Tag Archives: RFP

Why Did the City of Los Angeles Really Lose Out on Stimulus Money?

I find it grimly hilarious, in a Catch-22 way, the City of Los Angeles’ City Controller, Wendy Greuel, realized that a “lack of oversight” cost the City an estimated $125,000,000 in stimulus money because the City failed to pursue all the funding it was eligible to receive.

This isn’t a surprise to Seliger + Associates, as we’re on the pre-approved grant writing vendor list for the City and didn’t receive any calls or RFPs from the City inquiring if we had the capacity to prepare one or more grant applications, as we have in the past. And if we had, this is the daunting gantlet we would have faced before writing a single word in the grant proposal:

  • the City has separate pre-approved lists for almost every City department;
  • apparently none are in a database easily accessed by departments that need grant writing assistance;
  • just because you have been approved by one department of the City, does not mean that you will not have to prepare and submit, almost, if not exactly the same paperwork for each and every department you want to work for.

If you bill by the hour, you could go out of business just preparing paperwork.

Then, if you’re chosen to bid on the specific job, you have to again fill out the same/similar paperwork again to turn in with your bid documents.
These problems, combined with the incompetence or laziness cited in the article, are the real reason the City lost out on more than $125,000,000 in stimulus funds. The City hasn’t realized that every check has a cost.

Nonprofits, however, can learn something important from this: pursue every opportunity you can. Be nimble, like a small business, instead of sclerotic, like the City of Los Angeles.

Upward Bound means more narrative confusion

The Upward Bound deadline passed, but the RFP lingers on in my mind like a foul meal.

The RFP was an extraordinary work of indirection, with 130-something pages of instructions supporting a 72-page narrative (counting “Competitive Priorities”). Upward Bound is one of the Department of Education’s “TRIO” programs—there used to be three: Upward Bound, Educational Opportunity Centers, and Student Supportive Services, but now there are five or six. Another TRIO program, Educational Opportunity Centers (“EOC”), was released last May, and that RFP is particularly close to my heart because I used its “Plan of operation” section to teach my University of Arizona students technical writing. The EOC RFP was also overly long and overly verbose, but its similarity to Upward Bound meant that looking at that proposal would help me with the new one.

It also included a trap, because the Department of Education made subtle but real changes between the way they phrased requirements from one program to the other. For example, under “Project Need” in EOC, the first two major headers said something like, “Low-incomes in the target area” and “High percentage of target area residents with education completion levels below the baccalaureate level.” The UB RFP says, “The income level of families in the target area is low” and “The education attainment level of adults in the target area is low.” So an applicant who applies for both EOC and UB can reuse data—but a straight copy-paste will result in the Department of Education knowing that you’ve done so. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Department of Education does this intentionally, like Van Halen and their legendary M&M Rider:

The rider’s “Munchies” section was where the group made its candy-with-a-caveat request: “M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES).” While the underlined rider entry has often been described as an example of rock excess, the outlandish demand of multimillionaires, the group has said the M&M provision was included to make sure that promoters had actually read its lengthy rider. If brown M&M’s were in the backstage candy bowl, Van Halen surmised that more important aspects of a performance–lighting, staging, security, ticketing–may have been botched by an inattentive promoter.

Van Halen uses brow M&M’s as a signal, and the Department of Education is using section headers the same way. If your section headers are identical to the EOC section heads, your proposal will be thrown out altogether, or at least have its points lowered.

There are other perils stashed in this RFP, too: its writers practically hide the location of the material you’re supposed to respond to. The RFP directs you to page 102, but the actual narrative requirement in the form of the “selection criteria” to which you’re supposed to respond starts on page 70 (of a 132-page RFP). And the narrative section lists “Objectives” on page 71, but you have to be cognizant enough to know that you have to copy the objectives listed on page 93.

Read and tread carefully when preparing to write a grant proposal.

EDIT: A former Department of Education reviewer wrote us to say:

I read with interest your article on Upward Bound grants in which you spoke of “traps” by the Department of Education. You clearly are experienced and are doing a great service for fledgling grants writers. However, I have served as a reader for several TRIO programs, and my experience is that the Department of Education NEVER puts traps in their RFPs. They work very hard to see that readers are fair and generally positive about the grant process. Of course, they also want consistency to keep down on appeals. The reason that I am writing is that you are doing your readers a disservice by making them think that there is a “magic phrase” that might result in acceptance for funding or rejection of a grant. The Department of Education wants writers to address the problems in a straightforward manner and teachers readers to reward clear writing.

HUD Issues the FY ’12 Indian Community Development Block Grant (ICDBG) NOFA Not Long After the FY ’11 NOFA

HUD just issued the FY ’12 Indian Community Development Block Grant (ICDBG) NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability, which is HUD-speak for RFP). There’s about $61 million available for federally recognized Tribes, Alaskan Native Villages and selected Native American organizations. This is a great opportunity for eligible Native American applicants to fund housing, economic development and community facility projects, and maximum grants range from $600,000 to $5,500,000, depending on the location and number of persons impacted. The question is, why am I blogging about it, since it seems like another run-of-the-mill federal grant process?

The answer is in the timing of the NOFA release and deadline.

The timing issue caught my eye because the FY ’11 ICDBG deadline was June 15. The FY ’12 ICDBG NOFA was released on October 4 and the deadline is January 4, so two “annual” funding cycles will be completed within a year! Faithful readers will recall that I wrote several posts in halcyon days of the Stimulus Bill passing in early 2009, including February 2009’s Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing. In it, I correctly predicted that the feds would have more than a little trouble shoveling $800 billion out of the door.

The Stimulus Bill also distorted the more or less predictable flow of other discretionary grant programs like ICDBG; while the Stimulus Bill unleashed a huge quantity of additional grant funds, there were few, if any, additional personnel to manage the process, as I observed then:

My experience with Federal employees is that they work slower, not faster, under pressure, and there is no incentive whatsoever for a GS-10 to burn the midnight oil. Federal staffers are just employees who likely don’t share the passion of the policy wonks in the West Wing or the grant applicants. They just do their jobs, and, since there are protected by Civil Service, they cannot be speeded up. Also, there are no bonuses in the Federal system for work above and beyond the call of duty.

The nearly back-to-back release of ICDBG NOFAs is likely the result of the Stimulus Bill backlog—something like the boa constrictor eating an elephant in Saint-Exupéry’s charming novella, The Little Prince. ICDBG-eligible applicants had to wait for the FY ’11 grants to be digested, and then they have the opportunity to apply all over again a few months later.

The lack of a federal budget for three years and the reliance on Continuing Resolutions (CRs) to fund federal agencies likely doesn’t help. While the media focuses on the upcoming election and never-ending economic challenges, Congress passes appropriation bills using CRs, which allows FY ’12 funds, like ICDBG, to become available. You can expect a flood of backlogged federal programs to issue RFPs in the next few months.

Given the chaos in the federal budgeting process, it seems like a good bet to apply for any grant programs that come along now because the funding cycles for ICDBG and lots of other programs are pretty screwed up. In the case of ICDBG, I have no idea when the FY ’13 ICDBG NOFA will appear, but there’s an opportunity for a second bite of the apple this year. It seems to me that any ICDBG-eligible entity should bite that apple (or is it a salmon? I leave it to readers to decide).

The Difference Between Being “Involved” in Grants and Being a Grant Writer

Most people who claim to be grant writers or “involved” in grants don’t actually write proposals. They’re more often engaged in things like grant management, the distribution of grant funds, or development (fund raising), which are important but very different things than grant writing.

Grant writing means you sit down and write a proposal. Grant management means you oversee funding; file reports; help with evaluations; hire staff; and the like. Notice that “write proposals” is not on the list. Also, some people who say they’re involved with grants are actually on the funder side of things, which means they might help write RFPs or evaluate proposals, but again: those skills are very different and of limited use when actually confronted by a proposal in the wild. Someone who writes proposals can of course be involved in grant management, but it seldom goes the other way around; if you’re going to be a grant writer, you have to be able to pass the test Isaac proposed in “Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain:”

If we ever decide to offer a grant writing credential, we would structure the exam like this: The supplicant will be locked in a windowless room with a computer, a glass of water, one meal and a complex federal RFP. The person will have four hours to complete the needs assessment. If it passes muster, they will get a bathroom break, more water and food and another four hours for the goals/objectives section and so on. At the end of the week, the person will either be dead or a grant writer, at which point we either make them a Department of Education Program Officer (if they’re dead) or give them a pat on the head and a Grant Writing Credential to impress their mothers (if they’ve passed).

You don’t need to pass that kind of arduous test to manage grants, issue RFPs, or review applications.

Last weekend, for example, I met a couple who said they knew a lot about grant writing and were “in” grants. Compared to a random person on the street, they did know a lot: one of them works for a regional government transportation authority and has probably helped disseminate hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in transportation funding. The other works as a development director for a university. Together, they have about 40 years of combined experience in “grants.” It turns out, however, that neither have ever even once done what I was doing about twenty minutes before I began this post: writing a proposal. Development directors often do everything in the universe to shake money out of donors except write proposals; that may be why we’ve worked for a fair number of development directors over the years. And program officers, who pass out grant funds, might write RFPs, but never the responses.

I wish more people who worked “in” or around grant writing had the experience of actually writing a proposal, because if they had, I suspect we’d get better RFPs. I’m also reminded of the theory / practice divide that arises in so many academic disciplines. Psychology, for example, has a large number of people who do a lot of research but don’t see patients, and a large number who see patients and don’t do research. Naturally, the researchers often think of the practitioners as mere carpenters and the practitioners often think of researchers as mandarins who don’t understand what life on the ground is like. Both are probably somewhat right some of the time.

Something similar happens in English: a lot of English departments these days are bifurcated between the people in “creative writing” and literature. The creative writers—novelists, poets, and so forth—produce the stuff that the literary critics and theorists ultimately discuss; I suspect there, too, the world would be a better place if critics and theorists actually took a serious stab at producing original work. If they did, many might not hold the sometimes implausible opinions they do. They’re like RFP writers who know everything the world about grant writing except what it’s like to stare down a nasty, confused, contradictory RFP. You probably wouldn’t want to eat at a restaurant run by a chef who never tastes his own food, but that’s the situation one often gets with grant writing.

There’s a moral to this story: be wary of people who say they know a lot about grant writing, since they often know a lot about everything but grant writing.

Program Officer Blues: What To Do When The RFP Is Ambiguous, Contradictory, Incoherent, or All Three

When you find an ambiguity or outright contradiction in an RFP, it’s time to contact the Program Officer, whose phone number and e-mail address is almost always stashed somewhere in the RFP. The big problem with contacting a Program Officer is simple: you can’t trust what she or he tells you. The formal RFP—particularly if published in the Federal Register and/or Grants.gov—takes precedence over anything the Program Officer tells you. Unless you’re given a specific reference to instructions in the RFP, you can’t safely rely on advice given by a Program Officer. This is the primary reason we see no point in attending bidders’ conferences, or, more likely these days, watching “webinars” about RFPs. Anything said in those forums that isn’t backed by the RFP, program guidelines, and/or the underlying section of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) means jack.

And that’s assuming you even can get advice from Program Officers. A client recently wanted more detail about a slightly ambiguous outcome requirement in the Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood proposal we were writing, so we advised her to contact Tanya Howell, the ACF staffer assigned to the program. Our client asked two questions, and in both cases Ms. Howell began by responding with the same helpful sentence: “Applicants should use their best judgment in determining whether they are able to meet the requirements contained in the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), whether they are able to develop an application they believe to be responsive to the FOA and in designing and writing their applications.”

“Applicants should use their best judgment” is another way of saying, “I have no idea, do what you want, and if the reviewer dings you don’t come back and blame me.” Her second sentence, in both cases, said that the measures in question were “at the discretion of the applicant.” This kind of non-answer answer that leaves the applicant in the dark and is only marginally more helpful than no answer at all. It also smacks of the Program Officer simply preparing a template response to questions and applying the template in order to minimize her own need to work.

Here’s another weird example. We recently completed a WIA job training proposal for a large nonprofit in Southern California. The RFP was issued by the Workforce Investment Board (WIB) for a particular jurisdiction, and the RFP specified that applicants must demonstrate a written collaboration with Workforce Sector Intermediaries. We’d never seen this term before; it was not defined in the RFP and a Google search returned us to the RFP. Since the client is already a WIA grantee, we had our client contact call their Program Officer. The Program Officer also did not know what was meant by Workforce Sector Intermediaries and could not get an answer from her supervisors. In other words, nobody at the WIB knew what was the meaning of a requirement specified in their own RFP.

Still, if you can find a contradiction in an RFP, you can sometimes get a correction issued. We’ve found contradictions at least a dozen times over the years, and sometimes we’ll point them out to Program Officers and get the RFP amended. That’s the only real way you can trust that your interpretation is correct, instead of an example of your “discretion” that might cause you to lose points. Thus, despite the depressing anecdotes above, you should pose your conundrum to the Program Officer.

Clients will also ask us about possible ambiguities, and we give the best answers we can. But clients regularly ask us questions about RFPs that we can’t answer. It’s not that we’re opposed to answering questions, of course—but the questions themselves sometimes can’t be answered by the RFP. At that point, it’s time to call or write the Program Officer and hope for the best.

Before you do, however, you should read the RFP and any associated guidance or CFR reference as closely as possible. That means looking at every single section that could have a bearing on your question. If you’re reading an RFP, you’re basically performing the same exercise that (good) English professors do to novels, poems, drama, and short stories, or that lawyers do to legislation and court decisions: close reading. You can find lots of “how to” guides for close reading from Google, or you can look at one of the original textbooks about close reading, Understanding Fiction. But close reading at its most basic entails looking at every single word in relation to other words and ascertaining how it forms meaning, how meanings of a text change, and what meanings can be interpreted from it. For example, if you were close reading this passage, you might look at the phrase “at its most basic” in the preceding sentence and say, “What about its ‘least’ basic? What do advanced forms of close reading entail?” and so forth.

In Umberto Eco’s Reflections on The Name of the Rose, he says that a novel is “a machine for generating interpretations.” The same is true of other kinds of texts, like RFPs, and your job in close reading is to generate the interpretations to the best of your abilities. Our skills at doing this are, of course, very finely honed, but even those finely honed skills can’t produce something from nothing. We read as closely as possible, use those readings to write a complete and technically correct proposal, and move on to cocktail hour at quittin’ time.

What Budget Cuts? The RFPs Continue to Pour Out: Educational Opportunities Centers, Carol M. White PEP, HUD Section 202 & 811, Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control, and California’s Proposition 84

Faithful readers will have noticed a paucity of recent blog posts. There’s a reason: we’re fantastically busy. Despite all of the media gnashing of teeth regarding the Republican–Democratic tussles over the FY ’11 Continuing Resolutions (which was resolved a week or two ago) not much actually happened. A list of final ’11 CR reductions might total $39 billion—or is it $300 million?

Basically, nobody knows, but in the finest Washington tradition both sides can claim victory while getting back to the serious business of raising money for the 2012 campaign, as well as fulminating about the 2012 election (didn’t we just have an election?). In the meantime, federal and state agencies have opened the RFP floodgates, so as to not get caught with non-obligated funds when the next fiscal year rolls around. Quelle Horreur!!*

Here’s a tiny sample of the avalanche of grant funds that are currently up for grabs:

  • Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC): It took months, but our friends at the Department of Education finally got this one one out of the door with $47,000,000 available and a May 23 deadline. EOC grants provide academic enrichment to prepare secondary school students for college. Even better, the DOE promises to issue the RFP for the much larger companion TRIO program, Upward Bound in September or so. If your organization has trouble funding its basic mission and it is vaguely plausible at providing academic support, pursue EOC or Upward Bound. Given the dismal student academic outcomes in America, getting young people prepared for college is sure to be a growth industry in the coming years.
  • Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP): Another old DOE friend, PEP grants fund physical education and wellness services for K–12 students. There is about $37,000,000 available, with grants to $750,000 and a deadline of May 23.
  • Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly: HUD has $371,000,000 to build Section 202 affordable housing for seniors. The deadline is June 1.
  • Section 811 Supportive Housing for Persons with Disabilities: Another HUD warhorse, Section 811 has $114,000,000 to build affordable housing for persons with disabilities, and the deadline is June 23.
  • Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) Program: LBPHC, another HUD favorite, usually has around $100,000,000 available, although HUD is keeping the total dollar amount a secret in this year’s NOFA. LBPHC grants are used to rehab affordable housing units to remove lead hazards, with grants to $3,500,000, and the deadline is June 9.
  • California Nature Education Facilities Program: To keep things interesting, I thought I would throw in a CA RFP. This nugget is funded by the $5,700,000,000 “Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2006.” I know you think California is broke, but this particular budget pocket is stuffed with $93,000,000 for park and related “nature education” facilities. The deadline is July 1.

Now you know why we’re busy writing proposals and not writing as many blog posts as we usually do. There are many other RFPs on the street and lots more will be issued in the next two to three months. As I’ve blogged about many times in the last year or two, smart nonprofits and public agencies will go after the huge amount of available grant funds, instead of sitting in sack cloth and ashes and watching the Kabuki budget shenanigans going on in Washington or their state capitals.

Two years ago, when the barely remembered Stimulus Bill was in full stimulation mode, we were incredibly busy. While we are always involved in endless grant writing, we now find ourselves about as busy during a time of dire talk of budget cuts and deficits. I’m reminded of the wonderful 1960 film, Elmer Gantry.

Our eponymous anti-hero is discussing why people go to church with the cynical reporter Jim and says people come to a place like a revivalist church meeting, because “they got no money or too much money.” In our business, clients come to us because they think the government’s got too much money or not enough. Regardless of the reasoning, there are incredible grant opportunities available and applicant odds are better because so many agencies are paralyzed. Simply put, the fewer technically correct applications, the better your odds are of scoring.

*This is a nod to Jake, who is taking a French Translation grad school class and needs all the help he can get.

March Links: Reinventing Philanthropy, Bureaucrats in Action, Urbanism and Environment, Abstinence Education on Valentine’s Day, and More

* Google Finds It Hard to Reinvent Philanthropy. Seliger + Associates unsurprised.

* Bureaucrat acts like a jerk and attempts to silence smart guy. News at 11:00.

* Southwest Airlines pilot holds plane for murder victim’s family. Wow.

* Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period.

* FYI: US manufacturing still tops China’s by nearly 46 percent, at least as measured by dollar output.

* The most amusing recent grant title: “Developing High-Throughput Assays for Predictive Modeling of Reproductive and Developmental Toxicity Modulated Through the Endocrine System or Pertinent Pathways in Humans and Species Relevant to Ecological Risk Assessment.” Say it three times fast.

* You Can’t Be Against Dense, Urban Development and Consider Yourself an Environmentalist.

* An important rap song: Julian Smith’s “I’m Reading a Book,” complete with bagpipes at the end.

* The Facebook fast, with lessons learned.

* What do twin adoption studies show?

* The quality of nonfiction versus fiction. We don’t think it matters much what grant writers read as long as they do read.

* Slate’s review of Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation: “[. . . ] The Great Stagnation makes an ambitious argument whose chief present advantage (and greatest eventual liability) is that it’s impossible to assess in real time.” This might be the most important book of the year, and at the very least is dense with argument and novel thought.

* Why I don’t care very much about tablets anymore, from Jon Stokes, except I never did care about tablets in the first place. A sample:

A Google Image search turns up the above, quite typical picture of a scribe practicing his art. You’ll notice that the scribe’s desk contains two levels, where the topmost level holds an exemplar document and the bottom holds the document that he’s actually working on. The scribe in the picture could be a copyist who’s making a copy of the exemplar, or he could be a writer who’s using the top copy as a source or reference. Either way, his basic work setup is the same as my modern monitor plus keyboard setup, in that it’s vertically split into two planes, with the top plane being used for display and the bottom plane being used for input.

The key here is that the scribe’s hands aren’t in the way of his display, and neither are mine when I work at my desktop or laptop. My hands rest on a keyboard, comfortably out of sight and out of mind.

With a tablet, in contrast, my rather large hands end up covering some portion of the display as I try to manipulate it. In general, it’s less optimal to have an output area that also doubles as an input area. This is why the mouse and keyboard will be with us for decades hence—because they let you keep your hands away from what you’re trying to focus on.

When you write a full proposal on a tablet, let me know. And not just as a stunt to say, “I could do it,” either.

* Why publishers are scared of ebooks—the standard reasons and Amanda Hocking as symbol.

* In an amusing twist, Texas publishes its Abstinence Education Services RFP on Valentine’s Day.

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.

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.

May 2010 Links: The Promise Neighborhoods Program, Federal Budgets, Upward Bound, Centers for Independent Living (CLI), the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), Restricting Fun Too Expensive, and more

* Federal programs never get delayed, unless they do. One of our clients received a letter from the Department of Education announcing that the Upward Bound program, which encourages at-risk youth to complete high school and go on to college, is being delayed until fiscal year 2012. This indicates that, as Isaac wrote in “Where Have All the RFPs Gone?,” the feds have gotten so backed up that they can’t spend all their money. To quote Isaac’s post:

Since federal agencies are running their regular programs while trying to spend additional Stimulus Bill funding and implementing entirely new programs, one imagines that our cadre of GS 10s and 11s, who are supposed to move the endless paperwork associated with shoveling federal funds out the door, simply have not gotten around to the FY ‘10 RFP processes.


* Now that i3 madness is behind most of us, it’s time to see the other crazed, zombie-like offspring of the Department of Education. Alert reader and grant writer Shirley Nelson pointed me to the “Promise Neighborhoods Program,” which demands that one build “a complete continuum of cradle-through-college-to-career solutions (continuum of solutions) (as defined in this notice), which has both academic programs and family and community supports (both as defined in this notice), with a strong school or schools at the center.” I want those college solutions, whatever they are.

The RFP also says:

The continuum also must be based on the best available evidence including, where available, strong or moderate evidence (as defined in this notice), and include programs, policies, practices, services, systems, and supports that result in improving educational and developmental outcomes for children from cradle through college to career

In other words, the i3, quasi-evidence-based madness continues.

* The Department of Education’s Centers for Independent Living Program (CLI) program is particularly impressive because, as far as I can tell, nowhere in the 142-page application guidance does a definition of what “centers for independent living (CILs or centers)” means.

* I didn’t realize there was a U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) until I saw the announcement of its Annual Grant Competition. I wonder what it’s like compared to the Department of Defense, which used to be called the Department of War.

* On healthcare nationally and in Massachusetts:

When Massachusetts rolled out its coverage program in 2007, many more people signed up for the new heavily subsidized insurance than was originally predicted by budget officials. Almost immediately, costs far exceeded what had been budgeted, forcing state officials to scramble to find cuts elsewhere in government and other sources of revenue.

After three years, no real progress has been made on rising costs. The program remains well over budget, with no end in sight. Further, state residents who now must buy state-sanctioned coverage are bristling at their rising premiums and the inability to find coverage which covers less and thus costs less.

State politicians are responding to the cost crisis the only way they know how: by promising to impose arbitrary caps on premiums and price controls for medical services. The governor and state regulators have disallowed 90 percent of the premium increases insurers –all of whom are not-for-profit–submitted for their enrollees for the upcoming plan year. The state says premium increases above eight percent are too high and unacceptable, though they themselves don’t have a plan to make health care more efficient in Massachusetts. They just want lower premiums. The insurers have responded by refusing to sell any coverage at the rates the state wants to impose.

* In essence, the country needs to figure out how to pay for the government that its citizens want. It’s a version — albeit a less extreme one — of the problem facing Greece right now.

* Wow: Records show that since 1992, only 10 Minnesota teachers fired for poor performance have challenged their dismissals all the way through that process.

* The nasty things local telcos do to prevent municipal fiber (and why this is so important).

* Politicians find that restricting fun is now too expensive (Note: this is not from The Onion).

* Electric Avenue: Learning to love a bike you don’t need to pedal.

* Academia isn’t broken. We are.

* The Shirky Principle: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” — Clay Shirky. As Kevin Kelly says:

The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions (like a company, or an industry) can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.

* The Department of Education appears to have invented a new word for the i3 RFP:

Growth may be measured by a variety of approaches, but any approach used must be statistically rigorous and based on student achievement data, and may also include other measures of student learning in order to increase the construct validity and generalizability of the information.

“Generalizability?” If that appeared in a student essay, I’d circle it.

* Why men don’t listen. Except they do, as this post into the pseudo science of gender brain differences shows.

* Megan McArdle has a characteristically astute essay on Lori Gottlieb’s book Marry Him!. As McArdle says, Gottlieb’s superficial thesis is that women are too picky in getting married. But “her real message she proves all too well, and I suspect that’s why it drives young women nuts, as in this Emily Gould essay I came across yesterday. It is the same thing overanxious mothers have been telling their daughters from time immemorial: your looks matter, and they are a wasting asset.”

I have no idea if this is true.

* Peak everything? Not really.

* The drive to make cities greener. And this is from the Wall Street Journal.

* One Man, Two Courts points out something that Isaac and few others seem to remember: the political party abortion flipflop. Until around 1977 or so, most Democratic politicians were mostly against abortion, while most Republicans supported it.

* In a Tough Economy, Old Limits on Welfare reads like a proposal. Except that the reporter forgets that there isn’t such a thing as “welfare;” he’s probably actually referring to TANF.

* Why humanity loves and needs cities.

* Why do colleges care about extracurricular activities? See my guess in the comments.

* For every doctor, there are five people performing health care administrative support. This may be part of our national problem, like the growth of administrators relative to professors in academia. (Hat tip Tyler Cowen.)

* Recommended: ManPacks.com. If you’re male, as I am, there’s a pretty good chance that you hate shopping for clothes and thus constantly have ratty socks, underwear, and t-shirts. ManPacks.com will send you two shirts with two pairs of underwear and socks every three months indefinitely. Once you set it up, you never have to think about the issue again, unless you move. And that set up takes maybe five minutes.


* “China’s Youth Meet Microsoft,” an article, along with a rebuttal: “This article, IMHO, is written by someone who has no idea how things work just about anywhere that’s not the industrialized West, and is shocked and appalled that things aren’t as awesome as they are in the US of A.”

* A fascinating profile of Tyler Cowen, one of the proprietors of Marginal Revolution.

* “Describing himself as “terribly exhausted,” famed linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky said Monday that he was taking a break from combating the hegemony of the American imperialist machine to try and take it easy for once.”