Tag Archives: Media

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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).

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.”)

Community Organizing and the Presidential Election: One Commentator Finally Gets it More or Less Right

Lots of bloviating on community organizing has occurred on cable news shows and in various newspaper opinion pieces in recent months due to Senator Barack Obama’s background as a “community organizer.” Regardless of what Senator Obama did as a community organizer, almost all of the commentary is wrong. A good example is Peter Applebome’s New York Times piece, Feeling the Sting of Republican Barbs in which he describes community organizers as more or less social workers or case managers. But any community organizer worth his salt who came across a low-income person facing eviction would never fool around with trying to solve the individual’s problem. Rather, the organizer would try to identify the person’s and their neighbors’ self-interest to organize around the problem and thus help the community find an overall solution, while building an organizational structure for further efforts.

Unlike Mr. Applebome’s assertions, community organizing is also neither Democratic nor Republican, but is largely apolitical, since it is by definition in opposition to the power structure presumably oppressing the target community. In fact, Saul Alinsky,* the founder of the field, spent most of his life fighting Chicago’s Democratic machine politics. Given the fact that most cities are controlled by Democratic administrations these days, an active community organizer would probably be more likely to battle Democrats than Republicans. Remember that community organizers work on tangible local problems, not grandiose social policy issues.

Hey Sarah—Organize This is another inaccurate piece on community organizing. This one is by Thomas Geoghegan and appeared in Slate. Mr. Geoghegan takes Governor Sarah Palin to task for making fun of community organizers. Leaving aside the politics, community organizers must have very thick skins and good senses of humor and are unlikely to be terribly worried about verbal insults. What caught my attention, however, was the author’s startling claim that “Organizers break laws if they have to. Mayors believe in order.” As a former community organizer, I can attest that organizers try very hard not to break laws because this is exactly what politicians want them to do in order to discredit the organization they are building. Also, politicians have their hands on the levers of power (e.g., police, building inspectors, etc.) and can easily apply legal pressure if the community organizer encourages law breaking. Rather, a good community organizer uses clever civil disobedience within the framework of laws, depending on mayors and other power brokers to themselves break the law by overreacting. Most community organizing strategies are based on the assumption that politicians and their bureaucratic minions will overreact and break the law one way or another. In other words, Mr. Geoghegan got it just backwards. He says he’s never been an organizer, but has “known some,” apparently making him qualified enough to comment. This would be like me opining on the work of circus clowns just because I ran into a guy with bright orange hair, a bulbous red nose and size 22 floppy shoes at a cocktail party one night.

I am going on and on about community organizing mainly because I am so surprised to find the topic suddenly popular due to Senator Obama having captured the imagination of Americans with tales of community organizing on Chicago’s Southside. I have a fondness for the Southside because I received some community organizing training there many years ago, and, more recently, have written lots of funded proposals for a large nonprofit that serves the community. Faithful readers will know from posts like my first, They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal, and Déjà vu All Over Again—Vacant Houses and What Not to Do About Them, that I began my career as a community organizer in 1972 in the North Minneapolis ghetto. While community organizing had a certain cachet among us college student save-the-world types in the early 1970s, the whole concept seemed to have been lost in the mists of time until Barack Obama burst on the scene. Thus, I find myself waxing euphoric about my halcyon days in organizing.

Senator Obama and I appear to have at least one thing in common, having both been trained in Saul Alinksy style community organizing.* While I am unsure about Senator Obama’s actual training, I was fortunate to have learned from an affiliate of Alinksy’s Industrial Areas Foundation, which then existed in St. Paul, and I also attended some Alinsky training on Chicago’s Southside. So, I’m about as familiar with community organizing as anyone, having not only been trained, but also actually organized some pretty interesting stuff, including a Vacant Housing Task Force, self-help seminars for low-income homeowners and tenants, and a nonprofit cooperative hardware store that operated for a time in North Minneapolis. Not bad for a long-haired 21-year-old college student who was naive enough to think that he could use community organizing techniques to overcome just about anything.

Given the spectacular misrepresentations of community organizing in the popular media during this election cycle that I note briefly above, it was refreshing to open the New York Times on Sunday morning and finally find an opinion piece by Deepak Bhargava, Organizing Principles, which more or less got it right. Mr. Bhargava says:

It’s important to emphasize that organizers like Mr. Espey aren’t there to solve people’s problems for them — they’re there to teach people how to help themselves: to learn how to speak in public, to run a meeting, or to hold their own in a negotiation with an employer, a landlord or a policy maker. Organizers teach people to work with — and challenge — politicians of every party.”

I’ve never run across Mr. Bhargava before, but he understands community organizers and community organizing. I have no idea what, if anything, Senator Obama accomplished as a community organizer, since I’ve never read about any specific accomplishments. I assume, however, he must have organized something. Community organizers are goal oriented, and, as I noted briefly above, I know exactly what I organized during my time as a community organizer. It is likely that this aspect of community organizing—wanting to achieve a discrete organizing goal instead of vague “helping the community” platitudes—helped me become a successful grant writer.

Like good community organizers, grant writers focus on completing the task, not talking about the process for completing the task. Anonymity is another aspect of community organizers that closely aligns with grant writers. Good community organizers never take the spotlight, deferring to the leaders they have nurtured to take the lead at press conferences, actions and the like. Similarly, grant writers largely toil without recognition, since we are just ghost writers for the others who accept the accolades of funded projects. Hey, maybe I’m actually more like James Bond than Barack Obama, since Mr. Bond definitely stays in the shadows, unlike emerging politicians.**


*If you want to understand community organizing, read Saul Alinsky’s seminal books, Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals, both of which I annotated like a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works.

** I for one will lift a Vesper when A Quantum of Solace opens in November. Although the movie probably doesn’t have much to do with the eponymous Ian Fleming story in the only Bond short story collection, For Your Eyes Only, it has been one of my favorite Bond yarns since I first read it as a 13-year-old. I am delighted that the Bond film franchise was reinvented with Casino Royale two years ago and remain hopeful for the next installment.