March, 2010

Right Fit: Matching a Grant Opportunity to Your Organization’s Needs

Sometimes organizations choose the wrong funding source for a project because they simply don’t know any better.  Rule #1 in diagnosing this problem:  If an organization is still handwriting its proposals, it’s probably not ready for prime time for most funding sources.  Don’t laugh.  I had a city official (not Milwaukee) say to me just last week that she was working with several community-based organizations and faith-based groups that were scratching out their funding requests with pen and paper.  Ok, so that group needs pre-funding remedial classes.

What about the organizations that should know better?

Some organizations – we used to call them bottom feeders – go after every bit of scrunge in the water.  No matter if it fits with mission, program capacity, or strategic plan.  Got money? Got proposal.  Just like people who throw $5 worth of dimes in the little fishbowls at the carnival, eventually you will win a goldfish — a 39 cent fish that you spent 13 times that much trying to land.  If you are working in an organization with this trolling philosophy, it’s almost impossible to change it.  You see, even one win reinforces the strategy.  Yay for the 39 cent goldfish!

In more discerning organizations, there is usually some analysis that precedes the decision to apply for funding from a particular source.  Smart organizations seem to do these things:

  • Know about funding opportunities way before everyone else They don’t wait for the published RFA (Request for Applications).  These organizations are so tuned in they know what’s coming down the pike and they’re ready.
  • Communicate up and down the food chain.  I am always worried about organizations where the grant go-ahead decision rests with only one or two people.  A much better situation is when a group of people – and the group might change depending on the proposal – conduct some serious ‘vetting’.  Would this funding help us achieve our goals?  Do we have the resources to a) win the grant; and b) successfully administer it? Is this some other organization’s money, e.g. has another organization in town consistently received this funding and done an ok job with it?   This kind of discussion serves two purposes – helps you decide whether to move forward and reinforces a sense of team and mission around the grantseeking effort.
  • Correctly assess their own grantwriting capabilities.  I’ll just say it here:  a newbie grantwriter who’s done two foundation grants cannot write a successful SAMHSA grant (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) with 50 moving parts, complex research and evaluation requirements, and tons of other hoops that only a small and very skilled army can manage.  In other words, your resources have to be adequate to the challenge.
  • Listen to the funding source’s explanation of its prioritiesIf a major national foundation or federal department has published its grantmaking priorities and guidelines, it is not your place to try to change their mind.  Countless times, I’ve listened to organizations, so determined to press on in the face of screaming red lights, strategize about how to convince the funding source that its thinking is off and their thinking is right.   Ignorance and arrogance — always a winning combination.  If you’re so convinced that your idea should be considered, have a conversation with the funding source.  Start a dialogue.  You never know what will happen down the road.
  • Build.  Successful grantseeking organizations connect the dots.  One funding source leads to another.  Performance, communication, networking, new opportunity.  Steady, purposeful effort aimed at building capacity. 
  • Walk away.  This is so hard to do if you’re an organization that is on a growth trajectory and is very competitive.  But it’s essential to the notion of right fit.  Sometimes, you really have to walk away.

I was trained in an organization that applied for everything that walked and tried to make sense of it later.  As a consequence, I’ve written some of the most outlandish proposals you will ever read – don’t even get me started.  But that was a while ago and I’m a lot smarter now – my little goldfish plaques notwithstanding.

YIPES! Why Being Scared to Death is Good for Your Career

Flop Sweat.  That ought to be the name of my company, Flop Sweat LLC.

Flop Sweat:  nervous perspiration caused by a fear of failure before an audience.  This, my friends, is the story of my life.

So why is flop sweat/fear of failure such a constant theme in my work?  Because I think it’s important to do scary things – like public speaking, organizing big events, taking on complex projects with tight deadlines, and negotiating with tough customers of all types.

I can remember times when my fear of failure almost put me into a faint.  One example is a huge community planning event designed to bring together observant Jews and African Americans to create Vision Sherman Park.  Somewhere between the PowerPoint, the survey results, the intricate seating arrangements, the marinara sauce, and Rabbi Twerski, I found my footing but only after repeating, oh, probably a hundred times, my mother’s inevitable response as I whined about some upcoming presentation at school, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero dies but once.”

Every scary thing I’ve done and survived has ratcheted up my competence and willingness to take risks.  Moreover, I’ve learned to trust my judgement and believe in my own voice.  To say to yourself, “I’m afraid but I’m doing it anyway” is very empowering and a lot better than saying, “I’m scared to death and I’m going to find somebody to hide behind.”

Friends and colleagues who complain about how boring their work is strike me as people unwilling to bust out of the tiny circle they’ve drawn around their professional role.  You know the feeling — scared to make a fool of yourself on the dance floor, you hang back with all the other drips not realizing you would be a lot less of a drip if you would just freakin’ DANCE.

So as my mother would say, “If you’re bored, you have only yourself to blame.”  (My mother was a sweet, gentle person but she did have a lot of hardcore attitudes.) My guess is that people who are bored with their work are doing the same 10 things over and over.  They find excuses why they can’t take chances — their boss won’t let them, it’s not in their job description, they might FAIL.  That’s ok.  People want to be stuck, they can be stuck.  But they won’t grow.

My career hasn’t been a  beautiful string of successes.  I’ve had several head-hanging, what was I thinking, will I ever work again moments in my business. Thank goodness, there’ve been enough successes and good work to help most people forget the mistakes.  But I can guarantee you — I am absolutely never bored.

I Could’ve Been a Bat Girl: Notes from Spring Training

Of course, how could I have been a bat girl?  There ARE no bat girls.  Bat people are boys.  We all know that.  Still.  I could pick up bats and keep the ump supplied with balls with the best of them.  Because I’ve been to spring training.  In fact, I’m at Brewers Spring Training in Phoenix, AZ as we speak.  And if there’s a better place to be, I sure don’t know where it is.

I’m not a maniacal baseball fan, nor a student of baseball.  However, I am married to an avid fan and attend a lot of games every year – we’re talking 25 or so not counting 3-4 spring training games.  Until very recently, watching baseball was a meditative experience for me.  But then something clicked – I think it was the day I got the metaphorical significance of Striking Out Looking – and I started to love baseball and baseball players alot.

Spring training is the loveliest thing in the world if you are any kind of a fan at all.  First of all, everything about it makes you feel new – new season, new players, new promises.  Makes everyone feel like they’re 25.  It’s also the most relaxed and mellow place on earth (except for the young guys coming up trying to impress the coaches).  There’s a road in Phoenix called Carefree Highway and, in my mind, it runs right to Maryvale where the Brewers Stadium is located.  Picture the program vendor who dumps his sack in the 8th inning to stand atop the dugout to lead the crowd in YMCA or the former MPS teacher, now beer vendor, who gives each section a grade on how well they echo his trademark yell.

Most of all, people are happy.  The players joke around and tease each other.  Prince Fielder has a big grin on his face – something you don’t see once regular season starts.  And everyone is kind and chatty and generous.  Uncharacteristically, I made a play to catch a promotional T-shirt, missed it, only to have the woman who did catch it give it to me.  Dang. 

Nothing real profound here.  Just Arizona in March with a bunch of young guys playing ball and having fun.  Hard to complain.  🙂

3rd and State — 12th and Walker: Worlds Apart

Yesterday, on the way to El Rey, my husband and I drove down Washington Street.  As we passed 12th, I looked up the street and could see, a block away, the flowers and memorials in front of what had to be the home of Rachel Thompson and her two sons. I looked at the house, amazed that what had happened to this young family had occurred in this neighborhood, with people going about their business, kids on the street, life happening.  How is it even possible, I thought, that three people could massacre a family?  What kind of person could put garbage bags over toddlers’ heads and watch them suffocate?  I use the word unfathomable.  Not because it can’t be understood by anyone — it just can’t be understood by me. 

Shift gears.  Last week I went with Joe Volk and Steve Falek to meet with members of the Milwaukee Journal Editorial Board to convince them to support the Continuum of Care’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.  We went up the elevator, past a sprawling newsroom, and into a paneled conference room complete with a portrait of Solomon Juneau and there we made our pitch for their support.  It wasn’t hard — it’s not easy to be against ending homelessness.  The meeting, along with a terrific plan generated by a tireless group of CoC members, resulted in a great editorial two days later complete with a picture of a homeless man straight from central casting.  

So this is the high and low – the up and down – the good and the bad.  Certainly the exhileration I felt at the Editorial Board dissipated when I learned the details of the Thompson family murders. But standing back, I’m seeing circles – overlapping circles with the family in the middle, various systems, neighbors, teachers, and social workers touching their circle, but maybe the Editorial Board experience and what it represents in terms of Milwaukee’s opinion leadership and power structure just ever so faintly touching the Thompson’s world.

If I don’t get it, the Editorial Board probably doesn’t either.  And although they are closer to the ground, I bet the social workers and parole officers and the teachers know about the day to day, they are still at a loss as to what to do to prevent this in the future.

We don’t know why those young people would murder Rachel and her kids any more than we really know why people are homeless in a country with so much wealth.  It’s going to make my head ache extra hard to hear Charlie Sykes and his ilk jump up with the ‘she should’ve known better’ or he should’ve worked harder’ insta-analysis.  And the inevitable, ‘this organization or this system failed.’

The fact of the matter – and I see this every day – is that the people who run homeless shelters, police officers, juvenile court workers, social workers – they’re all doing the best they can and trying to make things better.  They might not know the answers but they keep at it. And I guess that’s what we do at a time like this.  We just keep at it.