Tag Archives: zuckerberg

We imagined foundations would hire us to help improve RFPs/funding guidelines. We were wrong.

Twenty and change years ago, Isaac was starting Seliger + Associates and expected to be hired by foundations and perhaps even some government agencies who might want help streamlining their RFPs or funding guidelines. Seliger + Associates has unusual expertise on grants, grant writing, and RFPs, which could, in theory, make helping funders part of the firm’s regular practice. Isaac imagined that funders would want real world feedback  to improve the grant making process, make themselves more efficient and efficacious, ensure their money was being channeled in useful directions, and so forth. Even in the early days of Seliger + Associates, we knew a lot that could help funders, and we waited for the calls to start coming.

I was about ten at the time. Now I’m considerably older and we’ve long since stopped waiting. Funders, it turns out, strictly follow the golden rule in this respect: he who has the gold makes the rules. Funders routinely ask applicants and other stakeholders about how to make the world a better place, but they have no interest at all in talking to the people who could conceivably help them most with respect to the funding process. Isaac’s initial expectation turned out to be totally wrong.

Isaac and I were talking about the vast silence from funders in light of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that he and his wife, Pricilla Chan, plan to donate tens of billions of dollars to nonprofits in the coming decades through newly formed Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) LLC.* That’s a laudable effort and we’re happy they’re doing this. Still, we wonder if they’ll talk to people who toil daily in the grant writing mines to make sure that the funding guidelines CZI uses and the RFPs CZI issues are grounded in the reality of what would make it easiest to identify applicants most likely to achieve their charitable purposes with the minimum friction for nonprofits. Based on past experiences, we doubt it.

Despite the headlines you may have read, philanthropy as we know it is quite resistant to change—especially on the government side. On the private sector side, signaling and status are far more important than efficiency. Gates and Zuckerberg may be challenging the signaling dynamic, and we’re on their side in that respect, but we think signaling is too ingrained in human nature to have much effect. Overcoming signaling is hard at best and impossible at worst. Look at the way ridiculous SUVs continue to be a status-raiser among many suburbanites for one obvious, easy example of this at work. Geoffrey Miller’s book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior details many others.


* The name of the LLC, “CZI,” amuses us: it’s an unpronounceable acronym that sounds like a Cold-War-era Soviet ministry. The first rule of developing grant-related acronyms to to make them pronounceable.

Collaboration is Often Inefficient: The Camille Paglia, Mark Zuckerberg, and Chris Christie examples

Almost all RFPs include requirements for “collaboration” with local entities. Yet I recently read this from Camille Paglia:

After endless quarrels with authority, prankish disruptiveness, and impatience with management and procedure, I now see that hierarchical as both beautiful and necessary. Efficiency liberates; egalitarianism tangles, delays, blocks, deadens.

(Emphasis added.)

Furthermore, in the fascinating article “Schooled: Cory Booker, Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg had a plan to reform Newark’s schools. They got an education,” Dale Russakoff writes:*

Early in the summer of 2010, Booker presented Christie with a proposal, stamped “Confidential Draft,” titled “Newark Public Schools—A Reform Plan.” It called for imposing reform from the top down; a more open political process could be taken captive by unions and machine politicians. “Real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously,” the proposal said. Seeking consensus would undercut real reform.

(Emphasis added.)

Neither hierarchical nor egalitarian decision processes are automatically better. They’re different. Highly open, transparent processes work in some situations and don’t work in others. You’d never know that from reading contemporary RFPs, however, which make endless consensus building sound like an eternal truth akin the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Many if not most successful companies aren’t run on a primarily consensus basis. At Apple, if Steve Jobs said the bezel should be one millimeter, then the bezel was one millimeter regardless of what anyone else thought. He got the right answers, at least in terms of revenue. The bosses at Google appear to get a lot of answers right. As we’ve said before, nonprofits are more like businesses than is commonly realized. They compete with each other, and within the organization the Executive Director can (usually) fire people at will. That’s particularly true when an Executive Director says, “This is the way it’s going to be,” and a subordinate staff member refuses, or wants to keep litigating after a decision has been made.

Sometimes fast, “wrong” decisions are better than slow, “right” decisions—and open, transparent, consensus-driven projects can be subject to self-interest. In Seattle, for example, it has taken literally decades to build even very simple light rail lines, in part because every constituent along the way first had to be consulted and then had to file a lawsuit, which had to be fought, and only then could the effort proceed. We’ve got so much process involved that in building that we’re too often unable to build anything.

In the real world, organizations collaborate to the extent they need to and don’t collaborate to the extent they don’t. Smart executive directors ask knowledgable parties for information and input, then they make the best decisions they can based on the information they have.

That can mean telling someone they don’t get what they want. That’s how life works, as Paglia understands. Subordinates who are sufficiently disruptive might eventually be fired. Those who think current management is dumb can decide that “You Don’t Have to be in a Shithole Nonprofit.” For most nonprofits in most fields, quitting and starting a new nonprofit is a viable option. There are some situations in which the local powers-that-be can block new entrants to market—as anyone who wants to provide homeless services and gets crosswise with their local Continuum of Care can attest—but in most situations grants, whatever their other flaws, are a market-based system.

Someone who thinks they can do it better than the competition can make a go. We’ve worked for lots of upstart nonprofits that want to take grants or contracts away from the local heavies. We’ve also worked for lots of incumbent nonprofits worried about local upstarts (threatening the local power structure is one way to ensure that better proposals get written). Neither upstarts nor incumbents are inherently “better.” The situation is always situational. Too bad RFP writers don’t realize it.


* We’ve worked for clients in Camden, albeit smaller but very similar to Newark, and parts of the article read like our needs assessments.