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!

Let’s be brutally honest – fundraising is a pressure cooker. Get the funding or your organization cannot continue maintaining services (forgetting expansion). You might lose staff. You have board members who are breathing down your neck to ensure that you are meeting organizational priorities. It is no wonder that development professionals fizzle out and there is lots of transience in this profession. What can we do to stay on top of our work while also maintaining our sanity?

  1. Outline your plan – What do you need to do today? This week? This month? Start from the most important priorities and focus on these items. It is easy to get sidetracked, but you have to keep reiterating the message to others that if you can’t focus on these priorities, the organization will lose out.
  2. What are your tools? Are there technology resources, human capital, space, policies, or leadership buy-in that you can use to be successful?
  3. Share the load – The biggest misconception about fundraising is that it all falls on the shoulders of those in the Development Department, but we all know this is not the case. What can programmatic, financial, and administrative staff and volunteers do to help support you? Spell this out and delineate responsibilities to make it easier for others to understand.
  4. Separate – You have to find a way to ensure self-care or else you will be tired, stressed out, isolated and become disgruntled. Block off time in your calendar, download a meditation app or take a vacation day. Working 12 hours every day does not show your commitment to the organization but rather shows that your position is not structured effectively.

How will you try to reduce the pressure?

We just celebrated the 4th of July and our nation’s independence. Independence can be a great thing, right? We want to be able to function independently as professionals, organizations, and we want our children to grow up to become independent as well.

However, when does independence become a detriment to success? When do we need partners to maintain, grow and innovate our organizations and programs?

  1. We can share staff with one another, especially at co-located sites or multi-use facilities.
  2. We can share expertise with one another through training or materials.
  3. We can leverage in-kind resources with one another, including technology, space, furniture or other equipment.
  4. We can go after funding together through collaborative applications. Funders love to see collaborative proposals as this showcases greater impact!
  5. We can think about our collective impact. Are there issues or challenges we are each trying to solve? How do our services complement each other?

How can you work well with others? It’s not just a rule for children….

There are buzzwords that pop up every few years and that become part of the nonprofit/public sector lexicon. Evaluation. Evidence-based. Scalable model. Innovation. Innovation is an interesting word because it could mean so many different things. What makes a program or organization innovative? There is no common standard and should organizations be scrambling to do something innovative vs. what has been successful in the past? Let’s think about some do’s and don’ts concerning innovation and what should be considered when applying for funding or thinking about marketing your program(s) or organization.

Let’s think about the definition we want to use regarding innovation. How about this one from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Innovation is the introduction of something new or a new idea, method, or device: novelty. The operative word here is “new” so think about that in the context of your own work.

Do:

1) Outline your key differentiators. This exercise is helpful not just for grant writing, but organizational assessments and strategic planning. What makes your organization successful (or not successful)?

2) Determine if there are new approaches to being successful. Innovation does not have to be something trending now in the sector but could be a successful practice to be adopted by your organization.

3) Gather evidence. Have you reviewed the data that you have available to determine if you need to become more innovative? What about lessons learned? Do you need additional resources in order to have more impactful results?

 

Don’t:

1) Change a successful path. If you are a tried and true housing organization and that is what works, stick to that. Don’t change for the sake of changing unless your results do not match your efforts.

2) Move forward without a plan. Think before you start working on a new program – are you using evidence-based practices? Does this align with your mission? If you do pursue a different path, this can take years so map out a strategy and ensure buy-in from leadership and staff.

3) Use buzzwords that have no meaning. A truly innovative program or project may take your organization down a different path. Are you ready to make a change? Are you using the word “innovation” just because it sounds good?

True innovation will lead to longstanding changes in your community. Don’t confuse impact and innovation – these two terms are mutually exclusive (but can overlap).

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 2.9 million students will be awarded associate’s and bachelors degree’s during the 2017-2018 school calendar year (more if you include graduate students). This is a time for celebration as these individuals have achieved a significant milestone. However, given the challenges that many people face entering a new workforce, the transition can be challenging (even for those who have significant work experience in unrelated fields). For those interested in public sector work, how can we pay it forward and help them contribute to meaningful work in this field?

Mentoring them. Take time to get to know someone new in your office, a friend’s child/sibling or your own relative. Are you asking them questions and offering advice of how to best position themselves for success? Are you providing them with useful resources where they can gather more information? How about connecting them to someone with potential job leads? This can be the beginning of a longer-term friendship/relationship.

Training them. What may appear to you as easy and rote, might be daunting and scary to someone unfamiliar with how to complete certain tasks. Perhaps using a step-by-step approach and taking time solicit feedback will pay back in spades.

Supporting them. Are you listening to their concerns? Are you trying to gain feedback to help create new efficiencies with your own work? Your support can provide the morale booster needed for them to take chances and make strides with tasks that were previously perceived as difficult.

What are you doing to help the next generation of leaders? Your skills, insights and experiences are invaluable and everyone has something to contribute. Try to extend a hand to someone – it could mean the world to someone where opportunities are less available to them.