Tag Archives: Nonfiction

“With Charity For All” – Ken Stern – Book Discussion

Ken Stern’s With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give is really about a single, fundamental issue and its implications: funders are the real “clients” of most nonprofits, yet their desires dominate everything that nonprofits do. He says that “The care and feeding of donors who make highly personal gifts can distract from the core charitable purposes and matters of organizational effectiveness.” But in many ways the “care and feeding” of those donors is, or becomes, the organization’s real mission. Organizations that don’t attend to their funding streams aren’t going to keep their doors open.

As a result, With Charity For All is really about reforming funder priorities, especially among foundation, corporate giving, and wealthy individual donors.

That’s a laudable goal. Right now, however, most donors donate based on emotional connections rather than cost-benefit analyses. In one example, Stern describes how “Katrina was a gold rush for the nonprofit community; hundreds of organizations descended on the Gulf Coast.” But most of those organizations weren’t effective—including the Red Cross, as Stern describes in detail. When we judge by intentions more than effectiveness, we don’t actually care about effectiveness, and funders don’t look at what happens to their money after the donations; they’re busy basking in the afterglow. Moreover, Stern says:

For most charities, the story from the front lines is the most important measure of success, one that typically confirms the importance of the work and reassures stakeholders. Empirical and research studies are to be avoided as expensive, distracting, and potentially dangerous. In some ways, the charitable world exhibits and almost medieval aversion to scientific scrutiny and accountability.

Does this sound familiar? To regular readers it should, since we’ve long argued that your grant story needs to get the money and that most funders don’t value evaluations. Most donors and grant makers care only superficially about results. Nonprofits that have embraced “empirical and research studies” have mostly been outcompeted by those that tell happy stories.

That’s a problem from the perspective of those receiving services, however. Using the Red Cross as an example, which couldn’t act effectively after 9/11 and then planned to use 9/11 funds to improve organizational effectiveness, only to be bashed by the press, Stern goes on to say that there is

a bedrock and simplistic assumption that has long shackled the charitable world: that money spent on direct services is the only worthy use of charitable funds, while money invested in organizational effectiveness is to be kept as close to zero as possible. It is an equation widely accepted by the donating public, by the press, by charity watchdogs, by government regulators, and by most charities themselves. To keep overhead costs down, charities forgo necessary investments with devastating and sometimes deadly results.

This is sensational but sometimes true. Still, on a smaller scale than the Red Cross, we see lots of money subtly diverted in various ways into organizational effectiveness: the van bought for one program ends up being used for another. Project staff on one program also spend time working in another. Technically these sorts of things are often against funding rules, but better organizations ignore them so they can get stuff done.

Ignoring funder rules is often rewarded, as we discuss in point three of this post.

With Charity for All is hardly the only book to observe perverse incentives among nonprofits: The Robin Hood Rules for Smart Giving says in its introduction:

The idea behind this book is that philanthropists cannot settle for choosing programs merely because they generate important benefits. They must hold out for funding only those programs that do the most good per dollar of costs. Otherwise money is wasted, which is an unforgivable mistake given yawning social needs.

“An unforgivable mistake?” I won’t be inviting Weinstein and Bradburd, the authors, to dinner, and I suspect a lot of foundation directors won’t either. Still, their take is so similar to Stern’s that it merits a mention, especially because reality on the ground indicates that philanthropists can and do “settle for choosing programs merely because they generate important benefits.”

Despite Stern’s disapproval of current funder priorities, it’s important for organizations that want to succeed quickly learn how to tell happy stories—and when not to. Most proposals submitted to state and federal organizations, for example, are designed to avoid stories about particular individuals; the RFPs tend to be so fragmented that it’s difficult or impossible to tell a coherent story. Moreover, most government programs want a story about (possibly illusory) effectiveness, much more than they want stories about identifiable humans. Remember that these are bureaucrats we’re talking about, not normal people. It’s also not clear how much government spending is actually about solving social ailments, versus accomplishing other goals. I don’t want to say more about that here, because it’s venturing too close to the political quicksand that we studiously avoid, but the point remains and should be obvious to anyone involved with in grant writing and organization funding.

There are frustrating parts of With Charity For All, especially when Stern’s evidence or discussion is thin. For example, he says:

There is little credible evidence that many charitable organizations produce lasting social value. Study after study tells the opposite story: or organizations that fail to achieve meaningful impact yet press on with their strategies and services despite significant, at times overwhelming, evidence that they don’t work.

None of these studies are cited in a footnote. No specific organizations are cited. This narrative is little better than the charities-are-ineffective narrative. Still, charities are organizations that, on a basic level, must take in more money than they spend. Consequently, charities, like all entities, are perfectly capable of failing, and they must adapt to their environment. Like pretty much everyone who looks into this matter, I agree that charities should spend more time genuinely evaluating themselves, but that requires that their funders also become more interested in doing so. GiveWell.org is one effort to do so, and this book is an attempt to raise the profile of profiling nonprofits. Nonetheless, in a discussion about how to measure effectiveness, it’s discouraging to see references to “study after study” only to find zero studies cited.

It’s also not entirely true that “The nonprofit field is extraordinarily stagnant, even though tens of thousands of new charities are created each year and billions of dollars of grants and donations annually flow to American charities.” The word “stagnant” is probably wrong: although tens of thousands of new nonprofits ones are created, tens of thousands of old ones close. As I said above, a nonprofit that can’t take in more money than it spends won’t exist for long, and that’s part of what makes nonprofits dynamic. Now, it may be that funders are rewarding behaviors that may not be optimal in terms of achieving preferred outcomes, but that’s a separate issue that shouldn’t be conflated with dynamism per se.

In a moment of dubious interpretation, Stern writes:

At the core of our charitable system is the notion that charities perform critical social functions and thereby save the government and the taxpayer the effort and expense of providing the service. But the charitable sector is filled with organizations doing things that no government would care to do and that would scandalize taxpayers if they understood they were underwriting this effort.

I’m not sure “the notion that charities [. . .] save the government [. . . ] effort and expense” is at “the core of our charitable system:” is there a “core of our charitable systems?” Core isn’t the right word, or mental model; we have a series of post-hoc rationalizations. One of those post-hoc rationalizations is a larger sense that government can’t do or think of everything that should be done on a not-for-profit basis; groups of individuals should be able to come together to do stuff that’s worth doing but that won’t necessarily return money to “shareholders.” Not everything worth doing needs to be provided by the government and not everything provided by the government is necessarily worth doing.

Those are statements of general principle, however, and Stern goes on to describe how the college football bowl system consists of dubious nonprofits running, for example, “the Allstate Sugar Bowl” and making a lot of tax-free money in the process. Big-time college sports in general have only the flimsiest patina of amateurism left in them, and by now they should be spun off from their nominal university owners and made to pay players just like every other employers.

The idea that big time football or basketball schools (like Isaac’s favorite, the University of Kansas Jayhawks) should pay their coaches millions of dollars and their players “scholarships” is ludicrous, but those specific examples don’t necessarily mean all organizations doing things government shouldn’t should also be treated and taxed like conventional businesses. For example, the Mozilla Foundation provides an open-source web browser and is dedicated to freedom on the Internet. I don’t necessarily think the U.S. government should start its own web browser division, but most people would probably agree that Mozilla is a reasonable charitable endeavor.

(Regular readers have noticed that this post is a bit different than most of our posts: we’re reviewing a book instead of discussing direct experience, telling stories, or writing about RFPs. We’d love to hear your comments, and, if you know of any other books we should be reading, let us know about those too. Although we’re mostly content producers, occasionally we leave our iMacs, retire to a comfortable chair, and enjoy a book, along with a well-made cocktail or three.)

One of the open secrets of grant writing and grant writers: reading

Good writing is inextricably linked to reading, and this is true not only of grant writing, but of virtually any genre. Most of what you pick up through reading is subliminal: you’re not consciously studying ideas, or rhythms, or structure, or vocabulary,* but you absorb them through osmosis regardless of your intention. You learn words via context, how to understand sophisticated sentences, and the techniques writers use to impart meaning. When it’s time to write, you recombine elements of virtually every writer you’ve ever read; Francine Prose says in her excellent book, Reading Like a Writer, “Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books.” After you’ve been writing for a long time, this comes to be so axiomatic that you forget that not everyone knows it.

You not only learn how to write, but what to write. With grant writing, if you’ve read The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns, you’ve read what is probably the best description of urban poverty that exists. If you’ve read Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, you’ll have still more ballast to add. If you’ve read Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, you know how to describe rural towns so desolate that tumbleweeds count as company and hope for many people means fleeing. Elmore Leonard’s caper novels, like Get Shorty and Out of Sight, are justifiably acclaimed for their impeccable dialog and for their depiction of wise-guys trying to get ahead. The value of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well should be evident from its title.

Reading is more than just books. If you’ve seen our link posts, you know more about a vast array of social issues likely to be the basis of grant programs. I have hundreds of articles and reports on my hard drive, which I regularly rummage using Spotlight and plain old memory for data and ideas when proposals. If you don’t read, you won’t acquire the stuff from which proposals are often made. In reading, you also learn something of how the world works. If you’re a grant writer and deal with federal, state, and local agencies and you haven’t read Bureaucratic Language in Government and Business, you’re making a mistake, because the book will teach you about why many frustrating things are the way they are.

Beyond content, you’ll also see that grammar, spelling, syntax, and style count. You can find virtually everything on those subjects that you need for grant writing in Write Right!, a book we’ve linked to and praised before and will again because it’s so extraordinarily useful and terse (perhaps those two adjectives are redundant when combined: were Wright Right! 1,000 pages, would it still be useful?). The book is $10 from Amazon. There is no reason not to have and have read a copy if you produce any amount of prose on even an irregular basis.

It’s important that you know what Write Right! contains, even if you don’t own that book. Steven King says—yes, that Steven King, the one who can’t get no respect—analogizes writing to carpentry in his excellent book On Writing that grammar, spelling, syntax and the like are towards the top of your writers’ toolbox and that you can learn them relatively easily if you want to—and excuses won’t fly:

[T]his isn’t high school. Now that you’re not worried that (a) your skirt is too short or too long and the other kids will laugh at you, (b) you’re not going to make the varsity swimming team, (c) you’re still going to be a pimple-studded virgin when you graduate (probably when you die, for that matter), (d) the physics teacher won’t grade the final on a curve, or (e) nobody really likes you anyway AND THEY NEVER DID . . . now that all that extraneous shit is out of the way, you can study certain academic matters with a degree of concentration you could never manage while attending the local textbook loonybin.

Isn’t that a clever way of putting it? Sure, the passage has a flaw or two—the double “that” in the last sentence is a bit weak and the tone maybe slightly more colloquial than I usually write, but it’s effective. When King writes “local textbook loonybin,” we know exactly how he feels about schools, and he speaks with authority on them, since he’s been both prisoner and warden in them, and it sounds like he wasn’t impressed with his cohort in either role. You don’t develop the skills to show these kinds of subtle cues unless you read a lot and get used to close reading.

I’m guessing King didn’t stop and think to himself, “what word or phrase should I use to show what I think of secondary schools in the United States that will convince the reader I’m on their side?” I bet it just hit him, he liked it, and he rolled with it, much as I picked up his theme and wrote “prisoner” and “warden” in lieu of “student” and “teacher” because so many people do feel like school has many penitentiary aspects (I’m hardly the first to notice this: Paul Graham wrote in “Why Nerds are Unpopular:” “What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates.” Herman Hesse wrote about the same issues regarding Germany in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.)

Anyway, King’s point is that you have no business being a writer if you’re not going to learn something of grammar, syntax, and style, and I’ll reiterate it. Furthermore, as King also observes, you already know the vast majority of English grammar merely by being a native speaker. Anything additional will mostly be names (what’s a gerund again? “a form regularly derived from a verb and functioning as a noun,” or, more simply, an -ing word, like working. See? You already use gerunds all the time) or fillips like “omit unnecessary words,” which is by the far best writing advice I’ve ever read or heard. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the shortest.

Oh, and books speak to each other. If I’d never read On Writing, I wouldn’t be able to cite it here. If I hadn’t read a lot, and read deeply, I wouldn’t have been able to construct this post with the numerous examples that help prove my point and give it the force and authority of a bunch of references and links and allusions to other writers, not all of which are explicit. Speaking of allusion, it’s worth shooting down one other amateur’s canard, namely that reading a lot will somehow “pollute” you. Mavis Gallant’s The Paris Notebooks is worth quoting, by way of Kate’s Book Blog:

There is no such thing as a writer who has escaped being influenced. I have never heard a professional writer of any quality or standing talk about “pure” style, or say he would not read this or that for fear of corrupting or affecting his own; but I have heard it from would-be writers and amateurs. Corruption–if that is the word–sets in from the moment a child learns to speak and hear language used and misused. A young person who does not read, and read widely, will never write anything–at least, nothing of interest.

All this isn’t to say that you have to become a monkishly devoted reader, slaving over Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to be a writer (although the latter is more a joy than pain, which Alain de Botton makes a strong argument for in How Proust Can Change Your Life). Even if you don’t let Proust change your life, you should let someone try to via text if you want to be a good writer. One of the best essay I’ve read about reading comes from Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?“, which says:

[…] the Census Bureau and the National Endowment for the Arts [have,] since 1982, asked thousands of Americans questions about reading that are not only detailed but consistent. The results, first reported by the N.E.A. in 2004, are dispiriting. In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002. Last month, the N.E.A. released a follow-up report, “To Read or Not to Read,” which showed correlations between the decline of reading and social phenomena as diverse as income disparity, exercise, and voting. In his introduction, the N.E.A. chairman, Dana Gioia, wrote, “Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement.”

Correlation is not causation, as I’ve repeatedly observed, and merely because you don’t read copious amounts of creative literature doesn’t mean you’re not reading lots of other meritorious—as opposed to meretricious—material. Nonetheless, Crain goes into some of the neuroscience behind reading as well as studies regarding readers’ ability to reason, compare arguments, make logical inferences, and the like. Hint: non-readers don’t come out well. By the way, if you didn’t follow my earlier link to “Twilight of the Books,” you should do so now because it’s a brilliant piece, and even were it not, you should read simply for further grant writing knowledge. I regularly quote it in proposals because the article distills so much about what’s known about literacy and the dangers of its reduction in the general population. It often dovetails with Neal Stephenson’s extended argument about the widening gap between the reading/nerd class in his new novel, Anathem, which posits a world in which the reading/nerd class lives in monasteries, shuns video, and studies abstract logic and math, while the outside world takes the equivalent of happy pills and eats junk food. An early form of these ideas are evident in his much more readable op-ed piece, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.”

Reading the New Yorker regularly allowed me to find “Twilight of the Books,” and many of the proposals I’ve written would’ve been worse without it. Now, I’m not trying to be this guy or say that TV rots your brain or whatever else lit snobs say. TV offers some material and allusions that’ll be more widely recognized than many literary allusions, but it’s difficult to quote TV or movies directly and seldom at the depth you’ll need for writing.**

In addition, I’m not arguing that you need reading boot camp. I don’t think you can force yourself to read, boot camp style, and only the actual enjoyment of reading will work. Virtually all professional writers do. If you want to read more, the question arises concerning what you should read. My answer is that it probably doesn’t matter much, as long as you’re reading something that’s been professionally written and edited. In periodical terms, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times are excellent, as is the Atlantic magazine. I also like the New Yorker, as mentioned earlier, although I don’t think I’ve ever read every article word-for-word. But great articles like “Twilight of the Books” make up for ones that grow tedious after a page. The Economist has an impressive grasp on foreign affairs and it’s not unusual for people to swear by Harper’s.

The other major source of good stuff is books. If you read some of the newspapers and magazines listed above, you’ll notice their book review sections, which will often point you toward things to read. In addition, the ten books I most often recommend are:

Fiction Nonfiction
Richard Russo, Straight Man Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence:
500 Years of Western Cultural Life
Alain de Botton, On Love Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd,
The Time Paradox
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise:
Listening to the 20th Century
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, & Steel
Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

None of these books are directly related to grant writing, but they’re all enormously fun while also being reasonably cerebral. All the King’s Men describes politics and, in a broader sense, human nature; Cryptonomicon is hilarious and insightful, and it’s not coincidental that I cited another Stephenson novel above; From Dawn to Decadence imparts more knowledge about history than four years of high school did; and Reading like a Writer will help anyone read and think better.

Chances are that I shouldn’t have to explain all this, but I read tons of proposals and blog posts and reports that indicate their authors don’t read much, which is virtually synonymous with saying they don’t like to read, because if you like to do something, you’ll do it, particularly given that reading is, these days, considered a virtue, which is pretty funny if you know about the history of the novel. Isaac said that I’m perhaps being overly strident or emphatic in this post. He might be correct, but it’s obvious that many would-be writers aren’t taking the advice given above. Don’t be one of them.

In short, if you’re trying to be a grant writer—or any kind of writer—and you don’t like to read, you’re going to be like a person trying to swim with iron weights tied around their ankles. You might make it a little ways, but it’ll be neither pretty nor easy nor pleasant. Plenty of people in such circumstances flail around publicly on blogs or embarrass themselves privately in e-mail. But if you’re going to write professionally, or even as a competent volunteer, you’re not going to get anywhere without reading, and you’re not going to understand why you’re not getting anywhere or why you’re not getting funded.

Did you find it easy to follow my metaphor of the swimmer? If so, you’re probably used to comparative imagery, as virtually all forms of human speech are, on some level, comparative, which Steven Pinker argues in The Stuff of Thought. If you didn’t find that metaphor easy to follow, scroll up to the table that’s a few paragraphs above this one.

That’s a good place to start.

EDIT: Isaac wrote “Reading ‘Arugulance’ and then Writing It” as a follow-up.


* Vocabulary is such a good proxy for reading sophistication that lots of standardized tests, including the GRE and SAT, use it. Sure, you can memorize word lists to the game the test, but that’s tremendously cumbersome, boring and probably ineffective. Even then, you still can’t fake a lifetime of not reading by two months of cramming, as I discovered when I taught the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) for about a year and found people who were terrible at the reading comprehension and wanted to know how to improve within weeks. I never had a good answer for them, because there is no way over the short term.

** Notice that the top 100 TV catchphrases of all time as measured by, well, whoever measures such things, contains mostly interjections (“a part of speech that usually has no grammatical connection with the rest of the sentence and simply expresses emotion on the part of the speaker”) and short, simple phrases more noted for their delivery than their word content. On the page, you don’t get delivery: you only get content.