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Implementing a New Software? Don’t Forget About These 5 Things.

New software programs and apps can make life wonderful for organizations.  In addition to just rolling out the new system with the software company, there are other items to keep in mind.

People

Even with the greatest software, the human element still exists.  Users and Admins alike will experience tremendous change through the new system!  System champions must be ready with FAQs, training, and detailed documentation on how to perform job-specific tasks within the new system.  Expect some fear, resistance, and slower reception from staff.

Outside-the-System Tasks

Software systems are wonderful tools for automation and efficiency.  Nay times the new system will eliminate tasks done manually.  There are also times a new system will modify or add new outside-the-system tasks.  To ease the transition, prepare to discuss and document the modifications to manual tasks.  This can be achieved through a FAQ or in documentation manual side notes.

Processes

Related to outside-the-system tasks, the overall business processes will be modified with the implementation of the new system.  It’s okay and to be expected that the new system disrupts the status quo.  Manage the chaos and ease all affected staff with good current state (pre) and new state (post) workflows and stepwise manuals.  For tasks that are overly simple or only come up every once in a while, use a one to two-page Quick Reference Guide (QRG) to document the task.  Create this documentation while you have access to the developer or a software representative that can provide demonstrations and answer questions.

Business Requirements

When you started your software finding mission, or when you began the implementation with the software company, you most likely created a list of business requirements. Be sure to review this list of requirements periodically as the implementation rolls out.  “But we know the requirements; why do we have to review them? For several reasons, foremost are:

  • Ensuring the software, as delivered, will meet your needs.
  • Identify which business sectors/divisions will be impacted by the new software implementation.
  • Guide the documentation creation efforts.
  • Aid in developing communication planning for roll-out and change management efforts.

Training & Documentation

Whether provided by software company, internal resources, or a third party, training on the new system is critical.  New, shiny software will be absolutely useless without a trained staff to implement the new system.  The training dshould include a walk-through of the basic system navigation, and then a series of sessions on how to complete job-specific tasks.  Each session should reference documentation tools available to the staff as they work post-rollout.

The training and documentation should be captured and stored in a way that can be used in the future for onboarding new staff and as a reference for staff needing a refresher or transitioning to a new job function.

Final Thoughts

In the excitement of implementing a new software, the change-management elements can often be forgotten. Include these elements in the planning stage and work on them throughout the implementation.

I wish you well on your software implementation.  Should you have questions or need more information or help on any of these topics, leave a comment below, or you can email or call me.

With gratitude,

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Stacy Fitzsimmons is the Founder and CEO of SNF Writing Solutions, LLC

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Lessons from the Spring 2016 DLT Season: 5 Things to Watch Out For This Year

Update: DLT is released! Due July 17th. 

For those that survived the USDA RUS Distance Learning and Telemedicine 2016 grant application season, congratulations!

As we are gearing up for another round this Spring, I reflect on the process with several lessons learned.

1)  Binders are SO last season

Gone are the days where the binders are the required submission method. As of last season, Grants.gov became a submission option. I submitted by both methods in 2016 – binders and Grants.gov – both methods were successful and awarded. As Grants.gov doesn’t require the interaction of humans (i.e. FedEx or UPS), my suggestion is to go with Grants.gov this year (of course, I’m a proponent of Grants.gov anyway – I know, I’m weird!).

2) Every point counts

Some decisions can be made in a 5-point margin. Do everything you can to capture every point. Find a Native American tribe that can use some equipment and build it into your project. They get the equipment they need and you get the points for having the involvement.

Not scoring high in rurality for a telehealth project?  Add some single point locations such as FQHC clinics and CMHCs. They often need resources they don’t have ready-access to receive. A telemedicine option can work great. If the clinic route doesn’t work – look to adding school nurse offices where there is a healthcare shortage.

3) You do need a matchmaker

The match requirement can be daunting. Keep track of it as you have the commitment and when you have it in writing. Vendors can’t provide match anymore – so you will have to find funding on your own. This change came down for 2016 and you better believe it will be there again. We are on our own to find the matching funds. In-kind isn’t always looked upon favorably either – so cash is king!

4) Update your statistics regularly

Updates may happen between the time you start the project and the time you submit. Since the NSLP and census data is easily verifiable, be sure that you check just before submission as to the most current data available and cite your source with a date retrieved. That way if they change again – and I’m sure they will – you have it documented as to when the numbers were pulled and there isn’t an air of mystery and suspicion about the stats if there is a substantial change.

5) Computers are needed, but they aren’t always allowable

If you request a lot of laptops or desktop units, don’t expect that the actual computer and its peripherals will be an allowable expense. While we all know you can’t have the DL or the T without computers, most were stricken from budgets last year as an unallowable expense – even after appeal!  Have a plan B (or D, or M, or X) as to how you will be able to cover the expense for the computers.

I’m looking forward to a great 2017 DLT season this year! Can’t wait to see what changes this year (and administration) brings! Wishing you great success in your DLT adventures.

With Grantitude,

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Stacy Fitzsimmons is the Founder and CEO of SNF Writing Solutions, LLC

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Grant Management is Not a Finance Function: 5 Reasons Why

Most of the time, grants are performance-based financial vehicles. You have to do something in order to get paid. In growing numbers, funders are also looking to how well you do that something. So why are organizations still viewing grant management as a finance function?

Don’t get me wrong, there is still a financial aspect to grants management. Someone, hopefully with expertise in accounting, must manage the coffers. There are many regulations and nuances to managing the dollars and cents of a grant award that cannot be ignored.

That said, there is more to grant management than just the money. Just ask any grant program manager how much time is spent on managing the budget versus everything else that has to be accomplished.

1. There has to be a relationship with the funder.

Think of your program accountant. What do they do? How do they interact with others? Would you have them be the face of your organization?  Would you rely on them to deliver an eloquent message as to the status of a not-performing-as-you-expected program?

If you answered yes, I want the name of your accountant!

No offense meant to any accountant. The reason there are stereotypes is largely because there’s some truth to the description.

The biggest responsibility in grant management is establishing and maintaining a positive relationship with your funder. They not only hold the checkbook, but they are also an investor in your program/organization. They buy-in to your success. You have to demonstrate that you are competent to deliver as well as committed to the mission. This takes a good communicator with impeccable interpersonal skills and a high degree of savvy in message delivery. Yes, schmoozing!

In general, schmoozing is not in the finance department repertoire.

2.  Program outcomes are not (usually) dollars & cents.

So yes, you have to show how you spent the money. But, is that what funders are really looking for? Not in my experience.

Funders are looking for outcomes that are mission focused and relevant to the advancement of a program and an organization as a whole. Measures in new learning, a shift in attitude or perception, skill advancement are sought. These metrics are evaluated based on data captured in the implementation of the program, not in the ledger of debits and credits.

3. The workplan and timelines are promises to the funder (and the budget too).

Let a group of toddlers out into the backyard and tell them they have promise they will only take 10 minutes to play and they must come back in to tell you what they did. How many toddlers will come back in 10 minutes? How many will you have to round up, capture, entice, bribe, chase, hogtie to come back in? How many will be able to say what they did?

Yep! the life of a grant manager when it comes to workplan and timeline management and reporting.

The finance department is probably used to this phenomenon when tracking down invoices or getting approvals. Are they equipped to do this for all of the grant deliverables?

Not usually. There are multiple milestones, reports, and metrics to track and analyze. Any deviation from what was committed to in the proposal requires advance permission from the funder (see #1 above!). This takes a true project management mindset with the budget only being one element of the commitment that needs to be kept.

4.  Mission drives everything ‘grants’.

From the initial search to identify a potential funder through close-out of the grant, the entire grant cycle is about meeting the funder’s mission with a project or program that is furthering the organizational mission. This mission-centric cycle can only be achieved through strategic alignment and intentional delivery. While financial considerations are a part of this pursuit, they are just that – a  part – of a bigger whole. Financal considerations alone cannot deliver on mission-focused activities.

5. Every grant-funded program is multi-dimensional

Make a list of all of the components of your grant-funded program. All of the pieces.

In my experience, you will see that a grant program has at minimum:

  • Program mission & plan
  • Program staff
  • Physical stuff (supplies, instruments, location, etc.)
  • Participants or a target audience
  • A message to convey
  • Funder
  • Contract with the funder
  • Funds to manage

Looking at that list, you can extrapolate that each element could be construed as the responsibility of a different organizational department:

  • Senior Leadership (ED, CEO, etc.)
  • HR
  • Procurement/Facilities
  • Public Relations/Community Affairs
  • Marketing
  • Stockholder Relations
  • Legal
  • Finance

Each element is critical to the success of the grant-funded program. Successful grant management requires one point of contact to orchestrate all of these elements. That’s not the role of an accountant!

If not Finance, where?

Where the grant operation should live is a debatable subject. Some say there shouldn’t be centralized grant operations, that individual departments can handle it all. Others (my camp) say that grant operations need a central hub. Any one of the organizational departments would work. Some entities have grants sections in finance, some in legal, some in marketing, some in the President’s suite, others in a special projects office. The grant office needs be placed where it can thrive to meet the multi-faceted demands of grant management.

My opinion: It is easier to coordinate (wrangle? herd?) equals than superiors. Reporting directly to the highest leadership position will poise the grant function to serve the organization in strategically sourcing funds and managing all aspects required of grant management. This would then require the grant office leader to be an equivalent to the finance department leader, not subservient to the finance leader. With access and equal communication to the department heads, the grant office leadership is empowered to deliver the best service to the organization and funders.

That’s what we all want, right? The best outcomes for the organization and the funder!

With Grantitude,

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Stacy Fitzsimmons is the Founder and CEO of SNF Writing Solutions, LLC

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Just Lucky?

Yes, the F is for Fitzsimmons, and the Luck o’ the Irish is in my family’s blood.

What I often contemplate in the proposal writing world is the proportion of a win that is skill and the portion that is luck.

Skill

As a professional planner and writer, it is often hard to contemplate how others will interprete our words: will they be able to see the vision? Will they feel our passion? Will our voice be heard? There is most certainly a skill in portraying, in the written word, what it is that you most passionate about in a way that makes the reader want to stand up and be your cheerleader and take up your cause. But is that the only thing in play?

The reader is the other side of the equation. What kind of day are they having? What are their demographics? Do they have any good or bad experiences related to what you would like to pursue? Do they already have their mind made up on our issue? Is their opinion for or against our position?

Taking into consideration all of these questions, I am lead to believe that a successful proposal is a blend of both innate skill and just a hint of luck.

Why?

The ability to follow directions lies in our hands.

We are all quite capable of following the rules, matching response to the request, and being clear and concise without a lot of jargon.

The RFP provides a guide and outline for what the response should contain…follow that outline! Use headers to demonstrate you are following the outline and are answering each question. Leave a trail for the reviewer to follow to check off all of the requirements. Use the same order in your response as they provided in the RFP. Then spend a moment in their shoes, would you be able to quickly run through the RFP requirements and identify each section and question? If you think the answer is yes, have someone else read through the requirements and your response. Another set of eyes can help to be sure that what you intended is coming through.

Here is the big secret: Don’t make the reviewer think too much!

There are ways to determine what you will face on the review side. Attend pre-conference workshops, calls, webinars. Determine what the hot buttons are for the proposal. There is a lot of context that can be gained from the RFP background and purpose section. Glean what you can. Channel your intuitive side (if you don’t have one, borrow someone who does!). What is said between the lines that you can use to write to the unsaid? Having this insight can make the difference between staying out of trouble and stepping into a big pile of…political or other agenda.

Do your homework to know if there is an incumbent and the status of that relationship. If it is a new project, determine what the catalyst was for the project. Being able to speak to the original need can be a tremendous asset.

Another track is to review previously successful proposals for trends in what works and common themes. With the Freedom of Information Act, you can request government-related proposal responses. Private RFPs become a bit more complicated. Knowing what worked before can set you on the right path.

Write with clarity and without jargon. If you think a million dollar word will impress, think again. Make it easy to read and the reviewer will focus more on the concept and approach rather than being distracted by the words. Don’t get so wrapped up in trying to impress that you alienate the reader. Do you really need to use “contusion” when ” bruise” will do?

With a well-organized and well-written proposal for a well-thought out program, well, you’ve done your part.

Now luck kicks in.

Luck

No matter how good the proposal, the final decision is out of our control. It’s the hardest part of proposal writing. After several weeks of ultimate control in the process and writing, we are suddenly at the mercy of others. Not a comfortable place for many of us.

You want a compassionate reviewer that is sensitive to your cause or method. One that is in a good mood with an open mind. Someone that will understand what you are trying to achieve. Someone who can set aside their personal agenda and review with an unbiased lens.

Did I mention that most reviewers are typically volunteers completing their assessments of our work in their spare time? How many hours of spare time would you be willing to give to review a dozen or more proposals like yours?

Make it worth their time and investment in your proposal that is taking away from their work, family, or kids!

…and with any luck you will get that call for a BAFO, interview, or award notification.

Wishing you a lot of luck in your proposal endeavors and reviewer assignment.

With Grantitute,

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Stacy Fitzsimmons is the owner of SNF Writing Solutions. She is also both born and married into Irish blood. Happy St. Patrick’s day!

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Property Tax Caps a Top Challenge for Local Governments

I was recently asked what the number one challenge is for local governments. As a former employee of a city in Indiana, I know without a doubt that the answer is property tax caps.

These caps were first introduced in 2009 and were meant to help taxpayers. While the caps have certainly accomplished that goal, they have had a dramatic effect on local governments, especially those that are not experiencing growth. This has led to lost revenue for many communities.

According to a December, 2015 Indianapolis Business Journal report, DeBoer and retired Community Research Institute director John Stafford stated that property tax caps have hit older, industrial cities hard, while the growing Indianapolis suburbs and thriving college towns are faring quite well.

I’ve witnessed the work of top officials at many cities, towns, and counties as they cut costs and slash budgets. I understand that everyone wants governments to work as efficiently and lean as possible. I believe most are accomplishing that goal.

However, the tax caps have still caused some unexpected damage. For example, neighboring school districts are seeing drastically different property tax revenues per student due to coverage areas. And I think we’re just beginning to see tax cap consequences like these.

So what can local governments do in order to keep providing vital services to their communities? Some, like the Central Indiana municipality I recently worked for, are looking at alternative funding such as trash fees. While every other city and town in the county has charged a trash fee, this city is still facing quite a battle to implement one.

Communities are also taking a closer look at local option income taxes for new revenue. As budgets continue to get squeezed, local government staff members will work to apply for more federal, state, corporate, and foundation grants.

New crowd funding campaigns, like those led by Citizinvestor http://www.citizinvestor.com/, are popping up for community projects such as dog parks, public art, and trails. These have been successful for some local governments as long as they invest the time and effort to promote the campaigns.

Like many organizations and businesses, local governments are being asked to do more with less. Alternative funding sources and grass roots community support will hopefully help us all continue to benefit from public safety services, parks, strong infrastructure, and more.

With Grantitude,

Amy

Amy Shankland is a former Associate with SNF Writing Solutions, LLC and guest blogger.

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Evaluation: Your Plague or Passion?

Gah! Evaluation!!!

It might as well be a diagnosis of the plague!

Most of us associate evaluation with our annual employee performance review. No one likes the way performance evaluation is generally done. Not the manager. Not the employee. It’s probably the most dreaded, feared, heart-wrenching, ulcer-causing activity done in the business world.

So why would we want to put our entire program under that kind of microscope? Could anything be more repulsive?

I’ve really only encountered two types of people when it comes to evaluation: those that avoid it like the plague, and those that are so passionate about it that they will shout about its virtues from the rooftops.

Can you guess which I am?

Okay, so I am one that would shout it from the rooftops. Why, might you ask?

The simplest explanation is, I like to know where I stand, and what people are thinking. I like to know what I am doing really well, and what I need to work on in order to be the best “me” I can be. These concepts transcend my work and personal life.

For those like me, we can get geeked out pretty quickly when we start talking data, outcomes, process, budgets, the benefits of measurements, and what can be measured versus what should be measured. I am certain my pupils just dilated and my heart skipped a beat or two writing that sentence, and I didn’t even go into the difference between an output and an outcome!

For those whom evaluation is the plague, you may have just experienced sweaty palms, a blood pressure spike, hives breaking out across every limb, and may even feel the start of a migraine coming on just from reading that sentence!

So for those of you who think evaluation is like the plaque, know this – it really doesn’t have to be that bad. Breathe deeply and repeat that sentence again if you need to.  It doesn’t have to, and frankly shouldn’t be that bad.

I know, I come from a very special place when I say that, but…really…as business professionals (yes, nonprofits, universities, and governments are businesses too!), and I’d stretch to even say as humans, we need to know if what we are doing is working. Otherwise, why are we even doing it (other than job security)?  Don’t you want to know if your program is as good as you think it is?

 

 

In an environment of “proving your worth” evaluation can be the best prescription: it can show that what you do is worthwhile and you can also show that you identified what was wrong and made efforts to correct course. That’s pretty admirable.

So, next time you hear the word “evaluation” take a deep breath and start the process: 1) plan the evaluation, 2) conduct the evaluation, 3) determine the results of the evaluation, and 4) create and implement a game plan for addressing the results. Yes, this is an over-simplified view of the process, but it’s the framework that can get you to a better place mentally to face the project.

Also remember, that you don’t go though evaluation alone. It’s an all-hands-on-deck type of project. Even better, the best evaluations are those done by neutral third parties (hence you don’t do the bulk of the work!).

So again, take that deep breath. Now, here’s a brief overview of what you can expect when conducting an evaluation project.

What can you expect?

In general, an evaluation project will include the following components.

A literature review:

What are the industry standards for the program?

Research pertinent to your industry and particular program/activity is used to inform the final evaluation design and the outcomes evaluation indicators.

An evaluation design:

What is the focus of the evaluation and how will it be conducted?

The design will be finalized as part of the proposed evaluation project. All outcomes, indicators, and the methodology most appropriate for your organization and target program are reviewed or created. During the evaluation design, interview instruments, process evaluation objectives, outcome indicators with operational definitions, and project charter will be created using appropriate industry frameworks for evaluation (e.g. CDC Framework for Program Evaluation in Public Health and Program Evaluation Standards). The SNF Writing Solutions methodology also includes the Lean Six-Sigma DMAIC model.

Stakeholder interviews:

What do people think about the program?

Interviews with key stakeholders (leadership, employees, management, board members, possible clients, and funders) are conducted to assess program impetus, implementation, and interaction experience. The stakeholder pool and interview schedule is coordinated with the evaluation champion in your organization. These interviews will inform the remainder of the evaluation schedule and serve as a progress gate for any evaluation design modifications before moving forward.

Data Collection:

What data do we have versus what we need?

Information. Excel Sheets. Databases. Calendars. Websites. Marketing literature. Budgets. Tally sheets. Meeting notes. The list goes on.

Depending on the focus of your evaluation, different types of data are gathered to feed the evaluation process. Some will be readily available and some will need to be culled from various sources. With the evaluation design completed, the data needed to compete the evaluation has already been determined and must be pulled together. The SNF Writing Solutions team includes data-gathering and data-entry experts that aid organizations through this process of gathering data and even creating new data sets.

Process Evaluation:

How well is the program executed in relation to the intended model?

The process evaluation assesses the extent to which the target program/department/ service is delivered as planned as well as the facilitators and barriers to implementation. The process evaluation will clarify how, why, and for whom the program works and which components are most/least effective. Through the process evaluation, an understanding of the opportunities for quality improvement and/or corrective feedback is established as well as determining the feasibility for replication and/or expansion of the program operations (remember, funders love programs that are replicable). Consideration of the reach of the program, the intervention dose delivered and the dose received, as well as the implementation and model fidelity within the context of the program environment will be included in the evaluation design.

The process evaluation with SNF Writing Solutions will generally include a Lean Six Sigma review of the program with a process documentation review, analysis of client and organizational service expectations, observation of all organization practices (with regard to HIPAA or other legal requirements as appropriate), documentation of current state, and statistical analysis of current state against service expectations.

Cost Evaluation:

How are costs balanced with benefits?

A cost evaluation looks at the impact of program to the cost of the program/service for the target population or stakeholder (can be organization as a whole). Methodologies for the cost evaluation can vary. The SNF Writing Solutions evaluation includes a review of dollars spent versus income (or funds available in the case of a grant-funded program) and population served and a cost-benefit analysis (CBA) of providing services. As part of the cost evaluation, the return on investment (ROI) is generally calculated for the program. In reviewing the financials and CBA for the program, the feasibility for replication and/or expansion of the program in achieving outcomes can be considered. A high cost program can still be a sound investment for a funder if the results are impressive and long-lasting.

Outcomes Evaluation:

Are we meeting the needs of our customer?

When thinking of evaluating a program, this is the evaluation that most think of: assessing the impact of a program on the societal improvements sought based on existing or determined short-term and long-term activities/services targeted in the evaluation. The literature review and stakeholder interviews will be used for qualitative analysis of the program. SNF Writing Solutions includes text theme determination. Quantitative data analysis of service provision versus expected outcomes will include a review of all outputs and outcome indicators from the program using a correlational analysis. The outcomes evaluation can include the feasibility for replication and/or expansion of the program in meeting societal needs. If needed, a baseline for indicators can be retroactively established from organizational data prior to the implementation of the project/program.

Final Conclusions:

What did we learn?

The final deliverable of a project is largely determined by the client-side champion of the evaluation project. A report will generally include the interpretation of all evaluations with conclusions regarding the program. The report will include statements regarding the merit, worth, and significance of the program/service and interpretations of the findings against the standards identified in the literature review, evaluation design, and stakeholder interviews. Recommendations for specific actions to take into consideration for improvement, replication and/or expansion of the program will also be included in the report.

At the conclusion of the evaluation, SNF Writing Solutions shares the methodology and results with organizational stakeholders, and, at the request of the organization, will assist in presenting to funders, staff, or other groups, and can prepare the findings for dissemination as a potential white paper, journal article, or for conference presentations as opportunities are available.

Implementation:

What will we do with what we learned?

The evaluation process is only as good as the follow-through on the findings. Many things will prove to be working and should be left alone – don’t fix what isn’t broken. That leaves those items that weren’t quite what you were expecting, or had not gone planned. Take a good look at those items and figure out the root cause (this is why SNF Writing Solutions uses the Lean Six Sigma approach – you will already know root causes) and develop potential fixes for the root cause. Create an action plan to implement the change (if a big change, you may want assistance with change management) and monitor the effects of the changes you implement. This ongoing measurement and evaluation can be an extension of your relationship with the evaluator. As you see improvements, acknowledge and celebrate them!

Evaluation is not a one-and-done experience. Those organizations that are successful are always measuring (the right things) and evolving to meet the demands of their customers within the scope of the organizational expertise and mission. This is accomplished with rigorous and continuous evaluation of the organization and individual programs. SNF Writing Solutions generally includes post-evaluation follow-up and implementation support as part of any evaluation project.

Hopefully, with better overall evaluation experiences, those employee performance evaluations are also a little less stressful for you – everyone will know, on a regular basis, where everyone stands!

Here’s to the evaluation plague – turn it into your passion!

With Grantitude,

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Stacy N. Fitzsimmons, MBA is the Owner of SNF Writing Solutions, LLC a business services consultancy.

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5 Easy Steps to a Better Budget Proposal

It’s that scary beast: the budget! It’s the part of the application that the program implementers and the innovative visionaries often dread. It’s where details are important and you have to remember the dreaded math.

Here’s some advice from the budget trenches to help you along the way.

1) Read the Guidance

The guidance is the most important tool you will have at your disposal for preparing a winning proposal. It contains specific information that will outline how you should address the funder’s expectations of the budget contents and in some cases a specific format may be required. The guidance may require that matching funds are incorporated into the budget or that specific breakdowns for items like travel are provided.

In some cases, you may find clues (or even direct language) as to what they want or don’t want you to spend the money on. Use these as your guide in developing your budget outline.

2) Determine Allowable Costs

Allowable costs are the items and activities (to include Direct and Indirect Cost) that the funder will consider as an acceptable cost in delivering the grant objectives. All cost should be reasonable and necessary. In the federal grant space, the acceptable costs are outlined in the 2 CFR 200 “Supercircular.” There is usually also a section in the NOFA/FOA/RFP that indicates what the particular program will or won’t fund. Read the content behind the links. If you are unsure, check with your legal team or a grant professional that has federal funding expertise.

On the foundation side, each funder may have their own restrictions on what they will or won’t fund. Be sure to research their giving guidelines before creating the application budget.

When in doubt, ask the funder. If you have a specific line item you are questioning, call the funder’s representative and talk to them about that specific item’s eligibility as part of the program budget. On the federal side, there is always a budget person listed for questions. They won’t bite, give them a call!

3) Do the math

Computer programs and templates are great tools but, not perfect. Take time to check the calculations before you submit. Be sure to use current fringe, travel and indirect rates. If you really struggle in this area, you may want to seek outside assistance for the budget from your accounting staff or a grant professional experienced in grant budgeting and managing grant funds post-award.

Nothing is worse as a reviewer than having a budget that doesn’t add up. It’s hard to trust real dollars to someone you aren’t confident can do basic math!

4) Consider Equipment vs Supplies

Equipment is defined as an item of property that has an acquisition cost of $5,000 or more (unless the organization has established lower levels) and an expected service life of more than one year. If the item does not meet both criteria, then it should be listed in Supplies section. Be sure to talk with your accounting division to determine the threshold established for equipment acquisition. If your threshold is less than that of the federal government, you will need to explain the difference in your budget narrative.

5) Does Budget = Narrative?

Cross-check the project description, narrative and budget to ensure all items discussed do not conflict with each other and that the numbers are consistent throughout. Many times, as the budget comes together numbers change. Go back through all documents and adjust numbers so that all match. It is really important that your top-level budget matches the quotes and subcontractor/subawardee budgets (yes, quotes and sub-budgets are very helpful in getting to the “numbers” part!). This is especially important when it comes to number served and cost per person calculations. Readers will pick up on differences and questions what the real number is supposed to be.

The budget does not have to be the scary monster hiding under your desk. Take your time, develop it as you do the narrative, and, when in doubt, seek assistance.

May the numbers always be in your favor!

With Grantitude,

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Stacy N. Fitzsimmons, MBA is the Owner of SNF Writing Solutions, LLC a business services consultancy. This post was written with the substantial contribution from Leighe Disbro, SNF Writing Solutions Associate.

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New Year’s: Blah Blah Blah?

Happy New Year!

It’s a new year and I’m a process and planning person, so that means I’m supposed to be the one asking:

  • What are your goals for the new year?
  • Have you reviewed your long-range plan?
  • Do you have measurable objectives established for you and your team?

But. I’m. Not.

Why?

They should already be in place from last year!

Goal-setting and planning are often thought of as stand-alone events that happen once a year with great flourish and fanfare, more often than not at an offsite location where the leadership is quarantined off from the masses to establish the direction of the organization for the next 365 days, or perhaps longer.

While I am a proponent of leadership planning retreats, (after all if you aren’t at the office you aren’t distracted by operations), and having a strategic plan, the annual goal-setting exercise, when isolated, does not cultivate the fertile ground from which prosperity can grow; cultivation is an ongoing, year-around process.

Don’t get me wrong, if you are setting goals and reviewing plans and establishing performance metrics, I’m very happy! Let’s just take it a step further and establish the goal-reviewing, plan tweaking, measurement, and course overhauls that will be needed throughout the year.

Depending on the nature of your business, this may need to be done as often as monthly or can be done quarterly. Any less than quarterly and things can get away from you before you know it. Pick a day of the week that you generally can block a couple of hours, and put a reoccurring (monthly? every two months? quarterly?) event on your calendar now. Set your availability as busy. Treat the time as you would a mandatory meeting with your boss/client. When the time comes, here’s your agenda:

  1. Spend part of the time reviewing data supporting your goals and progress toward your benchmarks. Are you under-performing? Right on track? Are you blowing it out of the water?
  2. Determine what actions need to be taken regarding your performance so far. Do you need to determine why you are where you are? Do you need to establish more realistic (more or less challenging) goals based on true capacity?
  3. Next, review the performance data and possible actions with your team. Discuss trends they are experiencing, clear paths and obstacles they are encountering. Allow honesty and be open to the discussion. Just because you have given this some thought already, keep open ears, you may find that the boots on the ground are walking a different path than you perceive.
  4. Review needed actions and formalize any plan/goal/measure changes and add them to your planning documents.
  5. Continue to gather data and repeat on your next scheduled review.

This doesn’t have to take very long – an hour or two max, if you keep up on data gathering and do the review routinely. With a regular goal and performance measurement planning/reviewing, you see your progress and see your needs year-around and are prepared no matter what date the calendar says.

In business, as in life, the best resolution is to not have to make any resolutions – because you already have a plan and are working it! So, I won’t be asking about your resolutions, let’s bypass the rhetoric and blah, blah, blah that we typically spew forth this time of year and instead establish or continue our routine of evaluation and planning.

I will, however, wish you a Happy New Year! May you be prosperous in all your endeavors.

With Grantitude,

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Creating a Grants Office from Scratch (Part 6): Resources and Launch

Here we are at the last post of this grants office series. I wish you great success as you ramp up your grants office with key stakeholders.

Last week we talked about establishing grant goals for the office and the organization as a whole. This week we’ll focus on technological and human resources and the launch of your grants office.

Let’s get to it.

Determine Resources Needed

Once the duties of the office are clearly stated, determine what human and technology resources are needed to achieve the goals of the office.

Human Resources

Staffing is never an easy process, especially in government! Approach the human resources element knowing the personnel regulations and guidelines (and budget) for your organization.

Look at the scope and goals and ask:

  • How many job functions are there?
  • How can they be grouped?
  • How many people does it take?
  • How many people can we get by with?
  • What skills do people need?

Create job descriptions that reflect the functions you have identified and the requisite skills. There are many job descriptions online for grant-related positions. Do a search as part of your research and determine what elements you need and what others are seeking as qualifications. This was a major part of my reorganization experience—determining what others were doing and how I could adapt to my specific situation. Enlist your HR office early and often as you develop the job descriptions through onboarding.

Grant Management Technology

There are all sorts of software programs and online applications that can be used to manage the grant lifecycle. Some offices use Excel sheets, Access databases, or full-blown grant management systems. In order to determine what you need, consider the following:

  • How will you track grant applications?
  • How will you track grant awards?
  • How will you maintain reporting requirements (deadlines and content)?
  • What dollar amount will you be managing?
  • What volume of applications and awards will you be managing?
  • What are the reporting expectations of organizational leaders?

Once you determine the scope of technology needs, do your research to figure out the best resource for you. Some vendors are scale-able; others are not. It’s important to have a tracking system that meets your needs.

The Launch

Way to go! All of the people and processes are in place. All systems are go.

As you have come along this journey, I’m sure you have already been doing some grant work as well (unless you outsourced or delayed). It’s a tiring road, but well worth it when grant proposals are going out and new awards are coming in.

Revisit the strategic plan goals and reasons for starting the office frequently—weekly at the start, then pare it down. Keeping focus on the “why we are here” is definitely needed in the first few months, which are the most rough. Once everything is operating smoothly, track your progress toward goals and determine how well processes are working. Tweaks will be needed as you work through the first few grants. Don’t be afraid to make changes that make the process less cumbersome, have fewer steps, or simply make more sense. While in the planning phase, it’s somewhat easy to see how things should work, but when things get going, it may look and feel different. That’s okay! Just reevaluate and go back through the process—it will be shorter and easier on each cycle.

Originally published on the eCivis Blog August 10, 2014

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Creating a Grants Office from Scratch (Part 5): Establish Grant Goals

Now it’s time to establish the office and launch. The main objective at this stage is to have a plan in place that is executable and that can be measured for success and return on investment. For strategy junkies and those that enjoy the development of the grant workplan (goals, objectives, outcomes, activities), this is the fun part. If you are not one of those, seek someone to help with the development. Sometimes the perspective of an outsider can be a grounding voice in the process.

Establish Grant Goals for the Organization

You created goals for the grants office in the strategic plan. Here you want to establish grant-related goals for the organization. The goal(s) should be directly correlated to the strategic plan. Given the complexity of organizational goals, it may be appropriate to have only one organization-wide goal.

The goals for the organization should be closely related to those of the office; in some cases, the goals could be the same. Work closely with organization leaders to determine the overall goals for the organization—there are more players in the success of a grants office than just those working in the office.

I hesitate to tie the goals for an organization or grants office to the percentage of wins or total dollars awarded. Be careful! You are not in control of many factors that come into play with funding decisions. As a grant professional, these metrics are out of immediate control: You can influence the results with great proposals, but ultimately award decisions are made by others. If a program needs a specific level of funding, plan to apply for about three times as much money as you need.

In developing the goals for the organization, consider the following questions:

  • For what purposes and from what sources will grant funding be sought?
  • How many funding sources or programs will be identified?
  • What types of funders will be sought?
    • Will you go after the first federal award for the organization?
    • Are there specific foundations that are closely aligned with your mission?
    • Are state funds available?
  • Will trainings be offered by the office?
    • Can you train stakeholders in the grant-cycle functions?
  • How will deadlines be met?
    • Will responsibilities be divided or assigned to one person?
    • Who has to approve and when will they be approached before the submission?
    • How far in advance do budgets need to be approved?
    • For Grants.gov submissions, will you submit 48 hours in advance, as recommended, or will you submit on the deadline?
    • When will letters, forms, and attachments be started?
  • What other grant-related needs have been identified as part of the discovery?

With these ideas in place, generate an overarching goal for the organization to achieve. Then have 2-3 supporting objectives to the goal.

Establish the Scope of the Grants Office

It is extremely important to know exactly what the office is and is not responsible for doing and achieving. Have a formal scope document that outlines the duties of the office and have the document approved by the stakeholder group. In some cases, the Board of Directors or Civic Council may have to approve the formation of the office, in which case the scope will become part of the organization’s record.

Below is an outline of possible components of the grants office scope. While not exhaustive, this list should give you a fair starting point to scale the office duties to the needs of the organization and the reasons the office was created.

  • Finding opportunities
    • Locating
    • Decision to pursue
  • Application
    • Writing narrative
    • Budget development
    • Technical assistance for applications
    • Reviewing applications
    • Application package preparation
      • Coordinating attachments
      • Coordinating letters (support, commitment)
      • Coordinating bios/CVs/resumes
    • Signature routing
    • Electronic submission
      • System registrations
      • System user maintenance
    • Mailing
  • Management
    • Budget management
    • Timeline & deliverables management (project management)
    • Time & effort tracking
    • Scope/budget changes
    • Subrecipient monitoring and site visits
    • Activity reporting
    • Organizational reporting
    • Continuation/renewal application
  • Accounting/financials
    • Vendor invoicing
    • Subrecipient payment
    • Cost capture
    • Indirect cost allocation
      • Agreement negotiation
    • Draw-down of funds
    • Financial reporting
  • Audit
    • Annual audit
    • Subrecipient audit monitoring
    • Final audit
  • Close-out
    • Forms
      • Inventory
      • Inventions
    • Financial report
    • Progress report

Establish Policies, Procedures, and Processes

With a firm understanding of the scope of the office, determine the policies, procedures, and processes of the office. This is where you will determine how you will operate, get all of your responsibilities done, and achieve the goals for the office and organization. When creating these policies, keep in mind the external requirements of the funder and federal and state regulations. Here are some questions to get you started: (Hint: For every “how,” also consider the “who” and “when”/“in what time frame.”)

  • What are the governing regulations at the funder level? Federal? State? Foundation?
  • What are the organization policies that must be followed?
  • Is a board or council resolution required?
  • Are there statutes in place that limit funding pursuits?
  • How will approval be granted for the application?
    • Decision to pursue
    • Budget
      • Allocation of personnel resources
      • Allocation of tangible resources
      • Match
      • Narrative
  • Application package
  • How will funding be identified?
  • How will applications be developed?
  • How will applications be submitted?
  • How will registrations be managed?
  • How will award notifications be communicated?
  • How will post-award reporting be completed?
  • How will you track progress against project timeline, goals, and spending?

The answers to these questions then need to be translated into policies, procedures, and processes. Create a flowchart showing how each process relates to the next with interactions of different groups of people. This visual will aid you in creating processes that flow well and limit excessive hand-offs or roadblocks. I had the excellent opportunity to examine the grant process as a Six Sigma project. This experience was an excellent one for fine-tuning processes and examining the rationale of a process. I fully recommend a Six Sigma approach to reviewing grant processes for any grants office that is reaching the end of a planning cycle, rebooting or reorganizing.

For the documentation of the policies and procedures, use the format required or used by the organization for other procedural documentation. Be clear in the documentation as to what needs to be done, by whom, in a timeframe relative to application due dates or another common milestone. Having documented policies and procedures is important not only for managing processes, but also in light of the new requirements under the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) “super circular” (Uniform Guidance on Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards (2 C.F.R. 200)).

In the final installment of this series, I’ll discuss human and technological resources and the launch of the office.

Originally published on the eCivis blog August 6, 2014