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Unexpected consequences of MacKenzie Scott’s big donations to housing nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity

You might’ve read that MacKenzie Scott, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife, is making huge donations to some nonprofit organizations, including donating $436 million to Habitat for Humanity. Relative to buying a giant yacht, or yet another Manhattan aerie, or giving money to universities so wealthy that they can’t spend the endowments they have and are so bureaucratic that they can’t support their own researchers during a pandemic, that’s a great thing to do. This isn’t a “you suck” post, because she doesn’t and I like her unusual approach to philanthropy. But there are two notable undercurrents that the lightly edited press releases don’t cover—likely because journalists know little about how nonprofits work or the American housing market—one is the distortion effect on many competing local nonprofits, and the other is the challenge of pouring more money into a constrained, near-zero-sum system.

Regarding the first point, local grant and human services systems will probably be distorted by unprecedentedly large donations to a particular nonprofit like Habitat. While national nonprofits like Habitat do some nationwide work, most of their activities are conducted by local affiliates, which are usually nominally independent nonprofits. When you see a media story about a new Habitat development in Worcester, MA, (I made this example up) a local affiliate is sponsoring the project. Local affiliates of national nonprofits like Habitat are required to conform to certain standards set by the national entity, but essentially do their own thing. A few years ago we worked for a local Habitat affiliate in a big East Coast city. As we worked on the project, we were startled to learn there were actually two Habitat affiliates in the same city: each carved out its own turf, and they even engaged in legal and public relations battles with each other! Many local nonprofits compete with on another for donations, grants, volunteers, and the like, even if they are playing for same team. So, it’s possible some of Scott’s Habitat donation will go to one affiliate, but not the other, in the same city.

A sudden huge donation from Scott to a national nonprofit that in turn sends a big bag of money to a particular local nonprofit, like the imagined Worcester Habitat, might create a toxic mixture of envy and disdain among other local nonprofits, much like a large inheritance or a lotto win often generates resentment among the people around the windfall recipient. The local Habitat affiliate is going to find many other local nonprofits attempting to attach themselves to any project it undertakes, in an effort to become subcontractors on that project or otherwise share in the largess. Since Habitat has the big money, other nonprofits will work overtime to get a piece of that that money. Nonprofits that realize they’re going to be outside the golden circle might quit collaborating and, in some cases, try to sabotage the lucky local Habitat. Letters of support will dry up, which won’t be a short-term problem but may become a long-term one; although “collaboration” among nonprofits is often silly, funders like to imagine it’s happening. Many don’t want to acknowledge that nonprofits compete with each other like businesses to a greater extent than most people realize—though sophisticated GWC readers already know this, either from personal experience or reading us. Another aspect is the the suddenly well-endowed local Habitat affiliate will be able to offer much higher salaries that their competitors and will poach local talent.

We saw this blowback effect happen in spectacular fashion a few years ago to one of our clients in a mid-size Midwestern city. Many nonprofits and even public agencies will become extremely unhappy when one of their peer organizations succeeds wildly. One year, at least half a dozen proposals we wrote for this otherwise ordinary nonprofit client got funded. His organization got millions of dollars in grants, which represented a huge amount of money in his low-income, high-risk community. Every other nonprofit CEO knew about his organization’s success. Superficially, all the players in our client’s service area congratulated our client, but our client, unfortunately, began to believe in his own greatness. Because he did, the quality and quantity of his interest in future grant-writing efforts declined.

Simultaneously, many local collaborators became less eager to help him. Organizations that used to provide letters, as he did for them, stopped being able to provide letters, albeit for innocuous reasons (“staffing changes,” “priority shifts:” those sorts of things). His ability to execute his organization’s mission became compromised by intransigence from the city and from other local nonprofits, all of whom were envious. These factors led to peril for our client’s organization, which eventually went under altogether; by the time he realized the danger, he was already on the deck of his sinking nonprofit ship. He should have handed out more subcontracts and acted with greater humility, but he did not. Will Habitat avoid his fate? We shall see. This is not a new tale, as Greek Tragedies, Shakespeare, movies, and politics are filled with such tales of hubris.

The second point involves housing policy itself, a topic we’ve dealt with before regarding Los Angeles’s Prop HHH initiative. Housing constraints lowered aggregate US growth by 36 percent from 1964 to 2009—an enormous amount most people don’t appreciate (imagine your organization’s budget being 36 percent larger, and your paycheck having 36 percent more dollars in it). Numerous factors impede the construction of affordable housing: parking minimums, improper building lot setbacks, height limits, neighborhood reviews, and more. Supply restrictions are everywhere, and few states or municipalities have gotten serious about alleviating them. If you add large amounts of additional money into a market that is supply-constrained, prices will go up in the face of constant demand, but more supply won’t come online. This results in numerous negative knock-on effects. There are some efforts afoot to change this dynamic—some are now calling for an “abundance agenda,” in contrast to the artificial scarcity mindset and policies now common in housing policy. In the meantime, however, we’re stuck with bottlenecks in the zoning and permitting process, which impede housing developers of all sorts—including Habitat. On top of those bottlenecks, inflation and supply chain problems have kicked up in the last few months, such that even if states begin enacting an abundance agenda, builders are still behind because of a raw-materials and skilled labor deficits. We’re constricting our population itself, as people have fewer children because so much of their money is going into housing costs.

Habitat for Humanity is likely to suffer worse than than for-profit builders. Habitat doesn’t advertise this, but they take forever to build housing units, particularly relative to commercial builders like Lennar (Lennar built 60,000 units in 2021) or Toll Brothers. While merchant builders can churn out single family homes in four to six months, it can take Habitat up to two years to finish a comparable house. I looked at the 2021 Habitat National Annual Report and IRS 990 Form, which obfuscate results with lots of happy talk, but I couldn’t find a clear statement of how many units were actually finished in 2021. Draw your own conclusions. Although Habitat hires subcontractors for the skilled trades that are required for home building, they nominally rely on volunteer labor and the “sweat equity” of buyers. As far as I can tell, Habitat mostly builds single-family units, rather than multi-family, both because those units are easier to build and provide easier roles for volunteers and homeowners, as well as making for better photo ops. But we really need more missing middle housing, rather than more single-unit one-offs in the exurbs. Everyone in the business knows how Habitat works, but don’t expect to see it in the media which has been in love with Habitat since Jimmy Carter picked up a hammer 40 years ago.

The biggest problem in American housing policy isn’t “lack of money” per se: even many nonprofits can find some amount of HUD, state, local, or foundation funding to build affordable housing. The biggest problem is the regulatory regime, which makes building new housing excruciatingly expensive, time consuming, and difficult. Until we improve the regulatory regime, we’re not going to do much to make a real dent in the housing affordability problem (housing can’t both be cheap for end users and a “good investment,” which is one of the many reasons American housing policy is incoherent).

Housing affordability is the income-related issue for our age. If someone is concerned about “income inequality” but doesn’t have “housing abundance” at the top of their agenda, are they virtue signaling, or serious?

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Smash-and-grab robbery epidemic, economic development, and grant writing

There seems to be a growing smash-and-grab flash mob phenomenon, which is being widely reported in the media, with the practice starting in California, New York City, and Chicago and now spreading to other places like Minneapolis. These highly organized attacks are presumably being instigated by gangs of some sort; while most media accounts discuss police action or inaction, this post focuses on the likely disastrous outcomes for low-income communities—while offering a glimmer of hope for nimble nonprofits.

Before I set up Seliger + Associates in 1993, I worked for about 15 years in redevelopment, mostly in low-income African American neighborhoods, starting as a community organizing* college intern for the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority in North Minneapolis, and later for four years as Economic Development Manager for the City of Lynwood and eight years as Redevelopment Manager for the City of Inglewood** in South Central Los Angles. I know first hand how hard it is to get developers to build retail facilities in low-income communities, and it’s harder still to get large chain retailers to open stores and operate them over the long term. You can ignore the social justice slogan virtual signaling of large corporate tweets or marketing, and pay attention to what they do in the real world, which is to largely avoid investing in low-income communities. Corporations work to appeal to their customers’ sensibilities, and most customers aren’t closely following the minutia of what a corporation really does, as opposed to what its marketing implies.

While it’s been interesting to read stories and watch videos of dozens of masked looters descending on high end stores like Nordstrom’s and Louis Vuitton, one smash and grab incident hit home to me: the CVS drug store in the Vermont-Slauson Shopping Center in South Central Los Angeles. I think this was the first shopping center built anywhere in South Central after the Watts Rebellion in 1965, and it was a remarkable achievement, because the few retailers that existed in South Central in 1965 fled as part of the overall “white flight” phenomenon after the rebellion. The Vermont-Slauson Economic Development Corporation, the nonprofit that developed the Center, was one of Seliger + Associates’ first clients, and I spent many afternoons in the office of then-Executive Director, Marva Smith Battle-Bey, a wonderful and dedicated woman who passed in 2016.

When I worked in Lynwood and Inglewood from 1978 to 1990, there was not a single chain drugstore in either city, and I wasn’t able to recruit any—despite years of trying and dangling huge redevelopment incentives. With the exception of making a deal in Inglewood for the first Price Club in the LA area (Price Club later merged with Costco), it proved impossible to attract national retail brands. In Lynwood, I reached out to the national real estate manager for K-Mart, then the dominant US big box retailer, to see if K-Mart would take over a vacant department store in the city. This guy listened to my pitch and said: “We know Lynwood. You could build the store, give it to K-Mart free, and we wouldn’t operate it.” When I was in Inglewood, the now now-defunct company Circuit City popped up as one of the first national “category killer” retailers. I found their national real estate manager and again made my pitch. He said: “We’ve already looked at Inglewood. You don’t have the demographics for a Circuit City”—meaning, too many poor black residents. That’s how hard economic development and redevelopment can be. Arguably, online delivery has alleviated some of these challenges, much like Uber and Lyft alleviated the some of the risks of trying to hail a taxi while black, but they’re still present and with us.

If this smash and grab epidemic continues, CVS and other national retailers will close their stores (Walgreens has already closed 18 stores in San Francisco, which, for the most part, isn’t low income, but it also doesn’t enforce or prosecute shoplifting) in low-income communities and flee to the suburbs, exurbs, and cities perceived as having strong law enforcement. This will especially hurt low-income folks in places like California, New York City, and Chicago that have effectively legalized shoplifting, or, in its organized form, flash mob looting. The stage is being set for the emergence of “pharmacy and retail deserts” to join the food deserts that we often include in our grant proposal needs assessments. Grant writers, take heed.

Still, the rapid assault on retailers may have some positive impacts for nimble nonprofits and grant writers: as drug stores and other retailers flee, the shopping centers and stand-alone stores will remain. These will present opportunities for nonprofits to seek grants for adaptive reuse as affordable housing, lower end retail (flash mobs are less likely to do a smash and grab at a Dollar Store or Old Navy), or community centers/human services providers like FQHC satellite sites (we wrote a funded grant years ago to convert an abandoned shopping center into a youth center in Milwaukee).

Also, anyone seeing the videos knows the looters are what we call in the grant writing biz, “at-risk vulnerable youth and young adults.” This presents a great needs assessment argument for any youth services project concept, including workforce development. For example, the DOL just issued the FY ’22 RFP for YouthBuild and we’ll include the smash and grab trope in the needs assessment for any urban YouthBuild proposals we write this year.

This situation also illustrates the importance of nonprofits and grant writers paying attention to emerging bad news in American society. Before opioid funding for medication-assisted treatment (MAT) became common from HRSA and SAMHSA, for example, news articles began describing what was happening on the streets. Most disasters, natural or manmade, mean new grant opportunities on the horizon. The feds, states, and large cities/counties will soon respond to the smash and grab crisis by issuing RFPs for both economic development (likely through the recently passed Infrastructure Bill) and youth supportive services. The lyrics of one of the great songs in West Side Story will give you the outline for your needs assessment for a youth services proposal to counter flash mobs: “Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset; We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get. We ain’t no delinquents,We’re misunderstood. Deep down inside us there is good!”


* Like President Obama, I was trained as a Saul Alinsky community organizer and worked as a community organizer for a year.

** This was not the gentrifying “new Inglewood” of a billion-dollar stadium for the Raiders and Chargers; this was the old Inglewood of Tupac’s “California Love:” “Inglewood, always up to no good.”

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Doing business with public agencies in Texas versus California (or New York)

We’re working on a project for a large public agency in Texas, and, like most large public agencies, it has standard vendor signup forms. We’ve also worked for many public agencies in states like California and New York, which are infamous for being unfriendly to business—and, in this instance, the rumors are true. The differences in required vendor forms might be a microcosm for larger differences between California (or New York) and Texas. The Texas public agency has a short, simple vendor form with no attachments other than a W-9.

California and New York public agencies, however, typically have long and onerous forms and processes so complex that sometimes we turn down the assignment. They often require a “temporary” local business license, even thought the assignment will likely be completed in less than six weeks and we’ll never set foot in the jurisdiction; proof of worker’s comp, liability, errors and commissions and even car insurance (all of which we have, but insurance certificates are a pain to produce and may not match the agency’s strict rules); and oddball by-jurisdiction forms that have little or nothing to do with grant writing. The City of Los Angeles, for example, requires forms certifying that Seliger + Associates did not benefit from slavery (for those of you keeping score at home, slavery ended in all U.S. states in 1865, and Seliger + Associates was founded in 1993). Another example, when working for the City of Richmond in California: we have to provide four wet-signed notarized copies of the contract (party like its 1979).

The costs of complying with random forms and local regulations are rarely discussed—but they’re very real and often high. Such requirements even drive up the cost of childcare, in ways that are often invisible to the entities imposing the requirements. Since we work nationally, and sometimes internationally, we’re accustomed to the challenges, but states and municipalities reveal much about themselves even in small ways.

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When you hire consultants, you’re hiring them for all the mistakes they’ve ever seen (and made)

When you hire a lawyer, part of who you’re hiring is someone who has made thousands of mistakes in law school and as a young lawyer. Lawyers, like doctors and other professionals, learn in an apprentice-style system that incorporates the mistakes made by their mentors. Proto-lawyers also make some mistakes of their own—and, ideally, have those mistakes corrected by senior lawyers, and learn to not make those mistakes in the future. Most people don’t think about hiring a person or team specifically for their mistakes, yet this is a useful way to think about most professional services, including our personal favorite: grant writing consultants.

When you’re hiring a grant writer, you’re really hiring the experience that grant writer has. It isn’t impossible to hire a college intern or recent journalism grad and get funded; we’ve seen it happen and heard stories from clients. But the intern and inexperienced writers will make mistakes more experienced people won’t. We’ve written numerous posts about subtle mistakes that are easy to make in all aspects of the grant pipeline, from the needs assessment to the program design to the submission process. It’s also possible to get a competent junior person to write a couple of proposals, but grant writing is very hard and over time they tend to demand more money—or leave. That’s why you have trouble hiring grant writers. Many interns will write a proposal or two, but when they learn how hard and under-appreciated the job is, they often want money commensurate with difficulty. The inexperienced tend to make mistakes; the experienced grant writers tend to charge accordingly.

We are still not perfect (no one is; if anyone think they are, refer to “the perils of perfectionism“). But we have learned, through trial and error, how to make many fewer mistakes than novice or somewhat experienced grant writers. It’s not conceptually possible to eliminate all errors, but it is possible to avoid many errors that scupper most would-be grant writers.

If your organization can get a recent English major to write successful proposals for little or nothing, you should do that. But we’ve also heard from a lot of organizations that have “whoever is around” write, or attempt to write, their proposals, only to fail. Experience matters. You can get the magic intern, but more often you get someone who is overwhelmed by the complexity of a given writing assignment, who doesn’t understand human services or technical projects, is simply terrified by absolute deadlines, etc.

Let’s take as an example a common error that we’ve seen in a spate of recent old proposals provided by clients. Most include some variation, made by inexperienced writers, who want to write that “we are wonderful,” “we really care,” and the like in their proposals. This is a violation of the writing principle “Show, don’t tell.” Most of the time, you don’t want to tell people you’re wonderful—you want to show them that you are. “We are wonderful” statements are empty. “We served 500 youth with ten hours of service per week, and those services include x, y, and z” statements have objective content. It’s also harder to accurately describe what specific services an organization is providing than it is to say subjectively, “We are wonderful and we care.” Whatever is rare is more valuable than that which is common.

The above paragraph is just one example of the kind of errors novices make that experts tend not to. Attempting to enumerate all errors would be book-length if not longer. Experienced grant writers will avoid errors and offer quality almost instinctively, without always being able to articulate every aspect of error vs. optimality.

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Grant writing and cooking: Too many details or ingredients is never a good idea

As a grant writer who also likes to cook, I understand the importance of simplicity and clarity in both my vocation and avocation: too much detail can ruin the proposal, just as too many ingredients can produce a dull dish. Ten years ago, I wrote a post on the importance of using the KISS method (keep it simple, stupid—or Sally, if you don’t like the word “stupid”) in grant writing. We recently wrote an exceedingly complex state health care proposal for a large nonprofit in a Southern state, but even complex proposals should be as simple as possible—but no simpler.

As is often the case with state programs, the RFP was convoluted and required a complex needs assessment. Still, the project concept and target area were fairly straightforward. We wrote the first draft of the needs assessment in narrative form, rather than using a bunch of tables. There’s nothing intrinsically better or worse about narrative vs. tables; when the RFP is complex, we tend toward narrative form, and when the project concept and/or target area are complex, we often use more tables. For example, if the target population includes both African American and Latino substance abusers in an otherwise largely white community, we might use tables, labeling columns by ethnicity, then compare to the state. That’s hard to do in narrative form. Similarly, if the target area includes lots of counties, some of which are much more affluent than others, we might use tables to contrast the socioeconomic characteristics of the counties to the state.

Many grant reviewers also have trouble reading tables, because they don’t really understand statistics. Tables should also be followed by a narrative paragraph explaining the table anyway.

So: our client didn’t like the first draft and berated me for not using tables in the needs assessment. The customer is not always right, but, as ghostwriters, we accommodate our clients’s feedback, and I added some tables in the second draft. Our client requested more tables and lots of relatively unimportant details about their current programming, much of which wasn’t germane to the RFP questions. Including exhaustive details about current programming takes the proposal focus away from the project you’re trying to get funded, which is seldom a good idea. It’s best to provide sufficient detail to answer the 5 Ws and the H), while telling a compelling story that is responsive to the RFP.

Then, stop.

The client’s second draft edit requested yet more tables and a blizzard of additional, disconnected details. Our client disliked it the third draft. We ended up writing five drafts, instead of the usual three, and the proposal got steadily worse, not better. As chef-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck* is said to have said, “Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors – it’s how you combine them that sets you apart.” Attempting to use all the flavors at once usually results in a kitchen disaster.

A given section of a proposal should be as short as possible without being underdeveloped. Changes from draft to draft should also be as minimal and specific as possible.


* Jake sort-of-met Wolfgang, albeit before he was born. His mom was eight months pregnant with him when we went to Spago for dinner. Wolfgang was there in his Pillsbury Doughboy getup, and, despite not being celebrities, he couldn’t have been nicer and made a big deal out of a very pregnant woman dining at his place. I think he wanted his food to induce labor, but that didn’t happen for a couple of weeks; instead, Nate ‘n’ Al’s Deli (another celebrity hangout in Beverly Hills), was the culprit. A story for another day.

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No children allowed in the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Families and Children

Anyone who writes a few proposals will soon discover the disconnect between the bureaucrats who write RFPs and those of us who write the proposal responses. We’ve discussed poorly written RFPs before and part of the reason that RFPs are often badly written, contradictory, confusing, etc., is that the bureaucrats responsible for the RFPs never try to write a proposal in response. These (usually faceless) government program officers are also just doing a job they’ve been assigned to—they don’t any more interested in the services being provided through the grant program than an L Train Operator in NYC is interested in why the hapless riders on their train. It’s just a job!

We’ve seen this basic idea reinforced numerous times, but a recent bureaucrat encounter reminded me of my favorite example. In the Spring of 1993, Seliger + Associates was newly formed and I was struggling to find clients, run the business, and write proposals as a “one man band.” This was long before the advent of email and the Internet, so seeking clients and completing proposals involved lots more time and shoe leather than today. Since I was then working out of a home office and my then-wife was working to bring home some turkey bacon, I also played Mr. Mom—not a great movie, but on point for this post.

We were living in the East Bay Area then, and most of our initial clients were there or in LA—I flew down to LA at least once a week. A nonprofit in San Francisco that worked with African American teen moms hired me to write a proposal from the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Families and Children. Due to a less-than-cooperative client (some things never change), the proposal wasn’t finished until around noon on the day it was due. In those distant days, all proposals were submitted in hard copy form, typically an original and up to ten copies. This meant a trip to Kinkos (now FedEx Office), since I couldn’t yet afford a giant Xerox machine.

Naturally it was a school holiday and Jake, who was still in elementary school, and his two younger siblings were home that day. So I had to button up the original “running master”* of the finished proposal, toss the three kids into the Volvo 240 wagon, and race to Kinkos to get the submission copies made, while trying to keep the kids from destroying the store. Then it was a dash through the always-crowded Caldecott Tunnel and across the Bay Bridge to get to the Mayor’s Office in San Francisco by 5:00 PM. Feeling like the protagonist in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” (“made the bus in seconds flat”), I got the car parked, kids wrangled, and took the entourage up the office on the fifth floor.

I stood in line at the counter waiting with other applicants to turn in the submission package and get a time-stamped receipt. By this point, it was around 4:45 and, I was fairly anxious and the kids were impatiently wanting their promised ice cream cones and acting like, well, kids. Still, I managed to keep them and myself more or less calm while waiting. After about five minutes, a very officious woman emerged from an office, strode around the counter, focused her beady eyes on us, and loudly announced that we had to leave immediately, as “no children were allowed in the Mayor’s Office of Children and Families.” I told her, equally loudly, how stupid this was, pointing to the sign identifying the office. I received cheers and applause from the other applicants in line, and got the proposal submitted (and eventually funded).

The point of this story is that this city bureaucrat, whose job it was to help at-risk children in the abstract, was offended by confronting real children. Keep the reality that government grant reviewers are only very rarely true believers in your cause, or any cause. That’s one reason we recommend writing proposals in the plain style rather than any florid style that assumes sympathy on the part of the reader. Most readers are going to be more like that San Francisco city bureaucrat than the rare careful reader who cares about the project.

 * A “running master” is now mostly archaic term for the paginated stack of papers, including copies of signed forms/letters of support, the proposal narrative, and attachments, that is used to make or “run” the required submission copies. Once the run is complete, the original wet-signed forms and letters are substituted in one of the copies, recreating the original. Then “ORIGINAL” is hand written in large blue print at the top of that copy.

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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.

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Seliger + Associates’ 25th Anniversary: A quarter century of grant writing

My first post, on Nov. 29, 2007, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal,” tells the story of how I became a grant writer (when dinosaurs walked the earth); 500 posts later, this one covers some of the highs and lows of grant writing over the past 25 years, since I founded Seliger + Associates.

Let me take you back to March 1993 . . . President Clinton’s first year in office, Branch Davidians are going wild in Waco, Roy Rogers dies, Intel ships its first Pentium chips, Unforgiven wins the Oscar for Best Picture, and Seliger + Associates is founded. The last item caused no disturbances in the Force or media and was hardly noticed. Still, we’ve created a unique approach to grant writing—although we’re not true believers, I like to think we’ve made a difference for hundreds of clients and their clients in turn.

When I started this business, the Internet existed, but one had to know how to use long forgotten tech tools like text-based FTP servers, “Gopher,” dial-up modems, and so on. While I taught myself how to use these tools, they weren’t helpful for the early years, even though the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, was launched in late 1993. I used a primitive application, HotMTML Pro, to write the HTML code for our first web site around the same time. I didn’t understand how to size the text, however, so on the common 12″ to 14″ monitors of the day, it displayed as “Seliger + Ass”. It didn’t much matter, since few of our clients had computers, let alone Internet access.

Using the Wayback Machine, I found the first, achieved view of our website on December 28, 1996, about two years after we first had a Web presence. If this looks silly, check out Apple.com’s first web archive on October 22, 1996. You could get a new PowerBook 1400 with 12 MB of RAM and a 750 MB hard drive for only $1,400, while we were offering a foundation appeal for $3,000!

Those were the days of land line phones, big Xerox machines, fax machines, direct mail for marketing, FedEx to submit proposals, going to a public library to use microfiche for research data, waiting for the Federal Register to arrive by mail about a week after publication, and an IBM Selectric III to type in hard copy forms. Our first computer was a IMB PS 1 with an integrated 12″ monitor running DOS with Windows 3.1 operating very slowly as a “shell” inside DOS.

Despite its challenges, using DOS taught me about the importance of file management.

As our business rapidly in the mid to late 1990s, our office activities remained about the same, except for getting faster PCs, one with a revolutionary CD-ROM drive (albeit also with 5 1/14″ and 3.5″ floppy drives, which was how shrink-wrapped software was distributed); a peer-to-peer coax cable network I cobbled together; and eventually being able to get clients to hire us without me having to fly to them for in-person pitch meetings.

It wasn’t until around 2000 that the majority of our clients became computer literate and comfortable with email. Most of our drafts were still faxed back and forth between clients and all proposals went in as multiple hard-copy submissions by FedEx or Express Mail. For word processing, we used WordPro, then an IBM product, and one that, in some respects, was better than Word is today. We finally caved and switched to Macs and Office for Mac around 2005.

Among the many after shocks of 9/11, as well as the bizarre but unrelated anthrax scare, there were enormous disruptions to mail and Fedex delivery to government offices. Perhaps in recognition of this—or just the evolving digital world—the feds transitioned to digital uploads and the first incarnation of grants.gov appeared around 2005. It was incredibly unreliable and used an odd propriety file format “kit file,” which was downloaded to our computers, then proposal files would be attached, and then emailed to our clients for review and upload. This creaky system was prone to many errors. About five years ago, grants.gov switched to an Acrobat file format for the basket-like kit file, but the upload / download drill remained cumbersome. On January 1, 2018, grants.gov 3.0 finally appeared in the form of the cloud-based WorkSpace, which allows applications to be worked on and saved repeatedly until the upload button is pushed by our client (the actual applicant). But this is still not amazon.com, and the WorkSpace interface is unnecessarily convoluted and confusing.

Most state and local government funding agencies, along with many foundations, also moved away from hard copy submissions to digital uploads over the past decade. These, of course, are not standardized and each has its owns peccadilloes. Incredibly, some funders (mostly state and local governments and many foundations) still—still!—require dead tree submission packages sent in via FedEx or hand-delivered.

There have of course been many other changes, mostly for the better, to the way in which we complete proposals. We have fast computers and Internet connections, cloud-based software and file sharing, efficient peripherals, and the like. Grant writing, however, remains conceptually “the same as it ever was.” Whether I was writing a proposal long hand on a legal pad in 1978, using my PS 1 in 1993, or on my iMac today in 2018, I still have to develop a strong project concept, answer the 5 Ws and H within the context of the RFP structure, tell a compelling story, and work with our clients to enable them to submit a technically correct proposal in advance of the deadline.

Another aspect of my approach to grant writing also remains constant. I like to have a Golden Retriever handy to bounce ideas of of, even though they rarely talk back. My last Golden mix, Boogaloo Dude, had to go to the Rainbow Bridge in November. Now, my fourth companion is a very frisky four-month old Golden, Sedro-Woolley, named after the Cascades foothill town to which I used to take Jake and his siblings fishing when they were little and Seliger + Associates and myself were still young.

 

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Nashville, seen and unseen

I’m flying back from Nashville today, and I keep thinking about what I saw—and what I didn’t see. Let me explain: there are now many places that, in demographic, income, and related terms, don’t look like a normally distributed curve, with a big hump in the middle and trailing, small tails of the very rich and very poor. There are still of course some places that are nearly all poor and nearly all rich; we write about some of the former, for obvious reasons, and pretty much none of the latter. Unlike where Apple Stores locate, we primarily work where the affluent aren’t.

Many places, however, increasingly see a bimodal distribution, like this:

In these places—and we’ve written about a lot of them for clients—more and more people are well-off. These places are often gentrification stories, in which once-poor or marginal areas are taken over by college-educated high-earners looking for a reprieve from big-city housing prices.

But there’s often a second, shadow story as well, and in that story far more people are simply not making it—but not showing up in data like median household income. They’ve fallen out of the middle class or never quite made it there in the first place. Their lives were okay until opioid addiction or an accident or a factory closure turned those lives downwards. They’re making it every month until draconian zoning laws increase their rent to unrealistic levels, leading to eviction.

Those people are part of the data too, but the bifurcation means they can get lost from a cursory glance at Census or similar data. At the city or county level, data can look pretty good, even if at the zip code or Census Tract level reveal many pockets that aren’t doing well. We’ve seen that kind of data reappear over and over again as we write needs assessments for proposals, most prominently in L.A. and New York, but this bimodal dynamic appears elsewhere too—and I’m confident that Nashville is one of the places where a “two worlds” story can be told.

One of those worlds is downtown and near Vanderbilt University, with no shortage of trendy coffee shops like Crema, where sublime, rococo $6 pourovers are available.* In that world, construction cranes are seemingly everywhere. I checked a couple of new apartment buildings where one-bedroom apartments are almost $2,000 a month. For that price, I’d take Brooklyn or Queens, but someone must be willing to pay—however absurd those prices seem to me. I suspect the next recession will be an interesting experience for those building developers/owners.

The other world is not very far away, and I found some evidence of it off West End Avenue: the mom-and-pop nonprofits renting storefronts, cheap ethnic restaurants (which I like!), and halfway houses/treatment facilities. I’m guessing that a lot of downtown and Vanderbilt residents only rarely wander into those parts of town, even though they’re pretty close, geographically speaking.

Almost every Nashville native I talked to mentioned traffic and parking problems. To me that’s hilarious; I saw no traffic issues whatsoever, or nothing that I’d consider real traffic, but my internal calibration comes from Seattle, NYC, and L.A., with those last two being the biggest cities in the U.S. Urban planners like to say that every place worth being has a “traffic problem,” so I tend to discount those complaints. And parking problems make sense too, due to the hidden high cost of free parking. But most people don’t think in terms of systems; they think in terms of what’s immediately in front of them. To fix the “problem” at the forefront, it’s often necessary to think about the system as a whole—exactly like most people don’t.

To my eyes, I didn’t see traffic in Nashville; I saw underutilized roads that were empty almost all the time. Empty parking spots could be seen almost everywhere I walked and rode. The city seems to have lots of space for growth, and there are even plans for a rail network that will make the transportation system more functional. I have no idea if that’ll come to fruition, but if Nashville voters are smart they’ll think about the future and avoid Seattle’s errors.**

I write about transit here because transit issues are linked to housing issues, and housing is becoming (or has become) a major issue driving poverty, problems with the middle class, and other economic challenges that grant-funded programs are supposed to ameliorate. Without addressing them, many job training and housing are doomed to fail, much like L.A’s Prop HHH for homelessness services.

Some other thoughts, less cogently developed: Vanderbilt dominates the educational landscape. There are also some HBCUs in the city, but it’s striking how this single university sprawls almost everywhere. In Seattle, the University of Washington plays an analogous role, but Seattle seems to have more community colleges in it, along with the private Seattle University and the University of Puget Sound in nearby Tacoma. I don’t have a huge amount to say about what this means, but as someone who likes to teach as well as write proposals, it’s noticeable.

There’s a lot of “sir” and “ma’am,” or at least more than I’m used to. It’s charming. Coming from NYC, it’s hackneyed to say it, but people really are more polite in the South!

Most city ads and slogans are, uh, BS—or at least overstated. Nashville bills itself as “Music City” and lives up to the name. Guitars are everywhere, as is live music. The guy who played at my hotel on a random Thursday night sounded really good. Most of the time, where I hear “live music” at a bar, I want to go elsewhere. Not so in Nashville. I kept chatting with people and asked, “What made you move here?”, and many said, “music.” I stopped to listen to many singers in random bars and most of those singers were good.

Of the new residents who didn’t say “music,” many were from smaller towns elsewhere in the vicinity. One hostess, for example, was from a small town in Arkansas, and she had the charming accent to match. Another guy said he’d moved from Mississippi for “opportunity.”

The bike share program is so small that its utility is limited, and I don’t think I saw anyone apart from myself on a bike for the first few days. If traffic were truly bad, that would change. The city is ripe for Ofo, Spin, and Limewire: dockless companies that make the bike pickup and dropoff experience far simpler. Sidewalk space is copious, too.

While I visited, a fire department conference was going on, so I spontaneously pitched grant writing to some of the fire chiefs I met for the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) program. We’ve done a fair amount of work for fire and police departments over the years, although we don’t emphasize that on our website or in general marketing.

Austin is the next city on the visit list. I already have one person lined up for a meeting there; if you’re in Austin and want to talk grants, teaching, and related matters, drop me an email.


* While I was writing this post, a hipster-looking dude in a checked shirt and glasses came over to ask if I knew the wi-fi password. I didn’t—I often like to write “offline,” so to speak, and away from the endless carnival of the Internet—but somehow the experience is emblematic of the nerd economy.

** Briefly, Seattle had various rail plans that by some estimates date back to 1912; in the ’70s, Seattle almost started a rail system funded with federal money, but cutbacks at Boeing made people wonder if the city was going to shrink into itself. Then the city began to recover in the in the mid ’90s and began planning its current light rail projects. Unfortunately, the early parts of the project were ill-managed, but there’s now a light rail line stretching from the SEATAC Airport in the south to the University of Washington (“U-Dub” in local lingo) in the north. Still, no train lines cross Lake Washington to Bellevue (home to many Amazon execs) and Redmond (Microsoftville)—yet. The next major line is supposed to open in 2021 or 2023. The slowness of the projects is notable.

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Why do grant writing firms market so many disparate services?

We’ve seen a lot of would-be grant writing competitors come and go, and the ones that commonly go have something in common: they offer a huge array of disparate services. Grant writing. Program development. Board training. Evaluation. Curriculums. Lobbying. Staff training. Guacamole recipes.

Okay, I made that last one up. Still, a cliché encapsulates the disparate-service approach of some firms: “Jack of all trades and master of none.” I see firms marketing half a dozen (or more) different services and think they’re likely not very good at any. How many restaurants make six different cuisines well? None, or nearly none. Any single field, including the highly specialized form of technical writing that is grant writing, is extremely difficult to master. Few firms are likely to have mastered many, vaguely related, and specialized services.*

To my mind, claiming to do even three disparate things at a professional level is improbable. Advertising many together seems like the mark of an amateur, or someone chucking as many stones as they can in order to see what hits. Individual targeting of one or two services is more likely to yield a good outcome.

Grant writing and marketing, for example, have very little to do with each other. Even grant writing and donor management are very different skills, much like coding software is a very different skill from selling software—even if both positions involve software in some way.

Not surprisingly, I recently saw a particular firm’s website that demonstrates some of these themes. I’m not going to name it, but if you’ve been around the nonprofit block a few times you’ve probably seen it or ones similar to it.


* The possible exception to this is of course Amazon, which is (so far) successfully mastering an astonishing and growing array of unrelated-seeming services.