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Ask Slashdot: With Grants Drying Up, How Is a Tech Non-Profit To Survive? 178

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the unicorns-probably dept.
helios17 writes "Non-Profits like this have traditionally gotten started from the money grants provide. Most grants award vehicles, computers, and even pay for organization rental and utility costs. The problem fledgling and even established non-profits are encountering is the dwindling number of grants allowing for Operating or General Support costs. What good is a vehicle received via grant if you can't afford to put fuel in it? With the number of Operating or General Support grants shrinking and those available funds competed for heavily, should we be looking on line for help? Can efforts like this be a better way to approach it?"
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Ask Slashdot: With Grants Drying Up, How Is a Tech Non-Profit To Survive?

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  • Kickstarter. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Narcocide (102829) on Monday June 03, 2013 @10:10PM (#43901585) Homepage

    Lobbying is obsolete.

  • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Monday June 03, 2013 @10:13PM (#43901607)
    Why are the grants drying up? Despite the much-hyped "austerity", in reality the government has spent more money in each of the recent years than ever before.

    So where is all the damned money going???
    • by Narcocide (102829)

      (The money got spent on War, mostly.)

      • "(The money got spent on War, mostly.)"

        Very possibly. Which pisses me off to no end.

        • "(The money got spent on War, mostly.)"

          Very possibly. Which pisses me off to no end.

          But how is that possible given that the US has withdrawn from Iraq and military operations appear to be winding down? Drone strikes are on the increase, but I thought these were significantly cheaper than boots on the ground deployments.

      • by BenJCarter (902199) on Monday June 03, 2013 @11:10PM (#43901875)
        We aren't at war anymore. You must have missed the president guy's mouth noises on the subject.
      • by decora (1710862) on Tuesday June 04, 2013 @12:00AM (#43902079) Journal

        example:

        old slogan: we give used computers to poor people

        new slogan: by recruiting young people into the Infosec milieu, we help america defend against the goddam commie chinese hackers and the motherfucking russians who are trying to make our power system go offline so they can invade our country, kill our leaders, and convert us to non-americanism.

        • I logged in for the first time in months to mod you up, only to find I didn't have any mod points. :(
        • by thelexx (237096)

          Don't forget the sapping and impurification of our bodily fluids!

          Deny them your essence!

    • Well, we can do the knee-jerk thing, and randomly shout out guesses of where the funds may be going, or we can examine the various laws passed over the last several years, with a critical eye towards items that appear or disappear during those times. Granted, the language of those bills is...rough, to say the least, and you almost need an indexing service to generate hyperlinks to the original laws / dependencies to figure out what, exactly, they say now....which I imagine lawmakers already have. Actually..

    • Why are the grants drying up? Despite the much-hyped "austerity", in reality the government has spent more money in each of the recent years than ever before.

      He didn't say a word about the government. Private grants are very common, anyone who has ever watched a PBS program through the credits has heard of several big name private grant programs - McArthur, Koch, etc.

    • by grcumb (781340) on Tuesday June 04, 2013 @01:44AM (#43902483) Homepage Journal

      Why are the grants drying up?

      In many cases, it's not that the money is drying up; it's that the money is increasingly 'focused' on projects rather than administration.

      There's a popular conception among donors that the best way to keep NGOs from existing for their own sake (and growing fat and complacent) is to cease providing core funding, instead providing money for individual initiatives. As a happy coincidence, this also keeps NGOs on the string, having to justify every single little thing they do, which makes it easier to ensure that NGOs don't do anything that might make the donors uncomfortable, like speak their mind, or have a conscience or tell the truth.

      The 'no core funding' argument has some merits, I'll grant (heh) you, as there have been NGOs who got caught up in navel-gazing, who got lazy and spent more time feathering their respective nests than actually, you know, doing good. That is absolutely something to be guarded against. But this move toward project funding has the unfortunate effect of keeping some NGOs on the fringe, struggling to stay alive. This applies particularly to those who challenge the status quo.

      And as noted here, it has a knock-on effect on all NGOs, who find they can obtain salaries and meet project expenses, but can't own any fixed assets or even keep a vehicle running. Perversely, this increases their operating costs, which have to be met somehow. And that results in bigger grant applications for project funding.

      Obligatory software analogy: This is similar to tech companies who see design, tech support, permanent staffing and even updates as cost centres and therefore areas to starve as much as possible. This can all too easily lead to more friction in the gears, longer ramp-up times, slower release schedules, reduced quality and sales, and yes, higher development costs, once everything's factored in.

      • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

        by khallow (566160)
        I take it you think there's a problem here? My view is that non profits are an excellent place for parasites to thrive since there's no real accountability aside from whatever donors happen to impose. Donors are merely getting wise to what's been happening over the past few decades to the non profit sector.
        • by Trepidity (597)

          The problem is that the donors are often themselves large organizations full of people with questionable motives, so an increase in donor micromanagement may actually decrease the quality of services rather than improve it. It's not like either the government or places like the Ford Foundation have particularly strong accountability imposed on them.

          In academia at least, I think it's generally made things worse. Whereas previously a lot of interesting research would slip through the cracks and get funded on

      • this increases their operating costs

        This is the reason we run our non-profit, http://www.thetechfoundation.org/ [thetechfoundation.org], on a per project basis with basically no running operating costs at all. We find funding for our projects in our spare time, not as an employment deal. We have gathered a team of people from around the globe who put their time and effort into the foundation, nonsalaried. Of course, people willing to do that are hard to find, but the ones that are willing to do this are the ones you really can rely on. We also did not just pop into

    • And deficits will still rise. This "austerity" thing should be called corruption.
    • So where is all the damned money going?

      Shrinking the National Debt [latimes.com]? More still needs to be done, but this a good start. What we shouldn't do is go back to eating potato chips and drinking pop just when our pain at the gym of budget cuts is starting to pay off in the form of a smaller deficit waistline.

      • by BVis (267028)

        Starting to? It's been shrinking for years. The deficit has shrunk every year since the current administration took office, even the years when the Dems controlled Congress.

        • The deficit has shrunk every year since the current administration took office, even the years when the Dems controlled Congress.

          The deficits in individual years have shrunk, but the total national debt has continued to increase every single year. In other words, we're still spending more than we take in each and every year. It's a pretty lame excuse to say that you're better than previous administrations because you don't run up the balance on the credit card each year as much as they did. Meanwhile, the total amount owed is still increasing, albeit somewhat less quickly. That's a low standard and hardly what I'd call a "race to the

    • by antifoidulus (807088) on Tuesday June 04, 2013 @03:18AM (#43902711) Homepage Journal
      Actually, funding for a lot of these types of grants is drying up, this kind of spending has been in the Republican bullseye for a long time, and has suffered during recent budget "crises" due to Republicans picking these kinds of grants specifically to harp on(despite the fact that they make up less than 3% of the overall budget, and probably are one of the few effective government programs...) Basically they are trying to distract people from the fact that Republicans are unwilling to make real cuts and as an added bonus, are focusing on programs that primarily benefit their "enemies" (i.e. anyone who isn't either uber-rich or an uneducated white). Class act those Republicans.
    • by stenvar (2789879) on Tuesday June 04, 2013 @04:04AM (#43902829)

      So where is all the damned money going???

      It's going to entitlements, mostly. Increased taxes and spending are justified by progressives with phrases like "taxes buy civilization", but they choose to spend most of the new money coming in on increasing individual benefits (it buys votes, I suppose). A lot of the rest is spent on bailouts and subsidies to failing industries. Infrastructure and non-profits are stagnating or get cut.

      • by BVis (267028)

        Increased taxes and spending are justified by progressives with phrases like "taxes buy civilization", but they choose to spend most of the new money coming in on increasing individual benefits (it buys votes, I suppose).

        "Buys" votes? Isn't it possible that people are electing representatives that share their positions? You make it sound like bribery, when it's really just democracy in action. It's just not acting the way you'd like.

        • by stenvar (2789879)

          First of all, the groups being bribed are small special interests, like unions. They then deliver votes and are politically active on the part of candidates. No position in the US ever receives a majority of voters.

          Second, even if a majority of voters vote for something, that doesn't mean it's constitutional. That's why even decisions like Prop 8 can be challenged in court.

          Third, my parenthetical remark wasn't even intended to challenge the legitimacy of such votes; I actually think people are short-sighted

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Create a product, something that people want and fills a need. Sell it at a reasonable profit. Stop stealing money from society. The gravy train is ending, don't wait for it to jump the tracks. People are wising up to these criminals taking all our hard earned cash and pocketing it.
    • by RogueWarrior65 (678876) on Monday June 03, 2013 @10:31PM (#43901687)

      Assuming that this isn't sarcasm, there's a lesson to be learned here. If you are willing to operate on a shoestring budget, you can accomplish a lot. But you also have to be willing to look at your idea and honestly assess it's value and whether or not it's time to close up shop and move on to something else.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Bremic (2703997)

      If you want to maintain the 'gravy train', then become a religion. You get all the benefits of being a business (scaling from a small business to a multi-national corporation), and you get massive tax breaks, lack of governmental oversight, immunity to many laws where Industrial Relations or Health and Safety are concerned, and the ability to seek legal action against anyone who says your goals aren't good for the community.

      What I am really trying to say here is, until Religions lose their special exemption

    • Your description fits the bankers perfectly.

      Most charity started from a very little budget, have no expectation of profit, and created for the sole purpose of benefiting the society. Those who started up for some maligned purpose are easily AND quickly caught up by IRS or their state's attorney general.

      Besides starting a non-profit have several purposes:

      1. Re-define your character, especially if you have a shady past

      2. If you have monstrous (federal) student loans, you can qualify for PSLF [ed.gov] for TAX-FREE for

      • by TWiTfan (2887093)

        2. If you have monstrous (federal) student loans, you can qualify for PSLF [ed.gov] for TAX-FREE forgiveness after working 10 years full time in any 501(c)(3) organization, including those you started. (Orgs that are tax-exempted on other sections of the tax code, such as 501(c)(4), does NOT count.) You must be making payments (Hint: use income-based repayment) and in good standing in order to count. If you have private student loans, too bad.

        I love the fact that people actually believe that law won't be changed before 2017 (when the first round of forgiveness comes due) to prevent just this sort of thing. Such naivete is kind of cute, like watching Hallmark Channel movies and believing that's what real relationships are like.

        • May be. But I bet there if that's the case there better be some sort of "grandfathering" clauses for those who were duped into these low-paying jobs, or there will be major political backlashes.

          And I don't see why this sort of thing needs to be "prevented", in fact the shortage of public service non profit organizations means it needs to be encouraged. Getting a 501c3 exemption is not as easy as you think. And the law specifically bans labor union and partisan political organization.

    • by Phillip2 (203612)

      This is actually at the root of the problem. The general ideology is these days moving toward the idea that the private sector is the only plausible way to function. A marked change from the days when we a mixed economy with different kinds of entity were considered important; this is why we invented the legal frameworks for charities, not-for-profits and so forth. Perhaps all of this is pointless. Personally, I think not. There are some things that are worth achieving, could be achieved but for which is is

      • by khallow (566160)

        I think we will be, and are becoming, a poorer world for this. Perhaps the trend will turn back again.

        So what does the government do in this area that is any better? I think we're a poorer world because a bunch of incompetents are deciding what to do with a large share of society's wealth.

      • Good point on the gift economy. Part of this in the USA may befrom a feminist movement that pushed women into the exchange economy and out of the gift economy for a variety of reasons? Maybe tech non-profits can't survive drying up grants, but there are still other ways to do tech in the gift economy or planned economy or subsistence economy, Maybe we'll even see a "basic income" which would help more free software developers have the time to do great stuff.

        From my website:
        ========
        In brief, there have alway

  • Donors and grant-givers are increasingly more careful about who they give money to. Even ignoring the scams, they want to know that they are having the greatest effect for their money. Of course it is not always true, but larger organizations tend to have less overhead and better accountability in showing what is being delivered for the money they receive. Then of course there's the elephant in the room: Are you really sure you are helping? Perhaps you should be doing something else that the community
    • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

      by BitZtream (692029)

      but larger organizations tend to have less overhead and better accountability

      What reality do you live in? In my experience that is exactly the opposite of how it works at every organization I've ever seen. Be it an organization of friends, a shoestring non-profit, or too-big-to-fail businesses.

      The larger ones may have more paper trails, but that doesn't actually mean ANYONE is accountable, as we can see the world over as big businesses fuck up economies left and right and the only thing that happens to them is ... nothing. They don't even get fucking fired for needing the governm

      • by D1G1T (1136467)

        What reality do you live in?

        Like I said, the new reality where grant givers are making larger but fewer grants. Groups of friends and "shoestring non-profits" don't get those very often in my experience. I'm not saying he has to merge with the red cross. Just that perhaps his current charity could become a project of an already-grant-receiving community redevelopment organization in his area. A small piece of a $200,000 grant is better than nothing, and he's probably end up with more exposure, volunteers and resources than he has

        • by khallow (566160)

          Like I said, the new reality where grant givers are making larger but fewer grants.

          The new reality is the same as the old reality. You claimed that large organizations have better overhead and accountability. The behavior of grant givers (especially, ones burning other peoples' money like governments) doesn't give us an indication of whether that statement is true or not. My take is that the statement is in error.

          Instead, to me this centralization effect sounds like how in so much of R&D, public funding drove out private. I wouldn't be surprised if in a few decades, there are peopl

  • by Yo_mama (72429) on Monday June 03, 2013 @11:03PM (#43901849) Homepage

    I worked for The Seattle Foundation [seattlefoundation.org] for a while (a while ago) and they serve as sort-of an intermediary between people wanting to donate and non-profits seeking funding. Donors vastly prefer to fund capital acquisitions over operating costs - it's just sexier and feels cooler to people who think in terms of growing things (money, power) by default. "Hey, I got them this new truck," sounds better than "I paid for gas and an oil change for this old truck they've had for a decade." You will find donors who believe in a cause and fund both, but they also want to have the freedom to say no and not be taken for granted.

    I have to wonder if some of this is the changing values of our population and culture.

    • I worked for The Seattle Foundation [seattlefoundation.org] for a while (a while ago) and they serve as sort-of an intermediary between people wanting to donate and non-profits seeking funding. Donors vastly prefer to fund capital acquisitions over operating costs - it's just sexier and feels cooler to people who think in terms of growing things (money, power) by default. "Hey, I got them this new truck," sounds better than "I paid for gas and an oil change for this old truck they've had for a decade." You will find donors who believe in a cause and fund both, but they also want to have the freedom to say no and not be taken for granted.

      I have to wonder if some of this is the changing values of our population and culture.

      That's the same problem we have in government with keeping stuff working. Everyone wants a new bridge or aircraft carrier named after them, but no one wants to fund the million bucks a year to keep the bridge or aircraft carrier painted. Of course, it's the same in the life of an individual. We will brag to each other about buying a new car or a new house, but we won't brag to each other about buying a new transmission or a new water heater for an already-existing 'used' car or house.

      Nothing has changed.

  • Think hearts and minds funding:
    Step 1. Find any US gov funded anthropologist. Chat with them about US gov funding, regions of the world with the US is handing out big aid grants.
    Step 2. Sell, present your tech skills in a new light. Your helping sell brand USA to the world, diverting impressionable young people to good US projects.
    Allowing US tech, methods, Universities, hardware, software to filter down to places where its been seen as too expensive, distant or difficult.
    Step 3. Find some history proje
  • by AK Marc (707885) on Monday June 03, 2013 @11:23PM (#43901925)
    The mistake I see with so many non-profits is that they are run without trying to make a profit. Go make a profit, make as much as you can (just don't pay dividends). They are businesses at the core, even if non profit businesses. Forget that at your peril.
    • by iggymanz (596061)

      sorry to burst your bubble, but there are laws about how much extra money your non-profit can make, what happens to money made in activities "not closely related to its public purpose", and what can be done with extra money (hint, no bonuses). Consult a lawyer, this is complex subject at state, federal and local levels.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Partially correct. There are no caps on the amount of untaxed income your non-profit can have as long as it they are associated with its purpose, but there is a cap on the amount of tax-free income that can be earned from unrelated activities. Even in that case, you can typically continue to operate as a non-profit as long as the appropriate taxes are paid on the unrelated activities. However, your last point is 100% correct, and the most important: talk to a lawyer.

      • by AK Marc (707885)
        When the United Way buys luxury jets an violates no laws, I think you'd have to try really really hard accidentally break the laws you are talking about.
        • by iggymanz (596061)

          do you have proof United Way has bought private jets? I can't find any only internet rumors without substance.

          • by AK Marc (707885)
            I found a reference to it that had the following cite:
            Sharyl Attkisson, “Student Loan Charity Under Fire: Is One Educational Charity Abusing Their Status with Lavish Travel and Huge Salaries?” CBS News, March 2, 2009; Sharyl Attkisson, “Loan Charity’s High-Flying Guests Exposed: Educational Nonprofi t Under Fire for Transporting Politicians with Money That Could Have Gone to Students,” CBS News, March 3, 2009.
            • what's that got to do with United Way?? You're posting about the interday price of yo-yo's on the chinese market.

              EduCap is an on-profit student loan company made of t three organizations: EduCap, Loan to Learn and a charitable fund operating as the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation

  • by hedgemage (934558) on Monday June 03, 2013 @11:29PM (#43901951)
    I have worked for a variety of non-profits and written grants for them. I'm surprised that there ever was money for operating expenses available for tech-based non-profits since every foundation I've petitioned for grant money has specifically said that they do not provide operating costs. Instead, I write grants with a specific project in mind. This could be "build a new wing to the university library", "Fund staff to inventory the museum collection in storage," or "run a week-long day camp for inner-city youth that teaches non-violent conflict resolution methods."
    Unless you have some kind of revenue stream, you are going to be relying on donations and volunteers just like a community clothes closet for the homeless. Sounds like now that the gravy train of easy money is drying up these tech non-profits are being forced to demonstrate how they benefit the public good. I'm sure that there are many worthy causes, but now their in the wild competing for the same dollars and mind-share as food pantries, elder advocacy groups, and animal shelters.
    • by hedgemage (934558) on Monday June 03, 2013 @11:40PM (#43901999)
      Replying to my own comment because I thought of another good point.

      Non-profit does not mean you can't make money. In fact, as long as you follow the rules for organization, reporting, etc. you can make money hand over fist. Think about how every private school in the US is able to function and some grow quite fat off of those tuition dollars. If you have a tech-based non-profit that (for example) provides computer programming education to disadvantaged youth, or provides systems and education for the elderly, there's nothing to stop you from doing consulting, selling spare parts, or charging for other services as long as those proceeds are plowed right back into the organization to feed your key mission.

      Too many people think that non-profit means you aren't a normal business. You are! You simply have convinced the government that it is in the public's best interest to let you exist free of the burden of taxes.
  • by guttentag (313541) on Monday June 03, 2013 @11:46PM (#43902031) Journal
    The (Alan) Grant Method
    1. Find an eccentric millionaire who is building a theme park on an island off Costa Rica related to your specialty
    2. Agree to visit and endorse the park on the condition that said millionaire fund your operation for three years
    3. Ensure funds are in your account before you get on the helcopter
    4. Pack a large tranquilizer gun, laser pointer and sat phone
    5. ???
    6. Non-Profit!!!

    (most of this stuff should be obvious, but the laser pointer is included to help you pass the time making dinosaurs chase after the little red light while you wait to be rescued)

    • by Trepidity (597)

      However, under no circumstances should you follow the variant of this plan that includes an eccentric millionaire in Belize and freebase bath salts.

  • It's kind of funny - before clicking the link to even see what kind of non-profit it is, I thought of a non-profit know that collects old computers, images them, and sells them. That was before I read that the link had anything to do with that. Basic desktops really haven't advanced that much in the last few years, so there are a lot of "old" computers being given away or sold for garage sale prices that are perfectly usable. A sizeable portion of the time, people are replacing computers and the only thin
  • by onyxruby (118189) <onyxruby AT comcast DOT net> on Monday June 03, 2013 @11:54PM (#43902061)

    Why should your non-profit survive when compared to any of the others? The overwhelming majority are staffed with good people with good intentions who work for very little money. The problem is one over-saturation for the market and a donation fatigue from a public that is burned out. There are hundreds of thousands of non-profits in the US alone and every single one of them thinks that /they/ are the most important.

    When a business starts to think that they 'deserve' our money we accuse them of entitlement (e.g. Circuit City) and vilify them. A non-profit really isn't any different in that they serve a function that costs money and in order to survive need to take in money. Like a business they can merge, be bought or go bankrupt.

    Frankly if more non-profits started to merge it would enable greater economies of scale and efficiencies, just like a business. It would also enable them to spend more money on their mission and less money on overhead. Services from secretarial to bandwidth to phone banks could be shared at greater efficiency across more organizations.

    Perhaps my answer seems callous, but the bottom line is that no organization is entitled to survive. Non-profits need to embrace what the business world has done and go through a series of mergers for the greater good. Are your clients better served by your merging with another organization because you are stretched so thin that you are no longer effective?

    People typically start and run non-profits because their ego tells them that they can do better than the person already running a like kind service. Society as a whole would benefit enormously if non-profits put their missions before their egos. These warm hearted organizations need some cold blooded business acumen.

  • Have you considered making a social network for cats instead? Ms. Naemeka will understand.

  • This would be the definition of irony.

    You give away computer for free, and you can't afford computers of your own. So you want someone else to buy you a computer, in order to help manage your give-away-free-computers business. Ptysician, heal thyself?

    Perhaps, just maybe, you should select a mission that you can actually achieve; you know, on your own: with your own skills, and your own money.

  • Seriously now: Handheld cellular-networked supercomputers are this short of being sold in newspaperstands and gumball machines for less than a days worth of MC Donalds burger-flipper wages. What do you need such a non-profit for?

    I don't want to rain on the GPs parade, but this seems more like a pet project/hobby to me than anything else. If it really is a charity, well then, call it a charity and do charity work.

    No one needs an organization that hands out free leftover computers anymore. Not with brand new

  • Just Kickstart it, there are enough bleeding hearts out there willing to separate themselves from from a few hundred dollars on a 'scause for applause, just offer them an orange wristband as a reward.

Their idea of an offer you can't refuse is an offer... and you'd better not refuse.

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