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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Funders sometimes force grantees to provide services they don’t want to: FQHCs and Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)

We often remind clients that those with the gold make the rules. Accepting a government grant means the applicant must sign a grant agreement, in which the applicant agrees not only to provide wherever services were specified in the proposal, but also abide by a myriad of regulations and laws. While many applicants will tussle with a funder over the budget, there’s rarely any point in trying to modify the boiler plate agreement—just like one can’t modify Apple or Facebook’s Terms of Service.

In addition to the specific terms of the grant agreement, grantees quickly become subject to other influences from the funder—when the Godfather makes you an offer you can’t refuse, you know that eventually you’ll be told to do something you’d otherwise not much want to do. While a federal agency is unlikely to place a horse’s head in a nonprofit Executive Director’s bed, the grantee might end up having to provide an unpalatable service.

A case in point is HRSA’s relatively recent (and divisive) endorsement of Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for treating opioid use disorder (OUD). Since HRSA is the primary FQHC funder, it is essentially their Godfather and has great influence over FQHCs. In the past few years, HRSA has strongly encouraged FQHCs to provide MAT. The CEOs of our FQHC clients have told us about HRSA pressure to start offering MAT. It seems that, even after several years of cajoling, only about half of our FQHC clients provide MAT, and, for many of these, MAT is only nominally offered. Other clients see offering MAT as a moral imperative, and we’ll sometimes get off the phone with one client who hates MAT and then on the phone with another client who sees not providing MAT as cruel.

“MAT” generically refers to the use of medications, usually in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, for the treatment of substance use disorders (SUD). For OUD, this usually means prescribing and monitoring a medication like Suboxone, in which the active ingredients are buprenorphine and naloxone. While Suboxone typically reduces the cravings of people with OUD for prescribed and street opioids (e.g., oxycontin, heroin, etc.), it is itself a synthetic opioid. While MAT replaces a “bad opioid” with a “good opioid,” the patient remains addicted. Many FQHC managers and clinicians object to offering MAT for OUD, for a variety of medical, ethical, and practical reasons:

  • Like its older cousin methadone, as an opioid, Suboxone can produce euphoria and induce dependency, although its effects are milder. Still, it’s possible to overdose on Suboxone, particularly when combined with alcohol and street drugs. So it can still be deadly.
  • While MAT is supposed to be combined with some form of talking or other therapy, few FQHCs have the resources to actually provide extensive individual or group therapy, so the reality is that FQHC MAT patients will likely need Suboxone prescribed over the long term, leaving them effectively addicted. We’re aware that there’s often a wide gap here between the real world and the proposal world.
  • Unless it’s combined with some kind talking therapy that proves effective, MAT is not a short-term approach, meaning that, once an FQHC physician starts a patient on Suboxone, the patient is likely to need the prescription over a very long time—perhaps for the rest of their life. This makes the patient not only dependent on Suboxone, but also dependent on the prescriber and the FQHC, since few other local providers are likely to accept the patient and have clinicians who have obtained the necessary waiver to prescribe it. Suboxone users must be regularly monitored and seen by their prescriber, making for frequent health center visits.
  • As noted above, prescribed Suboxone can, and is often, re-sold by patients on the street.
  • Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, most FQHC health centers prefer to look like a standard group practice facility with a single waiting room/reception area. Unlike a specialized methadone or other addiction clinic, FQHC patients of all kinds are jumbled together. That means a mom bringing her five-year old in for a school physical could end up sitting between a couple of MAT users, who may look a little wild-eyed and ragged, making her and her kid uncomfortable. Since FQHCs usually lack the resources for anything beyond minor paint-up/fix up repairs, there is simply no way around this potential conflict.

Given the above, many FQHC CEOs remain resistant to adding the challenges of MAT to the many struggles they already face. Still, the ongoing pressure from HRSA means that most FQHCs will eventually be forced to provide at least a nominal MAT program to keep their HRSA Program Officer at bay. The tension between a typical mom and her five-year old against a full-fledged behavioral and mental health program is likely to remain, however. Before you leave scorching comments, however, remember that we’re trying to describe some of the real-world trade-offs here, not prescribe a course of action. What people really want in the physical space they occupy and what they say they want in the abstract are often quite different. You can see this in the relentless noise around issues like homeless service centers; everyone is in favor of them in someone else’s neighborhood and against them in their own neighborhood. Always pay attention to what a person actually does over a person’s rhetoric.

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Don’t split target areas, but some programs, like HRSA’s Rural Health Network Development (RHND) Program, encourage cherry picking

In developing a grant proposal, one of the first issues is choosing the target area (or area of focus); the needs assessment is a key component of most grant proposals—but you can’t write the needs assessment without defining the target area. Without a target area, it’s not possible to craft data into the logic argument at is at the center of all needs assessments.

To make the needs assessment as tight and compelling as possible, we recommend that the target area be contiguous, if at all possible. Still, there are times when it is a good idea to split target areas—or it’s even required by the RFP.

Some federal programs, like YouthBuild, have highly structured, specific data requirements for such items as poverty level, high school graduation rate, youth unemployment rates, etc., with minimum thresholds for getting a certain number of points. Programs like YouthBuild mean that cherry picking zip codes or Census tracts can lead to a higher threshold score.

Many federal grant programs are aimed at “rural” target areas, although different federal agencies may use different definitions of what constitutes “rural”—or they provide little guidance as to what “rural” means. For example, HRSA just issued the FY ’20 NOFOs (Notice of Funding Opportunities—HRSA-speak for RFP) for the Rural Health Network Development Planning Program and the Rural Health Network Development Program.

Applicants for RHNDP and RHND must be a “Rural Health Network Development Program.” But, “If the applicant organization’s headquarters are located in a metropolitan or urban county, that also serves or has branches in a non-metropolitan or rural county, the applicant organization is not eligible solely because of the rural areas they serve, and must meet all other eligibility requirements.” Say what? And, applicants must also use the HRSA Tool to determine rural eligibility, based on “county or street address.” This being a HRSA tool, what HRSA thinks is rural may not match what anybody living there thinks. Residents of what has historically been a farm-trade small town might be surprised to learn that HRSA thinks they’re city folks, because the county seat population is slightly above a certain threshold, or expanding ex-urban development has been close enough to skew datasets from rural to nominally suburban or even urban.

Thus, while a contiguous target area is preferred, for NHNDP and RHND, you may find yourself in the data orchard picking cherries.

In most other cases, always try to avoid describing a target composed of the Towering Oaks neighborhood on the west side of Owatonna and the Scrubby Pines neighborhood on the east side, separated by the newly gentrified downtown in between. If you have a split target area, the needs assessment is going to be unnecessarily complex and may confuse the grant reviewers. You’ll find yourself writing something like, “the 2017 flood devastated the west side, which is very low-income community of color, while the Twinkie factory has brought new jobs to the east side, which is a white, working class neighborhood.” The data tables will be hard to structure and even harder to summarize in a way that makes it seem like the end of the world (always the goal in writing needs assessments).

Try to choose target area boundaries that conform to Census designations (e.g., Census tracts, Zip Codes, cities, etc.). Avoid target area boundaries like a school district enrollment area or a health district, which generally don’t conform to Census and other common data sets.

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Foundation and government grant applicants: It’s “Hell yes” or “No.”

Derek Sivers has a rule for many things:

No ‘yes.’ Either ‘HELL YEAH!’ or ‘no.’” He says, “When deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than ‘Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!’ — then say ‘no.’

That principle applies to other fields: are you going to get the job? If the employer really wants you, they are going to be very “hell yes,” and they are going to start courting you. With any reply other than “hell yes,” keep looking. Don’t stop looking till the contract is signed—and don’t be surprised when the employer is a whole lot more excited about you the day after you sign up with another outfit. Same is true in dating: don’t stop lining up leads unless and until that special person says HELL YES! This is also true in applying for most grant funding: assume it’s a “no” until proven otherwise.

We’ve had lots of clients over the years who have been encouraged by foundations that are eager to cultivate applications but seem decidedly less eager to actually cut the check (CTC). Talk is cheap, but the CTC moment has real costs—in pro hoops and grant seeking. Foundations are prone to delaying that magic moment, if possible. Foundations, like many of us, like the flattery and attention that comes with dangling cash in front of people who desire said cash. Note that I’m not arguing this behavior is fair or appropriate—just that it’s common. Foundation officers seemingly enjoy the flattery that comes with nonprofits’s seduction attempts.

To a lesser extent, some government funders at the federal, state, and local level also engage in the dangling CTC approach, but government rules often discourage excess promises from government officers to applicants. If your agency has applied for a government grant, you’re unlikely to hear anything until you get the hell yes email (notice of grant award) or the “thanks for a lovely evening” email (thanks, but no grant this time around). Still, if a funder, government or foundation, requests more information about your proposed budget or asks if you’ll accept a smaller grant, you’ll almost always eventually get the desired response. Few funders will bother with info requests unless they are likely to fund you.

As a rule, though, your default assumption should be that the funder is not going to fund you until they want to fund you. This is a special case of the Golden Rule. Your assumption should be “no deal:” don’t waste time anticipating a promised deal that may not happen. Spend that energy improving your services and pursuing other funding opportunities. Many foundations also like giving out the last check to make the project happen, rather than the first one, so keep chasing early grants—even small ones.

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Another piece of the evaluation puzzle: Why do experiments make people unhappy?

The more time you spend around grants, grant writing, nonprofits, public agencies, and funders, the more apparent it becomes that the “evaluation” section of most proposals is only barely separate in genre from mythology and folktales, yet most grant RFPs include requests for evaluations that are, if not outright bogus, then at least improbable—they’re not going to happen in the real world. We’ve written quite a bit on this subject, for two reasons: one is my own intellectual curiosity, but the second is for clients who worry that funders want a real-deal, full-on, intellectually and epistemologically rigorous evaluation (hint: they don’t).

That’s the wind-up to “Why Do Experiments Make People Uneasy?“, Alex Tabarrok’s post on a paper about how “Meyer et al. show in a series of 16 tests that unease with experiments is replicable and general.” Tabarrok calls the paper “important and sad,” and I agree, but the paper also reveals an important (and previously implicit) point about evaluation proposal sections for nonprofit and public agencies: funders don’t care about real evaluations because a real evaluation will probably make the applicant, the funder, and the general public uneasy. Not only do they make people uneasy, but most people don’t even understand how a real evaluation works in a human-services organization, how to collect data, what a randomized controlled trial is, and so on.

There’s an analogous situation in medicine; I’ve spent a lot of time around doctors who are friends, and I’d love to tell some specific stories,* but I’ll say that while everyone is nominally in favor of “evidence-based medicine” as an abstract idea, most of those who superficially favor it don’t really understand what it means, how to do it, or how to make major changes based on evidence. It’s often an empty buzzword, like “best practices” or “patient-centered care.”

In many nonprofit and public agencies, evaluations and effectiveness are the same: everyone putatively believes in them, but almost no one understands them or wants real evaluations conducted. Plus, beyond that epistemic problem, even if evaluations are effective in a given circumstance (they’re usually not), they don’t necessarily transfer. If you’re curious about why, Experimental Conversations: Perspectives on Randomized Trials in Development Economics is a good place to start—and this is the book least likely to be read, out of all the books I’ve ever recommended here. Normal people like reading 50 Shades of Grey and The Name of the Rose, not Experimental Conversations.

In the meantime, some funders have gotten word about RCTs. For example, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Assistance’s (BJA) Second Chance Act RFPs have bonus points in them for RCTs. I’ll be astounded if more than a handful of applicants even attempt a real RCT—for one thing, there’s not enough money available to conduct a rigorous RCT, which typically requires paying the control group to follow up for long-term tracking. Whoever put the RCT in this RFP probably wasn’t thinking about that real-world issue.

It’s easy to imagine a world in which donors and funders demand real, true, and rigorous evaluations. But they don’t. Donors mostly want to feel warm fuzzies and the status that comes from being fawned over—and I approve those things too, by the way, as they make the world go round. Government funders mostly want to make congress feel good, while cultivating an aura of sanctity and kindness. The number of funders who will make nonprofit funding contingent on true evaluations is small, and the number willing to pay for true evaluations is smaller still. And that’s why we get the system we get. The mistake some nonprofits make is thinking that the evaluation sections of proposals are for real. They’re not. They’re almost pure proposal world.

* The stories are juicy and also not flattering to some of the residency and department heads involved.

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“How Jeff Bezos Turned Narrative into Amazon’s Competitive Advantage”

How Jeff Bezos Turned Narrative into Amazon’s Competitive Advantage” should be mandatory reading for anyone in nonprofit and public agencies, because narrative is probably more important for nonprofits than conventional businesses; conventional businesses can succeed by pointing to product-market fit, but nonprofits typically don’t have that metric. Nonprofits have to get their stories out in other ways than profit-loss statements or sales.

Bezos is Amazon’s chief writing evangelist, and his advocacy for the art of long-form writing as a motivational tool and idea-generation technique has been ordering how people think and work at Amazon for the last two decades—most importantly, in how the company creates new ideas, how it shares them, and how it gets support for them from the wider world.

New ideas often emerge from writing—virtually everyone who has ever written anything substantive understands this, yet it remains misunderstood among non-writers. Want to generate new ideas? Require writing. And no, “Powerpoint” does not count:

“The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related,” he writes, “Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”

I’m not totally anti-Powerpoint—I have seen books about how to do it well—but Powerpoint does not substitute for narrative (in most cases). Most people doing Powerpoint have not read Edward Tufte or adequately thought through their rationale for choosing Powerpoint over some other communications genre, like the memo. The other day I did an online grant-writing training session for the state of California for 400 people, and the guy organizing it expected me to do a Powerpoint. I said that using a Powerpoint presentation to teach writing is largely useless (he seemed surprised). Instead, I did a screencast, using a text editor as my main window, in which I solicited project ideas and RFPs germane to the viewers. I picked a couple and began working through the major parts of a typical proposal, showing how I would construct an abstract using the 5Ws and H, and then how I would use those answers to begin fleshing out typical narrative sections in the proposal. Because it was screencast, participants can re-watch sections they find useful. I think having a text document and working with actual sentences is much closer to the real writing process than babbling on about a prepared set of slides with bullet points. The talk was less polished than it would have been if I’d prepared it in advance, but writing is inherently messy and I wanted to deliberately show its messiness. There is no way to avoid this messiness; it’s part of the writing process on a perceptual level. It seems linked to speech and to consciousness itself.

To return to the written narrative point, written narrative also allows the correct tension between individual creativity and group feedback, in a way that brainstorming sessions don’t, as the article explains. Most human endeavors involving group activity require some tension between the individual acting and thinking alone versus being part of a pair or larger group acting in concert. If you are always alone, you lose the advantage of another mind at work. If you are always in a group, you lack the solitude necessary for thinking and never get other people out of your head. Ideal environments typically include some “closed door” space and some “open door” serendipitous interaction. Written narrative usually allows for both.

Nonprofit and public agencies that can’t or won’t produce coherent written documents are not going to be as successful as those that do. They aren’t going to ensure key stakeholders understand their purpose and they’re not going to be able to execute as effectively. That’s not just true in grant writing terms; it’s true in organizational terms. Reading remains at present, the fastest way to transmit information. If you’re not hiring people who can produce good stuff for reading, you’re not effectively generating and using information within your organization.

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Coding school is becoming everyone’s favorite form of job training

For many years, construction skills training (often but not always in the form of YouthBuild) was every funder’s and every nonprofit’s favorite form of job training, often supplemented by entry-level healthcare work, but today the skill de jour has switched to software, programming, and/or coding. Case in point: this NYT article with the seductive headline, “Income Before: $18,000. After: $85,000. Does Tiny Nonprofit Pursuit Hold a Key to the Middle Class?” While the article is overwhelming positive, it’s not clear how many people are going to make it through Pursuit-like programs: “Max Rosado heard about the Pursuit program from a friend. Intrigued, he filled out an online form, and made it through a written test in math and logic…” (emphasis added). In addition, “Pursuit, by design, seeks people with the ‘highest need’ and potential, but it is selective, accepting only 10 percent of its applicants.” So the organization is cherry-picking its participants.

There’s nothing wrong with cherry-picking participants and most social and human service programs do just that, in the real world. As grant writers who live in the proposal world, we always state in job training proposals that the applicant (our client) will never cherry-pick trainees, even though they do. In the article, important details about cherry-picking are stuck in the middle, below the tantalizing lead, so most people will miss them. I’m highlighting them because they bring to the fore an important fact in many social and human service programs: there is a tension between access and success. Truly open-access programs tend to have much lower success rates; if everyone can enter, many of those who do will not have the skills or conscientiousness necessary to succeed. If an organization cherry-picks applicants, like Pursuit does, it will generally get better success metrics, but at the cost of selectivity.

Most well-marketed schools succeed in “improving” their students primarily through selection effects. That’s why the college-bribery scandal is so comedic: no one involved is worried about their kid flunking out of school. Schools are extremely selective in admissions and not so selective in curriculum or grading. Studies have consistently suggested that where you go to school matters much less than who you are and what you learn. Such studies don’t stop people from treating degrees as status markers and consumption goods, but it does imply that highly priced schools are often not worth it. Thorstein Veblen tells us a lot more about the current market for “competitive” education than anyone else.

My digs at well-marketed schools are not gratuitous to the main point: I favor Pursuit and Pursuit-like organizations and we have worked for some of them. In addition, it’s clear to pretty much anyone who has spent time teaching in non-elite schools that the way the current post-secondary education system is set up is nuts and makes little sense; we need a wider array of ways for people to learn the skills they need to thrive. If Pursuit and Pursuit-like programs are going to yield those skills, we should work towards supporting more of them.

It is almost certainly not existing schools that are going to boost more people into the middle class, as they’ve become overly bureaucratic, complacent, and sclerotic; see also Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education on this subject. While many individuals within those systems may want change, they cannot align all the stakeholders to create change from within. Some schools, especially in the community-college sector, are re-making themselves, but many are not. In the face of slowness, however, nimble nonprofits and businesses should move where this grant wave is going.