Tag Archives: Department of Energy

Seliger + Associates writes a $2.5 million, funded Department of Energy (DOE) Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) proposal

A $2.5 million Department of Energy Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) proposal we wrote for an electric utility company was funded last week, and, while we write lots of funded proposals, this one was especially gratifying. Faithful readers will remember that last April I wrote No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer; I wrote it because I was constantly explaining to callers who’d been overcome with Stimulus Bill Fever that Seliger + Associates can write almost any DOE proposal, even though we’d never written one and didn’t have any technical background in energy-related project concepts.

The SGIG program came along with $4 billion to enable electric utilities to add whiz bang features to their distribution systems. The enormous amount of money, along with the the media Stimulus Bill hype, produced a flood of callers. Most were inventors, start-up companies, quick-buck artists and dreamers, but among the assorted flotsam and jetsam were calls from three qualified SGIG applicants—electric utility companies.

All three had more or less the same reaction to my pitch: “Since you’re just a general purpose grant writing firm and don’t have electrical engineers on staff, what makes you think you can write a SGIG proposal?” My response became: read the above blog post and accept at face value my observation that, in almost 17 years of being in business, we’d never run across a topic we couldn’t write to, assuming we’re provided with technical content, fava beans* and a fine Chianti (the last two are a test to see if you’re paying attention: they actually come from Hannibal Lector discussing how to enjoy liver). Basically, I said the same thing I often tell potential clients: hiring us is a lot like Demi Moore in Ghost being advised by Whoopi Goldberg—if you want to see Patrick Swayze again, you’re going to have to believe. Similarly, the client has to suspend their own preconceptions, which are usually misconceptions, about grant writing, to believe we can write on any topic for any funder.

Two of the qualified SGIG callers did not “believe” and presumably kept searching in the forest for the perfect, but ephemeral, grant writing “unicorn” I described in my original post. One caller became our sole SGIG client for this funding round. The application process culminated in a finely crafted proposal that went in on the deadline day. Flash forward to this week, when I took a small break from toiling over a hot Los Angeles County Area Agency on Aging Supportive Services Program (SSP) proposal to check Cnn.com to see if space aliens had landed on the White House lawn or what have you. President Obama was off somewhere announcing the SGIG awards, so I immediately found the DOE press release to see which applications were funded and saw the proposal we wrote.** I also checked for the other two utility companies, which were not on the list. Perhaps they never found their unicorn, or the unicorn they found turned out be be just a pony with a party hat.

Score one for our general purpose grant writing approach. Still, the writing process for the SGIG was complicated by the fact our client, an electric utility, had never submitted a federal proposal but had lots of bright and talented staff and consultants, so we were endlessly explaining and defending the “Seliger method” for writing proposals. Fortunately for the client, who paid us on hourly basis, we could simply say, read blog post x, rather than forcing us to tediously explaining why we were doing what we were doing or not doing at $200/hour.

I would like to share more about the proposal, but I can’t because we signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). I think, however, that the proposal was funded because of a “national security” argument we developed that the client had not considered. Once again, to paraphrase what I wrote last May in another post on writing DOE and similar high-tech proposals, Professional Grant Writer at Work: Don’t Try This At Home, Seliger + Associates is tanned, fit, relaxed and ready. Now that a DOE proposal we wrote has been funded, we could always claim to be “experts,” but we’ll just keep on keepin’ on as general purpose grant writers to get our clients “tangled up in green.”

* I love to cook, and when Jake and his siblings were little kids, I got it in my head to make fresh fava beans a few times. This exhausting process involves shelling, blanching, and peeling before one gets around to the actual cooking. Like other tasty but enervating recipes I’ve tried over the years (e.g., mousaaka, chili rellenos, etc.), if you get in the mood to make fava beans, lie down until the feeling passes and take yourself to a fine Italian restaurant, like Angelini Osteria in West Hollywood or Vivace and its sister Vivace Pizzeria in Tucson.

** As is often the case, our client forgot to let us know that the SGIG proposal we wrote was funded, so I had to dig around to find out. I know the client knew because federal funding agencies always send an award letter to the applicant and almost always lets their congressperson know about the grant before the press release is sent out. This is why the applicant’s congressional district number is required on the SF424. I am used to clients forgetting who wrote their funded proposals and, as pros, we do not need “attaboys.”

Professional Grant Writer At Work: Don’t Try Writing A Transportation Electrification Proposal At Home

Seliger + Associates was recently hired to edit a proposal for the charmingly titled U.S. Department of Energy National Energy and Technology Laboratory Recovery Act-Transportation Electrification (NETLRATE)* program. We edit proposals all the time; the unusual part of this assignment is our client, which is a successful tech company with lots of engineer types instead of the human service folks who typically hire us. The CEO told me that his company has experience in submitting business proposals to tech and manufacturing companies and would have no problem writing the proposal. They just wanted us to review it, but the resulting fiasco demonstrates why our client would have been much better served to simply hire us to write the entire proposal, even though we know little about electric vehicles (as I discussed in No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer). But, as with the advice Wavy Gravy gave at Woodstock about watching out for the brown acid, “it’s your trip.”

A week or two went by, with the Seliger + Associates team using our secret proposal production machine to extrude applications. The deadline for our DOE client to email his draft came and went. Two days later, and within a week of the deadline, the draft appeared in my inbox, along with the 41-page, single-spaced Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA). The email said we should look at page 33 of the FOA, which our client used as a guide to prepare the draft. I looked and found the ever-popular “review criteria.” Here is a snippet (it actually goes on for two pages):

Evaluation Criteria for Area of Interest 1, 2, and 3

Criterion 1: Technical Approach and Project Management Weight: 40%
• Responsiveness and relevance to the programmatic research goals and requirements identified in this announcement for this area of interest, including rationale for the vehicle and/or infrastructure design
• Demonstrated knowledge and understanding of vehicle design and manufacturing, related past and current work and how the proposed effort builds on or expands from these prior efforts to ensure a production-intent design, i.e., their adaptation of and application to specific vehicle propulsion systems and platforms
• Degree and source of the identified risk in demonstrating the proposed technology, including definition of potential technology deficiencies along with proposed solutions to mitigate the risk;
• Innovativeness of the proposed technology

I immediately knew that our client, no matter how smart and experienced a businessperson he is, had fallen into The Danger Zone of Common RFP Traps I wrote about last year. RFPs often include convoluted criteria that unnamed “reviewers” will supposedly use to score the proposal, which are often separate from the instructions for the proposal itself.

The problem is that such criteria are invariably hidden somewhere in the bowels of the RFP and may or may not be referenced in the RFP completion instructions. I did what I always do to find the instructions and searched for “pages” and “page,” and uncovered detailed instructions on how to construct the NETLRATE proposal on page 22 of the FOA. Here is a nugget from the four pages of instructions:

The project narrative must include:

• Project Objectives: This section should provide a clear, concise statement of the specific objectives/aims of the proposed project.

• Merit Review Criterion Discussion: The section should be formatted to address each of the merit review criterion and sub-criterion listed in Part V.A. Provide sufficient information so that reviewers will be able to evaluate the application in accordance with these merit review criteria. DOE WILL EVALUATE AND CONSIDER ONLY THOSE APPLICATIONS THAT ADDRESS SEPARATELY EACH OF THE MERIT REVIEW CRITERION AND SUB-CRITERION.

• Relevance and Outcomes/Impacts: This section should explain the relevance of the effort to the objectives in the program announcement and the expected outcomes and/or impacts.

The second bullet point references the “criterion discussion,”** where our client should have placed his 15-page, single-spaced narrative. He did not realize that there were instructions, so this would have been hard to do. But his draft included an abstract, the instructions for which are also on page 22. This means he must have seen the instructions without fully realizing what they were.

That was his first major problem. The second was the draft itself, which was filled with the kind of self-congratulatory public relations happy talk that one finds in news releases and brochures. While coherent and well written, it wasn’t proposalese. Rather, it reiterated the “a delicious lunch was served” formulations that every freshman journalism student learns not to write. And the proposal did not follow the pattern of the four criteria pages and 40 or so bullet points. The response was technically incorrect and would probably not be evaluated, per the second bullet point in the above FOA quote.

Within two minutes of opening the file, I realized that our client had misunderstood the FOA and had written a marketing piece, not a proposal. Since we don’t hide from our clients, I called our contact and gave him the bad news that there was no point in having us edit his draft, as it was formatted wrong and written like a press release. He took it well and didn’t try to shoot the messenger, which is a not uncommon reaction to bad news. As Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” Callahan says in Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” and our contact now does.

Instead of wasting our time and his money on pointless editing, I rewrote the Abstract to reflect the instructions along with the ever popular “5 Ws and the H” and produced a detailed outline of the proposal with about a dozen Word paragraph styles*** following the pattern of the completion instructions. I also wrote lots of connector phrases and left assorted blanks for him to fill in, which is a paint by numbers approach to grant writing (this reference shows you how old I am).

Due to other writing commitments caused by our old friend the Stimulus Bill, we couldn’t spend any more time on this project, no matter how much our client was willing to pay, as we never accept assignments we can’t complete. With a $16 million grant on the line, it would have been much more cost effective for our client to have hired us to write the entire proposal in the first place. You may have noticed the small text that scrolls at the bottom of TV ads showcasing cars like the new 2011 FiCrysler Electric Eel roadster tearing across the desert at at 150 MPH, stating “Professional driver on closed course, do not attempt.” When it comes to grant writing, spend your time working on things you know how to do and hire a pro.

* This acronym is not actually used in the FOA. I just wanted to see what it would look like. Let’s try pronouncing it: “nettlerate?” I would have changed the name to National Action to Make America Special through Transportation Electricfication (NAMASTE). Maybe I’ve spent too much time watching Lost or perhaps I just need a calming Sanskrit word after too much fevered Stimulus Bill grant writing.

** Obviously no English majors were involved in the production of this FOA, as I believe the work they were looking for is “criteria,” when referring to “criterion” in the plural, although saying “criterion” makes me feel vaguely intellectual.

ibm-1-small-3*** While the draft proposal was written in Word, no paragraph styles were used. Instead, he used the default “normal” style for everything, along with tab stops. This proposal looked like it had been typed by the curvy secretary, Joan Hollway, on my favorite TV program, Mad Men, using an IBM Selectric typewriter. We have a Selectric III (distinguished from the Selectric II by the spacey orange backlight on the tab bar). We rescued this remarkable example of industrial design 15 years ago, and it still performs flawlessly when called upon every couple of months to complete a paper form. It gets serviced every three years. We’ll be able to keep it until the last typewriter repairman dies, at which point we will use it as a boat anchor, since it weighs about 50 pounds. Incidentally, you can get a similar feel on some modern keyboards, like the IBM Model M / Unicomp Customizer.

No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer

The Stimulus Bill deluge has begun, and we’ve been getting lots of calls from for-profit companies interested in Department of Energy “Funding Opportunity Announcements” (FOA is DOE-speak for RFP). Usually the caller will say something along the lines of, “So, how many funded proposals for Dilithium Crystal research have you written?” This leads me to launch into my standard response, which is more less as follows:

We’ve never written funded proposals for this particular unusual topic—but so what? There are lots of things we haven’t written about. Looking for qualified grant writers is about the same as looking for unicorns: don’t make a hard problem insolvable by looking for a unicorn with a horn of a certain length or one that has purple spots. Be happy to find one at all. And, of course, keep in mind that most creatures you’ll find in the forest that look like unicorns are actually just ponies with party hats taped to their heads.

We’re also transparent to funding sources, so it’s not like the DOE Program Officer is going to say, “Great, another proposal from Seliger + Associates, we love these guys” (or the reverse). The funding source won’t even know we exist, so the proposal is going to rise or fall based on the believability of the applicant, the competition, the technical correctness of the proposal and the story it tells. We take care of and are experts in the last two aspects. The first one is up to the client, and the second is unknowable. To hire us, you have to be like Demi Moore responding to Patrick Swayze’s question in Ghost: “Do you believe?” If you believe we can write the proposal, hire us. Otherwise, crack your knuckles and start writing the proposal yourself.

In saying the above, which I’ve been doing endlessly for the past two months, I’m trying to get across the concept that qualified grant writers like Seliger + Associates could presumably write anything, just as journalists are trained to cover anything. When I started this business 16 years ago, my immediate background was mostly in economic development and redevelopment. I quickly decided that what the world needed was general purpose grant writing firms, and we took on any proposal writing assignment for which the client was eligible and able to afford our fees. We began writing all kinds of human services proposals about which we knew essentially nothing.

For example, in late 1993, we wrote a proposal for a small nonprofit in South Central Los Angeles for the then-new HUD version of the YouthBuild program. The NOFA was fantastically complex and disjointed, demonstrating how some things don’t change. After studying the NOFA like a Talmudist using the “pilpul” approach, I quickly discerned that it was really just another job training program and not an affordable housing program, despite being issued by HUD and being wrapped up in housing ribbons. We wrote the proposal, which was the only YouthBuild grant awarded in Southern California for that first funding cycle, even though competing applicants included the LA County Housing Authority and lots of other heavy hitters. It was probably funded because we were the only grant writers who could cobble together a compelling story in the face of the incoherent and obtuse NOFA.*

As this first YouthBuild (and eventually dozens of other proposals) were funded for a cacophony of organizations and programs, we could have proclaimed ourselves “experts” in numerous areas. No matter how many funded proposals on any particular topic we’ve churned out over the years, however, we still call ourselves generalists and never represent the company any other way. I often describe our knowledge base as being like an oil slick: a few molecules thick and very wide. Whenever someone hires us to write for a program or project concept we know nothing about—which is quite often—the slick becomes a bit wider, but not much thicker. So, while we’re pretty familiar with, say, SAMHSA or HRSA from writing endless proposals to them, we still don’t claim special knowledge about substance abuse treatment or primary health care. As we like to say, “we just write ’em.”

I am old enough to have been a busy, busy grant writer during the energy crisis of the late 1970s and actually wrote a funded proposal for the long-forgotten DOE Electric Vehicle Demonstration Grant Program and other state and federal alternative energy programs. When working as the Grants Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, I was detailed to find companies and grants to recycle the approximately 6,000,000 old tires that had been stored on about 20 acres of land in Lynwood since World War II. I put out the word that the City was looking for would-be tire recyclers and was soon inundated with lots of folks who wanted to use someone else’s money to try out their tire recycling schemes.

These ranged from the somewhat plausible, like turning the tires back into oil, to my personal favorite, turning them into margarine. I am not making this up: “Steel-belted Blue Bonnet, anyone?” None of these panned out, although I had a lot of fun flying around the country to look at prototype plants. As luck would have it, none of those prototypes were actually operating when I got there (“you should have been here yesterday!”) and all seemed to be fronted by two guys: a fast talking promoter type in white shoes and a white belt—this is the ’70s, remember—and a “scientist” with a vague German/Eastern European accent (“Vie vill take ze tires und cook zem until ze molecules crack. Zen vie vill make zem into ze margarine!”).

Flash forward to 2009. The Stimulus Bill gusher is roaring and bringing out lots of folks who want their piece of the DOE pie. Guess what? For every seemingly legit potential applicant (e.g. utility company, car battery manufacturer, etc.), I’m getting about two calls from the “white shoes and mad scientist” crowd. We’re happy to work for anyone as long as they are eligible applicants. But it helps if they also can provide us with technical content about their research design, proposed products, etc. We’re now writing a fair number of DOE proposals and, sooner or later, one or more will be funded. Will this make us “experts” at DOE grants? No: we’ll still just be general purpose grant writers, but the slick will be wider and perhaps even a nanometer (a little tech talk to get myself in the mood for DOE) or two thicker.

The real point of this post is that a good grant writer should be able to write anything, just as I was able to write the Electric Vehicle proposal in the ’70s. As Randy Jackson likes to say on American Idol, “The theory is that Mariah Carey can sing anything. You hear that expression, ‘She can sing the phone book.’ So if you can really sing, you should be able to sing anything, so we’re testing them. That’s the whole competition.” It pains me to admit it, but over the last two years I’ve finally succumbed to the many charms of Idol (or, as Jake calls it, American Idle). While I’ve yet to bring myself to vote, I finally grok the show, and it’s obvious that Randy is right. Some contestants, like this year’s Adam Lambert and Danny Gokey and last year’s winner, David Cook, really could sing the phone book, while others, like this year’s just kicked off Megan Joy or last year’s dreadlocked wonder Jason Castro, are really mediocre singers. In picking a grant writer, make sure they really can “sing the phone book, Dawg.”

* A fun anecdote: when HUD issued the YouthBuild NOFA for the next funding round the following year, the NOFA had been changed to model the proposal we had written. In other words, we had explained the YouthBuild program to HUD by writing a simple, declarative proposal in the face of extraordinary obfuscation.

Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing

The passage of the Stimulus Bill corresponded almost perfectly with Valentine’s Day, a perhaps unintended but still humorous outcome. While I have not had time to dig through the 1,100 page bill, I know that funding for enough grant programs, new and old, survived to keep grant writers busy, busy, busy. But my topic today is not to peek into the candy store to drool over the tasty funding treats, but rather to consider how the Feds are going to actually shovel $800,000,000,000 out the door.

Since the bill was first proposed, I have been concerned about the logistics of funding distribution and have fired off numerous emails to reporters at the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post to try to get them to cover the “how” of the 5 W’s and the H. While I am unsure whether it was a result of my emails, Stephen Power and Neil King, Jr., finally did so with an illustrative piece in the February 13, 2009 issues of the WSJ called “Next Challenge on Stimulus: Spending All That Money.” The reporters take the reader through the tortured process of a Minnesota company trying to access a large Department of Energy (DOE) Loan Guarantee.

Although this company applied during a previous funding round, the Stimulus Bill includes billions more for this initiative, which is supposed to fund the kind of “green, energy-efficient” businesses and jobs that President Obama heralds. As of today, the DOE actually has an open competition for this program. What’s particularly fun is that we happen to be writing a proposal for the DOE Loan Guarantee program. While a non-disclosure agreement prevents me from discussing the project on which we are working, I am very familiar with RFP, which was originally issued on September 22, 2008 with a deadline of December 31—but it was extended to the end of February. I guess the DOE hasn’t gotten the memo from the White House about how growing green jobs helps solve the economic crisis. But I digress.

This RFP is one of the most complicated RFPs I have ever encountered and is filled with confusing directions, references to obscure regulations that are not included in the package, bizarre questions, and so on. It also requires the applicant to produce a dizzying array of attachments, certifications, etc. In other words, the DOE has made it about as difficult as they can to get loan funds, which makes great work for grant writers but presumably discourages applicants. And, remember, these are loans that have to be repaid, not grant funds.

The WSJ story recounts the sad tale of Sage Electrochromatics’ attempts to get its hands on the loan proceeds. Although the loan guarantee was long ago approved, the company won’t see the money until the end of this year at the earliest. The reporters use Sage’s experience to discuss the challenge to be faced by applicants for Stimulus Bill funds. As one who wrote his first funded Department of Energy grant in 1979 during the last energy crisis for the long gone Electric Vehicle Demonstration Program, I know this is not a new situation, as Federal bureaucrats are usually in no mood to work quickly. But the story does raise the specter of what is going to happen, or more likely not happen, when the ink dries on the Stimulus Bill.

Most folks don’t understand and the press rarely covers how, in most cases funds have to be appropriated, regs written, RFPs issued, applications submitted, applications reviewed and ranked, award letters sent out, final budgets negotiated and contracts signed to spend money. The key personnel in this folderol are the small number of Program Officers in the various Federal departments who manage the process. 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.

As a result—and despite the best intentions of our President and Congress—it’s going to take quite a while to get the money to the streets. Most Federal agencies usually take anywhere from three to six months to select grantees and probably another three months to sign contracts. My experience with Federal employees is that they work slower, not faster, under pressure, and there is no incentive whatsoever for a GS-10* to burn the midnight oil. Federal staffers are just employees who likely don’t share the passion of the policy wonks in the West Wing or the grant applicants. They just do their jobs, and, since there are protected by Civil Service, they cannot be speeded up. Also, there are no bonuses in the Federal system for work above and beyond the call of duty.

Let’s take my old friend YouthBuild in the Department of Labor, which was transferred out of HUD a few years ago. The deadline for the FY ’09 YouthBuild program was January 15, so there are hundreds of applications sitting under half-filled coffee cups and stale donuts in the sub-basement of the DOL building in various stages of review for the $59,000,000 – $70,000,000 then available (the range comes from Senate/House conflicts in the original appropriations bill). Along comes the Stimulus Bill, which adds $50,000,000. Now we’re talking as much as $120,000,000 for YouthBuild, or well over twice the amount awarded in the last funding cycle in FY ’07.

The question is, what is DOL going to do? It has two choices: (1) more applications that were submitted in January could be funded; or (2) there could be another funding round, opening up the competition and allowing new applications. Logic says door number one, but if I know my federal bureaucrats correctly, door number two will be picked, because this will spread out the work load for the Program Officers and will give DOL time to hire more staff, so that existing Program Officers don’t end up with twice the grantee caseload. Too few Program Officers also increases the potential for fraud, which will already be heightened because of the unprecedented money flood. I’ll let readers know if I am right or wrong.

Of course in addition to more money for YouthBuild and other existing programs, there is funding for lots of entirely new programs, such as the HUD $2,000,000,000 Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), which no one knows how to implement, and $500,000,000 to provide job training through the “Green Jobs Act” under DOL auspices. NSP is in HUD, which means they will have to take staff from the dozens of other competitive HUD grant programs, which are about to issue FY ’09 NOFAs, to hasten this one. When last I visited NSP in December, ‘Tis the Season for Government Folly, Fa La La La La La La La L.A.!, not a single NSP dollar had been spent since the program’s original “emergency” passage in August, and I believe no dollar has yet been spent.

For grant applicants, this means that agencies should apply for as many grants as they can, taking great care to make sure that the applications are technically correct. Since many applicants will believe the stimulus hype and assume that everything will be funded, the majority of applications are likely to be incomplete or incoherent. Because federal reviewers will be told to get the money out as fast as possible, the review is likely to be primarily checklist-oriented, with the Program Officers throwing the garbage proposals over their shoulders. Thus, this is not the time for amateur hour submissions. While it is always important to fly speck your submissions, it will be essential if you want to “have it all.” As the inimitable Vin Diesel says to heart throb Paul Walker in The Fast and the Furious, “If you have what it takes . . . you can have it ALL!”**

* GS refers to “General Schedule” pay grades for Federal employees, which range from GS-1 to GS-15. Most Program Officers are probably GS-8s to GS-11s. Here’s a fun site for calculating GS pay grades. For example, in 2004, a GS-10 working in DC would have made $46,000 to $59,000. The GS-10 is probably stuck in a cubical with a 14″ CRT and Pentium II, along with mismatched furniture, since it is unlikely that any federal managers read about the tools of the trade. This is not exactly a princely sum and probably less than wonderful working conditions—so how likely is it that they will suddenly spring to life to spend the Stimulus package quickly?

** As luck would have it, the original cast has gathered for Fast & Furious, which opens in April. One can only hope that the plot involves Paul Walker getting a Department of Energy grant to build the “ten second car” he owes Vin. After all, electrics have lots of low end torque and street racers only have to go 1/4 mile, so the 40 mile range wouldn’t be a problem. The tag line for the new movie is, “New Model. Original Parts.” This could also be used to describe the somewhat less than successful attempts at changing Washington evident in the Stimulus Bill passage.