What’s the big idea?

Unless you weren’t watching the news the past few months, you were probably very aware that a Federal government partial shutdown took place earlier this year. While this impacted more people than others, as someone living in the Washington, DC area this actually felt personal. While we won’t go into the politics behind this decision, we can agree that many people experienced severe hardships as a hefty percentage of people do not have adequate savings to sustain themselves during a difficult period without pay and, some were forced to work without pay. Since the Federal government was unable to provide support, this fell to nonprofits and local government agencies to address these challenges. I am focusing on two organizations, Interfaith Works and Manna Food Center to describe what they experienced and also share more via a report published by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) and survey published by the Center for Nonprofit Advancement.

 


BIG QUESTION:

How did community-based organizations and local government agencies respond to the Federal shutdown?


Case Study: The collective impact of a local response

Speaking with Manna Food Center and Interfaith Works, it reinforced two things: 1) Nonprofits provide critical support during times of crisis and 2) They do work together towards a common goal when a great need arises. Manna shared that they had an uptick in need with an additional 106 households receiving food (translating to 325 people in total with 129 being children). They actually waived their income eligibility requirements so furloughed employees could receive food. They also received an extra 28,000 pounds of donated food and leveraged the MLK Day of Service for an additional 200 volunteers providing support. Interfaith Works offered more referral support through their IW Connections program and worked with Pepco to relax rules to offer emergency assistance support for people unable to pay their rental or utilities. Fortunately, this was not needed as the Shutdown ended before the funds were utilized. Both organizations also worked with the Montgomery County Council and other agencies and organizations to develop a coordinated response for information sharing, referrals and other emergency assistance needs. This led to a more collective response to deepen the level of support provided to those impacted.

MWCOG issued a report on February 2019 entitled Responding to the Partial Federal Government Shutdown that indicated, “During the shutdown, local governments stepped up and offered a wide range of support to area residents. They did so in coordination with a strong network of partners, including nonprofits, charities, faith-based organizations, utilities, and businesses, providing food, financial assistance, and employment services. Some jurisdictions offered free public transit to affected workers as well as reduced fees for city and county recreational opportunities. Many also shared information for people to cope with stress.” A survey of the impact of the shutdown conducted by the Center for Nonprofit Advancement of nonprofits in Maryland, Washington, DC and Virginia found that:

  • 50% experienced an uptick in services required, but only 30%had adequate supplies to serve them. Of those, 60% had to tap into their reserves.
  • Even though just over 50% of the respondents receive Federal funding, multiple other organizations were impacted.

 

What should we learn from this?

Local support matters – As demonstrated by these organizations, even situations at the Federal level have a direct impact in our community. The support of county and city agencies, nonprofits and other philanthropic funders and donors is critical during such emergency periods.

Be prepared – Sometimes a crisis cannot be averted. If your organization does not have a plan of action, that could deplete your reserves and greatly impact your ongoing programs. Can you develop such a plan with your board and also incorporate coordination with funders, in-kind partners and other stakeholders to plan ahead?

Nonprofits do more with less – The nonprofits continued to operate and were also willing to serve more people. The committed to the cause superseded the financial impact it would have on the organization. This showcases the deep connection to the organization’s mission and dedication to the population in need.

Collaborative responses work – When agencies and community-based organizations work together, great things happen. A strategic and thoughtful response can be extremely effective and necessary during times of need.

How would you respond to a crisis within your organization? Are you able to set up appropriate measure to accept more people and do more work?

 I am venturing into a new format for my blog posts to not just talk about grants, but about what’s happening in the world. Every few weeks we will be digging into a big issue and talking about how it relates to nonprofits, government agencies, and the philanthropic sector. The first post focuses on racial inequities and how the philanthropic and nonprofit/public sectors are responding. I am thrilled to share that many organizations are tackling this issue head-on. In my neck of the woods, The Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers has established a Racial Equity Working Group; Nonprofit Montgomery will be hosting a forum on racial equity in May; and Maryland Nonprofits is hosting an Equity Speaker Series starting in March (and these are just three examples).

I look forward to sharing how responsive and flexible we are regarding these issues, and also thinking of how to incorporate new perspectives.

Check out my first issue here: https://conta.cc/2DlRtkN

When I think about 2019 I often feel that there is a need for catharsis and letting go of the things that held me back this year and trying to be more mindful of putting my best foot forward in 2019. I think for me I think a lot about being mindful and present and not distracted by email, alerts and other technology that removes us from our stated path. What can we do to become more mindful and let go of the fear, angst, and nervousness that can hold us back? I have found the following tools particularly helpful.

1) Mindfulness journal – Taking some time to focus on gratitude and energizing yourself each day is a way to build some calm and restore some sanity. It just takes 3 minutes at the beginning and end of each day to prepare and reflect. There are many of these journals available on Amazon, and you can find the one that is right for you.

2) Reading – Whether you are reading for pleasure, business or both, try to keep a running list of books so that you can always find something at a bookstore or Barnes and Noble. It is a great time to start, especially with all of the “Best of 2018” lists that are available via multiple publications. No time for reading? How about an interesting podcast or audiobook?

3) Technology detachment – Try to set some parameters so you can step away from your smartphone. Is it not sleeping with your phone next to your bed? Avoiding your phone between certain time periods? Perhaps installing a “do not disturb” app on your phone could be a helpful tool as well.

4) Exercise/yoga – Any kind of exercise, even just a walk around your block can help provide a mental break needed. Yoga is the ultimate way to cleanse your mind, and there are many YouTube videos that can take you through even a 10-minute routine. I love the ones by Rodney Yee and I like the Cosmic Kids Yoga videos (I do them with my own kids).

Whatever you decide to do, it is important to find a routine and stick with it. What are you going to let go and how will you do it?

It’s that time of year again when we give thanks to those things in our lives that give us pleasure and comfort and being grateful for our family and friends. While I am always grateful for those people who enrich my life, I wanted to provide some levity and offer up 5 things I am most grateful for this year:

  1. Caffeine – Not only does this keep the juices flowing, but also ensures that I can stay focused and able to do my job.
  2. Babysitters and kind neighbors – They allow me to attend off-hours events and participate in community activities when we don’t have other childcare options.
  3. Grammarly – Helping me avoid huge grammatical errors and oversights in my writing when the caffeine hasn’t kicked in yet.
  4. Chocolate – It is the perfect complement to a bad day or to celebrate a victory.
  5. Great books and podcasts – Whether to inform or provide some kind of escapism, they always serve a critical function in my life and are very much appreciated.

What are you grateful for this year?

 

Last week I attended the Grant Professionals Association Annual Conference in Chicago and was able to learn from and facilitate conversations with grant professionals all over the country. I always learn something new each time I go, and as I reflect on the conference, I wanted to share some key takeaways:

  1. Building funder and grantee relationships: During the keynote panel, there were many conversations about bridging the divide between grantees and funders. How can we build sustainable partnerships without an imbalanced power dynamic? One speaker brought up a site that allows grantees to rate funders on a number of different criteria: https://grantadvisor.org/. Check it out for more information.
  2. Overcoming inequality barriers: There are more dedicated measures by the nonprofit and philanthropic communities to overcome racial/ethnic and income equalities in our communities. There are more collaborative community-based partnerships taking place to address these systemic inequalities through wraparound service models. Also, funders are more cognizant of these models and holding nonprofits accountable to maintain boards that are more reflective of the constituencies they serve.
  3. Strategic Planning: I found out some more tools that we can use during strategic planning processes:
    1. SOAR – Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results (same as the traditional SWOT analysis but with more of a positive spin)
    2. PESTEL – Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental and Legal (spreadsheet of various elements that impact the organization)
    3. Boston Matrix – Matrix of profitability and impact (helps us understand what should be a priority
  4. Using digital platforms: Through the use of social media, nonprofits and public sector agencies and are able to share their stories and become more connected to the communities they serve. It also allows a baseline level of equity with a common platform to share this information, regardless of the size and scope of the organization or agency.
  5. Abundant Resources Available: There are wonderful podcasts, books, newsletters and websites that provide information on best practices and also case studies from the field. Some highly recommended ones (not necessarily just about nonprofits) include:
    1. Newsletters: http://nonprofitaf.com/ and https://www.blueavocado.com/
    2. Podcasts: Successful Nonprofits and Nonprofits are Messy
    3. Books: Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman), The Art of Gathering (Priya Parker) and The Power of Moments (Chip Heath and Dan Heath)

 

What will you be able to use today?

 

In honor of Halloween, I wanted to share a scary story… I am sure my fellow writers (and almost anyone who works on a team where the end product is a final document) can relate to the #FRANKENPROPOSAL (queue scream). Do you know what the #Frankenproposal is? Well, what starts out as a document full of promise and creativity quickly devolves into a freakish and chaotic mess with too many people involved in its development. You know what I’m talking about…. Mixed up acronyms, passive voice and active voice, run-on sentences, spelling errors. This is what happens when tracked changes are not integrated and a number of people have their hands on a specific proposal at one time. Also, the final reviewer doesn’t have enough time to integrate changes and try to make a more seamless and integrated voice throughout the document.

I’ll refer to this phenomenon as the #frankenproposal. I have experienced this several times, and although I have done this work for many years, I still get vexed and frustrated with last minute additions, lack of clarity regarding a proposal concept and different viewpoints as to how grants language should be written.

By far my worst experience was a federal proposal I wrote several people that not only involved several people, but several people with different writing styles, connection to the proposal (meaning they would be impacted differently if funded) and feedback was integrated in each draft (not just the 1st draft). Needless to say, the application was not funded and still remains one of the most difficult proposals I ever worked on in my career.

Let’s try to stop the madness and eliminate #frankenproposals for good. What is your most salient #frankenproposal that you have experienced in your career and what did you learn from it? Let’s keep the hashtag going and create a list of scary stories of our own….

Even the most seasoned nonprofit, consulting and business professionals among us need to mentor. Why is mentoring so important? Why must we continue to refine and expand our capabilities? Let’s examine the benefits of mentorship…

  1. The more things change the more things stay the same. Perhaps someone with more experience and provide guidance on a new service offering, plan or even a writing sample. This expertise is beneficial, especially if it has an impact on revenue that you are hoping to generate for your organization or client. While you might think that you have seen or heard it all, someone else has seen and heard more. Perhaps we need to give her/him a chance to offer some feedback and disavow some of our commonly held notions.

 

  1. You can always learn something new. Even if we are subject matter experts, there is always an opinion or perspective that can change your viewpoint and offer a new way of looking at a situation. It is easy to have tunnel vision, but broadening your mind and listening to someone else is a skill that is more difficult to acquire.

 

  1. Remove the clutter. It can be difficult sometimes to figure out our priorities and determine fact from fiction. There is a lot of noise in our world and it helps to redirect our focus and set our sights on achieving a specific goal. A mentor can help you organize the clutter and sharpen your thinking.

 

  1. Finding an advocate. When I started working as a consultant, I had several mentors who helped provide support and strategic advice as I launched my business. When you have that person/people in your corner, it serves as a motivator and showcases the fact that people believe in you and what you do. This can help you overcome some difficult and challenging situation.

Who do you consider a mentor and how has he/she helped you?

 

Last year I attended a session at the Grant Professionals Association National Conference last year led by Sharon Skinner who discussed the importance of storytelling in our grant applications. This seems counterintuitive as grant writing has to be responsive to certain questions (who, what why, when, where, how) and removed from narration. Essentially, when writing a grant, we often remove the creative element of writing a story. However, isn’t a grant a story that is just is meant to be persuasive? Let’s try to pump those creative juices so that we can spark some renewed interest in our own stories. What are the important elements of the stories we want to tell?

The characters – Who are the protagonists (the people you intended to serve, your organizational staff, your partners)? How do you describe them in your writing?

The situation – There must be a reason for the story to be developed. What will change the lives of your heroes through this situation? Will it be good or bad? Is there a tension that must be overcome?

The timing – Is there a clock that will strike if you don’t help these characters by a certain time? Why or why not? What will you do to help these characters achieve these goals?

Conclusion – What are the end goals for the characters and what do you hope they will achieve?

Let’s think about the story concerning your organization – how can you frame it to create some suspense that could impact your heroes?

 

Let’s be honest with ourselves. It is not easy to work in fundraising. Whether you are writing grants, cultivating relationships with major donors, managing special events or drafting marketing materials, you know that in the end, there is a bottom line. Your work has an impact on your organization(s) and that can be incredibly stressful. One slight error in a grant application and your 80+ hours of work on an application can be for naught. This is why many creative, thoughtful and intelligent individuals leave development positions after less than two years and why many new professionals move on to less stressful jobs.

I want to implore you thought that it is a fallacy though to believe that it falls all on our shoulders. Here is why that is….

  1. What is your culture of philanthropy? Fundraising involves much more than writing an application or report. It involves the investment of time and resources from your board leadership, leadership team, programmatic, financial and administrative staff to remain committed to meeting your goals. Each of these individuals play a significant part in the success of your fundraising efforts.
  2. How are you using your time? Are you investing your time in high priority fundraising efforts or providing band aid administrative support as well? Make sure you are focused on the tasks that will lead to the greatest results and create a cost-benefit analysis should you need to speak with your superior(s) on shifting workloads.
  3. You are not perfect. Yes, that’s right, you are not a superhero! While you can generate revenue for your organization(s), you can be prone to mistakes. It happens. Try not to beat yourself up and use it as an opportunity to develop a better process to avoid such errors moving forward.
  4. How are you improving? Are you investing your time in attending professional development workshops or conference that can improve your work? There are wonderful local, regional and national conferences that are geared towards public and nonprofit sector growth and sustainability. The GPA National Conference in Chicago is coming up and always a wonderful event. You can always learn a new skill, regardless of whether you are able to travel.

Fundraising can be a rewarding and satisfying profession. We just need to keep things in perspective and try to stay focused to the extent possible.

Isn’t there a famous quote that “The truth shall set you free?” Wouldn’t it be great to tell the truth all the time instead of masking our unpleasantries? I see this happen all the time when working on grant proposals. Organizations try to cover up a misuse of funds or embellish a program that might not be making as much of an impact. I think we could all use a bit of forgiveness of our transgressions as we start to be real about who we are and want we do. Ask yourself:

  • Are my actions going to negatively impact my constituents or the larger organization?
  • Will the truth eventually be uncovered through a strategic planning process or financial audit?
  • Will this have any negative consequence on staff morale?
  • Why did this end up happening in the first place?

I tell my children that a lie will eventually be found out and serves a learning opportunity. Maybe instead of seeing a negative, you can turn it around and replace with a positive need for change:

  1. What can you do regarding fundraising if you have not met your financial goals?
  2. Are staffing changes or reorganizations needed to make sure you have adequate internal controls?
  3. How are you measuring impact and is this happening continuously?
  4. How are you sharing this information with funders and board members to plan for success and sustainability?

Lies have a way of surfacing and it is better to be truthful than cover up these transgressions with other lies. In the end, it will help improve how you work!