Category Archives: Media

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: 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.

Wraparound supportive services and Zuckerberg’s school reform donations

This is one of series of technical posts that explain key grant writing concepts. Today’s lesson concerns the concept of wraparound supportive services, which we include in every human services grant proposal we write—as we first wrote about in “Sign Me Up for Wraparound Supportive Services, But First Tell Me What Those Are.”

I was reminded of the importance of wraparound supportive services because of Dale Russakoff’s book The Prize, which is reviewed in today’s New York Times Sunday Book Review by Alex Kotlowitz. The Prize details the attempt of politicians (Cory Booker and Chris Christy) to turn the incredibly bad Jersey City public school system around over the past five years, largely using a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It seems that Mr. Zuckerberg’s huge donation was ineffective:

When Zuckerberg declared his grant, the agenda was pretty clear: Turn the Newark schools around in five years and make it a national model. But from the get-go, there seemed little agreement as to how best to proceed. More than anything, Christie wanted to break the hold of the entrenched teachers’ unions. Booker wanted more charter schools. Zuckerberg wanted to raise the status of teachers and to reward teaching that improved students’ performance . . . “I’m not giving anything away by telling you that this bold effort in Newark falls far short of success.”

While I haven’t read the book, the review illustrates the naivety of new tech billionaire philanthropists regarding how public agencies and nonprofits actually work, as I wrote about before with respect to Sean Parker’s new foundation. More interestingly, the NYT review ends by telling us that Zuckerberg is doubling down on his public school reform efforts by giving $120 million to “high poverty” schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, despite the apparent fiasco in Jersey City. I’ll give him props for persistence, particularly when I read this at the end of the review:

This time, though, they declared their intent to include parents and teachers in the planning process. But more to the point, a key component to their grants includes building “a web of support for students,” everything from medical to mental health care. Zuckerberg came to recognize that school reform alone isn’t enough, that if we’re going to make a difference in the classroom, we also need to make a difference in the lives of these children, many of whom struggle against the debilitating effects of poverty and trauma. Here is where this story ends — but also where the next story begins.

To a grant writer, Zuckerberg’s insight about a “web of support for students” and Kotlowitz’s breathless look to the future illustrate that neither knows much about public education in Title I schools, which is how the US Department of Education, as well as state and local education agencies, designate “high poverty schools.” The feds have been giving boatloads of extra money to Title I schools since 1965, with no more obvious success than Zuckerberg experienced in Jersey City. Most Title I schools already offer variations on the kind of “web of support” that Zuckerberg is planning for targeted Bay Area schools. In addition, an army of nonprofit human services providers in the Bay Area do exactly the same thing for at-risk youth. We’ve worked for many of them. These nonprofits will certainly be interested in grants from the Zuckerberg donation to provide yet more wraparound supportive services.

Wraparound supportive services for at-risk low-income students is not an innovation. Also, referral for wraparound supportive services is usually required in most federal RFPs and foundation guidelines. But what are wraparound supportive services?

They’re any kind of helper services other than the primary service proposed for funding with the grant. For example, in a youth job training proposal, one would propose a wraparound supportive service of referral for substance abuse treatment, while in a youth substance abuse treatment proposal, one would propose a wraparound supportive service of job training.

The basic idea is that all targeted populations for any human services grant proposal face a panoply of problems beyond the specific issue at hand—a 16-year-old high-school student at risk of dropping out probably has substance abuse issues, involvement in the juvenile justice system, no job skills and so on. Since there’s never enough grant money to solve every problem faced by the client, the grant writer claims something like, “clients will receive the full range of case-managed wraparound supportive services to meet needs beyond the project scope identified in their individual intake assessment by referral to appropriate collaborating public and private service providers.” [free proposal sentence here]

Typical wraparound supportive services include: pre-employment skills training, job training, job placement, assistance with legal problems, tattoo removal, primary health care, dental care, behavioral health services, remedial education leading to a GED/high school diploma, life skills training, and anything else you want to toss in the mix. The keys are: assessment at intake, development of an Individual Supportive Services Plan, referral to meet identified needs, case management to verify that services are being accessed and follow-up (usually for 12 months). In many cases, the proposal includes letters of support from referral agencies to demonstrate that these mythical supportive services will actually be available. In the real world, who knows how much of this occurs, but in the proposal world, all of this works seamlessly.

A version of wraparound supportive services is presumably what Zuckerberg has in mind as the “web of support” for the students at his targeted Title I Bay Area schools. He’s in for a couple of surprises. First, providing actual case-managed services is very expensive, as the Case Manager to client ratio shouldn’t be more than about 1: 20 if the program is going to have any hope of impact.

In addition, most of these youth will have already had plenty of wraparound supportive services, beginning with Head Start and continuing on in their Title I schools. There’s no shortage of Case Managers in low-income communities. There is a shortage of motivation and properly aligning incentives.

In some human proposals, we’ve even proposed a sort of “Super Case Manager” to wrangle all of the Case Managers and other helper adults in the young person’s life. It’s not unusual for an at-risk youth to have Case Managers from the foster care system, family court, juvenile justice, welfare and schools, all vying for their attention. The young person may have trouble finding time to go to school, given the endless case management meetings and referral services she must attend. But this is real world stuff. Keep wraparound supportive services in your grant proposals and don’t tell Zuckerberg. He’ll find out soon enough.

Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is Out and It’s Topical for More Than Just Police Departments

The Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program is back, most notably via the COPS Hiring Program (CHP), which has $134.5 million available for local law-enforcement agencies. This Clinton-era program has been around for a while but has special resonance this year due to a spate of police shootings and the civil unrest in Baltimore. President Obama is also giving a speech about community-oriented policing today. This adds up to a greater-than-usual focus on a particular set of grant programs, most of which occur beneath the radar of the media and national politicians.

cops - community oriented policing servicesIssues around policing aren’t coming from nowhere. Last year the New York Times published “War Gear Flows to Police Departments,” which sets the tenor for this year’s COPS programs and for federal restrictions on distribution of military-style equipment to police. The feds recently curtailed so-called “civil asset forfeiture,” which is an Orwellian phrase that means police can steal your property and money without prosecutors even convicting you of a crime.

Now, we’re not sure if police are genuinely killing more African Americans than they used to or if the topic has become more salient in the news. We are sure, however, that good cell phone cameras and widespread surveillance cameras have made it much easier for civilians to challenge police narratives and to show when cops lie. Videos also better show how cops sometimes behave antagonistically or cruelly. It’s impossible to watch the video of Eric Garner being choked to death by a cop and not think, “There has to be a better way to  prevent the sale of single cigarettes.”

Community-oriented policing is part of that idea. It’s opposed to quasi-military, occupation-style policing, which is periodically in vogue. After 9/11, cops became fascinated with military hardware and a war-zone footing (or, alternately, there was just a lot of military equipment and training going around, and a lot of cops also served in Iraq or Afghanistan). The “War on Drugs” uses the rhetoric of war to justify war-like behavior like “no-knock” home raids, but policing and war-fighting are supposed to be very different. Blurring them is not good for cops or societies.

From a grant writing perspective, the marketing blitz around COPS tells us that anything nonprofits propose that has to do with integrating the community with law enforcement is going to be a popular grant topic, because we’ve gone about as far as we can towards the military-style of policing. The legalizing of marijuana in Washington, Colorado, and Washington, DC, along with the de facto legalization in California and elsewhere, may signal a shift in drug prohibition. And federal agencies are probably being directed to take already allocated funds and use it for community-oriented policing and related project concepts when possible. Regulatory changes are likely occurring at the same time.

It isn’t just police departments that should be thinking about this. If you have, say, a Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Grant application in the works, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a letter from the police and to say that you’ll coordinate with cops to use community-oriented policing to, perhaps, encourage child support compliance.

Trying to Give Away Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) or Early Head Start (EHS)

We worked on a bunch of New York City Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) and federal Early Head Start (EHS) proposals last year, so we read with interest Katie Taylor’s NYT story “In First Year of Pre-K Expansion, a Rush to Beat the School Bell.” New York is apparently having a tough time giving away valuable free stuff. The City and/or its UPK grantees have had to hire “enrollment specialists”—who we like to call “Outreach Workers” in proposals—to convince people to take the slots.*

This is strange: imagine Apple trying to give away MacBooks and having trouble finding enough takers. The 5th Avenue Apple Store would become even more of a disaster zone than it already is.

Usually it’s not hard to maintain a waiting list for UPK or EHS, but keeping the census up can be difficult. Parents sometimes enroll their kids and then don’t actually bring the kids (this is a specific example of the more general problem of people not valuing what they don’t pay for). Nonetheless, the need to advertise free stuff contradicts the de Blasio quote in the story:

“Parents get what this means for their kids,” the mayor said. “They understand the difference between their child getting a strong start and not getting it.”


There is another interesting moment in the story: “It is critical to Mr. de Blasio’s credibility that the program ultimately be seen as successful.” The key words are “be seen as.” The program doesn’t have to be successful; it only must be perceived that way. That’s true of virtually every government-funded grant program.

Smart applicants know his and tailor their proposals, reports, marketing, and other material appropriately. In the grant world there are no failures; there are only programs that need more money and time to thrive with ever-greater success, leading to a glorious future when the next five-year plan has been fulfilled.

One can see this principle at work in “Thoughts on the DOL YouthBuild 2012 SGA: Quirks, Lessons, and, as Always, Changes,” where we describe how “the DOL is implicitly encouraging applicants to massage data.” One of our clients didn’t realize this and submitted self-reported data not to the DOL’s highly improbable standards. Our client didn’t realize that the DOL doesn’t want to know the truth; the DOL wants to be told that they’re still the prettiest girl at the dance.

In general we are not hugely optimistic that early childhood education is going to have the widespread salutary effects regularly attributed to it by its defenders. But we stand, as always, on the side of truth and the side of the organizations we work for—our job is always to get the money and let researchers fight it out elsewhere.**

EDIT: At Alison Gopnik adds that “New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire.” Presumably anyone who has spent any amount of time around two to five year olds is aware of the… challenges… in the approaches mandated by UPK and EHS.

* Incidentally, this:

“Good morning,” she said, approaching a young couple at a playground in Brownsville this month. “Do you know any 4-year-olds?”

Is the same sort of thing that people who call themselves “pick-up artists” or “gamers” do. Shanté Jones probably isn’t as polished, but I hope she has read How to Win Friends and Influence People. I prefer the pre-1981 edition which is less politically correct but also a useful reminder of what people, or at least one person reflecting on his cultural milieu, thought in the 1936s. “Cultural milieu” is also a good proposal phrase.

** James Tooley’s book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves is also good on this subject.

A shortage of jobs for qualified grant writers? Not that we’ve seen!

Mark Peters and David Wessel’s “More Men in Prime Working Ages Don’t Have Jobs: Technology and Globalization Transform Employment Amid Slow Economic Recovery” is an article you’ve already read 10,000 times, and the intro, as usual, is a dubious vignette:

Mark Riley was 53 years old when he lost a job as a grant writer for an Arkansas community college. “I was stunned,” he said. “It happened on my daughter’s 11th birthday.” His boss blamed state budget cuts.

(Emphasis added.)

If there’s a growing industry in America, it’s software development. If there’s an industry growing very fast but slower than software development, it’s grant writing. If Riley really can’t find a job as a grant writer—or become a consultant—there’s something amiss with him, not the industry. At Seliger + Associates we hear all the time about how nonprofit and public agencies can’t find good grant writers.

Axiomatically, however, those nonprofit and public agencies aren’t paying enough to attract qualified candidates—anytime you read about an alleged “shortage” of employees mentally ask yourself, “at what price?”—but nonetheless we are skeptical that qualified grant writers can’t find work. The key word in the preceding sentence is of course “qualified.”

Usually the laid-off-and-can’t-find-work stories are about workers in manufacturing or middle-level office jobs, and that convention exists for a reason: many of those jobs are genuinely disappearing, and the workers in them are either moving up to higher skill jobs, or down. That Peters and Wessel would choose a grant writer as an example is bizarre. That such a convention exists at all is also one small datum that explains why Ezra Klein is trying to build a new kind of news organization, one that perhaps would eliminate the convention altogether or at least deploy it more intelligently.

“You Can’t Shovel Tens Pounds of Shit in a Five Pound Bag:” The New York Times Ignores CHCs, Section 330 Providers, and HRSA

In “For Many New Medicaid Enrollees, Care Is Hard to Find, Report Says,” Robert Pear discovers something that has long been obvious to our many Community Health Clinic (CHC) clients: having insurance doesn’t mean you can see a doctor. Many if not most doctors won’t see Medicaid patients. CHCs, however, are a class of primary care organization designed specifically for Medicaid patients and the uninsured. We’ve written numerous Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) proposals for CHCs, and everyone one of those proposals is supposed to expand access to care. This year’s New Access Point (NAP) program, for example, has $100 million available. Pear apparently does not know that CHCs exist and are funded through HRSA mostly to serve Medicaid patients.

The bigger problem regarding real-world healthcare is the number of doctors. Any discussion about the difficulty of finding care that doesn’t mention the limits on the supply of doctors is specious at best. There have been around 100,000 residency slots since the 1980s. Medical schools stopped expanding long ago. These facts are well-known to experts. Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners are to some extent filling in the gap, but in most states they still must practice under a doctor.

Our CHC clients’ biggest problem is rarely recruiting patients—when you subsidize goods or services, people consume more—it’s finding doctors. CHCs usually serve a high-need, difficult-to-treat population. Consequently, physicians often prefer to seek higher pay and lower stress jobs. Although there are lots of people trying to go to medical school—in Educating Physicians: A Call for Reform of Medical School and Residency, the authors note that 42,000 people applied for 18,000 medical school spots, and that at least 30,000 were likely qualified to become doctors—med school and residency act as bottlenecks to this process.

You can give every person health insurance without ensuring that they’ll actually get care, much like you can give everyone a degree without ensuring they have a brain. In the United Kingdom, care gets rationed through wait times. In the U.S., a similar dynamic is happening via provider shortages. While it is laudable that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) significantly increased the number of Americans covered by Medicaid, the landmark legislation did little to increase the number of providers to serve the newly insured. Or, as they used to say in the old days, you can’t shovel ten pounds of shit into a five pound bag. It’s a vulgar phrase but applicable to this article and the overall challenge of helping the newly insured actually access affordable, quality healthcare.

GWC Goes to the Movies Part Deux: Young Frankenstein, In the Heat of the Night and the Ferguson, MO Riots (or is it Rebellion?)

In Mel Brooks’s hilarious 1974 send-up of classic Universal Pictures 1930s horror films, Young Frankenstein, the incredibly goofy Kenneth Mars (as Inspector Kemp) says to the mob with pitchforks and torches: “A riot is an ungly thing . . . und, I tink that it is chust about time ve had vun.” I thought of this scene as I watched the chaos in Ferguson. From a grant writing perspective, I agree with Inspector Kemp. The human tragedies and political/police incompetence are hard to watch. Having an urban riot televised endlessly in the new 24-hour news cycle will, however, eventually generate lots of grant opportunities for nimble nonprofits. Simultaneously, a nice riot enables grant writers like us to continue the urban mythology of economic despair and violence lying just below the false calm of many urban and suburban streets that are home to large African American populations. This is the stuff of which compelling needs assessments are made. Riot anecdotes and allusions should be larded throughout.

I remember reading Life magazine, which was the Twitter of its day, about the 1965 Watts Rebellion.* Over the years, variations on the Watts theme have played out across America: white cop arrests/shoots/kills unarmed African American, an urban riot ensues, the police/national guard overreact and the community in question is left without grocery stores. I’m surprised that this ritual racial drama still occurs in 2014. As noted above, the Ferguson Rebellion will be a boon for urban nonprofits and grant writers, as the government response will be, as it always is, more grant programs—which is sometimes termed the “do something disease.” As Bob Geldorf, of “We are the World” fame and professional do-gooder, once said: “Something must be done, even if it doesn’t work.”

Since the feds and State of Missouri can’t do much of anything else about the immediate situation except blame the obviously incompetent and probably racist Ferguson PD, they’ll make it rain grant dollars on Ferguson and other perceived African American communities, like amateur night at a strip club. I say “perceived,” because it turns out that while about two-thirds of Ferguson residents are African American, the rest are white.

Although the community has been trending African American for decades, Ferguson is hardly all African American. Also, at $37,517, the median household income isn’t all that much lower than the state median of $47,333. There’s a wine bar, craft brewery, several chain restaurants and retailers, and even a weekly Farmer’s Market and outdoor concert series in the summer. There’s a Starbucks right across the city line in Jennings and a Whole Foods nearby. What I didn’t find when looking at Ferguson Census and social indicators were the “Cliff’s You Buy We Fry” fish markets and the Mr. Jones Rotten Fruit and Dented Can stores typical in low-income African American communities. Ferguson, one of several similar first-tier suburbs north of St. Louis, is hardly a place of urban despair.

If one watches CNN, however, all one sees are relatively small groups of angry African American faces and the unfortunate image of the very white and not too articulate Police Chief, Thomas Jackson, looking like Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night. The media presents the situation using classic urban riot tropes. That’s fine with me, as this is exactly how we write proposals for clients in actual economically devastated and African American places like North Philly or South Chicago, as well as ones that are perceived as African American. For example, Watts, the original poster city for riots, is actually now only one-quarter African American and 73% Hispanic.

We’ve written lots of proposals for projects in Watts, including some in which the City of Los Angeles was our client, and, through the magic of grant writing, we always make it seem that it’s still 1965 in Watts. See this NYT article for a good example of writing the ghetto myth, not the reality. Just as we harken back to 1965 in many grant proposals, the author of this piece goes all the way back to the early 50s to somehow rationalize what is going on 60 years later.

Let me return to Young Frankenstein. In the movie, Gene Wilder, as the scion of the mad doc family, starts the movie by trying to run away from his myth-filled heritage. Eventually fate intervenes and he decides to live the myth by building his own “monster.” The monster, played by Peter Boyle, turns out to be rather more charming than menacing, but still generates the angry mob with pitchforks that started this post. This lesson applies to grant writing: it’s important to honor the mythology of the past, while creating a new bogeyman that can only be overcome with grants.

* When writing proposals about communities that have been rocked by large-scale urban disturbances, like the Watts Riot or the chaos in LA following the Rodney King trial, never refer to a “riot”—only use terms like “rebellion” or “disturbance.” This fits in well with the proposal mythology that low-income folks are not actually out of control, but rather are understandably rebelling against the dominate power structure. Think Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

EDIT: Commenter James observes that this post is cynical even by our standards, but we’ll point out that we’re assuming the voice and thoughts of politicians and policy makers. Think of this as a nonfiction version of what James Wood’s description of point of view.

Talking About Progressive Ideals in Proposals: Money, Time, and Poverty in Grant Writing

No Money, No Time” helps set the cultural tone for the proposal world. In the proposal world—which does sometimes overlap with the real world—poor people spend time where richer people might spend money. Rich people are rich in many ways, but one is simple: their lives aren’t as organized around other people’s bureaucracies.* A nonprofit or public agency should help the poor, and it would be a good idea to incorporate the idea that poor people don’t have the time wealthier people do. This idea also ties into other important parts of contemporary thinking: if low-income people** weren’t so busy with day-to-day survival, they’d go buy arugula from the farmers market and make a salad, instead of buying Cokes and Big Macs.

There is some truth to the argument: a lot of low-income people are surrounded by endless appointments, case managers, social workers, parole officers (sometimes called corrections officers), and others who want a piece of their time. That time does add up. Years ago, we wrote a proposal to L.A. County for a nonprofit proposing to fund “master” case managers who would manage each client’s roster of case managers, parole officers, court cases, etc.

That’s not a totally superficial idea, though it has the ring of parody. If a poor single mom misses an appointment with her Child Protective Services (CPS) case manager, her kids might be put in foster care and she’ll end up in court. If she misses a shift, she might lose her job. If she fails to fill out out a form completely, she (and her children) might lose Medicaid or a Section 8 apartment. Life for the American poor is like a game of Chutes & Ladders—which is not an original thought, since Katherine S. Newman made the argument in a book called Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Labor Market (and she’s written a number of others, all good; used copies are under $1 on Amazon. If you’re writing social and human service proposals, you can’t afford not to buy them).

In the proposal world, solutions spring from government funding, but in the real world, many of the problems derive from laws passed by legislatures. Among the poor in particular—who cannot afford good lawyers and who often cannot afford service fees and other penalties—lives get complicated by entanglement with officialdom and by drug prohibition. Legal issues usually involve drugs and kids; jailing men for failing to pay child support has a real, under-appreciated downside that is not being widely discussed (though you will hear about it in some places).

Even outside the realm of drugs and kids, we have so many laws, rules, and regulations—many not at all intuitive and many counter to the ways actual people want to live—that no one is innocent and everyone breaks laws, usually inadvertently. Tyler Cowen’s “Financial Hazards of a Fugitive Life” also describes this; the column is substantially about Alice Goffman’s brilliant book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, which you should also read (and cite).

These laws came, not surprisingly, from good intentions. Before Prohibition, progressives theorized that getting rid of Demon Rum and John Barleycorn would mean that men wouldn’t get drunk, lose their jobs, eventually lose everything, and send their wives and daughters into prostitution. As any student of history knows, that didn’t turn out real well. Drug prohibition isn’t working out real well, but we’re still wasting a lot of time and resources doing it—in all sorts of ways.

Some costs to drug prohibition are quite small. Office Depot used to have tons of signs up saying, “We drug test employees.” But our thought was: who cares? We’re just asking someone where the pens are. If Office Depot’s employees want to light up after work, that’s their own affair. Nonetheless, Office Depot may have been unintentionally reinforcing poverty by denying jobs to otherwise qualified workers who like to dance with Mary Jane on the weekends (just like many social workers and case managers, at least in my experience).

The net result of this is the time crunch. The first article in this post should be cited in proposals—but only in the needs assessment. The problem should be forgotten in the project description, since participants must be assumed to have lots of time to serve on the Participant Involvement Council (PIC), community service etc. Other writers have also described the time trap of being poor: John Scalzi’s “Being Poor” is one particularly poetic example.

The time crunch is not unique to poor people and human service organizations serving them. Isaac actually tried to talk to the Small Business Administration (SBA) group in Seattle when he first started Seliger + Associates. They wanted him to sit through ten sessions on… something, all of which required lots of travel time he didn’t have because he was furiously busy writing proposals and finding clients. You do not discuss the nature of warfare, starting with the Greeks, when the enemy is shooting and your position is in danger of being overrun.

That being said, it’s useful to understand where these ideas come from. There are, loosely speaking, two big views on poverty right now. The one presented in the New York Times, which we’ve been discussing in this post, is the generally leftish, Democrat, progressive view, and that’s the view that should predominate in proposals. The other view is generally rightish, Republican / Libertarian-esque, and slightly more conservative, and that’s the view that the material conditions of being poor in the U.S. have improved incredibly over the last century or more. That’s where one gets The Heritage Foundation pointing out that 80% of poor people have AC, 75% have a car, two thirds have a TV, and so on. That’s also where one finds Charles Murray’s solutions in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (these issues are not unique to the United States: Britain’s working class faces similar travails).

Just about everyone likes Murray’s research, but American progressives and conservatives tend to disagree on what the research means and what, if anything, should be done about it. Progressives tend to stress direct income transfer and government-paid supportive services, while conservatives tend to stress marriage, avoiding drugs, not getting knocked up outside of marriage, etc.

Beyond the drug war, there are other drags on the earnings and lives of poor people. Almost no one, right or left, mentions that the rent is too damn high, and that every time wealthy owners in places like Santa Monica, Seattle, and New York prevent new construction, they’re simultaneously making the lives of the poor much, much harder. Only a relatively small number of voices in the wilderness are speaking up.

We’re grant writers—that is, hired guns—so we’re not intensely political about these issues and are in it for the money (I know you’re shocked). Usually we shy away from the theory and thought behind grant writing, since most readers and human service providers don’t really care about it, or care to the extent that thinking translates into dollars.

* Isaac doesn’t like using the word “bureaucracy” in proposals, in any context, but I’m quite fond of it. Isaac says that isn’t a good idea to remind the bureaucrats reading a proposal that they are in fact bureaucrats who are making people jump through hoops in order to receive goods and services. He may have a point.

** In proposals, no one is poor and everyone is “low-income.” We use them interchangeably here only because a) this is where grant writers and nonprofit administrators come to talk about reality, not fantasy, and b) the original writer uses the term “poor.”

Foundations Give Away Five Percent Of Their Assets a Year: Typhoon Haiyan Shows Why You Should Act Now, Not Later

As you’ve probably noticed if you’re reading any news, typhoon Haiyan likely killed at least 10,000 people in the Philippines. That’s obviously a human tragedy, but there’s one small implication for nonprofit: it pays to apply for foundation funding sooner, rather than later.

The reason is simple. Foundations react to the news cycle. They also give out a limited amount of money every year. When the biggest typhoon in history hits the Philippines, funders are going to redirect a lot of their giving to victims of the typhoon. Since they’re only required to give away five percent a year, and almost no foundations give more, there is usually a finite amount of money that any individual foundation will spend in a given year. By definition, any dollar that goes to one purpose can’t go to another.

(We should clarify that we’re not criticizing foundations for donating to typhoon victims. We are, however, pointing out that in any given quarter, foundation priorities might change.)

Nonprofits that applied for foundation funding three months ago probably had their proposals evaluated on their merits without the typhoon impetus hanging over them. Incidentally, it takes us about three to four months to complete a foundation appeal, which means anyone who hires us tomorrow shouldn’t be strongly affected. But any nonprofit that spent the last year “planning” or “developing” or whatever has just seen the likelihood of its foundation appeal working decline if they submit next week.

The same thing happened, on a larger scale, after 9/11: that tragedy sucked up a huge amount of donations and foundation funding for the rest of the year. The many local, national, and international problems that nonprofit and public agencies had been addressing on 9/10 didn’t go away on 9/12. But many foundations focused on the event that dominated the news, rather than quieter needs that might make the back pages of newspapers and the bottom of websites—if they’re covered at all.

Again, we’re not trying to diminish what happened on 9/11. But we are trying to provide some context from a grant seeker’s perspective. It’s also worth noting that, as Ken Stern describes in “With Charity For All,” donations to 9/11-based causes hit diminishing returns quickly. In other words, there were too many dollars chasing too few effective charitable opportunities. Organizations like the Red Cross, which realized as much, redirected some donations to other causes and then got blasted in the media.

I mentioned above that important problems don’t go away even when major tragedies like typhoon Haiyan or 9/11 occur. My favorite example of underappreciated statistics involves cars. Pop quiz: do you know how many people died in car-related events last year? Around 30,000, which is actually down from the 40,000 people who used to routinely die in car-related events, but it’s still about ten times greater than the number of people who died on 9/11. Despite these facts, auto deaths get nowhere near the press that 9/11 did.

Almost no one is deeply engaged in rethinking our urban and transportation infrastructure to reduce reliance on cars and, as Matt Yglesias says in The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think, increase real incomes by lowering housing costs in major cities. (The book, by the way, is brilliant, short, and worth reading, since its main subject touches on so many economic and political issues in contemporary life.)

The contrast between the reaction to a major event like 9/11 and typhoon Haiyan and to everyday events like the deaths of innumerable people in cars demonstrates the power of unusual stories to shape funder priorities. As a society we’re willing to tolerate 30,000 people dying in and around cars every year because those deaths happen across dispersed geographic areas and 365 days a year. That doesn’t get the reaction of a single, horrifying incident. Most nonprofits are working on relatively everyday struggles around poverty, crime, research, and so on. They don’t have the advantage of every news outlet in the world shining an intense light on their cause. Both their timing in applying for funding and the content of their proposals should reflect that.