Tag Archives: ACF

Deciding on the grant proposal structure: ACF’s recent Early Head Start (EHS) application illustrates the challenge

Many RFPs don’t simply and directly state, “Use the following header pattern in your response to the narrative questions.” Why don’t funders tell applicants which header pattern to use? Bureaucracy, legal requirements, funder indifference, signaling: whatever the reason(s), we’ve run into a bunch of program RFPs recently that don’t explicitly state what headers should be used (like the Small Business Innovation and Research grants (SBIRs) we wrote about last week). In structuring responses to confusing RFPs, there are two main schools of thought: one is to use the general headers found in the RFP, and then reply to all the sub-questions in paragraph form. The other school of thought is to use the general headers and every sub-header found either the narrative instructions (if there are any) or the review instructions (if there are any of those). Neither approach is necessarily “right.”

The recent ACF Early Head Start (EHS) RFP, for which we just wrote a proposal, offers a good example of this challenge. Like SBIRs, the EHS RFP has, bafflingly, two sets of narrative instructions: on Adobe page 35, under “Approach” and the other on Adobe page 57, under “Application Review Criteria.” Neither is quite canonical—in other words, the instructions don’t say, in big bold type, “USE THIS HEADER SET.” Instead, ACF offers maddening ambiguity. Perhaps this maddening ambiguity is deliberate, but is more likely due to this fact: the folks who write the RFPs never write the proposals in response and, as bureaucrats, likely they simply don’t care.

Regardless, one has to decide whether it’s better to use just top-level outlines, like “1. Community Need and Objectives, 2. Program Design and Approach,” or sub-header outlines, like “1. Community Need and Objectives, a. the proposed service area and location(s) where services will be delivered.” We chose to mostly follow page 57, while still referencing material on page 35. As with SBIRs, though, there is no 100% right answer, because neither the NIH or ACF give applicants one—but both could reject applications that don’t follow the weakly specified instructions.

The Pestiferous Stink of Politics in Grant Writing: ORR’s “Residential Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children” (UAC) Program

As we’ve said before, politicians at every level usually like it when nonprofits in their districts get grants. They like it so much that they’re happy to take credit for a nonprofit’s grant writing effort, which they usually have nothing to do with. That being said, politics usually have little to do with grant writing, at least at the level experienced by most nonprofit and public agencies. As you might have guessed from the way we keep repeating “usually” in this paragraph, this post is about exceptions to that principle.

Ages ago, before I graced the world, Isaac worked as Grants Coordinator for Ed Valliere, City Manager of the City of Lynwood.* The city didn’t have a lot of money and Ed sicced Isaac on every grant Isaac could find, which is one way to effectively get a lot of grants (some of our retainer clients give us similar direction and latitude). Anyway, Isaac wrote a federal rat-control grant that got funded, but he didn’t bother to get a City Council resolution authorizing the submission.

Isaac didn’t think it would be funded, but he didn’t think too much about it: he just wrote proposals. Inexplicably, the rat proposal was funded.** This made Ed explode: the City of Lynwood wasn’t going to admit publicly that it had a rat problem, so Ed instructed Isaac to turn down the grant. The City Council remained unaware of the application, the award, and the rejection. Isaac and Ed kept their jobs.

Ed knew that politicians didn’t want reporters asking, “Hey, how’s the rat problem going?” Cities spend lots of money marketing themselves—you may have heard that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” (a lie), and a motto like “Lynwood: We’ve solved our rat problem!” doesn’t work so well. Although Isaac does report that in the late 70s, the staff routinely referred to Lynwood alternatively as “The Town Too Tough to Die” or “The Town that Time Forgot.”

Which brings us to the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) “Residential Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children” (UAC) program. It has $350 million available, with average grants of $4 million—residential care services, especially for children, are very, very expensive. The program addresses the unexpected surge in unaccompanied Central American children at the southern border.

But not every residential services provider is going to want or be able to apply for this ORR grant program. By applying, nonprofit residential care providers—which are often large organizations deeply embedded in the local community power structure—announce that they’re going to house immigrant children and teens. As anyone who has paid attention to the news over the last decade or century should know, immigrants arouse fear, suspicion, hatred, and xenophobia. “They” will not be like “us” and don’t share “our” values.

Consequently, not every organization that could or should apply for a UAC grant will actually apply. As we said, most local politicos are happy for organizations in their districts to get grants, but they aren’t always. No one wants a crisis homeless shelter right next to them.*** The acronym “NIMBY” emerged as a catch-all term to attack this idea. But in the real world, a small number of people will fight much harder to keep a residential treatment facility out of their neighborhood than a large, amorphous number of people with vague feelings of kindness will fight to put it in.

We rarely discuss politics or the local political situation with our clients, but we can occasionally detect politics, much like astrophysicists detect dark matter, through the otherwise weird-seeming behavior of clients or potential clients. This is going to be deliberately vague, because we take confidentiality very seriously, but recently we have seen some unusual behaviors and desires that may be politically motivated. “Politics” seems like a likely motivator.

(Added later: I wrote most of the above a couple days ago and then had to work on other projects. Today, this is a top story at nytimes.com: “Towns Oppose Bid to House Child Migrants.” That didn’t take long. I wonder if the people hoisting American flags in opposition to immigration realize the irony in what they’re doing.)

* Another funny story I’ve heard many times: Isaac wrote many funded California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) grants for Lynwood, including one that paid for the installation of strobes on traffic signals and in emergency vehicles. These strobes allow emergency vehicles to change the signal as they approach intersections. The then-Mayor of Lynwood, who will go unnamed to protect the guilty, insisted on having an strobe installed in his personal car, so he could flip the traffic lights as he tooled around town. He also had a police and fire scanner in his car, and when things happened he’d go flying across town to the emergency. Then the traffic people would get pissed off, because he’d screw up the traffic for hours. Eventually the City had to take the strobe away from him.

** Demonstrating yet again that it’s not possible to know what will be funded and what won’t be.

*** No one wanted World War II refugees either, as anyone on the S. S. St. Louis knows, or would know had they not been murdered by Nazis.

This is one argument for open borders, an important concept too rarely even discussed in the media.

The Street Outreach Program (SOP) and Seliger’s quick guide to outreach components

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) just issued the Street Outreach Program (SOP) FY ’13 Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA),* which offers an opportunity for us to describe a common funder program paradigm: outreach. Last week, faithful readers will recall that we blogged about yet another outreach program: Health Navigators.

Not all of our readers are likely hip to outreach program design. In essence, all outreach programs use more or less the same design and have changed little since the halcyon days of outreach of the 1970s. Actually, this is not entirely true: these days a soupçon of social media should be added to the outreach stew, but otherwise things remain the same.

Unless there is a static client input stream (e.g., domestic violence offenders being court-referred), almost all human services programs require some outreach component; even if the RFP doesn’t require one, smart, imaginative grant writers will include outreach anyway. An SOP or Health Navigator proposal is just a gigantic outreach effort, but the basic structure of outreach can be applied to most any project design.

The point of outreach is to connect some target population with something that is supposed to improve their life outcomes (free proposal phrase here). Within this context (another free proposal phrase here), there are two basic types of outreach: local and regional/statewide. Local outreach almost always includes:

  • One-on-one information meetings conducted with the staff of other providers to give them the good news about the program, so that they will refer their eligible clients.
  • Presentations to community groups, faith-based organizations and any other group that has a constituency that could benefit from the program, or, barring that, any other constituency that can be gathered in one place at one time.
  • Press releases to whatever print media that remains alive in your target area.
  • Radio and TV public service announcements (PSAs), although these have largely been superseded by YouTube uploads.
  • Direct mailings and email blasts, using as many mailing lists as you can find and/or develop.
  • Widespread distribution of posters and other printed material touting the project’s message, ideally in every language spoken by the target population, up to and including Elbonian.
  • The ever-popular “street-based” outreach, which requires a brave Outreach Worker to actually leave the comforts of their warm agency nest and venture out to where the target population hangs out: parks, community centers, welfare offices, public housing projects, liquor store parking lots, minimarts, barber shops, basket ball courts, and so on.
  • Use of Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, group texting, and whatever other “new” media seems plausible. We’re often tempted to include a social media tool that doesn’t actually exist, but we choose the path of righteous honesty and have not actually done so.
  • The only real question is whether to use a dedicated outreach worker, usually a peer of the target population, or a portion of the time of other proposed staff. Keep in mind that having a dedicated outreach person can lead to unfortunate acronyms like “Peer Outreach Worker” (POW), or even worse (particularly for female target populations): a Community Outreach Worker. You’ve been warned, watch your acronyms!

For regional/statewide outreach initiatives like Health Navigators, one or both of the following complications are usually added to make the funder think you’ll actually find eligible clients in distant places:

  • Propose a hub-and-spoke system with a circuit riding Outreach Worker. Your agency is the hub in Minneapolis and you find collaborators in Owatonna, Climax, Blue Earth, and Sleepy Eye Minnesota, to periodically host an Outreach Worker. She’s in Blue Earth on Tuesdays, Climax on Thursdays, and so forth. When in Sleepy Eye, the Outreach Worker reaches out, using the above toolkit. If you’re really frisky, you can open small site offices in other towns, so the Outreach Worker has a place to nest and preen while visiting.
  • Use a train-the-locals approach in which your Outreach Worker trains staff or volunteers from indigenous organizations in the region to conduct the various outreach strategies, using social media to watch over her dispersed brood.

Now you know how to develop an outreach component: no need to convene a group-think, draw circles and arrows on white boards, and eat donuts.

* For those of you keeping score at home, this makes it the DHHS ACF FYSB SOP FOA. I know it looks like cryptography, but the acronym is actually just your tax dollars at work.

A Lesson in Passthrough Funds and Capacity Building: ACF’s Non-Profit Capacity Building Program NOFA

If you read this week’s grant newsletter, you probably saw the NOFA for the Administration for Children and Families’s “Non-Profit Capacity Building Program,” which I first thought meant “pass-through funds,” since the purpose is “to increase the capacity of a small number of intermediary grantees to provide specific assistance to improve the sustainability of and expand services provided by small and midsize nonprofits in communities facing resource hardship challenges.” Do you know what would help those agencies? Money.

Unfortunately, I was wrong: it initially looks like pass-through funds but isn’t.

If you dig into the NOFA, you’ll find that “specific assistance” means that applicants should propose activities like “a comprehensive strategy of various learning activities and methods to increase the knowledge, skills, and abilities of recipients to implement performance management systems as well as any other best practice areas to target for improvement.” If I were a small nonprofit, I’d prefer that “specific assistance” mean “direct funding,” but here it doesn’t; the best you can do is use “a small portion of funds [. . .] to provide minor capital investments in the capacity of certain recipients such as the purchase of specific software or systems to improve infrastructure.”

I’m guessing that, if you surveyed the nonprofits “facing resource hardship challenges” to be “helped” by well-meaning but paternalistic intermediary organizations if they’d prefer “various learning activities and methods” or “cold, hard cash,” they’d prefer the latter. Isaac has written extensively on the challenges and opportunities nonprofits face in the current climate, and a dearth of training hasn’t been one. As he said, when donations and contracts dry up, smart nonprofits turn to grants. Less smart ones disappear. I think the ACF’s nominal purpose in running this program is to help small nonprofits. Its real purpose, however, is to help the intermediate nonprofits that are supposed to run a variation on train-the-trainers.

How do you do that? The NOFA itself says that “applicants will focus their organizational development assistance program on developing and implementing performance management systems that enable organizations to measure their progress and improve their performance towards intended outcomes.” So it wants nonprofits to basically act like Accenture, IBM Global Services, or the other big consultants that are frequently the target of Dilbert. We’ve written a number of funded proposals over the years to do activities like this, and one key is understanding what I’ve laid out above: you’re passing out training, not money.

You don’t see a huge number of pass-through awards because they just increase administrative friction: ACF is paying staffers to write the RFP, review applications, and so forth, it isn’t going to give grants to “intermediary” nonprofits to… write a mini-RFP solicit applications, review applications, and so forth, probably to the tune of 10 – 30% of the grant. You’ll find pass-through grants at the state level, but very rarely lower than that.

Foundation appeal clients occasionally want to run variations on pass-through programs. Some clients, for example, will provide scholarships to people with a particular illness, like Groat’s disease. We tell them not to do this, however, because if the funder wants to fund any kind of cash payment scheme, they’ll do so directly and cut out the middleman. You want to look like something more than the middleman. Foundations mostly like direct services. As the “Non-Profit Capacity Building Program” shows, so do the feds.