Posted on Leave a comment

So What Are You Supposed to do to Respond to the Community Resilience and Recovery Initiative (CRRI) program RFP?

Subscribers to our email Grant Alert Newsletter will see a link to the Community Resilience and Recovery Initiative (CRRI), which is a program designed to provide “Grants to strength families, communities, and the workforce through appropriate, evidence-based interventions.” What does that mean applicants should actually propose to do?

You won’t really find out based on SAMHSA’s grant announcement, which says that you’re supposed to do things like “Reduce depression and anxiety” and “Reduce excessive drinking (and other substance use if the community chooses)” without saying how that is to be done. In other words, whoever wrote the announcement page forgot to answer the 5Ws and H.

From SAMHSA’s page you can download the application kit file, which has lots and lots of stuff about how important evidence is (“The CRRI will use a place-based strategy to implement multiple evidence-based interventions targeted to four levels in the community”), and how important strengthening communities are (“The intent of the program is to help communities mobilize to better manage behavioral health issues despite budgetary cuts in existing services and to promote a sense of renewal and resilience”), and so on, but no definitions of what it means to “promote a sense of renewal and resilience.” Grants are for $1.4 million—maybe you should use that for 20 giant potlucks.

In reading through the RFP, you’ll find several references to “Section I-2.2.” If you search for “2.2,” you’ll finally find what SAMHSA actually wants you to implement:

  • Triple P – Positive Parenting Program
  • Strengthening Families Program
  • Families and Schools Together
  • The JOBS Program
  • Coping with Work and Family Stress
  • Coping and Support Training (CAST)

In other words, it wants a mix of supportive family and jobs services. Even then, the RFP doesn’t tell you what these various programs entail—instead, it tells you go visit yet another website. If you want to figure out what SAMHSA actually wants you to do, you’ll have to drill through at least three levels of cruft: the announcement itself, the RFP, and then the highly intuitive “National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) Web site.”

Alas, the National Registry website isn’t easily reduced to a description appropriate for the newsletter. That’s why you’ll find our somewhat vague description in our newsletter, which mirrors the vagueness of the RFP itself. It seems to me that CRRI is really just Walking Around Money to do “something about substance abuse” for the big cities and counties that are eligible for this odd program.

Posted on Leave a comment

Take Time to Develop a Proposal Timeline

Many RFPs require that you include a timeline that will describe when your project will actually unfold—remember that the “when” section is part of the 5Ws and H. Even if the RFP writers forget to require a timeline, you should include one anyway, either under the “Project Description” or “Evaluation” sections because the timeline will clarify both your own thinking and the reviewer’s understanding of how you plan to sequence activities and achieve milestones.

Think of your project timeline as something like the timelines cops are always trying to establish in police procedurals. A shocking crime is committed—perhaps a socialite is killed. A rogue cop on the outs with the department is trying to solve the case. The night of the murder, the husband was at a charity ball, while the ex-husband was at the gym, while the husband’s jealous lover was at a taqueria. Could the husband have slipped away between the main course and the souffle? Did the ex-husband have time between 9:45 and 10:45 to slip out of the racquetball game, run over to the condo, and do the deed? In asking these questions, the cop is always trying to figure out if the crime is plausible. He—and he is almost always a “he”—is checking the believability of the tales he’s constructing. When you write a timeline for a proposal, you’re trying to do the same, only for the future. You’re trying to convince yourself, and the reviewer, that you’re believable in doing the job (except in this case the job is human services, not murder, for most nonprofit and public agencies).

Doing a timeline right requires a number of elements, including:

  • Startup Period: You probably can’t start delivering services on the day you execute the contract with the funder. Chances are good that you’ll need staff, training, space, and maybe more. Some RFPs will dictate how long your startup period should last, either from the notice of grant award or from the execution date of your contract. Usually they’ll demand somewhere around 90 days, which is fairly reasonable if it’s from the date you’ve executed your contract. Even if the funder doesn’t include a minimum or maximum startup period, you should. Unless otherwise directed by the RFP or client, we usually include a 90 day startup period.
  • Staff Recruitment/Assignment and Training: Make sure to provide for staff recruitment/assignment and preservice training in the startup period, as well as periodic or annual refresher training. Funders love professional development as much as mystery writers love plot twists, so serve it up in your timeline.
  • Outreach Start: Many if not most projects will involve some effort to get the word out to the target population. You’ll probably need to start outreach prior to the start of service delivery. Outreach is usually an ongoing activity; I might eventually write a post about everything that outreach should entail.
  • Project Oversight/Participant Committee: Most projects should have some form of participant, staff, and community oversight committee mentioned in their proposal. The formation and meeting facilitation of such committees should be reflected in the timeline.
  • Referral and Intake: Once you’ve made the target population and other providers aware of your project, you need some system for deciding who gets services and who doesn’t. Put referral and intake in between outreach and service delivery.
  • Services Start: Whatever services you’re providing should have a start date, often three months after the project begins. In many projects, service delivery is ongoing. In others, the referral/take process is done on a “batch” basis, repeating annually or periodically, rather than ongoing. This is how many job training programs work.
  • Evaluation: Your project should have some form of annual evaluation. The timeline should include some time for developing the evaluation criteria, conducting the evaluation and preparing/disseminating the evaluation reports.

Those are the basic elements for a human services timeline, like the one that might go with Isaac’s hypothetical Project NUTRIA. If you’re doing a capital campaign, you’d have a different set of milestones relating to construction, like permits, architecture, engineering, the commencement of construction, burying the body of Ralph “Ralphie” Cifaretto in the foundation for Tony Soprano, and so on, but the same basic idea would remain: you’d enumerate significant steps in your project, without going into too much minutia. Most of our of timelines are 10 – 15 rows, which is enough to give the general idea while avoiding specifics the client might not want to meet.

You also have to decide how to lay your timeline out. We used to make elaborate Visio drawings, and if we did the same thing today we’d use Omnigraffle Pro. But with the rise of online submissions, it’s too dangerous to use anything but tables in Word; now we usually make tables with three columns: the “date” column, with the number of project months it will take something to happen; a “milestone” column that will say something like “evaluation begins” and a “description” column that will say something like, “The evaluation, to be conducted by an expert evaluator selected through an open bidding process, will examine both process and outcome measures, as described in section 4.b.” If required by the RFP, we will also include a “responsibility” column or similar. For most projects, it’s absolutely not necessary, and is likely to time wasting and counter-productive, to use such professional scheduling software as Microsoft Project or Primavera. Such software will drive you nuts and, if embedded in a Word document, will probably bork the upload process.

Timelines don’t have to be extraordinarily complex, but they do have to match what you’ve written in other sections of the proposal. Internally inconsistent proposals will often be rejected because they fail to make sense, which is one danger of doing when you split a proposal among multiple writers (see more about this in “Stay the Course: Don’t Change Horses (or Concepts) in the Middle of the Stream (or Proposal Writing)“).

If you have no idea what should go into your timeline, it’s probably means your narrative lacks cohesion. Sometimes you’ll find that writing the timeline reminds you of something that should go elsewhere in the narrative, which is another use for them: back checking your own work, just as the cops in police procedures use timelines to make sure their own logic is sound. Your job might be slightly easier and less likely to leave a crazed serial killer on the loose, but it’s still important to do it well if you’re going to get the money.

Posted on 4 Comments

Every Proposal Needs Six Elements: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The Rest is Mere Commentary.

In writing a grant that describes a program, you, the writer, are actually telling a story you want readers to believe. To do so, you need to make it as complete as possible. Journalists know that an effective lead paragraph in a news story tells the reader who, what, where, when, why, and how (together, the six are usually referred to as 5Ws and H) as quickly and concisely as possible. Well-written, interesting grant proposals should do the same for their readers, although not in the first paragraph. Before you start writing, you should be able to write a simple, declarative sentence answering each question.

Isaac pointed out in “Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain” that “A good way to start [learning how to write grants] is to take English composition or Journalism classes at a local college to sharpen your writing skills.” Journalism has a lot of overlap with grant writing—except that good journalism strives to be factually balanced and accurate, while grant writing strives to depict absolute need through the creative, but never outright dishonest, use of selected facts. At least, that’s what grant writers should do if they want their organizations to be funded.

The next section discusses each element in more detail:

Who: Two separate aspects of the “who” need to be covered: your organization/partners and the population to be served. Most grant applications will have a section on the applicant’s background. Give a brief history of your organization, its management structure, some of the other programs it runs, and its purpose. Do a briefer history for key partners, if space permits.

The other aspect is the group to be served. What demographic, cultural, educational, and other challenges set your target population apart from society at large? Why have you selected this population? What expertise makes you likely to serve them well?

What: You should be able to describe succinctly what you are going to do. For example, if you want to run an ever-popular afterschool program, describe the components of your program; you might say, “Project LEAD will offer academic enrichment and life skills training. The academic enrichment will include three hours per week of tutoring and three hours per week of educational games. Life skills training will include…” Almost all human service delivery projects have five fundamental components: outreach, intake/assessment, services, follow-up, and evaluation. Note that Isaac represented all these steps in his theoretical Project NUTRIA.

Where: Unless you plan to serve the galaxy, define your target area. “Inner-city Baltimore” might be one designation and “Zip codes 98122 and 98112” another. This is often included in the “Who” section and almost always in the needs assessment section. You should also describe where project services will be delivered. To continue the example above, if Project LEAD activities take place in school buildings, say so, and why the building was selected, and if they take place in a community center, describe the community center, including its facilities and equipment, and why it was selected.

When: Like “who,” “when” also has two components: the project timing/length and the hours/times for service delivery/activities. Most projects proposed for grant funding will have a project period—say, three years. You should construct a timeline, whether included as an actual table or not, demonstrating when activities will start. Don’t forget the steps necessary before service delivery starts, such as hiring and assigning staff, formalizing the partnership structure, etc. The timeline should also contain significant milestones, like stabilized case load, completion of the “Action Plan,” etc.

In addition, you must describe when project services will actually be delivered; for example, Project LEAD might operate from 3 – 7 p.m. during the academic year and from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. during the summer.

Why: Your project should have some rationale behind it. The Request For Proposals (RFP) often gives a rationale that you must follow, but you should be able to explain factors like:

* Why you are targeting who you are targeting?
* Why you have decided on what you will do?
* Why you will provide services in a particular place?
* Why you have decided on particular times?

Take each “W” and then ask yourself why you described them in the way you did. The “why” should be emphasized in the needs assessment section and also threaded through other sections.

How: You should decide how your project will be implemented. This incorporates all the previous elements and explains, for example:

* How you will engage the target population.
* How will individuals be assessed and admitted?
* How you will provide services.
* How you will retain participants.
* How you will evaluate the project’s effectiveness.

It should explain all aspects of the mechanics of how a project will be carried out, and it should also demonstrate that the applicant has thoroughly considered the details of the project implementation strategy. This section will usually be called something like the “Project Description.”

For an example of an RFP that just asks for the 5Ws and H, see SAMHSA’s infrastructure grants:

Your total abstract should not be longer than 35 lines. It should include the project name, population to be served (demographics and clinical characteristics), whether the application is proposing service expansion, service enhancement, or both, strategies/interventions, project goals and measurable objectives, including the number of people to be served annually and throughout the lifetime of the project, etc. In the first five lines or less of your abstract, write a summary of your project that can be used, if your project is funded, in publications, reporting to Congress, or press releases.

The project name is part of the what. The population is the “who” with demographics as part of the “why,” and the proposal for expansion, enhancement, or both is also part of the “what,” while “strategies/interventions” is part of the “how.” Goals and measurable objectives are partially “what” (i.e. what will your outcomes be) and partially “why” (i.e. these explain why things will improve). As you might notice, SAMHSA forget “where,” although one could shoehorn that into the “population to be served” section, as well as “when.” As a grant writer, your job is to be smarter than the RFP writers** by realizing what they missed and filling the requests they tried to convey between the lines.

The deeper and more complete you can make the story you tell, the better off you’ll be. This is part of the reason internal inconsistencies can be so damning: if you say you’ll serve 20 individuals per month in one place, 20 families per month in another, and 40 individuals per quarter in another, you’re waking the reader from their fictional dream and casting doubt on whether you really understand what you’re doing. Even if an internal inconsistency is minor, finding one will make the reader doubt everything else you propose.

Keeping in mind the 5Ws and H will help you maintain consistency, because if you decide at the front end what those will be, you should find it easier to build supportive evidence around it at the back end. Even dim-witted RFP writers have figured this out, which is why many RFPs ask for a project abstract or summary: to get you to conceive of what the project will entail before you get mired in details.

In virtually any narrative section of a proposal, you should be able to say which of the 5Ws or H you’re addressing. If you keep them in mind as you write, you’ll be writing a better, more consistent proposal.

* A well-written abstract/executive summary will actually contain an abbreviated version of the 5Ws and H.

** This isn’t hard in general, particularly if the RFP writer is in the Department of Education; nonetheless, you need to manifest that intelligence by knowing when the RFP writer has screwed up, which occurs frequently.