Sunday, May 2, 2010

Protect Our Funding

Jim Schaefer, Advisory Board Member

Please think about and act on this
Literacy groups like our parent organization, the National Writing Project, are not that far from the edge of non-existence, so we must keep up the pressure on our Congressional representatives and U.S. Senators!

Like most of you, I'm aware of the ongoing funding issues facing all literacy organizations like the National Writing Project (and our local effort, the Eastern Michigan Writing Project), but I never fully comprehended just how close we are each year to the edge of total disaster until I read a New York Times article on April 8 this year (p.A12).

For some reason, this particular article by Stephanie Strom somehow really dramatized, for me anyway, what the impact would be if those in Congress—who favor a wholesale yanking of all direct funding for all the literacy organizations like NWP and re-distributing that support through other methods and channels at the state level—got their way.

I'm only too well aware of how easily such "technical" changes in allocating funding can happen in this era of trillion dollar deficits and nearly trillion dollar health care reform packages.

The difference in this situation is that the few millions for literacy efforts like the National Writing Project literally comprise our lifeblood.

How badly would this proposal of yanking the direct funding hurt the NWP? Strom’s NYT article effectively shows that the impact would be disastrous.

As Sharon J. Washington, the NWP executive director said, several administrations, including George W. Bush’s, had suggested cutting financing to the writing project since it began in 1974, but that Congress has continued to support it.

Typically, major foundations planning to end their support of programs provide money known as “tie-off grants” over two or three years to allow organizations to find new supporters.

Ms. Washington said the way the Obama administration had proposed pooling the money for literacy, rather than reauthorizing specific grants, would make it almost impossible for Congress to simply reauthorize grants to RIF and the writing project. “That’s what’s quite frightening to us,” Ms. Washington said. “If we cease to receive direct funding, it will effectively kill us.”

The NWP’s federal grant in the current fiscal year was about $25 million, which accounted for more than 90 percent of its revenues. Its local branches raise a similar amount from private sources, but that money stays with them. Furthermore, Ms. Washington said, “If the government no longer values our program enough to give us a grant, other donors are going to ask why they should value us.”

Clara Miller, chief executive of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, which works to help nonprofit groups obtain and manage finances, said NWP and other organizations like it would have trouble sustaining their operations if the government’s new way of allocating money was implemented.

“They don’t have a huge amount of cash on hand that would buy them some time to change their business model to get different types of funding,” Ms. Miller said. “Switching from a program that is almost fully funded by government to one that is privately funded, or where you would be competing on a state level, that’s a new business model, and it will need time and investment in new skills.”

Bill Tucker our EMWP director, informs me that the NWP has been aware of this bill since it was drafted in January as part of what has turned into an “annual occurrence.” He said the NWP’s response has been to get our U.S. Senators to sign a "Dear Colleague" letter that sponsors the funding of the National Writing Project. Bill said that U.S. Senator Carl Levin has signed this letter, so we need only to contact U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow to cover Michigan.

Let’s continue to protect our program and help it grow. We need to do everything we can to help the NWP and EMWP to continue to exist as an absolutely essential lifeline of literacy.

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