Last week I offered a short tutorial on how not to get a grant. Now, by popular demand, I’m sharing thoughts about what you can do—beyond not committing those seven deadly sins—to increase the chances of getting funding for a project from a foundation like ours.
As you read these suggestions, keep in mind two important caveats: First, these are my idiosyncratic views, and represent no more. Grain of salt, and all that. Second, many factors well outside the control of prospective grantees affect their chances of success. These include, for example, a funder’s grantmaking budget, the type of strategy being pursued and the particular moment in that strategy’s lifetime. When the budget isn’t growing and a strategy is already well underway, a funder may find it difficult to start a relationship with a new organization, regardless of the brilliance of the idea being proposed. If, on the other hand, a funder is in an exploratory mode or has recently seen a bump in her budget, she may be actively searching for new ideas and partners. That’s a great opportunity just waiting to be seized.
With those qualifications, herewith my best advice:
Know your niche. We have a field-wide view and are supporting a constellation of work within a particular area—in our case, for example, reproductive health and rights, women’s economic empowerment or transparency and accountability. Beyond a project’s intrinsic merits, we’re going to be wondering how your organization and the project you’re proposing fit into the bigger picture. Do you have special technical skills, the ability to reach audiences that others do not, or some other asset that would make a valuable addition to our portfolio? If so, help us see that.
Lead from strength and connect to mission. Tell us about the one or two genuine strengths your organization has that make you the right folks to take on the project you are proposing. Help us understand how the project fits into your larger institutional mission. We want to see how funding for a particular activity will leverage organizational assets and why you’re eager to pursue it.
Be able to answer the question “What would success look like?” Period.
Use the pitch as prototype. When you’re describing the project, demonstrate the skills you are going to need to successfully implement it. If it’s a research project, convey that you have done your own research on what and where we fund, and on who else is working on the same question. If it’s research intended for direct policy uptake, show that you can talk about technical issues in ways that non-specialists can understand. If it’s a data visualization project, show us the implementation plan in a way that communicates information about timing and level of effort in a compelling way. If it’s an advocacy project, put your best communications staff onto the task of communicating with us.
Figure out how to articulate your theory of change in 60 seconds. That’s too little time to get across all the nuances, but enough to demonstrate that you’ve thought through the logic connecting dollars to impact. Being able to give a snapshot of your thought process is critical to demonstrating that you’ve thought long and hard about how to succeed, and that you can get others—staff, policymakers, us—to understand, and buy into, your vision.
Eschew abstraction. Help us get a picture in our minds of what you’re proposing to do. Instead of “convenings with decisionmakers” try “ three meetings in our Washington, DC, offices with officials from USAID and Treasury, along with a couple of the leading academics working on illicit financial flows.” Instead of “promoting a rights-based approach” try “analyzing the relevant provisions of the UN conventions, and developing a country-specific strategy, starting in Uganda, to support human rights lawyers working on precedent-setting safe abortion cases.”
Balance enthusiasm for your idea with openness. Once we’ve heard what you’re proposing to do, we may have some suggestions about ways to strengthen the idea and increase its potential impact. We’re looking for partners who will engage in a back-and-forth about what will make for the most successful project—but we’re not interested in working with groups that will do anything we suggest just because we’re on the funder side of the conversation. It’s a delicate balance and achieving it takes real effort on the part of everyone involved.
It’s a relationship, not a transaction. When we start a serious conversation about a grant, we’re committing far more than money. We’re committing time and a collaborative spirit, entering into a relationship of trust. And so are you.
Let’s stick with these eight, knowing that in the Chinese tradition eight is the number associated with one of the most important determinants of whether a pitch is successful: luck.
If there’s one thing you learn working at a Foundation, it’s how not to ask for funding. I imagine every grantmaker has his or her own thoughts about what makes a pitch imperfect. Here’s my personal list of the seven deadly sins that prospective grantees sometimes commit when they come to visit:
Act like we owe you. Let us know how prestigious and well-connected you are, and/or assert (without evidence) that your work is superior to that of partners we currently support.
Act like we own you. Tell us you’re infinitely flexible, just waiting to pursue whatever brilliant idea we happen to mention.
Do no homework. Do not spend time reading any of the materials on our website, and in particular do not look at the descriptions of our current grants in your field. Come in knowing nothing about our geographic and subject matter interests.
Get lost between the money and the goal. Make only vague statements about how financial support to your organization would translate into more or better activities, and then follow that up with even vaguer statements about how those activities would contribute to a Big Goal.
Claim unmitigated success. When you describe your track record, make sure it seems as though every project has yielded remarkable benefits. Do not breathe a word about disappointments or lessons from painful experiences.
Bring a team, but only let one person talk. Make sure you crowd the room with staff who sit silently listening to the boss describe their work. Hand out a lot of glossy materials. Leave us wondering about your overhead.
Talk more, listen less. Use every available minute to get across what you came to say, and leave no space for questions or conversation. To ensure this happens, make sure you bring a long PowerPoint presentation.
Unlike the actual seven deadly sins, it’s easy to avoid committing these peccadillos. And, mercifully, most of the people we meet with do make good use of the time. When they do, they find we’re eager to hear about creative and effective work being done by organizations whose goals we share. We like talking about the field we’re in, bouncing around ideas, engaging in the give-and-take of questions and critiques. We like leaving a meeting with new ideas and new professional connections—and sometimes, just sometimes, the germ of a future grant.
Toward the beginning of every month, the White House, the Federal Reserve, Capitol Hill, Wall Street and major media outlets wait anxiously for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to release its employment report. The statistics, based on household and employer surveys, are our economy’s vital signs, closely monitored to see whether American workers and private firms are doing well or fading fast. The data inform everything from unemployment benefits and job training programs to interest rates, employer tax breaks, and investment portfolios.
The figures are also leading indicators of political fortunes. Too many months of rising unemployment spells trouble for incumbents because voters base judgments about politicians’ performance on both their own personal job security and their understanding, as filtered through the media, of how the nation as a whole is doing.
A world away from the wealth of statistics available to advanced economics, African governments are profoundly impoverished, starved for data. Virtually no African government generates reliable, representative, reasonably current information about the size of the labor force, the number of people employed, or the number seeking jobs. In many cases, the only available information dates from the most recent census, and captures only the small fraction of productivity that occurs in the formal sector. If you want to see for yourself, look at this map of available data maintained by the International Labor Organization. The most basic employment data for the entire continent of Africa: n/a.
This massive problem can be solved. For just the past year, the world has had a modern, comprehensive definition of work and classifications of different types of productive activity, endorsed by the International Conference of Labor Statisticians. The new definition encompasses a broad array of productive activities, going well beyond the narrow formal employment arrangements. Happily, this updated way to measure work can be used in African and other contexts where relatively few workers are employed in enterprises recognized by government authorities, and most—particularly most women—are working in the informal economy, or in unpaid activities that produce goods or services within their own home or others’.
Not only is the right definition in place, but there’s a way to collect the data. While frequent labor force surveys may remain a distant dream, most African countries conduct nationally representative household surveys every five years or so. As the World Bank’s Kathleen Beegle and others have noted, questions based on the new definition could be developed for those surveys, capturing the essential information to describe in detail what the labor force looks like: who’s working, who’s not, what they’re doing.
Yes, it would take a combination of extra money and intensive technical support, plus coordination among the various international agencies that help fund and design household surveys. It would also take a genuine commitment by National Statistical Offices, and resources to help them skill-up to measure better. This will sound like a pretty familiar to-do list if you’ve been paying attention to the “data revolution” conversation.
But it’s not about just any old data for its own sake. The payoff in this case would be enormous and immediate: critically important information for economic policymaking, and a baseline measure against which future progress can be assessed. Moreover, by generating comprehensive information about the productivity of both men and women using methods that are not tainted by gender bias, it would be one of the most powerful ways imaginable to close the gender data gap.
The absence of crucial economic data in Africa isn’t a new problem, but with the help of data revolutionaries, can’t we find some new ways to solve it?
Sexual health of young people in the developing world. Gender-based violence. Stigma and discrimination. Unsafe abortion. Access to comprehensive reproductive health services for the marginalized.
Let’s face it: these topics are hard for a lot of people to talk about, and harder still for many funders to proudly and publicly support. They are challenges that can be best addressed by those who know the social context, and who have a lifelong commitment to these issues—a mission for social change. While they’re at the outskirts of many donor-funded programs and lie beyond the influence of sweeping rhetoric at international conferences, these issues are at the very heart of protecting the health and rights of women and men around the world.
And now, as of last Monday evening, there’s a place where civil society organizations with ideas and energy can find support from donors committed to progress on these tough issues.
AmplifyChange was launched during UN Week in New York, after months of preparation by its financial backers, the Governments of Denmark and the Netherlands, the Packard Foundation and ourselves, as well as the implementing consortium of MannionDaniels, the Global Fund for Women, and the African Women’s Development Fund. The aim is to help lift and, yes, amplify the voices of civil society in countries with the greatest deficits in sexual and reproductive health and rights. Support is available from the fund, now capitalized at about $19.4 million, for movement-building, strengthening the work of individual organizations, and sparking much needed innovations in advocacy. (The Guardian has a nice introduction to the effort, published earlier this week.)
As a foundation with no in-country presence and very limited ability to make the small, tailored grants that local groups often need, we are very happy to be able to channel resources in a responsible way to tackle these important issues. We’re looking forward, in particular, to seeing how the women’s funds, which are experienced at making small grants and providing technical support, help groups working on these challenging topics.
We’re also happy to have the chance to work with the courageous Governments of Denmark and the Netherlands, who are showing such leadership. We’re hopeful that AmplifyChange will demonstrate its value quickly, so that others who understand how crucial a full set of reproductive rights are to the empowerment of girls and women will join us—as funders, intellectual collaborators, and advocates.
Every once in a while you read something that’s such a clarion call you have to stop and listen. That’s how I felt about Belle Sawhill’s “Beyond Marriage” in last Sunday’s New York Times.
Sawhill lays out the facts: The social norm of marriage-then-babies is rapidly disappearing across much of America. More than 40 percent of babies are born outside of marriage; most of the pregnancies are unplanned and many of the couples split up before the children reach their fifth birthday.
Once children are born, parents—and often the moms alone—have to meet the many challenges of parenthood while foregoing education to find low-wage jobs, just to provide the basics of food and shelter. In all this, the children—the next generation of Americans—themselves face futures limited by poverty and family stress. ( Sawhill’s statistics were made vividly real a few weeks ago in a Times story describing the daily life of Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old mother of a five-year-old child, as she juggles childcare responsibilities with her unpredictable shifts as a Starbucks barista.)
Many factors contribute to this grim cycle: High school drop-out rates, incarceration of young men, a minimum wage that is too low to permit even fulltime workers to pay rent. But it is one event, the birth of a baby to parents who just aren’t ready, that prevents an exit to higher incomes and family stability.
If women are not waiting for marriage to have children, Sawhill asserts that a new social norm has to be fostered: women and their partners must take the responsibility for waiting to be parents until they are ready, both emotionally and financially. The norm must shift from drifting into parenthood to taking that momentous step only with deliberation and forethought.
Hard as shifting social norms is, the good news is that we have birth control methods that switch the default setting from “get pregnant” to “don’t get pregnant.” When women choose an IUD or an implant, instead of the Pill, condom or blind hope, they can count on effective pregnancy prevention for several years. Then, when they want to get pregnant, they can remove the device and regain their fertility quickly. This technology is a boon to the cause of responsible parenthood.
And yet it is access to precisely this type of birth control that is under threat. Long-term methods like IUDs, which are cost-effective over the long term, are expensive. A woman working fulltime at a minimum wage job would spend her monthly paycheck just to get one, and many women who would benefit do not have insurance coverage to help share the cost. The Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid do promise to cover the high upfront costs of long-acting reversible contraceptives, as well as all other methods. But challenges to the contraceptive coverage provision and the reluctance of some states to expand Medicaid are limiting access. The government, Sawhill points out, is not doing all it could to support women and couples who want to wait until they’re ready.
What is most refreshing about Sawhill’s piece is that she clearly and persuasively connects issues that so often are discussed in isolation. Birth control is certainly part of women’s health care, yes. But it is far more than that. It is an essential determinant of how lives unfold, and it is deeply intertwined with the kind of society all our children will grow into over the decades to come.
I always cringe when the architectural metaphor of a “blueprint” is applied in global development. As in reports like “PEPFAR Blueprint: Creating an AIDS-free Generation.” So static, so centrally planned, so mechanical. Not an image befitting the dynamic system that characterizes so much of work aimed at improving lives and livelihoods in low-income countries (or anywhere else).
So, when I happened to find myself flipping through Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School(MIT Press, 2007), I did not think it would shed any light on my work. (I was looking through the book only because one of my kids is expressing interest in architecture as a career, and I wanted to understand what the training entailed.)
Then I stumbled on Lesson 29, which counsels architects to adopt a practice that entails (quoting here):
1.Seeking to understand a design problem before chasing after solutions;
2.not force-fitting solutions to old problems onto new problems;
3.removing yourself from prideful investment in your projects and being slow to fall in love with your ideas;
4.making design investigations and decisions holistically (that address several aspects of a design problem at once) rather than sequentially (that finalize one aspect of a solution before investigating the next);
5.making design decisions conditionally – that is, with the awareness that they may or may not work out as you continue toward a final solution;
6.knowing when to change and when to stick with previous decisions;
7.accepting as normal the anxiety that comes from not knowing what to do;
8.working fluidly between concept-scale and detail-scale to see how each informs the other;
9.always asking “What if . . . ?” regardless of how satisfied you are with your solution.”
I ask you: Could there possibly be a better description of the discipline of development?
Spend a bit of time with folks who want to see governments in low-income countries put more money into health, education, and other social sectors, and you’re bound to hear about “The Finance Minister.” A technocrat with vast powers to unilaterally shape budgets, this wise man (they are mostly male) has a passion for quantitative data, and a remarkable interest in the world his grandchildren will inherit. He also seems to have a lot of time to read long reports.
In the face of the right analyses (many advocates seem quite certain), the Finance Minister can be convinced to pay for more vaccines, extend health services, improve education quality, and start programs to empower adolescent girls in rural areas. The right analyses, of course, must demonstrate that spending today will yield economic growth many, many years from now, as healthier and happier children grow into productive, employed adults, contributing to national income and paying taxes.
This Finance Minister is invoked as the audience for a lot of well-intentioned studies meant to be used in advocating for more money for a favorite sector or program.
But does this Finance Minister actually exist? I have my doubts.
I have my doubts, first, about the autonomy of ministers of finance. Ministries of finance are a core agency within the executive branch of government; they are principally responsible for preparing budget requests that reflect the executive’s priorities and are subject to debate and eventual approval by a legislature. In other words, they are performing a technical function, but within the hurly-burly of negotiation among politicians. Arguments based on cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness may occasionally have salience, but more often give way before social choices, reflected in representatives’ votes, that do not accord with rational analysis.
Ministers of finance tend to be awfully busy solving problems with today’s arithmetic—how on earth to pay next year’s wage bill when it’s grown more rapidly than tax revenues, for instance. They rarely have the luxury of considering the subtle calculus of investments and returns measured across decades. Beyond preparing budgets, ministries of finance are responsible for formulating and managing revenue policies and legislation, managing government borrowing on financial markets, transferring central grants to local government, regulating the financial sector, and representing the country within international financial institutions. These are not small tasks; the agencies in question are often under-resourced; and there aren’t enough hours in the day to also think about how a bit more money for early childhood education today might, under a whole bunch of assumptions, bump the gross domestic product by a percent or so, 30 years from now.
If the hyper-rational, long-view minister of finance we’ve created in our minds doesn’t exist, maybe we should be working with the ones that really do, meeting them where they are. Many of the things ministers of finance do care about and have control over matter a lot for social outcomes. This is where advocates’ energy and brainpower could usefully be applied.
In proposing budget allocations, for example, finance ministries usually take into consideration whether the social ministries are good stewards of resources, and whether they can justify budget requests by demonstrating how additional resources are turning into better outcomes. That has implications for the right advocacy approach. It means, first, that finance ministries can accelerate the adoption of meaningful metrics by demanding them of social ministries. Smart advocacy focused on how to measure performance of social sector programs can be tremendously powerful. Just think what might happen if finance ministries were to ask for evidence that kids in primary school are actually learning.
Second, social sector ministries can find ways to feed finance ministers’ appetite for proof that money is turning into progress. Health and education ministries will do better in inevitable budget showdowns if they are able to demonstrate that they are using the best available evidence to refine or reform their services, and evaluating in a transparent way as they go. Nothing is a better prod for using data and evidence than knowing your budget depends on it.
Beyond their role in trimming or fattening social sector ministry budgets, ministers of finance are also in a position to create or propose adjustments to the formulas used to allocate central funding to local governments. Given enormous disparities in resources and development outcomes within countries, revenue sharing tools can be hugely important in advancing equity aims. Again, smart advocacy—combined with budget transparency—can create the conditions for better thinking about how tax revenues can be allocated fairly.
These ideas are just the start of thinking about how the work of finance ministers affects domestic funding levels for particular social priorities, and how social sector ministries spend those funds. In any particular country, a deep understanding of the real budget process, not some idealized one, helps shape the smartest technical analyses and advocacy messages. If you care about better health, education, and wellbeing, it’s a great idea to talk with the finance minister. The trick is to make sure you’re talking to the actual person in the finance minister’s seat and not the one you’ve imagined.
On World Humanitarian Day this week, the world was dealing—or not quite dealing—with multiple humanitarian emergencies: Ebola in West Africa, refugee crises in Syria and Iraq, civil war in the Central African Republic and looming famine in South Sudan. USAID has more disaster response teams mobilized than at any time in its history, and the most “can do” groups, like Doctors without Borders, are sounding the alarm about the need for a larger and faster response.
This is the new normal. Many experts, anticipating a combination of climate disruption and political instability, expect that doing relief work on multiple fronts is something the world has to get used to—and has to learn to do better with the $5+ billion mobilized from public and private donors each year. There are more problems and they are more complex than in the past, and more money will be going to the immediate needs of displaced, hungry, sick, and traumatized people around the world.
Believe it or not, in this dark space there is a tiny glimmer of light, and it’s not just the glow from the halos of the amazing people who dedicate their lives to helping others. It’s the light from more systematic learning.
The humanitarian community—funders and implementers—is demonstrating an impressive appetite for using evidence from rigorous evaluations to provide more effective (and cost-effective) responses the next time around. A recent blog post by Oxfam’s Ellie Ott describes this well: “If we fail to examine the evidence, then we fail in our duty to help communities and individuals get back on their feet, and can even potentially cause harm.” She highlights the value of systematic reviews and new impact evaluations coming out of EvidenceAID, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, the Campbell Collaboration, and the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation.
The more I think about it, the more obvious it is that evaluation can be a huge benefit to humanitarian activities, as long as it’s focused on questions that matter. The outcomes are often more observable and measurable than most long-term development programs. More importantly, within global development, broadly defined, humanitarian aid is one of the most centralized and well-coordinated types of activities. Key features of humanitarian aid include chains of command with designated lead agencies, standard protocols, and a few dominant funders (including the U.S.)—all characteristics that make it reasonably likely that practices can change pretty quickly if a new approach is shown to be superior to the status quo.
One example illustrates the point: Unsure how best to treat the mental health problems stemming from rape in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, the International Rescue Committee teamed up with Johns Hopkins University and the University of Washington a couple of years ago to conduct a randomized evaluation of “cognitive processing therapy,” a form of group therapy to treat anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The study was funded by the USAID and the World Bank. The researchers found that after six months, only 9 percent of women participating in group therapy were suffering from feelings of shame and anxiety, while 42 percent of women who had been offered an alternative form of care were still suffering. They’d found a dramatically better way to provide care for problems that affect almost half of the women in eastern Congo where rape has been used as a weapon. Findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine and widely disseminated in the field are helping to change practice both within IRC’s work and more broadly.
We don’t fund humanitarian aid efforts ourselves, but we do support many organizations working to build a better base of evidence about what works. And we applaud loudly when aid organizations with lots of priorities to balance, like USAID, the World Bank and the UK Department for International Development, have the wisdom to invest in serious evaluation. In a small way, we’re working with others to make sure that the hardest kind of international work is also the most effective.
I almost always ask grantees what’s missing from their ecosystem. Understandably, they look at me blankly. Then I explain: What could other organizations do that would make your work have greater impact? No one organization can do it all, so what else should we support to complement your efforts?
It turns out this is a hard question for most people to answer. Everyone recognizes that creating positive social change takes varied skills and strategies, but people are focused almost exclusively on their own organization. Mostly, they want to expand the scope and scale of their own activities. It’s tough to endorse funding others when their own organizations never seem to have enough.
If you ask researchers what’s needed, for example, you often get a list of the research projects they themselves would like to tackle with available household survey data, rather than a wish list of types of data that would permit them to answer core questions with more precision and fewer assumptions, if only others were funded to collect and share it. If you ask advocates what would make it more likely for their work to make a difference in real-world policy, you usually get ideas about larger and more elaborate campaigns that their own organizations could undertake, rather than suggestions about funding more relevant research or enhancing the media’s ability to understand and communicate about their field. Organizations delivering health services or educating kids are more likely to highlight the need to cover larger populations instead of emphasizing the value of investments in new products, financing arrangements, quality certification systems, or the development of a stronger evidence base.
The ecosystem or field-level view is precisely what we try to have when we’re thinking about grant making. We can make the case for supporting a given organization not only because of its intrinsic importance or brilliance, but because it plays a distinctive role: the impartial source of cutting-edge analysis, the edgy advocate, the trusted insider. Few things make us happier than seeing different organizations we support spontaneously working together toward a common end, because it’s validation that we guessed right about the complementary nature of the work. And we are much, much more likely to make the right guesses—and contribute in the most high-impact ways—when we get advice from the trenches.
It’s easy to come up with reasons not to evaluate the impact of a program: We don’t have enough money. There’s no time to collect baseline data because we’ve got to get the program up and running. The pathways from what we’re doing to impact are so complex we can’t trace causation. It’s unethical to withhold this program from people, even if by doing so we’d be able to compare the experience of participants with non-participants and estimate the program’s net impact.
Over the years, I’ve tried, along with others, to overcome these excuses because they stand in the way of learning how to use precious dollars to do the greatest good.
But while there are many bad reasons to avoid an evaluation, there is one very good reason, and it’s not recognized often enough: If the findings from the evaluation won’t make a difference, don’t do it.
Here’s the set of questions that together can help us all figure out if an evaluation might make a difference:
What are the decisions that the findings from the evaluation could inform? Sometimes these have to do with renewing or increasing funding for the program, and sometimes they have to do with program design or organization. These future decisions should drive the evaluation questions. If no one can articulate what decisions will be made, it’s time to question whether an evaluation is worth it.
Are those decisions going to be based on evidence about program effectiveness? Funders have diverse motivations. Not all of those have to do with whether a program is achieving its stated goals. If a program is going to be expanded or killed regardless of what the data say, then think hard about the value of doing an evaluation at all—or at least make sure it’s done so transparently that decision makers have a hard time ignoring the facts.
When are those decisions going to be made? Far too often, the evaluation is started so late or will take so long that the findings will be available only after funding and other decisions have been made. The evaluation report ends up as an awkward afterthought.
Can the evaluation change anyone’s mind? Both funders and implementers usually have strong views about the effectiveness of a program based on experience, observation, or gut feelings. Sometimes the label “success” or “failure” has already been applied. If the data and methods for the evaluation are not strong enough to potentially change the minds of decisionmakers, what’s the point? Either invest in more robust methods or drop the ceremony of evaluation altogether.
If these questions were applied systematically and early in program design and implementation, we’d have more good and useful evaluations—ones that are well-timed and use appropriate methods. We’d have better clarity about the purpose of the evaluations we conduct. The timing and methods would match the needs of the decision makers, and greater transparency could mitigate against political influences. At the same time, we’d end up with fewer evaluations that are purely symbolic.
Can evaluations lead to better use of money? Yes. Will they if the conditions are not right? Absolutely not.