Grabbing the Grant

Grabbing the Grant

What will catch the attention of foundations, and entice the money grantors? Step away from the status quo, say those who made the grade.

If it were easy to obtain money from philanthropic organizations, development officers would be putting in three-hour workweeks. Reality, of course, is otherwise. No wonder foundation relations officers lament the diminishing-returns syndrome. Annette Ketner is one of them. As senior director of Foundation Relations for the University of San Diego, her office churns out more and more proposals to reap fewer grants than it did five years ago. Ketner's plight isn't hard to understand: It was the dot-com debacle of the late '90s that hobbled foundations. They then lost 4 percent of the value of their assets in 2001, and between 10 and 12 percent in 2002, according to a Q1 2003 statement by the Foundation Center in Washington, DC.

Consider the Ford Foundation (www.fordfound.org) in New York City, which for size of grants in 2002 ranked behind only the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (www.gatesfoundation.org) in Seattle, and the Lilly Endowment (www.lillyendowment.org) in Indianapolis. The Ford Foundation reported $10.8 billion in assets in September 2001, but only $9.34 billion year-to-date later (a 14 percent drop). As a consequence, the foundation's grants fell from an aggregate of $829.1 million in fiscal year 2001, to $509.7 million in fiscal year 2002--reverberating to an even more dramatic 38.5 percent drop. In fact, overall foundation giving slipped 1.5 percent in 2002, according to the Foundation Center, and the 2003 drop may prove even greater, when the numbers are tallied.

What all of this means is that the decline in foundation giving has only sharpened the Darwinian struggle for grants among colleges and universities. Worse, higher education is only a single constellation in the galaxy of nonprofits, all of which compete for grants, emphasizes Susan King, VP of Public Affairs at the Carnegie Corporation of New York (www.carnegie.org) and Jorge Balan, senior program officer at the Ford Foundation. Data from the Foundation Center reveal that U.S. colleges and universities received 30 of the 50 largest grants from philanthropic organizations in 1998, but only 26 in 2001, the most recent year on record. And where seven of the top 10 grant recipients in 1998 were colleges and universities, only three cracked the top 10 in 2001. Key to grabbing those dollars are compelling proposals in the areas of science and technology, globalization, and diversity. That's where the money's gone in the past few years, and where it continues to go.

In an economy driven by technology and science, foundations continue to bulk up programs in the sciences--especially computer science, engineering, and emerging technologies. This is a trend Alex Pang, research director at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, CA (www.iftf.org) expects to accelerate in the next 18 to 24 months.

The Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia (www.pewtrusts.com) had this future in focus when it gave the Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute at Johns Hopkins University (MD) $9.9 million to establish the Genetics & Public Policy Institute. But Institute Director Kathy Hudson says the university got the grant only by filling a new niche in science. Rather than vying for dollars for research in areas already being addressed by others (including the American Society of Reproductive Medicine in Alabama, Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, and the President's Council on Bioethics in Washington, DC), the Institute went after the opinions of ordinary Americans--a somewhat novel approach in scientific research.

Sidestepping a more classical scientific approach, Johns Hopkins "opinion poll" research will frame the issues around reproductive technologies and shed light on how people should use them.

Says Maureen K. Byrnes, Pew's director of Policy Initiatives and Health and Human Services Program, "Through polls, focus groups, interviews, and other public engagement activities, the center is developing a body of literature on public attitudes toward reproductive genetic technologies." Research administrators showed that the grant to Johns Hopkins would enable more than an exercise in gauging public opinion. They demonstrated that the research is an attempt to peek inside the "designer" genome of the future, when perhaps, like Serena Williams, everyone will be able to rip a two-handed backhand down the line--and look good while doing it.

"Reproductive genetics encompasses a number of techniques that increasingly will enhance the ability of parents to use technology to make decisions about the genetic characteristics of their children," says Byrnes. She expects the research to frame the issues and enumerate the options that academics and policymakers debate in trying to decide how people should use reproductive technologies. Science isn't just a dispassionate search for knowledge, she points out; foundation money can make science a form of social engineering.

This is not to say that foundations grant money to universities only if they can demonstrate that they can deliver technology and science that shapes the future--but it does help. Such an agenda led the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (www.hewlett.org) in Menlo Park, CA, to give the Massachusetts Institute of Technology $5.5 million to create OpenCourseWare, a project well known across academia, in which MIT has pledged to place all its courses online. To date, more than 500 MIT courses have made it into cyberspace. Marshall S. Smith, the Hewlett Foundation's Education Program director, was drawn to OpenCourseWare by MIT's groundbreaking promise to make its courses free to anyone anywhere. OpenCourseWare, says Smith, democratizes knowledge by using the World Wide Web as a global clearinghouse of information. Smith points to the fact that universities from Spain to China are using OpenCourseWare as a foundation for developing their own curricula. Scholars have translated MIT's courses into 10 languages. From Boston to Bangladesh, students can access OpenCourseWare in their native language.

"The Hewlett Foundation is looking for strategies for using technology to equalize opportunities across the world," says Smith, who points to the acute need for knowledge in developing nations, where, if they are to thrive, societies must be able to compete in a global economy driven by information and technology. Smith hopes the World Wide Web will help to transform the world. Education, he maintains, will obliterate the barriers of class, gender and nationality, creating a world of possibilities rather than limitations. Yes, Smith is an idealist. But idealism is a trait that Edee Bjornson, former VP of Programming for the Markle Foundation (www.markle.org) in New York City, rates ubiquitous among program officers. She sees philanthropy as the privatization of the aspirations of the New Deal and Great Society: the abolition of poverty and the creation of an egalitarian world. It's this world that Smith wants to build with modem and mouse. MIT's president Charles M. Vest echoes the Hewlett Foundation commitment to equalizing opportunities.

"The organic world of open software and open systems was the true wave of the future," says Vest. "Higher education must learn from this. We must create open knowledge systems as the new framework for teaching and learning... We see [OpenCourseWare] as opening as new door to the powerful, democratizing and transforming power of education."

Joseph DeVries, associate director of Food Security at the Rockefeller Foundation (www.rockfound.org) in Manhattan, doesn't work out of New York, but from an office in Nairobi, Kenya, where he says the action is. So, if your grant proposal aims to help farms in Arkansas, don't run it by DeVries; he looks for the proposals that reach beyond U.S. borders. This is no surprise, coming from a man who between 1988 and 1990 worked shoulder to shoulder with the rural poor of Mozambique, and who sees problems from an international perspective. DeVries was in Mozambique, he says, "when the bullets were still flying," and saw firsthand the horrors of civil war.

"In those days in Mozambique, we were witness to immense suffering," he recalls. "There was an enormous shortage of food throughout the country, and few ways to get the food aid that entered the country to the famine areas in the interior. The rebels had all the roads sealed off. Food convoys were attacked on a regular basis until it became impossible to find drivers.

The specificity of a plan to improve food security in a developing country, and the fact that a strong Michigan State project manager was already implementing it on a small scale, convinced Rockefeller Foundation grantors.

"After two years, I was exhausted but inspired," says DeVries. "The job still wasn't done, but I had found what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: develop better crops for African farmers so that they can be better equipped to provide for their own food security."

Fortunately, Jan Low, associate professor of International Development in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Michigan State University, shares DeVries' passion and perspective. The two had known each other at Cornell University (NY), where in the mid 1990s Low was a doctoral candidate in agricultural economics, and DeVries a postdoctoral fellow in genetics and plant breeding.

In 2002, they reconnected in Mozambique, where Low convinced DeVries that the Rockefeller Foundation might help farmers by funding a program to teach them to ward off Vitamin A deficiency and hunger by growing sweet potato, a food rich in Vitamin A that yields a larger harvest per acre than any grain. Low already knew the precise geographical areas where farmers would be willing to try sweet potato and had in place there an incipient program to teach local mothers to feed their children a nourishing diet. The specificity of her plan, and the fact that she was already implementing it on a small scale, convinced DeVries.

"In this business, having a good idea is only half the battle," he says. "Intangibles like approach, attitude, and commitment to the details of implementation are critical to the success of any project--and often lacking. When you find a match-up of a great idea with a project manager of Jan's caliber, you don't ask a lot of questions or nit-pick over the proposal. You back them with everything you've got." The result was a $300,000 grant to create the Towards Sustainable Nutrition Improvement Project in Zambezie Province, Mozambique.

Global problems such as malnutrition demand global solutions, and sometimes those solutions focus on one village at a time. In this case, the Rockefeller Foundation helped Michigan State plant a seed in a region of Mozambique. Will your proposal help people in a humanitarian crisis in some corner of the world not ordinarily likely to garner media attention?

The University of California at Santa Cruz also carved out an international focus, looking beyond the U.S. to the Islamic world, that swath of the globe that stretches from the Arabian Peninsula to Indonesia. As has been too obvious of late, the region flares with internal clashes and skirmishes with the U.S. But it was the magnitude of these problems that spurred the Carnegie Corporation of New York to jettison its normal practice of considering grants from only a small number of handpicked universities. Instead, Stephen J. Del Rosso, Jr., Carnegie's senior program officer in International Peace and Security, issued a call for proposals from any university, and found himself drawn to a UC Santa Cruz proposal to study the relationship between Islam and globalization. Del Rosso knew the Santa Cruz campus has a strong international studies program and a faculty with diverse interests. These traits, he believes, generate the fresh perspectives that make a university worth the investment of foundation money--in this case, $237,300.

Implicit in Del Rosso's attraction to the UC Santa Cruz study is the belief that diversity, rather than homogeneity, holds the promise of synergy. This belief forms the core of the relationship between ExxonMobil Foundation (www.exxonmobil.com) in Irving, TX, and the University of Florida. During the last 10 years, the Foundation has poured $300,000 into the Gator Engineering Outreach Program. The premise is simple: the profession of engineering can thrive only if engineers mirror the worldwide diversity of ethnicities and economic classes. True, the Exxon Mobil Corporation benefits from the philanthropy of its Foundation (half of the college graduates it hires are engineers). But, says Truman T. Bell, program officer of Education and Diversity, more than self-interest motivates ExxonMobil Foundation to fund the Gator Program. First, the Foundation ranks the University of Florida's College of Engineering among the best. And second, the University of Florida is in a state with a growing Hispanic population. The Gator Program's original aim was to recruit Hispanics to major in a branch of engineering, but over the years the purpose has broadened to recruit African Americans, Native Americans, women, and the poor as engineering majors.

Now, rather than recruitment, Bell speaks of outreach. The Gator Program doesn't wait until students are in high school to stoke their ambitions, but instead reaches into the middle schools, where (whether they realize it or not) children begin to make choices about their careers, through the effort they invest in science and math study. To take advantage of this early opportunity to make a lifelong impression, the university brings middle-school students to campus to rub shoulders with engineering majors, professors, and career counselors. The school also sends College of Engineering literature, in Spanish, to the parents of middle-school students.

Access and an end to exclusivity is likewise a goal of the Ford Foundation, which seeks to increase the numbers of minorities, women, and the underprivileged in the professorate. Those diversity candidates who enter the club too frequently find themselves in junior positions with fewer opportunities for promotion and pay increases than their white male colleagues. According to the Ford Foundation's Balan, Richard P. Chait, who is professor of Higher Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has spent much of his career trying to understand what academe can do to attract underrepresented groups to the professorate. Balan and Chait began a dialogue about how the Ford Foundation might further Chait's research. The result was a $500,000 grant to the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Despite the strength of these proposals, and the visionaries at the foundations who were looking out for studies and programs that filled new science and technology niches or furthered globalization or diversity, the competition for grant money often moves beyond the Darwinian struggle. Even the best proposals can suffer the vagaries of caprice, says Edee Bjornson. And that's because each foundation has its gatekeepers--those who are charged with separating the wheat from the chaff at the get-go. Ironically, these are often the foundation staffers with the least training and experience, and so they are often most apt to discard proposals that otherwise might have been funded.

The Hewlett Foundation's Education Program director was drawn to OpenCourseWare by MIT's groundbreaking promise to make its courses free to anyone anywhere.

Proposals that do indeed make the first cut move on to a program officer. Here again, however, much depends on chance. Bjornson believes program officers need a good five years to climb a learning curve that is most often strewn with their errors in judgment. Much depends on the depth of a program officer's knowledge of the technical parlance and methodology in a proposal. Then too, decisions may come down to confidence; a program officer unsure of his judgment may take the well-trodden path. In reading similar proposals from, say, the University of New Mexico and Princeton, suggests Bjornson, that officer might choose Princeton's proposal if his foundation has a history of funding the Ivy. In such a case, the grant would be made not necessarily on merit, but because superiors wouldn't question the decision.

Yes, philanthropy follows its own rules, and all are not listed on foundation Web pages. Still, those in the know suggest the following: Avoid the buzzwords that frequently swim through proposals, advises Stephen Del Rosso. Instead, separate yours from the pack with simple, clear language. Mark Drozdowski, Corporate, Foundation and Government Relations director at Franklin Pierce College (NH), echoes this advice, noting that foundations are asking for shorter proposals than they did five years ago. But brevity isn't enough, he warns. Your proposal should be so tight and limpid that a program officer can grasp the concept and details in a single read. Today, the world of philanthropy is barraged by pleas for dollars; it's your job to make sure that yours is the one they hear.

Chris Cumo is an Ohio-based freelance writer.


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