Tag Archives: Grant Research

Meaning Well is Not Enough: The Role of Research in Grant Writing and Proposals

Chances are good that you, as an applicant, have really wonderful intentions in whatever you’re doing—just like everyone else. You want to help kids succeed, make the world a better place, save the endangered sparrow dragonfly,* impart job training skills, build cool stuff, etc. You know this is a excellent use of time and money. The trick is convincing others that your idea is an excellent use of their time and money.**

Usually you convince them by saying that the target area needs whatever you’re proposing and that what you’re proposing will be effective. To really convince the others with money, you can’t merely say that you know what you’re talking about and therefore they should give you the money. You need to present some kind of research that demonstrates your approach is effective. Merely asserting that your approach will be effective isn’t enough.

Lots of our clients don’t have any research to demonstrate that what they’re doing or want to do might be useful, which means we spend a lot of time conducting research. This probably brings back memories of high school term papers and the like. However tedious or difficult research might be, it’s still necessary if you’re going to have a strong application that sets you a part from others.

Here’s why: funders want to think you know what you’re doing. One way is to show that you know what’s going on in the field and that your project is likely to succeed. Some RFPs even tell you what research to cite and which protocols to use. For example, this year’s SAMHSA Offender Reentry Program (ORP) tells you to use a whole grab bag worth of acronyms (“you are encouraged, when appropriate for your setting and population to implement the Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach (A-CRA) coupled with Assertive Continuing Care (ACC) and/or Motivational Enhancement Therapy/Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-5 (MET/CBT-5) with juvenile offenders”).

Most RFPs don’t make things this easy, and you have to do your own research. Still, for most human and social service proposals, you also don’t need to write a dissertation: it’s enough to sprinkle some peer-reviewed research in like paprika over a casserole. As Homer Simpson says, “Facts are meaningless! You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!” The same applies to research. You need to have enough citations to make what you’re doing appear plausible, at least in most cases; for specific research grants or technology projects, you’ll often need someone who is really a domain expert. But for social and human service projects, you usually don’t.

That being said, people make two big mistakes in research for most kinds of grants: too much and too little. The “too much” mistake is less common, but it can happen when a RFP gets released on a short deadline and an applicant agency spends two weeks conducting research, finds a huge amount of material, and then can’t assemble it in an efficient manner to draft a concise and coherent needs assessment.

The “too little” mistake is one we see more frequently: the organization doesn’t have any research or citations whatsoever to demonstrate that their approach is likely to be valid (fortunately, this is an issue we can remedy). For RFPs that require a lot of research, this can be enough to get your proposal thrown out. Teen pregnancy prevention RFPs, for example, usually require a lot of research because of their politically charged nature. They require research even when that research indicates the approach is not likely to succeed, in which case you still need to pretend like the approach will succeed and the research is valid—in other words, you need to focus on the proposal world.

Don’t make either mistake. Use enough research to make your proposal palatable, even if “enough” varies a lot by application. Alas: there’s no real way to gauge how much is enough except through experience, which one uses to judge RFPs on a case-by-case basis. When in doubt, however, cite too much rather than too little.


* Note: this is a made up critter.

** Convincing others doesn’t just apply to funders—it can also apply to potential partners and collaborators. One problem with collaborations that we didn’t mention in our post on the subject is that collaborating agencies might not care about your problem. Sure, the local school district wants, in the abstract, for your mentoring program to succeed. But they already have lots of responsibilities, lots of administrators, and lots of problems, and they get paid average daily attendance (ADA) money whether you get the grant or not. They might care, but not as much as they care about their primary mission.

What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP

The Community Based Abstinence Education Program (CBAE) from the Administration on Children, Youth and Families is a complicated, confusing, and poorly designed RFP based on suspect premises. That makes it an excellent case study in how to deal with a variety of grant writing problems that relate to research, RFP construction, and your responses.

CBAE is simple: you’re supposed to provide abstinence and only abstinence education to teenagers. That means no talk about condoms and birth control being options. In some ways, CBAE is a counterpoint to the Title X Family Planning funding, which chiefly goes to safe-sex education and materials rather than abstinence education. Its premise is equally simple: if you’re going to have sex, use condoms and birth control. Congress chooses to fund both.

Were I more audacious regarding CBAE proposals, I’d have used George Orwell’s 1984 as a template for the programs, since almost everyone in the novel conforms to the numbing will of an all-powerful state and many belong to the “Junior Anti-Sex League,” complete with scarlet sashes. I hope someone turned in a CBAE application proposing scarlet sashes for all participants.

More on point, however, page two of the RFP says:

Pursuant to Section 510(b)(2) of Title V of the Social Security Act, the term “abstinence education,” for purposes of this program means an educational or motivational program that: […]

(B) Teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children

Who is enforcing this “expected standard?” Society in general? A particular person in society? But it gets better:

(D) Teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;

This requirement ignores decades of anthropological research into indigenous societies as well as plenty of research into our own society, which Mary Roach described in Bonk, Alfred Kinsey described using imperfect methods in his famous but flawed research in the 50’s, and that Foucault described in his History of Sexuality. It also ignores the sexuality of other cultures and even our own, as discussed in books like Conceiving Sexuality: Approaches to Sex Research in a Postmodern World, or, better yet, Culture, Society and Sexuality: A Reader, which describes the way societies and others build a social model of sex. Through the CBAE program, Congress is building one such model by asserting it is true and using “expected standard” language, without saying who is the “expecting” person or what is the “expecting” body. It’s an example of what Roger Shuy calls in Bureaucratic Language in Government and Business a term that “seems to be evasive,” as when insiders “use language to camouflage their message deliberately, particularly when trying to avoid saying something unpleasant or uncomfortable.” In this case, the evasion is the person upholding the supposed standard.

Furthermore, the abstinence conclusion isn’t well supported by the research that does exist, including research from previous years of the program, which is at best inconclusive. A Government Accountability Office report (warning: .pdf file) says things like, “While the extent to which federally funded abstinence-until-marriage education materials are inaccurate is not known, in the course of their reviews OPA [Office of Population Affairs] and some states reported that they have found inaccuracies in abstinence-until-marriage education materials. For example, one state official described an instance in which abstinence-until-marriage materials incorrectly suggested that HIV can pass through condoms because the latex used in condoms is porous.”

The one comprehensive study that has been conducted by a nonpartisan firm is called “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs” by Mathematica Public Research, which was spun off from the guys who brought us the Mathematica software. The study was prepared for DHHS itself, and it says such encouraging things as, “Findings indicate that youth in the program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age.” The programs it studied are based around the same methods that the CBAE demands organizations use, all of which boil down to inculcating a culture of fear of sex outside of marriage. The social stigma the program recommends is based around STDs and whether you’ll get into college (although an editorial in the L.A. Times argues otherwise), and, to a lesser extent, altering peer norms. Still, even in Puritan times this was not entirely effective, as Bundling by Henry Stiles explains. The practice meant sleeping in the same bed with one’s clothes on, as a solution to the problems of inadequate heat and space. But, as Jacques Barzun says in From Dawn To Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, “Experience showed the difficulty of restraint and […] the rule was made absolute that pregnancy after bundling imposed marriage […] So frequent was this occurrence that the church records repeatedly show the abbreviation FBM—fornication before marriage.”

There are counter-studies that purport to show abstinence education as effective, like this one from a crew that, not surprisingly, is selling abstinence education materials. But it, like most others, has little bon mots amid its intimidating numbers and verbose language like, “In addition, the high attrition rate limits our ability to generalize the findings to a higher-risk population” (strangely enough, the .pdf file is set to disallow copying and pasting, perhaps to discourage irate bloggers like myself). But the study doesn’t list the attrition rate, making it impossible to tell how severe the problem is. In addition, even if it did, the population selected might also suffer from cherry picking problems of various kinds: that is to say, organizations are more likely to serve the participants who are most likely to be receptive to services and, concomitantly, less likely to do things like have early sex. This is an easy and tempting way to make a program look good: only let the kids in who are likely to benefit. And it’s a hard problem to tease out in studies.

So be wary of dueling studies: if you don’t read these carefully, it’s easy to accept their validity, and even if you do read them carefully, it’s easy to nitpick. This is why peer review is so helpful in science and also part of the reason evaluations are so difficult. Furthermore, many of the studies, including Heritage’s, come from biased sources, a problem Megan McArdle writes about extensively in a non-abstinence-related context. (See her follow-up here). Most of you justifiably haven’t followed the blizzard of links I put up earlier or read the books I cited for good reason: who has the time to sift through all this stuff? No one, and even pseudoscience combined with anecdote like this article in New York Magazine has an opinion (hint: be wary of anyone whose title has the word “evolutionary” in it).

Given this research, which is hard to miss once you begin searching for information about the efficacy of abstinence instruction, how is a grant writer to create a logic model that, as page 44 says, should list “[a]ssumptions (e.g., beliefs about how the program will work and is supporting resources. Assumptions should be based on research, best practices, and experience)”? (emphasis added).

Two words: ignore research. And by “ignore research,” I mean any research that doesn’t support the assumptions underlying the RFP. If you want to be funded, you simply have to pretend “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs” or the GAO study don’t exist, and your proposal should be consistent with what the RFP claims, even if it’s wrong. This is, I suspect, one of the hardest things for novice grant writers to accept, which is that you’re not trying to be right in the sense of the scientific method of discerning the natural world through experimentation. You’re trying to be right in the Willie Stark sense of playing the game for the money. No matter how tempting it is to cite accurate research that contradicts the program, don’t, unless it’s to knock the research.

Remember too that the grant writer is to some extent also a mythmaker, which is a subject Isaac will address more fully in a future post. The vital thing to consider is that the mythology you need to create isn’t always the same as the reality on the ground. As in politics, the way events are portrayed are often different than how they actually are. David Broder wrote an article on the subject of inventing political narratives, which occasionally match reality; your job as a grant writer is inventing grant narratives. We hope these match reality more often than not. Sometimes the myth doesn’t, as in this application, and when that happens, you’re obligated to conform to the RFP’s mythology, even if it isn’t your own.

The second part of this post continues here.

It’s a Grant, Not a Gift: A Primer on Grants Management

I was in LA over Labor Day weekend and, at a pool party, chatted with a semi-retired CPA who has been hired by a large nonprofit hospital to help with an audit of a federal grant. The audit is being performed under the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular No. A-133. OMB publishes a variety of circulars covering all sorts of topics. Some, such as A-133, are of great importance to nonprofit and public agency grant recipients but are routinely ignored (to the great peril of the agencies).

In the case of the LA hospital I discussed over daiquiris*, the organization was so surprised and elated at getting the grant that they treated it like a Christmas present. In other words, even though the hospital is a multi-million dollar operation with a full-fledged accounting department, they completely failed to follow federal accounting rules in implementing the grant. They spent the money more or less without regard to terms of the RFP and did not follow A-133 requirements. When faced with the prospect of an unsmiling federal audit team and an unflattering story in the LA Times, they brought in a knowledgeable CPA to straighten out the mess.

The issue resonates with me because, in addition to writing more proposals than I care to think about, I’ve also had the thankless task of managing numerous grants. My favorite story about grant management concerns a large Department of Energy project for electric cars during the late 1970s that I wrote when I worked for the City of Lynwood. This long-forgotten program gave the city about $1 million to buy and operate ten electric vehicles, which proved to be slow and unreliable, making them perfect for a municipal fleet. We were unlucky enough to be selected for an audit and I got tagged to handle it. The auditor turned out to be from the Department of Defense, since the newly created Department of Energy was too fresh to have its own auditors. I settled the fellow down in a conference room with donuts, an essential tool for all audits, and he asked his first question: “What product do you produce in this facility?” Since we were at City Hall, I smiled and responded: “Promises.” The audit went downhill from there.

Based on that experience and many others, here are some basic tips on managing grants:

  • If you don’t have a finance director familiar with grant accounting, find an outside accounting firm that is and hire them to set up your grant-related accounts and procedures.
  • Make sure the person responsible for managing the grant has obtained, read and understands the relevant regulations, including OMB Circulars for federal grants.
  • Spend the grant funds as quickly as you can, since funders don’t want the money back. If an agency fails to spend a grant and returns the funds, the funder will be very unlikely to award another grant.
  • Make sure the funds are spent in accordance with the grant agreement. It is important that the agency can show “maintenance of effort,” meaning that whatever was being done before is not being reduced following grant receipt and that the agency is not supplanting existing funds with grant funds. For example, if the grant is for after school programming, it is not okay to use the grant to pay for current after school programming so that the District Superintendent can remodel her office. If an audit disallows expenditures, the agency will have to pay the money back, which is not an attractive prospect.
  • Keep accurate records, including expenditures, personnel records, activities and in-kind support. That’s right, if you’ve included in-kind support as a match in the budget, you may have to prove that it was provided, so keeping track of volunteer hours, value of referral services provided, etc., is essential. Even innocent and detailed records can cause problems during an audit. For example, while serving as Development Manager for the City of Inglewood**, I had to handle an audit for an Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant. The grant involved demolition, which meant Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements for all persons paid through the grant. When the auditor began pulling expenditure records (for each expenditure, this means a check request, purchase order and cancelled check) for workers, it turned out that every demolition worker had the same address, which was a check cashing store. The contractor was apparently having the workers cash their checks and return a good portion of the so-called “prevailing wages” the workers were supposed to receive to the contractor. To avoid disallowance of costs, we had to chase down the contractor once we figured this out to get him to provide back pay to a whole bunch of suddenly very happy demolition workers.

The secret to grant management is to remember that everything related to a grant is likely public information, so don’t do anything you wouldn’t mind seeing on the front page of the local newspaper. As long as you think your grant-funded trip to Las Vegas will pass the smell test for having something to do with solving the challenges facing at-risk youth being funded by a Department of Education grant, I say, Viva Las Vegas!. Just keep in mind, that, when it comes to grants, what happens in Vegas may not stay in Vegas.


*I’m talking real Hemingway “Papa Doble” daiquiris, not the disgusting pre-made concoctions found in most bars.

** As Tupac said and as quoted previously, “Inglewood always up to no good.”

Adventures in Bureaucracy and the Long Tale of Deciphering Eligibility: A Farce Featuring the Department of Education’s Erin Pfeltz

There are numerous good reasons why we often make fun of the Department of Education. One recently appeared in the Seliger Funding Report. Subscribers saw the “Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies for Planning, Program Design, and Implementation and for Dissemination” program in the June 16 newsletter. The eligibility criteria for it, however, are somewhat confusing:

Planning and Initial Implementation (CFDA No. 84.282B): Non-SEA eligible applicants in States with a State statute specifically authorizing the establishment of charter schools and in which the SEA elects not to participate in the CSP or does not have an application approved under the CSP.

So we have two criteria:

1) States that authorize charter schools and

2) That don’t participate in the CSP.

Since it is not abundantly clear which states are eligible, the RFP also lists the states participating in the CSP:

Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin.

Great! But does the Department of Education have a list of those that authorize charter schools and don’t participate? To find out, I called Erin Pfeltz, the contact person, but she didn’t answer, so I left a message and sent the following e-mail as well:

I left a voicemail for you a few minutes ago asking if you have a list of states in which organizations are eligible for the “Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies for Planning, Program Design, and Implementation and for Dissemination.”

If so, can you send it to me?

She replied a day and a half later, too late for the newsletter:

The information in the federal register notice includes a list of states which currently have an approved application with the CSP (http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/E8-13470.htm). Non-SEA applicants in those states should contact their SEA for information related to the CSP subgrant competition. More information on the Charter Schools Program can be found at http://www.ed.gov/programs/charter/index.html.

I replied with some quotes from the RFP and then said:

The RFP gives us a list of states that do participate in the CSP. My question is whether you have a list of states that a) have authorized charter schools and b) do not have an application approved under the CSP.

In other words, which states do not authorize charter schools?

Erin responded:

States without charter school legislation are: Alabama, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Maine, Montana, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia.

And then I responded:

Subtracting those states and the ones that already participate in the CSP program leaves me with NV, AZ, WY, OK, IA, MO, MS, NH, RI, HI, AND AK.

So states from these states and only these states are eligible. Is that correct?

She said:

Eligible applicants from these states would be able to apply.

Notice the weasel words: she didn’t say that the states I listed were the actual and only ones eligible. So I sent back yet another note asking her to verify that and she replied “For the current competition, only eligible applicants from these states would be able to apply.”

Beautiful! Finally! After a half dozen or so e-mails, I extracted the crucial eligibility information. Based on her tenacious and expert obfuscation, she deserves to promoted, possibly to Undersecretary for Obscure RFP Development (isn’t it obvious that I’m only talking about the current competition, not every conceivable competition?).

Wouldn’t it have been easier if the initial RFP simply stated the eligible states? The obvious answer is “yes,” but it also wouldn’t leave room for potential mistakes from the Department of Education. Instead, the RFP eligibility is convoluted and hard to understand for reasons known chiefly to bureaucrats; when I asked Erin, she wrote, “The states are listed in that way to encourage eligible applicants whose states have an approved CSP grant to contact their state departments of education.” Maybe: but that reason smacks of being imagined after the fact, and the goal could’ve been more easily accomplished by just listing the 11 eligible states and then saying, “Everyone else, contact your SEA.” But the Department of Education has no incentive to make its applications easier for everyone else to understand—and it doesn’t.

When I wrote about Deconstructing the Question: How to Parse a Confused RFP and RFP Lunacy and Answering Repetitive or Impossible Questions, I was really writing about how needlessly hard it is to understand RFPs. This is another example of it, and why it’s important for grant writers to relax, take their time, and make sure they understand every aspect of what they’re reading. If you don’t, you shouldn’t hesitate to contact the funding organization when you’re flummoxed.

The material most people read most of the time, whether in newspapers, books, or blogs, is designed to be as easily comprehended as possible. Many things produced by bureaucracies, however, have other goals in mind—like laws, for example, which are designed to stymie clever lawyers rather than be understood by laymen. Such alternate goals and the processes leading to bad writing are in part explicated by Roger Shuy in Bureaucratic Language in Government & Business, a book I’ve referenced before and will no doubt mention again because it’s so useful for understanding how the system that produces RFPs like the one for the Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies come about and why correspondence with people like Erin can be frustrating, especially for those not schooled in the art of assertiveness.* In grant writing, assertiveness is important because confused writing like the eligibility guidelines above is fairly common—like missing or broken links on state and federal websites. I recently tried finding information about grant awards made by the Administration for Children and Families, but the link was broken and the contact page has no e-mail addresses for technical problems. I sent an e-mail to their general address two weeks ago anyway and haven’t heard anything since.

Were it more important, I’d start making calls and moving up the food chain, but in this case it isn’t. Regardless, tenacity and patience are essential attributes for grant writers, who must be able to navigate the confused linguistic landscape of RFPs.


* Sorry for the long sentence, but I just dropped into a Proustian reverie brought on by RFPs instead of madeleines. Perhaps one of you readers can translate this long-winded sentence into French for me.

Further Information Regarding the Department of Redundancy Department

Last week I discussed repetitive RFP questions and where they spring from, and this week, in honor of the RFPs themselves, I’ll go over the issue from the angle of SAMHSA‘s “Targeted Capacity Expansion Program for Substance Abuse Treatment and HIV/AIDS Services (Short Title: TCE/HIV)RFP (warning: .pdf link). It’s a model of modern inanity and also rich in the oddities that can make grant writing difficult or rewarding. The narrative allows 30 single-spaced pages to answer six pages of questions, and the RFP keeps reiterating the focus on client outreach and pretreatement services. These concepts are pounded in over and over again. Nonetheless, “Section C: Proposed Implementation Approach” asks in its first bullet, on page 25:

Describe the substance abuse treatment and/or outreach/pretreatment services to be expanded or enhanced, in conjunction with HIV/AIDS services, and how they will be implemented.

I then describe how this will be accomplished in great, scrupulous detail, including the outreach to be used and why it will be effective. Nonetheless, the penultimate bullet says on page 26:

Provide a detailed description of the methods and approaches that will be used to reach the specified target population(s) of high risk substance abusers, their sex partners, and substance abusing people living with AIDS who are not currently enrolled in a formal substance abuse treatment program. Demonstrate how outreach and pretreatment projects will make successful referrals to substance abuse treatment.

This is part of the substance abuse and/or outreach/pretreatment service to be expanded, and, as such, it has already been answered. This repetition seems to be a symptom of using last year’s RFP to build this one, as the last two bullets are new, and I’m willing to bet that whoever wrote this RFP didn’t realize that the question had already been implicitly asked in the first bullet. Regardless, if they wanted to explicitly ask this question, the RFP writer should’ve incorporated it into the first bullet instead of making the applicant refer back to the first bullet while also reiterating what the first bullet said. Isaac warned you not to submit an exact copy of a proposal you submitted the year before without making sure that it conforms to this year’s guidelines. If only RFP writers would give us the same courtesy.

Nonetheless, they often don’t, which leads to repeated questions and ideas. This example isn’t as egregious as some, but it is still bad enough to merit a post—and advice on what to do.

The best way of dealing with a problem like this is to note that you’ve already answered the question, but you should be sure to name where you answered it; for example, one might say that the second question had already been answered in Section D, as part of the second bullet point. This gives specific directions to the exact place where the question has already been answered and avoids having to repeat the same thing verbatim. If the proposal had no page limits, one could write “as previously noted in Section C…” and then copy, paste, and rewrite it slightly to prevent the reader from falling into a coma. Granted, such rewrites might cause the writer to fall into a coma, but I’m not sure this would negatively affect quality.

You should be aware that this odd quality of RFPs asking repetitive questions is distressing in its ubiquity. It happened in the Service Expansion in Mental Health/Substance Services, Oral Health and Comprehensive Pharmacy Services application and in numerous other RFPs. Don’t fear those questions and try not to become overly frustrated by them. Just don’t ignore them. No matter how seemingly asinine a question in an RFP is, you must answer it anyway. In an older post I mentioned two forms of the golden rule:

The golden rule cliche says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The almost-as-old, snarky version goes, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” If you want to make the rules about who gets funded, you have to lead a federal agency or start a software company, make more money than some countries’ GDP, and endow a foundation.

You want the gold and therefore have to follow the rules of those who distribute the filthy lucre. So answer the repetitive questions, no matter how silly it is. When you’ve written enough proposals, you’ll realize that RFP writers make mistakes like the one listed all the time. Your job, as the grant writer, is to work around those mistakes, even when an RFP asks the exact same question. In one finally bout of silliness, the TCE/HIV RFP confidentiality section on page 29 asks:

Describe the target population and explain why you are including or excluding certain subgroups. Explain how and who will recruit and select participants.

Compare this to Section A, “Statement of Need,” and the first bullet point, which begins: “Describe the target population […]” Why they need to know the target population twice is a fine question. Or, I could say, explain why they need to know the target population again. There, I’ve just mirrored the problem by asking the same question twice, so I guess it’s time for me to apply for a job as a RFP writer for the Department of Education.

Yet there’s one other structural problem bothers me: page five tells the applicant the groups that must be targeted. These groups are so broad that they encompass an enormous swath of the population, which would be a fine subject for another post, but the question in the confidentiality section comes after SAMHSA tells us who we must serve, then asks us who will be served and why, even though the RFP has already asked and SAMHSA has already dictated who will be served. I’m guessing applicants are likely to swear they’ll only serve eligible populations because they want the money, even though they can’t say that. Applicants who want the money answer earnestly. Too bad RFP writers don’t have to respond to the drivel they all too often emit, as there might be fewer outright bad RFPs issued.

Stuck on Stupid: Hiring Lobbyists to Chase Earmarks

A faithful Grant Writing Confidential reader and fellow grant writer, Katherine, sent an email wanting my take on a public agency hiring a lobbying firm to seek federal earmarks. For those not familiar with the term, it means getting a member of Congress to slip a favored local project into a bill, bypassing normal reviews and restrictions. The Seattle Times recently ran a nice article on the subject featuring our own Representative Jim McDermott, who is skilled at the art of earmarks. The only member of Congress I know doesn’t push earmarks is John McCain. For the rest of Congress, earmarks are a way of funneling money into often dubious projects, such as the infamous Bridge to Nowhere.

Back to the local school district where Katherine lives, which decided to hire a DC lobbying firm for $60K/year to get earmarks. She suspects this is a scam. I have no idea whether this particular lobbying firm is up to no good, but in my experience hiring lobbyists to chase earmarks will make the lobbyists happy and lead to lots of free lunches and dinners for public officials visiting DC to “confer” with their lobbyist and legislators, though it is unlikely to end with funding.

A small anecdote will demonstrate this phenomenon. About 20 years ago, when I was Development Manager for the City of Inglewood,* I was directed by the mayor via the city manager to contract with a particular DC lobbying firm to chase earmarks. Since the city manager and I knew this was likely a fool’s errand, we agreed to provide a token contract of $15K. I accompanied the mayor and a few others to DC for the requisite consultation with the firm. About 10 in morning, we strolled from the Mayflower Hotel over to K street, where all the lobbyists hang out, and were ushered into a huge conference room with a 25 foot long table.

Over the next two hours or so, just about every member of the firm wandered in to opine on potential earmarks. Around 12:30, we all repaired to an expensive DC restaurant (are there any other kind?) for steaks and cocktails. We had a fine meal and I met then former Vice President Walter Mondale, who had morphed into a lobbyist himself and was taking his clients out for lunch. When I got back to Inglewood, I received an invoice from our lobbyist which exceeded the contract amount. Our contract paid for less than one meeting in DC and resulted in no earmarks. But I had a great time, since it is always fun to visit DC using somebody else’s money.

That experience schooled me on earmarks and about why Inglewood had gone about acquiring them in the wrong way. If a public agency wants to try for an earmark, the agency can do so just by contacting the chief field deputy for Senator Foghorn Leghorn. Congressional field deputies know all there is to know about the earmark process. If your representative is in a mood to support your project (e.g., needs help to get re-elected and wants to say they are standing up for schools), they will fall all over themselves directing their staff to push the earmark. If they don’t want to for some reason, all the lobbyists in the world won’t force the issue. In that situation, the school district might just as well use the money to buy lotto tickets in hopes of funding the project, rather than hiring a lobbyist. Furthermore, going through the congressional field office will avoid the EDGAR problems described below.

Another problem is that if you have almost all of the 535 members of Congress promoting various earmarks, the chances of your particular project being included are pretty slim. This is another reason we don’t recommend pursuing earmarks. If Katherine’s school district really wants to fund education projects, this is not the way to go about it. Instead, they should hire an experienced grant writing firm, like Seliger + Associates, to help them refine and prioritize project concepts, conduct grant source research, and start submitting high quality, technically correct proposals. If the concepts have merit, they will eventually be funded. The Department of Education and others provide billions of dollars in actual grant funds every year. This is a larger, more reliable source of funding than earmarks.

Finally, if an organization is lobbying, it can end up closing off grant funds. The “Education Department General Administrative Regulations” (EDGARs) govern grants and contracts made through the Department of Education, and they’re designed to prevent corruption, kickbacks, and the like. Subpart F, Appendix A, deals with lobbying. It says:

The undersigned certifies, to the best of his or her knowledge and belief, that:
(1) No Federal appropriated funds have been paid or will be paid, by or on behalf of the undersigned, to any person for influencing or attempting to influence an officer or employee of an agency, a Member of Congress, an officer or employee of Congress, or an employee of a Member of Congress in connection with the awarding of any Federal contract, the making of any Federal grant, the making of any Federal loan, the entering into of any cooperative agreement, and the extension, continuation, renewal, amendment, or modification of any Federal contract, grant, loan, or cooperative agreement.

And so on, which you can read if you’re a masochist. EDGAR basically means that an agency which pursues lobbying can end up screwing itself out of the much larger and more lucrative grant world.

Katherine has also found questionable math regarding the particular lobbyists’ probable efficiency, and the lobbyist also makes the dubious claim that it has a “90% success rate.” But what does “success” mean in this context? Does that mean 90% of clients get some money? If so, how much? And from who? And through which means? Seliger + Associates doesn’t keep “success” numbers for reasons explained in our FAQ. We constantly see grant writers touting their supposed success rate and know that whatever numbers they pitch are specious at best for the reasons described in the preceding link.

Public agencies hiring lobbyists for earmarks is often a case of being stuck on stupid.


* “Inglewood always up to no good,” as 2Pac and Dr. Dre say in California Love.

Finding and Using Phantom Data in the Service Expansion in Mental Health/Substance Services, Oral Health and Comprehensive Pharmacy Services Under the Health Center Program

RFP needs assessments will sometimes request data that aren’t readily available or just don’t exist. The question then becomes for you, the grant writer, what to do when caught between an RFP’s instructions and the reality of phantom data. When you can’t find it, you’ll have to get creative.

The Service Expansion in Mental Health/Substance Services, Oral Health and Comprehensive Pharmacy Services Under the Health Center Program (see the RFP in a Word file here) presents a good example of this problem. The narrative section for “B. Oral Health Review Criteria” begins on page 44. Under “Review Criterion 1: Need,” “Subsection 2,” the RFP says “Applicant clearly describes the target population for the proposed oral health service, including […]” which goes to “Subsection c,” which says, “The oral health status and treatment needs of the target population (e.g., caries rate, edentulism, periodontal disease, fluoridation in community water, oral cancer).” Such data are not tracked nationally. To the extent anyone keeps data, they do on a county-by-county or state-by-state basis, which can make finding the data hard—particularly for a service area that may not match up with a county or other jurisdictional boundary. But I had to answer the RFP and so looked for information about oral health status online but could find little if anything through state, county, or city websites.

If you can’t find important data online, your next step is to contact whichever public officials might be able to have it. The organization we worked for was in a state with dental health responsibility rolled into the Department of Health. Contact information was listed on the Department of Health’s website. So I called and e-mailed both the person at the state office and the person responsible for the organization’s county. Neither answered. I skipped the rest of 1.2.c until one of the state representatives replied—promptly, too!—with a Word file containing what data they had. While the information helped, and I cited what they offered, the statistics didn’t answer all of the named examples of the health status and treatment needs. I still had an unfilled data gap.

This left two choices: say the data isn’t available or write in generalities about the problems, extrapolating from what data are available. If you say the data isn’t there, you might score lower for the section compared to the people who have data or write in generalities. If you obfuscate and explain, there’s a chance you’ll receive some points. Therefore, the latter is almost always the better choice: this can be done by discussing what data you have in generalities, telling anecdotes, appealing to organization experience, and alluding to known local health problems that don’t have specific studies backing them up. This usually means saying something to the effect of, “While specific data are not available for the target area, it can be assumed that…” and then continuing. I used a combination of these strategies by citing what data I had from the state and filling the gaps with generalities.

When you find requests for data, do everything you can to seek it, and don’t be afraid to contact public officials. If you still can’t find the data, summon whatever construct as artful an explanation as you can and then move on. Chances are that if the RFP wants data so unusual that you can’t find it after a concerted effort, many other people won’t be able to find it either. You should also remember The Perils of Perfectionism: every hour you spend searching for data is an hour you’re not spending on other parts of the proposal. You shouldn’t invest hours and hours of time in finding trivial data, and after you’ve made a reasonably strong effort to search the Internet and contact whoever you can, stop and move on. This is especially important because you might be searching for data that simply does not exist, in which case it will never be found and you’re wasting time trying to find it. While it is fun to search for the last unicorn, you are most likely to find a horse with a cardboard horn strapped to her forehead than a mythical and elusive creature.

The Last Word on Grant Writing Credentials: Awards Are Only as Good as the Organization Giving Them

On a software blog, I found this post concerning an author who’d given himself an award:

‘You know, there were two strange things about that award, …Firstly, after I awarded it to myself, I felt oddly elated, as if some august academic body had suddenly realised my true worth as an author and had strained every sinew to ensure that my talent was acknowledged.’

Pause

‘… and what was the other strange thing?’

‘You are the first person ever to have asked me precisely what award it was that I’d won. Everybody else has just taken it for granted.’

‘I work in IT. It makes one cautious of trusting qualifications and awards.’

Consider this in light of Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain and its follow-up, both of which discuss how certifications, credentials, and the like are only as good as the knowledge they represent and the organization issuing them. With many credentials, bogus language cloaks what’s really happening—for another example of the same phenomenon, check out this post from Joel Spolsky.

Anyway, the point Isaac made regarding the degrees that matter is a good one: the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. matter, but even then only to a limited extent. People of varying talents earn those degrees, which are in turn only as rigorous as the classes taken. Not so long ago I was an undergrad, and almost all of us had mental hierarchies of teachers and classes, and anyone who wanted to avoid harder teachers/classes could. It’s simply not very difficult to get a degree in many majors, especially in the liberal arts. Of course, there are many good people who graduate with liberal arts degrees, but many is not the same at as all. We’ve all probably met incompetent college graduates, and I’ve met head-in-the-clouds Ph.D.s. There is no alphabet soup behind a person’s name that really guarantees that person’s skill.

You only have what Mr. Spolsky would call “weak indicators.” Given how imperfect college degrees are as indicators of skill, and how much effort goes into them, you shouldn’t be surprised that so many other “credentials” are even worse. Tautologically, only skill can show skill, and the best indication of a person’s skill is that person’s track record. Want to discover if you or someone you know can write a proposal? Give them an RFP, a deadline, a computer, Internet access, as much coffee as they want and see if they produce a proposal. If so, they’re a grant writer, and you can give them another. If not, use your best Donald Trump voice to say “You’re fired!”, send them to the Department of Education (as Isaac suggested), and go on to the next resume or consultant in your pile. Eventually you’ll probably find a grant writer.

Why Do People Give to Nonprofits and Charities? And Other Unanswerable Questions

This month’s Giving Carnival—discussed here previously—asks why people give and what motivates giving. I have no idea and suspect no one else does, either, but that’s not reason not to speculate. I assume that some combination of altruism, kindness, self-interest, pride, and noblesse oblige motives giving. Slate talks about the “immeasurable value of philanthropy” here:

But the core of [Lewis Hyde’s] insights are about the connections between donors and recipients and about how successful gifts continue to give, in, yes, a circle, from the direct recipients to others to whom they pass a gift along (in one form or another) and back to the donors. While a gift can have market value, its worth is often—and more importantly—psychological and social. Even when its impact isn’t immediate, it’s likely to be what Hyde calls “a companion to transformation.”

I’m not sure that has anything to do with anything. Later, however, the article ties into issues raised by posts about evaluations and their limitations:

As philanthropic organizations become more attentive to businesslike standards—how effective are nonprofits? What is a particular donation likely to accomplish?—they increasingly use the language of finance to describe their goals.

I can buy the dominant narrative in the press about philanthropy becoming more businesslike, but I doubt this tendency over the long run because of the incredible difficulty in measuring output without dollars that can be added up toward a bottom line. Still, this Slate article is actually worth reading even if it strays outside the context of the question discussed here because it raises the right issues, although I’m not sure the reporter fully grasps the issue of measurement. This issue ties back into what motivates giving because part of what motivates giving is probably effectiveness—meaning, is what I’m giving actually doing someone some good? Some recent books, like The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It and The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good argue that much Western aid has been wasted because it’s ineffective, which might lessen the desire to give aid. Consequently, I do think “effectiveness,” or the belief that giving helps someone aside from the giver, who gets a warm and fuzzy glow, at least in part motives ate.

I say “lessen” and “effectiveness” above, but I also think the desire to help others is intrinsic, like the desire for self-improvement. But just as there is an element of randomness in who gets funded, there seems to be a stronger one in the question of why people give.

Self-Esteem—What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing

Roberta Stevens commented on “Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make it Seem Like the End of the World” by saying she was “having trouble finding statistics on low self esteem in girls ages 12-19.” This got me thinking about the pointlessness of “self-esteem” as a metric in grant proposals. A simple Google search for ‘“self-esteem” girls studies reports’ yielded a boatload of studies, but if you look closely at them, it is apparent that most are based on “self-reports,” which is another way of saying that researchers asked the little darlings how they feel.

When my youngest son was in middle school, he was subjected to endless navel gazing surveys and routinely reported confidentially that he had carried machine guns to school, smoked crack regularly and started having sex at age seven. In short, he thought it was fun to tweak the authority figures and my guess is that many other young people do too when confronted by earnest researchers asking probing questions.

Although such studies often reveal somewhat dubious alleged gender differences based on self-esteem, I have yet to see any self-esteem data that correlated with meaningful outcomes for young people. Perhaps this is obvious, since self-esteem is such a poor indicator of anything in the real world, given that Stalin appears to have had plenty of self-esteem, even if his moral compass was off target. Arguably our best President, Abraham Lincoln, was by most accounts wracked with self-doubt and low self-esteem, while more recent Presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, both with questionable presidencies, did not seem short in the self-esteem department.

If I use self-esteem in a needs assessment for a supportive service program for teenage girls, I would find appropriately disturbing statistics (e.g., the pregnancy rate is two times the state rate, the drop out rate among teenage girls has increased by 20%, etc.) and “expert” quotes (“we’ve seen a rise in suicide ideation among our young women clients,” says Carmella, Kumquat, MSW, Mental Health Services Director) to paint a suitably depressing picture and then top it off with the ever popular statement such as, “Given these disappointing indicators, the organization knows anecdotally from its 200 years of experience in delivering youth services, that targeted young women exhibit extremely low self-esteem, which contributes to their challenges in achieving long-term self-sufficiency.” I know this is a nauseating sentence, but it is fairly typical of most grant proposals and is why proposals should never be read just after eating lunch.

So, to paraphrase Edwin Star, “Self-esteem, what is it good for? / Absolutely nothing.”

(In the context of gangs, Jake has also commented on suspect or twisted needs indicators .)


EDIT: A more recent post, Self-Efficacy—Oops, There Goes Another Rubber Tree Plant, takes up the issue of finding a metric more valuable than self-esteem for both grant writers and program participants.