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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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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