Tag Archives: Books

Book review: Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted”

If you’re a nonprofit executive director you’re probably already aware of the eviction crisis many of your clients face, and by now you may have seen articles about Matthew Desmond, like “The Great Expectations of Matthew Desmond.” He’s appeared in The New York Times. His media exposure builds on the reason to cite Desmond in proposals: If he’s in the media, some grant reviewers will already be primed by his name or his book’s title (though if we’re talking about grant reviewers we doubt they’ll have actually read the book). That creates a sensation of greater credibility, since familiarity makes a person, thing, or idea seem right—which is why citing things that “everyone knows” works, even if the thing “everyone knows” is factually false.

evicted_DesmondMoreover, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is itself good and gets into the mechanics of eviction, why it is so traumatic for families involved it. The book also usefully details what the eviction process looks like for landlords who rent to low-income individuals and families. You may be expecting a book that valorizes renters and demonizes landlords, but Desmond deftly avoids that trap.

The landlords Desmond writes about do not see running frequently low-margin and always high-risk properties as a way to make tons of money fast, although some eventually do make surprisingly large amounts of money. Landlords are not presented as cruel media caricatures. They themselves are sometimes struggling and working to keep themselves afloat. We find for example that

Sherrena had a lot of bills: mortgage payments, water charges, maintenance expenses, property taxes. Sometimes a major expense would come out of nowhere—a broken furnace, an unexpected bill from the city—and leave her close to broke until the first of the month.

Ouch. Sherrena is not so distant from the world of her renters. The “major expense” she worries about is the mirror image of the major expenses her tenants worry about. Among landlords, many would rather be managing glamorous Manhattan or Seattle high rises than evicting tenants who often have brutal, true stories of their own misfortune.

One obvious question may be why, if running trailer parks and low-end housing developments can be wildly profitable, more people do not attempt to do so. I don’t have a good answer to this, though it is possible to speculate on some of the reasons.

Everywhere in Evicted, zoning is the real and unstated villain. One wishes that most city- and state-level politicians in America would read Evicted back-to-back with Matt Yglesias’s The Rent Is Too Damn High, which describes how most U.S. zoning has evolved to protect and enrich wealthy homeowners and exclude people perceived to be poor. Even in a superficially progressive city like Seattle, the local government strangled micro-housing, which was (and to some extent is) a way to provide more affordable housing to Seattle’s citizens, present and future. But incumbent property owners hated it and killed it through regulation.

Despite that oversight, I will say that urban governments interaction occurs throughout Evicted. For example:

When city or state officials pressured landlords—by ordering them to hire an outside security firm or by having a building inspector scrutinize their property—landlords often passed the pressure on to their tenants.

Much of the hassling that landlords do to tenants is actually a passthrough from those who have control over them.

Still, the book’s most powerful passages concern tenants. In the prologue, Desmond writes about “The rent was $550 a month, utilities not included, the going rate in 2008 for a two-bedroom unit in one of the worst neighborhoods in America’s fourth-poorest city.” Yet that “rent would take 88 percent of Arleen’s $628-a-month welfare check.” We don’t know how one lives on what remains. No one does, really.

The tenants themselves have numerous problems. One landlord illegally withholds funds from a tenant, and “Ned might have raised hell if he didn’t have an outstanding warrant for his arrest, stemming from another drug charge.” In the facing page, we find that “After jail, Pam had a difficult time finding work with her recent drug conviction.” Dope, dropouts, poor relationship choices: The problems proliferate tragically across the pages. One wonders what level of wraparound supportive services it would take to make many of the tenants whole. Maybe there are not enough supportive services in the world.

There are a handful of books we cite routinely in proposals. Dreamland, which Isaac wrote about at the link, is one. Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor is another. Evicted is going to join the list. As you become a more experienced grant writer, you should build up a reference list of commonly cited books and articles. That will make both your job easier—you will already know important things that your narrative needs to cover—and your proposals better fleshed out and more believable to reviewers, even if those reviewers never track down any of your citations.

But you should read Evicted not primarily because you want to cite it. You should read it primarily because it is beautiful.

Review of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic:” A must-read for grant writers

Sam Quinones has written a compelling, profoundly depressing exposé about how the twin tidal waves of prescription opiates and Mexican brown heroin have devastated much of suburban, small town and rural America, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. If you’re a grant writer or involved in any way with human services delivery, buy and read it now.

Dreamland_qThe “Dreamland” of the title nominally refers to the long-closed Dreamland Swimming Pool in Portsmouth, OH, a small city on the banks of the Ohio River with the ironic slogan, “Where Southern Hospitality Begins.” The defunct Dreamland Pool is an apt metaphor for the hazy memories of smaller, hollowed-out communities in the heartland. The shoelace factories that once powered the Portsmouth economy, as well as the steel mills, textile and furniture factories, and coal mines, of similar communities from the Midwest through the Rust Belt to Appalachia are gone. Despite the manufacturing renaissance in the U.S., employment in the sector is never going to reach anything like its 20th century heights.

In light of economic conditions, each of these places in flyover country had its own Dreamland, along with a vibrant main street, Friday night football games in the fall, and a thousand other threads that glued them together. Now, the communities have become Dreamlands or perhaps more appropriately, Nightmarelands of opiate abuse and hopelessness.

We’ve written proposals for nonprofits in Portsmouth, as well as dozens of other, similarly forlorn communities, and consequently we’re familiar with the raw data. Some sections of Quinones’s book could have been lifted verbatim from these proposals. Here’s a quote from an actual funded proposal I wrote in 2001 (only the name of the town has been changed):

In many ways, Anyville is not really unique, as it is similar to many other small, rural communities across southern Illinois. It has seen virtually no growth in recent decades, there are few local economic opportunities, the tax base is stagnant at best, and young people tend to leave in search of more opportunities following their secondary education. There are few resources: no movie theater, bowling alley, skating rink, ice cream store, etc. There is little before or after-school programming, or structured recreational activities. At night, teens cruise and park on Main Street, with its mostly vacant storefronts.

The rural story is always the same: few jobs outside of state and local government agencies, hospitals, and big box retailers; desiccated main streets with vacant buildings, party stores, and storefront churches; high schools closed and consolidated in larger towns, due to declining enrollment and stressed tax bases; few supervised youth activities; the demise of the family farm in favor of agribusiness; enormously high rates of working age adults on disability; rampant opiate addiction, with concomitant ODs; and so on.

Although I’ve been writing versions of this proposal concept for over 20 years, Dreamland explains, in a way that I hadn’t fully grasped, the interlocking societal forces that have created this Nightmare on Main Street. If I didn’t grok this reality after writing so many proposals for the Portsmouths of the nation, seemingly no one else did, until Quinones applied the skills of an investigative reporter and borne storyteller to lift the veil.

Some changes to small-town American have been widely reported: the flight of manufacturers to emerging nations (or the growing efficiency of manufacturing plants), changing energy priorities due to climate change and fracking, stagnant incomes that result in the need for two wage earners, the rise of out-of-wedlock births and single parent households, declining populations as young people move to the coasts and Sunbelt for better employment opportunities, the atrophy of churches and fraternal organizations (see Robert Putman’s 2000 book Bowling Alone), the rise of social isolation among young people, etc.

We use these threads constantly in grant writing. In the Portsmouths we write about, the Dreamland is now the Walmart or retail mall at the edge of town. Even these ersatz community gathering spots are struggling as Amazon and other online retailers proliferate. Offline retailers are increasingly concentrating on city centers and first-tier suburbs, where the money is. In much of America, there is simply no longer a real community. Keep in mind that neither Quinones or me are talking about devastated urban neighborhoods like those in Detroit or Baltimore. Rather, the ones we’re referring to are mostly white and formerly working class to upper middle class places.

In Dreamland Quinones describes significant societal changes that are mostly unreported, not discussed, and never interwoven into the story of the decline of American communities. These include:

  • The change in the view of doctors over the last 30 years to see pain management as a “fifth vital sign” and a new imperative to treat chronic pain (often with opiates).
  • Unscrupulous pharma companies, with Purdue Pharmaceuticals noted in particular, flooding the market with a class of powerful opiates like OxyContin and Oxycodone. Doctors were convinced to prescribe these drugs based in part on faulty research studies claiming, erroneously, that these prescription opiates were not addictive, because the patient’s underlying pain was supposed to counter addiction. Many patients figured out almost immediately that it was easy to get high and stay high with these prescription drugs.
  • The rapid proliferation of “pill mills” run by avaricious doctors in forgotten places, who would prescribe literally hundreds of pills to anyone who walked or crawled in the door with $250 in cash for the “examination and diagnosis.” Interestingly, the very first pill mill in America was in Portsmouth.
  • Wide distribution of “black tar heroin” by an army of mostly undocumented immigrants from the town of Xalisco, in the small Pacific coast state of Nayarit. Quinones terms these dealers “Xalisco Boys.” Hidden in plain sight among the waves of hard-working Mexican immigrants who spread throughout America to work in slaughterhouses, industrialized hog and chicken farms, field work, and construction, the Xalisco Boys act more like pizza deliver guys than traditional street corner dealers, bringing the heroin to the user by car. Black tar heroin is purer and cheaper than the powdered heroin from the Middle East found in large cities like New York. By the early 2000s, a hit of pure black tar heroin could be bought in the Portsmouths of America for $5—less than the cost of a six pack of beer. This heroin is also cheaper than prescription opiates and it did not take long for the thousands of new pill-based addicts to switch to ubiquitous heroin. The result was (and is) an avalanche of ODs, as reported in “For Small Town Cops, Opioid Scourge Hits Close to Home.”
  • As reported by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), “Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014.” Even though I work with these kinds of data all the time, it was quite shocking to realize after reading Dreamland than annual ODs deaths are approaching car crash deaths.

Unfortunately, Quinones runs out of gas at the end of Dreamland. After telling this remarkable story, he drags out the usual nostrums to combat the problem—community involvement, better access to treatment, more and “smarter” law enforcement, and so on. He doesn’t ask about the economic viability of places like Portsmouth: Maybe the small towns that once existed in agricultural or manufacturing economies can’t really be saved.

In addition, having written dozens of substance abuse proposals and talked candidly with many Executive Directors of large treatment providers, I know that none of the usual strategies like community involvement and “smarter” policing actually works in fighting opiate addiction. It’s a sad reality that most Oxy or heroin addicts will eventually either OD or age out of use when, as is said in all addiction treatment programs, “they get sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

It’s very much in the interest of Seliger + Associates to encourage huge new government grant programs for treatment. One of HRSA’s favorites involves medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which I wrote about at the link. There’s about $1 billion in HRSA’s FY ’17 budget for MAT and I’m sure we’ll be writing many MAT proposals for FQHCs in the coming year.

Still, it seems to me that the only real solution to the drug component of the problems afflicting small towns is a combination of heroin legalization (or decriminalization), safe needle exchanges, medically supervised places to shoot up, and lots of education and prevention. Once the market dries up, the Xalisco Boys can find other work, and the next generation of Americans will find other ways to deal with the loss of their local Dreamland.


Jake also writes about Dreamland here.

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.

“With Charity For All” – Ken Stern – Book Discussion

Ken Stern’s With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give is really about a single, fundamental issue and its implications: funders are the real “clients” of most nonprofits, yet their desires dominate everything that nonprofits do. He says that “The care and feeding of donors who make highly personal gifts can distract from the core charitable purposes and matters of organizational effectiveness.” But in many ways the “care and feeding” of those donors is, or becomes, the organization’s real mission. Organizations that don’t attend to their funding streams aren’t going to keep their doors open.

As a result, With Charity For All is really about reforming funder priorities, especially among foundation, corporate giving, and wealthy individual donors.

That’s a laudable goal. Right now, however, most donors donate based on emotional connections rather than cost-benefit analyses. In one example, Stern describes how “Katrina was a gold rush for the nonprofit community; hundreds of organizations descended on the Gulf Coast.” But most of those organizations weren’t effective—including the Red Cross, as Stern describes in detail. When we judge by intentions more than effectiveness, we don’t actually care about effectiveness, and funders don’t look at what happens to their money after the donations; they’re busy basking in the afterglow. Moreover, Stern says:

For most charities, the story from the front lines is the most important measure of success, one that typically confirms the importance of the work and reassures stakeholders. Empirical and research studies are to be avoided as expensive, distracting, and potentially dangerous. In some ways, the charitable world exhibits and almost medieval aversion to scientific scrutiny and accountability.

Does this sound familiar? To regular readers it should, since we’ve long argued that your grant story needs to get the money and that most funders don’t value evaluations. Most donors and grant makers care only superficially about results. Nonprofits that have embraced “empirical and research studies” have mostly been outcompeted by those that tell happy stories.

That’s a problem from the perspective of those receiving services, however. Using the Red Cross as an example, which couldn’t act effectively after 9/11 and then planned to use 9/11 funds to improve organizational effectiveness, only to be bashed by the press, Stern goes on to say that there is

a bedrock and simplistic assumption that has long shackled the charitable world: that money spent on direct services is the only worthy use of charitable funds, while money invested in organizational effectiveness is to be kept as close to zero as possible. It is an equation widely accepted by the donating public, by the press, by charity watchdogs, by government regulators, and by most charities themselves. To keep overhead costs down, charities forgo necessary investments with devastating and sometimes deadly results.

This is sensational but sometimes true. Still, on a smaller scale than the Red Cross, we see lots of money subtly diverted in various ways into organizational effectiveness: the van bought for one program ends up being used for another. Project staff on one program also spend time working in another. Technically these sorts of things are often against funding rules, but better organizations ignore them so they can get stuff done.

Ignoring funder rules is often rewarded, as we discuss in point three of this post.

With Charity for All is hardly the only book to observe perverse incentives among nonprofits: The Robin Hood Rules for Smart Giving says in its introduction:

The idea behind this book is that philanthropists cannot settle for choosing programs merely because they generate important benefits. They must hold out for funding only those programs that do the most good per dollar of costs. Otherwise money is wasted, which is an unforgivable mistake given yawning social needs.

“An unforgivable mistake?” I won’t be inviting Weinstein and Bradburd, the authors, to dinner, and I suspect a lot of foundation directors won’t either. Still, their take is so similar to Stern’s that it merits a mention, especially because reality on the ground indicates that philanthropists can and do “settle for choosing programs merely because they generate important benefits.”

Despite Stern’s disapproval of current funder priorities, it’s important for organizations that want to succeed quickly learn how to tell happy stories—and when not to. Most proposals submitted to state and federal organizations, for example, are designed to avoid stories about particular individuals; the RFPs tend to be so fragmented that it’s difficult or impossible to tell a coherent story. Moreover, most government programs want a story about (possibly illusory) effectiveness, much more than they want stories about identifiable humans. Remember that these are bureaucrats we’re talking about, not normal people. It’s also not clear how much government spending is actually about solving social ailments, versus accomplishing other goals. I don’t want to say more about that here, because it’s venturing too close to the political quicksand that we studiously avoid, but the point remains and should be obvious to anyone involved with in grant writing and organization funding.

There are frustrating parts of With Charity For All, especially when Stern’s evidence or discussion is thin. For example, he says:

There is little credible evidence that many charitable organizations produce lasting social value. Study after study tells the opposite story: or organizations that fail to achieve meaningful impact yet press on with their strategies and services despite significant, at times overwhelming, evidence that they don’t work.

None of these studies are cited in a footnote. No specific organizations are cited. This narrative is little better than the charities-are-ineffective narrative. Still, charities are organizations that, on a basic level, must take in more money than they spend. Consequently, charities, like all entities, are perfectly capable of failing, and they must adapt to their environment. Like pretty much everyone who looks into this matter, I agree that charities should spend more time genuinely evaluating themselves, but that requires that their funders also become more interested in doing so. GiveWell.org is one effort to do so, and this book is an attempt to raise the profile of profiling nonprofits. Nonetheless, in a discussion about how to measure effectiveness, it’s discouraging to see references to “study after study” only to find zero studies cited.

It’s also not entirely true that “The nonprofit field is extraordinarily stagnant, even though tens of thousands of new charities are created each year and billions of dollars of grants and donations annually flow to American charities.” The word “stagnant” is probably wrong: although tens of thousands of new nonprofits ones are created, tens of thousands of old ones close. As I said above, a nonprofit that can’t take in more money than it spends won’t exist for long, and that’s part of what makes nonprofits dynamic. Now, it may be that funders are rewarding behaviors that may not be optimal in terms of achieving preferred outcomes, but that’s a separate issue that shouldn’t be conflated with dynamism per se.

In a moment of dubious interpretation, Stern writes:

At the core of our charitable system is the notion that charities perform critical social functions and thereby save the government and the taxpayer the effort and expense of providing the service. But the charitable sector is filled with organizations doing things that no government would care to do and that would scandalize taxpayers if they understood they were underwriting this effort.

I’m not sure “the notion that charities [. . .] save the government [. . . ] effort and expense” is at “the core of our charitable system:” is there a “core of our charitable systems?” Core isn’t the right word, or mental model; we have a series of post-hoc rationalizations. One of those post-hoc rationalizations is a larger sense that government can’t do or think of everything that should be done on a not-for-profit basis; groups of individuals should be able to come together to do stuff that’s worth doing but that won’t necessarily return money to “shareholders.” Not everything worth doing needs to be provided by the government and not everything provided by the government is necessarily worth doing.

Those are statements of general principle, however, and Stern goes on to describe how the college football bowl system consists of dubious nonprofits running, for example, “the Allstate Sugar Bowl” and making a lot of tax-free money in the process. Big-time college sports in general have only the flimsiest patina of amateurism left in them, and by now they should be spun off from their nominal university owners and made to pay players just like every other employers.

The idea that big time football or basketball schools (like Isaac’s favorite, the University of Kansas Jayhawks) should pay their coaches millions of dollars and their players “scholarships” is ludicrous, but those specific examples don’t necessarily mean all organizations doing things government shouldn’t should also be treated and taxed like conventional businesses. For example, the Mozilla Foundation provides an open-source web browser and is dedicated to freedom on the Internet. I don’t necessarily think the U.S. government should start its own web browser division, but most people would probably agree that Mozilla is a reasonable charitable endeavor.

(Regular readers have noticed that this post is a bit different than most of our posts: we’re reviewing a book instead of discussing direct experience, telling stories, or writing about RFPs. We’d love to hear your comments, and, if you know of any other books we should be reading, let us know about those too. Although we’re mostly content producers, occasionally we leave our iMacs, retire to a comfortable chair, and enjoy a book, along with a well-made cocktail or three.)

May 2011 Links: Redevelopment Agencies, Word Dangers, Bribery, Education, Buildings, and More

* “Builders [in California] are lashing out against a provision in Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget that would eliminate the state’s 425 redevelopment agencies, local authorities that pay for low-income housing as well as roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure.”

* Microsoft Word Now Includes Squiggly Blue Line To Alert Writer When Word Is Too Advanced For Mainstream Audience.

* Charging Ahead: To speed along the success of the electric car, improvements in battery chemistry will matter as much as the price of oil. The 1976 program referred to in this review is the one for which Isaac wrote the funded DOE electric vehicle grant in 1979 (see also No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer).

* A Book in Every Home, and Then Some. Remember our post on the open secrets of grant writing.

* Neil Gaiman: Why defend freedom of icky speech?

* To reduce bribery, make it legal (on one side).

* Long After Microsoft, Allen and Gates Cast Shadows Over City, that city being Seattle.

* The educational value of booze. The evidence is weak but I like the conclusion anyway because it flatters my own prejudices.

* The Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels.

* The secret sex lives of teachers, which notes, “there is clearly something irresistible about teachers with decidedly adult extracurricular activities.”

* Squeezed Cities Ask Nonprofits for More Money.

* The problem with big, pretty projects in the context of the Three Cups of Tea scandal, as opposed to running those projects once you have them:

“Schools are really easy,” says Saundra Schimmelpfennig, whose organization, Good Intents, seeks to educate donors about nonprofits. “Any kind of a building is really easy to raise funding for, because it is something donors can wrap their minds around. They can see it. They can touch it. It is a one-time expense, not an ongoing or operational cost, which is harder to raise money for. But it is perhaps the least important part of education and the most inflexible as well. Spending all that money building schools is actually pretty questionable.”

This is also a problem Edward Glaeser discusses in “The Edifice Complex,” a chapter from The Triumph of the City:

The tendency to think that a city can build itself out of decline is an example of the edifice error, the tendency to think that abundant new building leads to urban success. Successful cities typically do build, because economic vitality makes people willing to pay for space and builders are happy to accommodate. But building is the result, not the cause, of success. Overbuilding a declining city that already has more structures than it needs is nothing but folly.

Remember: your organization is built out of people, not objects.

* Why we’ve reached the end of the camera megapixel race.

* Compton’s racial divide.

* Normally I think the day-to-day of politics is stupid and cruel, but some meta political commentary can be amusing, along the observation of hypocrisy. Like in this New York Times column: “What is it with Republicans lately? Is there something about being a leader of the family-values party that makes you want to go out and commit adultery?”

Why You’re Unlikely to see “Seliger and Associates Presents Grant Writing Confidential: The Book and Musical” Anytime Soon

A recent commenter told us, “You should write a book, if you haven’t already.” We’ve thought idly about doing a book and then gone back to drinking Aviations, admiring the sunset, and writing proposals.

But we might eventually write a book if the conditions are right. The main reason I haven’t spent a lot of time on a potential book project is because we can make far more money with far less aggravation as consultants than we can trying to get a book published. To learn why, see Philip Greenspun’s essay “The book behind the book behind the book…,” where he describes how he wrote a computer book, why most computer books are so bad, and points out the sheer amount of time he had spend not consulting for real money but instead working with publishers who removed his biting, appropriate commentary and instead insert happy-talk pablum of the kind that will be incredibly familiar to anyone who has picked up a commercial computer book. Alas, my short description doesn’t convey how hilarious and accurate his essay is; it should be mandatory reading for anyone who thinks they want to publish a book.*

In our case, we can say as much as we want about grant writing and the grant writing process on our blog without having to muck around with publishers. GWC is now sufficiently well developed that I can say to anyone who wants to learn about grant writing, “Read the archives.”

Still, if a publisher or agent came to us and said, “Organize your blog posts into book form and we’ll give you some money,” I’d probably do it because this would make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. That, and I have a compulsive desire to communicate. But I’ve been a would-be novelist for longer than I care to think about (see here for more) and don’t think much of trying to get into publishing because I’ve already been trying to do so for so long. Trying to get in without being invited is tough, tedious, and not all that rewarding even if/when you do get in.

It’s still tempting, though, because so much of the nominal competition is so bad. Most of what people know or think they know about grant writing is wrong. Most of it is based on limited impressions or single projects or single agencies. Most people don’t really know how the grant process works because you just have to have been around long enough to understand it. Very few people have. There are all kinds of things people don’t understand. No one else has simply said, “Seeking grants is also a treasure hunt.” We’ve never seen anyone else point out that just because you get the most points doesn’t mean you’ll get funded. RFPs never convey how to write to them in plain English. We’re trying to put as much plain English into grant writing as possible.

A lot of grant writing books are deficient and almost every grant writing book fails to explain how grants actually work. They haven’t been written by people who have worked across the nonprofit sector. As is often the case, we’ve seen the competition and thought, “We could do better than that.”

But the gap between “could do better” and “your local bookstore” is wide. Books usually get sold by writing an outline, then finding an agent, who pitches a publisher, who buys your book, edits it as you write it, then distributes it to someone who sells it. Each of those stages can be pretty arduous; you don’t climb a mountain just by hitting the first easy patch after a technical climb, and you can fall off a cliff and plummet, screaming, to the bottom at any time during the ascent (this metaphor sums up how people who experience the publishing industry feel about the publishing industry). At the moment, we haven’t overcome inertia to the point we want to begin the ascent. That, and we’ve got lots of work writing proposals down here in base camp.

Anyway, if think we’re awesome and you know someone who works in publishing, tell them to call us at 800.540.8906. Better yet, if you know someone who needs a technically accurate and well-written proposal completed on time, tell them to call us, because that’s still our main business. We wouldn’t mind being in the book business but aren’t likely to get there in the immediate future, unless someone in the know invites us to start the climb.


* When you’re done with it, read “Why I’m not a Writer:” “I’m not a writer. Sometimes I write, but I don’t define myself as a career writer. And that isn’t because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of an obscure writer. It is because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of a successful writer.”

One of the open secrets of grant writing and grant writers: reading

Good writing is inextricably linked to reading, and this is true not only of grant writing, but of virtually any genre. Most of what you pick up through reading is subliminal: you’re not consciously studying ideas, or rhythms, or structure, or vocabulary,* but you absorb them through osmosis regardless of your intention. You learn words via context, how to understand sophisticated sentences, and the techniques writers use to impart meaning. When it’s time to write, you recombine elements of virtually every writer you’ve ever read; Francine Prose says in her excellent book, Reading Like a Writer, “Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books.” After you’ve been writing for a long time, this comes to be so axiomatic that you forget that not everyone knows it.

You not only learn how to write, but what to write. With grant writing, if you’ve read The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns, you’ve read what is probably the best description of urban poverty that exists. If you’ve read Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, you’ll have still more ballast to add. If you’ve read Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, you know how to describe rural towns so desolate that tumbleweeds count as company and hope for many people means fleeing. Elmore Leonard’s caper novels, like Get Shorty and Out of Sight, are justifiably acclaimed for their impeccable dialog and for their depiction of wise-guys trying to get ahead. The value of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well should be evident from its title.

Reading is more than just books. If you’ve seen our link posts, you know more about a vast array of social issues likely to be the basis of grant programs. I have hundreds of articles and reports on my hard drive, which I regularly rummage using Spotlight and plain old memory for data and ideas when proposals. If you don’t read, you won’t acquire the stuff from which proposals are often made. In reading, you also learn something of how the world works. If you’re a grant writer and deal with federal, state, and local agencies and you haven’t read Bureaucratic Language in Government and Business, you’re making a mistake, because the book will teach you about why many frustrating things are the way they are.

Beyond content, you’ll also see that grammar, spelling, syntax, and style count. You can find virtually everything on those subjects that you need for grant writing in Write Right!, a book we’ve linked to and praised before and will again because it’s so extraordinarily useful and terse (perhaps those two adjectives are redundant when combined: were Wright Right! 1,000 pages, would it still be useful?). The book is $10 from Amazon. There is no reason not to have and have read a copy if you produce any amount of prose on even an irregular basis.

It’s important that you know what Write Right! contains, even if you don’t own that book. Steven King says—yes, that Steven King, the one who can’t get no respect—analogizes writing to carpentry in his excellent book On Writing that grammar, spelling, syntax and the like are towards the top of your writers’ toolbox and that you can learn them relatively easily if you want to—and excuses won’t fly:

[T]his isn’t high school. Now that you’re not worried that (a) your skirt is too short or too long and the other kids will laugh at you, (b) you’re not going to make the varsity swimming team, (c) you’re still going to be a pimple-studded virgin when you graduate (probably when you die, for that matter), (d) the physics teacher won’t grade the final on a curve, or (e) nobody really likes you anyway AND THEY NEVER DID . . . now that all that extraneous shit is out of the way, you can study certain academic matters with a degree of concentration you could never manage while attending the local textbook loonybin.

Isn’t that a clever way of putting it? Sure, the passage has a flaw or two—the double “that” in the last sentence is a bit weak and the tone maybe slightly more colloquial than I usually write, but it’s effective. When King writes “local textbook loonybin,” we know exactly how he feels about schools, and he speaks with authority on them, since he’s been both prisoner and warden in them, and it sounds like he wasn’t impressed with his cohort in either role. You don’t develop the skills to show these kinds of subtle cues unless you read a lot and get used to close reading.

I’m guessing King didn’t stop and think to himself, “what word or phrase should I use to show what I think of secondary schools in the United States that will convince the reader I’m on their side?” I bet it just hit him, he liked it, and he rolled with it, much as I picked up his theme and wrote “prisoner” and “warden” in lieu of “student” and “teacher” because so many people do feel like school has many penitentiary aspects (I’m hardly the first to notice this: Paul Graham wrote in “Why Nerds are Unpopular:” “What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates.” Herman Hesse wrote about the same issues regarding Germany in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.)

Anyway, King’s point is that you have no business being a writer if you’re not going to learn something of grammar, syntax, and style, and I’ll reiterate it. Furthermore, as King also observes, you already know the vast majority of English grammar merely by being a native speaker. Anything additional will mostly be names (what’s a gerund again? “a form regularly derived from a verb and functioning as a noun,” or, more simply, an -ing word, like working. See? You already use gerunds all the time) or fillips like “omit unnecessary words,” which is by the far best writing advice I’ve ever read or heard. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the shortest.

Oh, and books speak to each other. If I’d never read On Writing, I wouldn’t be able to cite it here. If I hadn’t read a lot, and read deeply, I wouldn’t have been able to construct this post with the numerous examples that help prove my point and give it the force and authority of a bunch of references and links and allusions to other writers, not all of which are explicit. Speaking of allusion, it’s worth shooting down one other amateur’s canard, namely that reading a lot will somehow “pollute” you. Mavis Gallant’s The Paris Notebooks is worth quoting, by way of Kate’s Book Blog:

There is no such thing as a writer who has escaped being influenced. I have never heard a professional writer of any quality or standing talk about “pure” style, or say he would not read this or that for fear of corrupting or affecting his own; but I have heard it from would-be writers and amateurs. Corruption–if that is the word–sets in from the moment a child learns to speak and hear language used and misused. A young person who does not read, and read widely, will never write anything–at least, nothing of interest.

All this isn’t to say that you have to become a monkishly devoted reader, slaving over Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to be a writer (although the latter is more a joy than pain, which Alain de Botton makes a strong argument for in How Proust Can Change Your Life). Even if you don’t let Proust change your life, you should let someone try to via text if you want to be a good writer. One of the best essay I’ve read about reading comes from Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?“, which says:

[…] the Census Bureau and the National Endowment for the Arts [have,] since 1982, asked thousands of Americans questions about reading that are not only detailed but consistent. The results, first reported by the N.E.A. in 2004, are dispiriting. In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002. Last month, the N.E.A. released a follow-up report, “To Read or Not to Read,” which showed correlations between the decline of reading and social phenomena as diverse as income disparity, exercise, and voting. In his introduction, the N.E.A. chairman, Dana Gioia, wrote, “Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement.”

Correlation is not causation, as I’ve repeatedly observed, and merely because you don’t read copious amounts of creative literature doesn’t mean you’re not reading lots of other meritorious—as opposed to meretricious—material. Nonetheless, Crain goes into some of the neuroscience behind reading as well as studies regarding readers’ ability to reason, compare arguments, make logical inferences, and the like. Hint: non-readers don’t come out well. By the way, if you didn’t follow my earlier link to “Twilight of the Books,” you should do so now because it’s a brilliant piece, and even were it not, you should read simply for further grant writing knowledge. I regularly quote it in proposals because the article distills so much about what’s known about literacy and the dangers of its reduction in the general population. It often dovetails with Neal Stephenson’s extended argument about the widening gap between the reading/nerd class in his new novel, Anathem, which posits a world in which the reading/nerd class lives in monasteries, shuns video, and studies abstract logic and math, while the outside world takes the equivalent of happy pills and eats junk food. An early form of these ideas are evident in his much more readable op-ed piece, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.”

Reading the New Yorker regularly allowed me to find “Twilight of the Books,” and many of the proposals I’ve written would’ve been worse without it. Now, I’m not trying to be this guy or say that TV rots your brain or whatever else lit snobs say. TV offers some material and allusions that’ll be more widely recognized than many literary allusions, but it’s difficult to quote TV or movies directly and seldom at the depth you’ll need for writing.**

In addition, I’m not arguing that you need reading boot camp. I don’t think you can force yourself to read, boot camp style, and only the actual enjoyment of reading will work. Virtually all professional writers do. If you want to read more, the question arises concerning what you should read. My answer is that it probably doesn’t matter much, as long as you’re reading something that’s been professionally written and edited. In periodical terms, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times are excellent, as is the Atlantic magazine. I also like the New Yorker, as mentioned earlier, although I don’t think I’ve ever read every article word-for-word. But great articles like “Twilight of the Books” make up for ones that grow tedious after a page. The Economist has an impressive grasp on foreign affairs and it’s not unusual for people to swear by Harper’s.

The other major source of good stuff is books. If you read some of the newspapers and magazines listed above, you’ll notice their book review sections, which will often point you toward things to read. In addition, the ten books I most often recommend are:

Fiction Nonfiction
Richard Russo, Straight Man Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence:
500 Years of Western Cultural Life
Alain de Botton, On Love Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd,
The Time Paradox
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise:
Listening to the 20th Century
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, & Steel
Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

None of these books are directly related to grant writing, but they’re all enormously fun while also being reasonably cerebral. All the King’s Men describes politics and, in a broader sense, human nature; Cryptonomicon is hilarious and insightful, and it’s not coincidental that I cited another Stephenson novel above; From Dawn to Decadence imparts more knowledge about history than four years of high school did; and Reading like a Writer will help anyone read and think better.

Chances are that I shouldn’t have to explain all this, but I read tons of proposals and blog posts and reports that indicate their authors don’t read much, which is virtually synonymous with saying they don’t like to read, because if you like to do something, you’ll do it, particularly given that reading is, these days, considered a virtue, which is pretty funny if you know about the history of the novel. Isaac said that I’m perhaps being overly strident or emphatic in this post. He might be correct, but it’s obvious that many would-be writers aren’t taking the advice given above. Don’t be one of them.

In short, if you’re trying to be a grant writer—or any kind of writer—and you don’t like to read, you’re going to be like a person trying to swim with iron weights tied around their ankles. You might make it a little ways, but it’ll be neither pretty nor easy nor pleasant. Plenty of people in such circumstances flail around publicly on blogs or embarrass themselves privately in e-mail. But if you’re going to write professionally, or even as a competent volunteer, you’re not going to get anywhere without reading, and you’re not going to understand why you’re not getting anywhere or why you’re not getting funded.

Did you find it easy to follow my metaphor of the swimmer? If so, you’re probably used to comparative imagery, as virtually all forms of human speech are, on some level, comparative, which Steven Pinker argues in The Stuff of Thought. If you didn’t find that metaphor easy to follow, scroll up to the table that’s a few paragraphs above this one.

That’s a good place to start.

EDIT: Isaac wrote “Reading ‘Arugulance’ and then Writing It” as a follow-up.


* Vocabulary is such a good proxy for reading sophistication that lots of standardized tests, including the GRE and SAT, use it. Sure, you can memorize word lists to the game the test, but that’s tremendously cumbersome, boring and probably ineffective. Even then, you still can’t fake a lifetime of not reading by two months of cramming, as I discovered when I taught the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) for about a year and found people who were terrible at the reading comprehension and wanted to know how to improve within weeks. I never had a good answer for them, because there is no way over the short term.

** Notice that the top 100 TV catchphrases of all time as measured by, well, whoever measures such things, contains mostly interjections (“a part of speech that usually has no grammatical connection with the rest of the sentence and simply expresses emotion on the part of the speaker”) and short, simple phrases more noted for their delivery than their word content. On the page, you don’t get delivery: you only get content.