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Surfing the Grant Waves: How to Deal with Social and Funding Wind Shifts

In Mordecai Richler’s hilarious novel Barney’s Version, a discussion arises:

“We’ve got a problem this year. There’s been a decline in the number of anti-Semitic outrages.”
“Yeah. Isn’t that a shame,” I said.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m against anti-Semitism. But every time some asshole daubs a swastika on a synagogue wall or knocks over a stone in one of our cemeteries, our guys get so nervous they phone me with pledges.”

In some ways, the worse things are, the better they are for nonprofits, because funding is likely to follow the broad contours of social issues. For example, before the Columbine shooting, the vast majority of money for at-risk youth and after school programs targeted inner cities. A few years later, money began appearing for suburban and rural schools, the thinking being that now all teenagers were at risk simply by virtue of being teenagers. A case in point is the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which emerged around the time of Columbine; we’ve written at least a dozen or so funded grants, mostly in non-inner city areas. In fact, one funded 21st CCLC grant we wrote served Aspen, CO—an area not usually seen as a hotbed of social needs.

It’s not even clear that the conventional wisdom of the rationale behind the programs, which attacked the conventional wisdom of what was supposedly behind the shootings, was correct, as argues here. But for grant writing purposes, that’s less important than noticing the direction of the grant winds. If you were a suburban school district trying to fund, say, an art programs, and you read the Federal Register, you might’ve noticed new funding or shifts in emphasis. You could’ve combined your art program with nominal academic support, thus widening your program focus enough to make a plausible applicant for the 21st CCLC program and thus getting the money to carry out your central purpose: art.

This isn’t to say that you should fraudulently misrepresent what you do, because you shouldn’t, or that it’s necessary to change your program’s purpose haphazardly; you want to notice the wind but not necessarily be driven by it. Nonetheless, smart nonprofits find ways of getting the grant funds they need by shackling one idea to another, more fundable idea, particularly if “fundable” means a live RFP is on the street. Sometimes clients have ideas for programs they want to run that can be made vastly more fundable with relatively minor tweaks. We often suggest and execute those tweaks.

It’s not uncommon for nonprofits to shift their focus with time, funding, and opportunities. This will correlate to some extent with the general media landscape. To use another trend, homeless programs were more prevalent in the late 80s and early 90s. Today, an organization that once worked solely on homeless issues might expand its area of expertise to related areas, like affordable housing, prisoner reentry, or foster care emancipation. The latter problem has gained some traction in recent years as various levels of government have come to realize that few 17-year-olds are ready to be self-supporting the moment they turn 18, resulting in in crime, drug use, and prostitution as common outcomes among this population, as depicted in Charles Bock’s novel Beautiful Children.

Finally, organizations that pursue grants in other areas should remember that administrative funds from one area might end up subsidizing another; this commonly happens with service contracts, such as substance abuse treatment and foster care and can also occur with grants. In the near future, Isaac is going to describe how and why to acquire a Federally Approved Cost Allocation Plan and resulting Indirect Cost Rate, which is a great way to secure general purpose administrative funds to support multi-program operations. By pursuing grants related to your nominal field of expertise, you can in effect diversify and avoid major problems if there’s a decline in your version of the number of anti-Semitic outrages. Don’t put all your investments in a single stock, and don’t invest all your grant writing and service energy in a single cause, lest you discover that specialization has led you to an evolutionary dead end.