Posted on Leave a comment

The Grant World Shifts from the “Community Based Abstinence Education Program” to “Competitive Abstinence Education Grant Program”

In 2008, I wrote a pair of long blog posts about the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program and what happens when a program that is nominally based on “research” has an unfortunate problem: the best available research shows the premise of the program is unlikely to succeed. (The first post is “What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study.”) We wrote a number of funded CBAE programs over the course of a couple years.

Today, however, I was enjoying my usual Sunday jaunt through the Federal Register and found the Competitive Abstinence Education Grant Program. It’s much, much smaller than CBAE, since it only has $4,611,070 available, while CBAE had $40,000,000 in the 2008 funding cycle. In addition, while the new program may have abstinence in the title, description says that applicants should take “medically accurate” approach to sex education, which is quite different than the required CBAE approach, which explicitly forbids medically accurate sex education.

This is the part of the post where a political blogger would make some sort of ideological or political point.* I don’t have one, but I will say that the CBAE to CAEG shift is another example of how smart agencies should be adaptable, as I described in my post “Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts.” Four years ago, the grant waves were throwing abstinence; this year, they’re throwing comprehensive sex education. Forty years ago, when Isaac was getting started, the emphasis was on “medically accurate” information (like today’s RFP), as he wrote about in “Teenage Pregnancy Prevention and the Replication of Evidence-based Programs: the Research and Demonstration Programs and Personal Responsibility Education Program are Two RFPs that Provide a ‘Madeleine Moment’ for a Grizzled Grant Writer.”

For a lot of agencies, what happens on the ground when they’re trying to educate teenagers probably won’t change much based on the funding stream, since teenagers themselves haven’t changed much since they were invented in the 1920s or thereabouts (read Joseph Kent’s Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present and similar books for the history of adolescence as an idea; see also here for a graph depicting the rise of the term “teenager”). Given how fast we produce teenagers, and the gap between what most teenagers really want and what most adults really want them to do, the need for some fashion of sex education is unlikely to go away in the near future, which means federal RFPs are likely to keep being issued—regardless of how they’re labeled.

EDIT: In “Parents Just Don’t Understand: A sociologist says American moms and dads are in denial about their kids’ sexual lives,” Sinikka Elliott argues about comprehensive sex education and abstinence education:

One side is saying, ”Well, they need to abstain. That’s a surefire way that they’re gonna be safe,” and the other side is saying, “They’re not gonna abstain and so they need contraceptive information.” They were basing their argument on the same things: the teen pregnancy rates, the STI rates.

Neither focuses much on pleasure, as Elliott points out.

* I don’t have one, but I will say that the Margaret Talbot’s New Yorker article, Red Sex, Blue Sex is probably the most interesting and comprehensive article I’ve read about the kinds of political differences that shift the funding streams for programs like CBAE and now CAEG.

Posted on Leave a comment

January 2012 Links: Paypal Problems, Inner-City Crime, Proposalese in the Media, Innovation, “Abstinence Education,” and More

* Do not ever use Paypal; this story from someone who gets their accounts frozen is fairly common. I had a nasty encounter with Paypal that guarantees I will never, ever use them again, and I can tell you from experience that their legal department is just as difficult and cruel as their so-called dispute resolution department.

* Fighting Inner-City Crime: When, and how, citizens should take action is a pressing question. Notice the author, Sudhir Venkatesh, who also wrote Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, which is useful for anyone developing proposal project concepts and needs assessments.

* “As [the] Public Sector Sheds Jobs, [Women] and Minorities Hurt Most.”

* A review of the new Seagate Momentus XT. I have the old version in my laptop and will say that it was a tremendous improvement over a regular, 5400 RPM laptop hard drive.

* The Research Bust:

[A]fter four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point, the cascade of research having exhausted most of the subfields and overwhelmed the capacity of individuals to absorb the annual output. Who can read all of the 80 items of scholarship that are published on George Eliot each year? After 5,000 studies of Melville since 1960, what can the 5,001st say that will have anything but a microscopic audience of interested readers?

* The brutal logic of climate change, an important and likely-to-be-ignored post.

* “The End of Stagnation and the Coming Innovation Boom;” especially note this:

Our ancestors were bold and industrious, they built a significant part of our transportation and energy infrastructure more than half a century ago. It would be impossible to build that same infrastructure today. Could we build the Hoover Dam? We have the technology, of course, but do we have the will? In building infrastructure many interest groups can say no and nearly no one can say yes. We are beset by a swarm of veto players. Time, however, is running out. We cannot rely on the infrastructure of our past to travel to our future.

I’ve seen the veto players and automatic “no” people in watching Seattle attempt to build a light-rail system to alleviate its atrocious traffic problems. The number of lawsuits and amount of issues are staggering, so it’s taken the city and other players literally decades to get anything done. The proposed California Bullet Train is another example of the same.

* Still: Tunnels: Seattle’s boring past filled with thrills:

In a world where most work is done with a keyboard and dispersed into electronic ether, their work is refreshingly real, lasting, utilitarian. Workers seem also to share a frontier can-do spirit. Masters of a subterranean universe, not for nothing is their line of work called heavy civil: a good name for a grunge band, or a workforce that stops at pretty much nothing.

* Unsurprising: Alabama Can’t Find Anyone to Fill Illegal Immigrants’ Old Jobs.

* [Bill] O’Reilly Gets Ambushed, just like he does to other people. One definition of a bully might be someone who can’t accept what they do to others or say about them.

* James Fallows: With Mitt’s Ascent, We’re Back to the ‘Mormon Question’, a very good post and one that changes what I think.

* Without comprehensive sex education, porn is the only solid information kids are getting about sex. File this under “the obvious.”

* A fascinating and largely accurate list of what kinds of inequality are acceptable and what kinds aren’t, by David Brooks:

Status inequality is acceptable for college teachers. Universities exist within a finely gradated status structure, with certain schools like Brown clearly more elite than other schools. University departments are carefully ranked and compete for superiority.

Status inequality is unacceptable for high school teachers. Teachers at this level strongly resist being ranked. It would be loathsome to have one’s department competing with other departments in nearby schools.

And people involved in each system probably believe in both without questioning why they do or how they came to believe what they believe. I would also be interested in seeing other lists of this kind and for other countries.

Brooks ends: “Dear visitor, we are a democratic, egalitarian people who spend our days desperately trying to climb over each other. Have a nice stay.” We may also believe that equality of opportunity doesn’t imply equality of results, although that itself might be acceptable to believe while it might not be acceptable to believe in many circles that we have equality of opportunity.

* David Henderson’s “Occupy Monterey” talks are fascinating in part because they reveal the basic economic illiteracy of much of his audience. There are three parts, all at the link; some of the comments shouted from people in the audience remind me of things I’ve heard peers and profs say in English departments.

* The No-Brainer Issue of the Year: Let High-Skill Immigrants Stay:

Behind Door #1 are people of extraordinary ability: scientists, artists, educators, business people and athletes. Behind Door #2 stand a random assortment of people. Which door should the United States open?

In 2010, the United States more often chose Door #2 [. . .]

* Get Ready for Manufacturing’s Big Comeback: “As the cost of doing business in China rises, U.S. manufacturing could be on the verge of a renaissance.”

* Famous Authors’ Harshest Rejection Letters. It’s amazing to me not only how little we know, but how little we know how little we know (read that twice).

* We haven’t met the aliens because they’ve become enmeshed in video games. Alternately, the reason we haven’t met any aliens morphs with the contemporary issues we’re starting to notice; during the Cold War, nuclear annihilation was a probable parable. Today, it’s cultural suicide abetted by technology.

* The slow erosion of legal rights; “terrorism” and “drugs” appear to be the keys to removing Constitutional safeguards.

* Ending the Infographic Plague.

* I already linked to this but see no reason no to do so again, since a reader sent it to me: Bookshelf porn. Note that this involves no actual nudity; the books are closed.

* “The secret lives of feral dogs: A Pennsylvania city instructs police to shoot strays, opening a sad window on animal care in the age of austerity.”

* “The average health care insurance premium today is over $15,000 and by 2021 it may be headed to $32,000 or so (admittedly that estimate is based on extrapolation);” that’s from “The median wage figure and the health care costs figure.”

* “The fragile teenage brain: An in-depth look at concussions in high school football.” After reading about the many football concussion studies, I’ve learned that a lot of the brain damage football causes isn’t from single big hits—it’s from many small hits that accrue in practice and elsewhere. There is no way I’d let my kid play football.

Posted on 1 Comment

Meaning Well is Not Enough: The Role of Research in Grant Writing and Proposals

Chances are good that you, as an applicant, have really wonderful intentions in whatever you’re doing—just like everyone else. You want to help kids succeed, make the world a better place, save the endangered sparrow dragonfly,* impart job training skills, build cool stuff, etc. You know this is a excellent use of time and money. The trick is convincing others that your idea is an excellent use of their time and money.**

Usually you convince them by saying that the target area needs whatever you’re proposing and that what you’re proposing will be effective. To really convince the others with money, you can’t merely say that you know what you’re talking about and therefore they should give you the money. You need to present some kind of research that demonstrates your approach is effective. Merely asserting that your approach will be effective isn’t enough.

Lots of our clients don’t have any research to demonstrate that what they’re doing or want to do might be useful, which means we spend a lot of time conducting research. This probably brings back memories of high school term papers and the like. However tedious or difficult research might be, it’s still necessary if you’re going to have a strong application that sets you a part from others.

Here’s why: funders want to think you know what you’re doing. One way is to show that you know what’s going on in the field and that your project is likely to succeed. Some RFPs even tell you what research to cite and which protocols to use. For example, this year’s SAMHSA Offender Reentry Program (ORP) tells you to use a whole grab bag worth of acronyms (“you are encouraged, when appropriate for your setting and population to implement the Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach (A-CRA) coupled with Assertive Continuing Care (ACC) and/or Motivational Enhancement Therapy/Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-5 (MET/CBT-5) with juvenile offenders”).

Most RFPs don’t make things this easy, and you have to do your own research. Still, for most human and social service proposals, you also don’t need to write a dissertation: it’s enough to sprinkle some peer-reviewed research in like paprika over a casserole. As Homer Simpson says, “Facts are meaningless! You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!” The same applies to research. You need to have enough citations to make what you’re doing appear plausible, at least in most cases; for specific research grants or technology projects, you’ll often need someone who is really a domain expert. But for social and human service projects, you usually don’t.

That being said, people make two big mistakes in research for most kinds of grants: too much and too little. The “too much” mistake is less common, but it can happen when a RFP gets released on a short deadline and an applicant agency spends two weeks conducting research, finds a huge amount of material, and then can’t assemble it in an efficient manner to draft a concise and coherent needs assessment.

The “too little” mistake is one we see more frequently: the organization doesn’t have any research or citations whatsoever to demonstrate that their approach is likely to be valid (fortunately, this is an issue we can remedy). For RFPs that require a lot of research, this can be enough to get your proposal thrown out. Teen pregnancy prevention RFPs, for example, usually require a lot of research because of their politically charged nature. They require research even when that research indicates the approach is not likely to succeed, in which case you still need to pretend like the approach will succeed and the research is valid—in other words, you need to focus on the proposal world.

Don’t make either mistake. Use enough research to make your proposal palatable, even if “enough” varies a lot by application. Alas: there’s no real way to gauge how much is enough except through experience, which one uses to judge RFPs on a case-by-case basis. When in doubt, however, cite too much rather than too little.

* Note: this is a made up critter.

** Convincing others doesn’t just apply to funders—it can also apply to potential partners and collaborators. One problem with collaborations that we didn’t mention in our post on the subject is that collaborating agencies might not care about your problem. Sure, the local school district wants, in the abstract, for your mentoring program to succeed. But they already have lots of responsibilities, lots of administrators, and lots of problems, and they get paid average daily attendance (ADA) money whether you get the grant or not. They might care, but not as much as they care about their primary mission.

Posted on 1 Comment

Teenage Pregnancy Prevention and the Replication of Evidence-based Programs: the Research and Demonstration Programs and Personal Responsibility Education Program are Two RFPs that Provide a “Madeleine Moment” for a Grizzled Grant Writer

Everyone has a Madeleine Moment from time to time, when a breakfast pastry or, for an old grant writer, an RFP, sends one into a reverie. I experienced a Madeleine Moment recently when the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) issued two RFPs, one for Teenage Pregnancy Prevention: Replication of Evidence-based Programs and one for Replication of Evidence-based Programs and Teenage Pregnancy Prevention: Research and Demonstration Programs and Personal Responsibility Education Program.

There’s nothing like $100 million for the same old teen pregnancy prevention ideas that I used to write proposals about during the latter days of the Nixon administration to get the juices flowing. When we started Seliger + Associates 17 years ago, there was still lots of money for teen pregnancy prevention programs that provided “medically accurate” information, like the requirements of the two new RFPs. “Medically accurate” is a euphemism for teaching about family planning, which is also a euphemism for teaching about contraception, condoms, and birth control pills. In the old days, referral for what was termed “clinical services” (e.g., family planning services, which meant birth control pills) was typically mandatory.

About ten years ago, the pendulum shifted and suddenly there was no more money for the medically accurate/clinical referral approach to teen pregnancy prevention project concepts. We started writing endless “abstinence” education proposals instead, in which birth control could never be mentioned and clinical referrals could never be made.

The new RFPs, compared to old version of medically accurate RFPs, do not want information on clinical referrals for the teens. So the proposal can discuss how the young folk will be told about birth control and family planning but not actually mention how they might actually receive birth control services. To be charitable to the GS 11s who wrote these RFPs, both include the following coded statement:

As appropriate and allowable under Federal law, applicants may provide teenage pregnancy prevention related health care services and/or make use of referral arrangements with other providers of health care services(e.g., substance abuse, alcohol abuse, tobacco cessation, family planning, mental health issues, intimate partner violence), local public health and social service agencies, hospitals, voluntary agencies, and health or social services supported by other federal programs (e.g., Medicaid, SCHIP, TANF) or state/local programs.

Note that “family planning” is stuck randomly between “tobacco cessation” and “mental health issues”. Reminds me of the scene in American Graffiti in which Toad is trying to buy booze for the blond bombshell he just met and says to the suspicious store clerk, “Let me have a Three Musketeers, and a ball point pen, and one of those combs there, a pint of Old Harper, a couple of flash light batteries and some beef jerky.” Why is referral for family planning, arguably the most important aspect of teen pregnancy prevention, not required and only mentioned once in a laundry list of referral services in the RFPs? Because the unstated but obvious implication is that family planning (clinical) referrals mean not only birth control pills for the young ladies, but possibly referrals for “you know what” if the birth control fails.

Writing one of these proposals is a bit of a Kabuki exercise. For staff who actually run supportive services programs for teens, this obfuscation about family planning and Title X is nonsense, since they know the feds actually spend about $300 million dollars annually funding “family planning” services under Title X of the Public Health Service Act. And they have since 1980. Over 4,500 family planning clinics, many run by Planned Parenthood, receive federal funding for birth control and related services, but you’d never know it from these two new OAH RFPs, which pretend Title X doesn’t exist.

We’re writing a few of these new-fangled (or new-old-fangled) teen pregnancy prevention proposals, which for us just means taking a short stroll down memory lane to The Thrilling Days of Yesteryear!.* I don’t have a dog in the “medically accurate” versus “abstinence” versus “clinical referral” fight and don’t wish to raise the ire of advocates with this post. I’m just a grizzled grant writer who wants to help you young whippersnappers out there understand that grant writing moves in waves, as Jake describes at the link. What was old is new again and whatever you’re writing today, you’ll write again someday, when the pendulum inevitably swings back.

*As far as I am concerned, Clayton Moore will always be the one and true Lone Ranger. Hi Yo Silver, Away!

Posted on Leave a comment

Where Have All the RFPs Gone?

Subscribers to our Free Grant Alerts will probably have noticed relatively few large federal RFPs so far in this fiscal year, which began October 1. To paraphrase Peter, Paul & Mary, Where Have All The RFPs Gone?. I assume this dearth is because federal program officers are still churning through the tidal wave of Stimulus Bill proposals submitted in the last fiscal year. I predicted this problem in Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing and said . . .

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.

Since federal agencies are running their regular programs while trying to spend additional Stimulus Bill funding and implementing entirely new programs, one imagines that our cadre of GS 10s and 11s, who are supposed to move the endless paperwork associated with shoveling federal funds out the door, simply have not gotten around to the FY ’10 RFP processes.

For example, just about every LEA and youth services nonprofit is waiting breathlessly for the Department of Education’s enormous and well-publicized Investing in Innovations (i3) Fund to be issued. The i3 program website still says, “The Department of Education anticipates accepting applications in early 2010, with all applications due in early spring of 2010. The department will obligate all i3 funding by September 30, 2010.” Hmmmm. Early 2010 has come and gone, so there is no chance that having proposals due in “early spring” is going to happen. But the Department of Education will still try to obligate i3 funds by the end of the fiscal year. This means that when the i3 RFP is finally issued, it will be during a fantastically busy time because the Department of Education has not issued most of their other programs either.

One indicator of the likely chaos at the Department of Education: the planned competitions for the Talent Search (TS) and Education Opportunity Centers (EOC), two of the very large “TRIO Programs”, “have been delayed. At this time, the Department expects to have a closing date for TS and EOC applications in fall 2010.” No sign yet of the annual RFP process for the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) either. We’ve been hired to write several PEP proposals and have been told by clients that the RFP will be issued in early April. On the PEP website, the last “funding status” information is from 2006!

The Department of Education is not alone in being tardy this year. We have yet to see any of the 30 or so NOFAs that HUD issues every year, any SAMHSA RFAs, few Department of Labor SGAs and almost no Department of Energy FOAs. We are also waiting for the DHHS Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (OAPP) to issue the FY ’10 RFP for their new teen pregnancy program. It was funded in the DHHS departmental budget authorization last fall but has yet to emerge. This program will be sex education/family planning-based, rather than abstinence-based, which has been the federal funding focus in teen pregnancy in recent years.

We know OAPP is coming because one of our clients, for whom we have written funded abstinence-based grants was contacted by their OAPP Program Officer to encourage them to switch approaches and apply for the new program. We’ve been hired to write the proposal when OAPP awakes from its slumber. As is said in Jamaica, “Soon come.” Just for fun, follow this link to the DHHS “FY ’10 Grants Forecast Page” and see what you get. That’s right, a blank page! This is not unusual, as most federal agencies will not tell you in advance when RFPs will be issued.

While you’re waiting for FY ’10 RFPs to blossom, figure out what funds will be available for your organization in the next several months and do everything you can to get ready to write the proposals. For most federal programs, the application period this year will be short.

Posted on 1 Comment

What to do When You Still Must Fight Through a Poorly Organized RFP: Part II of a Case Study On the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP

This is the second of two posts; the first appears here.

In addition to being unsupported by the research demanded by the program, as described in this post, the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program (CBAE) RFP is also poorly organized. It separates concepts and ideas that belong together for no apparent reason. This is most evident in its pursuit of the “A – H criteria” on page 2, the evaluation criteria on pages 5 – 8, and the “13 themes” on page 11. Each corresponds to parts of what appear to be the narrative on pages 52, 51, and 52, respectively. This raises the obvious question of why the RFP writers didn’t simply integrate the A – H, evaluation, and 13 themes criteria in a single spot, rather than referring endlessly back and forth between them. In addition, since the evaluation section on pages 5 – 8 tells you what you have to do for an evaluation, it might’ve been wise to just tell the applicant how to run the evaluation, rather than have the applicant pretend they’re going to design their own evaluation.

Still, this raises another important grant writing point, which is that you should, whenever possible, take elements from the RFP and regurgitate them in your proposal, like a mother bird vomiting up dinner for her young. The easiest way to conform to the RFP and program requirements is to do exactly what the requirements tell you to do in language that mirrors but does not copy the RFP. Page 7 of CBAE says:

In addition, successful applicants will be required to administer a 10-item survey to all participants as a pre-test and post-test when appropriate (e.g., when students are participating in a curriculum- based program). They will also be required to administer a post-post test to a representative sample of participants six months and/or 12 months after completion of the abstinence education program.

Such a passage can be easily rewritten as part of the evaluation section, and it’s an easy way to gain points. When RFPs give you lemons, make lemonade, and this RFP certainly gives a lot of lemons.

Notice, however, that three paragraphs above I said “what appears to be the narrative.” That’s because two sections of the RFP could arguably be the narrative: one that starts on page 41 under the header “Part II GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS FOR PREPARING A FULL PROJECT DESCRIPTION,” and another that starts on page 48 under “EVALUATION CRITERIA.” But the one that says evaluation criteria doesn’t refer to the evaluation you’re going to run—it refers instead to how the funding agency is going to decide whether you should be funded. In other, recursive, words, they’re going to use their evaluation criteria to evaluate your evaluation criteria. Simple, right? Welcome to grant writing.

The question for the grant writer is how to choose whether to write to the narrative directions on page 41 or page 48. When in doubt, try to mimic as closely as possible whatever checklist the reviewers will use. That makes it easy for them to see that you’ve hit all the elements, and it’s more important to hit the right elements, even poorly, than hit the wrong elements well. This is another RFP trap, and a variation on some of the traps described in the linked post; I’d also bet it was constructed using the methods described in Inside the Sausage Factory and how the RFP Process leads to Confused Grant Writers.

The CBAE RFP has other traps:

*The required abstract has directions placed randomly on page 24. Miss those and your application could be thrown out. Why don’t they put the instructions with the rest of the narrative instruction? Beats me.

* Another items problem that isn’t a trap, exactly, but worth observing, is that ACF has apparently realized the drawbacks Isaac enumerated about Page 28 says: “Applicants may submit their applications in electronic format through (see Electronic Submission section) and/or in hard copy (see Section IV.3).”

* If those weren’t enough, the RFP also implies on page 5 one potential ordering for the evaluation. But it implies another on page 43, under the “General Instructions for Preparing a Full Project Description.” Yet page 28 says one should “[a]rrange all materials in the order listed in the Application Content section above.” Above, on page 25, we find yet another potential way of ordering the evaluation. We didn’t figure this out from the RFP, though—we called ACF to ask about the section order and a staffer tell us that our responses to the evaluation criteria in the RFP could go in any order. This alleviated the problem of the order in the narrative section, which originally asked for the needs assessment, then the evaluation, then the approach, otherwise known as “what you’ll do.” But how are you supposed to describe how you’re going to conduct the evaluation if you haven’t described what you’re going to evaluate? Not clearly, anyway. The mixed up order is yet another example of the carelessness of whoever wrote this RFP.

Finally, the header that appears on page 10 says: “Successful Abstinence Education Curriculum.” This is another ironic title, since the RFP is filled with references to trying to evaluate the effectiveness of the program. Yet the header presumes that abstinence education will be successful, and the content it lists shows what elements have to be included. But if we don’t know whether programs with these elements work, how can we know that it will be successful? The answer is, of course, that we can’t. Isaac wrote in Self-Efficacy—Oops, There Goes Another Rubber Tree Plant about “those districts have ironically named “successful school guides” even as their students fail almost every ability test imaginable.” The same concept applies here: the RFP defines what kind of abstinence education will be “successful,” then tells you what to do, then expects you to tell them what you’re going to do, and then expects all this to be evaluated to figure out whether it’s successful. Follow all that? Neither do I, and I just wrote it. No wonder the bureaucrats who prepared this RFP confused themselves and applicants.

The organization of this RFP might be an example of the frustrations that come from abstinence—it’s a case of mental masturbation. The writers probably thought about a joke regarding masturbation from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: at least it’s sex with someone I love.

EDIT, August 2012: In “Parents Just Don’t Understand: A sociologist says American moms and dads are in denial about their kids’ sexual lives,” Sinikka Elliott argues about comprehensive sex education and abstinence education:

One side is saying, ”Well, they need to abstain. That’s a surefire way that they’re gonna be safe,” and the other side is saying, “They’re not gonna abstain and so they need contraceptive information.” They were basing their argument on the same things: the teen pregnancy rates, the STI rates.

Neither focuses much on pleasure, as Elliott points out.

Perhaps the most hilarious thing about the CBAE RFP is how long virginity has been ineffectively pitched in Western society. Foucault and Barzun show that in part, and now Orwell does too in his Essays, this one dating from 1947:

We shall never be able to stamp out syphilis and gonorrhea until the stigma of sinfulness is removed from them. When full conscription was introduced in the 1914 – 1918 war it was discovered, if I remember rightly, that nearly half the population suffered from some form of venereal disease, and this frightened the authorities into taking a few precautions […]

You can’t deal with these diseases so long as they are thought of as visitations from God, in a totally different category from all other diseases […] And it is humbug to say that “clean living is the only remedy.” You are bound to have promiscuity and prostitution in a society like ours, where people mature sexually at about fifteen and are discouraged from marrying till they are in their twenties […] (1217-8).

The purpose in observing this is not to endorse Orwell’s perspective, but to point out, as Isaac often does, that the kind of debates that spur RFPs and social policy and all the rest are very seldom new ones, and the various remedies offered are equally ancient.

Posted on 7 Comments

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.