Category Archives: Media

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!”

Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology — Kentaro Toyama — Book Review

Everyone working in any facet of education and educational nonprofits needs to read Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology; put down whatever other books you’re reading—you are reading, right?—and get a copy of this one.

geek_HeresyIn it, Kentaro Toyama describes how computers and related technologies are not a panacea for education or any other social service fields. He writes that, “like a lever, technology amplifies people’s capacities in the direction of their intentions.” Sound familiar? It should: we’ve written about “Computers and Education: An Example of Conventional Wisdom Being Wrong” and “How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse.” We’ve been writing grant proposals for programs that increase access to digital technologies since at least the late ’90s; for example, we’ve written numerous funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers proposals. Despite all that effort and all those billions of dollars spent, however, it would be polite to say that educational outcomes have not leapt forward.

As it turns out, the computers-in-education trope is part of a general pattern. After years in the field, Toyama eventually realized that technologically driven educational projects tend to follow stages: “the initial optimism that surrounds technology, the doubt as reality hits, the complexity of outcomes, and the unavoidable role of social forces.” That’s after Toyama describes his work in India, where he discovers that “In the course of five years, I oversaw at least ten different technology-for-education projects [. . .] Each time, we thought we were addressing a real problem. But while the designs varied, in the end it didn’t matter – technology never made up for a lack of good teachers or good principals.” Studies of the One Laptop Per Child project show similarly disappointing results.

Chucking technology at people problems does not automatically improve the people or solve the problem: “Even in a world of abundant technology, there is no social change without change in people.” Change in people is really hard, slow, and expensive. It can be hastened by wide and deep reading, but most Americans don’t read much: TV, Facebook, and the other usual suspects feel easier in the short term. Everyone who thinks about it knows that computers are incredibly useful for creating, expressing, and disseminating knowledge. But they’re also incredibly useful for wasting time. Because of the way computers can waste time and drain precious attention, I actually ban laptops and phones from my classrooms. Computers and phones don’t help with reading comprehension and writing skill development. That primarily happens between the ears, not on the screen.

Problems with laptops in classrooms became apparent to me during my one year of law school (I fortunately dropped out of the program). All students were required to use laptops. During class, some used computers for the ends imagined by administrators. Most used them to gossip, check sports scores, send and receive nude photos of classmates, etc. And those were law students, who’d already been selected for having decent discipline and foresight. What hope do the rest of us have? Laptops were not the limiting factor in my classes and they aren’t the limiting factor for most people in most places:

Anyone can learn to Tweet. But forming and articulating a cogent argument in any medium requires thinking, writing, and communication skills. While those skills are increasingly expressed through text messaging, PowerPoint, and email, they are not taught by them. Similarly, it’s easy to learn to ‘use’ a computer, but the underlying math skills necessary for accounting or engineering require solid preparation that only comes from doing problem sets—readily accomplished with or without a computer.

Problem sets are often boring, but they’re also important. I tell my college students that they need to memorize major comma rules. They generally don’t want to, but they have to memorize some rules in order to know how to deploy those rules—and how to break them effectively, as opposed to inadvertently. Computers don’t help with that. They don’t help with more than you think:

Economist Leigh Linden at the University of Texas at Austin conducted experimental trials in India and Colombia. He found that, on average, students exposed to computer-based instruction learned no more than control groups without computers. His conclusion? While PCs can supplement good instruction, they don’t substitute for time with real teachers.

The obvious counterpoint to this is “yet.” Still, those of us who have computers and Internet connections are probably sensitive to how much time we spend doing stuff that might qualify as “work” versus time spent on YouTube or games or innumerable other distractions (pornography sites are allegedly among the largest sites, measured by megabytes delivered, on the Internet).

Moreover, the poorer the school districts or communities, the harder it was to setup and maintain the equipment (another challenge many of us are familiar with: Don’t ask me about the fiasco that upgrading from OS X 10.6 to 10.10 entailed).

In addition, Toyama points out that there is a long history of believing that technology in and of itself will ameliorate human problems:

We were hardly the first to think our inventions would transform education. Larry Cuban, a veteran inner-city teacher and an emeritus professor at Stanford, has chronicled the technology fads of the past century. As his examples show, the idea that technology can cure the ills of society is nothing new. As early as 1913, Thomas Edison believed that ‘the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system.’ Edison estimated that we only learned 2 percent of the material we read in books, but that we could absorb 100 percent of what we saw on film. He was certain that textbooks were becoming obsolete.

Oops. Radio, TV, filmstrips, overhead projectors and other technologies were heralded with similar promise. The problem is that technology is much easier than motivation, concentration, conscientiousness, and perspicacity.

Some quotes should remind you of points we’ve made. For example, Toyama says, “Measurement undoubtedly helps us verify progress. There’s a danger, though, of worshipping the measurable at the expensive of other key qualities.” That’s true of many grant proposals and is consilient with our post on why evaluations are hard to do. Measuring what’s easy to measure is usually much easier than measuring what matters, and funding authorities rarely care in a deep way about the latter.

In his chapter on “Nurturing Change,” Toyama notes that individuals have to aspire to do more and to do better in order for a group or culture to see mass change. This is close to Robert Pirsig’s point in Lila’s Child: An Inquiry Into Quality, which extols the pleasure and importance of of craftsmanship. Defined broadly, “craftsmanship” might mean doing the best work you can regardless of who’s watching or what the expected consequences of that work might be.

Geek Heresy is not perfect. Toyama repeats the dubious calumny that the poverty rate “decreased steadily [in the United States] until 1970. Around 1970, though, the decline stopped. Since then, the poverty rate has held steady at a stubborn 12 to 13 percent [. . . .]” But the official rate is likely bogus: “If you look at income after taxes and transfers you see that the shape of American public policy has become much friendlier to the poor during this period.” Or consider this reading of the data, which finds the “Adjusted percent poor in 2013 [is] 4.8%.” This also probably jibes with what many of our older readers have actually experience: Most manufactured goods are far, far cheaper than they used to be, and official definitions of poverty rarely account for those. On a non-financial level, far more and better medical treatments are available. In 1970 there was no chickenpox or HPV vaccine, regardless of how wealthy you were.

The flaws in Geek Heresy are minor. The important point is that technology will not automatically solve all of our problems and that you should be wary of those who think it will. Until we understand this—and understand the history of attempting to use technology to solve all of our problems—we won’t be able to make real progress in educational achievement.

Great Foundation Grant Concept: A Mashup of Food Deserts, Mass Transit, Farmers Markets, and Poor Folks

Everyone from the Department of Agriculture to Michelle Obama to national hunger advocacy groups have embraced the concept of “food deserts” in recent years as one way of explaining the conundrum of why poor folks in the US are both obese and food insecure at the same time. Since we often reference food deserts in varied human services proposals in urban areas (and have written posts on the subject), I know that there’s a debate in the literature about whether food deserts actually exist. Faithful readers know that reality matters little in grant writing, so we take the food desert concept at face value to build our “end of the world” arguments in needs assessments.

While cruising around LA last week, I heard a radio piece about how the City of Dayton is addressing its food deserts. Like most economically disadvantaged urban communities of color, Dayton concluded it has a food desert problem. While this is no surprise, their solution is an amazing example of how to structure a winning project concept for foundation funding.

The City formed a partnership with the mass transit agency, a local human services nonprofit and local farmers to operate a small farmers market in the City’s transit hub. The idea is that poor folks can pick up salad stuff on the way to work (thereby avoiding being super-sized at lunch by McDonald’s) or a sack of veggies on the way home, so that they can make a stir-fry instead of calling Domino’s. At the same time, the nonprofit offers nutrition classes and recipes, while Farmer Caitlin has an outlet for her baby arugula. The only thing missing is to have homeless folks pick the produce.

Like the mythical Project NUTRIA I wrote about years ago, Dayton has hit the foundation grant jackpot with this idea. Steal it.