Tag Archives: ideas

January Links: Apprenticeships, Empathy, Cars, Drugs, Mattresses, Guns, Antibiotics & Sex, and More!

* Where Factory Apprenticeship Is Latest Model From Germany, which the U.S. ought to be doing.

* The global poverty rate has dropped by half since 1950. File this under “good news which is rarely broadcast.”

* “The Other Side of the Story: When I was fourteen, I had a relationship with my eighth grade history teacher. People called me a victim. They called him a villain. But it’s more complicated than that.” Not surprisingly, she would deny to others what she had for herself.

* Great news for pot smokers: drug cartels are building massive underground railroads into the U.S. to transport goods that Americans desperately want to buy.

* Cars Kill Cities.

* How to design happier cities.

* Jane Fonda’s foundation forgets to make donations.

* How Tuft & Needle is disrupting the wildly corrupt mattress industry; I’d buy from them next time I need a mattress.

* The media doesn’t talk about suicide in relation to statistics about suicide with guns, which are are nonexistent or bad.

* “No Antibiotics, No Sexual Revolution,” or, “how the legal system is holding back medical innovation.” See also Alex Tabarrok’s wonderful, short book Launching the Innovation Renaissance.

* “Chicago girl’s rape near a school ‘Safe Passage’ route alarms parents.” So much for the concept of “safe passages” as a method for ensuring child safety.

* Camille Paglia on Rob Ford, Rihanna and rape culture.

* People are moving to Florida because it’s cheap.

* We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn: At colleges today, all parties are strongly incentivized to maintain low standards. Having been on both ends of the college teaching / learning experience, I’ve rarely read a more true article. I’m just not convinced that today is much different than 50 years ago, except for having much higher financial stakes on both sides of the table.

* Brad Pitt charity under fire after Katrina victims’ homes begin to rot. Call it another example of the Good Intentions Paving Company, as coined by Saul Bellow.

* “Brooklyn’s Median Household Income Is Less Than $45,000: So how can anyone afford to live there?” The partial answers are large amounts of public housing, Section 8 certificates and families doubling up or “hot-sheeting” [free proposal term here]. There are really two markets: an unregulated market with proverbially “crazy rents,” and a market for people with connections.

* “Chessmaster or Pawn: Now, It’s China’s Turn,” which is the sort of detailed, fascinating, and unexpected post that makes James Fallows’s blog worth reading.

November Links: Vaccines Are Important, Education Reform, the Future of the World, Broadband, Cities, and More!

* Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) of Tennessee’s preschool program show that preschool doesn’t appear to improve the later school performance of those enrolled, or much of anything else.

* CDC: Many U.S. Girls Not Getting HPV Vaccine Despite Its Effectiveness.

* “A bachelor’s degree could cost $10,000 — total. Here’s how.” The short version is, “Unbundling.” I think we’re going to see some version of this tried in various places, and in the next decade we’re going to see a lot of universities change.

* Average Is Over—if We Want It to Be.

* Oklahoma senator calls out Congress for blowing money on ‘fruity’ grants.

* Which Job Skills Will Be Most Important In The Coming Years?

* “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” As an additional explanation, see Philip Greenspun, “Women in Science.”

* Travel is much more boring and aggravating than people give it credit for.

* What we eat affects everything.

* If You Aren’t Technical, Get Technical. One could also replace “technical” with “literate,” although “technical” certainly has more immediate financial returns.

* The unbelievably brilliant ad campaign by Eat24, a food delivery service: “How to Advertise on a Porn Website.” Note that this is safe for work, provided you don’t work in a religious organization or elementary school.

* The most important piece and yet likely to be the least read: “We’ve Reached ‘The End of Antibiotics, Period.’

* A sad day for the OS X users among us: “Pages 5: An unmitigated disaster.”

* L.A. to unleash city-wide gigabit broadband. Awesome. Also on the good news front: “Fed up with slow and pricey Internet, cities start demanding gigabit fiber.”

* Woman from MTV demands free stuff.

* Reducing the federal prison population, which should be a major goal.

* A reinvented skillet. Isaac is skeptical because he says you can buy a perfectly good Lodge cast iron pan made in Tennessee for about $20, but I want to believe.

* Complementing the second link: “The Cancer Vaccine: Only one in three American girls is vaccinated against HPV. That will mean thousands of gratuitous cancer deaths. Why?

* “What are some of the biggest problems with a guaranteed annual income?” Isaac is very fond of the guaranteed annual income model, which was last a prominent idea in the early 70s, when he was in college, but has become a more interesting proposition as of late.

* “Simple answers to the questions that get asked about every new technology,” in comic form.

* The American Police State: A sociologist interrogates the criminal-justice system, and tries to stay out of the spotlight.

* “Overall, we Americans have a stronger attachment to U.S. dominance than to fair play or anyone’s rights.”

* “Why Aren’t Cities Taller?” The answer has important and under-appreciated implications for poverty and real wealth, and the link is connected to the link above: “Average Is Over—if We Want It to Be.”

General or Specific—The Challenge of Defining a Project Concept for Foundation Support

When scoping a foundation appeal with a client, the first task is to define the project concept. This may seem simple, but few aspects of grant seeking and grant writing are simple.

Let’s assume our client is the Waconia* Family Resource Center and the agency provides a range of family and child support services, including, but not limited to—free proposal phrase here—case management, parenting training, demonstration homemaking, child care, after school enrichment, foster care, childhood obesity prevention and saving the walleye. I tossed the last one in to see if you’re paying attention, as well as to titillate our Minnesota readers.

The executive director could pick a project ranging from the very general—helping disadvantaged Waconians—to the very specific—outreach to the growing population of Latinos to involve their obese kids in fitness activities—and everything in between. So: what to do?

There is no right answer. Like marriage, you’ll only know you’ve made the right choice after it’s too late. In grant writing, you’ll know the correct choice was made when you get funded. With marriage, you’ll know sometime between your honeymoon and the rest of your life. When contemplating this non-Hobson’s choice with a client, we always remind them of this essential axiom: the more general the request, the greater the number of possible foundation funders, but the less interest any particular funder will have in the project.

If the project concept is to help downtrodden Waconians, there will be many potential funders. But, leaving aside the Waconia Community Foundation and the Walleyes Forever Founation, none will likely be particularly focused on the need, because the stated need is so general. Conversely, if the project concept targets chubby kids of the hundreds of Latino families who just moved into the community to work at the new industrial hog farm,** there will be relatively few potential funders, but the ones that exist will be very interested in the idea.

Given this news, most of our client choose a more general approach, unless they are really committed to a highly specific purpose. We recently had a large client, for example, that more or less refused to apply for any grants because they’re waiting for the perfect grant salmon to swim by. Their ideal projects were so narrowly defined that potential funders didn’t exist.

As your organization gears up to go after foundation funds, keep the above conundrum in mind. But whatever you do, don’t dither. As Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”


* I spent a lot of my wasted youth fishing for walleyes on Lake Waconia with my dad. Since the sport is called fishing, not catching, I had a lot of time in the boat to contemplate the complex issues that face a 10-year-old boy.

** About 15 years ago we actually wrote a large funded proposal for more or less this project concept on behalf of a tiny school district in rural Oklahoma. I remain convinced that the proposal was funded largely because of the then-unusual juxtaposition of Latinos, hogs and rural Oklahoma. Industrial sized hog farms and the immigrants who primarily work in them are now commonplace across much of rural American. Not much of a problem, unless you happen be be downwind or downstream.

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

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

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

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

Are you cracking up yet?

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

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

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

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

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

Scaling a Nonprofit Means Confronting the Challenge of Lumpy Growth

Let’s assume that you’re a faithful Grant Writing Confidential reader who started a nonprofit and managed to get enough funding to provide some level of services to your target population. You’ve probably accomplished this through a combination of donations and small grants, and you’re chugging alone or with a small staff. Like many businesses, however, at some point you’re going to face a dilemma, either keep on keeping on (as B. Dylan put it) or try to scale the organization to a larger size.

Scaling up a nonprofit—or a tech startup like Facebook for that matter—is a lumpy exercise. That is to say, the path won’t be a smooth trajectory. For example, if you’re presently operating out of a church basement at little or no costs, an office will have to be leased and equipped to ramp-up services. And since you don’t want to move offices every year, the first office will have to be sized to some future, not current, needs. Similarly, you can’t buy half a Xerox machine or half a van.

While it is possible to hire part-time staff, at some point, you’ll want full-time personnel to attract more qualified people and generally be a fair employer by providing benefits and job security. Let’s say you’ve got one Case Manager. As services increase, the Case Manager will eventually be overloaded, so you will need a second. When you hire the second Case Manager, however, both will probably be underworked for a while. This is another example of a lumpy cost because it will take some time for your organization to swallow the costs of the second Case Manager through increased revenue. It’s rather like the snake digesting an elephant in The Little Prince. But if your organization doesn’t swallow the elephant-like second Case Manager, the first Case Manager will eventually quit from exhaustion or you will have to triage service delivery.

Growing nonprofits will also eventually be faced with the conundrum of when and if to hire professional management staff. This will be yet another lumpy cost, as talented managers will expect appropriate compensation and working conditions (e.g., matching office furniture and a 27″ iMac, instead of a WW-II era dented steel desk and an ancient, temperamental Dell).

Many nonprofits are started by a “true believer” or a human services professional who lacks management training. As the organization grows, management chaos may ensue. Eventually, the founder should probably focus on board/community relations and relinquish day-to-day management to an Operations Director.

This kind of passing of the management torch does not always go well, with Apple’s disastrous hiring of the supposed management expert John Scully by Steve Jobs in 1987 being an especially egregious, famous instance. Of course, the case is often made that the egomaniac Jobs needed to be booted out of Apple to force him to eventually do his best work and return to lead the company to successes unimaginable in the 1980s.

Still, many nonprofits face a fundamental tension between being a grassroots organization and a larger provider. Grassroots organizations tend to be focused on a particular issue, which they often address well. The flipside, however, is that they tend to be poorly managed and lack the impact of a larger organization. Larger organizations tend to provide a wider array of services and thus have a greater impact on more people. The flipside, however, is that they’re sometimes depicted as being out-of-touch, overly bureaucratic, and more focused on the needs of managers and decision-makers within the organization than they on solving the community’s problems.

Neither grassroots organizations nor large organizations are inherently “right,” and both can be good or bad. From a grant-making perspective, either one can be desirable, and the tensions involved with scaling up never really go away.

Many nonprofits fail in the attempt to scale, just like businesses. Some will also wither from not attempting to scale. The funding for lumpy costs requires new revenue, which will also be lumpy. This can take the form of seeking larger donations, going after competitive grants and/or obtaining a line of credit, which must often be initially personally guaranteed by the Executive Director or a board member.

Since balancing lumpy cost increases with uncertain lumpy revenues is an inherent chicken-and-egg problem, you’ll eventually have to decide which to pursue first. One way to overcome the risks of lumpy revenue is to find a service to provide that is funded through a capitated, on-ongoing contract, such as foster care, child care, post-DUI substance abuse education, court-referral domestic violence prevention training and the like. It doesn’t really matter what the capitated service is as long as a more or less predictable revenue stream is attached that enables the organization to cover lumpy expenses while seeking lumpy revenues.

If all of this lumpy stuff scares you, it should. Scaling up a nonprofit or small business is a Tight-Rope exercise. Large organizations will be rhetorically attacked by smaller ones and vice-versa. Be cognizant of the issues involved with each.

Computers and education: An example of conventional wisdom being wrong

We’ve written innumerable proposals for programs to give students computers or access to computers. Some, like “Goals 2000,” have already been forgotten by anyone not named Seliger. Others, like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, continue to exist, although the original federal version got broken into state pass-through funds. All of them work on the presumption that giving students computers will improve education.

The problem is that, as we’ve written before, most research demonstrates that this isn’t true, even if it seems like it should be true. Another study, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers,” just came out against computers improving educational outcomes. Some news report have covered it too, including “Using Laptops In Classrooms Lowers Grades: Study” and one from the Times of India. But the important takeaway is simple: computer access in and of itself doesn’t appear to improve educational attainment.

That doesn’t really matter for the proposal world, in which the conventional wisdom is always right and where these studies can be used to make minor changes in program design to overcome the problem of distraction. But they’re interesting on a real world level, especially because they confirm what many of us know intuitively: that computers are great for wasting time.

I’d define “wasting time” as any time spent nominally doing a task that doesn’t result in some tangible product or change at the end of that task. Reading Slate instead of writing a novel, to use an example from close to home, is time wasted; reading Slate to relax isn’t. The danger with the Internet (and, for others, computer games) is that it can feel work-like without actually accomplishing any work in the process.

Personally, when I need to do serious writing that doesn’t require data research, I use the program Mac Freedom to turn off Internet access. I paid $10 to not be able to access the Internet. I know the Internet, like the Force, has a light side and a dark side. The light side is research, connection, learning, and human possibility. The dark side is an endless carnival of noise, blinking lights, and effervescent distraction. As Paul Graham wrote in “Disconnecting Distraction:”

Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.

Now, if people like Paul Graham (or me!) have trouble doing real work when the Internet black hole is available, what hope does the average 15-year-old have—especially given that Graham and I grew up in a world without iPhones and incessant text messages? This isn’t “Get these darn kids off my lawn” rant, but it is an important anecdotal point about the importance and danger of computers. Computers are essential to, say, computer programming, but they aren’t essential to reading, writing, or basic math.

I went to a law school for a year by accident (don’t ask), and everyone had a laptop. They were sometimes used for taking notes. More often they were used for messaging in class. Occasionally they were actually used for porn. These were 22 – 30-year-old proto lawyers. On one memorable occasion, a guy’s computer erupted with a sports ad that blanketed the room with the drums, trumpets, and deep-voiced announcer promising gladiatorial combat. Evidently he’d forgotten to turn sound off. The brightest students were highly disciplined in their computer usage, but many of us, like addicts, didn’t have that discipline. We were better off not sitting in the room with the coke.

To be sure, computers can be useful in class. My fiancée wrote her med school application essay in class, since she was forced, due to academic bureaucratic idiocy, to take basic cell bio after she’d taken advanced cell bio. The laptop helped her recover time that otherwise would’ve been wasted, but I suspect that she’s in the minority.

I get the impression that the average student has no problem learning to immerse themselves in buzzy online worlds, and the exceptional, Zuckerberg-like student has no problem using digital tools to build those online worlds. What we should really probably be doing is teaching students how to cultivate solitude and concentrate. That’s what we need to learn how to do, even if that isn’t a particular subject matter domain.

Finally, like a lot of ideas, computers in schools might be a bad idea right up to the point they’re not. Adaptive learning software may eventually make a tremendous difference in student learning. That just hasn’t happened yet, and the last 20 years demonstrate that it’s not going to happen by chucking computers at students and assuming that computers are magically going to provide education. They’re not. Computers are mirrors that reflect the desires already inside a person. For students, 1% will build the next Facebook, another 3% will write angsty blog posts and perhaps become writers more generally, and 100% will use it for porn and games.

EDIT 2015: I just wrote about Kentaro Toyama’s book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology, which describes… wait for it… why technology is not a panacea for education and may make it worse.

A few astute readers have also asked an important question: What could make or help technology improve education? I don’t have a good answer (if I did, I’d be starting the company that will deploy the answer). But I think we will see experimentation and slow, incremental steps. Many massive online courses (MOOCs), for example, started off as filmed lectures. Then they morphed towards having multiple camera angles and some quizzes. More recently, those classes shifted towards small, interactive chunks with quizzes that test comprehension interspersed among them. Each step improved comprehension, completion, and student engagement.

But MOOCs don’t seem to improve the ability to sustain concentration, be conscientious, or read in-depth. Without that last skill in particular, I’m not sure how much education of any kind can happen. Technology can give us the text, but it can’t make us read or comprehend the text or deal with it imaginatively.

June Links: FundRise, America’s Worst Charities, Apprenticeships, Parking, Computers for Low-Income Kids, and More!

* “Own Your Neighborhood: The real-estate crowdfunding scheme that could revolutionize urban policy by destroying stupid NIMBYism.”

* How the ACA (“ObamaCare”) could evolve. The many grant programs created by the ACA should make the evolution of the ACA of interest to many readers.

* America’s worst charities. We recommend that our clients stay off this list.

Moma_Rain_room* Frank Bruni on Amanda Knox and pervasive sexual double standards, with the somewhat inane title “Sexism and the Single Murderess.”

* This should be obvious but for some reason is not, at least in public policy circles: Apprenticeships could help U.S. workers gain a competitive edge.

* Why many streets are ridiculously wide.

* Visualizing America’s absurd parking requirements; this could be seen as a complement to The High Cost of Free Parking.

* Giving computers to low-income kids does nothing to change outcomes. Still, we don’t expect these empirical outcomes to change most of the grant stories about the wonders of computers and iPads we tell in proposals, especially those involving the 21st Century Community Learning Centers programs.

* Hyped Seattle nonprofit “The Genesis Project” devolves into stealing money and / or getting sex from the prostitutes it’s supposed to rescue.

* Unconditional cash transfers may be the best tool for fighting poverty.

* “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.” Which are worse in some respects.

* For writers: “To ‘the’ or Not to ‘the’?

* People might be finally catching on to Komen, which we last wrote about in 2010.

* The U.S. has become the kind of nation from which you have to seek asylum—that is, the kind of nation you hide from, not go to for protection.

* How ‘Slut Shaming’ Has Been Written Into School Dress Codes Across The Country.

* A Prolonged Depression Is A Poor Affordable Housing Policy.

* Doing the Best I Can will change your views about the so called “deadbeat dads.”

“With Charity For All” – Ken Stern – Book Discussion

Ken Stern’s With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give is really about a single, fundamental issue and its implications: funders are the real “clients” of most nonprofits, yet their desires dominate everything that nonprofits do. He says that “The care and feeding of donors who make highly personal gifts can distract from the core charitable purposes and matters of organizational effectiveness.” But in many ways the “care and feeding” of those donors is, or becomes, the organization’s real mission. Organizations that don’t attend to their funding streams aren’t going to keep their doors open.

As a result, With Charity For All is really about reforming funder priorities, especially among foundation, corporate giving, and wealthy individual donors.

That’s a laudable goal. Right now, however, most donors donate based on emotional connections rather than cost-benefit analyses. In one example, Stern describes how “Katrina was a gold rush for the nonprofit community; hundreds of organizations descended on the Gulf Coast.” But most of those organizations weren’t effective—including the Red Cross, as Stern describes in detail. When we judge by intentions more than effectiveness, we don’t actually care about effectiveness, and funders don’t look at what happens to their money after the donations; they’re busy basking in the afterglow. Moreover, Stern says:

For most charities, the story from the front lines is the most important measure of success, one that typically confirms the importance of the work and reassures stakeholders. Empirical and research studies are to be avoided as expensive, distracting, and potentially dangerous. In some ways, the charitable world exhibits and almost medieval aversion to scientific scrutiny and accountability.

Does this sound familiar? To regular readers it should, since we’ve long argued that your grant story needs to get the money and that most funders don’t value evaluations. Most donors and grant makers care only superficially about results. Nonprofits that have embraced “empirical and research studies” have mostly been outcompeted by those that tell happy stories.

That’s a problem from the perspective of those receiving services, however. Using the Red Cross as an example, which couldn’t act effectively after 9/11 and then planned to use 9/11 funds to improve organizational effectiveness, only to be bashed by the press, Stern goes on to say that there is

a bedrock and simplistic assumption that has long shackled the charitable world: that money spent on direct services is the only worthy use of charitable funds, while money invested in organizational effectiveness is to be kept as close to zero as possible. It is an equation widely accepted by the donating public, by the press, by charity watchdogs, by government regulators, and by most charities themselves. To keep overhead costs down, charities forgo necessary investments with devastating and sometimes deadly results.

This is sensational but sometimes true. Still, on a smaller scale than the Red Cross, we see lots of money subtly diverted in various ways into organizational effectiveness: the van bought for one program ends up being used for another. Project staff on one program also spend time working in another. Technically these sorts of things are often against funding rules, but better organizations ignore them so they can get stuff done.

Ignoring funder rules is often rewarded, as we discuss in point three of this post.

With Charity for All is hardly the only book to observe perverse incentives among nonprofits: The Robin Hood Rules for Smart Giving says in its introduction:

The idea behind this book is that philanthropists cannot settle for choosing programs merely because they generate important benefits. They must hold out for funding only those programs that do the most good per dollar of costs. Otherwise money is wasted, which is an unforgivable mistake given yawning social needs.

“An unforgivable mistake?” I won’t be inviting Weinstein and Bradburd, the authors, to dinner, and I suspect a lot of foundation directors won’t either. Still, their take is so similar to Stern’s that it merits a mention, especially because reality on the ground indicates that philanthropists can and do “settle for choosing programs merely because they generate important benefits.”

Despite Stern’s disapproval of current funder priorities, it’s important for organizations that want to succeed quickly learn how to tell happy stories—and when not to. Most proposals submitted to state and federal organizations, for example, are designed to avoid stories about particular individuals; the RFPs tend to be so fragmented that it’s difficult or impossible to tell a coherent story. Moreover, most government programs want a story about (possibly illusory) effectiveness, much more than they want stories about identifiable humans. Remember that these are bureaucrats we’re talking about, not normal people. It’s also not clear how much government spending is actually about solving social ailments, versus accomplishing other goals. I don’t want to say more about that here, because it’s venturing too close to the political quicksand that we studiously avoid, but the point remains and should be obvious to anyone involved with in grant writing and organization funding.

There are frustrating parts of With Charity For All, especially when Stern’s evidence or discussion is thin. For example, he says:

There is little credible evidence that many charitable organizations produce lasting social value. Study after study tells the opposite story: or organizations that fail to achieve meaningful impact yet press on with their strategies and services despite significant, at times overwhelming, evidence that they don’t work.

None of these studies are cited in a footnote. No specific organizations are cited. This narrative is little better than the charities-are-ineffective narrative. Still, charities are organizations that, on a basic level, must take in more money than they spend. Consequently, charities, like all entities, are perfectly capable of failing, and they must adapt to their environment. Like pretty much everyone who looks into this matter, I agree that charities should spend more time genuinely evaluating themselves, but that requires that their funders also become more interested in doing so. GiveWell.org is one effort to do so, and this book is an attempt to raise the profile of profiling nonprofits. Nonetheless, in a discussion about how to measure effectiveness, it’s discouraging to see references to “study after study” only to find zero studies cited.

It’s also not entirely true that “The nonprofit field is extraordinarily stagnant, even though tens of thousands of new charities are created each year and billions of dollars of grants and donations annually flow to American charities.” The word “stagnant” is probably wrong: although tens of thousands of new nonprofits ones are created, tens of thousands of old ones close. As I said above, a nonprofit that can’t take in more money than it spends won’t exist for long, and that’s part of what makes nonprofits dynamic. Now, it may be that funders are rewarding behaviors that may not be optimal in terms of achieving preferred outcomes, but that’s a separate issue that shouldn’t be conflated with dynamism per se.

In a moment of dubious interpretation, Stern writes:

At the core of our charitable system is the notion that charities perform critical social functions and thereby save the government and the taxpayer the effort and expense of providing the service. But the charitable sector is filled with organizations doing things that no government would care to do and that would scandalize taxpayers if they understood they were underwriting this effort.

I’m not sure “the notion that charities [. . .] save the government [. . . ] effort and expense” is at “the core of our charitable system:” is there a “core of our charitable systems?” Core isn’t the right word, or mental model; we have a series of post-hoc rationalizations. One of those post-hoc rationalizations is a larger sense that government can’t do or think of everything that should be done on a not-for-profit basis; groups of individuals should be able to come together to do stuff that’s worth doing but that won’t necessarily return money to “shareholders.” Not everything worth doing needs to be provided by the government and not everything provided by the government is necessarily worth doing.

Those are statements of general principle, however, and Stern goes on to describe how the college football bowl system consists of dubious nonprofits running, for example, “the Allstate Sugar Bowl” and making a lot of tax-free money in the process. Big-time college sports in general have only the flimsiest patina of amateurism left in them, and by now they should be spun off from their nominal university owners and made to pay players just like every other employers.

The idea that big time football or basketball schools (like Isaac’s favorite, the University of Kansas Jayhawks) should pay their coaches millions of dollars and their players “scholarships” is ludicrous, but those specific examples don’t necessarily mean all organizations doing things government shouldn’t should also be treated and taxed like conventional businesses. For example, the Mozilla Foundation provides an open-source web browser and is dedicated to freedom on the Internet. I don’t necessarily think the U.S. government should start its own web browser division, but most people would probably agree that Mozilla is a reasonable charitable endeavor.

(Regular readers have noticed that this post is a bit different than most of our posts: we’re reviewing a book instead of discussing direct experience, telling stories, or writing about RFPs. We’d love to hear your comments, and, if you know of any other books we should be reading, let us know about those too. Although we’re mostly content producers, occasionally we leave our iMacs, retire to a comfortable chair, and enjoy a book, along with a well-made cocktail or three.)

March links: Carol M White PEP is out, Unmarried Moms, Emulate Carmelo Anthony, BTOP Money Wasted, Screwed UP FHA Rules and More

* An old grant friend returns: The Carol M. White Physical Education Proposal has been released, with 95 grants available up to $750,000.

* Carmelo Anthony Is a Hero of Philanthropy More Athletes Should Emulate.

* “The New Unmarried Moms: We’ve reduced teen pregnancy, but now childbearing outside wedlock is exploding among 20-somethings,” which is interesting but ignores some of the really powerful social factors at work.

* Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) money wasted in West Virginia; Cisco conspires to steal money, succeeds. The Hacker News discussion is also worth reading, especially the top comment.

* “How short-sighted FHA rules enforced housing segregation and inequality: How Good Principles Can Make Bad Rules.”

* “Michigan is going to take over Detroit.” Oddly enough, we’ve never had a client in Detroit. Who wants to be the first? We’ll provide a 25% Detroit-Economic-Collapse Discount to the first Detroit nonprofit that calls, assuming there are any left.

* “Nurses dodge bullets to provide care.” (Maybe.)

* Here’s a hilariously bad sentence from the Department of Transportation’s Small Business Transportation Resource Center Program RFP:

OSDBU will enter into Cooperative Agreements with these organizations to provide outreach to the small business community in their designated region and provide financial and technical assistance, business training programs, business assessment, management training, counseling, marketing and outreach, and the dissemination of information, to encourage and assist small businesses to become better prepared to compete for, obtain, and manage DOT funded transportation-related contracts and subcontracts at the federal, state and local levels.

I’m exhausted by reading all the clauses; it’s like trying to read 19th Century German philosophy. I tried to increase the sentence’s resemblance to native English for newsletter subscribers: “Grants to provide outreach to small business community, along with financial / technical assistance, business training programs, business assessment, management training, counseling, marketing, and outreach, so small businesses are prepared for DOT-funded, transportation-related contracts.” Those of you who do not think I was somewhat successful are welcome to undertake this exercise on your own.

* From the Department of Confusion Department, or, rather, the Strategies Targeting Characteristics Common to Female Ex-Offenders program: “Services to be funded will be targeted to female ex-offenders, but must also be open to eligible male ex-offenders.” This contradicts the title of the program and the purpose of the project and is fairly par for the RFP course.

* Don’t subsidize parking. This should be obvious.

* Has L.A. fallen behind? (Hat tip Marginal Revolution). To me, the car-centric culture and traffic are the worst parts, and I don’t see those improving without some combination of removing or raising urban height limits.

* The ten-year hoodie on Kickstarter; I “backed” the Flint and Tinder underwear project and though the outcome was okay, it was not exceptional.

* The case for a true Mac Pro successor. We were dedicated tower users until alternatives became fast and the Mac Pro became a terrible value.

* How New York Could [and should] Get More Affordable Housing. The way to affordable housing is simple, direct, obvious, and widely ignored, chiefly by people who do not appear to understand supply and demand or basic economics.

* “One in three counties are dying,” because their original reason for existing—chiefly farming—has gone away.

When It’s Good For At-Risk Youth to Hang Out At McDonald’s: Searching for Connectivity in All the Wrong Places

The Web-Deprived Study at McDonald’s” describes a role reversal: in the usual proposal universe, McDonald’s is the enemy—a purveyor of simple sugars and nutritionally bankrupt edible food-like substances that help drive obesity and disease. Internet service providers (ISPs), however, are supposed purveyors of knowledge and connections vital to linking the modern world. But many American ISPs have effectively no competition, and they charge accordingly—which means that many low-income families can’t afford Internet access*

As a result, “Access to the Web has expanded [in recent years . . . ] but roughly a third of households with income of less than $30,000 a year and teens living at home still don’t have broadband access there, according to the Pew Research Center.” So McDonald’s, which offers free WiFi in most of its restaurants (using the term loosely), is the unexpected corporate hero in this article. Astute grant writers should pay attention, because future projects dealing with food and nutrition also need to address the digital divide.

In the next Carol M. White Physical Education Proposals we write, for example, we’ll stress WiFi access points at the project delivery sites and libraries, which offer an alternative to McDonald’s, with its allure of Big Macs and McNuggets.

But in proposals that deal with connectivity—like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program—we’ll mention that McDonald’s, Starbucks, and other large corporations offer free Internet access, and, as a result, participants may be tempted buy their non-nutritious food to get the WiFi. So those participants need the alternatives that the project will provide—along with nutritional counseling. Our hypothetical proposal will point out that nutritional counseling might seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes well-supported yet counter-intuitive arguments seem stronger.


* A brief example: when I lived in Tucson, Arizona, Comcast offered 12 Mbs down for $60 a month. Qwest, the only “competition,” offered . . . 1.5 Mbs down. Max. In 1998, that would have been incredible. Today, it’s a joke. Comcast was (and is) a de facto monopoly and charged accordingly.

By contrast, now I’m living in Manhattan, where Verizon, RCN, Time Warner, and others offer Internet connections; I’m buying 25 Mbs down for $30 a month from RCN. Of course, I can still wander over to Starbucks for their “free” WiFi, but at $4 a cup for a wet cap no fat, the free access access gets pretty pricy pretty fast. I can’t bring myself to enter the McDonald’s’ den of food inequity.