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Be “Experienced” and “Innovative” at the Same Time

Certain buzzwords and buzz-ideas take over the grant world (and the larger world) at various times. “Innovation” is one concept everyone loves. According to Google’s Ngram viewer, “innovation” has appeared to triple in popularity over the last two centuries. Way back in 2010 we wrote “Change for Change’s Sake in Grant Proposals: When in Doubt, Claim Your Program is Innovative.” That’s still true today and will likely be true for many years to come. But being “innovative” often feels contrary from being “experienced.”

Innovators are often the brash upstarts, while experienced applicants are supposed to apply their knowledge of the past to the problems of the present.* As we wrote in “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually)” and “So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For? And Who’s the Competition?“, the size and experience of an agency will often dictate the logic argument made for why a given proposal should be funded.

Arguing that you have experience providing similar services is at odds with claims about being radically innovative. Markets depend on creative destruction, and the grant system exists in part to facilitate the exit of sclerotic nonprofits and the creation of nimbler nonprofits. Consider, this from “How Tesla Will Change the World:”

Over time, big industries tend to get flabby and uncreative and risk-averse—and if the right outsider company has the means and creativity to come at the industry with a fresh perspective and rethink the whole thing, there’s often a huge opportunity there.

Fortunately for grant writers and applicants, very few funders are going to think that hard about the distinction between innovation and experience: we’ve never heard that any of our clients have had a funder point out this conundrum to them. Funders are managed by humans—mostly, anyway—and like most humans their motivations are not only obscure to observers, and also often to themselves. So a good grant writer can still argue that the applicant is somehow both innovative and experienced. The number of truly “innovative” programs we’ve seen is quite small, but that’s because social and human services attempt to get people to behave in ways that they don’t feel like behaving.**

* As, for example, Steven Berlin Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From.

** When I wrote this post I was thinking about “In Grant Writing, Longer is Not Necessarily Better.”

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Sean Parker Writes about the New Group of Billionaire Hacker Philanthropists and Forms The Parker Foundation with $600M

Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame is a very smart guy, and he recently wrote “Philanthropy for Hackers;” the essay posits that newly minted tech billionaires are “hackers,” like himself, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Google guys, who collectively represent a new wave in philanthropy:

The barons of this new connected age are interchangeably referred to as technologists, engineers and even geeks, but they all have one thing in common: They are hackers. Almost without exception, the major companies that now dominate our online social lives (Facebook, Twitter, Apple, etc.) were founded by people who had an early association with hacker culture . . . Hackers share certain values: an antiestablishment bias, a belief in radical transparency, a nose for sniffing out vulnerabilities in systems, a desire to “hack” complex problems using elegant technological and social solutions, and an almost religious belief in the power of data to aid in solving those problems . . . At the same time, they are intensely idealistic, so as they begin to confront the world’s most pressing humanitarian problems, they are still young, naive and perhaps arrogant enough to believe that they can solve them.

The above paragraph, as well as most of Parker’s other points, are true and well considered (and they complement our review of Ken Stern’s With Charity for All). Perhaps more importantly, Parker is walking the walk by funding the newly minted Parker Foundation with $600 million. It’s great that billionaire hackers are learning to give away their money (and there are only so many 1,000 foot yachts and $50M penthouses one can buy—even billionaires reach diminishing marginal utility for luxury goods).

Parker does not, however discuss how average nonprofits funded by these new foundations would actually deliver human services to address humanitarian problems. While this might have not made the editorial cut, I suspect that he’s probably not too familiar with most nonprofits and how they work. Maybe he is only looking for nonprofits.

A quick look at The Parker Foundation website reveals that this is a foundation that does not accept unsolicited proposals. While there are some interesting thoughts and a clever PERT diagram on the site, there are no submission guidelines. Although not explicitly stated, The Parker Foundation has to find your nonprofit and contact you, instead of your agency submitting a proposal. This reverse access to funding logic is used by a fair number of foundations, whether they are old school or nouveau riche. But I’ve never understood why anyone thinks this approach is a good idea.

This approach to giving away foundation grants reminds me of the hokey ’50s TV series, The Millionaire. Every week the eccentric millionaire gave $1 million to some sad case person he’d never met to help them solve their life crisis. This was more or less a scripted version of another odd ’50s reality style series Queen for a Day.* It seems that Sean and/or the probably also idealistic foundation staff believe they can somehow not only identify important humanitarian problems, but also which nonprofits are likely to have good solutions. I have no idea how they do this, since, as Jake wrote, evaluating human services programs is hard to do.

I’m often asked by clients how to cozy up to funders like The Parker Foundation (or the much larger Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in most cases also does not accept unsolicited proposals). I tell them they should hang out at private airport terminals, since Sean, Bill or Melinda are unlikely to be found in a middle coach commercial airline seat waiting to be chatted up—think private jets and other places rich folk hang. The sad truth is that, unless you happen upon a foundation founder at Trader Joe’s**, you’ll just have to hope that one of their foundation program officers stumbles across your nonprofit. This, of course, is particularly unlikely to happen to a newly formed nonprofit, which is actually more likely to have an innovative idea than an established nonprofit with a social media consultant to get them noticed.

Seliger + Associates could have helped The Parker Foundation design their grant application process and submission guidelines to reflect the way human services are actually delivered. Only one foundation in 22 years has contacted us about helping them with their grant submission process, however, and they didn’t hire us. Whether or not the source of a foundation’s assets is a successful hacker billionaire like Parker or a more pedestrian scion of the Walton clan, the foundations themselves invariably have founders, board members and staff, who don’t have a frame of reference for nonprofit culture and are idealists, or as we call them true believers. True believers, however, don’t run most nonprofits and, unlike most foundation funders, experienced nonprofit managers know the difference between the real world and the proposal world. Nonprofits often game, deliberately or not, the good intentions of idealistic funders.

* My mom was a huge fan of both shows and I actually went to a taping of Queen for a Day in Minneapolis when I was about 5—she was astounded that her sad tale of woe, submitted on an index card before the taping, didn’t result in her being selected to receive a dime store tiara, dozen long stemmed roses and whatever else the Queen got that day.

** When Jake was a teen, we lived in Bellevue, WA, close to the headquarters of Microsoft. Neighbors and friends told stories of running into Bill at the Dairy Queen or the lunch buffet at an Indian restaurant near the Microsoft campus. Although Jake loved that buffet and DQ, and we often went to both, we never ran into Bill. I did, however, sometimes run into Steve Balmer, but I’ll save that story for another post.

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Everyone Is Now In Job Training: The “Innovative Public Transportation Workforce Development Program (Ladders of Opportunity Initiative)”

Last month Isaac wrote about how the Jobs Plus Pilot Program show that HUD is getting back into jobs training. Now we’ve run into another odd job training program, and it too has an exhaustive name: Innovative Public Transportation Workforce Development Program (Ladders of Opportunity Initiative). The program offers funding to “to provide information, education, technical assistance, and peer support to families of children and youth with special health care needs (CYSHCN [which I defy anyone to pronounce]) and professionals who serve such families,” just like many other federal job-training programs.*

But why is the new program being done via the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and not the Department of Labor? We actually don’t have a good answer to this and would also ask: What happened to WIA, which is supposed to fund most job training initiative?

There’s another odd part of the program: FTA is the funder, but eligible applicants are not limited to local transit agencies. Instead, any public agency, nonprofit organization or Indian tribe is eligible to apply. This program is worth a close look, if your agency is involved in job training and there happens to be a local mass transit provider handy.

* Despite the similarities between this program and many others, however, you should declare that any program you propose is “innovative.”

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January 2012 Links: Paypal Problems, Inner-City Crime, Proposalese in the Media, Innovation, “Abstinence Education,” and More

* Do not ever use Paypal; this story from someone who gets their accounts frozen is fairly common. I had a nasty encounter with Paypal that guarantees I will never, ever use them again, and I can tell you from experience that their legal department is just as difficult and cruel as their so-called dispute resolution department.

* Fighting Inner-City Crime: When, and how, citizens should take action is a pressing question. Notice the author, Sudhir Venkatesh, who also wrote Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, which is useful for anyone developing proposal project concepts and needs assessments.

* “As [the] Public Sector Sheds Jobs, [Women] and Minorities Hurt Most.”

* A review of the new Seagate Momentus XT. I have the old version in my laptop and will say that it was a tremendous improvement over a regular, 5400 RPM laptop hard drive.

* The Research Bust:

[A]fter four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point, the cascade of research having exhausted most of the subfields and overwhelmed the capacity of individuals to absorb the annual output. Who can read all of the 80 items of scholarship that are published on George Eliot each year? After 5,000 studies of Melville since 1960, what can the 5,001st say that will have anything but a microscopic audience of interested readers?

* The brutal logic of climate change, an important and likely-to-be-ignored post.

* “The End of Stagnation and the Coming Innovation Boom;” especially note this:

Our ancestors were bold and industrious, they built a significant part of our transportation and energy infrastructure more than half a century ago. It would be impossible to build that same infrastructure today. Could we build the Hoover Dam? We have the technology, of course, but do we have the will? In building infrastructure many interest groups can say no and nearly no one can say yes. We are beset by a swarm of veto players. Time, however, is running out. We cannot rely on the infrastructure of our past to travel to our future.

I’ve seen the veto players and automatic “no” people in watching Seattle attempt to build a light-rail system to alleviate its atrocious traffic problems. The number of lawsuits and amount of issues are staggering, so it’s taken the city and other players literally decades to get anything done. The proposed California Bullet Train is another example of the same.

* Still: Tunnels: Seattle’s boring past filled with thrills:

In a world where most work is done with a keyboard and dispersed into electronic ether, their work is refreshingly real, lasting, utilitarian. Workers seem also to share a frontier can-do spirit. Masters of a subterranean universe, not for nothing is their line of work called heavy civil: a good name for a grunge band, or a workforce that stops at pretty much nothing.

* Unsurprising: Alabama Can’t Find Anyone to Fill Illegal Immigrants’ Old Jobs.

* [Bill] O’Reilly Gets Ambushed, just like he does to other people. One definition of a bully might be someone who can’t accept what they do to others or say about them.

* James Fallows: With Mitt’s Ascent, We’re Back to the ‘Mormon Question’, a very good post and one that changes what I think.

* Without comprehensive sex education, porn is the only solid information kids are getting about sex. File this under “the obvious.”

* A fascinating and largely accurate list of what kinds of inequality are acceptable and what kinds aren’t, by David Brooks:

Status inequality is acceptable for college teachers. Universities exist within a finely gradated status structure, with certain schools like Brown clearly more elite than other schools. University departments are carefully ranked and compete for superiority.

Status inequality is unacceptable for high school teachers. Teachers at this level strongly resist being ranked. It would be loathsome to have one’s department competing with other departments in nearby schools.

And people involved in each system probably believe in both without questioning why they do or how they came to believe what they believe. I would also be interested in seeing other lists of this kind and for other countries.

Brooks ends: “Dear visitor, we are a democratic, egalitarian people who spend our days desperately trying to climb over each other. Have a nice stay.” We may also believe that equality of opportunity doesn’t imply equality of results, although that itself might be acceptable to believe while it might not be acceptable to believe in many circles that we have equality of opportunity.

* David Henderson’s “Occupy Monterey” talks are fascinating in part because they reveal the basic economic illiteracy of much of his audience. There are three parts, all at the link; some of the comments shouted from people in the audience remind me of things I’ve heard peers and profs say in English departments.

* The No-Brainer Issue of the Year: Let High-Skill Immigrants Stay:

Behind Door #1 are people of extraordinary ability: scientists, artists, educators, business people and athletes. Behind Door #2 stand a random assortment of people. Which door should the United States open?

In 2010, the United States more often chose Door #2 [. . .]

* Get Ready for Manufacturing’s Big Comeback: “As the cost of doing business in China rises, U.S. manufacturing could be on the verge of a renaissance.”

* Famous Authors’ Harshest Rejection Letters. It’s amazing to me not only how little we know, but how little we know how little we know (read that twice).

* We haven’t met the aliens because they’ve become enmeshed in video games. Alternately, the reason we haven’t met any aliens morphs with the contemporary issues we’re starting to notice; during the Cold War, nuclear annihilation was a probable parable. Today, it’s cultural suicide abetted by technology.

* The slow erosion of legal rights; “terrorism” and “drugs” appear to be the keys to removing Constitutional safeguards.

* Ending the Infographic Plague.

* I already linked to this but see no reason no to do so again, since a reader sent it to me: Bookshelf porn. Note that this involves no actual nudity; the books are closed.

* “The secret lives of feral dogs: A Pennsylvania city instructs police to shoot strays, opening a sad window on animal care in the age of austerity.”

* “The average health care insurance premium today is over $15,000 and by 2021 it may be headed to $32,000 or so (admittedly that estimate is based on extrapolation);” that’s from “The median wage figure and the health care costs figure.”

* “The fragile teenage brain: An in-depth look at concussions in high school football.” After reading about the many football concussion studies, I’ve learned that a lot of the brain damage football causes isn’t from single big hits—it’s from many small hits that accrue in practice and elsewhere. There is no way I’d let my kid play football.

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Federal Naming Conventions, EDA’s i6 Challenge, the Future of Innovation, and the Ministry of Silly Walks

Carefully study this screenshot of EDA’s website for the i6 Challenge:

Bear in mind that the purpose of the i6 program is “to support groundbreaking ideas in science and technology,” and ideally to fund really innovative stuff (in this respect it’s like i3 or any number of federal programs). But you might notice something funny about the screenshot: whoever designed the website either didn’t test it in Firefox or didn’t test it in Firefox for OS X. This is pretty funny, since Firefox is the web browser of choice for geeks and basically restarted the development of web browsers in general after Microsoft decided they’d won with Internet Explorer 6 and didn’t have to do anything anymore. And, as Paul Graham points out, lots of hackers are using Macs again.

In other words, lots of people at the forefront of technology are probably using the very tools that aren’t being tested for by a program designed to appeal to people at the forefront of technology.

The other funny thing about this program is the name, especially because we just had the the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) program from the Department of Education, to which i6 is completely unrelated, despite sharing a similar name. It raises a number of questions, like whether there is any limit to the number of programs with “i” in them, whether those programs must be a multiple of 3, or why the letter “i” is so much more popular than its close siblings “h” and “j.” We’re also apparently missing i1 – i2 and i4 – i5, which is a bit like HUD’s Hope VI. What happened to the rest of the HOPE programs, like V?

Anyway, this mixture of numbers and faux acronyms and what not makes me think there should be a ministry of federal program names, related to the ministry of silly walks:

(Sample dialog: “I have a silly walk, and I’d like to obtain a government grant to help me develop it.”)

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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).