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Why Winning an Olympic Gold Medal is Not Like Getting a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Grant

A .0001 second difference can separate an Olympic Gold Medalist from a Silver Medalist for swimming, and a five minute difference may separate her and the hapless competitor from Lower Slabovia. The fastest swimmers win medals and the slowest swimmers get new Speedos. Think of the intrepid ski jumper, Eddie the Eagle, in the 1984 Winter Olympics. He didn’t come close to winning a medal, but he seemed to enjoy competing and falling off the ski jump.

Many grant applicants are under the delusion from years of watching the Olympics and similar sports competitions that, if their application receives the highest review score, the grant will automatically be awarded. But regardless of what is true in the real world,* the proposal world is different.

We recently completed a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) proposal for a small, rural Midwestern school district (or local education agency (LEA) in edu-speak). Our contact, the superintendent, was an amiable fellow with about 30 years of experience as a school superintendent and about 30 minutes of experience as a grant applicant. When chatting at the end of the assignment, he said something along the lines of, “I hope our application gets the highest number of points so that we get funded.” I put him on hold, opened up the RFP, and found this version of the bad news language I knew would be lurking somewhere (in this case on page 127 of 152, in Section 5506, “Administrative Provisions,” Subpart b, “Proportionality,” rather than “grant award procedures,” where one would expect it):

(b) PROPORTIONALITY- To the extent practicable, the Secretary shall ensure that grants awarded under this subpart shall be equitably distributed among local educational agencies and community-based organizations serving urban and rural areas.

I explained to our incredulous client that grant awards are often made for reasons other than high point totals. In example above, the Department of Education is reserving its right to use “proportionality” regarding “urban and rural areas” to divvy up the pot. I have no idea what “proportionality” means in this context, other than it can be used to make an award to any applicant the Department feels like funding.

There is a caveat: the applicant usually has to submit a technically correct proposal and reach the minimum score. After that, apparently, anything can go. Funding decisions are often made for all kinds of reasons: urban/rural (in the example cited above, I guess no suburban applicants will be funded, since suburbs are not mentioned as a possibility), politics (upcoming elections tend to grab the attention of federal decision makers), geography (Senator Foghorn Leghorn to Secretary Arne Duncan: “Tell me again, Mr. Secretary, why have no PEP grants have been awarded in Alabama in five years?”), perceived or stated target population (e.g., African American, Latino, children with special needs, etc.), experienced/inexperienced applicants, and who knows what else.

Our client was a bit crestfallen when I explained the above, but I told him to cheer up. We think we helped him submit a technically correct proposal, which is no small achievement given the fantastic complexity of the PEP RFP and spectacularly confusing directions. His district is also fairly representative of other small, rural school districts. If his application is one of only a few technically correct proposals from similar school districts in his state/region, the chances of funding will go up enormously. Since I know from decades of experience that many more urban districts are likely to apply for PEP than rural districts, and a lot of these are likely to screw up their applications, our client’s chances are probably pretty good. I’ll find out along with everyone else when the funding announcements are made in a few months, because, as I always tell callers, we’re grant writers, not fortune tellers.

In case you think I’m picking on PEP, here are a few other examples of the same weasel words from other recent federal and state RFPs selected at random for this post:

  • From the “Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools Grants for the Integration of Schools and Mental Health Systems” RFP: “Review and Selection Process: Additional factors we consider in selecting an application for an award are the equitable distribution of grants among the geographical regions of the United States and among urban, suburban, and rural populations.”
  • From the “Intellectual Property Enforcement Program: FY 2010 Competitive Grant Announcement:” “Absent explicit statutory authorization or written delegation of authority to the contrary, all final grant award decisions will be made by the Assistant Attorney General (AAG), who may also give consideration to factors including, but not limited to, underserved populations, geographic diversity, strategic priorities, past performance, and available funding when making awards.”
  • From the “Teen Pregnancy Prevention Community Challenge Grant (CCG) Program” from the California Department of Public Health: “Additionally, OFP will seek to achieve equitable and balanced funding via geographic distribution across California at its discretion.”

To try this exercise at home, put on safety glasses and a rubber apron, then search for the words “the secretary” or “geographical” in almost any federal RFP and you will find some version of the above.

This curious aspect of grant writing can play out in strange ways, as confirmed in this recent Wall Street Journal article by Jonathan Weisman and Alex P. Kellogg, “Obama Courts Stimulus Doubters”. Oddly, the relatively nondescript Holland, MI, is, according to this article, “a community awash in stimulus dollars.” Holland “has seen a big infusion of cash from the president’s economic stimulus plan: hundreds of millions of dollars for new automotive battery plants, tens of millions for schools, as well as millions more for housing, small businesses, university research and transportation.”

Pretty strange for a City with a population of about 20,000 in Ottawa County, which has around 250,000 residents. Call me cynical, but, unless there is a hidden nest of grant writers in Holland, the reason for this tsunami of stimulus dollars is likely because this region in Michigan used to have lots of automotive-related manufacturers, most of which have long since gone the way of the Studebaker. It would make a great story, particularly for the 2012 election, if a sprinkling of federal fairy dust in the form of stimulus grants caused green job industries to flourish.

While I have no way of confirming this, I suspect there are pin maps in various federal agencies with a bullseye on Holland and other charmed communities. As Bob Dylan put it in Idiot Wind, “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” It seems Holland is lucky and, while grant applicants can’t make their luck, they can work hard to submit compelling, technically correct proposals, ideally, with some aspect of program design that makes them stand out, and wait for that congrats phone call from their congresswoman letting them know that the Secretary of Whatever Federal Department has used “other factors” to shove their proposal to the top of the funding heap.

But this assumes their proposal is complete and technically correct. Until you get at least that far, you have virtually no chance at all.

EDIT: Also see our follow-up post, “True Tales of a Department of Education Grant Reviewer.”

* For an incredibly confusing take on the “real world” versus the “non-real world of dreams,” pack an overnight bag and go see the imaginative, but interminable Inception. Jake observed that none of the characters use computers or cell phones in this terminally hip film, while I noted that all the male actors wore suits and there was no swearing or sexual situations. It is like being in an IBM sales office circa 1970. Too bad Ross Perot didn’t have a cameo.

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So, how much grant money should I ask for? Who’s the competition?

Clients often ask how much money they should request. Our standard answer: ask for the maximum because zeroes are cheap.

As with many aspects of grant writing, there is no right answer. But, all other things being equal, you might as well ask for the maximum amount available, since you do the same amount of work in preparing the proposal regardless of the dollar amount requested, and there doesn’t seem to be any relationship between the size of a grant request and the probability of being funded.

Let’s say you’re applying to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) Mentoring Initiative for Foster Care Youth program. The maximum you can seek is $500,000. In the vast majority of cases, you’re better off applying for $500,000, instead of, say, $50,000, because you’re unlikely to be harmed by asking for the max. If OJJDP likes your organization and application but thinks you’re requesting for too much, they might knock your award down some, but they’re unlikely to reject you outright.

Once again: zeros are cheap, and it takes just as much effort to write a proposal for $50,000 as it does for $500,000.

The big exception to this is the “silly” factor. Does your organization have an annual budget of $200,000? If so, proposing a $5 million/year budget is going to make the reviewer roll her eyes and perhaps share your folly with her colleagues. You don’t want to elicit the laughter, as Dr. Evil does in Austin Powers when he asks for too little (or much) money:

In the “1969” section of the video, he asks for $100 billion dollars, and everyone thinks it’s hilarious because of how absurd the request is. You don’t want to create the same effect in grant reviewers.

Foundations are trickier than most government grants because foundations usually don’t have maximum caps on requests. But you can almost always find their range of awards, and if the Peoria Foundation usually makes awards between $10,000 and $75,000, you probably don’t want to ask for $300,000. If you conduct detailed research on each foundation, you’ll find a list of their recent awards (this is what we do as part of our foundation work). You might ask the Peoria Foundation for $50,000 toward a project, but don’t seek an order-of-magnitude difference from their usual neighborhood of funding. And if you’re seeking foundation funding, make sure you read Isaac’s post, “PSST! Listen, Do You Want to Know a Secret? ? Do you Promise Not to Tell? Here’s How to Write Foundation Proposals.”

Sometimes federal agencies specify a minimum grant request. For example, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, 2009 (warning: .pdf link) had almost $2 billion available, with a minimum request of $5 million. So to apply for NSP 2 funds, the applicant had to be reasonably large to be believable in spending $5 million. By the way, NSP 2 was intended to address the ongoing foreclosure crisis and the applications were due July 17, as discussed in this post. Apparently, HUD doesn’t know about the foreclosure crisis, since the award announcement has still not been made. But, as Isaac observed of the original version of the program, NSP 1, which was an entitlement rather than a competitive program: HUD’s track record at quickly responding to this crisis isn’t exactly stellar.

Clients will also ask if they should apply to programs with very large amounts of money or very small amounts available. There’s (usually) no particular advantage in going one way or another. Large amounts often mean that many more agencies will apply, increasing the competitiveness. But unless you have some kind of inside knowledge about who the competition will be, it doesn’t make much sense to assume that a big pot of money will necessarily be more viable. It can be, but won’t always be. The Basic Center Program, which is brought to you by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), has $13,377,274 available this year. Aside from this being a strange number—what’s wrong with rounding to $13,377,000? Am I really going to miss the extra $274?—it has 91 awards. Organizations that apply for the Basic Center Program are probably doing so just to find some federal money, and if a few thousand organizations apply, it might become very competitive.

Finally, it can also be worth applying for competitions that have relatively small amounts available. For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) often runs highly specific competitions with relatively small amounts of money and numbers of grants, such as the currently open Offender Reentry Program (ORP). This year, there is $13 million available and 33 awards. So, why would an organization bother applying for a ORP grant? First, they might actually be interested in serving former prisoners. But, additionally, they probably know that if they get a SAMHSA grant, their organization’s credibility with other funders goes through the roof. Over the years, we have successfully written funded SAMHSA proposals in which only 10 or 12 awards were made and watched as our clients use the SAMSHA grant to leverage other substance abuse treatment grants and contracts.

Thus, it often pays to apply for fairly obscure grants with small amounts money on the line. But when you do, remember that zeroes are still cheap.

EDIT: You should also read Isaac’s post, “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually).” Sometimes funder representatives will be obnoxious and refuse to tell—as we discuss in “How Much Money You Should Ask For—and National Mentoring Programs, with Improving Literacy Through School Libraries Program as a Bonus.”