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They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal

1972—A 21-year-old kid who’d taken a few Saul Alinsky-style courses in community organizing found himself as a Community Organizing Intern working in North Minneapolis, the mostly Black neighborhood in which he grew up, for the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority. His supervisor, Helen Starkweather (who may or may not have been related to the better known Charlie Starkweather), a former AFDC mom and new careerist, let him loose to work on any of the manifold problems in the community.

After conducting a survey of the dozens of vacant and abandoned houses, a problem that existed long before the current subprime meltdown, he decided to ask the Willard-Homewood Organization (incredibly, WHO is still active) for an okay to set up a Vacant Housing Task Force. This led to a series of home improvement seminars and the realization that there were no local hardware stores, making it difficult to even find the tools and supplies necessary to repair homes. What to do? Aha, set up a cooperative hardware store. He asked around and was told, form a nonprofit organization and get some grant funds. He didn’t know what a grant was, but blasted ahead, formed the nonprofit and wrote a grant proposal that was funded for $5,000—big money in 1972 and enough to get the operation going.

The naive young man was of course me, and I thought this grant writing thing was pretty easy. After decamping to LA on a cold morning the following January in my rusted-out ’65 VDub by taking Route 66 (yeah, I stayed in Flagstaff and I didn’t forget Winona), I learned the hard way that there is more to successful grant writing than passion. Thirty-five years later, I’m still honing my skills. But I’ll never feel better about the universe than when I picked up that check from an aging 1930s radical who was a manager at the funder, Farmer’s Union Central Exchange, a producer cooperative long since merged into an energy conglomerate. This old guy in a conservative suit knew another radical when he saw one and was delighted to once again be stirring things up. I’ve long lost my radical ideals, but I still love crafting the small stories that are the stuff of successful grant writing.

I’ll be posting thoughts about grant writing, including tips, anecdotes and random observations about this most unusual occupation, based on my long journey and more proposals written than I like to think about. Posts from my son, Jake, who grew up with grant writing, will probably offer a less cynical and considerably less grizzled view.