Tag Archives: RFPs

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.

Adventures in Bureaucracy and the Long Tale of Deciphering Eligibility: A Farce Featuring the Department of Education’s Erin Pfeltz

There are numerous good reasons why we often make fun of the Department of Education. One recently appeared in the Seliger Funding Report. Subscribers saw the “Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies for Planning, Program Design, and Implementation and for Dissemination” program in the June 16 newsletter. The eligibility criteria for it, however, are somewhat confusing:

Planning and Initial Implementation (CFDA No. 84.282B): Non-SEA eligible applicants in States with a State statute specifically authorizing the establishment of charter schools and in which the SEA elects not to participate in the CSP or does not have an application approved under the CSP.

So we have two criteria:

1) States that authorize charter schools and

2) That don’t participate in the CSP.

Since it is not abundantly clear which states are eligible, the RFP also lists the states participating in the CSP:

Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin.

Great! But does the Department of Education have a list of those that authorize charter schools and don’t participate? To find out, I called Erin Pfeltz, the contact person, but she didn’t answer, so I left a message and sent the following e-mail as well:

I left a voicemail for you a few minutes ago asking if you have a list of states in which organizations are eligible for the “Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies for Planning, Program Design, and Implementation and for Dissemination.”

If so, can you send it to me?

She replied a day and a half later, too late for the newsletter:

The information in the federal register notice includes a list of states which currently have an approved application with the CSP (http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/E8-13470.htm). Non-SEA applicants in those states should contact their SEA for information related to the CSP subgrant competition. More information on the Charter Schools Program can be found at http://www.ed.gov/programs/charter/index.html.

I replied with some quotes from the RFP and then said:

The RFP gives us a list of states that do participate in the CSP. My question is whether you have a list of states that a) have authorized charter schools and b) do not have an application approved under the CSP.

In other words, which states do not authorize charter schools?

Erin responded:

States without charter school legislation are: Alabama, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Maine, Montana, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia.

And then I responded:

Subtracting those states and the ones that already participate in the CSP program leaves me with NV, AZ, WY, OK, IA, MO, MS, NH, RI, HI, AND AK.

So states from these states and only these states are eligible. Is that correct?

She said:

Eligible applicants from these states would be able to apply.

Notice the weasel words: she didn’t say that the states I listed were the actual and only ones eligible. So I sent back yet another note asking her to verify that and she replied “For the current competition, only eligible applicants from these states would be able to apply.”

Beautiful! Finally! After a half dozen or so e-mails, I extracted the crucial eligibility information. Based on her tenacious and expert obfuscation, she deserves to promoted, possibly to Undersecretary for Obscure RFP Development (isn’t it obvious that I’m only talking about the current competition, not every conceivable competition?).

Wouldn’t it have been easier if the initial RFP simply stated the eligible states? The obvious answer is “yes,” but it also wouldn’t leave room for potential mistakes from the Department of Education. Instead, the RFP eligibility is convoluted and hard to understand for reasons known chiefly to bureaucrats; when I asked Erin, she wrote, “The states are listed in that way to encourage eligible applicants whose states have an approved CSP grant to contact their state departments of education.” Maybe: but that reason smacks of being imagined after the fact, and the goal could’ve been more easily accomplished by just listing the 11 eligible states and then saying, “Everyone else, contact your SEA.” But the Department of Education has no incentive to make its applications easier for everyone else to understand—and it doesn’t.

When I wrote about Deconstructing the Question: How to Parse a Confused RFP and RFP Lunacy and Answering Repetitive or Impossible Questions, I was really writing about how needlessly hard it is to understand RFPs. This is another example of it, and why it’s important for grant writers to relax, take their time, and make sure they understand every aspect of what they’re reading. If you don’t, you shouldn’t hesitate to contact the funding organization when you’re flummoxed.

The material most people read most of the time, whether in newspapers, books, or blogs, is designed to be as easily comprehended as possible. Many things produced by bureaucracies, however, have other goals in mind—like laws, for example, which are designed to stymie clever lawyers rather than be understood by laymen. Such alternate goals and the processes leading to bad writing are in part explicated by Roger Shuy in Bureaucratic Language in Government & Business, a book I’ve referenced before and will no doubt mention again because it’s so useful for understanding how the system that produces RFPs like the one for the Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants to Non-State Educational Agencies come about and why correspondence with people like Erin can be frustrating, especially for those not schooled in the art of assertiveness.* In grant writing, assertiveness is important because confused writing like the eligibility guidelines above is fairly common—like missing or broken links on state and federal websites. I recently tried finding information about grant awards made by the Administration for Children and Families, but the link was broken and the contact page has no e-mail addresses for technical problems. I sent an e-mail to their general address two weeks ago anyway and haven’t heard anything since.

Were it more important, I’d start making calls and moving up the food chain, but in this case it isn’t. Regardless, tenacity and patience are essential attributes for grant writers, who must be able to navigate the confused linguistic landscape of RFPs.

* Sorry for the long sentence, but I just dropped into a Proustian reverie brought on by RFPs instead of madeleines. Perhaps one of you readers can translate this long-winded sentence into French for me.

Deconstructing the Question: How to Parse a Confused RFP

The breathless SAMHSA RFP, “Targeted Capacity Expansion Program for Substance Abuse Treatment and HIV/AIDS Services (Short Title: TCE/HIV)” (.pdf link to the RFP) has already been mentioned and also features one of my favorite proposal verbal quirks: the automatic success assumption. The last bullet in Section C (page 26) says:

Demonstrate success in referring, and retaining clients in aftercare and recovery support services/programs following substance abuse treatment.

I read that, noted the grammar mistake (see the last paragraph of this post for more about it) and called Isaac. I initially assumed the RFP wanted to know how the applicant had helped others similar to the target population get drug treatment. In other words, it just asked the applicant to show previous experience in similar programs. This, however, would be too easy. It’s also not exactly what’s being asked: they want to know about referring, and retaining clients in other services/programs. So they don’t necessarily want information about a program that the applicant has run, but presumably such services would be as a result of some program, or an aspect of another program.

The question is hard to understand because its form and hard to answer because it doesn’t define “success,” and the only way to answer it straight would be with data that says something like, “In 2007, 120 people were referred to other substance abuse clinics, and of those, 77 went, which we think is successful because other programs/the literature/our therapist/numbers we made up indicate that normally less than half of people in the target population when referred actually made it to treatment.”

For a program dealing with substance abuse or medical care, there are further complicating factors because of third-party payer issues and whether clinics are willing to treat the uninsured or publicly insured. Many clinics aren’t willing to take such patients, which is an important treatment gap the current political debate around healthcare is ignoring: many of the uninsured are eligible for public support programs but don’t enroll or, if they do enroll, cannot find providers.

That was a long tangent, the point of which is that even if a program like the ones being created in response to TCE/HIV do refer clients, there’s no guarantee that the treatment provider on the other end will accept the client, even if the client manages to find her way to the other program for help. Furthermore, the question itself is confusing and, once you understand what it means and its implications, you realize that it’s asking for data that don’t really exist and, even if they did, probably wouldn’t be useful for the reasons I just described. Finally, the question asks about aftercare and recovery/support programs, which, for an organization providing outreach and pretreatment services, also doesn’t exist. Initial referrals have nothing to do with recovery and support. The deeper into this question one gets, the worse it appears.

Finally, note the bizarre comma inserted after the fourth word: “referring, and retaining clients…” Commas should be used between independent clauses (meaning complete sentences that could stand alone) joined by “but, nor,” or “for,” and they’re optional if the sentence is joined by “and” or “or.” You can also use them to separate things in a series, between consecutive adjectives, or to set off phrases and clauses. All of this is courtesy of Write Right!, which I mentioned previously here. Notice that none of those rules say “drop a comma randomly in a sentence that would otherwise flow smoothly, even if its content is incoherent.” The comma is symptomatic of a deeper malady: RFP writers who aren’t really thinking about what they’re doing and who, in their attempts to sound positive and upbeat, contort themselves in verbal knots that the grant writer must in turn untangle.

Further Information Regarding the Department of Redundancy Department

Last week I discussed repetitive RFP questions and where they spring from, and this week, in honor of the RFPs themselves, I’ll go over the issue from the angle of SAMHSA‘s “Targeted Capacity Expansion Program for Substance Abuse Treatment and HIV/AIDS Services (Short Title: TCE/HIV)RFP (warning: .pdf link). It’s a model of modern inanity and also rich in the oddities that can make grant writing difficult or rewarding. The narrative allows 30 single-spaced pages to answer six pages of questions, and the RFP keeps reiterating the focus on client outreach and pretreatement services. These concepts are pounded in over and over again. Nonetheless, “Section C: Proposed Implementation Approach” asks in its first bullet, on page 25:

Describe the substance abuse treatment and/or outreach/pretreatment services to be expanded or enhanced, in conjunction with HIV/AIDS services, and how they will be implemented.

I then describe how this will be accomplished in great, scrupulous detail, including the outreach to be used and why it will be effective. Nonetheless, the penultimate bullet says on page 26:

Provide a detailed description of the methods and approaches that will be used to reach the specified target population(s) of high risk substance abusers, their sex partners, and substance abusing people living with AIDS who are not currently enrolled in a formal substance abuse treatment program. Demonstrate how outreach and pretreatment projects will make successful referrals to substance abuse treatment.

This is part of the substance abuse and/or outreach/pretreatment service to be expanded, and, as such, it has already been answered. This repetition seems to be a symptom of using last year’s RFP to build this one, as the last two bullets are new, and I’m willing to bet that whoever wrote this RFP didn’t realize that the question had already been implicitly asked in the first bullet. Regardless, if they wanted to explicitly ask this question, the RFP writer should’ve incorporated it into the first bullet instead of making the applicant refer back to the first bullet while also reiterating what the first bullet said. Isaac warned you not to submit an exact copy of a proposal you submitted the year before without making sure that it conforms to this year’s guidelines. If only RFP writers would give us the same courtesy.

Nonetheless, they often don’t, which leads to repeated questions and ideas. This example isn’t as egregious as some, but it is still bad enough to merit a post—and advice on what to do.

The best way of dealing with a problem like this is to note that you’ve already answered the question, but you should be sure to name where you answered it; for example, one might say that the second question had already been answered in Section D, as part of the second bullet point. This gives specific directions to the exact place where the question has already been answered and avoids having to repeat the same thing verbatim. If the proposal had no page limits, one could write “as previously noted in Section C…” and then copy, paste, and rewrite it slightly to prevent the reader from falling into a coma. Granted, such rewrites might cause the writer to fall into a coma, but I’m not sure this would negatively affect quality.

You should be aware that this odd quality of RFPs asking repetitive questions is distressing in its ubiquity. It happened in the Service Expansion in Mental Health/Substance Services, Oral Health and Comprehensive Pharmacy Services application and in numerous other RFPs. Don’t fear those questions and try not to become overly frustrated by them. Just don’t ignore them. No matter how seemingly asinine a question in an RFP is, you must answer it anyway. In an older post I mentioned two forms of the golden rule:

The golden rule cliche says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The almost-as-old, snarky version goes, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” If you want to make the rules about who gets funded, you have to lead a federal agency or start a software company, make more money than some countries’ GDP, and endow a foundation.

You want the gold and therefore have to follow the rules of those who distribute the filthy lucre. So answer the repetitive questions, no matter how silly it is. When you’ve written enough proposals, you’ll realize that RFP writers make mistakes like the one listed all the time. Your job, as the grant writer, is to work around those mistakes, even when an RFP asks the exact same question. In one finally bout of silliness, the TCE/HIV RFP confidentiality section on page 29 asks:

Describe the target population and explain why you are including or excluding certain subgroups. Explain how and who will recruit and select participants.

Compare this to Section A, “Statement of Need,” and the first bullet point, which begins: “Describe the target population […]” Why they need to know the target population twice is a fine question. Or, I could say, explain why they need to know the target population again. There, I’ve just mirrored the problem by asking the same question twice, so I guess it’s time for me to apply for a job as a RFP writer for the Department of Education.

Yet there’s one other structural problem bothers me: page five tells the applicant the groups that must be targeted. These groups are so broad that they encompass an enormous swath of the population, which would be a fine subject for another post, but the question in the confidentiality section comes after SAMHSA tells us who we must serve, then asks us who will be served and why, even though the RFP has already asked and SAMHSA has already dictated who will be served. I’m guessing applicants are likely to swear they’ll only serve eligible populations because they want the money, even though they can’t say that. Applicants who want the money answer earnestly. Too bad RFP writers don’t have to respond to the drivel they all too often emit, as there might be fewer outright bad RFPs issued.