Monthly Archives: July 2014

Links: The Fugitive Life, Broadband, Parking Hell, Birth Rates, Transit, Sexting, and More!

* If you read nothing else today read “Financial Hazards of the Fugitive Life, which concerns Alice Goffman’s brilliant book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. It will be cited in our future proposals.

* Big Cable says broadband investment is flourishing, but their own data says it’s falling. It will no doubt come as a shock to discover that Comcast and Time Warner are lying.

* The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview.

* “Check out the parking lot: Hell in LA.”

* “Birthrate among teens fell to record low in 2013.” This is likely to mean fewer grants for teen pregnancy prevention or abstinence education. Consider our post a warning about the next grant waves.

* Is tax evasion the key to understanding nonsensical-seeming data about first-world indebtedness?

* “The IPO is dying. Marc Andreessen explains why” is about much more than its headline implies, and there are too many good excerpts to pick one. Highly recommended.

* “Intelligent life is just getting started,” from biologist Nathan Taylor; an unusual perspective and an example of why blogging is so important.

* “. . . most crime statistics are garbage, they told me, because cops can make crimes go away by reclassifying them. This is the cop equivalent of our post “Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation.” One could also cite this as another example of how to lie with numbers.

* “The philosophy of great customer service;” incidentally, when you call Seliger + Associates, you will get a live person on the phone (as long as someone is in the office).

* “How Denver Is Becoming the Most Advanced Transit City in the West.”

* “America’s Public Sector Union Dilemma: There is much less competition in the public sector than the private sector, and that has made all the difference.”

* The law of unintended consequences.

* “Hysteria Over Sexting Reaches Peak Absurdity.”

* This is not a boring story: Seattle begins boring its next light rail tunnel.

* “How will we know if the ACA is working?” Or: Questions that are rarely asked.

* Sam Altman on Net Neutrality.

The Pestiferous Stink of Politics in Grant Writing: ORR’s “Residential Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children” (UAC) Program

As we’ve said before, politicians at every level usually like it when nonprofits in their districts get grants. They like it so much that they’re happy to take credit for a nonprofit’s grant writing effort, which they usually have nothing to do with. That being said, politics usually have little to do with grant writing, at least at the level experienced by most nonprofit and public agencies. As you might have guessed from the way we keep repeating “usually” in this paragraph, this post is about exceptions to that principle.

Ages ago, before I graced the world, Isaac worked as Grants Coordinator for Ed Valliere, City Manager of the City of Lynwood.* The city didn’t have a lot of money and Ed sicced Isaac on every grant Isaac could find, which is one way to effectively get a lot of grants (some of our retainer clients give us similar direction and latitude). Anyway, Isaac wrote a federal rat-control grant that got funded, but he didn’t bother to get a City Council resolution authorizing the submission.

Isaac didn’t think it would be funded, but he didn’t think too much about it: he just wrote proposals. Inexplicably, the rat proposal was funded.** This made Ed explode: the City of Lynwood wasn’t going to admit publicly that it had a rat problem, so Ed instructed Isaac to turn down the grant. The City Council remained unaware of the application, the award, and the rejection. Isaac and Ed kept their jobs.

Ed knew that politicians didn’t want reporters asking, “Hey, how’s the rat problem going?” Cities spend lots of money marketing themselves—you may have heard that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” (a lie), and a motto like “Lynwood: We’ve solved our rat problem!” doesn’t work so well. Although Isaac does report that in the late 70s, the staff routinely referred to Lynwood alternatively as “The Town Too Tough to Die” or “The Town that Time Forgot.”

Which brings us to the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) “Residential Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children” (UAC) program. It has $350 million available, with average grants of $4 million—residential care services, especially for children, are very, very expensive. The program addresses the unexpected surge in unaccompanied Central American children at the southern border.

But not every residential services provider is going to want or be able to apply for this ORR grant program. By applying, nonprofit residential care providers—which are often large organizations deeply embedded in the local community power structure—announce that they’re going to house immigrant children and teens. As anyone who has paid attention to the news over the last decade or century should know, immigrants arouse fear, suspicion, hatred, and xenophobia. “They” will not be like “us” and don’t share “our” values.

Consequently, not every organization that could or should apply for a UAC grant will actually apply. As we said, most local politicos are happy for organizations in their districts to get grants, but they aren’t always. No one wants a crisis homeless shelter right next to them.*** The acronym “NIMBY” emerged as a catch-all term to attack this idea. But in the real world, a small number of people will fight much harder to keep a residential treatment facility out of their neighborhood than a large, amorphous number of people with vague feelings of kindness will fight to put it in.

We rarely discuss politics or the local political situation with our clients, but we can occasionally detect politics, much like astrophysicists detect dark matter, through the otherwise weird-seeming behavior of clients or potential clients. This is going to be deliberately vague, because we take confidentiality very seriously, but recently we have seen some unusual behaviors and desires that may be politically motivated. “Politics” seems like a likely motivator.

(Added later: I wrote most of the above a couple days ago and then had to work on other projects. Today, this is a top story at nytimes.com: “Towns Oppose Bid to House Child Migrants.” That didn’t take long. I wonder if the people hoisting American flags in opposition to immigration realize the irony in what they’re doing.)


* Another funny story I’ve heard many times: Isaac wrote many funded California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) grants for Lynwood, including one that paid for the installation of strobes on traffic signals and in emergency vehicles. These strobes allow emergency vehicles to change the signal as they approach intersections. The then-Mayor of Lynwood, who will go unnamed to protect the guilty, insisted on having an strobe installed in his personal car, so he could flip the traffic lights as he tooled around town. He also had a police and fire scanner in his car, and when things happened he’d go flying across town to the emergency. Then the traffic people would get pissed off, because he’d screw up the traffic for hours. Eventually the City had to take the strobe away from him.

** Demonstrating yet again that it’s not possible to know what will be funded and what won’t be.

*** No one wanted World War II refugees either, as anyone on the S. S. St. Louis knows, or would know had they not been murdered by Nazis.

This is one argument for open borders, an important concept too rarely even discussed in the media.

One Foundation Grant Can Lead to Another: A Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Funding Story

A few years ago we conducted foundation grant source research and wrote ten foundation proposals for a national membership nonprofit that wanted to do a complex education study. One of the national foundations we identified, and wrote a proposal to, awarded the client $200,000. The award is terrific but not the end of the story—if it were, we wouldn’t be writing this post. The funder then referred our client to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest foundation in the world, who awarded our client a still larger grant. The study was completed and the American education system presumably improved.

Everyone who works in the grant world knows that the Gates Foundation usually doesn’t accept unsolicited proposals.* The Gates Foundation has to come to the organization.

This specific example illustrates a general principle: with any kind of grant writing, but especially with foundation funding, it’s impossible to know what might happen when the proposal is submitted. Every big foundation knows every other big foundation. Local foundations know other local foundations. Foundations are often fond of funding organizations that have been funded by other foundations. Life many human endeavors, the first grant is the hardest and funding typically get easier after that. If you get into the foundation club, you’ll find that being a member is much more pleasant and fun than watching from the outside.** (Venture capital works the same way.)

But there’s no easy way in, unless you happen to have a friend or relative who happens to sit on a foundation’s board. We, like most people, don’t have any friends or relatives like that. The only practical approach in seeking foundation grants is to carefully research foundations, prepare a compelling boilerplate foundation letter proposal***, customize this generalized proposal to create technically correct submissions to several plausible foundations, submit the proposals, and retire for a cocktail or three.

(Warning: The next paragraph is a shameless plug. Skip it if you’re likely to be offended.)

Incidentally, we’re having a Sizzling Summer Sale right now, and our foundation proposal package fees are discounted by 25%. Call us at 800.540.8906 for details, but don’t delay, as the sale ends July 31.

(Advertising section over.)

Our client’s story also illustrates the challenge in responding to common questions that potential clients frequently ask. They want to know how many clients we’ve gotten “funded.” But this case demonstrates how hard it can be to answer. When our client was initially funded, he didn’t tell us. If we were trying to keep a client batting average—which we don’t, because a batting average is a waste of time, given the wide range of our clients in terms of size, track record, location, type and so on—we wouldn’t have known that he should be included.

In addition, it can be hard to answer the question, “What is ‘funded?'” We wrote and submitted the first proposal, so we’ll take credit for it. But the first funder, which is very large, led directly funding for the save project by the second. Does the Gates Foundation grant count for our tally? Did we get the client funded only for the original $200,000 grant, or for the millions that followed? One could reasonably argue both sides, since the second funder wouldn’t have appeared without the first one.


* The Gates Foundation may run specific RFP processes from time to time, but those are narrow and rarer. Almost anyone who says they want to submit to the Gates Foundation but who doesn’t have connection is actually saying they don’t know what they’re talking about.

** If you want a hot date to the Prom, it helps if you’ve had dates to fall and winter formal dances first.

*** We use the term “foundation letter proposal” to characterize the initial foundation submission. We initially format these as a five-page, single-spaced letters, since many foundations request a short LOI. The final submissions may be customized to create the appropriate letters with proposals, on-line inserts, or some combination—depending on the requirements of the particular foundations.

The Mystery of LAHSA Homeless Census Numbers, HUD and Data Implications

The LA Times’s story “County’s homeless population difficult to quantify” tells us that there are 54,000 homeless people in L.A.—or are there? Apparently “The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says it lost confidence in the survey methodology” used by our friends LAHSA—the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority—and consequently HUD knocked 18,000 homeless people out of L.A. county. So there are 54,000 homeless in L.A. County, or 36,000, or any other number you care to make up.

It’s almost impossible to accurately define the number of homeless because the definition of homelessness is itself fluid. Does one night on the streets count? Does two? A week? What if someone has a home but runs away for a period of time. For grant writing purposes, homeless counts are a facet of issues we’ve described before, in posts about finding and using phantom data and the difficulty of performing a significant evaluation. Fortunately, funders are like journalists in that they often care less about the epistemological and statistical questions meaning of the number than they care about having a number.

Despite the debate, the numbers may not actually matter: the reporter, Gale Holland, doesn’t mention this, but HUD actually doesn’t allocate McKinny-Vento Homeless Assistance Act grant money based on homeless censuses. Instead, McKinney Act funds—otherwise known as “Continuum of Care” grants—allocates money based on population, poverty, and other cryptic metrics in specified geographic areas. Consequently, the estimated number of homeless derived from the annual homeless count required by HUD isn’t real important.

HUD also requires that urban cities, counties and states draft “Continuum of Care Plans,” or something similar, to end homelessness as part of the Consolidated Plan process. We know because we read and analyze Continuum of Care and Consolidated Plans whenever we write a HUD proposal, which is pretty often. We’ve been reading these plans for 20 years and they all say more or less the same thing. No Consolidated Plan says, “Our goal is to increase homelessness.”

Instead, there is inevitably a vague plan to increase the amount of affordable housing and to end homelessness, usually in about twenty years. Ending homelessness is the cold fusion of grant writing, always on the horizon and never actually here.

Twenty years is just soon enough to be plausible but long enough that the officials who are currently in office are likely to be elsewhere, which leaves space for the next crop of officials to make the same promises. Homelessness is probably not amenable to being cured. Leaving aside the fact that most major coastal cities like L.A. are actually becoming less affordable, not more, a lot of long-term homeless also don’t necessarily want to live in conventional housing, because conventional housing tends to come with lots of rules: no booze, no (illegal) drugs, anyone with a mental illness must take meds, low noise requirements, and so on. For a lot of the long-term homeless, the street doesn’t impose those rules and can actually seem preferable, despite its well-known hazards.

Worcester Massachusetts, where I went to college, has a famous, controversial “wet” homeless shelter. That shelter’s philosophy is simple: the homeless are better off in a relatively safe place, even if they want to drink, rather being forced onto the street by sobriety rules. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood NIMBYs are not fond of the shelter. This schism between wet and dry shelters demonstrate the way real homeless programs run right into all sorts of progressive ideal problems. Those problems can be ignored in the grant world, but they remain stubbornly entrenched in the real world. Gravity opposes the best intentions of rocket engineers.

To return to our previous point, in neither real world or the grant world does the size of the homeless population really matter. In the real world, there is nothing at stake in whether L.A. has 54,000 or 36,000 homeless. Neither number is going to an increase in the number of beds available—which matters—or the rules associated with those beds. In the proposal world, homelessness is always a crisis that needs just a few more grant dollars to fix—within, say, the next 20 years.