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Change for Change’s Sake in Grant Proposals: When in Doubt, Claim Your Program is Innovative

Federal grant programs constantly demand “innovative” projects, even when the specific requirements of the program prevent any deviation from narrowly defined activities. Take two examples regarding how project services can be delivered:

  • No matter what the RFP for any human services program requires, there are only two basic ways to deliver human services: you can either bring someone to a location and do something to them (e.g. impart skills, get them off drugs, teach them Freshman Composition, etc.), which is often termed a “center-based model.” This is like high school, or a hospital: you gather a bunch of people in building. Alternatively, the service provider can go to them and do something (e.g. home visits, such as the Healthy Homes Demonstration Program), which is a “field-based model.” This is like at-home tutoring: you hire someone to come over and teach you algebra.*
  • You can either offer specific services (like those that are only required to get off of drugs) or “wrap-around supportive services,” which basically means that the program is going to get you off of drugs, make sure you get a GED, and maybe get you some job training so you’ll stay off of drugs. Usually those entail a case manager, which is fairly typical in today’s grant world but was less common previously. Case management was once considered paternalistic; now it’s de rigueur; tomorrow it will be anathema again. Isaac has talked a lot about how opposed many ’60s reformers were to case management and social workers, who are today a standard part of many programs. To some extent, following these trends is a case of surfing grant waves, even if the underlying structure of particular programs remain similar.

Who’s right in this battle over whether case management is right or wrong, or whether having a center-based or field-based program is better? The obvious answer is probably the right one—no one, since the success of any model depends on execution. A well-executed model in either example will probably minimize its weaknesses and maximize its strengths. A poorly executed model will do neither, and then lead to calls to shift program designs from one to the other. Some nonprofits or projects might naturally be better at one than the other. Nonetheless, you can bet that when one form becomes dominant, funding agencies will eventually decide to stress innovation by breaking toward the other side. Chic foundations of the sort with good PR departments and prospects for getting in the WSJ or New York Times might switch, and then send a blizzard of press releases touting their success.

There really aren’t a lot of variations on whether you do center-based or field-based projects, or whether or not you offer wraparound supportive services. Such approaches have been tried for decades. But federal programs will routinely demand that you show that your program is innovative, excellent, and so on, even though very, very few of the thousands of RFPs we’ve seen for any services that are genuinely innovative. Instead, RFPs and their underlying federal programs change more for the sake or appearance of change than real change. This kind of thing often comes about because an organization needs to somehow justify its existence and its donut budget, or some bright person enters an agency and thinks they’ve invented wraparound supportive service for the first time.

In other words, these switches from, say, center- to field-based models are often random, or close to random. But regardless of how you’ll deliver services, you should announce that your project is innovative, even in a field where there is no real innovation.

* If you want to be more specific, there are probably one or two less common models: a “circuit riding model,” in which someone promises to be at a specific time or place to offer advice or services, and an electronic model, in which you broadcast something (think tobacco public service announcements) or access services via the ‘net (get a Ph.D. in English Literature at home while sitting in your underwear without shoes on).