Category Archives: Media

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.”

Do “child-care deserts” highlighted in the Washington Post really exist?

The Washington Post says, “A Minnesota community wants to fix its child-care crisis. It’s harder than it imagined.” Duluth City Councilperson Arik Forsman wants to solve the “region’s child-care crisis” and the reporter, Robert Samuels, vaguely cites “studies [that] have shown… more than half of the country lives in a child-care desert — places where there is a yawning gap between the number of slots needed for children and the number of existing spaces at child-care centers.” The link in his story leads to the highly partisan Center for American Progress website, which defines a child-care desert crisis using cherry-picked data to fit this definition: “any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.”

Numerous rural census tracks are likely not to have any child-care providers, due to vast travel distances and low population density, but could still meet the low bar of 50 young children. The second part of the definition presupposes that most parents want to place their child in child-care, ignoring the reality that there still lots of people who don’t want their child in institutionalized child-care—they have one parent who stays home or who works at home (like I did when my kids, and S + A, were young). Some parents prefer to use family and friend networks. The cost of providing child-cage to infants and toddlers is very high—imagine trying to care for 30 kids, who are not potty-trained, and go on from there.

The “crisis” is based on specious data collected to make a political point, not address the actual issues. I know because we write lots of Head Start, Pre-K For All, and similar proposals under the umbrella of “early childhood education,” which is the theme for almost all child-care grant programs. Head Start is by far the largest publicly-funded early childhood education program and emphasizes “education.” Government funders always insist that child-care providers, including Early Head Start (birth – 3), focus on “education” rather than the custodial care model that largely disappeared 30 years ago. It officially disappeared; in reality, most children under age five are mentally equipped for play far more than they are for educational activities. Still, when we write a child-care/early childhood education proposal, we always state that the program will use the ever-popular “TeachingStratgies Creative Curriculum.” In this curriculum, even very young children are supposedly taught things like “pre-reading” (whatever that is) and other quasi-academic subjects. The typical “class schedule” for child-care programs, however, includes maybe two out of eight hours in alleged academic activities, with the rest of the day devoted to things like welcome and closing circles, snacks and lunch, hand-washing, nap time, outdoor/indoor play, etc.

Many contributing factors that come together to limit child-care options: just like with the affordable housing/homelessness crisis, much of the shortage of child-care slots is due to basic zoning rules (a topic we have covered extensively), as well as strict licensing requirements. In the abstract, most people support the idea of convenient child-care—until an actual facility is proposed down the street, and then existing residents think about 60 frisky kids whooping it up on their block, with fleets of parents dropping-off and picking-up kids. This type of proposal brings out the NIMBYs in force. They will use zoning to fight this “blighting” influence—and will usually win.

Also, ever since the hysteria over the fake McMartin Preschool abuse scandal in 1983, child-care facility regulations, even for home-based child-care, have become very stringent. While likely a good thing overall, this drives up the cost of operating child-care facilities. Even Head Start programs, which are fully federally-funded, have a hard time opening new facilities and keeping them open. All child-care programs, whether for-profit or non-profit, operate on thin margins and can be sunk by regulatory problems.

Then, there’s the challenge of finding and keeping “teachers.” Since Head Start was created in 1965, the open secret has been that it’s as much of a jobs program as an early childhood eduction program. The teachers, who might have a certificate of some sort but are rarely licensed teachers, are often the same moms who put their kids in the program, creating a sort of closed-loop system.

This worked fairly well until a perfect storm recently hit. As we wrote about in early 2019 “The movement towards a $15 minimum hourly wage and the Pre-K For All program in NYC,” this effort spells trouble for all child-care programs—the Minnesota minimum wage rises to $10/hour on January 1, 2020 and is set to rise to $15/hour by 2022. Staff costs make up the vast majority of child-care program budgets and rapidly rising minimum wages mean higher fees for parents, and they require larger public subsidies (which are not available in most municipalities). Ergo, it’s much harder to open a child-care facility and keep it open, even if qualified staff can be found. With an unemployment rate of less than 4% in the Duluth area, good staff are hard to find.

In related news, “Government Standards Are Making 5-Year-Olds and Kindergarten Teachers Miserable.” It seems that the bureaucrats who make these decisions have never interacted with actual human five-year-olds.

Nonetheless, we’re delighted to add the concept of child-care deserts to the equally ephemeral “food deserts” concept we often use in proposals. In grant writing, it’s not possible to have too many Potemkin deserts to add color to otherwise drab needs assessments. And many funders are more excited about solving marginal problems than real ones, like regulatory overreach and zoning.

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.

Earmarks could come back: That’s great news for governance and nonprofits

I was wrong about earmarks.

Like a lot of good-government types, I opposed earmarks (which are sole-recipient funds to specific organizations allocated by Congress) and thought earmarks were a sign of brazen corruption, like cash kickbacks from vendors to mayors. I didn’t oppose earmarks out of greed, although earmarks can be seen as bad for grant writers because any funding that’s earmarked isn’t available for grant-funded competitions—I saw them as basically immoral. Corruption is bad, so we should get rid of it, right?

But banning earmarks was (and is) a cure worse than the disease. Without earmarks, congressional leaders have limited tools to discipline members of their caucuses. Members are free to grandstand, vote on principle, and block useful legislation in order to pander to primary voters, rather than general election voters. You, dear reader, may initially think it’s good to vote on principle—as long as the principle is one you uphold. But when it isn’t one you uphold, you’ll likely be angry. You’ll also be angry when Congress seems incapable of acting. Because of the way the United States is structured, there are many intentional chokepoints for legislation, and it’s much easier to block than pass legislation. As parties have become more polarized, we’ve gotten increasing legislative gridlock.

Without earmarks, voters have no incentive to vote for pragmatists who will bring the pork their district. Instead, they can vote for extreme partisans who engage in a lot of symbolic talk and votes without considering what’s really good for the country. When congressional leaders have earmarking power, grandstanding has a real consequence. When congressional leaders don’t have earmarking power, they can’t keep their caucus together and it’s much harder to cobble together the 60 votes needed to pass most anything in the Senate. In Congress, pragmatism is actually better than purity, but we’ve seen increasing ideological purity at the expense of a functioning country.

This is a post, not a book, so I can’t go into great detail about why and how this happens, but The Myth of the Rational Voter is a good place to start. I can say, however, that earmarks improve the incentives on legislators to cut deals and make sure the government can do something—anything, really.

Beyond high-minded principles, some nonprofit and public agencies will also be able to receive earmarks again. Pursuing earmarks isn’t in the scope of our business practice, but it is a useful thing to note.

This article, from 2016, gives some more earmark context on earmarks. This article, gives more context. Here’s a good Tweetstorm.

Note that no one is arguing that earmarks are perfect or that the process is without defect. When I’ve argued the case for earmarks to politically minded friends, they’ve told me that I’m a craven tool of corporate interests (let’s ignore the logic of that for the time being and just view it as a signaling mechanism). But earmarks are better than no earmarks; sometimes bad is an improvement over even worse. We’ve seen what happens to the quality of federal governance without earmarks to discipline congresspeople. It isn’t good. Bring ’em back. I admit publicly that I was wrong.

Here is an argument against earmarks, which I don’t find persuasive for reasons listed in the paragraphs above, but it is a reasonable view.

Language update for grant writers: the CDC has a new list of seven forbidden words/terms

The Washington Post reports that “CDC gets list of forbidden words” from its political masters. We find it hard to judge how serious the list is, because knowledge of the ban itself is only by way of “an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing”—not exactly an authoritative source for final policy. Still, the article has been making the rounds and the supposedly forbidden terms are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”* As grant writers, we’re always sensitive to the vagaries of evolving language and ideas, as you can see from our 2014 post “Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing.”

(EDIT: It appears that “After firestorm, CDC director says terms like ‘science-based’ are not banned.” Alternately, it’s also possible that the word ban was being discussed, but the reaction to the leak caused the CDC to can it.)

While most PC language emerges from the political left, this CDC directive comes from the Trump administration. There’s a bit of humor in this, as right-wing commentators often cite the PC “language police,” raising the dire specter of Orwell’s 1984 and his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” It seems the wingtip is now on the other political foot.

Still, the CDC banned words are standard proposalese that we frequently use in CDC, HRSA, and many other proposals. Some combination of these words are also found in virtually every RFP. “Evidence-based practice” (EBP) is so ubiquitous as to be cliché, even though RFPs rarely define what is supposed to constitute a given EBP. I find this true: “When I see the words used by others, my immediate reaction is to think someone is deploying it selectively, without complete self-awareness, or as a bullying tactic, in lieu of an actual argument, or as a way of denying how much their own argument depends on values rather than science.” People who understand EBPs just cite the evidence and let the evidence speak for itself; people who don’t use the term EBPs as a conceptual fix-all.

Despite the putative ban, grant writers should continue to use these buzzwords, because proposal reviewers—both federal program officers and peer reviewers—expect to read them. Reading them is a good substitute for thinking about what they mean. In addition, there’s often a disconnect between the political appointees (e.g., Deputy Under Assistant Secretary for Obscure Grant Programs), who nominally run federal agencies, and the career civil servants or lifers who actually operate the agencies. Lifers often refer to the political appointees as “the summer help,” since they come and go with new administrations—or more frequently. Peer reviewers are practitioners, who are likely to be PC in the extreme and unlikely to attend to most administration instructions. As grant writers, our audience is composed of reviewers, not the summer help, so that’s who we’ll continue to write to.

For those of us of a certain age, it’s also ironic that the CDC picked seven words to ban, instead of six or eight, given comedian George Carlin’s 1972 monologue “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.”


* Mother Jones has a parody of this kerfuffle with seven replacements for the banned words: vulnerable=snowflake, entitlement=welfare, diversity=anti-white, transgender=deviant, fetus=unborn child, evidence-based=elitist, and science-based=atheist.

Tyler Cowen’s “The Complacent Class,” 25 Years After the Rodney King Uprising and Grant Writing

Tyler Cowen’s exceptional The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream is another must-read for grant writers, like Sam Quinones’s Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Jake and I like Cowen not only because he’s a terrific writer, but also because he often points out when “conventional wisdom” isn’t supported by data or logic.

While this is not a full book review (see Jake’s review here), I want to focus on one of Cowen’s key findings: America is by some metrics actually more segregated today than it was when I was a budding community organizer and grant writer in 1972. In describing what “segregated” means, Cowen not only cites compelling studies for racial segregation in housing, but also for education, economic, and political metrics. Anyone who lived through the recent election and has seen the startling red/blue county election map should realize that some obvious political divides exist. Still, the increasing racial and educational segregation of America most trouble me.

If I could travel backwards in time to interview my 20-year-old, idealistic self in 1972, I know that my 1972 self would believe two things about America in 2017: we’d be using flying cars powered by dilithium crystals or something exotic, and racial segregation in housing and education would be a distant memory. I was wrong on both counts. While electric cars are slowly gaining ground and articles about the coming autonomous car revolution are rampant, my 21-year-old self would have no trouble either driving or understanding most 2017 cars, which still have gasoline engines (primarily), a steering wheel, gas pedal, brake pedal, and so on.

As Cowen points out, and as we grant writers daily see in Census data, racial segregation is worse today, by some metrics, than it was in 1972, both in terms of housing and education. As Cowen says, “If we look at school systems, racial segregation is also getting worse in some ways.” Despite the perfectly rational explanations Cowen provides, I still find this almost incomprehensible. After five decades of the “War on Poverty,” endless speechifying from politicians, religious leaders, and virtue signalers on the left and right, and the racial divide is not only still here, but seems to be increasing.

Data that supports this doesn’t just come from The Complacent Class. The New York Times just published “Family by Family, How School Segregation Still Happens.” Although Jim Crow laws are long gone, the vast majority of American public school students attend highly segregated schools. For example, 73% of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) students are Latino, even though only 47% of LA residents are Latino (of any race; note this is Census lingo). Only 8.8% of LAUSD students are white, while 49.8% of LA City residents are white. It’s obvious that LA has re-segregated from both residential and school attendance perspectives. The vast majority of white LA residents, regardless of income, have simply abandoned LAUSD (or, depending on one’s point of view, LAUSD has abandoned them). Thus, no matter what ethnicity a LAUSD student is, they likely attend a very segregated school, and, unless they’re Latino, that student is going to be on the extreme narrow end of the segregation stick.

Re-segregation in America presents an interesting problem for grant writers, as we frequently must gently massage the data to fit within the prevailing notions of clients, and grant reviewers. For example, when writing a proposal for Watts or South Central LA, we still present the mythology that this area is largely African American—though it isn’t and hasn’t been for at least two decades. Even the LA Times revealed in 2015 that Watts is over 70% Latino.

We’ve also reached the 25th anniversary of the Civil Disturbances* following the acquittal of the cops involved in the Rodney King beating. I watched a Showtime documentary about this big brother to the 1965 Watts Rebellion, “Burn Motherfucker, Burn”.

In 1992, I was living in the Bay Area, but on April 29th I happened to be in Hollywood visiting a hospitalized relative. We were watching on TV in his room. When the not-guilty decision was announced, the station switched to live feeds of gathering angry crowds at the LAPD’s Parker Center Downtown, which is pretty close to the hospital. I quickly decided to “get out of Dodge” (or Hollywood in this case), as I knew what was going to happen.

I was staying in the San Fernando Valley, which was largely untouched, but as I drove to LAX the next afternoon, I could see the smoke billowing over much of the basin. To quote a prophetic James Baldwin story, it’ll be “The Fire Next Time.”

Around April 29, 1992, I first thought of leaving my public sector career as a Community Development Director to start a consulting business, as I watched LA burn. This idea eventually became Seliger + Associates in 1993. I reasoned correctly that the federal response to the unrest would be massive grant programs aimed at South Central. Since I had worked for the Cities of Lynwood and Inglewood for years, I knew many public agency managers and nonprofit executive directors in LA. Consequently, our first clients were mostly from LA, with many being in South Central. In this way, Seliger + Associates is linked to the Rodney King decision.

While the Showtime documentary is reasonably well made and should be viewed by those too young to remember 1992, I was struck by how the film maker perpetuated the same mythology about South Central and similar areas we still use in proposals to describe target areas. In reality, the disturbances extended way beyond South Central to Hollywood, Mid-Wilshire and Koreatown, none of which were even close to being majority African American. Many of the looters and arsonists were Latino. Even the area around the infamous live TV broadcast beating of the unfortunate Reginald Denny at Normandy and Florence was probably not majority African American in 1992. But this doesn’t fit the narrative of the Civil Disturbance in the documentary, just like Census data doesn’t always fit the narrative of our proposals. As we’ve written about before, grant writers, like documentarians, are at our most basic level story tellers. As Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard is told by a newspaper editor at the end of John Ford’s classic western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”


* Note that I use “Civil Disturbance” and “Rebellion,” both capitalized, not the more descriptive term, “riots.” Avoid words like “riot” or similarly loaded terms in your grant proposals. Remember who’s going to read the proposal and use language that fits their worldview.

John Seabrook’s “The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory” Also Illustrates How We Write Grant Proposals

Long-time New Yorker writer John Seabrook’s wonderfully witty and sometimes gossipy book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, explains how the pop songs of artists like Rhianna and Britney Spears have, over the last couple decades, come to be produced by teams—sometimes very large teams.* Those of us of a certain age imagine pop song melodies and lyrics being worked out on a piano or guitar by the Gershwin brothers or Irving Berlin in the Tin Pan Alley era, Phil Spector and Carole King in the Brill Building heyday, or John and Paul during the British Invasion.

The_Song_MachineIn other words, we imagine something close to romantic loners coming up with brilliant ideas on their own and turning those ideas into art. Seabrook explodes that mythology: today’s pop stars rarely have much to do with creating their hits, other than laying down vocal tracks, which are almost always enhanced with pitch perfecting software like Auto-Tune. Songs are actually constructed or “manufactured” by producers, who reap gains from specialization and economies of scale—like any other industrial organization.

In these literal hit factories, producers create the underlying track with repetitive hooks from electronic snips of older songs and digital instrumental elements, while topliners add the vocal tune and lyrics. Virtually no musicians playing real instruments are involved. Seabrook lets us know that the once ubiquitous “session musicians” and complex mixing boards are gone, replaced with laptops and software. As Marc Andreessen famously observed, software is eating the world—including the pop music world.

Although I have eclectic music tastes and usually listen to music on my Bose Quiet25 Headphones while writing proposals, I didn’t know about the profound music business transformation. Even more startling is that this new music world order began in Sweden, of all places, a couple decades ago in Cheiron Studios. Founded by producers Denniz Pop and Max Martin, Cheiron created mega hits for an endless stream of pop acts from the Backstreet Boys to Katy Perry to Taylor Swift.

Music fashion may change, but the underlying players have been relatively stable for a surprisingly long time. While I’m well read in pop culture, I’d never heard of Denniz, Max, and a constellation of descending producers and topliners grinding out songs from Stockholm to Brooklyn to West Hollywood, like the amazingly successful and prolific Dr. Luke.

As I was reading The Song Machine, I realized the parallel between writing songs and writing proposals. Like the traditional melody and lyrics approach of pre-Cheiron song writing, grant writing is usually done in a standard way: The internal or external grant writer facilitates visioning meetings with stakeholders to develop the project concept, drawing circles and arrows on a white board, and the proposal is then written iteratively, just like Carole King and Gerry Goffin writing “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in 1961.

In contrast, Seliger + Associates uses the Cheiron approach, and we developed our system almost 25 years ago—around the time Denniz and Max were using computer hardware and software
advances to change the music world. In our grant hit factory, we’ve adopted a track/hook and topliner method for grant writing: The track is formed by the RFP structure that usually dictates the basic project elements (e.g., outreach, case-managed services, follow-up, etc.), research citations in the needs assessment, and agency background.

The track is also larded with short repetitive phrases (e.g., “vulnerable youth,” “African American-centric organization embedded in the target neighborhood,” etc.), forming the hooks. Rhetorical flourishes, which may be relatively nonsensical like top topliner Ester Dean’s lyrics for the Katy Perry hit “Firework” (“‘Cause baby, you’re a firework / Come on show them what you’re worth”), are our toplines. Like Dr. Luke, we add and polish our toplines in the second and final proposal drafts, over the track/hooks laid down in the first draft.

When Seliger + Associates began in 1993, we initially used the hoary and cumbersome traditional melody and lyric grant writing approach. I’d fly to meet clients from Alaska to LA to NYC, then go through the visioning exercise. As the Internet emerged, we realized that this was not only too time consuming and expensive, but also no longer necessary. Over the next few years, we perfected the virtual scoping call and track/hook and topline approach that is illustrated in two Process Diagrams on our site.

Most of our potential clients are amazed that we can write any grant proposal based solely on an hour-long scoping call, whatever background info the client provides, our reading the RFP, and our imagination. But we can, using an analogue of The Song Machine revealed by Seabrook. When I look at the websites of putative competitors and related organizations like the American Grant Writers’ Association (AGWA) or The Grantsmanship Center (TGCI), it’s obvious that they’re stuck in the Brill Building of grant writing.


* Seabrook echoes the lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s 1974 hit “Free Man in Paris:” “But for the work I’ve taken on, Stoking the star-maker machinery, Behind the popular song.”

New grant wave forming for Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)

A new grant wave is forming. An unexpected and shocking epidemic of heroin and prescription opioid addiction has erupted across America and the federal response is going to be a huge increase in funding for treatment and related services.

We’ve already seen signs of the grant wave in HRSA’s Substance Abuse Service Expansion program, which was designed to focus on “Medication-assisted Treatment in opioid use disorders.” Last week, the Obama Administration proposed a new $1 billion heroin treatment initiative involving pass-through grants to the states, which will in turn issue RFPs to local treatment providers, most of which will be nonprofits.

The new Obama initiative is to fund more medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Unlike the old methadone approach, MAT combines behavioral therapy with more modern medications to treat substance abuse disorders. While the Obama initiative is clearly aimed at treatment providers, peripheral grants are sure to become available for ancillary services like outreach, engagement, education and case management, most of which can be implemented by virtually any human services nonprofit.

Unlike many of President Obama’s proposals, the MAT grant initiative is likely to gain strong and quick bipartisan support in Congress, because vast stretches of rural America, as well as many suburbs and cities, are being overwhelmed by heroin, prescription opioid addiction, and concomitant ODs, often in the seemingly most unlikely of places. This includes over 400 ODs in New Hampshire in 2015. This bucolic state is not usually associated with a 22-year old woman overdosing in a squalid Nashua alley.

Listen to this heart-wrenching NRP story about how a middle aged and middle class New Hampshire makeup artist’s step daughter died. The makeup artist specializes in “painting” the presidential candidates that inundate NH every four years; she’s made-up everyone from Bernie Sanders to Mario Rubio this year. Each candidate has gotten an earful of the the addiction/OD crisis while captive in her chair.

In addition, almost every Democratic and Republican presidential candidate, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, seems to have been personally touched by the addiction and/or OD of a child, another relative, or a friend. It’s like Traffic writ large. Carly Fiorina and Chris Cristie regularly tell OD anecdotes as part of the their stump speeches, while Bernie and the now-out-of-the-race Rand Paul take a libertarian stand that prefers treatment over legal sanctions regarding substance abuse disorders.

When Bernie and Rand somehow agree on a major domestic policy issue, you know that the problem transcends politics. The US long-ago lost its 40-year “War on Drugs.” After over four decades of draconian law enforcement and incarceration that disproportionately affects communities of color, the net result is that heroin is actually cheaper than ever—the Washington Post reports that a bag of heroin costs less than a pack of cigarettes in much of America! High cigarette taxes are part of the reason, but heroin is not taxed. Taken together, these trends point to the need for nonprofits to be nimble enough to catch this cresting grant tsunami.

We imagined foundations would hire us to help improve RFPs/funding guidelines. We were wrong.

Twenty and change years ago, Isaac was starting Seliger + Associates and expected to be hired by foundations and perhaps even some government agencies who might want help streamlining their RFPs or funding guidelines. Seliger + Associates has unusual expertise on grants, grant writing, and RFPs, which could, in theory, make helping funders part of the firm’s regular practice. Isaac imagined that funders would want real world feedback  to improve the grant making process, make themselves more efficient and efficacious, ensure their money was being channeled in useful directions, and so forth. Even in the early days of Seliger + Associates, we knew a lot that could help funders, and we waited for the calls to start coming.

I was about ten at the time. Now I’m considerably older and we’ve long since stopped waiting. Funders, it turns out, strictly follow the golden rule in this respect: he who has the gold makes the rules. Funders routinely ask applicants and other stakeholders about how to make the world a better place, but they have no interest at all in talking to the people who could conceivably help them most with respect to the funding process. Isaac’s initial expectation turned out to be totally wrong.

Isaac and I were talking about the vast silence from funders in light of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that he and his wife, Pricilla Chan, plan to donate tens of billions of dollars to nonprofits in the coming decades through newly formed Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) LLC.* That’s a laudable effort and we’re happy they’re doing this. Still, we wonder if they’ll talk to people who toil daily in the grant writing mines to make sure that the funding guidelines CZI uses and the RFPs CZI issues are grounded in the reality of what would make it easiest to identify applicants most likely to achieve their charitable purposes with the minimum friction for nonprofits. Based on past experiences, we doubt it.

Despite the headlines you may have read, philanthropy as we know it is quite resistant to change—especially on the government side. On the private sector side, signaling and status are far more important than efficiency. Gates and Zuckerberg may be challenging the signaling dynamic, and we’re on their side in that respect, but we think signaling is too ingrained in human nature to have much effect. Overcoming signaling is hard at best and impossible at worst. Look at the way ridiculous SUVs continue to be a status-raiser among many suburbanites for one obvious, easy example of this at work. Geoffrey Miller’s book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior details many others.


* The name of the LLC, “CZI,” amuses us: it’s an unpronounceable acronym that sounds like a Cold-War-era Soviet ministry. The first rule of developing grant-related acronyms to to make them pronounceable.

Starz Series “Flesh and Bone” Illustrates how Little Hollywood Knows About Nonprofits

Between turkey and deadlines, I binge-watched the Starz series Flesh and Bone over the Thanksgiving weekend—on Jake’s recommendation. Like many modern cable shows it’s extremely titillating, but it also displays Hollywood’s misunderstanding of the nature of nonprofits.

Flesh and Bone is a mashup of Rocky, Flashdance, and The Black Swan. While nominally a drama about a newbie ballet dancer with a troubled past suddenly lifted to a starring role at a fictional NYC ballet company, Flesh and Bone provides numerous intentionally or unintentionally funny scenes. This is mostly due to the arch character stereotypes (e.g. tyrannical company director, ingenue with a dark secret, Russian mafia millionaire strip club owner with another dark secret, corrupt French businessman/major donor with yet another dark secret, and angelic homeless guy with still another dark secret), combined with scene-chewing overacting. The series could have been called “Flesh and Bone and Erotica and Dark Secrets.”

While both Jake and I found Flesh and Bone entertaining, I was struck by how the fictional nonprofit ballet company is portrayed—Hollywood simply doesn’t understand how nonprofits actually work. My reaction Flesh and Bone is probably similar to a real cop rolling her eyes at Law and Order and real emergency docs laughing at House MD.

In Flesh and Bone, the nonprofit is run by the megalomaniac artistic director/executive director Paul Grayson, with only vague allusions to “what will the board think?” tossed in every couple of episodes. Otherwise, Grayson runs the show. The rest of the staff and ballet dancers wring their hands and burst into tears at the director’s rants. In today’s world of sensitivity to hostile work environments and sexual harassment, backed up by stringent local, state, and federal laws and regulations, these kinds of outbursts would likely trigger lawsuits; the executive director would soon find himself as a defendant. Most arts nonprofits also have a dedicated cadre of volunteers and few executive directors would act like genius prima donnas in front of volunteers or—even worse—direct his ire at volunteers, no matter how pure or right his artistic vision.

The board chair is a French millionaire (perhaps an oxymoron in itself) and the ballet’s primary donor. This cartoonish figure is more interested in sleeping with ballerinas than art (which may be plausible) and he abandons ship when when our heroine finds a clever way to avoid a fate worse than death. This leaves the ballet company at the tender mercies of the Russian strip club owner, who is committed to the artistic integrity of ballet. He also runs a sex slave operation and turns out to not be quite so pure of heart. While real nonprofits often hope to find a whale, most aren’t beholden to one donor and are unlikely to seek financial salvation from a mobbed-up strip club owner. It’s hard to see Silvio Dante, owner of the Bada Bing strip club on The Sopranos, tossing a few hundred thousand in singles at the New York City Ballet.

A nonprofit ballet company, like most arts nonprofits, supports operations through a combination of donations, ticket sales, merchandising and grants. The word “grant” is never uttered in Flesh and Bone, and the ballet company’s financial travails could be ameliorated by good grant writer. Additionally, many donors actually funnel money to their favorite nonprofits through their family foundation or corporate giving program rather than pulling out their checkbook, as is implied in Flesh and Bone. Foundations and corporate giving programs mean “proposals,” which means somebody has to write the proposals.

Perhaps a knowledgeable reader can help me out, but I’ve never seen an accurate depiction of how nonprofits actually work in either film or television. It seems that screenwriters, producers and directors don’t know or want to learn about nonprofits. It is Hollywood, after all, and make-believe is Hollywood. As Peter’s O’Toole’s cynical director in one of my favorite movies, The Stunt Man, explains Hollywood to an incredulous Steve Railback, “Do you not know that King Kong the first was just three foot six inches tall? He only came up to Faye Wray’s belly button! If God could do the tricks that we can do he’d be a happy man!”