing employee but were simply unable to find anyone both competent and local. We’ve heard this story often enough that we want to include it here.

I’d make one other observation that’s neither a pro nor con: regardless of how you prepare proposals for agencies, you’ll still end up “paying” one way or another, as we describe in “Tilting at Windmills: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing.” Whether you pay salary and benefits directly or cut checks to consultants, grant writing is a fundamental cost that can’t be avoided. Some organizations try to do so by looking for grant writers to work on contingent fees, but, as we note on our FAQ page, this almost never works out.

Regardless of what you decide, read the book Peopleware, which is perhaps the most brilliant and yet ignored book on intellectual organizations I’ve encountered. I don’t mean “ignored” in the sense of being poorly known—many, many people have heard of it—but rather in the sense that few actually take its important recommendations into account. It’s nominally about software, much like Moby Dick is nominally about a whale, but it’s really about managing knowledge workers (although I hate the phrase “knowledge worker”). It seems that many nonprofits, like many companies, have Mickey Mouse management and dysfunctional office politics; this book is an effort towards great professionalism, which doesn’t mean wearing ties and being boring, but, rather, means being able to get the job done. If you’re going to use grant writers effectively, whether in-house or as consultants, read it.

What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP

The Community Based Abstinence Education Program (CBAE) from the Administration on Children, Youth and Families is a complicated, confusing, and poorly designed RFP based on suspect premises. That makes it an excellent case study in how to deal with a variety of grant writing problems that relate to research, RFP construction, and your responses.

CBAE is simple: you’re supposed to provide abstinence and only abstinence education to teenagers. That means no talk about condoms and birth control being options. In some ways, CBAE is a counterpoint to the Title X Family Planning funding, which chiefly goes to safe-sex education and materials rather than abstinence education. Its premise is equally simple: if you’re going to have sex, use condoms and birth control. Congress chooses to fund both.

Were I more audacious regarding CBAE proposals, I’d have used George Orwell’s 1984 as a template for the programs, since almost everyone in the novel conforms to the numbing will of an all-powerful state and many belong to the “Junior Anti-Sex League,” complete with scarlet sashes. I hope someone turned in a CBAE application proposing scarlet sashes for all participants.

More on point, however, page two of the RFP says:

Pursuant to Section 510(b)(2) of Title V of the Social Security Act, the term “abstinence education,” for purposes of this program means an educational or motivational program that: […]

(B) Teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children

Who is enforcing this “expected standard?” Society in general? A particular person in society? But it gets better:

(D) Teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;

This requirement ignores decades of anthropological research into indigenous societies as well as plenty of research into our own society, which Mary Roach described in Bonk, Alfred Kinsey described using imperfect methods in his famous but flawed research in the 50’s, and that Foucault described in his History of Sexuality. It also ignores the sexuality of other cultures and even our own, as discussed in books like Conceiving Sexuality: Approaches to Sex Research in a Postmodern World, or, better yet, Culture, Society and Sexuality: A Reader, which describes the way societies and others build a social model of sex. Through the CBAE program, Congress is building one such model by asserting it is true and using “expected standard” language, without saying who is the “expecting” person or what is the “expecting” body. It’s an example of what Roger Shuy calls in Bureaucratic Language in Government and Business a term that “seems to be evasive,” as when insiders “use language to camouflage their message deliberately, particularly when trying to avoid saying something unpleasant or uncomfortable.” In this case, the evasion is the person upholding the supposed standard.

Furthermore, the abstinence conclusion isn’t well supported by the research that does exist, including research from previous years of the program, which is at best inconclusive. A Government Accountability Office report (warning: .pdf file) says things like, “While the extent to which federally funded abstinence-until-marriage education materials are inaccurate is not known, in the course of their reviews OPA [Office of Population Affairs] and some states reported that they have found inaccuracies in abstinence-until-marriage education materials. For example, one state official described an instance in which abstinence-until-marriage materials incorrectly suggested that HIV can pass through condoms because the latex used in condoms is porous.”

The one comprehensive study that has been conducted by a nonpartisan firm is called “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs” by Mathematica Public Research, which was spun off from the guys who brought us the Mathematica software. The study was prepared for DHHS itself, and it says such encouraging things as, “Findings indicate that youth in the program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age.” The programs it studied are based around the same methods that the CBAE demands organizations use, all of which boil down to inculcating a culture of fear of sex outside of marriage. The social stigma the program recommends is based around STDs and whether you’ll get into college (although an editorial in the L.A. Times argues otherwise), and, to a lesser extent, altering peer norms. Still, even in Puritan times this was not entirely effective, as Bundling by Henry Stiles explains. The practice meant sleeping in the same bed with one’s clothes on, as a solution to the problems of inadequate heat and space. But, as Jacques Barzun says in From Dawn To Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, “Experience showed the difficulty of restraint and […] the rule was made absolute that pregnancy after bundling imposed marriage […] So frequent was this occurrence that the church records repeatedly show the abbreviation FBM—fornication before marriage.”

There are counter-studies that purport to show abstinence education as effective, like this one from a crew that, not surprisingly, is selling abstinence education materials. But it, like most others, has little bon mots amid its intimidating numbers and verbose language like, “In addition, the high attrition rate limits our ability to generalize the findings to a higher-risk population” (strangely enough, the .pdf file is set to disallow copying and pasting, perhaps to discourage irate bloggers like myself). But the study doesn’t list the attrition rate, making it impossible to tell how severe the problem is. In addition, even if it did, the population selected might also suffer from cherry picking problems of various kinds: that is to say, organizations are more likely to serve the participants who are most likely to be receptive to services and, concomitantly, less likely to do things like have early sex. This is an easy and tempting way to make a program look good: only let the kids in who are likely to benefit. And it’s a hard problem to tease out in studies.

So be wary of dueling studies: if you don’t read these carefully, it’s easy to accept their validity, and even if you do read them carefully, it’s easy to nitpick. This is why peer review is so helpful in science and also part of the reason evaluations are so difficult. Furthermore, many of the studies, including Heritage’s, come from biased sources, a problem Megan McArdle writes about extensively in a non-abstinence-related context. (See her follow-up here). Most of you justifiably haven’t followed the blizzard of links I put up earlier or read the books I cited for good reason: who has the time to sift through all this stuff? No one, and even pseudoscience combined with anecdote like this article in New York Magazine has an opinion (hint: be wary of anyone whose title has the word “evolutionary” in it).

Given this research, which is hard to miss once you begin searching for information about the efficacy of abstinence instruction, how is a grant writer to create a logic model that, as page 44 says, should list “[a]ssumptions (e.g., beliefs about how the program will work and is supporting resources. Assumptions should be based on research, best practices, and experience)”? (emphasis added).

Two words: ignore research. And by “ignore research,” I mean any research that doesn’t support the assumptions underlying the RFP. If you want to be funded, you simply have to pretend “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs” or the GAO study don’t exist, and your proposal should be consistent with what the RFP claims, even if it’s wrong. This is, I suspect, one of the hardest things for novice grant writers to accept, which is that you’re not trying to be right in the sense of the scientific method of discerning the natural world through experimentation. You’re trying to be right in the Willie Stark sense of playing the game for the money. No matter how tempting it is to cite accurate research that contradicts the program, don’t, unless it’s to knock the research.

Remember too that the grant writer is to some extent also a mythmaker, which is a subject Isaac will address more fully in a future post. The vital thing to consider is that the mythology you need to create isn’t always the same as the reality on the ground. As in politics, the way events are portrayed are often different than how they actually are. David Broder wrote an article on the subject of inventing political narratives, which occasionally match reality; your job as a grant writer is inventing grant narratives. We hope these match reality more often than not. Sometimes the myth doesn’t, as in this application, and when that happens, you’re obligated to conform to the RFP’s mythology, even if it isn’t your own.

The second part of this post continues here.