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The 2020 presidential election and grants: A tsunami of RFPs is likely, no matter who wins

America is a day away from what one of my adult kids calls, “this shit-show election.” A bit harsh for me, but certainly, as Jerry Seinfeld might call it, a Bizzaro World election. Still, from a grant seeker’s or grant writer’s perspective, a tsunami of RFPs is likely roaring toward us.

Despite media speculation, the amount of grant funds available almost inexorably goes up; this is due partially to the fact that the federal budget is a baseline, not a zero-based, system. The budget for the federal FY ’21, which began October 1, is essentially the FY ’20 budget, with a cost of living bump and whatever Congress added for COVID-19 and pet interests. With the possible exception of the first two years of the Reagan administration, I don’t think there’s ever been an actual, substantial reduction in federal discretionary grant spending. When your read the inevitable NYT or Washington Post story following a Republican victory about looming “budget cuts,” what’s usually being proposed is a percentage cut to planned spending increases—not actual cuts.

Despite endless polls and punditry, no one knows how the presidential and congressional elections will turn out. But consider, from a grant-seeking perspective:

    • By almost any measure, 2020 is the Year of Chaos and upper level bureaucrats (GS 14s and 15s) who run federal grant making agencies are both overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis and frozen in place by the last months of this election cycle. Many of the Republican political appointees (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Funny Walks, ect.) are busy updating their resumes, or are busy with clandestine political work. There have been way fewer FY ’21 RFPs issued so far than would normally be the case by this time of year. When the election miasma lifts in a week or two, the federal bureaucracy will be shoveling RFPs out the door to catch up.
    • In the run-up to the elections, the last multi-trillion dollar COVID-19 relief bill wasn’t passed, yet America is experiencing another series of spikes, which will likely lead to more lockdowns and ongoing economic misery. A huge new relief bill will likely pass during the lame duck session, and it will in turn likely be studded with what are called “Christmas ornaments”—special interest funding items placed amid the larger bill components. Some of the basic relief funding, as well as some the ornaments, should result in new discretionary grants—either for existing programs or new ones that Congress dreams up. These RFPs will add to the torrent of already authorized FY ’21 funding.
    • Even if Trump pulls out a victory, there’ll be many new faces in House and especially the Senate, because there are many more contested races than usual this year. It’ll be almost irresistible for the departing members, as well as the ones who survive, to authorize more FY ’21 spending for discretionary grant programs during the lame- duck session. Congress can pass new budget authorization bills at any time, as long as the spending bill starts in the House, and what better time than just before you return home to look for work after losing an election? Almost all polls find, however, that Democrats likely to keep the House, but the Senate is still in tea leaf reading mode.

The coming RFP flood presents real-world challenges for many nonprofits. The first three COVID-19 bills had many programs (meaning, more-or-less automatic funding without an RRP process) for certain types of grant recipients, and especially for healthcare providers like hospitals and FQHCs. This money is running out and, while it has to some extent cushioned the immediate negative impacts of COVID-19, most nonprofit management teams have been thrown into chaos, with disrupted fundraising plans, curtailed local revenue for city/county funded contracts for human services, and layoffs—often at the same time as service demands have increased. Many nonprofits will lack the internal resources or focus to go after new grants, because management is too busy keeping their boat afloat. This is good news for the nonprofits with the energy (or consultants like us) to gin up technically correct grant proposals in next few months, since the competition should be less for any given RFP process.

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Hurricane Sandy and the Election Combine to Blow Away the RFPs

Dedicated readers of our e-mail grant newsletter have probably noticed how slender it’s been over the last four weeks. The newsletter isn’t slender because we’re reluctant to share grant opportunities with you—it’s slender because federal and state governments haven’t been issuing very many RFPs, and they’ve been issuing even fewer interesting RFPs of the sort that nonprofit and public agencies are likely to apply for. Whatever the merits of, say, the Tunisia Community College Scholarship Program or Research Using Biosamples from Selected Type 1 Diabetes Clinical Studies, they’re undeniably specialized programs that are unlikely to interest the vast majority of our subscribers.

Like any good grant Kremlinologists, we have to admit that we don’t know everything and can only make reasonable inferences based on limited data. With that caveat in mind, our best guess about the RFP drought is that DC has been hit with two major punches: Hurricane Sandy and the election. The former hasn’t done too much damage to Washington itself, but preparing for it set the city back by a couple of days, and the Northeast corridor still hasn’t recovered. The situation is sufficiently bad that deadlines are also being extended because of the chaos in the Northeast. The Race To The Top—District (RTTT-D) program, for example, had its deadline extended, but at first the Department of Education didn’t give a new deadline. The actual extension dates—Nov. 2 for everyone else and Nov. 7 for those affected by Sandy—took a couple of days.

The election shouldn’t directly impact the grant cycle, but it does because DC is a company town, and everyone in the town is waiting to see what’s going to happen at the top. Although the civil service employees who actually run grant competitions won’t be directly affected by the winners and losers of Tuesday’s elections, their political appointee masters will be, and the tenor of what’s happening in each department may change. As a result, it’s not infrequent to see this kind of federal torpor right before an election, and that, we think, is why you’ve seen such thin newsletters recently. Not to worry, though, because there should be a “storm surge” of RFPs when the bureaucracy rises from its election lassitude.