There are a variety of radical and significant changes to the Drug-Free Communities Support Program (DFC) this year. Changing that represent a significant departure in focus from previous years. This article is not about politics so without politicizing the issue too much, many of the changes fit with current trends toward legalization and recent statements by national leaders asserting that some illegal substances are no more dangerous than alcohol.
The first significant change is a shift in focus away from the coalition itself. The 2014 RFA no longer requests information about how the coalition evolved over time or what major accomplishments the coalition has had. It seems the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which has always proudly claimed ownership of DFC even as the grant management shifted, is no longer as interested in the past or present strength of the grantees. Add to this the complete elimination of question 10 from the 2013 RFA which addressed sustainability and it seems the future longevity of the grantees is also not a concern. Even the guidance on developing the Action Plan was changed so that DFC Goal One no longer mentioned including objectives, strategies, and activities to strengthen the coalition’s internal capacity. Another indicator of the lack of interest in the welfare and longevity of the grantees is the absence of questions related to the internal structure of the coalition. Questions about board structure, committees, leadership, or even how new members are engaged, recruited, and trained are minimal and do not ensure involvement in the coalition mission.
The other major change relates to the very foundation of the drug free communities program. Instead of DFC Goal Two providing guidance to include goals to prevent youth substance abuse… It now says prevent and reduce youth substance abuse. Although they still ask for core measure data they no longer ask for data on the consequences of youth substance use. That means most of the social indicator data usually provided related to juvenile crime, school data, emergency room data, etc. will not be included. In addition the role of unique local community characteristics, local community and social norms, and local attitudes and readiness to change is not considered. Neither are local laws, policies, practices, standards, or statutes. This seems to me to be an aversion to engage in the discussion on legalizing medical and now recreational marijuana and other lax drug laws.
While we grapple with the content issues we will also need to wrestle with a shakeup in formatting including reducing the number of pages from 30 to 25. They reduced the previous 10-15 questions down to FIVE and they did NOT include the scoring criteria instead stating that it will be released in February. With last year’s funding cutoff at 94 the competition will be excruciatingly tight this year. The final scoring criteria is so disorganized, littered with typos, and is immensely subjective. For example, you could have a near perfect proposal but have just one of your objectives be not measureable and you would automatically lose 8-10 points! Last year, that one tiny error would have eliminated you from consideration. There are very few grants that have a funding cutoff as high as the DFCSP and they have used some terrible scoring processes in the past. The changes this year are the most significant in recent memory.
Writing a successful Drug Free Communities (DFC) grant has become increasingly challenging, since appropriated funding has fluctuated from year to year while the number of applicants has stayed consistently high. Each year, SAMHSA receives over 500 applications. On average, SAMHSA funds about one-fourth of those applications, although in 2011 only 19.2% of applications received funding, and in 2012 that number dropped to 16.5%, the smallest number of applications funded since 2002. In the FY2006 funding cycle, applicants had to score 82 or better to receive funding, but by 2013 the minimum score had increased by 12 points to 94. What then does a coalition need to do to increase their chances of scoring high enough to get funded?
As someone who started as a prevention practitioner and community coalition member I can see the intent of the questions. However, as a grant writer trying to secure the DFC, I find myself zeroed in on the scoring process and criteria and less on the intent of the questions. In the end, your application will need to be much more than good… it will need to be nearly perfect… and if the “nearly” falls in the wrong section than even being nearly perfect will not have been enough! On top of that… as with any federal grant that is peer reviewed… you will need just a little bit of luck.
So… shoot for perfection… and… Good Luck!