Optimism Turns to Frustration for Some Groups Seeking Stimulus Aid
By Debra Blum
Mary Knepper, grants manager at a Syracuse, N.Y., hospital, was confident that her organization was in a good position
to win some of the nearly $800-
billion from the economic-stimulus package passed by Congress
After all, she says, the hospital’s plan to build a new emergency room would have created temporary construction jobs
and long-term health-care jobs.
What’s more, it would have an
environmentally friendly design and would have improved
access to medical care. In all of
those ways, the plan fit lawmakers’ goals when they passed the
massive spending package.
But the application for St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center to
get stimulus money languishes,
with chances for approval waning, says Ms. Knepper.
Four others it has filed have
been turned down or appear to
be stuck in a review process.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” she
says. “We have shovel-ready
projects that seem to fit every
criteria, but the money is just
not going to community projects.”
Ms. Knepper is hardly
alone in her disappointment.
Since February, the American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act,
the official name of the stimulus
law, has provided billions of dollars to states, municipalities,
and nonprofit organizations
around the United States, but
it has also left plenty of charitable groups out in the cold.
“The myth about the stimulus
was that there’s a lot of money
and it’s easy to get,” says Cynthia M. Adams, chief executive
of GrantStation, a Fairbanks,
Alaska, company that collects
information about grant opportunities around the country.
“Now the reality is sinking in
that there’s not as much as you
think, and it’s not easy to get.”
Jane Hexter, of Grants Champion in Trumansburg, N.Y., explains that only a fraction of the
stimulus money has been available for open, competitive grants
for the average nonprofit group.
“You start with $787-bil-
lion, but then you need to take
out tax relief, research, infrastructure investments, funds to
states and school districts, and
direct aid for the elderly, homeless, and the unemployed,” Ms.
Hexter says. “When you look at
“The myth about
the stimulus was
that there’s a lot
of money and it’s
easy to get.”
Lutheran Child and Family
Service of Michigan in February submitted proposals for seven projects in hopes of receiving
stimulus funds for, among other
things, a $241,000 job to reconstruct a driveway and bridge
on its campus to connect a residence for troubled adolescents
with their school.
Robert G. Miles, the organization’s executive director, says
he still has not yet heard about
the proposals’ fate, but he does
know that they are competing
with more than 17,000 applications for projects totaling $59-
billion throughout the state.
Michigan’s cut of the stimulus
money is just $18-billion.
“It’s still hard to figure out
exactly where the money is and
where it is going,” Mr. Miles
says, “but one thing is clear:
There’s just not enough to go
The Flintridge Operating
Foundation, in Pasadena, Calif.,
also turned down by the Department of Justice for a grant to recruit mentors, plans to scrutinize the comments the agency’s
reviewers returned with their
“We want to identify the
missing piece so we know for
next time,” says Mark Eiduson,
Flintridge’s director of strategic
To help his organization seek
federal funds, Mr. Eiduson took
a weeklong grants course this
fall, given by the Grantsman-ship Center, a Los Angeles
company that holds trainings
around the country.
One key lesson, he says: Get
ready in advance.
“You have to have all your
ducks in a row long before the
request for proposals comes out,”
what is available through discretionary grants to the typical
nonprofit, you get down to perhaps $20-30 billion or so.
That’s nothing to sniff at, but
it’s not nearly as big a pot as everyone was looking at initially.”
Some organizations are finding a silver lining in their stimulus application rejections. The
experience of applying, they say,
has helped them better understand the grants process and
improve their chances of eventually qualifying for government grants.
Joanne Mandry, chief financial officer at Children’s Aid
and Family Services, in Paramus, N.J., says the legwork she
and her colleagues did for three
failed applications has made her
organization into a strong contender for other grants.
For example, because Children’s Aid applied to the Department of Justice for stimulus
money to expand a mentor program for foster-care children, it
is ready with plans and details
to resubmit to the federal government or to other government
and private grant makers.
“It’s still hard to
figure out exactly
where the money
is and where
it is going.”
ready to go with a number of
programs that address the nursing shortage,” says the nursing
center’s executive director, Kris-tine Campbell. “But to fit into
exactly what the grant wanted
meant we’d have to change a
bit, and it was too rushed to get
everybody moving in that direction.”
Without collaboration, most
small nonprofit groups have little or no chance of getting stimulus money, grant-seeking experts say.
Federal grants are typically
geared toward larger, more sophisticated organizations with
enough staff members and systems in place to administer and
manage the money and fulfill
the government’s considerable
And because stimulus grants
are intended to be distributed
quickly, government agencies in
many cases accept applications
only from groups that have received federal grants before.
That way, they don’t have to vet
Money to the States
Other experts say that while
competition for grants is tight,
more stimulus money may be
available to nonprofit organizations than appears at first
Nicholas Johnson at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research
group in Washington, says that
money distributed to state and
local governments, for example,
may “wind up benefiting non-profits either through grants or
Still, plenty of once-hopeful
charities have turned frustrated.
Mr. Eiduson says. “You have to
have a program designed and
ready; a budget; metrics around
the project, like how many clients will be served; and a plan
for measuring and evaluating
the effectiveness of the program.”
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So Little Time
For many stimulus grants,
and for federal grants in general, applicants typically have
about six weeks to apply. That’s
not a lot of time, particularly
to complete some federal agencies’ applications, which can run
more than a couple dozen pages
and include detailed questions
about both the project and the
Another tricky aspect of the
application process is that many
stimulus grants require—or appear to prefer—collaborations,
charity officials say.
Working with other organizations may be an effective way to
provide services, but the planning necessary for such collaborations is often complicated and
The Oregon Center for Nursing, in Portland, more than a
year ago formed a 23-member
statewide coalition of groups to
reduce the shortage of nursing-school faculty members.
When the Department of Labor announced this summer
that stimulus money would be
available to increase the number of nurses in the United
States, the group was ready to
But the government’s request
for proposals varied somewhat
from the faculty project the coalition had prepared, and it was
unable to adapt in time.
“We have a strong coalition
Success in Teamwork
With an annual budget of less
than $500,000, Mountain Community Resources, in Felton,
Cal., would have been hard-pressed to make its own case for
a stimulus grant, even though
the organization recently had
to cut its services to homeless
people after losing money from
But the group joined 13 other local organizations serving
the homeless, and together they
won three grants worth $4-mil-
lion over three years from the
Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Mountain Community Resources will get a fraction of
that—$96,000 over two years—
but that’s enough to hire back
three laid-off employees and
reopen its doors on Fridays, after having closed one day each
week to save money.
Jennifer Anderson-Bähr, the
group’s executive director, says
her group has worked closely
with social-service and other
charities in the area for more
than 20 years.
“Long-term county collaboration made this possible,” she
says. “Our chances at the stimulus money on our own would
have been slim or none at all.”
Even as part of a collaboration, however, Ms. Anderson-Bähr is still in the minority
among charity officials nationwide who started the year feeling optimistic about their organizations’ ability to benefit from
the stimulus package.
Says Donna Kennedy, a vice
president at Children’s Aid: “It
looked like a really big number when it first came out, but
this is a big country. When you
divide in the number of non-profits that have good, worthy
programs, the dollars really