Tag Archives: Program Officers

Grant Writing Confidential Goes to the Movies Part 3: Ghostbusters (Who Ya Gonna Call? Program Officers!)

Ghostbusters was Jake’s favorite movie when he was a child. He watched the video at least a hundred times and it remains a classic of its type.* As Ray Parker put it in his incredibly catchy, eponymous Ghostbusters theme song, “When there’s something strange in the neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!” There’s a Koanic simplicity in this advice: when you have a problem, call the expert, not someone pretending to be the expert.

I was reminded of this over the summer, because we wrote proposals for clients applying to several federal grant programs with incredibly complex RFPs and underlying guidelines, including the HRSA New Access Point (NAP) and the Early Head Start (EHS) programs. Our clients for these assignments all had unusual or complex project concepts that required closely reading and carefully interpreting the RFPs and regs. The RFPs and regs raised issues for both our clients, though we can’t specify what those issues are; trust us when we say that they were real.

Our standard advice to clients in this situation—and as we’ve we’ve written about many times—is to immediately contact the Program Officer listed in the RFP and pop any questions about vague descriptions or apparent conflicts. At Seliger + Associates, we almost never contact Program Officers directly, since they rarely pay attention to consultants. Instead, we coach our clients on how to pose the question and get as clear a written interpretation as possible.

But our NAP and EHS clients didn’t want to contact the Program Officers; instead, they sought guidance from their state association, which are effectively trade groups for grantees. For large programs, like HRSA Section 330 and Head Start, networks of state and national organizations have grown up, which provide technical assistance and the ever-popular grantee conferences. An example is the Community Health Care Association of New York State, which is composed of Section 330 providers in New York and assorted hangers-on (note that we did not write a NAP proposal in New york this year—and I found CHSNYS through a Google search). When a big RFP for NAP, Head Start and similar federal programs comes along, these associations put on a full-court press to “help” applicants in their states prepare proposals. This help does not mean writing the proposal, although sometimes the association will provide data and research citations. The technical assistance usually involves meetings, Powerpoint presentations, webinars and so on.

Applicants rarely realize, however, that their association provides the same help to all agencies in their state. Rather than being truly interested in their particular agency submitting a technically correct proposal, the association is more like a mom passing out orange slices at a middle school swim meet—they want all agencies to come in first. Like a swim meet, however, and human nature being what it is, some applicants are favored by the “moms” and get extra orange slices, while others get orange-dyed onion slices.

We had a NAP client a few years ago in a western state that ran into active opposition from the state association because the association staff hated our client. I know this for a fact, because the association Executive Director told me so! Despite the association’s animus and refusal to provide a support letter, we wrote a compelling proposal, which was funded, much to the annoyance of the association, which then had to include our client.

The basic problem in asking associations or consultants for RRP interpretation is simple: they don’t work for the federal agency. Their opinions regarding a particular RFP don’t mean anything. The only way to get an interpretation of an RFP is by asking the Program Officer in writing and getting a written reply. Even then, the response is likely to say something like “this is subject to the guidelines, as published in the Federal Register.” Over the years, we’ve helped our clients thread their way through this process many times, including instances in which the federal agency published a correction to the RFP (as Jake writes at the link). A published RFP amendment is the gold standard for RFP interpretation.

Be careful in taking the advice of your state association, no matter how much fun their conferences are. When there’s something strange in a RFP neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Program Officers!


* I recently saw the grandaddy of ghost/comic films, 1940’s The Ghost Breakers, with the hilarious Bob Hope, exquisitely beautiful Paulette Goddard and a very young Anthony Quinn. If you like Ghostbusters, you’ll love The Ghost Breakers. It’s little non-PC, but the movie was made in 1940.

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.

Searching for Talent Search: Where Oh Where Has the Talent Search RFP Gone And Why is It A Secret?

UPDATE: Talent Search has finally appeared, and the RFP vindicates much of what Isaac wrote below.

Having been in business for over 17 years, Seliger + Associates has lots of spies. Well, not spies exactly, but clients, former and current, program officers and assorted grant cognoscenti who send us interesting nuggets. Recently, one made it into “Be Nice to Your Program Officer: Reprogrammed / Unobligated Federal Funds Mean Christmas May Come Early and Often This Year” about the anticipated release of the Talent Search RFP.

A client for whom we wrote a funded proposal for a different TRIO program let us know that the “Draft Talent Search Application” was hiding in plain sight at Bulletin Board of an organization called the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE). Even though I’ve been writing TRIO proposals since the early days of the Clinton administration, I’d never heard of COE, which turns out to be more or less a trade group for TRIO grantees and wannabes. Our client hangs out at COE gatherings and told us about the draft Talent Search RFP, since we’re going to write the proposal for her nonprofit. I din’t bother reading the draft RFP because only the final published document matters.

What was intriguing, however, was that the draft Talent Search Application indicated that the real RFP would be issued on October 22. Astute readers might realize that it’s now Halloween. So what happened?

To investigate on behalf of our client and curious Grant Writing Confidential readers, I sent an e-mail to Julia Tower, the contact person listed on the COE website for Talent Search, on October 23. The draft documents were apparently kicked over to COE by the Department of Education, much like YouthBuild stuff is often kicked over to YouthBuild USA by the Department of Labor. Anyway, my e-mail to Julia went out on October 23 and asked innocently (I know it’s hard to believe, but I can be sweet at times) if she knew when the Talent Search RFP would actually be published and if she knew the reason for delay (I can guess the reason, which I reveal below—wait for it—but wanted to back check with somebody actually “in the know”).

Julia sent me a reply, typos and all, that said: “The ED source for all TS info- regs were published- draft appl for grants available on web site eventually- & at ED free wkshops now.” I love “free wkshops” as much as the next guy, but I replied by reiterating my query because Grant Writing Confidential readers presumably want to know if she knows when the RFP will be published.

Julia again ignored my pointed questions and replied, again with typos, “Is your company an institutuional member of coe?” I wrote back:

We are not COE members, but why does this matter?

As bloggers, we sometimes act as journalists. You may wish treat my inquiry the same as if it were coming from a NYT, WP or WSJ reporter, since it is possible I may use this exchange in a blog post. Are the questions I’m asking proprietary in any way or is it not public information? If it is not public information, why is it a secret? A “no comment” or decline to comment might strike our readers, who number in the thousands, as evasive.

FYI, as a grant writer, I can assure you that a draft application and workshops are useless. What matters is the published RFP and the deadline. If I write the post, I’ll explain why.

Since then, I haven’t heard from Julia or anyone else at COE, and, as of this writing, the Department of Education still hasn’t published the Talent Search RFP. Since they have now missed the publication date by at least 10 days and are supposed to provide applicants at least 45 days to respond, the proposed proposal submission deadline of December 9 will also probably be stretched out by at least 10 days, putting it around December 20. Oops, that’s a bit close to Christmas, which might push the deadline into January and smack into the FY 2011 budget hurricane that was the subject of my original post. Funny how grant writing things that come around, go around.

Note to Julia—a draft application and pre-application workshops are fairly useless from a grant writer’s perspective because the only document that really matters is the RFP/application as published in the Federal Register and/or grants.gov. The rest is merely speculation and isn’t binding. I also can’t imagine why the Department of Education flies Program Officers all around the country for these workshops, which could easily be presented on the web as podcasts or what have you. It seems the TRIO office at the Department of Education is firmly cemented in the last century.*

Now, for my guess regarding the delay: It is probably a result of the giant backlog at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The OMB has to approve all RFPs, regulations and other federal announcements prior publication. With the current avalanche of RFPs, as well health care reform and Wall Street reform rule making going on, I suspect the boys and girls at the OMB are probably a wee bit behind. In addition to Talent Search, we’re also waiting for HRSA to issue their FOA (Funding Opportunity Announcement, which is HRSA-speak for RFP) for the Expanded Medical Capacity (EMC) program. Another our spies said the EMC FOA is hung up at the OMB, and I suspect it’s probably sitting on top of the Talent Search RFP on some GS-11’s desk.


* In the early days of our business, I actually sometimes went to RFP workshops, but not to listen to the blather and giggling of the Program Officers (go to any such workshop and the presenter will eventually giggle when confronted with an uncomfortable question). I went to market our services, wearing a Seliger + Associates “WE KNOW WHERE THE MONEY IS” t-shirt and passing out marketing flyers.

This typically drove the Program Officers over the edge. I was actually almost arrested at a Department of Education TRIO workshop on the campus of Seattle Community College around 1995. When the Program Officer figured out what I was doing, she called campus security. The President of the College promptly showed up with an officer or two in tow and demanded to know what I was doing. I said I’m simply drumming up business and exercising my free speech rights. He huffed and puffed and left me to pass out flyers and chat-up the attendees.

A WSJ Article Illustrates the Program Officer Problem

I just posted “Where Have All the RFPs Gone?,” in which I speculated that the lateness of federal RFPs this fiscal year is probably due to the fact that overworked program officers are still chewing through last year’s proposals. Imagine my surprise when I read “Staffing Woes Hinder Job-Boosting Program” by Michael Aneiro in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. He discovered a HUD program that is way behind in reviewing applications because of a lack of staff to do the reviews.

Even better, while HUD has more money than usual for this Federal Housing Administration (FHA) program, an appropriation for additional staff was not made, so the same number of program officers, fiscal officers and lawyers have to do vastly more work. Since federal employees do not work by the piece, the same number of reviewers have to review more applications, which means they get stuck in the system. All of this will eventually be digested, even as hundreds of new FY ’10 RFPs are published in the coming months.