Tag Archives: Investing in Innovation

Grant-seeking dinosaurs look up: The bright light in the sky is an asteroid

For reasons not clear to me, I am on the (usually) happy-talk email distribution list of Dorothy Stoneman, doyenne of YouthBuild USA, the trade group for the 273 or so YouthBuild providers across America. I’ve never met Dorothy, who is generally affable in her emails and is a tireless advocate and change agent (note: the preceding phrase is a free example of proposolese for you to use at your discretion, although I prefer “tireless organizational change agent” to really get grant reviewers hot and steamy).

Since Congress began its on- and off-again assault on discretionary spending last fall, Dorothy’s periodic emails have become increasingly strident and alarmist, perhaps for good reason. Although we’ve written dozens of funded YouthBuild proposals over the years, including two in the most recent funding round, training at-risk youth and young adults for construction trade careers seems a little odd in the face of the collapse of the housing market. America has many problems at the moment, but a lack of affordable housing and skilled construction workers are not among them.

Dorothy’s June 5 call-to-arms communique says:

In the FY11 House budget in process before the November 2010 elections, the US Department of Labor (DOL) would have received $120M for the YouthBuild program. But after the elections, when the House changed hands, the House re-did the budget and funding for YouthBuild was eliminated.After a grueling negotiation, in which the Senate and the Administration supported YouthBuild, the final budget included $80 million for YouthBuild in DOL. This was a $47.5M cut from the funds appropriated in Fiscal Year 2010. (FY10). As a direct result, in May, one hundred twenty one (121) of DOL’s 226 previously-funded YouthBuild grantees lost their funding. Only 105 YouthBuild programs are funded by DOL for 2011-2013 [Shameless Plug: two of these courtesy of Seliger + Associates grant writing prowess!]. Hundreds of organizations applying for the first time were also turned down. Can you imagine the devastation to those 121 communities of losing this pathway out of poverty for the most disadvantaged young adults? Imagine the heartbreak of the adults* who have worked so hard and fought to bring these opportunities to the young people in their communities?

According to Dorothy, the end of the world is nigh for YouthBuild grantees and the at-risk young folk who presumably will end badly without YouthBuild training. I imagine Gene Wilder in Woody Allen’s hilarious “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex” Drinking Woolite from a bottle after he loses his literally beloved sheep, Daisy.

Dorothy shouts about the deleterious impact of lowered YouthBuild funding on “America’s most disadvantaged communities” (another proposalese gem); she advises lovelorn YouthBuild grantees and supporters to call their congresspeople and senators, of course, to beg for more YouthBuild funding. Call me cynical, but I think the chance of increased funding for YouthBuild is about zero.

Dorothy’s breathless email immediately conjured up the classic cartoon image of a gaggle of brontosauruses (née brontosauri, much like “Winklevi?”) peacefully munching on treetops as that bright light in the sky gets bigger during the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction. All the lobbying by Brontosauri in the USA would not have helped 65 million years ago, and YouthBuld grantees are experiencing a K-T event whether or not they want to admit it. I know, because I can read the grant tea leaves and I’ve talked to about a half-dozen YouthBuild grantees in the last month.

Here’s what we recommend to our YouthBuild and other clients who provide job training:

* Apply for YouthBuild and whatever other job training grants are still available, as it takes government agencies a bit of time to turn the Titanic. Keep in mind, however, that it is fairly pointless to train people for jobs that don’t exist. For example, most Workforce Investment Act (WIA) programs, whether funded by the Department of Labor or a local Workforce Investment Board (WIB), offer grants via reimbursement only if the agency meets its performance targets. Since agencies conducting construction training are spectacularly unlikely to meet performance targets, there is little point in receiving such an award.

These days most training providers offer training for low-level health care and service sector jobs (e.g., push the cash register button with the picture of a cheeseburger when you sell a cheeseburger, etc.). Although YouthBuild is not directly performance-based, we’ve noticed that our YouthBuild clients are emphasizing their ability to get their graduates into community college, a DOL-accepted though rarely discussed YouthBuild program outcome, instead of placing them in a “career ladder job with living wage potential in the world of work” (another free proposalese phrase—there’s one in every box of GWC).

* While waiting around for job training grants, turn your YouthBuild program from a brontosaurus into a fleet-footed mammal by using the agency’s skills and track record to provide remedial education and related supportive services. Since every YouthBuild program has the same three components—adult basic education (ABE), job training and leadership development (YouthBuild-talk for wraparound supportive services)— kick out the middle leg, making the tricycle a bicycle, and go after programs like the Department of Education’s Upward Bound program, for which an RFP with about $350 million up for grabs should be issued in a couple of months. Or form a partnership with an LEA and take a flyer on the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, which has an RFP with $172 million on the street as I write this.

With almost one-third of American youth failing to graduate from high school and many graduates unable to read or write, it’s fairly obvious that there are going to be many grant opportunities for remedial education over the next few years. Even the usually indefatigable Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is soon going to issue waivers to all public schools from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind requirement that all children pass proficiency tests. Without the waivers, 83% of American public schools would be labeled as “failing” next year (I am not making this up).

Or watch for the cascade of discretionary grant programs authorized and funded under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare,” or the Grant Writer’s Relief Act, as we call it around the office). The Affordable Care Act is larded with grant opportunities, many of which involve “outreach.” That’s another way of saying “walkin’ around money for clever mammalian nonprofits.”

In face of rapid grant climate change, it is not a good idea to either continue nibbling on tree tops or run around in pointless circles as the asteroid looms. Get busy, re-think your agency’s strengths, and unleash your inner grant writer. Let the Dorothy Stonemans of the world, who have a real vested interest in keeping YouthBuild (YouthBuild USA, for example, is not going to sell many licenses to use the word “YouthBuild” to nonprofits without the DOL program) and similar archaic funding programs going. Instead, widen your agency’s funding streams beyond job training. There are tons of grants available, even if you have to root around to find them, rather than blissfully picking off the last choice leaf on a withering treetop.


*Note to Would Be Grant Writers: Do not use this kind of overwrought lingo in your proposals. Whenever I read, “the heartbreak of _______________,” I think of the Heartbreak of Psoriasis TV commercials that ran when I was a teenager. I didn’t know what psoriasis was, but I did know that not having a date to my Junior Prom at age 15, not a skin condition, was genuine heartbreak. I did, however, get asked to the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance that year, so all was not lost.