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GWC Goes to the Movies Part Deux: Young Frankenstein, In the Heat of the Night and the Ferguson, MO Riots (or is it Rebellion?)

August 17th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · 2 Comments

In Mel Brooks’s hilarious 1974 send-up of classic Universal Pictures 1930s horror films, Young Frankenstein, the incredibly goofy Kenneth Mars (as Inspector Kemp) says to the mob with pitchforks and torches: “A riot is an ungly thing . . . und, I tink that it is chust about time ve had vun.” I thought of this scene as I watched the chaos in Ferguson. From a grant writing perspective, I agree with Inspector Kemp. The human tragedies and political/police incompetence are hard to watch. Having an urban riot televised endlessly in the new 24-hour news cycle will, however, eventually generate lots of grant opportunities for nimble nonprofits. Simultaneously, a nice riot enables grant writers like us to continue the urban mythology of economic despair and violence lying just below the false calm of many urban and suburban streets that are home to large African American populations. This is the stuff of which compelling needs assessments are made. Riot anecdotes and allusions should be larded throughout.

I remember reading Life magazine, which was the Twitter of its day, about the 1965 Watts Rebellion.* Over the years, variations on the Watts theme have played out across America: white cop arrests/shoots/kills unarmed African American, an urban riot ensues, the police/national guard overreact and the community in question is left without grocery stores. I’m surprised that this ritual racial drama still occurs in 2014. As noted above, the Ferguson Rebellion will be a boon for urban nonprofits and grant writers, as the government response will be, as it always is, more grant programs—which is sometimes termed the “do something disease.” As Bob Geldorf, of “We are the World” fame and professional do-gooder, once said: “Something must be done, even if it doesn’t work.”

Since the feds and State of Missouri can’t do much of anything else about the immediate situation except blame the obviously incompetent and probably racist Ferguson PD, they’ll make it rain grant dollars on Ferguson and other perceived African American communities, like amateur night at a strip club. I say “perceived,” because it turns out that while about two-thirds of Ferguson residents are African American, the rest are white.

Although the community has been trending African American for decades, Ferguson is hardly all African American. Also, at $37,517, the median household income isn’t all that much lower than the state median of $47,333. There’s a wine bar, craft brewery, several chain restaurants and retailers, and even a weekly Farmer’s Market and outdoor concert series in the summer. There’s a Starbucks right across the city line in Jennings and a Whole Foods nearby. What I didn’t find when looking at Ferguson Census and social indicators were the “Cliff’s You Buy We Fry” fish markets and the Mr. Jones Rotten Fruit and Dented Can stores typical in low-income African American communities. Ferguson, one of several similar first-tier suburbs north of St. Louis, is hardly a place of urban despair.

If one watches CNN, however, all one sees are relatively small groups of angry African American faces and the unfortunate image of the very white and not too articulate Police Chief, Thomas Jackson, looking like Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night. The media presents the situation using classic urban riot tropes. That’s fine with me, as this is exactly how we write proposals for clients in actual economically devastated and African American places like North Philly or South Chicago, as well as ones that are perceived as African American. For example, Watts, the original poster city for riots, is actually now only one-quarter African American and 73% Hispanic.

We’ve written lots of proposals for projects in Watts, including some in which the City of Los Angeles was our client, and, through the magic of grant writing, we always make it seem that it’s still 1965 in Watts. See this NYT article for a good example of writing the ghetto myth, not the reality. Just as we harken back to 1965 in many grant proposals, the author of this piece goes all the way back to the early 50s to somehow rationalize what is going on 60 years later.

Let me return to Young Frankenstein. In the movie, Gene Wilder, as the scion of the mad doc family, starts the movie by trying to run away from his myth-filled heritage. Eventually fate intervenes and he decides to live the myth by building his own “monster.” The monster, played by Peter Boyle, turns out to be rather more charming than menacing, but still generates the angry mob with pitchforks that started this post. This lesson applies to grant writing: it’s important to honor the mythology of the past, while creating a new bogeyman that can only be overcome with grants.


* When writing proposals about communities that have been rocked by large-scale urban disturbances, like the Watts Riot or the chaos in LA following the Rodney King trial, never refer to a “riot”—only use terms like “rebellion” or “disturbance.” This fits in well with the proposal mythology that low-income folks are not actually out of control, but rather are understandably rebelling against the dominate power structure. Think Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

EDIT: Commenter James observes that this post is cynical even by our standards, but we’ll point out that we’re assuming the voice and thoughts of politicians and policy makers. Think of this as a nonfiction version of what James Wood’s description of point of view.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Media

GWC Goes to the Movies: Casablanca and a WSJ Opinion Piece on the Wobegon Illinois Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI)

August 10th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · No Comments

Faithful readers know I love movies, and this is the first in a new series: “Grant Writing Confidential Goes to the Movies.”

Today, let’s talk about perhaps the best film ever made, Casablanca,* and Claire Groden’s recent opinion piece in the WSJ, “An ‘Antiviolence’ Boondoggle in Murder-Plagued Chicago.”

Groden recounts the disappointing impact and sad tale of woe surrounding the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI), a $54 million grant program sponsored by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. NRI was supposed to reduce the astounding level of youth violence in the state, and in particular in Chicago, where dozens of young people are killed every weekend. Not only did violence rise during the program implementation, but one of the at-risk youth employed in the program allegedly shot and killed a second employed youth while the two were passing out anti-violence pamphlets in the community.**

Groden is apparently surprised that NRI didn’t work, which reminds me of the scene in Casablanca when Captain Renault says to Major Strasser, “I’m shocked, shocked to find out that gambling in going on in here [Rick's],” as a croupier hands him a pile of winnings. Programs like NRI rarely achieve their lofty public goals—which is one reason evaluation sections are unintentionally hilarious—but they may achieve other, less obvious ones. Just because NRI didn’t do much to curb crime doesn’t mean it’s a “boondoggle.” In Casablanca terms it’s more like Captain Renault saying “Round up the usual suspects.”

While we haven’t written any NRI proposals, the program looks to me like a fairly standard Walking Around Money suspect, about which we’ve blogged many times. Lots of grant programs are really a means to funnel money into certain neighborhoods via nonprofits. It’s also clear to me, if not to Groden, that NRI is mostly a jobs program—in this case, the idea is to hire gang bangers as Peer Outreach Workers, with the assumption that if the youth have some money, perhaps they won’t feel the need for mayhem. In this instance the theory didn’t work so well, as one of the employed kids shot another one in the head. (This could be an argument for a higher minimum wage, but I digress).

Many grant programs are really jobs programs in disguise. My favorite example is Head Start, on which billions of federal grant dollars are spent annually, with over a million kids enrolled. While there are lots of conflicting studies on whether or not Head Start actually has any lasting impact on enrolled kids, it certainly succeeds as a jobs program—tens of thousands of low-skilled, low-income women, are employed as Head Start “teachers.”***

Interestingly, most Head Start teachers also have or have had kids enrolled in the program, which means the same women who seemingly fail to educate and socialize their kids in their own home are somehow supposed to help similar kids learn in the classroom. Head Start has been around for almost 50 years and, by now, there must be lots of third-generation Head Start kids. Since the family has to be low-income to be in Head Start, if three generations are still in poverty despite Head Start—including moms and grandmothers who were Head Start teachers—one can assume that the program doesn’t improve long-term family self-sufficiency (free proposal phrase here). It does, however, keep lots of low-skill women employed at an average annual salary of $21,000, which is probably around what they could make at Wal-Mart but also includes implicit childcare subsidies.

Groden makes a common mistake by confusing the grant program—NRI—with the funding agency—the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority (IVPA). Since NRI has gotten a lot of bad press, the program may see reduced funding, becoming a grant mummy waiting for more tana leaves. She implies that this means the end of IVPA. Wrong. IVPA has been around for years. I know, because we’ve written many funded IVPA proposals for a variety of programs, albeit not NRI. IVPA is a vehicle for federal pass-through funding, with similar agencies existing in each state. While IVPA and the Illinois governor may put temporary brakes on NRI, IVPA will continue to churn out grants for lots of other programs.

As Dooley Wilson sings, “The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.

Much of the Casablanca plot centers around missing Letters of Transit. These are never explained because they’re just a plot device, called a MacGuffin by Alfred Hitchcock and often used in both screenplays and grant proposals. Examples of common MacGuffins in proposals are imagined community needs assessments (e.g., vaguely described informal task forces), case planning documents (e.g., Individual Service Plans), referral linkages, and so on. Since most proposals have severe page limitations, it’s often not possible to go beyond MacGuffin references to move the proposal narrative along, so we might randomly stick in “informal planning task force” or “referral for wraparound supportive services” every few pages. After a while, the reader thinks they know what an informal planning task force is or what the referral mechanism is just as a Casablanca viewer eventually buys into the Letters of Transit device.


* When I worked for L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley in 1974, one of volunteers in the Mayor’s Office was Kitty Curtiz, daughter of Micheal Curtiz, director of Casablanca. Kitty was a delightful woman who’d been a teen on the set when Casablanca was being filmed at Warner Brothers in Burbank. She had lots of anecdotes about the filming and confirmed that no one knew (spoiler alert) Rick would end up with Louie, not Ilsa, at the end of the movie, until it was shot.

** This is called “street outreach” in the grant writing biz and is a standard component in the outreach/engagement section of most human services proposals. Once again, round up the usual suspects.

*** A comprehensive 2011 Head Start Study by DHHS itself found that, while Head Start produces “brief learning gains,” such gains fade quickly and have little or no impact on ultimate education and income outcomes. Judge for yourself.

→ No CommentsTags: Government · Grants · Programs

Lots of Crap Required in an Early Head Start (EHS) Proposal, but Here’s What’s Missing: Shit. Literally.

August 5th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

The latest Early Head Start FOA is blessedly shorter, in both FOA and the required narrative, than it used to be. But it’s still astonishingly detailed. Applicants must discuss attitudes towards discipline, staffing plan minutia, approved curricula, snacks, parent contact, daily plans, transportation, and on and on.

One conspicuous point that should be obvious to anyone who has spent time around very little kids is absent, however. If you have dozens of kids under the age of three, the primary staff activity isn’t going to be reading or counting or structured art or whatever. It’s going to be making sure the kids haven’t had an “accident.” Basic bodily issues will disrupt many of the best-laid Pre-K plans conceived by Washington D.C. early childhood education thinkers.

Earlier today Isaac and I were talking about the first time he walked into a Head Start classroom, back around 1978. The first thing that struck him was the relatively huge bathroom and its many, many toilets. Every one of them had a little kid occupying it. He mentioned that to the teacher, who rolled her eyes and walked away. Keeping the attention of a group of neonatal to 36-month-old kids is hard enough; keeping them clean is going to consume more time than any other activity apart from sleeping and eating.

In the Early Head Start and Head Start proposal world, however, these issues don’t exist. It would be funny to add details about potty training, or lack there of, to a narrative, and ideally to describe the issue in great, exquisite detail, and perhaps to add a validated curriculum (which we would invent, of course). Not funny enough that we’d ever do it, but definitely funny enough to contemplate the response of the reviewers. They would what—shit their pants?

→ No CommentsTags: Education · Grants

Grant Writer as Ghost Writer: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Conundrum

August 1st, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · 5 Comments

At our most basic level, we grant writers are nothing more than ghost writers. Ghost writing is sometimes referred to as the world’s second oldest profession, and there’s probably some truth to that. While ghost writers haunt (sorry about that) every strain of writing, ghost writing is largely veiled from the real world. Andrew Crofts’s new book, Confessions of a Ghostwriter, provides a rare glimpse into the profession.

Like me, Crofts has spent about 40 years writing under other writers’s bylines and toiling in the shadows while making a tidy living and seemingly enjoying his anonymous vocation. Crofts points out correctly that his clients view him as ranking “somewhere between a valet and a cleaner.” In my view, our clients actually view us more in line with the purveyors of world’s actual oldest profession, but his point is well taken: when someone wants a grant writer/ghost writer/valet/hooker or some similar service, they want it right now and they probably don’t want to be reminded that they felt compelled to use the particular service.*

While we don’t worry about not having our writing attributed to us, our anonymity presents some challenges when we’re asked for references. Since we’ve been in business for 21 years, we have lots of potential references, except for a few minor issues. One is anonymity: as mentioned in the footnote, not every client wants others to know that they did not write a particular proposal and may decline to provide a reference or even deny our involvement. Crofts points out the reality: clients who hire ghost writers don’t necessarily want to be public about it.

Hillary Clinton just released her state department memoir, Hard Choices, which has been widely panned by reviewers as a real snoozer, but at least Hillary admitted to the Washington Post that this tome was actually written by her “book team” (I wonder if the team had matching t-shirts). This is better than President Kennedy, who accepted a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, which was largely written by Theodore Sorenson without attribution. Interestingly, Sorenson also wrote Kennedy’s stirring Inaugural Address, once again without public credit.

To return to our own story, we’ve also been around so long that we’ve outlived many of the contact people we worked with, who retire or move on to new jobs. There is little institutional memory in most nonprofits. For example, about 15 years ago, we wrote several large funded proposals for a small nonprofit that oddly used arts education to provide English as a second language (ESL)** instruction to immigrant children. As a result of these funded proposals, they became a much larger organization, but for whatever reason they stopped hiring us. About five years ago, I received a call from the new executive director of this same nonprofit inquiring about grant writing assistance.

The old executive director had left some time before and the new guy was amazed when I told him that we’d written the original funded proposals that launched them into nonprofit glory. He was skeptical, so I emailed him a proposal we’d written about ten years earlier. He declined to hire us and the organization eventually sunk back beneath the nonprofit waves again. They couldn’t effectively write proposals. Nonprofits that can’t write winning proposals or find some other way of funding themselves die.

Talk about ghost writing reminds me of one of my favorite John Ford Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Told in flashbacks, the storyline is that Jimmy Stewart’s righteous, nonviolent lawyer character Ransom Stodard (called “Pilgrim” by John Wayne’s laconic and quick with a gun rancher character, Tom Doniphon) is forced by circumstance to face down and “shoot” the local desperado, Liberty Valance, played with snarling fury by Lee Marvin.

Or did he? As “the man who shot Liberty Valance,” Stodard becomes famous and is elected a senator. It turns out, of course, that John Wayne’s character actually shot Liberty over Stodard’s shoulder. In effect, John Wayne was Pilgrim’s “ghost shooter.” When Jimmy Stewart finishes telling the true story to the local newspaper editor in real time at the end of movie, he says to the editor, “you’re not going use the story?” The editor replies, “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Like all ghost writers, we grant writers just print the legend.


* This is one reason why we don’t list past clients on our website and always disguise them when we mention one in a post. We don’t just sell grant writing; we sell discretion.

** “ESL” is actually a somewhat archaic term in grant writing these days. The newer term is English language learning (ELL), making the the students ELLs. Now you know. In a couple years the nomenclature will probably change again, for no reason apart from fashion.

→ 5 CommentsTags: Advice · Clients · Stories

Links: The Fugitive Life, Broadband, Parking Hell, Birth Rates, Transit, Sexting, and More!

July 24th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

* If you read nothing else today read “Financial Hazards of the Fugitive Life, which concerns Alice Goffman’s brilliant book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. It will be cited in our future proposals.

* Big Cable says broadband investment is flourishing, but their own data says it’s falling. It will no doubt come as a shock to discover that Comcast and Time Warner are lying.

* The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview.

* “Check out the parking lot: Hell in LA.”

* “Birthrate among teens fell to record low in 2013.” This is likely to mean fewer grants for teen pregnancy prevention or abstinence education. Consider our post a warning about the next grant waves.

* Is tax evasion the key to understanding nonsensical-seeming data about first-world indebtedness?

* “The IPO is dying. Marc Andreessen explains why” is about much more than its headline implies, and there are too many good excerpts to pick one. Highly recommended.

* “Intelligent life is just getting started,” from biologist Nathan Taylor; an unusual perspective and an example of why blogging is so important.

* “. . . most crime statistics are garbage, they told me, because cops can make crimes go away by reclassifying them. This is the cop equivalent of our post “Studying Programs is Hard to Do: Why It’s Difficult to Write a Compelling Evaluation.” One could also cite this as another example of how to lie with numbers.

* “The philosophy of great customer service;” incidentally, when you call Seliger + Associates, you will get a live person on the phone (as long as someone is in the office).

* “How Denver Is Becoming the Most Advanced Transit City in the West.”

* “America’s Public Sector Union Dilemma: There is much less competition in the public sector than the private sector, and that has made all the difference.”

* The law of unintended consequences.

* “Hysteria Over Sexting Reaches Peak Absurdity.”

* This is not a boring story: Seattle begins boring its next light rail tunnel.

* “How will we know if the ACA is working?” Or: Questions that are rarely asked.

* Sam Altman on Net Neutrality.

→ No CommentsTags: Links

The Pestiferous Stink of Politics in Grant Writing: ORR’s “Residential Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children” (UAC) Program

July 17th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

As we’ve said before, politicians at every level usually like it when nonprofits in their districts get grants. They like it so much that they’re happy to take credit for a nonprofit’s grant writing effort, which they usually have nothing to do with. That being said, politics usually have little to do with grant writing, at least at the level experienced by most nonprofit and public agencies. As you might have guessed from the way we keep repeating “usually” in this paragraph, this post is about exceptions to that principle.

Ages ago, before I graced the world, Isaac worked as Grants Coordinator for Ed Valliere, City Manager of the City of Lynwood.* The city didn’t have a lot of money and Ed sicced Isaac on every grant Isaac could find, which is one way to effectively get a lot of grants (some of our retainer clients give us similar direction and latitude). Anyway, Isaac wrote a federal rat-control grant that got funded, but he didn’t bother to get a City Council resolution authorizing the submission.

Isaac didn’t think it would be funded, but he didn’t think too much about it: he just wrote proposals. Inexplicably, the rat proposal was funded.** This made Ed explode: the City of Lynwood wasn’t going to admit publicly that it had a rat problem, so Ed instructed Isaac to turn down the grant. The City Council remained unaware of the application, the award, and the rejection. Isaac and Ed kept their jobs.

Ed knew that politicians didn’t want reporters asking, “Hey, how’s the rat problem going?” Cities spend lots of money marketing themselves—you may have heard that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” (a lie), and a motto like “Lynwood: We’ve solved our rat problem!” doesn’t work so well. Although Isaac does report that in the late 70s, the staff routinely referred to Lynwood alternatively as “The Town Too Tough to Die” or “The Town that Time Forgot.”

Which brings us to the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) “Residential Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children” (UAC) program. It has $350 million available, with average grants of $4 million—residential care services, especially for children, are very, very expensive. The program addresses the unexpected surge in unaccompanied Central American children at the southern border.

But not every residential services provider is going to want or be able to apply for this ORR grant program. By applying, nonprofit residential care providers—which are often large organizations deeply embedded in the local community power structure—announce that they’re going to house immigrant children and teens. As anyone who has paid attention to the news over the last decade or century should know, immigrants arouse fear, suspicion, hatred, and xenophobia. “They” will not be like “us” and don’t share “our” values.

Consequently, not every organization that could or should apply for a UAC grant will actually apply. As we said, most local politicos are happy for organizations in their districts to get grants, but they aren’t always. No one wants a crisis homeless shelter right next to them.*** The acronym “NIMBY” emerged as a catch-all term to attack this idea. But in the real world, a small number of people will fight much harder to keep a residential treatment facility out of their neighborhood than a large, amorphous number of people with vague feelings of kindness will fight to put it in.

We rarely discuss politics or the local political situation with our clients, but we can occasionally detect politics, much like astrophysicists detect dark matter, through the otherwise weird-seeming behavior of clients or potential clients. This is going to be deliberately vague, because we take confidentiality very seriously, but recently we have seen some unusual behaviors and desires that may be politically motivated. “Politics” seems like a likely motivator.

(Added later: I wrote most of the above a couple days ago and then had to work on other projects. Today, this is a top story at nytimes.com: “Towns Oppose Bid to House Child Migrants.” That didn’t take long. I wonder if the people hoisting American flags in opposition to immigration realize the irony in what they’re doing.)


* Another funny story I’ve heard many times: Isaac wrote many funded California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) grants for Lynwood, including one that paid for the installation of strobes on traffic signals and in emergency vehicles. These strobes allow emergency vehicles to change the signal as they approach intersections. The then-Mayor of Lynwood, who will go unnamed to protect the guilty, insisted on having an strobe installed in his personal car, so he could flip the traffic lights as he tooled around town. He also had a police and fire scanner in his car, and when things happened he’d go flying across town to the emergency. Then the traffic people would get pissed off, because he’d screw up the traffic for hours. Eventually the City had to take the strobe away from him.

** Demonstrating yet again that it’s not possible to know what will be funded and what won’t be.

*** No one wanted World War II refugees either, as anyone on the S. S. St. Louis knows, or would know had they not been murdered by Nazis.

This is one argument for open borders, an important concept too rarely even discussed in the media.

→ No CommentsTags: Government · Grants · Stories

One Foundation Grant Can Lead to Another: A Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Funding Story

July 13th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

A few years ago we conducted foundation grant source research and wrote ten foundation proposals for a national membership nonprofit that wanted to do a complex education study. One of the national foundations we identified, and wrote a proposal to, awarded the client $200,000. The award is terrific but not the end of the story—if it were, we wouldn’t be writing this post. The funder then referred our client to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest foundation in the world, who awarded our client a still larger grant. The study was completed and the American education system presumably improved.

Everyone who works in the grant world knows that the Gates Foundation usually doesn’t accept unsolicited proposals.* The Gates Foundation has to come to the organization.

This specific example illustrates a general principle: with any kind of grant writing, but especially with foundation funding, it’s impossible to know what might happen when the proposal is submitted. Every big foundation knows every other big foundation. Local foundations know other local foundations. Foundations are often fond of funding organizations that have been funded by other foundations. Life many human endeavors, the first grant is the hardest and funding typically get easier after that. If you get into the foundation club, you’ll find that being a member is much more pleasant and fun than watching from the outside.** (Venture capital works the same way.)

But there’s no easy way in, unless you happen to have a friend or relative who happens to sit on a foundation’s board. We, like most people, don’t have any friends or relatives like that. The only practical approach in seeking foundation grants is to carefully research foundations, prepare a compelling boilerplate foundation letter proposal***, customize this generalized proposal to create technically correct submissions to several plausible foundations, submit the proposals, and retire for a cocktail or three.

(Warning: The next paragraph is a shameless plug. Skip it if you’re likely to be offended.)

Incidentally, we’re having a Sizzling Summer Sale right now, and our foundation proposal package fees are discounted by 25%. Call us at 800.540.8906 for details, but don’t delay, as the sale ends July 31.

(Advertising section over.)

Our client’s story also illustrates the challenge in responding to common questions that potential clients frequently ask. They want to know how many clients we’ve gotten “funded.” But this case demonstrates how hard it can be to answer. When our client was initially funded, he didn’t tell us. If we were trying to keep a client batting average—which we don’t, because a batting average is a waste of time, given the wide range of our clients in terms of size, track record, location, type and so on—we wouldn’t have known that he should be included.

In addition, it can be hard to answer the question, “What is ‘funded?’” We wrote and submitted the first proposal, so we’ll take credit for it. But the first funder, which is very large, led directly funding for the save project by the second. Does the Gates Foundation grant count for our tally? Did we get the client funded only for the original $200,000 grant, or for the millions that followed? One could reasonably argue both sides, since the second funder wouldn’t have appeared without the first one.


* The Gates Foundation may run specific RFP processes from time to time, but those are narrow and rarer. Almost anyone who says they want to submit to the Gates Foundation but who doesn’t have connection is actually saying they don’t know what they’re talking about.

** If you want a hot date to the Prom, it helps if you’ve had dates to fall and winter formal dances first.

*** We use the term “foundation letter proposal” to characterize the initial foundation submission. We initially format these as a five-page, single-spaced letters, since many foundations request a short LOI. The final submissions may be customized to create the appropriate letters with proposals, on-line inserts, or some combination—depending on the requirements of the particular foundations.

→ No CommentsTags: Clients · Foundations · Grants

The Mystery of LAHSA Homeless Census Numbers, HUD and Data Implications

July 7th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 1 Comment

The LA Times’s story “County’s homeless population difficult to quantify” tells us that there are 54,000 homeless people in L.A.—or are there? Apparently “The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says it lost confidence in the survey methodology” used by our friends LAHSA—the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority—and consequently HUD knocked 18,000 homeless people out of L.A. county. So there are 54,000 homeless in L.A. County, or 36,000, or any other number you care to make up.

It’s almost impossible to accurately define the number of homeless because the definition of homelessness is itself fluid. Does one night on the streets count? Does two? A week? What if someone has a home but runs away for a period of time. For grant writing purposes, homeless counts are a facet of issues we’ve described before, in posts about finding and using phantom data and the difficulty of performing a significant evaluation. Fortunately, funders are like journalists in that they often care less about the epistemological and statistical questions meaning of the number than they care about having a number.

Despite the debate, the numbers may not actually matter: the reporter, Gale Holland, doesn’t mention this, but HUD actually doesn’t allocate McKinny-Vento Homeless Assistance Act grant money based on homeless censuses. Instead, McKinney Act funds—otherwise known as “Continuum of Care” grants—allocates money based on population, poverty, and other cryptic metrics in specified geographic areas. Consequently, the estimated number of homeless derived from the annual homeless count required by HUD isn’t real important.

HUD also requires that urban cities, counties and states draft “Continuum of Care Plans,” or something similar, to end homelessness as part of the Consolidated Plan process. We know because we read and analyze Continuum of Care and Consolidated Plans whenever we write a HUD proposal, which is pretty often. We’ve been reading these plans for 20 years and they all say more or less the same thing. No Consolidated Plan says, “Our goal is to increase homelessness.”

Instead, there is inevitably a vague plan to increase the amount of affordable housing and to end homelessness, usually in about twenty years. Ending homelessness is the cold fusion of grant writing, always on the horizon and never actually here.

Twenty years is just soon enough to be plausible but long enough that the officials who are currently in office are likely to be elsewhere, which leaves space for the next crop of officials to make the same promises. Homelessness is probably not amenable to being cured. Leaving aside the fact that most major coastal cities like L.A. are actually becoming less affordable, not more, a lot of long-term homeless also don’t necessarily want to live in conventional housing, because conventional housing tends to come with lots of rules: no booze, no (illegal) drugs, anyone with a mental illness must take meds, low noise requirements, and so on. For a lot of the long-term homeless, the street doesn’t impose those rules and can actually seem preferable, despite its well-known hazards.

Worcester Massachusetts, where I went to college, has a famous, controversial “wet” homeless shelter. That shelter’s philosophy is simple: the homeless are better off in a relatively safe place, even if they want to drink, rather being forced onto the street by sobriety rules. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood NIMBYs are not fond of the shelter. This schism between wet and dry shelters demonstrate the way real homeless programs run right into all sorts of progressive ideal problems. Those problems can be ignored in the grant world, but they remain stubbornly entrenched in the real world. Gravity opposes the best intentions of rocket engineers.

To return to our previous point, in neither real world or the grant world does the size of the homeless population really matter. In the real world, there is nothing at stake in whether L.A. has 54,000 or 36,000 homeless. Neither number is going to an increase in the number of beds available—which matters—or the rules associated with those beds. In the proposal world, homelessness is always a crisis that needs just a few more grant dollars to fix—within, say, the next 20 years.

→ 1 CommentTags: Government · Grants · Housing

Issues Facing Old-Line Nonprofits Differ from Those Facing New Nonprofits: Think Bambi Meets Godzilla

June 29th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · No Comments

We’ve written various posts on the challenges of starting a new nonprofit (like this one), mostly because we get lots of calls from fairly new nonprofits or folks trying to get one off the ground. Last week, however, I got a call from an agency in a large east coast city that’s been operating for about 200 years. I’m not making this up. The nonprofit originally was an orphanage that morphed into a broad-based children’s services agency.*

Though the caller was delighted to recite the exceptional history of his nonprofit, I didn’t get excited, as we we’ve worked for many nonprofits that have been around for decades—including one in a big Midwestern city that started in 1860s as a “settlement house” in the vein of Jane Adams’s Hull House. By now Seliger + Associates is older than many nonprofits.

While the caller was interested in a standard-issue federal RFP that’s on the street, we also talked over the challenges of keeping an Ancien Régime agency going in the face of an endless onslaught of Nouveau Riche competitors. Nonprofits face the innovator’s dilemma too. They must evolve over time and not get stuck in the “these are the services we provide” trap. It helps that most long-established nonprofits have contracts to provide capitated services or services with handy third-party payers (e.g., foster care, family reunification, residential care, primary health care, substance abuse treatment, etc.). Capitated-service agencies have a base cash flow, which they supplement with fundraising and grants (that’s were we come in).

Unlike new agencies, which are struggling for recognition and any funding scraps they can find, the main challenges old-line agencies face are relevance, ossification, and the inevitable disputes that arise with donors and funders.

Old-line agency must meet emerging needs. For example, there is apparently an astounding, sudden and unexplained surge of unaccompanied Central American children crossing into Texas this year, and they are essentially begging to be “caught” by the Border Patrol. This could reach as many as 100,000 random kids this year, who will overwhelm the current residential care capacity in the border states. The border patrol turns these kids over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which then hands them off to DHHS for transportation and temporary or permanent—depending on your interpretation of immigration laws—resettlement in small and big cities across America.

Not surprisingly, the Obama administration is requesting $2 billion in new funding to address this human tidal wave or humanitarian crisis, once again depending on your point of view. I’m confident much of this money will end up as competitive grant opportunities from the DHHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). As the former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel put it, “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

Say you’re our former midwestern client and have been around since the Civil War. You provide family and child support services but not residential care, so it’s essential to develop this capacity; thousands of Central American refugee children are likely to be dumped into your service area. You should meet this new crisis, as part of your mandate and mission, while at the same time bolstering your revenue with tidy ORR grants. This is a basic “win-win.”

Regarding ossification, old agencies are usually larger and bureaucratic, mimicking the funders that support them. It’s easy for a large, established nonprofit to become moribund, not only in the services they deliver, but also in the way in which services are delivered. Old agencies are less likely to adopt new technology and cultural practices—like contacting clients and conducing outreach through social media—because they do things the way they’ve always done things. Change is hard and inertia is seductive. This phenomenon is not limited to the nonprofit sector. Examples in business are common: huge companies like Motorola, Sears and IBM (before IBM reinvented itself under the remarkable CEO, Louis Gerstner) rise, lose focus or miss market shifts, and fall.

Finally, old-line nonprofits will often become embroiled in disputes with donors and funders. This can range from rich Mrs. Himmelfarb, who makes $100,000 annual donations, getting pissed off because she got seated at the wrong table at the nonprofit’s annual gala to the agency failing to submit required reports to the DOL for the agency’s YouthBuild grant. Once donors and/or funder program officers get annoyed with a large nonprofit, the organization may suddenly find itself in financial trouble.

Beneath the feet of every lumbering old-line dinosaur nonprofit are tiny new mammal nonprofits scouring around and trying to meet new community needs, provide nimble services in innovative ways, and eventually take away the big boy’s donations and grants.** The old-line nonprofit needs to address these upstarts by acting like Godzilla in Bambi Meets Godzilla, perhaps the best short film ever made.


* Fun fact: although it may be moving against the conventional wisdom to defend orphanages, Richard McKenzie explains why they’re often better than foster-style systems in “The Best Thing About Orphanages.” Saying “They’re better than the alternative” is not equivalent to saying, “They’re great!”

** Some grant programs are explicitly designed to provide challengers to incumbents; Community Health Centers (CHCs), for example, are eligible for “Service Area Competition” (SAC) grants. As readers of our e-mail newsletter know, the last two weeks have seen more than $150 million in SAC grants. Every geographic area in the U.S. is supposed to be covered by a SAC-funded agency, and every time a competition arises, new CHCs can try to wrest the grant from the existing grantee.

→ No CommentsTags: Advice · Government · Grants · Nonprofits

Until you get a call from your congressman and sign a contract, grant notifications don’t count

June 21st, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 2 Comments

Last week, a client got a federal funding notification e-mail for a proposal we wrote a few months ago, and and the client started celebrating… until an hour later, when the Federal department sent a second e-mail, recalling the first and saying our client hadn’t really been funded.

That hurts, but it’s also not the first time something like this has happened to our clients. It’s a truism that, in any business, until the contract is signed and the money obligated, nothing counts. There are innumerable stories in the venture capital world about analogous shenanigans, including small companies that have picked up and moved, only to be told “just kidding.”

The cliché “money talks” exists for a reason. It’s still a pretty nasty mistake, however, for a federal agency to tell a nonprofit they’ve been funded when they haven’t. Mistakes do happen and one learns pretty quickly in grant seeking that federal bureaucrats are far from perfect.

Many of our clients first learn they’ve funded for a federal grant not from the funding department, but from their congressperson, or from a press release via their congressperson’s office. Every SF-424—which is the cover sheet for all federal proposals—has an input box for the applicant and project area congressional district(s). Congresspeople love to take credit for money going to their district, especially if the congressperson exerts no effort whatsoever.

It is common practice for federal departments to notify the affected congressperson when a grant award is made, often before the applicant is notified. Thus, an applicant may hear from their congressperson or read about it in local newspaper, before they get their notice of funding award email. The good news about this system is that it tends to make the program officers, who send out the funding award emails, marginally more interested in being correct. Congresspersons* get very angry at mistakes like the one suffered by our client. They tend to make a much louder ruckus than any nonprofit or public agency. Imagine Congressman Frank Underwood, as portrayed by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, learning that the press release he just sent to the Gaffney Picayune Press concerning a YouthBuild grant to a local nonprofit having been sent in error because a DOL GS-12 sent award emails to the wrong list.

With our client, it’s pretty clear that both the proposal and client were fundable, but political machinations (or, more charitably, “considerations”) got in the way and the first email was sent in error. If you’re in the game, not every call goes your way. And the “game” here can refer to grant writing, but it can also refer to “life.”


* Is it “Congresspeople” or “Congresspersons”? Internet authorities appear split. Most seem to agree that it is a good idea to use “congressperson” as a lowercase, non-proper noun unless one is referring to a specific congressperson.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Advice · Government · Nonprofits