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The Pain of Comparison

Jan 2013 Portrait BW

It’s tough being compared to others, having your results put side by side with other agencies’.  This is especially true if your outcomes fall short.

Programs are sufficiently different that it’s always easy to claim that comparisons are apples to oranges. Mitigating circumstances are never fully explained when numerical data are  used to describe programs’ activities and results. But program managers always want the backstory to play prominently in any analysis of data.

“You need to explain our special situation, our staffing issues, the problems with resources,” a program will say to me.

That sounds like what you want me to explain are your excuses.

It is one thing to provide context for data. It is quite another to protect programs from comparison or to let programs ‘off the hook’ for their performance because of their special circumstances.

Ultimately, funders and the public want to know what is working and what isn’t. Programs that can show results and aren’t afraid to have their results compared to others are the ones that earn more investment.

The pain of comparison might be acute but it’s worth it if the result is better programs and improved outcomes.

 


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My Love Note to Funders about Outcomes

 

Dear funders,

This is so hard to tell you but sometimes you just expect too much.

On the one hand, you want us to serve those who most need help. You tell us that the hardest to serve should be our target group. No creaming allowed. If we’re really good at what we do, we won’t be afraid to take the toughest clients:

– the chronically homeless with untreated mental illness;

– the long-term unemployed with no high school diploma or marketable skills; and

– the heroin-addicted mother whose children are living in foster care.

And so, because we know that these are the people who truly need our help and because we want to make our funders happy, we reach out to the people with the most serious problems. That’s when we remember: that’s why they’re called ‘hardest to serve.’

We just want to remind you, beloved funders, that ‘hardest to serve’ often translate into zeroes in the outcome column. People with complex, long-standing problems don’t seem to succeed on the ambitious timelines we set out for them in our grant proposals and program designs.

So what does this mean? It might mean that if we meet half our outcome goal, we are showing 100% more success for people than they would have had without us. It might mean that our results don’t tell the whole story about small increments of success in a person trying to find his or her way to a safe, productive life. It might mean that positive change is not a straight line, it zig-zags and sometimes stops altogether for long periods.

We know that funding is all about outcomes and that’s a good thing.  Expecting measurable results makes for better programs and greater accountability.

Just try to match your expectations about results to your desire to put your resources where they will do the most good.

Respectively,

Your funded agency

 

 


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Solving the Riddle of Project Sustainability

Every grant application asks you how you will sustain funding for the proposed project after grant funding has ended. Nearly all funders see their role as launching new ideas, supporting pilot programs, and encouraging system change. For that reason, most funding sources limit their support to three to five years. After that, it is their expectation that other sources of support will be found. That’s why a grant application will ask you to describe your strategy for sustainability.

Do you have one?

Right now, I’m working on a sustainability plan for an innovative program which is two years into a three-year federal grant. This has caused me to think hard about what needs to go into sustainability planning. Here are my thoughts:

Start early: There’s a reason why funding sources ask you to talk about sustainability in the grant application. It’s because that’s when you should be thinking about it! Last minute sustainability planning equals panic; that’s not productive.

Engage good partners: This also should be done early. Bringing in key partners at the beginning insures their input in program design and operation and gives them time to think about their own organization’s role in sustainability. If each key partner can see how the project benefits his/her organization, their contribution to sustainability will be enhanced.

Operate a good program: Self-evident, maybe, but you’d be surprised how many projects have slow start-ups, heavy staff turnover, poor recruitment, and other impediments to showing impressive results. Unless a program has good outcomes that indicate future, even better, success, sustainability is practically impossible.

Determine what’s worth sustaining: Not every program component will make the cut. It’s important to have a critical eye toward the program, think objectively about what’s working well and what isn’t and consider program modifications or even redesign to strengthen winning components.

Develop a compelling case statement: This has two ingredients: 1) an analysis of participant outcomes that demonstrates that people do better in this program than without it; and 2) an analysis of costs associated with the program as compared to business as usual. You want to have a strong answer to potential funders’ question: Is this program better than what we are currently doing?

Find the connectivity: Among your partners, who benefits most from the program? In the broader community, including government, human service systems, foundations, who stands to benefit from the results your program is providing? Finding these connections and weaving them together into a network of interest and support for the project is critical.

Educate: There are many ways to educate and a project focused on sustainability needs to employ them all. Having good program materials, using print and social media, making presentations to conferences and groups of foundations, and seeking opportunities to educate the broader community about the project are all critical sustainability steps. Every member of a collaborative effort should be able to educate others about the project.

Connect the resource dots: Sustainability may be the result of new funding, realignment of existing funding, increased in-kind resources, greater use of volunteers, institution of a fee structure or all of the above and more. What is clear from experience is that one single funding source is unlikely to be the savior for a program; there needs to be a network of support if long-term sustainability is to be achieved.

Project sustainability is a tough question but without careful thought and planning, a great project can evaporate at the end of its initial funding. Time to start planning is now.

 

 

 


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Build a Better Program: Flow Chart

What is this nightmarish scribbling?  It’s the makings of a flow chart, of course.  You can’t tell? 

Like logic models, a good flow chart can help a planning group or a funder understand how people will ‘flow’ through a new program. This is another way to explain graphically how a proposed program will work. If done well, a flow chart can also show how a program won’t possibly work. 

Creating a flow chart is something that many program developers avoid.  Because they see in their heads how a program will work and because they’ve described the operation in a narrative, they figure a flow chart is duplicative, takes too much time to develop, and consumes too much space in a proposal or report.  I don’t agree with this.  Here’s why.

First, the process of creating a flow chart will expose areas of weakness in the program design. Overly-complex processes, service delays, confused decision points, and too many opportunities for consumers to drop out in frustration can all be surfaced in flow-charting.

Second, if a new program is being developed by a consortium of agencies or even a group of departments within an organization, a good flow chart will help define roles and responsibilities. Wrong assumptions about who will be doing what can kill a good program if not caught before implementation begins.  A flow chart is good preventive medicine.

Third, a flow chart supports the development of a better, more realistic, and detailed budget. Whether you are putting together a funding proposal or a new program approach, a well thought-out flow chart will lead to new questions about how much various steps will cost, the source of that funding, and how the process could possibly be made more efficient.

For these reasons, a good flow chart represents time well spent. Don’t get caught up in all the tricky engineering flow chart symbols, just start at Point A with a box and draw an arrow to Point B until it makes sense to you.  The finished product will look nothing like where you started but then neither will your program.  That’s the whole point.

 


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Ham Up!

Ask not what you can do for your country. 

Ask what’s for lunch

 — Orson Welles

If you are an up and comer, a bright little nova about to burst in the sky, one of next year’s Forty Under Forty, then you’re making a big mistake if you work through lunch.  Oh, I hear you.  You have tons of work to do.  You like working through lunch because everyone else in the office is gone and it’s really nice and quiet.  You don’t want a reputation for taking long lunch hours.

Yes, I hear you, but you’ve got this one wrong. 

When I worked for Milwaukee County as their first Grants Coordinator, I’d just come from an agency where lunch was an art form.  However, in the County Courthouse, lunch meant going down the elevator to the Homicide: Life on the Streets cafeteria, eating a tuna sandwich and hotfooting upstairs before your minutes were up.  So when I headed for the elevator and got off on the 1st Floor to walk outside into the sunshine and the vast array of eateries around 9th and Wells, people piped up real quick, “Where are you going?”

Well, I’m going to lunch.  Why was I going to lunch?

Because I needed to make connections in order to get some big grants going and the place that connections could get made was LUNCH.

Yes, I could have had meetings with the same people.  But a meeting isn’t like lunch.  A meeting is about the agenda, getting things done, leaving with assignments, and feeling super efficient.  Lunch is about having a relationship with someone that is bigger than a single project, a connection that is more enduring, more intimate, and more fruitful over the long term. It’s talking about your kids, it’s knowing that someone actually has kids, it’s sharing information about new developments, it’s cracking a joke and having a decent laugh, it’s building a business friendship for the long haul.  Valuable stuff.

Like many of you, I tend to work through lunch (and I actually had a tuna sandwich today) but I know about the value of lunch and intend to recommit myself to this essential business practice.  So – get on the phone and make a date for lunch!  And I’ll do the same.

And, oh, kudos to the County’s old dungeon of a cafeteria – because it used to open at 5:00 a.m. which let folks like me who’d spent their working hours at lunch come in early to get their work done.

 

 


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Federal Grants: The Lure of the Mother Lode

Federal grant guidelines read like Harvard dissertations these days.  Gone are the times when government bureaucrats pulled together RFP’s that typically were short on substance and long on ticky requirements, the expectation being, I believe, that people in the field would know best about how to address a particular problem.  The result of this open door to program ideas was mixed — a lot of brilliant programs but as many true duds that burned up federal dollars and helped no one.

I plowed through two sets of  federal grant guidelines (RFA’s – Request for Funding Applications) this week.  Both of them for complex, high-impact programs and both with impressive, almost intimidating, levels of content sophistication.  No bureaucrat hoping to get an RFA out the door in a hurry wrote these RFA’s. As substantial as the general content was, the programmatic requirements were even more impressive – what needed to be done, by whom, in partnership with which entities, and for what outcomes. 

No place for amateurs.  That’s the message running through all 50+ pages of these literary gems.

So what does this mean for you if you’re a grant writer?  I know established grant writers – in business for many years – who have never broken out of the $25,000 foundation grant application.  When I talk federal grants to them, they shudder and start backing up. Whoa, I’m not in that league.

Sure you are.  But you need to be smart.  Here are three things to consider:

1.  Everything takes practice.  Just because you can play Chopsticks on the piano does not mean you can play Chopin.  I know this because I can barely play Chopsticks despite years of wishing. So in terms of writing federal grants, you need to get in on some group efforts so you can see how complex proposals are put together, get familiar with the strategy, and understand the language.  You need to start practicing.

2. The competition is extraordinary.  There are certain types of proposals, like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grants, where professional grantwriters have made careers and pretty dandy incomes from just writing those grants.  That’s all they do, they know every teeny thing about how to win, and they make a lot of money.  But these folks weren’t born with the Midas touch.  They started out being nudniks like us.

3.  Winning a federal grant is the same only different.  This was one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings — always perplexing to me — but here’s how it applies in this case.  Everything it takes to win a foundation grant – good program, sound outcomes, decent management – is necessary to win a federal grant and then some.  Assume that every applicant has met the minimum standard and has a lot of then some.  At first, you won’t know how to ratchet up your proposal to the next, the next, the next level.  And then it will become clear what you need to do.  This makes federal grant writing a lot of fun, especially if you’ve got a good strong competitive streak.

A federal grant can easily provide ten times the amount of funding provided by a local foundation grant.  That’s a lot of good that can be done for your organization and the community.  It is the mother lode.  Now go find your pick axe and get going.

This summer’s Planners and Grantwriters Roundtable, sponsored by the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee,  will have a whole session devoted to federal grants. (July 18, 2012).  Check out PGR on Facebook for more news.


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Getting Rid of Grantwriter Stress: What Did We Learn?

A few days ago, I posted about grantwriter stress, sharing my own shameful stories about licorice and gum overdosing.  The goal of the post, so to speak, was to generate some interest in the Planners and Grantwriters Roundtable held January 25th at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and sponsored by the Nonprofit Center.  I’m co-facilitator of the group along with Janet Peshek from Cathedral Center and Rochelle Dukes Fritsch from IMPACT.

It was a terrific roundtable.  Two great presenters: Sue Beck-Riekkoff from IMPACT Workplace Services and Ann Laatsch, Managing Attorney of Disability Services at Community Advocates.  Plus a group of initially kind of weary-looking but, by the end of the session, pretty upbeat group of about 15 grantwriters.

What did I learn?

  • Unrelieved stress is like those aging leftovers in the little Tupperware container in the back of your refrigerator.  The longer it’s there, the worse it’ll be when you finally take off the lid.
  • Standing on your head gives you new perspective and that can reduce your stress.  Well, not literally standing on your head but doing something that changes up your environment.  Or, if you’re a yoga-ette like Ann, actually being upside down.  You decide.
  • Another good one from Ann:  in times of stress or discomfort, curl up the sides of your mouth.  I’ve tried this occasionally when I’m in an aggravating conversation with a colleague.  It doesn’t always reduce my stress but it does make the other person wonder what you’re thinking.
  • Words matter.  And here, we’re talking mostly about self-talk.  If you know you’re going to have a crummy day, you probably will.  But if you rattle around in that top drawer to find your happy sweater, you can put your day in another direction.
  • You control you. Don’t give other people the power to control your mood or add to your stress.
  • And of course, BREATHE.  This was interesting.  Research shows that women, in particular, tend to breathe very shallowly – not good when it’s deep breathing (so you feel your midsection rise when you exhale (or was it inhale?).  Anyway, you know what I mean.  Breathe deep!

A great session.  A lot of laughs – a big stress reducer right there.  Grantwriters have a lot of stress — getting together every now and then can really help. 

Our next roundtable is April 18th (also the birthday of one of the fabulous facilitators).  Deborah Fugenschuh from the Donors Forum of Wisconsin will be our guest.

More info to follow.  But in the meantime, stand on your head and crack a few jokes.  You’ll feel a lot better!


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Stress: Let’s Put It Out!

I once was so stressed out working on a proposal that while I had a lit cigarette in the ashtray on my desk, I put a pencil in my mouth and flicked my Bic.  Since I quit smoking, I’ve been known to eat a) whole packages of black licorice (that is A LOT of black licorice, my friends!); b) whole bags of pretzels; and c) whole packages of Trident Peppermint and/or Tropical Fruit gum in the course of a proposal-writing day. 

There is gum stuck to my office floor.  Not everywhere like in a crummy theatre, but enough to raise eyebrows.  What the heck has been going on in this office? a casual observer might ask.

A deadline staring me in the face.

People who promised me essential data for a proposal suddenly getting sick.

Realizing I was following the wrong guidelines.

Knowing that I don’t know enough about the proposal topic.

Getting feedback from colleagues that is stupid and unhelpful.

Being completely and totally overwhelmed.

Knowing I will eventually do a great job but having no idea in the world how.

Always having my professional credibility on the line.

When you write a proposal, especially for something that actually matters – like places for homeless people to live or ways for parents to regain custody of their children, you tend to feel a lot of PRESSURE.  No matter how good the idea is, if it isn’t commissioned on paper as a winning proposal, it won’t be implemented.  Homeless people.  Orphaned kids.  Yipes!

By now, you might be thinking I have the answer for this.  I don’t.  But, I’m part of a small band of colleagues – the Planners and Grantwriters Roundtable at the Nonprofit Center – that gets together to talk about things like this and hear from people who have great ideas and some darn solutions.  We have a session on Grantwriter Stress coming up on Wednesday, January 25, 2012, from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. at the Milwaukee Foundation.  The cost is a cheap $20 (about the price of 10 bags of pretzels).  Call the Nonprofit Center at 414-344-3933 to sign up.


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Get The Money: Part 2: Ditch the Blue Smoke and Mirrors

I probably say it a dozen times in my workshops:  Writing funding proposals is a competitive sport.

And just like in sports, there’s no charity.  There’s no forgiveness of mistakes. There’s no dismissing poor performance as a fluke. There’s no fooling.  Blue smoke and mirrors just don’t work.  Sorry.

It’s serious competition and the result is winner take all.

Most proposals, especially high dollar federal proposals, are scored by independent panels of peer reviewers.  What this means is that experts in the field who have been trained to score proposals are in charge of your fate.  This refers to high level national competitions but much less so to state and local funding.  Foundations run the gamut. Depending on their size, interests, and investment plan, foundations may use a formal point process or put more store in relationships, reputation, and their program officers’ gut about certain projects.

For those of you who write proposals that will be formally scored, here are three tips gleaned from many years in the federal grantwriting business:

 1.  Read the proposal guidelines very carefully.  You’re looking for two things here.  First,  how the points are distributed, e.g. how many for the problem statement, how many for the program design and so on, will tell you what’s important to the funding source.  You need to score high in all sections.  But the point distributions tells you where to focus your planning and preparation efforts. 

Second, what are the specific criteria on which the point allocation will be made?  Proposal guidelines can be tricky, providing information about the required elements in one place and the evaluation criteria in another.  And they don’t always match.  Your job as the proposal writer is to create an integrated list of criteria.  In other words, you are going to respond well to everything.

2. Understand that each proposal section is scored separately.  This means that the problem statement, program design, organizational description are scored independently of each other.  Sure, it’s possible to cross-reference information from one section to another (a good strategy to save space in a document), but you must make sure that each section pretty much stands alone and fully addresses the point criteria.

3.  Look under the rock.  Proposal reviewers, especially federal reviewers, hide their detailed review under a big rock.  What is the big rock?  It’s applicants’ fear of criticism.  Review comments are available upon request.  So, if a panel of three peer reviewers scored your proposal, you can receive all of their scores and comments.  This is the road map for the next proposal.  It will tell you where you were weak and why.  Your competition is combing through those review comments looking for ways to improve next time.  The fools – the ones with their programs’ pockets turned inside out, complaining about the unfairness of funding sources – will write the same failing proposal next time or, if they’re really special, find new ways to fail.

Think about proposal writing like a football team prepares for a game and then reviews a loss.  They watch film.  They play as hard as they possibly can. They watch more film. They analyze their strengths and weaknesses.  They win.  (Yes, sports fans, I know I’m oversimplifying here but you get my point.)

That’s what winning proposal writers do.  I learned this the hard way so I know it’s true.  Good luck!


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Get The Money: Part 1: The Language of Proposal Writing

There are dozens of books and workshops about writing proposals. Most of them focus on how to write a proposal from the macro point of view — needs statement, project design, goals and objectives, evaluation, and budget. Absent is advice about the micro level. 

What is the language of proposals? How should the written proposal word look and feel?  Does it make a difference how a proposal reads as long as it contains the right information?

I think it makes a huge difference.

Proposals are competitive.  They’re scored by human beings – people who might be tired, rushed, bored with the topic; people who want to make a good decision and do it quickly.  If your proposal is hard to read, it won’t be read well.  It’ll be skimmed.  You don’t want that.  The proposals that are skimmed by reviewers don’t get funded. 

FIVE QUICK TIPS:

1. Write only facts.  Proposal reviewers are looking for evidence that your organization knows what it’s doing and can run a good program.  Everything you write in a proposal needs to contribute to the evidentiary pile.  If it doesn’t, get rid of it. Some folks think that this takes the heart out of their proposal.  I don’t agree.  You shouldn’t have to weep on the page.  The numbers should make the case for you.

2.  Park the adjectives.  Pretend you have only ten adjectives to use in your entire proposal.  Place them judiciously in spots where they will catch the reviewers eye and where the word is backed up by evidence.  (See #1 above) Instead of using a lot of adjectives, focus on comparisons.  Rather than saying that the incidence of homelessness in Milwaukee is extremely high compare Milwaukee’s ratio of homeless to non-homeless to several comparable cities, report Milwaukee’s ranking on a national scale, or present a trend line showing worsening stats over time. Numerical comparisons are 100 times more effective than adjectives.

3. Use a formal tone.  Many successful proposal writers use the first person as in “We run a great program.”  I think this is too familiar in a grant proposal.  An letter or email solicitation is another matter but in a formal grant proposal, the use of the first person sounds unprofessional to me. Similarly, a proposal should conform to rules of proper grammar and punctuation.  I am so formal in a proposal that I do not even use contractions.

4.  Remember that looks matter. I want to see white space in a proposal.  Yes, this can be difficult when there are severe page limitations and you don’t want to give up even a centimeter to white space because everything you have to say is so important.  Here’s a hint.  If you dump 90% of your adjectives, you will have more white space.  Critical graphics (and by this I mean graphics that are so good, they can replace text) can give the reader that white space relief while still  conveying essential information.

5. Edit. The first draft of the last winning proposal I wrote — a proposal to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to establish a Family Drug Treatment Court in Milwaukee County – was 10 pages too long.  Guidelines permitted only 30 pages.  I had 40.  The editing process hunted down escaped adjectives, took out the ‘chat’ and converted several pages of text into two spectacular project-summarizing graphics.  Is it the most poetic piece of prose in the universe?  No.  But the Family Drug Treatment Court is operating as we speak.

Sometimes, a colleague will ask me to read his/her proposal and I can tell in the first 30 seconds that it’s a dud.  That’s how quick a reviewer makes a decision about your proposal.  I don’t have all the answers about how to get the money but these tips have worked for me. 

Let me know if they’re helpful for you.


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