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The Stimulus Bill Meets Santa Claus Meets American Idol in Virginia

I thought that I wouldn’t have to write any more posts on the Stimulus Bill, but like Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III, “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.” The curious way the Commonwealth of Virginia has decided to solicit ideas for how to spend its piece of the Stimulus Pie drags me back in. At, you will find the following statement as of March 1, 2009: “The Commonwealth has developed a website for citizens, groups, localities, and others to use to share project proposals for funding from the federal stimulus package.” If you send your email address, you will be directed to a site that allows you to pitch your own idea.

What’s fun about this is the lack of any prerequisites whatsoever—meaning one could presumably present any idea. Even better, the “application” consists of contact info and a 750 character project description. That’s right, characters, not words. Now, I’m all for brevity in grant writing, but this may be taking things a bit too far. To illustrate, I will reduce the fictitious Project Nutria described in “Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development,” which I created to show how a grant writer develops a project idea, to about 750 characters:

Citizens Against Nutria–Dillwyn Organization (CAN-DO) proposes Project NUTRIA (Nutria Utilization and Training Resources for Itinerant Americans). This innovative initiative will empower City of Dillwyn (Buckingham County) residents to fight the scourge of rampaging nutria, while also combating homelessness and stimulating the economy. This will be accomplished by training homeless persons to catch and process nutria, with the nutria meat feeding and the fur clothing the growing ranks of unemployed. An estimated 12,000 nutria will be transformed into food and clothing by 10 formerly homeless persons, providing sustenance and winter coats for 200 unemployed persons during the project year. Thus, Project NUTRIA is a win-win-win-win for Dillwyn and will aggressively utilize limited Commonwealth Stimulus dollars.

While a few legitimate project concepts might be submitted by public and nonprofit agencies that do not understand the grant making process, the vast majority are going to be from individuals. Proposed projects will likely be fairly unusual (e.g., landing strips for UFOs, expeditions to find the Lost City of Z,* etc.) or heartfelt personal testimonies (e.g., house repossessed, lost jobs, too many bills, medical problems, etc.). This “application process” is silly on its face in that no guidelines are provided, no explanation of the various pots of money that compose Virginia’s slice of the Stimulus Pie (e.g. transportation funds, Medicaid reimbursements, et) is offered, and no details about who will evaluate the proposals, how they will be evaluated or when they will be evaluated, is provided.

The impression given is that the Commonwealth has one big tub of money, and someone—presumably Governor Tim M. Kaine—will ladle it out like grant soup to lucky residents. Since this is not how grant making works, I assume this whole exercise is a PR ploy to enable state bureaucrats to say that the Commonwealth is being inclusive in gathering input into the Stimulus spending process. This is not much different from telling kids to write down their Christmas wish list and mailing the letters to Santa Claus, care of the North Pole.

Why not go all the way and turn it into American Stimulus Idol? Instead of having folks describe their idea in 750 boring characters, Governor Kaine should invite all applicants to the statehouse for judging in person by Randy, Paula and Simon. To save travel expenses in this down economy, we’ll do without the superfluous Kara and Ryan. Thousands of applicants can make signs and bring their moms. When they finally make it to the judging, their requests could be presented in songs, skits, iambic pentameter, or, to save time, haiku.** This will give Randy the opportunity to say something like, “Dogg, that plan to use high school students to deliver surplus MREs from Iraq to the homeless is OUT THE BOX,” or Simon to say, “It’s really all just karaoke, isn’t it,” and, of course, Paula will want to fund all the ideas because all the presenters just “look so sweet.” After the top 36 are picked, Virginians can call in to select their favorites, with the top vote getters receiving pillow cases stuffed with cash handed over personally by Governor Kaine. That’s what I would call real citizen participation!

Before everyone gets excited, realize that this is satire. I am trying to point out that it is a disservice to everyone to foster the myth that state or local government agencies will use the Stimulus Bill money to fund randomly proposed projects. As any experienced grant writer knows, grants are typically made to 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations and public agencies, not individuals, unincorporated associations or most businesses, and almost always in response to highly structured RFPs.

A state government perpetuating the myth that grant funds are there to be plucked from government money trees helps no one. We get several calls every day from persons who think “the government” is going to give them a grant to pay down their credit cards, help them start a nail parlor business, buy a home for their grandmother with disabilities, and the like. We have the grim duty of telling them that no such grants exist. As the economy worsens and ill-conceived attempts at promoting the wonders of the Stimulus Bill unfold, we expect to receive more pleas like this. The Commonwealth of Virginia should simply state the categories of Stimulus funding they have, eligibility requirements, real application instructions, and timelines. In other words, if money is available, shut up and issue RFPs.

Also, as much fun as it would be and as tempting as it is, I am not suggesting that joke proposals be submitted to the Commonwealth. When I was a frisky young grant writer, I must admit I actually did write and submit a bogus proposal. About 30 years ago, I was the Grants Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, CA. I wrote numerous proposals, many of which were funded because at the time Lynwood faced just about every socioeconomic problem imaginable and was a funder’s dream applicant. Along came a RFP from the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a regional planning body.*** Without going into too much boring detail, the RFP had to do with a California planning concept called positive “fair share communities,” as determined by whether the city was doing their “fair share” to provide affordable housing and make housing available to minority groups.

Since Lynwood had lots of poor folks and residents of color, I deemed it a “negative fair share” community, as it was in effect providing affordable housing for such cities as Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Laguna Beach. Because we couldn’t get grant funds for increasing the supply of affordable housing, I developed a joke project, which I called LHOOP (Lynwood Housing Opportunity Outreach Program), in which I proposed buying a fleet of vans and taking Lynwood residents on tours to see what life was like in affluent cities, including picnics at Zuma Beach in Malibu, shopping at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, and the like. I actually wrote and submitted the proposal, without telling the City Manager, just to see what happened. It was written tongue-in-cheek, more or less like Project NUTRIA, and much to my surprise, SCAG ranked it very high and wanted to fund it, so I had to pull it before I got caught. Think of this as the grant writing equivalent of the hilarious Social Text Affair. As with most of my grant writing tales, there is a follow-on story.

In 2001, HUD issued a NOFA for something called the Housing Search Assistance Program (HSAP), which was more or less my Project LHOOP idea. We were doing a lot of work for a housing authority at the time, which shall remain nameless. I told them about the NOFA and we wrote a $1,000,000 funded HSAP proposal for the housing authority and a collaborating nonprofit, based largely on the Project LHOOP concept. It shouldn’t be long before the Virginia issues an RFP to get rid of those pesky nutria and I can unleash Project NUTRIA on the real world. By the way, don’t bother looking for another HSAP NOFA, as this program was one and done effort by HUD. Expect the same to happen to Virginia’s stimulus program.

* Many want to find the Lost City of Z, which is purported to be the mythical El Dorado. We were contacted by one such fellow about 10 years ago who was on his way to find it and looking for grants. He did not have a nonprofit, so, as much as I loved the idea of working on the project, I had to tell him sadly that he was out of luck with respect to grants. David Grann just wrote a new book on the fascinating Lost City of Z which was reviewed in the March 1 issue of the New York Times Sunday Book Review: “On the Road to El Dorado.” Since grant writers are metaphorically searching for the Lost City of Gold, it should make a good read for those of us in the profession.

** Reader Challenge: Take my 750 Project Nutria example and turn it into haiku. This is your chance to get poetry published and the winner will receive an 8″ x 10″ glossy photo of Governor Kaine, which may or may not be signed, depending on the Governor’s sense of humor. You can leave example haikus in the comments section.

*** SCAG is one of a herd of so-called “Councils of Government” (COGS) that were created in the late 1960s to handle regional planning activities, a concept then quite in vogue, as well as the long-forgotten OMB A-95 process, which I might cover in a future post on grant nostalgia. COGs still grind away in anonymity throughout the US, having evolved to provide a cornucopia of unusual services and programs. If you don’t believe me, find a couple of local COGs and look at what they do. COGs are an object lesson in bureaucracies and their Darwinian evolutionary strategies, since such organizations typically find new ecological niches to occupy when their original purpose is lost in the climate change of time.