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Nonprofits should make better use of social media in grant applications

We try hard to keep our proposals fresh by making our project concepts reflect what is going on in communities today—not what the world was like decades ago. For example, several years ago we began including references to emerging social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) in proposals, mostly in describing the outreach component. The reality, unfortunately, is that we write in the Proposal World, while our clients live in the real world. I talk to nonprofit Executive Directors all the time and most don’t use social media in any meaningful way, other than perhaps for fund raising or PR. I’ve yet to come across one that is using new tools in their programming.*

This is not surprising, as nonprofits are always slow to adopt new technology, due to budget constraints, lack of imagination, and/or overall fuddy-duddyness. Although we used email and had a website in 1993, nonprofit clients didn’t routinely use email until about 2005. Though most of our youth services clients don’t know it, virtually all of their teenage and young adults clients have smartphones, no matter how low-income they may be.** Social media permeates American youth culture.

In my post last week, I briefly mentioned the troubling emerging problem of big city “flash mobs.” I’m not referring to the original “Thriller” flash mobs that suddenly did zombie dancing, but to the Philadelphia and Milwaukee youth mobs that have recently rampaged. It seems that the mobs formed and de-formed by using Twitter, Facebooking and texting to coordinate their activities, confounding police and potential victims alike (see this video depicting the Milwaukee situation).

A potential flash mob was defused in the Oakland BART subway system last week when the cell phone system was disabled in underground stations. While this raises First Amendment issues that are beyond the scope of this post (for a free proposal phrase, substitute “proposal” for “post”), it shows that public sector administrators and police are getting hip to social media. If a BART bureaucrat can figure this out, as can the State Department, nonprofit executive directors should be able to. For example, we recently completed a federal job training proposal for a large nonprofit in South Central LA. While the executive director told me that virtually all of her very low-income youth clients had smartphones, she wanted to stick with traditional outreach strategies and removed all of my first draft references to utilizing social media.

Consider a project concept for an enterprising nonprofit in any city that has experienced the flash mob phenomenon or might. Let’s call this Project YEAH (Youth Electronic Action Helpers), proposed by Youth Engagement Services (YES), a fictional United Way agency. Project YEAH could work this way:

  • The basic concept is that all community youth are not angry and disaffected. Lots of good kids can be mobilized through social media to produce peer pressure to prevent violent, flash mob behavior. The target population includes middle and high school age youth, as well as out-of-school, unemployed youth and young adults—say, age 14 – 22—of whatever ethnic population predominates in the target area.
  • YES forms a Project Advisory Committee (PAC), including representatives of other services providers, law enforcement, the local Workforce Investment Board (WIB), elected officials, the chamber of commerce, employers, faith-based organizations, etc. The PAC meets virtually, using on-line meeting software and members communicate with one another through a secure web portal, texting, and private tweets. No travel, no donuts, and no wasted time should = better organizational participation. Public access is assured by publicizing the on-line meetings and allowing anyone with a web connection to watch.
  • A Social Media Consultant (a tech-savvy local nerd) is hired to set up the project social media sites and develop training protocols for staff and the target population, who are engaged through the outreach effort (see below).
  • Several Peer Helpers are recruited as outreach and engagement staff. PHs are 18 – 25 or so and are former gang members, star athletes, American Idol contestants, junior preachers, or have some other affiliation or background that provides them with natural connections and street cred with the target population. PHs are trained in community organizing techniques and skills, along with use of social media, using on-line training to the maximum feasible extent. Smart phones, iPads, Internet service, and similar gear are provided. The PHs mostly connect with each other through virtual methods, rather than gathering at the YES office. Once again, no donut eating. Time and activity logs are keep through a secure database, developed by the Social Media Consultant.
  • PHs conduct outreach and education, primarily using social media, rather than the traditional mailings, presentations, street-based outreach, etc. The outreach is based on the ever popular “train-the-trainers” model, updated for the social media world. The trained PHs recruit a cadre of Youth Ambassadors (YAs), who are paid a monthly stipend and are trained by the PHs in community organizing techniques and, to the extent necessary, the use of social media. The YAs use the project-developed social media tools to engage the target population, encouraging them to avoid flash mob/violent anti-social behavior while accessing supportive services (e.g., pre-employment skills training, after school enrichment, GED preparation, job searches, emergency food and clothing, etc.) from YES and PAC members. In effect, each YA will develop a YEAH Follower Cadre, using the Twitter model. Should info begin to circulate on social media channels about potential flash mobs, the YEAH Follower Cadres will react by using social media to discourage participation. In some cases, YEAH Follower Cadres, wearing brightly colored Project YEAH t-shirts and hats will physically meet at potential flash mobs sites, forming a human peer pressure blockade before violence develops. This could include well understood nonviolent protest techniques (e.g., going limp and lying down, etc.). PHs will video the blockades, immediately uploading to YouTube to build awareness and peer pressure.
  • All activities, services, follow-up and client satisfaction feedback will be tracked with user-input databases developed by the Social Media Consultant.

I think a project concept like the above would be great interest to large community foundations and national foundations, particularly those associated with technology companies. Go try it. A version of this social media-based youth engagement model will make much more compelling reading to a funder than the traditional approaches out clients typically want us to use.

EDIT: The New York Times reports: “Phone Messages Improve [Health] Care, Study Finds.”

* I know one emergency medicine resident who observed that her patients routinely had nicer phones than she did.

** If I’m wrong and you know of a nonprofit that is using social media in its programming, post a comment, as I (and readers) would love to know about it.

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Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes Keep Coming to the Nonprofit World

A continuing avalanche of bad economic news confirms the upheaval in the nonprofit world that I’ve been blogging about for the last few months. To paraphrase David Bowie in “Changes:”

(Turn and face the strain)
Don’t want to be a richer [organization]
(Turn and face the strain)
Just gonna have to be a different [organization]
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time

Not to compete with Jake’s bimonthly links posts, but a few recent stories should scare the bejesus out of most nonprofit executive directors:

  • The New York Times, July 29, 2011, Debt Crisis? Bankruptcy Fears? See Jefferson County, AL. Everyone involved in human services should care about Jefferson County, AL. Jefferson County is an urban county centered on Birmingham, the largest city in the state. Since we recently completed an assignment for a Birmingham client, I know the city is about 3/4 African American and about 1/4 of residents live below the federal poverty level (FPL). When the county goes bankrupt, folks in the city are going to have a much harder time accessing a whole slew of services, from family court to disability services to job training. The lines will be longer at the TANF and WIB offices, and the staffers in even worse moods as they face furloughs and layoffs. But that’s not the real problem: nonprofits who provide a wide array of wraparound supportive services (free proposal phrase here) are going to lose their county contracts when the need for services is growing.
  • National Public Radio (NPR), July 26, 2011, Wealth Gap Widens. As reported by NPR, “The gap between rich and poor has widened. Wealth is more and more concentrated among a select few, and those few are mostly white. The median wealth of white households is now 20 times that of black households, and 18 times that of Hispanic households, according to the Pew Research Center.” The net worth of most Americans is falling, while the gap between white and minority citizens is turning into a gulf (see Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation for more on this subject). Unemployment is rising and government services are being cut–-a perfect storm for nonprofits.
  • The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2011, Slow Growth Stirs Fears of Recession. The official growth in GDP was 1.3% for the second quarter of 2011 and .4% for the first quarter: “The economic recovery is grinding to a halt, raising the risk that the U.S. could fall back into recession and tightening the screws on Washington to resolve a debt-ceiling debate that threatens to inflict further damage on a fragile economy.” In most of the communities where Seliger + Associates works, nobody is worried about a new recession since the last one never ended.

I get calls every week from organizations across America that face cutbacks in traditional funding streams. Public sector bankruptcies, like the hapless Jefferson County noted above, will exacerbate the crisis. As I’ve blogged about before, the only real choices nonprofits have are to shrink in size, seek more donations, go after additional foundation and government grants, and/or re-think their mission and programming.

Two current clients illustrate two wildly different approaches to confronting the changing realities for nonprofits. Both clients provide after school services for low-income African American youth in two almost adjacent fairly large cities in Northern California. In homage to Client # 9, Elliot Spitzer, I’ll refer to them as Client # 1 and # 2.

Client # 1 offers a fairly standard mix of after school enrichment, mentoring and fitness programs, and has been funded mostly through federal grants and donations from local large businesses. This organization has gotten interested in childhood obesity, as popularized by First Lady Micelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. Client # 1 has decided to seek funds for childhood obesity prevention, as well as specialized mentoring. Both are laudable and fundable project concepts but do not address critical issues facing their target population, since the parents/caregivers of the kids are unemployed, underemployed and/or underwater in their mortgages. They’re having trouble affording food of any kind for their kids, making the relative merits of arugula versus french fries unimportant. The youth probably don’t have time for mentors anyway, because they’re working to help support the family. In other words, Client # 1 is seeking funds for services that meet interesting but peripheral needs of their target population, instead of basic needs.

Client # 2 runs more or less the same programs as Client # 1 but is larger and has been operating longer. This organization has been primarily funded through county contracts, modest user fees, and lots of small donations. While trying to maintain its core services, Client # 2 has decided to seek funds for two new programs. The first will provide emergency food and meal services for the families of targeted youth. The second will help the 5,000 or so youth and young adult offenders about to be released into their county as a result of a recent Supreme Court decision that will return tens of thousands of state prison inmates to the streets in a few months. Regardless of the merits of the Supreme Court decision, the arrival of thousands of ex-offenders, all of whom need housing, jobs and everything else, at once is going to overwhelm the existing supportive services system for ex-offenders like a tsunami.

Put yourself in the position of a funder. Would you fund Client # 1, which has a strong track record and wants to operate innovative services that nibble at the edges of problems, or Client # 2, which has an equally strong track record and is trying to address basic and emerging challenges?

As always, we’re doing our best to help both Client # 1 and # 2 meet their funding objectives. Two similar clients are taking action to increase their funding streams in different ways, as they adjust to the changing economic environment of their communities. As Bowie put it, they’re both turning “to face the strain.” Make sure your organization understands that doing what you’ve been doing forever probably will not work. Be creative, be aggressive and go get some grants. As Coach Taylor said on the now-concluded show Friday Night Lights, Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose!

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Change for Change’s Sake in Grant Proposals: When in Doubt, Claim Your Program is Innovative

Federal grant programs constantly demand “innovative” projects, even when the specific requirements of the program prevent any deviation from narrowly defined activities. Take two examples regarding how project services can be delivered:

  • No matter what the RFP for any human services program requires, there are only two basic ways to deliver human services: you can either bring someone to a location and do something to them (e.g. impart skills, get them off drugs, teach them Freshman Composition, etc.), which is often termed a “center-based model.” This is like high school, or a hospital: you gather a bunch of people in building. Alternatively, the service provider can go to them and do something (e.g. home visits, such as the Healthy Homes Demonstration Program), which is a “field-based model.” This is like at-home tutoring: you hire someone to come over and teach you algebra.*
  • You can either offer specific services (like those that are only required to get off of drugs) or “wrap-around supportive services,” which basically means that the program is going to get you off of drugs, make sure you get a GED, and maybe get you some job training so you’ll stay off of drugs. Usually those entail a case manager, which is fairly typical in today’s grant world but was less common previously. Case management was once considered paternalistic; now it’s de rigueur; tomorrow it will be anathema again. Isaac has talked a lot about how opposed many ’60s reformers were to case management and social workers, who are today a standard part of many programs. To some extent, following these trends is a case of surfing grant waves, even if the underlying structure of particular programs remain similar.

Who’s right in this battle over whether case management is right or wrong, or whether having a center-based or field-based program is better? The obvious answer is probably the right one—no one, since the success of any model depends on execution. A well-executed model in either example will probably minimize its weaknesses and maximize its strengths. A poorly executed model will do neither, and then lead to calls to shift program designs from one to the other. Some nonprofits or projects might naturally be better at one than the other. Nonetheless, you can bet that when one form becomes dominant, funding agencies will eventually decide to stress innovation by breaking toward the other side. Chic foundations of the sort with good PR departments and prospects for getting in the WSJ or New York Times might switch, and then send a blizzard of press releases touting their success.

There really aren’t a lot of variations on whether you do center-based or field-based projects, or whether or not you offer wraparound supportive services. Such approaches have been tried for decades. But federal programs will routinely demand that you show that your program is innovative, excellent, and so on, even though very, very few of the thousands of RFPs we’ve seen for any services that are genuinely innovative. Instead, RFPs and their underlying federal programs change more for the sake or appearance of change than real change. This kind of thing often comes about because an organization needs to somehow justify its existence and its donut budget, or some bright person enters an agency and thinks they’ve invented wraparound supportive service for the first time.

In other words, these switches from, say, center- to field-based models are often random, or close to random. But regardless of how you’ll deliver services, you should announce that your project is innovative, even in a field where there is no real innovation.

* If you want to be more specific, there are probably one or two less common models: a “circuit riding model,” in which someone promises to be at a specific time or place to offer advice or services, and an electronic model, in which you broadcast something (think tobacco public service announcements) or access services via the ‘net (get a Ph.D. in English Literature at home while sitting in your underwear without shoes on).