Tagged ‘Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee‘

The Lesson of CYD

Today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described in detail the longstanding financial problems of CYD (Career Youth Development). CYD was founded by Jeannetta Robinson more than forty years ago and ran, for years, on her personal energy, charisma, and incredible ability to get and keep the support of elected officials. I knew Jeannetta. She was a force of nature. After her death in 2008, her son, Charles, whom I also know, took over CYD. The agency has always been very much the family business with all the good and bad that approach brings.

It has always been CYD’s practice to work with people whose problems kept them out of other agencies. The idea behind holding a big holiday event after Christmas for the ‘little kids that Santa forgot’ exemplifies the theme running through CYD’s programs. Nonprofit concerns like goals, objectives, outcomes, reporting, financial management, clean audits, and a strong board were hazy and distant things for CYD. Their focus was always on the here and now. I loved CYD for that but, like many, I knew the train wreck was inevitable. No agency can keep operating in the red, no matter how righteous their mission, or tireless their efforts.

If CYD was to survive, its leadership needed to put financial management first and client services second for as long as it took to get things straight.

On July 24th, the Planners and Grantwriters Roundtable sponsored by the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee conducted a panel discussion on emergency fundraising and crisis management for nonprofit organizations. The #1 message had to do with how to prevent a financial crisis by building a strong, watchful board, developing financial reserves capable of sustaining the agency for six to nine months, maintaining diversified funding, building good relationships with funding sources and banks before a crisis occurs, and investing in strong financial management services.

In that session, panelists recognized that many agencies feel that all funding must go directly to client services; that investing in infrastructure or financial reserves is somehow taking resources away from clients. I’ve heard this from organizations I’ve worked with. “We can’t afford to build reserves, we have to serve more people.”

That sounds great but, frankly, if an agency runs aground financially and has to close, it won’t be serving anyone.

It’s a tough message for nonprofits to swallow especially those that are extremely mission-driven and wrapped around the ethos and history of a charismatic founder.

Nonprofits shouldn’t be run like businesses. That’s not my point here. They should be run like nonprofit organizations that conform to generally accepted best practices for that sector. The Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee and many other resources are available to help struggling organizations get back on track. It can be done but not without serious effort and the willingness to make substantial organizational changes.

CYD’s credo of “Love in Action” is important for Milwaukee; let’s hope the agency can find a way to more solid and sustainable financial footing so it can keep doing what really needs to be 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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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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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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