Tag Archives: Stimulus

The Stimulus Bill Meets Santa Claus Meets American Idol in Virginia

I thought that I wouldn’t have to write any more posts on the Stimulus Bill, but like Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III, “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.” The curious way the Commonwealth of Virginia has decided to solicit ideas for how to spend its piece of the Stimulus Pie drags me back in. At stimulus.virginia.gov, you will find the following statement as of March 1, 2009: “The Commonwealth has developed a website for citizens, groups, localities, and others to use to share project proposals for funding from the federal stimulus package.” If you send your email address, you will be directed to a site that allows you to pitch your own idea.

What’s fun about this is the lack of any prerequisites whatsoever—meaning one could presumably present any idea. Even better, the “application” consists of contact info and a 750 character project description. That’s right, characters, not words. Now, I’m all for brevity in grant writing, but this may be taking things a bit too far. To illustrate, I will reduce the fictitious Project Nutria described in “Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development,” which I created to show how a grant writer develops a project idea, to about 750 characters:

Citizens Against Nutria–Dillwyn Organization (CAN-DO) proposes Project NUTRIA (Nutria Utilization and Training Resources for Itinerant Americans). This innovative initiative will empower City of Dillwyn (Buckingham County) residents to fight the scourge of rampaging nutria, while also combating homelessness and stimulating the economy. This will be accomplished by training homeless persons to catch and process nutria, with the nutria meat feeding and the fur clothing the growing ranks of unemployed. An estimated 12,000 nutria will be transformed into food and clothing by 10 formerly homeless persons, providing sustenance and winter coats for 200 unemployed persons during the project year. Thus, Project NUTRIA is a win-win-win-win for Dillwyn and will aggressively utilize limited Commonwealth Stimulus dollars.

While a few legitimate project concepts might be submitted by public and nonprofit agencies that do not understand the grant making process, the vast majority are going to be from individuals. Proposed projects will likely be fairly unusual (e.g., landing strips for UFOs, expeditions to find the Lost City of Z,* etc.) or heartfelt personal testimonies (e.g., house repossessed, lost jobs, too many bills, medical problems, etc.). This “application process” is silly on its face in that no guidelines are provided, no explanation of the various pots of money that compose Virginia’s slice of the Stimulus Pie (e.g. transportation funds, Medicaid reimbursements, et) is offered, and no details about who will evaluate the proposals, how they will be evaluated or when they will be evaluated, is provided.

The impression given is that the Commonwealth has one big tub of money, and someone—presumably Governor Tim M. Kaine—will ladle it out like grant soup to lucky residents. Since this is not how grant making works, I assume this whole exercise is a PR ploy to enable state bureaucrats to say that the Commonwealth is being inclusive in gathering input into the Stimulus spending process. This is not much different from telling kids to write down their Christmas wish list and mailing the letters to Santa Claus, care of the North Pole.

Why not go all the way and turn it into American Stimulus Idol? Instead of having folks describe their idea in 750 boring characters, Governor Kaine should invite all applicants to the statehouse for judging in person by Randy, Paula and Simon. To save travel expenses in this down economy, we’ll do without the superfluous Kara and Ryan. Thousands of applicants can make signs and bring their moms. When they finally make it to the judging, their requests could be presented in songs, skits, iambic pentameter, or, to save time, haiku.** This will give Randy the opportunity to say something like, “Dogg, that plan to use high school students to deliver surplus MREs from Iraq to the homeless is OUT THE BOX,” or Simon to say, “It’s really all just karaoke, isn’t it,” and, of course, Paula will want to fund all the ideas because all the presenters just “look so sweet.” After the top 36 are picked, Virginians can call in to select their favorites, with the top vote getters receiving pillow cases stuffed with cash handed over personally by Governor Kaine. That’s what I would call real citizen participation!

Before everyone gets excited, realize that this is satire. I am trying to point out that it is a disservice to everyone to foster the myth that state or local government agencies will use the Stimulus Bill money to fund randomly proposed projects. As any experienced grant writer knows, grants are typically made to 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations and public agencies, not individuals, unincorporated associations or most businesses, and almost always in response to highly structured RFPs.

A state government perpetuating the myth that grant funds are there to be plucked from government money trees helps no one. We get several calls every day from persons who think “the government” is going to give them a grant to pay down their credit cards, help them start a nail parlor business, buy a home for their grandmother with disabilities, and the like. We have the grim duty of telling them that no such grants exist. As the economy worsens and ill-conceived attempts at promoting the wonders of the Stimulus Bill unfold, we expect to receive more pleas like this. The Commonwealth of Virginia should simply state the categories of Stimulus funding they have, eligibility requirements, real application instructions, and timelines. In other words, if money is available, shut up and issue RFPs.

Also, as much fun as it would be and as tempting as it is, I am not suggesting that joke proposals be submitted to the Commonwealth. When I was a frisky young grant writer, I must admit I actually did write and submit a bogus proposal. About 30 years ago, I was the Grants Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, CA. I wrote numerous proposals, many of which were funded because at the time Lynwood faced just about every socioeconomic problem imaginable and was a funder’s dream applicant. Along came a RFP from the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a regional planning body.*** Without going into too much boring detail, the RFP had to do with a California planning concept called positive “fair share communities,” as determined by whether the city was doing their “fair share” to provide affordable housing and make housing available to minority groups.

Since Lynwood had lots of poor folks and residents of color, I deemed it a “negative fair share” community, as it was in effect providing affordable housing for such cities as Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Laguna Beach. Because we couldn’t get grant funds for increasing the supply of affordable housing, I developed a joke project, which I called LHOOP (Lynwood Housing Opportunity Outreach Program), in which I proposed buying a fleet of vans and taking Lynwood residents on tours to see what life was like in affluent cities, including picnics at Zuma Beach in Malibu, shopping at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, and the like. I actually wrote and submitted the proposal, without telling the City Manager, just to see what happened. It was written tongue-in-cheek, more or less like Project NUTRIA, and much to my surprise, SCAG ranked it very high and wanted to fund it, so I had to pull it before I got caught. Think of this as the grant writing equivalent of the hilarious Social Text Affair. As with most of my grant writing tales, there is a follow-on story.

In 2001, HUD issued a NOFA for something called the Housing Search Assistance Program (HSAP), which was more or less my Project LHOOP idea. We were doing a lot of work for a housing authority at the time, which shall remain nameless. I told them about the NOFA and we wrote a $1,000,000 funded HSAP proposal for the housing authority and a collaborating nonprofit, based largely on the Project LHOOP concept. It shouldn’t be long before the Virginia issues an RFP to get rid of those pesky nutria and I can unleash Project NUTRIA on the real world. By the way, don’t bother looking for another HSAP NOFA, as this program was one and done effort by HUD. Expect the same to happen to Virginia’s stimulus program.

* Many want to find the Lost City of Z, which is purported to be the mythical El Dorado. We were contacted by one such fellow about 10 years ago who was on his way to find it and looking for grants. He did not have a nonprofit, so, as much as I loved the idea of working on the project, I had to tell him sadly that he was out of luck with respect to grants. David Grann just wrote a new book on the fascinating Lost City of Z which was reviewed in the March 1 issue of the New York Times Sunday Book Review: “On the Road to El Dorado.” Since grant writers are metaphorically searching for the Lost City of Gold, it should make a good read for those of us in the profession.

** Reader Challenge: Take my 750 Project Nutria example and turn it into haiku. This is your chance to get poetry published and the winner will receive an 8″ x 10″ glossy photo of Governor Kaine, which may or may not be signed, depending on the Governor’s sense of humor. You can leave example haikus in the comments section.

*** SCAG is one of a herd of so-called “Councils of Government” (COGS) that were created in the late 1960s to handle regional planning activities, a concept then quite in vogue, as well as the long-forgotten OMB A-95 process, which I might cover in a future post on grant nostalgia. COGs still grind away in anonymity throughout the US, having evolved to provide a cornucopia of unusual services and programs. If you don’t believe me, find a couple of local COGs and look at what they do. COGs are an object lesson in bureaucracies and their Darwinian evolutionary strategies, since such organizations typically find new ecological niches to occupy when their original purpose is lost in the climate change of time.

Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass

Last week, I wrote about Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed, but smart nonprofits won’t sit around whining about dwindling donations while Congress vacillates. Instead, like Jay-Z, you need to brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders.*

In that spirit, take a look at a great grant opportunity currently available that will help get your mind off your funding troubles: the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP). The RFP for this federal gem was just issued by the Department of Education and 95 grants up to $500,000 may be awarded this year to fund physical education activities for school-age children and youth during the school day and after school. Among the many aspects of the program that make it so attractive are that eligible applicants include nonprofits and school districts; in addition, the funds can be used for staff, exercise equipment, nutrition education and lots of other things that most schools and youth service providers already do. If your donations are down and you want to keep the young folk busy, consider the Carol M. White PEP.

It also dovetails with the current interest in childhood obesity. Recent trends seem to indicate that as our children’s test scores decline, their waistlines expand, creating a wonderful opportunity for program development. As Jake wrote about in Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts, program purposes change as issues rise and fall in the public conscientiousness. One can take an old program, such as the Carol M. White PEP, and spin the proposal story toward pushing back** against childhood obesity. The Carol M. White PEP’s original purpose was to provide non-traditional physical activities and replace P.E. programs cut from school district budgets. With rising childhood obesity rates and the increased media emphasis on them, adding those additional issues to a proposal will freshen the project concept while getting funds for activities your agency is probably already doing anyway.*** If your after school supervisor is about to lose their job due to funding cuts, one could give them a new title, like Physical Fitness Coordinator, for a Carol M. White program, and, voila—no layoff. We’ve written funded Carol M. White PEP proposals over the years and recently wrote a large, funded Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) proposal about childhood obesity—so we know the childhood obesity issue is rapidly growing and can easily be baked into your Carol M. White PEP proposal (puns intended).

I thought about how nonprofits can use existing grant programs like Carol M. White and others to keep the lights on after reading Bear Market for Charities by Mike Spector in the January 24, 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Spector tells the sad tale of disappearing donations to the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) because of the economic meltdown. We’ve never been hired by HCZ, so I am not directly familiar with them, but a look at their website tells me they’re likely a fairly typical multi-program youth services agency of the kind we work for all across the country. What is most interesting about the WSJ article is what it doesn’t say about HCZ’s funding. The words “grants” and “contracts” aren’t mentioned, implying that HCZ might flounder without increased donations.

HCZ, however, operates two charter schools, which means it receives “average daily attendance” fees for each enrolled student. Even if Merrill Lynch is no longer among the living and Bernie Madoff may have made off with some of HCZ’s endowment, it is still getting somewhere north of $5K/year for every student in its charter schools. The agency also provides services to foster kids, meaning that they probably have substantial contracts with the the city and state of New York, both of which have boatloads of funds for foster children and other at-risk youth services. HCZ probably also has other grants, and one could find them by requesting the agency’s federal 990 form or an audited copy of its budget. Mr. Spector’s article perpetuates the media myth that nonprofits are wholly dependent on donations. While I am sure HCZ misses the former largesse from the Wall Street crowd and their associated corporations, I assume that the CEO, Geoffrey Canada, is busy seeking grants, especially because HCZ is about as good an applicant for programs like the Carol M. White PEP and RWJF as one is likely to find.

When you can no longer pick the low hanging fruit of donations from wealthy benefactors, it is time to brush the dirt off your shoulders and start writing proposals. As the aphorism goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Otherwise, your nonprofit may just slip beneath the waves.

* According to “Obama Has Jay-Z on His IPod and The Moves To Prove It” from the Washington Post, this song is a favorite of President Obama, so it seems I share two interests with the new Pres: rap music and community organizing experience. There’s nothing like Jay-Z and Dr. Dre to put me in the mood to write about at-risk youth.

** We’ve noticed that the phrases “push back” (or “pushback”) and “pushing back” have suddenly become very common in print and broadcast reporting, so as stewards of the language, we are trying to fit them into just about every proposal we write, along with “transformative,” courtesy of the successful Obama campaign.

*** This is a big grant no-no called “supplantation.” In a future post I will explain how you can explain away supplantation in your grant writing anyway.

Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed*

One of our favorite marketing sloganspie-1over the years has been, “We help you get your piece of the grant pie.” Well, Congress is cooking up the mother of all grant pies with the “infrastructure” component of President Obama’s stimulus package. If you’re wondering how your agency can get a bite of this tasty treat, you’re not alone. Peter Sanders and Christopher Conkey of the Wall Street Journal report in Mayors Struggle to Get Piece of Stimulus that even Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been unable to figure out how to get his fork in. I think Mayor Villaraigosa actually knows perfectly well how to step up to feed at the federal trough but was just being coy for a reporter not steeped in the ways of government largesse. After all, Mayor Villaraigosa was Speaker of the California House of Representatives and knows more than most about this topic. Essentially, the Mayor is unhappy that President Obama has said to no to earmarks, so he can’t just hang his favorite projects on the bill like Christmas ornaments. Instead, he and his minions will have to work for the money—no wonder he’s unhappy. For those readers not in the know, here is how the stimulus funds are likely to find their way to you . . .

Despite all the breathless reporting on the stimulus package, no story I’ve seen explains how thunder in Washington, DC will make it rain Pennies from Heaven** in Los Angeles. The answer depends on how the feds decide to get the money on the street, which will be in the bill that eventually emerges from Congress. Here are the four basic possibilities, assuming no earmarks:

1. Congress can fund programs, new or old, to be administered at the federal level through some sort of competitive RFP processes. In this case, any eligible entity can pitch any eligible project by submitting a proposal, which is more or less the way most discretionary grant dollars are distributed.

2. Congress could use the existing Economic Development Administration (EDA) Public Works and Economic Development Program to fund infrastructure and facility projects. Unlike any other federal agency, however, EDA uses a byzantine system of regional Economic Development Representatives (EDRs), which have to agree to pass your project up the food chain by inviting a “pre-application.” To get this invitation to the big dance, the project generally has to be listed in the region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), which replaced the earlier Overall Economic Development Plan (OEDP) process. We’ve threaded our way through this particular maze many times, resulting in lots of funded EDA grants; although it’s daunting at first, it is eminently doable.

3. Congress can block grant funds to the states, who can then use existing systems to distribute the funds. For example, highway transit funds could be sent to states’ transportation departments, which could then fund projects ranked on the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) (see here for the California version of this). It’s not quite that simple because some regional TIPs feed into statewide TIPs, but the main point is that the project has to be on the relevant TIP(s) to get federal transportation dollars.

4. Congress can block grant funds to the states and/or large cities and counties, who can then run RFP processes to dole out the money, more or less in the way that Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds are distributed. For that matter, Congress could simple dump money into the CDBG pipeline, since every eligible jurisdiction already has a Consolidated Plan with dozens of prioritized projects they lack money to fund. I don’t think this will happen, because it is too simple, and where’s the fun in that?

Confused yet? Actually, all of this is fairly straight forward in the sense that the feds have to use one or more of these methods to get the money on the street. Your question involves the the best way to get in position for to catch the funds that are about to be pitched for infrastructure and facility projects. To do so, follow these easy steps:

1. Finalize the project design for any infrastructure-style project you have simmering and get as many of the permits and approvals as you can in the time you have. For example, having all environmental approvals and a building permit is ideal. Remember that federal funding typically triggers National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and, for those of you in California, California Environmental Policy Act (CEQA) requirements.

2. If you are a nonprofit, school district or college, see if you can entice the local city or county to be the applicant and fiscal agent for the project.

3. Develop submittal plans for all of the above options. The agencies that move fastest with the most “cooked” projects are likely to be funded.

After you’ve baked your project, lie down in a comfortable place with a good book*** while waiting for the legislation to emerge. Since we are not lobbyists, we never look at pending legislation early-bird-color-j-pegand instead wait for the sausage to be extruded. Until the stimulus bill is actually signed into law, no one can say exactly how an agency can apply. But it will be the Oklahoma Land Rush as soon as the ink is dry, so, “Start Your Engines!” As always, like Maimonides, Seliger + Associates is ready to offer a guiding hand to help you get your piece of the stimulus bill pie.

EDIT: See additional posts on this topic: Looking at the Stimulus Bill from a Grant Writer’s Perspective and Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass.

* My apologies to Maimonides for lifting this line.

** This is one of my favorite, if somewhat disturbing, movies from the early 1980s—another time of recession. The movie harkens back to the Depression, making it great viewing for the current economic meltdown. To paraphrase another song from the ’30s, “Brother, can you spare a trillion.”

*** I’ve been reading Love in the Time of Cholera. Nothing like Gabriel García Márquez to get me in the mood for the magical realism of the federal grant making process.