Tag Archives: federal government

You Don’t Forget Your First RFP Amendment Post: DOL’s Face Forward Expands Eligibility Requirements

I got my first federal RFP amended last week.

It’s a bit like being blooded when you’re in the Mafia: the tenth time is just standard procedure, but the first time is special.* Isaac, for instance, has gotten numerous RFPs amended, which is always fun because our clients are amazed by our wizardly abilities.

The original version of DOL’s Face Forward Serving Juvenile Offenders Grants SGA said this about the eligible service population:

An individual may participate in a project funded under these grants if he/she: is between the ages of 16 and 24 on the date of enrollment [. . . and ] has never been involved with the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system.

That’s a big problem for a lot of applicants: in New York and North Carolina, youth ages 16 and up are no longer considered juveniles and are therefore adjudicated by the adult justice system.** The original SGA also states that participants must be “currently involved or has been involved in the juvenile justice system or is currently a candidate for diversion under state guidelines for juvenile diversion Programs.” In most states, 16- and 17-year-old youth would be adjudicated within the juvenile justice system for minor crimes, but that’s not true in all states.

Even if a New York nonprofit identifies youth who were adjudicated by the juvenile justice system prior to age 16, most of those youth are likely to have also been involved in the adult system. Few at-risk youth give up criminal behavior at age 16 without supportive services. This is of course the whole point of Face Forward.

As a result, the original rules would make most New York and North Carolina nonprofits effectively ineligible for Face Forward, because they won’t be able to get enough mandatory participants.

I called and sent an e-mail to Mamie Brown (the Face Forward contact person) outlining the problem. She didn’t return my call but did send back an e-mail that completely ignored the point I described above, and she helpfully said, “Please review the Eligibility Requirements in Section III. 3 a) Eligible Participants of the SGA which clearly states who can participate and receive services under this grant. For your convenience the SGA specifically states [. . . ]”

Yes, thank you, I can read.

Whenever a contact person does this, it’s time to look for decisions makers or (unlike most Program Officers) at least a thinking human being. We decided to shoot for either an undersecretary in the DOL, or, since Face Forward is officially being offered by the Employment Training Administration, we decided to try for Assistant Secretary Jane Oates.

There are two dangers in this kind of bureaucratic wasp-nest poking: getting someone too low on the totem pole, who won’t make any decisions (that’s Mamie) or someone too high, who has no idea what the hell is going on in the bowels of the organization and will often be unwilling to respond until the lower echelons have been exhausted.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to jump straight to the top, but in this case we decided an intermediate person. If the intermediate person hadn’t been helpful, we would at least have her name and correspondence when we went further up the chain.

Anyway, I called Oates and left a message, then sent an e-mail. She was quiet for a few days, which is reasonable and not uncommon: she has to figure out what’s going on herself and formulate a response. But the deadline was approaching, so I also called and wrote New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s office. Senators and House members sometimes become involved in grant program rules if they think their home states aren’t getting a fair shot at the money.

Why? Because Senators and House members love to crow about all the money “they” got for their states and districts. We’ve actually had clients whose first notification of grant award came not from the federal agency, but from reporters calling because a Senator put out a press release about how he got more money for the state. Never mind that he had no bearing on the proposal and that letters from Congresspeople are worthless to applicants: the only thing Congresspeople love more than credit for getting money is money itself.

I don’t know if the person I found at Schumer’s office actually did anything, but a couple days after I contacted them Face Forward Amendment One appeared. The amendment changed “has never been involved with the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system; and has never been convicted of a sexual offense other than prostitution” to “has never been convicted within the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system; and has never been convicted of a sexual offense other than prostitution.”

That works for us. The new criteria makes it easier for our Face Forward clients to recruit eligible participants. Plus, in the real world of providing human services, most nonprofits are going to interpret plea bargains for minor crimes in the adult system as not being convictions—but rather, only being “involvement.”

I even got a nice e-mail from Eric Luetkenhaus, the DOL Grant Officer/Chief, about the amendment. When I wrote back to him and Oates saying to say thanks, I received an even more unusual e-mail from Oates: “Thanks to Eric and his team for fixing this but most of all Jake thanks for bringing this to our attention.” Wow! Usually, federal agencies hate issuing amendments, and we’ve never gotten an attaboy from a federal office before. Being as writers who are either a) well-versed in Federal matters or b) cynics (you decide), we were pleasantly shocked.

This story contains a recipe for how to get RFPs amended. If you want to try, you have to start by making sure there’s something wrong or contradictory in an RFP. If the RFP is okay, you obviously don’t need to amend it. Once you’ve determined that there’s a real problem, however, here’s a guide for public RFPs:

1. Start by calling and e-mailing the program contact. These days, most listed contacts don’t like to answer their phones and actually interact with the grimy, ugly public, members of which tend to do annoying things like ask follow-up questions. Consequently, they’ll probably ignore your calls, and you’ll need to send an e-mail. That’s what I did in this case, and I got the language of the RFP spit back to me by Mamie. First contact is unlikely to generate a useful response: the safest thing for a program officer to do is repeat back the language of the RFP. Consequently, that’s what they’ll almost always do (this is also why bidders’ conferences are generally useless for anything other than schmoozing).

2. Be reasonable. Most program officers face the public, and, while most of the public is reasonable, one crazy person can take a disproportionate amount of time and energy. Your goal is to come across as thoroughly reasonable as possible. If you’re not a good writer, find someone in your organization who is, and get them to write the e-mail. Be sure to directly quote from the RFP sections that concern you. Your freshman English teacher was right: quotation really is better and stronger than paraphrase.***

3. Get a response from the underling. This will show the decision maker you eventually reach that you’ve done your homework and, again, that you’re reasonable. Almost all contact people will behave like Mamie.

4. Be polite, but firm and specific. The “polite” part is key, again, because you can’t actually make a federal bureaucrat do anything they don’t want to do. You need to make sure that you’re perceived as reasonable. If you’re not, you’ll get justifiably binned as a loony. But you should also be firm: you want a change to be made for reasons X, Y, and Z.

5. If that doesn’t work, or doesn’t work expeditiously, try calling and writing your Congressperson or Senator. Some will be indifferent, but you should try to find the field officer or field deputy who deals with the federal agency that issued the RFP. The first person you talk to won’t be a decision-maker; their job will be to screen lunatics and to route constituents. You want to be routed to the right person, and frequently you won’t know who that is before you start. Again, your goal is to be scrupulously polite and reasonable, because the public-facing parts of the Congressperson’s office is designed to weed out lunatics.

Taken together, these steps won’t actually take much time, and they should yield results. But they won’t always. If they don’t, don’t yell and scream and holler. Back down and go back to whatever you’d normally be doing. The minute you start screaming, you’ve probably lost. If you get to the top bureaucrat, you’re probably stuck, and probably stuck permanently. But more often than not, genuine mistakes will be rectified—provided you know how to push effectively.


* Although I don’t have guys named Jimmy Caprese and Big Pussy congratulating me.

** As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” We want teenagers to be adults when they commit crimes and “children” when they have sex, which tells you more about our culture than about teenagers.

And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

Laws, including those embodied in Face Forward, reflect race and gender norms: white girls are the primary target of age-of-consent laws, while African American youth are the target of laws around crime and delinquency. The contradictory trends are readily explained by something rather unpleasant in society.

*** Having taught freshmen English to hundreds of students, I know well the skepticism they feel when I tell them about the powers of quotation.

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.

Be Nice to Your Program Officer: Reprogrammed / Unobligated Federal Funds Mean Christmas May Come Early and Often This Year

I hope faithful readers who are also federal grantees have been nice to their Program Officers, because this could be the year that Christmas comes early and often.

I recently wrote about the unfolding FY 2011 federal budget fiasco. While cruising in the droptop to Palm Spring this weekend to visit relatives, I got to thinking about the next step: what happens when the Republicans win control of at least one house of Congress? Regardless of one’s politics, this looks certain. We’ll have a lame-duck Congress for a few weeks, during which a budget is unlikely to pass, and then an all-out political brawl when the new Congress starts fulminating on January 3. I’m guessing that the budget won’t get resolved until around March, which means the feds will probably operate under Continuing Resolutions for another three to six months.

If you have a direct federal grant and have been a good boy or girl this year by obligating your grant funds, filing timely reports and doing more or less what your grant agreement calls for (e.g., offering family support services but not leasing Porsches or going on site visits to Bimini), Santa may drop in. Provided that the stars align perfectly by having a full-scale budget rumpus unfold, preventing budget adoption by the lame duck congress, the political appointees who run federal agencies (e.g., the Under Secretary of Education for Undersecretarial Affairs) will quickly realize that they need to spend existing budget authority under their Continuing Resolutions ASAP or risk losing the money when the Federal budget is finally adopted.

In some cases, this will mean hurried-up RFPs processes, like the Department of Treasury’s CDFI program, HUD’s Healthy Homes Production Production Program (open, but with short deadlines), and the Department of Education’s Talent Search program (expected to be issued 10/22 with a deadline of 12/9—see theDraft Talent Search RFP for a glimpse of Days of Future Passed.* In other cases, however, the Program Officer may skip the RFP process entirely, however, and request applications from existing grantees. If you are a grantee, don’t be surprised if you get a call or email from your Program Officer in the next few weeks or months asking for a proposal with a week or two turnaround. While you’ll have to submit a technically correct proposal and be willing to accept whatever offer is made, you’ll have no competition. Just submit the proposal, sign the contract, and off you go!

In addition to trying to spend existing budget authority, Program Officers also sometimes have returned grant funds they need to “re-program.” This happens when a grantee screws up their grant, and, assuming that the grantee hasn’t obligated (there’s that word again) their funds, the Program Officer cancels the contract and takes the unobligated money back. To avoid losing the money when the next budget arrives, the Program Officer will sometimes unload the funds on another grantee she likes.

We wrote a funded HUD Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) Program grant in the FY 2009 funding round, which was one of only about 30 grants awarded. Last week, I was talking to this client, and he told me that one of the other grantees had already had their grant pulled because of inactivity. The grantee simply couldn’t get their program launched and the HUD Program Officer lost patience. This gives the LBPHC Program Officer another $2 or $3 million for re-programming. I told our client to be ready for the re-programming call—and so should you!

I’ve experienced the joy of re-programming a few times before I was a consultant. When I was Development Manager for the City of Inglewood in the 1980s (per 2Pac, “Inglewood always up to no good”, I wrote about $20 million in funded FAA grants to support redevelopment under the city’s Airport Noise Control and Land Use Compatibility (ANCLUC) program. This was during the Reagan/Congress budget battles and I was invited to submit a last minute ANCLUC proposal once or twice when my Program Officer got the shanks (note for non-golfers: this is different from “being shanked” in prison).

I’ve heard similar tales from clients and others over the years. Between re-programmed funds and the irresistible urge of Program Officers to shovel money out before the budget door slams shuts, a perfect storm for multiple Christmases is brewing. If you get such a call and feel like sharing, post a comment and we’ll keep you anonymous. Let the grant holidays begin.


* This over-the-top pretentious Moody Blues concept album reminds me of my early grant writing days, as I listened to it about a thousand times in 1970s while I scribbled proposals on to seemingly endless legal pads—not an iPad.

Links: Middle America, phony grant writers, federal spending, and more

* The decline of Middle America and the problem of meritocracy has some observations about small towns similar to what Isaac wrote in “Blue Highways: Reflections of a Grant Writer Retracing His Steps 35 Years Later.”

* Deficit Hawk Turns Dove at Home:

Mr. Conrad’s career shows how hard it is to trim spending, even for those committed to beating down the deficit. Lawmakers from both parties routinely scramble to protect or increase funding for home-state projects. Not since 1965 has Congress approved a budget smaller than the prior year’s.

Emphasis added. Budgets have been expanding for the last 45 years, although I doubt that number is adjusted for inflation.

* Scary, yet fascinating: “A Nation of Racist Dwarfs: Kim Jong-il’s regime is even weirder and more despicable than you thought.”

* The Seattle Times says a phony grant writing scam was operating in the city.

* The Fall of the House of Kennedy links current politics to JFK’s executive order that allowed the unionization of the federal workforce.

* I’ve seldom read a more hilarious yet intellectually engaged post than Miley Cyrus and American Exceptionalism.

* “But green jobs have become the ginseng of progressive politics: a sort of broad-spectrum snake oil that cures whatever happens to ail you.” And remember that no one appears to know what precisely a green job is.

* How Nokia helped Iran “persecute and arrest” dissidents.

* “What’s a Degree Really Worth?” The answer might be “not as much as you think;” still:

Most researchers agree that college graduates, even in rough economies, generally fare better than individuals with only high-school diplomas. But just how much better is where the math gets fuzzy.

But the article doesn’t deal with a) how much different majors earn and b) what students gain outside of mere earning power, which might not translate directly into money. The first is particularly significant: hard science majors tend to make way more than liberal arts majors like me.

* More gangs use Twitter, Facebook, apparently not realizing that both services track your IP address and leave law enforcement an easy evidence trail.

(I can imagine the headline from The Onion: “Area Gang Issues Threats in 140 Characters or Less.”)

* “The Real Danger of Debt: The United States is deep in the red — and doesn’t have the political tools to get out.”

* Tony Judt on “Girls! Girls! Girls!,” which is actually about academic sexual politics a la Blue Angels and Straight Man.

* TSA arrests a student for having Arabic flash cards. Something must be very, very wrong with that institution.

* Rethinking [Dumb] Sex Offender Laws for Teenage Texting.

* Worries about drugs in “middle-class America” have persisted for decades—at least since the 1960s, as Eric Schlosser shows in Reefer Madness. Here’s the latest: “
A lethal business model targets Middle America
: Sugar cane farmers from a tiny Mexican county use savvy marketing and low prices to push black-tar heroin in the United States.”

Isaac recently finished a book named Methland that describes the spectacularly negative impact of meth on small towns in the Midwest.

* The Wall Street Journal says that “Mergers, Closings Plague Charities.” But why would nonprofits having financial difficulties during the Great Recession be surprising? Even though the Conventional Wisdom is that charities “collaborate,” in reality they compete for grants, donations, volunteers, etc. Just like businesses, some with fall or rise in the face of uncertain economic times.

A WSJ Article Illustrates the Program Officer Problem

I just posted “Where Have All the RFPs Gone?,” in which I speculated that the lateness of federal RFPs this fiscal year is probably due to the fact that overworked program officers are still chewing through last year’s proposals. Imagine my surprise when I read “Staffing Woes Hinder Job-Boosting Program” by Michael Aneiro in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. He discovered a HUD program that is way behind in reviewing applications because of a lack of staff to do the reviews.

Even better, while HUD has more money than usual for this Federal Housing Administration (FHA) program, an appropriation for additional staff was not made, so the same number of program officers, fiscal officers and lawyers have to do vastly more work. Since federal employees do not work by the piece, the same number of reviewers have to review more applications, which means they get stuck in the system. All of this will eventually be digested, even as hundreds of new FY ’10 RFPs are published in the coming months.

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.

Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) is the same as it ever was

As grant writers, we usually don’t pay much attention to new grant programs as they move through the regulation writing process, since we are focused on writing proposals, not the policy minutia of federal regs. A caller last week, however, got me to look at the birthing of the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), and I fell in love with this cute little grant puppy, eyes closed and all.

I immediately liked the fact that a lower case “i” is used in the name, which leads me to believe that perhaps archey the cockroach of archey and mehitabel fame, who jumped from the top of a typewriter to write his stories and couldn’t use the shift key, was involved in the development of the program. Part of the almost already forgotten American Recovery and Relief Act (ARRA, or otherwise known as the Stimulus Bill), i3 will offer up $650 million to “start or expand research-based innovative programs that help close the achievement gap and improve outcomes for students.” This is music to a grant writer’s ears because we could make just about any education project concept work for this nebulous description. Even better, both Local Education Agencies (“LEAs” = school districts in FedSpeak) and nonprofits are eligible.

This is just the latest in a long series of Department of Education grant programs that purport to do more or less the same thing, with few discernible results. i3 projects are supposed to:

  • improve K-12 achievement and close achievement gaps;
  • decrease dropout rates;
  • increase high school graduation rates; and
  • improve teacher and school leader effectiveness.

If there are any “research-based” strategies to accomplish any of the above, let me know, because in 38 years of writing endless Department of Education proposals, I’m not aware of them. If you think I am just a cynical grizzled grant writer, take a gander at the first four of the eight goals for the definitely forgotten Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which was passed in 1994 with much folderol:

By the Year 2000 –

  • All children in America will start school ready to learn.
  • The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.
  • All students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics an government, economics, the arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation’s modern economy.
  • United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.

While Goals 2000 didn’t achieve any of its goals, or much of anything else in the real world for that matter, we wrote lots of funded Goals 2000 proposals and look forward to a target rich environment when the i3 RFP is published this winter. Perhaps archey should have named this effort “goals2010imeangoals2020imeandgoals2030” instead, or for that matter, g2. Attention school district and education-oriented nonprofits: as the Captain of the U-Boot in Das Boot said, “Good Hunting.”

While Secretary Duncan announced i3, and to paraphrase Joni Mitchell in a “Free Man in Paris” the rest of the Department of Education “grantmaker machinery behind the popular program” continues to rumble on. A case in point is the Student Support Services (SSS) program, for which a RFP was recently issued with a due date of December 14. There is $268 million available for SSS, but no fanfare from Secretary Duncan.

Why? It’s simple–nobody pays attention to the old dog when a new puppy appears. SSS is one of the seven “TRIO” programs that fund various initiatives to “assist low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and individuals with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to postbaccalaureate programs.” We’ve written lots of funded TRIO grants over the years. Some TRIO programs, like SSS, are aimed at college students, while others, like Talent Search and Upward Bound, focus on middle and high school students. Hmmm, methinks I could write an i3 proposal that mimics a TRIO proposal without the Department of Education figuring it out.

The reason that SSS causes little excitement, despite the enormous amount of money available, is that it’s been around since the Johnson administration! Everyone is rushing around to pat the i3 puppy on the head, while the old dog SSS barely gets noticed. At Seliger + Associates, however, we love all Department of Education dogs equally and are carefully grooming proposals for our SSS clients while we wait for i3 to be whelped.

I could go on with other Department of Education programs that have more or less the same purpose as i3 (e.g., Title I, Title III, No Child Left Behind, Smaller Learning Communities, Partnership Academies), but you get the idea. Regardless of the likely failure of this latest education reform effort, i3 is another great example of why this is such a wonderful time for grant writing, as I’ve been writing about in various blog posts since the Great Recession started a year ago. Given the various youth and other recession-based horror stories I cited recently in There’s Something Happening Here, But You Don’t Know What It Is, Do You Mr. Jones?, you can be assured that many more grant programs are gestating as I write this. The time to plan (or apply) is now, so that your public agency or nonprofit organization can swoop in. As the Talking Heads put it in “Once in a Lifetime”, for the Department of Education and other federal agencies, it’s “same as it ever was.”

Grants.gov Lurches Into the 21st Century

Change is coming, albeit slowly, to Grants.gov, the the online system for Federal submissions. But, as with all things grants, the change is confusing at best.

When the feds first started transitioning to electronic submissions five or six years ago, different agencies used different approaches, resulting in general chaos. Eventually, Grants.gov became the default gateway. While the concept of Grants.gov isn’t bad (the applicant downloads an “application kit file”, fills out some forms and attaches locally generated files before uploading the whole mess), the reality is cumbersome. This is because until recently Grants.gov exclusively used a creaky program named “PureEdge Viewer,” which does not support Mac OS X, Windows Vista, or Linux and is as easy to use as a nuclear submarine. Using the PureEdge Viewer is like gazing into the world of computing circa 1996, but it more or less works.

One fun aspect of submitting through Grants.gov is that the system generates a total of three emails after upload to confirm the upload process, but gives itself 48 hours to do so. Thus, the real world deadline for Grants.gov submissions is actually two days in advance of the published deadline, since, unless there is a system meltdown, the funding agency is unlikely to give you any slack. So, if the upload gets screwed up, you’re generally screwed as well. And, of course Grants.gov tech support (actually provided by IBM) is closed on weekends, making Monday submissions especially festive. Finally, the Grants.gov tech support people have no knowledge of the funding programs and the program officers at the funding agencies have little if any technical knowledge. This sets up a perfect opportunity for being bounced back and forth between the two, making a call to Grants.gov tech support a virtual guarantee of frustration. Calling Grants.gov is like being in a Mac Guy commercial with two Windows guys and no Mac Guy*.

Now, the good news: for what seems like forever, Grants.gov has been “testing” the PureEdge Viewer replacement, which is Adobe Reader 8.1.2, meaning that the submission system is finally being dragged in the 21st Century. The testing is apparently over and Grants.gov now says: “Applicants are required to have a compatible version of Adobe Reader installed to apply for grant applications.” Sounds good, since Adobe supports Vista, OS X, and Linux, but the euphoria will cease when you look further down the page and find out: “Please note, not all applications are provided in Adobe Reader, so it is recommended to also have the PureEdge Viewer installed.” As usual, the feds givith and the feds taketh away, because not all agencies will use Adobe and we’re in for even more confusion with Grants.gov trying to manage two different systems at once. Every time the feds create a unified standard, they change it later. Call me crazy, but I predict even more chaos, particularly since HUD, a notoriously dysfunctional agency even by federal standards, is the guinea pig and will use Adobe for all SuperNOFA submissions this year.

I remember when HUD first used Grants.gov a few years ago and the process for all of their submissions got mucked up somehow, resulting in extensions and re-submissions for every SuperNOFA program. History could repeat itself, as after 30+ years of working with HUD, I have every confidence in their ability to screw up the submission process. If you’re applying for a HUD grant this year, I recommend uploading at least a week early.

We’ll keep you posted on our experience with the new and perhaps improved Grants.gov system. We still prefer using paper submissions, when allowed, as we know exactly what they will look like on the other end and, furthermore, I am 100% certain that no federal proposals are being reviewed on computer screens (think about the oddball collection of 14″ CRTs likely to be found in the bowels of HUD central and you can assume everything is being printed out at the other end anyway). With a paper submission, you know what you sent and what the agency received. With an electronic submission, you have the ever popular GIGO, “garbage in/garbage out,” problem.


*An aside for those of you who are panting for an obscure movie reference—the first movie role of Justin Long’s, who plays the Mac Guy, was the obsessed young fan in the great Star Trek spoof, Galaxy Quest, with its pearls of wisdom for all grant writers, “Never give up, never surrender!”