Monthly Archives: June 2015

Sean Parker Writes about the New Group of Billionaire Hacker Philanthropists and Forms The Parker Foundation with $600M

Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame is a very smart guy, and he recently wrote “Philanthropy for Hackers;” the essay posits that newly minted tech billionaires are “hackers,” like himself, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Google guys, who collectively represent a new wave in philanthropy:

The barons of this new connected age are interchangeably referred to as technologists, engineers and even geeks, but they all have one thing in common: They are hackers. Almost without exception, the major companies that now dominate our online social lives (Facebook, Twitter, Apple, etc.) were founded by people who had an early association with hacker culture . . . Hackers share certain values: an antiestablishment bias, a belief in radical transparency, a nose for sniffing out vulnerabilities in systems, a desire to “hack” complex problems using elegant technological and social solutions, and an almost religious belief in the power of data to aid in solving those problems . . . At the same time, they are intensely idealistic, so as they begin to confront the world’s most pressing humanitarian problems, they are still young, naive and perhaps arrogant enough to believe that they can solve them.

The above paragraph, as well as most of Parker’s other points, are true and well considered (and they complement our review of Ken Stern’s With Charity for All). Perhaps more importantly, Parker is walking the walk by funding the newly minted Parker Foundation with $600 million. It’s great that billionaire hackers are learning to give away their money (and there are only so many 1,000 foot yachts and $50M penthouses one can buy—even billionaires reach diminishing marginal utility for luxury goods).

Parker does not, however discuss how average nonprofits funded by these new foundations would actually deliver human services to address humanitarian problems. While this might have not made the editorial cut, I suspect that he’s probably not too familiar with most nonprofits and how they work. Maybe he is only looking for Givewell.org-style nonprofits.

A quick look at The Parker Foundation website reveals that this is a foundation that does not accept unsolicited proposals. While there are some interesting thoughts and a clever PERT diagram on the site, there are no submission guidelines. Although not explicitly stated, The Parker Foundation has to find your nonprofit and contact you, instead of your agency submitting a proposal. This reverse access to funding logic is used by a fair number of foundations, whether they are old school or nouveau riche. But I’ve never understood why anyone thinks this approach is a good idea.

This approach to giving away foundation grants reminds me of the hokey ’50s TV series, The Millionaire. Every week the eccentric millionaire gave $1 million to some sad case person he’d never met to help them solve their life crisis. This was more or less a scripted version of another odd ’50s reality style series Queen for a Day.* It seems that Sean and/or the probably also idealistic foundation staff believe they can somehow not only identify important humanitarian problems, but also which nonprofits are likely to have good solutions. I have no idea how they do this, since, as Jake wrote, evaluating human services programs is hard to do.

I’m often asked by clients how to cozy up to funders like The Parker Foundation (or the much larger Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in most cases also does not accept unsolicited proposals). I tell them they should hang out at private airport terminals, since Sean, Bill or Melinda are unlikely to be found in a middle coach commercial airline seat waiting to be chatted up—think private jets and other places rich folk hang. The sad truth is that, unless you happen upon a foundation founder at Trader Joe’s**, you’ll just have to hope that one of their foundation program officers stumbles across your nonprofit. This, of course, is particularly unlikely to happen to a newly formed nonprofit, which is actually more likely to have an innovative idea than an established nonprofit with a social media consultant to get them noticed.

Seliger + Associates could have helped The Parker Foundation design their grant application process and submission guidelines to reflect the way human services are actually delivered. Only one foundation in 22 years has contacted us about helping them with their grant submission process, however, and they didn’t hire us. Whether or not the source of a foundation’s assets is a successful hacker billionaire like Parker or a more pedestrian scion of the Walton clan, the foundations themselves invariably have founders, board members and staff, who don’t have a frame of reference for nonprofit culture and are idealists, or as we call them true believers. True believers, however, don’t run most nonprofits and, unlike most foundation funders, experienced nonprofit managers know the difference between the real world and the proposal world. Nonprofits often game, deliberately or not, the good intentions of idealistic funders.


* My mom was a huge fan of both shows and I actually went to a taping of Queen for a Day in Minneapolis when I was about 5—she was astounded that her sad tale of woe, submitted on an index card before the taping, didn’t result in her being selected to receive a dime store tiara, dozen long stemmed roses and whatever else the Queen got that day.

** When Jake was a teen, we lived in Bellevue, WA, close to the headquarters of Microsoft. Neighbors and friends told stories of running into Bill at the Dairy Queen or the lunch buffet at an Indian restaurant near the Microsoft campus. Although Jake loved that buffet and DQ, and we often went to both, we never ran into Bill. I did, however, sometimes run into Steve Balmer, but I’ll save that story for another post.

Use Microsoft Word (Until Further Notice)

You should use Microsoft Word to write your proposals. There are many other fine word processors out there—I’m personally fond of Scrivener for some tasks—and online tools like Google Docs are becoming more popular. But in the grant world everyone—especially funders—have standardized on Word and remain using Word, because of path dependence.

The last couple of generations of Word interchange files easily and seamlessly. They retain formatting and special characters and so forth. As we’ve written about before, proposals should be written by a single person, but they may be read by dozens of people. Word has reasonably good facilities, in the form of Track Changes, for ensuring that it’s possible to collect and reconcile comments. File format converters often don’t work very well. Formatting is often lost or corrupted in the conversion process. Proposals are hard enough as it is without inducing technical problems.

Funders also want to receive either Word files or PDFs as uploaded files. You must send funders proposals in the required format or your proposal will be rejected out of hand.

We have loads of complaints about Word: its paragraph style system is difficult. For many years we used a program called Lotus WordPro, not above, but WordPro lost and Word won, so we gave up. If you’re working on proposals, you need a copy of Word for the foreseeable future. Sorry. It’s true. In some domains online systems may be better than Word. Grant writing isn’t one of those domains and won’t be for the foreseeable future. Like it or not, Word seems to be here to stay.

Word for OS X still crashes with distressing frequency, which is amazing given how long smart software engineers have been working on it. I’m writing this sentence on June 3, and Word just crashed as I tried to quit it. Data wasn’t lost—which is good, because I was also editing a YouthBuild proposal and had Auto Save enabled—but it’s notable that a program like Word is still not as good as it should be. I can be angry about Word, but because of the ecosystem around it I can’t get away from it. Neither can you. Don’t try. Not now. Not if you have to collaborate with more than one or two people.

You may have already intuited this, but in this post, as with so many posts, we speak from hard experience.

In grant writing, longer is not necessarily better

If you’re buying apples, more apples are (usually) better. A faster processor in your iMac is (usually) better. Same for a higher capacity hard drive. But longer is not necessarily better with, say, books. Few readers think, “Gee, this 1,200-page novel is intrinsically better than a 350-page novel.”* They also don’t think a 1,200-page novel is worth three times as much as a 350-page novel. Readers want a novel length appropriate to the story and material. Fiction writers often gravitate towards either short stories or novels. For example, Mary Gaitskill’s collection Bad Behavior: Stories is excellent, and I say this as someone who prefers novels. Gaitskill’s novels, however, are not the best. Some writers can go short or long but she doesn’t appear to be one.

You can see where I’m going with this point. Longer grant proposals are not necessarily better than shorter ones and in many circumstances are worse. This is clearest in foundation proposal writing, where five single-spaced pages are more than enough for an initial submission narrative. Many foundations actually require less than five pages.

When we conduct a foundation appeal, we write an final draft that’s about five single-spaced pages and ultimately use that version to customize proposals to the best five or ten foundation sources we identify. Clients often want us to write longer proposals, but we strongly suggest that foundation proposals be no longer than five pages, since most foundations will reject anything longer and even those that technically accept longer unsolicited proposals rarely read them.

To understand why, let’s look at the process from the funder’s perspective. A foundation may get hundreds of proposals every quarter. Each proposal probably gets read initially by an intern or junior staff person who does a reality check to see if the proposal meets the foundation’s basic guidelines. A foundation that only funds in Texas and gets a proposal from a nonprofit in California will chuck the latter. A foundation that only funds healthcare but gets a proposal for after school services will chuck the latter. Proposals that are simply incoherent or incomprehensible will get chucked.

Once the sanity check has been conducted, however, dozens or hundreds of viable proposals may remain. Each overlong proposal costs foundation officers time. Each proposal that isn’t clear and succinct increases its odds of getting rejected because the reader doesn’t have the time or inclination to figure out what the writer is babbling about. For this reason the first sentence is by far the most important sentence in any proposal.

The same thing is as true, and maybe even more true, of government proposals. There, reviewers may have to slog through dozens or hundreds of pages for each proposal. We’d like to imagine each reviewer considering each proposal like a work of art, but more likely than not they behave like you do in a bookstore. A good bookstore has tens of thousands of titles. How do you choose one? By browsing a couple of books based on covers or staff recommendations or things you’ve heard. Proposal reviewing is closer to bookstore browsing than we’d like to admit, and good proposals shouldn’t be any longer than they have to be. Shorter proposals are a gift to reviewers, and they’ll appreciate any gift you can give them. Anyone who has reviewed grants understands this. Over-long proposals are a failure of empathy on the part of the writer for the reader.

While you should never go over the specified page limit, in many circumstances being under the page limit is desirable. When you write a proposal you are no longer in school and will no longer get brownie points by baffling reviewers with bullshit.

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever heard: “Omit unnecessary words.” Right up there with “Omit unnecessary words”, however, is: “When you’re done, stop.” Arguably the latter advice is a special case of the former. Many novice writers experience ending anxiety, which may occur in part as an artifact of “the way schools are organized: we get trained to talk even when we have nothing to say.” When you have nothing more to say, say nothing.


* Though physical books also have some cost limitations based on binding processes. Books that are longer than something like 418 printed pages are more expensive to print than books that are shorter (for most commercial publishers). Commercial publishers will use formatting tricks when possible to get a book under that number of pages, and, if they have to go over, they’ll go way over.