Tag Archives: RFP

FY ’15 YouthBuild SGA Issued by the DOL As Predicted—But With A Twist

Faithful readers will know that we recently predicted that the Department of Labor (DOL) would soon issue the FY ’15 YouthBuild SGA. The SGA was in fact published February 18. I still don’t know why DOL feels like it has to keep upcoming SGAs secret, unless it’s to make sure that their own staffers don’t have to meet deadlines, but at least they provided about 60 days to respond: the deadline is April 22. $73 million is up for grabs.

While the SGA publication was not much of a surprise, there is an interesting nugget (or “nougat,” as we like to call unusual aspects of RFPs*) in this one with respect to the slice and dice of available funds:

The Department intends to use up to 30 percent of the total available funding for this competition for the award of grants to eligible applicants that have not previously received a DOL YouthBuild grant or have not substantially completed performance on their initial DOL-funded grant award. [. . .] The remainder of [the] funds will be used to award grants to eligible applicants that have been previously funded by the DOL YouthBuild program and have demonstrated success in the program.

There are actually two pots of YouthBuild funds: $51,100,00 or $21,900,000, depending on the type of applicant. This is either good or bad news, based on how you like to handicap your agency’s likelihood of being funded.

Since we’re grant writers, not fortune tellers or racetrack touts, Seliger + Associates does not think much of this sort of handicapping. Our advice when asked this question—which generally happens several times a week—is simple: “If your agency is eligible and you want to run the grant program, apply. You can’t win the Lotto without buying it ticket.”

The above funding split mean that pretty much any otherwise eligible nonprofit or public agency can apply this year,** which is great.


* One other oddity: the SGA says nothing about green jobs, which the DOL has been hammering into applicants’s heads for the last half decade.

** If you read the above SGA quote carefully, you’ll note that the ineligible agencies are the previous YouthBuild grantees that screwed up their grants, somehow, at least in the eyes of the DOL.

The Weird Case of SUNY Geneseo’s RFP for Grant Writers

We received this “RFP for Grant Writing & Related Consulting Services” from SUNY Geneseo:

That SUNY Geneseo RFP

It’s gotta be the Ron Jeremy of consulting RFPs—even by the standards of public agencies, it’s massive. At least a hundred pages. It’s also only available as a hard copy and was sent to our New York office, so we can’t provide a link. That alone signals that something is amiss: anyone who wants the best services possible should also want to disseminate their RFP as widely as possible. And SUNY Geneseo sent this sumo-sized document via UPS overnight delivery—they must not have read the memo about not wasting dead trees and running up shipping costs. It must still be 1996 in Geneseo.

SUNY Geneseo, however, doesn’t seem to want wide distribution of this RFP, and we have a pretty good theory about why. A few years ago Isaac wrote a post about why we don’t respond to RFPs/RFQs for grant writers (and, implicitly, why any grant writing consultants reading this shouldn’t either). The only exception is when we’re told that the RFQ is already wired for us, in which case we’re happy to apply.* In the case of SUNY Geneseo, there’s almost certainly a local firm or person they’re already going to hire. They just need to get a couple stooge bids.

Most RFQs and RFPs like this have some telltale signs that the local boys are going to win—usually something about the requirement that the consultant be available for in-person meetings, or have knowledge of local operations, or a similar formulation.

Public organizations with mandatory bid processes almost always also have the option of executing “sole-source contracts,” which get past the usual bidding rules. In this case, the contract authority at SUNY Geneseo probably doesn’t want to go through the institutional hassles of getting a sole-source contract, so she’s instead using the stooge method. Isaac actually sent the contract authority an e-mail asking about their convoluted RFP process, and their contact person claimed they “can’t do sole-source contracts.” This is nonsense, of course, as government agencies routinely use sole-source contracts for all kinds of specialized and emergency situations.

I’m not sure how many stooges she’ll find. The SUNY application itself is sufficiently complex that, were we writing a response for clients, we’d probably charge at least $5,000 to complete it. We’re not going to—instead, we’re going to real work, and we recommend that you do the same and that you not fall for the unsolicited RFP/RFQ trap.

EDIT: We’re obviously not the only ones curious—we’ve been getting search engine hits for the phrase “geneseo rfp”. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, since we’re the number one hit for the phrase on Google and the number two hit on Duck Duck Go, which is a search engine with one delightful feature: it doesn’t log searches. Your fascination with Miley Cyrus is safe with it.


* Though we did once get into a situation in which a public agency told us on the QT that the RFQ was wired for us, we submitted an application, and then they picked someone else anyway! We were angry for the usual reasons, the most obvious being that when we say we’ll do something, we do it.

You Don’t Forget Your First RFP Amendment Post: DOL’s Face Forward Expands Eligibility Requirements

I got my first federal RFP amended last week.

It’s a bit like being blooded when you’re in the Mafia: the tenth time is just standard procedure, but the first time is special.* Isaac, for instance, has gotten numerous RFPs amended, which is always fun because our clients are amazed by our wizardly abilities.

The original version of DOL’s Face Forward Serving Juvenile Offenders Grants SGA said this about the eligible service population:

An individual may participate in a project funded under these grants if he/she: is between the ages of 16 and 24 on the date of enrollment [. . . and ] has never been involved with the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system.

That’s a big problem for a lot of applicants: in New York and North Carolina, youth ages 16 and up are no longer considered juveniles and are therefore adjudicated by the adult justice system.** The original SGA also states that participants must be “currently involved or has been involved in the juvenile justice system or is currently a candidate for diversion under state guidelines for juvenile diversion Programs.” In most states, 16- and 17-year-old youth would be adjudicated within the juvenile justice system for minor crimes, but that’s not true in all states.

Even if a New York nonprofit identifies youth who were adjudicated by the juvenile justice system prior to age 16, most of those youth are likely to have also been involved in the adult system. Few at-risk youth give up criminal behavior at age 16 without supportive services. This is of course the whole point of Face Forward.

As a result, the original rules would make most New York and North Carolina nonprofits effectively ineligible for Face Forward, because they won’t be able to get enough mandatory participants.

I called and sent an e-mail to Mamie Brown (the Face Forward contact person) outlining the problem. She didn’t return my call but did send back an e-mail that completely ignored the point I described above, and she helpfully said, “Please review the Eligibility Requirements in Section III. 3 a) Eligible Participants of the SGA which clearly states who can participate and receive services under this grant. For your convenience the SGA specifically states [. . . ]”

Yes, thank you, I can read.

Whenever a contact person does this, it’s time to look for decisions makers or (unlike most Program Officers) at least a thinking human being. We decided to shoot for either an undersecretary in the DOL, or, since Face Forward is officially being offered by the Employment Training Administration, we decided to try for Assistant Secretary Jane Oates.

There are two dangers in this kind of bureaucratic wasp-nest poking: getting someone too low on the totem pole, who won’t make any decisions (that’s Mamie) or someone too high, who has no idea what the hell is going on in the bowels of the organization and will often be unwilling to respond until the lower echelons have been exhausted.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to jump straight to the top, but in this case we decided an intermediate person. If the intermediate person hadn’t been helpful, we would at least have her name and correspondence when we went further up the chain.

Anyway, I called Oates and left a message, then sent an e-mail. She was quiet for a few days, which is reasonable and not uncommon: she has to figure out what’s going on herself and formulate a response. But the deadline was approaching, so I also called and wrote New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s office. Senators and House members sometimes become involved in grant program rules if they think their home states aren’t getting a fair shot at the money.

Why? Because Senators and House members love to crow about all the money “they” got for their states and districts. We’ve actually had clients whose first notification of grant award came not from the federal agency, but from reporters calling because a Senator put out a press release about how he got more money for the state. Never mind that he had no bearing on the proposal and that letters from Congresspeople are worthless to applicants: the only thing Congresspeople love more than credit for getting money is money itself.

I don’t know if the person I found at Schumer’s office actually did anything, but a couple days after I contacted them Face Forward Amendment One appeared. The amendment changed “has never been involved with the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system; and has never been convicted of a sexual offense other than prostitution” to “has never been convicted within the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system; and has never been convicted of a sexual offense other than prostitution.”

That works for us. The new criteria makes it easier for our Face Forward clients to recruit eligible participants. Plus, in the real world of providing human services, most nonprofits are going to interpret plea bargains for minor crimes in the adult system as not being convictions—but rather, only being “involvement.”

I even got a nice e-mail from Eric Luetkenhaus, the DOL Grant Officer/Chief, about the amendment. When I wrote back to him and Oates saying to say thanks, I received an even more unusual e-mail from Oates: “Thanks to Eric and his team for fixing this but most of all Jake thanks for bringing this to our attention.” Wow! Usually, federal agencies hate issuing amendments, and we’ve never gotten an attaboy from a federal office before. Being as writers who are either a) well-versed in Federal matters or b) cynics (you decide), we were pleasantly shocked.

This story contains a recipe for how to get RFPs amended. If you want to try, you have to start by making sure there’s something wrong or contradictory in an RFP. If the RFP is okay, you obviously don’t need to amend it. Once you’ve determined that there’s a real problem, however, here’s a guide for public RFPs:

1. Start by calling and e-mailing the program contact. These days, most listed contacts don’t like to answer their phones and actually interact with the grimy, ugly public, members of which tend to do annoying things like ask follow-up questions. Consequently, they’ll probably ignore your calls, and you’ll need to send an e-mail. That’s what I did in this case, and I got the language of the RFP spit back to me by Mamie. First contact is unlikely to generate a useful response: the safest thing for a program officer to do is repeat back the language of the RFP. Consequently, that’s what they’ll almost always do (this is also why bidders’ conferences are generally useless for anything other than schmoozing).

2. Be reasonable. Most program officers face the public, and, while most of the public is reasonable, one crazy person can take a disproportionate amount of time and energy. Your goal is to come across as thoroughly reasonable as possible. If you’re not a good writer, find someone in your organization who is, and get them to write the e-mail. Be sure to directly quote from the RFP sections that concern you. Your freshman English teacher was right: quotation really is better and stronger than paraphrase.***

3. Get a response from the underling. This will show the decision maker you eventually reach that you’ve done your homework and, again, that you’re reasonable. Almost all contact people will behave like Mamie.

4. Be polite, but firm and specific. The “polite” part is key, again, because you can’t actually make a federal bureaucrat do anything they don’t want to do. You need to make sure that you’re perceived as reasonable. If you’re not, you’ll get justifiably binned as a loony. But you should also be firm: you want a change to be made for reasons X, Y, and Z.

5. If that doesn’t work, or doesn’t work expeditiously, try calling and writing your Congressperson or Senator. Some will be indifferent, but you should try to find the field officer or field deputy who deals with the federal agency that issued the RFP. The first person you talk to won’t be a decision-maker; their job will be to screen lunatics and to route constituents. You want to be routed to the right person, and frequently you won’t know who that is before you start. Again, your goal is to be scrupulously polite and reasonable, because the public-facing parts of the Congressperson’s office is designed to weed out lunatics.

Taken together, these steps won’t actually take much time, and they should yield results. But they won’t always. If they don’t, don’t yell and scream and holler. Back down and go back to whatever you’d normally be doing. The minute you start screaming, you’ve probably lost. If you get to the top bureaucrat, you’re probably stuck, and probably stuck permanently. But more often than not, genuine mistakes will be rectified—provided you know how to push effectively.


* Although I don’t have guys named Jimmy Caprese and Big Pussy congratulating me.

** As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” We want teenagers to be adults when they commit crimes and “children” when they have sex, which tells you more about our culture than about teenagers.

And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

Laws, including those embodied in Face Forward, reflect race and gender norms: white girls are the primary target of age-of-consent laws, while African American youth are the target of laws around crime and delinquency. The contradictory trends are readily explained by something rather unpleasant in society.

*** Having taught freshmen English to hundreds of students, I know well the skepticism they feel when I tell them about the powers of quotation.

“Estimate” Means “Make It Up” In the Proposal and Grant Writing Worlds

Many RFPs ask for data that simply doesn’t exist—presumably because the people writing the RFPs don’t realize how hard it is to find phantom data. But other RFP writers realize that data can be hard to find and thus offer a way out through a magic word: “estimate.”

If you see the word “estimate” in an RFP, you can mentally substitute the term “make it up.” Chances are good that no one has the numbers being sought, and, consequently, you can shoot for a reasonable guess.

Instead of the word “estimate,” you’ll sometimes find RPPs that request very specific data and particular data sources. In the most recent YouthBuild funding round, for example, the RFP says:

Using data found at http://www.edweek.org/apps/gmap/, the applicant must compare the average graduation rate across all of the cities or towns to be served with the national graduation rate of 73.4% (based on Ed Week’s latest data from the class of 2009).

Unfortunately, that mapper, while suitably wizz-bang and high-tech appearing, didn’t work for some of the jurisdictions we tried to use it on, and, as if that weren’t enough, it doesn’t drill down to the high school level. It’s quite possible and often likely that a given high school is in a severely economically distressed area embedded in a larger, more prosperous community is going to have a substantially lower graduation rate than the community at large. This problem left us with a conundrum: we could report the data as best we could and lose a lot of points, or we could report the mapper’s data and then say, “By the way, it’s not accurate, and here’s an alternative estimate based on the following data.” That at least has the potential to get some points.

We’ve found this general problem in RFPs other than YouthBuild, but I can’t find another good example off the top of my head, although HRSA New Access Point (NAP) FOAs and Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) RFPs are also notorious for requesting difficult or impossible to find data.

If you don’t have raw numbers but you need to turn a proposal in, then you should estimate as best you can. This isn’t optimal, and we don’t condone making stuff up. But realize that if other people are making stuff up and you’re not, they’re going to get the grant and you’re not. Plus, if you’re having the problem finding data, there’s a decent chance everyone else is too.

RFPs for “National Nonprofits,” like the Rural Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants, are Effectively Wired

It’s barely worth writing this post, but we hope to save someone from the danger of applying for a program that for which they’re probably not a competitive applicant—even if they’re nominally eligible.

Subscribers to our e-mail grant newsletter recently saw an RFP for the “Rural Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants” program. Only “national nonprofits” are eligible. The eligibility requirement is doubly strange, because the purpose of the program is to “to enhance the capacity and ability of local governments, Indian tribes, housing development organizations, rural CDCs, and CHDOs, to carry out community development and affordable housing activities” (emphasis added).

So a national nonprofit is supposed to be helping local efforts. Those of you who find this somewhat perplexing are not alone. It’s almost certain that this application has already been de facto wired for an organization or set of organizations. There just aren’t many nonprofits with real presences in five or more states. If you don’t already know that you’re going to get this, you’re probably not going to get it.

Programs like “Rural Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants” are effectively earmarks without an earmark.

There’s another lesson embedded in the Rural Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants RFP: always read the eligibility requirements very, very carefully. It would be easy to read the project description, get excited at the possibilities, and overlook the unusual eligibility requirements.

Occasionally, by the way, we do get hired to write wired grant applications. This might seem counterintuitive: why hire consultants to write a complete and technically correct grant proposal when you already know that you’re going to get the award? The reason is simple: the funding agency still needs a plausible, and ideally good, proposal to present to anyone curious about why Joe’s Nonprofit got a grant and Jane’s Nonprofit didn’t. The funder doesn’t want to embarrass itself, and Joe’s Nonprofit needs cover. Even wired grants sometimes need a grant writer.

California’s Supplemental Education Services (SES): What Gives?

California’s Supplemental Educational Services program looks a bit curious when you first study it: the grant-like program isn’t really a grant program, per se. It’s a competition designed to, as we said in the Seliger Funding Report:

apply for state approval of the applicant’s capability to provide before- and after-school tutoring to remedy academic deficiencies in low-income and at-risk youth. Once approved, the applicant can receive contracts from CA LEAs to provide such tutoring services. The SES program is a federal pass-through program and is available in all states.

(The link is ours, naturally.)

If you’re “funded”—although “selected” is a more appropriate verb here—you’ll be able to seek contracts with school districts throughout the state. Those contracts can be very lucrative. If you want to apply, however, you’ve got to do a two-step dance, and the application we link to in the first sentence is the first step.

First 5 LA Issues a Huge RFP for Homeless Services, and Nimble Nonprofits Start Hopping (Or Hoping)

Los Angeles County nonprofits have a unique opportunity to nibble on some fresh grant lettuce, because First 5 L.A.* just issued a NOFA for the Supportive Housing for Homeless Families Fund. There is $23,000,000 available to provide housing and supportive services for families that are homeless or at-risk of homelessness, that have had involvement with the child welfare system, and that include children aged prenatal to 5 years in Los Angeles County. This is a ton of money for a local funding cycle, and the announcement illustrates that, despite rumors to the contrary, there are many sources of funding available if you keep your ears up and your eye on the prize. If you’re a LA nonprofit even vaguely interested in homeless services, hop over to the mandatory bidder’s conference and nose around. I think you’ll find this to be a pretty tasty NOFA.

Since the advent of the seemingly endless Great Recession, we’ve written several posts about how important it is for nonprofits to stay nimble—including “Time Banks, Barter, Community Gardens and More: Economic Misery Provides Opportunities for Nimble Nonprofits” and “Repurpose: The Word of the Decade and a Word for Nonprofits to Live By.” The close presidential election and the potential cutbacks in federal funding posed by the looming fiscal cliff should also have most nonprofits hopping around like bunnies, as they are hoping for new income streams.


* Each of California’s 58 counties has a First 5 agency that distributes grant funds derived from the 50 cent special tax on cigarettes (Proposition 82), which was championed by Meathead, AKA Rob Reiner a few years ago. Since all California counties have this funding stream, if you’re a CA nonprofit that provides early childhood services, go to your First 5 agency and take a dip.

The Grant World Shifts from the “Community Based Abstinence Education Program” to “Competitive Abstinence Education Grant Program”

In 2008, I wrote a pair of long blog posts about the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program and what happens when a program that is nominally based on “research” has an unfortunate problem: the best available research shows the premise of the program is unlikely to succeed. (The first post is “What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study.”) We wrote a number of funded CBAE programs over the course of a couple years.

Today, however, I was enjoying my usual Sunday jaunt through the Federal Register and found the Competitive Abstinence Education Grant Program. It’s much, much smaller than CBAE, since it only has $4,611,070 available, while CBAE had $40,000,000 in the 2008 funding cycle. In addition, while the new program may have abstinence in the title, description says that applicants should take “medically accurate” approach to sex education, which is quite different than the required CBAE approach, which explicitly forbids medically accurate sex education.

This is the part of the post where a political blogger would make some sort of ideological or political point.* I don’t have one, but I will say that the CBAE to CAEG shift is another example of how smart agencies should be adaptable, as I described in my post “Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts.” Four years ago, the grant waves were throwing abstinence; this year, they’re throwing comprehensive sex education. Forty years ago, when Isaac was getting started, the emphasis was on “medically accurate” information (like today’s RFP), as he wrote about in “Teenage Pregnancy Prevention and the Replication of Evidence-based Programs: the Research and Demonstration Programs and Personal Responsibility Education Program are Two RFPs that Provide a ‘Madeleine Moment’ for a Grizzled Grant Writer.”

For a lot of agencies, what happens on the ground when they’re trying to educate teenagers probably won’t change much based on the funding stream, since teenagers themselves haven’t changed much since they were invented in the 1920s or thereabouts (read Joseph Kent’s Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present and similar books for the history of adolescence as an idea; see also here for a graph depicting the rise of the term “teenager”). Given how fast we produce teenagers, and the gap between what most teenagers really want and what most adults really want them to do, the need for some fashion of sex education is unlikely to go away in the near future, which means federal RFPs are likely to keep being issued—regardless of how they’re labeled.

EDIT: In “Parents Just Don’t Understand: A sociologist says American moms and dads are in denial about their kids’ sexual lives,” Sinikka Elliott argues about comprehensive sex education and abstinence education:

One side is saying, ”Well, they need to abstain. That’s a surefire way that they’re gonna be safe,” and the other side is saying, “They’re not gonna abstain and so they need contraceptive information.” They were basing their argument on the same things: the teen pregnancy rates, the STI rates.

Neither focuses much on pleasure, as Elliott points out.


* I don’t have one, but I will say that the Margaret Talbot’s New Yorker article, Red Sex, Blue Sex is probably the most interesting and comprehensive article I’ve read about the kinds of political differences that shift the funding streams for programs like CBAE and now CAEG.

A Day in the Life of a Participant is Overrated: Focus on Data in the Neighborhood

I’ve seen a lot of proposals from clients and amateur grant writers that include something like, “A day in the life of Anthony” in their needs assessments. This is almost always a mistake, because almost anyone can include a hard-knocks anecdote, and they convey virtually no information about why your hard-knock area is different from Joe’s hard-knock area down the street, or on the other side of the tracks, or across the country. These stories are staples of newspaper accounts of hardship, but newspapers know most of their readers aren’t thinking critically about what they read and aren’t reading 100 similar stories over eight hours. Grant reviewers do.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any RFPs that requested day-in-the-life stories in the needs assessment. If funders wanted such stories, they’d ask for them. Since they don’t, or at best very rarely do, you should keep your needs assessment to business. And if you’re curious about how to get started, read “Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World.” If you’re applying to any grant program, your application is one of many that could be funded, so you want to focus on the core purpose of the program you want to run. Giving a day in Anthony’s life isn’t going to accomplish this purpose.

Creativity is useful in many fields, but those involving government are seldom among them (as we wrote in “Never Think Outside the Box: Grant Writing is About Following the Recipe, not Creativity“). As a result, unless you see specific instructions to do otherwise, you should stick to something closer to the Project Nutria model, in which you describe the who, what, where, when, why, and how. Anything extraneous to answering those questions is wasting pages, and perhaps more importantly, wasting patience, and the precious attention that patience requires.

There’s only one plausible exception I can think of: sometimes writing about a day-in-the-life of a person receiving project services can be helpful, but again, you should probably leave those stories out unless the RFP specifically requests them. Some RFPs want a sample daily or weekly schedule, and that should suffice without a heroic story about Anthony overcoming life obstacles when he finally receives the wraparound supportive services he’s always wanted.

Making it Easy to Understand Who’s Eligible for HRSA’s School-Based Health Center Capital Program

The Affordable Care Act has made it especially hard to figure out who’s eligible for a program. This week, the “Affordable Care Act: Grants for School-Based Health Center Capital Program” is our star. The announcement says that eligible applicants must “Be a school-based health center or a sponsoring facility of a school-based health center as defined in 4101(a)(6) of the Affordable Care Act [. . .]”

Once you track that section down, however, you find this: “(6) DEFINITIONS- In this subsection, the terms ‘school-based health center’ and ‘sponsoring facility’ have the meanings given those terms in section 2110(c)(9) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1397jj(c)(9)).” So it’s off to find the Social Security Act. Eventually you’ll find:

In general.—The term “school-based health center” means a health clinic that—

(i) is located in or near a school facility of a school district or board or of an Indian tribe or tribal organization;

(ii) is organized through school, community, and health provider relationships;

(iii) is administered by a sponsoring facility;

(iv) provides through health professionals primary health services to children in accordance with State and local law, including laws relating to licensure and certification; and

(v) satisfies such other requirements as a State may establish for the operation of such a clinic.

Note that these five subsections describe only what school-based health center means “In general.” What would a specific definition be? Notice too that the act doesn’t mention whether this program applies only to K-12 schools, or if universities count. We’re choosing to interpret Local Education Agencies (LEAs) and their subsidiaries as eligible, since IHEs aren’t mentioned and “school district” generally implies LEAs. If you have any reason to think otherwise, let us know in the comments.

This isn’t the first time we’ve investigated curious, obfuscatory eligibility requirements, and I doubt it will be the last.