Tag Archives: SAMHSA

Why we like writing SAMHSA proposals: the RFP structure is clear and never changes

We wrote our first funded Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) grant about 25 years ago, and there’s something notable about SAMHSA: unlike virtually all of their federal agency sisters, SAMHSA RFPs are well structured. Even better, the RFP structure seemingly never changes—or at least not for the past quarter century. This makes drafting a SAMHSA proposal refreshingly straightforward and enables us, and other competent writers, to (relatively) easily and coherently spin our grant writing “Tales of Brave Ulysses.” The word “coherently” in the preceding sentence is important: RFPs that destroy narrative flow by asking dozens of unrelated sub-questions also destroy the coherence of the story the writer is trying to tell and the program the writer is trying to describe. SAMHSA RFPs typically allow the applicant to answer the 5Ws and H.

A SAMHSA RFP almost always uses a variation on a basic, five element structure:

  • Section A: Population of Focus and Statement of Need
  • Section B: Proposed Implementation Approach
  • Section C: Proposed Evidence-Based Service/Practice
  • Section D: Staff and Organizational Experience
  • Section E: Data Collection and Performance Measurement

While SAMHSA RFPs, of course, include many required sub-headers that demand corresponding details, this structure lends itself to the standard outline format that we prefer (e.g., I.A.1.a). We like using outlines, because it makes it easy for us to organize our presentation and for reviewers to find responses to specific items requested in the RFP—as long as the outlines make sense and, as noted above, don’t interrupt narrative flow. In this respect, SAMHSA RFPs are easy for us to work with.

In recent years, SAMSHA has also reduced the maximum proposal length (exclusive of many required attachments) from 25 single-spaced pages to, in many cases, 10 single-spaced pages. Although it’s generally harder to write about complex subjects with a severe page limit than a much longer page limit, we’re good at packing a lot into a small space.* A novice grant writer, however, is likely to be intimidated by a SAMHSA RFP, due to the forbidding nature of the typical project concept and the brief page limit. In our experience, very long proposals are rarely better and are often worse than shorter ones.

We haven’t talked in this post about what SAMHSA does, because the nature of the organization’s mission doesn’t necessarily affect the kinds of RFPs the organization produces. Still, and not surprisingly, given its name, SAMSHA is the primary direct federal funder of grants for substance abuse and persistent mental illness prevention and treatment. With the recent and continuing tsunami of the twin co-related scourges of opioid use disorder (OUD) and homelessness, Congress has appropriated greater funding for SAMHSA and the agency is going through one of its cyclical rises in prominence in the grant firmament. Until we as a society get a handle on the opioid crisis, SAMHSA is going to get a lot of funding and attention.

* When writing a short proposal in response to a complex RFP, keep Rufo’s small luggage in Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road in mind: “Rufo’s baggage turned out to be a little black box about the size and shape of a portable typewriter. He opened it. And opened it again. And kept on opening it–And kept right on unfolding its sides and letting them down until the durn thing was the size of a small moving van and even more packed.” The bag was bigger on the inside than the outside, like a well-written SAMHSA proposal.

SAMHSA’s Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBRIT) and FQHCs

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) just issued the FY ’18 Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA): it has $35 million for five-year grants up to about $1 million per year for assessment/referral to substance abuse treatment—and, most interestingly for our discussion, FQHCs are listed among the laundry list of eligible applicants.

SAMHSA is pointing the way forward for many substance abuse providers: become an FQHC. This may seem odd, because FQHCs are supposed to be primary health care providers, while substance abuse treatment is not considered primary healthcare and is usually provided by narrowly focused agencies. But the depth of the opioid epidemic, in tandem with the overall growth of healthcare funding, means that many substance abuse providers are being pushed towards becoming FQHCs—even as many FQHCs are also being encouraged to expand into substance abuse treatment. And we know that, when it comes to the Feds, “encouraged” is often a euphemism for “get ‘er done.”

Many FQHCs, of course, don’t want to be substance abuse providers—but, as programs like SBRIT show, the amount of money available may be too tempting to refuse. Right now, it’s also tough for FQHCs to stretch their Section 330 grants to provide fully integrated behavioral heath services, including substance abuse treatment. HRSA occasionally issues Notices of Funding Opportunities (NOFOs) for FQHCs to enhance behavioral health services, but the operative word is “occasionally,” and there’s not enough HRSA funding for behavioral health services.

Few, if any, of our FQHC clients, have had SAMSHA grants and most are reluctant to apply. This may be a case of grant “tunnel vision” in which FQHCs focus on HRSA in the same way that public housing authorities (PHAs) often tether themselves to HUD grants. The wider grant universe, however, provides opportunities for diversity that can help organizations weather shifts in funder priorities. And to paraphrase a salesman’s advice given to William Holden’s Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, “As long as the lady is paying for it, why not take the Vicuna?”

Links: Grant writing training, Los Angeles, hospitals, skyscrapers, land use, bikes, SAMHSA disfunction, illnesses and more!

* A new study says it doesn’t matter how much time you spend with your kids. Anxious and neurotic upper-middle-class parents, consider yourself relieved. I don’t (particularly) recall wanting to wanting extensively to interact with my parents when I was a kid, though maybe my memory is flawed. (Lancy’s The Anthropology of Childhood is also relevant here.)

* We’ve updated the Seliger.com FAQ pages. Check it out! There’s even a new question, answered. We’ve also changed our stance, but not our emphasis, on grant writing training.

* “Finding the Dense City Hidden in Los Angeles,” which surprises me too.

* “Radical Vaccine Design Effective Against Herpes Viruses,” which is hugely important in many ways, and the development of this vaccine should retard AIDS transmission.

* As demand for welders resurges community colleges offer classes. Call this a counter-cyclical story!

* “An Interview With the NYU Professor Banned From the United Arab Emirates,” which tells you a lot about NYU.

* On government, voting, and costs.

* “Hospitals Are Robbing Us Blind: Forget Obamacare. The real villains in the American health care system are greedy hospitals and the politicians who protect them.”

* “Skyscrapers are all too evidently phallic symbols, monuments to capitalism and icons of hubris. Yet Will Self can’t help but love them. He explores their significance – from JG Ballard to Mad Men, and from London to Dubai.” I love skyscrapers too.

* “Poor land use in the world’s greatest cities carries a huge cost“—in financial, equality, and other terms.

* “Slumber Party! Casper leads a new crowd of startups in the $14 billion mattress industry, trying to turn the most utilitarian of purchases into a quirky, shareable adventure. Wake up to the new world of selling the fundane.”

* “Why I keep fixing my bike,” which is shockingly beautiful and about more than just the bike.

* “Bungling the Job on Substance Abuse and Mental Health: Employees at this federal agency rank it 298th out of 315 in a list of best places to work in the government.” Based on our interactions with SAMHSA we can’t say we’re surprised. Perhaps they should have more mental health counseling and coaching for SAMHSA staff? If so, we can definitely suggest some curriculums.

* “Thinking too highly of higher ed,” by Peter Thiel, who also wrote Zero to One (which you, like everyone, should read).

The Existence of Drug Courts Implicitly Acknowledgement Failed Public Policy: An Example From the “Grants to Expand Substance Abuse Treatment Capacity” Program

Occasionally, an RFP will inadvertently show how one part of the government recognizes and tries to mitigate the unfortunate effects that come from another part of the government.

We—naturally—have an example of this principle in action: readers of last week’s e-mail grant newsletter probably saw “Grants to Expand Substance Abuse Treatment Capacity In Adult, Juvenile, and Family Drug Courts,” which offers funding “to expand and/or enhance substance abuse treatment services in existing adult, juvenile, and family “problem solving” courts which use the treatment drug court model in order to provide alcohol and drug treatment.”

Creating “‘problem solving’ courts” is another way of saying that conventional drug prohibition has failed, and conventional courts are a poor means of dealing with drugs. According to SAMHSA, they don’t solve problems; they are at best neutral, or they actually create problems. If they solved problems, we wouldn’t need new courts to solve problems.

Conventional courts, in other words, exacerbate the negative societal outcomes that drug laws impose or encourage. Right now, we’ve got a self-reinforcing legal system, because becoming involved in that system will ruin your life because the system itself will ruin your life for you.

SAMHSA realizes this to some extent. By funding “Grants to Expand Substance Abuse Treatment Capacity In Adult, Juvenile, and Family Drug Courts,” a combination of SAMHSA staffers and Congress are implicitly admitting that drug prohibition doesn’t work, and the enforcement effort behind prohibition doesn’t work. This is fairly obvious to anyone involved in the system, or anyone who has seen the movie Traffic and read Daniel Okrent’s brilliant book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Or anyone who has read articles like “The global war on drugs has cost billions and taken countless lives — but achieved little. The scant results finally have politicians and experts joining calls for legalization.”

We, as a society, had the good sense to give up on Vietnam and now Afghanistan. Vietnam is now trying to join the global economy. The crazy system built around the “War on Drugs” helps no one except people employed as prison guards* and in other enforcement capacities. The money that we currently direct to prisons and police could be directed to treatment and prevention, while the black-market transactions that currently take place on street corners could take place in Rite-Aids and be taxed.

While I wouldn’t recommend that friends starting snorting coke every weekend, there are plenty of functional alcoholics and addicts out there. Alcoholism or drug abuse aren’t attractive lifestyles to me, but some people live them, and the second- and third-order effects of trying to stop those people are worse than the problems those people might cause by indulging in drugs or booze.

(Another note: there was $2,500,000 for this program in 2010 and almost $13,000,000 available now. This could be an example of random program funding drift, or it could say something about current federal priorities.)

* California’s guards are particularly pernicious, as “Fading are the peacemakers: One of California’s most powerful political forces may have peaked” and “Big Labor’s Lock ‘Em Up Mentality: How otherwise progressive unions stand in the way of a more humane correctional system” demonstrate. These problems are well-known to California policy wonks but too little known among everyone else.

Meaning Well is Not Enough: The Role of Research in Grant Writing and Proposals

Chances are good that you, as an applicant, have really wonderful intentions in whatever you’re doing—just like everyone else. You want to help kids succeed, make the world a better place, save the endangered sparrow dragonfly,* impart job training skills, build cool stuff, etc. You know this is a excellent use of time and money. The trick is convincing others that your idea is an excellent use of their time and money.**

Usually you convince them by saying that the target area needs whatever you’re proposing and that what you’re proposing will be effective. To really convince the others with money, you can’t merely say that you know what you’re talking about and therefore they should give you the money. You need to present some kind of research that demonstrates your approach is effective. Merely asserting that your approach will be effective isn’t enough.

Lots of our clients don’t have any research to demonstrate that what they’re doing or want to do might be useful, which means we spend a lot of time conducting research. This probably brings back memories of high school term papers and the like. However tedious or difficult research might be, it’s still necessary if you’re going to have a strong application that sets you a part from others.

Here’s why: funders want to think you know what you’re doing. One way is to show that you know what’s going on in the field and that your project is likely to succeed. Some RFPs even tell you what research to cite and which protocols to use. For example, this year’s SAMHSA Offender Reentry Program (ORP) tells you to use a whole grab bag worth of acronyms (“you are encouraged, when appropriate for your setting and population to implement the Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach (A-CRA) coupled with Assertive Continuing Care (ACC) and/or Motivational Enhancement Therapy/Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-5 (MET/CBT-5) with juvenile offenders”).

Most RFPs don’t make things this easy, and you have to do your own research. Still, for most human and social service proposals, you also don’t need to write a dissertation: it’s enough to sprinkle some peer-reviewed research in like paprika over a casserole. As Homer Simpson says, “Facts are meaningless! You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!” The same applies to research. You need to have enough citations to make what you’re doing appear plausible, at least in most cases; for specific research grants or technology projects, you’ll often need someone who is really a domain expert. But for social and human service projects, you usually don’t.

That being said, people make two big mistakes in research for most kinds of grants: too much and too little. The “too much” mistake is less common, but it can happen when a RFP gets released on a short deadline and an applicant agency spends two weeks conducting research, finds a huge amount of material, and then can’t assemble it in an efficient manner to draft a concise and coherent needs assessment.

The “too little” mistake is one we see more frequently: the organization doesn’t have any research or citations whatsoever to demonstrate that their approach is likely to be valid (fortunately, this is an issue we can remedy). For RFPs that require a lot of research, this can be enough to get your proposal thrown out. Teen pregnancy prevention RFPs, for example, usually require a lot of research because of their politically charged nature. They require research even when that research indicates the approach is not likely to succeed, in which case you still need to pretend like the approach will succeed and the research is valid—in other words, you need to focus on the proposal world.

Don’t make either mistake. Use enough research to make your proposal palatable, even if “enough” varies a lot by application. Alas: there’s no real way to gauge how much is enough except through experience, which one uses to judge RFPs on a case-by-case basis. When in doubt, however, cite too much rather than too little.

* Note: this is a made up critter.

** Convincing others doesn’t just apply to funders—it can also apply to potential partners and collaborators. One problem with collaborations that we didn’t mention in our post on the subject is that collaborating agencies might not care about your problem. Sure, the local school district wants, in the abstract, for your mentoring program to succeed. But they already have lots of responsibilities, lots of administrators, and lots of problems, and they get paid average daily attendance (ADA) money whether you get the grant or not. They might care, but not as much as they care about their primary mission.

So What Are You Supposed to do to Respond to the Community Resilience and Recovery Initiative (CRRI) program RFP?

Subscribers to our email Grant Alert Newsletter will see a link to the Community Resilience and Recovery Initiative (CRRI), which is a program designed to provide “Grants to strength families, communities, and the workforce through appropriate, evidence-based interventions.” What does that mean applicants should actually propose to do?

You won’t really find out based on SAMHSA’s grant announcement, which says that you’re supposed to do things like “Reduce depression and anxiety” and “Reduce excessive drinking (and other substance use if the community chooses)” without saying how that is to be done. In other words, whoever wrote the announcement page forgot to answer the 5Ws and H.

From SAMHSA’s page you can download the application kit file, which has lots and lots of stuff about how important evidence is (“The CRRI will use a place-based strategy to implement multiple evidence-based interventions targeted to four levels in the community”), and how important strengthening communities are (“The intent of the program is to help communities mobilize to better manage behavioral health issues despite budgetary cuts in existing services and to promote a sense of renewal and resilience”), and so on, but no definitions of what it means to “promote a sense of renewal and resilience.” Grants are for $1.4 million—maybe you should use that for 20 giant potlucks.

In reading through the RFP, you’ll find several references to “Section I-2.2.” If you search for “2.2,” you’ll finally find what SAMHSA actually wants you to implement:

  • Triple P – Positive Parenting Program
  • Strengthening Families Program
  • Families and Schools Together
  • The JOBS Program
  • Coping with Work and Family Stress
  • Coping and Support Training (CAST)

In other words, it wants a mix of supportive family and jobs services. Even then, the RFP doesn’t tell you what these various programs entail—instead, it tells you go visit yet another website. If you want to figure out what SAMHSA actually wants you to do, you’ll have to drill through at least three levels of cruft: the announcement itself, the RFP, and then the highly intuitive “National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) Web site.”

Alas, the National Registry website isn’t easily reduced to a description appropriate for the newsletter. That’s why you’ll find our somewhat vague description in our newsletter, which mirrors the vagueness of the RFP itself. It seems to me that CRRI is really just Walking Around Money to do “something about substance abuse” for the big cities and counties that are eligible for this odd program.

Every Proposal Needs Six Elements: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The Rest is Mere Commentary.

In writing a grant that describes a program, you, the writer, are actually telling a story you want readers to believe. To do so, you need to make it as complete as possible. Journalists know that an effective lead paragraph in a news story tells the reader who, what, where, when, why, and how (together, the six are usually referred to as 5Ws and H) as quickly and concisely as possible. Well-written, interesting grant proposals should do the same for their readers, although not in the first paragraph. Before you start writing, you should be able to write a simple, declarative sentence answering each question.

Isaac pointed out in “Credentials for Grant Writers—If I Only Had A Brain” that “A good way to start [learning how to write grants] is to take English composition or Journalism classes at a local college to sharpen your writing skills.” Journalism has a lot of overlap with grant writing—except that good journalism strives to be factually balanced and accurate, while grant writing strives to depict absolute need through the creative, but never outright dishonest, use of selected facts. At least, that’s what grant writers should do if they want their organizations to be funded.

The next section discusses each element in more detail:

Who: Two separate aspects of the “who” need to be covered: your organization/partners and the population to be served. Most grant applications will have a section on the applicant’s background. Give a brief history of your organization, its management structure, some of the other programs it runs, and its purpose. Do a briefer history for key partners, if space permits.

The other aspect is the group to be served. What demographic, cultural, educational, and other challenges set your target population apart from society at large? Why have you selected this population? What expertise makes you likely to serve them well?

What: You should be able to describe succinctly what you are going to do. For example, if you want to run an ever-popular afterschool program, describe the components of your program; you might say, “Project LEAD will offer academic enrichment and life skills training. The academic enrichment will include three hours per week of tutoring and three hours per week of educational games. Life skills training will include…” Almost all human service delivery projects have five fundamental components: outreach, intake/assessment, services, follow-up, and evaluation. Note that Isaac represented all these steps in his theoretical Project NUTRIA.

Where: Unless you plan to serve the galaxy, define your target area. “Inner-city Baltimore” might be one designation and “Zip codes 98122 and 98112” another. This is often included in the “Who” section and almost always in the needs assessment section. You should also describe where project services will be delivered. To continue the example above, if Project LEAD activities take place in school buildings, say so, and why the building was selected, and if they take place in a community center, describe the community center, including its facilities and equipment, and why it was selected.

When: Like “who,” “when” also has two components: the project timing/length and the hours/times for service delivery/activities. Most projects proposed for grant funding will have a project period—say, three years. You should construct a timeline, whether included as an actual table or not, demonstrating when activities will start. Don’t forget the steps necessary before service delivery starts, such as hiring and assigning staff, formalizing the partnership structure, etc. The timeline should also contain significant milestones, like stabilized case load, completion of the “Action Plan,” etc.

In addition, you must describe when project services will actually be delivered; for example, Project LEAD might operate from 3 – 7 p.m. during the academic year and from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. during the summer.

Why: Your project should have some rationale behind it. The Request For Proposals (RFP) often gives a rationale that you must follow, but you should be able to explain factors like:

* Why you are targeting who you are targeting?
* Why you have decided on what you will do?
* Why you will provide services in a particular place?
* Why you have decided on particular times?

Take each “W” and then ask yourself why you described them in the way you did. The “why” should be emphasized in the needs assessment section and also threaded through other sections.

How: You should decide how your project will be implemented. This incorporates all the previous elements and explains, for example:

* How you will engage the target population.
* How will individuals be assessed and admitted?
* How you will provide services.
* How you will retain participants.
* How you will evaluate the project’s effectiveness.

It should explain all aspects of the mechanics of how a project will be carried out, and it should also demonstrate that the applicant has thoroughly considered the details of the project implementation strategy. This section will usually be called something like the “Project Description.”

For an example of an RFP that just asks for the 5Ws and H, see SAMHSA’s infrastructure grants:

Your total abstract should not be longer than 35 lines. It should include the project name, population to be served (demographics and clinical characteristics), whether the application is proposing service expansion, service enhancement, or both, strategies/interventions, project goals and measurable objectives, including the number of people to be served annually and throughout the lifetime of the project, etc. In the first five lines or less of your abstract, write a summary of your project that can be used, if your project is funded, in publications, reporting to Congress, or press releases.

The project name is part of the what. The population is the “who” with demographics as part of the “why,” and the proposal for expansion, enhancement, or both is also part of the “what,” while “strategies/interventions” is part of the “how.” Goals and measurable objectives are partially “what” (i.e. what will your outcomes be) and partially “why” (i.e. these explain why things will improve). As you might notice, SAMHSA forget “where,” although one could shoehorn that into the “population to be served” section, as well as “when.” As a grant writer, your job is to be smarter than the RFP writers** by realizing what they missed and filling the requests they tried to convey between the lines.

The deeper and more complete you can make the story you tell, the better off you’ll be. This is part of the reason internal inconsistencies can be so damning: if you say you’ll serve 20 individuals per month in one place, 20 families per month in another, and 40 individuals per quarter in another, you’re waking the reader from their fictional dream and casting doubt on whether you really understand what you’re doing. Even if an internal inconsistency is minor, finding one will make the reader doubt everything else you propose.

Keeping in mind the 5Ws and H will help you maintain consistency, because if you decide at the front end what those will be, you should find it easier to build supportive evidence around it at the back end. Even dim-witted RFP writers have figured this out, which is why many RFPs ask for a project abstract or summary: to get you to conceive of what the project will entail before you get mired in details.

In virtually any narrative section of a proposal, you should be able to say which of the 5Ws or H you’re addressing. If you keep them in mind as you write, you’ll be writing a better, more consistent proposal.

* A well-written abstract/executive summary will actually contain an abbreviated version of the 5Ws and H.

** This isn’t hard in general, particularly if the RFP writer is in the Department of Education; nonetheless, you need to manifest that intelligence by knowing when the RFP writer has screwed up, which occurs frequently.

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.

About Us

Seliger + Associates provides comprehensive grant writing, grant source research and related services for public and nonprofit agencies throughout the United States. Formed in 1993, we have had over 500 clients in 40 states and have written over $175,000,000 in funded grants.

This blog is maintained by Isaac and Jake Seliger. Isaac has been working in nonprofit and public agencies for more than 35 years, and in that time he’s written hundreds of proposals. He has probably seen every manner of proposal blunder imaginable and has seen endless grant fads come and go, and you will have a chance to read his observations, reminiscences and anecdotes, while picking up useful tips gleaned from a lifetime of staring down proposal deadlines.

His son, Jake, is fond of telling potential clients that while some people grow up with parents who own Italian restaurants and thus inherit recipes for marina sauce, and others have parents who are developers and thus know their cities’ zoning laws intimately, he was raised by a clan of grant writers who were eager for the next round of YouthBuild or SAMHSA grants to be released. As a result, his knowledge of grant writing is broader and deeper than anyone else his age. He also operates Seliger Editing & Writing and writes the literary blog The Story’s Story.