Tag Archives: NOFA

Why HUD Hasn’t Released the Total Funding Amount for the Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) and Demonstration Program NOFAs?

HUD just announced the Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) Program and its sister program, Lead Hazard Reduction Demonstration Grant (LHRD) Program NOFA. The NOFA, however, doesn’t list how much money is available or the maximum grant amounts for either program—instead, it has highlighted “XX” and “XXX” variables:

I sent a note to Michelle Miller, the Director of HUD’s Programs Division, noting the absence of the funding amount and maximum grant amount, under the assumption that it was a mistake. She promptly (always a pleasant surprise) wrote back:

Actually it is correct Jake. Since federal budgets have not been appropriated we do not know the total dollars available. That will be announced as soon as we know. However, does affect anyone putting in an application since the award amounts are listed

And now we’re sharing her answers with those of you who are wondering the same thing I was. As of this writing,* Congress hasn’t passed a FY ’13 budget or yet another Continuing Resolution, so HUD is stuck in budgetary limbo. But HUD assumes, probably correctly, that Congress will eventually authorize LBPHC and LHRD money.

Smart organizations are going to start their applications now, since the NOFA has been published.

In past years, the two programs have had more than $100 million available, which makes them an excellent source of funding for cities and community development agencies; we’ve written seven funded LBPHC grants over the years and so are very familiar with the program. For a primer, see Isaac’s post, “HUD’s Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program (LBPHC) Program Explained.”

Despite the frustration of not knowing exactly how much money will be allocated to these programs, we have to give HUD credit for two things: first, it’s breaking the increasingly common pattern of offering only thirty-day deadlines; very short deadlines make it much harder for nonprofits to prepare their best application. Second, Michelle replied to my e-mail. I know we’ve written many posts that castigate bureaucrats for various misdemeanors and kinds of incompetence, but we do want to praise responsive bureaucrats who do come through.


* Free proposal phrase.

California’s Supplemental Education Services (SES): What Gives?

California’s Supplemental Educational Services program looks a bit curious when you first study it: the grant-like program isn’t really a grant program, per se. It’s a competition designed to, as we said in the Seliger Funding Report:

apply for state approval of the applicant’s capability to provide before- and after-school tutoring to remedy academic deficiencies in low-income and at-risk youth. Once approved, the applicant can receive contracts from CA LEAs to provide such tutoring services. The SES program is a federal pass-through program and is available in all states.

(The link is ours, naturally.)

If you’re “funded”—although “selected” is a more appropriate verb here—you’ll be able to seek contracts with school districts throughout the state. Those contracts can be very lucrative. If you want to apply, however, you’ve got to do a two-step dance, and the application we link to in the first sentence is the first step.

HUD Issues the FY ’12 Indian Community Development Block Grant (ICDBG) NOFA Not Long After the FY ’11 NOFA

HUD just issued the FY ’12 Indian Community Development Block Grant (ICDBG) NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability, which is HUD-speak for RFP). There’s about $61 million available for federally recognized Tribes, Alaskan Native Villages and selected Native American organizations. This is a great opportunity for eligible Native American applicants to fund housing, economic development and community facility projects, and maximum grants range from $600,000 to $5,500,000, depending on the location and number of persons impacted. The question is, why am I blogging about it, since it seems like another run-of-the-mill federal grant process?

The answer is in the timing of the NOFA release and deadline.

The timing issue caught my eye because the FY ’11 ICDBG deadline was June 15. The FY ’12 ICDBG NOFA was released on October 4 and the deadline is January 4, so two “annual” funding cycles will be completed within a year! Faithful readers will recall that I wrote several posts in halcyon days of the Stimulus Bill passing in early 2009, including February 2009’s Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing. In it, I correctly predicted that the feds would have more than a little trouble shoveling $800 billion out of the door.

The Stimulus Bill also distorted the more or less predictable flow of other discretionary grant programs like ICDBG; while the Stimulus Bill unleashed a huge quantity of additional grant funds, there were few, if any, additional personnel to manage the process, as I observed then:

My experience with Federal employees is that they work slower, not faster, under pressure, and there is no incentive whatsoever for a GS-10 to burn the midnight oil. Federal staffers are just employees who likely don’t share the passion of the policy wonks in the West Wing or the grant applicants. They just do their jobs, and, since there are protected by Civil Service, they cannot be speeded up. Also, there are no bonuses in the Federal system for work above and beyond the call of duty.

The nearly back-to-back release of ICDBG NOFAs is likely the result of the Stimulus Bill backlog—something like the boa constrictor eating an elephant in Saint-Exupéry’s charming novella, The Little Prince. ICDBG-eligible applicants had to wait for the FY ’11 grants to be digested, and then they have the opportunity to apply all over again a few months later.

The lack of a federal budget for three years and the reliance on Continuing Resolutions (CRs) to fund federal agencies likely doesn’t help. While the media focuses on the upcoming election and never-ending economic challenges, Congress passes appropriation bills using CRs, which allows FY ’12 funds, like ICDBG, to become available. You can expect a flood of backlogged federal programs to issue RFPs in the next few months.

Given the chaos in the federal budgeting process, it seems like a good bet to apply for any grant programs that come along now because the funding cycles for ICDBG and lots of other programs are pretty screwed up. In the case of ICDBG, I have no idea when the FY ’13 ICDBG NOFA will appear, but there’s an opportunity for a second bite of the apple this year. It seems to me that any ICDBG-eligible entity should bite that apple (or is it a salmon? I leave it to readers to decide).

A Lesson in Passthrough Funds and Capacity Building: ACF’s Non-Profit Capacity Building Program NOFA

If you read this week’s grant newsletter, you probably saw the NOFA for the Administration for Children and Families’s “Non-Profit Capacity Building Program,” which I first thought meant “pass-through funds,” since the purpose is “to increase the capacity of a small number of intermediary grantees to provide specific assistance to improve the sustainability of and expand services provided by small and midsize nonprofits in communities facing resource hardship challenges.” Do you know what would help those agencies? Money.

Unfortunately, I was wrong: it initially looks like pass-through funds but isn’t.

If you dig into the NOFA, you’ll find that “specific assistance” means that applicants should propose activities like “a comprehensive strategy of various learning activities and methods to increase the knowledge, skills, and abilities of recipients to implement performance management systems as well as any other best practice areas to target for improvement.” If I were a small nonprofit, I’d prefer that “specific assistance” mean “direct funding,” but here it doesn’t; the best you can do is use “a small portion of funds [. . .] to provide minor capital investments in the capacity of certain recipients such as the purchase of specific software or systems to improve infrastructure.”

I’m guessing that, if you surveyed the nonprofits “facing resource hardship challenges” to be “helped” by well-meaning but paternalistic intermediary organizations if they’d prefer “various learning activities and methods” or “cold, hard cash,” they’d prefer the latter. Isaac has written extensively on the challenges and opportunities nonprofits face in the current climate, and a dearth of training hasn’t been one. As he said, when donations and contracts dry up, smart nonprofits turn to grants. Less smart ones disappear. I think the ACF’s nominal purpose in running this program is to help small nonprofits. Its real purpose, however, is to help the intermediate nonprofits that are supposed to run a variation on train-the-trainers.

How do you do that? The NOFA itself says that “applicants will focus their organizational development assistance program on developing and implementing performance management systems that enable organizations to measure their progress and improve their performance towards intended outcomes.” So it wants nonprofits to basically act like Accenture, IBM Global Services, or the other big consultants that are frequently the target of Dilbert. We’ve written a number of funded proposals over the years to do activities like this, and one key is understanding what I’ve laid out above: you’re passing out training, not money.

You don’t see a huge number of pass-through awards because they just increase administrative friction: ACF is paying staffers to write the RFP, review applications, and so forth, it isn’t going to give grants to “intermediary” nonprofits to… write a mini-RFP solicit applications, review applications, and so forth, probably to the tune of 10 – 30% of the grant. You’ll find pass-through grants at the state level, but very rarely lower than that.

Foundation appeal clients occasionally want to run variations on pass-through programs. Some clients, for example, will provide scholarships to people with a particular illness, like Groat’s disease. We tell them not to do this, however, because if the funder wants to fund any kind of cash payment scheme, they’ll do so directly and cut out the middleman. You want to look like something more than the middleman. Foundations mostly like direct services. As the “Non-Profit Capacity Building Program” shows, so do the feds.

A Question for Talmudists and Lawyers Regarding HUD’s Healthy Homes NOFA

I’m working on a HUD Healthy Homes proposal, and sections b and c of “Rating Factor 1: Capacity of the Applicant and Relevant Organizational Experience” requires responses to these sentences:

Relevant Organization Experience (6 points). Describe your recent, relevant, and successfully demonstrated experience in undertaking eligible program activities.

and:

Past Performance of the Organization (6 points). Applicants will be rated on documenting previous experience in successfully operating similar grant programs.

The exam question: What is the difference between the information being requested in each section?

Bonus section: How can you answer both while also staying within the 20-page limit for the narrative?

Adventures in The Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP), Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), and Figuring Out Where to Start the Narrative

Although this might not seem like it should be a problem, figuring out where to start the narrative section of a proposal can sometimes be difficult: do you write to the evaluation criteria, to something labeled “narrative,” or to a series of text boxes? Federal programs are particularly fond of hiding the salami, as anyone who has had the misfortune of sitting down with a freshly issued, complex RFP can attest.

Novice grant writers often start writing to the wrong section, and Isaac described one example of this occurrence in Professional Grant Writer At Work: Don’t Try Writing A Transportation Electrification Proposal At Home. As he said, “The problem is that [review] criteria are invariably hidden somewhere in the bowels of the RFP and may or may not be referenced in the RFP completion instructions.”

You can see a particularly pernicious example of this in the Broadband Initiatives Program, whose application guide is available at the link. Oh, and you can also read the NOFA that was included in the Federal Register.

There are a few different areas within the NOFA and application guidance you could conceivably respond to. Check out page 16 of the NOFA, which says, “1. BIP Infrastructure Projects. a. General.” It has some point totals, which we usually write against when dealing with, say, YouthBuild. In the case of BIP, however, that would be logical, but wrong, because the application guide has more detailed instructions. If you look in it, you’ll be tempted by page 8 (though it’s labeled “7” in the hard copy) because it has scoring criteria similar but not identical to what’s in the NOFA.

Confused yet? Me too. But if you keep looking, you’ll find that the the place you actually want to start is page 14 (which is labeled 13) in the guidance, which says “Executive Summary.” As far as I know, however, no part of the NOFA or the application guidance actually come right and say, “write to the questions/criteria starting on page 14, which is actually labeled page 13 in the hard copy!” If you don’t take the time to study both the application guide and the NOFA, you could end up with an incomplete and totally wrong application on which you’ve spent dozens of work hours.

There’s another amusing part of the BIP NOFA, which has implications for this and other programs. It says, “Describe the methodology, source of data, and analytical approaches used to determine whether the proposed funded service areas are classified as “unserved,” ”underserved,” or for BIP, at least 75% rural.” But the NOFA already describes what “unserved” and “underserved” mean on page 7:

Specifically, a proposed funded service area may qualify as underserved for last mile projects if at least one of the following factors is met, though the presumption will be that more than one factor is present: 1. No more than 50 percent of the households in the proposed funded service area have access to facilities-based, terrestrial broadband service at greater than the minimum broadband transmission speed (set forth in the definition of broadband above); 2. No fixed or mobile broadband service provider advertises broadband transmission speeds of at least three megabits per second (‘‘mbps’’) downstream in the proposed funded service area […]

And it goes on from there. The most obvious maneuver to answer this question is to copy the exact language from the NOFA and spit it back in the response. They’ve given you the answer: you just have to use it. This isn’t a college exam, where you get extra credit for creativity; you get extra credit for staying in the lines. Save your imaginative powers for writing novels or composing software—in many grant writing exercises, imaginative powers will be wasted and possibly harmful, because your job is often to stack one two by four on top of another two by four to build the application following the RFP blueprints. The only question is where you need to build your foundation, and that’s what I’ve tried to answer in this post; the foundation issue will have to wait for another.

Oh, and the best part of all this: the narrative section for our client turned out to be around 30 pages long. The application guide is 72 pages long. I would propose a test of an RFP: if it takes longer to explain how to apply to a program than to describe what the applicant will actually do, the RFP writer has failed in some significant way.

No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer

The Stimulus Bill deluge has begun, and we’ve been getting lots of calls from for-profit companies interested in Department of Energy “Funding Opportunity Announcements” (FOA is DOE-speak for RFP). Usually the caller will say something along the lines of, “So, how many funded proposals for Dilithium Crystal research have you written?” This leads me to launch into my standard response, which is more less as follows:

We’ve never written funded proposals for this particular unusual topic—but so what? There are lots of things we haven’t written about. Looking for qualified grant writers is about the same as looking for unicorns: don’t make a hard problem insolvable by looking for a unicorn with a horn of a certain length or one that has purple spots. Be happy to find one at all. And, of course, keep in mind that most creatures you’ll find in the forest that look like unicorns are actually just ponies with party hats taped to their heads.

We’re also transparent to funding sources, so it’s not like the DOE Program Officer is going to say, “Great, another proposal from Seliger + Associates, we love these guys” (or the reverse). The funding source won’t even know we exist, so the proposal is going to rise or fall based on the believability of the applicant, the competition, the technical correctness of the proposal and the story it tells. We take care of and are experts in the last two aspects. The first one is up to the client, and the second is unknowable. To hire us, you have to be like Demi Moore responding to Patrick Swayze’s question in Ghost: “Do you believe?” If you believe we can write the proposal, hire us. Otherwise, crack your knuckles and start writing the proposal yourself.

In saying the above, which I’ve been doing endlessly for the past two months, I’m trying to get across the concept that qualified grant writers like Seliger + Associates could presumably write anything, just as journalists are trained to cover anything. When I started this business 16 years ago, my immediate background was mostly in economic development and redevelopment. I quickly decided that what the world needed was general purpose grant writing firms, and we took on any proposal writing assignment for which the client was eligible and able to afford our fees. We began writing all kinds of human services proposals about which we knew essentially nothing.

For example, in late 1993, we wrote a proposal for a small nonprofit in South Central Los Angeles for the then-new HUD version of the YouthBuild program. The NOFA was fantastically complex and disjointed, demonstrating how some things don’t change. After studying the NOFA like a Talmudist using the “pilpul” approach, I quickly discerned that it was really just another job training program and not an affordable housing program, despite being issued by HUD and being wrapped up in housing ribbons. We wrote the proposal, which was the only YouthBuild grant awarded in Southern California for that first funding cycle, even though competing applicants included the LA County Housing Authority and lots of other heavy hitters. It was probably funded because we were the only grant writers who could cobble together a compelling story in the face of the incoherent and obtuse NOFA.*

As this first YouthBuild (and eventually dozens of other proposals) were funded for a cacophony of organizations and programs, we could have proclaimed ourselves “experts” in numerous areas. No matter how many funded proposals on any particular topic we’ve churned out over the years, however, we still call ourselves generalists and never represent the company any other way. I often describe our knowledge base as being like an oil slick: a few molecules thick and very wide. Whenever someone hires us to write for a program or project concept we know nothing about—which is quite often—the slick becomes a bit wider, but not much thicker. So, while we’re pretty familiar with, say, SAMHSA or HRSA from writing endless proposals to them, we still don’t claim special knowledge about substance abuse treatment or primary health care. As we like to say, “we just write ’em.”

I am old enough to have been a busy, busy grant writer during the energy crisis of the late 1970s and actually wrote a funded proposal for the long-forgotten DOE Electric Vehicle Demonstration Grant Program and other state and federal alternative energy programs. When working as the Grants Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, I was detailed to find companies and grants to recycle the approximately 6,000,000 old tires that had been stored on about 20 acres of land in Lynwood since World War II. I put out the word that the City was looking for would-be tire recyclers and was soon inundated with lots of folks who wanted to use someone else’s money to try out their tire recycling schemes.

These ranged from the somewhat plausible, like turning the tires back into oil, to my personal favorite, turning them into margarine. I am not making this up: “Steel-belted Blue Bonnet, anyone?” None of these panned out, although I had a lot of fun flying around the country to look at prototype plants. As luck would have it, none of those prototypes were actually operating when I got there (“you should have been here yesterday!”) and all seemed to be fronted by two guys: a fast talking promoter type in white shoes and a white belt—this is the ’70s, remember—and a “scientist” with a vague German/Eastern European accent (“Vie vill take ze tires und cook zem until ze molecules crack. Zen vie vill make zem into ze margarine!”).

Flash forward to 2009. The Stimulus Bill gusher is roaring and bringing out lots of folks who want their piece of the DOE pie. Guess what? For every seemingly legit potential applicant (e.g. utility company, car battery manufacturer, etc.), I’m getting about two calls from the “white shoes and mad scientist” crowd. We’re happy to work for anyone as long as they are eligible applicants. But it helps if they also can provide us with technical content about their research design, proposed products, etc. We’re now writing a fair number of DOE proposals and, sooner or later, one or more will be funded. Will this make us “experts” at DOE grants? No: we’ll still just be general purpose grant writers, but the slick will be wider and perhaps even a nanometer (a little tech talk to get myself in the mood for DOE) or two thicker.

The real point of this post is that a good grant writer should be able to write anything, just as I was able to write the Electric Vehicle proposal in the ’70s. As Randy Jackson likes to say on American Idol, “The theory is that Mariah Carey can sing anything. You hear that expression, ‘She can sing the phone book.’ So if you can really sing, you should be able to sing anything, so we’re testing them. That’s the whole competition.” It pains me to admit it, but over the last two years I’ve finally succumbed to the many charms of Idol (or, as Jake calls it, American Idle). While I’ve yet to bring myself to vote, I finally grok the show, and it’s obvious that Randy is right. Some contestants, like this year’s Adam Lambert and Danny Gokey and last year’s winner, David Cook, really could sing the phone book, while others, like this year’s just kicked off Megan Joy or last year’s dreadlocked wonder Jason Castro, are really mediocre singers. In picking a grant writer, make sure they really can “sing the phone book, Dawg.”


* A fun anecdote: when HUD issued the YouthBuild NOFA for the next funding round the following year, the NOFA had been changed to model the proposal we had written. In other words, we had explained the YouthBuild program to HUD by writing a simple, declarative proposal in the face of extraordinary obfuscation.

The Danger Zone: Common RFP Traps

When first looking at a RFP, it is a good idea to remember Robbie the Robot from Lost in Space (the 60’s TV show, not the terrible movie remake) shouting “Danger Will Robinson,”* because when you open a RFP, you’re entering THE DANGER ZONE.

Those innocent looking RFPs are filled with traps. For example, if you are responding to a RFP that was previously issued and you have a proposal from a past submission, you will typically find that the funder has changed the RFP slightly, often in a subtle way. This might be by changing the order of questions, using different headers or outline patterns, requiring a specific font, and the like. Since such changes usually are not substantive, I assume that this is done to trap novice or lazy applicants who just copy the previous proposal and change the date. It may be that program officers are basically bored and have nothing better to do, so they find cheap thrills in this, like rabbits racing across the road in front of a car. So, even if you submitted the same project concept for the same program last year, make sure that you carefully go through the RFP to find these public sector equivalents of “easter eggs”. It’s also a good idea, of course, to update the data, polish your text, and find all those typos that slipped through the last editing process.

Another RFP trap is repetitive questions. It is not unusual to find the same question, more or less, asked several times. Whether this is an intentional trick or an artifact of committee members writing different RFP sections, they can be a real challenge for the grant writer, particularly if there are page limits. So, what to do? If there is room, simply rewrite the first answer over and over again. I know this results in a pretty boring read, but occasionally, such as with some HUD programs, reviewers may only read particular sections. The alternative, which we use when there are space limitations, is to refer back to the original answer (e.g., As noted above in Criterion 1, Section 6.a and Criterion 2, Section 2.c, Citizens for a Better Dubuque has extensive existing referral relationships with the full range of youth providers, which will be utilized to provide project participants with service beyond the project scope. Wow, what a great proposal sentence! Feel free to steal it.). However you handle the problem, never ignore questions, as this practice runs the risk of missing points or having the proposal declared technically deficient and not scored at all.

Sometimes, the RFP asks lots of obtuse questions, but never specifically explicitly asks what you plan to do or how you plan to do it. I know this seems incredible, but the Department of Education, for example, often has RFPs like this. In this case, pick any spot you like and insert the project description (e.g., Within the above context of how the Dubuque After School Enrichment Initiative is articulated with Iowa learning standards, the following describes how academic enrichment services will be delivered:). No, this is not a smiley face, just a colon followed by a closed parenthesis. If I was going to use an emoticon, it would have a frowney face to evoke reading RFPs.

One of my favorite RFP traps is to find different instructions for ordering responses in different parts of the RFP. For example, there may be a series of outlined questions, followed by a series of criteria that ask the same questions, more or less, but in a different order. Since, unlike Schrodinger’s cat, the proposal can only have one “state,” the grant writer has to pick one to follow. Before plunging into the writing, it’s not a bad idea to contact the program officer to raise this conundrum. Unfortunately, even if you are able to find the program officer, your question will usually be met with either giggles or a cold, “read the RFP, it’s all there.” In either case, you’re back to having to pick one of the two orders.

Finally be afraid, be very afraid of RFPs for newly minted programs. This is because the writers of RFPs for new programs usually have no idea what they want from applicants. We’ve been working, for example, on a $8 million proposal being submitted to a California state agency on behalf of a public sector client. The program is new and the RFP is a mess in terms of conflicting guidance, hidden requirements and so on. Since there were some aspects of the RFP that were beyond even our amazing deductive abilities, after leaving several messages over a week, we finally got the program officer on the phone. He sheepishly admitted that they had “forgotten” to include some of the instructions but planned to see what they got in responses and fix the RFP next year. It was good to find an honest man in Sacramento, and we put the submission package together in the most logical manner we could. Hopefully the state agency will straighten out the RFP next year.

We have seen our approach used in subsequent RFPs before, so this is not impossible. We wrote the first HUD YouthBuild proposal funded in Southern California in response to the first funding round in 1993. Not surprisingly, the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA: HUD-speak for RFP), was a complete nightmare and we had to develop a response format more or less on our own, after a number of unproductive calls to HUD. Fortunately, when the next Youthbuild NOFA was issued, it bore a remarkable resemblance to our submission in terms of how the proposals were to be organized. It is always fun to drag the bureaucracy toward enlightenment, so matter how hard the slog. YouthBuild moved to the Department of Labor in FY 2007, and, yes we successfully made the transition by writing yet another funded YouthBuild proposal last year, bringing our total of funded YouthBuild proposals to a baker’s dozen or so, proving that the funding agency is largely irrelevant to the grant writing process.


* Robbie actually made his screen debut in the wonderful 1956 film Forbidden Planet.