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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.

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All’s Well That Ends Well: A Tale of Hope on the Grant Writing Trail

All’s Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s “problem comedies” that may actually be a tragedy, and it comes to mind as an apropos title for a comedic tale that illustrates one of the many odd aspects of grant writing: why there is little reason to read comments provided by reviewers regarding an unfunded federal proposal*. Such comments, which may be mildly amusing or maddeningly frustrating to read, are usually useless in terms of improving the proposal for another submission. A long-time client’s experience demonstrates this.

Faithful readers will have followed Jake’s two-part deconstruction of the wondrous CBAE RFP, “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 RFP  has been more or less the same for the last several years and pretty much sums up everything that is wrong with most federal RFP processes. Consequently, when a client called last week to discuss a possible new assignment, I was tickled to learn that their agency received a CBAE grant this year.

We wrote their CBAE proposal last year, which was not funded. The client received very negative reviewer comments on the ’07 proposal. Reviewers hated it. My advice to the client at that time was to ignore the comments and submit the proposal again this year. They submitted a proposal this year, virtually unchanged from the one that was trashed, and they were funded.

The primary reason for not taking reviewer comments seriously is the nature of the people reviewing it. Any proposal is read at a point in time by a set of reviewers, who are likely reading other proposals submitted for the same competition and may or may not be interested in the task at hand.

For example, if the proposal is read by five peer reviewers brought to D.C. by DHHS, one may be hung over from bar hopping the night before in Georgetown, one may be anxious to meet their Aunt Martha for dinner, a third may be itching to get to the Air and Space Museum before it closes, and two might be vaguely interested in the review process. And, of the last two, one may have gotten a speeding ticket in your jurisdiction 20 years ago and hates the city. Or, the proposals could be read by federal zombies**, who are disinterested in everything placed before their noses other than donuts. In other words, one has no control over who reviews proposals and what kind of mood they might be in.

Also, just like with job interviews, in which the time of day may make all the difference, a proposal read first thing in the morning by bright-eyed reviewers will likely fare differently than one read by the same bleary group just before the cocktail hour. If that weren’t enough, the values of one reviewer one year might differ greatly from the values of another reviewer another year, and the priorities of the agency might shift slightly from year to year, meaning that a proposal that they hate one year they might love the next. If you submit a complete, well-written, and technically correct proposal, you’ve done as much as you can, and the vagaries of the reviewer can doom or save your application.

It’s pointless to agonize over grant reviewer comments. When our clients send them to us, we look at them briefly to see if there was something obviously wrong with the proposal, but usually there are either just points assigned to various sections or cryptic comments like, “collaboration not demonstrated,” even though there were ten letters of collaboration attached, a list of partners included in the narrative, etc. Sometimes reviewer comments can be either unintentionally hilarious or tragic, depending on your point of view, which brings us back to the Bard.

A case in point: About eight years ago, we wrote a proposal to the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) Social and Economic Development Strategies (SEDS) program on behalf of an Alaskan Native village north of the Arctic Circle for a social development project. The proposal was not funded and the client faxed the review comments to us. Imagine our surprise when the comments talked about the poorly developed project concept of trying to attract tourists to a remote desert area in Arizona! Clearly, the reviewers mixed up at least two proposals and associated the wrong comments with the proposal we had written. We advised our clients to contact ANA, which, in the true spirit of helping vulnerable Alaskan Natives, refused to accept an appeal for what was obviously a major error. Perhaps a better Shakespeare title for this post would be Love’s Labour’s Lost.

* As the King says, perhaps ironically, at the end of the play, “All yet seems well, and if it end so meet [fittingly], / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.”

** While not generally a fan of zombie movies, the most fun iteration in recent years is certainly Shaun of the Dead in which the eponymous hero has trouble at first distinguishing his slacker friends from zombies rising from the grave like grant reviewers emerging from the sub-basement at DHHS after a long day of reading proposals and stampeding to the closest Happy Hour.

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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.