Bad Enough Having Computers Making Hiring Decisions, Are Grants Awards Next?

A couple weeks ago Vu Le wrote about how useful AI can potentially be in the process of writing grants. So often granting organizations essentially ask for the same information, with some variation in what they want answered when and the word/character limits they have set for each response.

Given that grant awards can tend to favor organizations with the resources to employ a professional grant writer who knows how to employ terminology and language that funders seek, under resourced groups and those who are not comfortable or facile at employing the preferred vernacular could benefit from the use of AI.

Unfortunately, Le notes, some funders are using AI to detect if an organization is using AI to write their grants. Le writes:

“Grants are not college essays or news articles, where it matters who actually does the writing. Grants are a tedious mechanism for delivering answers about an organization and its work. AI just makes it less tedious. Punishing nonprofits for using AI is petty and paternalistic.”

He also says some funders are moving toward having AI evaluate the grant proposals which is even worse for a number of reasons.

“Funders who use AI to write grant RFPs, read proposals, eliminate applications, come up with a list of grant finalists, or whatever, should be aware that AI engines, which are mostly designed by white dudes, will likely favor white-coded proposals. It will be interesting to see the dynamics between AI-generated grant proposals and AI-supported grant review and selection. To keep it from reinforcing inequity, both funders and nonprofits need to be aware of biases that are built into these tools.”

For years there have been conversations about the job seeking process and how dispiriting it is to have a computer program evaluate your resume and cover letter before summarily rejecting those materials before a human ever gets to see them. Many have discovered how to game the system by using keywords in their materials, sometimes resulting in stilted or nonsensical content which nonetheless sees their application advance.

The grant application process is bad enough as it is without incentivizing cynical attempts to game the system. What would it say if an AI awarded a grant to an AI constructed application that no one ever seriously evaluated over an impassioned application written by a human? Should funding for homeless projects be determined solely by algorithms conversing with each other?

If funders are trying to detect grants written by AI out of concern about possible fraud, that is certainly valid. But that is also an indication that funding decisions should never be entirely made on the basis of polished prose. Vu Le suggests that just as AI can free applicants up to concentrate on delivering their core services, so too can it free funders up to focus on more directly interacting with those they fund to learn more about the work they do. Likewise, they can work on re-evaluating the criteria and processes they employ as part of their funding decisions.

There is an opportunity to double check the AI. Are its recommendations poor to middling in quality? Are those it rejects doing a better job than the AI indicates?  AI can certainly be useful in removing some of the subjectivity a person brings to information, but for every example of how it is better than humans, there are examples of gaps, some times so glaring a five year old would have avoided them that AI fails to fill.

Another Effort At Efficiently Crunching 990 Data

Thanks to the Non-Profit Law Blog’s weekly curated link list, I learned that there is a new collaborative working on a way to provide a clearinghouse for raw, clean, and standardized nonprofit tax data gathered from Form 990 filings.

While that may not sound like it is relevant to your daily life at all, being able to easily access that day will make researching non-profits much easier, hopefully resulting in data which will support better decision making.

Drew McManus painstakingly extracted data from 990 filings from 2005 to 2022 for his annual Orchestra Compensation Report project on Adaptistration. He would frequently grumble about the fact that the data was not available in a machine readable format that would make that data so much easier to process and shift through. If I recall correctly, his go to source was the Pro Publica Non Profit Explorer which is contributing their data to this new clearinghouse.

Having good data about things like compensation can help advance equity and inclusion goals. The Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) is engaged in an Art Compensation Project for some of these very reasons.

Better data crunching capabilities can also facilitate the study of differences by region and discipline for revenues, expenses, impact of private vs. public & government based grant making, etc.

Given that there have been so many groups who have attempted to serve as a clearinghouse for 990 data, the biggest question perhaps is whether this new collaboration can make it work better than in the past.

Is Bottom Up Funding Of The Arts The Next Business Model?

There was another editorial about how the arts should be funded that is getting a lot of notice this week. You may recall I had posted about Isaac Butler’s editorial in the NY Times a couple weeks ago calling for greater public funding of the arts.  This week novelist, playwright and screenwriter Monica Byrne advocated for a bottom up funding model in the Washington Post.

She notes that the artists often get short shrift when it comes to attention and funding. When organizations get funded, it is often administrators and buildings which benefit before the artists do. She doesn’t specifically call for increased federal funding. Given that the culture wars of the 80s basically ended NEA funding of individual artists, that is probably a non-starter. Instead, she is advocating for the creation of works to be driven by artists who decide where to site their performances rather than the venue deciding what they want to do and then contracting artists.

For theater, as we know it, to have any future at all, a new economic model must take its place, founded on a simple principle: fund artists directly. Then let the artists produce their own work, rent their own venues and pay their own collaborators.


It’s true that scaling down would mean prioritizing certain kinds of theater over others. But this is the case in every era: Some aesthetics thrive while others die out. Instead of a world in which you pay astronomical prices to see another tired revival from the mezzanine, imagine there are a dozen theater cells in your area, performing new work in backyards and parks and city squares and empty storefronts. Art that is fresh, fluid, immediate, accessible and affordable — to make and to see — all because we collectively decided to fund the artists directly.

Is there any place for existing nonprofit theaters in this model? Sure. Reshape them into direct granting agencies and public resources somewhat like libraries, offering artists and companies production slots on a lottery basis…It would also mean that existing artistic directors understand that, not only are they not the ordained curators of culture, they are only useful to the art form insofar they serve artists — the creators of the form.

Anyone have any thoughts on this? The idea of turning theaters into public resources like libraries is interesting on paper. If non-profits were in a place to provide advice and support about audience cultivation and marketing practices attuned to the local conditions, that could be a valuable resource. Though my concern would be that we might end up having the same conversations we currently are about funders having priorities that are out of synch with the changing needs of the operating environment. It may not start out that way, but I could see things creeping toward “arts need to be run like a business” as staff turned over, etc.

What Donors Want Vs. Org Capacity To Provide

Today Margy Waller posted a link to an opinion piece from the Chronicle of Philanthropy with that comment that the piece was not satire. While the piece was apparently posted in June, a version of it appeared in print last week.  Yesterday Vu Le made a post that was indeed satire as it poked fun at the opinion piece without naming it directly. I just happened to see both pieces within minutes of each other.

In the original, Why I Stopped Donating to Your Organization Theodore Wagenaar makes various criticisms about how slowly organizations respond and acknowledge donations. In one case, he suggests an email immediately upon receipt. He also says groups are slow to respond when asked about how money will be used.

In his post, Why I’m no longer donating to your no-good, very bad nonprofit, Vu Le basically says given the lack of resources and personnel, effectively delivering services to those in need and handling donor communications and paperwork are close to mutually exclusive.

I have been very disappointed to say the least. Some nonprofits don’t respond at all. Some wait excessively long periods of time before getting back to me. One time I had to wait a whole month like an animal for a handwritten thank-you note. Another organization received a huge grant from another donor, and I expected them to know immediately how that money would affect their operations, and more importantly, how it would affect me.


Be prompt in your responses: Whenever you get a donation, make sure to immediately stop whatever you’re doing, such as helping a child find food during the summer or saving democracy or whatever your mission is, and make sure the donor feel properly thanked.


Be transparent how you use donations: Every donor has a right to know down to the penny how and when their money was used and toward what end. What percentage of my donation was used on electricity? Did some of this money go to staff pay? If so, which staff, how much, and what did they spend this portion of their wages on? I hope it’s not caviar or fancy CD players, because I don’t want my money going to those things.

That first paragraph above was in response to the following in Wagenaar’s piece:

For example, one of the organizations I support received a multimillion-dollar donation from MacKenzie Scott. I expected some information about the award and how the organization would use it. I wanted to know if I should redirect or reduce my contribution to ensure it did the most good or went where the need was greater, but nothing materialized. I contacted the director but never heard back.

Six months later, I shared my disappointment with the director and said I would temporarily stop donating. That led to a discussion about the reasons for the delay, why it was important to share this information with donors, and a resumption of my support. Had I not followed up, I would have likely stopped donating.

The next few parts of Le’s post that I quoted seem aligned with this:

Be transparent about where donations go. Donors want to hear how their funds will be used. Share immediate plans for the donation when it’s received, and later explain where it ended up and the impact it had. This might include information such as the number of meals delivered, types of assistance provided, how many schools received funding, and more…

I fund several college scholarships for low-income students. I want to know who received the scholarships and the amounts. I don’t want my donation to displace financial aid that the college would have already given. I’d rather my money provided additional aid beyond what the school allots, and I’ll donate more to scholarships that do that. I cannot, however, make that decision if the colleges don’t supply the relevant data.

Clearly, Wagenaar is deeply invested and engaged in making sure the funds he provides are being used to degree he feels is effective. He wants a degree of granularity that other people would flip past in an annual report. Some of his concerns have some validity. A lot of state lotteries were sold to citizens as supporting education, but the reality turned out to be that the lottery funds replaced what the state legislature was providing rather than being on top of state funding. He seems to have similar concerns regarding scholarships. Similarly, some non-profits are really organized in sending out their appeals on time, but aren’t as diligent with the follow up communications, even after a significant time has past.

But as Vu Le suggests, organizations don’t often know exactly how they will employ funds the moment they come in and often have a broader view of how the funds can best advance the organization’s work than donors do. As a student, yes I would have loved to have more scholarship money on top of what the school was providing. But the school can see an opportunity to provide funding for an additional person they couldn’t have before.