Tag Archives: Nonprofits

Youth CareerConnect Program: The Department of Labor Provides An Early Holiday Present

The holidays come early year with this tasty new* program from the elves at the Department of Labor (DOL) Employment and Training Administration (ETA): the Youth CareerConnect Program.** There’s $100,000,000 up for grabs, with 25 to 40 grants to be awarded—in other words, serious money. Sequestration hasn’t been a horror story for nonprofit and public agencies—the federal trough is full and there’s always for one more nonprofit snout.

Read the RFP. You’ll realize you’ve seen this movie before—but just because the plot is stale doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see yet another version of boy meets girl. Youth CareerConnect funds small learning communities, career-focused curricula, employee partnerships, high school diplomas or equivalents, industry-recognized credentials, work readiness, low-income participants (including females and minorities), and (wait for it), wraparound supportive services. It’s like YouthBuild but without the construction training, or like prisoner reentry without prisoners, or community colleges without the community college.

The services may elicit a yawn but the money won’t. If your agency runs YouthBuild or almost any other training or supportive services for at-risk youth or young adults, this is a wonderful grant opportunity that could be run by almost any youth services nonprofit. Remember, though, that you should get going before your Thanksgivukkah turkey and latkes put you to sleep, because the deadline is January 27. All I can say to my pals at DOL ETA, is Gobbletov!

EDIT: As I noted in “Are You Experienced? Face Forward—Serving Juvenile Offenders SGA: A New Department of Labor Program That Mirrors YouthBuild,” it’s almost always a good idea to apply for the first funding round of a new program. The reasons are too many and varied to repeat here, but the original post is worth reading carefully for anyone debating about whether their agency should apply.

In addition, it’s worth noting that page 16 of the Youth CareerConnect SGA forbids community colleges from applying. That’s curious, because community colleges are probably the most plausible candidates for running YCC programs. They’re probably excluded because community colleges are the only eligible applicants for the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Grant Program, which is essentially the same thing as YCC, except that it has even more money available. DOL just wants to spread the wealth to other organizations.


* It’s “new” in the sense that the title is new and the hundred million has been freshly allocated, but anyone who has ever provided job training services should recognize the melody, beat, and lyrics.

** I particularly like the way DOL has run Career and Connect together to form an allusion of speed and urgency with CareerConnect.

General or Specific—The Challenge of Defining a Project Concept for Foundation Support

When scoping a foundation appeal with a client, the first task is to define the project concept. This may seem simple, but few aspects of grant seeking and grant writing are simple.

Let’s assume our client is the Waconia* Family Resource Center and the agency provides a range of family and child support services, including, but not limited to—free proposal phrase here—case management, parenting training, demonstration homemaking, child care, after school enrichment, foster care, childhood obesity prevention and saving the walleye. I tossed the last one in to see if you’re paying attention, as well as to titillate our Minnesota readers.

The executive director could pick a project ranging from the very general—helping disadvantaged Waconians—to the very specific—outreach to the growing population of Latinos to involve their obese kids in fitness activities—and everything in between. So: what to do?

There is no right answer. Like marriage, you’ll only know you’ve made the right choice after it’s too late. In grant writing, you’ll know the correct choice was made when you get funded. With marriage, you’ll know sometime between your honeymoon and the rest of your life. When contemplating this non-Hobson’s choice with a client, we always remind them of this essential axiom: the more general the request, the greater the number of possible foundation funders, but the less interest any particular funder will have in the project.

If the project concept is to help downtrodden Waconians, there will be many potential funders. But, leaving aside the Waconia Community Foundation and the Walleyes Forever Founation, none will likely be particularly focused on the need, because the stated need is so general. Conversely, if the project concept targets chubby kids of the hundreds of Latino families who just moved into the community to work at the new industrial hog farm,** there will be relatively few potential funders, but the ones that exist will be very interested in the idea.

Given this news, most of our client choose a more general approach, unless they are really committed to a highly specific purpose. We recently had a large client, for example, that more or less refused to apply for any grants because they’re waiting for the perfect grant salmon to swim by. Their ideal projects were so narrowly defined that potential funders didn’t exist.

As your organization gears up to go after foundation funds, keep the above conundrum in mind. But whatever you do, don’t dither. As Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”


* I spent a lot of my wasted youth fishing for walleyes on Lake Waconia with my dad. Since the sport is called fishing, not catching, I had a lot of time in the boat to contemplate the complex issues that face a 10-year-old boy.

** About 15 years ago we actually wrote a large funded proposal for more or less this project concept on behalf of a tiny school district in rural Oklahoma. I remain convinced that the proposal was funded largely because of the then-unusual juxtaposition of Latinos, hogs and rural Oklahoma. Industrial sized hog farms and the immigrants who primarily work in them are now commonplace across much of rural American. Not much of a problem, unless you happen be be downwind or downstream.

Scaling a Nonprofit Means Confronting the Challenge of Lumpy Growth

Let’s assume that you’re a faithful Grant Writing Confidential reader who started a nonprofit and managed to get enough funding to provide some level of services to your target population. You’ve probably accomplished this through a combination of donations and small grants, and you’re chugging alone or with a small staff. Like many businesses, however, at some point you’re going to face a dilemma, either keep on keeping on (as B. Dylan put it) or try to scale the organization to a larger size.

Scaling up a nonprofit—or a tech startup like Facebook for that matter—is a lumpy exercise. That is to say, the path won’t be a smooth trajectory. For example, if you’re presently operating out of a church basement at little or no costs, an office will have to be leased and equipped to ramp-up services. And since you don’t want to move offices every year, the first office will have to be sized to some future, not current, needs. Similarly, you can’t buy half a Xerox machine or half a van.

While it is possible to hire part-time staff, at some point, you’ll want full-time personnel to attract more qualified people and generally be a fair employer by providing benefits and job security. Let’s say you’ve got one Case Manager. As services increase, the Case Manager will eventually be overloaded, so you will need a second. When you hire the second Case Manager, however, both will probably be underworked for a while. This is another example of a lumpy cost because it will take some time for your organization to swallow the costs of the second Case Manager through increased revenue. It’s rather like the snake digesting an elephant in The Little Prince. But if your organization doesn’t swallow the elephant-like second Case Manager, the first Case Manager will eventually quit from exhaustion or you will have to triage service delivery.

Growing nonprofits will also eventually be faced with the conundrum of when and if to hire professional management staff. This will be yet another lumpy cost, as talented managers will expect appropriate compensation and working conditions (e.g., matching office furniture and a 27″ iMac, instead of a WW-II era dented steel desk and an ancient, temperamental Dell).

Many nonprofits are started by a “true believer” or a human services professional who lacks management training. As the organization grows, management chaos may ensue. Eventually, the founder should probably focus on board/community relations and relinquish day-to-day management to an Operations Director.

This kind of passing of the management torch does not always go well, with Apple’s disastrous hiring of the supposed management expert John Scully by Steve Jobs in 1987 being an especially egregious, famous instance. Of course, the case is often made that the egomaniac Jobs needed to be booted out of Apple to force him to eventually do his best work and return to lead the company to successes unimaginable in the 1980s.

Still, many nonprofits face a fundamental tension between being a grassroots organization and a larger provider. Grassroots organizations tend to be focused on a particular issue, which they often address well. The flipside, however, is that they tend to be poorly managed and lack the impact of a larger organization. Larger organizations tend to provide a wider array of services and thus have a greater impact on more people. The flipside, however, is that they’re sometimes depicted as being out-of-touch, overly bureaucratic, and more focused on the needs of managers and decision-makers within the organization than they on solving the community’s problems.

Neither grassroots organizations nor large organizations are inherently “right,” and both can be good or bad. From a grant-making perspective, either one can be desirable, and the tensions involved with scaling up never really go away.

Many nonprofits fail in the attempt to scale, just like businesses. Some will also wither from not attempting to scale. The funding for lumpy costs requires new revenue, which will also be lumpy. This can take the form of seeking larger donations, going after competitive grants and/or obtaining a line of credit, which must often be initially personally guaranteed by the Executive Director or a board member.

Since balancing lumpy cost increases with uncertain lumpy revenues is an inherent chicken-and-egg problem, you’ll eventually have to decide which to pursue first. One way to overcome the risks of lumpy revenue is to find a service to provide that is funded through a capitated, on-ongoing contract, such as foster care, child care, post-DUI substance abuse education, court-referral domestic violence prevention training and the like. It doesn’t really matter what the capitated service is as long as a more or less predictable revenue stream is attached that enables the organization to cover lumpy expenses while seeking lumpy revenues.

If all of this lumpy stuff scares you, it should. Scaling up a nonprofit or small business is a Tight-Rope exercise. Large organizations will be rhetorically attacked by smaller ones and vice-versa. Be cognizant of the issues involved with each.

Is It Worth Your Time to Cozy Up to Program Officers and Bat Your Eyelashes? Maybe, But Only If It’s Nighttime, They’re Drunk, and You’re Beautiful

Many nonprofits think they should try hard to develop “relationships” with funders, particularly with foundations and, to a lesser extent, government agencies. In my experience, this practice is mostly a waste of time. Like an aging hooker at a honky-tonk bar, it could work, but it helps if it’s late at night, the lights are low, the guys are drunk and she’s the only more-or-less female in the bar.

Funders, and especially foundation program officers, may not be hip to too much, but they do recognize the cozy-up strategy. Let’s take the bar analogy above and flip it. Instead of a honky-tonk, we’re in a trendy cocktail lounge in downtown Santa Monica like Copa d’ Oro, the foundation program officer is a beautiful aspiring actress and your nonprofit is an average lounge lizard. Like the babe, the foundation program officer knows that wherever she goes, she’s going to attract lots of nonprofit suitors, all of whom think their pick-up lines are original and figure they’ll get to the promised land by being fawning and obsequious. Unfortunately, as the Bare Naked Ladies sang, it’s all been done before.

Foundation program officers have heard every pitch you can imagine and are probably immune to your many charms. This is not to say that an executive director or development director shouldn’t drop in to see the program officers at the larger foundations in your region, as well as show the flag at conferences and the like (free proposal phrase here—we like “and the like” better than etc.). Let them know you exist. They want you to kiss their ring, or more likely their probably ample rear end, and that’s fine too. If you were passing out bags of gold coins to supplicants, you’d want obeisance too, and you’d get it.

Program officers are special and, with rare exceptions, your nonprofit is not special. Get used to this dynamic. As we’re fond of saying, “he who has the gold makes the rules.”

Like the actress in the cocktail lounge, the foundation has something lots of folk want. It’s just a question of application and negotiation, so to speak, in both cases. Rather than chatting up the program officer, we think it’s more important to try your best to understand the foundation’s funding priorities, follow their guidelines scrupulously and submit a technically correct and compelling proposal. This will get the program officer hot—not trying to ply them with metaphorical $15 cocktails.

But remember that the larger foundations will have so-called “program officers” who are actually just flacks—they don’t make decisions, but they do interact with the public. If you call foundation flacks, they’ll just say, “We can’t say anymore than what our guidelines say on the website. You have an interesting idea, and we look forward to evaluating your proposal.”

Government program officers are a different story and are often more susceptible to sweet nothings being whispered in their ears. At the federal level, most program officers at HUD, DOL and the rest of the agencies toil in crummy conditions in DC. Anyone who has ever visited such offices will remember the ancient computers, mismatched steel furniture and, most importantly, stacks of old proposals, reports and other detritus that has washed into their cubicles. Nothing seems to get tossed.

Federal program officers are more or less like your crazy Uncle Joe, living in the basement that no one ever visits. Uncle Joe is only allowed upstairs at Christmas and on his birthday. It’s a big deal when a live would-be applicant shows up to discuss YouthBuild, Mentoring Children of Prisoners, or whatever. If your agency targets specific federal programs, it’s not a bad idea to visit DC and make the rounds. Bringing a dozen donuts or offering lunch might not hurt. Just don’t visit in August. Anybody who can—including Congress—leaves DC in August, when the malarial mists gather in the heat and humidity. Remember the District was originally a swamp and many would say, remains so, at least from policy and political perspectives.

It’s also a good idea to touch base with state and city/county program officers of favored programs from time to time. As one moves down the food chain in government programs, program officers are more susceptible to politics and politicians, so one should be careful about influence peddling. If you really want to use your political muscle—assuming your agency has any, which most don’t—this is best done by lobbyists or perhaps an influential board member, who understands the political situation. Such influence is rarely peddled in a face-to-face with a program officer. Instead, it takes place on golf courses, dimly lit restaurants and the office of the governor/state representative/councilperson/Commissioner of the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District.

A Grant Writer Gets a New Companion and Explains Some Lesser Known Aspects of Certain Nonprofits

Faithful readers will know that I think every grant writer—or any writer—is better off with a dog at their feet. Writing is a solitary activity and even for those of us who rarely experience writer’s block, there are times when one wants a bit of distraction, and watching a dog find the perfect position for slumber or worry a rawhide bone helps me refocus on writing assignments.

A dog will also patiently listen to me rant and rave about a particularly nauseating RFP section, then wag his tail and lick me. The same can’t be said of most HUD program officers. And dogs need and like to be walked—a great way to clear my mind from the fog of grant writing, particularly since I live very near Palisades Park along the Santa Monica bluffs, one of the most beautiful strolls in LA. A writer writing about having a dog is more or less writing a tale about a tail (I should apologize for this).

IMG_0721I just acquired a new puppy—or I should say a dog of an uncertain age, as Boogaloo Dude (“Boogie”*) comes to me as a rescue. He is a more-or-less Golden Retriever and has most of the attributes of a Golden, including the charming golden smile.

Boogie is purported to be around four, but, given his predilection to sleep about 22 hours a day, he might be a tad older. Boogie isn’t his original name—as one should change an abused dog’s name—and he was horribly mistreated. Now he seems happy to have become Pancho to my Cisco** and is content to receive an occasional ear scratch and belly rub. He sometimes literally runs into the ubiquitous Santa Monica pigeons on our morning walk, seemingly not comprehending what a bird is. The pigeons’ feathers are hardly ruffled and they strut away with a look of avian disdain. When Jake next comes to town, he’ll have to give Boogie a lesson in pigeon chasing, as he’s loved chasing pigeons since he was a little boy and probably still does so in Manhattan when he thinks no one is watching.

I did not get Boogie from Southern California Golden Retriever Rescue (SCGRR), the local Golden rescue nonprofit. Although I tried to adopt a dog from them, I kept getting rejected by the volunteers who decide which applicant gets a dog. Like most animal rescue nonprofits, SCGRR is volunteer-run and member-driven, so there is no hierarchy to facilitate appeals; when a volunteer decides you’re not good enough for a particular dog, you don’t get the dog, or possibly any dog.

Since Goldens are a popular breed, SCGRR has way more would-be adopters than available rescue dogs and is very selective. The organization supports itself in large part through application and adoption fees and, as such, is highly motivated to get as many people as possible to apply, even though the likelihood of getting a Golden through them is low. As an experienced grant writer, I knew this because I know how animal rescue outfits—and especially in-demand breed rescue organizations—are funded. But I played the game for a month anyway before giving up on SCGRR.

Boogie came not through a well-meaning and respectable nonprofit, but instead via The Loved Dog, a business run by celebrity dog trainer to the stars Tamar Geller. She’s Oprah’s dog trainer (this is LA and I’m not making this up). I met Tamar at a JDate event, mentioned that I was looking for a Golden, and learned she rescued one from SCGRR, who had earlier rescued the dog but then was going to euthanize him because he was supposedly aggressive—another example of the tyranny of volunteers that can emerge in membership nonprofits. Tamar scooped up the dog, who is all of 50 pounds and docile, and worked with him for a few months—until I appeared to provide what hopefully will be his permanent home.

IMG_0716The lesson of this story—other than it pays to persevere—is that not all nonprofits are necessarily “golden” and not all for-profits are necessarily avaricious. For example, a little-known fact is that PETA, self-portrayed as a paragon of animal welfare, is actually one of the largest operators of shelters thateuthanize animals. You may find this startling, but PETA has its reasons for euthanizing, which you can evaluate for yourself. As a guy who’s been working for or with nonprofits since the Nixon administration, however, not much in the nonprofit world surprises me; nor does much in the world in general, since even dogs in the U.S. eat better than many humans elsewhere, as the linked story about the adoption of some Sudanese “lost boys” indicates:

The next aisle over, Peter touched my shoulder. He was holding a can of Purina dog food. “Excuse me, Sara, but can you tell me what this is?” Behind him, the pet food was stacked practically floor to ceiling. “Um, that’s food for our dogs,” I answered, cringing at what that must sound like to a man who had spent the last eight years eating porridge. “Ah, I see,” Peter said, replacing the can on the shelf and appearing satisfied. He pushed his grocery cart a few more steps and then turned again to face me, looking quizzical. “Tell me,” he said, “what is the work of dogs in this country?”

But, as Sir Paul put it, “Venus and Mars are alright tonight.” Boogie is a happy dog, I’ve got a boon companion and it’s time to take him for his evening constitutional. And, then it will be cocktail hour and I’ll lift a glass or two to all the other abused puppies that are waiting for someone to watch over them.


* Boogaloo dude is a lyric in one of my favorite songs from the early 70s, Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes.” Boogie is also the name of Mickey Rourke’s character in the wonderful 1982 film, Diner. So I covered the 70s and 80s with this dog naming exercise.

** As a kid, I always liked Cisco, played by the inimitable Duncan Reynaldo, better than Zorro, but that’s just me. “Hey Cisco; Hey Pancho.”

February Links: Writing, NIMBYs, Nonprofits-as-startups, Affordable Housing, Baltimore, Washington DC, Washington Monument Syndrome, Porn Star Study and more!

* In Writing, First Do No Harm.

* “The emergence of “YIMBY” [Yes In My Backyard] organizations in American cities would be a welcome counterpoint to the prevailing tides of NIMBYism that often dominate local government. But it is worth saying that broader institutional reforms are what’s really needed.”

* Nonprofit Startups Are Just Like Their Counterparts, according to Paul Graham. We’ve never seen a nonprofit really behave like a startup. Maybe Watsi, the nonprofit featured in the article, will be different.

* Who pays for healthcare also explains why prices are so high. In my view we also spend too much time debating insurance coverage and too little time discussing access to care and how that can be improved.

* “Home craft project: replacing broken laptop screen.” Why haven’t we seen job-skills training programs focused on computer and electronic repair? This may be more viable than Project NUTRIA, but it doesn’t involve small animals.

* From Shlomo Angel’s Planet of Cities:

Like many other observers, such as John Turner (1967) in Latin America, I found that wherever the urban poor could obtain affordable access to minimally serviced land, they could build their own homes and create vibrant communities with little if any support from the government. When free of government harassment and the threat of eviction, their houses would quickly improve over time with their investment of their savings and sweat equity. People could house themselves at the required scale and create many millions of decent homes, while leaving very few people homeless, something that all governments (save that of modern-day Singapore, an outlier on every possible scale) have consistently failed to do. Admitted, the expanding settlements of the poor did not conform to building codes, land subdivision regulations, land use and zoning requirements, or even property rights regimes. (52)

In many jurisdictions, governments nominally devoted to affordable housing prevent its creation. Key words in the above paragraph—”could obtain affordable access to minimally serviced land”—aren’t going to apply to downtown Seattle, or even the downtown Seattle periphery—but the basic idea is an important one. So is the recognition that land use controls in places like New York, Boston, and San Francisco decrease affordability more than any set of programs could increase it. And then there’s Detroit, but that’s another story.

* Baltimore is headed toward bankruptcy. Maybe they need an Outer Harbor to go with the Inner Harbor. Sort of an inni-outti approach to economic development.

* How Washington works: “Many 2011 federal budget cuts had little real-world effect,” and many of the nominal cuts turned out not to be real, by reasonable definitions of “real.”

* “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended,” which makes points that should be obvious to damn near everybody involved in the humanities section of academia.

* “A warning to college profs from a high school teacher,” which is actually about the stakes of student testing.

* New York Times “journalist” John Broder lies in Tesla Motors Model S review, gets called out for it.

Deep Inside: A Study of 10,000 Porn Stars;” highly data-driven and should be safe for work.

* “In early childhood education, ‘Quality really matters;’” that’s one reason Head Start doesn’t work particularly well as education right now. But it works okay as day care and pretty well as a jobs program.

* New York real estate: a study in price escalation.

* The Deadly Opposition to Genetically Modified Food;” this is reminiscent of vaccine scares: people have to die before pseudoscience is really attacked.

* “Taking Apprenticeships Seriously,” which we should have started doing a long time ago. College is not the magic answer to every social and economic quandary, as anyone who has taught at a non-elite college should know.

* Government, illustrated: “the cutback is in accord with what Charles Peters of The Washington Monthly used to call the “fireman first” principle. That is, if bureaucrats are told to take $x million out of their budget, they’ll fight back by making cuts where an $x million loss will be most instantly obvious to the public. Like closing the local firehouse — or canceling an air show.” This is also sometimes referred to as the Washington Monument Syndrome. Isaac has seen this in action personally when he was a redevelopment bureaucrat for cities in Southern California.

RFPs for “National Nonprofits,” like the Rural Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants, are Effectively Wired

It’s barely worth writing this post, but we hope to save someone from the danger of applying for a program that for which they’re probably not a competitive applicant—even if they’re nominally eligible.

Subscribers to our e-mail grant newsletter recently saw an RFP for the “Rural Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants” program. Only “national nonprofits” are eligible. The eligibility requirement is doubly strange, because the purpose of the program is to “to enhance the capacity and ability of local governments, Indian tribes, housing development organizations, rural CDCs, and CHDOs, to carry out community development and affordable housing activities” (emphasis added).

So a national nonprofit is supposed to be helping local efforts. Those of you who find this somewhat perplexing are not alone. It’s almost certain that this application has already been de facto wired for an organization or set of organizations. There just aren’t many nonprofits with real presences in five or more states. If you don’t already know that you’re going to get this, you’re probably not going to get it.

Programs like “Rural Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants” are effectively earmarks without an earmark.

There’s another lesson embedded in the Rural Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants RFP: always read the eligibility requirements very, very carefully. It would be easy to read the project description, get excited at the possibilities, and overlook the unusual eligibility requirements.

Occasionally, by the way, we do get hired to write wired grant applications. This might seem counterintuitive: why hire consultants to write a complete and technically correct grant proposal when you already know that you’re going to get the award? The reason is simple: the funding agency still needs a plausible, and ideally good, proposal to present to anyone curious about why Joe’s Nonprofit got a grant and Jane’s Nonprofit didn’t. The funder doesn’t want to embarrass itself, and Joe’s Nonprofit needs cover. Even wired grants sometimes need a grant writer.

Cliff Diving: Sequestration and A New Year’s Resolution for Nonprofits and Local Public Agencies Worried About the Fiscal Cliff and Grants

EDIT: It looks like we’re not going over the supposed cliff. But much of the analysis below will remain relevant in the coming years, as political fights about debt, spending, and taxation continue.

EDIT 2: The analysis below has been augmented with “Sequestration Still Looms Over the Grant World: Two Months and Counting.”

I find it hard to believe, but as I write this post in the waning hours of Sunday in the waning days of 2012, it seems that the President and Congress are actually going to do a Thelma and Louise and send us collectively off the dubiously named “fiscal cliff.”

If this happens, we may see sequestration. As I understand the implications of sequestration on domestic discretionary spending, including funding for block granted and competitive grant programs, this would mean at least an 8.8% haircut across the federal spending board. Since we’re now already three months into the FY ’13 budget year, however, there are only nine months left, meaning that the cutbacks could be as high as 15%.

Now, what “across the board” means is still subject to interpretation, as this has not actually been done before. One assumes current grantees would get an immediate budget reduction notice, while open RFP competitions might be scaled back. There would also significant impacts for federal sub-grantees for such locally administered block granted programs as CDBG, CSBG, OAA, and so on. The mechanics of sequestration are subject to murky federal regulations and a cadre of anonymous GS-12 and GS-13 budget officers spread across the departments, who are going to be in particularly bad moods coming back after their Christmas holidays to this morass.

The short-term impact of sequestration for garden-variety nonprofits and public agencies that have direct or indirect federal contracts, or are vying for discretionary grant funds, is sure to be confusion in the short term and chaos over the medium term. But—and this is big “but” (so to speak)—it’s not the end of the world. To quote REM, “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.” While media pundits and trade association/advocacy groups will make a lot of noise, the grant world will return to normalcy once the temporary Federal crisis passes.

Despite sequestration and ongoing budget battles, I think significant cutbacks in federal funding for discretionary grants are unlikely, as least for the next few years. What is more likely is a slowing of the increase in federal spending, or as it is more popularly called in a phrase I’m beginning to intensely dislike, “bending of the cost curve.” Keep in mind that we have not had a federal budget in four years and probably won’t have one anytime soon, as the feds will continue to operate with continuing resolutions and baseline budgeting. Thus, unless there is a sudden come to Jesus moment among Democrats and Republicans, it will be the same as it ever was.

This brings me to my suggested New Year’s resolution for nonprofits and local public agencies–take a hard look at your current programs and new initiatives in the planning stages. While there will still be plenty of RFPs available, the competition for government grants is sure to be more intense as the nation stares down its tax and spending challenges.* Seek foundation grants too; as the economy has staggered out of the Great Recession, foundations have recovered investment losses and are going full steam in grant making.

For those nonprofits that survive mostly on donations, a bigger issue is the potential of limits on the charitable tax deduction, which we wrote about recently in “Nonprofit ‘Whales’ May Face Extinction with Potential Tax Law Changes.” In other words, diversify and your organization will thrive in the exciting new year.


* Free proposal word here. In grant writing, there are never any problems, only challenges.

Nonprofit “Whales” May Face Extinction with Potential Tax Law Changes

I’ve about had it with the endless blathering about the so called fiscal cliff.* There is one nugget in the story, however, that should strike fear and loathing into the hearts of nonprofit executive directors: Whether or not President Obama and Speaker Boehner hold hands as they jump off the cliff, America faces an enormous fiscal challenge that will have to be addressed in the coming years, because we spend more than we take in and have for about the last ten years. As Herb Stein’s Law states, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The inevitable tax reform that will result is likely to include significant limits on the charitable tax deduction.

While nobody knows what form changes to the charitable tax deduction “loophole” might take, it’s a good bet that the annual total for all deductions, including the charitable tax deduction, will be capped at some number—say $25,000. “So what?” you say. “I’ve got lots of donors and there’ll probably be a minimum gross income, like the currently popular $250,000 per year, that is somehow supposed to equate to ‘millionaires and billionaires.’ And it’s time we stick it to the one percenters.”

But many donation-supported nonprofits have lots of supporters who make small, albeit regular, donations to the cause. As any executive director knows, however, these donors take lots of care and feeding to extract money. As a result, the return on the time investment in getting these donations is fairly small. Instead, for many if not most donor-supported nonprofits, a relatively few large donors actually keep the doors open and the lights on.

Like Las Vegas casinos who depend on high rollers, these donor “whales” are critical to many nonprofits. Just like their casino counterparts, who are charmed by private jets and fancy suites, nonprofit whales also demand perks like a seat on the board, constant phone calls and ego stroking. It’s worth it, though, because the return can be enormous. Thus, executive directors spend a lot of time whale watching, while their underlings curry favor with the everyday donors and volunteers.

Restrictions on the charitable tax deduction will probably make whale herding much more challenging. A typical donor whale might support four or five charities generously. When the tax benefit is capped, as it likely will be, that might drop to two or three. Your nonprofit could be left on the whale watching cruise with nary a fluke in sight.

The good news in all of this is that increased tax revenues from tax reform will mean there will be more government grant dollars up for grabs, or at least fewer extensive cuts.

EDIT: The WSJ ran “Should We End the Tax Deduction for Charitable Donations?“, which engages the same questions as the post above. If the WSJ and other major media outlets are debating this issue, you can bet there’s a real chance of actual changes.


* Or to quote the inimitable Samuel L. Jackson in Snakes on a Plane, “Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”.

Teams don’t write grants: individual writers do, one word at a time

Teams don’t write proposals. If you hear about a team that is writing a proposal, that translates roughly to “lots meetings are being held, but no one is actually working on the proposal.”

We sometimes hear people at nonprofit and public agencies talk about how they’ve assembled a “team” to write a proposal. For some reason, proposals written by “teams” have a habit of a) not getting done, b) if they are done, being done unevenly at best, and/or c) creating permanent acrimony among team members.

Do you remember “group work” when you were in middle and high school, which meant that one responsible person did the entire project while the other members goofed off and then took as much credit as they could? That’s what you’ll get with proposal writing assignments, only the stakes are higher.

Every time we hear about proposal writing teams, we know that the person talking doesn’t know how proposals actually get written and is probably working on a proposal that won’t be submitted anyway.

For example, we were recently working on a large federal grant proposal for a school district in the midwest. Throughout the engagement, our contact person keep talking about “the team” that was working on the proposal from their end. When the proposal was nearly done—on the Sunday before the deadline—I heard from out contact person, who finally admitted that “the team” had abandoned her and she had to more or less pull an all-nighter by herself to ensure that we were able to finish the submission package.

Saying that you’re “assembling a team” sounds good: one imagines the innumerable scenes in movies and TV shows in which the ultimate crime or cop group gets wrangled together for one big or one last job.* The members look suitably grizzled. They all have nifty specialties. These days there’s inevitably a hacker who can magically “bypass building security.” The leading men are dapper and debonair, the leading women beautiful and feisty. Unfortunately, in the real world, writing is still best done by a single person who can keep the narrative complexity of a difficulty response in their head.

We’ve written about how to write a proposal before, most notably in “One Person, One Proposal: Don’t Split Grant Writing Tasks.” We’re writing about it again because we see the same set of mistakes again and again.

If you’re drafted into a “grant writing team,” be aware that you’ll probably have one of two roles: You’ll end up writing the vast majority of the proposal, or trying to make yourself look good while someone else writes the vast majority of the proposal. No amount of dividing up tasks will solve the essential problem of facing a blank screen, a full RFP, and starting to type.


Isaac’s favorite example of this comes from The Magnificent Seven, which is actually a good movie. The first thirty or so minutes of the movie consists of Yul Brynner collecting his expert gunmen. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, most nonprofit and public agencies don’t have the same needs as a Mexican village beset by bandits. Usually. Those that do, however, might be the subject of another post.