Category Archives: Nonprofits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philanthropy is not being disrupted by Silicon Valley

The Atlantic writes that “Silicon Valley Has Disrupted Philanthropy.” A lovely article, except for one minor issue: Silicon Valley has not “disrupted” philanthropy. The evidence presented for the article’s thesis is an anecdote from a Boys & Girls Club, “a 2016 report about Silicon Valley philanthropy written by two women who run a consulting firm that works with nonprofits and donors” (we could write similar reports), and this:

The Silicon Valley Children’s Fund, which also works with foster youth, has contracted with a marketing firm that will help it “speak in the language of business and metrics,” Melissa Johns, the organization’s executive vice president, told me.

There are a few other anecdotes, too, though these anecdotes don’t even rise to the level of “How to lie with statistics.” The author, Alana Semuels, is likely correct that some nonprofits have learned to adjust their proposals to use the language of data and metrics. She’s also correct that “rising housing prices in Silicon Valley mean increased need for local services, and more expensive operations for nonprofits, which have to pay staff more so they can afford to live in the area.” But the solution to that is zoning reform, not philanthropy, as anyone who is data- and knowledge-driven will soon discover.

Still, it’s possible that philanthropists will eventually adopt the tenets of effective altruism en masse. But I doubt it. Some reasons for my doubt can be seen in “Foundations and the Future,” a post in 2008 that was accurate but not especially prescient, because it points to features in human nature. In the ten year since I wrote that post, we’ve seen little substantive change in foundations. Other reasons can be seen in Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life; the chapter on charity explains how most donors are most interested in feeling good about themselves and raising their status in the eyes of their peers. Most donors don’t care deeply about effectiveness (although they do care about appearing to care about effectiveness), and caring deeply about effectiveness often invites blowback about donors being hard-hearted scrooges instead of generous benefactors. What do you mean, you want to audit all of our program for effectiveness? You don’t just TRUST us? No one else wants to do this. Fine, if you must, you can, but I find it improper that you are so skeptical of our good works… you can see the youth we’re helping! They’re right here! Look into their eyes! You can tell me all you want about data, but I know better.

The real world of nonprofits and motivation is quite different than the proposal world. It’s also easier, far easier, to write about doing comprehensive cost-benefit analyses than it is to actually do epistemically rigorous cost-benefit analyses. I know in part because I’ve written far more descriptions of cost-benefit analyses than have actually been performed in the real world.

It’s not impossible to do real evaluations of grant-funded programs—it’s just difficult and time-consuming. And when I say “difficult,” I don’t just mean “difficult because it costs a lot” or “difficult because it’s hard to implement.” I mean conceptually difficult. Very few people deeply understand statistics sufficiently to design a true evaluation program. Statistics and regression analyses are so hard to get right that there’s a crisis going on in psychology and other social sciences over replication—that is, many supposed “findings” in the social sciences are probably not true or are due to random chance. If you’d like to read about it, just Google the phrase “replication crisis,” and you’ll find an infinite amount of description and commentary.

Medicine has seen similar problems, and John Ioannidis is the figure most associated with foregrounding the problem. In medicine, the stakes are particularly high, and even there, many supposed studies defy replication.

The point is that if most accomplished professors, who have a lot at stake in terms of getting the data right, do not or cannot design or implement valid, rigorous studies, it’s unlikely that many nonprofits will, either. And, on top of that, it’s unlikely that most donors actually want such studies (though they will say they want such studies, as noted previously).

To be sure, lest my apparent cynicism overwhelm, I applaud the goal of more rigorously examining the efficaciousness of foundation-funded programs. I think effective altruism is a useful movement and I’d like to see more people adopt it. But I’m also aware that the means used to measure success are quickly going to be gamed by nonprofits, if they aren’t already. If a nonprofit hired me to write a whiz-bang report about how Numbers and Statistics show their program is a raging success, I’d take the job. I know the buzzwords and know just how to structure such a document. And if I didn’t do it, someone else would. A funder would need strong separation between the implementing organization, the evaluating organization, and the participants in order to have any shot at really understanding what a grant-funded program is likely to do.

It’s much easier for both nonprofits and funders to conduct cargo-cult evaluations, declare the program a success, and move on, than it is to conduct a real, thorough evaluation that is likely to be muddled, show inconclusive results, and reduce the good feelings of all involved.* Feynman wrote “Cargo-Cult Science” in 1974, long before The Elephant in the Brain, but I think he would have appreciated Simler and Hanson’s book. He knew, intuitively, that we’re good at lying to ourselves—especially when there’s money on the line.


* How many romantic relationships would survive radical honesty and periodic assessments by disinterested, outside third-parties? What should we learn from the fact that there is so little demand for such a service?

Nonprofit royalty exist, but you’re unlikely to be the next Duchess of At-Risk Youth Services

I had coffee with a friend who was in LA from NYC, and he’s the development director of a huge arts organization in NYC that raises $50M annually, mostly from large foundations, “whale” donors, ticket sales, and a soupçon of grants (not one of our clients). Over our iced macadamia milk lattes (this is LA after all) at Go Get Em Tiger, he told me he’s making his annual trek to LA to meet and show the flag with a big entertainment-related foundation that funds his agency. He was invited to various “industry events” that us mere mortals read about in TMZ. I said he’s a member of the nonprofit royalty.

“What’s that?” he asked.

Imagine you’re looking down on a vast savanna. Roaming are the 1.5 million 501(c)(3) US nonprofits (thousands of new ones bubble into existence every year, while some starve to death). Let’s deduct two-thirds of these as either being very small or too inert to be of interest. That leaves maybe 500K active nonprofits scurrying around the plain looking for donation and grant grubs, mice, rabbits, and the occasional elk. Most of these nonprofits are doing good works in primary health care, at-risk youth services, workforce development, other human services, the arts, and so on. While most have relatively modest annual operating budgets, say less than $5M, some, like big FQHCs, have annual operating budgets north of $50M. No matter how large, however, these are still commoners, battling with one another for donations, grants, third-party payers, and the like.

Among the nonprofit herd, however, stride a very smaller number of nonprofit royalty, like my friend’s agency in NYC. Royal nonprofits are funded by fawning large foundations, public agencies, and donations from the carriage trade (in LA, this means entertainment and tech folk, while in NYC this means hedge-fund types).* For the nonprofit royals, much of their revenue is derived from relationships, individual and organizational. Management staff and board members of the royals go to the same events as their target funders, probably went to the same colleges, and send their kids to the same private schools. Royals have access to celebrities at galas that they can dangle in front of potential funders—pssssst, Meryl Streep and Al Gore will be at the VIP party after our annual gala, and a donation of only $50K gets you in the VIP door.

A nonprofit does not have to be “born” royal, although it helps if the founder is a royal herself, can sweet talk some royals to serve on the board, or arrives at the the right moment to address a suddenly attractive cause. Examples of fortuitous nonprofit start-ups include Komen for the Cure, Wounded Warriors Project, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the like. Nonprofit royals usually grow into their status, rise above the nonprofit herd through hard work, relentless PR, providing great services, and more than a bit of luck.

The “luck” element is important, and you’re likely familiar with analogous stories from the movie biz. Meghan Markle was just another beautiful actress, one of thousands in LA, when she was auditioning for bit parts 15 years ago, and now she’s set to marry Prince Harry. Grace Kelly from Philly had only been acting for six years when she married Prince Rainier in 1956. Both became literal royals.

The same process can unfold with nonprofits. Geoffrey Canada took the rather mundane work of helping at-risk kids and their families to nonprofit royaldom with the Harlem Children’s Zone over 30 years (he’s also not a client). Like in Hollywood, only a tiny percent of. nonprofits start with or ever achieve this rarefied status—and they must work incredibly hard to maintain that position, albeit in ways different than conventional nonprofits. For most aspiring actors, it’s best to have a fallback career plan, and for nonprofits, it’s best to assume you’re part of the herd, not the royalty.

This is why we advise our clients to forget about trying to get foundation and government grants based on relationships (unless they already have preexisting relationships). All large foundations have frontline program officers whose main job is to talk nicely with nonprofits seeking grants and point them to their guidelines. It’s pretty hard to schmooze your way to big foundation grants, as the program officers have heard it all before. The only real way to achieve this is via relationships that already exist. For example, there’s an organization called Cancer for College that offers scholarships to childhood cancer survivors. The founder was a college frat buddy of Will Farrell. That’s not going to be true of the vast majority of nonprofits.

Most government grant officers, meanwhile, are bureaucrats with little, if any, interest in which applicant get funded—the system is actively designed to be impersonal in order to prevent corruption. Also, virtually every politician, and their field deputies, will wholeheartedly gush over any idea you bring to them, pat you on the head, tell you you that you have to wait for an RFP, like everyone else, as they show you the door (and likely invite you to a fundraiser). This is why there’s little point in getting support letters from politicians for proposals, as they will generally provide them to any agency that asks.

There are exceptions in the government grant world, especially at the local level, where patronage and cronyism is evident. Many NYC and LA City and County RFPs are not entirely competitive, as the pols, and the program officers, know that favored constituency groups (e.g., African Americans, Hispanics, Orthodox Jews, etc.) and a few connected applicants need to be funded.

Since seeking grants through relationships and royalty status is not going to work for most nonprofits, what’s an agency to do? It’s not complex, but it is hard to execute: select services that are needed and your organization can plausibly deliver, conduct detailed grant source research, and submit compelling and technically correct proposals on time. It you do that often enough, who knows, your agency might become the Duchess of At-Risk Youth Services, joining the royal court with Duke Geoffrey Canada.


* Amazon’s pretty good series, Mozart in the Jungle about a fictional version of the NY Philharmonic, has some storylines that fairly accurately depict how nonprofit royals use relationships to snare big donors (everyone in NYC wants to drink mate tea with Maestro Rodrigo). The series is based on the eponymous but very different memoir by Blair Tindall.

Yes, it is possible for your FQHC to lose its HRSA Section 330 grant

If you’re a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), you’ve probably seen announcements like this one, from the Federal Register: “Service Area Competition – Additional Areas (SAC-AA) – Honolulu, Hawaii; College Station, Texas; and Rock Springs, Wyoming.” Those announcements may seem curious: why announce for a strangely small number of additional service areas?

Answers vary. Sometimes it’s because the current FQHC Section 330 grantee has screwed something up badly enough to have its SAC grant yanked (though this is rare). More often, HRSA simply didn’t get any qualified applications for SAC grants in a certain geography, leaving a given area without a Section 330 provider needs for basic healthcare.

We’ve been told some funny stories about HRSA’s reaction to inadequate applicants. Our favorite probably involves an FQHC that called us on a Wednesday or Thursday about a SAC application that was due Monday. We were flabbergasted by this request and knew that a SAC FOA wasn’t on the street anyway. Our client explained what happened: She’d forgotten about the SAC deadline and failed to submit an application. HRSA did the initial review and realized that our client’s application was missing, and no one else had submitted for that rural service area.

HRSA probably isn’t supposed to extend the deadline for applicants who forget about the competition, but HRSA also doesn’t want healthcare gaps. So in the case of our client, HRSA called, told the client to get off their rear, and demanded a proposal by the following Monday. Our client panicked and called us.

We were able to complete the proposal on time (professional grant writer at work, don’t try this at home), and not surprisingly the client got funded. In short, depending on your FQHC’s relationship with HRSA, you can get wildly different outcomes from the same inputs. Our client got lucky. You may not be. We recommend attending to SAC deadlines and making sure you submit a complete, technically accurate proposal before the due date.

We’ve worked on SAC projects for insurgents attempting to take down the current grantee, and we’ve also worked on projects for the current grantee who suddenly realizes that they need a more serious application due to the threat of upstarts. Both kinds of projects are fun for us, albeit in slightly different ways. Both kinds of projects are also a reminder to FQHCs: SAC stands for “Service Area Competition.” Don’t get cocky. We’ve seen lots of cocky clients lose their primary funding streams via hubris, laziness, or both. Success is never final. There are no guarantees in grant writing, and you should know that you may have to compete for your dinner at any time.

Lawyers misread RFPs all the time. They rarely improve the grant writing process

Occasionally clients want their lawyers to read RFPs or our draft proposals or both. This is almost always a waste of time of time and money, because a) most lawyers have no special expertise or experience in grant writing/reading RFPs, b) lawyers are not magical, and c) there is usually no good reason for lawyers to be involved in the process:

* Most lawyers have no special expertise or experience: There are no law school classes on grant writing or reading RFPs. The field is still blessedly unregulated, and the scourge of occupational licensing has not arrived. Someone who is a lawyer may also be a grant writer, but the fields are not linked in any way and a generic lawyer is going to have to learn a lot about RFPs, grant-maker machinations, and the like if they’re going to be a productive grant writer (or reader). Most aspects of practicing law and/or going to law school don’t provide such training.

* Lawyers are not magical. I went to law school for a year and met lots of lawyers and proto-lawyers. Lawyers are just people who’ve spent at least three years in law school. By now, many of the people who start law school are adversely selected for intelligence, because smart people realize that most law schools are scams and most law school grads don’t even get jobs that require J.D.s (Paul Campos is a law professor and wrote Don’t Go to Law School (Unless), a book that details why and how in greater detail than I can). Even those who aren’t adversely selected for intelligence do not necessarily learn more than people who’re studying reading, writing, and related topics via methods other than law school.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with lawyers, and if you’re arrested or sued, you should hire one. But many lawyers are not geniuses and are not better readers or writers than anyone else. In ye olden days, lawyers could simply apprentice to another lawyer and/or “read the law” in order to take the bar and start work. That system is much saner than the occupational licensing system that we have for lawyers now, and that system is mostly designed to benefit law school professors who get cush jobs teaching the next generation of lawyers. Today, lawyers are people with the time, money, inclination, and/or delusion necessary to spend three years and too many dollars in law school.

* There is no good reason for lawyers to be involved. We’ve written at least $275 million in funded proposals that we know about and probably that much in proposals that we don’t know about because clients often don’t tell us when they’ve been funded. Few lawyers have been involved in the preparation of the applications we’ve worked on. They add nothing to the process and can frequently make it more onerous, without adding value.

In most instances, hiring a lawyer or telling a lawyer to read an RFP or proposal is a way of lining a lawyer’s pockets. Most lawyers will (unsurprisingly) favor such an outcome, and they’re more than happy to hold your hand for as long as you want your hand held.

But you don’t need them to do grant writing. If you’re engaging in a complex real estate transaction, or you’ve been arrested, or you’re getting divorced, hire a lawyer. Those are circumstances in which a lawyer might add value to the process. Grant writing is not such a circumstance.

Seliger’s Quick Guide to Developing Grant Proposal Outreach Plans

Most grant proposals involve describing the way in which clients from the target population/target area will be made aware of the new service/program and encouraged to participate (and some programs, like the Street Outreach Program, are composed entirely of outreach). This is usually referred to as the “outreach campaign,” which is a key aspect of any grant proposal, since the funder must believe that the applicant can actually find and engage clients.

If the funder doesn’t believe the applicant can find and engage clients, the proposal will likely lose enough points to miss the funding threshold. Not every proposal needs an outreach effort: some programs will have a captive client input stream, like ex-offenders being released from a specific correctional facility, court-referred families involved in child neglect issues, etc.

RFPs that mandate  outreach plans have always seemed like an odd requirement, since they’re almost always the same, and they usually include:

  • If the budget is large enough, hire one or more dedicated Outreach Workers. Be careful, however, about the position name—don’t use Community Outreach Workers (“COW”s), particularly for a program reaching female clients. Don’t use Peer Outwork Workers (“POWs”) for a program reaching veterans. One neat trick in a tight budget is to create a position called Outreach/Intake Specialist to handle both the outreach effort and client intake.
  • Since it’s important that outreach staff actually relate to the target population, make these “non-professional” positions to be filled by peers with the street cred/life experience to relate to the target population. For example, in conducting outreach to engage at-risk youth in danger of gang involvement, propose hiring ex-gang bangers in the same age range or slightly older than the target population. For peer staff, propose FTE (full-time equivalent) hourly positions.*
  • Traditional outreach strategies include conducting street-based outreach wherever the target population is likely to be found (e.g., public housing developments**, parks, community centers, liquor store parking lots, etc.); sending press releases to local print media; making staff available for appearances on local radio/TV programs; making presentations to service providers, schools, churches, etc.; snail mail mailers; distributing flyers and posters throughout the target area; social media / smartphone-based outreach; and so on.Sometimes it may make sense to lease a van for street-based outreach, with project name/logos on the sides and equipped with literature and other program specific stuff (e.g., emergency food and clothing for outreach to the homeless, rapid HIV test kits for outreach to injection drug users, etc.). If you want to take the time tunnel back to the ’70s, you can propose using the van for pop-up street theater presentations at community celebrations, health fairs and the like.
  • Digital-age outreach strategies should, as noted above, focus on social media. Use FaceBook, SnapChat, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp and text/email blasts. There is no digital divide; virtually every American has a smartphone or, at the least a “lifeline phone,” which are often referred to on the street as an “Obama phone.”
  • Always state that outreach services will be culturally and linguistically appropriate.

* There are 2,080 person hours in a work year, so one hourly FTE @ $20/hour = $40,160 for budgeting purposes.

** Even though anyone who grew up in or near (like I did) a public housing project call them “the projects,” in grant writing, never use the term “projects, ” call them “public housing developments.”

The Distinction Between Services Offered Now and Services Later, Illustrated by the HRSA Oral Health Service Expansion (OHSE) Program

When you’re writing a proposal for a grant intended to expand an existing program or service, it is extremely, ridiculously important to distinguish between what your organization is currently doing and what it’ll be doing with the new money. Failure to do so means that a) you raise the specter of supplantation, b) you sound like you don’t need the money because you’re already offering the services, and c) someone with a better grant story will get the money. Applying for a grant leads to a binary outcome—either you get the grant or you don’t. There are no half grants.

Let’s use HRSA’s Oral Health Service Expansion (OHSE) Program as an example. As the name of the program implies, OHSE is designed to provide additional dental services to underserved low-income patients.* A good OHSE proposal describes what, if anything, the applicant is currently doing with respect to oral health services (e.g., no services, pediatric only, pregnant women only, Medicaid only, etc.), and then describes what will be done differently. The applicant should say what additional services will be offered (e.g., sealants for children, dentures, etc.), and show how the dental patient population will be expanded. The applicant might serve additional existing FQHC medical patients, other service area residents, left-handed one-eyed cyclops, and so on.

A reasonable expansion might be as simple as saying, “The Toppenish Community Health Center currently serves 2,000 patients with 4,000 dental visits annually. The OHSE grant will allow TCHC to serve 3,000 high-risk patients, including at least ten cyclops.” What the organization can’t do, however, is claim that the CHC already serves 2,000 patients, and the grant will allow the CHC to keep serving those patients with more or less the same services. Patients have to be served in either greater number or greater services, or both.

Many  FQHCs that seek OHSE grants will also have long waiting lists, which can be used to bolster need: If the current waiting list for a new dental appointment is six months, that indicates a severe shortage of oral health service capacity. It doesn’t held your proposal to say proudly that the CHC’s wait time for a new dental patient is two days.

In short, applicants shouldn’t ever write or imply that they won’t actually serve more patients, or a larger area, or provide additional services. This may seem obvious, but we’ve seen proposals written by others that fail to remember this rule and that are primarily boasts about how much they’re already doing. That flaw won’t always be fatal—the funder may just want to fund that particular applicant or that particular service area—but it should still be avoided.


* Fun fact: Some dentists prefer the term “oral cavity” rather than “mouth.” I’m not sure why, since to me the former term sounds vaguely pornographic, and the latter term sounds normal.

Book Review: The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World — Steven Radelet

It’s both pleasant and unusual to find a book that is at its core optimistic:

I believe that during the next twenty years, the great surge of development progress can continue. If it does, 700 million more people will be lifted out of extreme poverty, incomes in developing countries will more than double again, childhood death will continue to decline, hundreds of millions of children will get the education they deserve, and basic rights and democratic freedoms will spread further around the world.

In The Great Surge Radelet enumerates the numerous good reasons why he believes what he believes. You—the readers of this blog—may be a part of this story. Some of you may play small parts and some of you may play large parts. But forward motion depends on what you (and I) do: “While I believe this progress can occur, I am far from certain that it will. Achieving it will depend on human choices and actions in rich, middle-income, and poor countries alike.” The Great Surge is outside the typical Grant Writing Confidential reader’s domain: Most of us work in or with domestic nonprofits. Yet the story is fascinating and many of the principles described in The Great Surge apply to nonprofits of all types.

It is easy to experience myopia and to think that collective efforts aren’t working. Yet Radelet reminds us that

A major transformation is underway—and has been for two decades now—in the majority of the world’s poorest countries, largely unnoticed by much of the world. Since the early 1990s, 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty.

Consider this post notice of the “largely unnoticed” news. It probably won’t go viral because it doesn’t describe war, famine, atrocities, injustice, celebrity gossip, or celebrity sexting scandals. But progress itself matters, even if it goes unheralded. In The Great Surge Radelet describes how “poverty, income, health and education, and democracy and government” have all been largely improved through a combination of better government policies, the fall of communism, technology, and, crucially, nonprofit work. Those factors must work together. Smart nonprofits have of course realized this and are attempting to make them work together.

Radelet also reminds us of how storytelling applies to how people perceive the world:

When I lived in Indonesia in the early 1990s, I arrived with a somewhat romanticized view of the beauty of the people working in rice paddies, together with reservations about the rapidly growing factory jobs. The longer I was there, the more I realized how incredibly difficult it is to work in the rice fields. It’s a backbreaking grind [. . .] So, it was not too much of a surprise that when factory jobs opened offering wages of $2 a day, hundreds of people lined up just to get a shot at applying.

Part of the grant writer’s job involves explaining things that may not be obvious to funders. Some of grant writing’s challenge involves knowing when to think inside the box and knowing when to break someone else’s “romanticized view.” Radelet got his view broken first-hand. You may not have that luxury.

One hilarious section occurs in Radelet’s review of the history of people predicting eminent population / resource disaster, which starts with Malthus and runs into the 1980s. It took economist Julian Simon and his book The Ultimate Resource to refute “those who believed that the world faced imminent disaster from population pressure and resource constraints.”

The people who tend to write about such things also usually forget that innovation tends to expand the resource pie, allow us to do more with less, and make products and services more efficient. That process depends on educated individuals interacting in dense networks that allow people to learn from each other and come up with new ideas. This process isn’t solely related to fields like battery chemistry.

I’ve read many pieces about the futility of foreign aid that ends up with NGOs (non-governmental organizations, the term used for non-US nonprofits), and, sometimes, grants for domestic nonprofits). Radelet, however, points out that “Despite the shortcomings, the bulk of the evidence shows that, overall, aid has helped support development progress.” That’s particularly true in global health. But change comes slowly—so slowly that it may feel imperceptible to those on the ground. For many of us working in many domains, the myth of Sisyphus resonates because the effort put forth feels gigantic relative to the benefits.

I’m familiar with being a foot soldier—at least with respect to grant writing and education—who affects only a tiny portion of these fields. Many of you reading this are likely to be foot soldiers too. If any presidents or senators are reading this, let me say hi and suggest that you give us a call. I know what being a foot soldier in education is like because I teach college English and technical writing; consequently, I see what colleges and universities (or “IHEs” in edu-speak) look like from the bottom.

When we work for IHEs, writing TRIO, HSI, Title III, Strengthening Working Families Initiative (SWFI), or other grants, I get to see what colleges look like from the top. I register the feelings of administrators and the needs of anonymous people who’re charged with overseeing the lives of thousands of students. I know that, from both perspectives, progress can feel incidental or impossible. Some days it feels like things are sliding backwards. But things only move forward slowly, one decision at a time, and through an incalculably large amount of human effort. Radelet is reminding us to not stop believing. Don’t lose sight of larger goals and larger progress. Don’t stop believing.


Chris Blattman gave us the original pointer to the book.

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!”