February, 2012

Creative Repurposing: Lessons from the Prison System


The idea of having long-term prison inmates provide care and support for other long-term prison inmates with Alzheimer’s Disease is about as elegant and beautiful an idea as I’ve seen in a long time.  I’m sure its administration isn’t effortless.  There have got to be a million day to day issues that make it challenging, but it seems to be working. As yesterday’s New York Times article, “Life, With Dementia,” suggests, the concept has layered benefits.

The first benefit  layer is the person with Alzheimer’s Disease having a consistent helper who gets to know him, his quirks and worries, and how to calm him and help him negotiate the day.  The second benefit layer is the rediscovery or discovery of life purpose for the inmate who is helping.  If you believe that people can be rehabilitated, that how they were at 20 is not how they could be at 40, then this second benefit is really attractive. Why are we locking up and throwing away the key with no thought about the human potential for service? The third benefit is the changed perspective.  Everyone looks different to the other – prison administrators, helping inmates, inmates with Alzheimer’s Disease.  I think the new prism is respect.

What’s the application for the non-profit world?  We often miss what’s right in front of us – the small solution.  Instead, finding a new need, the first reaction is a new program.  The new program has goals and objectives, performance measures, and job descriptions.  Every step of complexity takes the solution further away from the people having the problem.  And then we wonder why the people with the problem are still hurting. 

 Believe me, I never in a million years thought I would be pointing to something in the prison system as a best practice, but I think this is.  The simple solution – where could we go with that out here in the nonprofit world?


Here’s the link to the full NYT story:


Buried Alive? Clean Your Office Today!


No, this isn’t a shot of my desk.  It’s a stock photo of the desk of some hyper-busy, super multi-tasking, too-pressed-to-get-organized person who has since taken up residence in a 19 foot trailer parked deep in the desert outside Yuma, AZ .

Seriously, let’s talk about office hoarding.

With an onslaught of major, major projects over the next three months, I decided recently to clear out my office.  This was a big deal.  I’m a stacker. Well, maybe piler would be a better description. The flat spaces in my office which include a pretty large wraparound desk and a very large table are usually covered with stacks of files, papers, to-do piles.  Because my file cabinets were filled within 24 hours of purchase, there was no room for filing current projects. Hence, more and more stacks – tables, floor, shelves.

Finish a big grant?  Better stack the reference materials somewhere just in case.  Organize a competitive bidding process?  Better keep all the proposals and the score sheets in case questions are asked.  You get the idea.  I can’t throw anything away because I might need it someday.

And just like the nice lady on Hoarders-Buried Alive last night, I cannot stand throwing out something that might make a good project — like stacks and stacks of homeless data/cross-tabs that slice and dice six ways to Sunday (all of which is saved on my hard drive, of course).

Some people who live in paper stacks claim that while it looks like a mess, they know exactly where everything is – they can put their hands on a piece of information in seconds.  That’s not me.  I have to rifle through everything to find something.  When I get to the point that I’m spending 50% of my time on a project looking for stuff, I crack.

And then it’s bring in the bags and the boxes, this stuff is leaving.  Now.  Clear out the file cabinet.  Toss the stacks.  Keep the irreplaceable (which is almost nothing these days). Label and file.  Really know where everything is. 

I didn’t have to have the Hoarders team come to my office – but I get  the message.  When your environment interferes with joyful living (or in my case, productive work), it’s time to change it.

Does this hit a nerve for anyone?  What does your office look like?






Federal Grants: The Lure of the Mother Lode

Federal grant guidelines read like Harvard dissertations these days.  Gone are the times when government bureaucrats pulled together RFP’s that typically were short on substance and long on ticky requirements, the expectation being, I believe, that people in the field would know best about how to address a particular problem.  The result of this open door to program ideas was mixed — a lot of brilliant programs but as many true duds that burned up federal dollars and helped no one.

I plowed through two sets of  federal grant guidelines (RFA’s – Request for Funding Applications) this week.  Both of them for complex, high-impact programs and both with impressive, almost intimidating, levels of content sophistication.  No bureaucrat hoping to get an RFA out the door in a hurry wrote these RFA’s. As substantial as the general content was, the programmatic requirements were even more impressive – what needed to be done, by whom, in partnership with which entities, and for what outcomes. 

No place for amateurs.  That’s the message running through all 50+ pages of these literary gems.

So what does this mean for you if you’re a grant writer?  I know established grant writers – in business for many years – who have never broken out of the $25,000 foundation grant application.  When I talk federal grants to them, they shudder and start backing up. Whoa, I’m not in that league.

Sure you are.  But you need to be smart.  Here are three things to consider:

1.  Everything takes practice.  Just because you can play Chopsticks on the piano does not mean you can play Chopin.  I know this because I can barely play Chopsticks despite years of wishing. So in terms of writing federal grants, you need to get in on some group efforts so you can see how complex proposals are put together, get familiar with the strategy, and understand the language.  You need to start practicing.

2. The competition is extraordinary.  There are certain types of proposals, like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grants, where professional grantwriters have made careers and pretty dandy incomes from just writing those grants.  That’s all they do, they know every teeny thing about how to win, and they make a lot of money.  But these folks weren’t born with the Midas touch.  They started out being nudniks like us.

3.  Winning a federal grant is the same only different.  This was one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings — always perplexing to me — but here’s how it applies in this case.  Everything it takes to win a foundation grant – good program, sound outcomes, decent management – is necessary to win a federal grant and then some.  Assume that every applicant has met the minimum standard and has a lot of then some.  At first, you won’t know how to ratchet up your proposal to the next, the next, the next level.  And then it will become clear what you need to do.  This makes federal grant writing a lot of fun, especially if you’ve got a good strong competitive streak.

A federal grant can easily provide ten times the amount of funding provided by a local foundation grant.  That’s a lot of good that can be done for your organization and the community.  It is the mother lode.  Now go find your pick axe and get going.

This summer’s Planners and Grantwriters Roundtable, sponsored by the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee,  will have a whole session devoted to federal grants. (July 18, 2012).  Check out PGR on Facebook for more news.

Another One Falls: What Happened to Esperanza Unida?

 Last week, I talked about the closing of the iconic Hull House in Chicago.  This week, I just have to talk about one of Milwaukee’s own iconic nonprofit organizations, Esperanza Unida.  Yesterday’s Sunday paper carried the news that after forty years, the organization had lost its federal non-profit status. This essential designation, the one that makes foundation and government grants possible and gives donors a tax deduction, was lost because the Esperanza Unida administration did not file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service three years in a row. 

 Esperanza Unida, founded in 1971, started out as a very small, storefront enterprise that focused on workers rights, especially advocacy for Latino workers who had been injured in the workplace.  Ted Uribe, Esperanza’s first director, was a basically a community organizer.  Under his leadership, the group tackled a host of community issues including the distribution of anti-poverty funds by the increasingly powerful Social Development Commission.  When Rich Oulahan became director, the organization took off in new directions, establishing a national reputation for a social entrepreneurship model of job training that started with auto donation/repair/resale and expanded to a day care center, restaurant and other initiatives.  Oulahan attracted federal support to establish the International Building on National Ave., and commissioned Reynaldo Hernandez to create a mural that northbound I-43 drivers still see and appreciate every day. When I drive by, I think about Rich Oulahan’s persistence and advocacy – he died in 2008.

So what went wrong with this nonprofit masterpiece?  Like Hull House, there are probably many possible answers.  From my perch way outside the organization and the neighborhood it serves, I’m wondering where the board of directors was when the 990’s weren’t filed.  I occasionally read the southside papers and see on Facebook references to a lot of political infighting, some of it very bitter and divisive.  I think about the wisdom of having an organization so entirely wrapped up in the identity of its executive director and wonder if the board ever tended to the unpleasant duty of developing a succession plan.  Was there attention paid to building a board that had the professional and technical skills, such as accounting, legal, and fund development expertise, necessary to steer a major nonprofit enterprise? Another thought is what happpened to the organization’s community support?  Esperanza Unida used to be an untouchable nonprofit, so politically well-positioned that its funding was almost never in doubt.  I don’t have answers.  I just ask the questions that I think need to be asked.

The need for an Esperanza Unida continues.  People need skills that will get them family-supporting jobs.  That hasn’t changed.  It’s a sad thing for Milwaukee that this important resource – this community resource – no longer exists as a nonprofit organization.  Those of us involved with nonprofits as staff or consultants or board members need to find the lessons learned from Esperanza Unida’s situation and resolve to keep the valuable nonprofits in our community healthy and strong.