Posted on 1 Comment

Eat What You Kill: If You’re Not Hunting Grant Programs, You’re Not Eating

Mark Zuckerberg is supposedly only eating animals he kills this year. It’s a “personal challenge” for him, rather like not eating Big Macs for the rest of us.*

It’s easy to wonder how eating-what-you-kill as a metaphor might apply to the rest of Zuckerberg’s life, but since I’m not friends with him I can’t ask. Nonetheless, you can probably can imagine how this metaphor applies to grants: in times when you’re prospecting for grants, you should be a bear and bite any salmon, as Isaac wrote at the link. You can’t afford to be as picky as you might otherwise be.

In an idealized world, you’d probably get your preferred mix of grants, donations, and contracts, with a heavy emphasis on donations unencumbered by donor restrictions. I’d also like someone to randomly give me a million bucks, but that doesn’t seem real likely, and if someone did give me a million bucks, I’d worry that I was walking into a movie—specifically, a thriller with lots of murky motives that might leave the protagonist dead at the end. So I write proposals and teach undergraduates instead of waiting for magical money that, even if it did appear, would probably result in a scenario like the one described in Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan (hint: the title is ironic. Also, the book is quite good and highly recommended).

So if, like me, your organization doesn’t to exist in an idealized world, the desired blend of funding streams is not going to magically appear. Which means you should take what you can get. Until the recent financial crisis, for example, a lot of organizations could rely on capitated funds and contracts through cities, counties, and sometimes states, which provided steady, reliable sources of incomes to supplement donations and the occasional grant. Now a lot of organizations that once relied on such sources simply don’t have them. They can’t go to Safeway and pick up a nicely cut chicken.

They have to eat what they kill, like Zuckerberg, although Mark is doing so by choice and can send someone out to Whole Foods for a chicken or 12 anytime he feels like adopting a new philosophical stance. You can’t, and as a result the number and quality of grants that organizations apply for takes on greater urgency. One reason we like discussing Upward Bound so much is simple: it offers the possibility of five years of uninterrupted funding. That can carry an agency that might otherwise become skeletal through the lean times that continue.

Most organizations simply don’t have good alternatives to grants any more. They shouldn’t be worried about finding some existential balance between donations and grants; they should be taking whatever they can get. There aren’t a lot of choices; some organizations are trying to survive one Bratwurst at a time, as we described a few years ago, but fundraisers like washing cars and selling food are really tough, especially since you’ll naturally be up against professionals whose job is selling bun-wrapped meat or cleaning vehicles.

We’re not fools: we know that most nonprofits would rather have donors rain money on their head. I’d like to win the Lotto or an inheritance and be an artist full-time, but that’s not incredibly likely for me in the short term. For nonprofits, easy money from the Stimulus Bill is gone. You’re back to the basic stuff. You can debate this all day, but the proposals have to be written. You have to eat what you kill. If you’re not ready to wield the knife, you should hire somebody who will.

* I finished reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and among many other fascinating tidbits Isaacson describes Jobs’s numerous nutritional oddities surrounding food and Jobs’s belief in the possibility food offers for transcendence. Jobs went through periodic dietary restrictions, like eating and drinking only fruit or fruit juices, being a vegan, and fasting. I wonder about the extent to which this impacted his illness and how, if at all, his unusual eating beliefs were tied to the extreme achievement in other aspects of his life.