The Diary of A Mad Grant Writer

thCA70EYX1Oh, the joys of grant writing! Let’s count them! The endless deadlines, research, competition, budgeting, and the near obsession with details! Not for the faint of heart, grant writing is often a tedious and repetitive process – although, very much a mainstay in the non-profit community.

Seriously, I learned a lot about non-profit management in general just by writing and developing grant proposals for several years. I have a few insights based on my experiences that I want to share here:

  •  Mission first

Before doing anything else, ensure that the organization’s mission is aligned with the activities that the foundation funds. Read the foundation’s guidelines for giving thoroughly. For example, do not submit a grant request for a children’s after-school program to a foundation that funds wild land conservancy. The example is exaggerated and the point may seem fairly simple and obvious but it is remarkable how many organizations attempt to “stretch” their mission statements to include things that they do not. It’s called chasing money and it rarely works out in the end and it puts the organization’s credibility and integrity at risk.

  •    Follow the instructions to the letterthCAEAIR5Q

Similarly, read the foundation’s instructions for submitting proposals well – and follow them exactly. Nothing will dissuade a potential group of funders from granting the organization monies than receiving a proposal that is not in the form that they asked it to be. When the instructions say that written proposals should not exceed more than three typed pages using a font size no smaller than 10 point, accept that as a hard and fast rule. Other common instructions include: submit an original and 10 copies of the proposal, do not send additional attachment materials other than those requested, do not send photographs because they cannot be returned, and do not send proposals in fancy covers, binders, etc. As an aside, if covers or folders are typically used as well as different print colors in grant proposals, stick with classic and subdued colors like black, grey, navy blue, etc. This is not the place for electric blue and neon purple!

  •    Be compelling

thCA806AIPIn addition to using good, concise writing style, correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation (which could be a blog post by themselves!) to tell the story of the organization or project, grant requests need to be compelling. When I first began writing grants and went to lectures and training on the subject, the presenters always said in their most dramatic voices, “You must have compelling grants”! That is, the grant request needs to compel the reader to do something in response to it, like fund the organization or project that it proposes. Be compelling in a grant request by including researched local statistics, possible consequences of not funding the proposal and benefits to the whole community. In keeping with the example of a children’s after-school program, cite the number or percentage of local children affected by the absence of this program, the lack of supervision for the children after school, incidence of vandalism complaints, etc. Describe how the proposed program or project “corrects” that condition (e.g., increases adult supervision, offers homework tutoring) and how the community as a whole benefits (e.g., decreases child neglect/endangerment, fewer police calls, better school performance, etc.).

Grant making foundations are very often making decisions about which organizations to fund based solely on what they see in black and white right in front of them so make it compelling.

  •    The deadline is the deadline

Foundations impose deadlines on proposals in fairness in order that all eligible community organizations have the same amount of time from the grant announcement to the deadline date to develop their proposals and apply for grants. thCA7WX5O7Use a calendar to mark off deadlines as they become available with grant announcements. If the deadline for a proposal is May 15th by 5:00 pm, accept that as a hard and fast rule. Do not be fooled by thinking, “They like me at [Foundation]”, “They know how busy we are here” or “How big a difference can a day make?”. Trust me on this. When the deadline date and time arrives, they will lock their doors and unplug their phones! In many cases, if a deadline is missed it may be a year or longer until the organization can apply to a foundation for funds again – perhaps missing out on revenue that it needs this year.

  •    Plan, plan, plan

Keeping with the idea of the development calendar, successful organizations plan strategically for the grant-funded opportunities they seek. thCA1ASA1PIn that vein, some of the considerations that may be part of the planning process include the size of the organization, the number of grant-writing staff on board, as well as the opportunity to expand the organization. Many grant opportunities can be satisfied in two to three page requests while others can be enormously time consuming events that go on for weeks. Expansion efforts especially should not be entered into lightly or because they have a large award amount attached to them (again, chasing money). The organization needs to ask itself if it has the administrative capacity to receive a larger grant award. Will it be able to report financial outcomes adequately? Will it be able to report programmatic results as stated? More important, what are the organization’s chances of sustaining an expansion after the initial grant monies are expended? Clearly, this is an issue that goes beyond the grant writer alone and involves the entire management team as well as the Board of Directors.

  •    Do not reinvent the wheel

It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel or “start from scratch” every time that a grant request is needed – these are not Shakespearian sonnets. thCA518XYTIt is highly unlikely that the organization or its programs are changing significantly from one week or one month to the next. If they are, that is a management issue that can be taken up in another blog post! Rather, develop and maintain templates of grant requests for the organization; for example, when requesting general operating funds, as well as its individual programs and services. Update them as necessary when there are changes and be sure to keep research literature citations current.

  •    Change the scenery

Sometimes when we get so involved in a project, like putting a grant request together, we are so close to it that we cannot “see the forest for the trees”. In other words, it is writer’s block – writing in circles and not being satisfied with the results, the story of the proposal is not flowing on the pages effortlessly, and knowing that it is not hitting the mark. thCANO5GTFOne of the tricks that I learned that is quite simple and worked like a charm every time was to change the scenery. Set the proposal aside, work on other tasks for several hours or – if the time constraints of the deadline allow it – come back to it the next day. It always surprised me just how much clearer my thinking was in organizing the grant request on the written page after I had been away from it for a while!

  •    It’s a lonely job

Grant writing is often a very solitary activity. Aside from occasionally interacting with direct line staff to ensure the most up-to-date numbers served or program results are being used or meeting with the fiscal department for the accuracy of budget numbers, grant writing and putting the request together is pretty much a loner activity. Hence, someone who is inherently sociable and thrives on interaction with others may want to think twice about assuming a grant writer role in an organization.

  •    Do not be too hard on yourself

Whether a new grant writer or an accomplished, seasoned veteran, nobody gets everything that they request in a grant application 100 percent of the time. There may be several explanations for this. In many cases, foundations simply do not have the funds to support the total of the requests they receive. Additionally, foundations may inform grantees outright that if they have awarded an organization grants for three consecutive years that they will “take a break” from them so to speak in order to give funds to as many deserving organizations in the community as possible.

thCACKOI85For new grant writers who may be struggling with their technique and not receiving the funding they request, do not be discouraged! When I first began writing grants, I received my draft copies back with editorial marks that looked like someone had bled on the pages. Sometimes the best way to overcome an obstacle is to immerse yourself in it. As several of the lecturers said in those trainings and presentations that I attended way back in the beginning, “You simply need to write more grants!”.

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Building Financial Strength in a Weak Economy

thCAVENOP1The sustainability of many non-profit organizations today largely depends on their abilities to  manage their finances effectively and often in new ways. According to the 2013 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey Results (Nonprofit Finance Fund, 2013), organizations that are successfully weathering the economic storm are changing their business models – among other strategies – in order to achieve increased fiscal stability in an unstable economy.

A review of the current literature in the field yields the following salient points in non-profit organization financial management :

  •  Plan to increase cash reserves

thCAI0COAJAccording to the Nonprofit Finance Fund survey (2013), twenty-four percent of the participating organizations had only one month or no cash reserves on hand. Thirty-two percent of the organizations had two to three months of expenses in cash. Increasing cash reserves needs to be planned and a part of the overall financial projection for the year rather than happenstance that a surplus will be realized at the end of the year. The lower the cash reserve, the greater the greater the difficulty in meeting expenses during periods of low revenue or when revenue is delayed (e.g., grant awards, contract payments).

  •  Financial planning is a team process

Many non-profits typically use a single-handed approach to preparing the annual budget. Effective financial planning for the next year’s annual budget and beyond requires every level of the organization; for example, program managers, development staff, human resources, the finance department as well as individual board members and committees. These individuals have hands-on experience or oversight perspectives about actual revenues and expenses that may be overlooked by just one or two people.thCAHMWV58

  •  Communicate financial needs clearly and often

All too often the financial needs of an organization are discussed primarily among the upper levels of management. In fact, the Nonprofit Finance Fund survey (2013) cites that many non-profit organizations are uncomfortable discussing their financial needs with funders: only 24 percent of participating organizations would discuss their working capital needs, 16 percent would discuss cash flow problems, and 5 percent their debt problems. In the current economic climate, non-profit organizations need to communicate their financial needs clearly and often across all levels of the organization and with other key stakeholders. Once again, in a team process, communicating this financial information to other staff in the organization in terms that are clear to them increases their ability to act on it directly in their positions.

  •  Utilize program-specific financial reports

The usual practice of non-profit managers and boards is to use budget-to-actual financial reports to gauge the fiscal health of the organization. That is, the annual budget is a road map against which monthly financial reports are compared to determine how “on course” the organization is to realizing its annual budget. In actuality, much of the research indicates that many non-profit organizations do not have a clear understanding of how much their specific programs are costing them (Barr and Bell, 2013; Kotloff and Burd, 2012). Utilizing program-specific analysis goes beyond the current fiscal year and is part of the overall future financial planning.thCAJ1QURJ

  •  Invest in realistic administrative capacity

For many years, non-profit organizations have worked very hard to minimize their actual administrative costs. Likewise, foundations and contractors typically want to fund programs and services to the community rather than administrative overhead. However, those administrative costs are very real and lack of investment in this area often leads to gaps in a non-profit’s capacity to perform efficiently and effectively. According to the Nonprofit Finance Fund survey (2013), 69 percent of the participating organizations reported not having enough staff or time for data collection, 40 percent reported not having the correct staff expertise, and 26 percent did not have the necessary technology. Clearly, the old “let’s-cut-as-much-administrative-cost-as-possible” mentality is not working for many organizations across the United States. Adequate investment in a non-profit organization’s administrative capacity – in particular, finance expertise and technology – is an issue that demands honest dialogue between organizations and their funding sources.

  •  Determine the need for diversification of revenue

Once considered a key element of financial sustainability, diversification of revenue largely depends on non-profit business models and the type of service the organization provides. Diversification of revenues has some inherent risks in that more streams of income does not necessarily mean greater surpluses at the end of the year. In order to attract new revenue streams, a non-profit needs to develop and sustain new programs or capacities. The reliability and competitiveness of the organization’s revenue streams dictate the degree of diversification that it needs (Barr and Bell, 2013).

  •  Collaborate with a broad spectrum of public and private funding thCACVINBQ

Today’s non-profit organizations need to consider a broad array of collaborations and partnerships with other non-profit organizations (merger) to increase the delivery of services available to meet increasing demands from constituents as well as with for-profit businesses (social enterprise) in order to gain new sources of revenue and build their marketing brands as well as increase their financial sustainability.

References

Frank’s Guidelines

A number of years ago, I decided that it was in my best interest to develop a personal statement of management philosophy that would speak to my ideas about managing other people and workloads in the non-profit work environment. My statement – written as a bulleted list that was intended to be telling about my actions as a manager yet somewhat humorous at the same time – was aptly titled Frank’s Guidelines. A single-page, typed document, Frank’s Guidelines has been taken along on interviews and for several years it was tacked on a bulletin board in my office.thCAHRJIJ0

Frank’s Guidelines has been around for quite some time now, occasionally tweaked here and there but substantively the same today as when I first put it together . As I write this, I struggle to remember just how old Frank’s Guidelines is. Suffice to say, I do remember taking it to a job interview in 2001 (I got the job) and it is likely a few years older than that. Nevertheless, here is Frank’s Guidelines – and hence, the springboard and title for my blog space:

  •  Our customers must come first

Plain and simple. If you can’t get behind the mission, customers, or cause of the             organization, there is probably no point in going any further.

  •  Meet or exceed the basic requirements or regulations

I have high expectations of myself and I push myself to perform above the “baseline”.     I also value this quality when I find it in others.

  •  Mistakes are OK as long as they don’t compromise the first two

Everyone makes mistakes. In the majority of cases, the sky does not fall when someone makes a mistake. Get over it, learn from mistakes, and keep moving forward as long as mistakes are not so egregious that they compromise the first two bullets.

  •  I’ll go anywhere or try anything at least once (and as long as it is not illegal)

Essentially, this is creative problem solving and “thinking outside the box”. I am willing to try new solutions to old problems and to take an occasional calculated risk as long as it does not compromise policy, ethics or the law.

  •  No surprisesthCAK68GO9

I like surprises on my birthday but not in the organization. Please do not surprise me with a project that is due today or a fiscal issue that was imminent weeks ago. I also work hard to keep you from being unnecessarily surprised.

  •  Look for the positive in every person and situation

I accentuate the positive, especially in the people who work with me. Everyone wants to be acknowledged or recognized. When I reinforce the positive behavior of others, I have already increased the likelihood that they are motivated to continue to perform positively.

  • Do an honest and clean job

I work with an “open book” mentality such that anyone can stop by to have a look and there is nothing to be embarrassed by later. No hidden agendas. I do my expected job everyday to the best of my ability and go home at the end of the day.

  •  Maintain constructive relationships and the self-esteem of others

This is really about burning bridges. The non-profit community operates on relationship building and partnerships. Once you put a negative out there, it is very difficult – if not impossible – to take it back and typically you reap what you sow.

  • Help other staff to develop professionally

Part of my job as a manager of people is to ensure that they have the resources and tools they need (within reason) to develop professionally. A thriving, capable and efficient staff that is able to problem solve on their feet sustains an organization.

  •  You take the monkey with you

The monkey is a problem. It is OK to come to me with your complaints or problems; however, I hope that in your next breath there will be a suggestion or an idea to resolve that problem. I allow staff to wrestle with their problems in a supportive environment. Again, other staff need to develop professionally.

  •  No whining

Ditto the previous bullet.

  •  I support the team decision even if it is not the way I’d do itthCAIFCF19

As a strong advocate of team building and the team process, it would be hypocritical of me not to support the team decision or to override the team decision. Let’s try it!

  •  I don’t claim to know everything

If I think that I know everything, there is really nowhere left to go, is there? There is always so much more to learn, see, and do. If I don’t know enough about a particular subject or issue, I will tell you that.

  •  Be enthusiastic

Similar to the first bullet, I am excited about the organization, mission, customers and people I work with! I want my enthusiasm to be contagious!

  •  Take the initiative to make things better

Whether I am streamlining a financial report for the Board of Directors, changing the toner in the copy machine, or taking the garbage out, I initiate making a situation better. As the old adage goes, if you see something that needs doing…

  •  Represent us well in the community

I recognize that every time that I step out of the door, I am shaping an image of how the community sees the organization. I always want it to be a positive one!

  •  Have a sense of humorthCACN1QF6

Last – but certainly not least – I have a sense of humor and I like to use humor appropriately in the workplace. More important, I am not afraid to laugh at myself!