Tag Archives: feds

The Street Outreach Program (SOP) and Seliger’s quick guide to outreach components

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) just issued the Street Outreach Program (SOP) FY ’13 Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA),* which offers an opportunity for us to describe a common funder program paradigm: outreach. Last week, faithful readers will recall that we blogged about yet another outreach program: Health Navigators.

Not all of our readers are likely hip to outreach program design. In essence, all outreach programs use more or less the same design and have changed little since the halcyon days of outreach of the 1970s. Actually, this is not entirely true: these days a soupçon of social media should be added to the outreach stew, but otherwise things remain the same.

Unless there is a static client input stream (e.g., domestic violence offenders being court-referred), almost all human services programs require some outreach component; even if the RFP doesn’t require one, smart, imaginative grant writers will include outreach anyway. An SOP or Health Navigator proposal is just a gigantic outreach effort, but the basic structure of outreach can be applied to most any project design.

The point of outreach is to connect some target population with something that is supposed to improve their life outcomes (free proposal phrase here). Within this context (another free proposal phrase here), there are two basic types of outreach: local and regional/statewide. Local outreach almost always includes:

  • One-on-one information meetings conducted with the staff of other providers to give them the good news about the program, so that they will refer their eligible clients.
  • Presentations to community groups, faith-based organizations and any other group that has a constituency that could benefit from the program, or, barring that, any other constituency that can be gathered in one place at one time.
  • Press releases to whatever print media that remains alive in your target area.
  • Radio and TV public service announcements (PSAs), although these have largely been superseded by YouTube uploads.
  • Direct mailings and email blasts, using as many mailing lists as you can find and/or develop.
  • Widespread distribution of posters and other printed material touting the project’s message, ideally in every language spoken by the target population, up to and including Elbonian.
  • The ever-popular “street-based” outreach, which requires a brave Outreach Worker to actually leave the comforts of their warm agency nest and venture out to where the target population hangs out: parks, community centers, welfare offices, public housing projects, liquor store parking lots, minimarts, barber shops, basket ball courts, and so on.
  • Use of Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, group texting, and whatever other “new” media seems plausible. We’re often tempted to include a social media tool that doesn’t actually exist, but we choose the path of righteous honesty and have not actually done so.
  • The only real question is whether to use a dedicated outreach worker, usually a peer of the target population, or a portion of the time of other proposed staff. Keep in mind that having a dedicated outreach person can lead to unfortunate acronyms like “Peer Outreach Worker” (POW), or even worse (particularly for female target populations): a Community Outreach Worker. You’ve been warned, watch your acronyms!

For regional/statewide outreach initiatives like Health Navigators, one or both of the following complications are usually added to make the funder think you’ll actually find eligible clients in distant places:

  • Propose a hub-and-spoke system with a circuit riding Outreach Worker. Your agency is the hub in Minneapolis and you find collaborators in Owatonna, Climax, Blue Earth, and Sleepy Eye Minnesota, to periodically host an Outreach Worker. She’s in Blue Earth on Tuesdays, Climax on Thursdays, and so forth. When in Sleepy Eye, the Outreach Worker reaches out, using the above toolkit. If you’re really frisky, you can open small site offices in other towns, so the Outreach Worker has a place to nest and preen while visiting.
  • Use a train-the-locals approach in which your Outreach Worker trains staff or volunteers from indigenous organizations in the region to conduct the various outreach strategies, using social media to watch over her dispersed brood.

Now you know how to develop an outreach component: no need to convene a group-think, draw circles and arrows on white boards, and eat donuts.


* For those of you keeping score at home, this makes it the DHHS ACF FYSB SOP FOA. I know it looks like cryptography, but the acronym is actually just your tax dollars at work.

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.

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.

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!”