Monthly Archives: October 2012

Nonprofits must keep searching for new revenue: “Communities for Teaching Excellence” and Gates Foundation funding

In the L.A. Times, Howard Blume says that a “Gates Foundation-funded education-reform group [is going] to close,” because the organization—Communities for Teaching Excellence—lost 75% of its funding. That 75% came from a single source: the Gates Foundation. This story holds an important lesson for nonprofits: you’re only as good as your current, and next, revenue source.

Actually, Blume says that the nonprofit’s board chair claims that Communities for Teaching Excellence decided to shut itself down:

But Communities for Teaching Excellence was not hitting its marks in terms of generating press coverage and building community coalitions, said Amy Wilkins, chairwoman of the board of directors. She said the board voted to shutter the organization; the Seattle-based Gates Foundation agreed with the decision.

This seems. . . improbable. We’ve rarely encountered a nonprofit that willingly shut down.* But we have encountered lots of nonprofits who ran out of money and then decided that their mission was complete and that they could move on. The situation is analogous to high-level political, military, and business leaders who are told to have their resignations on their bosses’ desks by the morning. All of us have seen that sort of thing in the news: “I would like to spend more time with my family. . .” is usually code for “was fired.”

Nonprofits shouldn’t rely on a single source of income. Plus, once you have income, use that source to leverage more.** A single source source—especially one with cachet like the Gates Foundation—makes it easier to get more, because foundations like a winner and like to be associated with winners.

Foundation and corporate giving programs, like venture capitalists, are herd animals, and they’ll assume that if someone else is funding you, you must be good. Sometimes they’re even honest about it, as an RFP from the Crossroads Fund makes clear: “We fund groups with budgets under $300,000, and look for organizations with diverse funding sources” (emphasis added).  I’ll leave their dubious use of commas aside and point out that they’re just unusually honest. As with the dating market, one victory tends to provide the social proof necessary to beget other victories, and Communities for Teaching Excellence already had one major victory.

But they may have stopped swimming, and as soon as they stop swimming, they died.*** Or they may have tried to keep going and simply done so ineffectively; we can only speculate from the outside. I’m guessing, however, that they succumbed to the disease often caused by success: assuming that you’re golden and can do no wrong.

Communities for Teaching Excellence itself was even doing some interesting work: the Gates Foundation “funded the development of new teacher-evaluation systems,” which is an issue that’s growing in importance. In The Atlantic, for example, Amanda Ripley explains “Why Kids Should Grade Teachers:”

A decade ago, an economist at Harvard, Ronald Ferguson, wondered what would happen if teachers were evaluated by the people who see them every day—their students. The idea—as simple as it sounds, and as familiar as it is on college campuses—was revolutionary. And the results seemed to be, too: remarkable consistency from grade to grade, and across racial divides. Even among kindergarten students. A growing number of school systems are administering the surveys—and might be able to overcome teacher resistance in order to link results to salaries and promotions.

I’m not sure that Communities for Teaching Excellence was working on this particular set of issues, but education reform does seem to have reached a critical mass. Maybe something substantive is actually happening in the field.

By the way, the chairwoman of the board also has a grant writer’s sense of proposal-ese:

“The field was more complex … and building these partnerships was more difficult than anybody had imagined,” Wilkins said. “The inventors of this organization had envisioned more robust activity at the local level than we were achieving.”

What does “complex” mean? What does “more robust activity at the local level mean” in this context? Blume either didn’t ask or didn’t tell us. That he regurgitates this kind of language is indicative of the problems of the newspaper industry as a whole: reporters not only don’t call people on their BS, but they repeat the BS.


* In the rare cases in which a nonprofit willingly shuts down, the shutdown is often caused by the departure of key staff people, or the death or departure of the founder or a major true believer.

** Other businesses face the same basic set of problems. We’ve occasionally been approached by organizations that want to buy the vast majority of our effective grant-writing capacity, and although those discussions have never gone very far, we also don’t want to be beholden to a single client, so wouldn’t take the offer.

*** This is similar to raising money for startups and being an academic (at least until tenure).

Turhan Bey Passes, Presidential Debates, Honey Boo Boo, Truffle Pigs, and FY ’13 RFPs (Including YouthBuild, Serving Adult and Youth Offenders, and More)

Almost five years ago, I wrote about the strange phenomenon of grant programs rising from the dead like The Mummy in “Zombie Funding – Six Tana Leaves for Life, Nine for Motion.” Two events reminded of this post.

First, the Huffington Post reported that Turhan Bey has passed to the great beyond. As those of you of a certain age will remember from late night TV, Turhan Bey played the sinister Mehemet Bey in the seminal Universal Pictures monster movie, The Mummy’s Tomb. Like federal Program Officers for programs facing cutbacks, Turhan Bey was responsible for keeping Kharis alive with the mysterious tana leaves.

Second, politics and grants are intersecting—you can see one example in the way President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney got into a fight over Big Bird in their debate, which was really over funding for public broadcasting. Then, Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan got into a spirited tiff about Ryan writing support letters for Stimulus Bill grant proposals from his District, even though he vocally opposed the Stimulus Bill.* Leaving aside the politics of these exchanges and regardless of who wins the election, it’s clear that grants are going to be a big part of the national discussion as the feds approach the fiscal cliff.

There will be much hand wringing and gnashing of teeth over possible cuts to domestic competitive grant programs, as interest groups flood Washington to save their particular bacon. As Honey Boo Boo puts it, “A dolla makes me holla.”** I’m not a betting man, but I will venture a dollar that funding for Big Bird survives the fiscal cliff, as will funding for most other grant programs. Some may get a severe haircut and others may be living underground on six tana leaves, but almost all will eventually get nine tanna leaves and walk among us again.

For nonprofits, all the hubbub means that it is critical to stay on top of the federal RFP process. Toward this end (this is free proposal transition phrase), it pays to root around like a truffle pig looking for tasty grant morsels on the federal forest floor. It turns out, for example, that our pals at the Department of Labor (DOL) Employment and Training Administration (ETA) just posted a forecast of FY ’13 Upcoming Funding Announcement. Early 2013 will bring a temping $40,000,000 for “The Make It In America Challenge,” followed closely by our old friend YouthBuild, Serving Adult and Youth Ex-Offenders through Strategies Targeted to Characteristics Common to Female Ex-Offenders Generation II and Serving Juvenile Ex-Offenders in High –Poverty, High-Crime Areas Generation III.

It clear that the ETA plans to keep shoving RFPs out of the door, and it behooves nonprofit to position themselves in advance of RFP issuance so they can prepare compelling proposals. Or you can just hire Seliger + Associates to be your personal Grant Truffle Pig.


* We have several clients in Racine, which is in Congressman Ryan’s district, and it is entirely possible that we drafted the support letter for a Stimulus Bill proposal that riled Uncle Joe.

** Jake was sent this Onion article and did not realize that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is an actual show.

Pros don’t fear competition — they are the competition

In Joe McNally’s book The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light In Small Places, he describes how, in 1981, he went to shoot a space shuttle launch—but, as McNally says, “I had no idea how to do it” (he sounds like an amateur grant writer pressed into service). Neither did the other photographers. Instead, they went to lunch with Ralph Morse, who’d covered Mercury 7 and other space-related events. Although Morse was working for another magazine, he “sat down and told us how to do it. Every step. Held nothing back. Gave us what for and the how to of photographing a launch.” Better yet:

He was comfortable doing that, because he was so confident in his own abilities that he could tell us exactly what to do and still go out there and kick our butt. Which he did.

You may notice that, despite innumerable cookbooks, restaurants continue to thrive. Despite innumerable programming books, programming consultants continue to thrive. Despite many car repair books, repair shops continue to thrive. These days it’s not just books, either: websites and experts proliferate.

The same is true of grant writing. Though there are few if any books about grant writing that are actually worth reading—and we’re not likely to add to that list, at least in the near future—whatever books do exist have not dampened the need for expert grant writers, and those books aren’t likely to. Like any other skill, including photography, grant writing expertise is hard-earned, and most people aren’t going to do it overnight. The real challenge isn’t in reading the book (or blog). It’s in the experience that only comes from doing. Books only supplement the action.

I suspect most people who write how-to books are doing it for themselves as much as anyone else. In writing about something you already know, you come to know it better. That’s one reason you face so many writing assignments in school. It’s also why so many experts are moved to write on their subject.

McNally goes on to say that, in the course of his career, “Knowledge was shared and passed on. I was mentored, instructed, coached, screamed at, cajoled, ridiculed, pushed, and edited by peerless professionals, both on the shooting side and the editing side.” That’s how he learned. The basic learning process remains the same regardless of the field to which that process is applied. The basic role of books is also the same, and the importance of reading widely remains the same. He’s giving back through writing The Hot Shoe Diaries—which was in fact quite useful.* In our own very small way, we’re giving back through this blog, and the information we offer and stories we tell don’t make us fear potential competitors.

The real challenge is going through that process and coming out the other side. Actually, that isn’t a great way of phrasing it: the people who are really great never stop learning. They never “come out.” They just keep going, following the rabbit hole as deeply as it goes, until they go. **


* Unfortunately, it also demonstrates that one needs a pair of flashes, a radio transmitter, gels, and some other nifty but expensive stuff if you want to take the “best” pictures, as opposed to ones that are merely “good” or “better.”

** The Department of Education rabbit hole is particularly deep and surreal.