Tag Archives: mark zuckerberg

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.

Wraparound supportive services and Zuckerberg’s school reform donations

This is one of series of technical posts that explain key grant writing concepts. Today’s lesson concerns the concept of wraparound supportive services, which we include in every human services grant proposal we write—as we first wrote about in “Sign Me Up for Wraparound Supportive Services, But First Tell Me What Those Are.”

I was reminded of the importance of wraparound supportive services because of Dale Russakoff’s book The Prize, which is reviewed in today’s New York Times Sunday Book Review by Alex Kotlowitz. The Prize details the attempt of politicians (Cory Booker and Chris Christy) to turn the incredibly bad Jersey City public school system around over the past five years, largely using a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It seems that Mr. Zuckerberg’s huge donation was ineffective:

When Zuckerberg declared his grant, the agenda was pretty clear: Turn the Newark schools around in five years and make it a national model. But from the get-go, there seemed little agreement as to how best to proceed. More than anything, Christie wanted to break the hold of the entrenched teachers’ unions. Booker wanted more charter schools. Zuckerberg wanted to raise the status of teachers and to reward teaching that improved students’ performance . . . “I’m not giving anything away by telling you that this bold effort in Newark falls far short of success.”

While I haven’t read the book, the review illustrates the naivety of new tech billionaire philanthropists regarding how public agencies and nonprofits actually work, as I wrote about before with respect to Sean Parker’s new foundation. More interestingly, the NYT review ends by telling us that Zuckerberg is doubling down on his public school reform efforts by giving $120 million to “high poverty” schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, despite the apparent fiasco in Jersey City. I’ll give him props for persistence, particularly when I read this at the end of the review:

This time, though, they declared their intent to include parents and teachers in the planning process. But more to the point, a key component to their grants includes building “a web of support for students,” everything from medical to mental health care. Zuckerberg came to recognize that school reform alone isn’t enough, that if we’re going to make a difference in the classroom, we also need to make a difference in the lives of these children, many of whom struggle against the debilitating effects of poverty and trauma. Here is where this story ends — but also where the next story begins.

To a grant writer, Zuckerberg’s insight about a “web of support for students” and Kotlowitz’s breathless look to the future illustrate that neither knows much about public education in Title I schools, which is how the US Department of Education, as well as state and local education agencies, designate “high poverty schools.” The feds have been giving boatloads of extra money to Title I schools since 1965, with no more obvious success than Zuckerberg experienced in Jersey City. Most Title I schools already offer variations on the kind of “web of support” that Zuckerberg is planning for targeted Bay Area schools. In addition, an army of nonprofit human services providers in the Bay Area do exactly the same thing for at-risk youth. We’ve worked for many of them. These nonprofits will certainly be interested in grants from the Zuckerberg donation to provide yet more wraparound supportive services.

Wraparound supportive services for at-risk low-income students is not an innovation. Also, referral for wraparound supportive services is usually required in most federal RFPs and foundation guidelines. But what are wraparound supportive services?

They’re any kind of helper services other than the primary service proposed for funding with the grant. For example, in a youth job training proposal, one would propose a wraparound supportive service of referral for substance abuse treatment, while in a youth substance abuse treatment proposal, one would propose a wraparound supportive service of job training.

The basic idea is that all targeted populations for any human services grant proposal face a panoply of problems beyond the specific issue at hand—a 16-year-old high-school student at risk of dropping out probably has substance abuse issues, involvement in the juvenile justice system, no job skills and so on. Since there’s never enough grant money to solve every problem faced by the client, the grant writer claims something like, “clients will receive the full range of case-managed wraparound supportive services to meet needs beyond the project scope identified in their individual intake assessment by referral to appropriate collaborating public and private service providers.” [free proposal sentence here]

Typical wraparound supportive services include: pre-employment skills training, job training, job placement, assistance with legal problems, tattoo removal, primary health care, dental care, behavioral health services, remedial education leading to a GED/high school diploma, life skills training, and anything else you want to toss in the mix. The keys are: assessment at intake, development of an Individual Supportive Services Plan, referral to meet identified needs, case management to verify that services are being accessed and follow-up (usually for 12 months). In many cases, the proposal includes letters of support from referral agencies to demonstrate that these mythical supportive services will actually be available. In the real world, who knows how much of this occurs, but in the proposal world, all of this works seamlessly.

A version of wraparound supportive services is presumably what Zuckerberg has in mind as the “web of support” for the students at his targeted Title I Bay Area schools. He’s in for a couple of surprises. First, providing actual case-managed services is very expensive, as the Case Manager to client ratio shouldn’t be more than about 1: 20 if the program is going to have any hope of impact.

In addition, most of these youth will have already had plenty of wraparound supportive services, beginning with Head Start and continuing on in their Title I schools. There’s no shortage of Case Managers in low-income communities. There is a shortage of motivation and properly aligning incentives.

In some human proposals, we’ve even proposed a sort of “Super Case Manager” to wrangle all of the Case Managers and other helper adults in the young person’s life. It’s not unusual for an at-risk youth to have Case Managers from the foster care system, family court, juvenile justice, welfare and schools, all vying for their attention. The young person may have trouble finding time to go to school, given the endless case management meetings and referral services she must attend. But this is real world stuff. Keep wraparound supportive services in your grant proposals and don’t tell Zuckerberg. He’ll find out soon enough.

Collaboration is Often Inefficient: The Camille Paglia, Mark Zuckerberg, and Chris Christie examples

Almost all RFPs include requirements for “collaboration” with local entities. Yet I recently read this from Camille Paglia:

After endless quarrels with authority, prankish disruptiveness, and impatience with management and procedure, I now see that hierarchical as both beautiful and necessary. Efficiency liberates; egalitarianism tangles, delays, blocks, deadens.

(Emphasis added.)

Furthermore, in the fascinating article “Schooled: Cory Booker, Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg had a plan to reform Newark’s schools. They got an education,” Dale Russakoff writes:*

Early in the summer of 2010, Booker presented Christie with a proposal, stamped “Confidential Draft,” titled “Newark Public Schools—A Reform Plan.” It called for imposing reform from the top down; a more open political process could be taken captive by unions and machine politicians. “Real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously,” the proposal said. Seeking consensus would undercut real reform.

(Emphasis added.)

Neither hierarchical nor egalitarian decision processes are automatically better. They’re different. Highly open, transparent processes work in some situations and don’t work in others. You’d never know that from reading contemporary RFPs, however, which make endless consensus building sound like an eternal truth akin the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Many if not most successful companies aren’t run on a primarily consensus basis. At Apple, if Steve Jobs said the bezel should be one millimeter, then the bezel was one millimeter regardless of what anyone else thought. He got the right answers, at least in terms of revenue. The bosses at Google appear to get a lot of answers right. As we’ve said before, nonprofits are more like businesses than is commonly realized. They compete with each other, and within the organization the Executive Director can (usually) fire people at will. That’s particularly true when an Executive Director says, “This is the way it’s going to be,” and a subordinate staff member refuses, or wants to keep litigating after a decision has been made.

Sometimes fast, “wrong” decisions are better than slow, “right” decisions—and open, transparent, consensus-driven projects can be subject to self-interest. In Seattle, for example, it has taken literally decades to build even very simple light rail lines, in part because every constituent along the way first had to be consulted and then had to file a lawsuit, which had to be fought, and only then could the effort proceed. We’ve got so much process involved that in building that we’re too often unable to build anything.

In the real world, organizations collaborate to the extent they need to and don’t collaborate to the extent they don’t. Smart executive directors ask knowledgable parties for information and input, then they make the best decisions they can based on the information they have.

That can mean telling someone they don’t get what they want. That’s how life works, as Paglia understands. Subordinates who are sufficiently disruptive might eventually be fired. Those who think current management is dumb can decide that “You Don’t Have to be in a Shithole Nonprofit.” For most nonprofits in most fields, quitting and starting a new nonprofit is a viable option. There are some situations in which the local powers-that-be can block new entrants to market—as anyone who wants to provide homeless services and gets crosswise with their local Continuum of Care can attest—but in most situations grants, whatever their other flaws, are a market-based system.

Someone who thinks they can do it better than the competition can make a go. We’ve worked for lots of upstart nonprofits that want to take grants or contracts away from the local heavies. We’ve also worked for lots of incumbent nonprofits worried about local upstarts (threatening the local power structure is one way to ensure that better proposals get written). Neither upstarts nor incumbents are inherently “better.” The situation is always situational. Too bad RFP writers don’t realize it.


* We’ve worked for clients in Camden, albeit smaller but very similar to Newark, and parts of the article read like our needs assessments.

Eat What You Kill: If You’re Not Hunting Grant Programs, You’re Not Eating

Mark Zuckerberg is supposedly only eating animals he kills this year. It’s a “personal challenge” for him, rather like not eating Big Macs for the rest of us.*

It’s easy to wonder how eating-what-you-kill as a metaphor might apply to the rest of Zuckerberg’s life, but since I’m not friends with him I can’t ask. Nonetheless, you can probably can imagine how this metaphor applies to grants: in times when you’re prospecting for grants, you should be a bear and bite any salmon, as Isaac wrote at the link. You can’t afford to be as picky as you might otherwise be.

In an idealized world, you’d probably get your preferred mix of grants, donations, and contracts, with a heavy emphasis on donations unencumbered by donor restrictions. I’d also like someone to randomly give me a million bucks, but that doesn’t seem real likely, and if someone did give me a million bucks, I’d worry that I was walking into a movie—specifically, a thriller with lots of murky motives that might leave the protagonist dead at the end. So I write proposals and teach undergraduates instead of waiting for magical money that, even if it did appear, would probably result in a scenario like the one described in Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan (hint: the title is ironic. Also, the book is quite good and highly recommended).

So if, like me, your organization doesn’t to exist in an idealized world, the desired blend of funding streams is not going to magically appear. Which means you should take what you can get. Until the recent financial crisis, for example, a lot of organizations could rely on capitated funds and contracts through cities, counties, and sometimes states, which provided steady, reliable sources of incomes to supplement donations and the occasional grant. Now a lot of organizations that once relied on such sources simply don’t have them. They can’t go to Safeway and pick up a nicely cut chicken.

They have to eat what they kill, like Zuckerberg, although Mark is doing so by choice and can send someone out to Whole Foods for a chicken or 12 anytime he feels like adopting a new philosophical stance. You can’t, and as a result the number and quality of grants that organizations apply for takes on greater urgency. One reason we like discussing Upward Bound so much is simple: it offers the possibility of five years of uninterrupted funding. That can carry an agency that might otherwise become skeletal through the lean times that continue.

Most organizations simply don’t have good alternatives to grants any more. They shouldn’t be worried about finding some existential balance between donations and grants; they should be taking whatever they can get. There aren’t a lot of choices; some organizations are trying to survive one Bratwurst at a time, as we described a few years ago, but fundraisers like washing cars and selling food are really tough, especially since you’ll naturally be up against professionals whose job is selling bun-wrapped meat or cleaning vehicles.

We’re not fools: we know that most nonprofits would rather have donors rain money on their head. I’d like to win the Lotto or an inheritance and be an artist full-time, but that’s not incredibly likely for me in the short term. For nonprofits, easy money from the Stimulus Bill is gone. You’re back to the basic stuff. You can debate this all day, but the proposals have to be written. You have to eat what you kill. If you’re not ready to wield the knife, you should hire somebody who will.


* I finished reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and among many other fascinating tidbits Isaacson describes Jobs’s numerous nutritional oddities surrounding food and Jobs’s belief in the possibility food offers for transcendence. Jobs went through periodic dietary restrictions, like eating and drinking only fruit or fruit juices, being a vegan, and fasting. I wonder about the extent to which this impacted his illness and how, if at all, his unusual eating beliefs were tied to the extreme achievement in other aspects of his life.