Tag Archives: public agencies

The Weird Case of SUNY Geneseo’s RFP for Grant Writers

We received this “RFP for Grant Writing & Related Consulting Services” from SUNY Geneseo:

That SUNY Geneseo RFP

It’s gotta be the Ron Jeremy of consulting RFPs—even by the standards of public agencies, it’s massive. At least a hundred pages. It’s also only available as a hard copy and was sent to our New York office, so we can’t provide a link. That alone signals that something is amiss: anyone who wants the best services possible should also want to disseminate their RFP as widely as possible. And SUNY Geneseo sent this sumo-sized document via UPS overnight delivery—they must not have read the memo about not wasting dead trees and running up shipping costs. It must still be 1996 in Geneseo.

SUNY Geneseo, however, doesn’t seem to want wide distribution of this RFP, and we have a pretty good theory about why. A few years ago Isaac wrote a post about why we don’t respond to RFPs/RFQs for grant writers (and, implicitly, why any grant writing consultants reading this shouldn’t either). The only exception is when we’re told that the RFQ is already wired for us, in which case we’re happy to apply.* In the case of SUNY Geneseo, there’s almost certainly a local firm or person they’re already going to hire. They just need to get a couple stooge bids.

Most RFQs and RFPs like this have some telltale signs that the local boys are going to win—usually something about the requirement that the consultant be available for in-person meetings, or have knowledge of local operations, or a similar formulation.

Public organizations with mandatory bid processes almost always also have the option of executing “sole-source contracts,” which get past the usual bidding rules. In this case, the contract authority at SUNY Geneseo probably doesn’t want to go through the institutional hassles of getting a sole-source contract, so she’s instead using the stooge method. Isaac actually sent the contract authority an e-mail asking about their convoluted RFP process, and their contact person claimed they “can’t do sole-source contracts.” This is nonsense, of course, as government agencies routinely use sole-source contracts for all kinds of specialized and emergency situations.

I’m not sure how many stooges she’ll find. The SUNY application itself is sufficiently complex that, were we writing a response for clients, we’d probably charge at least $5,000 to complete it. We’re not going to—instead, we’re going to real work, and we recommend that you do the same and that you not fall for the unsolicited RFP/RFQ trap.

EDIT: We’re obviously not the only ones curious—we’ve been getting search engine hits for the phrase “geneseo rfp”. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, since we’re the number one hit for the phrase on Google and the number two hit on Duck Duck Go, which is a search engine with one delightful feature: it doesn’t log searches. Your fascination with Miley Cyrus is safe with it.


* Though we did once get into a situation in which a public agency told us on the QT that the RFQ was wired for us, we submitted an application, and then they picked someone else anyway! We were angry for the usual reasons, the most obvious being that when we say we’ll do something, we do it.

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.

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.

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).

Why nonprofits are more like businesses than you realize

In a Hacker News thread, “guylhem” asked a (very) common question, in the context of firms that specialize in providing services to nonprofit and public agencies: “Why exactly is profit / commerce considered a bad thing?”

Since we’ve been working with nonprofit and public agencies for decades, we naturally have some ideas about the issue (we’ve discussed some of those ideas before, in “Tilting at Windmills and Fees: Why There is no Free Grant Writing Lunch and You Won’t Find Writers for Nothing” and “Why Fund Nonprofits, Public Agencies, and Other Organizations Through Grant Applications At All?“). A lot of people feel nonprofit and public agencies are not supposed to be like other businesses, even though in reality they share a lot of the needs and attributes of for-profit businesses.

Consider similarities. Nonprofits need their toilets to work. They need an IT guy or gal. Though they obviously don’t face the profit drive that businesses do, they still need to “make” more money than they spend, either to invest in new services or build a small but prudent reserve. If they don’t make more than they spend, the nonprofit will eventually be shut down. Nonprofits only have four basic ways of making money: grants/contracts, donations, fees for services, or investment income.

Because nonprofits, like other businesses, have a wide array of needs, they buy goods and services they can’t productively make or do themselves. We’re fond of the plumber analogy: most nonprofits do not have a plumber on staff, and, when their toilets clog, they hire someone to unclog the toilet. When the plumber is done with the job, she or he presents a bill and the nonprofit pays it.

That’s straightforward. But many people seem to feel that grant applications are more like a college admissions essay, in which hiring a consultant is somehow cheating.* We obviously don’t think so, since our entire job involves preparing grant applications. Nonetheless, those people don’t really think that grant writing is like plumbing (at least until they need a grant writer). Regardless of feelings, however, nonprofit and public agencies that submit better proposals tend to get funded more often than those that don’t—so feelings about the purity of the grant writing process get weeded out by the “market,” which still exists for nonprofits. People who think they’re good grant writers but turn out not to be eventually find they can’t run their nonprofit, or they can’t expand it, just like people who think they’ve got a great business idea but can’t sell.

We’ve also argued before that there’s no reason in principle why a nonprofit grant writing agency can’t exist, but in practice none do, and, even if they did, the demand for their services would far outstrip supply, as usually happens when something is given away. If you want to know why you generally can’t get something for nothing, well, look around: few people or firms give valuable things away, while many people or firms are selling valuable things, and prices tend to show what people in the aggregate think is valuable and what people think is less valuable.

Demand for “free” grant writing services would be especially high because grant writing is very boring, difficult, and tedious—a troika that makes free grant writing especially unlikely, since grant writing doesn’t give people the good feelings they might get from, say, doling out soup at a soup kitchen, or providing pro-bono legal work. Volunteers have their place, but most organizations that operate on more than a shoestring basis are quickly going to discover the limitations of volunteers.

Even nominally low-cost grant writing services often turn out to be quite expensive. As most of us have discovered the hard way, it’s not at all unusual to get what you pay for. Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part higher prices imply higher quality, at least up to a point. We’ve been hired by innumerable nonprofit and public agencies to attempt to salvage jobs prepared by “low-cost” grant writers, and we’ve also had nonprofits call us, hire someone else, then call us back for the same program in the next funding round and hire us instead of the other firm.

In response to the ideas above, “pbreit” replied: “I would think that a nonprofit reasonably considers grant writing a core competence or at least well closer to a core competence than, say, plumbing.” Maybe that’s true. But many nonprofits are good at delivering human services, and less good at writing proposals. Those skills do not necessarily co-occur, and if there’s any overlap between the skill of delivering human services and the skill of writing, it’s pretty slender. Plus, becoming a great writer is a “10,000-hour skill” that takes a lot of deliberate practice to develop. That’s why you have to take so many years of English classes in school (though I realize many of those English classes are bad, but that’s another topic). The average person who decides, “I want to become a competent grant writer” is probably looking at a couple of years of effort.

Sufficiently large nonprofits usually do have a grant writer on staff, but smaller ones usually don’t. A really good grant writer will probably cost at least $70,000 per year in salary alone, and is likely to cost much more. That big number helps explain why relatively few small- to mid-sized organizations have one. In addition, hiring a grant writer who turns out not to be particularly good at his or her job can really hurt a nonprofit. We’ve been hired by many, many nonprofit and public agencies who have grant writers on staff—sometimes for positive reasons (the in-house grant writer is overwhelmed or on leave) and sometimes for less positive ones (the in-house grant writer isn’t very good at writing proposals, is scared of the RFP or the Executive Director wants to play “shoot the consultant,” if the proposal is not funded). For small nonprofits, hiring a full-time or even part time grant writer might actually be outside their core competency.

What we’ve described in the last two paragraphs is a specific instance of a more generalizable question about whether one should hire a consultant, learn a skill, hire an employee, or not have it performed, and we’ve written about that issue in “Consultants, Employees, and More: Should We Hire a Grant Writer? And How Will Our Agency Complete Proposals?” Different organizations will deal with these questions in different ways, depending on a variety of factors.** These problems recur in the business world and in the personal world: Do you want to learn how to cook, hire someone else to cook through going to a restaurant, or not eat? Do you want to learn bike maintenance, take your bike to a shop, let your bike degrade over time, or not ride?

The most reasonable middle ground for nonprofits, for-profits, and people in general is to work to expand your range of basic and advanced skills while simultaneously acknowledging that you’re not going to learn everything. Things you don’t know how to do but want done you’ll probably have to pay for, one way or another. This isn’t always true—family members generally don’t charge each other when one person makes dinner—but as a general rule it’s pretty good, since strangers very rarely give valuable things to other strangers without a reason. Attractive women have told me that men will often do things for them and buy drinks for them and so on, without any or much prompting, but I definitely don’t qualify that as being “without a reason,” since the reason in most cases is probably obvious.

I don’t think most people are consciously thinking about the choices between learning, buying, and not having. But if you want to run a successful nonprofit, public agency, or business, you should start thinking about them now.


* Actually, hiring an admissions essay consultant starts to make sense when one thinks about how much money might be on the line in terms of scholarships, but that’s another issue for another day. The higher the financial stakes in a one-time event that doesn’t allow repeated attempts at practice, the stronger the incentive to make sure one does everything one can to win.

** If you’re curious about how this works in an academic context, check out Coase’s famous essay, “The Nature of the Firm,” in which Coase describes why firms exist at all.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes Keep Coming to the Nonprofit World

A continuing avalanche of bad economic news confirms the upheaval in the nonprofit world that I’ve been blogging about for the last few months. To paraphrase David Bowie in “Changes:”

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
(Turn and face the strain)
Ch-ch-Changes
Don’t want to be a richer [organization]
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
(Turn and face the strain)
Ch-ch-Changes
Just gonna have to be a different [organization]
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time

Not to compete with Jake’s bimonthly links posts, but a few recent stories should scare the bejesus out of most nonprofit executive directors:

  • The New York Times, July 29, 2011, Debt Crisis? Bankruptcy Fears? See Jefferson County, AL. Everyone involved in human services should care about Jefferson County, AL. Jefferson County is an urban county centered on Birmingham, the largest city in the state. Since we recently completed an assignment for a Birmingham client, I know the city is about 3/4 African American and about 1/4 of residents live below the federal poverty level (FPL). When the county goes bankrupt, folks in the city are going to have a much harder time accessing a whole slew of services, from family court to disability services to job training. The lines will be longer at the TANF and WIB offices, and the staffers in even worse moods as they face furloughs and layoffs. But that’s not the real problem: nonprofits who provide a wide array of wraparound supportive services (free proposal phrase here) are going to lose their county contracts when the need for services is growing.
  • National Public Radio (NPR), July 26, 2011, Wealth Gap Widens. As reported by NPR, “The gap between rich and poor has widened. Wealth is more and more concentrated among a select few, and those few are mostly white. The median wealth of white households is now 20 times that of black households, and 18 times that of Hispanic households, according to the Pew Research Center.” The net worth of most Americans is falling, while the gap between white and minority citizens is turning into a gulf (see Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation for more on this subject). Unemployment is rising and government services are being cut–-a perfect storm for nonprofits.
  • The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2011, Slow Growth Stirs Fears of Recession. The official growth in GDP was 1.3% for the second quarter of 2011 and .4% for the first quarter: “The economic recovery is grinding to a halt, raising the risk that the U.S. could fall back into recession and tightening the screws on Washington to resolve a debt-ceiling debate that threatens to inflict further damage on a fragile economy.” In most of the communities where Seliger + Associates works, nobody is worried about a new recession since the last one never ended.

I get calls every week from organizations across America that face cutbacks in traditional funding streams. Public sector bankruptcies, like the hapless Jefferson County noted above, will exacerbate the crisis. As I’ve blogged about before, the only real choices nonprofits have are to shrink in size, seek more donations, go after additional foundation and government grants, and/or re-think their mission and programming.

Two current clients illustrate two wildly different approaches to confronting the changing realities for nonprofits. Both clients provide after school services for low-income African American youth in two almost adjacent fairly large cities in Northern California. In homage to Client # 9, Elliot Spitzer, I’ll refer to them as Client # 1 and # 2.

Client # 1 offers a fairly standard mix of after school enrichment, mentoring and fitness programs, and has been funded mostly through federal grants and donations from local large businesses. This organization has gotten interested in childhood obesity, as popularized by First Lady Micelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. Client # 1 has decided to seek funds for childhood obesity prevention, as well as specialized mentoring. Both are laudable and fundable project concepts but do not address critical issues facing their target population, since the parents/caregivers of the kids are unemployed, underemployed and/or underwater in their mortgages. They’re having trouble affording food of any kind for their kids, making the relative merits of arugula versus french fries unimportant. The youth probably don’t have time for mentors anyway, because they’re working to help support the family. In other words, Client # 1 is seeking funds for services that meet interesting but peripheral needs of their target population, instead of basic needs.

Client # 2 runs more or less the same programs as Client # 1 but is larger and has been operating longer. This organization has been primarily funded through county contracts, modest user fees, and lots of small donations. While trying to maintain its core services, Client # 2 has decided to seek funds for two new programs. The first will provide emergency food and meal services for the families of targeted youth. The second will help the 5,000 or so youth and young adult offenders about to be released into their county as a result of a recent Supreme Court decision that will return tens of thousands of state prison inmates to the streets in a few months. Regardless of the merits of the Supreme Court decision, the arrival of thousands of ex-offenders, all of whom need housing, jobs and everything else, at once is going to overwhelm the existing supportive services system for ex-offenders like a tsunami.

Put yourself in the position of a funder. Would you fund Client # 1, which has a strong track record and wants to operate innovative services that nibble at the edges of problems, or Client # 2, which has an equally strong track record and is trying to address basic and emerging challenges?

As always, we’re doing our best to help both Client # 1 and # 2 meet their funding objectives. Two similar clients are taking action to increase their funding streams in different ways, as they adjust to the changing economic environment of their communities. As Bowie put it, they’re both turning “to face the strain.” Make sure your organization understands that doing what you’ve been doing forever probably will not work. Be creative, be aggressive and go get some grants. As Coach Taylor said on the now-concluded show Friday Night Lights, Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose!

Tough Times for Folks Means More Grant Writing for Nonprofits

This morning’s New York Times brought a depressing tale: “Blacks in Memphis Lose Decades of Economic Gains.” No matter what macro economic metrics indicate, it is clear that the Great Recession continues to rage across America and, as Van Morrison put it, it remains Hard Nose the Highway in the hardscrabble neighborhoods where Seliger + Associates usually works.

While the situation is dire for folks who are unemployed, losing their homes and perhaps losing their hope, it is even worse for the nonprofits that provide human services, particularly United Way agencies and other organizations that depend directly or indirectly on donations. This is because service demands are up and donations are down. Although recessions always make it harder to do fund raising, the sad truth is that donations lag economic improvement.

This means that it will likely take two to three years from when the Great Recession really ends for nonprofits to get back to donation levels of 2007. The same thing happened following the last major recession in the early 1990s. It took until the late 1990s for donations to recover—just in time for the busting of the dot.com bubble, which drove donations down again, and the September 11 attacks, which diverted donations from around the country to NYC.

While you’re waiting for donations to pick up with rising economic conditions, it is always possible that some other crisis, natural or manmade, will screw up your plans. How about a huge hurricane in the Gulf this summer, slamming millions of barrels of crude oil from the seemingly never ending Deep Horizon spill into New Orleans, just as donations are beginning to rise?

What should a nonprofit do? Well, you can cut staff and services, try to squeeze more donations out of your exhausted supporters, provide third-party payer services (e.g., foster care, substance abuse treatment, etc.), try to setup a quasi-business, or re-double your grant writing efforts. That’s pretty much it.

It’s difficult to cut staff and services with double-digit unemployment and your service population hurting, so most nonprofits will eat into reserves before doing so. Many organizations lack the certifications and licenses necessary to offer third-party payer services, making this a tough path. And, while some nonprofits generate revenue through such businesses as landscaping, moving services, affordable housing rehab/resale (HUD’s 203k program, for example), and the like, these usually depend on using clients as essentially slave labor to perform the work without much compensation. Doing so impedes building client self-sufficiency and raises ethical issues; I’ve never been a fan of nonprofits running businesses.

These problems take us back to grant writing as the most plausible alternative for struggling nonprofits. You don’t want to hear it, but this is the reality of Life During Wartime. The good news, as I pointed out in Where Have All the RFPs Gone?, is that the feds are slow in releasing RFPs this year. The June to September period will be much better for seeking federal grants than usual, as lots of RFPs will have to be released before the start of the next federal fiscal year on October 1. This is not the summer to take off for that long planned trip to Kafiristan.* Instead, find a grant writer and start applying for any grant programs that are remotely appropriate for your agency. There will be plenty of competition, but some organization is going to get funded. But you are more likely to get a grant than to get results from the sixth donor letter sent this year.


* Kafiristan is the setting for one of my ten favorite movies of all time, John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King. Faithful readers will know that I have about 100 top ten movies, but this is one of the best.

Graffiti, Windmills, CAP Agencies, and an Answer to the Question As to Whether This is 1975 or 1965

After six months of Stimulus Bill madness, I felt like Bob Dylan in Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues: “I do believe I’ve had enough.” So my wife and I decamped for two weeks in Paris and Berlin, leaving Jake with a whip and a chair to deal with hordes of would-be grant applicants wanting “some of that Obama money,” as one recent caller described it.

As usual, I can’t travel anywhere without contemplating the wonderful world of grant writing. Between fabulous meals and wonderful wine in Paris and Berlin, one fact stood out: the overwhelming amount of graffiti covering many public spaces. I am not a fan of graffiti, so my view is biased, but even someone who appreciates this “art form” would likely be taken aback by the shear volume. The complexity and layers of the graffiti tell me that public officials have given up trying to get rid of it. In contrast, most American cities fight a constant battle against graffiti, which in many cases seems to have worked.

The most famous example was then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s application of the “broken window” theory of fighting urban decay in the 1990s. Overall, I think such efforts have been reasonably successful in most American cities I visit, but as Borat and Jon Stewart would both say, not so much in France and Germany. This is too bad because anti-graffiti programs are great for nonprofits, which can approach the problem at both ends of the spectrum by hiring the people who put up the graffiti at night to paint it out during the daytime, while adding a soupçon of art instruction to spice up the grant application to pay for this cycle. The Arizona Star just reported on such a program trying to get going in Tucson (“Red Tape Stalls Graffiti Cleanup“). The County Court system wants to use juvenile offenders to do the clean-up, and I’m certain many of the young people working in the project are also pretty handy with a spray paint can. In the US, anti-graffiti programs are typically funded by local government agencies, such as this Tucson example, or business groups.

In Europe, we took several day trips from Paris on the TGV. One could see the beautiful French land zipping by at 150 MPH and imagine a knight or two partially hidden in a copse of chestnut trees. The countryside looked timeless.* In contrast, as soon as we entered Germany, the bucolic views were ruined by tons of 400 foot tall wind turbines on every hill. It seems the French value their views by generating electricity with nuclear power plants, while the Germans have decided to solve their electricity needs with wind turbines.

Leaving aside the political aspects of nuclear versus wind power, since both alleviate the global warming problem, and to paraphrase Arnold Schwarzenegger in End of Days who said, “Between your faith and my Glock nine millimeter, I’ll take the Glock”—between nuclear power and windmills, I’ll take the nukes. I am not alone in my dislike of giant windmills, as Jeffrey Ball recently wrote in in Renewable Energy, Meet the New Nimbys for the Wall Street Journal. Many people aren’t too keen on sacrificing beautiful vistas on the altar of renewable energy. We are working on a couple of solar and wind projects, which, even if they are funded, might get tripped up by a rowdy band of nimbys.

My final observation about our Europe ’09 tour is that I saw almost no evidence of nonprofits. This flummoxed me until I realized that this is likely because France and Germany are social democracies with extensive social safety nets. In Europe, most human services are provided by an army of social workers employed directly by the government, instead of through nonprofits, as is done in the US. I may be wrong, but I believe the US system of funding nonprofits through grants to conduct human services is an accident of history resulting from the frenetic pace of deploying War on Poverty programs in 1965, when the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) was set up to find a way to quickly get the federal funds to local communities. OEO was the brainchild of Sargent Shriver, special counselor to LBJ, first OEO Director, father of Governor Schwarzenegger’s wife Maria, and Senator McGovern’s running mate in 1972. Shriver decided the fastest and best way to alleviate poverty was to contract with local nonprofits, rather than using the New Deal model of having the government run local programs directly.

In an effort to keep poor folks in the loop and in keeping with the concept of maximum feasible participation of the poor contained in the enabling Equal Opportunity Act that authorized the War on Poverty, Shriver hit on the idea of forming legions of new nonprofits, called community action programs, usually referred to as “CAP agencies.” About 900 of the CAPs survive around the county, running Head Start, Weatherization and a plethora of other programs. We often work for CAP agencies. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, garden variety nonprofits got hip to applying for government grants and the system as we know it developed. When services are provided directly by government agencies, nonprofits are back to surviving on donations and selling bratwurst as Jake described in Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun, which isn’t nearly as lucrative as government grants.

This brings me back around to a question I posed last March in The Office of Community Services Rides the Stimulus Wave with Funding for Community Economic Development Projects, But Is It 1965 or 1975 Again?

While thinking about what I had seen in Europe during the long flight back, I have concluded that it is more like 1965 because the feds are in a state of hysteria about trying to shovel Stimulus Bill money out the door, very similar to Shriver’s OEO in 1965, while nonprofits, alternative energy companies and your Aunt Martha are frantic to get a piece of the stimulus pie. In the background looms never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing a specter of Vietnam. I am just old enough to remember President Johnson failing in his attempt to balance a progressive domestic agenda with foreign commitments, or, as it was called then, the “guns and butter” dilemma (I’m hardly the only person to notice: the New York Times recently asked “Could Afghanistan Become Obama’s Vietnam?“) Since this ended badly for Johnson, my advice to nonprofits is to go after the butter while it’s on the table. This really is the best of times for grant applicants, so let’s all party like its 1965.


* The best take on Americans visiting Europe remains Mark Twain’s wonderful The Innocents Abroad, Or, the New Pilgrims’ Progress. Not a great deal has changed in 150 years.

** In the Small World Department, and as I was thinking about writing this post last week, the Executive Director of a nonprofit in Kentucky called for a quote on writing a proposal for the CDC HIV Prevention Projects for Community-Based Organizations program. When she told me she was in Eastern Kentucky, I asked her if the Job Corps Center in Breckenridge was still operating and it turns out it is, much to my delight.

In early summer 1965, my older brother got a job right of college as a Residential Counselor at something called a Job Corps Center, which was being set up in a WWII-era army camp by something called the “OEO” that was implementing “the War on Poverty.” He got the job because one of his professors at the University of Minnesota happened to be a pal of one of Shriver’s aides and OEO was desperate for personnel (I see shades of the recent Stimulus Bill ramp-up). My brother went off to become one of the original foot soldiers in the War on Poverty and later that summer I took the Louisville & Nashville Railroad’s famous Hummingbird train to visit him for two weeks. It was quite an experience for a 14-year old kid from Minneapolis to spend time in a southern state just getting past Jim Crow and it started me down the road to spending the last four decades soldiering myself in various ways in the never-ending War on Poverty. I gave the Executive Director, a “War on Poverty” discount on her fee quote for reminding me of why this is really 1965.