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Don’t split target areas, but some programs, like HRSA’s Rural Health Network Development (RHND) Program, encourage cherry picking

In developing a grant proposal, one of the first issues is choosing the target area (or area of focus); the needs assessment is a key component of most grant proposals—but you can’t write the needs assessment without defining the target area. Without a target area, it’s not possible to craft data into the logic argument at is at the center of all needs assessments.

To make the needs assessment as tight and compelling as possible, we recommend that the target area be contiguous, if at all possible. Still, there are times when it is a good idea to split target areas—or it’s even required by the RFP.

Some federal programs, like YouthBuild, have highly structured, specific data requirements for such items as poverty level, high school graduation rate, youth unemployment rates, etc., with minimum thresholds for getting a certain number of points. Programs like YouthBuild mean that cherry picking zip codes or Census tracts can lead to a higher threshold score.

Many federal grant programs are aimed at “rural” target areas, although different federal agencies may use different definitions of what constitutes “rural”—or they provide little guidance as to what “rural” means. For example, HRSA just issued the FY ’20 NOFOs (Notice of Funding Opportunities—HRSA-speak for RFP) for the Rural Health Network Development Planning Program and the Rural Health Network Development Program.

Applicants for RHNDP and RHND must be a “Rural Health Network Development Program.” But, “If the applicant organization’s headquarters are located in a metropolitan or urban county, that also serves or has branches in a non-metropolitan or rural county, the applicant organization is not eligible solely because of the rural areas they serve, and must meet all other eligibility requirements.” Say what? And, applicants must also use the HRSA Tool to determine rural eligibility, based on “county or street address.” This being a HRSA tool, what HRSA thinks is rural may not match what anybody living there thinks. Residents of what has historically been a farm-trade small town might be surprised to learn that HRSA thinks they’re city folks, because the county seat population is slightly above a certain threshold, or expanding ex-urban development has been close enough to skew datasets from rural to nominally suburban or even urban.

Thus, while a contiguous target area is preferred, for NHNDP and RHND, you may find yourself in the data orchard picking cherries.

In most other cases, always try to avoid describing a target composed of the Towering Oaks neighborhood on the west side of Owatonna and the Scrubby Pines neighborhood on the east side, separated by the newly gentrified downtown in between. If you have a split target area, the needs assessment is going to be unnecessarily complex and may confuse the grant reviewers. You’ll find yourself writing something like, “the 2017 flood devastated the west side, which is very low-income community of color, while the Twinkie factory has brought new jobs to the east side, which is a white, working class neighborhood.” The data tables will be hard to structure and even harder to summarize in a way that makes it seem like the end of the world (always the goal in writing needs assessments).

Try to choose target area boundaries that conform to Census designations (e.g., Census tracts, Zip Codes, cities, etc.). Avoid target area boundaries like a school district enrollment area or a health district, which generally don’t conform to Census and other common data sets.

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Vice President Biden Announces $100 Million for Mental Health Services — or Did He?

The White House just published this breathless news release announcing $100 Million for Mental Health Services. As soon as I spotted this, I tweeted it, even though I knew immediately that the announcement was not as it seems.

Unlike virtually every other press release you’ve ever seen, this one curiously lacks a contact phone number, email address or even name—apart from Vice President Biden, who probably won’t be returning your voicemails. Short of calling the White House and asking to speak to Uncle Joe, there’s no easy way to get more information about grant availability for new mental health services.

The announcement has two parts: $50 million for “mental health services at Community Health Centers” from DHHS and $50 million to “improve mental health facilities” in rural areas from the Department of Agriculture. But no information on actual RFPs or even program names are included.

What gives?

With respect to the “new” funding for Community Health Centers (CHCs), which are nonprofit providers largely funded by HRSA, the $50 million does not appear to be new at all. Rather, it was apparently authorized by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) three years ago. From time to time, HRSA issues RFPs for CHCs to expand services, including mental health services (think of the New Access Points program, which we wrote about at the link). The ACA, in addition to being a landmark piece of legislation, was also a vehicle for creating budget authority—including this $50 million. At some point in FY ’14, HRSA will probably issue an RFP for CHCs to propose new mental health services programs, but this is not new funding.

Regarding the second pot of money, it may seem odd that the Department of Agriculture has $50 million for mental health facilities—but not to me. The Department of Agriculture has had the Rural Development (RD) office for decades, which, among other things, provides grants and loans for all kinds of rural community facilities—including mental health facilities.

Although not stated in the news release, I assume this $50 million is just part of RD’s existing funding appropriation, not new funding. The challenge RD faces, however, is finding projects to fund. This is because the real problem in rural areas is not building the facility—it’s operating the facility. So Steele County in Minnesota could apply for an RD grant and/or loan (most RD projects are offered a combination of both) to build a mental health center in Owatonna, but how would they staff it over time? By definition, rural areas are sparsely populated, the tax base is thin, and most counties and cities have trouble keeping open the facilities they have.

I’m sorry to have given readers the above bad news about phantom funding. While I’m glad that Vice President Biden decided to issue a press release saying that the sun rises in the east, in the world of grant writing, what really matters are RFPs.

If there is no link to a RFP or information about when one will be released, there really is no news. In this case no news is not good news.