Category Archives: Advice

Confusing NIH and other Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) application guidance

In theory, an “application guide” for a Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) grant from a federal agency is meant to make the application process easier: the applicant should presumably be able to read the application guide and follow it, right? Wrong, as it turns out. The difficulties start with finding the application guide and associated RFP (or “FOA,” Funding Opportunity Announcement in NIH-land) . If you go to grants.gov today, Sept. 9, dear reader, and search for “SBIR,” you’ll get 74 matching results—most for National Institutes of Health (NIH) programs, which we’ll use as an example for the sake of this exercise, and because I worked on one recently. I’m going to use “PA-18-705 SBIR Technology Transfer (R43/R44 Clinical Trial Not Allowed)” program, which has download instructions at Grants.gov. When you download and review the “instructions,” however, you’ll find this complication:

It is critical that applicants follow the SBIR/STTR (B) Instructions in the SF424 (R&R) SBIR/STTR Application Guide (//grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/url_redirect.htm?id=32000)except where instructed to do otherwise (in this FOA or in a Notice from the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts (//grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/)). Conformance to all requirements (both in the Application Guide and the FOA) is required and strictly enforced.

Notice that the URLs in the quoted section are incomplete: it’s up the applicant to track down the true SBIR application guide and correct FOA. I did that, but the tricky phrase is “follow the SBIR/STTR (B) Instructions […] except where instructed to do otherwise.” For the particular NIH application we were working on, the FOA and the Application Guide disagreed with each other concerning how the narrative should be structured and what an applicant needed to include in their proposal. So what’s an applicant, or, in this case, a hired-gun grant writer, to do? With some SBIRs, there is no canonical set of questions and responses: there’s the “general” set of questions and the FOA-specific set, with no instructions about how reconcile them.

To solve this conundrum, I decided to develop a hybridized version for the proposal structure: I used the general narrative structuring questions from the application guide, and I tacked on any extra questions that I could discern in the program-specific FOA. The only plausible alternative to this hybridized approach would have been to contact the NIH program officer listed in the FOA. As an experienced grant writer, however, I didn’t reach out, because I know that program officers confronted with issues like this will respond with a version of “That’s an interesting question. Read the FOA.”

The challenge of multiple, conflicting SBIR guidance documents isn’t exclusive to the NIH: we’ve worked on Dept. of Energy (DOE) SBIRs that feature contradictory guides, FOAs/RFPs, and related documents. It takes a lot of double checking and cross checking to try to make sure nothing’s been missed. The real question is why inherently science-based agencies like NIH and DOE are seemingly incapable of producing the same kind of single RFP documents typically used by DHHS, DOL, etc. Also, it’s very odd that we’ve never worked on an SBIR proposal for which the federal agency has provided a budget template in Excel. In the NIH example discussed above, the budget form was in Acrobat, which means I had to model it in Excel. Excel has been the standard for spreadsheets/budgets since the ’80s.

We (obviously) work on grant applications all the time, and yet the SBIR reconciliation process is confusing and difficult even for us professional grant writers. The SBIR narratives, once we understand how to structure them, usually aren’t very challenging for us to write, but getting to the right structure sure is. For someone not used to reading complicated grant documents, and looking at SBIR guidance documents for the first time, the process would be a nightmare. Making SBIRs “easier” with extra, generic application guides that can be unpredictably superseded actually makes the process harder. This is good for our business but bad for science and innovation.

Generalized human and social services: ACF READY4Life and Fatherhood FIRE RFPs

Astute newsletter readers saw two useful Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Office of Family Assistance (OFA) RFPs with lots of money available (albeit with overly long names) in our last edition: Fatherhood – Family-focused, Interconnected, Resilient, and Essential (Fatherhood FIRE) and Relationships, Education, Advancement, and Development for Youth for Life (READY4Life). Both have grants to $1.5 million for family formation and resilience services. A phrase like “family formation and resilience services” should make smart nonprofit Executive Directors sit up and take notice, because we’ve seen fewer overt generalized human services grants over the past few years—the kind of grants that we sometimes call “walkin’ around money.

Smart organizations figure out that these kinds of grants can be used to fill in the cracks of an organization’s budget, because the project concepts that can be funded are broad. Also, in most cases, only a process evaluation (e.g., number of outreach contacts made, number of referrals, etc.) is feasible, since there’s usually no way to tract outcomes. In the ’90s and ’00s we saw more broad, general-purpose RFPs, but we’ve seen fewer since the Great Recession. The feds seem to have lost interest in many kinds of general-purpose grants and have instead been targeting particular services, like primary health care and job training.

Many organizations are already doing things like fatherhood and family development, but without calling their activities “fatherhood and family development.” Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), for example, often serve low-income patients who are impoverished by single parenthood, usually in a female-headed household. Nimble FQHCs should apply for READY4Life, Fatherhood FIRE, and similarly nebulous grant programs, since they can re-brand their existing Case Managers and Patient Navigators as “Family Support Coordinators” and “Parenting Specialists.” Obviously, the FQHC wouldn’t say as much in the proposal—that would be supplantation—but, in the real world, a lot of organizations keep their lights on and their clients happy using these strategies.

Organizations apart from FQHCs should be doing this too. Job training and homeless services providers, for example, often work with populations that need family reunification training, and the organizations are already often providing wraparound supportive services. Funders love synergistic proposals that say things like, “We’re going to do job training services for ex-offenders, and those ex-offenders will also be eligible for Fatherhood FIRE services in order to ensure that they remain in their children’s lives.”

Increased funding for generalized human services typically follows some kind of seismic societal shock. Seliger + Associates began in 1993, soon after the Rodney King verdict civil unrest, which was soon followed by the onset of mass school shootings with Columbine. Then came the Great Recession: the feds respond to social turmoil with huge new grant programs (21st Century Community Learning Centers was an example) and big budget increases for existing programs (like the 2009 Stimulus Bill). With the COVID-19 crisis, the cycle is repeating. Since March, three giant stimulus bills have been passed, with at least one more likely. The enormous civil unrest and protests unfolding after the recent police killing of George Floyd will likely lead to grant programs too; the feds’s objective is to get grants on the streets quickly to nonprofits, which act as a kind of buffer to politicians.

With growing “defund the police” sentiment in big, left-leaning cities, politicians are engaging in a sort of bidding war with proposed police budget cuts; politicians say some version of, “We want to redirect huge amounts of police budgets to solving the underlying problems that generate crime.” Translated, this means, “We plan to fund local nonprofits to conduct some kind of human services.”

You’d think there’s no pandemic going on: The FCC shuts down its COVID-19 Telehealth grant submission portal

One of the bigger and more interesting RFPs on the street right now is the FCC’s “COVID-19 Telehealth Program,” which has $200 million available for obvious purposes—but grants are being accepted, reviewed, and approved on a first-come, first-served basis (federal RFPs usually have a fixed due date).* Lots of FQHCs are also implementing, or trying to implement, telehealth programs on the fly, since COVID-19 has hit them with a structural double whammy: patients with COVID-19 need to be isolated as much as possible from other patients, and other patients are avoiding health clinics for fear of catching COVID-19. This has had the unexpected side effect of lowering patient volumes at FQHCs, which, like other healthcare providers, have reacted by laying off staff. You’d intuitively think that, during a pandemic, the need for healthcare staff would expand, but that’s not happened outside of NYC intensive care units.

So the FCC program is designed to help FQHCs and other providers move relatively quickly to telehealth, which may help FQHCs achieve a higher patient volume. On Saturday we were working to backcheck a client’s online FCC application, since it’s our standard practice to make sure that applications are as complete and technically accurate as possible before client upload. But when we tried to log into the FCC’s application site, we were hit by a message telling us that the FCC had closed its application portal for maintenance. Is shutting a site down for “maintenance” still necessary in 2020? The error message felt very 2003, and, as you probably know, we’re in the midst of a pandemic, when every day counts. I guess FCC didn’t get the pandemic memo.

Eventually the site came back up, but its closure seems like a metaphor for many of the challenges we, as a society, are collectively facing from bureaucrats during these strangest of times.

The FCC COVID-19 Telehealth grant program is also unusual because it specifically says that applicants can only buy Internet-connected telehealth equipment—meaning blood pressure cuffs or pulse oximeters that automatically relay information to healthcare providers. I’ve seen budgets for how much these devices cost, and they’re crazy expensive, as most medical devices are. But: did you know that something as simple as an Apple Watch can function as a pulse oximeter—except that FDA regulations are blocking this use? This is the same FDA whose regulations stopped independent labs from rolling out virus testing in February. We try not to link outrage stories here, but it’s hard to read “The Infuriating Story of How the Government Stalled Coronavirus Testing” without being justifiably outraged.

Today, pointless FDA regulations are blocking people from using a relatively cheap and widely available device from being deployed in a medical context. Apple.com lists “Series 5” Apple Watches at $399 and they’re shipping today (there’s been a pulse ox shortage). Our FQHC clients already know this, but pulse oxes are useful for determining whether a COVID-19 patient needs to be hospitalized, or needs supplemental oxygen. Most COVID-19 patients can recover on their own without medical intervention, but low blood oxygenation is a key danger metric: a normal blood oxygenation level is around 95 – 100. If a patient’s oxygenation level consistently falls below 90, that patient likely needs advanced care. Most households have a thermometer, but relatively few have pulse oxes. Many COVID-19 patients are suffering from what doctors are calling “silent hypoxia,” in which the patient is essentially suffocating but doesn’t realize they’re suffocating, and pulse ox data can tell the patient whether they need to go in to see their doc or to an ER. It would be relatively easy for Apple to allow Apple Watch users to link their health data with a healthcare provider, and for the healthcare provider go get an alert if a patient’s blood oxygenation level drops below 92 or 90. Cheap solutions exist but the FDA keeps us from implementing them.


* Other federal departments have been funding similar telehealth-related grants programs: for example, the USDA has $40 million available via the “Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants.” Those grants aren’t due until July 13, however.

NYT: Nonprofits should focus on grant writing, not donations, during the COVID-19 crisis

We’ve written two recent posts on the impact of COVID-19 on nonprofits, “COVID-19, donations, and foundation and government grant proposals” and “Less obvious things that impact human services during the coronavirus pandemic.” During an economic crisis like this one, most nonprofits will probably be gob-smacked with cash flow problems, while demand for services, particularly among human services provides, skyrockets.* Since thousands of businesses are suddenly closed, millions are unemployed, and the stock market is gyrating downward, seeking donations is mostly a waste of time and it’s not possible to hold galas and fundraisers. To avoid organizational disaster, the only option for most nonprofits is to immediately conduct grant source research and start submitting foundation and government grant proposals. If the nonprofit lacks internal capacity to do this, hire a consultant like Seliger + Associates.

A recent New York Times David Streitfeld article confirms this, “A New Mission for Nonprofits During the Outbreak: Survival.” Although Streitfeld incorrectly conflates donations and grants, the articles reaffirms what we said in our posts—foundations react to economic crises, at least in the short term, by vastly increasing their grant making:

Foundations, traditionally not among the spryest of organizations, learned from 9/11 and severe hurricanes that they could move fast. They are quickly retooling to disburse emergency money and relax reporting requirements that are suddenly impossible to meet. Bloomberg Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and 23 other foundations as well as individual donors have created a $78 million Covid-19 rescue fund for New York City nonprofits. Grants will start going out to small and midsize social services and arts and cultural organizations on Monday. Interest-free loans will follow.

In hard-hit Seattle, the Seattle Foundation is administering a $14.3 million emergency program funded by local businesses, foundations and government. It released more than $10 million to 120 organizations this week.

These are probably not “donations,” and the nonprofits will likely have to submit proposals of some sort and, unless nonprofits are actively searching for such foundation support, most will miss out entirely. Foundation largess, however, will not last. Within a few months, the spectacular decline of their endowments will sink in and the the fire hose will be reduced to a normal flow—or even a trickle.

While the NYT piece doesn’t cover it, the same phenomenon is happening with government grants, but at a much higher level. In addition the normal billions of federal grant dollars up for grabs, billions more are included in the three COVID-19 Stimulus Bills passed so far, with Congress likely to past several more bills.

So, the time to seek foundation and government grants is now.


* Since grant writing in the time of COVID-19 is a strange experience, this is good time to read or re-read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wonderful magical realism novel, Love in the Time of Cholera.

COVID-19, donations, and foundation and government grant proposals

We’ve been in business since 1994 and have written proposals during several economic shocks; in the Great Recession in 2009, donations to nonprofits began drying up as soon as the stock market began diving (we wrote as much at the time). A decade later, COVID-19 is sending the economy into what could be a second Great Depression. While hopefully the crash will be v-shaped, there’s no way to know when a rebound will start, since much depends on the public’s response and on the success or failure of the drugs in clinical trials.

Nonprofits, and especially human services providers, are being torn between higher service demands and evaporating revenue. Particularly hard hit are Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs); about 1,400 FQHCs deliver front line healthcare to Medicaid and other low-income patients. Total patient population estimates differ, but FQHCs may serve as many as 30 million people. FQHC CEOs have been telling us they have very limited capacity for treating infectious disease patients (no separate waiting rooms, scarce protective gear, etc.) and face staffing shortages, because clinicians staying home to watch their now out-of-school children. Some clinicians are pregnant and some are sick themselves. Inadequate testing infrastructure has been well-covered in the media by now.

Some nonprofits, like Head Start and other early childhood education providers or behavioral health service providers, face the same grim reality, as their centers are closed and third-party payments become delayed or non-existent. For other nonprofits that depend on donations, fundraisers, and/or membership dues (e.g., Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, museums, performing arts, etc.) are likely even worse off. John Macintosh just wrote in the NYT that COVID-19 could mean extinction for many nonprofits. But this extinction can be averted—and will be by nimble nonprofits.

For the short term, nonprofits should stop or reduce screaming empty bowl-in-hand emails and mailers for donations. With the stock market in free-fall and unemployment probably already 10% and on a path to 20% *barring a sudden drug trial that works), seeking donations is delusional. When businesses, small and large, suddenly have zero revenue, millions are being laid off, and 401Ks being decimated, donations will quickly decline, no matter how good the cause or the relationship with the donor. Also, there’ll be no galas, art auctions, and other fundraisers for who knows how long.

The only real option for most nonprofits is to quickly ramp-up grant seeking and grant writing. As has been the case in previous economic crises, the federal response will likely be to dump money into grant programs and issue RFPs. In addition to already authorized FY ’20 federal funding for grant programs, by this week Congress will have passed three huge COVID-19 stimulus bills totally close to $2 trillion—dwarfing the 2009 Stimulus Bill. These bills will have a lot extra money for existing programs, as well as for a flock of new grant programs.* We saw this in 2009, when we wrote proposals for all kinds of oddball programs and projects, and this will unfold again with astonishing speed. Federal agencies will approve grant proposals much faster than usual—like most Americans, the federal bureaucracy rises from its normal stupor to meet extreme challenges. But RFPs are likely to have very short deadlines. Nonprofits that start preparing for intense grant writing will be more likely to succeed.

Most foundations, meanwhile, respond to crises like this by quickly increasing the amount of funds available from their endowments and speeding up their normal approval processes, both to address issues related to the crisis, as well as to keep essential nonprofits operating. In addition to emergency operating support, foundations will be very interested in project concepts relating to primary care access, public health education and outreach, telehealth, and behavioral health. But this foundation response won’t last more than about six months. At some point, they’ll turn off the spigot, either because their endowments will have been depleted too much or the crisis will have passed.

Even nonprofit royalty, which usually don’t sully their hands will grant writing, unless the grants are wired, know that reality has changed.** You may have read, “Met Museum Prepares for $100 Million Loss and Closure Till July.” The author reports that the Met will be “fundraising from foundations and pursuing government grants.” If the Met is turning to grant writing, so should your nonprofit and the sooner the better.

Want to talk about how Seliger + Associates can help? Give us a call at 800.540.8906 ext.1. By the time you read this, your organization’s leadership will probably already be convening meetings about what to do next.


* Extraneous program authorizations in federal spending bills are common and referred to as “ornaments.”

** As Bob Dylan put it in Things Have Changed, “People are crazy and times have changed.”

Less obvious things that impact human services during the coronavirus pandemic

The news about coronavirus focuses rightly on life and death and the struggles of hospitals, as well the need for social distancing and the suspensions of large gatherings. Emergency measures that last for a few weeks are one thing, but it looks like this crisis may continue for several months. While the media is generally doing a good job of crisis coverage, some aspects of particular interest to nonprofit human services providers are being narrowly covered at best.

For example, arrests by the LAPD are dropping, and many court systems are deferring or dismissing non-felony cases, since no one wants coronavirus to rip through jails. It’s hard to say what lowered policing and low-level case dismissal means: maybe many arrests were bogus in the first place. But maybe they weren’t, and we’re likely going to see substantially increased crime as people adjust to this new normal—most big city cops aren’t arresting people, even for such fairly serious crimes as burglary and car break-ins. It’s also possible that petty crime—and even crime in general—will decline because would-be criminals are at home and either don’t want to get coronavirus themselves, or they know most people are holed up at home, and many of those holed up at home are armed. It’s beyond the purview of our knowledge and subject matter to discuss this in detail, but there’s also a lively debate about whether most crime is premeditated versus simply persons seeing what they perceive as opportunity and then acting on it.

Some incarcerated persons are already being released early; released arrestees and, more importantly, recently released prisoners need something productive to do and to earn legitimate income—which usually means case-managed job training and placement of some kind. We’ve written many funded proposals for services for ex-offenders and, even in good times, this is not an easy population to work with. The unemployment rate is likely 10% and may spike as high as 20% in the coming months, further complicating matters. In the short term, however, there’ll be huge need, and likely lots of grant money available, to provide these services. Training and placement, alway challenging, will be hard, given social distancing, but some nonprofits have to try, perhaps with sufficient social distancing measure and/or tele-case management.

Another issue: thousands of 12-Step Program meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous, are being cancelled—and these programs are based mostly on in-person peer support. Behavioral health provides will have to suspend in-person individual and group sessions, leaving millions more with SUD/OUD and/or severe and persistent mental illness (SPMI) more or less on their own. Add the incredible stressors of job/income loss, stay-at-home orders, and the like to addiction and mental health issues, and a huge human toll is likely. We’ve seen estimates that 10% of the US population has mental health or substance abuse challenges that are mitigated by in-person support. Most people don’t get the same effects from digital communications tools that we do from in-person interaction. Still, this is an opportunity for nimble nonprofits to seek foundation and government grants to establish or scale-up tele-behavioral health services.

Lots of people have realized that shuttered movie theaters may never recover; fewer people are thinking openly about what we ought to be doing with the most vulnerable persons who are facing serious disruptions, on top of the obvious coronavirus disruptions.

Community foundations and grants that are more work than they’re worth

We get calls from some (inexperienced) potential clients who want to pursue “community foundation” grants, which are usually small grants that range up to $5,000 or $10,000, but we almost always tell them the same thing: those grants aren’t worth chasing. We’ve mentioned that, in grant writing, zeroes are cheap, and many very large grants aren’t much harder to get, and to manage, than smaller grants.

Something unusual, however, just happened: We got a phone call from a community foundation CEO who is unhappy because he’s finding small grants harder and harder to give away. It seems that this community foundation offers free grant writing training to local nonprofit leaders in hopes of helping them understand how to write proposals, but the nonprofit executive directors still can’t be bothered to fill out the foundation’s relatively simple applications for the small grants it offers. The foundation is trying to get the local nonprofits to seek funding from it, but they won’t, because of the problems I mention in the first paragraph. While we love work, there’s nothing we could do for this foundation to solve this problem—we said him that the foundation should make the grants larger and they’ll get more applications. Alternatively, just give the money away without an application.

We also got a recent call from a client who is now turning down these kinds of smaller grants. Why would an organization turn down money? Because, the client said, by the time the she applies, deals with the bureaucracy, gets the money, and accounts for the money, there is little or no real money left to provide services—it’s all gone into administration. Dedicating management resources for $500,000 or million-dollar grants makes sense. Dedicating management resources for $5,000 grants doesn’t.*

Community foundations that want to make an impact are better off just sending the check to the nonprofits they already like without requiring an application. Or, they could invite nonprofits to submit applications they’re already submitting. For example, we recently worked on a SAMHSA Strategic Prevention Framework – Partnerships for Success (SPF-PFS) application; a community foundation interested in opioid use disorder (OUD) prevention and treatment could say to a local nonprofit, “If you’re already applying for a grant and send it to us, we’ll review it too, just using our own criteria.” Emailing a copy of an existing grant is easy—it would be something like the college Common Application in college admissions, but for grants. As far as I can remember, we’ve never seen a foundation do this.

I feel bad for community foundations that are trying to give away money unsuccessfully—but there is (rarely) such thing as a free lunch, and nonprofits know that friction costs are real.


* As Isaac relates in the very first post we put up, back in 2007, the first grant proposal he wrote in 1972 was for $5,000. That made sense then, as $5K was real money in 1972, but it’s not any more.

More experiments in education and job training: Shopify’s “Dev Degree”

Lots of us know that traditional education providers offer various kinds of on-the-job training, work experience, internships, and similar arrangements with employers; in typical arrangements, someone who primarily identifies as a student also does some work, often paid but sometimes not, to get some real-world experience. But what happens if you try going the other way around?

You may have read the preceding sentence a couple of times, trying to understand what it means. Shopify, the ecommerce platform, is now offering something called “Dev Degree,” which is described as “a 4-year, work-integrated learning program that combines hands-on developer experience at Shopify with an accredited Computer Science degree from either Carleton University or York University.” On Twitter, one of Shopify’s VP’s said that “We pay tuition & salary, ~$160k over 4 yrs”—so instead of student loans, the student, or “student,” comes out net positive. Instead of identifying as someone who is primarily a student but does a little work experience, a person presumably identifies primarily as a worker but does some schooling too.

As often happens, the old is becoming new again. Before lawyers enacted occupational licensing restrictions to raise their wages, most proto-lawyers just studied under senior lawyers using an apprenticeship model. When the proto-lawyer could pass the bar and convince clients to give him money, he was a lawyer—one who’d learned on the job. Think of Abe Lincoln, who become something greater than a passable country lawyer.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Lambda School, Make School, and now Shopify School (okay, it’s not technically called that) are concentrated in tech and programming, where an extreme shortage of qualified candidates seems to intersect with extremely high demand for qualified candidates. The New York Times and Economist aren’t proposing ways to more quickly and cheaply turn English majors into journalists, because there are plenty of English majors and few journalism jobs. But these experiments in alternative education are interesting because they speak to the relentlessly rising cost of conventional education combined with onerous student loans that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy (the infamous 2005 bankruptcy “reform” act made student loans almost impossible to discharge). If there’s enough pressure on a system, the system starts to react, and Dev Degree is another example of the reaction.

We’ve been covering the “alternative education” beat in various places for a lot of reasons, one being that we do a lot of work for colleges and universities. Another is in the fact that I’ve spent some time in the basement of the ivory tower, where I’ve witnessed some insalubrious, unsavory practices and behaviors. Another is that we’ve had an uptick in stories from nonprofit clients and potential clients about their clients or participants who have relatively small amounts of student loan debt, often in the $1,000 to $4,000 range, but that the participant can’t pay off. So the participant starts school, quits or otherwise can’t finish, and then drags around this mounting debt while making minimum wage or close to it.

Yet another way to cover these stories is the potential for these kinds of systems to be applied in other fields, like healthcare tech, truck driving, and the like. Most government-sponsored job training programs focus on these kinds of fields, and they haven’t been apprentice-ized yet. But the right nonprofit or business might come along and make it so. We want to encourage change and innovation in this sector, and we know some of our clients will make change happen.

Nonprofit executive directors have to be paid market rate salaries

I was talking to a friend and mentioned that nonprofit executive directors routinely make six figures—and sometimes well into the six figures. My friend was outraged: Aren’t the executive directors working for charitable organizations? Shouldn’t they make less money?

Maybe he’s right in some virtue-filled alternative universe, but, in the real world, nonprofit executive directors have lots of responsibilities and need diverse skill sets. When you say “nonprofit” to most civilians, they imagine a relatively small organization like the local Boys and Girls Club or afternoon program for at-risk youth, usually run by a true believer executive director who only needs local knowledge and maybe some common sense (whatever that is). In reality, many nonprofits are large, with hundreds of highly trained and specialized staff delivering complex services. For example, a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) might easily have an annual operating budget north of $50M, with tens of thousands of patients and hundreds of employees. In effect, larger FQHCs resemble small HMOs and provide about the same services, except for inpatient care. Large substance use disorder (SUD) treatment providers can be similarly large and complex. In both cases, the lives of the patients/clients literally depend on the quality of the services provided. So, executive director salaries mirror those of CEOs of for-profit health care providers and can easily be over $300K—which they should be, given the advanced degrees, years of experience, technical skills needed, along with the heavy responsibilities.

Many civilians also don’t understand how even simple human services are delivered: through good organizational skills and hard work. Some of the skills nonprofit executive directors increasingly need are not easily mastered:

  • Sufficient technological expertise to supervise IT staff, vendors, etc. Just about every enterprise today is also a tech business, whether we want it to be or not. At S + A, tech-related stuff probably accounts for about 25% of management time.
  • Managerial expertise (good management looks invisible when it’s done well and is all too visible when it’s done poorly) in both supervising the management team and line staff, as well as wrangling the Board of Directors. In a nonprofit, there are no “shareholders” and the Board sets policy, including hiring and firing the executive director. Over the years, we’ve discovered variations on the following nonprofit “coup” all too often: True believer sets up a new nonprofit and hand-picks the board; as grants and donations grow to support ever-expanding operations, the board begins to morph from true believers to professionals without a direct connect to the executive director (you can call them “competent experts” or “mercenaries” depending on how you want to shade the situation). Tensions mount, and the executive director is booted out of their own nonprofit, sometimes in a public and professionally humiliating way.
  • Ability to connect with diverse stakeholders. Many nonprofits mostly serve the poorest and most marginalized persons in our society, and ideally all staff in a given organization will be able to connect with and understand such persons. But executive directors must also frequently connect with and understand white-collar donors, funders, board members, etc.
  • Ability to get things done. We have all worked with people who are better at meetings than execution, or who seem not to really do much of anything, and that can’t be true of effective executive directors.
  • Ability to cultivate donor relationships.
  • Grant management expertise, including tracking funds, submitting timely and complete reports, and keeping the funder Program Officers happy.
  • Accounting expertise.

There are probably other skills, beyond these, which are just from me thinking about the problem domain at the moment—I’m not trying to be comprehensive here, but the point is that modern nonprofit executive directors need a wide range of skills and abilities that only rarely exist in a single individual. When a set of skills is rare, the market rate for it rises. Most nonprofits, with the exception of nonprofit hospital chains, aren’t as large as even mid-size corporations, but they have become large and complex enough that the solo charismatics of an untrained and inexperienced person usually aren’t sufficient to manage a staff of dozens or hundreds of people and to maintain complex service delivery systems.

Today, small sole-proprietor shops are much less common than small or large chain stores, and something similar and analogous is happening to nonprofits. You may not like that it’s happening, but it’s happening for many reasons. Similar things are happening in business as a whole, as Tyler Cowen describes in Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero—a book that nonprofit leaders should be reading, even if they’re not engaged in profit-taking and -distributing enterprises. Nonprofits are more like businesses than is commonly realized, although I’m sure most regular GWC readers get this.

Many people will take some pay cut to work in and around nonprofits, but few people will take a 50% pay cut, relative to the salaries in their industry. Somewhere between 5% and 50%, the ability to acquire and retain functional people drops off. Nonprofits are competing against other kinds of organizations for qualified people.

This is a bit like people who bemoan the lack of computer science and other qualified teachers: in most districts, teachers in high-demand subjects like computer science can’t be paid any more than teachers in lower-demand subjects, like art or PE. As a result, there are major shortages of computer science teachers, and, arguably, surpluses of teachers in areas like art. Unless computer science teachers can be paid something that approaches their market values, most qualified computer science teachers will go work for software companies instead of school districts. (Incidentally, I’ve thought about teaching high school at various points, but I haven’t, in part due to the income ceiling.)

Some callers have also argued that Seliger + Associates charges too much, and, while this is a fine view, when prospective clients tell us this we always respond the same way: they can hire us; they can hire someone else; they can write it themselves; or they can not submit the proposal. Each of these outcomes has costs and benefits, and any given organization should choose the best outcome for them. But when there hundreds of thousands or millions of grant dollars are on the line, as is frequently the case for proposals we write, we begin to look like a bargain by comparison, since our fees range between $5,000 and $15,000 for typical proposals, regardless of the grant amount being sought. Paying $8,000 to us to write a million-dollar grant is a very good cost versus potential benefit analysis. And, if we’re hired, the executive director frees up time that can be deployed to other tasks.

In terms of executive director salaries, it’s important to remember that a bunch of stakeholders must be satisfied, including Boards of Directors, donors, grant-making entities, and others. If donors become overly obsessed with how much an executive director (or other senior managers) makes, they may wind up with organizations that are less effective than donors who are less obsessed with that exact issue. Many grant-making entities want functional organizations above all else, and are more likely to make grants to organizations with better executive directors. In the real world, better usually included higher paid.

Right now, many high-quality nonprofit management professionals also face the same toxic mix of rising costs we all do—healthcare, college education (their own student loans and the likely future student loans of their kids), and housing. The latter is really important for nonprofits in places like NYC, NY, SF, and Seattle, where the cost of even a modest housing unit can easily exceed $1M. One way to help moderate salaries in the nonprofit and public agency world is to support comprehensive zoning reform that will lower the cost of housing by increasing supply. This has (finally) become a national political issue, because costs are so outrageous that make stakeholders and voters are finally realizing that something must be done. As housing costs rise, so does pressure on every part of the US economy. Consider the crazy numbers from “Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation,” by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti:

In particular, we calculate that increasing housing supply in New York, San Jose, and San Francisco by relaxing land use restrictions to the level of the median US city would increase the growth rate of aggregate output by 36.3 percent. In this scenario, US GDP in 2009 would be 3.7 percent higher, which translates into an additional $3,685 in average annual earnings.

If just the Bay Area and NYC removed many arbitrary building restrictions, we’d all be making the equivalent of $3,600 more per year. If all cities relaxed arbitrary zoning, “US GDP in 2009 would be 8.9 percent higher under this counterfactual, which translates into an additional $8,775 in average wages for all workers.” Imagine how labor markets, including ones for nonprofit workers like teachers and executive directors, would change with almost $9,000 in implied boosted salaries! We can do this, but we’ve chosen not to as a society.

An executive director in a given market must often choose between being able to pay the high rent/purchase price or being able to stay in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits that want to stay alive must pay those rates. You may disagree with the “have to” in the title of this post. If you think you can run a nonprofit and pay below-market rates, go ahead and do it.

Telemedicine and the unstated reason it can save money for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and other providers

You may have read that Walgreens is is shuttering some of its in-store clinic, because the clinics are expensive to operate and, in addition, telemedicine services are taking off. Telemedicine competes with minute clinics, urgent cares, and some primary care offices; right now telemedicine is being vended through a variety of platforms, some of them independent of traditional medical providers (Teledoc is a relatively famous one), while others are affiliated with traditional providers, like FQHCs. The most interesting aspect of telemedicine services might be the one, unstated reason why they’re popular.

The official push towards telemedicine is justified by greater convenience and lower cost. So far, so good: those things are real, as is the nominal improvement in patient satisfaction, but the hidden reason is also revealing: a lot of in-person medical visits aren’t medically necessary and are generated by non-medical desires. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler talk about this in The Elephant in the Brain: Chapter 13 describes how a lot of medicine seems to be generated by patients wanting reassurance from high-status people (doctors) and doctors wanting to enjoy the status that comes from people seeking out their expert knowledge. To be sure, “a lot of medicine” is not the same as “all medicine,” so you need not leave comments about broken bones being mended or cancers being treated.

A lot of medical office visits are costly for patient and doctor, so telemedicine can reduce the waste. In effect, telemedicine often ends up being triage: the distant provider tries to figure out whether something is genuinely wrong with the patient, and whether that thing needs to be seen in person. Almost all primary care providers have seen lots of patients who come in more for hand holding and an encounter with a sage doc than treatment of underlying condition. I haven’t seen studies describing exactly how many medical visits are really boredom, fear, craziness, improbable uncertainty, and the like, but anecdotally it seems to be high, and Hanson and Simler cite estimates in the 20 – 50% range. This is the sort of thing most of your healthcare provider friends won’t admit to strangers or acquaintances, but they may admit it to close friends or after a couple drinks. FQHC CEOs, who we work for, will sometimes admit this to us, their trusted grant writers (in our own way, we are the “trusted sages” in these conversations, reversing the roles).

So telemedicine can save money because it lets people with common colds, loneliness, and similar real or imagined ailments have a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physicians assistant tell them that they’re okay, bill them maybe less than they’d be billed for an in-person office visit, and then the provider can hang up and talk to another person who is also likely okay. Many people with chronic conditions also just need reassurance, direction to a specialist, or a prescription refilled. That can be done in a few minutes over the phone or via a videoconference. Because it’s socially undesirable and even unacceptable to admit that a lot of medicine is not what we typically think it’s about, not much can be done to substantially improve the system at current levels of technology, but offering telemedicine can be an improvement. HRSA has noticed something like this and is now pushing for FQHCs to offer telemedicine. Healthcare now consumed about 18% of GDP, in a $20 trillion economy, or about $3.7 trillion dollars. There’s enormous pressure on almost every player to try and lower costs as a consequence of these unbelievable numbers. One way or another, the average worker is paying about one in every five dollars earned into medicine—whether that dollar is paid to insurance companies, hospitals, or levels of government via taxes. Strangely, though, regulators are letting hospitals merge and form local monopolies and oligopolies, which is an important exception to the lower-cost trend. Telehealth, however, is right on trend.