Indirect Costs in grant applications

I was recently invited to be a guest on Nonprofit Everything, a podcast co-hosted by the amazing and wonderful experts from the Alliance for Nevada Nonprofits - Andy Schuricht and Stacey Wedding. We discussed a listener question they recently received on the topic of indirect costs in grant applications. The podcast is available here, but below I’ve summarized some of the thoughts I shared with Stacey on this topic.

“What type of buzz words or language can you include in a grant to cover General & Administrative costs, or is it best to just include a line item in the budget? Is 10% G&A a reasonable request for coverage per grant?”

  • General & Administrative Costs, General Operating Costs, Indirect Costs, Overhead, and Operating Costs are all interchangeable terms in the grant world that essentially mean the same thing, which is your organization’s costs of doing business. These are the items that cannot be directly attributed to the project or program for which you are requesting funding, but are necessary for the organization to operate. The types of items that can be included in this category include things such as: facility rent, utilities, general office supplies, salaries for executives, accounting and legal expenses, insurance, and human resources and payroll costs, among other costs that are specific to your organization.

  • The language you use in your proposal narrative and/or your budget narrative should reflect the specific expenses your organization has that are included in your overhead calculation. Your fiscal manager should be able to help you identify what those costs are. They do vary among different organizations, so it can be helpful for funders to understand exactly what categories of expenses are included in your indirect. Use general terms when describing this in your grant proposal or budget narrative—“Human Resources/payroll expense” is an example of a good descriptor.

  • The indirect rate that is reasonable to request is one of two things:

    • The maximum allowed by the funder—if the funder allows for 20% indirect, you should include the full amount allowable. This is because indirects are unrestricted dollars, meaning the organization can invest them where they are most needed. As this type of funding is the most difficult to raise in the grant world, it is best to maximize this wherever allowable.

    • The maximum your organization already operates with. To calculate this figure, refer to your organization’s audited financial statements. Add your Management & General Expenses total to your Fundraising total, then divide by your total expenses. This should be converted into a percentage. That’s your organization’s overhead rate. If you’re required by the funder to request no more than the maximum you are currently spending on your overhead, use this number. If your overhead rate exceeds the amount allowable by the funder, you will need to follow the funder’s maximum allowable guidelines, rather than your organization’s effective rate.

  •  The indirect cost line should be included in your line-item budget and budget narrative, but should be a distinct line item on it’s own. Ideally, a full program budget includes columns for both revenue and expenses and line items for salaries, benefits, program costs (whatever those may be), subtotaled, then a line showing the indirect percentage and the dollar amount, followed by a sum total at the end.

  • Remember that the indirect calculation is included in the maximum request amount. For instance, if a funder is offering a $100,000 grant, and indirects are allowed up to 20%, you may allocate $80,000 to direct program expenses and $20,000 to indirect costs. You may not tack on an additional $20,000 to a $100,000 request.

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Great Board Members

The qualities and characteristics of great board members are similar, though not identical, across the nonprofit sector—regardless of organization size, staffing, or mission. While it’s cathartic and even fun to complain about the less-desirable actions and behaviors of some board members, it’s far more useful to emulate the best qualities of high-performing Board members and officers. In my experience, GREAT board members have some things in common. They:

  • Know WHY they are involved with their organization. They have a connection to the work of the nonprofit that is real, reinforced often, and actively reflected upon. They understand the importance of the work the organization does, they know the role of the organization in the community, and they are committed to assisting it to the best of their abilities.

  • Fully understand their personal legal duties to the organization. Further, they understand their role in governance and are aware of the organization’s policies and procedures. This includes having a sophisticated understanding of the areas where their input/guidance is NOT needed and/or helpful for the organization.

  • Understand the nonprofit’s mission, vision, and work fluently, and can speak about it to others (evangelizing is a crucial role of board members).

  • Realize that the most important duty of board members is fundraising, for the majority of nonprofit organizations. They commit to supporting the organization via their board member give/get, fundraising events, and other fundraising efforts.

  • Commit to identifying productive ways their support is helpful, useful, and productive for the organization, recognizing that power dynamics may play a role in whether or not an Executive Director/CEO may feel comfortable accepting offers of “help” that may not in fact be helpful.

  • Master the skill of serving as a resource or support by serving others within the organization; rather than directing, inflicting, or imposing their skills or methods upon the organization or it’s staff.

  • Recognize that their professional expertise does not automatically render them an authority in nonprofit governance or management. There is a learning curve, and specific, highly specialized skills are required to successfully manage a nonprofit organization.

  • Communicate effectively with fellow board members and nonprofit staff. Board members who listen as much as they talk demonstrate willingness to gather information and learn, as well as guide and govern.

  • Assist the organization in developing strategy, making connections, fundraising, and more when asked. Board Members should be involved at the strategic level, helping to ask salient questions and guide the organizations they serve to answers that address long-term, complex, and strategic positioning questions.

  • Understand that board service is a job, that their roles have definition and specific expectations (which organizations that do a good job of orienting their board members succeed in communicating effectively), and that their contributions should be in alignment with these expectations.

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Grant Writing Busy Seasons & Self Care

I’m right in the middle of my busy grantwriting season (yes, I understand the irony of posting to the blog for the first time in six months while I’m drowning in work!) and this round, in my 10th or so year of full-time grantwriting, I have been paying attention to some specifics that help and hinder my writing and productivity at times like these. So, in no particular order:

  • Don’t attempt to multitask. We believe we’re great multitaskers, that we can capably switch between multiple things and get our work done faster, more efficiently, or more completely. Unfortunately, this is complete nonsense. Multitasking is Not A Thing. For many years I fully believed I was the best multitasker ever, but recently I’ve been consciously paying attention to how multitasking goes for me, and the more I try to do it, the more frazzled I get, the more items I miss, and the worse my overall product is.

  • Make Lists. I do very well when I make COPIOUS lists. I tend to make a paper To Do list at the beginning of each workday, actively use them (adding things, crossing off) and often in the busiest times I’ll remake them at the end of the day as well. This helps me to ensure I don’t forget things, and gives me relief from the nagging sense that I have to do something—if it’s on my list, I’ll get to it. I tend to place items on my list by priority, and I don’t worry about including things that are short term vs. long term—it all goes in the same place so it’s not in the back of my mind bugging me.

  • Enforce strict work/life boundaries. I don’t have my cell phone number on my email signature, and I don’t give it to my project staff unless absolutely necessary. Some of that is a holdover from my social work training where it’s critical that clients only have professional access to their clinicians/therapists, but some of it is just plain old good elf-care. I answer emails during business hours only as a personal general rule (unless it is a truly urgent situation). It’s incredibly easy for the lines to blur during peak grant activity periods, and I find that nobody else is going to identify that line for me, I have to do it for myself, and I have to rigorously enforce it for myself.

  • Find your personal self-care go-to’s, and practice them regularly. For me, I tend to read a lot more during my busy seasons (something about reading books is a great antidote to the cognitive work of writing a whole lot), currently I’m reading Brene Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Catherine Price’s How To Break Up With Your Phone, Samantha Irby’s Meaty, Jen Sincero’s You Are A Badass, and Ray Dalio’s Principles. I listen to podcasts (Forever 35, You Made It Wierd, My Brother My Brother And Me, A Single Serving Podcast, and Love Letters are in my current heavy rotation). I train at my gym at least 4 times a week, as I’ve written about before, weightlifting is my favorite thing. I try to get out into nature as often as possible—having a dog that needs twice daily walks is wonderful, as is getting out for weekend hikes and camping trips. Do the things that help you relax, re-center, and recharge.

  • Lean on your supports. My friends are great sounding boards for me during the particularly busy times when I need to vent about work. I also serve as their support and listening ear whenever they need that from me. While it’s tempting, I try to avoid gossipy discussions with my colleagues.

  • Say no to the things you can’t reasonably accomplish. This applies to work as well as outside commitments during busy times. I only have so much bandwidth, it serves nobody if I fail to recognize where the reasonable limits are on my time and my resources.

These are just a few of the most important things for me during my busy times. For many years, I’d put my head down and slog through these times without paying much attention to how my thinking, behaviors, and actions were serving me or not—stress is great at forcing us to hyper-focus and ignore the big picture. I have found over the last couple of years that drawing back my energy, paying conscious attention to the things that are working as well as the things that are creating more issues has helped me to construct my work time and my personal time in a productive way during the periods of high activity and high demand. Best of luck to you if you’re in the middle of the busy season, too! We can get through it, and remember that it won’t last forever!

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Nonprofit Myths...Part 2 (Money Issues)

Nonprofit Myth #2: Donor and/or grant funding shouldn't support salaries, or overhead for organizational operations. See also: Low overhead and/or administrative costs are a sign of a healthy nonprofit organization. See also (also): Nonprofit organizations shouldn’t spend money/resources to engage in fundraising activities.

I would really like to exist in the mythical land where we don’t have to PAY PEOPLE to DO IMPORTANT WORK. Truly, this particular myth gets under my skin so much. See my post on how change sector work is valid, professional, and highly skilled work. I do not understand how funders, donors and supporters of nonprofit organizations expect that things will get accomplished if not by dedicated, talented, resourceful, professional staff with specialized skill sets—who need and deserve to be compensated fairly for their time and expertise.

Paying living wages and offering benefit programs to nonprofit employees to, you know, actually DO the work of the organization, ensuring that the mission is carried out is one issue. Supporting the costs of doing business (i.e. overhead, administrative costs, management & fundraising costs) is a closely related issue. It feels like we’re in broken record territory within the nonprofit sector—there’s nobody I’ve encountered who doesn’t see the logic of reducing restrictions on funding to better allow organizations to meet their missions. There’s also now a chorus of voices arguing for unrestricted and general operating funding in the sector, see some great information from: Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, Propel Nonprofits, The Overhead Myth and Nonproft AF. The pursuit of low overhead costs is harmful and destructive, because it undermines an organization’s ability to provide stable, quality services to beneficiaries and feeds into the Nonprofit Starvation Cycle. Overhead isn’t a measure of nonprofit effectiveness, it’s one financial measure—of inputs. There’s no correlation between how much an organization pays for rent, utilities, fundraiser’s salaries, executive pay, etc. and the impact it has on it’s community.

So, the solution? Provide unrestricted monetary support (donations and grants) for organizations. Encourage nonprofit organizations pay living wages to personnel to carry out their missions. Find ways of measuring impact and effectiveness that are unrelated to an overhead ratio. Support spending on necessary overhead, including costs to fundraise.

Next time…Part 3 of Nonprofit Myths!

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Nonprofit Myths...a multi-part series!

I recently sat down with some outstanding fundraising & nonprofit management colleagues (who also happen to be kind and wonderful people and good friends) to discuss an upcoming presentation we’ll be giving to a group of local business and community leaders. Very quickly, as it often does when in the company of kindred spirits and trusted colleagues, our conversation turned to the common frustrations we have with the various myths and misunderstandings we encounter as nonprofit professionals. We have each tried to counteract these as much as we can in our respective spheres, and I applaud the work that Stacey, Andy, and Clay do to fight the good fight for our sector through their endeavors: the Nonprofit Everything podcast, Annual Fund Lab blog, Valor CSR, Professionals in Philanthropy. Stacey and Clay are on Twitter too, dispensing oodles of fundraising wisdom!

As the four of us chatted, we collectively created a list of more than a dozen irritating, harmful, and downright absurd myths and misconceptions that we encounter frequently in our work. Often, these questions are posed by folks who aren’t intimately familiar with the nonprofit/public sector, or who haven’t been in/around the work long enough to understand some of these challenges. Many who ask these questions genuinely don’t know the reasons why these issues are irritants to those of us who spend our entire lives in this work, and they mean no harm or disrespect—it’s often simply a lack of exposure.

So, over the next several weeks, I’ll be tackling the issues on our collective list, starting with myth number one: Nonprofits need goods/services or time & talent from board members, volunteers, and the broad community more than anything.

I’ll start with the aspects of this myth that are accurate: Many nonprofit organizations lack deep capacity in certain operational and/or other specialized professional services areas…this is true. Nonprofits recruit board members that have specialized skill sets, professional connections, and access points that they would otherwise not have access to, due to limited or restricted funding, and lean operations. Many nonprofit organizations seek to place individuals on their boards and committees that have the ability to bring goods and services to the table (donated, at-cost, or discounted) for the benefit of the organization. Likewise, nonprofit organizations may seek the involvement and professional skills from people in various fields to supplement their operations or other functions: for example, many nonprofits seek to have attorneys serving on their boards, to have the option of accessing or obtaining legal advice should that be needed.

Here’s where this issue becomes an irritant for nonprofits: Those that are tapped for board, committee or volunteer service with an organization often see that as the only contribution they can or should make, or that the goods/services they are donating are all that the organization may need. The hard truth: For nonprofit organizations, the best thing to receive as a donation is cash. Dollars. Unrestricted funding. Moolah. Bucks. Money. While it is valuable, necessary, and even vital for many organizations to receive donated goods/services, the almighty dollar is the highest value donation, and the unrestricted dollar is the gold star ultimate donation.

It’s easier for many board members who are volunteering their time and are likely not fundraisers by profession to ask for goods/services to be donated. It’s easier not to have to make a direct ask for financial donations. However, that does a disservice to nonprofit organizations that are almost always in need of additional financial support. As a volunteer, how can you counteract this? ASK the organization their needs. Ask them to prioritize their requests. There are need to have’s, and nice to have’s, and “oh god, now we have this thing we have to deal with” on the nonprofit side. Make sure you are assessing whether your gift of goods/services is truly beneficial for the organization, and whether it creates additional burden for an organization to administer, manage, or otherwise address. Also, give cash whenever you can :)

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I am a survivor.

I am a survivor.

It’s getting close to the beginning of October, a month that will forever hold immense collective trauma, deep sadness, painful reckoning, profound wonder, gratitude, precious joy, and a multitude of other emotions for those of us who live in Las Vegas. It is a traumatic event that will take years to process.

October is also a month that is recognized annually as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I am a survivor of intimate partner violence, as is 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States. My experiences in an abusive relationship for many years have shaped me, but they do not define me. Abusers target the strong ones, but they fail to understand, time and time again, the resilience and unbounded strength of those they choose to harm.

October is also the month I celebrate my birthday, which I share with my amazing mother, and ours is just 10 days after my spectacular sister’s birthday.  It is a month that contains multitudes, for me, for the beautiful souls I have the honor of being close to, and for my collective broader community.

I have been broken, and I have survived. I have been weary and exhausted of all of my resources, and still I have survived. I have been in mortal danger, and I have survived. I have transformed my adversity into my catharsis. I have found courage, will, strength, and fortitude inside me during the darkest periods of my life. I am a survivor and the strength of survivors is an awesome thing to behold.

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Hey nonprofit pros...get a hobby! Musings on how Weightlifting has saved my sanity.

Today marks 10 days out before I compete in my first national-level Olympic Weightlifting competition (cue the Macaulay Culkin Home Alone face). I'm a bit terrified, but I'm also excited, and I feel as prepared as I could be for this event. I started weightlifting just about a year and a half ago, and going from not knowing the movements at all to competing at the American Open within that timeframe is--insane.

The short version of my journey to becoming an athlete is: 3 years ago I switched to a Ketogenic lifestyle & lost a bunch of weight, 2 years ago I decided to start strength training to continue to improve my health, 6 months in I saw the folks in my gym having lots of fun doing Oly & decided to give it a whirl--I got addicted immediately, competed in local meets held by my gym, and a couple of months ago I decided to give the AO a shot, since it'll be held in Las Vegas and I just barely squeaked out a qualifying total to enter the meet.

Weightlifting has become a surprisingly necessary outlet for me in the very short time I've been doing it. The reasons I love it are plentiful: It takes thousands upon thousands of repetitions and long, long, LONG periods of training to improve significantly in both technique and strength, I'm constantly battling myself mentally & physically, as well as battling gravity & physics (fun!), my only competition is myself, and it demands utter focus and concentration (lifting literally drives out all other thought--turning my brain off is one of the best outcomes of training for me). It also doesn't hurt that the gym I train at is filled with wonderful, supportive, kind, funny, smart, wickedly cool people with whom it is a pleasure to spend many hours a week training. 

For me, weightlifting provides some essential self-care: it allows me to set goals for myself and then put the work in towards achieving them, it forces all of the noise and frustration of the day out of my head each time I train, it consistently reminds me that perfection is unattainable but I should strive for improvement, it teaches me to work through small problems like minor twinges and address bigger ones like injuries, and it helps me prove to myself again and again that I possess more grit and determination than I ever realized before. 

I have other self-care practices that facilitate balance, growth, and sanity in my life, but I have never been an athlete--by any stretch of the imagination--before finding weightlifting. This sport has helped me to grow personally, and it has also provided an outlet for me overall--I can channel my energy and frustration in ways I couldn't before. 

My point is: find yourself a hobby. It's cliche, but it's true. I firmly believe that we each need to find the activities or practices that allow us to keep going in the face of difficult circumstances and challenges, manage our stress, and help us to keep showing up to do the important work we do. There's a mindset in the nonprofit sector that self-care is self-indulgent, or that the importance of the work we're doing should outweigh our own needs, which is damaging and untrue. It's a lesson I've learned the hard way many times throughout my career: I need to be actively doing things for myself in all areas of my life to help avoid burnout, bolster my resources, and recommit to the work I deeply believe in. Find your thing! Do your thing! 

Lifting baby weight in my first local meet :)  Image © Crystal Kreutz 2017, Stronger Than Yesterday, https://www.strongerthanyesterday.com/

Lifting baby weight in my first local meet :)

Image © Crystal Kreutz 2017, Stronger Than Yesterday, https://www.strongerthanyesterday.com/

The Scarf Store

I've been a nonprofit/public sector professional for my entire career, beginning 16 years ago in college as an unpaid intern at a non-public school for children with ADD/ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Over the years, I've worked in direct service in a variety of functions, on fundraising teams, as a development shop of one, in nonprofit senior management, for public and quasi-governmental agencies, as a consultant, as a university professor & instructor, and as a speaker. I have seen and experienced a lot throughout my career, much of it fascinating, inspiring, and uplifting, but also frustrating, challenging, and agonizing. As I have moved through each phase of my career, my motivation and passion has grown and changed. I'm now solidly and confidently mid-career, at a phase where I know enough to be dangerous; but I also recognize that there's far more that I have yet to discover. A side effect of growing out of Impostor Syndrome & caring less about what others think as you grow into experience and wisdom *(ahem, aka aging) is that illusions tend to fall away also. Long gone are my Pollyanna days where I believed everyone always acted from pure intentions and wanted the best for our organizations, our clients, and our communities. These realizations have been difficult at times, but they have also been instructive and powerful.

Facing mediocrity head-on is it's own unique challenge that comes with a huge energy drain. On occasions when I feel particularly flattened by the realities and disappointments of my sector, I find myself dreaming of an escape to an easier path, one with less complexity and lower stakes. Enter, the concept of The Scarf Store. One day, while discussing our annoyance at some inane leadership decision or bureaucratic nightmare with my girl tribe, I hit my limit of exasperation, and proclaimed "That's it! This is insanity! I'm quitting all of this! I'm just going to open....a....scarf store, or something!" (Now: caveat that I fully understand that running a small business is no joke, and this wouldn't be a realistic escape from the frustrations of Interacting With Other Humans, but, the fantasy of a simpler life is appealing.) The concept of Scarf Store has now become shorthand among some of my friends--a recognition that at times, this work is so intricate, infused with power dynamics, and frustratingly layered with divergent motivations that it can feel like no forward progress can be made. Sometimes you just have to throw up your hands and mentally escape for a minute. #nonprofitselfcare

The Scarf Store will not ever likely be a reality, at least not in my world. I'm too committed to the field, to advancing progress and justice in any small way that I can. This work is difficult, infuriating, heartbreaking, inspiring, joyful, transformative, crazy, and weird. I love it. 

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Change sector work IS professional work.

There are THOUSANDS of articles, thinkpieces, books, talks, discussions, workshops, studies, and opinions on the subject of nonprofit (change sector) work. There are fierce debates about a range of subjects, and folks find themselves at differing places on varying ideological, political, moral spectrums about this sector, our work, and our communities. I have come to form my own deeply held beliefs and opinions over time, but I am also someone who is wholeheartedly committed to learning more and growing from both experience and learning. A few things that have been on my heart and mind lately, as well as those things that are Eternal Thorns In My Side as a nonprofit pro include the following: 

  • Change sector (nonprofit) work is professional work. It is real, it requires skill sets that are not applicable nor available in for-profit work, and it carries significant importance. True story: I once had a board member tell me (to my face!) that my job could be done by any volunteer, that I was lucky to have a job, and that he couldn't believe I was paid to do the work I did for that organization. Let me repeat that: A. Board. Member. Said. This. To. My. Face. Aside from my utter disbelief (and brewing rage) at his comment, I immediately recognized that this unfortunate, uninformed dude couldn't survive a single day as a nonprofit employee. The skills required to be a successful nonprofit professional are different than those required to be a successful corporate professional--the standards are different, the work is different, and the outcomes are different. 
  • The nonprofit sector employs 10% of Americas' workforce, making it the country's THIRD LARGEST WORKFORCE. This is not trivial. The National Council for Nonprofits has described the nonprofit sector as the significant economic driver that it is: if the sector was an independent country, it would have the 16th-largest economy in the world. Why must our sector continually fight for recognition, awareness, resources, and support? Well, that's a whole entire other blog post entirely, but let's boil it down to the simplest of truths: the change sector works on behalf of society's most vulnerable populations and issues, few of which equate to large financial gains or increased power in our society's deeply warped value system. 
  • Nonprofit organizations should not "just merge" or "collaborate more". I have heard this misconception often from people who lack a sophisticated understanding of the sector. Although multiple organizations may serve the same population or may work in similar spaces, each organization's mission, program focus, methodology, geographic focus, eligibility guidelines, and other core practices may vary (and there may be very large differences between organizations on all of these levels). Do me a favor: if you're ever about to opine that two or more organizations should "just" do any of the insanely complex, messy and tangled work of joining forces, please do some additional research. 99% of the time, you'll find that there are distinct differences between organizations and the work they do, making it far more complicated than "just" legally merging into a single organization, enmeshing services permanently, etc. 
  • The Overhead Myth. Enough said. If this term is wholly unfamiliar to you, take some time and get to know this issue. Helpful information on this topic is here, here, here, here, here and here.
  • The Sustainability Myth. Similar concept, less well-known. Funders and donors are loath to get involved and invest in organizations until and unless they prove there is a plan to ensure funding will continue on and on forever and ever to infinity (or, that's how it feels as a nonprofit professional.) More insidiously, the insistence upon proving an organization's "sustainability" is predicated on the notion that the organization will never need to request continued funding from donors and funders, which is dead wrong. The leading pieces on this subject are here, here, herehere, here, and here. My favorite take on this, from Vu Le: "The most serious challenge with the Sustainability Question, however, is that it is symptomatic of a divisive and patronizing system that perpetuates the unhealthy dichotomy of nonprofits as supplicants continually begging for spare change, and funders as benefactors."
  • Nonprofits should not run like businesses. Once more, with feeling: NONPROFITS. SHOULD. NOT. RUN. LIKE. BUSINESSES. The assumption that nonprofits need to learn from our wiser colleagues and organizations in the corporate sector is patronizing, disrespectful, and it's flat out wrong. Full stop. Nonprofit work is different than for-profit work at its most essential level. Nonprofits should run like well-run nonprofits. If you want nonprofits to run like businesses, you'd better be prepared to treat them on equal footing, which our society very much does not. All I've ever heard is "you should run more like a business" often with examples of how to import strategies directly (and seemingly magically!) from the for-profit world, but this is also accompanied by ZERO investment in making these strategies structurally or financially feasible in the nonprofit sector. See more from my favorite nonprofit unicorn blogger on this topic here, here, here and here. Stop #bizsplaining, please! 

And so ends my impassioned defense of nonprofit work as professional work...a thing that should not have to be defended in the first place. 

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Getting Started as a Grant Professional

If I've learned anything from my decade in the grants & fundraising world, it's that experience is the best teacher. My first job out of graduate school was as a Grant Writer, and the day I started in my role two things happened: My new supervisor (the agency's Director of Development) told me that my first assignment would be to complete and mail out two LOI's to foundations during that week, and also...she was putting in her two week's notice that day. My shock was likely palpable, and it was pretty evenly split at hearing both of these things. I had no idea what an LOI was, so I fervently googled around until I learned it was a Letter of Inquiry/Letter of Interest, and found a few articles and templates that at least set me on the path to completing my first task. My searches for "what to do when your boss quits on your first day" led to far less concrete guidance. 

I now have thousands of LOI's, proposals, rejections, grant reviews, hours of mentoring, and years of teaching grant writing skills under my belt as a development professional; and am often asked how to get started in this field. There are a few pieces of advice I give, as well as interesting (hopefully useful) things I've learned through my experience: 

  • You can read all the books, listen to the podcasts, take courses, go to workshops, and take part in a whole host of other learning activities to understand how to do this work (my list of recommended resources can be found here), but nothing is as valuable as getting in there and trying it for yourself. Throughout my career, I've rarely known exactly what I was getting into with specific funding agencies, applications, etc., but I've found that diving in and just doing it has led to a greater confidence in simply figuring it out, along with valuable development as a fundraising professional, and deeper knowledge of the nuances of this work. 
  • There's no magic formula. Anyone who tells you there is--is lying (and is probably trying to rip you off as well). Even when you're doing a great job--clear, concise, brief, powerful storytelling combined with rich, impactful data--your work is only 50% of the equation when funders are looking for a match. Speaking of which...
  • Rejection is a huge part of this work. The MAJORITY of grant proposals written are not funded, and cultivating a successful partnership with funders takes a significant investment of time and effort. As a development professional, you must learn to understand this, and take rejection as an opportunity to glean valuable information, as well as deepen your organization's relationship with a funder. 
  • Cultivation is also a huge part of this work. Identifying a match between your organization and potential funders is critical. Developing a relationship over time that is mutually beneficial is critical. Funding is not a one-way relationship, and the sooner you understand that as a development professional, the sooner you'll see success. Stewarding funders is vitally important. Growing a relationship with supporters over time is the lifeblood of most organizations, as it leads to stable funding (of course, this is relative in the nonprofit world!) and hopefully, increased giving. 
  • Gratitude is the single most important quality to possess and to put forward in your relationships with supporters. Say thank you, sincerely, as often as you can.
  • This work is not rocket science. It is not nearly as difficult to do successfully as people believe it is--grant writing is seriously not that hard! Follow instructions. Put yourself in the shoes of your potential funders as much as possible, everything you do should be to make their lives easier. Make their jobs less work, and you'll see greater success. 
  • Asking questions, not knowing everything, needing time and information to put things together...all of this is okay, and moreover, makes you a better development professional.  Be curious, ask for information, clarify when you don't know the answers. This applies both to relationships with funders as well as those within your organization. 
  • Nonprofit sustainability is a myth. Vu Le of Nonprofit AF has written eloquently and extensively on this topic, so I'll just link some of his amazing posts on the subject here, here, here, and here
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The Value of Professional Convenings

I'll be attending the Emerging Practitioners In Philanthropy (EPIP) conference this week, an event I've been involved with planning since February, which I'm thrilled to be a part of! It's not often that I find myself excited to head to a conference, but in the last year I've come across a few conferences, meetings, and continuing education opportunities that are super appealing to me. I've attended many a conference, meeting, convening, workshop, seminar, and PD session on everything from fundraising to program implementation throughout my nonprofit/public service career, and, let's face it--not all of them are amazing. So, I have some thoughts on how to make the most of PD opportunities for yourself, your long-range career plans, and your organizations. 

  1. Research your conference ahead of time. It's the internet age...there's no excuse to not spend a few minutes googling the presenting organization, speakers, topics, or even the sponsors. Get a sense of what types of sessions will be offered, what you might get out of it, and whom you may be able to connect with as a result of attending. Register early & get the best rates, and book travel early as well. 
  2. Set some goals for yourself. Are there specific content- or subject-specific areas you wish to delve into? Are there specific experts you'd like to meet? Are you looking to network? Are you seeking to improve skills or increase your knowledge? Evaluating these things can help you decide whether a specific conference or event will be worth the expense. 
  3. Speaking of expenses...know your budget (whether your organization will be sending you out of PD funds, or you'll be attending on your own dime). 
  4. Get creative. Those of us familiar with the shoestring reality of many nonprofit organizations have come across some ingenious solutions to limited resources. Explore lodging options outside of the recommended hotel, look at ways to rideshare to/from the event location, etc. 

There's a lot of value in attending professional convenings beyond the simplistic "hear some great speakers, learn a few new things, network until you run out of business cards" model. As I'm a mid-career professional, I'm finding I have lots more to learn from convenings that are slightly outside my wheelhouse of expertise (not that I have anything against fundraising-specific PD opportunities...I've been to a LOT of them and gotten a lot out of them over the years!) In addition to the EPIP conference, I'll also be attending Upswell in Los Angeles in mid-November, which is shaping up to be a truly memorable and new type of nonprofit conference experience. 

On that note, I'll leave below a few links of great advice that already exists out there (see thought #1 above!) on attending conferences and making the most of your experience: 

A Conference Junkie's Guide to Attending (and Enjoying) Conferences

Tips from introverts for introverts on how to survive a conference

How to Survive Attending a Big Conference

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Recommended Reading and Resources for Changemakers!

Assembled here are my personal recommendations for great resources across the board: books, blogs, article series, videos, podcasts, and more for those of us who are changemakers! 

Videos: 

Books: 

Blogs/Articles: 

Websites: 

Podcasts

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That's Unethical!

The most frequent ethical issue I've come across throughout my grants development career is compensation. Organizations, board members, and even nonprofit staff with limited experience in the grants field will often ask if it is acceptable for grant writers to be paid based on a percentage of grant funds awarded, other type of commission based on win rate, bonuses based on successful grant proposals, or finder's fees for grant awards. To be crystal clear: NONE OF THESE ACTIVITIES ARE ETHICAL! Warning bells go off in my head anytime a prospective client, board member, or nonprofit professional ask me these questions.

The ethical standards of the Grant Professionals Association and those of the Association of Fundraising Professionals specifically state that compensation for professional fundraising services, including grant writing, shall be based on salary or fee-for-service (i.e. hourly rate, retainer, per-project fee, etc.). Performance-based compensation such as bonuses in addition to salary or fee-based compensation is acceptable only as long as it is a standard practice within an organization and it bears no relationship to the amount of funds raised. 

Other ethical issues that often arise in the grants world include: 

  • Confidentiality-grant fundraisers deal with sensitive and proprietary information all the time, and must treat it as privileged information. 
  • Plagiarism-professional work must be original and sourced appropriately.
  • Use of Funds-grant monies must be used in accordance with the grant's intent. Expenditures must be aligned to the budget documents and narratives supplied to the funder in applications, and organizations must adhere to funder regulations regarding modifications to budgets.
  • Conflict of Interest-grant professionals must disclose relationships that constitute or could potentially constitute a conflict of interest with the organizations they work on behalf of, as well as funders. 
  • Relationships with Funders-as with any fundraising activity, grants fundraising is largely driven by relationships (see my posts on that here and here!) and it is critical that grant fundraisers do not misuse these relationships to benefit themselves or the organizations on behalf of which they work. 

Further reading, for those interested in the topic of ethics in the grant profession, can be found at the following links: 

https://www.grantprofessionals.org/ethicsfaqs

https://charitychannel.com/ethics-throughout-the-grant-profession-writing-implementation-and-reporting/

Happy Ethical Grant Writing! 

 

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Grant Professionals are matchmakers

Grant professionals occupy an interesting place in the nonprofit ecosystem. In an ideal world, the grant professional in any organization is responsible for the full spectrum of activities involved in a complete grant lifecycle, which range from deeply understanding the work and programs of the organization; identifying and researching prospective funding sources; developing relationships with funders; preparing, submitting and monitoring grant proposals; managing compliance for existing grants; maintaining grant records; collaborating with colleagues on organization and program development, fundraising, and other institution-wide activities; and much more.

 The grant professional in any organization should be a go-between, understanding their own organization and translating its’ needs to match those of prospective funding sources, ensuring that the mission, vision, and goals of the funder are met through investments of general and program support of their organization. The grant professional needs to thoroughly understand their organization’s mission and programs, opportunities for expansion and innovation, plus the ‘wish list’ of needs for future program and organizational development. Likewise, the grant professional needs to research, understand, and filter potential funding prospects with a similar focus. Grant professionals are constantly seeking the perfect match between their organizations and the current and prospective funders that are eager to effect change in the world through their investments.

Grant matchmaking requires several things to be most effective: the time and ability to thoroughly research prospective funders, commitment to extensively understanding your organization’s services and programs, the ability to effectively communicate internally with colleagues from various disciplines to obtain the information you need, the ability to communicate externally with current & prospective funders to tell effective stories and convey critical information, the discipline to synthesize a large volume of information, the ability to manage confidential information with discretion, a high level of sophistication in communication (in all forms), willingness and ability to build relationships with funders over time, and the skills of strategic planning, critical analysis, tactful communication, and high-volume multitasking.

Grant writing and management is a skilled, professional craft. An ability to write well is a prerequisite for becoming a grant professional, but it is only one component of the role. All of the areas of responsibility for grants professionals require a commitment of time and significant expertise to be done well. A specialized, skilled grants professional is a vitally important team member, one that many organizations mistakenly conflate with general resource development work or one of many duties assigned to an ED, top leader, or volunteer. Grants work is time- and effort-intensive, and producing high-quality, competitive grant applications and growing relationships with grant funders demands investment by organizations.

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On being a Social Worker

Upon completing my Bachelor’s degree (many moons ago) I got my first “real” job as the Early Childhood Parenting Coordinator for a School Readiness Program in Irvine, CA. The position was funded in part by California’s tobacco tax settlement funding, and in part by the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe Schools-Healthy Students grant program. This role was my first introduction to working in grant-funded programs, which sparked my 14+ year career in grants with nonprofits & public K-12 and higher education systems.

In that position, my programmatic work spanned a wide range of direct support services including counseling and providing case management to parents, families, and young children, teaching parenting classes, developing and delivering professional development for educators, evaluating and tracking my program outcomes, and a range of other services. My undergraduate degree in Cognitive Sciences (psychology) was helpful in theory, but in practice my academic background offered me little practical knowledge in my direct service role. A colleague observed my passion for both working directly with clients as well as managing the program and encouraged me to apply to graduate school in Social Work. It was something I barely even needed to consider before deciding that would be the best choice for me to further my education and my career. I was accepted to USC (a top 10 School of Social Work!) and completed my Masters in Social Work with a concentration in Industrial/Organizational Social Work (then called Social Work in the Workplace).

After finishing my Master’s, I got a job as a Grant Writer for a nonprofit social services agency in Orange County, where I discovered that my passion for serving people directly and my aptitude for thinking, planning, and communicating strategically fit perfectly with my training as a Social Worker to work as a grants professional. I have now been working in the grants space full-time for about a decade, as a grant writer, program manager, organizational leader, university instructor, consultant, and professional association leader. I believe wholeheartedly that my Social Work training and direct service background have helped me immensely during my career. As a result of my experience, I am able to fully understand the implications of grant program development on the implementation side, and I understand the intersection of organizational mission, strategic planning, board cultivation, and fund development with program services and client relationships. The broad skills development and background I’ve gained from my Social Work training in community and organizational needs assessments, asset mapping and development, program lifecycle development, and analysis has assisted me innumerable times over my career. I also firmly believe that the combination of my training, my personality, and my skills & aptitudes has helped me throughout my career to see and understand all sides of organizational development and management, program services and implementation, and funder relationship development. I am deeply proud to be a Social Worker, and I am so grateful that the field allows for the best expression of my unique abilities, talents, skills and experience. Social Workers rule!

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Conventional Fundraising Advice Works! (A defense of the Thank You Note)

In conversations and interactions with funders, donors, and nonprofit stakeholders, I often find myself surprised by the negative feedback I hear about nonprofit fundraising practices (or lack thereof). I've heard funders complain about completely mismatched or misguided requests for funding; not receiving proper acknowledgement, or any at all; grantees that disregard their obligations to provide reporting; and organizations that fail to communicate when projects are not proceeding as intended. 

Donors, funders, supporters--those wonderful benevolent creatures and organizations who ensure that we can all continue to do our good work as a direct result of their generosity--all too often we miss opportunities to thank them in meaningful ways that further our relationship. We also fail to communicate in ways that make sense for individual funders' styles and preferences, we attempt to obfuscate or hide when things are not going as well as intended, or we get too busy and forget to uphold best practices in relationship management that....get this....ACTUALLY WORK! 

It's not rocket science, folks...send some dang thank you notes! My tips, hard-learned lessons, and best practices after more than a decade-long career in fundraising, presented in no particular order:

  1. Ask, Listen, Act. In all of your interactions with funders, do these things. 
  2. Have conversations with your stakeholders about the ways in which they prefer to be contacted, to be thanked, or to be acknowledged. Ask them what they prefer. 
  3. Listen to your funders, and adjust your practices based on their feedback. Like any good communicator, ask open-ended questions and then shush your own mouth while you hear what the other party has to say! 
  4. SEND A DANG THANK YOU NOTE! Ideally: handwritten, sent via postal mail, within 24 hours of contact. It's not hard! Do it! 
  5. Offer funders a range of options for recognition, allow them to choose the acknowledgements that make sense for them. Some love having their logos plastered all over your website or program materials, some don't! Don't stick to a rigid recognition package at specific and certain donation levels--that can be off-putting for some folks. 
  6. Pay attention to your language. Inviting a donor for a site visit or tour can make them feel like they're about to be hit up for another contribution. A friend recently told me that in her organization, they specifically state that they're inviting donors for a "no-agenda, behind-the-scenes tour." This is BRILLIANT phrasing. 
  7. MAKE SOME DANG PHONE CALLS! Personal touches with supporters can go a long way towards building a mutually respectful relationship. 
  8. Be honest, transparent, trustworthy and forthright in your communication with your supporters. Desperation, deception, and insincerity are perceptible. 

I'll be writing more about some of these specific practices in the future, but in the meantime...I can't say it enough...best practices have achieved that status for a reason-they work!

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The Girl Tribe

I've been lucky to stumble in to some of the greatest personal and professional friendships of my life by virtue of happenstance.

In 2010, I moved to Las Vegas to escape the high cost of living in Southern California and seek new professional opportunities. At the time, I was newly hired to work on a sustainability grant program focusing on training youth for 'green' jobs. Through the small-town nature of Las Vegas (more on that in another post!), I kept bumping into the same sets of people at meetings and events. We formed acquaintances and soon after, real friendship. Initially, four of us saw each other so often at events that we began to form a bond. Recognizing that we were all women, around the same age, and working in similar fields allowed us a level of comfort and trust in our communication and for our friendships to grow. We also eschewed the tempting and far likelier "let's all meet up for happy hour" plans for a standing meeting to go early on a weekend morning to take a long hike or walk, trying out different parks and trails throughout our valley. We soon added a fifth and sixth friend to our little group, which we'd affectionately nicknamed the Girl Tribe. 

The value of these friendships to me has been priceless, I cannot overstate the number of times throughout the years these wonderful women have offered myself and each other support, guidance, empathy, reality checks, advice, and comfort. We all have backgrounds in nonprofits and public agencies, as front-line workers and fundraisers, to management, all the way to the top executive position. Each of us has different professional experience, which we all bring to the table collectively when we spend time together. I'm convinced it's key to my success professionally, as the perspectives of my friends as professional colleagues whom I deeply respect have been invaluable as I've moved through my career in the last near-decade. 

Because of the level of trust we have in one another and our friendship, we can freely discuss what is going on in our lives and in our workplaces. Collectively, we offer each other a listening ear, a place to vent, a source of advice and counsel, commiseration, and perspective. We challenge each other when something feels off, we encourage each other to think of things in different ways, and we bolster each other with the lessons we've learned from our own experiences. On our long hikes and walks, we take the opportunities to talk through situations and challenges so that our partners, families, friends, and colleagues don't have to hear as much about those things from us. We ask each other for advice, and help each other make decisions. I've learned a tremendous amount from these women over the years, for which I'm eternally grateful. So, to Amelia, Rae, Lauren, Kate and Elaina...all I can say is thank you, I love you all so much! 

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On Relationships

Relationships are to fundraising as water is to sustaining human life. Essential. 

Yet, many organizations struggle with creating, maintaining, enhancing, and maturing relationships with their funders, supporters, and donors. The reasons are as diverse and as numerous as nonprofit organizations themselves: lack of time/resources/capacity, fear, misunderstanding of donor preferences, incorrect assumptions, the list goes on and on. 

In teaching courses on grant writing, development, and management to university students and professionals, I am often struck by how surprised my students are to discover that relationship building is central to becoming a successful grant professional. Understanding how to work successfully with different funders and supporters is a critical skill to develop that significantly improves both your allocation of time and effort, as well as outcomes with funders. 

It is critical as a grants professional to understand how to succinctly describe the work of your organization, frame the opportunity(ies) for investment/giving, understand deeply the interests and mission of your prospective funder in order to make a match, and jointly envision the outcome of investment in terms of the impact on your organization and the community/issue you serve.

Relationships with funders aren't built overnight, nor can they be sustained solely on the bare minimum (i.e. submitting reports on-time). Communication and touchpoints that go above and beyond the baseline requirements, but that are still within your capacity, are key to developing strong relationships with funders. 

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About this here little blog

Hello! I'm Beth, a veteran nonprofit professional, with over 14 years of experience in grant writing, resource development, program management, and organizational development.

I've decided to begin this blog as a way to explore ideas, best practices, complexities, and curiosities of the nonprofit and public sector that I've encountered throughout my career. I often find myself talking with colleagues, students, funders, and donors about similar issues (some that are applicable only to the unique community in which I live, Southern Nevada, and some that are much more broadly applicable).

I will be using this blog as a space to explore my own experiences, perceptions, and thinking on the issues within the changemaking space that I find interesting and compelling. The views in this blog are entirely my own, and are informed by my many years of experience working in nonprofit organizations, higher education, quasi-government agencies, and with professional organizations. I do not claim to represent the views or official positions of any of the organizations I have worked with or for. 

This is a space for professional and personal exploration and growth. I welcome respectful comments, questions, and interaction! Here's to a new adventure!