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Prospecting for Grants: Be a Bear and Bite that Salmon, Any Salmon

A recent email from a prospective client got me to thinking about the best time to prospect and apply for grants.

Our would-be client presented the idea of hiring us to his board. One board member pointed out that the organization lacked a current strategic plan, the last one having expired at the end of 2010 while the new one not be approved until the end of 2011. Our client asked me:

Do you think trying to write foundation proposals without a strategic plan will be a hindrance?

I responded . . .

I don’t think that lack of a current strategic plan is an impediment to seeking foundation or government grant support. The status of the organization’s planning process can be included or not included in any proposal, at your direction. If the funder requests information about your organization’s strategic planning process, it would be our job as grant writers to address the question.

Or, as John Lennon put it in “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

The best time to prospect and apply for grants is always now, not at the end of an introspective planning process, no matter how well-intentioned—just like the best time to start writing a novel is now, the best time to start exercising is now, and so on. Strategic planning is a fine activity for a nonprofit, provided they have plenty of money and lots of time.

As I’ve been blogging about for the past three years, however, the continuing economic malaise means that most nonprofits have little extra money and are so overwhelmed with increased service demands that staff and board members are too exhausted to contemplate developing a plan for 2016—first the organization has to survive 2011. The very uncertain future of the discretionary federal budget funds (e.g., grant programs), combined with the roller coaster stock market (which impacts foundation endowments), make this a especially bad time to miss grant opportunities.

Obviously, I’m not a big fan of strategic planning. Leaving aside my view and whether strategic planning for nonprofits is efficacious, strategic plans have little to do with grant writing. While some federal RFPs and the occasional foundation guidelines will want some info on an organization’s planning process, funders are usually much more interested in what the organization has done, the need for the proposed service/activity, and plausibility of the project concept than the kind of generalities that are found in most strategic plans. And, as I pointed out in my email above, a good grant writer can fairly easily turn a marginal planning process into an passable one through the magic of proposalese.

Which brings me back to the question of grant prospecting. When talking to clients, I often describe the challenges faced by nonprofits and public agencies seeking grants as being analogous to those Alaskan bears we’ve all seen fishing for salmon.

Imagine you’re a bear standing by an icy Alaskan stream, and you’re pretty hungry after sleeping for six months. You could jump into the stream, try to bite the first salmon* that swims by and 20 more in a row, catching a few and missing most. Or you could first study the kind of salmon that might be found in the river, do a cost-benefit analysis of trying to catch sockeye versus pink salmon, decide that you only want sockeye, wait to look for somewhere the sockeye might to be likely to appear, mosey down to the river, and then bite a sockeye when you finally spot one. It might take awhile to get ready to go down to river and even longer until a sockeye swims by. But the planned sockeye has the potential to be the perfect lunch, provided you can catch it.

Bear # 1 will probably be full of salmon and lounging in the sun sending Tweets long before bear # 2 spots her first sockeye—and longer still until she actually catches one.

Let’s imagine two organizations, one called “Overworked and Chaotic Human Services” (OCHS) and the other “Well-Planned Human Services” (WPHS) in the context of our bears.

OCHS constantly looks for grant opportunities to fund its current services and any other services it could plausibly provide. Like bear # 1, OCHS closely monitors federal, state, local and foundation funding “streams” and tries to bite lots of “grant salmon.” Most of the time it comes up with water, but it manages to secure the occasional grant salmon, adjusting its programming to whatever grant salmon it catches. Although OCHS is pretty much willing to eat any grant salmon, the organization also closely monitors emerging trends and anticipates which grant salmon will swim by and when. It just doesn’t stop fishing while contemplating future grant salmon runs.

WPHS is tightly focused on delivering certain services and has a comprehensive overlapping five-year strategic planning process to ensure that the organization knows what it wants to do. Like bear # 2, it takes a long time for WPHS to actually get to the funding streams because it’s absorbed in delivering particular services and planning its organizational future. When it does take a dip into funding streams looking for sockeye, it may find out that the sockeye run was yesterday and there won’t be another one until next year. If this happens, it could become a very thin bear.

The prospective client, who declined to hire us during his organization’s strategic planning process, is like bear # 2. Over the years, we’ve worked for both kinds of bear clients and presently have one that is a bear # 2. Most nonprofits take the “let’s bite any salmon” approach. I think this produces better results. When I was a young grant writer during the Carter administration and writing proposals for a single nonprofit or public agency as an employee, I learned to dive into all funding streams at all times, giving my employer the best chance to get grant salmon.

In a future post, I will provide some tips on how to prospect for grant salmon. But, like most aspects of grant writing, one can only learn this by doing. Taking a two- or three- or five-day training course on grant prospecting, which lots of training outfits offer, will not teach you how to find and catch grant salmon. You have to be hungry and be willing to get your feet wet, or hire someone like us to dive in and bite the passing grant salmon for you. Just don’t be bear # 2, sitting by the funding stream and navel gazing, while the salmon grants swim by.

* Years ago, we wrote several funded proposals for an Alaskan Native organization to support the transition of their failing salmon canning business enterprise into a smoked salmon business. I had the opportunity to visit the cannery and learned quite a bit about salmon fishing, albeit by Alaskan Natives, not bears.

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Program Officer Blues: What To Do When The RFP Is Ambiguous, Contradictory, Incoherent, or All Three

When you find an ambiguity or outright contradiction in an RFP, it’s time to contact the Program Officer, whose phone number and e-mail address is almost always stashed somewhere in the RFP. The big problem with contacting a Program Officer is simple: you can’t trust what she or he tells you. The formal RFP—particularly if published in the Federal Register and/or—takes precedence over anything the Program Officer tells you. Unless you’re given a specific reference to instructions in the RFP, you can’t safely rely on advice given by a Program Officer. This is the primary reason we see no point in attending bidders’ conferences, or, more likely these days, watching “webinars” about RFPs. Anything said in those forums that isn’t backed by the RFP, program guidelines, and/or the underlying section of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) means jack.

And that’s assuming you even can get advice from Program Officers. A client recently wanted more detail about a slightly ambiguous outcome requirement in the Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood proposal we were writing, so we advised her to contact Tanya Howell, the ACF staffer assigned to the program. Our client asked two questions, and in both cases Ms. Howell began by responding with the same helpful sentence: “Applicants should use their best judgment in determining whether they are able to meet the requirements contained in the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), whether they are able to develop an application they believe to be responsive to the FOA and in designing and writing their applications.”

“Applicants should use their best judgment” is another way of saying, “I have no idea, do what you want, and if the reviewer dings you don’t come back and blame me.” Her second sentence, in both cases, said that the measures in question were “at the discretion of the applicant.” This kind of non-answer answer that leaves the applicant in the dark and is only marginally more helpful than no answer at all. It also smacks of the Program Officer simply preparing a template response to questions and applying the template in order to minimize her own need to work.

Here’s another weird example. We recently completed a WIA job training proposal for a large nonprofit in Southern California. The RFP was issued by the Workforce Investment Board (WIB) for a particular jurisdiction, and the RFP specified that applicants must demonstrate a written collaboration with Workforce Sector Intermediaries. We’d never seen this term before; it was not defined in the RFP and a Google search returned us to the RFP. Since the client is already a WIA grantee, we had our client contact call their Program Officer. The Program Officer also did not know what was meant by Workforce Sector Intermediaries and could not get an answer from her supervisors. In other words, nobody at the WIB knew what was the meaning of a requirement specified in their own RFP.

Still, if you can find a contradiction in an RFP, you can sometimes get a correction issued. We’ve found contradictions at least a dozen times over the years, and sometimes we’ll point them out to Program Officers and get the RFP amended. That’s the only real way you can trust that your interpretation is correct, instead of an example of your “discretion” that might cause you to lose points. Thus, despite the depressing anecdotes above, you should pose your conundrum to the Program Officer.

Clients will also ask us about possible ambiguities, and we give the best answers we can. But clients regularly ask us questions about RFPs that we can’t answer. It’s not that we’re opposed to answering questions, of course—but the questions themselves sometimes can’t be answered by the RFP. At that point, it’s time to call or write the Program Officer and hope for the best.

Before you do, however, you should read the RFP and any associated guidance or CFR reference as closely as possible. That means looking at every single section that could have a bearing on your question. If you’re reading an RFP, you’re basically performing the same exercise that (good) English professors do to novels, poems, drama, and short stories, or that lawyers do to legislation and court decisions: close reading. You can find lots of “how to” guides for close reading from Google, or you can look at one of the original textbooks about close reading, Understanding Fiction. But close reading at its most basic entails looking at every single word in relation to other words and ascertaining how it forms meaning, how meanings of a text change, and what meanings can be interpreted from it. For example, if you were close reading this passage, you might look at the phrase “at its most basic” in the preceding sentence and say, “What about its ‘least’ basic? What do advanced forms of close reading entail?” and so forth.

In Umberto Eco’s Reflections on The Name of the Rose, he says that a novel is “a machine for generating interpretations.” The same is true of other kinds of texts, like RFPs, and your job in close reading is to generate the interpretations to the best of your abilities. Our skills at doing this are, of course, very finely honed, but even those finely honed skills can’t produce something from nothing. We read as closely as possible, use those readings to write a complete and technically correct proposal, and move on to cocktail hour at quittin’ time.

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Nonprofits should make better use of social media in grant applications

We try hard to keep our proposals fresh by making our project concepts reflect what is going on in communities today—not what the world was like decades ago. For example, several years ago we began including references to emerging social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) in proposals, mostly in describing the outreach component. The reality, unfortunately, is that we write in the Proposal World, while our clients live in the real world. I talk to nonprofit Executive Directors all the time and most don’t use social media in any meaningful way, other than perhaps for fund raising or PR. I’ve yet to come across one that is using new tools in their programming.*

This is not surprising, as nonprofits are always slow to adopt new technology, due to budget constraints, lack of imagination, and/or overall fuddy-duddyness. Although we used email and had a website in 1993, nonprofit clients didn’t routinely use email until about 2005. Though most of our youth services clients don’t know it, virtually all of their teenage and young adults clients have smartphones, no matter how low-income they may be.** Social media permeates American youth culture.

In my post last week, I briefly mentioned the troubling emerging problem of big city “flash mobs.” I’m not referring to the original “Thriller” flash mobs that suddenly did zombie dancing, but to the Philadelphia and Milwaukee youth mobs that have recently rampaged. It seems that the mobs formed and de-formed by using Twitter, Facebooking and texting to coordinate their activities, confounding police and potential victims alike (see this video depicting the Milwaukee situation).

A potential flash mob was defused in the Oakland BART subway system last week when the cell phone system was disabled in underground stations. While this raises First Amendment issues that are beyond the scope of this post (for a free proposal phrase, substitute “proposal” for “post”), it shows that public sector administrators and police are getting hip to social media. If a BART bureaucrat can figure this out, as can the State Department, nonprofit executive directors should be able to. For example, we recently completed a federal job training proposal for a large nonprofit in South Central LA. While the executive director told me that virtually all of her very low-income youth clients had smartphones, she wanted to stick with traditional outreach strategies and removed all of my first draft references to utilizing social media.

Consider a project concept for an enterprising nonprofit in any city that has experienced the flash mob phenomenon or might. Let’s call this Project YEAH (Youth Electronic Action Helpers), proposed by Youth Engagement Services (YES), a fictional United Way agency. Project YEAH could work this way:

  • The basic concept is that all community youth are not angry and disaffected. Lots of good kids can be mobilized through social media to produce peer pressure to prevent violent, flash mob behavior. The target population includes middle and high school age youth, as well as out-of-school, unemployed youth and young adults—say, age 14 – 22—of whatever ethnic population predominates in the target area.
  • YES forms a Project Advisory Committee (PAC), including representatives of other services providers, law enforcement, the local Workforce Investment Board (WIB), elected officials, the chamber of commerce, employers, faith-based organizations, etc. The PAC meets virtually, using on-line meeting software and members communicate with one another through a secure web portal, texting, and private tweets. No travel, no donuts, and no wasted time should = better organizational participation. Public access is assured by publicizing the on-line meetings and allowing anyone with a web connection to watch.
  • A Social Media Consultant (a tech-savvy local nerd) is hired to set up the project social media sites and develop training protocols for staff and the target population, who are engaged through the outreach effort (see below).
  • Several Peer Helpers are recruited as outreach and engagement staff. PHs are 18 – 25 or so and are former gang members, star athletes, American Idol contestants, junior preachers, or have some other affiliation or background that provides them with natural connections and street cred with the target population. PHs are trained in community organizing techniques and skills, along with use of social media, using on-line training to the maximum feasible extent. Smart phones, iPads, Internet service, and similar gear are provided. The PHs mostly connect with each other through virtual methods, rather than gathering at the YES office. Once again, no donut eating. Time and activity logs are keep through a secure database, developed by the Social Media Consultant.
  • PHs conduct outreach and education, primarily using social media, rather than the traditional mailings, presentations, street-based outreach, etc. The outreach is based on the ever popular “train-the-trainers” model, updated for the social media world. The trained PHs recruit a cadre of Youth Ambassadors (YAs), who are paid a monthly stipend and are trained by the PHs in community organizing techniques and, to the extent necessary, the use of social media. The YAs use the project-developed social media tools to engage the target population, encouraging them to avoid flash mob/violent anti-social behavior while accessing supportive services (e.g., pre-employment skills training, after school enrichment, GED preparation, job searches, emergency food and clothing, etc.) from YES and PAC members. In effect, each YA will develop a YEAH Follower Cadre, using the Twitter model. Should info begin to circulate on social media channels about potential flash mobs, the YEAH Follower Cadres will react by using social media to discourage participation. In some cases, YEAH Follower Cadres, wearing brightly colored Project YEAH t-shirts and hats will physically meet at potential flash mobs sites, forming a human peer pressure blockade before violence develops. This could include well understood nonviolent protest techniques (e.g., going limp and lying down, etc.). PHs will video the blockades, immediately uploading to YouTube to build awareness and peer pressure.
  • All activities, services, follow-up and client satisfaction feedback will be tracked with user-input databases developed by the Social Media Consultant.

I think a project concept like the above would be great interest to large community foundations and national foundations, particularly those associated with technology companies. Go try it. A version of this social media-based youth engagement model will make much more compelling reading to a funder than the traditional approaches out clients typically want us to use.

EDIT: The New York Times reports: “Phone Messages Improve [Health] Care, Study Finds.”

* I know one emergency medicine resident who observed that her patients routinely had nicer phones than she did.

** If I’m wrong and you know of a nonprofit that is using social media in its programming, post a comment, as I (and readers) would love to know about it.

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Seliger + Associates Finally Enters the Twitterverse: @SeligerGrants

After three years of contemplation, we’ve finally decided to use Twitter. Sign up at Twitter and you can follow us using our handle, @SeligerGrants. Or, see the “What I’m Doing” column to the left and right of this post.

I’m starting to tweet because I think the world of nonprofits is at another major inflection point, similar to the situation that started three years ago in August 2008 with the bank near-meltdown, TARP and, eventually, the Stimulus Bill. As I’ve been blogging about since, the reality for nonprofits has changed markedly for the worse. As the economy tanked—whether or not the official “recession” ended or is about to re-start—the competition for grants and donations has intensified. Just last week, I blogged about how Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes Keep Coming to the Nonprofit World. And what happened in the last seven days?:

And I thought the news was bad the previous week!

I don’t know what will go wrong this week, but I suspect there are many nonprofit executive directors who’ve just learned that pledged donations have been cancelled, and those executive directors are struggling to re-do their budgets to keep the doors open. I suspect that there will be little good economic news in the coming months to brighten the prospects for nonprofits. Hence, @SeligerGrants. I plan to tweet at least once per day, doing what I can to get information out as quickly as I can.

Here’s my second tweet:

#MilwaukeeYouthRiot… – Nonprofits Go Get Grants – Windhover Fdn… or Marshall & Ilsley Fdn 414-765-7835

For those of you not in the Twitterverse, this may look like gibberish*, as Twitter allows only 140 characters and the URLs are shortened. Allow me to dissect this tweet.

The initial “#”” is a hash tag (#). Hash tags flag interesting or trending tweets. The URL that follows the hash tag is an active link (in a Twitter client), which leads to a story about a riot last week a the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee, in which dozens of African American youth fought a pitched battle with police. For those too young to remember, Milwaukee, like other big Midwestern cities, was the scene of a major urban rebellion in 1967. News of a similar event 44 years later immediately caught my grant writer’s eye. Back to the tweet. “Nonprofits Go Get Grants” is followed by contact info to two large foundations that fund at-risk youth services in Milwaukee, the Windhover Foundation and the Marshall & Ilsley Foundation.

You have it in 140 characters: breaking news affecting nonprofit youth service providers in Milwaukee and a small bit of free grant source research. Whenever there is an urban riot in the United States, foundation and government grant funds are sure to follow. Having written many funded proposals for nonprofits that serve the African American communities in Milwaukee and nearby Racine, I know local needs very well, and I’ll be contacting some of our former clients to see if they want to go after the grants I think will be available. But you can beat me to it through the wonders of Twitter.

If you have a credible nonprofit in Milwaukee, get busy thinking up a plausible concept to help the community overcome the challenge of young people forming a mob in the middle of what is supposed to be a carefree summer event for families and children. Here are a couple of ideas: mentoring, summer jobs, alternative recreation activities, and training a corps of Youth Ambassadors. It doesn’t really matter, as long as your organization springs forward to propose solutions to new or critical problems, as I blogged about last week. Hence the brief but pointed “Go Get Grants” and two foundation funders in my tweet.

I’ll be tweeting as often as I can, highlighting interesting news, project concept, announcing RFPs and blog posts, and throwing in the occasional Huntington Beach Surf Report. Set up a Twitter account and follow my tweets. Even a single idea you get from @SeligerGrants could be the difference that keeps your agency ahead of the competition. Nonprofit executives need all the information they can get. Take our tweets and run with them.

* Jake, who finds Twitter “stupid”—or was it “inane,” or was it “a humbug”—but knows a lot about grants, could not decipher this tweet. His younger sister, who is very involved with social media both for her job and personally, understood it immediately, although she knows little about grants. Jake said, “What can be said in 140 characters is either trivial or abridged; in the first case it would be better not to say it at all, and in the second case it would be better to give it the space it deserves.”

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Two for One: Where Grants Come From, Fast Food, and the Contradictory Nature of Government Programs

Have you ever wondered where grant programs come from, like a child asking about the nature of baby making? Programs often don’t start with legislators; they percolate up from the minds of journalists, academics, and bloggers who realize, “X would be a great idea!” You can see this process in Mark Bittman’s editorial “Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables:”

Rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available.

Notice how Bittman says he wants “a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans.” Such efforts, of course, already exist, like the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Program, almost all of which include a healthful eating component. And have you ever seen “MyPlate,” which is a revised version of the food pyramid?* The food pyramid was a federal effort too, albeit marred by politicking. But even if current programs didn’t exist already, the reality of how such a program would work on the ground differs from how Bittman imagines it would work while he’s writing. He’s envisioning an idealistic project pretty far from the boots-on-the-ground experience of Seliger + Associates and most nonprofits who know just how much gets lost in the space between dollars earmarked for a program that “encourages a sound diet” and some actual person receiving services.

Still, Bittman has an ear for the proposal world, as he shows when he includes this specious bit of proposal-ese: “Yet the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods.” I suspect the food industry is more than capable of marketing anything, but it focuses on marketing what sells; the problem is that more people want to eat Big Macs than broccoli, french fries than carrots. McDonald’s has introduced an endless number of “healthier” items over the years, but those healthier items still don’t sell like burgers and fries. So McDonald’s sells billions of burgers and fries and the occasional bag of apple slices.

Fundamentally, Bittman wants government help with healthful foods. On the flipside, Ricardo Lopez writes in the L.A. Times that California “seeks to educate food-stamp recipients about fast food.” It turns out that Los Angeles County now allows thousands of food stamp (or as the program is now termed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP))** recipients to use their vouchers at fast food restaurants. The article says that “Anna Harrald likes to eat at Taco Bell because the hard-shell tacos are ‘nice and cheap and good,'” which tells you a lot of what you need to know about healthier eating choices.

It used to be that fast food places didn’t want to accept food stamps, but the recession changes things for them, to the point where some will advertise:

At a Downey KFC, assistant manager Sam Chavez said a drop in business partly spurred the restaurant’s recent decision to accept public assistance benefits. A large poster hangs in the windows announcing, “We welcome EBT,” referring to the food-stamp debit cards dispersed to recipients.

One the one hand, parts of the government—like the parts that pay out Medicaid or fund Carol M. White—want you to eat better. On the other, like the parts of California that want to make sure you’re eating something, fast food is okay. That’s one of the realities a program like the one Bittman proposes will run into.

As a grant writer, if you were presented by these two facts—food stamps can be used for fast food but fast food makes people fat and decreases their overall health—how would you solve the problem? Leave your answers in the comments before you read the next paragraph.

I’d probably write something like this:

Area residents live in a food desert. It is simply not possible for many of them to access the kind of fresh vegetables and groceries they need to thrive. Although food stamps are supposed to be used solely for the purchase of nutritious foods, in recognition of the simple reality that such foods are often unavailable to targeted residents food stamps can be used at fast food joints, because of the rapacious food policies of large corporations that simply do not understand life in the target area. Part of the proposed project will involve a campaign to lure local vendors capable of selling fresh, unprocessed food to residents into the target area to help residents avoid the false lure of Taco Bell and their ilk.

Then I would describe how the proposed program will incorporate a component that will attempt to work with grocery stores and farmers’ markets to set up shop—in doing so, I might even cite Bittman’s editorial.

* As far as I can tell, this is another pointless exercise in random language change.

** Another random linguistic change like something out of Orwell. “Food stamps” at least vaguely describes what’s happening (you give a vendor stamps, you get food), while SNAP is just another pointless acronym.

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Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes Keep Coming to the Nonprofit World

A continuing avalanche of bad economic news confirms the upheaval in the nonprofit world that I’ve been blogging about for the last few months. To paraphrase David Bowie in “Changes:”

(Turn and face the strain)
Don’t want to be a richer [organization]
(Turn and face the strain)
Just gonna have to be a different [organization]
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time

Not to compete with Jake’s bimonthly links posts, but a few recent stories should scare the bejesus out of most nonprofit executive directors:

  • The New York Times, July 29, 2011, Debt Crisis? Bankruptcy Fears? See Jefferson County, AL. Everyone involved in human services should care about Jefferson County, AL. Jefferson County is an urban county centered on Birmingham, the largest city in the state. Since we recently completed an assignment for a Birmingham client, I know the city is about 3/4 African American and about 1/4 of residents live below the federal poverty level (FPL). When the county goes bankrupt, folks in the city are going to have a much harder time accessing a whole slew of services, from family court to disability services to job training. The lines will be longer at the TANF and WIB offices, and the staffers in even worse moods as they face furloughs and layoffs. But that’s not the real problem: nonprofits who provide a wide array of wraparound supportive services (free proposal phrase here) are going to lose their county contracts when the need for services is growing.
  • National Public Radio (NPR), July 26, 2011, Wealth Gap Widens. As reported by NPR, “The gap between rich and poor has widened. Wealth is more and more concentrated among a select few, and those few are mostly white. The median wealth of white households is now 20 times that of black households, and 18 times that of Hispanic households, according to the Pew Research Center.” The net worth of most Americans is falling, while the gap between white and minority citizens is turning into a gulf (see Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation for more on this subject). Unemployment is rising and government services are being cut–-a perfect storm for nonprofits.
  • The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2011, Slow Growth Stirs Fears of Recession. The official growth in GDP was 1.3% for the second quarter of 2011 and .4% for the first quarter: “The economic recovery is grinding to a halt, raising the risk that the U.S. could fall back into recession and tightening the screws on Washington to resolve a debt-ceiling debate that threatens to inflict further damage on a fragile economy.” In most of the communities where Seliger + Associates works, nobody is worried about a new recession since the last one never ended.

I get calls every week from organizations across America that face cutbacks in traditional funding streams. Public sector bankruptcies, like the hapless Jefferson County noted above, will exacerbate the crisis. As I’ve blogged about before, the only real choices nonprofits have are to shrink in size, seek more donations, go after additional foundation and government grants, and/or re-think their mission and programming.

Two current clients illustrate two wildly different approaches to confronting the changing realities for nonprofits. Both clients provide after school services for low-income African American youth in two almost adjacent fairly large cities in Northern California. In homage to Client # 9, Elliot Spitzer, I’ll refer to them as Client # 1 and # 2.

Client # 1 offers a fairly standard mix of after school enrichment, mentoring and fitness programs, and has been funded mostly through federal grants and donations from local large businesses. This organization has gotten interested in childhood obesity, as popularized by First Lady Micelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. Client # 1 has decided to seek funds for childhood obesity prevention, as well as specialized mentoring. Both are laudable and fundable project concepts but do not address critical issues facing their target population, since the parents/caregivers of the kids are unemployed, underemployed and/or underwater in their mortgages. They’re having trouble affording food of any kind for their kids, making the relative merits of arugula versus french fries unimportant. The youth probably don’t have time for mentors anyway, because they’re working to help support the family. In other words, Client # 1 is seeking funds for services that meet interesting but peripheral needs of their target population, instead of basic needs.

Client # 2 runs more or less the same programs as Client # 1 but is larger and has been operating longer. This organization has been primarily funded through county contracts, modest user fees, and lots of small donations. While trying to maintain its core services, Client # 2 has decided to seek funds for two new programs. The first will provide emergency food and meal services for the families of targeted youth. The second will help the 5,000 or so youth and young adult offenders about to be released into their county as a result of a recent Supreme Court decision that will return tens of thousands of state prison inmates to the streets in a few months. Regardless of the merits of the Supreme Court decision, the arrival of thousands of ex-offenders, all of whom need housing, jobs and everything else, at once is going to overwhelm the existing supportive services system for ex-offenders like a tsunami.

Put yourself in the position of a funder. Would you fund Client # 1, which has a strong track record and wants to operate innovative services that nibble at the edges of problems, or Client # 2, which has an equally strong track record and is trying to address basic and emerging challenges?

As always, we’re doing our best to help both Client # 1 and # 2 meet their funding objectives. Two similar clients are taking action to increase their funding streams in different ways, as they adjust to the changing economic environment of their communities. As Bowie put it, they’re both turning “to face the strain.” Make sure your organization understands that doing what you’ve been doing forever probably will not work. Be creative, be aggressive and go get some grants. As Coach Taylor said on the now-concluded show Friday Night Lights, Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose!