The Drug Free Communities (DFC) funding opportunity announcement dropped! SNF Writing Solutions is looking to extend our 4-year win streak working with coalitions on their applications. Leave a comment or email us if interested in learning how the SNF Writing Solutions team can help your coalition apply. Please share if you know a group doing good work in their community to reduce youth substance use.
My “light” evening reading is a hint.
Think strategic plans have to be complicated, time-intensive, and formal documents worthy of a Pulitzer?
Who has time for that?
Come learn how to put together a “good enough” strategic plan that you could even get done while preparing that grant application due next month! See you Thursday afternoon at #gpaconf19 for a double session – come ready to work!
#grantwriting #grant #strategicplan #goodenough #keepitsimple
Crisp air, changing leaves, colorful trees, sweatshirts, and football. And my birthday (and my husband’s and my son’s)!! All reasons to celebrate my favorite season. (No, I didn’t mention the “flavor” – not a fan, call me crazy!)
It’s also the time of year that I start to look at my plan for next year. December is just so full, fitting in a strategic plan review just doesn’t happen. And January – well – that’s for resolution failure, not a good time to try to plan while you are starving, you just don’t make good decisions when you are hangry! Plus, fall is it’s the start of my personal new year, so it’s fitting.
It’s often said those that “do” don’t take the time to “do” it for themselves – and that is so true! So I’m going to post my progress in updating my plans and give you a glimpse into my process. My wish is that other independent consultants can benefit from my work.
Out with the old.
I can organize and streamline just about anything business related – except for my office space! That’s where I called in Laura from Victoria’s Organizers to help me sort through the layers of clutter and create a space that works for my work.
Four full contractor trash bags, 2 tubs and a box to my lovely assistant to scan, and 2 trips to Goodwill later…I have a space that is functional for me even if not textbook organized (and I can see the floor!).
I highly recommend calling in a pro to help, even if you think you’re pretty good (as in all other things – the pro is a pro for a reason). She was able to work within my style and needs (i.e. organized chaos). I still have some homework to get done before our next session, but I’m already working in a much more functional layout.
You may not need to rearrange furniture each year, but the declutter and toss clears the path for new work and thinking. Give it a try!
In with the new
With functional space to work in, now it’s time to look ahead. The nice thing about being an independent consultant is that I get to determine (to some extent) what I work on and how I spend my time.
What is it I want to do?
What do I really enjoy working on that I’m also really good at?
(Change the “I” to we for your department/organization and this will work for any setting)
With dry-erase marker in hand, I’ve outlined a list of the kinds of tasks and projects I enjoy and have the skillset to complete. I’ve also identified a couple of opportunities to get some additional training so I can do some things even better. I’ll be looking for an Excel “beyond-expert” class if anyone knows of any!
Looking for commonalities I found a few themes in what I like doing: “growth, decisions, concept, and manage.” Building to growth and bringing concepts to clarity are part of helping a organization evolve while decision making and managing are crucial to sustaining an organization.
Whiteboard filled, I’ve taken a step back and narrowed it down to a pretty simple concept:
I thrive when I’m helping solve problems to evolve or sustain organizations.
A little rewriting and (a lot of) wordsmithing and I’ll have a mission statement!
Next, I’m going to work on identifying strategies to bring in not only new clients (which, of course, is important), but also new challenges and problems that need solved. Stay tuned for the steps I’m taking to create these strategies and results of this work and what I’ll be up to next week.
As I finish another grant review panel (this one Federal), I found that I had to check my “crankiness” meter – where I was on the scale when I reviewed the app – during our discussion in the team-consensus calls. Upon reflection, I decided that the applicants would do certain things that immediately changed my perception of the rest of the application. While I could temper this, somewhat, in the consensus scoring – there were many things that irritated me so much that I couldn’t (wouldn’t) let it go. And others on my review panel had their irritants too!
So, without further ado – if you really want to irritate your reviewer and have them view your application with the most critical of eye…make sure your…
1. Math is Wrong
In your budget, make sure that your summary table doesn’t add up – both for the request and any match requirement. If you want to outdo yourself in this area, your subtotals in the various sections should not match your summary. For added bonus frustration, leave out key pieces of information, such as base salary, so that the reviewer has absolutely no way of determining if your budget is accurate or reasonable.
For our objectives, make sure that your baseline and projected measures for your indicators is confusing – using percentages of percentages without mentioning what your denominator is. Reviewers will never be math or evaluation people that can figure it out; so you’ll be ok giving fluffernutter for objective measures.
For even more excitement, have numbers in various sections referred to in other sections with different values in each section – it will keep your reviewers on their toes.
2. Proposal and Documentation Don’t Match
When providing a partner list and qualifications, your Letters of Commitment that you attach should be from completely different entities – that way your reviewer has to figure out how it all fits together. Even better, have different partners in the qualifications list, letters, and budget. Reviewers all love an intricate puzzle to put together at the end of a long day! For bonus points, say that one of the partners is critical for implementation, but don’t include a letter from that partner – just your word that your most critical partner is on board is good enough.
Ditto the above for project staff. Be sure to include a random CV/Biosketch in the attachments too – reviewers love to be tested to see if they are paying attention!
When documenting your match, have a different amount in your budget than what is committed in your letters. Reviewers don’t even look at that or try to figure it out. Make sure to include various match amounts from organizations that aren’t in your budget or that you haven’t mentioned anywhere in your proposal, for good measure. Even better, just put in a dollar amount and don’t demonstrate how that number was obtained.
3. Project is Redundant of Others in the Area or from Across the Country
There’s nothing quite like reading a proposal that says that it is “unique” and “innovative” and – even better – “revolutionary to the industry” – when you’ve read the same project concept three other ways and those other proposals cited the research and project models that they are building their project from. Just put your “original” ideas out there – no need to do any best practice research during the project development phase.
4. Proposal Looks Unique without the Aid of the Provided Templates
If there are instructions or templates for the proposal or letters, no need to pay attention to those pesky details – reviewers aren’t going to look at the NOFO to know what was required – and there’s no way you would get a past recipient and someone who has written and managed similar applications/awards for several years on the same review panel – right?
When there’s a template, you would never want the reviewer to have an easy time finding information, so switching up the headings (or taking them out altogether), removing borders from tables (making it really hard to read), and abandoning the provided formatting for checkboxes and forms is highly encouraged.
5. Workplan Timeline is “Ongoing”
Every activity is always going to continue throughout the project, from beginning to end, so by all means, just give your timeline as “ongoing” for every activity.
Timelines are just wishful thinking anyway, so no need to put any thought into the exercise. Reviewers don’t need to know what’s slated for the first year versus the third year, or even the fifth year; they are just being nosey. As for milestones, we will just know that we are making progress – we don’t need to think about them or when we might achieve anything that matters in our project. We aren’t going to meet the timeline we proposed anyway – we are waaaay to ambitious in what we proposed and definitely don’t have the staff FTE count to support the work (but, shhhhhh the reviewers will never figure that out!).
I review budgets and work plans first (this is after the kids are in bed). When your math doesn’t add up – I’m jaded for the rest of your proposal – if they can’t do the math in their budget, can they manage this project? If your work plan isn’t supported by the budget, I really question if your project is achievable. I’ve worked enough projects to know what it takes and the FTE support needed to execute a project; I’m all for lean teams – but there’s a difference between operating a skeleton team and not having enough time/bodies to achieve what you set out to do in a project. In your evaluation, give your benchmarks and indicators careful thought. You will have people that have implemented projects like yours on the review panel and they have a pretty good idea what is feasible and what is inflated. Finally, take the extra time before you submit to make sure that your supporting documentation (attachments) match what is in your proposal – the reviewers really do look that them.
Here’s to (not) irritating your reviewer!
Stacy Fitzsimmons is the Founder and CEO of SNF Writing Solutions, LLC
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stacy Fitzsimmons is the Founder and CEO of SNF Writing Solutions, LLC
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.
Stacy Fitzsimmons is the Founder and CEO of SNF Writing Solutions, LLC
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
- 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.)
- Public Relations/Community Affairs
- Stockholder Relations
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!
Stacy Fitzsimmons is the Founder and CEO of SNF Writing Solutions, LLC
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stacy Fitzsimmons is the owner of SNF Writing Solutions. She is also both born and married into Irish blood. Happy St. Patrick’s day!
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.
Amy Shankland is a former Associate with SNF Writing Solutions, LLC and guest blogger.