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Grant Writing from Recession to Recession: This is a Great Time to Start a New Nonprofit

I received a phone call last week from a woman (let’s call her “Mrs. Smith”) who just started a tiny new nonprofit in South Central LA during this never-ending recession. She wants to help the growing number of homeless youth and unemployed young adults hanging out on the streets. Mrs. Smith’s call reminded me of how Seliger + Associates got started and the many Mrs. Smiths we’ve worked for over the past 17 years.

During the almost-forgotten recession of the early 1990s, I was toiling in the local government fields as the Community Development Director for the City of San Ramon. To paraphrase Mister Roberts, San Ramon was located somewhere between Tedium and Apathy in Contra Costa County. The recession cut city revenues drastically, and because I was not particularly loved by the City Manager or City Council, one day the ax just fell (“Tangled Up in Blue,” B Dylan). I joined the swelling ranks of the unemployed.

This happened in late 1992, and I had a few months of severance pay to more or less keep the wolves at the door and not in the house. By March, the idea of Seliger + Associates had formed; through some initial connections, incredibly hard work, and luck we began to get clients. The early 1990s was, of course, long before the Internet and email. To get clients, we bombed nonprofits in LA with cheesy direct mail flyers, and once or twice a week I flew down to meet with any nonprofit executive director who called. I spent a lot of time in churches, living rooms, drug treatment centers, half-way houses, and the like, mostly in South Central and East LA, pitching our services for very modest fees.

Our first clients more or less fell into two categories. The first were fairly large United Way-type agencies that seemed amused at the concept of an itinerant grant writer parachuting in every week from the wilds of Northern California. The second category were tiny start-ups, like Mrs. Smith, trying to get grants to help people around them who were being devastated by the recession. As I’ve blogged about many times in the last two years, tough times are good times for grant writers because lots of grant funds are available and lots of organizations need to replace falling donations.

Tough times are also good times for new and nimble organizations that address local challenges. Like Mrs. Smith, such newly minted nonprofits, provided they have taken the time to get their 501(c)(3) letter, can compete successfully against their larger, more bureaucratic brethren. This is because small, new nonprofits are not paralyzed by hand-wringing over drops in donations and lowered United Way grants while simultaneously trying to avoid staff lay-offs. About a year ago, Jake wrote about this phenomenon in “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually).” Such nonprofit start-ups (perhaps “upstarts” is a better characterization) helped us start our business.

In the early years, we wrote tons of funded proposals for such organizations—often LA City or County grants—enabling them to take contracts from ossified nonprofits that had been around since the Watts rebellion. It helped that I was then willing to drive all around the dicier parts of LA to get work. But our small fish clients also saw their neighborhoods being devastated and had an intense desire to do something. Then, as now, doing something at any sort of scale requires grants and someone to write the grants. We appeared at the right time with the right skills. We’re still here and a new recession is growing a new crop of small nonprofits, whose executive directors are calling us for help.

Today, Americans are mired in much worse economic times than when our business started. I just Googled the LA unemployment rate in September 1993, which was 9.8%—compared to 12.5% in September 2010! I could do the same with pretty much any part of the country. I’m writing a proposal this weekend for a client in Yuma, AZ, where the current unemployment rate is 27.2%, which is Grapes of Wrath / Tom Joad territory. It is not surprising that Mrs. Smith called looking for grants to kick-start her efforts to help youth falling through the safety net.

She may or may not hire us, but we’re working for lots of similar organizations once again, as the recession provides opportunities for new nonprofits to emerge to meet emerging needs (whew: this sounds like a proposal sentence). Other kinds of startups have also discovered this. We find ourselves where we started, and to quote the Grateful Dead in Truckin’: What a long strange trip it’s been.

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