Tag Archives: BTOP

Adventures in The Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP), Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), and Figuring Out Where to Start the Narrative

Although this might not seem like it should be a problem, figuring out where to start the narrative section of a proposal can sometimes be difficult: do you write to the evaluation criteria, to something labeled “narrative,” or to a series of text boxes? Federal programs are particularly fond of hiding the salami, as anyone who has had the misfortune of sitting down with a freshly issued, complex RFP can attest.

Novice grant writers often start writing to the wrong section, and Isaac described one example of this occurrence in Professional Grant Writer At Work: Don’t Try Writing A Transportation Electrification Proposal At Home. As he said, “The problem is that [review] criteria are invariably hidden somewhere in the bowels of the RFP and may or may not be referenced in the RFP completion instructions.”

You can see a particularly pernicious example of this in the Broadband Initiatives Program, whose application guide is available at the link. Oh, and you can also read the NOFA that was included in the Federal Register.

There are a few different areas within the NOFA and application guidance you could conceivably respond to. Check out page 16 of the NOFA, which says, “1. BIP Infrastructure Projects. a. General.” It has some point totals, which we usually write against when dealing with, say, YouthBuild. In the case of BIP, however, that would be logical, but wrong, because the application guide has more detailed instructions. If you look in it, you’ll be tempted by page 8 (though it’s labeled “7” in the hard copy) because it has scoring criteria similar but not identical to what’s in the NOFA.

Confused yet? Me too. But if you keep looking, you’ll find that the the place you actually want to start is page 14 (which is labeled 13) in the guidance, which says “Executive Summary.” As far as I know, however, no part of the NOFA or the application guidance actually come right and say, “write to the questions/criteria starting on page 14, which is actually labeled page 13 in the hard copy!” If you don’t take the time to study both the application guide and the NOFA, you could end up with an incomplete and totally wrong application on which you’ve spent dozens of work hours.

There’s another amusing part of the BIP NOFA, which has implications for this and other programs. It says, “Describe the methodology, source of data, and analytical approaches used to determine whether the proposed funded service areas are classified as “unserved,” ”underserved,” or for BIP, at least 75% rural.” But the NOFA already describes what “unserved” and “underserved” mean on page 7:

Specifically, a proposed funded service area may qualify as underserved for last mile projects if at least one of the following factors is met, though the presumption will be that more than one factor is present: 1. No more than 50 percent of the households in the proposed funded service area have access to facilities-based, terrestrial broadband service at greater than the minimum broadband transmission speed (set forth in the definition of broadband above); 2. No fixed or mobile broadband service provider advertises broadband transmission speeds of at least three megabits per second (‘‘mbps’’) downstream in the proposed funded service area […]

And it goes on from there. The most obvious maneuver to answer this question is to copy the exact language from the NOFA and spit it back in the response. They’ve given you the answer: you just have to use it. This isn’t a college exam, where you get extra credit for creativity; you get extra credit for staying in the lines. Save your imaginative powers for writing novels or composing software—in many grant writing exercises, imaginative powers will be wasted and possibly harmful, because your job is often to stack one two by four on top of another two by four to build the application following the RFP blueprints. The only question is where you need to build your foundation, and that’s what I’ve tried to answer in this post; the foundation issue will have to wait for another.

Oh, and the best part of all this: the narrative section for our client turned out to be around 30 pages long. The application guide is 72 pages long. I would propose a test of an RFP: if it takes longer to explain how to apply to a program than to describe what the applicant will actually do, the RFP writer has failed in some significant way.

On the Subject of Crystal Balls and Magic Beans in Writing FIP, SGIG, BTOP and Other Fun-Filled Proposals

I’ve noticed a not-too-subtle change in RFPs lately—largely, I think, due to the Stimulus Bill—that requires us to drag out our trusty Crystal Ball, which is an essential tool of grant writing. Like Bullwinkle J. Moose, we gaze into our Crystal Ball and say,”Eenie meenie chili beanie, the spirits are about to speak,” as we try to answer imponderable questions. For example, our old friend the HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 (NSP2) wants:

A reasonable projection of the extent to which the market(s) in your target geography is likely to absorb abandoned and foreclosed properties through increased housing demand during the next three years, if you do not receive this funding.

How many houses will be foreclosed upon, but also absorbed, in our little slice of heaven target area in 2012? If I was smart enough to figure this out, I’d be buying just the right foreclosed houses in just the right places, instead of grant writing. People much smarter than us who were predicting in 2005 how many houses they’d need to absorb in 2009 were tremendously, catastrophically wrong, which is why we’re in this financial mess in the first place: you fundamentally can’t predict what will happen to any market, including real estate markets. Consequently, HUD’s question is so silly as to demand the Crystal Ball approach, so we nailed together available data, plastered it over with academic sounding metric mumbo jumbo, and voila! we had the precise numbers we needed. In other words, we used the S.W.A.G. method (“silly” or “scientific wild assed guess,” depending on your point of view). I have no idea why HUD would ask applicants a question that Warren Buffett (or, Jimmy Buffet for that matter, who may or may not be a cousin of Warren) could not answer, but answer we did.

You can find another example of Crystal Ball grant writing in the brand new and charmingly named Facility Investment Program (FIP), brought to us by HRSA, which are for Section 330 providers (e.g. nonprofit Community Health Centers (CHCs)). We’re writing a couple of these, which requires us to drag out the ‘ol Crystal Ball again, since the applicant is supposed to keep track of the “number of construction jobs” and “projected number of health center jobs created or retained.”

I just lean back, imagine some numbers and start typing, since there is neither a way to accurately predict any of this nor a way to verify it after project completion. HRSA is new to the game of estimating and tracking jobs, so they make it easy for us overworked grant writers and applicants by not requiring job creation certifications. Other agencies, like the Economic Development Administration (EDA), which has been about the business of handing out construction bucks for 40 years, are much craftier. For instance, the ever popular Public Works and Economic Development Program requires applicants to produce iron-clad letters from private sector partners to confirm that at least one permanent job be created for every $5,000 of assistance. We’ve written lots of funded EDA grants over the years, and the inevitable job generation issue is always the most challenging part of the application. HRSA will eventually wise up when they are unable to prove that the ephemeral construction and created/retained jobs ever existed. Alternately, they might wise up when they realize the futility of the endeavor in which they’re engaged, but I’m not betting on it.

This tendency to ask for impossible metrics is always true in grant writing, as Jake discussed in Finding and Using Phantom Data, but sometimes it’s more true than others. I ascribe the recent flurry to the Stimulus Bill because more RFPs than usual are being extruded faster than usual, resulting in even less thought going into them than usual, forcing grant writers to spend even more time pondering what our Crystal Balls might be telling us.

Since the term “Crystal Ball” began popping up whenever I scoped a new proposal with a client, I got to thinking of other shorthand ways of explaining some of the more curious aspects of the federal grant making process to the uninitiated and came up with “Magic Beans,” like Jack and the Beanstalk. We’re writing many proposals these days for businesses, who have never before applied for federal funds, for programs like the Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) Program, and the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) of the National Telecommunications & Information Agency.

When scoping such projects, I am invariably on a conference call with a combination of marketing and engineer types. The marketing folks speak in marketing-speak platitudes (“We make the best stuff,” even if they don’t know what the stuff is) and the engineers don’t speak at all. So, to move the process along, and to get answers to the essential “what” and “how” of the project concept, I’ve taken to asking them to, in 20 words or less, describe the “Magic Beans” they will be using and what will happen when the magic beans are geminated after that long golden stream of Stimulus Bucks arcs out of Washington onto their project. This elicits a succinct reply, I can conclude the scoping call, and we can fire up the proposal extruding machine.

So use your Magic Beans to climb the federal beanstalk and reach the ultimate Golden Goose, keeping your Crystal Ball close at hand.