Tag Archives: Politics

Collaboration Again: A Story From the Trenches

We’re working on a project for a client who needs two things: a lot of data that isn’t easily publicly available and the dreaded letters of collaboration from other local providers (which we’ve written about in the context of Susan G. Komen, Mark Zuckerberg, and Community-Based Job Training). We have to be vague on the details, but our client initially planned to serve a reasonable service area, and we wrote a draft proposal reflecting our client’s plan.

The plan didn’t survive contact with the enemy, however. Our client’s so-called “collaborators” sabotaged the proposed project service area: They refused to sign letters of collaboration unless our client reduced the proposed service area to stay off their “turf.” So much for collaboration among nonprofits. The overall concept of collaboration, as required in most proposals these days, is ludicrous. It’s the equivalent of Burger King getting to veto a McDonald’s location. Alternately, it’s the equivalent of the contemporary market for broadband Internet access, which is totally broken, as demonstrated by the link.

Still, our client can’t effectively get the grant without letters offered by the client’s competitors, who ganged up on our client. She had to change the proposed service and we had to revise the draft to reflect this. The losers are of course the low-income and underserved residents of the removed part of the service area, who will have one fewer option for help and who don’t get a voice in this process, which is occurring entirely behind closed doors.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: forcing nonprofits to “collaborate” makes no more sense than forcing businesses to collaborate.

Is It Worth Your Time to Cozy Up to Program Officers and Bat Your Eyelashes? Maybe, But Only If It’s Nighttime, They’re Drunk, and You’re Beautiful

Many nonprofits think they should try hard to develop “relationships” with funders, particularly with foundations and, to a lesser extent, government agencies. In my experience, this practice is mostly a waste of time. Like an aging hooker at a honky-tonk bar, it could work, but it helps if it’s late at night, the lights are low, the guys are drunk and she’s the only more-or-less female in the bar.

Funders, and especially foundation program officers, may not be hip to too much, but they do recognize the cozy-up strategy. Let’s take the bar analogy above and flip it. Instead of a honky-tonk, we’re in a trendy cocktail lounge in downtown Santa Monica like Copa d’ Oro, the foundation program officer is a beautiful aspiring actress and your nonprofit is an average lounge lizard. Like the babe, the foundation program officer knows that wherever she goes, she’s going to attract lots of nonprofit suitors, all of whom think their pick-up lines are original and figure they’ll get to the promised land by being fawning and obsequious. Unfortunately, as the Bare Naked Ladies sang, it’s all been done before.

Foundation program officers have heard every pitch you can imagine and are probably immune to your many charms. This is not to say that an executive director or development director shouldn’t drop in to see the program officers at the larger foundations in your region, as well as show the flag at conferences and the like (free proposal phrase here—we like “and the like” better than etc.). Let them know you exist. They want you to kiss their ring, or more likely their probably ample rear end, and that’s fine too. If you were passing out bags of gold coins to supplicants, you’d want obeisance too, and you’d get it.

Program officers are special and, with rare exceptions, your nonprofit is not special. Get used to this dynamic. As we’re fond of saying, “he who has the gold makes the rules.”

Like the actress in the cocktail lounge, the foundation has something lots of folk want. It’s just a question of application and negotiation, so to speak, in both cases. Rather than chatting up the program officer, we think it’s more important to try your best to understand the foundation’s funding priorities, follow their guidelines scrupulously and submit a technically correct and compelling proposal. This will get the program officer hot—not trying to ply them with metaphorical $15 cocktails.

But remember that the larger foundations will have so-called “program officers” who are actually just flacks—they don’t make decisions, but they do interact with the public. If you call foundation flacks, they’ll just say, “We can’t say anymore than what our guidelines say on the website. You have an interesting idea, and we look forward to evaluating your proposal.”

Government program officers are a different story and are often more susceptible to sweet nothings being whispered in their ears. At the federal level, most program officers at HUD, DOL and the rest of the agencies toil in crummy conditions in DC. Anyone who has ever visited such offices will remember the ancient computers, mismatched steel furniture and, most importantly, stacks of old proposals, reports and other detritus that has washed into their cubicles. Nothing seems to get tossed.

Federal program officers are more or less like your crazy Uncle Joe, living in the basement that no one ever visits. Uncle Joe is only allowed upstairs at Christmas and on his birthday. It’s a big deal when a live would-be applicant shows up to discuss YouthBuild, Mentoring Children of Prisoners, or whatever. If your agency targets specific federal programs, it’s not a bad idea to visit DC and make the rounds. Bringing a dozen donuts or offering lunch might not hurt. Just don’t visit in August. Anybody who can—including Congress—leaves DC in August, when the malarial mists gather in the heat and humidity. Remember the District was originally a swamp and many would say, remains so, at least from policy and political perspectives.

It’s also a good idea to touch base with state and city/county program officers of favored programs from time to time. As one moves down the food chain in government programs, program officers are more susceptible to politics and politicians, so one should be careful about influence peddling. If you really want to use your political muscle—assuming your agency has any, which most don’t—this is best done by lobbyists or perhaps an influential board member, who understands the political situation. Such influence is rarely peddled in a face-to-face with a program officer. Instead, it takes place on golf courses, dimly lit restaurants and the office of the governor/state representative/councilperson/Commissioner of the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District.

As Predicted in January 2010, the “R” Word, Rescission, is Finally Here

Every January for the past three years, I’ve written a post about why it’s a great time to apply for federal and state grants. Here I go again: this post explains why nimble organizations will start the New Year by kick-starting their grant writing efforts, albeit for a different reason than in past Januarys.

Now that Congress is back in session, the federal deficit and spending are at the front and center of political debates. Patrick O’Connor and Janet Hook covered this in their January 3,2011 Wall Street Journal article, “Congress Targets Spending”. They write:

. . . Republicans in the House say they plan to move on to offer a far more sweeping package of “recissions,” or elimination of spending previously approved, that will aim to bring domestic spending back to where it was before Mr. Obama became president.

Ah, there’s the “R” word, rescission.* Faithful readers will recall that I predicted this in a post I wrote almost a year ago, “Federal Budget Freeze Prospect Making You Shiver? Don’t Panic Until You Hear the “R” Word: Rescission.” As I wrote then, rescission should “strike fear into your hearts” because the potential creates vast uncertainty in federal grant writing and state grant seeking (many state grants are derived from formula federal grants). I have no idea which grant program budget authorizations, if any, will actually be rescinded—which requires making it through the House, Senate and presidential signature—but, given the tenor of the political debate, I assume at least some will.

One of the things that makes the prospect of rescissions this year so curious is the fact that Congress never adopted a FY 2011 budget, opting instead for a series of Continuing Resolutions, the latest of which will expire in March (see this recent post on the subject, “No FY 2011 Federal Budget? As Is Said in Jamaica, No Problem Mon!“). Thus, rescissions could begin in the most recent CR, which is more or less the FY 2010 budget, or may be included in a FY 2011 budget, if a budget is actually adopted in March.

For grant seekers, the important part in all of this budget mumbo-jumbo is the critical need to respond to every RFP that appears in the next few months, because the program may be rescinded or otherwise subject to the budget axe. Federal and state agencies will be scrambling to issue RFPs ahead of possible rescissions because they know that the applicant pool will become a built-in lobbying force against rescissions. Every program officers want greater budget authority, not less.

In essence, the more RFPs that are issued and the more applicants there are for programs, the lower the probability that rescissions will harm a funding agency’s program. In counterpoint, some nonprofits will be scared away from responding to RFPs because they think their funding might be rescinded. The nonprofits that apply despite the potential for rescission will have a better chance for funding, particularly if they scream at their representatives to preserve budget authority for programs of interest. Since grant applicants are not shy and elected officials, regardless of party, are inherently interested in spending OPM (“other people’s money”), there should be lots of grants for those organizations who hop on every grant bus that trundles by in the coming months.

One possible program that’s a good target for rescission appeared in this week’s e-mail grant newsletter: HRSA’s Affordable Care Act: Health Center Planning Grants. It’s a planning grant program, which means that it won’t affect services that are already being delivered directly to people. More importantly, however, it’s also part of the Affordable Care Act, which lots of incoming congresspeople oppose, and one way to attack previously passed legislation is by refusing to fund it—or to rescind whatever money is already allocated to it. Only $10 M is available, and the maximum grant amount is just $80,000. Rescinding its funding wouldn’t cause a lot of problems but would show symbolic unhappiness about the Affordable Care Act.


* There seems to be a bit of confusion about spelling “rescission.” My spell checker likes “rescission,” but sharp-eyed readers will note the WSJ spells it “recission.” To paraphrase one of my favorite actor / singers (oh, and he also danced a bit), Fred Astaire to Ginger Rogers in “Shall We Dance”, “You like potato and I like potaeto,You like tomato and I like tomaeto; You like recission, I like rescission; Potato, potaeto, tomato, tomaeto, recission, rescission! Let’s [not] call the whole thing off!”. Given the tough economic times, it seems appropriate to think of a song from a 1937 movie.

Politics and Proposals Don’t Mix: Your Politics (or Your Organization’s) Shouldn’t Matter in Grant Writing, and Neither Should Elections

Ed Nelson asks, “Do conservative non-profits get grants or are federal grants such an anathema to them, [and] they choose not to apply?” I want to answer, but the question itself feels wrong because politics shouldn’t be an issue in human service delivery. Politics and political views matter in Congress, which decides what kinds of programs to fund, and can matter in federal rule making that ultimately leads to RFPs being issued, but by the time an RFP is issued, political questions have been resolved and implementation is everything.*

So “conservative” nonprofits are just as likely to get grants as “liberal” ones, but even if your organization has a political bent among your staff, you shouldn’t put that in the proposal. Besides, I’m not sure there’s a “conservative” or “liberal” way, for example, to provide construction skills and academic training (YouthBuild) or to repair low-income housing to fix safety hazards (Healthy Homes)—to name two programs we’ve worked on recently. Both programs are designed to be fairly narrow: you conduct outreach, you do an intake assessment, you select participants, you do things to/with participants, and they come out over the other end better. There isn’t a lot of room for politics.

Even in programs where you can talk about divisive political issues, you’re often better off taking pains not to. For example, we work for a large number of Community Health Clinics (CHCs), as well as organizations that provide various kinds of sex or abstinence education (one such RFP inspired this post on proposal research). We never ask about our clients’ views on one of the most divisive political issues in America because their views don’t matter for proposals. In fact, I’m taking pains to avoid that word starting with “a,” lest the comments section turn into a flamewar. You’ve heard the word before, it has talismanic properties among both left and right, and we never use it in proposals. Neither should you. You don’t know who’s going to read the proposal, their political leanings, or how your implied politics might affect your score. We’ve also never seen an application that specifically addresses the procedure in question.

In addition, nonprofits, especially the 501(c)3s we most often work for, aren’t supposed to engage in lobbying or other overtly political behaviors. If you’re with a nonprofit, you’re supposed to be helping people and/or achieving your charitable purpose. So you should concentrate on that in your proposal.

One other observation about politics and proposals: you should also avoid assuming that the nonprofit apocalypse is upon us or nonprofit salvation is nigh due to a particular election.

Isaac likes to point out that he got out of the grant writing game in the early 1980s partially because he was tired of it at the time and partially because he thought Reagan would kill too many discretionary grant programs. The latter, it turns out, was not only wrong, but hilariously wrong, and when he started Seliger + Associates in 1993, the most astonishing thing was how little grant writing had changed from the 1970s to the 1990s—and this trend continues to the present.

In the decade and change I’ve been paying attentions to grants and grant writing, I’ve heard a great deal of teeth gnashing about politics, but every week I compile the Seliger Funding Report and find the federal government, as well as states and foundations, have issued RFPs for new and existing discretionary grant programs regardless of the party in power or the divisions in government. Whatever the disagreements between the major political parties in the United States, both love discretionary grant programs, which persist across decades of political oscillation.**

Lots of people with passionate political feelings and views write blogs expressing those views, inflict them on friends and family, and post snarky Facebook updates about candidates and election results. Those are lovely, appropriate forums for such sentiments. Your grant application is not. Whether you’re to the right of Attila the Hun or to the left of Marx (Karl, not Groucho), leave those opinions out of your proposal.


* And implementation is, or should be, non-partisan.

** Note too Isaac’s post, “Reformers Come and Go, But HUD Abides,” which is essentially about the tendency of federal agencies and program to persist over time.

Health Care Reform Means Green Grass & High Tides for Grant Writers

One of the great ’70s arena anthem songs was the Outlaws’ Green Grass & High Tides, or as it was often misheard, “Green Grass & High Times Forever.” It seems that whichever health care reform bill staggers across the Congressional finish line will make it Green Grass & High Tides for grant writers, since all versions contain lots of hidden grant nuggets. I’m too busy writing proposals for such fun-filled RFPs as HRSA’s Nurse Education, Practice and Retention (NEPR) Program and SAMHSA’s Offender Reentry Program to flyspeck a couple of 2,000 page health care bills looking for prospective grant programs. Fortunately, I came across “Numerous Grant Programs Fatten Cost of Health Care Reform,” which does the heavy lifting for me. Here are some of the new grant programs that may burst forth in 2010:

  • Demonstration Program to Promote Access for Medicare Beneficiaries With Limited English Proficiency (LEP): Section 1222 of the House bill would create three-year grants for nonprofits to offer interpreter services to help LEP residents communicate with medical providers. This is clearly aimed at Section 330 community and rural health centers that provide Medicaid services, often for LEP populations. We work for lots of Section 330 providers, so we love this program concept.
  • Early Childhood Home Visitation Program: Section 2951 of the Senate bill would authorize grants to nonprofits for early childhood visitation programs. The programs would be aimed at improving maternal and newborn health, preventing child injuries and abuse,improving school performance, reducing domestic violence, and improving family economic self-sufficiency. There is $1.5 billion for this gem over five years. We’ve written tons of proposals over the years for similar programs, which are usually called “demonstration homemaker” services. I’ve never seen any data that suggests that such programs work, but they are great ways of employing lots of low-skill workers, usually low-income women, to go into the homes of other low-income women and tell them how to fold their laundry. This ever popular family support service already exists in most American communities. Since Senators must know this, I can only assume that the program will be “walkin’ around money” for the thousands of nonprofits that provide family supportive services through contracts with city, county and state agencies.
  • Grants to Promote Positive Health Behaviors and Outcomes: Section 2530 in the House bill authorizes the award of grants to promote healthy behaviors in medically underserved areas, including education about the risks associated with poor nutrition, tobacco use, lack of exercise and other health problems. I could list about 25 existing federal program that already do this, but the nice part about the federal trough is that there is always room for one more program.
  • Healthy Teen Initiative Program to Reduce Teen Pregnancy: Section 2526 of the House bill establishes a new program to provide $150 million in grants for schools, non-profits and other groups for educational programs to reduce teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The feds have been funding various teen pregnancy and STD prevention programs for the past 35 years, vacillating between sex education and abstinence approaches, depending on which party controls Congress. We write teen pregnancy prevention programs regularly, so I am very familiar with the data and have yet to see any evidence that such programs do anything except keep armies of earnest, newly minted college grads employed as health educators.

I could go on, but I think readers will get the idea that there are dozens of new grant horses being saddled up in the health reform effort, as well as other emerging federal legislation. I recently wrote about a huge new education program named i3, in Same As It Ever Was: Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), Student Support Services (SSS), TRIO, and More to Come and am tickled to learn that new health related programs are not far behind. If your organization does job training, not education or health services, and you’re feeling left out of the party, not to worry, Congress feels your pain. The LA Times reports that Democrats Work On Multibillion-dollar Jobs Package, so your time is nigh.

I’m hoping for a resurrection of the Nixon-era Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which was perhaps the all time best grant program for nonprofit and public agencies, since all it did was provide money to hire people. I wrote many funded CETA proposals in the ’70s and knew lots of unemployed liberal arts grads who entered the government/nonprofit world through CETA slots and clawed their way into permanent jobs, including the holy grail of civil service status. Unlike the Stimulus Bill, it was easy to count jobs created by CETA, as grantees just had to count new noses around the conference table.

For the past year or so, I’ve written many posts on how this is the best time ever to go after grants and the hits keep on coming. Seliger + Associates stands ready to shoulder the burden of writing proposals for the newest crop of federal grants, which indeed seem to be the same as they ever were.

There’s Something Happening Here, But You Don’t Know What It Is, Do You Mr. Jones?*

I felt like I was living Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man as I read the following news stories this week:

  • Thousands mob Detroit center in hopes of free cash. The City of Detroit has a $15 million Stimulus Bill grant to “prevent homelessness” and cluelessly announced that people could come to the Downtown Coho Convention Center to apply for a $3,000 housing assistance voucher. Something got lost in the translation and 35,000 folks showed up expecting to get a $3,000 check on the spot. At most, the City may eventually help up to 5,000 people with this program. Being a typical federal program, however, there’s a means test and lots of rules, so most of the would-be applicants have no hope of getting help. But the rumor on the street was that “Obama money” was there to be had and the stampede started, with the Detroit Police Gang Unit called out to restore order.

    Was any of this necessary? Of course not, but is an example of what I warned about last March in The Stimulus Bill Meets Santa Claus Meets American Idol in Virginia: At best it is disingenuous and, in this case, positively dangerous, to mislead the average Joe into thinking that they are somehow going to directly get a slice of the Stimulus Bill pie. The “official” unemployment rate in Detroit is 28%, which means the actual rate is probably about 40%. Seems more than a little cruel to wave a phantom $3,000 in front of thousands of desperate people, but I am sure the same pattern is unfolding all around the country (email me any examples you’ve come across, or leave a comment). The whole business reminds me of the Federal Free Cheese giveaways of the early 1980s recession, but at least then you got a five-pound block of Velveeta for your troubles. If I had written the City of Detroit proposal that resulted in the $15 million grant that spawned this fiasco, I would have included 5,000 blocks of cheese in the budget just for old times’ sake.

  • Holder, Duncan plan to fight Chicago teen violence: The senseless beating death of 16-year-old honor student Derrion Albert by other teens was captured on cell phone video, unlike the murders of 29 other school kids so far this year in Chicago. I guess the video component woke up Washington. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was previously the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Superintendent for many years but apparently never noticed the violence in his schools, and Attorney General Eric Holder were dispatched to find out what’s happening in Chicago. But the meeting with city politicos, school officials and parents from Christian Fenger Academy High School (where Derrion was a student) was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in the Loop, not the High School! I have a feeling not too many of the parents had ever been to the Four Seasons.It seems that while Duncan and Holder are concerned, they are not concerned enough to actually set foot on the South Side. Incidentally, at the exact time the croissants were being passed around at the meeting and stern looks exchanged, a violent fight involving dozens of students broke out at Fenger Academy.

    So perhaps it was prudent to keep our Education Secretary and Attorney General out of harm’s way and in the Green Zone while visiting Chicago, like Vice President Biden does when he drops into Baghdad. Not surprisingly, Duncan and Holder have promised “$25 million in next year’s budget for community-based crime prevention programs, Holder said. Duncan said an emergency grant of about $500,000 would go to Fenger for counselors or other programs.”**I guess the message to school principals facing budget shortfalls across America is to make sure all student beatings/murders are videotaped and broadcast around the country. Since we’ve written many funded proposals for youth violence prevention, mentoring, etc. for clients on the South Side of Chicago and frequently churn the very depressing school data from CPS, I looked briefly at the 2008 Fenger Academy High School Report Card. Two percent of students meet or exceed state academic standards (this has actually gone down by 80% from 10% in 2006) and 0% (that’s right: zero) of students exceed the math, science or writing standards. Violence is clearly only one of the school’s many challenges. Statistics like this are what makes writing proposals involving Chicago Public Schools such a mixed pleasure: it’s easy to make a case for the proposal, but it’s hard to imagine the people behind the statistics.

  • New Hampshire prosecutor: Evidence does not support death penalty charge: Four teenagers decided to stab a woman and her daughter to death in what seems to be a random attack in rural New Hampshire, which is apparently not as bucolic as its seems. This incident recalls the Leopold and Loeb thrill killings of 1924 and the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. The four teen suspects apparently admitted the crime, saying more or less that they just wanted to kill somebody. I guess after school recreation opportunities in rural New Hampshire were not challenging enough for this quartet.
  • California’s Zigzag on Welfare Rules Worries Experts: To save $375 million, California has taken the workfare out of its CalWorks “welfare reform” program that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). California no longer requires welfare recipients to attend training or get a job to get a check. Let’s party like its 1989!While the story is interesting on many levels, reporter Erik Eckholm doesn’t understand one very real impact of this starling change. The $375 million California is “saving” are the vouchers that would have been used by CalWorks participants to pay for participant training, along with child care while they are in training. Over the past ten years, an enormous infrastructure of mostly nonprofit training and child care providers has grown up around the country that are fed by these vouchers. Without the vouchers, these providers will not be able to continue to provide services and will have to lay off hundreds, if not thousands of child care and other workers, many of whom originally were CalWorks participants themselves. I guess they can re-apply for CalWorks, only this time they won’t have to work, squaring the circle.

Since I am not a coy tunesmith like Bob Dylan, I will plainly read the tea leaves about what the above stories mean for all of you Mr. Jones out there: a second wave of Stimulus Bill type grant opportunities is coming, although Congress is unlikely to bill the bill(s) as such. Instead, the effort will be couched in such proposalese as “safety net funding,” “community violence prevention” and the like. Unemployment is still rising, the Great Recession is more of a Depression in many of the communities for which we write proposals and teens go on violent rampages.

The Obama administration is already testing the waters—at the risk of overwhelming you with random news stories, see Obama Aides Act to Fix Safety Net. As is the case with most publicized social problems, the government response to crises is more grant programs. A case in point: I mentioned the Columbine Massacre previously. The federal response then was to ramp up funding for all kinds of youth programs, and in particular my personal favorite, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) Program. For years after Columbine, we wrote dozens of funded 21st CCLC, youth mentoring and similar proposals. Some were for agencies serving the neighborhood in which Chicago’s Fenger Academy is located.

In August 2008, when the economy began to crumble and long before the words “Stimulus Bill” had been penned by anyone, I held a staff meeting in which I told the Seliger + Associates team that a wave of new grant opportunities was coming. We advised our retainer clients and started blogging on the subject. The wave turned out to be a tsunami of grant availability unseen since the Ford and Carter administrations. Another wave is building. Smart nonprofits, cities, counties and school districts will rub on their Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax and start paddling to meet the wave. There are going to be enormous opportunities to fund all kinds of human services, community development and economic development programs in the next year or two, just as there has been since last winter.

As faithful readers will know, we’ve been furiously writing proposals. In the past week, we’ve learned that three disparate proposals we wrote recently have been funded: $1,500,000 for a California city under the HUD Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program, $500,000 for an Ohio nonprofit under the Department of the Treasury Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Program, and $300,000 for a Wisconsin nonprofit under the HUD Rural Housing and Economic Development (RHED) Program. This is partially a consequence of skill, but also one of awareness: when the waves are good, it’s time to surf.

This remains the best time in 30 years to seek grant funds and, and if my finely tuned grant antenna is working as it has for 38 years, it’s only going to get better in the coming months. Keep in mind that the new federal fiscal year started October 1, appropriation bills are emerging from Congress, and all representatives and many senators have to gear up their election campaigns with the prospect of double digit unemployment, weak economic growth and both urban and rural youth violence exploding across America. Bad news, as illustrated above, is good news in the wonderful world of grants, so don’t wait for the actual grant tsunami to crash over your head. Instead, make sure your organization takes full advantage of this reality now by researching and applying for grants.


* The perhaps apocryphal backstory of this biting song is that Dylan may or may not have written it after being interviewed by a particularly clueless Time Magazine reporter for Dylan’s wonderfully obtuse 1965 Time Magazine interview.

** I am delighted to read about a new $25 million community violence prevention grant program. Here’s a small sample of the dozens of existing federal grant programs that aim to do more or less the same thing (pssst—keep these a secret as we don’t Secretary Duncan or Attorney General Holder to know about them):

  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) Program
  • Juvenile Mentoring (JUMP) Program
  • Title V Delinquency Prevention Program
  • Recovery Act Edward Byrne Memorial Competitive Grant Program
  • TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) Program
  • I could go on. Nonetheless, I’m all in favor of new grant programs, so all I can say to Duncan and Holder is rock on!

    Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed*

    One of our favorite marketing sloganspie-1over the years has been, “We help you get your piece of the grant pie.” Well, Congress is cooking up the mother of all grant pies with the “infrastructure” component of President Obama’s stimulus package. If you’re wondering how your agency can get a bite of this tasty treat, you’re not alone. Peter Sanders and Christopher Conkey of the Wall Street Journal report in Mayors Struggle to Get Piece of Stimulus that even Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been unable to figure out how to get his fork in. I think Mayor Villaraigosa actually knows perfectly well how to step up to feed at the federal trough but was just being coy for a reporter not steeped in the ways of government largesse. After all, Mayor Villaraigosa was Speaker of the California House of Representatives and knows more than most about this topic. Essentially, the Mayor is unhappy that President Obama has said to no to earmarks, so he can’t just hang his favorite projects on the bill like Christmas ornaments. Instead, he and his minions will have to work for the money—no wonder he’s unhappy. For those readers not in the know, here is how the stimulus funds are likely to find their way to you . . .

    Despite all the breathless reporting on the stimulus package, no story I’ve seen explains how thunder in Washington, DC will make it rain Pennies from Heaven** in Los Angeles. The answer depends on how the feds decide to get the money on the street, which will be in the bill that eventually emerges from Congress. Here are the four basic possibilities, assuming no earmarks:

    1. Congress can fund programs, new or old, to be administered at the federal level through some sort of competitive RFP processes. In this case, any eligible entity can pitch any eligible project by submitting a proposal, which is more or less the way most discretionary grant dollars are distributed.

    2. Congress could use the existing Economic Development Administration (EDA) Public Works and Economic Development Program to fund infrastructure and facility projects. Unlike any other federal agency, however, EDA uses a byzantine system of regional Economic Development Representatives (EDRs), which have to agree to pass your project up the food chain by inviting a “pre-application.” To get this invitation to the big dance, the project generally has to be listed in the region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), which replaced the earlier Overall Economic Development Plan (OEDP) process. We’ve threaded our way through this particular maze many times, resulting in lots of funded EDA grants; although it’s daunting at first, it is eminently doable.

    3. Congress can block grant funds to the states, who can then use existing systems to distribute the funds. For example, highway transit funds could be sent to states’ transportation departments, which could then fund projects ranked on the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) (see here for the California version of this). It’s not quite that simple because some regional TIPs feed into statewide TIPs, but the main point is that the project has to be on the relevant TIP(s) to get federal transportation dollars.

    4. Congress can block grant funds to the states and/or large cities and counties, who can then run RFP processes to dole out the money, more or less in the way that Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds are distributed. For that matter, Congress could simple dump money into the CDBG pipeline, since every eligible jurisdiction already has a Consolidated Plan with dozens of prioritized projects they lack money to fund. I don’t think this will happen, because it is too simple, and where’s the fun in that?

    Confused yet? Actually, all of this is fairly straight forward in the sense that the feds have to use one or more of these methods to get the money on the street. Your question involves the the best way to get in position for to catch the funds that are about to be pitched for infrastructure and facility projects. To do so, follow these easy steps:

    1. Finalize the project design for any infrastructure-style project you have simmering and get as many of the permits and approvals as you can in the time you have. For example, having all environmental approvals and a building permit is ideal. Remember that federal funding typically triggers National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and, for those of you in California, California Environmental Policy Act (CEQA) requirements.

    2. If you are a nonprofit, school district or college, see if you can entice the local city or county to be the applicant and fiscal agent for the project.

    3. Develop submittal plans for all of the above options. The agencies that move fastest with the most “cooked” projects are likely to be funded.

    After you’ve baked your project, lie down in a comfortable place with a good book*** while waiting for the legislation to emerge. Since we are not lobbyists, we never look at pending legislation early-bird-color-j-pegand instead wait for the sausage to be extruded. Until the stimulus bill is actually signed into law, no one can say exactly how an agency can apply. But it will be the Oklahoma Land Rush as soon as the ink is dry, so, “Start Your Engines!” As always, like Maimonides, Seliger + Associates is ready to offer a guiding hand to help you get your piece of the stimulus bill pie.

    EDIT: See additional posts on this topic: Looking at the Stimulus Bill from a Grant Writer’s Perspective and Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass.


    * My apologies to Maimonides for lifting this line.

    ** This is one of my favorite, if somewhat disturbing, movies from the early 1980s—another time of recession. The movie harkens back to the Depression, making it great viewing for the current economic meltdown. To paraphrase another song from the ’30s, “Brother, can you spare a trillion.”

    *** I’ve been reading Love in the Time of Cholera. Nothing like Gabriel García Márquez to get me in the mood for the magical realism of the federal grant making process.

    Community Organizing and the Presidential Election: One Commentator Finally Gets it More or Less Right

    Lots of bloviating on community organizing has occurred on cable news shows and in various newspaper opinion pieces in recent months due to Senator Barack Obama’s background as a “community organizer.” Regardless of what Senator Obama did as a community organizer, almost all of the commentary is wrong. A good example is Peter Applebome’s New York Times piece, Feeling the Sting of Republican Barbs in which he describes community organizers as more or less social workers or case managers. But any community organizer worth his salt who came across a low-income person facing eviction would never fool around with trying to solve the individual’s problem. Rather, the organizer would try to identify the person’s and their neighbors’ self-interest to organize around the problem and thus help the community find an overall solution, while building an organizational structure for further efforts.

    Unlike Mr. Applebome’s assertions, community organizing is also neither Democratic nor Republican, but is largely apolitical, since it is by definition in opposition to the power structure presumably oppressing the target community. In fact, Saul Alinsky,* the founder of the field, spent most of his life fighting Chicago’s Democratic machine politics. Given the fact that most cities are controlled by Democratic administrations these days, an active community organizer would probably be more likely to battle Democrats than Republicans. Remember that community organizers work on tangible local problems, not grandiose social policy issues.

    Hey Sarah—Organize This is another inaccurate piece on community organizing. This one is by Thomas Geoghegan and appeared in Slate. Mr. Geoghegan takes Governor Sarah Palin to task for making fun of community organizers. Leaving aside the politics, community organizers must have very thick skins and good senses of humor and are unlikely to be terribly worried about verbal insults. What caught my attention, however, was the author’s startling claim that “Organizers break laws if they have to. Mayors believe in order.” As a former community organizer, I can attest that organizers try very hard not to break laws because this is exactly what politicians want them to do in order to discredit the organization they are building. Also, politicians have their hands on the levers of power (e.g., police, building inspectors, etc.) and can easily apply legal pressure if the community organizer encourages law breaking. Rather, a good community organizer uses clever civil disobedience within the framework of laws, depending on mayors and other power brokers to themselves break the law by overreacting. Most community organizing strategies are based on the assumption that politicians and their bureaucratic minions will overreact and break the law one way or another. In other words, Mr. Geoghegan got it just backwards. He says he’s never been an organizer, but has “known some,” apparently making him qualified enough to comment. This would be like me opining on the work of circus clowns just because I ran into a guy with bright orange hair, a bulbous red nose and size 22 floppy shoes at a cocktail party one night.

    I am going on and on about community organizing mainly because I am so surprised to find the topic suddenly popular due to Senator Obama having captured the imagination of Americans with tales of community organizing on Chicago’s Southside. I have a fondness for the Southside because I received some community organizing training there many years ago, and, more recently, have written lots of funded proposals for a large nonprofit that serves the community. Faithful readers will know from posts like my first, They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal, and Déjà vu All Over Again—Vacant Houses and What Not to Do About Them, that I began my career as a community organizer in 1972 in the North Minneapolis ghetto. While community organizing had a certain cachet among us college student save-the-world types in the early 1970s, the whole concept seemed to have been lost in the mists of time until Barack Obama burst on the scene. Thus, I find myself waxing euphoric about my halcyon days in organizing.

    Senator Obama and I appear to have at least one thing in common, having both been trained in Saul Alinksy style community organizing.* While I am unsure about Senator Obama’s actual training, I was fortunate to have learned from an affiliate of Alinksy’s Industrial Areas Foundation, which then existed in St. Paul, and I also attended some Alinsky training on Chicago’s Southside. So, I’m about as familiar with community organizing as anyone, having not only been trained, but also actually organized some pretty interesting stuff, including a Vacant Housing Task Force, self-help seminars for low-income homeowners and tenants, and a nonprofit cooperative hardware store that operated for a time in North Minneapolis. Not bad for a long-haired 21-year-old college student who was naive enough to think that he could use community organizing techniques to overcome just about anything.

    Given the spectacular misrepresentations of community organizing in the popular media during this election cycle that I note briefly above, it was refreshing to open the New York Times on Sunday morning and finally find an opinion piece by Deepak Bhargava, Organizing Principles, which more or less got it right. Mr. Bhargava says:

    It’s important to emphasize that organizers like Mr. Espey aren’t there to solve people’s problems for them — they’re there to teach people how to help themselves: to learn how to speak in public, to run a meeting, or to hold their own in a negotiation with an employer, a landlord or a policy maker. Organizers teach people to work with — and challenge — politicians of every party.”

    I’ve never run across Mr. Bhargava before, but he understands community organizers and community organizing. I have no idea what, if anything, Senator Obama accomplished as a community organizer, since I’ve never read about any specific accomplishments. I assume, however, he must have organized something. Community organizers are goal oriented, and, as I noted briefly above, I know exactly what I organized during my time as a community organizer. It is likely that this aspect of community organizing—wanting to achieve a discrete organizing goal instead of vague “helping the community” platitudes—helped me become a successful grant writer.

    Like good community organizers, grant writers focus on completing the task, not talking about the process for completing the task. Anonymity is another aspect of community organizers that closely aligns with grant writers. Good community organizers never take the spotlight, deferring to the leaders they have nurtured to take the lead at press conferences, actions and the like. Similarly, grant writers largely toil without recognition, since we are just ghost writers for the others who accept the accolades of funded projects. Hey, maybe I’m actually more like James Bond than Barack Obama, since Mr. Bond definitely stays in the shadows, unlike emerging politicians.**


    *If you want to understand community organizing, read Saul Alinsky’s seminal books, Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals, both of which I annotated like a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works.

    ** I for one will lift a Vesper when A Quantum of Solace opens in November. Although the movie probably doesn’t have much to do with the eponymous Ian Fleming story in the only Bond short story collection, For Your Eyes Only, it has been one of my favorite Bond yarns since I first read it as a 13-year-old. I am delighted that the Bond film franchise was reinvented with Casino Royale two years ago and remain hopeful for the next installment.