Tag Archives: RFPs

Hurricane Sandy and the Election Combine to Blow Away the RFPs

Dedicated readers of our e-mail grant newsletter have probably noticed how slender it’s been over the last four weeks. The newsletter isn’t slender because we’re reluctant to share grant opportunities with you—it’s slender because federal and state governments haven’t been issuing very many RFPs, and they’ve been issuing even fewer interesting RFPs of the sort that nonprofit and public agencies are likely to apply for. Whatever the merits of, say, the Tunisia Community College Scholarship Program or Research Using Biosamples from Selected Type 1 Diabetes Clinical Studies, they’re undeniably specialized programs that are unlikely to interest the vast majority of our subscribers.

Like any good grant Kremlinologists, we have to admit that we don’t know everything and can only make reasonable inferences based on limited data. With that caveat in mind, our best guess about the RFP drought is that DC has been hit with two major punches: Hurricane Sandy and the election. The former hasn’t done too much damage to Washington itself, but preparing for it set the city back by a couple of days, and the Northeast corridor still hasn’t recovered. The situation is sufficiently bad that deadlines are also being extended because of the chaos in the Northeast. The Race To The Top—District (RTTT-D) program, for example, had its deadline extended, but at first the Department of Education didn’t give a new deadline. The actual extension dates—Nov. 2 for everyone else and Nov. 7 for those affected by Sandy—took a couple of days.

The election shouldn’t directly impact the grant cycle, but it does because DC is a company town, and everyone in the town is waiting to see what’s going to happen at the top. Although the civil service employees who actually run grant competitions won’t be directly affected by the winners and losers of Tuesday’s elections, their political appointee masters will be, and the tenor of what’s happening in each department may change. As a result, it’s not infrequent to see this kind of federal torpor right before an election, and that, we think, is why you’ve seen such thin newsletters recently. Not to worry, though, because there should be a “storm surge” of RFPs when the bureaucracy rises from its election lassitude.

Why Clients Love and Hate Us (and Other Consultants), With An E-mail Example

As any consultant knows, some clients will hate you and some will love you. That’s certainly true of us, but the funny thing is that clients love and hate us for exactly the same reason.

It sounds counterintuitive, so let me explain using a recent “we love you!” e-mail from a client as an example:

Your assistance was truly invaluable; we could not have accomplished all of this without your excellent work. We really appreciated the Documents Memo, the specific deadline dates, the direction, advice and guidance and when you left decisions up to us, that was clear.

Please use us as a reference any time and any comments I’ve written here. Whether we get the funding or not, you provided us the opportunity to present the best package possible and best opportunity for funding.

We get attaboys like this regularly, and we like reading them because we take pride in our work.* Clients are often surprised when we do what we say and say what we do, which tells us something about other would-be grant writers.

We also treat all of our clients more or less the same way, which means that we produce complete and technically accurate proposals and minimize the amount of work our clients have to do. This means that we tell clients exactly what they need to do, how they need to do it, and when we need every piece of an individual proposal, which makes many of them love us.

But some clients hate us because we tell them exactly what they need to do, how they need to do it, and when we need every piece of an individual proposal. This thoroughness and lack of ambiguity actually makes them unhappy if they don’t really want to submit the application or want someone to blame if the application is rejected for reasons outside anyone’s control (which we’ve discussed previously here and in “True Tales of a Department of Education Grant Reviewer“).

A certain number of clients hire us, as far as we can tell, because they want to be able to tell others that they’re Doing Something. “Doing Something” is separate from wanting to turn in a complete proposal. An attitude like this doesn’t bother us, but when we first came across it it did surprise us. Usually these clients don’t hate us, but they rarely love us.

Then there are the clients who hate us, most often for things outside of our control. They don’t like that yes, in fact, they do need every single item listed in the documents memo if they want to be funded; they don’t like that we must have comments on the first draft within, say, a week, otherwise there’s not going to be adequate time for the second draft; they don’t like that we’re honest and direct; and so forth. We don’t make the deadlines. We only conform to them.

Our work is similar across clients: we read the RFP, deliver the documents memo (or “doc memo”), write the drafts of the proposal, prepare the budget, and assemble the final submission package. What’s interesting to us is the wide array of reactions we get from our clients. One of our challenges is to maintain our equilibrium regardless of our clients’ reactions. This is probably a problem universal to consultants.

Some are like the client quoted above. A small but real number of others aren’t. But we see our job as maximizing our clients’ probability of getting funded, and we do this by turning in complete and technically accurate proposals without missing a deadline. How our clients treat and feel about us varies widely for reasons largely outside our control.

On another note, grant writers are not miracle workers, although we sometimes resemble them, and we’re not True Believers (hence Isaac’s post, “Does Seliger + Associates ‘Care’ About Our Clients?“). Neither are other consultants, though they may pretend to be True Believers. We sometimes look like we are, but that most often happens when clients do as much as they can to help themselves too.

* In my other life, I’m a grad student in English Lit at the University of Arizona, which means I teach two sections of English Composition per semester. Usually I get a couple of “this class changed my life” e-mails after finals week. One of my favorite began this way:

I just wanted to thank you again for this semester. Although I enjoyed the material of the course, what I will keep with me for the rest of my life is what the course made me think about. Like I said, I am always one to (over…)-analyze and question things but doing a lot of the “why” exercises really helped me organize my thoughts in all areas of my life.

These messages give me hope during the inevitable experiences with apathetic or indifferent students, and the positive e-mails from students and clients are often pretty similar. Here’s a recent example from a client: “Your comments are good, helpful, and easy to understand.”

Here They Come: RFPs Are Thundering Down the Plain, So Look out for the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP), Upward Bound, Choice Neighborhoods, REACH CORE and More

In the somewhat interminable but occasionally engaging Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner finally ingratiates himself with his Sioux neighbors by telling them that the “tatonka” (buffalo) are suddenly thundering nearby. Last February, I asked Where Have All the RFPs Gone? Well, the FY ’10 grant tatonka are finally here and the distant noise you hear is the sound of federal grant opportunities. Work fast, because this herd will have come and gone by the end of the federal fiscal year on September 30.

For example, the Department of Education finally issued RFPs for the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP), the High School Graduation Initiative, Personnel Development To Improve Services and Results for Children With Disabilities, and the Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education (FIPSE) last week.

In 2008, the FIPSE RFP was issued on March 21. This year, it was issued on June 14. Under normal circumstances, this could be chalked up to random variation in funders. This year, that’s much less likely because of the stimulus madness that continues to work through the federal system. The good news about FIPSE: in 2008 it had $2,584,000 for seven grants. This year it has $27,307,000 for 37 grants. This isn’t the only program that’s seen a massive money increase: Personnel Development To Improve Services and Results for Children With Disabilities has gone from $1,500,000 in total funding to $22,900,000.

We heard from a client recently (we wrote their funded Upward Bound proposal in the last funding round about four years ago) that RFPs for both Upward Bound and Talent Search will soon be issued by the Department of Education. It is unusual for RFPs for two “TRIO” programs to be issued in one fiscal year, but this is no usual year.

On the community development front, HUD has about 35 or so competitive grant programs, but only one or two NOFAs (HUD-speak for “RFP”) have been issued this year, which means there are more than 30 to go. Another client, for whom we wrote a funded Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) Program proposal last year, was just at the grantee meeting. The HUD program officer told the group that all of the NOFAs are late this year (duh!) but would be issued with short turnarounds—just like the Department of Education RFPs listed above. Expect to hear HUD hooves in the distance for such old faves LBPHC, Healthy Homes, various Housing Choice Voucher—formerly called Section 8— programs and lots more soon. There will be a HUD NOFA stampede.

In a tease of goodies to come, HUD just released a “Pre-NOFA” for an entirely new competitive program, Choice Neighborhoods. This is not to be confused the Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhood Program, for which the RFP process concludes next week, even though both are new programs that can be used to fund more or less the same activities. Choice Neighborhoods will have $65,000,000 up for grabs once the HUD program officers can shovel the NOFA out the door, which should be within a few weeks. I’ve never seen a “Pre-NOFA” before, but once again this is an unusual year with strange portents in the grant world. I guess a Pre-NOFA is like getting one of those annoying “Save May 12, 2018 for Hershel Himmelfarb’s Bar Mitzvah” in the mail. This is HUD’s way of saying, “Stay tuned––MONEY COMING, MONEY COMING.”

I love the Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods programs because both offer planning and implementation grants, so grantees can keep the party going for years. Not to be outdone, HRSA also just issued an announcement for the wonderfully named Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health for Communities Organized to Respond and Evaluate (REACH CORE) Program. REACH CORE grantees get two-year, $400,000 planning grants followed by multi-million dollar five-year implementation grants. Seven year grants! Now this is worth competing for.

Looks to me like it is a fine grant hunting season this summer. Get out your virtual Sharps 50 Caliber Buffalo Rifle in the form of a trusty iMac or MacBook out and start plinking. You’ll be exhausted, but you’ll have a week or two at the start of October before the FY ’11 RFPs start down the chute.

Following up on Collaboration in Proposals and How to Respond to RFPs Demanding It

Isaac’s post “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point” generated a lot of interesting comments. I responded to a couple of them, and I’d also like to offer one point of clarification to the original post: Isaac wasn’t saying collaboration is always a waste of time, bad, or whatever. If a genuine need for collaboration exists, it makes sense to collaborate.

I can’t think of an obvious, specific example of this off the top of my head, but I’m sure some exist. Still, the problem that Isaac points out remains: requiring collaboration for the sake of collaboration has a number of problems with it, which he enumerated, and often goes against the incentives that many nonprofit and public agencies have, especially regarding their own self-interest. As a result, the demand for extensive collaboration widens the gap between the real world and the proposal world.

As I said in the comments section of the post, I get the impression that some commenters are True Believers. It’s all well and good to be a True Believer, as long as being one doesn’t interfere with one’s ability to write proposals that will get an organization funded—and hence keep its doors open.

A couple specific points that I responded to:

“In this way, even if a collaboration folds, duplication of future efforts may be reduced.”

Duplication of effort isn’t a major problem with social services because there are almost always more people chasing the service than there are slots. The desire for free services will always be greater than the supply.

In addition, collaboration itself is a cost in the form of chasing letters and contacts.

Still, as @Nikki # 3 points out, not all collaboration is meaningless — when there is a genuine problem that needs multiple entities to solve it, people will tend to cooperate. Forcing that model on all problems is the problem.

Another person said:

“It is short sighted to think that any one organization can provide the complete continuum of services needed by the target population.”

In the proposal world, you’re right. In the real world, there is no continuum of services and the target population is far vaster than the organizations providing services. This probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, since if you’re offering products or services that are subsidized or free, you will almost always have more people chasing them than you can handle. Dan Ariely discusses the love of free in his book Predictably Irrational, which is very much worth reading.

If you’re offering something that’s subsidized or free, there will almost always be more demand of it than you can provide—just like there are always more nonprofits chasing donations than there are millionaires to make those donations, as we’ve pointed out before. Chances are good that providers of virtually any service are running at or over capacity; they don’t need more people to provide services too, unless there’s money attached to the provision of those services.

Tough Times for Folks Means More Grant Writing for Nonprofits

This morning’s New York Times brought a depressing tale: “Blacks in Memphis Lose Decades of Economic Gains.” No matter what macro economic metrics indicate, it is clear that the Great Recession continues to rage across America and, as Van Morrison put it, it remains Hard Nose the Highway in the hardscrabble neighborhoods where Seliger + Associates usually works.

While the situation is dire for folks who are unemployed, losing their homes and perhaps losing their hope, it is even worse for the nonprofits that provide human services, particularly United Way agencies and other organizations that depend directly or indirectly on donations. This is because service demands are up and donations are down. Although recessions always make it harder to do fund raising, the sad truth is that donations lag economic improvement.

This means that it will likely take two to three years from when the Great Recession really ends for nonprofits to get back to donation levels of 2007. The same thing happened following the last major recession in the early 1990s. It took until the late 1990s for donations to recover—just in time for the busting of the dot.com bubble, which drove donations down again, and the September 11 attacks, which diverted donations from around the country to NYC.

While you’re waiting for donations to pick up with rising economic conditions, it is always possible that some other crisis, natural or manmade, will screw up your plans. How about a huge hurricane in the Gulf this summer, slamming millions of barrels of crude oil from the seemingly never ending Deep Horizon spill into New Orleans, just as donations are beginning to rise?

What should a nonprofit do? Well, you can cut staff and services, try to squeeze more donations out of your exhausted supporters, provide third-party payer services (e.g., foster care, substance abuse treatment, etc.), try to setup a quasi-business, or re-double your grant writing efforts. That’s pretty much it.

It’s difficult to cut staff and services with double-digit unemployment and your service population hurting, so most nonprofits will eat into reserves before doing so. Many organizations lack the certifications and licenses necessary to offer third-party payer services, making this a tough path. And, while some nonprofits generate revenue through such businesses as landscaping, moving services, affordable housing rehab/resale (HUD’s 203k program, for example), and the like, these usually depend on using clients as essentially slave labor to perform the work without much compensation. Doing so impedes building client self-sufficiency and raises ethical issues; I’ve never been a fan of nonprofits running businesses.

These problems take us back to grant writing as the most plausible alternative for struggling nonprofits. You don’t want to hear it, but this is the reality of Life During Wartime. The good news, as I pointed out in Where Have All the RFPs Gone?, is that the feds are slow in releasing RFPs this year. The June to September period will be much better for seeking federal grants than usual, as lots of RFPs will have to be released before the start of the next federal fiscal year on October 1. This is not the summer to take off for that long planned trip to Kafiristan.* Instead, find a grant writer and start applying for any grant programs that are remotely appropriate for your agency. There will be plenty of competition, but some organization is going to get funded. But you are more likely to get a grant than to get results from the sixth donor letter sent this year.

* Kafiristan is the setting for one of my ten favorite movies of all time, John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King. Faithful readers will know that I have about 100 top ten movies, but this is one of the best.

A WSJ Article Illustrates the Program Officer Problem

I just posted “Where Have All the RFPs Gone?,” in which I speculated that the lateness of federal RFPs this fiscal year is probably due to the fact that overworked program officers are still chewing through last year’s proposals. Imagine my surprise when I read “Staffing Woes Hinder Job-Boosting Program” by Michael Aneiro in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. He discovered a HUD program that is way behind in reviewing applications because of a lack of staff to do the reviews.

Even better, while HUD has more money than usual for this Federal Housing Administration (FHA) program, an appropriation for additional staff was not made, so the same number of program officers, fiscal officers and lawyers have to do vastly more work. Since federal employees do not work by the piece, the same number of reviewers have to review more applications, which means they get stuck in the system. All of this will eventually be digested, even as hundreds of new FY ’10 RFPs are published in the coming months.

Where Have All the RFPs Gone?

Subscribers to our Free Grant Alerts will probably have noticed relatively few large federal RFPs so far in this fiscal year, which began October 1. To paraphrase Peter, Paul & Mary, Where Have All The RFPs Gone?. I assume this dearth is because federal program officers are still churning through the tidal wave of Stimulus Bill proposals submitted in the last fiscal year. I predicted this problem in Stimulus Bill Passes: Time for Fast and Furious Grant Writing and said . . .

Unfortunately, we don’t have a National Guard of Program Officers who train one weekend a month shuffling papers to be ready to answer the call. That means Federal agencies will find themselves up to their eyeballs in spending authority with existing staff levels pegged at much smaller budgets.

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.

For example, just about every LEA and youth services nonprofit is waiting breathlessly for the Department of Education’s enormous and well-publicized Investing in Innovations (i3) Fund to be issued. The i3 program website still says, “The Department of Education anticipates accepting applications in early 2010, with all applications due in early spring of 2010. The department will obligate all i3 funding by September 30, 2010.” Hmmmm. Early 2010 has come and gone, so there is no chance that having proposals due in “early spring” is going to happen. But the Department of Education will still try to obligate i3 funds by the end of the fiscal year. This means that when the i3 RFP is finally issued, it will be during a fantastically busy time because the Department of Education has not issued most of their other programs either.

One indicator of the likely chaos at the Department of Education: the planned competitions for the Talent Search (TS) and Education Opportunity Centers (EOC), two of the very large “TRIO Programs”, “have been delayed. At this time, the Department expects to have a closing date for TS and EOC applications in fall 2010.” No sign yet of the annual RFP process for the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) either. We’ve been hired to write several PEP proposals and have been told by clients that the RFP will be issued in early April. On the PEP website, the last “funding status” information is from 2006!

The Department of Education is not alone in being tardy this year. We have yet to see any of the 30 or so NOFAs that HUD issues every year, any SAMHSA RFAs, few Department of Labor SGAs and almost no Department of Energy FOAs. We are also waiting for the DHHS Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (OAPP) to issue the FY ’10 RFP for their new teen pregnancy program. It was funded in the DHHS departmental budget authorization last fall but has yet to emerge. This program will be sex education/family planning-based, rather than abstinence-based, which has been the federal funding focus in teen pregnancy in recent years.

We know OAPP is coming because one of our clients, for whom we have written funded abstinence-based grants was contacted by their OAPP Program Officer to encourage them to switch approaches and apply for the new program. We’ve been hired to write the proposal when OAPP awakes from its slumber. As is said in Jamaica, “Soon come.” Just for fun, follow this link to the DHHS “FY ’10 Grants Forecast Page” and see what you get. That’s right, a blank page! This is not unusual, as most federal agencies will not tell you in advance when RFPs will be issued.

While you’re waiting for FY ’10 RFPs to blossom, figure out what funds will be available for your organization in the next several months and do everything you can to get ready to write the proposals. For most federal programs, the application period this year will be short.

Acronym Confusion at the Department of Education: Does i3 Mean “Innovation through Institutional Integration” or “Investing in Innovation Fund?”

(EDIT: Note that the i3 RFP discussed below has finally been released, as discussed at the link.)

The “Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program” program solicitation says that it’s part of the “Institutional Integration (I3)” program, which immediately made me think of the i3 programs that Isaac wrote about here. I sent him an e-mail saying, “the i3 RFPs are starting to be released!”

“Not so fast, young Skywalker,” he replied (young Skywalker is how the Emperor and Darth Vader refer to Luke in Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi): the Department of Education must be running out of acronyms, because I3 is different from i3. The first stands for “Innovation through Institutional Integration,” while the second stands for “Investing in Innovation Fund.” The only difference between the two acronyms is the capitalization of the letter “i.” Maybe someone is taking lessons from Steve Jobs.

I can’t be the only person who is going to be confused, given the similarity. Since millions of potential acronyms exist out there, how does the Department of Education come up with two nearly identical acronyms for programs that already sound similar? If they must recycle an acronym, they should pick ECOMCOM (Emergency Communications Control), the central mystery in the pretty good 1964 film, Seven Days in May.

Perhaps the Department of Education is using Unix-style case-sensitive acronyms, in which you have to pay attention to whether you’re getting a capital-I cubed or a lower-case-i cubed. As the Wikipedia entry on filenames says, “In most file systems in Unix-like systems… upper-case and lower-case are considered different, so that files MyName and myname would be valid names for different files concurrently in the same directory.” When you’re thinking Department of Education, think Unix, with all the user friendliness that entails. Consider this a public service announcement that clarifies the difference.

If you want free samples, go to Costco; for proposal writing, go to a grant writer

People regularly discover Grant Writing Confidential by searching for template proposals. For example, two recent searches that turned up in our query logs include “carol m. white pep sample proposal” and “free grant writing samples.” At least the former person is more likely to find something useful than the latter, since a generic proposal is going to be about as useful as a random pair of shoes: you might be a woman and get a man’s shoes, or need sneakers and find boots. Still, in both cases, the searcher is engaging in a futile effort similar to that described in “Tilting at Windmills: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing.” Free grant writing lunches and useful free sample proposals don’t really exist.

There are two major, obvious problems in “free proposals:” they aren’t likely to be useful for the specific project and funding source you’re looking to write / apply to, and, even if they magically are, you’ll be trying to adapt a proposal that other would-be grant writers have also hunted down. The first issue is arguably more pressing: if you’ve found a “general” sample proposal, it will tell you absolutely nothing about the specific proposal you have to write. The RFP might require a radically different structure, since no two RFPs are alike and even annual federal RFPs change from year to year, as we discussed in The Danger Zone: Common RFP Traps; the information about your specific agency and area obviously won’t be in the sample proposal; the program you’re supposed to run will bear as much resemblance to the sample as a newt does to a grizzly bear; and so on. It takes an experienced grant writer to artfully adapt an existing proposal, and, if the grant writer is good enough to re-conceptualize a sample proposal, she doesn’t need the sample anyway—talk about a Catch-22.

Furthermore, proposals that are sufficiently general to make them worth copying are also probably not specific enough to be fundable. And even if they are specific enough for your program, you’re still running up against the larger problem of others using the same template. If a reviewer reads one proposal from Dubuque Family Outreach and another from Davenport Afterschool Inc. with identical or nearly identical content, there’s a decent chance the reviewer will reject both on principle. You’re going to suffer the danger plagiarists everywhere do: that someone else will stumble across the same material and submit it. If four people find the same hypothetical example of a Carol M. White proposal searched for above, the reviewers might figure out that you’ve all cribbed from the same source and reject all four proposals wholesale. If your average high school English teacher can spot plagiarism, even a Department of Education reviewer, who probably was a high school English teacher at some point, will be easily be able to do so.

Sometimes prospective clients ask for sample proposals, but we never provide them for a number of reasons. A random proposal on an unrelated subject will tell you little about how a proposal for your project and your program will turn out. We also respect our clients’ privacy and thus don’t hand out their work. Clients hire grant writers to prepare proposals for them, not for tossing into the Google ocean. If we write a proposal for you, we’re not going to share it with anyone else—and neither should any grant writer. We never take credit for proposals we’ve been hired to write. In addition, any sample that lands on the net will simply be endlessly copied by the same people who don’t know any better or suffer from the l-a-z-y disease. This isn’t merely idle paranoia: once, we had a new client, and as always we requested that they send old proposals and other background material to us. They sent a proposal that had clearly been copied from an old one of ours, much to our amusement.

Proposals won’t help you evaluate grant writers. What might help you is a) track records and b) some evidence of an ability to write in general. Not to toot our own horn, but in we’ve been in business since 1993 and have had over 500 clients in 42 states. That more than 500 clients have hired us should indicate that we’re able to produce proposals. In addition, the dozens of posts on this blog demonstrate that we can write.

If you’re reading this after searching for sample proposals, you should be convinced that you’re wasting your time. But you should also know more about how to learn to write proposals of your own. A good proposal will answer six questions. If you can’t figure out how to write simple declarative sentences that answer “Who, what, where, when, why, and how” coherently, take a journalism class at your local community college, which will teach you more about grant writing than an infinite number of sample proposals. Furthermore, you’ll start to learn what good writing is and what it sounds like, which will help you evaluate your own writing and that produced by others.

We discussed this in greater detail in Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain, and to the discussion in that post I would also recommend my favorite journalism book: Mitchell V. Charnley’s Reporting, which one of my high school teachers recommended and which I’ve been carrying around since. The book describes three important, interrelated skills for grant writers: how to tell stories, how to structure stories, and how to write clearly and concisely. The book is so old that you can imagine Mitch chewing a cigar while he reads the copy for the afternoon edition, striking a word here and there and maybe taking a second to tell you a story about that crook from the legislature who got busted thirty years ago for an unusual take on the usual vices.

My major motivations in writing this post are to a) explain how things work, b) help spread knowledge, and c) convince people to stop wasting time. I realize that “c)” is an unlikely outcome, but any improvement is welcome. For whatever reason, many people seem to think that they’ll learn something by reading sample proposals. They won’t—and neither will you.

Guest Post: Inside the Sausage Factory and how the RFP Process leads to Confused Grant Writers

Today’s guest post comes from an email sent by someone with broad experience in the grant world who prefers to remain anonymous—like many of our correspondents. In this respect we’re a bit like CIA officers running spy networks; unlike CIA agents, however, we have never been offered a “honey trap.”  Our guest writer is speculating about one RFP, which has to remain nameless, and how it demonstrates the way the drafting process used to construct RFPs can contribute to an unpalatable final product.

Grant writers, like lawyers, must be able to understand writing that simultaneously tries to eliminate ambiguity while conveying all the information necessary for an applicant to understand the program. These conflicting forces can cause the problems described here and elsewhere.

Here’s what I think about how one RFP was constructed.

I know the Director of the agency in question personally. He is knowledgeable and brilliant in many ways, but not terribly good at verbal communication. He states what he wants somewhat awkwardly, even when he’s totally right. The process starts with him. He calls in his assistant, or whoever is in charge of putting an RFP together, and tells her what he wants. She gets most of it right and converts it into RFP legal-sounding gobbledegook. He can read RFP legal sounding gobbledegook, so he passes on it, probably more quickly than he should because he has a lot on his plate.

What she writes then gets passed along to various branch administrators for their comments and suggestions. They think about legal stuff and mostly about details that have to be completed if the contractor will be acceptable. They include things that are not relevant to the actual work but which make their effort to judge the proposal easier…like being sure that the contractor puts tabs on each section (numbered 1.1.1, 1.1.2, etc.) and having the contractor sign a form indicating that his company has the proper insurance and that it lists its overhead rates. Since travel expense is involved, they have the contractor price the trips but are careful not to explain what the state’s car mileage rates are or what is allowed for hotels and meals. Let them try to guess, or plow through the state rates, if they exist, on the Internet. Throw in some language that says that each 1.1.2 section etc. is totally self contained.

That is, forbid the contractor from saying things like “see section 1.1.1 for this information.” [Jake’s note: see my advice in Further Information Regarding the Department of Redundancy Department.] And give them firm warnings or threats. Say that otherwise the proposal will be disqualified. Include expressions like “submit one original and four copies” even though all copies look (and are) original in the electronic world. For the deadline, put in that the proposal has to be “on the desk of X person by 2 p.m. May 15th” but give only a post office box as the address, making the contractor hope that the people at the PO box will be able to find X person’s desk on time.

And don’t give even a small hint about how much money is allowed for the proposal. Make them guess how much we have available. The most frustrating part is that the RFP doesn’t say how the computer generated paragraphs which are assembled into letters will get rewritten. Having already gone through this with another agency, we know what a huge task this is. We can say what’s wrong with a sample of the paragraphs and letters but our hands are tied about how they get revised and assembled.

The Director wants to have his staff be able to rewrite the computer generated letters we are to assess so he tells his assistant as much. She may not be used to this approach so she writes stuff that is rather unclear about what they want. Are we to do any teaching to accomplish this? I guess not, since we think the RFP says our work is to train the trainers how to teach the staff to write clearly, but it is not all that clear who we are to train.

Experience tells us that the folks there need more than a little information if they are to revise their current training programs. The training materials we’ve seen deal mostly with grammar and usage but we know they need much, much more. We have to hope that the examples we provide will be able to be translated into teaching materials. It would be easier to do the training ourselves but we apparently won’t be allowed to do this.

We conclude that the best we can do is to outline the kinds of problems extant paragraphs and letters contain, then construct a process for their ultimate revision by someone unknown to us, who then assembles them into actual letters. We are to help prepare such people, not knowing exactly who we’re to help. So we’ll build an outline about what the department might do, if it has staff and technical capability to do it.

There’s more, of course, but that should exemplify our frustration a bit. So we propose, duck, and hope for the best. Maybe the best would be that they reject our proposal. That would be okay with us. But we sincerely want to help the Director and help our state as well.

Isaac has experienced similar processes in working for and talking to agencies/organizations that issue RFPs. This death-by-committee effect isn’t unique to grant writing, but the combination of fear, pompousness, uncertainty, certitude and the like seems to lead to the production of especially unpalatable RFPs, and the nature of bureaucracies make potential reforms difficult to implement. In addition, RFP writers seldom have to respond to the RFPs they produce, or any other RFPs for that matter, and thus don’t understand the kinds of problems we describe. In the fifteen years Seliger + Associates has been in business, we’ve written numerous proposals across a broad array of subjects and have never been contacted by an issuing organization to ask how their RFPs might be improved. They don’t have to, of course, since as noted in “Foundations and the Future” and “Studio Executives, Starlets, and Funding,” he who has the gold makes the rules.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” as the cliché goes. Writing done by committee usually comes out about as well as mass-produced food: serviceable at best, with the character of no character, and more commonly inedible. As the grant writer, it’s your job to deal with this output as best you can, and if you understand why RFPs are so hard to read and filled with repetition and other problems, you’ll be better equipped to deal with them.