Tag Archives: Foundations

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.

Is It Worth Your Time to Cozy Up to Program Officers and Bat Your Eyelashes? Maybe, But Only If It’s Nighttime, They’re Drunk, and You’re Beautiful

Many nonprofits think they should try hard to develop “relationships” with funders, particularly with foundations and, to a lesser extent, government agencies. In my experience, this practice is mostly a waste of time. Like an aging hooker at a honky-tonk bar, it could work, but it helps if it’s late at night, the lights are low, the guys are drunk and she’s the only more-or-less female in the bar.

Funders, and especially foundation program officers, may not be hip to too much, but they do recognize the cozy-up strategy. Let’s take the bar analogy above and flip it. Instead of a honky-tonk, we’re in a trendy cocktail lounge in downtown Santa Monica like Copa d’ Oro, the foundation program officer is a beautiful aspiring actress and your nonprofit is an average lounge lizard. Like the babe, the foundation program officer knows that wherever she goes, she’s going to attract lots of nonprofit suitors, all of whom think their pick-up lines are original and figure they’ll get to the promised land by being fawning and obsequious. Unfortunately, as the Bare Naked Ladies sang, it’s all been done before.

Foundation program officers have heard every pitch you can imagine and are probably immune to your many charms. This is not to say that an executive director or development director shouldn’t drop in to see the program officers at the larger foundations in your region, as well as show the flag at conferences and the like (free proposal phrase here—we like “and the like” better than etc.). Let them know you exist. They want you to kiss their ring, or more likely their probably ample rear end, and that’s fine too. If you were passing out bags of gold coins to supplicants, you’d want obeisance too, and you’d get it.

Program officers are special and, with rare exceptions, your nonprofit is not special. Get used to this dynamic. As we’re fond of saying, “he who has the gold makes the rules.”

Like the actress in the cocktail lounge, the foundation has something lots of folk want. It’s just a question of application and negotiation, so to speak, in both cases. Rather than chatting up the program officer, we think it’s more important to try your best to understand the foundation’s funding priorities, follow their guidelines scrupulously and submit a technically correct and compelling proposal. This will get the program officer hot—not trying to ply them with metaphorical $15 cocktails.

But remember that the larger foundations will have so-called “program officers” who are actually just flacks—they don’t make decisions, but they do interact with the public. If you call foundation flacks, they’ll just say, “We can’t say anymore than what our guidelines say on the website. You have an interesting idea, and we look forward to evaluating your proposal.”

Government program officers are a different story and are often more susceptible to sweet nothings being whispered in their ears. At the federal level, most program officers at HUD, DOL and the rest of the agencies toil in crummy conditions in DC. Anyone who has ever visited such offices will remember the ancient computers, mismatched steel furniture and, most importantly, stacks of old proposals, reports and other detritus that has washed into their cubicles. Nothing seems to get tossed.

Federal program officers are more or less like your crazy Uncle Joe, living in the basement that no one ever visits. Uncle Joe is only allowed upstairs at Christmas and on his birthday. It’s a big deal when a live would-be applicant shows up to discuss YouthBuild, Mentoring Children of Prisoners, or whatever. If your agency targets specific federal programs, it’s not a bad idea to visit DC and make the rounds. Bringing a dozen donuts or offering lunch might not hurt. Just don’t visit in August. Anybody who can—including Congress—leaves DC in August, when the malarial mists gather in the heat and humidity. Remember the District was originally a swamp and many would say, remains so, at least from policy and political perspectives.

It’s also a good idea to touch base with state and city/county program officers of favored programs from time to time. As one moves down the food chain in government programs, program officers are more susceptible to politics and politicians, so one should be careful about influence peddling. If you really want to use your political muscle—assuming your agency has any, which most don’t—this is best done by lobbyists or perhaps an influential board member, who understands the political situation. Such influence is rarely peddled in a face-to-face with a program officer. Instead, it takes place on golf courses, dimly lit restaurants and the office of the governor/state representative/councilperson/Commissioner of the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District.

Links: LED Bulbs, Condoms, Education, News is Bad For You, Marriage, Detroit, Foundations, Congress and ObamaCare, and More!

* Great news: we’re (slowly) moving toward a world where education looks at competency, not hours with ass-in-seat. This is flying under the radar of the national press but is hugely important, especially for nonprofits involved with education.

* Get LED lightbulbs. I use Switch LED bulbs, which are ludicrously expensive upfront but pay for themselves within a couple months.

* Possibly related to the above, Human extinction is an underrated threat.

* “News is bad for you [. . .] The real news consists of dull but informative reports circulated by consultancies giving in-depth insight into what’s going on. The sort of stuff you find digested in the inside pages of The Economist. All else is comics.”

* Last year we posted “Have you seen a Federal agency request a low-quality program?“, and this week we saw another example in HUD’s “Transformation Initiative: Sustainable Communities Research Grant Program,” which says that the NOFA offers “researchers the opportunity to submit grant applications to fund quality research under the broad subject area of sustainability.” This would be far more notable if the program offered money for low-quality research.

* “The Shadowy Residents of One Hyde Park—And How the Super-Wealthy Are Hiding Their Money.” I don’t think I’d want to live in a $5M+ apartment even if I had the money for it.

* How marriage changes relationships and gender dynamics (maybe); actual title includes the phrase “the boob test.”

* Seattle Needs to Welcome Growth and Get Over Itself.

* Detroit locals unhappy about the manager who is supposed to clean up the mess made by politicians elected by Detroit locals.

* What are foundations for? A theoretical discussion of problems many of you experience on a daily basis.

* “A Childless Bystander’s Baffled Hymn;” sample: “Why all the choices — ‘What would you like to wear?’— and all the negotiating and the painstakingly calibrated diplomacy? They’re toddlers, not Pakistan.”

* Austin gets Google Fiber, becomes a more attractive place to live.

* American Indians move to cities and face new challenges.

* Women and the crab basket effect.

* “New Publisher Authors Trust: Themselves.” File this under “Calling Captain Obvious.”

* The future of U.S. space policy, a topic that is under-discussed yet very important. This might be related to “News is bad for you,” above.

* Is China covering up another flu pandemic?

* “Will Congress exempt itself from ACA exchanges?” If so, this tells you more about the exchanges aspect of ObamaCare than any statement on the part of Congresspeople could.

* “One look at why income inequality is growing,” hat tip and headline tip Tyler Cowen.

* “Why still so few use condoms;” spoiler: because it doesn’t feel as good.

* “Topless Jihad: Why Femen Is Right.”

* “Nobody Walks in L.A.: The Rise of Cars and the Monorails That Never Were” but should have been.

* “Who Killed The Deep Space Climate Observatory?” This story, along with pathetic “Superconducting Super Collider” debacle, is the sort of thing that, if the U.S. really does take an intellectual and cultural backseat to the rest of the world, will be cited by future historians as examples of how the U.S. turned away from the very traits and behaviors that made it successful in the first place. “Who Killed the Deep Space Climate Observatory?” is also an example of how the real news is very seldom the news you read in the headlines.

* “Documentary ‘Aroused’ explores what makes women turn to porn careers.”

* David Brooks: “Engaged or detached?” “Writers who are at the classic engaged position believe that social change is usually initiated by political parties [. . .] the detached writer wants to be a few steps away from the partisans. [. . . ] She fears the team mentality will blinker her views.” Read the whole thing because the context is important, but as a writer I lean heavily towards the “detached” point of view.

* “[A]rtists and writers love to cast gigantic stores as misbegotten cathedrals.” I’m guilty as charged.

January Links: Giving, California’s Failures, Colleges, Foundations, Neighborhoods, Prostitutes in Brazil Learning English, Strippers in North Dakota, Riots in Detroit, and More

* “The story of GiveDirectly;” I generally favor direct action donations more than intermediary donations.

* “The Great California Exodus:” How the 20th Century’s most successful state’s bad policies have made it a net exporter of native-born citizens.

* From the “perverse incentives department:” “Colleges Rise as They Reject: Schools Invite More Applications, Then Use Denials to Boost Coveted Rankings.

* Jason Fisher flirts with minor celebrity.

* Awesome: “Tenants’ Deal Removes Bar To New Tower.”

* “Charitable Fund Ends a Good Run” describes a too-rarely-seen practice: setting up foundations that are designed to expire, rather than to propagate themselves forever (we wrote some about these issues in “Foundations and the Future“). Here’s a choice quote:

Susan Wolf Ditkoff, partner and co-head of the philanthropy practice at the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit adviser for organizations and philanthropists, said: “If the benefactor doesn’t make their wishes known, the default is that the foundation will exist in perpetuity.”

Ditkoff doesn’t mention that foundations like to “exist in perpetuity” because they offer an income stream to their officers; even if they don’t offer an income stream, they offer lots of paid dinners and the pleasures of having nonprofits grovel, beg, and praise.

* The Department of Education’s “Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII)” is an oxymoron along the lines of military music or humane war.

* Sweet: New FTA Rules Are Good News for People Who Like Walkable Neighborhoods: “The Federal Transit Administration is rolling out an important tweak to its grant criteria for mass transit projects in a way that should make the New Starts program substantially friendlier to dense walkable neighborhoods.”

* “Prostitutes in Brazil Take Free English Classes Ahead of 2014 World Cup;” the best quote is “I don’t think we will have problems persuading English teachers to provide services for free [. . .] We already have several volunteer psychologists and doctors helping us.”

* “A Grand Plan to Make Silicon Valley Into An Urban Paradise: Maybe the suburban land of the tech giants could become a thriving dense metropolis.” Sounds good if improbable to me.

* The Uses of Difficulty. Maybe.

* “Riot Breaks Out At Housing Assistance Event In Metro Detroit.” Isaac used to say that most experienced city housing department employees take the day off on Section 8 Open Enrollment Day.

* Construction jobs are still in a trough.

* “Uncovering Union Violence,” which “is an under-reported story.”

* “The North Dakota Stripper Boom,” which is another tale about unexpected expected consequences: “North Dakota [. . .] is experiencing an oil boom, which is leading to an overwhelmingly male population boom, which has some strange spillover consequences.”

* “The Early Education Racket: If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need to go to preschool.”

* Thorium Reactors, by Peter Reinhardt, which explains one aspect of why thorium-powered power plants might be the future of energy.

* “Margins:”

If you have bigger lungs than your competitor, all things being equal, force them to compete in a contest where oxygen is the crucial limiter. If your opponent can’t swim, you make them compete in water. If they dislike the cold, set the contest in the winter, on a tundra. You can romanticize all of this by quoting Sun Tzu, but it’s just common sense.

* “Going All the Way: The late Nagisa Oshima’s erotic, transgressive In the Realm of the Senses isn’t about sex. It is sex.

* Fundrise has a new project in the pipeline.

* Copy Of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ Can’t Believe The Notes High Schooler Writing In Margins.

* Overeducated and underemployed, a growing problem on both an individual and societal level.

Cliff Diving: Sequestration and A New Year’s Resolution for Nonprofits and Local Public Agencies Worried About the Fiscal Cliff and Grants

EDIT: It looks like we’re not going over the supposed cliff. But much of the analysis below will remain relevant in the coming years, as political fights about debt, spending, and taxation continue.

EDIT 2: The analysis below has been augmented with “Sequestration Still Looms Over the Grant World: Two Months and Counting.”

I find it hard to believe, but as I write this post in the waning hours of Sunday in the waning days of 2012, it seems that the President and Congress are actually going to do a Thelma and Louise and send us collectively off the dubiously named “fiscal cliff.”

If this happens, we may see sequestration. As I understand the implications of sequestration on domestic discretionary spending, including funding for block granted and competitive grant programs, this would mean at least an 8.8% haircut across the federal spending board. Since we’re now already three months into the FY ’13 budget year, however, there are only nine months left, meaning that the cutbacks could be as high as 15%.

Now, what “across the board” means is still subject to interpretation, as this has not actually been done before. One assumes current grantees would get an immediate budget reduction notice, while open RFP competitions might be scaled back. There would also significant impacts for federal sub-grantees for such locally administered block granted programs as CDBG, CSBG, OAA, and so on. The mechanics of sequestration are subject to murky federal regulations and a cadre of anonymous GS-12 and GS-13 budget officers spread across the departments, who are going to be in particularly bad moods coming back after their Christmas holidays to this morass.

The short-term impact of sequestration for garden-variety nonprofits and public agencies that have direct or indirect federal contracts, or are vying for discretionary grant funds, is sure to be confusion in the short term and chaos over the medium term. But—and this is big “but” (so to speak)—it’s not the end of the world. To quote REM, “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.” While media pundits and trade association/advocacy groups will make a lot of noise, the grant world will return to normalcy once the temporary Federal crisis passes.

Despite sequestration and ongoing budget battles, I think significant cutbacks in federal funding for discretionary grants are unlikely, as least for the next few years. What is more likely is a slowing of the increase in federal spending, or as it is more popularly called in a phrase I’m beginning to intensely dislike, “bending of the cost curve.” Keep in mind that we have not had a federal budget in four years and probably won’t have one anytime soon, as the feds will continue to operate with continuing resolutions and baseline budgeting. Thus, unless there is a sudden come to Jesus moment among Democrats and Republicans, it will be the same as it ever was.

This brings me to my suggested New Year’s resolution for nonprofits and local public agencies–take a hard look at your current programs and new initiatives in the planning stages. While there will still be plenty of RFPs available, the competition for government grants is sure to be more intense as the nation stares down its tax and spending challenges.* Seek foundation grants too; as the economy has staggered out of the Great Recession, foundations have recovered investment losses and are going full steam in grant making.

For those nonprofits that survive mostly on donations, a bigger issue is the potential of limits on the charitable tax deduction, which we wrote about recently in “Nonprofit ‘Whales’ May Face Extinction with Potential Tax Law Changes.” In other words, diversify and your organization will thrive in the exciting new year.


* Free proposal word here. In grant writing, there are never any problems, only challenges.

A Lesson in Passthrough Funds and Capacity Building: ACF’s Non-Profit Capacity Building Program NOFA

If you read this week’s grant newsletter, you probably saw the NOFA for the Administration for Children and Families’s “Non-Profit Capacity Building Program,” which I first thought meant “pass-through funds,” since the purpose is “to increase the capacity of a small number of intermediary grantees to provide specific assistance to improve the sustainability of and expand services provided by small and midsize nonprofits in communities facing resource hardship challenges.” Do you know what would help those agencies? Money.

Unfortunately, I was wrong: it initially looks like pass-through funds but isn’t.

If you dig into the NOFA, you’ll find that “specific assistance” means that applicants should propose activities like “a comprehensive strategy of various learning activities and methods to increase the knowledge, skills, and abilities of recipients to implement performance management systems as well as any other best practice areas to target for improvement.” If I were a small nonprofit, I’d prefer that “specific assistance” mean “direct funding,” but here it doesn’t; the best you can do is use “a small portion of funds [. . .] to provide minor capital investments in the capacity of certain recipients such as the purchase of specific software or systems to improve infrastructure.”

I’m guessing that, if you surveyed the nonprofits “facing resource hardship challenges” to be “helped” by well-meaning but paternalistic intermediary organizations if they’d prefer “various learning activities and methods” or “cold, hard cash,” they’d prefer the latter. Isaac has written extensively on the challenges and opportunities nonprofits face in the current climate, and a dearth of training hasn’t been one. As he said, when donations and contracts dry up, smart nonprofits turn to grants. Less smart ones disappear. I think the ACF’s nominal purpose in running this program is to help small nonprofits. Its real purpose, however, is to help the intermediate nonprofits that are supposed to run a variation on train-the-trainers.

How do you do that? The NOFA itself says that “applicants will focus their organizational development assistance program on developing and implementing performance management systems that enable organizations to measure their progress and improve their performance towards intended outcomes.” So it wants nonprofits to basically act like Accenture, IBM Global Services, or the other big consultants that are frequently the target of Dilbert. We’ve written a number of funded proposals over the years to do activities like this, and one key is understanding what I’ve laid out above: you’re passing out training, not money.

You don’t see a huge number of pass-through awards because they just increase administrative friction: ACF is paying staffers to write the RFP, review applications, and so forth, it isn’t going to give grants to “intermediary” nonprofits to… write a mini-RFP solicit applications, review applications, and so forth, probably to the tune of 10 – 30% of the grant. You’ll find pass-through grants at the state level, but very rarely lower than that.

Foundation appeal clients occasionally want to run variations on pass-through programs. Some clients, for example, will provide scholarships to people with a particular illness, like Groat’s disease. We tell them not to do this, however, because if the funder wants to fund any kind of cash payment scheme, they’ll do so directly and cut out the middleman. You want to look like something more than the middleman. Foundations mostly like direct services. As the “Non-Profit Capacity Building Program” shows, so do the feds.

How Not to Get a Grant

Usually I write posts about how to get grants. Today I thought I would give some surefire ways to not get a grant . . .

  • Call/email/meet with a field deputy in the office of your senator, congressperson, governor, mayor, or city councilperson. Regardless of the project idea, the field deputy will be polite, encouraging, tell you how much the elected official would be willing to support your project, and give you vague generalities about grant programs. They will not, however, tell you to apply for program x, which is due on date y. Instead, they will spin Tales of Brave Ulysses, pat you on the head and send you off to make room for the next supplicant. In other words, you won’t get a grant, but you will have a new feeling of self-importance and, likely, an invitation to the politician’s next fund raiser.
  • Apply to government programs for which your organization is not eligible because you think the funder will recognize the critical importance of your project concept. The funder will throw out your proposal, but you will have achieved the high moral ground by Speaking Truth to Power, or as the Firesign Theater put it, providing Shoes for Industry.
  • Find the contact information for tons of foundations and send the same proposal to 100 foundations without looking at their guidelines. All of your proposals will be tossed without being read because you did not respond to what the funder wants, but you will have that same sense of satisfaction one gets from reorganizing one’s book/CD/shoe collection. You can also impress your board members by telling them how many proposals you submitted over the weekend and how bleary-eyed you are.
  • Fail to include attachments required by the RFP/guidelines because you think the requirement is dumb or is too much work. Also, ignore signature pages and the frequent requirement for a “wet signature”. Instead, depend on the funder giving you the benefit of the doubt, which they won’t do.
  • Include lots of unrequested stuff, like the ever-popular client testimonials, awards and newspaper clippings. And, don’t forget that DVD of your appearance on Oprah. This will demonstrate your inability to read guidelines, making it very easy for the initial reviewer to toss your proposal over their shoulder before it is read or scored.
  • Propose that you will use the requested grant to make grants to others. This way, you’ll be telling the funder that you should decide how their money is used. After all, why would a foundation that gives scholarships not want your organization to stand between them and needy students?
  • Submit a 40-page full proposal to a foundation that requests a two-page letter of inquiry because you couldn’t possibly summarize your brilliant project concept. You fail to remember that perhaps the greatest speech ever delivered is Lincoln’s 256 word Gettysburg Address. A foundation program officer who receives 50 proposals every week certainly wants to spend several hours savoring your profundities.
  • Propose using virtually the entire grant as a subcontract to another organization or vendor. This will make the funder understand that the role of your organization is to do nothing but apply for the grant and hand over the money to someone else to run the program. This is exactly what funders want in a grantee—complete abdication of organizational responsibility.
  • For electronic submissions, create fantastically complex files with embedded pictures, charts, etc., and make sure the file size exceeds 10 mb. Always wait until five minutes before the deadline before uploading. This way, you are virtually guaranteed to create corrupted files, which cannot be uploaded in time to meet the deadline. Then you can contact the funder and weep about the unfairness of the process, which they will ignore.
  • For paper submissions, use fancy binders, lots of color, and spend an inordinate amount of time on the presentation package. This will ensure that the funder realizes you don’t need the money and that you can focus on all the wrong aspects of grant writing by concentrating on style over substance.

I could go on with lots of other ways to ensure that your organization will not be funded, but you probably get the idea by now. If you actually want to get funded, read the technical posts we’re written and watch for future tips. Prepare the application according to the funder’s guidelines, no matter how obtuse. Learn how to write. Practice for years. Then you’ll know about the pitfalls listed above.

How’d You Like a 20% Discount on Grant Writing? You Got It, As Long as You are Willing to Go Against Conventional Wisdom!

Jake wrote recently about the perils of being too creative as a grant writer in Never Think Outside the Box: Grant Writing is About Following the Recipe, not Creativity. This post elaborates on the invisible fence of “Convention Wisdom” (CW) that forces us grant writers to remain in the box.

CW is an amorphous blob of assumed correctness that ping pongs through the media, popular culture, academia and everything else in America, even though aspects of it may be proven wrong. Two examples from recent newspaper articles will demonstrate how hopelessly wrong CW can be:

1) Foster Care and Orphanages: The CW about foster care is that the system, although flawed, is a much better alternative than orphanages, which conjure up Dickensian images of underfed orphans cowering in dark rooms. Although a quick Google search confirms that no one seems to really know how may kids are in foster care in America, a good guess is about 600,000. Richard. B. McKenzie, a UC-Irvine professor who grew up in an orphanage in the 1950’s, tackles the foster care/orphanage CW in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Best Thing About Orphanages.” Professor McKenzie cites a 2009 Duke University study of 3,000 orphaned children in Africa and Asia and states:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the researchers found that children raised in orphanages by nonfamily members were no worse in their health, emotional and cognitive functioning, and physical growth than those cared for in their communities by relatives. More important, the orphanage-reared children performed better than their counterparts cared for by community strangers, which is commonly the case in foster-care programs.

Professor McKenzie surveyed 2,500 alumni of American orphanages and found they generally did much better than their peers in the general population across a range of educational attainment, income, happiness and related indicators. In other words, orphanages, which have largely disappeared from America and been replaced by foster care, actually did a reasonably good job given the circumstances in nurturing orphans. Having written dozens of proposals addressing the needs of foster youth over the years, I know that outcomes are not good for kids in the system. In 17 years of being in business, however, no one has ever approached us to write a proposal for an orphanage.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is one of the largest private funders for child service programs. A search of their website for “orphanages” produces two hits, both in Romania, while a search for “foster care” produces 230 hits! I have a pretty good idea of how the CW thinkers at the Casey Foundation would react to a proposal to set up a new orphanage in Owatonna*: shock and horror! But they’d probably happily fund yet another “innovative” program to provide wrap around supportive services for foster kids.

2) Endangered Salmon: While living in Seattle for 15 years, I became accustomed to waking up pretty much every morning to another newspaper story about endangered salmon. Several years ago, there was even an attempt to OK killing sea lions because they were eating too many salmon, although I don’t believe a whisker on a single sea lion was actually ever harmed. I nearly fell off my chair when I read this piece in the January 21, 2010 Wall Street Journal: Fish Boom Makes Splash in Oregon. Despite the CW about the end of salmon runs on the West Coast, this year there are so many steelhead and their cousins that in some creeks, “you could literally walk across on the backs of Coho,” according to Grant McOmie, outdoors correspondent for a television news team in Portland. As the article states:

In 2007, one state office warned, “Populations of anadromous [or oceangoing] fish have declined dramatically all over the Pacific Northwest. Many populations of Chinook, Coho, chum and steelhead are at a tiny fraction of their historic levels.” The year before that, a naturalist in Seattle wrote: “It is hard to find the silver lining in a situation as dire as the collapse of wild salmon off the Oregon and California coasts.”

It turns out that the CW about salmon in Oregon is kind of fishy. This looks like a good opportunity for an enterprising homeless services provider in Portland to use the service delivery model I developed satirically in Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development. I’ll give you the acronym at no charge: Project FISH (Feed the Indigent/Salmon for Homeless). The grant writer for this proposal could make tidy use the old aphorism, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.”

It is almost never a good idea to go against your understanding of the presumed CW of the reviewers in writing a grant proposal. Not only do you have to stay inside in the box, as Jake wrote, you actually have to stay in a corner of the box. A case in point:

We’ve written lots of funded proposals for anti-tobacco/anti-smoking proposals over the years, particularly in California, which at one time had tons of money for such initiatives. About ten years ago, we were hired to write three proposals to prevent youth smoking in California by three different agencies for the same state RFP. While two of the clients were fairly typical youth service organizations, one was different. This nonprofit was interested in only working with white kids, which they deemed “Euro-Americans.” We almost never get good data sources from our clients, but this client provided peer-reviewed studies confirming that, with the exception of Native American youth, white teenagers in California were much more at risk for smoking than African American, Asian or Latino kids.

I told the client, however, that he would be going against CW about smoking and ethnicity and he would likely not be funded—especially if we wrote the proposal using the term “Euro-American” with a focus on white teenagers. He insisted, and we wrote it the way he wanted, using his terrific citations in one of the best needs assessments we’ve ever written. Not only was the proposal not funded, but it was also completely trashed in written reviewer comments our client later gave me. The reviewers were outraged that the agency would focus on white kids, instead of youth of color, and claimed a lack of data, despite the citations we included. In other words, their CW was so strong, they did not recognize the statistics provided right under their noses. The punch line is that the other two proposals we wrote for this competition focused on African American and Latino youth, respectively, used more or less the same service delivery approach as the first proposal and had entirely specious data that we cobbled together.

They were funded.

Now, about that discount. We’re willing to provide a 20% discount off our standard fee for a foundation appeal to the first qualified client who wants to fund an orphanage, salmon to feed the homeless or some other anti-CW project concept that we find intriguing. This means we’ll conduct basic research to identify a prospect list, complete detailed research to narrow down the list, write a foundation letter proposal (about five single spaced pages) and prepare 10 finished foundation proposals to the best identified sources for $5,600, a $1,400 discount from our standard fee of $7,000 for this type of assignment! If we get anyone to take us up on this offer, I’ll post updates on the outcome.**


* We were recently hired by a client in Owatonna, a small town about 40 miles south of Minneapolis. I have fond memories of Owatonna, since I used to go there frequently with my dad in the late 1950s to get live turkeys from a farm for our family kosher meat market. It was fun for a six-year-old to try to catch a turkey that was bigger than himself—with a poultry hook. Owatonna is also mentioned in one of Jake’s favorite childhood movies, Hot Shots. At the start of this hilarious parody, Charlie Sheen is Topper Harley, a troubled fighter pilot trying to recover his mojo in an Indian village, when a character speaks a series of faux Indian words that are actually town names in Minnesota, including Owatonna. The sequel, Hot Shots! Part Deux, is also lots of fun.

** The client must be a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Seliger + Associates will, at its sole discretion, determine if the client is qualified and the project concept is appropriate for this offer.

January 2010 Links: Foundation Giving, Weatherization, Science, Borders, and More

* Drop in Foundation Giving May Be Steeper than Anticipated. Those of you who want a piece of the action should read Isaac’s post PSST! Listen, Do You Want to Know a Secret? Do you Promise Not to Tell?* Here’s How to Write Foundation Proposals.

* You’ve gotta love the convoluted program titles used by the feds, or, in this case, the Department of Energy, which is offering “Recovery Act – Weatherization Assistance Program Training Centers And Programs grants.”

Whoever wrote the RFP also conflates goals and objectives. They should read Isaac’s post “The Goal of Writing Objectives is to Achieve Positive Outcomes (Say What?),” which is much clearer than its intentionally verbose title.

* It turns out that microfinance isn’t a silver bullet. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, microfinance involves making very small loans to very poor people in developing countries; Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank won a Nobel Peace Prize for inventing and/or popularizing the practice.

* One person wrote us an e-mail we responded to, and in a follow-up he said:

Thanks for the info, and I look forward to reading the blog post. I’ve learned more about grants and grant writing from reading your blog than I did earning my B.S. in Emergency Admin. and Planning.

Now that’s a compliment! Depressingly enough, the last section is probably true.

* Along the same lines as above, but from a Tweet: “Not to send business elsewhere, but I highly recommend this #grant newsletter: https://seliger.com/ #foundations.”

* Megan McArdle says that jobs programs don’t work from a macroeconomic perspective:

Even if you could surmount union opposition, the federal government has an ever-increasing thicket of red tape that makes such a thing impractical. It takes months to get hired for a job with the federal government. It takes months to ramp up a new program. By the time you’d gotten your NWPA through Congress over strenuous union objections, appointed someone to head it, set up the funding and hiring procedures, and actually hired people, it would be 2011. Maybe 2012. Perhaps you could waive all the civil service and associated procedure surrounding federal hiring, but I don’t see how.

* Grants.gov will close for four days in February. When is the last time Amazon.com intentionally closed at all?

* Terrorists hurt America most by making it close its borders. In other words, the United States is doing more harm through its reaction to terrorism than the terrorism itself has done, in part because terrorism is highly visible, reported, and immediately obvious while the effects of making border crossing more difficult are diffuse and too seldom discussed.

* For Elderly in Rural Areas, Times Are Distinctly Harder. Do you suppose the reporter has seen or read The Last Picture Show?

* “[…] neither private or public sector efforts are going to take a significant bite out of the digital divide in the foreseeable future.” Sounds like a call for more grant programs. The only really awesome municipal broadband I’ve seen is in Monticello, Minnesota.

* “[Prostitution] involves a good or service (or whatever you want to call it) — sex — which, when undertaken for free by consenting adults is legal but which becomes illegal when money changes hands. Can you think of other goods and services that share this trait?

Me neither.

* In Latino Gardens, Vegetables, Good Health and Savings Flourish.

* Remember: If you apply for a grant program, you might actually win and then have to run said program. This comes up by way of “In Race for U.S. School Grants Is a Fear of Winning:” “One major concern is that should Illinois succeed in the national competition for Race to the Top money, it might not have the ability to finance the long-term costs of any new programs once the federal money has been spent.”

* Prohibition: A Cautionary Tale.

* Prisons or colleges? California “chooses” prisons because of structural issues relating to prison guards’ unions, politics, and laws, all of which interact with one another to produce a nasty outcome. See how at the link.

* Why public domain works matter.

* U.S. Keeps Science Lead, But Other Countries Gain. Compare this to Neal Stephenson’s excellent piece in the New York Times, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.”

* According to the New York Times: The Obama administration’s $75 billion program to protect homeowners from foreclosure has been widely pronounced a disappointment, and some economists and real estate experts now contend it has done more harm than good. They’re referring to the Making Home Affordable program.

* Why you should use the revolving doors.

* How China wrecked the Copenhagen talks. See also James Fallows’ excellent commentary.

* Manzi’s error: economic growth rate differences between America and Europe are almost entirely explained by population growth rate differences.

* “15th Century Greenland has something in common with IBM in 1980: a belief that historically successful behavior will succeed in the future.”

* A crime theory demolished (or at least altered):

The recession of 2008-09 has undercut one of the most destructive social theories that came out of the 1960s: the idea that the root cause of crime lies in income inequality and social injustice. As the economy started shedding jobs in 2008, criminologists and pundits predicted that crime would shoot up, since poverty, as the “root causes” theory holds, begets criminals. Instead, the opposite happened. Over seven million lost jobs later, crime has plummeted to its lowest level since the early 1960s. The consequences of this drop for how we think about social order are significant.

* News from Seattle: Rainier Beach High School anti-drug mentor also a dealer, police allege.