Author Archives: Rachel Werner

After living in New York City for seven years, one of the most salient takeaways from my time there was that people can express themselves. People in New York love to stand out and wear different clothing, take on new challenges and absorb themselves in new opportunities. After spending a weekend there with my family last week, I can honestly say that I feel inspired by the city that doesn’t sleep. I realize now that success is not based on whether you are the “best” at what you do, but how best you understand industry trends and its impact on your clients or constituents. What can we learn from New Yorkers?

  1. Set your goals – What do you want to accomplish as a professional and/or organization? Can you articulate these goals? What are the steps you need to achieve these goals?
  2. Don’t be afraid to fail – It is ok to make mistakes, and this only gets you closer to your goal. Risk taking is part of being innovative and unique.
  3. Be boastful – Cherish your wins and accomplishments, and let others know about them as well.
  4. Be colorful – If other organizations have an annual gala, what will you do that’s different? What success stories showcase your clients’ progress? How can you engage others in a meaningful way that exemplifies your mission and passion?
  5. Don’t wait – The longer you procrastinate on making any changes, the longer you can talk yourself out of doing anything. There is a time and place for everything, but lingering on a good idea will not nourish growth.

Who else is in a New York state of mind?

I was looking for birthday cards at a nearby Hallmark store and there was a sign that read “Be Kind to Strangers – They May Give you Money.” I had to laugh at this, since it is very true (and very applicable as a grant writer). We spend an inordinate amount of time crafting a well-constructed proposal, cultivating relationships with funders and preparing progress reports on the grants we receive. However, what about those individuals who may be interested in supporting your organization, but aren’t deemed as “worthy” of cultivation?

Volunteers – Treat volunteers with kindness and gratitude. Not only is this in-kind support, these individuals are integral to programmatic success and organizational operations.

Donors that contribute small amounts – Those who contribute smaller amounts are generally not consid

ered “major donors” and may not be cultivated in the same way. How do you thank these

individuals? Do you have an annual thank-a-thon? Do you send a photo or personalized message with you thank you note? Do you keep them updated on organizational activities? How do you let them know their contribution of $50 is as meaningful as those who donate $500?

In-Kind Donations – These donations of furniture, equipment and/or time allow organizations to focus on spending funds on programmatic activities versus operating expenses. Are you thanking them in a meaningful way?

Event Attendees – Perhaps you held an event, collected signature, but that person did not initially become a donor. What are you doing to keep them informed and show that their attendance and participation in events are contributions in and of themselves.

How can you cultivate kindness within your organization?

 

There are many ways we can communicate with our clients, partners and the public. There are social media sites (and the list of these sites keeps expanding all the time), your own website, newsletters, press releases, conferences, emails, phone calls, letters (are you getting exhausted already?). While it is wonderful to have all these different vehicles and means to share and communicate our messages, it can become confusing to determine when to share information, what to share and how often. Full disclosure here, I am not, nor do not promote myself, as a social media or marketing expert. However, I do know as a grant writer that message communication is an integral component in obtaining fundraising success.

Why should you share these updates? This can draw interest and update stale information that is not as exciting to your audience.

What is important to share? Most information can be categorized into two types– progress and need. New programs, new leadership, revised organizational structure, updated website – basically something that will draw attention and provide evidence that you are being innovative, strategic, showing return on investment and showcasing progress. For the annual appeals, increase in poverty rates, emergency situation (think Hurricanes Harvey or Irma) these are needs based.

When is it important to share? When do you need funding or when did the event/update occur? You will likely want to plan the information sharing with the event/update so that it is timely and specific.

What information sharing vehicles should you use? This likely depends on your audience and the information you are sharing. The larger the audience, the greater the size of the networks you should seek; social media will engage more people, but your own website, newsletter and messaging will provide a more personal touch. A combination of them is likely the best solution, but a communications strategy will help outline your key priorities and messaging opportunities.

What will you do to amplify your message?

Four years ago I was working in the nonprofit sector and trying to juggle the job of Director of Development while raising a three-year-old boy. While I was grateful for the flexibility that this job afforded (I was mostly able to telecommute) and I completely supported the organization’s mission, I still didn’t feel that I had complete control of my schedule. I wanted more time with my son, the ability to work 100% remotely and complete autonomy in the work that I chose to pursue. I decided to do some freelancing grants work, and this was a great first step to slowly ease into the transition of business ownership. My husband prepared the paperwork and I officially became an LLC and launched my business on August 29, 2013. Little did I know that I was pregnant with my daughter the same time as this launch….

While I experienced many bumps in the road on the path to succeeding as an entrepreneur, I have walked away with some useful tips that can hopefully help other business owners.

  1. Never underestimate your value to clients. Do not undersell your services or take on pro bono work at the expense of your bottom line.
  2. Set personal boundaries. If you are an entrepreneur and you seek more personal time, set that personal time in your calendar so you are not inundated with client emails or requests to meet. You can set the flexible schedule, if this is important to you. I always do this when I want to attend an event at my child’s school or have a personal matter that requires attention.
  3. Outsource. I know that it is easy to take ownership of everything, but at some point you may need support for your accounting, appointment scheduling, social media and/or project work. Do you have contacts that can support you when you take a vacation or when your workload increases? My virtual assistant, bookkeeper, and other colleagues have helped me tremendously, and this has helped grow my business.
  4. Pipeline Cultivation. Always think about future work, even if you have a full plate. Clients change, as does workflow, so always seek opportunities via networking events, trainings and informal meetings to encourage future work.

I love the work that I do, I appreciate my clients for choosing me to help them through their fundraising journeys, and I love the balance it affords with my family. What fuels your desire as an entrepreneur?

My kids hate leftovers. They always whine and complain if we have the same meal two days in a row. I can understand that the second day food isn’t as fresh or appetizing, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still good. The same can be said for the words we write. As proposal writers and grant professionals, we work tirelessly on crafting language that is specific to each funder and offers information that accurately and vividly describes an organization’s mission and impact. I have been working with some clients for several years, and I have to admit that sometimes I get tired of seeing my own writing again and again. What can we do to move past this leftover language?

  1. Annual refresh – think about new initiatives, accomplishments, and priorities that enhance the existing work that is currently taking place. Can your strategic plan serve as a guide?
  2. Research – are there evidence-based approaches that showcase the validity and value of the work you are doing? How can this be woven into your proposals?
  3. Knowledge – perhaps you need to take a course, read or book or find some materials online that shape the way you actually write proposals. Perhaps you can write like a storyteller, use the budget to guide your narrative or provide more statistics.
  4. Outside Perspective – it doesn’t hurt to have another colleague review and critique your work as well. I know that writers can get territorial, but this could be a value add and provide some insight into your areas of strength and weakness.
  5. Step Away – sometimes I spend a day writing and being absorbed in the narrative. I think it’s perfect and then I come back the next day and find multiple errors or sentences I want to change. A day away can also help you find clarity and focus again.

What will you do to turn proposal leftovers into a gourmet meal that even my kids will love?

When I started my business in 2013, I was committed to serving as an independent consultant. This seemed easy – I didn’t have to oversee other people’s work and I could have complete autonomy about the clients and work I chose to pursue. However, as any small business owner knows, it is difficult (and quite nearly impossible) to operate any small business on your own. While you may be able to complete the actual work yourself – developing and selling a product or service to clients, you will likely need help with many back end functions such as accounting support, social media and email outreach, website and graphic design, and countless other tasks. You may even need help with the work itself – what if you get too busy or you need someone with a specialized set of skills or knowledge to complete a task?

When my business was in its infancy, I attended a Grant Professionals Association conference in Baltimore. I was scared about the competitiveness with other consultants and also becoming a business owner and learning how to manage my work. However, once I started speaking with other consultants, they were extremely helpful, offered a great deal of advice and feedback, and were even willing to follow-up afterwards. This made me realize that our ability to work together is powerful and that competition, while it can be healthy, is actually a deterrent. My work with other consultants and small firms actually helps my business in many ways.

People like Ayda Sanver and Kenya Lucas-Matos, with whom I have worked on a number of different projects, actually feeds my growth. Also, when I first started, Heather Stombaugh gave me a chance by retaining me as a subcontractor for almost a year. I also leverage the skills and expertise of others to provide bookkeeping support and social media management to ensure that the administrative tasks do not fall off the radar.

My point is that working alone does not make you smarter, it just means you are going to work harder. While spending money on other functions may mean a loss of income, it also leads to greater income generation in the long-term. I guarantee a growth in your business once you start allocating functions and focusing on the work you do best. We work better when we collaborate. Perhaps you just need to find your key differentiator so you can stand out from others. Who are your key partners?

 

There are days when I sit at my desk and write for hours on end. Sometimes I enjoy the solitude and preparing an application or report that shows the dedication and thought that goes into this work (versus a rushed deadline). However, as I am sure is the case for many of you, most days are punctuated with conference calls, meetings and other high priority activities that can deter you from the work you plan to do that day. I also find it particularly difficult at times to transition between activities and also between work and personal life. For those of us who work from home, this can be particularly challenging. Arianna Huffington talks a lot about the need for sleep and to remain present in her latest book Thrive, which has also started a movement.

We are a highly stimulated society with social media, emails, smart phones and other devices that can easily deter us from completing our work. What are we to do? Since I deal with this issue daily, I am offering some advice for how I try to stay focused in my own life.

  1. Meditation – If you can start or end your day with a few minutes of quiet; this is a better way to decompress and/or energize you for what lies ahead. I really like Simply Being and there are meditations that only last 5 minutes.

 

  1. Space – If you work from home, close your door when you are not using that space or shut down your computer. Even the physical barrier can help separate your work and home life.

 

  1. Device Lockdown – Unless I proactively do work in the evening, I try not to respond to work related messages in the evening. I also try to disengage when I am with my children (I am more successful sometimes than others). Are there times when you can just put your phone in another room to avoid temptation of accessing information? I bet that most of the information you seek is not mission critical.

 

  1. Running List – I try to keep a post-it note as a reminder to do things when I am not at my desk and need to remember something important; I have also been known to send Outlook reminders to myself. I also set up blocks of time in my calendar for personal activities, including food shopping and picking up library books.

 

  1. Project Management – I use Nozbe to manage all my client, training and business development deadlines. Whatever system you use, make sure it is current, accessible to others (if needed), and forward looking at least 6-8 weeks.

 

What will you do to remain focused?

 

Philanthropy is a term that those in the nonprofit sector understand all too well. Raise money for our organizations (or clients’ organizations) so we can achieve certain missions or address societal challenges. Well, living in the Washington, DC metro area can have its perks. My son often asks me what I do, as it can be difficult to visualize philanthropy and fundraising. Now, I actually have a reference!

The Smithsonian’s Museum of National History has an exhibit called “Giving in America” and is focused on successful campaigns (think the ALS Bucket Challenge of 2014) and causes (think March of Dimes tin cans for coin collection) that have shaped our history. As their website states: “Giving has taken many forms throughout American history and has become firmly woven into the American experience. Every year millions of Americans contribute money, time, talent, and resources to causes across the country and throughout the world. Philanthropy is not unique to the United States, but Americans’ ideals of participation, equality, resourcefulness, and shared responsibility have shaped a distinctive form of giving in America.”

I think it’s wonderful that philanthropy is viewed in a historical context. We often have tunnel vision and don’t immediately see the impact of our work, not just for the organizations we serve, but for our country as well. I am proud to contribute to the public sector and raise significant funding for organizations in need. I hope you feel the same way and find value in the work you do each day – every little bit counts.

When I started my business nearly four years ago, I tried to cease every opportunity. Sure, I’ll meet with you at a location of your choosing. Sure, I’ll do some extra pro bono hours. Sure, I’ll provide another consult call to make sure you have what you need to move forward with our work together. However, at some point you have to take stock of your assets. I’m not just talking about your equipment or infrastructure, but about your intellectual capital – expertise, network of contacts, tools and resources that you have created. What are you willing to freely part with in the hope of finding new clients or colleagues?

I struggle with this as I primarily work with nonprofit organizations. When I started my business, I jumped at the chance to offer free trainings through preferred partners and organizations, but started to get burned out. I needed a better way to ensure that I was providing useful content to current and potential clients, and also maximizing my time to the greatest extent. Here’s the checklist that I use when I think about offering a free training session.

 

  • How many people will be at the session? Are you willing to conduct a session with few attendees?
  • Is this training online or conducted in-person?
  • Is there content that you can use from previous sessions or will you have to create new content from scratch?
  • Will you be leading the session with another colleague?
  • Does the entity offering the training have a well-established reputation within the industry/sector of prospects you are trying to reach?
  • Do you have a pre-established relationship with the entity?
  • Is the location of the entity offering the training easily accessible?
  • Will you have to significantly configure your schedule in order to conduct the training?
  • Is the training conducted through a regional/national conference or a one-time session?
  • Is there potential for paid training in the future?

 

My goal is to offer some free training per year, but I am more selective with the trainings that I actually conduct. If you do offer a training, what are you doing to maximize your time to the greatest extent?

This year I finally reached a parenting milestone – one child out of daycare and started kindergarten. Throughout the school year we transitioned into a new routine of drop-offs, pick-ups, school activities, PTA meetings and new friends (for both him and us). While it does make things easier and more financially feasible since we have one less in preschool, the summer represents a new challenge.

I always hoped when I started my business that I could seamlessly balance between work and home, but we all know that this is not so easy. I do have some vacation time, weeks off and personal time planned this summer to maximize our pool membership and visiting friends and family. Here is what I hope to do to make sure I have balance in my life this summer:

  1. Block of time in my Outlook calendar for personal appointments, trips, etc. to ensure that I actually do the things I hope to accomplish personally.
  2. Stay off the grid when I am on vacation and work with my virtual assistant to respond and categorize emails and messages to ensure a less chaotic entry back into real life upon return.
  3. Reduce off-hours work time (i.e. hours when my children are not in camp).
  4. Work outside to maximize the beautiful weather.
  5. Connect with my other colleagues for coffee to discuss our work and any new items coming up.
  6. Turn away or outsource work when it impacts #1-#5 above.

What are your summer plans? Hopefully, you will take some time to disconnect, enjoy time with loved ones and become mentally prepared for what lies ahead.