I’ve been sitting on this post for a few months now because I was worried about how it will be received. The disquiet it expresses hasn’t gone away – so here it is...
I’m on day 2 of sitting in airports watching my flights get delayed as I try to get from Ithaca, NY to Edmonton, AB for the weekend. I know, trying to fly across the midwest in January was probably a futile exercise, but here I am. And I’m pissed off. I’ve been feeling an under-current of annoyance for weeks and, voila, one attempt at a mid-winter 3-legged flight and it’s bubbled to the surface.
So, here is an ugly truth about the grants world. The odds of getting funding are getting crappier by the year. Here’s the bottom line. You have a higher chance of getting into Harvard than getting a grant from a lot of foundations and an increasing number of government grant programs. The class of Harvard 2022 acceptance rate was 4.6%. I recently worked on a grant proposal where the cut-off was 99.8% and a student recently told me of a foundation with a stated 3.5% acceptance rate. Increasingly, these are not anomalies.
Here’s why. The rich are getting richer and the rest of us are getting poorer. Wages adjusted for inflation have been stagnant for decades. Any doctor will tell you that most Americans are one major illness away from bankruptcy. Manufacturing jobs have disappeared and the middle class along with it. Food banks are opening up across the U.S. as are the signs for fundraisers at the local supermarket for people who are sick. All this means that demand on non-profits is up – way up in some cases.
Has government spending for the poorest and most vulnerable, education, basic research, housing, and the arts kept pace with inflation and the rise in demand? Hell, no. Here’s just one example. Well, that’s OK, you think, because the stock market is strong and the economy is good so the wealthy and foundations have more to give. True, but not nearly enough to meet growing demand.
I don’t have the statistics and honestly, I don’t want to waste my time researching the statistics for growth in foundation endowments and demand for food etc.. I know it, and if you live outside the metropolitan eastern or western seaboards, you know it too. I heard on the radio yesterday that despite the strong economy the birth rate has remained stagnant since 2008 and that is highly unusual. The researchers were scratching their heads. I’d suggest they scratch the surface and see the rot underneath the surface in our country.
The grants system was developed by the rich in an inequitable system and results in good people spending hours and hours competing for limited resources. Scratching around in the dirt for the scraps.
Recipe: Fight hard and tough with your competition and make a fortune. Create a foundation, receive a massive tax break, and leave a legacy that ties your name to libraries and charitable works. Of course, you have a lot of money because you successfully navigated a competitive system and came out on top. So, naturally, you set up grant making system that is based on competition. You assign points and a rating system and ask people to spend hours counting, quantifying and justifying the need for funding. You ask people to quantify the unquantifiable and disparage anecdote. The grant giving system was designed by the rich and powerful and serves their purposes to do some good while not rocking the status quo that is the basis of their power. No one wants to say it openly and piss off the people with the purse-strings. And just to be clear, the people who work at foundations are just as well intentioned and as frustrated as you and I in their ability to manifest meaningful long-term structural change.
It’s hard to find statistics on success rates for grant seeking. Well, consultants like me will sometimes share theirs to impress you but we get to cherry-pick clients and projects. The Foundation Center’s Grantspace has a chirpy article with 14-year old research from a survey of 800 foundations stating that our odds are good. Bull*.
First of all – knock off the 70% of foundations that don’t accept applications. For years I’ve been seeing a trend where the new crop of the uber-wealthy set up foundations that don’t accept any applications. Twenty years ago, foundations that didn’t accept applications were usually small family foundations that just gave out a few grants to their favorite charities each year and they didn’t want to manage any administration. I read recently that there are 103 billionaires in New York City. I’ll bet good money (my version not theirs) that the foundations that they have set up in the last decade, contain 100’s of millions of dollars, don’t accept applications.
Thanks for the tax break. And yes, we'll annually disperse the REQUIRED 5% of the endowment's value. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.
Second, knock-off all the people who never hear back when they send an LOI or submit an online expression of interest to the foundations that do accept applications.
Third, there has been a massive rise in grant applications at both the private and public sectors. A former boss, a scientific researcher, told me that back in the 1950’s and 60’s the government just sent him checks to do research. Then they started asking him to write a letter to ask for the money. Then they started asking for proposals but they always funded him. In the 1990’s, he lamented that sometimes he got turned down. His successors are now looking at overall NIH proposal success rates of around 15% and its not uncommon for some federal programs with rates of less than 3%. I’m sure if I picked up the phone and called three local foundations they would all attest to double digit increases in applications in the last decade.
What’s a person to do?
I’ve worked in the non-profit field all my life. I’ve never been able to compromise my values and work in a way that doesn’t align with my heart. I tried it once to no avail. And, my bank account attests to the costs of doing that in our society.
Just like you, I’m trying to do good, make a living at the same time, and not be a burden on my children in my old age. Is that too much to ask? Today, I feel defeated, worn down, and tired. I’m sick of reading about a President that orders children to be ripped away from their parents at the border. Of a government shutdown that is having people work without pay – too scared to walk out in case they lose that job. Of waters so polluted they can’t be drunk. Of air so toxic it corrodes aluminum doors within a year of installation. Of universities giving student loans that start accruing interest from the day that they are issued and cripples young people with debt that limits their career options from the get-go. Of innocent people being gassed by their government in Syria. Of thousands more children starving to death in front of our eyes in Yemen. Of corporations throwing subsistence farmers off their land in Africa so that they can grow specialty crops for rich countries. Of apples crossing the globe twice before reaching our supermarket shelves. Of plastics filling our oceans leading to fish starving because their stomachs are so filled with our garbage there is no room for food. Of tampons that contain toxins and cost more money than they should for a necessity. Of the inevitability of ocean temperatures rising to catastrophic levels while corporations raise their oil rig platforms and maintain that climate change isn’t real. Of mountains tops being cut off and mountain-sides being stripped. Of the patriarchy’s countless laws that regulate women’s rights and freedoms. And, of imaginary lines in the sand which we can be shot for crossing over. I’m heart-broken, spirit-broken and mad. What the hell is wrong with us? Is there any hope that we’ll ever behave like we’re in this boat together?
Oh yeah, I should know better than to get mad. I’ve done my personal growth work. I’ve sat in seminars, gone on retreats, learned to soothe my injured inner child, chanted, Ohm’d, and danced the Dances of Universal Peace. I can be in touch with the ethereal realms and drop into the exquisite peace of the eternal. I know that what I think is a choice, that I can focus on the positive, drop into gratitude, and talk to a kind friend.
But right now, those feel like salves for the trauma of trying to live in a severely out-of-balance world in which a violent culture has run amok and is smothering out the good and the kind. Where the heck is the healthy feminine in all of this? The one that tells the blow-hard boys to bloody well behave themselves and protects our young and innocent and the natural world on which we ALL depend?
It hurts to be alive right now. And I even feel guilty for thinking that since I have it so good – no wars on my doorstep and there’s food in my fridge.
Part of me wails in anguish and despair for the savage destruction of our earth and the innocents. Part of me is f*ing furious and wants to turn into Durga and use my swords to destroy the evils of the world. Part of me knows that I create my own reality and I am responsible for it all. And part of me knows that negative thinking has negative impacts on my health and so I should work at keeping myself in a good space, in alignment, and be voice of peace and grace in the world for my own sake as much as anyone else’s. But today, it feels like too much. Today, I want to crumble on the floor. And today, I’m sick and tired of trying to make a living. Today, I want to pack it all in and go live in the woods.
And here’s the conundrum
I have a conscience. I want to walk away – go another pilgrimage, live in the woods, forget the outside world and commune with the trees and lakes. But there’s the problem. The trees and the lakes are hurting, calling out for us to do something. Those mothers, fathers, and children in Yemen are making prayers for someone with some power somewhere to do something. And who am I if not a person somewhere with some power to do something who can hear their prayers? So, I can’t withdraw and walk away.
It’s agonizing to wake up and witness. And equally exhausting to be in the fray day-in-and-day-out trying to be a beacon of decency in world in which the indecent seem to win, thrive and congratulate themselves on their success. Where MBS and Vladimir Putin slap each on the back in greeting at a G12 summit as if the atrocities in the Middle East and beyond have nothing to do with their daily decisions.
Unfortunately, it’s not just a case of getting rid of the bad guys. I studied revolution in college. I know that power vacuums just get filled quickly usually with equally destructive people and systems. And, after all, I am a human being capable of evil given the right conditions.
I’ve worked all my life for social change, to make the world a better place, to lay the seeds of a better world. But today I despair for the self-destructive path we are on.
I wrote a white paper years ago entitled “Sacred Grant Writing” that outlined the same structural inequities in the grantmaking system that are frustrating me today – but in a more eloquent and polished way than this rant. I don’t have a solution or a better idea for how we can redistribute funding and so I never published it.
Maybe I’ll publish that paper or maybe publish this rant. Or maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and write another more politically correct article about how to gauge your odds before putting work into a grant proposal (hint, first find out your odds and try to find a couple that are safer bets).
Or maybe, I’ll wake up and send this article to Delta’s CEO so that he* can appreciate the power his airline has, as great as any army, to bring its passengers to their knees.
* I assume, of course, he’s male and white..