Tagged ‘grantwriting‘

Postmortem: The Closing of Hull House

Like most people, I was hit with a wave of ‘say it ain’t so’ when I read about Hull House closing last week. The iconic mother of the settlement house concept, the model that Milwaukee organizations like Silver Spring Neighborhood Center and Journey House use in their family and neighborhood development efforts, Hull House was closing due to massive financial problems, one article stating that the organization owed millions of dollars to creditors.

That Hull House collapsed because of the poor economy is the no-brainer and maybe no-brain analysis.  Blaming the economy gives us permission to tsk tsk about how the funding world doesn’t appreciate the iconic, how donors let Jane Addams’ dream disintegrate; the economic downturn and all the excessive belt-tightening are to blame for ending Hull House’s remarkable 123-year run.

All of that may be true.  I don’t know.  All I know about Hull House is what I read in the paper.  But as a long-time observer of nonprofit organizations, I am betting that there is a lot more to the story.  Maybe some of these factors had a role in Hull House’s demise.

  • There may have been a failure to establish and maintain sufficient reserves to help the organization navigate through the economic mess.
  • The board may not have been sufficiently developed, trained, or supported to function as a good steward of Hull House resources.
  • No one may have been able to make hard decisions when they would have saved the agency, e.g. cutting programs/sites/staff.
  • Strategic alliances which might have preserved the Hull House mission and name while providing access to new resources may have been avoided.
  • The organization may have focused exclusively on its service delivery and not been involved in policy-making at the state and federal level that could have influenced program resources.
  • Maybe there was no decent grantwriting shop.
  • Maybe they couldn’t figure out how to diversify their funding (that is, after all, what saved many of us when the stock market tanked).
  • Maybe they assumed the public and the funding world knew all about the good work they were doing so they didn’t need to upgrade the outreach and communication.
  • Maybe they thought it could never happen to them.

 What I’m getting at is this:  The economic downturn reached into every berg in the country.  Strong nonprofits stayed afloat.  Weak ones went under.  And like I said, I don’t know the details of Hull House’s situation.  But I do know this.  Nonprofit organizations can protect themselves – there are life jackets and life boats and survival training aplenty.  Our very own Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee is a good place to start to sharpen your organization’s skills on a lot of fronts. 

The Hull House closing left us with a lesson — If it could happen to Hull House, it could happen to any organization. Be smart.  Take stock.  And protect your organization.

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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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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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From the Lamppost: Making Proposal Feedback Work For You

Constructive criticism is what you get when your husband tells you, “Yes, those jeans do make you look fat.”  This is separated from regular criticism which is severe eye-rolling and/or covering of one’s eyes.  It’s ok to get mad at the latter but constructive criticism?  Mature people take it in the kind spirit in which it is intended.  Or do they?

As one author noted, “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost how it feels about dogs.”

One experience that I and many of my peers share is having people review drafts of funding proposals.  Over the years, this has been a painful or productive process, depending on the proposal, how decent a draft I’ve given people, and whether they (the reviewers) know what they’re doing.

I’ve learned some things about the proposal draft review process which I happily put to use this past weekend on a proposal for a very important community project.  Here are my tips for not only surviving, but benefiting from, a proposal draft review.

1.  Start the proposal development process with the group in a face to face meeting.

2.  Review the proposal requirements, paying special attention to significant policy/program decisions.

3.  Get agreement on the major issues at the beginning – don’t let things ride.

4. Share two drafts.  An early draft with a lot of holes forces discussion about critical issues — this draft should be reviewed in a group meeting.  The second draft is the ‘close to finished’ draft – unless there are big issues, getting individuals’ feedback is sufficient.

5. Tell your reviewers when you will be sending the draft out and stick to that schedule — even if you are not entirely happy with your progress. 

6.  Ask people to send their feedback/comments to you directly.  One thing you don’t want in the late stages of a major proposal is outside kibbutzing – where some people in the group are talking to each other but not registering their issues with the proposal developer. 

7.  Take all the comments in before making changes.  Get a sense of where your reviewers are – are they all focusing on the same 3 issues or are they finding things all over the place to change?

8.  Schedule your review so there is actually time to influence the final product.  Asking someone to review a proposal that’s due tomorrow is a transparent attempt to avoid having to change anything.  I say you need to have a close to final draft at least a week in advance of the due date.  Inconsequential stuff can be missing but 90% should be available to solid review/critique.

9.  Alert the group when the concerns of a reviewer are such that the future implementation of the project could be impaired should it be funded as proposed.  This is tricky because you don’t want to disrupt the proposal process but you have to insure core agreement on the design.

10. Advocate only for the competitiveness of the proposal and do that sparingly.  Sometimes ‘regular’ people don’t understand what needs to be done to land major federal money.  However, they still know what will fly in their world.  A good proposal developer strives for balance here.  That’s hard — because it also means the you cannot be defensive or argumentative.  When you’ve spent days and weeks on a proposal, it’s hard not to defend every word.  But that’s a mistake and we all know it.

I used to be very reluctant to have people review my work.  Last minute scenes with supervisors and colleagues ripping the draft from hands were common.  Figuring if I gave them no time to critique I could avoid criticism, I completely missed the boat on the whole purpose of external review.  I had to learn it the hard way — it’s not about me.  It’s about getting the money to make something important happen.  So I have to suffer a little…..

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