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Market Tanks, Donors Disappear, Corporate Givers Vanish: Not to Worry, This is a Great Time to Write Proposals

“Dow Down 500! Dow UP 400! Lehman Brothers Bankrupt! President Proposes $700 Billion Bailout!”* It’s not been easy reading the morning paper the last few weeks without spilling my coffee. This morning’s Wall Street Journal featured Nonprofits Brace for Slowdown in Giving, a scary article about the prospect of nonprofits not being able to raise funds. The intrepid reporters, Mike Spector and Shelly Banjo, say:

The failure of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and pain at other big firms threaten to cut into the corporate and individual donations that more than a million nonprofit organizations rely on for basic operations and charitable programs.

Then assorted nonprofits are trotted out with tales of woe and portents of looming, dire cuts to staff and programs. The United Way of New York City is even going to sponsor “a town hall meeting on the future of nonprofits.” Yikes—maybe the sky is falling. But the magic words “grants” and “grant writing” were absent. The article assumes, like most Americans, that nonprofits exist solely with donations, art auctions, direct mail and the like, forgetting the vast amount of funding available in the form of grants from federal, state and local governments, as well as foundations. While it will undoubtedly be harder for a nonprofit to get a wealthy donor to part with their money, particularly one with ties to the financial sector, there are plenty of foundations, including those related to such booming industries as oil and technology, with tons of grant funds available, as well as billions from all levels of government.

Nonprofit executives should stop worrying about their Christmas card sale fundraiser or silent auction of obscure art pieces by even more obscure artists and get busy conducting grant source research and grant writing, especially because the federal year ends September 30 and the flood of FY ’09 RFPs will arrive in short order like the buzzards returning to Hinckley, Ohio. In addition, the current chaos in the financial and housing sectors are sure to result in new programs and higher levels of funding for some existing programs, particularly those in various economic development and job training programs. For example, I would expect the Public Works and Economic Development Program of the Economic Development Administration (EDA) to get a big boost in its appropriation, which EDA will try mightily to spend quickly for the same reason nonprofits should spend their grant funds quickly. Seliger + Associates wrote lots of funded EDA grants in the mid-1990s, following the last big recession, for projects ranging from street construction in LA to rehabilitating a salmon cannery in Alaska. Similarly, expect lots of new money to be available from the Department of Labor for Youthbuild and other training programs. The bailout bill currently being negotiated between the Bush administration and Congress should be lit up like a Christmas tree with shiny “grant ornaments” before passing.

Even if I am wrong, however, and no new programs or unexpected funding results from the emerging recession, there are still plenty of grant funds available for nonprofits willing to put in the hard work to find them and apply. When economic times are good, it’s relatively easy for almost any nonprofit to lure the usual suspects** into donating. But times are not good; so, if want to keep your nonprofit going, stop worrying and start (grant) writing.

* My favorite quote on government funding was by the late Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who famously may or may not have said,“A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money”.

** For a mind bending experience even harder than understanding federal regulations, see a truly great and surreal film, The Usual Suspects. Who was Keyser Soze, anyway?