Tag Archives: Funding

Supplementing versus supplanting grant funds

In “Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass,” Isaac included a footnote that says “This is a big grant no-no called ‘supplantation.’ In a future post I will explain how you can explain away supplantation in your grant writing anyway.”

This is that post, except I’m writing it instead of him, so one might say I am supplanting him. Or am I supplementing him? Read on to find out.

Supplanting Versus Supplementing: A Key Distinction

A grant applicant always, always, always should assure the funding source that funding of any kind will supplement, not supplant, existing programs. Some RFPs make this explicit; for example, the HUD NOFA for the Capital Fund Recovery Competition Grants says on page 26:

No Supplanting of Funds. The applicant must certify that: (1) the CFRC funds, if awarded, will not supplant expenditures from other Federal, State, or local sources or funds independently generated by the grantee; and (2) the CFRC funds, if awarded, will not supplant any leverage related to this grant, if any (that is, the grantee must have pursued and secured leverage to the fullest extent possible in order to ensure that expenditures from other Federal, State, or local sources or funds independently generated by the grantee are not supplanted).

Last year we had a client who decided that he wanted to fund his existing staff positions with a new HUD Rural Housing and Economic Development Program grant. That’s a big no-no: it’s supplantation, and if he tells HUD that he wants to use their money to replace the money he’s already got, at best they’ll deduct it from his budget. At worst, they’ll reject the proposal outright. It’s also possible that they won’t notice until after the grant is awarded and implemented, and if our client is unlucky enough to get a program audit they could demand repayment of the grant amount that “supplanted” existing funding. This is the same as a college student asking his mom to supplant her $100 to cover his cell phone bill so that he can use the original $100 on beer. Moms know not to fall for this and so do most funders.

Still, there are ways of getting around this proposal world problem. For example, one could announce that people already employed by the agency will spend 10 – 20% of their time managing the proposed program, so that money should come from the grant. If an organization has enough major grants, they might cover 100% of management team salaries. Actually, some agencies claim more than 100% of the time of certain staff, which is another no-no and an issue that we’ll cover in a future post. Another method is to give multiple job titles: previously, an existing staff person was a Housing Counselor, and now she is a Program Specialist for Client Assistance. Suddenly, she’s being paid because she’s in a new position related to the new grant.

Why Supplantation Happens Anyway

Although the rules usually forbid it, supplantation happens all the time anyway, mostly because money is fungible—meaning that many organizations just have a big money pot at the center of their financial systems, so money goes in one side and out the other, making it almost impossible to determine whose dollar was spent on what.*

So if you have a grant and you need, say, new computers, you might put them in the budget for the grant—and those computers no longer need to come from your equipment replacement fund. And does the Executive Director spend “15%” of their time on the grant? That’s another small but real amount of money that doesn’t have to come from the central pile. Do you have a Program Director? Put her in charge of the new program, and hire someone else in her place. Technically none of that is supplantation, because it’s part of what you need to run the program.

I explained all this to my girlfriend, who asked why the rules about supplantation exist. The answers:

  • They work sometimes and aim to prevent egregious abuses;
  • The rules weed out unsophisticated applicants who announce they’re going to stop using local funds and donations and start using Federal dollars;
  • Such rules pass the New York Times test, which means that the funding agency or the funded agency aren’t as likely to see themselves on the front page of the Times, if a nonprofit proposes to do Bad Things (the theme song from my guilty pleasure, True Blood) with their money.

* There is an approach called Fund Accounting, which is supposed to overcome fungibility but often doesn’t. Think of the Social Security “Lockbox” debate of a few years ago. How exactly do the feds account for your FICA contributions? That’s fungibility writ large.

Grant Writing Confidential Scoops the Wall Street Journal and More on Being Creative in Finding Funds During the Great Recession

As the editor of my high school newspaper—the Cooper High School Hawk’s Quill—and a short-lived college journalism major, I take great delight in scooping the Wall Street Journal. Shelly Banjo wrote Donations Slip Amid Anxiety on June 9, which said:

For the second year in a row, philanthropy has seen the deepest decline ever recorded by the Giving USA Foundation, which has tracked annual giving since 1956. Donations fell 3.6% to $303.75 billion last year, down from $315 billion in 2008, according to the latest Giving USA study, released Wednesday. In 2008, they were down 2%.

Faithful readers will note that I made more or less the same point in my May 29 blog post, Tough Times for Folks Means More Grant Writing for Nonprofits, although with more humor and helpful advice. If one read Ms. Banjo’s article and knew little about nonprofits, one would get the impression that the end is nigh. This is because her article, like most stories about nonprofits, perpetuates the conventional wisdom that all nonprofits depend exclusively on donations, which is simply not true.

As I pointed out in my post, while donations are important, particularly for certain kinds of nonprofits, most human services providers support their service through grants, fee-for-service contracts, third-party payers and/or quasi-business enterprises, in addition to donations.* These alternative revenue streams, which can be ramped-up when donations are down, are not mentioned by Ms. Banjo and the cast of nonprofit “experts” she quotes and data she cites.

Although new contributions to foundations may be down, foundations still must give away 5% or so of their endowment every year, and the feds, through the Stimulus Bill and lots of other appropriations, have keep the grant spigot wide open. Cagey nonprofit executive directors are busy writing grant proposals and dreaming up other revenue strategies, not wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over declines in donations. But not in the conventional wisdom world of newspaper writers.

A second Wall Street Journal article by Jennifer Levitz and Stephanie Simon on June 12, “A School Prays for Help”, confirms the importance of getting creative during tough times. While this article mostly discusses public schools, police departments and other public agencies seeking alternative funding sources, the same concepts apply to nonprofits.

In this article, the writers describe how some schools are getting local churches to “adopt” them and other strategies for what amounts to advertising in order to supplement limited tax dollars. Nonprofits can do the same sorts of things instead of just waiting around for donations to pickup.

One of the several odd aspects of a church providing donations to a public school, however, is that the church itself is a nonprofit that depends almost exclusively on donations from its members. Why would they do this? One reason could be that the church expects to get new members from school parents and staff, and they will eventually try to extract donations from the new members. In other words, the church and the school are probably competing for donor dollars and the church may be taking the longer view that investing a small amount of its money now, derived from its members, will result in more members and more money later.

While most nonprofits and public agencies like to present themselves as collaborating, in reality they compete with one another for donations, grants, and all kinds of resources. I pointed this out in What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point, a post that generated quite a comment thread.

Some readers understood my point, while other denounced me as a hopeless cynic. Of course, I am a hopeless cynic, but nonprofits and public agencies are largely in competition, and the ongoing economic mess just makes this competition rise to surface, like the somewhat baleful giant crocodile in the best “big animal” movie of recent years, Lake Placid.


* Jake also wrote about funding sources in Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun.

Stuck on Stupid: Hiring Lobbyists to Chase Earmarks

A faithful Grant Writing Confidential reader and fellow grant writer, Katherine, sent an email wanting my take on a public agency hiring a lobbying firm to seek federal earmarks. For those not familiar with the term, it means getting a member of Congress to slip a favored local project into a bill, bypassing normal reviews and restrictions. The Seattle Times recently ran a nice article on the subject featuring our own Representative Jim McDermott, who is skilled at the art of earmarks. The only member of Congress I know doesn’t push earmarks is John McCain. For the rest of Congress, earmarks are a way of funneling money into often dubious projects, such as the infamous Bridge to Nowhere.

Back to the local school district where Katherine lives, which decided to hire a DC lobbying firm for $60K/year to get earmarks. She suspects this is a scam. I have no idea whether this particular lobbying firm is up to no good, but in my experience hiring lobbyists to chase earmarks will make the lobbyists happy and lead to lots of free lunches and dinners for public officials visiting DC to “confer” with their lobbyist and legislators, though it is unlikely to end with funding.

A small anecdote will demonstrate this phenomenon. About 20 years ago, when I was Development Manager for the City of Inglewood,* I was directed by the mayor via the city manager to contract with a particular DC lobbying firm to chase earmarks. Since the city manager and I knew this was likely a fool’s errand, we agreed to provide a token contract of $15K. I accompanied the mayor and a few others to DC for the requisite consultation with the firm. About 10 in morning, we strolled from the Mayflower Hotel over to K street, where all the lobbyists hang out, and were ushered into a huge conference room with a 25 foot long table.

Over the next two hours or so, just about every member of the firm wandered in to opine on potential earmarks. Around 12:30, we all repaired to an expensive DC restaurant (are there any other kind?) for steaks and cocktails. We had a fine meal and I met then former Vice President Walter Mondale, who had morphed into a lobbyist himself and was taking his clients out for lunch. When I got back to Inglewood, I received an invoice from our lobbyist which exceeded the contract amount. Our contract paid for less than one meeting in DC and resulted in no earmarks. But I had a great time, since it is always fun to visit DC using somebody else’s money.

That experience schooled me on earmarks and about why Inglewood had gone about acquiring them in the wrong way. If a public agency wants to try for an earmark, the agency can do so just by contacting the chief field deputy for Senator Foghorn Leghorn. Congressional field deputies know all there is to know about the earmark process. If your representative is in a mood to support your project (e.g., needs help to get re-elected and wants to say they are standing up for schools), they will fall all over themselves directing their staff to push the earmark. If they don’t want to for some reason, all the lobbyists in the world won’t force the issue. In that situation, the school district might just as well use the money to buy lotto tickets in hopes of funding the project, rather than hiring a lobbyist. Furthermore, going through the congressional field office will avoid the EDGAR problems described below.

Another problem is that if you have almost all of the 535 members of Congress promoting various earmarks, the chances of your particular project being included are pretty slim. This is another reason we don’t recommend pursuing earmarks. If Katherine’s school district really wants to fund education projects, this is not the way to go about it. Instead, they should hire an experienced grant writing firm, like Seliger + Associates, to help them refine and prioritize project concepts, conduct grant source research, and start submitting high quality, technically correct proposals. If the concepts have merit, they will eventually be funded. The Department of Education and others provide billions of dollars in actual grant funds every year. This is a larger, more reliable source of funding than earmarks.

Finally, if an organization is lobbying, it can end up closing off grant funds. The “Education Department General Administrative Regulations” (EDGARs) govern grants and contracts made through the Department of Education, and they’re designed to prevent corruption, kickbacks, and the like. Subpart F, Appendix A, deals with lobbying. It says:

The undersigned certifies, to the best of his or her knowledge and belief, that:
(1) No Federal appropriated funds have been paid or will be paid, by or on behalf of the undersigned, to any person for influencing or attempting to influence an officer or employee of an agency, a Member of Congress, an officer or employee of Congress, or an employee of a Member of Congress in connection with the awarding of any Federal contract, the making of any Federal grant, the making of any Federal loan, the entering into of any cooperative agreement, and the extension, continuation, renewal, amendment, or modification of any Federal contract, grant, loan, or cooperative agreement.

And so on, which you can read if you’re a masochist. EDGAR basically means that an agency which pursues lobbying can end up screwing itself out of the much larger and more lucrative grant world.

Katherine has also found questionable math regarding the particular lobbyists’ probable efficiency, and the lobbyist also makes the dubious claim that it has a “90% success rate.” But what does “success” mean in this context? Does that mean 90% of clients get some money? If so, how much? And from who? And through which means? Seliger + Associates doesn’t keep “success” numbers for reasons explained in our FAQ. We constantly see grant writers touting their supposed success rate and know that whatever numbers they pitch are specious at best for the reasons described in the preceding link.

Public agencies hiring lobbyists for earmarks is often a case of being stuck on stupid.


* “Inglewood always up to no good,” as 2Pac and Dr. Dre say in California Love.

What Does a Grant Proposal Look Like Exactly? 13 Easy Steps to Formatting a Winning Proposal

I was having dinner with some friends who are consultants for a multinational company, and they wanted to know who handles the “graphics” in our proposals. They are used to preparing elaborate business presentations and were startled to learn that the proposals we prepare are usually simple text documents. That got me thinking about how proposal styles have come full circle and we’ve gone Back to the Future, thanks largely to digital submission requirements.

When dinosaurs walked the earth and I started writing proposals in the early 1970s, I literally wrote them—long hand on legal pads. When I was finished, I would either type them, or, if I was lucky enough to be working for an agency that had a secretary, the proposals would be typed for me. In either case, the proposals more or less looked like ransom notes, with blotchy corrections (anyone old enough to remember Liquid Paper?) and virtually no formatting, except for using tabs and the hyphen key (—–) to create separator lines. The good news was that proposals were much shorter, since they were so hard to physically produce. Eventually I moved up the managerial food chain and earned a secretary with short hand skills. I got pretty good at dictating proposals, but they still looked pretty much like high school term papers when typed.

Flash forward to more “thrilling days of yesteryear” (which started every episode of my favorite TV shows as a kid: The Lone Ranger), when we were starting our business in 1993 and PCs had come of age. We began producing fairly elaborate proposals, with color covers, pie charts, embedded org charts and flow diagrams (using Object Linking and Embedding technology), comb binding and professional appearance. We kept upgrading our color printers and the proposals were getting pretty slick as we mastered the art of formatting.

Now enter The Time Tunnel with me (another guilty TV pleasure from the ’60s) again and emerge around 2001, when we ran into digital submissions. The Feds rolled out two different digital submission platforms, finally settling on grants.gov, while state/local agencies and foundations came up with endless variations. Given the vagaries of the divers digital submission systems, however, we soon learned that there was little point in dressing up our proposals, since the chance of file corruption was simply too great. The formatting party stopped, and once again our proposals are simple text documents, stripped of the bells and whistles. Yes, I know Acrobat can be used to tart-up proposals, but one dirty little secret is that most digital submissions are not reviewed digitally, but are printed and xeroxed—so much for saving trees—and Acrobat does not always faithfully reproduce the original formatting. This is a potential sink-the-ship problem when, for example, there are page limits.

So, in this age of digital submissions, what should a proposal look like? Simple and neat is the best approach. Here are some tips to make sure that your proposals are easy to read and look great:

  • Read the RFP carefully for formatting instructions and follow them precisely. For example, if the RFP says the proposal is to be double spaced, and does not make an exception for tables, double space all tables, no matter how silly this looks. The Department of Education, for example, will often reject proposals for non-compliance for just such nitpicking instructions.
  • It is generally not a good idea to bind or staple proposals, unless otherwise directed in the RFP (e.g., sometimes a 3-ring binder will be required). Instead, fasten with a binder clip or rubber bands.
  • If you want to use a cover page, keep the fonts and colors subdued. An agency logo is a nice touch, but skip the photos unless they are highly evocative.
  • Make sure you put the agency name and program title/RFP number in the header on each page. Make sure they are right.
  • Avoid odd fonts and stick with Times New Roman when space is an issue or Arial if you have lots of room. The new default font for Microsoft Word, Cambria, is probably also okay.
  • Learn to love outlines. If the RFP has an outline format, reproduce it. If not, develop a simple outline format of your own, indenting .2 or .25 inches as the outline descends. It is easy to do this in Word by using paragraph styles. Make Outline 1 “A” with no indent, Outline 2, “1” with a .2 indent, Outline 3 “a” with .4 indent and so forth.
  • Never use the tab key or multiple spaces for indentation purposes. Just set up additional paragraph styles to align text paragraphs with outline styles (see above).
  • Use tables, rather than charts, unless you are positive the reviewers will not be xeroxing the proposal. Also, it is generally not worth the time to format charts. Instead, put your time into research and writing.
  • Avoid bold, ALL CAPS, underlining and other forms of text screaming, with the exception of bolding/underlining the start of outlined/bulleted section. If your words are good enough, the reader will get the idea, and, if they’re not, all the bolding in the world won’t matter.
  • We prefer justified text, but some may disagree on stylistic grounds.
  • Do not try to squeeze extra words in by kerning the text or narrowing the margins. This will simply make the proposal hard to read, which is not a good idea, since you want reviewers to savor every golden word. We almost never use less than one inch margins all around or tighten the text.
  • Place footnotes at the bottom of each page or on a literature citation page, which is easily done in Word.
  • Finally, buy a sequentially numbering stamp and paginate each page. This way, when the reviewers drop the proposal on the floor, it can be reassembled. This also helps when creating a table of contents.

There you have it—13 easy steps to proposal formatting. Simple, clean, and consistent are your best friends with formatting, because they help the formatting get out of the way of what matters: the text. Now, go forth and write.

Foundations and the Future: How Funder Incentives Affect Nonprofits, Grants, and Grant Writing

“New Voices Of Philanthropy”* is running an occasional series in which they invite bloggers involved in the nonprofit world to contribute; I’m tardy to this month’s question:

Will the Foundation of the Future only fund programs that benefit puppies and children? Will it be run by people that have attained the elusive PhD in Philanthropy? Will the Foundation of the Future actually be the donor advised fund of the future, since foundations are outlawed by Congress in 2016?

The short version: I think foundations in the future will be run much as they are in the present.

The longer version: most foundations seem to be run chiefly for the social prestige and well-being of the people running them. The primary evidence I can discern seems to fall into two categories, the first one stronger and more important than the other: foundations tend only to give away the minimum 5% of their assets every year, as required by law, and they tend to make the process through which nonprofits acquire funding unnecessarily arduous.

The New York Times has reported on a study done by a Barnard economics professor that found “[c]haritable foundations could give away 60 percent more money than they do now without eroding the total value of their assets” (emphasis added). His paper is available here (warning: .pdf link). The upshot is that foundations appear to hoarding money, and, as the study itself says:

[…] Congress intended to keep tax-favored foundations from becoming mere warehouses of wealth. To the extent that the foundation section operates as if though it were a non-endowment system, paying out new giving while allowing existing assets to compound in perpetuity, the foundation sector is in danger of appearing to be exactly what Congress wanted to prevent […] To the extent that individual foundation reduce payout to the legal minimum simply in order to increase their assets under management, they defeat the real social purpose of their privileged tax status[…]

In a similar vein, Akash Deep and Peter Frumkin wrote a paper, “The Foundation Payout Puzzle,” and found that “the average payout rate of this sample of foundations over time, as the policy regime has shifted slightly from a flat 6 percent, to the greater of total investment income or 5 percent, to a flat 5 percent” from 1972 to 1996. This, they later conclude, is bad because a dollar spent today would probably be more effective than a dollar spent tomorrow, assuming that the needs being addressed are important to the recipients.

Since they’re scholars, they give a long and detailed discussion about why foundations don’t increase their payouts. Since I’m a blogger, I’ll be short, mean, and accurate: foundations are, like most organizations, chiefly invested in their own interests and thus would rather propagate themselves into the future; Saul Alinski has argued that the only thing that matters in community organizing is identifying the “self-interest” of the those you are trying to organize, and in this case all that matters is the foundations. If they were purely motivated by the public good—which would seem the primary argument against my argument about foundations—they would presumably raise their payout rates.

Is there any way to counteract this dynamic and thus implicitly change the way foundations operate? It seems improbable. Occasionally a foundation may take a principled stand in a fashion similar to the way Harvard recently used its endowment to cut tuition, but the paper by Deep and Frumkin argues that the situation is getting worse, not better. While foundations are only required to give away five percent of their assets every year, the average American stock market indices have increased by, on average, about 11% per year since World War II. There is apparently some pressure to increase the payout rate, but I don’t think this will actually happen.

I’m skeptical because foundations themselves are unlikely to reduce their power and longevity by increasing payouts en masse, and Congress is equally unlikely to do so because the very rich who donate to congressional campaigns would immediately get every Congressman to whom they (the rich people) ever gave money to on the phone and demand that the payout rule be changed back to 5%. Why? Because the very rich tend to be men, and their wives tend to be the ones sitting on nonprofit boards, running foundations, donating to museums, and what not.

The minute Congress tries to alter this arrangement, the wives of whoever endowed the foundation are going to rise up in arms until the status quo is resolved. Isaac pointed this out to me one time when I read in the newspaper that Congress was threatening to cut the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding: he said it would never happen because of just the situation I described, and he was right. The NEA is particularly unlikely to suffer deep cuts because it represents a very small but highly visible part of the government, and besides, it’s only a small part of discretionary social spending, which is dwarfed by mandatory spending, interest, and defense. This, incidentally, is why Alan Greenspan has been running around and talking about why Medicare—not the war in Iraq, or interest, or any number of other things—is the biggest long-term budget problem facing the U.S.

That was a long enough tangent, and the main point remains that since the same people who tend to fund foundations are also the ones who fund Congressional campaigns, it seems unlikely that Congress will tamper with foundations. So, foundations are unlikely to give more unless they want to. But the question of why do funders give remains.

Maimonides was a 12th century Rabbi who said there are eight levels of giving, with the top loosely being those who help anonymously and without expectation of reward and the bottom being those who give miserly or reluctantly and with the expectation of recognition. As you might have guessed, foundations tend to end up toward the bottom of Maimonides’ chain, meaning that they want to perpetuate themselves, put their names on things, and the like. This makes them highly unlikely to want to raise the payout rate and thus endanger their existence.

Now I’ll more fully discuss the second point: how difficult foundations make it to apply for money, as they seem uninterested in improving the grant making process for those requesting the grants. Questions are too often absurd and forms are poorly thought out (a great example of this will be discussed in a forthcoming post). In the fifteen years Seliger + Associates been in business, the number of times we’ve ever been called by funders asking how the process might be improved is zero.

Never. Not once. Proctor & Gamble, Microsoft, Boeing, and virtually every other large company or organization probably spends millions of dollars trying to figure out how to improve its products and services, but foundations do not appear to, or, if they do, they don’t ask the people who are involved in writing proposals. As a result, they raise the cost of acquiring funding and allow a proportionally lower amount to go to actual services, in a tangent phenomenon to what I discussed here.

Arguably, one could say that foundations make it difficult to receive money so the most interested and hence deserving nonprofits end up with funding. The application becomes a signaling device. There is some merit to the argument, but it also implies that foundations would cause nonprofits that are already successful not bother applying and simultaneously waste the time of foundations that do bother to apply by forcing them to play signaling games.

These perverse incentives coupled with the relative power of foundations compared with grant receivers, the vanity of being perceived as charitable, and the lack of discipline imposed on foundations will probably result in foundations of the future that look mostly like the ones of the present. Perhaps a few of them will buck the trend and spend significantly more than 5% per year, but this seems more likely to be the exception than the norm, especially after the initial funders die. After all, if you were running a foundation, would you be inclined to shut its doors and thus deprive yourself of management fees, free travel to study problems/applicant, or social prestige? Maybe you, the individual, would, but the plural you, who run foundations, wouldn’t.

And I haven’t even discussed how tax advantages work.

I don’t perceive much change in the foundation world, just as Isaac hasn’t seen much change in the overall world of grants in his 35 years of experience. In Charlie Wilson’s War (the movie version), Julia Roberts asks Tom Hanks why Congress says one thing and does another and he drolly replies, “Well, tradition, mostly.” The same could be said of the U.S. nonprofit world, and in 30 years I bet the problems and perils of foundation giving and many other aspects of grant writing will be the same they are today.


* As of 2018, it appears that Seliger + Associates has outlasted “New Voices of Philanthropy,” as the URL that used to be here deadends into a spam site. I guess sometimes the old voices endure longer than the new ones.

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.

Self-Esteem—What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing

Roberta Stevens commented on “Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make it Seem Like the End of the World” by saying she was “having trouble finding statistics on low self esteem in girls ages 12-19.” This got me thinking about the pointlessness of “self-esteem” as a metric in grant proposals. A simple Google search for ‘“self-esteem” girls studies reports’ yielded a boatload of studies, but if you look closely at them, it is apparent that most are based on “self-reports,” which is another way of saying that researchers asked the little darlings how they feel.

When my youngest son was in middle school, he was subjected to endless navel gazing surveys and routinely reported confidentially that he had carried machine guns to school, smoked crack regularly and started having sex at age seven. In short, he thought it was fun to tweak the authority figures and my guess is that many other young people do too when confronted by earnest researchers asking probing questions.

Although such studies often reveal somewhat dubious alleged gender differences based on self-esteem, I have yet to see any self-esteem data that correlated with meaningful outcomes for young people. Perhaps this is obvious, since self-esteem is such a poor indicator of anything in the real world, given that Stalin appears to have had plenty of self-esteem, even if his moral compass was off target. Arguably our best President, Abraham Lincoln, was by most accounts wracked with self-doubt and low self-esteem, while more recent Presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, both with questionable presidencies, did not seem short in the self-esteem department.

If I use self-esteem in a needs assessment for a supportive service program for teenage girls, I would find appropriately disturbing statistics (e.g., the pregnancy rate is two times the state rate, the drop out rate among teenage girls has increased by 20%, etc.) and “expert” quotes (“we’ve seen a rise in suicide ideation among our young women clients,” says Carmella, Kumquat, MSW, Mental Health Services Director) to paint a suitably depressing picture and then top it off with the ever popular statement such as, “Given these disappointing indicators, the organization knows anecdotally from its 200 years of experience in delivering youth services, that targeted young women exhibit extremely low self-esteem, which contributes to their challenges in achieving long-term self-sufficiency.” I know this is a nauseating sentence, but it is fairly typical of most grant proposals and is why proposals should never be read just after eating lunch.

So, to paraphrase Edwin Star, “Self-esteem, what is it good for? / Absolutely nothing.”

(In the context of gangs, Jake has also commented on suspect or twisted needs indicators .)


EDIT: A more recent post, Self-Efficacy—Oops, There Goes Another Rubber Tree Plant, takes up the issue of finding a metric more valuable than self-esteem for both grant writers and program participants.

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.

More on Drugs

Drug use, like healthcare and a number of other modern political background noises, offer endless fodder for debate and study, especially when mixed with teenagers. Now the New York Times has an article about teenagers, risky behaviors, and why some programs aimed at teens are likely to fail:

For example, a study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that teenagers were more likely than adults to overestimate risks for every outcome studied, from low-probability events like contracting H.I.V. to higher-probability ones like acquiring more common sexually transmitted diseases or becoming pregnant from a single act of unprotected sex.

“We found that teenagers quite rationally weigh benefits and risks,” Dr. Reyna said in a recent interview. “But when they do that, the equation delivers the message to go ahead and do that, because to the teen the benefits outweigh the risks.”

For example, she said: “The risk of pregnancy from a single act of unprotected sex is quite small, perhaps one chance in 12, and the risk of contracting H.I.V., about one in 500, is very much smaller than that. We’re not thinking logically; they are.”

For that reason, [two professors wrote in an article that] traditional programs […] appeal[ling] to teenagers’ rationality “are inherently flawed, not because teens fail to weigh risks against benefits,” but because “teens tend to weight benefits more heavily than risks when making decisions.”

In light of research like this, programs designed to prevent teens behaving badly are unlikely to be cut or shrunk any time soon because teenage risk-taking is a perennial and perhaps biological imperative. This is great news for nonprofits that seek grants in the apparently endless “War on Drugs” to save teens from themselves.

(Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.)