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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.

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How’d You Like a 20% Discount on Grant Writing? You Got It, As Long as You are Willing to Go Against Conventional Wisdom!

Jake wrote recently about the perils of being too creative as a grant writer in Never Think Outside the Box: Grant Writing is About Following the Recipe, not Creativity. This post elaborates on the invisible fence of “Convention Wisdom” (CW) that forces us grant writers to remain in the box.

CW is an amorphous blob of assumed correctness that ping pongs through the media, popular culture, academia and everything else in America, even though aspects of it may be proven wrong. Two examples from recent newspaper articles will demonstrate how hopelessly wrong CW can be:

1) Foster Care and Orphanages: The CW about foster care is that the system, although flawed, is a much better alternative than orphanages, which conjure up Dickensian images of underfed orphans cowering in dark rooms. Although a quick Google search confirms that no one seems to really know how may kids are in foster care in America, a good guess is about 600,000. Richard. B. McKenzie, a UC-Irvine professor who grew up in an orphanage in the 1950’s, tackles the foster care/orphanage CW in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Best Thing About Orphanages.” Professor McKenzie cites a 2009 Duke University study of 3,000 orphaned children in Africa and Asia and states:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the researchers found that children raised in orphanages by nonfamily members were no worse in their health, emotional and cognitive functioning, and physical growth than those cared for in their communities by relatives. More important, the orphanage-reared children performed better than their counterparts cared for by community strangers, which is commonly the case in foster-care programs.

Professor McKenzie surveyed 2,500 alumni of American orphanages and found they generally did much better than their peers in the general population across a range of educational attainment, income, happiness and related indicators. In other words, orphanages, which have largely disappeared from America and been replaced by foster care, actually did a reasonably good job given the circumstances in nurturing orphans. Having written dozens of proposals addressing the needs of foster youth over the years, I know that outcomes are not good for kids in the system. In 17 years of being in business, however, no one has ever approached us to write a proposal for an orphanage.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is one of the largest private funders for child service programs. A search of their website for “orphanages” produces two hits, both in Romania, while a search for “foster care” produces 230 hits! I have a pretty good idea of how the CW thinkers at the Casey Foundation would react to a proposal to set up a new orphanage in Owatonna*: shock and horror! But they’d probably happily fund yet another “innovative” program to provide wrap around supportive services for foster kids.

2) Endangered Salmon: While living in Seattle for 15 years, I became accustomed to waking up pretty much every morning to another newspaper story about endangered salmon. Several years ago, there was even an attempt to OK killing sea lions because they were eating too many salmon, although I don’t believe a whisker on a single sea lion was actually ever harmed. I nearly fell off my chair when I read this piece in the January 21, 2010 Wall Street Journal: Fish Boom Makes Splash in Oregon. Despite the CW about the end of salmon runs on the West Coast, this year there are so many steelhead and their cousins that in some creeks, “you could literally walk across on the backs of Coho,” according to Grant McOmie, outdoors correspondent for a television news team in Portland. As the article states:

In 2007, one state office warned, “Populations of anadromous [or oceangoing] fish have declined dramatically all over the Pacific Northwest. Many populations of Chinook, Coho, chum and steelhead are at a tiny fraction of their historic levels.” The year before that, a naturalist in Seattle wrote: “It is hard to find the silver lining in a situation as dire as the collapse of wild salmon off the Oregon and California coasts.”

It turns out that the CW about salmon in Oregon is kind of fishy. This looks like a good opportunity for an enterprising homeless services provider in Portland to use the service delivery model I developed satirically in Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development. I’ll give you the acronym at no charge: Project FISH (Feed the Indigent/Salmon for Homeless). The grant writer for this proposal could make tidy use the old aphorism, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.”

It is almost never a good idea to go against your understanding of the presumed CW of the reviewers in writing a grant proposal. Not only do you have to stay inside in the box, as Jake wrote, you actually have to stay in a corner of the box. A case in point:

We’ve written lots of funded proposals for anti-tobacco/anti-smoking proposals over the years, particularly in California, which at one time had tons of money for such initiatives. About ten years ago, we were hired to write three proposals to prevent youth smoking in California by three different agencies for the same state RFP. While two of the clients were fairly typical youth service organizations, one was different. This nonprofit was interested in only working with white kids, which they deemed “Euro-Americans.” We almost never get good data sources from our clients, but this client provided peer-reviewed studies confirming that, with the exception of Native American youth, white teenagers in California were much more at risk for smoking than African American, Asian or Latino kids.

I told the client, however, that he would be going against CW about smoking and ethnicity and he would likely not be funded—especially if we wrote the proposal using the term “Euro-American” with a focus on white teenagers. He insisted, and we wrote it the way he wanted, using his terrific citations in one of the best needs assessments we’ve ever written. Not only was the proposal not funded, but it was also completely trashed in written reviewer comments our client later gave me. The reviewers were outraged that the agency would focus on white kids, instead of youth of color, and claimed a lack of data, despite the citations we included. In other words, their CW was so strong, they did not recognize the statistics provided right under their noses. The punch line is that the other two proposals we wrote for this competition focused on African American and Latino youth, respectively, used more or less the same service delivery approach as the first proposal and had entirely specious data that we cobbled together.

They were funded.

Now, about that discount. We’re willing to provide a 20% discount off our standard fee for a foundation appeal to the first qualified client who wants to fund an orphanage, salmon to feed the homeless or some other anti-CW project concept that we find intriguing. This means we’ll conduct basic research to identify a prospect list, complete detailed research to narrow down the list, write a foundation letter proposal (about five single spaced pages) and prepare 10 finished foundation proposals to the best identified sources for $5,600, a $1,400 discount from our standard fee of $7,000 for this type of assignment! If we get anyone to take us up on this offer, I’ll post updates on the outcome.**

* We were recently hired by a client in Owatonna, a small town about 40 miles south of Minneapolis. I have fond memories of Owatonna, since I used to go there frequently with my dad in the late 1950s to get live turkeys from a farm for our family kosher meat market. It was fun for a six-year-old to try to catch a turkey that was bigger than himself—with a poultry hook. Owatonna is also mentioned in one of Jake’s favorite childhood movies, Hot Shots. At the start of this hilarious parody, Charlie Sheen is Topper Harley, a troubled fighter pilot trying to recover his mojo in an Indian village, when a character speaks a series of faux Indian words that are actually town names in Minnesota, including Owatonna. The sequel, Hot Shots! Part Deux, is also lots of fun.

** The client must be a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Seliger + Associates will, at its sole discretion, determine if the client is qualified and the project concept is appropriate for this offer.

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Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development

Grant writers are often called on to develop project concepts with little or no input from clients or program specialists. In other words, we often invent the project concept as we write, within the confines of those pesky RFPs. We do it by taking one or more problems and applying standard implementation approaches to produce the ever-popular, but elusive “innovative” project concept. To illustrate how this slight-of-hand, or, perhaps more appropriately, slight-of-mind, is done, I have developed the fictitious Project NUTRIA to solve the problem of rampaging rodents, homelessness, job training, vacant houses, nutrition, and, yes, even global warming.*

This project idea emerged from a recent Seattle PI article, “Seattleites take up arms against ‘rat’ as big as cat.” Variations on the theme of rampaging “invasive species” show up all the time, whether it be kudzu, walking carp, or, today, nutria. These unappealing fellows apparently leave a path of destruction from Louisiana to Seattle, much like Godzilla in Tokyo but on a smaller scale. I chuckled over the breathless prose about a rodent with a very long tail, and concluded this latest crisis makes a pretty good starting point for a tale about conceptualizing project development.

Let’s assume nutria have invaded my favorite example town, Dubuque, and a new nonprofit—Citizens Against Nutria-Dubuque Organization (CAN-DO)—has formed to fight this scourge. Since not many funders are likely to be all that interested in nutria eradication, CAN-DO broadens the project scope to address other pressing community concerns and comes up with the following initiative, Project NUTRIA (Nutria Utilization and Training Resources for Itinerant Americans).

Here is the expanded project service delivery model:

1. Conduct a survey to identify nutria habitat and overlay the map with the recent survey of the homeless to determine proximity of both target populations. Graphics may be useful here.

2. Conduct street-based outreach to recruit individuals experiencing homelessness to be trained as Nutria Relocation Specialists (NRSes) and Nutria Processing Specialists (NPSes).

3. At the CAN-DO action center, provide NRSes with appropriate training in humane nutria capture and termination strategies, and provide NPSes with training in the fine art of deconstructing nutria.

4. NRSes capture nutria and prepare them for transport to a local processing facility, to be established in a property that is vacant because of the sub-prime lending crisis.

5. NPSes process the nutria meat into recipe-sized packages and prepare the fur for sale to US-based manufacturers of sporty lightweight garments—thus helping retain American jobs. This could lead to further job training possibilities, but I’ll leave them out for simplicity.

6. Conduct an information campaign to educate low-income residents about the many tasty ways of serving their families economical and nutritious nutria-based meals. If you don’t think people eat nutria, see this unappealing Nutria Recipe Page. My favorite recipe—based solely on descriptions—is for “Stuffed Nutria Hindquarters,” but I am not brave enough to find out exactly what the hindquarters are stuffed with. You could say, “I don’t give a rat’s ass,” but that might be inappropriate in a grant proposal.

7. Distribute the processed nutria meat, with a special emphasis on individuals experiencing homelessness,** TANF recipients, WIC program participants, and other income-challenged populations. Many job training programs for the homeless involve food service, and there are a number of cafes around the country, such as Seattle’s FareStart, that feature formerly homeless employees in training. Sounds like a good outlet for nutria. Also, I am sure there is a similar nonprofit restaurant in LA that foodies would flock to for a bit of the newly trendy nutria kabobs.

8. Advocate for better utilization of nutria as a way of combatting global warming. Unlike cows and chickens, the nutria raise themselves, so no unnecessary carbon is released in providing the hungry with a low fat, high protein food source.

These steps would be incorporated in a project timeline and dressed up with objectives, an evaluation section and all the other features of a well constructed proposal.

The point of this exercise is to remind grant writers that project concepts can often be made to appeal to different funding audiences by tweaking the proposal to meet the priorities of the funder. For example, if the Project NUTRIA proposal was being sent to EPA, the environmental benefit would be stressed. If it was being sent to the Department of Labor, the job training aspect would be emphasized, and so on. While it is always a good idea to have a specific focus for your proposal, it is also possible to address more than one problem, particularly to appeal to a broader range of funders.

EDIT: In “Why Soup Kitchens Serve So Much Venison,” Henry Grabar reports that “a growing percentage of [venison served to the homeless and needy] comes from the suburbs of American cities, at the unlikely but unmistakably American intersection of bow hunting, pest control and hunger relief.” There are too many deer and too many hungry people, which means both problems can be solved at once. There isn’t any news about workforce development, however.

* Note to animal rights folks, homeless advocates, et al: this is parody and no harm was done to actual nutria or homeless in the writing of this blog post.

** Free grant writing tip: this is currently the most politically correct term for the homeless, as it implies that homelessness just happened; as grant writers, we always seek emerging politically correct terms. Nominations are appreciated. If we get enough of them, whether in comments or by e-mail, expect a post on the subject.