Faithful readers know I love movies, and this is the first in a new series: “Grant Writing Confidential Goes to the Movies.”
Today, let’s talk about perhaps the best film ever made, Casablanca,* and Claire Groden’s recent opinion piece in the WSJ, “An ‘Antiviolence’ Boondoggle in Murder-Plagued Chicago.”
Groden recounts the disappointing impact and sad tale of woe surrounding the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI), a $54 million grant program sponsored by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. NRI was supposed to reduce the astounding level of youth violence in the state, and in particular in Chicago, where dozens of young people are killed every weekend. Not only did violence rise during the program implementation, but one of the at-risk youth employed in the program allegedly shot and killed a second employed youth while the two were passing out anti-violence pamphlets in the community.**
Groden is apparently surprised that NRI didn’t work, which reminds me of the scene in Casablanca when Captain Renault says to Major Strasser, “I’m shocked, shocked to find out that gambling in going on in here [Rick’s],” as a croupier hands him a pile of winnings. Programs like NRI rarely achieve their lofty public goals—which is one reason evaluation sections are unintentionally hilarious—but they may achieve other, less obvious ones. Just because NRI didn’t do much to curb crime doesn’t mean it’s a “boondoggle.” In Casablanca terms it’s more like Captain Renault saying “Round up the usual suspects.”
While we haven’t written any NRI proposals, the program looks to me like a fairly standard Walking Around Money suspect, about which we’ve blogged many times. Lots of grant programs are really a means to funnel money into certain neighborhoods via nonprofits. It’s also clear to me, if not to Groden, that NRI is mostly a jobs program—in this case, the idea is to hire gang bangers as Peer Outreach Workers, with the assumption that if the youth have some money, perhaps they won’t feel the need for mayhem. In this instance the theory didn’t work so well, as one of the employed kids shot another one in the head. (This could be an argument for a higher minimum wage, but I digress).
Many grant programs are really jobs programs in disguise. My favorite example is Head Start, on which billions of federal grant dollars are spent annually, with over a million kids enrolled. While there are lots of conflicting studies on whether or not Head Start actually has any lasting impact on enrolled kids, it certainly succeeds as a jobs program—tens of thousands of low-skilled, low-income women, are employed as Head Start “teachers.”***
Interestingly, most Head Start teachers also have or have had kids enrolled in the program, which means the same women who seemingly fail to educate and socialize their kids in their own home are somehow supposed to help similar kids learn in the classroom. Head Start has been around for almost 50 years and, by now, there must be lots of third-generation Head Start kids. Since the family has to be low-income to be in Head Start, if three generations are still in poverty despite Head Start—including moms and grandmothers who were Head Start teachers—one can assume that the program doesn’t improve long-term family self-sufficiency (free proposal phrase here). It does, however, keep lots of low-skill women employed at an average annual salary of $21,000, which is probably around what they could make at Wal-Mart but also includes implicit childcare subsidies.
Groden makes a common mistake by confusing the grant program—NRI—with the funding agency—the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority (IVPA). Since NRI has gotten a lot of bad press, the program may see reduced funding, becoming a grant mummy waiting for more tana leaves. She implies that this means the end of IVPA. Wrong. IVPA has been around for years. I know, because we’ve written many funded IVPA proposals for a variety of programs, albeit not NRI. IVPA is a vehicle for federal pass-through funding, with similar agencies existing in each state. While IVPA and the Illinois governor may put temporary brakes on NRI, IVPA will continue to churn out grants for lots of other programs.
As Dooley Wilson sings, “The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”
Much of the Casablanca plot centers around missing Letters of Transit. These are never explained because they’re just a plot device, called a MacGuffin by Alfred Hitchcock and often used in both screenplays and grant proposals. Examples of common MacGuffins in proposals are imagined community needs assessments (e.g., vaguely described informal task forces), case planning documents (e.g., Individual Service Plans), referral linkages, and so on. Since most proposals have severe page limitations, it’s often not possible to go beyond MacGuffin references to move the proposal narrative along, so we might randomly stick in “informal planning task force” or “referral for wraparound supportive services” every few pages. After a while, the reader thinks they know what an informal planning task force is or what the referral mechanism is just as a Casablanca viewer eventually buys into the Letters of Transit device.
* When I worked for L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley in 1974, one of volunteers in the Mayor’s Office was Kitty Curtiz, daughter of Micheal Curtiz, director of Casablanca. Kitty was a delightful woman who’d been a teen on the set when Casablanca was being filmed at Warner Brothers in Burbank. She had lots of anecdotes about the filming and confirmed that no one knew (spoiler alert) Rick would end up with Louie, not Ilsa, at the end of the movie, until it was shot.
** This is called “street outreach” in the grant writing biz and is a standard component in the outreach/engagement section of most human services proposals. Once again, round up the usual suspects.
*** A comprehensive 2011 Head Start Study by DHHS itself found that, while Head Start produces “brief learning gains,” such gains fade quickly and have little or no impact on ultimate education and income outcomes. Judge for yourself.