Monthly Archives: September 2013

General or Specific—The Challenge of Defining a Project Concept for Foundation Support

When scoping a foundation appeal with a client, the first task is to define the project concept. This may seem simple, but few aspects of grant seeking and grant writing are simple.

Let’s assume our client is the Waconia* Family Resource Center and the agency provides a range of family and child support services, including, but not limited to—free proposal phrase here—case management, parenting training, demonstration homemaking, child care, after school enrichment, foster care, childhood obesity prevention and saving the walleye. I tossed the last one in to see if you’re paying attention, as well as to titillate our Minnesota readers.

The executive director could pick a project ranging from the very general—helping disadvantaged Waconians—to the very specific—outreach to the growing population of Latinos to involve their obese kids in fitness activities—and everything in between. So: what to do?

There is no right answer. Like marriage, you’ll only know you’ve made the right choice after it’s too late. In grant writing, you’ll know the correct choice was made when you get funded. With marriage, you’ll know sometime between your honeymoon and the rest of your life. When contemplating this non-Hobson’s choice with a client, we always remind them of this essential axiom: the more general the request, the greater the number of possible foundation funders, but the less interest any particular funder will have in the project.

If the project concept is to help downtrodden Waconians, there will be many potential funders. But, leaving aside the Waconia Community Foundation and the Walleyes Forever Founation, none will likely be particularly focused on the need, because the stated need is so general. Conversely, if the project concept targets chubby kids of the hundreds of Latino families who just moved into the community to work at the new industrial hog farm,** there will be relatively few potential funders, but the ones that exist will be very interested in the idea.

Given this news, most of our client choose a more general approach, unless they are really committed to a highly specific purpose. We recently had a large client, for example, that more or less refused to apply for any grants because they’re waiting for the perfect grant salmon to swim by. Their ideal projects were so narrowly defined that potential funders didn’t exist.

As your organization gears up to go after foundation funds, keep the above conundrum in mind. But whatever you do, don’t dither. As Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”


* I spent a lot of my wasted youth fishing for walleyes on Lake Waconia with my dad. Since the sport is called fishing, not catching, I had a lot of time in the boat to contemplate the complex issues that face a 10-year-old boy.

** About 15 years ago we actually wrote a large funded proposal for more or less this project concept on behalf of a tiny school district in rural Oklahoma. I remain convinced that the proposal was funded largely because of the then-unusual juxtaposition of Latinos, hogs and rural Oklahoma. Industrial sized hog farms and the immigrants who primarily work in them are now commonplace across much of rural American. Not much of a problem, unless you happen be be downwind or downstream.

Links: The Charity-Industrial Complex, Anthony Weiner Exposed (so to speak), Conventional Wisdom Debunked, Vaccines, Work, the Workforce, and More!

* The charitable industrial complex; I find it revealing that so many people who view how charities work from the inside start to see why so much is amiss with them.

* “‘It’s a circle of hell there’s just no way out of,’ Schochet said. ‘I paid it as long as I could.’

* Why It’s Never Mattered That America’s Schools ‘Lag’ Behind Other Countries.

* We should be suing and charging parents who don’t vaccinate their kids.

* “Open All Night: America’s Car Factories,” with the most interesting quote from a grant writer’s perspective being this, about a plant in Toledo: “Of those who applied for the work, 70% were rejected, mostly because they couldn’t pass initial assessment tests, Mr. Pino said.” “Initial assessment tests” means basic reading and writing skills. Any nonprofit in Toledo that wants to run adult education or after school programs should use this quote.

* “Affordable Excellence. . . This book is a clear first choice on the Singapore health system and everyone interested in health care economics, or Singapore, should read it. It is short, clear, and to the point.” I am struck by how many people have strong opinions about healthcare without really understanding the system. Sloganeering is rampant and understanding scant. This is useful in conjunction with “The two most important numbers in American health care,” which points out that five percent of patients accounts for fifty percent of costs.

* “The U.S. patent system inhibits cancer vaccine development.”

* “Spy Kids,” and the fate of spy apparatuses that depend on cultural concepts long dead in most of American and Western life.

* “The Gender Wage Gap Lie: You know that “women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar” line you’ve heard a hundred times? It’s not true.” More conventional wisdom debunked. Is anyone surprised?

* “If it were cheaper to build apartments the rent would be lower.” This is obvious but bears repeating.

* “Guesses and Hype Give Way to Data in Study of Education.”

* The Turpentine Effect, a brilliant post with an unfortunate title that makes it less likely you’ll read.

* “An Aspiring Scientist’s Frustration with Modern-Day Academia: A Resignation.”

* “The Patriarchy Is Dead Feminists, accept it.”

* “How Anthony Weiner Exposed the Insecurities of the 1960s Generation: A half-century after the sexual revolution, the make-your-own-rules folks are no longer quite so sold on free love.” This has Camille Paglia-esque overtones.

* We are in denial about catastrophic risks.

* NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration.

* A geek’s tour of Sigma’s Aizu lens factory: Precision production from the inside out.

Build an App for the Animals, but First the Feds should get Grants.gov to Work as well as Amazon

Grants.gov has undergone another re-design that, like its previous re-designs, makes it slightly more functional and slightly less functional. It’s more functional in the sense that new grant opportunities are conveniently listed on the front page. It’s less functional for two reasons: getting a firm, permanent URL is difficult, and the new design breaks every link anyone has ever made to any RFP listed in grants.gov.

For example, I wanted to post about a funny RFP: the Discover Wildlife Refuges Smartphone App. But I couldn’t right click and save the link from the front page, because of the bizarre JavaScript programming on Grants.gov itself. I clicked through through, but there was no link to the actual RFP within that page. So instead of writing the post about the humor of putting out an RFP for such a tiny, bizarre subject, I wrote this post instead. The joke is on me (and you), through the “Link to additional information” at Grants.gov, which says:

The application package for Funding Opportunity Number F13AS00375 and Owning Agency DOI-FWS has not been posted by the awarding agency for submission through Grants.gov. See the Full Funding Opportunity for application instructions.

Are you cracking up yet?

Anyway, not being able to access the RFP is like Amazon saying, “How do we make it hard to order?” Granted, a lot of funders do this, so it might be unfair to single out the feds.

The Aetna Foundation, for example, published an RFP on a website that’s incredibly hard to navigate—and then they hid the RFP behind a registration barrier. So nonprofits have to drill into the site to get to the RFP. Instead, Aetna could have posted a PDF of the RFP on the welcome screen, but where’s the fun in that? Aetna—coincidentally or not—is an insurance company. Why would they do this? They don’t want you to apply or, at best, they don’t want to make it easy for you to apply.

(Problems like the one with the Aetna RFP are a tiny part of the reason people hate insurance companies, which run their charitable and for-profit arms along similar lines.)

This issue probably wouldn’t be in the forefront of my mind if there were more hot RFPs on the street. Unfortunately, Washington’s traditional August slumber seems to have extended into September, perhaps because of the continuing Continuing Resolution (CR), which Isaac last wrote about on New Year’s Eve. These ongoing problems mean this week’s newsletter is thin.

We can’t send fat, happy newsletters without RFPs that are fat and happy too. We’re waiting on them, and we know that the feds can do better, from a social and human services perspective, than “Discover Wildlife Refuges Smartphone App.”

Scaling a Nonprofit Means Confronting the Challenge of Lumpy Growth

Let’s assume that you’re a faithful Grant Writing Confidential reader who started a nonprofit and managed to get enough funding to provide some level of services to your target population. You’ve probably accomplished this through a combination of donations and small grants, and you’re chugging alone or with a small staff. Like many businesses, however, at some point you’re going to face a dilemma, either keep on keeping on (as B. Dylan put it) or try to scale the organization to a larger size.

Scaling up a nonprofit—or a tech startup like Facebook for that matter—is a lumpy exercise. That is to say, the path won’t be a smooth trajectory. For example, if you’re presently operating out of a church basement at little or no costs, an office will have to be leased and equipped to ramp-up services. And since you don’t want to move offices every year, the first office will have to be sized to some future, not current, needs. Similarly, you can’t buy half a Xerox machine or half a van.

While it is possible to hire part-time staff, at some point, you’ll want full-time personnel to attract more qualified people and generally be a fair employer by providing benefits and job security. Let’s say you’ve got one Case Manager. As services increase, the Case Manager will eventually be overloaded, so you will need a second. When you hire the second Case Manager, however, both will probably be underworked for a while. This is another example of a lumpy cost because it will take some time for your organization to swallow the costs of the second Case Manager through increased revenue. It’s rather like the snake digesting an elephant in The Little Prince. But if your organization doesn’t swallow the elephant-like second Case Manager, the first Case Manager will eventually quit from exhaustion or you will have to triage service delivery.

Growing nonprofits will also eventually be faced with the conundrum of when and if to hire professional management staff. This will be yet another lumpy cost, as talented managers will expect appropriate compensation and working conditions (e.g., matching office furniture and a 27″ iMac, instead of a WW-II era dented steel desk and an ancient, temperamental Dell).

Many nonprofits are started by a “true believer” or a human services professional who lacks management training. As the organization grows, management chaos may ensue. Eventually, the founder should probably focus on board/community relations and relinquish day-to-day management to an Operations Director.

This kind of passing of the management torch does not always go well, with Apple’s disastrous hiring of the supposed management expert John Scully by Steve Jobs in 1987 being an especially egregious, famous instance. Of course, the case is often made that the egomaniac Jobs needed to be booted out of Apple to force him to eventually do his best work and return to lead the company to successes unimaginable in the 1980s.

Still, many nonprofits face a fundamental tension between being a grassroots organization and a larger provider. Grassroots organizations tend to be focused on a particular issue, which they often address well. The flipside, however, is that they tend to be poorly managed and lack the impact of a larger organization. Larger organizations tend to provide a wider array of services and thus have a greater impact on more people. The flipside, however, is that they’re sometimes depicted as being out-of-touch, overly bureaucratic, and more focused on the needs of managers and decision-makers within the organization than they on solving the community’s problems.

Neither grassroots organizations nor large organizations are inherently “right,” and both can be good or bad. From a grant-making perspective, either one can be desirable, and the tensions involved with scaling up never really go away.

Many nonprofits fail in the attempt to scale, just like businesses. Some will also wither from not attempting to scale. The funding for lumpy costs requires new revenue, which will also be lumpy. This can take the form of seeking larger donations, going after competitive grants and/or obtaining a line of credit, which must often be initially personally guaranteed by the Executive Director or a board member.

Since balancing lumpy cost increases with uncertain lumpy revenues is an inherent chicken-and-egg problem, you’ll eventually have to decide which to pursue first. One way to overcome the risks of lumpy revenue is to find a service to provide that is funded through a capitated, on-ongoing contract, such as foster care, child care, post-DUI substance abuse education, court-referral domestic violence prevention training and the like. It doesn’t really matter what the capitated service is as long as a more or less predictable revenue stream is attached that enables the organization to cover lumpy expenses while seeking lumpy revenues.

If all of this lumpy stuff scares you, it should. Scaling up a nonprofit or small business is a Tight-Rope exercise. Large organizations will be rhetorically attacked by smaller ones and vice-versa. Be cognizant of the issues involved with each.

Grants.gov Dies Again: The Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) Competition Eschews the Feds’s Main Grant Portal

Last year, Isaac noted this about the vaunted Race to the Top-District competition:

Perhaps the strangest aspect of this oddball RFP process were the submission requirements. For reasons obscured by the fog of government ineptitude, the Department of Education chose not to use its G5 system, which recently replaced their “eGrants” digital submission portal, or our old pal, grants.gov.

Instead, we were suddenly back in 1997, with a requirement for an original and two hard copies, along with the proposal files on a CD! I guess the Department of Education has not read the digital memo about saving paper. One proposal we completed was 270 pages, with appendices. Another was 170 pages.

This year, page 5 of the RFP (as paginated at the footer; as paginated by Word, it’s page 6) says:

Applications for grants under this competition must be submitted in electronic format on a CD or DVD, with CD-ROM or DVD-ROM preferred, by mail or hand delivery. The Department strongly recommends the use of overnight mail.

We’ve had Grants.gov for about a decade. Every time we hear about government interest in technology and transparency and environmentalism, we think about putting a plastic disk in a FedEx envelop and launching it by truck/jet/truck to the Department of Education, where it is printed.

A lot of carbon emissions and folderol could be eliminated by a Grants.gov upload. The Department of Education also warns that, if they can’t open the files on your CD and print your application, they’ll simply throw it out.

Last year, by the way, it took us—people who do this all the time—hours to figure out how to create a technically correct submission package. We’ve learned, through blood and tears, the challenges of Grants.gov. Now we’ve got yet another weird system, courtesy of Arne Duncan’s bureaucratic brain trust, to slay.