Tag Archives: Funders

Foundation and government grant applicants: It’s “Hell yes” or “No.”

Derek Sivers has a rule for many things:

No ‘yes.’ Either ‘HELL YEAH!’ or ‘no.’” He says, “When deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than ‘Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!’ — then say ‘no.’

That principle applies to other fields: are you going to get the job? If the employer really wants you, they are going to be very “hell yes,” and they are going to start courting you. With any reply other than “hell yes,” keep looking. Don’t stop looking till the contract is signed—and don’t be surprised when the employer is a whole lot more excited about you the day after you sign up with another outfit. Same is true in dating: don’t stop lining up leads unless and until that special person says HELL YES! This is also true in applying for most grant funding: assume it’s a “no” until proven otherwise.

We’ve had lots of clients over the years who have been encouraged by foundations that are eager to cultivate applications but seem decidedly less eager to actually cut the check (CTC). Talk is cheap, but the CTC moment has real costs—in pro hoops and grant seeking. Foundations are prone to delaying that magic moment, if possible. Foundations, like many of us, like the flattery and attention that comes with dangling cash in front of people who desire said cash. Note that I’m not arguing this behavior is fair or appropriate—just that it’s common. Foundation officers seemingly enjoy the flattery that comes with nonprofits’s seduction attempts.

To a lesser extent, some government funders at the federal, state, and local level also engage in the dangling CTC approach, but government rules often discourage excess promises from government officers to applicants. If your agency has applied for a government grant, you’re unlikely to hear anything until you get the hell yes email (notice of grant award) or the “thanks for a lovely evening” email (thanks, but no grant this time around). Still, if a funder, government or foundation, requests more information about your proposed budget or asks if you’ll accept a smaller grant, you’ll almost always eventually get the desired response. Few funders will bother with info requests unless they are likely to fund you.

As a rule, though, your default assumption should be that the funder is not going to fund you until they want to fund you. This is a special case of the Golden Rule. Your assumption should be “no deal:” don’t waste time anticipating a promised deal that may not happen. Spend that energy improving your services and pursuing other funding opportunities. Many foundations also like giving out the last check to make the project happen, rather than the first one, so keep chasing early grants—even small ones.

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.

Build an App for the Animals, but First the Feds should get Grants.gov to Work as well as Amazon

Grants.gov has undergone another re-design that, like its previous re-designs, makes it slightly more functional and slightly less functional. It’s more functional in the sense that new grant opportunities are conveniently listed on the front page. It’s less functional for two reasons: getting a firm, permanent URL is difficult, and the new design breaks every link anyone has ever made to any RFP listed in grants.gov.

For example, I wanted to post about a funny RFP: the Discover Wildlife Refuges Smartphone App. But I couldn’t right click and save the link from the front page, because of the bizarre JavaScript programming on Grants.gov itself. I clicked through through, but there was no link to the actual RFP within that page. So instead of writing the post about the humor of putting out an RFP for such a tiny, bizarre subject, I wrote this post instead. The joke is on me (and you), through the “Link to additional information” at Grants.gov, which says:

The application package for Funding Opportunity Number F13AS00375 and Owning Agency DOI-FWS has not been posted by the awarding agency for submission through Grants.gov. See the Full Funding Opportunity for application instructions.

Are you cracking up yet?

Anyway, not being able to access the RFP is like Amazon saying, “How do we make it hard to order?” Granted, a lot of funders do this, so it might be unfair to single out the feds.

The Aetna Foundation, for example, published an RFP on a website that’s incredibly hard to navigate—and then they hid the RFP behind a registration barrier. So nonprofits have to drill into the site to get to the RFP. Instead, Aetna could have posted a PDF of the RFP on the welcome screen, but where’s the fun in that? Aetna—coincidentally or not—is an insurance company. Why would they do this? They don’t want you to apply or, at best, they don’t want to make it easy for you to apply.

(Problems like the one with the Aetna RFP are a tiny part of the reason people hate insurance companies, which run their charitable and for-profit arms along similar lines.)

This issue probably wouldn’t be in the forefront of my mind if there were more hot RFPs on the street. Unfortunately, Washington’s traditional August slumber seems to have extended into September, perhaps because of the continuing Continuing Resolution (CR), which Isaac last wrote about on New Year’s Eve. These ongoing problems mean this week’s newsletter is thin.

We can’t send fat, happy newsletters without RFPs that are fat and happy too. We’re waiting on them, and we know that the feds can do better, from a social and human services perspective, than “Discover Wildlife Refuges Smartphone App.”

The Difference Between Being “Involved” in Grants and Being a Grant Writer

Most people who claim to be grant writers or “involved” in grants don’t actually write proposals. They’re more often engaged in things like grant management, the distribution of grant funds, or development (fund raising), which are important but very different things than grant writing.

Grant writing means you sit down and write a proposal. Grant management means you oversee funding; file reports; help with evaluations; hire staff; and the like. Notice that “write proposals” is not on the list. Also, some people who say they’re involved with grants are actually on the funder side of things, which means they might help write RFPs or evaluate proposals, but again: those skills are very different and of limited use when actually confronted by a proposal in the wild. Someone who writes proposals can of course be involved in grant management, but it seldom goes the other way around; if you’re going to be a grant writer, you have to be able to pass the test Isaac proposed in “Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain:”

If we ever decide to offer a grant writing credential, we would structure the exam like this: The supplicant will be locked in a windowless room with a computer, a glass of water, one meal and a complex federal RFP. The person will have four hours to complete the needs assessment. If it passes muster, they will get a bathroom break, more water and food and another four hours for the goals/objectives section and so on. At the end of the week, the person will either be dead or a grant writer, at which point we either make them a Department of Education Program Officer (if they’re dead) or give them a pat on the head and a Grant Writing Credential to impress their mothers (if they’ve passed).

You don’t need to pass that kind of arduous test to manage grants, issue RFPs, or review applications.

Last weekend, for example, I met a couple who said they knew a lot about grant writing and were “in” grants. Compared to a random person on the street, they did know a lot: one of them works for a regional government transportation authority and has probably helped disseminate hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in transportation funding. The other works as a development director for a university. Together, they have about 40 years of combined experience in “grants.” It turns out, however, that neither have ever even once done what I was doing about twenty minutes before I began this post: writing a proposal. Development directors often do everything in the universe to shake money out of donors except write proposals; that may be why we’ve worked for a fair number of development directors over the years. And program officers, who pass out grant funds, might write RFPs, but never the responses.

I wish more people who worked “in” or around grant writing had the experience of actually writing a proposal, because if they had, I suspect we’d get better RFPs. I’m also reminded of the theory / practice divide that arises in so many academic disciplines. Psychology, for example, has a large number of people who do a lot of research but don’t see patients, and a large number who see patients and don’t do research. Naturally, the researchers often think of the practitioners as mere carpenters and the practitioners often think of researchers as mandarins who don’t understand what life on the ground is like. Both are probably somewhat right some of the time.

Something similar happens in English: a lot of English departments these days are bifurcated between the people in “creative writing” and literature. The creative writers—novelists, poets, and so forth—produce the stuff that the literary critics and theorists ultimately discuss; I suspect there, too, the world would be a better place if critics and theorists actually took a serious stab at producing original work. If they did, many might not hold the sometimes implausible opinions they do. They’re like RFP writers who know everything the world about grant writing except what it’s like to stare down a nasty, confused, contradictory RFP. You probably wouldn’t want to eat at a restaurant run by a chef who never tastes his own food, but that’s the situation one often gets with grant writing.

There’s a moral to this story: be wary of people who say they know a lot about grant writing, since they often know a lot about everything but grant writing.

Thirty day deadlines favor the prepared

The cliche goes, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” and we could repurpose it to, “Short deadlines favor the prepared nonprofit.” I have the dubious pleasure of reading the Federal Register every week and have noticed that deadlines are shrinking like hemlines. This means the organizations that apply with a complete and technically correct proposal are, even more than usual, the ones who don’t dawdle in deciding to apply and don’t procrastinate once they’ve made the decision.

If you’re thinking about applying for a grant with a thirty-day deadline, don’t take a week to mull it over. Take an hour. Need to wait on a board meeting? See if you can schedule an emergency meeting that night. Can’t do it? Text the chairperson immediately and set up a conference call. If you wait long enough, you won’t be able to get your application together, and, in an environment like this one, you don’t want to miss a deadline for a good program. It could be the life or death of your organization. Small delays tend to turn into big ones; don’t delay any part of the process any longer than you have to.

We sometimes find ourselves in a situation where a couple of clients hire us before a funder issues an RFP. Once the RFP is issued with a very short deadline, we get deluged with calls; as a result, we often have to say “no” to jobs because we lack the capacity and the time to do them. For us, this sucks, since we want to help our clients get funded. But we’re also unusual because we always hit our deadlines; part of the reason we can always hit deadlines is because we decline work if we can’t finish it.

This sometimes makes potential clients, who think hiring a consultant is like shopping at the Apple Store, irritated: “Whaddaya mean, you can’t write the proposal?” “We don’t have the capacity.” “That’s ridiculous! I’m ready to pay.” But consulting isn’t like stamping out another MacBook Air: it’s an allocation of time, and, like most people, we only have twenty-four hours in our days. While we can often accept very short deadlines, sometimes our other obligations mean we can’t. No matter how much it hurts to say “no,” we say it if we have to. This is one reason it is a good idea to hire in advance of a RFP being issued.

There are also situations with misleading or hidden double deadlines. For example, the HRSA Section 330 programs Isaac wrote about last week list application deadlines of October 12. But that deadline is only for the initial Grants.gov submission, which requires an SF-424, a budget, and a couple other minor things. Stuff you could do in a day. The real application—the HRSA Electronic Handbook (EHBs) submission—isn’t due until November 22. So what looks like thirty days is actually closer to two months, but only to people in the know (like those of you who read our e-mail grant newsletter; I’ve seen lots of sites present the October 12 deadline HRSA offered instead of the real deadline). If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to miss what’s really happening on the ground.

But you should still make your choice to apply for any grant program quickly, not slowly. Slow food might be a virtue, but slow grant application decision-making and proposal writing aren’t.

When Seliger + Associates began, the Internet was just breaking into the mainstream and relatively few nonprofits used computers in the workplace and few business and home computers had reliable Internet connection. Grant deadlines were routinely in the neighborhood of 60 days. They had to be: disseminating information about deadlines was slow, shipping hard copies of RFPs was slow, research was slow and required trips to libraries. Plus, there’s an element of fundamental fairness in giving nonprofit and public agencies enough time to think about what they’re doing, gather partners, solicit community input, decide to hire grant writers, and so forth, and funders appear to have lost interest in that issue. Now, nonprofits have to do this much faster. The ones that succeed are the ones who realize that circumstances on the ground have changed and then adapt to the new environment.

The Art of the Grant Proposal Abstract is Like the Art of the Newspaper Story Lead

Proposal abstracts are funny beasts: they’re supposed to summarize an entire proposal, presumably before the reader reads the proposal, and they’re often written before the writer writes the proposal. Good abstracts raise the question of whether one really needs to read the rest of the document. While RFPs sometimes provide specific abstract content—in which case you should follow the guidance—an abstract should answer the 5Ws and H: Who is going to run the program? Who is going to benefit and why? What will the program do? Where will it occur? When will it run, both in terms of services and length of the project? Why do you need to run it, as opposed to someone else? How will you run it?

Whenever I write an abstract, I ask myself the questions listed above. If I miss one, I go back and answer it. If you can answer those questions, you’ll at least have the skeleton of a complete project. If you find that you’re missing substantial chunks, you need to take time to better conceptualize the program and what you’re doing (which might itself make a useful future blog post).

As you write, start with the most relevant information. A good opening sentence should identify the name of the organization, the type of the organization if it’s not obvious (most of our clients are 501(c)3s, for example, and we always state this to make sure funders know our clients are eligible), the name of the project, what the project will do (“provide after school supportive services” is always popular), and who the project will serve. The next sentence should probably speak to why the project is needed, what it will accomplish, and and its goals. The next should probably list objectives. And so on. By the time you’ve answered all the questions above, you’ll have about a single-spaced page, which is usually as much space as is allowed for abstracts in most RFPs. At the end, since this is probably the least important part, you should mention that your organization is overseen by an independent board of directors, as well as its size, and a sentence about the experience of the Executive Director Project Director (if known).

If you’ve taken a journalism class, you’ve been told that the lead of news articles should be the most important part of the story. When someone important has died, don’t wait until the fourth paragraph to tell your busy reader what their name was and what they accomplished in life. Treat proposals the same way. For that matter, treat blog posts the same way, which we try to do.

You’ll have to find an appropriate level of detail. The easiest way to find that level is to make sure you’ve answered each of the questions above and haven’t gone any longer than one page. If you have, remove words until you’re on a single page. You don’t need to go into the level of specificity described in “Finding and Using Phantom Data in the Service Expansion in Mental Health/Substance Services, Oral Health and Comprehensive Pharmacy Services Under the Health Center Program,” but a mention of Census or local data won’t hurt, if it can be shoehorned in. Think balance.

Here’s one open secret about reading large numbers of documents at once: after you’ve read enough, you begin to make very fast assessments of that document within a couple of sentences. I don’t think I learned this fully until I started grad school in English lit at the University of Arizona. Now I’m on the other side of the desk and read student papers. Good papers usually make themselves apparent within the first page. Not every time, but often enough that it’s really unusual to experience quality whiplash.

To be sure, I read student essays closely because I care about accurate grading, and there is the occasional essay that starts out meandering and finds its point halfway through, with a strong finish. But most of the federal GS 10s, 11s, and 12s reading proposals aren’t going to care as much as they should. So first impressions count for a lot, and your abstract is your first impression. Like drawing a perfect circle, writing a perfect abstract is one of these things that seems like it should be easy but is actually quite hard. We’ve given you an outline, but it’s up to you to draw the circle.

How much money is available? Explaining maximum grant amounts

If you read our e-mail newsletter, the Seliger Funding Report, you’re aware of a number that can mean different quantities depending on the RFP: the maximum grant amount. There are a couple of ways to calculate this number: by the amount available over the total project period (which could be more than a single year) or the yearly total amount. In addition, sometimes a grant announcement provides little or no guidance whatsoever. To better understand what that means, let’s look at a few examples.

Take the Sports, Cultural, and Youth Visitor Program, which was included in the newsletter for the week of February 16. It’s a relatively simple program:

Total available: $1,130,000
Number available: 1
Max size: $1,130,000

In other words, there’ll be one grant made with a funding total of $1,130,000. According to the RFP, the exchanges are supposed to take place in 2009 and 2010, meaning the project period is probably in the neighborhood of eighteen months or two years, so the funder also might have been able to give a maximum grant amount of $565,000, but distribute that amount over two years, and nothing else would’ve changed in the program except how the program is presented.

That’s pretty straightforward. But it’s also possible to find announcements that say $500,000 per year is available, for a project total of, say, $1,500,000. The information about whether the maximum grant amount is per year or per project total is usually contained in the RFP itself, and it’s wise to find the answer before you decide how much to apply for. We’ll deal with this in greater detail below.

Consider another program: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy System Technology Research and Development (STTR [R41/R42]):

The SF424 (R&R) SBIR/STTR Application Guide indicates the statutory guidelines of funding support and project duration periods for Phase I and Phase II STTR awards. Phase I awards normally may not exceed $100,000 total for a period normally not to exceed 1 year. Phase II awards normally may not exceed $750,000 total for a period normally not to exceed 2 years.

NOTE: These award levels and project periods are statutory guidelines, not ceilings. Therefore, applicants are encouraged to propose a budget and project duration period that is reasonable and appropriate for completion of the research project. Applicants are encouraged to discuss deviations with IC program staff at the awarding component likely to be assigned the application. All budget and time deviations must be justified in the grant application.

Notice the “statutory guidelines” language: the reviewers and ultimate funding oversight person doesn’t have to limit you to $750,000 for phase two grants. Still, it seems wise to stay within their guidelines unless you have an incredible, extraordinary reason not to; so far, we’ve never had a client who we advised to exceed the program funding guidelines, but clients will sometimes have their award amounts adjusted up or down based on funding vagaries, the phases of the moon, and the like.

For yet another variation, consider the Texas Parallel Pathways to Success Grant Program. The RFP says: “It is anticipated that selected projects will be funded in a range of $50,000 – $125,000 per year.” So that means a maximum of $250,000 is available over the project period, or $125,000 per year. In the Seliger Funding Report, I would normally list the maximum as $125,000 because that’s the number the funder has listed, and it would be exceedingly difficult to dig through every RFP in the Federal Register and elsewhere to normalize the maximums. If any Government Accountability Office (GAO) or others involved in standards are reading this, take note.

Sometimes RFPs play hide-the-salami regarding how much money they have or the maximum grant amount. This is particularly irritating because one is liable to guess too low or too high, and most funding agencies that experiment with this game will eventually be more forthright when they get wildly divergent budgets. For example, the National Institute of Health (NIH) does this in its Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) (R25). The Executive Summary at the link says:

Budget and Project Period. There are no specific budget limitations; however, the requested direct costs must be reasonable, well documented, fully justified and commensurate with the scope of the proposed program. The total project period for an application submitted in response to this funding opportunity may not exceed five years.

Great! But what does reasonable mean in these circumstances? Alas, we apparently don’t get to find out, which actually makes it harder to decide how much to request, not easier. Another example of this comes from the Department of Transportation in the form of the FY 2010 Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP) High Priority Grant Program, which also doesn’t list an award ceiling.

Once you understand how much is available as a grant maximum, you have to decide how much to ask for (which will be the topic of a future post), and whether you want to apply for a particular program. Remember that there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between the complexity of an application and the amount of money being offered; for example, we base our fees on the difficulty of the application and the amount of time we have to complete it, so we’d likely charge the same $5,000 – $12,000 for most assignments whether the maximum award $50,000 available or $5,000,000. Therefore, you shouldn’t assume that a proposal for $100,000 will be any easier to complete than one for $1,000,000.

Still, there are a myriad of reasons for organizations to pursue smaller grants anyway: there might be less competition; they might be unusually well-suited for the project; they might need a particular position funded that can be shoe-horned into an application; the applicant might be a new organization that needs to prove it can account for grant funds before it pursues larger applications; or, as Isaac discussed recently in True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales, you might hit the grant lotto by having funding renewed over and over again for what seems like a small grant, which happened with the Neighborhood Action Program (NAP). When you’re trying to make these decisions, however, you should at least make sure that you know what the numbers you’re looking at mean.

The Perils of Perfectionism

In The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross says:

Studio heads were confident that Stravinsky’s name would prove a box office draw; Louis B. Mayer reportedly agreed to give the composer a whooping $100,000, which would be well over a million dollars in today’s money. In a review of the composer’s Hollywood activities, Charles Joseph observes that in almost every case Stravinsky demanded too much time to finish the music and too much control over the finished product.

The same is true of journalism, where deadlines rule the day, and the same is true of grant writing, where perfect is the enemy of good—a necessary truism given the deadline-oriented nature of projects. Neither journalism nor grant writing are flawless arts, and as long as deadlines exist that isn’t going to change. Those who, like Stravinsky, want time to work should find another line of business, because additional time just isn’t going to be forthcoming.

We keep analogizing grant writing to movies because there’s a fair amount of similarity between the “get it done” attitude apparently necessary for movies, which are a kind of art, and grant writing, which is also a kind of art. In grant writing, working quickly is a large part of the art. Even if you do have more time than whatever the deadline imposes, the end result might not be any better. I’ll switch metaphors to Go, a board game in which two players take turns placing black and white stones.

The game scales in difficulty almost linearly and takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master—which isn’t where I actually want this metaphor to go, but it’s good to keep in mind nonetheless. The real point: Go is best learned by playing many games quickly, rather than agonizing over particular moves or situations. The game is faster, more fluid, and more fun, and you’ll acquire skill faster than you would otherwise. In the same way, grant writing is best learned by doing: you’re better off writing two proposals of reasonable quality a month rather than one proposal of slightly higher quality. If you continue the two-per month regimen, at the end of twelve months you’ll write two better proposals than the single one you would write if you only wrote one per month.

Later we’ll post more on the subject of how to write proposals under pressure if you’ve never written one before, but in the meantime you should remember that proposals are more like making movies than writing a novel or symphony. Don’t be Stravinsky by implicitly turning down $100,000 because you take too long to prepare: write fast, correct your mistakes, and move on—don’t linger, because you can’t win the race unless you enter. So if you are facing a proposal, the best way to start is with a sentence that attempts to answer whatever first question an RFP asks. Then write another sentence. When you pile enough sentences together, you have a proposal, but if you take too long, it’s not going to matter. Stravinsky was among the Twentieth Century’s most important composers, but he didn’t make much of a difference to Hollywood.

If you’re going to write proposals, you’re going to be in another version Hollywood, and you better meet those deadlines. Keep in mind that any proposal that is turned in late is automatically rejected, no matter how wonderfully crafted.


EDIT: I posted a follow-up article on Perfectionism Revisited.

More on Charities

A previous post linked to a Wall Street Journal post on charities; now the paper released a full article (may not be accessible to non-subscribers) on the subject of how donors evaluate the usefulness of a program, arguing that donors are becoming more engaged in measurement. One thing missing: statistics showing this is actually part of a trend, rather than just a collection of anecdotes. The article is more descriptive of the practices around how to evaluate effectiveness and uses hedge words:

Wealthy people and foundations sometimes hire philanthropy consultants to help them gauge a charity’s effectiveness. But other donors who seek that kind of analysis usually have had to rely on guesswork or do it themselves, which makes it tough to figure out whether one approach to solving a problem is better than another.

“Sometimes” they hire consultants, other times they essentially use the hope and pray method. That’s not terribly different from how things have always been done. Most interesting, however, is a topic relevant to evaluations that we’ll comment on more later:

The problem is, it can be difficult — and expensive — to measure whether charitable programs are actually working, and most nonprofits aren’t willing to devote scarce resources to collecting such information.

Most federal programs have in effect chosen a tradeoff: they provide more money and almost no real auditing. This is because real auditing is expensive and generally not worthwhile unless a blogger or journalist takes a picture of an organization’s Executive Director in a shiny new Ferrari. To really figure out what an organization is doing with $500,000 or $1,000,000 would cost so much in compliance that it would come to represent an appreciable portion of the grant: thus, the hope and pray method becomes the de facto standard (more on that below).

The writers also are pressed for space or don’t fully grok nonprofit evaluations, because they write:

Philanthropy advisers suggest first asking nonprofits about their goals and strategies, and which indicators they use to monitor their own impact. Givers should see how the charity measures its results both in the short term — monthly or quarterly — and over a period of years.

Measuring results isn’t a bad idea if it can be done, but the reason such measurements often don’t occur is precisely because they’re hard. Even if they do occur, you’re asking the organization to set its own goal marker—which makes them easy to set at very, ahem, modest, levels. If you set them at higher levels, the measurement problems kick in.

If you’re going to decide whether an after school program for middle-schoolers is effective, you’ll have to get a cohort together, randomly divide them into those who receive services and those who don’t, and then follow them through much of their lives—in other words, you have to direct a longitudinal study, which is expensive and difficult. That way, you’ll know if the group who received services were more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, get jobs, and the like. But even if you divide the group in two, you can still have poisoned data because if you rely on those who present for services, you’re often getting the cream of the high-risk/low-resource crop. You have numerous other confounding factors like geography and culture and the like.

The research can be far more costly than the project, and as little as donors like not knowing whether their money is effective, they’re going to like it even less if you spend 50 — 80% of the project on evaluating it. This is why the situation donors say they want to change is likely to persist regardless of what is reported.


EDIT: We wrote another, longer post on evaluations here.