Tag Archives: Foundations

Philanthropy is not being disrupted by Silicon Valley

The Atlantic writes that “Silicon Valley Has Disrupted Philanthropy.” A lovely article, except for one minor issue: Silicon Valley has not “disrupted” philanthropy. The evidence presented for the article’s thesis is an anecdote from a Boys & Girls Club, “a 2016 report about Silicon Valley philanthropy written by two women who run a consulting firm that works with nonprofits and donors” (we could write similar reports), and this:

The Silicon Valley Children’s Fund, which also works with foster youth, has contracted with a marketing firm that will help it “speak in the language of business and metrics,” Melissa Johns, the organization’s executive vice president, told me.

There are a few other anecdotes, too, though these anecdotes don’t even rise to the level of “How to lie with statistics.” The author, Alana Semuels, is likely correct that some nonprofits have learned to adjust their proposals to use the language of data and metrics. She’s also correct that “rising housing prices in Silicon Valley mean increased need for local services, and more expensive operations for nonprofits, which have to pay staff more so they can afford to live in the area.” But the solution to that is zoning reform, not philanthropy, as anyone who is data- and knowledge-driven will soon discover.

Still, it’s possible that philanthropists will eventually adopt the tenets of effective altruism en masse. But I doubt it. Some reasons for my doubt can be seen in “Foundations and the Future,” a post in 2008 that was accurate but not especially prescient, because it points to features in human nature. In the ten year since I wrote that post, we’ve seen little substantive change in foundations. Other reasons can be seen in Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life; the chapter on charity explains how most donors are most interested in feeling good about themselves and raising their status in the eyes of their peers. Most donors don’t care deeply about effectiveness (although they do care about appearing to care about effectiveness), and caring deeply about effectiveness often invites blowback about donors being hard-hearted scrooges instead of generous benefactors. What do you mean, you want to audit all of our program for effectiveness? You don’t just TRUST us? No one else wants to do this. Fine, if you must, you can, but I find it improper that you are so skeptical of our good works… you can see the youth we’re helping! They’re right here! Look into their eyes! You can tell me all you want about data, but I know better.

The real world of nonprofits and motivation is quite different than the proposal world. It’s also easier, far easier, to write about doing comprehensive cost-benefit analyses than it is to actually do epistemically rigorous cost-benefit analyses. I know in part because I’ve written far more descriptions of cost-benefit analyses than have actually been performed in the real world.

It’s not impossible to do real evaluations of grant-funded programs—it’s just difficult and time-consuming. And when I say “difficult,” I don’t just mean “difficult because it costs a lot” or “difficult because it’s hard to implement.” I mean conceptually difficult. Very few people deeply understand statistics sufficiently to design a true evaluation program. Statistics and regression analyses are so hard to get right that there’s a crisis going on in psychology and other social sciences over replication—that is, many supposed “findings” in the social sciences are probably not true or are due to random chance. If you’d like to read about it, just Google the phrase “replication crisis,” and you’ll find an infinite amount of description and commentary.

Medicine has seen similar problems, and John Ioannidis is the figure most associated with foregrounding the problem. In medicine, the stakes are particularly high, and even there, many supposed studies defy replication.

The point is that if most accomplished professors, who have a lot at stake in terms of getting the data right, do not or cannot design or implement valid, rigorous studies, it’s unlikely that many nonprofits will, either. And, on top of that, it’s unlikely that most donors actually want such studies (though they will say they want such studies, as noted previously).

To be sure, lest my apparent cynicism overwhelm, I applaud the goal of more rigorously examining the efficaciousness of foundation-funded programs. I think effective altruism is a useful movement and I’d like to see more people adopt it. But I’m also aware that the means used to measure success are quickly going to be gamed by nonprofits, if they aren’t already. If a nonprofit hired me to write a whiz-bang report about how Numbers and Statistics show their program is a raging success, I’d take the job. I know the buzzwords and know just how to structure such a document. And if I didn’t do it, someone else would. A funder would need strong separation between the implementing organization, the evaluating organization, and the participants in order to have any shot at really understanding what a grant-funded program is likely to do.

It’s much easier for both nonprofits and funders to conduct cargo-cult evaluations, declare the program a success, and move on, than it is to conduct a real, thorough evaluation that is likely to be muddled, show inconclusive results, and reduce the good feelings of all involved.* Feynman wrote “Cargo-Cult Science” in 1974, long before The Elephant in the Brain, but I think he would have appreciated Simler and Hanson’s book. He knew, intuitively, that we’re good at lying to ourselves—especially when there’s money on the line.


* How many romantic relationships would survive radical honesty and periodic assessments by disinterested, outside third-parties? What should we learn from the fact that there is so little demand for such a service?

Bad news in new tax bill for nonprofits that depend on small- to medium-sized donations

I recently wrote about Bad and good news for FQHCs in the latest Republican tax bill, and last week, the Republican tax bill passed under its official title, “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” (TCJA). Like it or not, the TCJA is now law and I’m continuing to look at its implications for nonprofits and grant seeking. As reported by the Washington Post, “Charities fear tax bill could turn philanthropy into a pursuit only for the rich.”

Why? The combination of doubling the standard deduction and limiting the deductibility state/local taxes and mortgage interest will likely significantly reduce charitable donations by middle and upper middle income Americans. Those people would need very high deductions to bother itemizing, so many won’t. That’s very bad news for smaller to mid-size nonprofits that depend on donations.

Unlike businesses, which can enter new markets and develop new products, nonprofits have relatively few revenue possibilities (the main ones they do have are listed at the link). In addition to grants and fee-for-service contracts (e.g., foster care, substance abuse treatment, homeless shelter beds, etc.), these are limited to membership dues (for member organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs, animal rescues, etc.), fundraisers, and donations. The latter three will be impacted by the TCJA.

While every nonprofit executive director dreams of landing a donor “whale,” mega-donors are not only rare but tend to give to larger and well-connected nonprofits (the rarely acknowledged “swamp” of philanthropy, if you will). The booming stock market and lowered corporate tax rate will likely to produce more whales, but many of these will donate to corporate or family foundations—not garden variety human services nonprofits toiling away in relative obscurity. We’ve had many conversations with executive directors whose nonprofits are doing good work but find it hard to translate “good work” into “increased donations.”

Nonprofit executive directors will have to make a choice that will become more acute in 2018: cast off in the whale boat to search for Moby-Dick or chase schools of small donation fish. The former strategy is usually pointless and the later is time consuming work that will become harder as many Americans realize that there won’t be a tax deduction reward because they won’t itemize.

The silver lining is that foundation portfolios are being engorged by the historically high bull market. They’ll also receive huge donations from corporations and the upper-income people, who will get much of the direct benefits from the TCJA. No matter what, foundations must distribute 5% of their assets every year, and we offer foundation appeals in part with that in mind to clients.

Also, federal spending on discretionary grant programs continues to rise and most states should see increased tax revenue, some of which will be allocated to grant programs. As budgetary chaos subsides, federal agencies will resume normal RFP patterns.

“Provide project details in 500 characters or less”

Today I was working on a foundation proposal submission and came across one of my favorite questions ever: “What are you requesting? Provide details (500 characters).”

Right. You, the funder, are going to get TONS of detail in. . . 500 characters. This post, up to the preceding sentence, is about 250 characters, or half the length of the possible answer. Twitter has recently shocked the media world by shifting from its 140-character standard to its 280-character long-form. So the applicant is to “provide details” in the space of two tweets.

I think whoever wrote that question wasn’t thinking about what they were writing or was thinking about it and decided, “Whatever, I’m going to have some fun with this.” It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen an Easter Egg in an RFP.

Grant writing during an economic boom: primary health care, substance abuse, homeless services, job re-training, and foundations

In 2010, I wrote “Grant Writing from Recession to Recession,” and last week the Bureau of Economic Analysis announced that GDP increased by 3% in each of the last two quarters. The stock market is rocketing upward.

This post is the obverse of my 2010 post; while grant seeking and grant writing are eternal, they’re different during economic lows and highs. As we’ve written many times before, nonprofits typically derive revenue from a mix of donations, membership dues, third-party reimbursements (e.g., Medicaid, substance abuse treatment, etc.), fee-for-service contracts (e.g., foster care, home health care, etc.), government grants, and foundation grants.

As the economy takes off, nonprofits will see increased donations, fundraising revenue, and/or membership dues, as people either have more disposable income or think they do. Still, it’s a shortsighted nonprofit that puts too many revenue strategy eggs in the donation / fundraising / membership dues basket—any number of impossible to predict black-swan events could occur, or the economy could just fizzle back into the slow growth pattern of the recent decade. Donations and membership dues could disappear in a flash, just like they did in 2008 – 10.

Nonprofits that provide some kind of heath care should see a big uptick in third-party reimbursements and fee-for-service contracts, particularly regarding Medicaid services (FQHCs for example), opioid-use disorder (OUD) treatment, and HIV services. Despite eight years of political posturing, it looks like some version of Obamacare and expanded Medicaid is here to stay. Also, with more Americans now dying annually from ODs than car crashes, there’ll be big increases in funding for OUD treatment and HIV services, since HIV transmission is closely linked to the injection drug use that is at the center of OUD.

This brings us to grants. Despite rumors, the Trump administration and Republican congress have not decreased federal funding for discretionary grant programs. The FY ’18 Federal Fiscal Year began on October 1. Since 1998, Congress has funded the federal government via a series of Continuing Resolutions (CRs), rather than passing actual budgets. In general, CRs use a “baseline budgeting” concept, which means that the FY ’18 CR, which just passed Congress last week, mostly continues funding levels for discretionary grant programs from the previous CR, adjusted upward for inflation.

Since every Federal program has a strong lobby and highly paid lobbyists, Congress rarely makes significant, real spending cuts. Instead, if anything happens, Congress might restrict the rate of federal spending growth—but not adjust the underlying, baseline level. Funding for the NEA, public broadcasting, etc., will not be eliminated or even reduced. These parts of the government are popular symbolic targets, but virtually all of the growth in the federal budget comes from Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. Any budget hawk that doesn’t propose reductions to the first two is simply not serious.

There are actually more federal grant dollars up for grabs in FY ’18 than in FY ’17. The same will be true for grants from most states and big cities/counties, as tax revenues will climb with the rising economic tide. Counterintuitively, there’ll probably be less competition for most RFPs. With the better economy, some nonprofits will forgo submitting competitive grant proposals, choosing to pick the new low hanging fruit of donations, membership dues, and fundraising. Smart nonprofits will, however, go after every plausible government grant opportunity, since there’s no good reason not to and some organization is going to get the grants.

In the coming years, the big grant opportunities will likely be in primary health care, substance abuse treatment, Ryan White services, homeless services, and job re-training. One of the oddities of America at the moment is that homelessness continues to increase, despite a pretty good economy. Many cities, like Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco have passed, or proposed, big new local taxes to fund homeless services, in addition to the federal McKinney Act Programs through HUD. With respect to re-training, despite low unemployment rates, about 90 million working age Americans remain out of the workforce for reasons ranging from former incarceration to less than catastrophic disabilities to outmoded work skills or something.

The workforce must adjust to the rise of robots and AI-related manufacturing and services, which means lots of grants will be available for job training and re-training project concepts. Nimble nonprofits, who traditionally have been involved in such services as housing, prisoner reentry, family support, after school programs, teen pregnancy prevention and the like, would be wise to change their missions to go where the money will be.

Foundation grants will also be a good target. By federal law, foundations are required to spend at least 5% of their endowments annually on grants. With the huge stock market run, foundations will be flush with investment earnings that must be distributed through grants. Go get ’em tiger.

We imagined foundations would hire us to help improve RFPs/funding guidelines. We were wrong.

Twenty and change years ago, Isaac was starting Seliger + Associates and expected to be hired by foundations and perhaps even some government agencies who might want help streamlining their RFPs or funding guidelines. Seliger + Associates has unusual expertise on grants, grant writing, and RFPs, which could, in theory, make helping funders part of the firm’s regular practice. Isaac imagined that funders would want real world feedback  to improve the grant making process, make themselves more efficient and efficacious, ensure their money was being channeled in useful directions, and so forth. Even in the early days of Seliger + Associates, we knew a lot that could help funders, and we waited for the calls to start coming.

I was about ten at the time. Now I’m considerably older and we’ve long since stopped waiting. Funders, it turns out, strictly follow the golden rule in this respect: he who has the gold makes the rules. Funders routinely ask applicants and other stakeholders about how to make the world a better place, but they have no interest at all in talking to the people who could conceivably help them most with respect to the funding process. Isaac’s initial expectation turned out to be totally wrong.

Isaac and I were talking about the vast silence from funders in light of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that he and his wife, Pricilla Chan, plan to donate tens of billions of dollars to nonprofits in the coming decades through newly formed Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) LLC.* That’s a laudable effort and we’re happy they’re doing this. Still, we wonder if they’ll talk to people who toil daily in the grant writing mines to make sure that the funding guidelines CZI uses and the RFPs CZI issues are grounded in the reality of what would make it easiest to identify applicants most likely to achieve their charitable purposes with the minimum friction for nonprofits. Based on past experiences, we doubt it.

Despite the headlines you may have read, philanthropy as we know it is quite resistant to change—especially on the government side. On the private sector side, signaling and status are far more important than efficiency. Gates and Zuckerberg may be challenging the signaling dynamic, and we’re on their side in that respect, but we think signaling is too ingrained in human nature to have much effect. Overcoming signaling is hard at best and impossible at worst. Look at the way ridiculous SUVs continue to be a status-raiser among many suburbanites for one obvious, easy example of this at work. Geoffrey Miller’s book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior details many others.


* The name of the LLC, “CZI,” amuses us: it’s an unpronounceable acronym that sounds like a Cold-War-era Soviet ministry. The first rule of developing grant-related acronyms to to make them pronounceable.

Sean Parker Writes about the New Group of Billionaire Hacker Philanthropists and Forms The Parker Foundation with $600M

Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame is a very smart guy, and he recently wrote “Philanthropy for Hackers;” the essay posits that newly minted tech billionaires are “hackers,” like himself, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Google guys, who collectively represent a new wave in philanthropy:

The barons of this new connected age are interchangeably referred to as technologists, engineers and even geeks, but they all have one thing in common: They are hackers. Almost without exception, the major companies that now dominate our online social lives (Facebook, Twitter, Apple, etc.) were founded by people who had an early association with hacker culture . . . Hackers share certain values: an antiestablishment bias, a belief in radical transparency, a nose for sniffing out vulnerabilities in systems, a desire to “hack” complex problems using elegant technological and social solutions, and an almost religious belief in the power of data to aid in solving those problems . . . At the same time, they are intensely idealistic, so as they begin to confront the world’s most pressing humanitarian problems, they are still young, naive and perhaps arrogant enough to believe that they can solve them.

The above paragraph, as well as most of Parker’s other points, are true and well considered (and they complement our review of Ken Stern’s With Charity for All). Perhaps more importantly, Parker is walking the walk by funding the newly minted Parker Foundation with $600 million. It’s great that billionaire hackers are learning to give away their money (and there are only so many 1,000 foot yachts and $50M penthouses one can buy—even billionaires reach diminishing marginal utility for luxury goods).

Parker does not, however discuss how average nonprofits funded by these new foundations would actually deliver human services to address humanitarian problems. While this might have not made the editorial cut, I suspect that he’s probably not too familiar with most nonprofits and how they work. Maybe he is only looking for Givewell.org-style nonprofits.

A quick look at The Parker Foundation website reveals that this is a foundation that does not accept unsolicited proposals. While there are some interesting thoughts and a clever PERT diagram on the site, there are no submission guidelines. Although not explicitly stated, The Parker Foundation has to find your nonprofit and contact you, instead of your agency submitting a proposal. This reverse access to funding logic is used by a fair number of foundations, whether they are old school or nouveau riche. But I’ve never understood why anyone thinks this approach is a good idea.

This approach to giving away foundation grants reminds me of the hokey ’50s TV series, The Millionaire. Every week the eccentric millionaire gave $1 million to some sad case person he’d never met to help them solve their life crisis. This was more or less a scripted version of another odd ’50s reality style series Queen for a Day.* It seems that Sean and/or the probably also idealistic foundation staff believe they can somehow not only identify important humanitarian problems, but also which nonprofits are likely to have good solutions. I have no idea how they do this, since, as Jake wrote, evaluating human services programs is hard to do.

I’m often asked by clients how to cozy up to funders like The Parker Foundation (or the much larger Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in most cases also does not accept unsolicited proposals). I tell them they should hang out at private airport terminals, since Sean, Bill or Melinda are unlikely to be found in a middle coach commercial airline seat waiting to be chatted up—think private jets and other places rich folk hang. The sad truth is that, unless you happen upon a foundation founder at Trader Joe’s**, you’ll just have to hope that one of their foundation program officers stumbles across your nonprofit. This, of course, is particularly unlikely to happen to a newly formed nonprofit, which is actually more likely to have an innovative idea than an established nonprofit with a social media consultant to get them noticed.

Seliger + Associates could have helped The Parker Foundation design their grant application process and submission guidelines to reflect the way human services are actually delivered. Only one foundation in 22 years has contacted us about helping them with their grant submission process, however, and they didn’t hire us. Whether or not the source of a foundation’s assets is a successful hacker billionaire like Parker or a more pedestrian scion of the Walton clan, the foundations themselves invariably have founders, board members and staff, who don’t have a frame of reference for nonprofit culture and are idealists, or as we call them true believers. True believers, however, don’t run most nonprofits and, unlike most foundation funders, experienced nonprofit managers know the difference between the real world and the proposal world. Nonprofits often game, deliberately or not, the good intentions of idealistic funders.


* My mom was a huge fan of both shows and I actually went to a taping of Queen for a Day in Minneapolis when I was about 5—she was astounded that her sad tale of woe, submitted on an index card before the taping, didn’t result in her being selected to receive a dime store tiara, dozen long stemmed roses and whatever else the Queen got that day.

** When Jake was a teen, we lived in Bellevue, WA, close to the headquarters of Microsoft. Neighbors and friends told stories of running into Bill at the Dairy Queen or the lunch buffet at an Indian restaurant near the Microsoft campus. Although Jake loved that buffet and DQ, and we often went to both, we never ran into Bill. I did, however, sometimes run into Steve Balmer, but I’ll save that story for another post.

Sometimes Technology Makes Things Harder: Foundation Proposal Submission Edition

In ye olden days when dragons flew the sky and grain was still milled with water wheels, most foundations only accepted paper submissions. Most also had relatively straightforward instructions that were reasonably simple; since the submissions were done through paper, applicants could create an attractive, well-formatted submission document.

Today things are different. Amazon delivery drones fly the sky and human-like creatures wear Google glasses on the streets, which make them look like Borg extras from Star Trek. Foundations, meanwhile, have created far more work and hassle for applicants by deploying online proposal submission systems that are harder to use and more time-consuming than paper-based submission.

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier. Sometimes it does: Facebook now makes it simple to stalk former lovers and discover that, yes, they have indeed gotten fat. But technology doesn’t automatically make our lives easier. Foundations have used technology to take what used to be a reasonably coherent exercise—like “write a three- to five-page proposal”—but they’ve chopped it up and made it incoherent. Now most foundation submissions mandate tiny input boxes with lots of arbitrary character or word limitations.

There are numerous problems with the new systems. Their space limitations are frequently absurd. They might say, “two thousand characters for the needs assessment.” But is that two thousand characters with or without spaces? Different systems use different counting conventions and sometimes don’t say whether they count spaces. The length itself is absurd: two thousand characters is a third of a page. If there are five detailed questions from the foundation about the applicant and project concept, the funder is going to get disjointed, unsatisfying answers that attempt to hit all the questions.

Since none of this can be formatted, it looks like a ransom note when printed—the sort of thing that you’d receive from a Nigerian Prince who has a bank account he can’t access. A lot of systems also won’t let applicants move forward without a value in the input box. So you have to put a placeholder there to move forward and see the whole application (we like “Jack Bauer,” “Tony Almeida,” and “Chloe O’Brien” from 24 as placeholders. But then applicants must make sure that there are no placeholders left in by accident in the upload. Question: “Who is the CEO?” Answer: “Jack Bauer,” could be a problem.

In addition, each foundation has a different system with different questions and restrictions. It’s always been true that foundation submission requirements vary; since they have the gold they make the rules. But while there used to be length variations and some oddball questions (“Do any employees of the corporation sponsoring the foundation volunteer with the applicant nonprofit?”), applications were more similar than different. The Himmelfarb Family Foundation wanted three pages and the Worcester Community Foundation wanted five, but the overall structure was similar.

Now foundations are more different than similar and their online systems present all kinds of roadblocks. With almost all these online systems, applicants start by answering a bunch of questions (“Are you a 501(c)3?”). Fair enough, we guess. Then when an applicant logs out and returns, they have to answer the same questions again! Once isn’t enough! Applicants have to answer five different times.

We’ve been doing foundation proposals for over twenty years. The current trend is making things worse, not better. Technology does not automatically make things better. The best foundation submission is about five single-spaced pages with reasonable headers that explain clearly and concisely the “Who, What, Where, When, Why and How” of a project. A project that can’t be explained in five pages is probably too complicated. We call the initial foundation submission document we recommend a “foundation letter proposal.”

We get it: foundations want to be hip and say they have an online system. But the systems they implement are usually terrible and counterproductive. Virtually every person submitting a foundation proposal is getting paid from somewhere. Every minute they spend fiddling with the foundation’s online system is a minute they’re not spending on service provision. Do foundations care? Probably not, but they should.

January Links: Apprenticeships, Empathy, Cars, Drugs, Mattresses, Guns, Antibiotics & Sex, and More!

* Where Factory Apprenticeship Is Latest Model From Germany, which the U.S. ought to be doing.

* The global poverty rate has dropped by half since 1950. File this under “good news which is rarely broadcast.”

* “The Other Side of the Story: When I was fourteen, I had a relationship with my eighth grade history teacher. People called me a victim. They called him a villain. But it’s more complicated than that.” Not surprisingly, she would deny to others what she had for herself.

* Great news for pot smokers: drug cartels are building massive underground railroads into the U.S. to transport goods that Americans desperately want to buy.

* Cars Kill Cities.

* How to design happier cities.

* Jane Fonda’s foundation forgets to make donations.

* How Tuft & Needle is disrupting the wildly corrupt mattress industry; I’d buy from them next time I need a mattress.

* The media doesn’t talk about suicide in relation to statistics about suicide with guns, which are are nonexistent or bad.

* “No Antibiotics, No Sexual Revolution,” or, “how the legal system is holding back medical innovation.” See also Alex Tabarrok’s wonderful, short book Launching the Innovation Renaissance.

* “Chicago girl’s rape near a school ‘Safe Passage’ route alarms parents.” So much for the concept of “safe passages” as a method for ensuring child safety.

* Camille Paglia on Rob Ford, Rihanna and rape culture.

* People are moving to Florida because it’s cheap.

* We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn: At colleges today, all parties are strongly incentivized to maintain low standards. Having been on both ends of the college teaching / learning experience, I’ve rarely read a more true article. I’m just not convinced that today is much different than 50 years ago, except for having much higher financial stakes on both sides of the table.

* Brad Pitt charity under fire after Katrina victims’ homes begin to rot. Call it another example of the Good Intentions Paving Company, as coined by Saul Bellow.

* “Brooklyn’s Median Household Income Is Less Than $45,000: So how can anyone afford to live there?” The partial answers are large amounts of public housing, Section 8 certificates and families doubling up or “hot-sheeting” [free proposal term here]. There are really two markets: an unregulated market with proverbially “crazy rents,” and a market for people with connections.

* “Chessmaster or Pawn: Now, It’s China’s Turn,” which is the sort of detailed, fascinating, and unexpected post that makes James Fallows’s blog worth reading.

Foundations Give Away Five Percent Of Their Assets a Year: Typhoon Haiyan Shows Why You Should Act Now, Not Later

As you’ve probably noticed if you’re reading any news, typhoon Haiyan likely killed at least 10,000 people in the Philippines. That’s obviously a human tragedy, but there’s one small implication for nonprofit: it pays to apply for foundation funding sooner, rather than later.

The reason is simple. Foundations react to the news cycle. They also give out a limited amount of money every year. When the biggest typhoon in history hits the Philippines, funders are going to redirect a lot of their giving to victims of the typhoon. Since they’re only required to give away five percent a year, and almost no foundations give more, there is usually a finite amount of money that any individual foundation will spend in a given year. By definition, any dollar that goes to one purpose can’t go to another.

(We should clarify that we’re not criticizing foundations for donating to typhoon victims. We are, however, pointing out that in any given quarter, foundation priorities might change.)

Nonprofits that applied for foundation funding three months ago probably had their proposals evaluated on their merits without the typhoon impetus hanging over them. Incidentally, it takes us about three to four months to complete a foundation appeal, which means anyone who hires us tomorrow shouldn’t be strongly affected. But any nonprofit that spent the last year “planning” or “developing” or whatever has just seen the likelihood of its foundation appeal working decline if they submit next week.

The same thing happened, on a larger scale, after 9/11: that tragedy sucked up a huge amount of donations and foundation funding for the rest of the year. The many local, national, and international problems that nonprofit and public agencies had been addressing on 9/10 didn’t go away on 9/12. But many foundations focused on the event that dominated the news, rather than quieter needs that might make the back pages of newspapers and the bottom of websites—if they’re covered at all.

Again, we’re not trying to diminish what happened on 9/11. But we are trying to provide some context from a grant seeker’s perspective. It’s also worth noting that, as Ken Stern describes in “With Charity For All,” donations to 9/11-based causes hit diminishing returns quickly. In other words, there were too many dollars chasing too few effective charitable opportunities. Organizations like the Red Cross, which realized as much, redirected some donations to other causes and then got blasted in the media.

I mentioned above that important problems don’t go away even when major tragedies like typhoon Haiyan or 9/11 occur. My favorite example of underappreciated statistics involves cars. Pop quiz: do you know how many people died in car-related events last year? Around 30,000, which is actually down from the 40,000 people who used to routinely die in car-related events, but it’s still about ten times greater than the number of people who died on 9/11. Despite these facts, auto deaths get nowhere near the press that 9/11 did.

Almost no one is deeply engaged in rethinking our urban and transportation infrastructure to reduce reliance on cars and, as Matt Yglesias says in The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think, increase real incomes by lowering housing costs in major cities. (The book, by the way, is brilliant, short, and worth reading, since its main subject touches on so many economic and political issues in contemporary life.)

The contrast between the reaction to a major event like 9/11 and typhoon Haiyan and to everyday events like the deaths of innumerable people in cars demonstrates the power of unusual stories to shape funder priorities. As a society we’re willing to tolerate 30,000 people dying in and around cars every year because those deaths happen across dispersed geographic areas and 365 days a year. That doesn’t get the reaction of a single, horrifying incident. Most nonprofits are working on relatively everyday struggles around poverty, crime, research, and so on. They don’t have the advantage of every news outlet in the world shining an intense light on their cause. Both their timing in applying for funding and the content of their proposals should reflect that.

General or Specific—The Challenge of Defining a Project Concept for Foundation Support

When scoping a foundation appeal with a client, the first task is to define the project concept. This may seem simple, but few aspects of grant seeking and grant writing are simple.

Let’s assume our client is the Waconia* Family Resource Center and the agency provides a range of family and child support services, including, but not limited to—free proposal phrase here—case management, parenting training, demonstration homemaking, child care, after school enrichment, foster care, childhood obesity prevention and saving the walleye. I tossed the last one in to see if you’re paying attention, as well as to titillate our Minnesota readers.

The executive director could pick a project ranging from the very general—helping disadvantaged Waconians—to the very specific—outreach to the growing population of Latinos to involve their obese kids in fitness activities—and everything in between. So: what to do?

There is no right answer. Like marriage, you’ll only know you’ve made the right choice after it’s too late. In grant writing, you’ll know the correct choice was made when you get funded. With marriage, you’ll know sometime between your honeymoon and the rest of your life. When contemplating this non-Hobson’s choice with a client, we always remind them of this essential axiom: the more general the request, the greater the number of possible foundation funders, but the less interest any particular funder will have in the project.

If the project concept is to help downtrodden Waconians, there will be many potential funders. But, leaving aside the Waconia Community Foundation and the Walleyes Forever Founation, none will likely be particularly focused on the need, because the stated need is so general. Conversely, if the project concept targets chubby kids of the hundreds of Latino families who just moved into the community to work at the new industrial hog farm,** there will be relatively few potential funders, but the ones that exist will be very interested in the idea.

Given this news, most of our client choose a more general approach, unless they are really committed to a highly specific purpose. We recently had a large client, for example, that more or less refused to apply for any grants because they’re waiting for the perfect grant salmon to swim by. Their ideal projects were so narrowly defined that potential funders didn’t exist.

As your organization gears up to go after foundation funds, keep the above conundrum in mind. But whatever you do, don’t dither. As Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”


* I spent a lot of my wasted youth fishing for walleyes on Lake Waconia with my dad. Since the sport is called fishing, not catching, I had a lot of time in the boat to contemplate the complex issues that face a 10-year-old boy.

** About 15 years ago we actually wrote a large funded proposal for more or less this project concept on behalf of a tiny school district in rural Oklahoma. I remain convinced that the proposal was funded largely because of the then-unusual juxtaposition of Latinos, hogs and rural Oklahoma. Industrial sized hog farms and the immigrants who primarily work in them are now commonplace across much of rural American. Not much of a problem, unless you happen be be downwind or downstream.