Monthly Archives: August 2012

Time Banks, Barter, Community Gardens and More: Economic Misery Provides Opportunities for Nimble Nonprofits

As we’ve written about before in “What Budget Cuts? The RFPs Continue to Pour Out,” “One, Two, Three* Easy Steps to Start-Up a Nonprofit Upstart,” and “Grant Writing from Recession to Recession: This is a Great Time to Start a New Nonprofit,” the Great Recession and continuing economic malaise present tremendous grant opportunities for nonprofits—provided they are fleet of foot and keep their eye on the prize.

The Wall Street Journal’s “For Spain’s Jobless, Time Equals Money” offers a case on point. The story details self-help efforts by desperate unemployed Spaniards, particularly those in their mid-20s to mid-30s (their unemployment rate is over 50%, which is similar to that of African American young adults), to overcome jobless and essentially cashless lives. In addition to the ever popular community gardens and direct barter systems (“I’ll give you a chicken for a haircut”),* these efforts include time banks.

A time bank is essentially a formalized barter system in which hours worked or stuff provided by one member are quantified and “banked” to be used in exchange for goods or services from another member. Thus, if you have a chicken and need a haircut, you don’t have to find a hungry barber. Rather, you find another member who wants a chicken, get credit for the transaction, and spend the credit with a member who is a barber. The barber gets credit for the haircut and uses it to have his scissors sharpened.

The article cites other permutations of barter systems, including gardening co-ops, in which people garden together and trade their labor for shared produce. Free stuff exchanges, which are easily facilitated by social media, are also becoming popular. At itinerant locations, like somebody’s basement or an actual storefront, people bring piles of stuff they don’t want in order to pick through piles of other people’s stuff they might want, all without exchanging money. The ultimate expression of these ideas is to develop locally accepted script that takes the place of currency, a concept that bloomed in America during the Great Depression (“Hoover Bucks”).

Some or all of these make dandy project concepts for foundation grants—particularly for organizations working in extremely disadvantaged communities. As we’ve written about before, grant writing is largely the art of telling funders what they want to hear. Any of these time bank or barter-style ideas will warm the stone-like hearts of foundations with preconceived notions of how services should be delivered to the poor folks—through methods like sweat equity, bootstrapping, using local resources to reduce carbon footprints, and the like. A thousand programs and communes have been started with similar ideals, but why not begin a few hundred more?

Although ideas about time banks and bartering spring to life when the economy is sufficiently rotten, to most funders barter and self-help projects will seem like new ideas if they’re pitched carefully. In taking these project concepts and running with them, you’ll keep your staff busy, build neighborhood social infrastructure, and you might even help a few people in need.

While the trend toward time banks, barter, co-op gardens, free stuff exchanges, and the like help keep people afloat, they are of course disastrous for a modern, currency-based national economy, which is underpinned entirely on people being willing to accept pretty pieces of government issued paper for their labor. It also makes tax collectors unhappy, since the vast majority of these transactions are “off the books,” even though the value is supposed to be reported.**


* Even Seliger + Associates has bartered before. When we were starting out about 20 years ago, we had little money for equipment and were struggling to make do with a single PC and its 12-inch screen. But a computer recycling nonprofit appeared, and we traded grant writing services for a couple of somewhat out-of-date but serviceable PCs with luxurious 15″ monitors. About 12 years ago, I came across a party company run by a fellow who also had a nonprofit on the side that worked with at-risk kids. At the time, I had teenage twins, so we traded grant writing services for a party—which is surely a one-time trade in the annals of barter. And, yes, I reported the value of goods and services received on my tax returns. I’m still open to the idea, if someone has an interesting trade to make. Grant writing for a Porsche 911, anyone? Send me your ideas and maybe a trade can be made.

** For a great description of how the underground economy works in poor communities, see Sudhir Venkatesh’s seminal Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Poor.

August Grant Writing Links: Abstinence and Comprehensive Sex Education, the Stimulus Bill, Charter Schools, Entitlements, and More

* Parents Just Don’t Understand: A sociologist says American moms and dads are in denial about their kids’ sexual lives. See also: Why Have Teen Pregnancy Rates Dropped? A new study shows how to reduce them even more. Both could fit in your next Competitive Abstinence Education Grant Program proposal. Notice especially this, from the first link: “You argue that both abstinence-only and comprehensive sex ed camps treat teenage sexuality in a similar way. How so?” Sinikka Elliott responds:

One side is saying, ”Well, they need to abstain. That’s a surefire way that they’re gonna be safe,” and the other side is saying, “They’re not gonna abstain and so they need contraceptive information.” They were basing their argument on the same things: the teen pregnancy rates, the STI rates.

* Along similar lines, it’s useful to remember that contemporary problems have historical roots: in The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, Faramerz Dabhoiwala says that “by 1650 only about 1 per cent of all births were illegitimate. Thereafter it increased steadily, to unprecedented levels. By 1800, about a quarter of all women who gave birth for the first time were unmarried.” And: “by 1800, almost 40 per cent of women who did marry were also already pregnant.” In other words, many challenges you’re dealing with today, as a nonprofit or public agency services provider, go back at least a couple centuries.

* In the U.S., “Entitlements are squeezing out public investments. In 1962, spending on investments was two and a half times that of entitlements. But today, as a result of this Great Inversion, entitlement spending is three times that of investments. And this trend will only accelerate in time as the Baby Boomers retire and their benefits grow faster than inflation and wages.”

* “President Obama’s stimulus has been an astonishing, and unrecognized, success, argues Michael Grunwald” in his book The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era.

* “Charter schools raise educational standards for vulnerable children.” If you’re working in a charter school, you should be thinking about the Charter Schools Program (CSP) Seven Grant Competitions, some of which are state pass-through funds and some of which charter schools can apply for directly.

* James Fallows: “The Certainty of More Shootings.” Also, on the subject of personal technology and the news, see ‘Denver Resident Here. Reddit, I’m Doing My Best to Update This.’ The real story here is the tragedy, but the way the news spread is also a sign of the times.

* Zoe Williams: No time for novels – should we ditch fiction in times of crisis? When our daily news is apocalyptic, it’s irresponsible to read made-up stories. It’s time to start reading the serious stuff instead. Fortunately, people have been castigating fiction for as long as there has been fiction in any meaningful sense of the word.

* University of Virginia President Teresa “Sullivan has an ambitious plan to retool introductory courses as ‘hybrids,’ replacing much of the human labor with technology and freeing professors to focus on higher-level classes. Her initiative would go further than most elite universities have dared in replacing human instructors with software.” Having both listened to my students talk about what intro-level courses are like at the University of Arizona and having experienced the distinctly not useful aspects of many of the intro-level courses at Clark University, I can’t see a huge problem with trying these ideas: at the moment, such courses appear to largely be a way of collecting tuition, rather than imparting real knowledge. Many of my students say intro math and science courses at the U of A are so bad that the students prefer taking them at community colleges, if possible, and the intro humanities courses are often “taught” in lecture halls with hundreds or more than a thousand students nominally taking them at once.

(Hat tip Marginal Revolution.)

* “The Frisson of Friction: An undergraduate tries a challenging introductory programming course.” I find this especially poignant, given what I do: “Last I checked, there are just over 100 users of my extension. This is far fewer than the number of people using the most popular extension (AdBlock, with 1,626,216 users at that point), but also far more than the number of people who usually read my papers (my TF, 1).”

* Where do sentences come from? My one-line answer: from other sentences.

* “China’s New Target: Batteries” tells the story of A123 Systems, which got a bunch of federal loan guarantees and grants before going belly-up.

* No matter what changes we make to healthcare, in rural America, simply getting to the doctor is a big problem. We often use real or imagined Appalachia similarities in proposals with rural target areas (free grant tip here).

* Scott Atlas on health care; he also discusses access to care, and especially to doctors, which is widely ignored in the political debates yet absolutely essential for CHC / Section 330 providers.

Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) is Finally Here

Back in June, we got excited about the imminent announcement for the Department of Education’s Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) Program. Then we waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Today, however, two months and a day after our post, the Department of Education finally released the complete application package. Some of the highlights include 70 pages of narrative and 117 pages of RFP. There’s a non-mandatory letter of intent (LOI) due by August 30 (from page 5 of the RFP: “Applicants that do not complete this form may still apply for funding.”). The federal deadline is October 30, but— and this is a big “but”—applicants have to allow ten business days in advance of the federal deadline for review by the state department of education and the mayor of the relevant jurisdiction(s). The means that the real deadline appears to be October 17!

We usually send our the Seliger Funding Report on Monday morning, which means we’d have to wait another week to get this breaking news to our subscribers and readers. But, given the time-sensitive nature and complexity of the application, and its liar deadline, we want to make sure as many potential applicants know about this $400,000,000 RFP as possible.

How I track needs assessments and other grant proposal research

Bear with me. I’m about to discuss a topic that might recall horrific memories from high school history or college English, but I promise that, this time, I’m discussing research methods that are a) simple and b) relevant to your life as a grant writer in a nonprofit or other setting.

The single best way I’ve found to track grant research is described in Steven Berlin Johnson’s essay “Tool for Thought.” You can safely go read Johnson’s essay and skip the rest of this post, because it’s that good. I’m going to describe the way Johnson uses Devonthink Pro (DTP) and give some examples that show how useful this innovative program is in a grant writing context.

The problem is this: you’re a grant writer. If you’re any good, you’re probably writing/producing at least one proposal every three months, and there’s a solid chance you’re doing even more than that—especially if you have support staff to help with the production side of proposals. Every proposal is subtly different, yet each has certain commonalities. Many also require research. In the process of completing a proposal, you do the research, find a bunch of articles and maybe some books, write the needs assessment, and cite a bunch of research in (and perhaps you also cite research) in the evaluation section or elsewhere, depending on the RFP.

You finish the proposal and you turn it in.

You also know “One of the Open Secrets of Grant Writing and Grant Writers: Reading.” You see something about your area’s economy in the local newspaper. You read something about the jobs situation in The Atlantic. That book about drug prohibition—what was it called again? Right, Daniel Okrent’s Last Call—has a couple of passages you should write down because they might be useful later.

But it’s very hard to synthesize any of this material in a coherent, accessible manner. You can keep a bunch of Word documents scattered in a folder. You can develop elaborate keyword systems. Such efforts will work for a short period of time; they’ll work when you have four or five or six proposals and a couple dozen key quotes. They won’t work when you’ve been working for years and have accumulated thousands of research articles, proposals, and quotes. They won’t work when you know you need to read about prisoner re-entry but you aren’t sure if you tagged everything related to that subject with prisoner re-entry.

That’s where DTP comes in. The program’s great, powerful feature is its “See Also” function, which performs associative searches on large blocks of text to find how things might be related in subtle ways. Maybe you use the word “jail” and “drugs” without using the word “prisons” in a paragraph. If you search for “prisons,” you might not find that other material, but DTP might. This is a contrived example, but it helps show the program’s power.

Plus, chances are that if you read an article six years ago—or, hell, six months ago—you’re probably not going to remember it. Unless you’re uncommonly organized, you’re not going to find the material you might really need. DTP lets you drop the information in the program to let the program do the heavy lifting by remembering it. I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement, but DTP works surprisingly well.

Let’s keep using the example I started above and imagine that your nonprofit provides re-entry services to ex-offenders. You’ll probably end up writing the same basic explanation of how your program conducts intake, assessment, plans, service delivery, and follow-up in a myriad of different ways, depending on the funder, the page limit, and the specific questions being asked. You want a way to store that kind of information. DTP does this very well. The trick is keeping text chunks between about 50 words and 500 words, as Johnson advises. If you have more, you won’t be able to read through what you have and to find material quickly.

Consequently, a 3,000-word project services section would probably overwhelm you next time you’re looking for something similar. But a 500-word description of your agency’s intake procedure would be very manageable.

The system isn’t perfect. The most obvious flaw is in the person doing the research: you need a certain amount of discipline to copy/paste and otherwise annotate material. This might be slow at first, because DTP libraries actually get more useful when they have more material. You also need to learn how to exploit DTP to the maximum feasible extent (free proposal phrase here). But once you’ve done that, you’ll have a very fast, very accurate way of finding things that can make your grant writing life much, much easier. (Incidentally, this is also how I organize blog posts, and DTP often refers me back to earlier blog posts I would otherwise have forgotten about).

Right now, DTP is only available on OS X, but there is similar functionality in programs like Evernote or Zoho Notebook, which are cross-platform. I can’t vouch for these programs because I’ve never used them, but others online have discussed them. DTP, if used correctly, however, is a powerful argument for research-based writers using OS X.

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.