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Nonprofits should make better use of social media in grant applications

We try hard to keep our proposals fresh by making our project concepts reflect what is going on in communities today—not what the world was like decades ago. For example, several years ago we began including references to emerging social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) in proposals, mostly in describing the outreach component. The reality, unfortunately, is that we write in the Proposal World, while our clients live in the real world. I talk to nonprofit Executive Directors all the time and most don’t use social media in any meaningful way, other than perhaps for fund raising or PR. I’ve yet to come across one that is using new tools in their programming.*

This is not surprising, as nonprofits are always slow to adopt new technology, due to budget constraints, lack of imagination, and/or overall fuddy-duddyness. Although we used email and had a website in 1993, nonprofit clients didn’t routinely use email until about 2005. Though most of our youth services clients don’t know it, virtually all of their teenage and young adults clients have smartphones, no matter how low-income they may be.** Social media permeates American youth culture.

In my post last week, I briefly mentioned the troubling emerging problem of big city “flash mobs.” I’m not referring to the original “Thriller” flash mobs that suddenly did zombie dancing, but to the Philadelphia and Milwaukee youth mobs that have recently rampaged. It seems that the mobs formed and de-formed by using Twitter, Facebooking and texting to coordinate their activities, confounding police and potential victims alike (see this video depicting the Milwaukee situation).

A potential flash mob was defused in the Oakland BART subway system last week when the cell phone system was disabled in underground stations. While this raises First Amendment issues that are beyond the scope of this post (for a free proposal phrase, substitute “proposal” for “post”), it shows that public sector administrators and police are getting hip to social media. If a BART bureaucrat can figure this out, as can the State Department, nonprofit executive directors should be able to. For example, we recently completed a federal job training proposal for a large nonprofit in South Central LA. While the executive director told me that virtually all of her very low-income youth clients had smartphones, she wanted to stick with traditional outreach strategies and removed all of my first draft references to utilizing social media.

Consider a project concept for an enterprising nonprofit in any city that has experienced the flash mob phenomenon or might. Let’s call this Project YEAH (Youth Electronic Action Helpers), proposed by Youth Engagement Services (YES), a fictional United Way agency. Project YEAH could work this way:

  • The basic concept is that all community youth are not angry and disaffected. Lots of good kids can be mobilized through social media to produce peer pressure to prevent violent, flash mob behavior. The target population includes middle and high school age youth, as well as out-of-school, unemployed youth and young adults—say, age 14 – 22—of whatever ethnic population predominates in the target area.
  • YES forms a Project Advisory Committee (PAC), including representatives of other services providers, law enforcement, the local Workforce Investment Board (WIB), elected officials, the chamber of commerce, employers, faith-based organizations, etc. The PAC meets virtually, using on-line meeting software and members communicate with one another through a secure web portal, texting, and private tweets. No travel, no donuts, and no wasted time should = better organizational participation. Public access is assured by publicizing the on-line meetings and allowing anyone with a web connection to watch.
  • A Social Media Consultant (a tech-savvy local nerd) is hired to set up the project social media sites and develop training protocols for staff and the target population, who are engaged through the outreach effort (see below).
  • Several Peer Helpers are recruited as outreach and engagement staff. PHs are 18 – 25 or so and are former gang members, star athletes, American Idol contestants, junior preachers, or have some other affiliation or background that provides them with natural connections and street cred with the target population. PHs are trained in community organizing techniques and skills, along with use of social media, using on-line training to the maximum feasible extent. Smart phones, iPads, Internet service, and similar gear are provided. The PHs mostly connect with each other through virtual methods, rather than gathering at the YES office. Once again, no donut eating. Time and activity logs are keep through a secure database, developed by the Social Media Consultant.
  • PHs conduct outreach and education, primarily using social media, rather than the traditional mailings, presentations, street-based outreach, etc. The outreach is based on the ever popular “train-the-trainers” model, updated for the social media world. The trained PHs recruit a cadre of Youth Ambassadors (YAs), who are paid a monthly stipend and are trained by the PHs in community organizing techniques and, to the extent necessary, the use of social media. The YAs use the project-developed social media tools to engage the target population, encouraging them to avoid flash mob/violent anti-social behavior while accessing supportive services (e.g., pre-employment skills training, after school enrichment, GED preparation, job searches, emergency food and clothing, etc.) from YES and PAC members. In effect, each YA will develop a YEAH Follower Cadre, using the Twitter model. Should info begin to circulate on social media channels about potential flash mobs, the YEAH Follower Cadres will react by using social media to discourage participation. In some cases, YEAH Follower Cadres, wearing brightly colored Project YEAH t-shirts and hats will physically meet at potential flash mobs sites, forming a human peer pressure blockade before violence develops. This could include well understood nonviolent protest techniques (e.g., going limp and lying down, etc.). PHs will video the blockades, immediately uploading to YouTube to build awareness and peer pressure.
  • All activities, services, follow-up and client satisfaction feedback will be tracked with user-input databases developed by the Social Media Consultant.

I think a project concept like the above would be great interest to large community foundations and national foundations, particularly those associated with technology companies. Go try it. A version of this social media-based youth engagement model will make much more compelling reading to a funder than the traditional approaches out clients typically want us to use.

EDIT: The New York Times reports: “Phone Messages Improve [Health] Care, Study Finds.”


* I know one emergency medicine resident who observed that her patients routinely had nicer phones than she did.

** If I’m wrong and you know of a nonprofit that is using social media in its programming, post a comment, as I (and readers) would love to know about it.

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Two for One: Where Grants Come From, Fast Food, and the Contradictory Nature of Government Programs

Have you ever wondered where grant programs come from, like a child asking about the nature of baby making? Programs often don’t start with legislators; they percolate up from the minds of journalists, academics, and bloggers who realize, “X would be a great idea!” You can see this process in Mark Bittman’s editorial “Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables:”

Rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available.

Notice how Bittman says he wants “a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans.” Such efforts, of course, already exist, like the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Program, almost all of which include a healthful eating component. And have you ever seen “MyPlate,” which is a revised version of the food pyramid?* The food pyramid was a federal effort too, albeit marred by politicking. But even if current programs didn’t exist already, the reality of how such a program would work on the ground differs from how Bittman imagines it would work while he’s writing. He’s envisioning an idealistic project pretty far from the boots-on-the-ground experience of Seliger + Associates and most nonprofits who know just how much gets lost in the space between dollars earmarked for a program that “encourages a sound diet” and some actual person receiving services.

Still, Bittman has an ear for the proposal world, as he shows when he includes this specious bit of proposal-ese: “Yet the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods.” I suspect the food industry is more than capable of marketing anything, but it focuses on marketing what sells; the problem is that more people want to eat Big Macs than broccoli, french fries than carrots. McDonald’s has introduced an endless number of “healthier” items over the years, but those healthier items still don’t sell like burgers and fries. So McDonald’s sells billions of burgers and fries and the occasional bag of apple slices.

Fundamentally, Bittman wants government help with healthful foods. On the flipside, Ricardo Lopez writes in the L.A. Times that California “seeks to educate food-stamp recipients about fast food.” It turns out that Los Angeles County now allows thousands of food stamp (or as the program is now termed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP))** recipients to use their vouchers at fast food restaurants. The article says that “Anna Harrald likes to eat at Taco Bell because the hard-shell tacos are ‘nice and cheap and good,'” which tells you a lot of what you need to know about healthier eating choices.

It used to be that fast food places didn’t want to accept food stamps, but the recession changes things for them, to the point where some will advertise:

At a Downey KFC, assistant manager Sam Chavez said a drop in business partly spurred the restaurant’s recent decision to accept public assistance benefits. A large poster hangs in the windows announcing, “We welcome EBT,” referring to the food-stamp debit cards dispersed to recipients.

One the one hand, parts of the government—like the parts that pay out Medicaid or fund Carol M. White—want you to eat better. On the other, like the parts of California that want to make sure you’re eating something, fast food is okay. That’s one of the realities a program like the one Bittman proposes will run into.

As a grant writer, if you were presented by these two facts—food stamps can be used for fast food but fast food makes people fat and decreases their overall health—how would you solve the problem? Leave your answers in the comments before you read the next paragraph.

I’d probably write something like this:

Area residents live in a food desert. It is simply not possible for many of them to access the kind of fresh vegetables and groceries they need to thrive. Although food stamps are supposed to be used solely for the purchase of nutritious foods, in recognition of the simple reality that such foods are often unavailable to targeted residents food stamps can be used at fast food joints, because of the rapacious food policies of large corporations that simply do not understand life in the target area. Part of the proposed project will involve a campaign to lure local vendors capable of selling fresh, unprocessed food to residents into the target area to help residents avoid the false lure of Taco Bell and their ilk.

Then I would describe how the proposed program will incorporate a component that will attempt to work with grocery stores and farmers’ markets to set up shop—in doing so, I might even cite Bittman’s editorial.


* As far as I can tell, this is another pointless exercise in random language change.

** Another random linguistic change like something out of Orwell. “Food stamps” at least vaguely describes what’s happening (you give a vendor stamps, you get food), while SNAP is just another pointless acronym.

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Unicorn Spotted in the LA Times: A Large Nonprofit Gives Back Huge Federal Grants

In the 280 or so years I’ve spent grant writing (grant writing years should be considered as dog years because of endless deadlines and dumb RFPs), I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a nonprofit that voluntarily gave back significant federal grants.

Faithful readers will know that I use the term “unicorn” for anything I find exceedingly unlikely in the fun-filled world of grant writing (see, for example, “No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer“). I nearly choked on my daily ration of Chemex-brewed coffee on Saturday morning when I spotted this “unicorn” story by Alexandra Zavis in the LA Times: Homeless shelter to drop government-funded programs. How can this be?

The Union Rescue Mission (URM) is a giant homeless services provider in L.A. It is obviously a faith-based organization (FBO). Remember that there are two kinds of FBOs. The first kind gives you a bowl of soup when you’re hungry, and the second kind gives you a bowl of soup when you’re hungry but makes you listen to a sermon before you get the soup. URM is presumably the second kind, which means it is not directly eligible for government grants because it intertwines service delivery with religion.

The first kind of FBO is often eligible for government grants, and we often work for those FBOs. To get around the pesky problem of grant eligibility, URM apparently set up another nonprofit, EIMAGO, to serve as the grant applicant and recipient for federal grants. This is not unusual. EIMAGO is described in the article, however, as a secular “subsidiary” of URM. Nonprofits don’t usually describe affiliated organizations as “subsidiaries,” preferring “affiliate,” “partner,” etc., to preserve at least an appearance of independence and deflect the impression that the “subsidiary” exists only as a grant conduit.

Leaving aside the relationship of URM and EIMAGO, the article says that Alan Bates, URM President and apparently spokesperson for EIMAGO, says that they (URM or EIMAGO?) can no longer operate government-funded programs because the costs are not fully covered and it takes months to get paid:

Bales said the Christian mission has been using private donations to supplement the government contracts operated by its secular subsidiary, EIMAGO. “In the last six or seven years, we have subsidized those operations about $4.5 million because we never get enough money from the government to operate the programs as they should be operated,” he said.

But, Bates also goes on to say that “no one would be forced onto the streets because of the decision.”

Let’s do a small Gedankenexperiment or “thought experiment” to test the logic of the article.

1. URM/EIMAGO exist to help the hungry and the homeless.

2. Joe is hungry and homeless and needs three hots and a cot, as they say in the shelter biz.

3. URM/EIMAGO gets $100/day in federally derived grant funds to take care of Joe, and the money comes from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA, which is the primary homeless grant spigot in LA County), FEMA, Department of Veterans Affairs, HUD, or another government agency.

4. For whatever reason (extra piece of mystery meat in the stew, designer blanket, one too many case managers, etc.), URM/EIMAGO spends $105/day taking care of Joe, meaning they have to get Harry to donate $5 to URM/EIMAGO to keep Joe fed and housed.

5. URM/EIMAGO says its too tough to get $5/day out of Harry to supplement the $100/day from Uncle Sam to take care of Joe, so they are going to reject the $100/day from Uncle Sam.

6. Without $100/day from Uncle Sam, how much will URM/EIMAGO have to get from Harry to take care of Joe?

$105/day. If you grasped this point, you are quicker on the uptake than the reporter. Without the federal grants, URM/EIMAGO is either going to serve a lot fewer Joes or will need to find a lot more Harrys. This is why I’ve never run across any large profit that would voluntarily cancel federal grants—or any grants for that matter. URM/EIMAGO is a unicorn.

In addition to pointing out the logic problem presented above and highlight an unusual unicorn story, this post is really intended for those nonprofits who want to become “multi-program, multi-funded agencies,” and particularly nonprofits that aim to supplement project grants, general purpose grants and donations with contracts for capitated services (e.g., most homeless services, primary health care, substance abuse treatment, foster care, etc.). For these grantees, which provide a service for some agreed upon per head/per day/per visit/per whatever fee, the capitated payments, like other grant funds, are often fungible (Jake covered fungible grants last year in “Supplementing Versus Supplanting Grant Funds: Examples from the Rural Housing and Economic Development Program and the Capital Fund Recovery Competition Grants“).

In the case of a soup kitchen, you could ask: which dollar bought the carrots in the stew that Joe is eating? The LAHSA grant, the Department of Veterans Affairs Grant, the donation from Harry? Nobody knows. For that matter, Joe is fungible. If he’s a veteran, the agency can claim him on their Vets grant, if he’s an ex-offender, he could be tallied on their Department of Justice grant, if he has a substance abuse challenge, he could be covered by a CSAT grant, or, ideally, all three.

One of the unspoken realities of running large nonprofits is that clever multi-funded, multi-program agencies can often pay for services for a particular individual more than once, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by accident. Funders don’t seem to care, as long as this is never stated in grant proposals or reports and reporters are too naive to inquire.

I don’t know anything about URM/EIMAGO other than what I gleaned from this article, as we’ve never worked for either organization. To forestall the potential lawyer inquiry, I am not making any accusations about either organization, which I am sure are great service providers. The situation described in the LA Times article seems implausible to me, particularly given this quote from it: “The mission’s difficulties come at a time when many nonprofits are struggling to raise the funds they need to keep up with demand for their services in a bad economy.” Seems like someone at URM has been reading Grant Writing Confidential, as I have been making this point for over two years. It’s a bad time to be trying to replace hard-to-get grant funds with even harder-to-get donations.

The article also provides an opportunity to illustrate how larger nonprofits often use multiple grant sources to keep the lights on. For those newer and more nimble nonprofits in L.A. that want to provide homeless services, it looks like you’ll have an opportunity to dine on the LAHSA grants that URM/EIMAGO rejects. Some agency is going to need to serve the legions of hungry and homeless in L.A. Go get your bowl of LAHSA grant soup!

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Social Innovation Fund Not Terribly Innovative, But Confirms That Getting Grants Is Not Like Winning an Olympic Gold Medal

Faithful readers will remember “Why Winning an Olympic Gold Medal is Not Like Getting a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Grant,” in which I opined that in getting grants, the race does not always belong to the swift. It seems I scooped the New York Times. In today’s edition, Stephanie Strom tells the depressing tale of how the perhaps inappropriately named Social Innovation Fund (SIF) awarded $50,000,000 to applicants with “mediocre scores” in “Nonprofit Fund Faces Questions About Conflicts and Selection Procedures.” Nothing is innovative about not giving grants to applicants with the highest score, but it is innovative that SIF has lots of obvious conflicts of interest and has not “disclosed who reviewed the grants—or who applied for them or the ratings the applicants received.” I can think of a couple of pretty good reasons for the secrecy: they funded who they felt like funding and are ashamed of this obviously boneheaded move.

As I pointed out in my blog post, it is not uncommon for federal agencies to select grant awardees from among technically correct applications, even low scoring ones (SIF is a nonprofit that somehow got what amounts to a $50 million congressional earmark). Usually, however, the funder doesn’t make a secret of the award process and doesn’t shred the review sheets, which SIF apparently did. This is not only not transparent, its a reminds a grizzled grant writer of the missing 18 minutes of the Watergate tapes. As I pointed in a post from two years ago, “It’s a Grant, Not a Gift: A Primer on Grants Management,” “The secret to grant management is to remember that everything related to a grant is likely public information, so don’t do anything you wouldn’t mind seeing on the front page of the local newspaper.”

In this case SIF did something dumb enough to end up in the New York Times. If only Paul Carttar, SIF Executive Director, read Grant Writing Confidential regularly, he wouldn’t look at best stupid or at worst . . . well, you decide what he looks like. In writing proposals, we try never to write the word “horse” under the picture of a horse—or _______ under the picture of a horse’s rear end.

The SIF fiasco has created such a stir in the normally staid climes of the world of big nonprofits that Ruth McCambridge, Editor of the Nonprofit Quarterly, said she may file a request for all the applications under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).* As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously put it, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Secrecy and grant making are a bad combination. I also don’t think much of the recent trend of Congress giving huge grants to national nonprofits, which in turn dole out grants through dubious RFP processes. How does SIF help human services get delivered? As far as I can tell, they fund who they want to fund and likely take a large administrative rake off the top. Why not just have any unit of DHHS run the RFP process for “financing the replication of nonprofit programs that work,” which is supposedly what SIF is doing? I recently wrote a post about another example of a national nonprofit, YouthBuild USA, running a quasi-secret RFP process in A Secret YouthBuild SMART RFP Found and a Not-So-Secret YouthBuild SGA to be Issued.

A note of optimism in all of this doom and gloom about potentially wired competitions brought to us by congressional earmarks for national nonprofits: the vast majority of RFP processes are not wired in any way. Still, it’s just a reality that for many reasons, the highest scoring proposal may not be funded. But your organization will never get a grant unless it submits a technically correct and compelling proposal on time.

For example, we were hired about ten years ago by one of the five largest cities in the US to re-write what was probably the last Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) proposal ever submitted. UDAG is a long-defunct HUD program from the Carter era. Our client was told by HUD that $3 million in returned UDAG funds was theirs in a sole-source submission. All they had to do was submit an application.

The city managed to annoy the HUD Program Officer, who hadn’t gotten the memo that this proposal was supposed to be funded. He rejected it as being technically deficient. We were then hired to fix this mess, and we found the dusty UDAG regs from 1978 and wrote a new proposal that was technically correct. Voila: the $3 million UDAG grant was promptly awarded and helped to ensure construction of a public venue in the city, which shows up on TV regularly. Can you guess the city and project? If you can, we’ll come up with an appropriate prize. The point of this story is that even with a wired RFP process or earmark, the applicant must get the application technically correct or they will screw up a free lunch.


* If you ever do send a FOIA request, let the public official know in advance that you plan to, which will give her the opportunity to say, “Oh, as luck would have it, the info you want is right here on my credenza,” and save time all around. Be sure to use Certified Mail.

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Grant Writing Confidential Scoops the Wall Street Journal and More on Being Creative in Finding Funds During the Great Recession

As the editor of my high school newspaper—the Cooper High School Hawk’s Quill—and a short-lived college journalism major, I take great delight in scooping the Wall Street Journal. Shelly Banjo wrote Donations Slip Amid Anxiety on June 9, which said:

For the second year in a row, philanthropy has seen the deepest decline ever recorded by the Giving USA Foundation, which has tracked annual giving since 1956. Donations fell 3.6% to $303.75 billion last year, down from $315 billion in 2008, according to the latest Giving USA study, released Wednesday. In 2008, they were down 2%.

Faithful readers will note that I made more or less the same point in my May 29 blog post, Tough Times for Folks Means More Grant Writing for Nonprofits, although with more humor and helpful advice. If one read Ms. Banjo’s article and knew little about nonprofits, one would get the impression that the end is nigh. This is because her article, like most stories about nonprofits, perpetuates the conventional wisdom that all nonprofits depend exclusively on donations, which is simply not true.

As I pointed out in my post, while donations are important, particularly for certain kinds of nonprofits, most human services providers support their service through grants, fee-for-service contracts, third-party payers and/or quasi-business enterprises, in addition to donations.* These alternative revenue streams, which can be ramped-up when donations are down, are not mentioned by Ms. Banjo and the cast of nonprofit “experts” she quotes and data she cites.

Although new contributions to foundations may be down, foundations still must give away 5% or so of their endowment every year, and the feds, through the Stimulus Bill and lots of other appropriations, have keep the grant spigot wide open. Cagey nonprofit executive directors are busy writing grant proposals and dreaming up other revenue strategies, not wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over declines in donations. But not in the conventional wisdom world of newspaper writers.

A second Wall Street Journal article by Jennifer Levitz and Stephanie Simon on June 12, “A School Prays for Help”, confirms the importance of getting creative during tough times. While this article mostly discusses public schools, police departments and other public agencies seeking alternative funding sources, the same concepts apply to nonprofits.

In this article, the writers describe how some schools are getting local churches to “adopt” them and other strategies for what amounts to advertising in order to supplement limited tax dollars. Nonprofits can do the same sorts of things instead of just waiting around for donations to pickup.

One of the several odd aspects of a church providing donations to a public school, however, is that the church itself is a nonprofit that depends almost exclusively on donations from its members. Why would they do this? One reason could be that the church expects to get new members from school parents and staff, and they will eventually try to extract donations from the new members. In other words, the church and the school are probably competing for donor dollars and the church may be taking the longer view that investing a small amount of its money now, derived from its members, will result in more members and more money later.

While most nonprofits and public agencies like to present themselves as collaborating, in reality they compete with one another for donations, grants, and all kinds of resources. I pointed this out in What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point, a post that generated quite a comment thread.

Some readers understood my point, while other denounced me as a hopeless cynic. Of course, I am a hopeless cynic, but nonprofits and public agencies are largely in competition, and the ongoing economic mess just makes this competition rise to surface, like the somewhat baleful giant crocodile in the best “big animal” movie of recent years, Lake Placid.


* Jake also wrote about funding sources in Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun.