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Reflections of a Grant Writer on the 50th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination

Like all Americans who were alive at the time, I clearly remember the moment I learned of President Kennedy’s assassination. Fifty years ago I was a 12 year old in 7th grade social studies at the now-closed Carl Sandburg Junior High* in Golden Valley, Minnesota. The terrible news came over the loudspeaker. The girls immediately burst into tears and the boys didn’t do anything (we were 12-year-old boys and in that era, boys didn’t cry in public).

You know what happened after, and there is no point in me recounting the obvious. But it is important for anyone involved in grants and nonprofits to know that the assassination set in motion a series of events that created world of grants that has consumed my career.

President Johnson, reaping a wellspring of good will after Dallas and an unprecedented election victory in 1964, got Congress to pass the various pieces of the War on Poverty legislation in 1964 and 1965 that created the first of the major discretionary grant programs that have become the lifeblood of nonprofits. Before the War on Poverty, most nonprofits depended on donations and/or memberships, or were closely tied to religious denominations. They were much smaller than they are today. They were much fewer. As the Great Society unfolded, the feds (and eventually state and local governments) increasingly began to “hire” nonprofits to provide ever expanding services—and grant writing became central to the work and life of nonprofits.

This transformation began unintentionally with the JFK assassination and has evolved haphazardly. It was largely complete by the time I wrote my first grant proposal as a 21-year-old budding community organizer nine years later. To learn about how I got started, read the first ever Grant Writing Confidential post from almost exactly six years ago on November 29, 2007: “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal.”

* When I looked up this reference, I found to my surprise that Sandburg Junior High, which had become Sandburg Middle at some point, closed in 2010, exactly 50 years after it had opened: yet another anniversary, but one that presumably goes unmarked by anyone who didn’t attend the school.

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