Posted on 2 Comments

Social Innovation Fund Not Terribly Innovative, But Confirms That Getting Grants Is Not Like Winning an Olympic Gold Medal

Faithful readers will remember “Why Winning an Olympic Gold Medal is Not Like Getting a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Grant,” in which I opined that in getting grants, the race does not always belong to the swift. It seems I scooped the New York Times. In today’s edition, Stephanie Strom tells the depressing tale of how the perhaps inappropriately named Social Innovation Fund (SIF) awarded $50,000,000 to applicants with “mediocre scores” in “Nonprofit Fund Faces Questions About Conflicts and Selection Procedures.” Nothing is innovative about not giving grants to applicants with the highest score, but it is innovative that SIF has lots of obvious conflicts of interest and has not “disclosed who reviewed the grants—or who applied for them or the ratings the applicants received.” I can think of a couple of pretty good reasons for the secrecy: they funded who they felt like funding and are ashamed of this obviously boneheaded move.

As I pointed out in my blog post, it is not uncommon for federal agencies to select grant awardees from among technically correct applications, even low scoring ones (SIF is a nonprofit that somehow got what amounts to a $50 million congressional earmark). Usually, however, the funder doesn’t make a secret of the award process and doesn’t shred the review sheets, which SIF apparently did. This is not only not transparent, its a reminds a grizzled grant writer of the missing 18 minutes of the Watergate tapes. As I pointed in a post from two years ago, “It’s a Grant, Not a Gift: A Primer on Grants Management,” “The secret to grant management is to remember that everything related to a grant is likely public information, so don’t do anything you wouldn’t mind seeing on the front page of the local newspaper.”

In this case SIF did something dumb enough to end up in the New York Times. If only Paul Carttar, SIF Executive Director, read Grant Writing Confidential regularly, he wouldn’t look at best stupid or at worst . . . well, you decide what he looks like. In writing proposals, we try never to write the word “horse” under the picture of a horse—or _______ under the picture of a horse’s rear end.

The SIF fiasco has created such a stir in the normally staid climes of the world of big nonprofits that Ruth McCambridge, Editor of the Nonprofit Quarterly, said she may file a request for all the applications under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).* As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously put it, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Secrecy and grant making are a bad combination. I also don’t think much of the recent trend of Congress giving huge grants to national nonprofits, which in turn dole out grants through dubious RFP processes. How does SIF help human services get delivered? As far as I can tell, they fund who they want to fund and likely take a large administrative rake off the top. Why not just have any unit of DHHS run the RFP process for “financing the replication of nonprofit programs that work,” which is supposedly what SIF is doing? I recently wrote a post about another example of a national nonprofit, YouthBuild USA, running a quasi-secret RFP process in A Secret YouthBuild SMART RFP Found and a Not-So-Secret YouthBuild SGA to be Issued.

A note of optimism in all of this doom and gloom about potentially wired competitions brought to us by congressional earmarks for national nonprofits: the vast majority of RFP processes are not wired in any way. Still, it’s just a reality that for many reasons, the highest scoring proposal may not be funded. But your organization will never get a grant unless it submits a technically correct and compelling proposal on time.

For example, we were hired about ten years ago by one of the five largest cities in the US to re-write what was probably the last Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) proposal ever submitted. UDAG is a long-defunct HUD program from the Carter era. Our client was told by HUD that $3 million in returned UDAG funds was theirs in a sole-source submission. All they had to do was submit an application.

The city managed to annoy the HUD Program Officer, who hadn’t gotten the memo that this proposal was supposed to be funded. He rejected it as being technically deficient. We were then hired to fix this mess, and we found the dusty UDAG regs from 1978 and wrote a new proposal that was technically correct. Voila: the $3 million UDAG grant was promptly awarded and helped to ensure construction of a public venue in the city, which shows up on TV regularly. Can you guess the city and project? If you can, we’ll come up with an appropriate prize. The point of this story is that even with a wired RFP process or earmark, the applicant must get the application technically correct or they will screw up a free lunch.

* If you ever do send a FOIA request, let the public official know in advance that you plan to, which will give her the opportunity to say, “Oh, as luck would have it, the info you want is right here on my credenza,” and save time all around. Be sure to use Certified Mail.

Posted on Leave a comment

Guest Post: True Tales of a Department of Education Grant Reviewer

In “Why Winning an Olympic Gold Medal is Not Like Getting a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Grant,” Isaac wrote: “Many grant applicants are under the delusion from years of watching the Olympics and similar sports competitions that, if their application receives the highest review score, the grant will automatically be awarded.”

One of our faithful readers wrote in with this tale of grant reviewer woe, which has been anonymized to protect the innocent:

I was a Federal Reviewer for [a Department of Education program] a few years ago. Our team of three reviewers met via phone conference to discuss the grants after we had each read and scored them independently. Amazingly, we pretty much gave each grant a similar score—within 5 – 10 points of each other, which surprised me. I remember the one that we gave the lowest score to. It was awful. The project didn’t even ‘hit’ on the required elements of the RFP and what they proposed to implement didn’t fit at all with [the subject of the program].

None of us had given them a score over 50. The moderator still asked us to discuss the score before we moved on, so we did. None of us wanted to change anything about their score in any way. When the list came out, two of the proposals we had reviewed were funded. One that had scored in the high 90’s, and the one with the lowest score. I can’t remember the location of the low scoring one, although it was somewhere out East.

I do know that the moderator told us that the competition was pretty tough (she had been a moderator in the past) and unless an applicant scored close to 100, they probably wouldn’t get funded. The moderator never mentioned anything about geographic distribution in any of our discussions, but it was in the RFP—I had gone back to check.

The review process is pretty anonymous and cut and dried. It’s done through the e-portal at e-grants, and there’s really no way to go back in and talk to the moderator or the other reviewers once the decisions are made. I do remember being hacked off about that one, though. So much so, that I didn’t go back and apply to be a reviewer for them again the next year.

(Compare this chilling real-life story to the one about how RFPs get written in “Inside the Sausage Factory and how the RFP Process leads to Confused Grant Writers“.)

This story also demonstrates why we don’t read reviewer comments on clients’ previous proposal submissions—or our own. Although the three reviewers on this program mostly agreed with each other, there’s no guarantee that three reviewers next year will agree on the same kinds of criteria or be concerned with the same kinds of things. And even if they do, other considerations often outweigh what the reviewers want.

Still, you should strive to produce the best proposal you can: notice that one funded proposal in our reader’s story did score very highly. You’re always better off with a clear, concise, well-written proposal than an incomplete, poorly written proposal that relies on improbable assistance from reviewers or decision makers that might not come through for you, even if it does for others. You don’t know who else is applying, what their proposals look like, or what non-explicit factors the funding agency is really considering.