Monthly Archives: May 2010

Tough Times for Folks Means More Grant Writing for Nonprofits

This morning’s New York Times brought a depressing tale: “Blacks in Memphis Lose Decades of Economic Gains.” No matter what macro economic metrics indicate, it is clear that the Great Recession continues to rage across America and, as Van Morrison put it, it remains Hard Nose the Highway in the hardscrabble neighborhoods where Seliger + Associates usually works.

While the situation is dire for folks who are unemployed, losing their homes and perhaps losing their hope, it is even worse for the nonprofits that provide human services, particularly United Way agencies and other organizations that depend directly or indirectly on donations. This is because service demands are up and donations are down. Although recessions always make it harder to do fund raising, the sad truth is that donations lag economic improvement.

This means that it will likely take two to three years from when the Great Recession really ends for nonprofits to get back to donation levels of 2007. The same thing happened following the last major recession in the early 1990s. It took until the late 1990s for donations to recover—just in time for the busting of the bubble, which drove donations down again, and the September 11 attacks, which diverted donations from around the country to NYC.

While you’re waiting for donations to pick up with rising economic conditions, it is always possible that some other crisis, natural or manmade, will screw up your plans. How about a huge hurricane in the Gulf this summer, slamming millions of barrels of crude oil from the seemingly never ending Deep Horizon spill into New Orleans, just as donations are beginning to rise?

What should a nonprofit do? Well, you can cut staff and services, try to squeeze more donations out of your exhausted supporters, provide third-party payer services (e.g., foster care, substance abuse treatment, etc.), try to setup a quasi-business, or re-double your grant writing efforts. That’s pretty much it.

It’s difficult to cut staff and services with double-digit unemployment and your service population hurting, so most nonprofits will eat into reserves before doing so. Many organizations lack the certifications and licenses necessary to offer third-party payer services, making this a tough path. And, while some nonprofits generate revenue through such businesses as landscaping, moving services, affordable housing rehab/resale (HUD’s 203k program, for example), and the like, these usually depend on using clients as essentially slave labor to perform the work without much compensation. Doing so impedes building client self-sufficiency and raises ethical issues; I’ve never been a fan of nonprofits running businesses.

These problems take us back to grant writing as the most plausible alternative for struggling nonprofits. You don’t want to hear it, but this is the reality of Life During Wartime. The good news, as I pointed out in Where Have All the RFPs Gone?, is that the feds are slow in releasing RFPs this year. The June to September period will be much better for seeking federal grants than usual, as lots of RFPs will have to be released before the start of the next federal fiscal year on October 1. This is not the summer to take off for that long planned trip to Kafiristan.* Instead, find a grant writer and start applying for any grant programs that are remotely appropriate for your agency. There will be plenty of competition, but some organization is going to get funded. But you are more likely to get a grant than to get results from the sixth donor letter sent this year.

* Kafiristan is the setting for one of my ten favorite movies of all time, John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King. Faithful readers will know that I have about 100 top ten movies, but this is one of the best.

May 2010 Links: The Promise Neighborhoods Program, Federal Budgets, Upward Bound, Centers for Independent Living (CLI), the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), Restricting Fun Too Expensive, and more

* Federal programs never get delayed, unless they do. One of our clients received a letter from the Department of Education announcing that the Upward Bound program, which encourages at-risk youth to complete high school and go on to college, is being delayed until fiscal year 2012. This indicates that, as Isaac wrote in “Where Have All the RFPs Gone?,” the feds have gotten so backed up that they can’t spend all their money. To quote Isaac’s post:

Since federal agencies are running their regular programs while trying to spend additional Stimulus Bill funding and implementing entirely new programs, one imagines that our cadre of GS 10s and 11s, who are supposed to move the endless paperwork associated with shoveling federal funds out the door, simply have not gotten around to the FY ‘10 RFP processes.


* Now that i3 madness is behind most of us, it’s time to see the other crazed, zombie-like offspring of the Department of Education. Alert reader and grant writer Shirley Nelson pointed me to the “Promise Neighborhoods Program,” which demands that one build “a complete continuum of cradle-through-college-to-career solutions (continuum of solutions) (as defined in this notice), which has both academic programs and family and community supports (both as defined in this notice), with a strong school or schools at the center.” I want those college solutions, whatever they are.

The RFP also says:

The continuum also must be based on the best available evidence including, where available, strong or moderate evidence (as defined in this notice), and include programs, policies, practices, services, systems, and supports that result in improving educational and developmental outcomes for children from cradle through college to career

In other words, the i3, quasi-evidence-based madness continues.

* The Department of Education’s Centers for Independent Living Program (CLI) program is particularly impressive because, as far as I can tell, nowhere in the 142-page application guidance does a definition of what “centers for independent living (CILs or centers)” means.

* I didn’t realize there was a U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) until I saw the announcement of its Annual Grant Competition. I wonder what it’s like compared to the Department of Defense, which used to be called the Department of War.

* On healthcare nationally and in Massachusetts:

When Massachusetts rolled out its coverage program in 2007, many more people signed up for the new heavily subsidized insurance than was originally predicted by budget officials. Almost immediately, costs far exceeded what had been budgeted, forcing state officials to scramble to find cuts elsewhere in government and other sources of revenue.

After three years, no real progress has been made on rising costs. The program remains well over budget, with no end in sight. Further, state residents who now must buy state-sanctioned coverage are bristling at their rising premiums and the inability to find coverage which covers less and thus costs less.

State politicians are responding to the cost crisis the only way they know how: by promising to impose arbitrary caps on premiums and price controls for medical services. The governor and state regulators have disallowed 90 percent of the premium increases insurers –all of whom are not-for-profit–submitted for their enrollees for the upcoming plan year. The state says premium increases above eight percent are too high and unacceptable, though they themselves don’t have a plan to make health care more efficient in Massachusetts. They just want lower premiums. The insurers have responded by refusing to sell any coverage at the rates the state wants to impose.

* In essence, the country needs to figure out how to pay for the government that its citizens want. It’s a version — albeit a less extreme one — of the problem facing Greece right now.

* Wow: Records show that since 1992, only 10 Minnesota teachers fired for poor performance have challenged their dismissals all the way through that process.

* The nasty things local telcos do to prevent municipal fiber (and why this is so important).

* Politicians find that restricting fun is now too expensive (Note: this is not from The Onion).

* Electric Avenue: Learning to love a bike you don’t need to pedal.

* Academia isn’t broken. We are.

* The Shirky Principle: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” — Clay Shirky. As Kevin Kelly says:

The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions (like a company, or an industry) can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.

* The Department of Education appears to have invented a new word for the i3 RFP:

Growth may be measured by a variety of approaches, but any approach used must be statistically rigorous and based on student achievement data, and may also include other measures of student learning in order to increase the construct validity and generalizability of the information.

“Generalizability?” If that appeared in a student essay, I’d circle it.

* Why men don’t listen. Except they do, as this post into the pseudo science of gender brain differences shows.

* Megan McArdle has a characteristically astute essay on Lori Gottlieb’s book Marry Him!. As McArdle says, Gottlieb’s superficial thesis is that women are too picky in getting married. But “her real message she proves all too well, and I suspect that’s why it drives young women nuts, as in this Emily Gould essay I came across yesterday. It is the same thing overanxious mothers have been telling their daughters from time immemorial: your looks matter, and they are a wasting asset.”

I have no idea if this is true.

* Peak everything? Not really.

* The drive to make cities greener. And this is from the Wall Street Journal.

* One Man, Two Courts points out something that Isaac and few others seem to remember: the political party abortion flipflop. Until around 1977 or so, most Democratic politicians were mostly against abortion, while most Republicans supported it.

* In a Tough Economy, Old Limits on Welfare reads like a proposal. Except that the reporter forgets that there isn’t such a thing as “welfare;” he’s probably actually referring to TANF.

* Why humanity loves and needs cities.

* Why do colleges care about extracurricular activities? See my guess in the comments.

* For every doctor, there are five people performing health care administrative support. This may be part of our national problem, like the growth of administrators relative to professors in academia. (Hat tip Tyler Cowen.)

* Recommended: If you’re male, as I am, there’s a pretty good chance that you hate shopping for clothes and thus constantly have ratty socks, underwear, and t-shirts. will send you two shirts with two pairs of underwear and socks every three months indefinitely. Once you set it up, you never have to think about the issue again, unless you move. And that set up takes maybe five minutes.


* “China’s Youth Meet Microsoft,” an article, along with a rebuttal: “This article, IMHO, is written by someone who has no idea how things work just about anywhere that’s not the industrialized West, and is shocked and appalled that things aren’t as awesome as they are in the US of A.”

* A fascinating profile of Tyler Cowen, one of the proprietors of Marginal Revolution.

* “Describing himself as “terribly exhausted,” famed linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky said Monday that he was taking a break from combating the hegemony of the American imperialist machine to try and take it easy for once.”

The Census During Hard Times: A Gift That Keeps On Giving

One of the best things that can happen to a grant writer is to have the Census roll around during a time of economic crisis, because decennial Census data hangs around for about ten years. It takes the Census Bureau around two years or so to publish the latest data, which then gets used until the next turn of the census screw. The “2010 Census” will really be used as the 2012–2022 Census.

While the Census Bureau and other data miners produce interim data, such data are mostly a hodgepodge of extrapolations, which is another word for educated guesses. It’s possible for a city or county to request a special mid-decade census, but it’s doubtful that many have the money for it, so grant writers are pretty much stuck with whatever the Census produces. It’s our job to craft compelling Needs Assessments, whether the data is good, bad or indifferent. The task becomes a lot easier when the data shows economic calamity.

Given the recent economic collapse, incomes will be down, poverty up, etc., in the 2010 Census for the kinds of target areas we usually write about. When the Census coincides with better times, such as the 2000 Census, it’s much harder to make the case that things are tough because incomes and so forth will be relatively high, but a good grant writer will make this case anyway, pointing out the lingering effects of the last recession, the coming recession, or the ever popular refrain, “the target area is an island of misery in a sea of prosperity.” But lousy census data means happy times for grant writers. The 2010 Census will be a case in point, as we will be using the dismal economic data to good effect until the year 2022 or so!

Being as old as mud, I started using census data from the 1970 Census. In 1978, I was hired as the Grant Writing Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, CA, which is located next to Compton and Watts in LA County. By the time I got to Lynwood, most residents were African American and very low-income, but one would never know it by looking at the 1970 Census data. The 1970 Census painted Lynwood as a largely middle class, white community, which it was when the Census was taken. Like its much better known neighbor, Compton, which has been immortalized in endless rap songs like N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton,” Lynwood was the victim of blockbusting and turned almost overnight from white to Black. It’s just that Compton metamorphosed immediately after the Watts Rebellion and before the Census was taken. In contrast, Lynwood changed demographically just after the Census was taken. I left Lynwood before the 1980 Census data was taken, so I spent three years writing proposals in which I had to explain away the available census data. While annoying, this helped hone my grant writing skills.

One interesting factoid about the census is that, and as reported, albeit obliquely, by the Pew Research Center in Census History: Counting Hispanics, Hispanics were not actually counted until the 1980 Census and the questions relating to Hispanic status change each census cycle, making it very challenging to make the kind of comparisons that are the stuff of needs assessments. This is compounded by the fact that the Census Bureau does not consider “Hispanic” to be a race. One can be counted as a Hispanic of any number of races and, if all are added up, this can easily total more than 100% of the population. There are various work arounds, the easiest of which is to check with the local city or county to see if they have sorted out what the percentage of “Hispanics” is in their jurisdiction.

We are currently writing an OJJDP FY 2010 Youth Gang Prevention and Intervention Program proposal for a nonprofit in Southern California. The target area was largely middle class and white at the time of the 2000 Census but is now Hispanic and low-income. So, for me it’s 1978 again and I am struggling with same data issues I was in Lynwood.

As the wheel of time turns and grant writers must use out-of-date census data for at least two more years. Look on the bright side of things––data from the 2010 Census will be absolutely awful and you can use it to your advantage for many years to come.

Federal Naming Conventions, EDA’s i6 Challenge, the Future of Innovation, and the Ministry of Silly Walks

Carefully study this screenshot of EDA’s website for the i6 Challenge:

Bear in mind that the purpose of the i6 program is “to support groundbreaking ideas in science and technology,” and ideally to fund really innovative stuff (in this respect it’s like i3 or any number of federal programs). But you might notice something funny about the screenshot: whoever designed the website either didn’t test it in Firefox or didn’t test it in Firefox for OS X. This is pretty funny, since Firefox is the web browser of choice for geeks and basically restarted the development of web browsers in general after Microsoft decided they’d won with Internet Explorer 6 and didn’t have to do anything anymore. And, as Paul Graham points out, lots of hackers are using Macs again.

In other words, lots of people at the forefront of technology are probably using the very tools that aren’t being tested for by a program designed to appeal to people at the forefront of technology.

The other funny thing about this program is the name, especially because we just had the the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) program from the Department of Education, to which i6 is completely unrelated, despite sharing a similar name. It raises a number of questions, like whether there is any limit to the number of programs with “i” in them, whether those programs must be a multiple of 3, or why the letter “i” is so much more popular than its close siblings “h” and “j.” We’re also apparently missing i1 – i2 and i4 – i5, which is a bit like HUD’s Hope VI. What happened to the rest of the HOPE programs, like V?

Anyway, this mixture of numbers and faux acronyms and what not makes me think there should be a ministry of federal program names, related to the ministry of silly walks:

(Sample dialog: “I have a silly walk, and I’d like to obtain a government grant to help me develop it.”)

Change for Change’s Sake in Grant Proposals: When in Doubt, Claim Your Program is Innovative

Federal grant programs constantly demand “innovative” projects, even when the specific requirements of the program prevent any deviation from narrowly defined activities. Take two examples regarding how project services can be delivered:

  • No matter what the RFP for any human services program requires, there are only two basic ways to deliver human services: you can either bring someone to a location and do something to them (e.g. impart skills, get them off drugs, teach them Freshman Composition, etc.), which is often termed a “center-based model.” This is like high school, or a hospital: you gather a bunch of people in building. Alternatively, the service provider can go to them and do something (e.g. home visits, such as the Healthy Homes Demonstration Program), which is a “field-based model.” This is like at-home tutoring: you hire someone to come over and teach you algebra.*
  • You can either offer specific services (like those that are only required to get off of drugs) or “wrap-around supportive services,” which basically means that the program is going to get you off of drugs, make sure you get a GED, and maybe get you some job training so you’ll stay off of drugs. Usually those entail a case manager, which is fairly typical in today’s grant world but was less common previously. Case management was once considered paternalistic; now it’s de rigueur; tomorrow it will be anathema again. Isaac has talked a lot about how opposed many ’60s reformers were to case management and social workers, who are today a standard part of many programs. To some extent, following these trends is a case of surfing grant waves, even if the underlying structure of particular programs remain similar.

Who’s right in this battle over whether case management is right or wrong, or whether having a center-based or field-based program is better? The obvious answer is probably the right one—no one, since the success of any model depends on execution. A well-executed model in either example will probably minimize its weaknesses and maximize its strengths. A poorly executed model will do neither, and then lead to calls to shift program designs from one to the other. Some nonprofits or projects might naturally be better at one than the other. Nonetheless, you can bet that when one form becomes dominant, funding agencies will eventually decide to stress innovation by breaking toward the other side. Chic foundations of the sort with good PR departments and prospects for getting in the WSJ or New York Times might switch, and then send a blizzard of press releases touting their success.

There really aren’t a lot of variations on whether you do center-based or field-based projects, or whether or not you offer wraparound supportive services. Such approaches have been tried for decades. But federal programs will routinely demand that you show that your program is innovative, excellent, and so on, even though very, very few of the thousands of RFPs we’ve seen for any services that are genuinely innovative. Instead, RFPs and their underlying federal programs change more for the sake or appearance of change than real change. This kind of thing often comes about because an organization needs to somehow justify its existence and its donut budget, or some bright person enters an agency and thinks they’ve invented wraparound supportive service for the first time.

In other words, these switches from, say, center- to field-based models are often random, or close to random. But regardless of how you’ll deliver services, you should announce that your project is innovative, even in a field where there is no real innovation.

* If you want to be more specific, there are probably one or two less common models: a “circuit riding model,” in which someone promises to be at a specific time or place to offer advice or services, and an electronic model, in which you broadcast something (think tobacco public service announcements) or access services via the ‘net (get a Ph.D. in English Literature at home while sitting in your underwear without shoes on).