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We’re Not Taking Sides: We’re Describing How Grant Programs, Like Those Related to Domestic Violence, Get Funded

September 30th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 2 Comments

In Isaac’s post about the NFL spurring new interest in domestic violence, he points out the likely public response to the issue: more grant money. He’s showing what is likely to happen, and he is tracing the formation of a new grant wave—as we have done before.

We want to clarify one point: we aren’t trying to minimize domestic violence as an issue. Our purpose in writing this blog is never to minimize or maximize issues. In one of our oldest posts, “What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP,” our goal was not to minimize or maximize teen sex education either: it was to describe real-world issues grant writers face. The job of the grant writer is first and foremost to tell the funder what they want to hear. A secondary job, however, is figuring out what project concepts and services are likely to be funded.

Depending on your perspective, the “right” issue may be highly fundable at a given moment, or the “wrong” issue might be. By definition, not every issue can be prominent at any given time—the word “prominent” does itself imply that an issue is necessarily and in some objective sense more important than another issue. It just means that some impetus or news or ideas have lifted it. If you’re a nonprofit, there is a limited amount that you can do to go against a particular funding tide.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Clients · Foundations · Grants

“You Can’t Shovel Tens Pounds of Shit in a Five Pound Bag:” The New York Times Ignores CHCs, Section 330 Providers, and HRSA

September 29th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 2 Comments

In “For Many New Medicaid Enrollees, Care Is Hard to Find, Report Says,” Robert Pear discovers something that has long been obvious to our many Community Health Clinic (CHC) clients: having insurance doesn’t mean you can see a doctor. Many if not most doctors won’t see Medicaid patients. CHCs, however, are a class of primary care organization designed specifically for Medicaid patients and the uninsured. We’ve written numerous Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) proposals for CHCs, and everyone one of those proposals is supposed to expand access to care. This year’s New Access Point (NAP) program, for example, has $100 million available. Pear apparently does not know that CHCs exist and are funded through HRSA mostly to serve Medicaid patients.

The bigger problem regarding real-world healthcare is the number of doctors. Any discussion about the difficulty of finding care that doesn’t mention the limits on the supply of doctors is specious at best. There have been around 100,000 residency slots since the 1980s. Medical schools stopped expanding long ago. These facts are well-known to experts. Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners are to some extent filling in the gap, but in most states they still must practice under a doctor.

Our CHC clients’ biggest problem is rarely recruiting patients—when you subsidize goods or services, people consume more—it’s finding doctors. CHCs usually serve a high-need, difficult-to-treat population. Consequently, physicians often prefer to seek higher pay and lower stress jobs. Although there are lots of people trying to go to medical school—in Educating Physicians: A Call for Reform of Medical School and Residency, the authors note that 42,000 people applied for 18,000 medical school spots, and that at least 30,000 were likely qualified to become doctors—med school and residency act as bottlenecks to this process.

You can give every person health insurance without ensuring that they’ll actually get care, much like you can give everyone a degree without ensuring they have a brain. In the United Kingdom, care gets rationed through wait times. In the U.S., a similar dynamic is happening via provider shortages. While it is laudable that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) significantly increased the number of Americans covered by Medicaid, the landmark legislation did little to increase the number of providers to serve the newly insured. Or, as they used to say in the old days, you can’t shovel ten pounds of shit into a five pound bag. It’s a vulgar phrase but applicable to this article and the overall challenge of helping the newly insured actually access affordable, quality healthcare.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Government · healthcare · Media

NFL PR Fiasco Creates Great New Funding Opportunities for Domestic Violence Nonprofits

September 25th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · 1 Comment

Unless you’ve been on Venus for the past few weeks, you’ve been engulfed in a tidal wave of bad news from the NFL* parade of domestic violence players/perpetrators. Leaving aside the spectacularly inept response of the suddenly hapless Commissioner Roger Goodell and the apparent media surprise that pro football players are pretty violent guys, this episode has suddenly thrust domestic violence back into the public consciousness for the first time in years.

When we started Seliger + Associates 21 years ago, there was a lot of interest in and funding for domestic violence, and we wrote lots of proposals for nonprofits involved in domestic violence prevention and treatment. In 1994, Congress passed the then-landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), unleashing a torrent of federal funds—including state pass-through funding. Foundations became interested in supporting the emerging infrastructure of domestic violence prevention and treatment providers.

While the VAWA still exists—it was reauthorized by George Bush the Younger in 2005—and there was a spike in funding during the Stimulus Bill bonanza six years ago, the issue largely faded into the general human services background. We rarely get calls from domestic violence providers these days and only occasionally write a proposal that involves domestic violence, even peripherally. The rise and subsidence of domestic violence is a pretty good example of the grant waves we’ve written about.

Since Commissioner Goodell has unintentionally prolonged the recent domestic violence PR fiasco, assisted by a parade of NFL players who seem to love to beat their girlfriends/wives/children, politicians, the domestic violence “industry,” and media pundits have responded with outrage and thinly veiled demands for additional funding. Joseph Epstein wrote an excellent essay in the WSJ on the media and political moral preening of this story. The punch line, so to speak, is that the top three most viewed TV programs last week, during the height of the moral outrage, were Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football and Sunday Night Football.

Right on cue, Goodell announced that the NFL would form a Domestic Violence Advisory Board and fund the National Domestic Violence Hotline and a couple of other national advocacy organizations. We’re all for new funding for nonprofits, but this is less about the NFL’s dubious good intentions and is largely to placate NFL advertisers, like Nike and Bud Light, who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on ads. The advertisers are not amused. Also, each NFL team has local advertisers, and Radisson Hotels quickly pulled their advertising for the Vikings following child abuse charges filed against star running back Adrien Peterson. There are likely other similar examples by now.

For nonprofits involved with domestic violence, this a rare and golden opportunity to seek funding from nervous corporate advertisers and foundations. When conducting grant source research, we usually closely examine the charitable purposes, funding objectives and past grants of foundations and corporate giving programs. If your agency wants to fund domestic violence initiatives now, however, we’ll forget that approach for moment. Instead, we would (and you should) look for corporations that advertise with the NFL and its teams, along with large local and national hand-wringing foundations, regardless of what their funding priorities supposedly are.

As the old saw about lawyers goes: “When the law is on your side, argue the law. When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When neither is, pound the table.” Nonprofits involved in domestic violence should pound the table and seek funds from this army of new potential funders. Don’t wait. The news cycle will change in a few weeks and the media herd will move on to the next expose. Public interest is fickle. On the other hand, the NBA season starts soon, so maybe there’ll be new revelations to keep interest going and new funding for domestic violence.


* This is not the first time the NFL has been linked with domestic violence. For years, particularly around the time of the original VAWA legislative debate in Congress in the early ’90s, persistent media reports claimed a huge rise in domestic violence complaints on Super Bowl Sunday. Although this fairy tale was debunked as a hoax years ago, it still pops up. Domestic violence occurs every Sunday, and every day of the week for that matter. Professional football has nothing to do with it, except that some NFL players—like other members of American society—perpetrate it.

It’s also not obvious that your boss should police your private life.

→ 1 CommentTags: Uncategorized

Collaboration Again: A Story From the Trenches

September 20th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

We’re working on a project for a client who needs two things: a lot of data that isn’t easily publicly available and the dreaded letters of collaboration from other local providers (which we’ve written about in the context of Susan G. Komen, Mark Zuckerberg, and Community-Based Job Training). We have to be vague on the details, but our client initially planned to serve a reasonable service area, and we wrote a draft proposal reflecting our client’s plan.

The plan didn’t survive contact with the enemy, however. Our client’s so-called “collaborators” sabotaged the proposed project service area: They refused to sign letters of collaboration unless our client reduced the proposed service area to stay off their “turf.” So much for collaboration among nonprofits. The overall concept of collaboration, as required in most proposals these days, is ludicrous. It’s the equivalent of Burger King getting to veto a McDonald’s location. Alternately, it’s the equivalent of the contemporary market for broadband Internet access, which is totally broken, as demonstrated by the link.

Still, our client can’t effectively get the grant without letters offered by the client’s competitors, who ganged up on our client. She had to change the proposed service and we had to revise the draft to reflect this. The losers are of course the low-income and underserved residents of the removed part of the service area, who will have one fewer option for help and who don’t get a voice in this process, which is occurring entirely behind closed doors.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: forcing nonprofits to “collaborate” makes no more sense than forcing businesses to collaborate.

→ No CommentsTags: Advice · Clients · Government

September Links: Why We Judge, Laptops in Classrooms, Debtors’ Prisons, the Folly of the War on Drugs, and More!

September 14th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

* “Big chains pay better than mom and pop stores,” which is counter to the dominant narrative.

* “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League: The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies,” which matches my (anecdotal) experience.

* Suburban sprawl and bad transit can crush opportunity for the poor.

* “Study: Decriminalizing prostitution could drastically cut HIV infections,” which is sufficiently obvious that I almost don’t want to include it.

* “Another Challenge of Parenting While Poor: Wealthy Judges;” this sort of point is under-understood.

* To the surprise of no one: “Why a New Jersey school district decided giving laptops to students is a terrible idea.”

* “Why So Many People Care So Much About Others’ Sex Lives,” which makes a number of points I’ve observed at various times in various places.

* We updated our post “There Will Be No Fighting in the War Room: An Example of Nonprofit Non-Collaboration in Susan G. Komen for the Cure.”

* Weird program alert: why is the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture running a grant program for Sexual Assault Prevention Research (SAPR)? Isn’t that a bit outside their purview?

* “A brash tech entrepreneur thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries. What if he’s right?”

* Did you know that Texas has an official, state-funded Emancipation Juneteenth Commission?

* Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison.

* Video shows St. Louis police murdering a man.

* “Multiple Lovers, Without Jealousy: Polyamorous people still face plenty of stigmas, but some studies suggest they handle certain relationship challenges better than monogamous people do;” has anyone written the great polyamorous novel? Could anyone?

* Disturbing stats on black-white inequality. See also Ta-Nehisi Coates, as recommended by commenter James, “

* “Elder Statesmen Declare a War on the ‘War on Drugs:’ What took them so long?” Excellent question.

* Foundation priorities can change rapidly, Ebola edition.

* In our favorite weird grant of the month, the Department of the Interior, National Parks Service has announced a single grant for the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum.

→ No CommentsTags: Links

In Forming a Nonprofit Board, Think “Goldilocks”

September 7th, 2014 · by Isaac Seliger · 1 Comment

When forming a new nonprofit, one of the first issues confronting the sponsor as they apply for a state charter and draft articles of incorporation and bylaws is: How many board members should the new organization have? As with most things relating to nonprofits and grant writing, while there’s no definitive right answer, there are some good answers.

Some states will approve a new profit with just a single board member—and the inherent simplicity and control of a single board member often appeals to a founder—this is a fast way to the exit when you apply for IRS 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. Other founders, particularly true believers, will think they should have huge boards, perhaps as many as 25 or 30. Unless you’re really good at herding cats, this is an equally bad idea. The care and feeding of 15 or 20 board members is an enormous task and raises the real potential that you might get booted out of your own nonprofit in a coup* when grant money finally arrives. In addition, more opinions does not necessarily result in a better outcome and often results in a worse outcome than fewer. Whatever number of board members you pick, it’s critical that you be able to maintain control of the board.

If one board member is too few and twenty five too many, what’s the Goldilocks number? When we used to set up nonprofits in an earlier incarnation of Seliger + Associates**, we always recommended five, seven or nine members. An odd number of board members prevents tie votes. Five is generally enough to pass the IRS believability test. Also, IRS regs require that not more than half the board be “interested parties,” so you have to go beyond your mother-in-law for members and getting five can be a challenge. With a five member board, only two can be interested parties. Any number of board members more than nine will get unmanageable very fast. In this case, bigger is definitely not better.

Moving beyond the size issue, consider the quality of the members. It’s good if the majority of board does not have the same last name. Many foundation and some government funders will request board member affiliations. Having well-respected, un-indicted business leaders, clergy, public officials and so on is usually better than having all average Joes and Josephines. Still, it’s good grant PR to have one or two potential consumers of whatever service you’re providing. For example, if the organization will be providing affordable health care, have one or two potential patients on the board. Unless you’re forming a national/regional organization or one with a highly specific purpose like research for a obscure medical condition, claim that the board is “community-based,” and plausible evidence of that claim is an advantage. Local residents are usually better than distant “experts,” even in situations where that makes no sense.

One effective approach is to have a small, community-based, but still “respected” board of five members and a much larger “advisory board” of big shots that look good on letterhead and your website. The advisory board doesn’t actually have any power and doesn’t do much except lend their credibility and hopefully a donation every year. The advisory board idea is very common in Los Angeles, as there are many has-been actors and other entertainment industry types who’re willing to serve on advisory boards, as long as they don’t have to do anything. New York has ladies who lunch.


* It’s not uncommon for founders to get booted off their own board or for some board members to be kicked by other members in a putsch. I know because it happened to me when I was in my early 20s and still starry-eyed. I’ve heard lots of similar horror stories from clients over the years. Nonprofit boards can be intensely political, especially because the stakes are often so small.

** We no longer form nonprofits in most circumstances. As we’ve written before, it’s best to use an attorney or accountant who is familiar with nonprofits to help with the paperwork and approvals needed to form a new nonprofit.

→ 1 CommentTags: Advice · Nonprofits · Questions

New York City is Having Trouble Giving Away Free Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) Slots—And an Early Head Start (EHS) Note

September 1st, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 2 Comments

We’ve written many City of New York Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) proposals—as well as various Head Start, Early Head Start and other early childhood education proposals—so we read with interest Katie Taylor’s recent NYT story “In First Year of Pre-K Expansion, a Rush to Beat the School Bell.” New York City is apparently having a tough time giving away valuable free stuff. They City and its legion of grantees have to hire “enrollment specialists”—who we like to call “Outreach Workers” in proposals—to convince people to take the free slots.* The situation is so extreme that we have to use italics.

Since it costs NYC taxpayers about $8,000/slot to provide UPK and the parents pay nothing, it may seem odd that parents aren’t lining up to get valuable free stuff. Usually it’s easy for providers to recruit parents for early childhood education programs that are paid via OPM (“Other Peoples’s Money“). Since Mayor de Blasio is a textbook modern progressive, it is probably inconceivable to him that low-income parents wouldn’t see the inherent wisdom in sending their kids off to UPK. He says:

“Parents get what this means for their kids,” the mayor said. “They understand the difference between their child getting a strong start and not getting it.”

Right. If this is true, why the need for enrollment specialists?** The answer is complex but essentially comes down to the reality that not all parents, low-income or otherwise, want their kids in a public program. Reasons are varied but include general disinterest of parents in their kids’s lives, which is demonstrated by the fairly low enrollment rates in many states in the nominally priced Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Some parents, particularly single moms, may have a boyfriend who is dealing or otherwise up to no good and doesn’t want to raise the attention of city officials if little Johnny brings a bag of meth to preschool or shows up with bruises.

The mom herself may be alcohol or drug addled. Many parents also have informal childcare support provided by older siblings, extended family, or neighbors, who are easier to access than getting the kid dressed and accompanied to formal, institutionalized preschool (“It takes a village to raise a child”). Some parents also realize there actually isn’t much education going on in UPK and similar classrooms, as demonstrated by relatively weak outcomes evaluations of the grandaddy of such efforts, Head Start, which we’ve discussed before.

There may be religious issues, as many UPK providers are run by faith-based organizations. If you’re a Catholic immigrant from Guatemala, you may not be all that enthusiastic about sending your kid to a UPK program run by an ultra Orthodox Jewish school (or vice-versa; in the proposal world diversity and ethnic harmony are universal, but the real world is often more complex). It’s an open and unsurprising secret that many faith-based early childhood education providers prefer kids of their own religion. Like many aspects of human service delivery, this is never stated in a proposal.

There is another interesting moment in Taylor’s story: “It is critical to Mr. de Blasio’s credibility that the program ultimately be seen as successful.” The key words are “be seen as.” The program doesn’t have to be successful; it only must be perceived that way, and particularly by voters. That’s true of virtually every government-funded grant program—see comment about Head Start, above. Smart applicants know this and tailor their proposals, reports, marketing, and other material appropriately. In the grant world there are no failures; there are only programs that need more money and time to thrive with ever-greater success, leading to a glorious future when the next five-year plan has been fulfilled.

One can see this principle at work in “Thoughts on the DOL YouthBuild 2012 SGA: Quirks, Lessons, and, as Always, Changes,” where we describe how “the DOL is implicitly encouraging applicants to massage data.” One of our clients didn’t realize this and submitted self-reported data that did not conform to the DOL’s highly improbable standards. DOL doesn’t want to know the truth, assuming there is such a thing in this circumstance; the DOL wants to be told that they’re still the prettiest girl at the dance. When we wrote their next YouthBuild proposal, we obfuscated the outcome with through the magic of grant writing. The agency was funded.

In general we are not hugely optimistic that early childhood education is going to have the widespread salutary effects regularly attributed to it by its defenders. But we stand ready, as always, to write early childhood education proposals, keeping the story intact. If someone is paying you to tell them what they want to hear, you should be prepared to tell them what they want to hear.


* In any capitated service program like UPK, the participants are usually referred to in proposalese as occupying “slots,” however impersonal this sounds. A childcare center that serves 100 kids is referred to as having “100 slots.”

** Another quote from the NYT article:

“Good morning,” she said, approaching a young couple at a playground in Brownsville this month. “Do you know any 4-year-olds?”

Is the same sort of thing that people who call themselves “pick-up artists” or “gamers” do. Shanté Jones, the person quoted in the story, probably isn’t as polished, but I hope she has read How to Win Friends and Influence People. I prefer the pre-1981 edition which is less politically correct but also a useful reminder of what people, or at least one person reflecting on his cultural milieu, thought in the 1930s. “Cultural milieu” is also a good proposal phrase.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Education · Government · Grants · Programs

Many Proposals Are Swimming Against the Tide: An Example From HRSA’s New Access Point (NAP) FOA

August 24th, 2014 · by Jake Seliger · 1 Comment

Take a look at the laundry list of stuff that HRSA wants New Access Point (NAP) applicants to somehow improve (the quote comes from page 38 of the 101-page FOA):

Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, Cancer, Prenatal Health, Perinatal Health, Child Health, Weight Assessment and Counseling for Children and Adolescents, Adult Weight Screening and Follow-Up, Tobacco Use Screening and Cessation, Asthma – Pharmacological Therapy, Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) – Lipid Therapy, Ischemic Vascular Disease (IVD) – Aspirin Therapy, Colorectal Cancer Screening, New HIV Cases With Timely Follow Up, Depression Screening and Follow Up, and Oral Health.

Improving almost all of those metrics really starts with behavior, not with care. The real way to better health can be reduced to a couple things: 1. Eat better. 2. Get some exercise.* 3. Avoid the obvious drugs. 4. Brush and floss.

But those things have been public health goals for the last 50 years, and in the meantime Americans have gotten fatter and by most metrics less healthy—except, curiously, for longevity. We’ve built cities and suburbs that are actively unhealthy because they force everyone to drive everywhere all the time. Smoking rates have fallen, but they’re still stubbornly high and have been hovering between 20 and 25% for years. Cancer and heart disease look like eternal public enemies who can no more defeated than drug traffickers or superheroes.

Changes can’t and thus aren’t going to come from a bunch of doctors and nurses telling their patients—yet again—to lay off the McDonald’s and the soda and instead hit the gym for squats. HRSA knows this to some extent, and whoever sees the evaluations for NAPs in a couple years is going to know that opening one new primary care health clinics is equivalent to chucking a pebble in the river of behavior and culture. It is true that the federal government also subsidizes big agriculture in various ways that make eating well relatively harder and more expensive than it should otherwise be, but a lot more people could swim against that tide than actually do.

People who get and stay in shape do so because they realize it makes them feel better and because it dramatically increases their mating market value. Until they get sick and tired of being sick and tired—or, rather, until they get sick and tired of being the butt of jokes—no one is going to make them change. Pressure from external sources, like doctors, rarely does it. Treatment will never be as effective as prevention, but prevention can’t be mandated from above. It has to emerge from below. It would be interesting to see a study of the health behaviors of HRSA bureaucrats compared to the general population and a population of their peers.

The other night I was hanging out with a bunch of doctors and almost all of them were smoking cigarettes outside a bar. These are doctors. No one knows more about how dangerous smoking is. But they wanted drinks to take the edge off and for the usual reasons having a cigarette or three helped the relaxation process. I’m not even going to start into the unprotected sex stories—commonly referred to as “raw dogging” among today’s urban 20- and 30-somethings. As usual the stories may be exaggerated, but some episodes may also not bubble up into even impolite conversation.

(By the way, these same doctors like to note how infrequently patients take their standard advice: stop smoking, drink less, lose 20 pounds. To them medicine often feels like a futile endeavor.)

We’ve noticed one other thing, which isn’t related to the main point of this post but is likely to be hilarious to the right audience. CHCs—sometimes called Section 330 providers—must have community-based Board of Directors. At least 51% of these Boards must be composed of “consumers,” and the board is supposed to “Approve the selection/dismissal and conducts the performance evaluation of the organization’s Executive Director/CEO.” HRSA requires that NAP applicants say as much, and say that the Board has control over the Executive Director. This is saying the applicant will certify that the sun rises in the East.

The bylaws of every nonprofit typically state that the executive director/CEO serves at the pleasure of the board. Who else would hire, evaluate and, if necessary, fire the CEO? While some CHC CEOs can come from the clinical side, like a physician, they are often a health administrator type or general purpose nonprofit manager. More importantly, they are often the founder and/or prime mover in the organization.

Let me repeat that: they are the driving force behind the organization. That isn’t true in the largest organizations, but in small ones the Executive Director usually controls the board, no matter what the bylaws nominally say, because taking away the key person who built the organization usually kills the organization. It’s like “firing” the donor keeping the organization alive. It rarely happens in small- or medium-sized organizations. Nonetheless, in the proposal world the patients represented on the board have all the power. Among most actual NAP applicants, the real power isn’t likely to reside in the non-experts who can be rounded up to sit on the Board.


* I’ve become a much more regular lifter since reading “Everything You Know About Fitness Is a Lie,” and to a lesser extent Starting Strength and Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder. The last one is admittedly not very good yet I like it anyway.

→ 1 CommentTags: Government · Grants · Programs

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.

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