Tag Archives: Grants

Charrettes live: Cite them as a planning tool in your proposal

Ten years ago we advised that grant writers and nonprofit Executive Directors “know your charrettes!” (the exclamation point is in the original title). Since then, though, we’ve heard less about charrettes than we really should. Until this week, that is, when charrettes hit me from two separate angles. The first is from Steven Berlin Johnson’s book Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most. The book itself is highly recommended; large swaths of it could make their way into many proposals.* This passage, though long, has special resonance for me:

A few years ago, the water authority in the Greater Vancouver region faced a decision not unlike the one that confronted the citizens of New York two hundred years ago as to the fate of Collect Pond. A growing urban population meant that the region’s existing freshwater sources were not going to be able to meet demand in the coming years. New sources would have to be tapped, with inevitable impact on local environment, commerce, and communities. The city’s home in the rainy Pacific Northwest gave it the luxury of many potential options: three reservoirs could be expanded, new pipelines could be built to a number of distant lakes, or wellfields could be drilled along one prominent river. Like filling or preserving Collect Pond, this was a decision whose consequences would likely persist for more than a century. (Water from the Capilano River, for instance, was first delivered to Vancouver residents in the late 1800s, and continues to be a major water source for the city.) But this decision began with an earnest attempt to model all the important variables from a full-spectrum perspective. It built that model by consulting a wide range of stakeholders, each contributing a different perspective on the problem at hand: local residents living near each of the water sources being considered; indigenous people with sacred ties to the land being surveyed; environmental activists and conservationists; health and water-safety regulators; even local citizens who used the various bodies of water for boating, fishing, or other water sports. Stakeholders evaluated each option for its impact on a wide range of variables: “aquatic habitat, terrestrial habitat, air quality, visual quality, employment, recreation, traffic and noise, and property values.”

The approach taken by the Vancouver Water Authority has become commonplace in many important land use and environmental planning deliberations. The techniques used to bring those different voices together vary depending on the methodologies embraced by the planners (or the consultants they have hired to help run the process). But they share a core attribute: a recognition that mapping a decision as complex as establishing new sources of drinking water for a metropolitan center requires a network of diverse perspectives to generate anything resembling an accurate map of the problem. The most common term for this kind of collaborative deliberation is a “charrette.” The word derives from the French word for wagon; apparently architecture students at the École des Beaux-Arts in the 1800s would deposit their scale models and drawings in a small wagon that would be wheeled out to collect student submissions as the deadline for a project approached. Students making last-minute tweaks to their projects were said to be working en charrette—adding the finishes touches as the wagon made its rounds. In its modern usage, though, the design charrette does not refer to a last-minute cram session, but rather to an open, deliberative process where different stakeholders are invited to critique an existing plan, or suggest new potential ideas for the space or resource in question. The charrette makes it harder for a complex decision to be evaluated purely from the narrowband perspective of a single business group or government agency.

One way in which charrettes differ from the more traditional forum of a community meeting is that they conventionally take the form of a series of small-group meetings, not one large gathering. Keeping the groups separate reduces the potential for open conflict between groups that have competing values, of course, but it also generates a more diverse supply of ideas and assessments in the long run.

The term “charrette” is under-used today, even though many RFPs include planning process questions, which can be best responded to by describing a charrette-like process. I’m not sure whether I’ll quote this passage directly in future proposals, or quote small sections and paraphrase the rest, but I’m confident the concepts will appear.

The second way charrettes arrived came from a client, who said that her organization was founded following a series of local planning charrettes. We’ve rarely heard origin stories like this; most nonprofits start the same way businesses do, when an individual or small group of people create a nonprofit corporation and file for a 501(c)3 letter. The charrette structure is unusual, and it struck me because it’s so rarely used. Too rarely used, one could say. An organization with that kind of origin story should flaunt the story. Which we, being good grant writers, will.


* Remember that reading is one of the open secrets of grant writing. Read a lot and incorporate what you find into your proposals.

Yours is not the only organization that isn’t worried about long-term grant evaluations

Ten years ago, in “Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation,” we explained why real program evaluations are hard and why the overwhelming majority of grant-funded programs don’t demand them; instead, they want cargo cult evaluations. Sometimes, real, true evaluations or follow-up data for programs like YouthBuild are actively punished:

As long as we’re talking about data, I can also surmise that the Dept. of Labor is implicitly encouraging applicants to massage data. For example, existing applicants have to report on the reports they’ve previously submitted to the DOL, and they get points for hitting various kinds of targets. In the “Placement in Education or Employment” target, “Applicants with placement rates of 89.51% or higher will receive 8 points for this subsection,” and for “Retention in Education or Employment,” Applicants with retention rates of 89.51% or higher will receive 8 points for this subsection.” Attaining these rates with a very difficult-to-reach population is, well, highly improbable.

That means a lot of previously funded applicants have also been. . . rather optimistic with their self-reported data.

To be blunt, no one working with the hard-to-serve YouthBuild population is going to get 90% of their graduates in training or employment. That’s just not possible. But DOL wants it to be possible, which means applicants need to find a way to make it seem possible / true.

So. That brings us to a much more serious topic, in the form of “The Engineer vs. the Border Patrol: One man’s quest to outlaw Customs and Border Protection’s internal, possibly unconstitutional immigration checkpoints,” which is a compelling, beautiful, and totally outrageous read. It is almost impossible to read that story and not come away fuming at the predations of the Border Patrol. Leaving that aspect aside, however, this stood out to me:

Regarding Operation Stonegarden, the DHS IG issued a report in late 2017 that was blunt in its assessment: “FEMA and CBP have not collected reliable program data or developed measures to demonstrate program performance resulting from the use of more than $531.5 million awarded under Stonegarden since FY 2008.”

Even in parts of government where outcomes really matter, it’s possible to have half a billion dollars disappear, and, basically, no one cares. If FEMA can lose all that money and not even attempt to measure whether the money is being spent semi-effectively, what does that communicate to average grant-funded organizations that get a couple of hundred thousand dollars per year?

We’re not telling you to lie in evaluation sections of your proposal. But we are reminding you, as we often do, about the difference between the real world and the proposal world. What you do with that information is up to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The federal budget in the age of Trump: Round up the usual suspects

The New York Times says that “Popular Domestic Programs Face Ax Under First Trump Budget.” Those listed include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). With the exception of AmeriCorps, which wasn’t yet born, the rest are the usual suspects, which have been proposed for the chopping block on and off since David Stockman* was Director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1981. I’ve seen this movie before, and I’m highly confident that, after the Congressional inquisition is over, NEH, NEA and the rest will ride off from Capitol Hill like Keyser Söze at the end of The Usual Suspects.

You might be surprised to learn that Congress last passed an actual Federal budget in 1998! Since then, Congress has used a variety of legislative tricks to “pass” non-budget budgets, including Continuing Resolutions (CRs), department budget authorization bills, and budget reconciliation bills to enable senators and representatives to avoid going on the record voting for or against an actual budget. This whole mess is tied up with the headache-inducing need to pass a bill increasing the Federal debt limit every six months or so.

In March, we’ll get to experience this exercise in political theater again, as the Trump administration will likely propose a revised FY ’17 budget (not to be confused with FY ’18 budget coming along later in the year). As reported by the NYT and others, this revised budget will likely propose a decrease in FY ’17 budget authorizations for selected discretionary domestic Federal spending agencies/programs like NEA and its pals. This is opposed to the usual practice of “budget hawks” to propose reductions in the rate of increase in Federal spending, due to the Feds using baseline budgeting (another headache-inducing concept) rather than zero-based budgeting.

My guess is that few discretionary programs will receive actual cuts and none will be eliminated (see one of our most popular posts, “Zombie Funding—Six Tana Leaves for Life, Nine for Motion,” to learn how Federal programs usually return from the dead). That’s because every Federal discretionary funding/grant program has constituencies in every Congressional District—along with an army of lobbyists.

Let’s use NEA as an example. NEA funds symphonies, theater groups, art museums, etc., everywhere. These are nonprofits, the boards and docent corps of which are composed mostly of well-off locals, who might be married to Congresspeople or their donors. They’re likely to be members of the same country clubs, churches/synagogues, and Chambers of Commerce as Congresspeople. That means Congressman Horsefeathers is not only going to be beaten up by lobbyists and donors but is going to an earful at the breakfast table.

As a young grant writer during the Reagan ascendancy, I learned that—despite the fevered rhetoric you’re going to soon hear and the attempt of the Trump administration to cut something—most grant programs will squeeze through. In contemplating Federal budget cuts, I use the Economic Development Administration (EDA) as my yardstick. EDA, the most overtly political of Federal grant-making agencies, has been around since 1965. Every so often, an administration or Congress threatens this small nimble dinosaur with a budget meteor, but EDA always dodges. I won’t take the latest budget battle seriously until EDA dies. I won’t bring up the real budget brontosauruses like HUD and the Department of Education. They’ve survived Presidents Reagan and Bush the Younger, as well Speaker Newt.


* Stockman now shows up in infomercials hawking various doomsday economic books (or gold), but he actually wrote a terrific political autobiography, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed. I read this in the mid-80s and it’s relevant once more.

Is a good idea to “Kiss and Tell” in grant writing?

Most of us have had the experience of deciding if you should tell the new girlfriend about the old girlfriend or the old girlfriend about the new girlfriend, or tell neither and shower frequently instead. While I can’t help you with those dilemmas, I can tell you when you should kiss and tell in grant writing and when you should keep it on the down low.

Let me explain. In pursuing foundation grants for a new project, it’s always a good idea to tell the new foundation about the old foundation that has already committed funding. The old foundation’s commitment makes the proposal a “matching grant” request. Like having more than one date offer for the senior prom, this will make you much more intriguing to the new foundation—all foundations want to give the last dollar to a project, but it’s harder to get a foundation to commit the first dollar. Foundations are like lemmings and they prefer to jump off the cliff in groups. Still, they know that they’ll have to  go first in most cases.

Telling the new foundation about the old is particularly potent in capital campaigns. Say the Waconia Cyclops Youth Recreation Association want to build a new facility. It’s not a bad idea to start by getting the Waconia Community Foundation to commit a $100K grant toward your $1 million capital goal before seeking grants from other foundations. When the project is pitched to new foundations, you can trumpet that you’re one-tenth of the way there; if you want to really go old school, erect a 10 foot tall “capital campaign thermometer” in front of your building.

The new foundations may think that the Waconia Community Foundation knows what they’re doing and will want to get on train before it’s too late. NRP stations, like KCRW in LA, have honed this approach over the years for what seems like bimonthly pledge drives. KCRW knows that the closer the breathless announcer says the station is to that hour’s $10K matching grant from Himmelfarb Industries, the more likely it is that you’ll finally give in and call. Plus, there’s that “handsome” tote bag they keep dangling.

For most nonprofits, captive audiences lured by tote bags are not an option, as they have to hunt down that first foundation grant. Keep in mind, however, that you never want to seem like you have too much money, as foundations want to feel special, just like girlfriend analogy above. Enough money for momentum is good; so much that you seem like you don’t need the money is bad.

The situation is more complex for government grants. Some federal funding agencies like EDA or Rural Development more or less force applicant to demonstrate hard money matching grants,* since they mostly fund large capital projects and almost never provide 100% of the funding. The vast majority of government funders that require a match for human services projects, however, are perfectly happy with an in-kind match, an ephemeral beast I wrote about in “The Secrets of Matching Funds Exposed: Release the Hounds and Let the Scavenger Hunt Begin.”

Most government grant proposals we write use variations on the “but for” argument to demonstrate need: “But for the grant being requested, at-risk young adult Waconian cyclops will not have access to job training with wraparound supportive services and will be doomed to intergenerational poverty.” If you tell the new funder that you already have funding, they may conclude that you don’t need the grant as much as other applicants, who are all screaming poverty. Also, boasting about other funding in a federal grant proposal is likely to raise the dreaded specter of supplantation, which must be avoided at all costs. The Feds usually want to be the first dollar on projects that wouldn’t exist without them.

While contemplating this kiss and tell conundrum, keep in that the funder usually only knows what you tell them in the proposal. While we always advise our clients to be truthful in proposals, proposals can be like writing a match.com profile. It’s not necessary to list your seven previous failed relationships until you’ve gotten past the Starbucks meet & greet.


* We describe stacking several government grants for a capital project as a “layer cake” approach. The grant we’re writing about is invariably the top layer.

It’s possible to get re-programmed funds, if you’re tight with your federal agency program officer

In 2010 Isaac wrote “Be Nice to Your Program Officer: Reprogrammed / Unobligated Federal Funds Mean Christmas May Come Early and Often This Year,” and that post is important for the context of this story. We’ve written several funded grants for the same federal program for the same client over the last few years. The client is a national trade group, and last week our client contact called because he’d just gotten a random call from his program officer offering a large tranche of re-programmed funds. That money doesn’t come with any strings beyond the general restrictions on the initial grant-funded program. It’s also a sure thing, which is a rare, valuable thing in the grant world.*

Organizations that get re-programmed funds still have to submit a proposal (which may be short). However short, the proposal for re-programmed funds must be technically correct and usually has a quick turnaround time (this always happens near the end of the federal fiscal year, which is September 30). As a cautionary note, we’ve seen clients who’ve messed up their wired, re-programmed applications. Overall, though, the amount of effort required is usually far smaller than a conventional, competitive grant program.

When Isaac worked for the City of Inglewood in the 1980s, the FAA (yes, the Federal Aviation Administration) gave Inglewood re-programmed funds almost every year for about eight years. That happened because the City of Los Angeles had to relocate several thousand families to extend one LAX runway on the Pacific Ocean side. You can see the vacant land when you take off from LAX and just before the plane crosses the beach.

At the same time, Inglewood, where Isaac was the Redevelopment Manager, was removing about 800 families from under the flight path to the east of LAX, near The Forum and the site of the new LA Rams stadium, for redevelopment. To keep Inglewood from joining all the other players who were suing LAX over the runway extension, a deal was struck in which LAX convinced the FAA to accept grant applications from Inglewood for wholesale land acquisition with “noise mitigation” being the ruse or quid pro quo.

All of this was on the down low, of course, and Isaac wrote all the FAA proposals, which totaled over $25 million. The FAA liked Inglewood, mostly because it could spend the money quickly while accounting for it, so Isaac got a call every August from the FAA program officer asking if Inglewood wanted additional re-programmed funds. The answer was always… yes. Sometimes, all you have to do is not screw it up.


* And bars after 11 on a Saturday night.

In grant writing, you don’t have to be great; you only have to be better than the other guy

You don’t need to submit the perfect grant application (assuming the “perfect application” even exists); you just need to be better than the other guy.

A story: Years ago we we wrote a string of funded grants for a majority-minority California city. The city was not particularly well run and some of its workers were indicted for corruption. But the feds kept pouring money into the city because, while it was messed up, it was still better run than other majority-minority cities at that time. The city wasn’t going to win any good government awards, but it was less corrupt than the alternatives. So the proposals we wrote got funded because the feds wanted to fund a majority-minority city somewhere west of the Mississippi and there weren’t (and still aren’t) many choices.

This pattern repeats itself. A couple years ago we wrote a funded HRSA Service Area Competition (SAC) proposal for a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in a medium-sized city.* In and of itself this isn’t interesting, because we write lots of funded HRSA proposals. This FQHC client, however, failed to tell us that, as we wrote the first draft, some of their officers were being indicted on corruption charges. Our FQHC client had competition from another large, local nonprofit, which applied for the same SAC grant.

Given our client’s legal problems, we figured they’d never get their SAC grant renewed. We were wrong.

We later discovered why HRSA funded our client: The other SAC applicant was facing corruption charges too, and it had a big federal grant pulled. Our HRSA client kept getting funded because, it was probably the lesser of two evils, and HRSA had to fund someone. Without a SAC grantee in the city, at least 15,000 Medicaid patients would’ve had nowhere to go for primary care.

What makes this story even more fun is the the second nonprofit was also a former client, albeit for a non-HRSA grant. And, of course, the second client also didn’t tell us about their corruption woes when we were writing their proposal.

One sees this general principle in other areas. Tech workers, for example, are now increasingly fleeing Silicon Valley. San Francisco’s draconian land-control policies mean that expanding housing supply is almost impossible. Restricting supply in the face of rising demand causes prices to rise. Silicon Valley’s situation is uniquely insane on the national stage, as this article describes.

Seattle—while not exactly a paragon of good, fast local governance—is allowing more housing units to be built than San Francisco, and it’s even building underground light rail services that are getting done on-time and under-budget. Light rail construction is going so well that residents want more transit tunneling. There is also no income tax in Washington State, which makes Seattle a much less expensive place to live than the Bay Area. Consequently, tech companies and tech workers are leaving California for Seattle—not because Seattle is perfect, but because it’s better and more functional than its southern neighbor. Even highly paid tech workers are voting with their wallets and feet.

Analogies to dating are so obvious that I won’t belabor them here, although I will say that Briefly noted: Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game is an excellent take on the subject.

Potential clients often ask us whether they should apply for a particular grant. We can never tell them definitively, but we do say that if they don’t apply, they definitely won’t get funded. We’ve seen numerous apparent underdogs get funded because they applied and the presumed favorites didn’t, or because they applied and the presumed favorites messed up their application, or because they applied and the funder was sick of the presumed favorite. To get funded, you don’t necessarily have to be the “best,” whatever that may mean. You only have to be better than the other guy.


* At least one Section 330 SAC grant is available for virtually every geographic area in the United States; those grants are used to fund primary healthcare services for predominantly low-income people. Without them, many large FQHCs would not be able to operate. Funded FQHCs must compete to keep their Section 330 funding about every three years when HRSA issues a new SAC RFP for their area.

Is Violent Crime Going Up or Down in America? Nobody Actually Knows, But the Debate Illustrates How Grant Proposal Needs Assessments are Written

One of our past posts described how to write proposal needs assessments. A spate of recent articles on the so-called Ferguson Effect provides a good example of how proficient grant writers can use selected data and modifying words to shape a needs assessment to support whatever the project concept is.

Last week Heather Mac Donald’s Wall Street Journal editorial “Trying to Hide the Rise of Violent Crime” claimed that violent crime is rising, due to “the Ferguson Effect,” but that “progressives and media allies” have launched a campaign to deny this reality. Right on cue, the New York Times ran a front page “news” story telling grumpy New Yorkers that “Anxiety Aside, New York Sees Drop in Crime.” Both articles cite the same Brennan Center for Justice study, Crime in 2015: A Preliminary Analysis, to support their arguments.

This reminds me of the old joke about how different newspapers would report that the end of the world will happen tomorrow: the New York Times, “World Ends Tomorrow, Women and Minorities Hurt Most;” the Wall Street Journal, “World Ends Tomorrow, Markets Close Early;” and Sports Illustrated, “Series Cancelled, No World.” One can frame a set of “facts” differently, depending on one’s point of view and the argument being made.

Neither the NYT or WSJ writers actually know if violent crime is going up or down in the short term. Over the past few decades, it is clear that crime has decline enormously, but it isn’t clear what causal mechanisms might be behind that decline.

Perhaps, like Schrödinger’s cat being alive and dead at the same time to explain quantum mechanics, crime is up and down at the same, depending on who’s doing the observing and how they’re observing.

One of the challenges is that national crime data, as aggregated in the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system, is inherently questionable. First, police departments report these data voluntarily and many crimes are subject to intentional or unintentional miss-categorization (was it an assault or aggravated assault?) or under/over reporting, depending on how local political winds are blowing (to see one public example of this in action, consider “NYPD wants to fix stats on stolen Citi Bikes,” which describes how stealing a Citi Bike counts as a felony because each one costs more than $1,000). A less-than-honorable police chief, usually in cahoots with local pols, can make “crime rates” go up or down. Then there is the problem of using averages for data, which leads to another old joke about the guy with his head in the oven and his feet in the freezer. On average, he felt fine.

But from your perspective as a grant writer, the important question isn’t whether crime rates decline or whether “the Ferguson Effect” makes them fall. If residents of a given city/neighborhood feel vulnerable to perceived crime increases, the increases are “real to them” and can form the basis for a project concept for grants seeking. Plus, when data to prove the need is hard to come by, we sometimes ask our clients for anecdotes about the problem and add a little vignette to the needs assessment. A call to the local police department’s gang unit will always produce a great “end of the world” gang issue quote from the Sergeant in charge, while a call to the local hospital will usually yield a quote about an uptick in gun shoot victims being treated, and so on. Sometimes in proposals anecdotes can substitute for data, although this is not optimal.

Within reason and the rather vague ethical boundaries of grant seeking and writing, a good grant writer can and should pick and choose among available data to construct the needs assessment argument for funding anything the agency/community sees a need for.

For example, if we were writing a proposal for an urban police department to get more funds for community policing, we would use up or down crime rate data to demonstrate the need for a new grant. If the crime is trending down, we’d use the data to argue that the police department is doing a good job with community policing but needs some more money to do an even better job, while being able to provide technical assistance to other departments. If the crime data is trending upward, we’d argue that there’s a crisis and the grant must be made to save life and limb. If we were working for a nonprofit in the same city that wants grants for after school enrichment for at-risk youth, we’d cherry-pick the crime data to argue that a nurturing after-school setting is necessary, to keep them protected from the false allures of gangs, early risky sexual experimentation, and/or drugs.

Most grant needs assessments are written backwards. One starts with the premise for the project concept and structures the data and analysis to support the stated need. It may be hard for true believers and novice grant writers to accept, but grant writing is rarely a blue sky/visioning exercise. The funder really sets the parameters of the program. The client knows what they want the grant for. It’s the job of the grant writer to build the needs assessment by including, excluding, and/or obfuscating data. This approach works well, because most funders only know what the applicant tells them in the proposal. Some grant programs, like our old pals DOL’s YouthBuild and ED’s Talent Search, try to routinize needs assessments and confound rascally grant writers by mandating certain data sets. We’re too crafty, however, and can usually overcome such data requirements through the kind of word and data selections that Mac Donald cites in her article.

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.

Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is Out and It’s Topical for More Than Just Police Departments

The Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program is back, most notably via the COPS Hiring Program (CHP), which has $134.5 million available for local law-enforcement agencies. This Clinton-era program has been around for a while but has special resonance this year due to a spate of police shootings and the civil unrest in Baltimore. President Obama is also giving a speech about community-oriented policing today. This adds up to a greater-than-usual focus on a particular set of grant programs, most of which occur beneath the radar of the media and national politicians.

cops - community oriented policing servicesIssues around policing aren’t coming from nowhere. Last year the New York Times published “War Gear Flows to Police Departments,” which sets the tenor for this year’s COPS programs and for federal restrictions on distribution of military-style equipment to police. The feds recently curtailed so-called “civil asset forfeiture,” which is an Orwellian phrase that means police can steal your property and money without prosecutors even convicting you of a crime.

Now, we’re not sure if police are genuinely killing more African Americans than they used to or if the topic has become more salient in the news. We are sure, however, that good cell phone cameras and widespread surveillance cameras have made it much easier for civilians to challenge police narratives and to show when cops lie. Videos also better show how cops sometimes behave antagonistically or cruelly. It’s impossible to watch the video of Eric Garner being choked to death by a cop and not think, “There has to be a better way to  prevent the sale of single cigarettes.”

Community-oriented policing is part of that idea. It’s opposed to quasi-military, occupation-style policing, which is periodically in vogue. After 9/11, cops became fascinated with military hardware and a war-zone footing (or, alternately, there was just a lot of military equipment and training going around, and a lot of cops also served in Iraq or Afghanistan). The “War on Drugs” uses the rhetoric of war to justify war-like behavior like “no-knock” home raids, but policing and war-fighting are supposed to be very different. Blurring them is not good for cops or societies.

From a grant writing perspective, the marketing blitz around COPS tells us that anything nonprofits propose that has to do with integrating the community with law enforcement is going to be a popular grant topic, because we’ve gone about as far as we can towards the military-style of policing. The legalizing of marijuana in Washington, Colorado, and Washington, DC, along with the de facto legalization in California and elsewhere, may signal a shift in drug prohibition. And federal agencies are probably being directed to take already allocated funds and use it for community-oriented policing and related project concepts when possible. Regulatory changes are likely occurring at the same time.

It isn’t just police departments that should be thinking about this. If you have, say, a Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Grant application in the works, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a letter from the police and to say that you’ll coordinate with cops to use community-oriented policing to, perhaps, encourage child support compliance.