Posted on Leave a comment

How 9/11 Changed Grant Writing

I went to the office around 5:30 AM PDT on September 11, 2001 because we had an Administration for Native Americans Social & Economic Development (ANA SEDS) deadline later than week. Fifteen years ago, the Internet was still relatively new and, while I always checked my email when I got to the office, I didn’t automatically open a browser (back then probably Explorer) to check the news.

I was listening to music (remember CDs?) on my Bose headphones as I polished the final proposal draft. The ringers were off on the land lines (remember those?), since it was so early. Around 6:30 AM, my brother called on my cell phone (probably a Motorola StarTac flip phone—remember those?), hysterically asking if I’d seen the news. By the time I went to and turned on the office TV, both towers were in flames and no more work got done that day. Like everyone else, we were transfixed by the unfolding horror.

In 2001, all grant proposals were hard copy submissions, including the ANA SEDS proposal that had to be in Washington, DC on Friday of that week. Our office was then located in the Seattle area, and our FedEx cutoff was 5:00 PM for East Coast deliveries, so for a Friday deadline, we had to finalize our “master copy” by about noon to give us enough time to 1) run the five or six required hard copies, 2) substitute “wet signatures” in one copy to make the “original” copy, 3) run a client copy, 4) box up the FedEx package, and 5) dash to the FedEx office by 4:59 PM. Sometimes—usually due to a late arriving original of a wet-signed signature page—we’d miss the FedEx deadline, so we’d have to use Alaska Airlines “Gold Streak” small package delivery service. As long as we got the boxed proposal to the Alaska Air freight terminal at SeaTac by around 10:00 PM, the package would be put on a red eye to DC and delivered by courier the next morning, usually beating FedEx.

That option ended on 9/11.

While we sent the SEDS in by FedEx on Thursday, it wasn’t received by ANA for about six weeks. The weeks and months following 9/11 were beyond chaotic. All airline traffic was halted for days, and services like Gold Streak soon required “known shippers,” which proved to be too complex to comply with. All postal packages were held for X-ray and federal offices no longer would accept direct deliveries from FedEx, Express Mail and couriers—packages were held at central locations until they could be inspected. For the next couple of years, this meant finishing proposals well in advance of deadlines, which were usually extended, often multiple times, because of the confusion and uncertainty.

I assume that the rapidly changing shipping environment spurred the Feds into accelerating digital uploads, including our old pal, which is the portal for most federal grant submissions. Today, almost all federal, state and local proposals, as are about 50% of foundation proposals.

There are some exceptions, most notably in Los Angeles County. We write many proposals to various LA County agencies and for them, it’s still September 10, 2001, as multi-copy hard copy submissions with a wet signature original in a hand-delivered big box are required. Maybe the LA County Chief Administrative Officer will read this post and bring them fully into this century.

There are many ways of remembering 9/11. I had no friends or family directly involved, but the memory stays with me. This post is my own way of recalling it and way it altered the world in ways great (and well known) and small (like changes to grant submission processes).

Posted on Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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