Tag Archives: Programs

Don’t Trust What You Read in Grants.gov: Personnel Development To Improve Services and Results for Children With Disabilities

This week’s e-mail grant newsletter includes an RFP called “Personnel Development To Improve Services and Results for Children With Disabilities–Personnel Preparation in Special Education, Early Intervention, and Related Services.” Click the link and you’ll notice that there are nine grants available and $250,000 in “Estimated Total Program Funding;” those of us who can do simple math will think, “Gee, a little over $25,000 per grant: that’s not much money and consequently not a very interesting program.”*

But read the RFP itself and you’ll see there is actually $12,500,000 available, spread across 50 grants and four different sub-awards. The program suddenly got a lot more interesting and the maximum award amount is $250,000 per year, for up to five years. Now things have gotten really interesting. A lot of organizations that would pass on $25,000 now want to apply.

The topic of “don’t trust grants.gov” is becoming part of a continuing series, since these mistakes are shockingly common. If you see a program that looks appealing, always read the RFP. Not doing so could be a million-dollar mistake.


* Isaac is fond of quoting the Grandmaster Flash song, “White Lines,” which sits at an unusual intersection between rap and disco and contains the astute observation that “The money gets divided / The women get excited.” Note that the next couplet reminds us of the likely consequences: “Now I’m broke and it’s no joke / It’s hard as hell to fight it, don’t buy it!”

Without much money to be divided, no one gets excited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.