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Job Training Grant Programs: An Enigma Wrapped in a Riddle

Two Wall Street Journal articles on job training grant programs caught my eye.

The first, “U.S. Faces Uphill Battle in Retraining the Jobless,” recounts that sad tale of a hapless unemployed worker who got caught up in a job training program only to end up pushing a broom in a supermarket. The authors, Ianthe Dugan and Justin Scheck, seem incredulous that there are at least 47 separate federal job training programs, along with presumably hundreds of state and local job training programs.

As a grant writer, I say, “What’s the problem?” The more programs, the more opportunities for grant applications and the less likelihood that the Program Officer for any given job training program will realize that your agency has been gotten funding for the same concept from other job training pots of money. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko in Wall Street in grant writing, “confusion, for lack of a better word, is good.”

The deeper question arises: Why stop with 47 federal job training programs, when 57 would even be better? I’m not sure where the intrepid reporters got the 47 number, but I have a feeling they missed a few. For example, the article fails to mention one of our favorite job training programs, YouthBuild, about which we’ve written many times. While the article describes some of the foibles of trying to train people for jobs that probably don’t exist, YouthBuild is the champ of persevering in the face of futility. This is because the primary goal of YouthBuild, as mandated by Congress, is to train at-risk youth and young adults for construction industries careers—an outcome that has been extremely unlikely for the last four years because of the Great Recession. In other words, why are the feds training more carpenters when the country is awash in unemployed carpenters? The answers lead us towards politics, but those of us who write grants keep churning out YouthBuild proposals that find a way to explain away the dismal metrics of our clients at placing trainees in jobs, which we do through the magic of specious grant writing.

Speaking of metrics, the article also bemoans the lack of metrics in federal job training programs:

But government efforts to determine the effectiveness of the programs have been spotty, at best. It doesn’t keep track of how many people receive federally funded training. Some training programs don’t bother to monitor whether the unemployed workers who complete them succeed in landing jobs related to their training. For programs that do track job placement, the data are far from conclusive.

The above may be depressing to taxpayers, but it makes a grizzled grant writer want to dance a jig. Having written an untold number of job training programs since the hoary days of the late, lamented Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program of the mid-1970s, I know that outcomes for job training programs are wonderfully impossible to measure. Any effective measurement strategy would be fantastically complicated and expensive, since the trainees would have to be followed for years (Katherine Newman does something like this in many of her books, like Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Labor Market and No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City, but she’s anomalous and an uncommonly thorough academic, rather than a commonly un-thorough bureaucrat). So, as grant writers, we just imagine the outcomes when developing the project objectives, knowing the funders will have no means to verify these and little interest in trying.

The second WSJ article on job training, “From Prison to Paycheck,” describes a very different approach to job training. In this piece, Howard Husock discusses programs for re-entering prisoners in which job training is tossed out the window entirely and replaced with immediate job placement. This assumes that whatever minimal training is needed for entry-level jobs will be learned on-the-job. Duh.

When I was a young man, I had jobs varying from drug store clerk to hospital stock boy to truck driver, all of which I learned to do in about two hours. Most federal job training programs presuppose that clients need extensive training and the ever-popular “wraparound supportive services” before entering the vaunted “world of work.”* We’ve written lots of prisoner re-entry proposals, which are larded with supportive services and training, but Mr. Husock has found several programs that seem to work by skipping the appetizers and getting right to the entree of a job. Refreshing, but I know enough not to propose project concepts like this, because it flies in the face of conventional wisdom and grant writing is largely about telling readers what they want to read.

* There are two free grant writing phrases in this sentence.

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Repurpose: The Word of the Decade and a Word for Nonprofits to Live By

During this seemingly endless period of economic stagnation, “repurpose” has emerged as the word of the decade. Repurpose is omnipresent. My wife recently “repurposed” a duvet that our dog had chewed by patching the hole and stuffing it into a new cover she made from some leftover fabric from a long-forgotten sewing project. Angus Loten’s recent WSJ article, “When Cost Cuts Fail… Drastic Measures, tells the tale of small businesses repurposing their entire business model to stay afloat. It seems we are all repurposing: in some cases voluntarily, like my wife who enjoys interior design, and in more cases involuntarily, like the businesses in the WSJ story and the many unfortunate workers who are being repurposed into consumers at food pantries and human services providers by long-term unemployment.

In many ways (consider this another free proposal transition phrase), nonprofits are really small businesses, even if they are run by True Believers. Like small business, nonprofits have formal or informal business plans; resources in the form of cash reserves, facilities, equipment, human capital, and organizational experience; target markets and customers; “angel investors” in the form of consistent volunteers and donors; and, although they operate as “tax exempt,” nonprofits are responsible for payroll taxes, gas taxes, utility taxes and user fees (thinly disguised taxes enacted by strapped local governments), meaning their tax burden is not zero as is often imagined.

One big difference between the challenged small businesses discussed in the WSJ story above and most nonprofits is that nonprofits usually lack the ability to obtain lines of credit to carry the agency during difficult times and are more likely to quickly cut staff and programs than businesses that depend on personnel to generate revenue. As the nonprofit cuts staff and programs, it loses its organizational credibility among its consumers, remaining funders and, most importantly, future funders. This can become a death spiral for a nonprofit. Since the Great Recession hit, we have worked for some hollowed-out nonprofits that at one time had fairly broad programming but are now more or less shells. Through the magic of grant writing, we can make them appear whole, at least in the proposal world. It is better for the organization and the populations they serve, however, to repurpose themselves before they become nonprofit versions of the ghosts in Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place, who take a while to realize they’re already dead.*

Whether they realize it or not, many nonprofits will either have to repurpose themselves by seeking new grants, making better use of social media and accepting the changes that have arrived in the nonprofit world.

If you’re running a nonprofit, a staff member sitting in a strategy meeting, or a board member, find a way to repurpose your nonprofit. Look at the resources you have, your nonprofit competitors, the challenges emerging in your community and the endless possibilities of new federal, state, local and foundation grants. Get going. As I have been blogging about for months, the most nimble nonprofits will transition part or all of their suite of services (another free proposal phrase) and will emerge different but stronger when the economy eventually recovers. I just didn’t have the right word for this process, but thanks to my wife and the WSJ, I do now: repurpose.

* Like the rest of human existence, when a old nonprofit does not repurpose itself and goes under, it will provide a niche for a new nonprofit, since presumably the problems it was addressing still exist in its target community. See this post I wrote on the subject last November: “Grant Writing from Recession to Recession: This is a Great Time to Start a New Nonprofit.”

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Grant Writing Confidential Scoops the Wall Street Journal and More on Being Creative in Finding Funds During the Great Recession

As the editor of my high school newspaper—the Cooper High School Hawk’s Quill—and a short-lived college journalism major, I take great delight in scooping the Wall Street Journal. Shelly Banjo wrote Donations Slip Amid Anxiety on June 9, which said:

For the second year in a row, philanthropy has seen the deepest decline ever recorded by the Giving USA Foundation, which has tracked annual giving since 1956. Donations fell 3.6% to $303.75 billion last year, down from $315 billion in 2008, according to the latest Giving USA study, released Wednesday. In 2008, they were down 2%.

Faithful readers will note that I made more or less the same point in my May 29 blog post, Tough Times for Folks Means More Grant Writing for Nonprofits, although with more humor and helpful advice. If one read Ms. Banjo’s article and knew little about nonprofits, one would get the impression that the end is nigh. This is because her article, like most stories about nonprofits, perpetuates the conventional wisdom that all nonprofits depend exclusively on donations, which is simply not true.

As I pointed out in my post, while donations are important, particularly for certain kinds of nonprofits, most human services providers support their service through grants, fee-for-service contracts, third-party payers and/or quasi-business enterprises, in addition to donations.* These alternative revenue streams, which can be ramped-up when donations are down, are not mentioned by Ms. Banjo and the cast of nonprofit “experts” she quotes and data she cites.

Although new contributions to foundations may be down, foundations still must give away 5% or so of their endowment every year, and the feds, through the Stimulus Bill and lots of other appropriations, have keep the grant spigot wide open. Cagey nonprofit executive directors are busy writing grant proposals and dreaming up other revenue strategies, not wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over declines in donations. But not in the conventional wisdom world of newspaper writers.

A second Wall Street Journal article by Jennifer Levitz and Stephanie Simon on June 12, “A School Prays for Help”, confirms the importance of getting creative during tough times. While this article mostly discusses public schools, police departments and other public agencies seeking alternative funding sources, the same concepts apply to nonprofits.

In this article, the writers describe how some schools are getting local churches to “adopt” them and other strategies for what amounts to advertising in order to supplement limited tax dollars. Nonprofits can do the same sorts of things instead of just waiting around for donations to pickup.

One of the several odd aspects of a church providing donations to a public school, however, is that the church itself is a nonprofit that depends almost exclusively on donations from its members. Why would they do this? One reason could be that the church expects to get new members from school parents and staff, and they will eventually try to extract donations from the new members. In other words, the church and the school are probably competing for donor dollars and the church may be taking the longer view that investing a small amount of its money now, derived from its members, will result in more members and more money later.

While most nonprofits and public agencies like to present themselves as collaborating, in reality they compete with one another for donations, grants, and all kinds of resources. I pointed this out in What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point, a post that generated quite a comment thread.

Some readers understood my point, while other denounced me as a hopeless cynic. Of course, I am a hopeless cynic, but nonprofits and public agencies are largely in competition, and the ongoing economic mess just makes this competition rise to surface, like the somewhat baleful giant crocodile in the best “big animal” movie of recent years, Lake Placid.

* Jake also wrote about funding sources in Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun.