Tag Archives: theory

Talking About Progressive Ideals in Proposals: Money, Time, and Poverty in Grant Writing

No Money, No Time” helps set the cultural tone for the proposal world. In the proposal world—which does sometimes overlap with the real world—poor people spend time where richer people might spend money. Rich people are rich in many ways, but one is simple: their lives aren’t as organized around other people’s bureaucracies.* A nonprofit or public agency should help the poor, and it would be a good idea to incorporate the idea that poor people don’t have the time wealthier people do. This idea also ties into other important parts of contemporary thinking: if low-income people** weren’t so busy with day-to-day survival, they’d go buy arugula from the farmers market and make a salad, instead of buying Cokes and Big Macs.

There is some truth to the argument: a lot of low-income people are surrounded by endless appointments, case managers, social workers, parole officers (sometimes called corrections officers), and others who want a piece of their time. That time does add up. Years ago, we wrote a proposal to L.A. County for a nonprofit proposing to fund “master” case managers who would manage each client’s roster of case managers, parole officers, court cases, etc.

That’s not a totally superficial idea, though it has the ring of parody. If a poor single mom misses an appointment with her Child Protective Services (CPS) case manager, her kids might be put in foster care and she’ll end up in court. If she misses a shift, she might lose her job. If she fails to fill out out a form completely, she (and her children) might lose Medicaid or a Section 8 apartment. Life for the American poor is like a game of Chutes & Ladders—which is not an original thought, since Katherine S. Newman made the argument in a book called Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Labor Market (and she’s written a number of others, all good; used copies are under $1 on Amazon. If you’re writing social and human service proposals, you can’t afford not to buy them).

In the proposal world, solutions spring from government funding, but in the real world, many of the problems derive from laws passed by legislatures. Among the poor in particular—who cannot afford good lawyers and who often cannot afford service fees and other penalties—lives get complicated by entanglement with officialdom and by drug prohibition. Legal issues usually involve drugs and kids; jailing men for failing to pay child support has a real, under-appreciated downside that is not being widely discussed (though you will hear about it in some places).

Even outside the realm of drugs and kids, we have so many laws, rules, and regulations—many not at all intuitive and many counter to the ways actual people want to live—that no one is innocent and everyone breaks laws, usually inadvertently. Tyler Cowen’s “Financial Hazards of a Fugitive Life” also describes this; the column is substantially about Alice Goffman’s brilliant book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, which you should also read (and cite).

These laws came, not surprisingly, from good intentions. Before Prohibition, progressives theorized that getting rid of Demon Rum and John Barleycorn would mean that men wouldn’t get drunk, lose their jobs, eventually lose everything, and send their wives and daughters into prostitution. As any student of history knows, that didn’t turn out real well. Drug prohibition isn’t working out real well, but we’re still wasting a lot of time and resources doing it—in all sorts of ways.

Some costs to drug prohibition are quite small. Office Depot used to have tons of signs up saying, “We drug test employees.” But our thought was: who cares? We’re just asking someone where the pens are. If Office Depot’s employees want to light up after work, that’s their own affair. Nonetheless, Office Depot may have been unintentionally reinforcing poverty by denying jobs to otherwise qualified workers who like to dance with Mary Jane on the weekends (just like many social workers and case managers, at least in my experience).

The net result of this is the time crunch. The first article in this post should be cited in proposals—but only in the needs assessment. The problem should be forgotten in the project description, since participants must be assumed to have lots of time to serve on the Participant Involvement Council (PIC), community service etc. Other writers have also described the time trap of being poor: John Scalzi’s “Being Poor” is one particularly poetic example.

The time crunch is not unique to poor people and human service organizations serving them. Isaac actually tried to talk to the Small Business Administration (SBA) group in Seattle when he first started Seliger + Associates. They wanted him to sit through ten sessions on… something, all of which required lots of travel time he didn’t have because he was furiously busy writing proposals and finding clients. You do not discuss the nature of warfare, starting with the Greeks, when the enemy is shooting and your position is in danger of being overrun.

That being said, it’s useful to understand where these ideas come from. There are, loosely speaking, two big views on poverty right now. The one presented in the New York Times, which we’ve been discussing in this post, is the generally leftish, Democrat, progressive view, and that’s the view that should predominate in proposals. The other view is generally rightish, Republican / Libertarian-esque, and slightly more conservative, and that’s the view that the material conditions of being poor in the U.S. have improved incredibly over the last century or more. That’s where one gets The Heritage Foundation pointing out that 80% of poor people have AC, 75% have a car, two thirds have a TV, and so on. That’s also where one finds Charles Murray’s solutions in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (these issues are not unique to the United States: Britain’s working class faces similar travails).

Just about everyone likes Murray’s research, but American progressives and conservatives tend to disagree on what the research means and what, if anything, should be done about it. Progressives tend to stress direct income transfer and government-paid supportive services, while conservatives tend to stress marriage, avoiding drugs, not getting knocked up outside of marriage, etc.

Beyond the drug war, there are other drags on the earnings and lives of poor people. Almost no one, right or left, mentions that the rent is too damn high, and that every time wealthy owners in places like Santa Monica, Seattle, and New York prevent new construction, they’re simultaneously making the lives of the poor much, much harder. Only a relatively small number of voices in the wilderness are speaking up.

We’re grant writers—that is, hired guns—so we’re not intensely political about these issues and are in it for the money (I know you’re shocked). Usually we shy away from the theory and thought behind grant writing, since most readers and human service providers don’t really care about it, or care to the extent that thinking translates into dollars.


* Isaac doesn’t like using the word “bureaucracy” in proposals, in any context, but I’m quite fond of it. Isaac says that isn’t a good idea to remind the bureaucrats reading a proposal that they are in fact bureaucrats who are making people jump through hoops in order to receive goods and services. He may have a point.

** In proposals, no one is poor and everyone is “low-income.” We use them interchangeably here only because a) this is where grant writers and nonprofit administrators come to talk about reality, not fantasy, and b) the original writer uses the term “poor.”

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.