Tag Archives: HSI

Parsing the Department of Education’s “Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions” (HSI) Program RFP–Which Colleges are Eligible?

As we’ve written before, parsing an RFP sometimes seems like deciphering the Talmud. The just-issued ED Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) RFP is a case in point.

HSI is a venerable program that provides grants to Institutions of Higher Education (ED-speak for “two- and four-year colleges and universities”) deemed to be “Hispanic-Serving Institutions.” But what is an HSI? To paraphrase President Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of “HSI” is? The RFP states:

In addition to basic eligibility requirements, an institution must have at least 25 percent enrollment of undergraduate full-time equivalent (FTE) Hispanic students at the end of the award year immediately preceding the date of application.

(Emphasis added.)

Now we have to determine what “award year” means. On page 19 of the 87-page RFP, we finally learn that award year “refers to the end of the fiscal year prior to the application due date.” Which raises the question, why doesn’t the RFP just consistently replace “award year,” which no one understands, with “end of the last federal year,” which anyone involved in federal grants knows is September 30?

This conundrum came up on Friday when I was talking about HSI with the internal grant writer for a community college we often work for. This guy is very knowledgeable about federal grants but thought the eligibility for HSI was that his college had to have at least 25% Hispanic students for one year before applying for a HSI grant. His college achieved that milestone at the start of the fall 2014 semester, or around September 1, so he didn’t think they were HSI eligible. A close reading of the RFP sections above shows that he was wrong: as long as the college met the 25% threshold by September 30, 2014, which in this case they did, the college is actually HSI-eligible.

It also turns out that ED does not certify or even maintain a list of HSIs. Instead, applicants self-certify eligibility by signing an assurance. How does a college know whether is has 25% FTE Hispanic students? The students themselves self-certify their “race and ethnicity” at the time of application and these data are aggregated by colleges.

This data gets really murky. Most Americans probably think “Hispanic” is a “race.” Not true, at least by some metrics. Those of us who work with Census data know that the Census definition considers “Hispanic” an ethnicity, not a race. From the Census website: “Hispanic origin can be viewed as the heritage, nationality, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before arriving in the United States. People who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be any race.”

In other words, American college students self-certifying as “Hispanic” could have a partial family heritage anywhere from Spain to South America to the Philippines and many places in between. From a Census “race” standpoint, they could be otherwise black, white, Asian, Native American, or multiracial. Combined with immigration and intermarriage, this is why the population of some states, like California and Texas, either are or will be majority-Hispanic. As a practical matter, most IHEs in the southwest and south are likely HSI-eligible already; in a few more years, most IHEs across the country probably will be. This is great news for IHEs, Hispanic students and grant writers!

The above cautionary tale shows why it’s critical to closely read RFPs regarding applicant eligibility and other key factors. When I went through Air Force basic training over 45 years ago, the first class we took was “Rumors and Propaganda.” It taught us not to believe barracks scuttlebutt. The same is true in grant writing.

What Happens If You Have a Party and No Girls Show Up? HRSA’s Healthy Start Initiative (HSI) FOA Tries Again

We just finished working on proposals for HRSA’s Healthy Start Initiative (HSI); we’ve written funded HSIs before, so we’re very familiar with the program. HSI, however, just reappeared as a Valentine’s Day Present, with a new deadline of March 31 and almost $40 million available. That link goes to the RFP.

What gives?

The RFP answers:

The number of applications received. . . was much less than expected. As a result, HRSA anticipates that funds will be available to support additional applicants after completing reviews and funding decisions of applications submitted for [HSI].

HRSA didn’t get enough applications—they threw a party and no girls showed up, which is strange because HRSA is trying to give away money. We can speculate on why HRSA didn’t get enough applications, or technically correct applications, starting with: The RFP was difficult. We worked on HSI over the holidays; a lot of people probably gave up and went back to the celebrations, or turned in technically incorrect proposals.

In honor of HRSA and drinking over the holidays, we’ll offer a 10% discount to anyone who wants to apply for HSI this time around. Call us at 800.540.8906 for a free quote.

We know that programs have been re-released one after another before, though we can’t think of any examples right now. Those other ones must have taken place before we started the blog, because we can’t find any posts on this particular topic. Chalk it up to the inherent weirdness of Federal grant making. As Winston Churchill is said to have said of the Russians, “It is a a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

The Narrative Should Use the Headers the Funder Says It Should Use: HRSA’s Health Start Initiative (HSI)

A few days ago I was describing some of the weirder sections in HRSA’s Healthy Start Initiative: Eliminating Disparities in Perinatal Health (HSI) program to my fiancée, and between the time I started and the time she fell asleep I mentioned that a proposal’s disjointedness often comes not from the writer but from the RFP. Proposals aren’t written for humans; they’re written for bureaucrats. That’s true for most federal proposals, some state proposals, fewer local proposals, and least of all for reasonably unstructured foundation proposals.

Way back in 2012 we wrote “Upward Bound means more narrative confusion,” which described how that RFP “practically hide[s] the location of the material you’re supposed to respond to.” Today I’d like to talk about an exciting, sexy, related topic: HSI (which is due tomorrow). Like Upward Bound, it has two logical places that a moderately intelligent writer could use to structure the narrative: the first is on page 22 of the RFP, which says things like: “INTRODUCTION — Corresponds to Section V’s Review Criterion 1.”

Notice the language used: “Corresponds to Section V’s Review Criterion 1.” Review Criterion 1 starts on page 43, and it has very clear section headers that could be used to structure a fairly clean and clear proposal. I was tempted to use them and I bet a lot of other people have used them in the past, since HRSA put a simple but easily missed instruction on page 22: “Use the following section headers for the Narrative.”

That instruction should be and is the end of the debate. Because of it, anyone who uses the page 43 Review Criteria is doing it wrong. As always with grant writing, it may be possible to do it wrong and then get funded anyway, but you should always err on the side of obeying the RFP.

As you might imagine, we’ve had some… discussions… around this issue with clients. I’ll leave the nature of those discussions intentionally euphemistic, but in the meantime I will note that they should not have been as long or contentious as they were.

HRSA proposals are particularly finicky with narrative starts. The Nursing Workforce Diversity (NWD) Program, for example, has the same weird, bifurcated structure, in which the narrative beings on page 10 and the review criteria on page 21. It isn’t as monstrous as HSI—the final submission package is 65 pages max, as opposed to HSI’s 100 pages, and the RFP is correspondingly shorter—but it does the same confusing thing.

From a writer’s perspective, the (imperfect) solution is to write with the mandated narrative headers and then make sure that the response hits all the review criteria. If it doesn’t, pick up some of the language from the response and then use that as a jumping off section for a paragraph. For example, HSI has a review criterion that starts, “The extent to which the proposed quality improvement plan describes an ongoing/continuous overall management approach…” and you should answer it by saying, “The proposed project will implement a quality improvement plan describes an ongoing/continuous overall management approach by creating a database that will be used by CHWs to…”

That’s a nice thing to do for the reviewers, because it allows them to check the box and ideally give you the maximum number of points possible. It would be even smarter to make the narrative instructions and review criteria identical, but HRSA evidently isn’t yet that evolved—which makes our job harder. But if we wanted an easy job, we would have become lion tamers.

HRSA’s Healthy Start Initiative Inadvertently Illuminates* How Grant Funding Decisions are Actually Made

Our old pals at HRSA just issued the FY ’14 Healthy Start Initiative (HSI) Funding Opportunity Announcement (“FOA,” which is HRSA-speak for RFP). HSI has over $81 million up for grabs for a wide array of project concepts that will

reduce disparities in infant mortality and adverse perinatal outcomes by: 1) improving women’s health, 2) promoting quality services, 3) strengthening family resilience, 4) achieving collective impact, and 5) increasing accountability through quality improvement, performance monitoring, and evaluation.

There’s an interesting twist to the funding distribution of HSI, however. Most RFPs contain some version of the following, which we’re taking from the recently issued Department of Labor Youth CareerConnect SGA (Solicitation for Grant Applications, which is DOL-speak for RFP):

The Grant Officer may also consider other factors such as geographic balance; the availability of funds; and representation among various H-1B industries/occupations.

This more or less means that DOL can fund any technically correct proposal that reaches the point funding threshold, without justifying its reasoning to anyone. This inherent uncertainty about which good proposals will be funded makes applicants nervous and can discourage some applicants from even applying. Let’s say you run a rural nonprofit that does youth job training. You might feel you can’t compete against big city applicants and give up Youth CareerConnect before you start. If one were cynical, one could say that’s exactly why this weasel language is almost always found in RFPs. Still, it’s usually worthwhile for that rural nonprofit to apply anyway, since it might be a token rural nonprofit that gets funded to provide rural/urban balance.

The HSI FOA is different. HSI will award grants up to $2 million/year for five years. But the $82 million in available HSI funds and the large size of the grants are not what makes this FOA particularly interesting. Instead, it’s the way HSI funds will be parceled out, which the FOA clearly states—instead of hiding behind the kind of typical RFP language cited above for Youth CareerConnect. Three award levels will be made:

  • Level 1, Community-Based (basically a local program): $51.75 million with 69 grants to $750K/year for five years)
  • Level 2, Enhanced Service (local plus building a community collaborative): $12 million with 10 grants to $1,200,000/year for five years
  • Level 3, Leadership and Mentoring (local plus collaborative plus establishing a center for regional/statewide support): $18 million with 9 grants to $2,000,000/year for five years

Even better, 35 Level-1 grants are reserved for rural projects, while five level 1 grants are reserved for US/Mexico border projects (which is another way of saying these five are reserved for projects targeting Hispanics).

With this information, it’s much easier for potential applicants to try to divine their relative chances of being funded. Different applicant types have guaranteed funding streams, instead of the usual implicit assurances.

As a hoary (“hoary,” not whorey; there is a difference, usually) grant writer, however, I don’t think it’s all that useful to try to handicap your chances of success. Despite the FOA’s slicing and dicing on awards to be made, you can’t know how many applicants will compete at the various levels. You also can’t know in advance how many technically correct proposals will actually be submitted. Remember: if the proposal is not deemed technically correct, it never gets scored.**

Getting that technically correct proposal completed and out the door won’t be easy for many organizations. HRSA only allowed 43 days between the FOA publication on December 5 and the deadline of January 17, the Holidays are coming up and, at 73 single-spaced pages, the FOA is incredibly complicated. It’s so complicated that mistakes were made and HRSA has already published a major modification, in the form of a revised FOA and application kit file.

The short deadline, holiday season and mind-numbing FOA will probably combine to reduce the number of technically correct proposals that are submitted. All you have to do is be the exception: set aside your holiday plans, study the revised FOA, write a compelling proposal and submit a technically correct grants.gov kit file at least 48 hours ahead of the January deadline. The money, however, will go to those who forego vacations (or hire consultants like us) and get the job done.


* It is generally not a good idea to use alliteration in proposals, but I couldn’t resist in this headline.

** We should note, however, that we’ve written and turned in numerous proposals for applicants that were technically ineligible, only to have the applicant be funded. We’ve also turned in proposals with missing elements, like mandatory letters of support that the applicant couldn’t secure, and seen them funded. When we think an organization is ineligible for a grant, we tell them—but they sometimes tell us in turn that they want to apply anyway. Occasionally that attitude works out.