Tag Archives: Business

A Grant Writer Gets a New Companion and Explains Some Lesser Known Aspects of Certain Nonprofits

Faithful readers will know that I think every grant writer—or any writer—is better off with a dog at their feet. Writing is a solitary activity and even for those of us who rarely experience writer’s block, there are times when one wants a bit of distraction, and watching a dog find the perfect position for slumber or worry a rawhide bone helps me refocus on writing assignments.

A dog will also patiently listen to me rant and rave about a particularly nauseating RFP section, then wag his tail and lick me. The same can’t be said of most HUD program officers. And dogs need and like to be walked—a great way to clear my mind from the fog of grant writing, particularly since I live very near Palisades Park along the Santa Monica bluffs, one of the most beautiful strolls in LA. A writer writing about having a dog is more or less writing a tale about a tail (I should apologize for this).

IMG_0721I just acquired a new puppy—or I should say a dog of an uncertain age, as Boogaloo Dude (“Boogie”*) comes to me as a rescue. He is a more-or-less Golden Retriever and has most of the attributes of a Golden, including the charming golden smile.

Boogie is purported to be around four, but, given his predilection to sleep about 22 hours a day, he might be a tad older. Boogie isn’t his original name—as one should change an abused dog’s name—and he was horribly mistreated. Now he seems happy to have become Pancho to my Cisco** and is content to receive an occasional ear scratch and belly rub. He sometimes literally runs into the ubiquitous Santa Monica pigeons on our morning walk, seemingly not comprehending what a bird is. The pigeons’ feathers are hardly ruffled and they strut away with a look of avian disdain. When Jake next comes to town, he’ll have to give Boogie a lesson in pigeon chasing, as he’s loved chasing pigeons since he was a little boy and probably still does so in Manhattan when he thinks no one is watching.

I did not get Boogie from Southern California Golden Retriever Rescue (SCGRR), the local Golden rescue nonprofit. Although I tried to adopt a dog from them, I kept getting rejected by the volunteers who decide which applicant gets a dog. Like most animal rescue nonprofits, SCGRR is volunteer-run and member-driven, so there is no hierarchy to facilitate appeals; when a volunteer decides you’re not good enough for a particular dog, you don’t get the dog, or possibly any dog.

Since Goldens are a popular breed, SCGRR has way more would-be adopters than available rescue dogs and is very selective. The organization supports itself in large part through application and adoption fees and, as such, is highly motivated to get as many people as possible to apply, even though the likelihood of getting a Golden through them is low. As an experienced grant writer, I knew this because I know how animal rescue outfits—and especially in-demand breed rescue organizations—are funded. But I played the game for a month anyway before giving up on SCGRR.

Boogie came not through a well-meaning and respectable nonprofit, but instead via The Loved Dog, a business run by celebrity dog trainer to the stars Tamar Geller. She’s Oprah’s dog trainer (this is LA and I’m not making this up). I met Tamar at a JDate event, mentioned that I was looking for a Golden, and learned she rescued one from SCGRR, who had earlier rescued the dog but then was going to euthanize him because he was supposedly aggressive—another example of the tyranny of volunteers that can emerge in membership nonprofits. Tamar scooped up the dog, who is all of 50 pounds and docile, and worked with him for a few months—until I appeared to provide what hopefully will be his permanent home.

IMG_0716The lesson of this story—other than it pays to persevere—is that not all nonprofits are necessarily “golden” and not all for-profits are necessarily avaricious. For example, a little-known fact is that PETA, self-portrayed as a paragon of animal welfare, is actually one of the largest operators of shelters thateuthanize animals. You may find this startling, but PETA has its reasons for euthanizing, which you can evaluate for yourself. As a guy who’s been working for or with nonprofits since the Nixon administration, however, not much in the nonprofit world surprises me; nor does much in the world in general, since even dogs in the U.S. eat better than many humans elsewhere, as the linked story about the adoption of some Sudanese “lost boys” indicates:

The next aisle over, Peter touched my shoulder. He was holding a can of Purina dog food. “Excuse me, Sara, but can you tell me what this is?” Behind him, the pet food was stacked practically floor to ceiling. “Um, that’s food for our dogs,” I answered, cringing at what that must sound like to a man who had spent the last eight years eating porridge. “Ah, I see,” Peter said, replacing the can on the shelf and appearing satisfied. He pushed his grocery cart a few more steps and then turned again to face me, looking quizzical. “Tell me,” he said, “what is the work of dogs in this country?”

But, as Sir Paul put it, “Venus and Mars are alright tonight.” Boogie is a happy dog, I’ve got a boon companion and it’s time to take him for his evening constitutional. And, then it will be cocktail hour and I’ll lift a glass or two to all the other abused puppies that are waiting for someone to watch over them.


* Boogaloo dude is a lyric in one of my favorite songs from the early 70s, Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes.” Boogie is also the name of Mickey Rourke’s character in the wonderful 1982 film, Diner. So I covered the 70s and 80s with this dog naming exercise.

** As a kid, I always liked Cisco, played by the inimitable Duncan Reynaldo, better than Zorro, but that’s just me. “Hey Cisco; Hey Pancho.”

We’re writing about grant reality, not grant fantasy

We’ve gotten a number of e-mails and comments over the years in which people say we’re cynical or worse.* But that’s not really how we see it: we’re describing the realities of grant biz, which is a large component of the nonprofit biz. You might not like those realities or want to ignore them, but if you’re going to be successful in this line of work you can’t ignore them forever.

Our writing about and shedding light on the grisly processes behind the making of RFPs, the writing of proposals, and the running of grant funded programs does not change those processes. Arguably, by writing this blog, we’re laying the groundwork for real change, although were not sure what a “better” world for nonprofit and public agencies would look like. If enough people read our work, understand it, and want to take action, perhaps the grant writing world will improve. Nonetheless, right now we’re just reporting on and describing issues that almost no one who isn’t intimately involved in the grant process understands.

From time-to-time, we e-mail reporters who write, usually inaccurately, on grant-related issues, but none of those e-mails has amounted to anything. So the dirty details we know have mostly remained on this blog, or discussed in conversations with clients. (File this under “Why-oh-why can’t we have a better press corps?“)

While we’re waiting for that better press corps, a great deal of well-meaning nonsense gets written about nonprofits and public agencies. We’re here to write about realities, however, not fantasies, and, as with many fields, there are subtleties well-known to insiders that mystify or anger people who don’t see the ground-level perspective. There are many things we’re not privileged to know: what a “comptroller” does, say, or what it’s like to work as a high-end escort (google Client # 9, he’s in the news today). But we do know about grant writing and the dirty details of how money goes from the people or institutions with it to the people or institutions who want to do something with it.

Our basic philosophy is about success; nonprofits that don’t find a way of sustaining themselves shut their doors. Nonprofits that do persist and succeed. If you want to learn how to be one of the latter, read this blog. You might not like what you learn, but we don’t make the rules. We play the game, and we’ve been playing it for 20 years and are better at it than anyone else we’ve ever encountered.


* Our favorite is this one, from “P. Burkins”: “It’s like dealing with a great uncle. Often cranky and not very politically correct. But in the end, full of wisdom and more often than most would admit, spot on.”

Repurpose: The Word of the Decade and a Word for Nonprofits to Live By

During this seemingly endless period of economic stagnation, “repurpose” has emerged as the word of the decade. Repurpose is omnipresent. My wife recently “repurposed” a duvet that our dog had chewed by patching the hole and stuffing it into a new cover she made from some leftover fabric from a long-forgotten sewing project. Angus Loten’s recent WSJ article, “When Cost Cuts Fail… Drastic Measures, tells the tale of small businesses repurposing their entire business model to stay afloat. It seems we are all repurposing: in some cases voluntarily, like my wife who enjoys interior design, and in more cases involuntarily, like the businesses in the WSJ story and the many unfortunate workers who are being repurposed into consumers at food pantries and human services providers by long-term unemployment.

In many ways (consider this another free proposal transition phrase), nonprofits are really small businesses, even if they are run by True Believers. Like small business, nonprofits have formal or informal business plans; resources in the form of cash reserves, facilities, equipment, human capital, and organizational experience; target markets and customers; “angel investors” in the form of consistent volunteers and donors; and, although they operate as “tax exempt,” nonprofits are responsible for payroll taxes, gas taxes, utility taxes and user fees (thinly disguised taxes enacted by strapped local governments), meaning their tax burden is not zero as is often imagined.

One big difference between the challenged small businesses discussed in the WSJ story above and most nonprofits is that nonprofits usually lack the ability to obtain lines of credit to carry the agency during difficult times and are more likely to quickly cut staff and programs than businesses that depend on personnel to generate revenue. As the nonprofit cuts staff and programs, it loses its organizational credibility among its consumers, remaining funders and, most importantly, future funders. This can become a death spiral for a nonprofit. Since the Great Recession hit, we have worked for some hollowed-out nonprofits that at one time had fairly broad programming but are now more or less shells. Through the magic of grant writing, we can make them appear whole, at least in the proposal world. It is better for the organization and the populations they serve, however, to repurpose themselves before they become nonprofit versions of the ghosts in Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place, who take a while to realize they’re already dead.*

Whether they realize it or not, many nonprofits will either have to repurpose themselves by seeking new grants, making better use of social media and accepting the changes that have arrived in the nonprofit world.

If you’re running a nonprofit, a staff member sitting in a strategy meeting, or a board member, find a way to repurpose your nonprofit. Look at the resources you have, your nonprofit competitors, the challenges emerging in your community and the endless possibilities of new federal, state, local and foundation grants. Get going. As I have been blogging about for months, the most nimble nonprofits will transition part or all of their suite of services (another free proposal phrase) and will emerge different but stronger when the economy eventually recovers. I just didn’t have the right word for this process, but thanks to my wife and the WSJ, I do now: repurpose.


* Like the rest of human existence, when a old nonprofit does not repurpose itself and goes under, it will provide a niche for a new nonprofit, since presumably the problems it was addressing still exist in its target community. See this post I wrote on the subject last November: “Grant Writing from Recession to Recession: This is a Great Time to Start a New Nonprofit.”