This morning I am asking for your help with a small project I am working on. A few weeks ago I agreed to help one of my favorite non-profit organizations with a staff transition. Not only did their development director move on to greener pastures at the end of the summer, but their executive director also recently resigned. So, the board asked me to step into the void and help their management team with a variety of year-end miscellaneous projects (e.g. year-end holiday mailing, 2013 budget construction, resource development plan, etc).
One of the projects with which I provide a little assistance is grant writing. I am part of the review team that proofreads, edits and asks questions before any proposal is allowed to go out the door. I am not the only person involved in this agency’s grant writing process . . . there is a grant writer (who is an independent contractor), a program/operations person and a board member. I kind of like the process they’ve designed. It feels comprehensive, responsible and serious.
The other day someone brought another grant opportunity to the team. It was a RFP that would’ve brought $2,000 in the door that wouldn’t have supplemented existing programming . . . it was an “add-on” proposition. Here is a list of questions that the grant writing team started asking itself:
- Is this grant opportunity “budget relieving”?
- Are the program costs totally off-set by the grant? Or will the $2,000 grant only partially cover the expenses of the add-on programming?
- Are there other reasons (e.g. political, relationship building, etc) for the agency to consider writing this proposal?
Somewhere in the middle of this discussion, the board member blurted out the following really good question:
“How many more $2,000 grants are we going to write?”
This question was inspired by a string of two or three grants in a row that this organization had just written. As a businessman, he asked this question because he is accustom to looking at everything through a “return on investment” (ROI) lens. In hindsight, this is what he saw:
- The grant writer was putting in three to six hours researching and writing the proposal.
- The program/operations person was putting in a few hours pull together outcomes data and proofreading the final proposal to make sure we weren’t over-promising anything.
- The board member, who serves on the management team as the agency searches for a new executive director, is investing a few hours in proofreading and asking tough questions to ensure the organization isn’t over-promising and under-delivering. This is essentially the same role that the executive director would play if there was one on the payroll.
- I was back stopping the entire process and doing some same.
WOW! It shouldn’t be a surprise after a few small grant writing opportunities he’d ask such a question.
Of course, this touched off an interesting conversation on many different fronts including a discussion about non-profit fundraising policies.
I promised the group that I would blog about this topic and ask the readership of DonorDreams blog for their best possible world-class coaching and advice.
So, I have a holiday season favor to ask each of you this morning:
Would you please take a minute or two out of your busy schedule this morning and use the comment box below to do one of the following two things?
- share your agency’s grant writing policy/policies, or
- share how your organization makes decisions on when to write or pass on a grant writing opportunity.
Seriously, your feedback this morning will directly help another organization in its pursuit of developing fundraising best practices. Your participation will take all of a minute or two this morning. Please weigh-in. Your collective wisdom is massive and will bring tremendous value to this organization’s discussion. You can consider the few minutes that you invest in responding to this request as your “good turn” this holiday season. Please pay it forward!
Here’s to your health!
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC
In my travels, I’ve seen hundreds of non-profit organizations, and I must admit that they come in all sorts of different sizes and shapes . . . Big ones, little ones, short ones, tall ones, skinny ones, fat ones . . . you get the picture.
However, one question has haunted me for as long as I’ve worked in the non-profit sector and it is the title of this morning’s blog post:
“Who is responsible for driving the bus?”
Yes, I’ve heard all of the “best practices” and expert advice. I’ve sat through too many training events. Heck . . . I’ve even been the trainer for a number of those training events and sounded very much like the expert on this subject.
However, this question still haunts me because I see everyone answering it differently.
For example, staff are obviously responsible for day-to-day operations, but who gets to decide:
- Which programs get run?
- What impact and program outcomes get measured?
- What new BIG grants (that might require new programming and new things to be measured) should be written?
I suspect that many of you have answers for these questions. I also suspect that there are many different answers. Some of you might see this as a question of “micro-management” and others of you might see “policy implications” all over the place.
Many moons ago, when I worked at my local Boys & Girls Club, I was presented with an opportunity to apply for a very large state grant. Many of you have probably heard of 21st Century Community Learning Center grants (this opportunity is part of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation). When I was presented with this opportunity, these were some of the facts I was facing:
- The grant (if received) would increase the agency’s budget by more than 25 percent,
- We would need to open a new site by asking a local school to share some of their space with us after-school (aka new collaboration with memorandum of understanding spelling out responsibilities of all parties)
- The grant would result in hiring more staff (e.g. increasing overall staff size by 25 to 50 percent) and serving more kids (expanding membership by approximately 25 percent)
- The type of staff we were accustom to hiring would change because the school district obvious wanted us to hire their teachers (and pay them the after-school stipend rate negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement)
- The grant would require some different programming and outcome measurements.
- The grant also required that some serious thought be put into “sustainability planning”. How would we continue serving those kids after the five-year grant expired. How would we fund it? Where would we provide service?
I was in favor of applying for this grant. It was a game changer for the organization. However . . . how much authority did I have as the executive director to make this decision. Sure, at first blush, the question was simple . . . “Apply for this one grant? Or don’t apply?” . . . but one question leads to another and then another.
So, what parts of this decision belong to the board of directors and what parts belong to staff? AND what parts needed to be shared between board and staff? AND what happens if there wasn’t agreement?
In the end, I engaged the Program Committee and came to the table with my “case for change”. We talked about it, agreed on all fronts and made the recommendation to the board of directors. The grant was written. We were selected to receive funds. We signed the contract with the state board of education. And the rest, as they say, is history.
That was easy . . . Right? NOPE! Because I see everyone making similar decisions in very different ways. Why? Because it isn’t easy and every non-profit organization has a different culture with different levels of organization capacity.
Is there a RIGHT answer to this question? I think so.
I believe there are A LOT of policy questions wrapped up in aforementioned example, and all policy issues clearly belong to the board of directors. Additionally, I see grants the same way I see “contracts,” and every non-profit bylaws document that I’ve ever looked at has clearly stated that entering into a contract is the responsibility of the board.
So, why do I see so many non-profit and fundraising professionals working alone on identifying grant writing opportunities, writing the grant proposals and committing the agency to the terms of the grant agreement (or asking their board after-the-fact to rubber stamp the grant agreement)?
Why do staff let this happen? Is it because we really don’t want the headache of having to build consensus? Or is it because of time constraints? Why do boards let this happen? Is it because they don’t know what the right answer is and in the end would rely on staff to inform their opinion? Or is it that they don’t understand their roles & responsibilities as board members? Or is it simply lack of time? And regardless of how you answer these questions, does it really change the fact that there is a “right answer” to the big picture question and our responses to these smaller questions really just amount to nothing more than rationalization and justification for doing something we know is wrong?
Today’s post really does raise some serious governance issues that most non-profits of all sizes and shapes struggle with on a daily basis. Please scroll down and use the comment box to share your thoughts as well as examples of how your agency has dealt with this issue. We can all learn from each other.
Here’s to your health!
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC
Remember when computers were basically glorified word processors for many businesses? Documents were created, saved on floppy disk, and printed. That was the extent of it. Then email came along. If you were working on a project with someone, you could send it to them instantly. However, you and your colleague had to keep track of the ‘active’ copy in order to make changes.
Now, documents can live in ‘the cloud’, eliminating the panic that comes along with sending an email and asking yourself, “Did I attach it?”.
Let’s take a look at cloud computing and a few different applications that can make your life easier by utilizing the cloud.
What is the cloud?
Spoiler Alert: there really aren’t computers in the clouds storing your information. But ‘the cloud’ really does exist. When referring to ‘the cloud’ just think of it as a public server to which you have access. So, instead of saving files locally, you can save them on this public server and access them from any device with an internet connection.
- Using cloud apps cuts down on costs. One of the largest costs to a non-profit organization was purchasing a server. The cloud eliminates the need for this. Also, cloud applications work regardless of which operating system you’re using because most of them are accessed through web browsers. As a result, some IT costs are eliminated or reduced.
- Files can be accessed from anywhere. This allows people to work remotely. Today, more and more companies are hiring employees to work from home or remote locations (aka telecommuters). Having files available in the cloud makes this human resources trend more possible.
The Cons of Cloud Computing
- No local files. When you use the cloud to save your documents you are relying on a third-party to store your files. If something happens to their servers, you run the risk of loosing your files. Additionally, you will temporarily lose access to your files if your local internet service is interrupted.
- Privacy can be an issue. Again, because files will be stored on a third-party server, they will have access to your files. Your agency will need to decide what type of files can be stored in the ‘cloud’ and which ones should remained locally. Unfortunately, having multiple storage areas might be confusing for employees or volunteers who need to access the files.
Google Docs – Google has done a great job with it’s Google Docs product. Not only can you save files and allow multiple people to view them, but you can also create documents online using this application. Google makes it possible to create text documents, spreadsheets, presentations, forms, drawing and tables. Documents can be shared with an email link or downloaded by the user.
What sets Google Docs apart is that it allows for multiple users to work on a document at the same time. Everyone can see what changes each person is making in real-time. Also, Google Docs has a chat box associated with each document so people who are viewing the document can have a chat about any changes that need to be made.
Dropbox – Running a close second to Google Docs as my favorite cloud application is Dropbox because it is so simple. Dropbox simply gives you space on a server that allows you to share files with other people. You can upload whichever type of file you’d like to share, and others will be able to easily access it. A free account gives the user 2 gigabytes of storage, but if you get a friend to sign up for an account, Dropbox gives you more space.
What sets Dropbox apart is that you can add a “Dropbox folder” to your computer. This makes it possible to have documents stored locally and in the cloud at the same time. Dropbox also allows you to also share folders with other users. This works great for people working on the same project. While Dropbox does not allow for collaboration in the same way that Google Docs does, it’s simple approach makes using the cloud second nature.
Other Worthy Cloud Applications
- Evernote – a note taking application that can capture photos and handwritten notes and make them searchable.
- Basecamp – a project management and collaboration application
- Backpack – an easy way to create a wiki or internal website for sharing information with your team
- Carbonite – automated computer backup
Many of you might already be fans of the cloud. If so, let us know how you use cloud applications in your day-to-day non-profit work life. It would be great to hear how you might be using ’the cloud’ to collaborate on grantwriting. Or are you using ’the cloud’ to make your annual campaign prospect assignment process feel seamless? Please use the comment box below and share your best practices!