Tag Archives: proposal

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.

One Person, One Task: Who’s in Charge of Your Proposal?

Who is in charge of completing and submitting your proposal?

You should immediately be able to say, “Jane Doe. Or “John Doe.” Whoever. Can you instantly think of that person’s name—the person who gets the praise if the proposal is submitted on time and technically correct or the blame if it isn’t?

If you can’t, you’ve got a problem—and it’s a problem endemic to a lot of industries. This topic is topical because there’s a fascinating article in Fortune Magazine called “Inside Apple,” which describes the notoriously secretive and productive company. Here’s the relevant bit:

At Apple there’s never confusion “as to who is responsible for what.” In Apple’s parlance, a DRI’s name (directly responsible individual) always appear on the agenda for a meeting, so that everyone knows who’s the right contact for a project

Oh, and it’s not just Apple, or just nonprofits, with this problem. In one discussion thread about “Inside Apple,” poster “JacobAldridge” says “This is a project I run with almost all of my clients – shifting an organic, but dysfunctional, business arrangement into one where everyone knows their responsibility, and the right person does the right jobs at the right time (and for the right cost point).” In the nonprofit world, doing something like this for organizations as a whole is way beyond our scope, but it is our standard practice to designate specific responsibilities when we’re hired for a grant writing assignment.

We insist on a single contact person and a single set of revisions per draft. If we didn’t, we’d have madness—the kind of madness you might remember from worthless group projects in high school or highly dysfunctional organizations. We’d have critical documents or drafts fall through the cracks of miscommunication or evaded responsibility. We’d suffer “confusion ‘as to who is responsible for what,’ ” which we virtually never experience.

Many nonprofits intentionally avoid assigning direct responsibility for proposals and other tasks to a single person. This is a mistake, much like splitting up the writing of a proposal. Don’t do it, and if your organization does, it’s time to start thinking like Steve Jobs or Seliger + Associates—and about how to adopt the DRI model.

The Art of the Grant Proposal Abstract is Like the Art of the Newspaper Story Lead

Proposal abstracts are funny beasts: they’re supposed to summarize an entire proposal, presumably before the reader reads the proposal, and they’re often written before the writer writes the proposal. Good abstracts raise the question of whether one really needs to read the rest of the document. While RFPs sometimes provide specific abstract content—in which case you should follow the guidance—an abstract should answer the 5Ws and H: Who is going to run the program? Who is going to benefit and why? What will the program do? Where will it occur? When will it run, both in terms of services and length of the project? Why do you need to run it, as opposed to someone else? How will you run it?

Whenever I write an abstract, I ask myself the questions listed above. If I miss one, I go back and answer it. If you can answer those questions, you’ll at least have the skeleton of a complete project. If you find that you’re missing substantial chunks, you need to take time to better conceptualize the program and what you’re doing (which might itself make a useful future blog post).

As you write, start with the most relevant information. A good opening sentence should identify the name of the organization, the type of the organization if it’s not obvious (most of our clients are 501(c)3s, for example, and we always state this to make sure funders know our clients are eligible), the name of the project, what the project will do (“provide after school supportive services” is always popular), and who the project will serve. The next sentence should probably speak to why the project is needed, what it will accomplish, and and its goals. The next should probably list objectives. And so on. By the time you’ve answered all the questions above, you’ll have about a single-spaced page, which is usually as much space as is allowed for abstracts in most RFPs. At the end, since this is probably the least important part, you should mention that your organization is overseen by an independent board of directors, as well as its size, and a sentence about the experience of the Executive Director Project Director (if known).

If you’ve taken a journalism class, you’ve been told that the lead of news articles should be the most important part of the story. When someone important has died, don’t wait until the fourth paragraph to tell your busy reader what their name was and what they accomplished in life. Treat proposals the same way. For that matter, treat blog posts the same way, which we try to do.

You’ll have to find an appropriate level of detail. The easiest way to find that level is to make sure you’ve answered each of the questions above and haven’t gone any longer than one page. If you have, remove words until you’re on a single page. You don’t need to go into the level of specificity described in “Finding and Using Phantom Data in the Service Expansion in Mental Health/Substance Services, Oral Health and Comprehensive Pharmacy Services Under the Health Center Program,” but a mention of Census or local data won’t hurt, if it can be shoehorned in. Think balance.

Here’s one open secret about reading large numbers of documents at once: after you’ve read enough, you begin to make very fast assessments of that document within a couple of sentences. I don’t think I learned this fully until I started grad school in English lit at the University of Arizona. Now I’m on the other side of the desk and read student papers. Good papers usually make themselves apparent within the first page. Not every time, but often enough that it’s really unusual to experience quality whiplash.

To be sure, I read student essays closely because I care about accurate grading, and there is the occasional essay that starts out meandering and finds its point halfway through, with a strong finish. But most of the federal GS 10s, 11s, and 12s reading proposals aren’t going to care as much as they should. So first impressions count for a lot, and your abstract is your first impression. Like drawing a perfect circle, writing a perfect abstract is one of these things that seems like it should be easy but is actually quite hard. We’ve given you an outline, but it’s up to you to draw the circle.