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The effects of early childhood education programs don’t look good: a large, randomized pre-kindergarten study

There’s a large, new study out on the “Effects of a statewide pre-kindergarten program on children’s achievement and behavior through sixth grade,” and it’s important and unusual because of its results: it finds that pre-k education doesn’t help later educational or behavioral achievement and, if anything, hurts later student achievement. This study is also significant due to its comprehensiveness; the study follows 3,000 kids, who appear to be randomly assigned to pre-k services or not, and the study follows those kids for a long period of time—at least seven years, it seems, and possibly longer. I’ve not got the full manuscript yet but am seeking a copy. Most education studies are observational, in that they observe two or more cohorts, but they don’t use randomized controls, like this one does, and observational studies are particularly prone to bias. The new study is also pre-registered—that is, the authors say what they’re looking for, what success looks like, and how they’re going to measure success before they get their data. There’s a “replication crisis” in social science and medicine, because it’s possible to torture a positive result out of all sorts of data, and this study avoids most if not all of the common pitfalls.

The study’s abstract says:

Data through sixth grade from state education records showed that the children randomly assigned to attend pre-K had lower state achievement test scores in third through sixth grades than control children, with the strongest negative effects in sixth grade. A negative effect was also found for disciplinary infractions, attendance, and receipt of special education services, with null effects on retention

Wow: that’s counter to the intuition of most people, politicians involved in early childhood education, and “common wisdom.” The study is not the last word—no study is—but it is persuasive. For most practitioners, this won’t be immediately relevant, because Head Start and Pre-K For All aren’t likely to see real changes in the near term. But we may see the political winds change over time.

This post is not a policy recommendation: as grant writers, we don’t do policy recommendations, although I do think a lot of students are in college who’d be better served by alternatives, and yet society as a whole hasn’t yet figured that out or properly grokked it, even as total student loans owed passes $1 trillion. But, if America wants to do some form of daycare for all (“universal daycare”), as is proposed in the stalled Build Back Better legislation, that’s a fine goal and we should call it that, instead of pretending it’s possible to have academic, “educational” experiences for the vast majority of kids under the age of five. Four-year olds are not falling “behind,” because, except in the case of unusual prodigies, there is nowhere to fall behind. If anything, excess regimentation and premature optimization are likely to be bigger problems than “falling behind.”

I’ve long been somewhat suspect of early childhood “education”—not from studies per se, but from being around small children. Most don’t have the executive function to do much in the way of what might be called “education.” Trying to create “education” in the sense that we see with older kids or adults seems improbable for very young children. The veneer of “education” using “curriculums” like “The Creative Curriculum” and “The Creative Curriculum GOLD” that we cite in grant proposals seems faintly ridiculous; whether or not a four-year old can identify different kinds of leaves or songs or animals by name doesn’t seem to indicate how that four-year old will do in middle or high school, or college. But there’s a lot of social and economic anxiety around class, economic achievement, and housing; we’ve collectively adopted policies focused on creating scarcity, not abundance, and that’s resulted in intense, and probably pointlessly intense, competition in many fields.

Trying to indoctrinate small children into social, academic, and economic competition culture seems difficult to me, and yet that’s been one response to scarcity policies. Making early childhood teachers, who are really more like caregivers in the classroom, have degrees or advanced degrees seems like a way of raising the cost of childcare without providing much in benefits; everyday human experience seems to be sufficient for taking care of small kids. Maybe small kids are learning cultural markers and such in the early early childhood education setting that will help them later, but, if so, that later help isn’t showing up in the data. There’s a lot of desire to make education a panacea for various kinds of social and economic inequality, but that desire keeps running up against uncomfortable ideas (I won’t call them “truths,” although some might).

Head Start was launched in 1965 as on the initial programs in President Johnson’s “War on Poverty;” if there’s been a large boost in real educational attainment (which is different from “degrees achieved”), I’ve not seen it. I’ve been teaching college undergrads since 2008, and in that time my anecdotal impression is that smartphones and social media have been net bad for learning, noting however that some people do leverage Internet technologies to learn more and faster than they could without. Anecdotes are not data, but, since the late ’90s and early ’00s, we here at Seliger + Associates Grant Writing have been writing proposals for programs like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC), and in that time we’ve not seen learning substantially improve from the dissemination of computers and the Internet. In 2013, I wrote a post about a pair of studies finding that computer access appears, if anything, to lower educational attainment. In 2015, I wrote about Kentaro Toyama’s book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology. “Computers in education” is not the same thing, obviously, as early childhood education, but both are attempts at improving education and life outcomes that are popular but may not be efficacious. If you work in the education industry with students ages 10 or higher—ages old enough for smart phones to have penetrated the population—ask those around you to look at their Apple “Screen Time” app or Android “Digital Wellbeing” controls. Those show how many minutes or hours a day a smartphone is being used, and what a person is doing on that phone. From what I’ve observed, very few people are using the book apps, the Duolingo systems for language learning, or Anki for space-repetition learning. Ask around, see what you find. Think about what that might mean.

Real education is hard. I’ve tried to impart some to students. Probably it’s always been hard and always will be. We should collectively try to do better while also understanding what might be limited, what might be futile, and what might be counterproductive. I’m struck by, at the college level, how little time is spent trying to learn how to teach more effectively, and friends who teach in K – 12 often report the same.

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Smash-and-grab robbery epidemic, economic development, and grant writing

There seems to be a growing smash-and-grab flash mob phenomenon, which is being widely reported in the media, with the practice starting in California, New York City, and Chicago and now spreading to other places like Minneapolis. These highly organized attacks are presumably being instigated by gangs of some sort; while most media accounts discuss police action or inaction, this post focuses on the likely disastrous outcomes for low-income communities—while offering a glimmer of hope for nimble nonprofits.

Before I set up Seliger + Associates in 1993, I worked for about 15 years in redevelopment, mostly in low-income African American neighborhoods, starting as a community organizing* college intern for the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority in North Minneapolis, and later for four years as Economic Development Manager for the City of Lynwood and eight years as Redevelopment Manager for the City of Inglewood** in South Central Los Angles. I know first hand how hard it is to get developers to build retail facilities in low-income communities, and it’s harder still to get large chain retailers to open stores and operate them over the long term. You can ignore the social justice slogan virtual signaling of large corporate tweets or marketing, and pay attention to what they do in the real world, which is to largely avoid investing in low-income communities. Corporations work to appeal to their customers’ sensibilities, and most customers aren’t closely following the minutia of what a corporation really does, as opposed to what its marketing implies.

While it’s been interesting to read stories and watch videos of dozens of masked looters descending on high end stores like Nordstrom’s and Louis Vuitton, one smash and grab incident hit home to me: the CVS drug store in the Vermont-Slauson Shopping Center in South Central Los Angeles. I think this was the first shopping center built anywhere in South Central after the Watts Rebellion in 1965, and it was a remarkable achievement, because the few retailers that existed in South Central in 1965 fled as part of the overall “white flight” phenomenon after the rebellion. The Vermont-Slauson Economic Development Corporation, the nonprofit that developed the Center, was one of Seliger + Associates’ first clients, and I spent many afternoons in the office of then-Executive Director, Marva Smith Battle-Bey, a wonderful and dedicated woman who passed in 2016.

When I worked in Lynwood and Inglewood from 1978 to 1990, there was not a single chain drugstore in either city, and I wasn’t able to recruit any—despite years of trying and dangling huge redevelopment incentives. With the exception of making a deal in Inglewood for the first Price Club in the LA area (Price Club later merged with Costco), it proved impossible to attract national retail brands. In Lynwood, I reached out to the national real estate manager for K-Mart, then the dominant US big box retailer, to see if K-Mart would take over a vacant department store in the city. This guy listened to my pitch and said: “We know Lynwood. You could build the store, give it to K-Mart free, and we wouldn’t operate it.” When I was in Inglewood, the now now-defunct company Circuit City popped up as one of the first national “category killer” retailers. I found their national real estate manager and again made my pitch. He said: “We’ve already looked at Inglewood. You don’t have the demographics for a Circuit City”—meaning, too many poor black residents. That’s how hard economic development and redevelopment can be. Arguably, online delivery has alleviated some of these challenges, much like Uber and Lyft alleviated the some of the risks of trying to hail a taxi while black, but they’re still present and with us.

If this smash and grab epidemic continues, CVS and other national retailers will close their stores (Walgreens has already closed 18 stores in San Francisco, which, for the most part, isn’t low income, but it also doesn’t enforce or prosecute shoplifting) in low-income communities and flee to the suburbs, exurbs, and cities perceived as having strong law enforcement. This will especially hurt low-income folks in places like California, New York City, and Chicago that have effectively legalized shoplifting, or, in its organized form, flash mob looting. The stage is being set for the emergence of “pharmacy and retail deserts” to join the food deserts that we often include in our grant proposal needs assessments. Grant writers, take heed.

Still, the rapid assault on retailers may have some positive impacts for nimble nonprofits and grant writers: as drug stores and other retailers flee, the shopping centers and stand-alone stores will remain. These will present opportunities for nonprofits to seek grants for adaptive reuse as affordable housing, lower end retail (flash mobs are less likely to do a smash and grab at a Dollar Store or Old Navy), or community centers/human services providers like FQHC satellite sites (we wrote a funded grant years ago to convert an abandoned shopping center into a youth center in Milwaukee).

Also, anyone seeing the videos knows the looters are what we call in the grant writing biz, “at-risk vulnerable youth and young adults.” This presents a great needs assessment argument for any youth services project concept, including workforce development. For example, the DOL just issued the FY ’22 RFP for YouthBuild and we’ll include the smash and grab trope in the needs assessment for any urban YouthBuild proposals we write this year.

This situation also illustrates the importance of nonprofits and grant writers paying attention to emerging bad news in American society. Before opioid funding for medication-assisted treatment (MAT) became common from HRSA and SAMHSA, for example, news articles began describing what was happening on the streets. Most disasters, natural or manmade, mean new grant opportunities on the horizon. The feds, states, and large cities/counties will soon respond to the smash and grab crisis by issuing RFPs for both economic development (likely through the recently passed Infrastructure Bill) and youth supportive services. The lyrics of one of the great songs in West Side Story will give you the outline for your needs assessment for a youth services proposal to counter flash mobs: “Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset; We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get. We ain’t no delinquents,We’re misunderstood. Deep down inside us there is good!”

* Like President Obama, I was trained as a Saul Alinsky community organizer and worked as a community organizer for a year.

** This was not the gentrifying “new Inglewood” of a billion-dollar stadium for the Raiders and Chargers; this was the old Inglewood of Tupac’s “California Love:” “Inglewood, always up to no good.”

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Do “child-care deserts” highlighted in the Washington Post really exist?

The Washington Post says, “A Minnesota community wants to fix its child-care crisis. It’s harder than it imagined.” Duluth City Councilperson Arik Forsman wants to solve the “region’s child-care crisis” and the reporter, Robert Samuels, vaguely cites “studies [that] have shown… more than half of the country lives in a child-care desert — places where there is a yawning gap between the number of slots needed for children and the number of existing spaces at child-care centers.” The link in his story leads to the highly partisan Center for American Progress website, which defines a child-care desert crisis using cherry-picked data to fit this definition: “any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.”

Numerous rural census tracks are likely not to have any child-care providers, due to vast travel distances and low population density, but could still meet the low bar of 50 young children. The second part of the definition presupposes that most parents want to place their child in child-care, ignoring the reality that there still lots of people who don’t want their child in institutionalized child-care—they have one parent who stays home or who works at home (like I did when my kids, and S + A, were young). Some parents prefer to use family and friend networks. The cost of providing child-cage to infants and toddlers is very high—imagine trying to care for 30 kids, who are not potty-trained, and go on from there.

The “crisis” is based on specious data collected to make a political point, not address the actual issues. I know because we write lots of Head Start, Pre-K For All, and similar proposals under the umbrella of “early childhood education,” which is the theme for almost all child-care grant programs. Head Start is by far the largest publicly-funded early childhood education program and emphasizes “education.” Government funders always insist that child-care providers, including Early Head Start (birth – 3), focus on “education” rather than the custodial care model that largely disappeared 30 years ago. It officially disappeared; in reality, most children under age five are mentally equipped for play far more than they are for educational activities. Still, when we write a child-care/early childhood education proposal, we always state that the program will use the ever-popular “TeachingStratgies Creative Curriculum.” In this curriculum, even very young children are supposedly taught things like “pre-reading” (whatever that is) and other quasi-academic subjects. The typical “class schedule” for child-care programs, however, includes maybe two out of eight hours in alleged academic activities, with the rest of the day devoted to things like welcome and closing circles, snacks and lunch, hand-washing, nap time, outdoor/indoor play, etc.

Many contributing factors that come together to limit child-care options: just like with the affordable housing/homelessness crisis, much of the shortage of child-care slots is due to basic zoning rules (a topic we have covered extensively), as well as strict licensing requirements. In the abstract, most people support the idea of convenient child-care—until an actual facility is proposed down the street, and then existing residents think about 60 frisky kids whooping it up on their block, with fleets of parents dropping-off and picking-up kids. This type of proposal brings out the NIMBYs in force. They will use zoning to fight this “blighting” influence—and will usually win.

Also, ever since the hysteria over the fake McMartin Preschool abuse scandal in 1983, child-care facility regulations, even for home-based child-care, have become very stringent. While likely a good thing overall, this drives up the cost of operating child-care facilities. Even Head Start programs, which are fully federally-funded, have a hard time opening new facilities and keeping them open. All child-care programs, whether for-profit or non-profit, operate on thin margins and can be sunk by regulatory problems.

Then, there’s the challenge of finding and keeping “teachers.” Since Head Start was created in 1965, the open secret has been that it’s as much of a jobs program as an early childhood eduction program. The teachers, who might have a certificate of some sort but are rarely licensed teachers, are often the same moms who put their kids in the program, creating a sort of closed-loop system.

This worked fairly well until a perfect storm recently hit. As we wrote about in early 2019 “The movement towards a $15 minimum hourly wage and the Pre-K For All program in NYC,” this effort spells trouble for all child-care programs—the Minnesota minimum wage rises to $10/hour on January 1, 2020 and is set to rise to $15/hour by 2022. Staff costs make up the vast majority of child-care program budgets and rapidly rising minimum wages mean higher fees for parents, and they require larger public subsidies (which are not available in most municipalities). Ergo, it’s much harder to open a child-care facility and keep it open, even if qualified staff can be found. With an unemployment rate of less than 4% in the Duluth area, good staff are hard to find.

In related news, “Government Standards Are Making 5-Year-Olds and Kindergarten Teachers Miserable.” It seems that the bureaucrats who make these decisions have never interacted with actual human five-year-olds.

Nonetheless, we’re delighted to add the concept of child-care deserts to the equally ephemeral “food deserts” concept we often use in proposals. In grant writing, it’s not possible to have too many Potemkin deserts to add color to otherwise drab needs assessments. And many funders are more excited about solving marginal problems than real ones, like regulatory overreach and zoning.

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Coding school is becoming everyone’s favorite form of job training

For many years, construction skills training (often but not always in the form of YouthBuild) was every funder’s and every nonprofit’s favorite form of job training, often supplemented by entry-level healthcare work, but today the skill de jour has switched to software, programming, and/or coding. Case in point: this NYT article with the seductive headline, “Income Before: $18,000. After: $85,000. Does Tiny Nonprofit Pursuit Hold a Key to the Middle Class?” While the article is overwhelming positive, it’s not clear how many people are going to make it through Pursuit-like programs: “Max Rosado heard about the Pursuit program from a friend. Intrigued, he filled out an online form, and made it through a written test in math and logic…” (emphasis added). In addition, “Pursuit, by design, seeks people with the ‘highest need’ and potential, but it is selective, accepting only 10 percent of its applicants.” So the organization is cherry-picking its participants.

There’s nothing wrong with cherry-picking participants and most social and human service programs do just that, in the real world. As grant writers who live in the proposal world, we always state in job training proposals that the applicant (our client) will never cherry-pick trainees, even though they do. In the article, important details about cherry-picking are stuck in the middle, below the tantalizing lead, so most people will miss them. I’m highlighting them because they bring to the fore an important fact in many social and human service programs: there is a tension between access and success. Truly open-access programs tend to have much lower success rates; if everyone can enter, many of those who do will not have the skills or conscientiousness necessary to succeed. If an organization cherry-picks applicants, like Pursuit does, it will generally get better success metrics, but at the cost of selectivity.

Most well-marketed schools succeed in “improving” their students primarily through selection effects. That’s why the college-bribery scandal is so comedic: no one involved is worried about their kid flunking out of school. Schools are extremely selective in admissions and not so selective in curriculum or grading. Studies have consistently suggested that where you go to school matters much less than who you are and what you learn. Such studies don’t stop people from treating degrees as status markers and consumption goods, but it does imply that highly priced schools are often not worth it. Thorstein Veblen tells us a lot more about the current market for “competitive” education than anyone else.

My digs at well-marketed schools are not gratuitous to the main point: I favor Pursuit and Pursuit-like organizations and we have worked for some of them. In addition, it’s clear to pretty much anyone who has spent time teaching in non-elite schools that the way the current post-secondary education system is set up is nuts and makes little sense; we need a wider array of ways for people to learn the skills they need to thrive. If Pursuit and Pursuit-like programs are going to yield those skills, we should work towards supporting more of them.

It is almost certainly not existing schools that are going to boost more people into the middle class, as they’ve become overly bureaucratic, complacent, and sclerotic; see also Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education on this subject. While many individuals within those systems may want change, they cannot align all the stakeholders to create change from within. Some schools, especially in the community-college sector, are re-making themselves, but many are not. In the face of slowness, however, nimble nonprofits and businesses should move where this grant wave is going.

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Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is Out and It’s Topical for More Than Just Police Departments

The Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program is back, most notably via the COPS Hiring Program (CHP), which has $134.5 million available for local law-enforcement agencies. This Clinton-era program has been around for a while but has special resonance this year due to a spate of police shootings and the civil unrest in Baltimore. President Obama is also giving a speech about community-oriented policing today. This adds up to a greater-than-usual focus on a particular set of grant programs, most of which occur beneath the radar of the media and national politicians.

cops - community oriented policing servicesIssues around policing aren’t coming from nowhere. Last year the New York Times published “War Gear Flows to Police Departments,” which sets the tenor for this year’s COPS programs and for federal restrictions on distribution of military-style equipment to police. The feds recently curtailed so-called “civil asset forfeiture,” which is an Orwellian phrase that means police can steal your property and money without prosecutors even convicting you of a crime.

Now, we’re not sure if police are genuinely killing more African Americans than they used to or if the topic has become more salient in the news. We are sure, however, that good cell phone cameras and widespread surveillance cameras have made it much easier for civilians to challenge police narratives and to show when cops lie. Videos also better show how cops sometimes behave antagonistically or cruelly. It’s impossible to watch the video of Eric Garner being choked to death by a cop and not think, “There has to be a better way to  prevent the sale of single cigarettes.”

Community-oriented policing is part of that idea. It’s opposed to quasi-military, occupation-style policing, which is periodically in vogue. After 9/11, cops became fascinated with military hardware and a war-zone footing (or, alternately, there was just a lot of military equipment and training going around, and a lot of cops also served in Iraq or Afghanistan). The “War on Drugs” uses the rhetoric of war to justify war-like behavior like “no-knock” home raids, but policing and war-fighting are supposed to be very different. Blurring them is not good for cops or societies.

From a grant writing perspective, the marketing blitz around COPS tells us that anything nonprofits propose that has to do with integrating the community with law enforcement is going to be a popular grant topic, because we’ve gone about as far as we can towards the military-style of policing. The legalizing of marijuana in Washington, Colorado, and Washington, DC, along with the de facto legalization in California and elsewhere, may signal a shift in drug prohibition. And federal agencies are probably being directed to take already allocated funds and use it for community-oriented policing and related project concepts when possible. Regulatory changes are likely occurring at the same time.

It isn’t just police departments that should be thinking about this. If you have, say, a Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Grant application in the works, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a letter from the police and to say that you’ll coordinate with cops to use community-oriented policing to, perhaps, encourage child support compliance.

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A shortage of jobs for qualified grant writers? Not that we’ve seen!

Mark Peters and David Wessel’s “More Men in Prime Working Ages Don’t Have Jobs: Technology and Globalization Transform Employment Amid Slow Economic Recovery” is an article you’ve already read 10,000 times, and the intro, as usual, is a dubious vignette:

Mark Riley was 53 years old when he lost a job as a grant writer for an Arkansas community college. “I was stunned,” he said. “It happened on my daughter’s 11th birthday.” His boss blamed state budget cuts.

(Emphasis added.)

If there’s a growing industry in America, it’s software development. If there’s an industry growing very fast but slower than software development, it’s grant writing. If Riley really can’t find a job as a grant writer—or become a consultant—there’s something amiss with him, not the industry. At Seliger + Associates we hear all the time about how nonprofit and public agencies can’t find good grant writers.

Axiomatically, however, those nonprofit and public agencies aren’t paying enough to attract qualified candidates—anytime you read about an alleged “shortage” of employees mentally ask yourself, “at what price?”—but nonetheless we are skeptical that qualified grant writers can’t find work. The key word in the preceding sentence is of course “qualified.”

Usually the laid-off-and-can’t-find-work stories are about workers in manufacturing or middle-level office jobs, and that convention exists for a reason: many of those jobs are genuinely disappearing, and the workers in them are either moving up to higher skill jobs, or down. That Peters and Wessel would choose a grant writer as an example is bizarre. That such a convention exists at all is also one small datum that explains why Ezra Klein is trying to build a new kind of news organization, one that perhaps would eliminate the convention altogether or at least deploy it more intelligently.

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Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the “Big Bootie” Problem in Grant Writing

This post is going to start in an incredibly boring fashion and then twist; first, the boring part: virtually every human and social service proposal, regardless of the target population, should at least nod to cultural sensitivity and related matters. Many RFPs specifically require applicants to address how project staff will be trained in cultural sensitivity and diversity to provide what is usually termed “culturally appropriate and specific services.”

But sometimes the impulse towards cultural sensitivity can go terribly wrong.

For one example of “cultural sensitivity gone wrong” check out “‘Bootie’ problem at CMS? Mom says offensive question went too far” or “Wrong Answer To The Wrong Question About A Big Bootie On High School Biology Test.” Both concern a question on a high school test about genetics:

“LaShamanda has a heterozygous big bootie, the dominant trait. Her man Fontavius has a small bootie which is recessive. They get married and have a baby named LaPrincess,” the biology assignment prompts students.

The assignment then continues to ask, “What is the probability that LaPrincess will inherit her mama’s big bootie?”

Here at Seliger + Associates, we don’t have any more details about the story apart from what we see in the media, and it would not shock us if this story is a hoax or if there is more going on than what appears in these news blurbs.* The more you know about the media the more skeptical you should be of any given story.

Nonetheless, let’s take this at face value and attempt to imagine what might have been going through the teacher’s mind: first off, the teacher said the worksheet “had been passed down to her by other teachers,” which indicates that she might not have looked closely at it. Since I’ve taught plenty of college classes, I can vouch for an instructor’s desire to use what’s been tested and teach efficiently. Secondly, though, she’s probably been hearing discourse and through mandated professional development about cultural sensitivity and incorporating non-dominant or non-Anglo cultures into her teaching for her entire career.

We’re not trying to defend the teacher, but we are saying that her thinking may be understandable, even if the execution is misplaced. Her conundrum, if it exists, can be stated simply: Where does cultural sensitivity end and cultural appropriation or cultural insensitivity begin?

We have no idea, and neither do most people, because each case has to be judged one by one. We don’t have a pithy answer to this conundrum. The need for introducing concepts around cultural sensitivity is real, but so is the danger of being offensive, either inadvertently or, conceivably, advertently. In the proposal world, the easiest way to avoid this problem is by praising and promising cultural sensitivity training without specifying what that will mean on the ground, which can help grant writers avoid obvious gaffes. As a grant writer you don’t want to introduce a big bootie-style problem into your proposal, but you also can’t ignore funders’s requirements. These requirements can sometimes lead to mistakes like the one described in the news articles above.

* Which often happens; it’s not uncommon for contemporary novels, like Tom Perrotta’s Election, Anite Shreve’s Testimony, or Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities to exploit the gap between shallow media understanding of an event and deeper understanding of an event.

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We’re writing about grant reality, not grant fantasy

We’ve gotten a number of e-mails and comments over the years in which people say we’re cynical or worse.* But that’s not really how we see it: we’re describing the realities of grant biz, which is a large component of the nonprofit biz. You might not like those realities or want to ignore them, but if you’re going to be successful in this line of work you can’t ignore them forever.

Our writing about and shedding light on the grisly processes behind the making of RFPs, the writing of proposals, and the running of grant funded programs does not change those processes. Arguably, by writing this blog, we’re laying the groundwork for real change, although were not sure what a “better” world for nonprofit and public agencies would look like. If enough people read our work, understand it, and want to take action, perhaps the grant writing world will improve. Nonetheless, right now we’re just reporting on and describing issues that almost no one who isn’t intimately involved in the grant process understands.

From time-to-time, we e-mail reporters who write, usually inaccurately, on grant-related issues, but none of those e-mails has amounted to anything. So the dirty details we know have mostly remained on this blog, or discussed in conversations with clients. (File this under “Why-oh-why can’t we have a better press corps?“)

While we’re waiting for that better press corps, a great deal of well-meaning nonsense gets written about nonprofits and public agencies. We’re here to write about realities, however, not fantasies, and, as with many fields, there are subtleties well-known to insiders that mystify or anger people who don’t see the ground-level perspective. There are many things we’re not privileged to know: what a “comptroller” does, say, or what it’s like to work as a high-end escort (google Client # 9, he’s in the news today). But we do know about grant writing and the dirty details of how money goes from the people or institutions with it to the people or institutions who want to do something with it.

Our basic philosophy is about success; nonprofits that don’t find a way of sustaining themselves shut their doors. Nonprofits that do persist and succeed. If you want to learn how to be one of the latter, read this blog. You might not like what you learn, but we don’t make the rules. We play the game, and we’ve been playing it for 20 years and are better at it than anyone else we’ve ever encountered.

* Our favorite is this one, from “P. Burkins”: “It’s like dealing with a great uncle. Often cranky and not very politically correct. But in the end, full of wisdom and more often than most would admit, spot on.”

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Nonprofits must keep searching for new revenue: “Communities for Teaching Excellence” and Gates Foundation funding

In the L.A. Times, Howard Blume says that a “Gates Foundation-funded education-reform group [is going] to close,” because the organization—Communities for Teaching Excellence—lost 75% of its funding. That 75% came from a single source: the Gates Foundation. This story holds an important lesson for nonprofits: you’re only as good as your current, and next, revenue source.

Actually, Blume says that the nonprofit’s board chair claims that Communities for Teaching Excellence decided to shut itself down:

But Communities for Teaching Excellence was not hitting its marks in terms of generating press coverage and building community coalitions, said Amy Wilkins, chairwoman of the board of directors. She said the board voted to shutter the organization; the Seattle-based Gates Foundation agreed with the decision.

This seems. . . improbable. We’ve rarely encountered a nonprofit that willingly shut down.* But we have encountered lots of nonprofits who ran out of money and then decided that their mission was complete and that they could move on. The situation is analogous to high-level political, military, and business leaders who are told to have their resignations on their bosses’ desks by the morning. All of us have seen that sort of thing in the news: “I would like to spend more time with my family. . .” is usually code for “was fired.”

Nonprofits shouldn’t rely on a single source of income. Plus, once you have income, use that source to leverage more.** A single source source—especially one with cachet like the Gates Foundation—makes it easier to get more, because foundations like a winner and like to be associated with winners.

Foundation and corporate giving programs, like venture capitalists, are herd animals, and they’ll assume that if someone else is funding you, you must be good. Sometimes they’re even honest about it, as an RFP from the Crossroads Fund makes clear: “We fund groups with budgets under $300,000, and look for organizations with diverse funding sources” (emphasis added).  I’ll leave their dubious use of commas aside and point out that they’re just unusually honest. As with the dating market, one victory tends to provide the social proof necessary to beget other victories, and Communities for Teaching Excellence already had one major victory.

But they may have stopped swimming, and as soon as they stop swimming, they died.*** Or they may have tried to keep going and simply done so ineffectively; we can only speculate from the outside. I’m guessing, however, that they succumbed to the disease often caused by success: assuming that you’re golden and can do no wrong.

Communities for Teaching Excellence itself was even doing some interesting work: the Gates Foundation “funded the development of new teacher-evaluation systems,” which is an issue that’s growing in importance. In The Atlantic, for example, Amanda Ripley explains “Why Kids Should Grade Teachers:”

A decade ago, an economist at Harvard, Ronald Ferguson, wondered what would happen if teachers were evaluated by the people who see them every day—their students. The idea—as simple as it sounds, and as familiar as it is on college campuses—was revolutionary. And the results seemed to be, too: remarkable consistency from grade to grade, and across racial divides. Even among kindergarten students. A growing number of school systems are administering the surveys—and might be able to overcome teacher resistance in order to link results to salaries and promotions.

I’m not sure that Communities for Teaching Excellence was working on this particular set of issues, but education reform does seem to have reached a critical mass. Maybe something substantive is actually happening in the field.

By the way, the chairwoman of the board also has a grant writer’s sense of proposal-ese:

“The field was more complex … and building these partnerships was more difficult than anybody had imagined,” Wilkins said. “The inventors of this organization had envisioned more robust activity at the local level than we were achieving.”

What does “complex” mean? What does “more robust activity at the local level mean” in this context? Blume either didn’t ask or didn’t tell us. That he regurgitates this kind of language is indicative of the problems of the newspaper industry as a whole: reporters not only don’t call people on their BS, but they repeat the BS.

* In the rare cases in which a nonprofit willingly shuts down, the shutdown is often caused by the departure of key staff people, or the death or departure of the founder or a major true believer.

** Other businesses face the same basic set of problems. We’ve occasionally been approached by organizations that want to buy the vast majority of our effective grant-writing capacity, and although those discussions have never gone very far, we also don’t want to be beholden to a single client, so wouldn’t take the offer.

*** This is similar to raising money for startups and being an academic (at least until tenure).

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Talk of the Nation, The Department of Education’s Arne Duncan, and Stimulus Slowness

On the way to Seliger + Associates’ new Tucson offices last week, I listened to Neal Conan conduct an interview with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that illustrates problems with both Stimulus Bill (ARRA) passthrough funding and media coverage of contentious issues.

Issue One: Stimulus Bill Distribution

Conan said that education stimulus funding to states had become entangled in bureaucratic morasses. Well, he actually cited NPR education reporter Claudia Sanchez’s reporting on how little stimulus money had gone anywhere because of disagreements about distribution, but I think my first sentence is more accurate. Duncan countered said that 25 states had applied and that more than $20 billion had gone “out the door.”

But neither number means much: which 25 states had applied? The big ones, or the small ones? How much had they distributed downwards? Why are states turning down federal money? And what does this say for the timeliness of the stimulus bill? In a February 16, 2009 post, Isaac wrote:

… despite the best intentions of our President and Congress—it’s going to take quite a while to get the money to the streets. Most Federal agencies usually take anywhere from three to six months to select grantees and probably another three months to sign contracts. My experience with Federal employees is that they work slower, not faster, under pressure, and there is no incentive whatsoever for a GS-10* to burn the midnight oil.

We’re now in June, and Duncan is proud that 25 states have applied and/or been approved for Stimulus Bill funding by the Department of Education. But “applying for or being approved” is another fairly pointless metric. It’s analogous to the Secretary saying that he’s proud that 25 million teenagers are in high school, when the actually important metric is how many graduate.

It seems likely that the inevitable bureaucratic snafus accompanying efforts like the Stimulus Bill are occurring as predicted in our Blog, since no the Feds seem unable to accurately detail the only metrics that matter, how much Stimulus Bill money has actually been spent and what jobs resulted.

Issue Two: The Need for Precision

The second big issue is what else Duncan talked about, or rather didn’t, regarding education: specifics. Many of his points were platitudes that anyone can agree with. Who doesn’t want high-performing schools, excellent teachers, demanding curricula, and so forth? Can I see a show of hands? Will the party against those features please say so on its platform? This is symptomatic of the larger focus on “what” people want, rather than how it is to be accomplished.

The big contention regarding education and so many other programs operated by government or nonprofit agencies aren’t about the “what” we want done—good schools, etc.—but on the how. Will yet another round of educational reform mean being able to hire and fire teachers at will? Convert more schools into charter schools of offer vouchers? Pour more money into existing systems? Train teachers? Lower class size? Fragment existing school districts? At least in the fifteen minutes I heard, Duncan answered none of these questions. This holds an important lesson for grant writers: if you’re working on a problem, it’s not enough to emphasize the “what”—you need to cover the “how” as well. If you’re not telling the funding source what Project Nutria will do, you haven’t told them anything useful.

A Bonus Link

(As a side note, I later heard “Funds would brighten solar industry” on the subject of delays in stimulus funding for that sector. The piece quotes Mike Finocchario, president of Schott Solar, saying, “There’s a slowdown in the marketplace, people basically waiting to see what the stimulus package is going to provide for them.”)