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FY ’15 YouthBuild SGA Issued by the DOL As Predicted—But With A Twist

Faithful readers will know that we recently predicted that the Department of Labor (DOL) would soon issue the FY ’15 YouthBuild SGA. The SGA was in fact published February 18. I still don’t know why DOL feels like it has to keep upcoming SGAs secret, unless it’s to make sure that their own staffers don’t have to meet deadlines, but at least they provided about 60 days to respond: the deadline is April 22. $73 million is up for grabs.

While the SGA publication was not much of a surprise, there is an interesting nugget (or “nougat,” as we like to call unusual aspects of RFPs*) in this one with respect to the slice and dice of available funds:

The Department intends to use up to 30 percent of the total available funding for this competition for the award of grants to eligible applicants that have not previously received a DOL YouthBuild grant or have not substantially completed performance on their initial DOL-funded grant award. [. . .] The remainder of [the] funds will be used to award grants to eligible applicants that have been previously funded by the DOL YouthBuild program and have demonstrated success in the program.

There are actually two pots of YouthBuild funds: $51,100,00 or $21,900,000, depending on the type of applicant. This is either good or bad news, based on how you like to handicap your agency’s likelihood of being funded.

Since we’re grant writers, not fortune tellers or racetrack touts, Seliger + Associates does not think much of this sort of handicapping. Our advice when asked this question—which generally happens several times a week—is simple: “If your agency is eligible and you want to run the grant program, apply. You can’t win the Lotto without buying it ticket.”

The above funding split mean that pretty much any otherwise eligible nonprofit or public agency can apply this year,** which is great.

* One other oddity: the SGA says nothing about green jobs, which the DOL has been hammering into applicants’s heads for the last half decade.

** If you read the above SGA quote carefully, you’ll note that the ineligible agencies are the previous YouthBuild grantees that screwed up their grants, somehow, at least in the eyes of the DOL.

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The unsolvable standardized data problem and the needs assessment monster

Needs assessments tend to come in two flavors: one basically instructs the applicant to “Describe the target area and its needs,” and the applicant chooses whatever data it can come up with. For most applicants that’ll be some combination of Census data, local Consolidated Plan, data gathered by the applicant in the course of providing services, news stories and articles, and whatever else they can scavenge. Some areas have well-known local data sources; Los Angles County, for example, is divided into eight Service Planning Areas (SPAs), and the County and United Way provide most data relevant to grant writers by SPA.

The upside to this system is that applicants can use whatever data makes the service area look worse (looking worse is better because it indicates greater need). The downside is that funders will get a heterogeneous mix of data that frequently can’t be compared from proposal to proposal. And since no one has the time or energy to audit or check the data, applicants can easily fudge the numbers.

High school dropout rates are a great example of the vagaries in data work: definitions of what constitutes a high school dropout vary from district to district, and many districts have strong financial incentives to avoid calling any particular student a “dropout.” The GED situation in the U.S. makes dropout statistics even harder to understand and compare; if a student drops out at age 16 and gets a GED at 18 is he a dropout or a high school graduate? The mobility of many high-school age students makes it harder still, as does the advent of charter schools, on-line instruction and the decline of the neighborhood school in favor of open enrollment policies. There is no universal way to measure this seemingly simple number.*

The alternative to the “do whatever” system is for the funder to say: You must use System X in manner Y. The funder gives the applicant a specific source and says, “Use this source to calculate the relevant information.” For example, the last round of YouthBuild funding required the precise Census topic and table name for employment statistics. Every applicant had to use “S2301 EMPLOYMENT STATUS” and “S1701 POVERTY STATUS IN THE PAST 12 MONTHS,” per page 38 of the SGA.

The SGA writers forgot, however, that not every piece of Census data is available (or accurate) for every jurisdiction. Since I’ve done too much data work for too many places, I’ve become very familiar with the “(X)” in American Factfinder2 tables—which indicates that the requested data is not available.

In the case of YouthBuild, the SGA also specifies that dropout data must be gathered using a site called Edweek. But dropout data can’t really be standardized for the reasons that I only began to describe in the third paragraph of this post (I stopped to make sure that you don’t kill yourself from boredom, which would leave a gory mess for someone else to clean up). As local jurisdictions experiment with charter schools and online education, the data in sources like Edweek is only going to become more confusing—and less accurate.

If a YouthBuild proposal loses a few need points because of unavailable or unreliable data sources, or data sources that miss particular jurisdictions (as Edweek does) it probably won’t be funded, since an applicant needs almost a perfect score to get a YouthBuild grant. We should know, as we’ve written at least two dozen funded YouthBuild proposals over the years.

Standardized metrics from funders aren’t always good, and some people will get screwed if their projects don’t fit into a simple jurisdiction or if their jurisdiction doesn’t collect data in the same way as another jurisdiction.

As often happens at the juncture between the grant world and the real world, there isn’t an ideal way around this problem. From the perspective of funders, uniform data requirements give an illusion of fairness and equality. From the perspective of applicants trapped by particular reporting requirements, there may not be a good way to resolve the problem.

Applicants can try contacting the program officer, but that’s usually a waste of time: the program officer will just repeat the language of the RFP back to the applicant and tell the applicant to use its best judgment.

The optimal way to deal with the problem is probably to explain the situation in the proposal and offer alternative data. That might not work. Sometimes applicants just get screwed, and not in the way most people like to get screwed, and there’s little to be done about it.

* About 15 years ago, Isaac actually talked to the demographer who worked at the Department of Education on dropout data. This was in the pre-Internet days, and he just happened to get the guy who works on this stuff after multiple phone transfers. He explained why true, comprehensive dropout data is impossible to gather nationally, and some of his explanations have made it to this blog post.

No one ever talks to people who do stuff like this, and when they find an interested party they’re often eager to chat about the details of their work.

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Are You Experienced? Face Forward—Serving Juvenile Offenders SGA: A New Department of Labor Program That Mirrors YouthBuild

Despite all the teeth gnashing and flailing of arms over the recent sequestration non-calamity, the Department of Labor has found $26,000,000 to issue an SGA (DOL-speak for “RFP”) announicng an entirely new program: Face Forward-Serving Juvenile Offenders, with grants up to a million dollars. In the face of all this squawking, honking and flapping of wings over the budget, DOL has birthed an entirely new grant program. As a grant writer, I’m kvelling like I would be from seeing a grandchild from one of my kids. Even better, this bouncing baby grant program is almost a dead ringer for its teen sibling and our favorite DOL program, YouthBuild. Why? Because:

  • The target population is at-risk youth ages 16 – 24.
  • It mandates basic skills instruction leading to a GED.
  • It mandates job training services, leading to an “industry-recognized” credential, whatever that is. But—and this is a big butt—you don’t have to focus on construction training, which makes the job training piece much easier to conceptualize and implement.
  • It mandates case-managed wraparound supportive services—including mentoring, “Individual Career Plans” (ICPs), leadership development activities, and so on.

As Jimi Hendrix sang, “Are You Experienced?” If the above sounds familiar, you are experienced with YouthBuild and a myriad of other job training programs for at-risk youth and young adults. While Face Forward applicants have to propose serving at-risk youth and young adults that have been or are being adjudicated in the juvenile justice system, many prospective YouthBuild clients meet the Face Forward eligibility criteria.

If your agency is a current or former YouthBuild grantee, you’re probably a great applicant for Face Forward—you already have the organizational outreach, partnership and case management infrastructure in place, as well as a documented record of success at engaging and training at-risk youth and young adults.

Even better is the fact that Face Forward is a new program. It’s always a good idea to apply for a grant program in its first first funding round if you’re even vaguely eligible. The opportunity simply doesn’t come along very often, and when it does, you should go for it. You shouldn’t wait around for new grant programs—as we said, there aren’t that many. We wrote a funded YouthBuild proposal for an LA area client almost 20 years ago, during the very first YouthBuild funding round, and the agency continues to be a strong YouthBuild provider to this day. Essentially, YouthBuild has become a grant annuity for this nonprofit.

During the first funding cycle, there are no former or grantees to compete against, and the funding source has no idea what a good proposal is supposed to look like. In this case, DOL seems to be clueless that they’ve accidentally cloned YouthBuild, so it should be possible to throw your old YouthBuild proposal into the proposal blender and pour out a more or less compelling Face Forward proposal.

If you don’t know how to do this without letting DOL know what you’re up to, call us and we’ll do the mixing and baking. Here is an important caveat, however: do not say that your Face Forward proposal copies the methodology in your YouthBuild program. This will make DOL feel sad and ordinary. Instead, tout how innovative and unique your approach is, even if it’s the same old same old. The DOL Face Forward staffers want to think they’re your only girlfriend. Don’t disabuse them of this quaint notion. You want them batting their eyes and fanning themselves furiously as they read your proposal. Think of this as grant writing foreplay.

Now, back around to the SGA,which contains this wonderful nugget: applicants have to partner with “American Job Centers (AJC), formerly One-Stop Career Centers or Local Workforce Investment Boards.” As an American, I feel better that we’ve tossed out the obnoxious One-Stop Career Center name and replaced it with the much more sonorous name: AJC (I can already imagine an aria about it).

This raises the question as to whether there is a federal office somewhere that specializes in changing program names for no apparent reason. Since I’m old as mud, I’ve seen federal job training programs morph from Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) in 1973 to Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) in 1982 to the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998. To paraphrase The Who, in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” There is nothing new in Face Forward. But you’re not going to say that in your proposal.

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A Secret YouthBuild SMART RFP Found and a Not-So-Secret YouthBuild SGA to be Issued

We’ve uncovered a “secret” YouthBuild RFP. Well, it is not exactly secret, but not exactly well publicized either. The FY ’10 Department of Labor Appropriates Bill gave YouthBuild USA, a national nonprofit, a $10,000,000 non-competitive grant. It helps to have pals in Congress. The Department of Labor press release sounds as if YouthBuild USA will use the money itself. The YouthBuild USA site has a cryptic description of the YouthBuild SMART (“Start Making a Real Transformation”) Program.

Rather than use all of Department of Labor lucre itself, YouthBuild USA is making eight sub-grants. What you won’t find on the YouthBuild USA site, however, is the RFP or any explanation of how to apply. That’s because YouthBuild USA apparently only announced the competition in an email to its “affiliates.” Unless a nonprofit is in the know by being an affiliate, it won’t know about this competition. Like all good journalists (I know I ‘m a blogger, not a journalist, but a fella can pretend, can’t he?), we have unnamed sources and decided to put this “secret” RFP in our Free Grant Alert system. I trust YouthBuild USA appreciates our help in getting the word out. It’s interesting that YouthBuild USA will make eight sub-grants totaling about $8,000,000, making their administrative rake about $2,000,000. Nice work if you can get it. By the way, the deadline is September 20.

Speaking of YouthBuild, the Department of Labor will soon issue another YouthBuild SGA (Solicitation for Grant Applications, which is Department of Labor-speak for RFP). There will be at least 28 grants available, using what is left of the FY ’10 YouthBuild appropriation after second year funding for existing grantees, walking around money for YouthBuild USA and what have you. The SGA could be issued any day and there will probably be around $20 million available. This SGA will not be a secret. As Scotty the newsman in “The Thing from Another World” says, “Watch the skies”, or, just read our Free Grant Alerts.

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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

Among the many oddities of writing proposals is that most RFPs require that the applicant demonstrate extensive collaborations or form partnerships. I don’t know why RFPs demand this, because it is unlikely that a collaboration between McDonald’s and Burger King would result in a better burger (McWhopper?). The feds specifically preclude businesses from “collaborating” through a host of laws designed to protect competition. But in the world of nonprofits and public agencies, alleged collaborations and partnerships are demanded.

A case in point is the Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training Program, for which we are writing a proposal on behalf of a very large community college district. This SGA (“Solicitation of Grant Availability,” since DOL disdains the pedestrian term, “RFP”) has a long-winded section on required “partnerships and strategic planning” for a competitive proposal. What makes this funny is that the primary applicants for this program are community colleges, which are key local training providers and presumably have the capacity to simply operate yet another training effort all by themselves.

Our client, for example, has over 100,000 students in dozens of certificate and degree programs. Why would a community college district like this need to collaborate with any other entity, especially considered the administrative overhead necessary, unless it was in a mood to do so? All colleges and universities compete constantly with one another for students, endowments, star faculty, state and private operating funds, grants and, for that matter, high quality basketball players. In preparation for tonight’s NCAA Championship Game, I don’t think Duke’s crusty and cagey Coach K will have met with Butler’s young phenom coach Brad Stevens to discuss a collaborative game plan or share recruiting ideas for the incoming class.

In the proposal world where Seliger + Associates lives, collaborations are omnipresent in our drafts, and we spin elaborate tales of strategic planning and intensive involvement in development of project concepts, most of which are woven out of whole cloth to match the collaborative mythology that funders expect (remember: your grant story needs to get the money). In many ways, grant writers are myth makers, or maybe more appropriately myth tellers, sort of like West African “griot” who pass on ancestral knowledge, albeit in written rather than verbal form. At some point, I’ll write a long post on grant writer as myth teller, but in the context of collaboration, this particular myth only goes back about 20 years or so.

I don’t recall any interest among funders in having nonprofits collaborate with each other when I first started writing human services proposals in the early 1970s. The first whiff of collaboration I encountered was something called the “A-95 Review Process” when I was the Grants Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, CA in the late 70’s. This Carter-era gem required local governments to circulate their draft grant proposals to other government agencies for review and comment before submission, which made pre-computer grant writing deadlines really hard to meet. In LA, this function was handled by the wonderfully named SCAG (Southern California Association of Governments), which published a weekly compendium of proposed grant applications. A-95 was supposed to encourage cities to collaborate with each other. At Lynnwood, we reviewed the SCAG A-95 bulletin closely to see if we could screw up a competing city’s proposal by commenting and forcing them to respond in hopes of getting them to blow the deadline, while we got ours in on time. Competing cities responded in kind, so this attempt at intergovernmental cooperation quickly devolved into a farce.

In 1982, the profoundly dumb A-95 process was junked by the Reagan Administration in favor of Executive Order 12372, which let the states decide which proposals to review and how to do the review, while making both public agencies and nonprofits participate. I’m fairly confident that virtually all of the thousands of EO 12372 notifications we sent to states on behalf of clients since 1993 were simply thrown out. I can only recall one incident, about 12 years ago, in which our client actually received an inquiry from the EO 12372 notice we sent in. Over the years, all but 10 states have abandoned EO 12372, though you’ll still see it immortalized on every SF-424, which is the cover sheet for most federal proposals. So much for forced planning and collaboration at the federal and state level.

From 1978 to 1993, I worked for cities and, to the extent I wrote proposals, I wrote them mostly for economic development and affordable housing programs. When I started Seliger + Associates in 1993 and returned to writing human services proposals, about the only thing that surprised me was that government and foundation funders had discovered the wonders of collaboration during my 15-year hiatus. We’ve developed lots of ways of conforming to the mythology of collaboration through clever and obfuscating proposalese, because our clients typically compete tooth and nail with other providers for grants, donations, volunteers, and, in some cases, clients, particularly those with third-party payers (think substance abuse treatment and primary health care). The alleged “collaborations” we conjure up last just long enough to get the grant and are usually confirmed by “letters of commitment” attached to the proposal. I hate to break it to the funders, but agencies trade these letters with one another like the Magic: The Gathering cards that Jake collected when he was about 10.

The only folks who do not seem to be in on the collaboration joke are funders, who earnestly believe in the myth that nonprofits should collaborate, like kindergartners told to share. I even recently spotted a reference about “administrative collaboration” in The Grantsmanship Center’s “Centered” newsletter, quoting The Nonprofit Times as follows: “As the recession saps their grantmaking capacity, many funders are directly or indirectly urging their grantees to cooperate or collaborate more.” I have news for The Grantsmanship Center and The Nonprofit Times: funders were just as in love with collaboration before the Great Recession and will likely remain so when good times return. Keep in mind that it is vastly easier to form new nonprofits than it is to find millionaires and corporations to set up foundations to fund the avalanche of new nonprofits. So why would an average nonprofit want to help the agency down the street?

Adding to the humorous aspect of the faux foundation concern for collaboration is that foundations actually compete one another for prestige, telegenic grantees and the like. Or have you ever wondered why it is necessary for a foundation like the MacArthur Foundation to “advertise” their support for PBS programming at the start and the end of the program?

Funders are just as interested in playing the status and competition game as any other kind of organization. But if they want to pretend that nonprofit and public agencies collaborate, then nonprofit and public agencies will happily maintain the facade to get funded.

EDIT: You can read more about these problems in “Following up on Collaboration in Proposals and How to Respond to RFPs Demanding It” and “There Will Be No Fighting in the War Room: An Example of Nonprofit Non-Collaboration in Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” both of which offer further examples of dubious collaboration run amok.