Monthly Archives: January 2013

January Links: Giving, California’s Failures, Colleges, Foundations, Neighborhoods, Prostitutes in Brazil Learning English, Strippers in North Dakota, Riots in Detroit, and More

* “The story of GiveDirectly;” I generally favor direct action donations more than intermediary donations.

* “The Great California Exodus:” How the 20th Century’s most successful state’s bad policies have made it a net exporter of native-born citizens.

* From the “perverse incentives department:” “Colleges Rise as They Reject: Schools Invite More Applications, Then Use Denials to Boost Coveted Rankings.

* Jason Fisher flirts with minor celebrity.

* Awesome: “Tenants’ Deal Removes Bar To New Tower.”

* “Charitable Fund Ends a Good Run” describes a too-rarely-seen practice: setting up foundations that are designed to expire, rather than to propagate themselves forever (we wrote some about these issues in “Foundations and the Future“). Here’s a choice quote:

Susan Wolf Ditkoff, partner and co-head of the philanthropy practice at the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit adviser for organizations and philanthropists, said: “If the benefactor doesn’t make their wishes known, the default is that the foundation will exist in perpetuity.”

Ditkoff doesn’t mention that foundations like to “exist in perpetuity” because they offer an income stream to their officers; even if they don’t offer an income stream, they offer lots of paid dinners and the pleasures of having nonprofits grovel, beg, and praise.

* The Department of Education’s “Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII)” is an oxymoron along the lines of military music or humane war.

* Sweet: New FTA Rules Are Good News for People Who Like Walkable Neighborhoods: “The Federal Transit Administration is rolling out an important tweak to its grant criteria for mass transit projects in a way that should make the New Starts program substantially friendlier to dense walkable neighborhoods.”

* “Prostitutes in Brazil Take Free English Classes Ahead of 2014 World Cup;” the best quote is “I don’t think we will have problems persuading English teachers to provide services for free [. . .] We already have several volunteer psychologists and doctors helping us.”

* “A Grand Plan to Make Silicon Valley Into An Urban Paradise: Maybe the suburban land of the tech giants could become a thriving dense metropolis.” Sounds good if improbable to me.

* The Uses of Difficulty. Maybe.

* “Riot Breaks Out At Housing Assistance Event In Metro Detroit.” Isaac used to say that most experienced city housing department employees take the day off on Section 8 Open Enrollment Day.

* Construction jobs are still in a trough.

* “Uncovering Union Violence,” which “is an under-reported story.”

* “The North Dakota Stripper Boom,” which is another tale about unexpected expected consequences: “North Dakota [. . .] is experiencing an oil boom, which is leading to an overwhelmingly male population boom, which has some strange spillover consequences.”

* “The Early Education Racket: If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need to go to preschool.”

* Thorium Reactors, by Peter Reinhardt, which explains one aspect of why thorium-powered power plants might be the future of energy.

* “Margins:”

If you have bigger lungs than your competitor, all things being equal, force them to compete in a contest where oxygen is the crucial limiter. If your opponent can’t swim, you make them compete in water. If they dislike the cold, set the contest in the winter, on a tundra. You can romanticize all of this by quoting Sun Tzu, but it’s just common sense.

* “Going All the Way: The late Nagisa Oshima’s erotic, transgressive In the Realm of the Senses isn’t about sex. It is sex.

* Fundrise has a new project in the pipeline.

* Copy Of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ Can’t Believe The Notes High Schooler Writing In Margins.

* Overeducated and underemployed, a growing problem on both an individual and societal level.

DOL Issues FY ’13 YouthBuild SGA—If You’re A Current Grantee, Here’s How to Beat the Eligibility Restriction

The Department of Labor just issued the FY ’13 YouthBuild SGA (“Solicitation for Grant Applications,” which is DOL-speak for RFP), and $75,000,000 is available with 75 grants! We’ve written at least 20 funded YouthBuild proposals over the years, including two in the last funding round, so we’re more than a little familiar with this program, which is one of the best ways of funding job training for youth and young adults. DOL, however, has the following wrinkle stashed in the SGA, which is designed to prevent an agency that received a FY ’12 YouthBuild from applying this year:

An organization (based on its Employer Identification Number), may only be awarded one grant as a result of this competition. This requirement applies to both new applicants and previously funded applicants that have received a DOL YouthBuild grant in a previous competition. In addition, grantees who received funding from the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 YouthBuild competition [SGA/DFA PY 11-06] are funded through December 2015 and these grantees (based on its Employer Identification Number) are not eligible to participate in this competition.

You’re a hungry grant-seeking puppy and there’s all this YouthBuild baloney in the refrigerator. Here’s how to pry the door open and get your snout in the YouthBuild trough.

Note that the restriction applies to a grantee’s Employer Identification Number (EIN). Many nonprofits have an affiliated nonprofit with a separate EIN. For example, lots of churches are 501(c)(3) organizations that have separate 501(c)(3) organizations to operate human services programs or outreach ministries. In a case like this, you can have the non-YouthBuild grantee entity become the applicant and the grantee become the partner.

Similarly, if your organization received a FY ’12 YouthBuild and wants in on this year’s action—and who wouldn’t—you can find a local nonprofit or public agency you know and love to serve as the applicant, while once again your organization slips in the partner role.

As a partner, you can still receive a large subcontract to provide such services as outreach, participant selection, training and/or case management, or smaller role by providing technical assistance to the applicant for a fee. At a minimum, the applicant collects a tidy administrative rake and the stature of being a federal grantee, while the partnering entity keeps churning the YouthBuild dollars. In some ways, this is similar to the fiscal agent relationship used by nonprofits in formation that we’ve written about before.

One one way to sell DOL on the partnership concept in through a deft targeting maneuver. Say your organization, which is an FY ’12 grantee, primarily serves African American participants. Find an organization in your community that works mostly with Hispanics or Pacific Islanders to serve as the applicant. Voila, the funding argument becomes: Let’s bring the expertise gained in providing YouthBuild services to one vulnerable community to bear on another. Suddenly, you’re not a greedy agency, you’re a hero! Such is the magic of grant writing and the knowledge gained from writing proposals since dinosaurs walked the Earth.

I know the above works, because we’ve done it a few times. For example, about eight years ago we had a large nonprofit substance abuse treatment client in a Northeast state for which we had written several funded SAMHSA substance-abuse treatment proposals. Along came an unusual SAMHSA RFP to provide treatment services to college students—but only Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) were eligible applicants.

Based on our advice, our client formed a partnership with a local IHE that agreed to serve as the applicant and fiscal agent, while providing access to students who would be the target participants. In return, the proposal included a huge subcontract under which our client provided essentially all project services, while the IHE administered the grant.

SAHMSA bought the concept and the grant was funded for over a million dollars, and it was one of only 12 or so awards made. Our client received solid funding for five years and applicant received free outpatient substance abuse treatment services for its students. If this can work with SAMHSA, which is a reasonably sophisticated federal agency, it should be possible to slip-slide around the YouthBuild applicant eligibility issue.

Language Choices in Grant Writing Present Pitfalls for the Unwary or Inexperienced

In his recent post on potential grant funds embedded in President Obama’s just announced gun violence prevention policy statement, Jake noted that grant writing language is a good topic for a post of its own. He’s right. Like all forms of the written word, grant writing has its own language conventions and wisdom. Faithful readers will know that we often put Easter Eggs in our posts in the form of asterisked “free proposal phrase here.” We do this in part to help would-be grant writers and partly to poke fun at some of the absurdities of our profession.

But choosing the right language is serious in grant writing because the writer has to imagine its impact on a range of unknowable readers. Although it’s not usually possible to write for specific readers (excepting certain foundation proposals), it is possible to make educated guesses about how typical classes of readers might react to certain language. For example, federal bureaucrats reading and scoring a proposal are more likely to be dispassionate about a topic than peer reviewers, who might just be “true believers” with a dog in a particular fight about a contentious issue. When in doubt about what language to use, study the RFP, which will usually provide clues.

As Jake pointed out in his edit, some emotionally charged words to avoid are fairly obvious—like “abortion” in a teen pregnancy prevention proposal. In a case like teen pregnancy prevention, one needs to carefully write around the word, referring opaquely to negative consequences that may result from lack of access to pregnancy prevention knowledge, whether the project concept is centered on abstinence education or sex education.

Similarly, substantial new funding for gun violence prevention programs is likely to emerge in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. Still, smart writers won’t use “gun control” in such a proposal. If we get hired to write gun safety proposals, we’ll take great care to develop euphemisms and obfuscations to avoid annoying readers on either side of the debate in an emotionally or politically charged issue like gun control. Failing to be vigilant means that a a single word or phrase will sink your proposal ship if it runs into the iceberg of a politically motivated reviewer. To beat the nautical metaphor a bit more, there are enough hidden shoals in grant writing without intentionally running aground.

Beyond the obvious iceberg words, there are others we try to avoid. For example, we rarely use “poor” as a descriptor of people because it has a pejorative ring to it and was overused during the halcyon War on Poverty days. We prefer “economically disadvantaged,” “vulnerable,” “low-income,” “at-risk,” and the like. “And the like” is itself a proposal phrase we often use to vary from the boring sounding “etc.”

Similarly, we prefer “African American” to “Black” but are always careful to capitalize Black when we do use it. It’s accepted, however, to use a lower case “white.” A catch-all for minority clients is “clients of color” or “participants of color.” We almost never refer to African American children as “boys” or “girls,” using “young men” and “young women,” or the ever-popular “youth” instead. These choices have to do with the legacy of the Civil Rights struggles from the 1960s, when the language of race became paramount in the larger culture.

As an aside, when writing for California clients, we usually use “Latino,” while in the rest of country we use “Hispanic,” since “Latino” is traditionally used in the Golden State, while Hispanic is used elsewhere and is the term adopted by the US Census since 1980.

In addition, we almost always write in the third person to avoid the cloying sound of “our clients,” “our staff,” etc. In doing so, and to get the attention of female and male feminist readers, we will often use “she/he” and “her/his,” instead of the other way around.

Probably our biggest proposal language debacle took place about ten years ago, but wasn’t really our fault. We were writing a California Tobacco Control Program proposal for a nonprofit in Northern California. The founder of the organization was a true believer who felt that white youth were not getting enough attention or funding in tobacco prevention efforts, compared to youth of color (note the proposalese correctness of this sentence).

The popular wisdom and a black-letter reading of the RFP was that youth of color were disproportionately negatively impacted* by tobacco. Well, according to our client, who produced reams of studies and data from a very reputable UC Berkeley professor, it turned out the white kids in California, particularly low-income youth, were actually much more likely to use tobacco than their peers of color.

Still, our client insisted that the proposal target white youth and that we refer to them as “Euro-American” youth. Since we’re just hired guns or Paladins, we tend to do as our clients request, even though we advised our client that the proposal was going to be torn apart by reviewers (which it was).

The proposal wasn’t funded, and I’ve never seen harsh review comments like the ones this proposal received. The reviewers not only castigated the project concept, but also denounced the applicant as racist, even though ample data citations were provided. The proposal ran counter to the expectations of the reviewers and the clearly stated suppositions in the RFP—so the reviewers were outraged. Remember the Golden Rule. No, not that Golden Rule—this one: she who has the money makes the rules.


* Yet another free proposal phrase here.

President Obama Announces That “Now is the Time to Stop Gun Violence.” It is?

In response to the recent Sandy Hook massacre, the Obama Administration has launched a marketing and legislative campaign called “Now is the time—to do something about gun violence” (if the website doesn’t load quickly or properly, download the .pdf from us), but the most interesting parts of the plan for nonprofit and public agencies are likely to be the least discussed in the media. Presumably the proposals to ban high-capacity magazines and mandate background checks on gun buyers will generate the usual responses on news sites and Facebook, but there’s also a section devoted to “Making schools safer” and “Increasing access to mental health services”—both of which mean money, as we predicted in “Sandy Hook School Shootings Tragedy Likely to Lead to New Grant Opportunities for School Security, After School and Mental Health Project Concepts.”

Though you won’t find most of this information emphasized in the major media coverage, a lot of the money will go to school districts and police departments. For example, “Now is the time” proposes a bunch of money for schools, including:

  • “Congress should provide $30 million of one-time grants to states to help their school districts develop and implement emergency management plan.”
  • “The Administration is proposing a new, $50 million initiative to help 8,000 more schools train their teachers and other school staff to implement [safety] strategies.”
  • “The Administration is calling for a new initiative, Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), to provide this training and set up systems to provide [mental health] referrals.”
  • “Congress should provide $25 million to offer students mental health services for trauma or anxiety, conflict resolution programs, and other school-based violence prevention strategies.”

Not all of these programs will necessarily be funded, but they’re the kinds of programs that are hard to oppose:* Democrats in Congress and the Obama Administration will argue that voting against whatever bills get cooked up are votes against kids and cops, both of whom poll well.

These programs are also cheap (by Congressional standards), which makes them politically palatable. Discussing the political possibilities for gun safety rules is beyond the scope of this blog, but there is a chance that Congress will attempt to separate the grant programs from the gun safety rules.

In addition to grants for school districts, the Community-Oriented Policing Services Program (COPS) will “provid[e] a preference for grant applications that support school resource officers.” Plus, many of the schools that submit proposals to “a new Comprehensive School Safety program,” will also need letters of support from police departments (and the sub-contracts that often go with those letters), because the program

will help school districts hire staff and make other critical investments in school safety. The program will give $150 million to school districts and law enforcement agencies to hire school resource officers, school psychologists, social workers, and counselors.

At one point, there was a variant of COPS that was designed specifically for School Resource Officers (“SROs” in the trade); we wrote a couple of them years ago, but the program disappeared and apparently isn’t remembered by the White House staffers who wrote the the Plan.

(A word on COPS: Not all departments love COPS grants, because almost all police departments are unionized, making it very difficult to lay off cops if or when money streams dry up. If you hire a cop for three years, you’ve got her for thirty. As a result, most departments, regardless of what they say about making sure their application will supplement, not supplant, existing officers, only hire cops who they already wanted to hire. Or they use the money to re-hire cops who’ve already been laid off).

Taken together, this suite of proposals should get cities, school districts, police departments, and their nonprofit partners thinking about how they’ll respond when RFPs start hitting the streets.

EDIT: Smart applicants to these kinds of programs should also be thinking about the kinds of language they want to use in proposals for programs that are designed to address contentious issues, because linguistic framing can be an important aspect of proposal success. To see one example of linguistic framing, read Molly Ball’s “Don’t Call It ‘Gun Control’,” which is about the failure of the term “gun control” in the political and marketing arenas. We’ve written about such issues tangentially, in “What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP,” but the topic as a whole might merit a post of its own.


* Programs that are “hard to oppose” tend to be attached to large-scale Federal efforts, even if you don’t read about them in newspapers; in 2009, for example, Isaac wrote “Looking at the Stimulus Bill from a Grant Writer’s Perspective,” which mentions how the Stimulus Bill was lit up with ornaments for construction spending, COPS, YouthBuild, PHAs, NSP, and other programs.

Congresspeople like to include discretionary grants in larger bills because the Congressperson can then go home and announce that they got millions of dollars for cause X. From the Federal point of view, this money doesn’t mean a lot but does give them some political cover. From an applicant’s point of view, however, programs like these offer a way to fund activities that simply wouldn’t be funded otherwise, or that would have to come from more important funding streams.

Gun Violence and Grants: Echos of Sandy Hook in Philadelphia and Chicago

I recently wrote about the likely impact of the tragic Sandy Hook shooting on grant making and seeking, which is why this CNN piece about ongoing gun violence in inner-city Philadelphia and Chicago in the context of Sandy Hook resonated with me.

Unlike the sudden impact of Sandy Hook, which captured the nation’s attention and created a focused debate on gun violence, the thousands of poor black and brown youth and young adults who are shot every year in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago barely perturb our collective consciousness. One can speculate on complex issues of class, race and media incompetence that may be the cause of this curious and enervating dichotomy, but my task as a blogger is simpler: what does this mean for the world of grants?

It means that there is wealth of grant opportunities in communities affected by gun violence, whether it be the random act of an apparent madman in an affluent exurb or the everyday grind of a generation coming up lying bleeding on the streets of disadvantaged neighborhoods. The CNN article discusses one such effort, the Cradle to Grave program of Temple University Hospital.

Cradle to Grave uses a scared straight in which mostly African American and low-income youth are invited into the hospital to hear trauma staff talk about what happens to a shooting victim and see the trauma teams in action. The visit culminates with a visit to the hospital morgue.

This is a great example of applying an existing project concept, “scared straight,” to a persistent problem and shows how program development should work. The Cradle to Grave program seems to have significant funding from such funders as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, as well as sufficiently good PR to get on CNN.

This project concept, or ones like it, could be replicated in your community in part by tying them into larger trends and media narratives. Alert nonprofits will be able to write more compelling proposals when they find a way to connect local issues to national debates.

Sequestration Still Looms Over the Grant World: Two Months and Counting

I wrote about the potential impacts of the then-looming fiscal cliff a few weeks ago. At the last minute—actually, about a day after the last minute—Congress and President Obama awoke from their torpor and passed legislation, which what’s left of our media immediately hailed as “preventing the nation from going off the fiscal cliff.”

Well, not quite.

Lost in the fiscal cliff hubbub was the fact the fiscal cliff was actually a two-step fall. The first step downward—massive tax increases on almost all Americans—was indeed averted. The second part of the Cliff, sequestration, however, wasn’t addressed.

Rather, it was kicked down the road by about two months. As I pointed out in my earlier post, sequestration will impact the wonderful world of grants much more than tax increases. The former means significant reductions in discretionary grant funding, while the latter means more “money for nothing and chicks for free.”

Over the next few weeks, the battle lines over sequestration will form as the new Fiscal Cliff takes shape. This, too this will be a two-step Fiscal Cliff. Step one is our old pal sequestration, while the second part will be raising the federal debt ceiling. While the two steps are not inherently intertwined, the timing virtually ensures that the debates over both will be.

If you’re with a nonprofit that’s drifted back into somnolence because the Fiscal Cliff has been averted, shake yourself awake because the roller coaster is about to start again. In many ways,* coming to agreement on the largely non-raising of taxes was fairly easy for Congress and President Obama to agree on, compared to the coming battles over sequestration and raising the debt limit.

While understanding the byzantine politics of these two issues is above my pay grade, the eventual outcomes will likely include either decreases in federal spending on discretionary grant programs or, at a minimum, a reduction in the rate of increase. Either course will have significant impacts for grant seekers.


* Free proposal lead-in phrase in here.

RFPs for “National Nonprofits,” like the Rural Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants, are Effectively Wired

It’s barely worth writing this post, but we hope to save someone from the danger of applying for a program that for which they’re probably not a competitive applicant—even if they’re nominally eligible.

Subscribers to our e-mail grant newsletter recently saw an RFP for the “Rural Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants” program. Only “national nonprofits” are eligible. The eligibility requirement is doubly strange, because the purpose of the program is to “to enhance the capacity and ability of local governments, Indian tribes, housing development organizations, rural CDCs, and CHDOs, to carry out community development and affordable housing activities” (emphasis added).

So a national nonprofit is supposed to be helping local efforts. Those of you who find this somewhat perplexing are not alone. It’s almost certain that this application has already been de facto wired for an organization or set of organizations. There just aren’t many nonprofits with real presences in five or more states. If you don’t already know that you’re going to get this, you’re probably not going to get it.

Programs like “Rural Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants” are effectively earmarks without an earmark.

There’s another lesson embedded in the Rural Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants RFP: always read the eligibility requirements very, very carefully. It would be easy to read the project description, get excited at the possibilities, and overlook the unusual eligibility requirements.

Occasionally, by the way, we do get hired to write wired grant applications. This might seem counterintuitive: why hire consultants to write a complete and technically correct grant proposal when you already know that you’re going to get the award? The reason is simple: the funding agency still needs a plausible, and ideally good, proposal to present to anyone curious about why Joe’s Nonprofit got a grant and Jane’s Nonprofit didn’t. The funder doesn’t want to embarrass itself, and Joe’s Nonprofit needs cover. Even wired grants sometimes need a grant writer.