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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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“Estimate” Means “Make It Up” In the Proposal and Grant Writing Worlds

Many RFPs ask for data that simply doesn’t exist—presumably because the people writing the RFPs don’t realize how hard it is to find phantom data. But other RFP writers realize that data can be hard to find and thus offer a way out through a magic word: “estimate.”

If you see the word “estimate” in an RFP, you can mentally substitute the term “make it up.” Chances are good that no one has the numbers being sought, and, consequently, you can shoot for a reasonable guess.

Instead of the word “estimate,” you’ll sometimes find RPPs that request very specific data and particular data sources. In the most recent YouthBuild funding round, for example, the RFP says:

Using data found at http://www.edweek.org/apps/gmap/, the applicant must compare the average graduation rate across all of the cities or towns to be served with the national graduation rate of 73.4% (based on Ed Week’s latest data from the class of 2009).

Unfortunately, that mapper, while suitably wizz-bang and high-tech appearing, didn’t work for some of the jurisdictions we tried to use it on, and, as if that weren’t enough, it doesn’t drill down to the high school level. It’s quite possible and often likely that a given high school is in a severely economically distressed area embedded in a larger, more prosperous community is going to have a substantially lower graduation rate than the community at large. This problem left us with a conundrum: we could report the data as best we could and lose a lot of points, or we could report the mapper’s data and then say, “By the way, it’s not accurate, and here’s an alternative estimate based on the following data.” That at least has the potential to get some points.

We’ve found this general problem in RFPs other than YouthBuild, but I can’t find another good example off the top of my head, although HRSA New Access Point (NAP) FOAs and Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) RFPs are also notorious for requesting difficult or impossible to find data.

If you don’t have raw numbers but you need to turn a proposal in, then you should estimate as best you can. This isn’t optimal, and we don’t condone making stuff up. But realize that if other people are making stuff up and you’re not, they’re going to get the grant and you’re not. Plus, if you’re having the problem finding data, there’s a decent chance everyone else is too.

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DOL Issues FY ’13 YouthBuild SGA—If You’re A Current Grantee, Here’s How to Beat the Eligibility Restriction

The Department of Labor just issued the FY ’13 YouthBuild SGA (“Solicitation for Grant Applications,” which is DOL-speak for RFP), and $75,000,000 is available with 75 grants! We’ve written at least 20 funded YouthBuild proposals over the years, including two in the last funding round, so we’re more than a little familiar with this program, which is one of the best ways of funding job training for youth and young adults. DOL, however, has the following wrinkle stashed in the SGA, which is designed to prevent an agency that received a FY ’12 YouthBuild from applying this year:

An organization (based on its Employer Identification Number), may only be awarded one grant as a result of this competition. This requirement applies to both new applicants and previously funded applicants that have received a DOL YouthBuild grant in a previous competition. In addition, grantees who received funding from the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 YouthBuild competition [SGA/DFA PY 11-06] are funded through December 2015 and these grantees (based on its Employer Identification Number) are not eligible to participate in this competition.

You’re a hungry grant-seeking puppy and there’s all this YouthBuild baloney in the refrigerator. Here’s how to pry the door open and get your snout in the YouthBuild trough.

Note that the restriction applies to a grantee’s Employer Identification Number (EIN). Many nonprofits have an affiliated nonprofit with a separate EIN. For example, lots of churches are 501(c)(3) organizations that have separate 501(c)(3) organizations to operate human services programs or outreach ministries. In a case like this, you can have the non-YouthBuild grantee entity become the applicant and the grantee become the partner.

Similarly, if your organization received a FY ’12 YouthBuild and wants in on this year’s action—and who wouldn’t—you can find a local nonprofit or public agency you know and love to serve as the applicant, while once again your organization slips in the partner role.

As a partner, you can still receive a large subcontract to provide such services as outreach, participant selection, training and/or case management, or smaller role by providing technical assistance to the applicant for a fee. At a minimum, the applicant collects a tidy administrative rake and the stature of being a federal grantee, while the partnering entity keeps churning the YouthBuild dollars. In some ways, this is similar to the fiscal agent relationship used by nonprofits in formation that we’ve written about before.

One one way to sell DOL on the partnership concept in through a deft targeting maneuver. Say your organization, which is an FY ’12 grantee, primarily serves African American participants. Find an organization in your community that works mostly with Hispanics or Pacific Islanders to serve as the applicant. Voila, the funding argument becomes: Let’s bring the expertise gained in providing YouthBuild services to one vulnerable community to bear on another. Suddenly, you’re not a greedy agency, you’re a hero! Such is the magic of grant writing and the knowledge gained from writing proposals since dinosaurs walked the Earth.

I know the above works, because we’ve done it a few times. For example, about eight years ago we had a large nonprofit substance abuse treatment client in a Northeast state for which we had written several funded SAMHSA substance-abuse treatment proposals. Along came an unusual SAMHSA RFP to provide treatment services to college students—but only Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) were eligible applicants.

Based on our advice, our client formed a partnership with a local IHE that agreed to serve as the applicant and fiscal agent, while providing access to students who would be the target participants. In return, the proposal included a huge subcontract under which our client provided essentially all project services, while the IHE administered the grant.

SAHMSA bought the concept and the grant was funded for over a million dollars, and it was one of only 12 or so awards made. Our client received solid funding for five years and applicant received free outpatient substance abuse treatment services for its students. If this can work with SAMHSA, which is a reasonably sophisticated federal agency, it should be possible to slip-slide around the YouthBuild applicant eligibility issue.

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Turhan Bey Passes, Presidential Debates, Honey Boo Boo, Truffle Pigs, and FY ’13 RFPs (Including YouthBuild, Serving Adult and Youth Offenders, and More)

Almost five years ago, I wrote about the strange phenomenon of grant programs rising from the dead like The Mummy in “Zombie Funding – Six Tana Leaves for Life, Nine for Motion.” Two events reminded of this post.

First, the Huffington Post reported that Turhan Bey has passed to the great beyond. As those of you of a certain age will remember from late night TV, Turhan Bey played the sinister Mehemet Bey in the seminal Universal Pictures monster movie, The Mummy’s Tomb. Like federal Program Officers for programs facing cutbacks, Turhan Bey was responsible for keeping Kharis alive with the mysterious tana leaves.

Second, politics and grants are intersecting—you can see one example in the way President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney got into a fight over Big Bird in their debate, which was really over funding for public broadcasting. Then, Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan got into a spirited tiff about Ryan writing support letters for Stimulus Bill grant proposals from his District, even though he vocally opposed the Stimulus Bill.* Leaving aside the politics of these exchanges and regardless of who wins the election, it’s clear that grants are going to be a big part of the national discussion as the feds approach the fiscal cliff.

There will be much hand wringing and gnashing of teeth over possible cuts to domestic competitive grant programs, as interest groups flood Washington to save their particular bacon. As Honey Boo Boo puts it, “A dolla makes me holla.”** I’m not a betting man, but I will venture a dollar that funding for Big Bird survives the fiscal cliff, as will funding for most other grant programs. Some may get a severe haircut and others may be living underground on six tana leaves, but almost all will eventually get nine tanna leaves and walk among us again.

For nonprofits, all the hubbub means that it is critical to stay on top of the federal RFP process. Toward this end (this is free proposal transition phrase), it pays to root around like a truffle pig looking for tasty grant morsels on the federal forest floor. It turns out, for example, that our pals at the Department of Labor (DOL) Employment and Training Administration (ETA) just posted a forecast of FY ’13 Upcoming Funding Announcement. Early 2013 will bring a temping $40,000,000 for “The Make It In America Challenge,” followed closely by our old friend YouthBuild, Serving Adult and Youth Ex-Offenders through Strategies Targeted to Characteristics Common to Female Ex-Offenders Generation II and Serving Juvenile Ex-Offenders in High –Poverty, High-Crime Areas Generation III.

It clear that the ETA plans to keep shoving RFPs out of the door, and it behooves nonprofit to position themselves in advance of RFP issuance so they can prepare compelling proposals. Or you can just hire Seliger + Associates to be your personal Grant Truffle Pig.


* We have several clients in Racine, which is in Congressman Ryan’s district, and it is entirely possible that we drafted the support letter for a Stimulus Bill proposal that riled Uncle Joe.

** Jake was sent this Onion article and did not realize that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is an actual show.

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Job Training Grant Programs: An Enigma Wrapped in a Riddle

Two Wall Street Journal articles on job training grant programs caught my eye.

The first, “U.S. Faces Uphill Battle in Retraining the Jobless,” recounts that sad tale of a hapless unemployed worker who got caught up in a job training program only to end up pushing a broom in a supermarket. The authors, Ianthe Dugan and Justin Scheck, seem incredulous that there are at least 47 separate federal job training programs, along with presumably hundreds of state and local job training programs.

As a grant writer, I say, “What’s the problem?” The more programs, the more opportunities for grant applications and the less likelihood that the Program Officer for any given job training program will realize that your agency has been gotten funding for the same concept from other job training pots of money. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko in Wall Street in grant writing, “confusion, for lack of a better word, is good.”

The deeper question arises: Why stop with 47 federal job training programs, when 57 would even be better? I’m not sure where the intrepid reporters got the 47 number, but I have a feeling they missed a few. For example, the article fails to mention one of our favorite job training programs, YouthBuild, about which we’ve written many times. While the article describes some of the foibles of trying to train people for jobs that probably don’t exist, YouthBuild is the champ of persevering in the face of futility. This is because the primary goal of YouthBuild, as mandated by Congress, is to train at-risk youth and young adults for construction industries careers—an outcome that has been extremely unlikely for the last four years because of the Great Recession. In other words, why are the feds training more carpenters when the country is awash in unemployed carpenters? The answers lead us towards politics, but those of us who write grants keep churning out YouthBuild proposals that find a way to explain away the dismal metrics of our clients at placing trainees in jobs, which we do through the magic of specious grant writing.

Speaking of metrics, the article also bemoans the lack of metrics in federal job training programs:

But government efforts to determine the effectiveness of the programs have been spotty, at best. It doesn’t keep track of how many people receive federally funded training. Some training programs don’t bother to monitor whether the unemployed workers who complete them succeed in landing jobs related to their training. For programs that do track job placement, the data are far from conclusive.

The above may be depressing to taxpayers, but it makes a grizzled grant writer want to dance a jig. Having written an untold number of job training programs since the hoary days of the late, lamented Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program of the mid-1970s, I know that outcomes for job training programs are wonderfully impossible to measure. Any effective measurement strategy would be fantastically complicated and expensive, since the trainees would have to be followed for years (Katherine Newman does something like this in many of her books, like Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Labor Market and No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City, but she’s anomalous and an uncommonly thorough academic, rather than a commonly un-thorough bureaucrat). So, as grant writers, we just imagine the outcomes when developing the project objectives, knowing the funders will have no means to verify these and little interest in trying.

The second WSJ article on job training, “From Prison to Paycheck,” describes a very different approach to job training. In this piece, Howard Husock discusses programs for re-entering prisoners in which job training is tossed out the window entirely and replaced with immediate job placement. This assumes that whatever minimal training is needed for entry-level jobs will be learned on-the-job. Duh.

When I was a young man, I had jobs varying from drug store clerk to hospital stock boy to truck driver, all of which I learned to do in about two hours. Most federal job training programs presuppose that clients need extensive training and the ever-popular “wraparound supportive services” before entering the vaunted “world of work.”* We’ve written lots of prisoner re-entry proposals, which are larded with supportive services and training, but Mr. Husock has found several programs that seem to work by skipping the appetizers and getting right to the entree of a job. Refreshing, but I know enough not to propose project concepts like this, because it flies in the face of conventional wisdom and grant writing is largely about telling readers what they want to read.


* There are two free grant writing phrases in this sentence.

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Perfect Proposal Production In an Imperfect World

As a companion piece to Jake’s post on YouthBuild and Isaac’s on formatting, I want to explain the science of proposal production.

1. It starts, like all aspects of grant writing and preparation, with a thorough reading of the RFP. Failing to read the RFP is the equivalent of failing to check your boat for holes before you push out to sea. You can’t discuss the finer arts of sailing if your vessel sinks.

2. Make a master checklist of every item needed for submission, even if the funding source provides a checklist. Sometimes the funding source’s list doesn’t match the funding source’s RFP. Sometimes the funder won’t remember to list optional items on their checklist. RFPs can sometimes be as hard for funders to understand as they are for you, the applicant.

Get someone to double-check the list you make. A lot of grant writing, like legal work, simply consists of making sure that you don’t miss anything. Like, say, a required document.

3. Begin to gather the requested items. Some will be very common, like a 501(c)3 letter or a list of the board of directors. Some will be esoteric. Some will have to come from others: as soon as you make the critical decision to apply, you want to be sure to write memos to stakeholders with a list of items needed, including absolute deadlines for the items you need. You should decide on those deadlines based on how much time you need to prepare the proposal. Then back those deadlines up by a couple of days, to allow for late items. So if your proposal is due on, say, May 30, and you need to assemble it on May 26, then you should give an “absolute” deadline of May 20 to your collaborators.

Managing stakeholders could be the subject of an entire blog post in itself. If managing people were easy, and if people routinely do what they say they will, we wouldn’t have an entire discipline called “management.”

4. Arrange each item in the order required by the funding source. If you have missing items, write “Commitment letter from the LEA” on a blank sheet of paper and leave a Post-it sticking out to remind you that you don’t have the letter but need it (this will help you remember what you need).

For electronic submissions, scan all the documents that are not already electronic files and note items missing. We’re fond of the Fujitsu ScanSnap, which has a cult following among the people who heroically push paper for a living, much like the Swingline Stapler. It’s also not a bad idea, but time consuming and paper producing, to print these and insert marked pages for any missing items.

5. Make a list of the information needed to complete the application forms. Then begin filling out the forms. Leave time to obtain the signature pages for paper submissions and make sure your organization is registered to submit electronically. If you’re missing any information, make a list of who knows the information you need, how you will obtain that information, and what you will do if it’s not available.

As you can probably tell, lists are your friend and help you organized.

6. Consult your checklist daily and remind stakeholders or partners about when you must have the documents. Your stakeholders—especially if they’re the staff of other agencies—are probably very busy (or at least claim to be), and it’s easy to forget a request for a letter. A handy reminder, well before the deadline, is highly advised.

7. When everything has been gathered (finally!), paginate the document, if required; we recommend it unless pagination if specifically forbidden: page numbers help you and the reader.

8. Then—and this is most important part—have a fresh set of eyes look the document over. Encourage the person or people to ask questions if they aren’t sure about something. This is the easiest and best way to catch errors, like missing signatures or signature pages. While there is no way to ensure a “perfect” proposal, this method will improve your proposal production process.

Next up: Submitting the optimal proposal.

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Thoughts on the DOL YouthBuild 2012 SGA: Quirks, Lessons, and, as Always, Changes

YouthBuild season recently ended, at least for those of us lucky enough to be writing the proposals and preparing the application packages.

1. I’ve warned against the “Perils of Perfectionism” for grant writers, but it appears that RFP writers have also heeded this advice—too well. Page 23 of the original YouthBuild RFP* says, “These attachments will not count against the 15-page limitation for the Technical Proposal.” Page 26 says, “The chart and staffing plan should be included as Technical Proposal Attachments and do not count against the 15-page limitation of the Technical Proposal.” Yet the RFP says, in many other places, that the page limit for previous YouthBuild grantees is 20 pages and for new grantees it’s 25 pages. I sent an e-mail to Kia Mason, the contact person, and she (or he?) said, “Those are errors, the page limitation for previous YouthBuild applicants is 20 pages.”

Sweet!

There was another change that made sense: the original RFP requested that only county data be used in the needs assessment. A revision, however, allowed applicants to use city or other data. I imagine that the DOL got a lot of organizations saying things like, “We’re in L.A. county” or “We’re in Harris County,” along with 10 other organizations that will be forced to use the same data. And L.A. county contains everything from Beverly Hills to Compton to the city of Los Angeles itself.

2. I must give credit where it’s due: instead of playing hide-the-salami with data, as so many RFPs do,** YouthBuild this year simply told applicants where to find data and had applicants report uninterpreted data from a single source. This makes a huge, shocking amount of sense. I also suspect that the DOL got tired of the weird hodgepodge of data that they probably get from most applicants.

3. As long as we’re talking about data, I can also surmise that the DOL is implicitly encouraging applicants to massage data. For example, existing applicants have to report on the reports they’ve previously submitted to the DOL, and they get points for hitting various kinds of targets. In the “Placement in Education or Employment” target, “Applicants with placement rates of 89.51% or higher will receive 8 points for this subsection,” and for “Retention in Education or Employment,” Applicants with retention rates of 89.51% or higher will receive 8 points for this subsection.” Attaining these rates with a very difficult-to-reach population is, well, highly improbable.

That means a lot of previously funded applicants have also been. . . rather optimistic with their self-reported data. Still, those previously funded applicants’ haven’t necessarily been lying, per se. To understand why, let’s say that an organization is tracking a YouthBuild graduate and the organization finds that the graduate is working at McDonald’s. But she also worked on her Uncle’s deck for $30 last weekend. Is she employed? Is she employed in the construction industry? Or let’s say that a graduate reports that he’s enrolled in a community college. Do you call the community college and get the graduate to release his records, or do you take him at his word? Do you subtly encourage him to tell you he’s in school?

The cumulative weight of these micro decisions can have an enormous impact on the numbers that get submitted to the DOL. Some organizations are no doubt more diligent than others. We would never tell organizations to falsify data. But we do point out that not everyone interprets data claims the same way. The DOL implicitly rewards one kind of interpretation. Everyone knows there’s gambling at Rick’s in Casablanca. The official position is not always the right one, and it’s worth reading between the lines.

If you’re funded this year, you may want to remember this section when you’re filing your reports next year.

4. The RFP is structured in a strange way: the “Program Design” wants applicants to describe the training they’ll provide before the outreach, recruitment, and selection process. It would make more sense to structure the RFP in the order that participants will actually move through. Perhaps this is also symptomatic of the problems whoever wrote this RFP experienced in chopping up last year’s RFP to make this year’s.

5. The existence of YouthBuild is a testament to the power of zombie programs;*** graphs like the one in this post have proliferated and demonstrate that, not only is construction employment down, but it’s so far down that it’s at 1994’s level. This may be why the DOL will now let previously funded applicants offer alternative career paths. Still, training people in the construction industry right now doesn’t make a lot of sense, even by federal standards.

We also have pretty severe housing imbalances—there are too many housing units in places like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and the Inland Empire, and too few in places like Manhattan, Seattle, and San Francisco. The problem with the latter municipalities isn’t a matter of construction workers—it’s mostly a problem of municipal regulation, especially regarding height, density, and parking requirements. For more on this, see Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, Matt Yglesias’s The Rent Is Too Damn High, Ryan Avent’s The Gated City, and Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic. None of them will particularly help you write a YouthBuild proposal, but they will help you understand what’s going on.

6. Don’t be afraid of tautologies. You were warned against tautologies by your logic and writing teachers for a good reason, but you should disregard those warnings for a program like YouthBuild. There were a depressing number of questions like this one: “The applicant has an effective strategy to integrate all program elements, including the integration of community service and leadership activities supporting career exploration and occupational skill training.” The obvious answer—the program elements will be integrated by providing them together, rather than “in pieces”—is basically another way of saying, “Program elements will be integrated by being integrated.” Again: this doesn’t make a lot of sense, even by federal standards. The proposal can only be 20 or 25 pages, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for the repetition that DOL implicitly wants.

7. In keeping with the above, as usual, it was impossible to fully answer all the questions in 20 or 25 pages.

8. Page three of the RFP says: “Cost-Per-Participant: Cost-per-participant must fall in the range of $15,000 – 18,000 and the applicant must indicate the projected enrollment per year. The cost per participant should take into consideration the projected enrollment, leveraged funds and other resources supporting the program” (emphasis added). I wrote this to Kia Mason:

What does “take into consideration” mean in this context? Does that mean that YouthBuild wants a cost-per-participant that counts the entire match? For example, if an applicant requests $1,100,000 and gets the mandatory 25% of $275,000, the project total will be $1,375,000. Dividing that amount by $18,000 yields about 76, while dividing $1,100,000 by $18,000 yields 61. The SGA doesn’t offer any examples or further guidance about what this means.

He or she replied: “The cost per participant is derived from the federal amount requested only.” I imagine Kia got a ton of questions on this issue, since the phrase “should take into consideration” is so vague. I also imagine that a fair number of applicants didn’t inquire into the meaning of the phrase, and, consequently, the DOL will get half the proposals with one assumption and half with another.

9. There’s a particularly inane question under Section 1. d. Factor five: “The benefit of the participation of youth in occupational skills training within the selected industry(ies) that will be derived to the community.” The major “benefits” that the community might derive are at best nebulous. And they’re about the same for all communities: having people in jobs instead of jails, creating nominal tax payers, providing nominal low-income housing, and so forth. These benefits don’t change much from California to Connecticut.


* The Department of Labor prefers the term “SGA,” or “Solicitation for Grant Applications,” rather than RFP; we generally use RFP on this blog, rather than further confusing matters by applying the alphabet soup of acronyms that various federal and non-federal agencies use to describe the various ways they emit documents that will ultimately lead to the distribution of money.

My favorite recent example of acronym fever comes from the ACF’s Transitional Living Program and Maternity Group Homes: “The Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) is accepting applications for the Transitional Living Program (TLP) and for Maternity Group Homes (MGH) funding opportunity announcement (FOA). TLPs provide an alternative to involving RHY in the law enforcement, child welfare, mental health, and juvenile justice systems.” I wonder if ACF also wants BBQ ASAP.

** See “RFP Lunacy and Answering Repetitive or Impossible Questions” for still more discussion on this issue.

*** Our post “Déjà vu All Over Again—Vacant Houses and What Not to Do About Them” also discusses elements of housing policy and how governments respond to housing issues.

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Grant-seeking dinosaurs look up: The bright light in the sky is an asteroid

For reasons not clear to me, I am on the (usually) happy-talk email distribution list of Dorothy Stoneman, doyenne of YouthBuild USA, the trade group for the 273 or so YouthBuild providers across America. I’ve never met Dorothy, who is generally affable in her emails and is a tireless advocate and change agent (note: the preceding phrase is a free example of proposolese for you to use at your discretion, although I prefer “tireless organizational change agent” to really get grant reviewers hot and steamy).

Since Congress began its on- and off-again assault on discretionary spending last fall, Dorothy’s periodic emails have become increasingly strident and alarmist, perhaps for good reason. Although we’ve written dozens of funded YouthBuild proposals over the years, including two in the most recent funding round, training at-risk youth and young adults for construction trade careers seems a little odd in the face of the collapse of the housing market. America has many problems at the moment, but a lack of affordable housing and skilled construction workers are not among them.

Dorothy’s June 5 call-to-arms communique says:

In the FY11 House budget in process before the November 2010 elections, the US Department of Labor (DOL) would have received $120M for the YouthBuild program. But after the elections, when the House changed hands, the House re-did the budget and funding for YouthBuild was eliminated.After a grueling negotiation, in which the Senate and the Administration supported YouthBuild, the final budget included $80 million for YouthBuild in DOL. This was a $47.5M cut from the funds appropriated in Fiscal Year 2010. (FY10). As a direct result, in May, one hundred twenty one (121) of DOL’s 226 previously-funded YouthBuild grantees lost their funding. Only 105 YouthBuild programs are funded by DOL for 2011-2013 [Shameless Plug: two of these courtesy of Seliger + Associates grant writing prowess!]. Hundreds of organizations applying for the first time were also turned down. Can you imagine the devastation to those 121 communities of losing this pathway out of poverty for the most disadvantaged young adults? Imagine the heartbreak of the adults* who have worked so hard and fought to bring these opportunities to the young people in their communities?

According to Dorothy, the end of the world is nigh for YouthBuild grantees and the at-risk young folk who presumably will end badly without YouthBuild training. I imagine Gene Wilder in Woody Allen’s hilarious “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex” Drinking Woolite from a bottle after he loses his literally beloved sheep, Daisy.

Dorothy shouts about the deleterious impact of lowered YouthBuild funding on “America’s most disadvantaged communities” (another proposalese gem); she advises lovelorn YouthBuild grantees and supporters to call their congresspeople and senators, of course, to beg for more YouthBuild funding. Call me cynical, but I think the chance of increased funding for YouthBuild is about zero.

Dorothy’s breathless email immediately conjured up the classic cartoon image of a gaggle of brontosauruses (née brontosauri, much like “Winklevi?”) peacefully munching on treetops as that bright light in the sky gets bigger during the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction. All the lobbying by Brontosauri in the USA would not have helped 65 million years ago, and YouthBuld grantees are experiencing a K-T event whether or not they want to admit it. I know, because I can read the grant tea leaves and I’ve talked to about a half-dozen YouthBuild grantees in the last month.

Here’s what we recommend to our YouthBuild and other clients who provide job training:

* Apply for YouthBuild and whatever other job training grants are still available, as it takes government agencies a bit of time to turn the Titanic. Keep in mind, however, that it is fairly pointless to train people for jobs that don’t exist. For example, most Workforce Investment Act (WIA) programs, whether funded by the Department of Labor or a local Workforce Investment Board (WIB), offer grants via reimbursement only if the agency meets its performance targets. Since agencies conducting construction training are spectacularly unlikely to meet performance targets, there is little point in receiving such an award.

These days most training providers offer training for low-level health care and service sector jobs (e.g., push the cash register button with the picture of a cheeseburger when you sell a cheeseburger, etc.). Although YouthBuild is not directly performance-based, we’ve noticed that our YouthBuild clients are emphasizing their ability to get their graduates into community college, a DOL-accepted though rarely discussed YouthBuild program outcome, instead of placing them in a “career ladder job with living wage potential in the world of work” (another free proposalese phrase—there’s one in every box of GWC).

* While waiting around for job training grants, turn your YouthBuild program from a brontosaurus into a fleet-footed mammal by using the agency’s skills and track record to provide remedial education and related supportive services. Since every YouthBuild program has the same three components—adult basic education (ABE), job training and leadership development (YouthBuild-talk for wraparound supportive services)— kick out the middle leg, making the tricycle a bicycle, and go after programs like the Department of Education’s Upward Bound program, for which an RFP with about $350 million up for grabs should be issued in a couple of months. Or form a partnership with an LEA and take a flyer on the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, which has an RFP with $172 million on the street as I write this.

With almost one-third of American youth failing to graduate from high school and many graduates unable to read or write, it’s fairly obvious that there are going to be many grant opportunities for remedial education over the next few years. Even the usually indefatigable Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is soon going to issue waivers to all public schools from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind requirement that all children pass proficiency tests. Without the waivers, 83% of American public schools would be labeled as “failing” next year (I am not making this up).

Or watch for the cascade of discretionary grant programs authorized and funded under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare,” or the Grant Writer’s Relief Act, as we call it around the office). The Affordable Care Act is larded with grant opportunities, many of which involve “outreach.” That’s another way of saying “walkin’ around money for clever mammalian nonprofits.”

In face of rapid grant climate change, it is not a good idea to either continue nibbling on tree tops or run around in pointless circles as the asteroid looms. Get busy, re-think your agency’s strengths, and unleash your inner grant writer. Let the Dorothy Stonemans of the world, who have a real vested interest in keeping YouthBuild (YouthBuild USA, for example, is not going to sell many licenses to use the word “YouthBuild” to nonprofits without the DOL program) and similar archaic funding programs going. Instead, widen your agency’s funding streams beyond job training. There are tons of grants available, even if you have to root around to find them, rather than blissfully picking off the last choice leaf on a withering treetop.


*Note to Would Be Grant Writers: Do not use this kind of overwrought lingo in your proposals. Whenever I read, “the heartbreak of _______________,” I think of the Heartbreak of Psoriasis TV commercials that ran when I was a teenager. I didn’t know what psoriasis was, but I did know that not having a date to my Junior Prom at age 15, not a skin condition, was genuine heartbreak. I did, however, get asked to the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance that year, so all was not lost.

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I’ve Got Those End of the Year, Grants.gov, Don’t Work So Good Subterranean Homesick Blues Again

As 2010 proposals slide into the archives, I find myself reflecting on the inadequacy of Grants.gov and other federal electronic grant submission portals. After about seven years of electronic submissions, why is the federal government so incredibly incompetent at this? After all, Amazon.com can take hundreds of thousands of orders a day and Apple can ship tens of thousands products a day, but Grants.gov is overwhelmed by a few hundred or thousand grant submissions. In essence, Grants.gov goes “biddle-up,”* like our puppy after a hard day of watching us write proposals:

YouthBuild hunting season ended with a December 3 submission deadline. We caught our limit of YouthBuilds this year, which we usually do, and met the deadline, which we always do. Since submitting an electronic proposal involves what is essentially an electronic signature, Seliger + Associates does does not actually submit them. Instead, we complete the submission package and email the files to our clients, who actually hit the submit button. In the good old days of hard copy submissions, our clients would FedEx their signature pages and we’d copy and submit the applications.

One of our YouthBuild clients was trying to upload her application through Grants.gov on December 1, two days before the deadline, which is ordinarily enough time. But I received this startling email from her:

I have tried to submit it [YouthBuild] one hour and 20 minutes ago. It’s still “processing.” And I don’t want to try to submit again until I get a go ahead from someone. We also found out more than 25 other grants have Dec. 1 as deadline.

The entire Grants.gov system is apparently not robust enough to handle 25 deadlines on a given day. Maybe the whole grant submission process should be turned over to WikiLeaks, which seems to have unlimited bandwidth.

A few hours later, she sent the following email:

Right now, at this minute, it is 4 hours and 22 minutes ago, and my screen says “Processing, please don’t close the window until you receive a confirmation.

I called our client and told her to call Grants.gov tech support (800-518-4726). When she finally got a live person on the line, the tech deleted her application and told her to re-submit. She did and it took another four hours to complete the submission process. In the age of instant everything, uploading a 4 MB Grants.gov *.pdf file took over eight hours! At least it got submitted. I’ve written about the perils of Grants.gov in Now, It’s Time for the Rest of the Story, but that was over two years ago. One would think Grants.gov would have been improved in two years, but apparently not so much that you’d notice.

One change is that Grants.gov tech support is now open 24 x 7 now, instead of being closed on weekends. Of course in the federal world 24 X 7 doesn’t exactly mean every day, since the Grants.gov support describes its hours as follows: Hours of Operation: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are closed on federal holidays. This year, they’re closed on Saturday, December 25 and 31.

In addition to YouthBuild, this has also been hunting season for the Department of Education’s Talent Search Program. The Talent Search deadline is December 28, as I pointed out in Talent Search RFP Finally Published — But What A Stupid Deadline. If you were trying to avoid working on Christmas weekend and hoped to upload on Friday (as one of our clients tried to) but ran into a problem, Grants.gov would likely be closed just when you needed them. This would mean trying to contact them on a Sunday (good luck finding a live person on a holiday weekend) or waiting until Monday. Since Grants.gov gives itself 48 hours after the submission button is pushed to send a series of confirming emails, one can see the disaster potential. I expect many Talent Search application submissions are going to get screwed up. Because of this possible perfect storm we finished our work on Talent Search proposals last week. If anyone out there in blog-reader land ran into this problem with Talent Search, leave a comment.

Before you think I’m picking on Grants.gov, here’s another tale from the darkside of electronic grant writing portals. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) mostly disdains Grants.gov for a little gem called (warning .pdf alert) Electronic Handbooks (EHBs). Leaving aside the fact that the EHB system is intertwined with Grants.gov (which is too complicated a story for this post, but another example of unnecessary complexity in the grant submission process), EHBs is also notorious for submission problems. In addition to YouthBuild and Talent Search, this has also been hunting season for HRSA’s New Access Points (NAP) Program, which had a Grants.gov deadline of November 17 and EHBs deadline of December 15 (don’t ask). We received the following email from one our NAP clients on December 21:

I don’t know if I told you or not, but I did push the button on the NAP before the deadline and was successful in getting the application through to HRSA. I got an email last night from HRSA extending the deadline to December 23rd, this Thursday. Due to the high request for waivers for getting the application in, they decided to extend the deadline. Apparently, HRSA servers couldn’t handle the massive NAP applications that were trying to get in by the deadline of the 15th.

HRSA’s servers couldn’t handle the “massive NAP applications” and went biddle-up, like our golden retriever. I have a feeling Google could have easily handled these uploads, which are hardly massive. Condolences to all of you NAP applicants out there who sweated blood to meet the December 15 deadline only to learn after the deadline passed that it had been extended by a week. Apparently, HRSA has a practical joke department.

With all due respect to hard working GS 11s at grants.gov and EHBs, who are toiling this holiday season over vats of simmering grant proposals, and to paraphrase B. Dylan, I’ve got those end of the year, Grants.gov don’t work so good Subterranean Homesick Blues again. At this point, “I’m on the pavement, thinking about the government.”


* When the Notorious D.O.G. was actually a puppy, she liked to roll over to show us her belly (“biddle”), so she could be scratched (“biddled”). She still goes biddle-up and likes to be biddled, but then again, who doesn’t?

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Politics and Proposals Don’t Mix: Your Politics (or Your Organization’s) Shouldn’t Matter in Grant Writing, and Neither Should Elections

Ed Nelson asks, “Do conservative non-profits get grants or are federal grants such an anathema to them, [and] they choose not to apply?” I want to answer, but the question itself feels wrong because politics shouldn’t be an issue in human service delivery. Politics and political views matter in Congress, which decides what kinds of programs to fund, and can matter in federal rule making that ultimately leads to RFPs being issued, but by the time an RFP is issued, political questions have been resolved and implementation is everything.*

So “conservative” nonprofits are just as likely to get grants as “liberal” ones, but even if your organization has a political bent among your staff, you shouldn’t put that in the proposal. Besides, I’m not sure there’s a “conservative” or “liberal” way, for example, to provide construction skills and academic training (YouthBuild) or to repair low-income housing to fix safety hazards (Healthy Homes)—to name two programs we’ve worked on recently. Both programs are designed to be fairly narrow: you conduct outreach, you do an intake assessment, you select participants, you do things to/with participants, and they come out over the other end better. There isn’t a lot of room for politics.

Even in programs where you can talk about divisive political issues, you’re often better off taking pains not to. For example, we work for a large number of Community Health Clinics (CHCs), as well as organizations that provide various kinds of sex or abstinence education (one such RFP inspired this post on proposal research). We never ask about our clients’ views on one of the most divisive political issues in America because their views don’t matter for proposals. In fact, I’m taking pains to avoid that word starting with “a,” lest the comments section turn into a flamewar. You’ve heard the word before, it has talismanic properties among both left and right, and we never use it in proposals. Neither should you. You don’t know who’s going to read the proposal, their political leanings, or how your implied politics might affect your score. We’ve also never seen an application that specifically addresses the procedure in question.

In addition, nonprofits, especially the 501(c)3s we most often work for, aren’t supposed to engage in lobbying or other overtly political behaviors. If you’re with a nonprofit, you’re supposed to be helping people and/or achieving your charitable purpose. So you should concentrate on that in your proposal.

One other observation about politics and proposals: you should also avoid assuming that the nonprofit apocalypse is upon us or nonprofit salvation is nigh due to a particular election.

Isaac likes to point out that he got out of the grant writing game in the early 1980s partially because he was tired of it at the time and partially because he thought Reagan would kill too many discretionary grant programs. The latter, it turns out, was not only wrong, but hilariously wrong, and when he started Seliger + Associates in 1993, the most astonishing thing was how little grant writing had changed from the 1970s to the 1990s—and this trend continues to the present.

In the decade and change I’ve been paying attentions to grants and grant writing, I’ve heard a great deal of teeth gnashing about politics, but every week I compile the Seliger Funding Report and find the federal government, as well as states and foundations, have issued RFPs for new and existing discretionary grant programs regardless of the party in power or the divisions in government. Whatever the disagreements between the major political parties in the United States, both love discretionary grant programs, which persist across decades of political oscillation.**

Lots of people with passionate political feelings and views write blogs expressing those views, inflict them on friends and family, and post snarky Facebook updates about candidates and election results. Those are lovely, appropriate forums for such sentiments. Your grant application is not. Whether you’re to the right of Attila the Hun or to the left of Marx (Karl, not Groucho), leave those opinions out of your proposal.


* And implementation is, or should be, non-partisan.

** Note too Isaac’s post, “Reformers Come and Go, But HUD Abides,” which is essentially about the tendency of federal agencies and program to persist over time.