Broadening Participation in Grant Seeking

Waiting for spring…

As I mentioned in my last post, my department at work recently completed an audit of our communication strategies and tools. I work for an institution of higher education, and one of the reasons that our team decided to do this audit was to come up with ways to engage a greater number of faculty and staff in grant seeking activities.

We are also hoping to get involved with faculty earlier in the project planning process so that we can help them produce more responsive (and successful) proposals. This desire stems from having just 45 days (or less in some cases) to respond to a federal RFP – although this is a good practice in general. Doing so will also help us in targeting our research for grant opportunities if we know what faculty are looking for funding for.

Completing the audit provided for good discussion and brainstorming for our team, and we came up with some ways for building a more customer-centered service model that we think may help us achieve our overall goals. And while our plan is to engage faculty, I think that you will find that our ideas are applicable for most work place scenarios. Here is a very brief list of what we will be doing over the next few months:

  • Publicize “project incubator” services
    • Promote grant consultation and project development services as an essential step in the grant development process.
    • Pilot new facilitation processes for grant planning and project development meetings.
    • Reserve meeting spaces on campus that provide the right environment for creative teams to work on project development: rooms with movable furniture, easy access to technology, white boards, etc.
  • Implement the use of targeted communications
    • Develop marketing materials and a calendar for targeting specific groups (e.g., first time grant seekers, leadership of departments not historically involved in grant seeking, external partners, etc.).
    • Implement new communication tools (e.g., newsletter, personal notes to teams, project specific follow-up communications to funders, etc.).
  • Create new & improved resources for grant seekers
    • Develop and finalize a menu of core services.
    • Create funder-specific tool kits, proposal resource library, etc.

We want to help our faculty and staff take their idea from basic concept to grant fundable project. While most people have a general idea about we offer, most don’t know the extent of the services we can provide. We are hoping that this new approach will help us work toward our goal to engage more grant seekers, while providing the best customer service to meet their needs.

Have you thought about how you might better engage your staff? If so, here is a Communication Audit Template to help you get started. Happy planning!

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Cabin Fever (working through slow periods)

Snowy day in Grand Rapids, MI.
Snowy day in Grand Rapids, MI.

So far, 2014 has been off to a somewhat slow start in Michigan. Maybe it’s because we’ve already had five snow days since returning from the holiday break on January 2nd. Or perhaps it is because another 6-10 inches is predicted to fall today.

Either way, this is somewhat unusual even for us. In fact, the last time we had more than a single snow day was in 2009. I distinctly remember this because I was working on a huge federal proposal from my home office while intermittently watching the beautiful flurries outside my windows. Not an altogether bad way to spend a snowy week day, but I digress.

Late last week, I tweeted two articles from the Charity Channel blog about things you can do to stay busy during slower periods that ultimately set you up for long-term success. Some of these activities are definitely worth mentioning again here.

Prospect Research

With the availability of federal grants in a sluggish holding pattern, my department at work has ramped up our efforts to find new streams for grant funding. For example, we have increased the number of grant collaborations we are participating in, and have been taking a closer look at private sources of grant funds such as local and national philanthropic foundations and corporate giving programs. We use a wiki to create a collective list of grant opportunities that all of us can access any time, and from anywhere. Coincidentally, the beginning of the fiscal year in higher education is July 1, so this has been the perfect tool for compiling the grant opportunities we will include in our department’s annual plan for next year. Near the start of each fiscal year, we review these opportunities and their tentative deadlines, and use them to generate a work flow calendar that guides our activities throughout the year.

Freshen Up Template Language

During slow periods at work, I use the time to update the template language we use to describe our institution. For instance, I update annual enrollment numbers and student demographic data, descriptions of awards the college has received (e.g., quality in service awards, major grant awards, etc.), and other pertinent information that is specific to programs. I also update Census data (American Community Survey) for our primary target populations and the larger community, which is language we use for proposals again and again. By doing so, I can quickly drop the data into a proposal instead of spending hours to re-gather and re-analyze it.

Internal Marketing Strategies

This year my department did something new. We conducted a communication audit as a way to assess and plan for how we might engage a greater number of faculty and staff in the grant development process. This audit entailed reviewing what we already do (by analyzing our internal branding strategies, meeting materials, forms and processes, policies, etc.) and why we do it, and consider our effectiveness. Next, we discussed new tools and branding strategies, and finally, we set a goal and measurable objectives and came up with an activity timeline to guide our action steps over the next six months. In a nutshell, we will try new forms of outreach to engage new areas of the college using a “grants lab” approach, begin production on a newsletter, and will streamline our internal processes to make it easier for everyone.

How do you stay productive during slow periods?

Identifying Grant Prospects

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Check out this info-graphic to see how I put the information below to work in finding a prospective grant opportunity.

How do you initiate the grant research process? First, define your project.

You will need the answers to (at least) these questions before you can begin your research. Gather the information you need from your grant team and ask them to be as specific as possible when they answer these questions (I have underlined the pertinent information):

1.  What is the goal for your project? (Remember: Goals statements are broad and pertain to what they hope to accomplish.)

Answer: Young children enrolled in impoverished Grand Elk, Michigan school districts will have access to a variety of literacy supports that will enable them to become better readers.

2.  Who will your project serve? Who will benefit?

Answer: We want to serve 2nd grade children who attend public schools in high poverty, urban areas of the city. The children will be selected by the teacher as those who are most “in need” of assistance based on test scores. A total of 20 children will be served each academic school year.

3.  What specific problems will the proposed project address?

Answer: The project will address the need to increase reading skills of children attending public schools. Baseline reading scores can be obtained to support the “need” for the project. Other evidence of poor reading skills may include high rates of illiteracy in the community and the inability to gain family sustaining employment (and other risk factors) later in later life.

4.  What are the major activities and primary expenses?

Answer: The project will provide program support in the form of tutoring services aimed at improving the children’s reading abilities. The activities will include stipends for graduate students from the College of Education at ABC University to conduct tutoring as part of their teaching certification course, travel to and from the elementary schools, as well as materials and supplies used to advertise the program and for teachers of participants to complete program surveys/evaluations. The approximate total that is needed is $8,452.

Now that you’ve defined your project, you are ready to begin the research process. How do you know if you have identified a good prospect? Take a look at this info-graphic to help you determine whether or not you may have a match.

A Grant Writer’s Resume

In one of my previous posts, I wrote about the attributes that most grant writers possess. Today, I want to talk about how to demonstrate the depth of your experience (and these attributes) on your resume. When you apply for a grant writing position, it is important to include both obvious resume headings and additional kinds of relevant experience. For example:

Do you have technical writing experience?

  • I might include a brief summary about what this experience entails. Was the writing persuasive? The ability to write persuasively is an important skill for grant writing.

Have you volunteered?

  • I include volunteer experiences in which I have provided grant-related services, not just proposal writing. Experiences such as helping an organization’s staff or volunteers conduct prospect research, setting up an internal system for tracking grant requests or monitoring awards, advising on grant project management, and mentoring students interested in grant writing.

What other relevant work experiences do you have?

  • Do you have budget experience (e.g., creating a budget, managing a budget)? This is an often overlooked, but essential skill, for proposal development.
  • Do you have experience conducting research or evaluation? This shows your understanding of how to formulate project objectives and highlights research skills – where and how to find necessary data, ability to analyze the data, etc.
  • Do you have project management experience? This speaks to your people/communication skills, organization skills, and coordination/leadership skills.
  • Are you affiliated with any professional groups? Have you joined any informal grant writing groups? This can show your interest in growing as a professional, and participating in learning and/or mentoring opportunities.

Include an Addendum

If you have worked as a professional grant writer for a while as I have, it is also a good idea to include a list of the proposals you have developed as an addendum to your resume. In my addendum, which you will find here, I include:

  • The names of the funders I have submitted grant applications to, and the grant program titles. This informs the depth of your experience, emphasizes a particular area of expertise (i.e., health care proposals, education proposals, etc.), and can demonstrate a range of experience across types of funders (i.e., federal, state, private foundations, etc.). This is important, as each type of funder represents a different kind of work.
  • Whether the proposal is pending, awarded or denied, and the amount of the grant award if the proposal was funded. This is an indication of your success rate so it is important to include it even for proposals that were denied, as there is no such thing as a 100% success rate if you have submitted multiple proposals over an extended period of time.
  • If you write grants for multiple organizations, include the name of the organization you submitted the proposal on behalf of. Because I work for a large organization, I also include the department name. Again, this shows my range of experience in working with diverse teams.

If you are just starting out, and have not yet developed a significant number of proposals, you might include a brief bullet-point list of your successes to-date, under the heading “highlights.” It may also be advantageous to provide a writing sample such as a sample letter of inquiry, or a statement of need. Remember, your resume serves as the starting point for highlighting your skills to potential employers.

The RFP has been released. Now what?

With the request for proposals (RFP) in hand and your grant team recruited, you may be wondering about the best way to coordinate the grant writing process. In my last post, I mentioned the importance of attention to detail, and that it’s crucial not to overlook any required component. Achieving this starts with a coordinated process.

My first step is to create a formal, written time-task line using the RFP as my guide. I do this even when I’m working with an experienced team because a written document, when shared among the team, is a useful social contract that keeps everyone on track and accountable to the process.

I begin by scrutinizing and highlighting everything in the RFP that I think could be important. Just for starters, I look for things like: deadlines, formatting details, checklists, lists of required attachments, scoring criteria, and budget instructions. It is also a good idea to look up terms you’re unfamiliar with (I recently look up the term “J visa,” for example.), as well as any regulations governing who can be served by the project or required project activities (i.e., this is most applicable when it comes to Federal RFPs). This information will come in handy when your team has questions, and in writing your need statement or developing a recruitment strategy.

Next, I create a list of all of the tasks that need to be accomplished. Tasks usually include things like: develop a white paper, recruit partners, prepare letter of support templates, gather data, draft the need statement, draft the goals and objectives, draft the evaluation plan, etc.

Finally, I arrange each of the tasks into my time-task line, select a due date, and assign a team member to take responsibility for completing each one. Specifically, I assign deadlines based on the items that need to be completed first, and/or which will take the longest to complete. For instance, I start always the team off by having them develop the goals and objectives. From there, development of the white paper might come next so that it can be used to recruit partners, and so on. As an example, here is a sample time-task line that I completed for a Department of Labor, Community-based Job Training grant.

A written time-task line serves as a useful tool for organizing and managing the proposal development process from start to finish. To me, it also makes the whole process a little less overwhelming. Perhaps most important however, is that it decreases the chances of missing something crucial.

You might be a grant writer if…

Sometimes I’m asked about my career path to becoming grant writer, but like most grant professionals, I sort of fell into it. There is no college degree in grant writing — although a degree in English or communications, philanthropy or public administration can certainly be helpful. There is also no certification required by potential employers*. In fact, I dare say that in most cases grant writing experience coupled with a track record of success trumps a degree or certification any day. This is because experience + “grant writerly” attributes = funded proposals (i.e., the track record).

Among my colleagues, I have observed that those who truly enjoy grant writing (myself included) possess certain characteristics that drive their success. Specifically, you might be a grant writer if:

  • You’re obsessive about organization.
  • You’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done, which usually means working nights and weekends, or tapping your creative side to generate proposal content when your team falls short of delivering on their assignments.
  • You are keen on following directions. (The number one reason proposals fail…not following directions to the letter.)
  • You have a knack for coordinating people. Grant writers usually have to motivate others to write sections of a proposal when doing so, isn’t a required part of their job.
  • You’re a consummate planner. This is code for: deadlines don’t freak you out.
  • You can ferret out the data you need to make your case – and you know how to use it. Although using data effectively is an acquired skill, the enjoyment of seeking out the best data is innate.
  • You are a good listener. Grant writers spend a great deal of time listening and then interpreting others’ ideas through the written word.
  • You are a stickler for details.
  • You are generally excited about reading the federal register and/or similar lengthy, complicated tomes.

Are you still with me?

If this sounds like you, then your next step is to hone your proposal writing skills by taking a college grant writing course, and/or participating in workshops, trainings and other professional development opportunities. For instance, the Grantsmanship Center is considered the gold standard when it comes to grant-related trainings. You might also grow your skills and experience by volunteering to write grants for a local organization, finding an experienced mentor, joining a networking group, or asking a colleague to read and offer feedback on your proposal.

*Note: While most employers don’t currently require a certification, it is possible to obtain one from Grant Professionals Association. You can check out their website here.

Project Development Step 1: Goals and Objectives

With any well-conceived grant project, a good estimation of how you will spend your time is 80 percent on project development (and the coordination thereof) and 20 percent on writing the proposal and other related tasks.

The project development process will help you form a fully developed concept of what your team wants to accomplish with the grant funds. When I work with teams that are new to grant writing, I find that they are often focused on either the details of the program activities, or the items they hope to purchase with the funds. In either case, this limited perspective can make it difficult to link the outcomes they hope to achieve with the specific needs of the population to be served. It is therefore important to help your team think more deeply about their project from the outset by having them begin the proposal development process by defining their goal(s) and objectives.

Goals are broad statements, usually one sentence, that describe the vision for what will be accomplished as a result of the program, service, or other “intervention” that is to be supported with grant funds. For instance, say you are seeking a grant to provide low income elderly residents with meals. Your goal might read something like this: Low income senior residents living in Kent County will have improved access to nutritious meals on a daily basis.

Once the team establishes their goal(s), they are ready to write objectives. Objectives are specific, measurable statements about the steps they will take to meet the goal within a given time frame. An objective for the example above might be: Two meals per day will be delivered to 100 low income seniors five days per week during the 12-month project period.

It can be easy to confuse objectives with outcomes – but they are not the same thing. Whereas objectives tell the potential grantor how many and/or how much within a given period of time, outcomes demonstrate the change that will occur in the population receiving the service or “intervention,” as well as progress toward accomplishing the goal.

Well-developed goals and objectives make it easy to work through the next stages of project development – the need statement and project activities.

9 Questions to Guide Your Grant Search

Over the past few years, I have mentored several volunteer writers who have offered to write grant proposals for organizations I am working with, and the most common questions when it comes to getting started seem to be: Where do I find grant opportunities? And, what am I looking for when I research potential grants?

Given that the majority of volunteers are just learning to write grant proposals, I suggest that they begin looking for possible leads through corporations, professional organizations, and/or foundations. A few of my “go-to” sources for researching grant opportunities on the web are:

I also provide them with the following “checklist” to guide their search:

  1. What are the grantor’s goals or funding mission? Does this mission align with that of the organization that you are writing the grant for?
  2. Does the grantor accept unsolicited proposals? Or, must the organization seeking a grant be invited to apply?
  3. Is the population to be served by a potential grant defined by the grantor? For instance, is the opportunity limited to secondary students who attend inner city high schools? If the grant project that you are seeking funds for only serves adults, then this opportunity is not a fit.
  4. Is the grant opportunity limited to a specific geographic area?
  5. Does the grantor provide a list of eligible activities? For instance, does the grantor limit their grant making to program activities or can you also apply for operational support?
  6. Does the grant award have a ceiling? That is, does the grantor provide an amount that your request should not exceed?
  7. Does the grantor require matching funds? If so, can funds be matched through in-kind contributions or must it be a cash match?
  8. If your organization is eligible to apply, how do you apply? Does the grantor want only a letter of inquiry, or is a full proposal required?
  9. What is the deadline for applying? Is the deadline recurring?

While this checklist may not be all inclusive, it will help anyone looking for a grant opportunity in narrowing their search. Do you know of a good source for locating funding opportunities, or have a tip for locating the right opportunity? If so, I encourage you to share them in the comments.

Setting achievable targets to measure your success

It’s that time of the season when everyone is thinking through their ambitions for the upcoming year, so let’s talk about: Setting Grant-Raising Goals.

I must admit that when I was new to grant writing, having to set goals for “dollars to be raised” was a bit intimidating. I’ve always worked for larger organizations so the targets to be set were sizeable – in the millions. Moreover, when you set grant-raising goals, in some respect you are sometimes asserting the perceived monetary value of your position to the organization, and perhaps more importantly, shaping how your job performance will be assessed. To me, this is all slightly daunting. Thus, as you embark on setting your goals for the coming year, here are a few things that you might consider:

First, evaluate your organization’s capacity to prepare competitive grant proposals. For instance, are you a single individual charged with researching and writing grant proposals, along with a variety of other tasks? Or do you work in the Grants Office of a large organization with two or more seasoned colleagues focused solely on grant development? Either way, you want to set targets that are reasonable for the size and experience of your office. I recommend beginning with modest goals that are achievable. Remember, you can always exceed your goals and increase your targets accordingly for subsequent years.

Another consideration is what successful grant writing looks like for your organization. In other words, how will you measure whether or not you have achieved your goals? Typically, it will be some combination of the following metrics:

  • A ratio of grant dollars awarded in a year compared to the target goal.
  • Total number of grant opportunities explored (i.e., researched and vetted with appropriate staff) during a specific time period.
  • Total number of proposals submitted during a specific time period.
  • A ratio of grant dollars applied for compared to actual dollars awarded.
  • Total number of proposals submitted in relation to the number awarded.
  • The R.O.I. (i.e., return on investment for staff hours/dollars spent compared to grant dollars awarded).

Finally, once you have determined how you will measure your efforts, I suggest creating a system to track and report on your progress. I find it best to track my progress quarterly using this spreadsheet. Doing so helps me to monitor progress toward my goals incrementally throughout the year so I always know whether or not I am on track.

I also think that quarterly monitoring makes significant goals less intimidating. For example, say you’re charged with raising $2 million dollars and writing at least 12 proposals per year. Tracking your work by quarter allows you to plan your projects strategically, dividing the work into 3-month blocks of time. Thus, you can plan to write 3 proposals per quarter and strive to raise $500,000 every three months. And while things don’t always go this smoothly (e.g., you can’t often predict when a request for proposals will be issued by a government agency or if a proposal will be successfully funded), it is a good system to guide your planning, as it provides a real time snapshot of your progress toward your year-end achievements.