The 5-Why’s: A discovery tool that’s not just for toddlers

For any parents out there or for anyone who’s ever spent time with a three-year-old, you are familiar with the question “why”? It seems like the stream of why’s can be endless. This inquisitive nature is lost for many in adulthood. This lost art of asking why can be very beneficial when you’re looking at issues within your organization. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, just like those toddler questions! But, I offer you this: it can be a great way to discover the root cause of problems, needs, or performance gaps you and your organization face. While the repeated asking can be somewhat monotonous, there are great insights and answers to be found in the process. I invite you to learn more about the 5-why’s and get to the root of your problem or questions…just stop short of shouting “because I said so!”         

What’s the Problem?

Whether you are for-profit, non-profit, or government you are in business to solve a problem. Being able to state the problem effectively is a giant step toward offering your customers a solution to the problem you aim to solve.

“We need money for a counselor. That’s why we’re looking for grants”

“We need to cut costs to be profitable”

You are trying  to solve a problem: your organization needs funding. But is that the real problem you are trying to solve?

Defining the true problem will set you up for success.

A word of caution: the problem is not the solution. The problem isn’t the need for the solution; there’s a problem that’s driving you to look at potential solutions.

Here’s a couple of examples of solutions in the problem statement:

“The problem is that we need a new school in our community.”

Is the problem that you need a new school, or is it that the current schools are overcrowded or falling apart?

“The problem is that there isn’t any research that supports my theory.”

Is the problem that there isn’t any research that supports the theory, is it that the research has found the opposite, or that the research isn’t the problem at all – it’s a problem in the community that you are exploring?

To revisit the example above:

“We need a counselor to address the growing substance use problems in our school before students get into real trouble.”

Is the problem/need for a school counselor, or that there is a growing substance use problem and students are facing life-changing consequences because of the substance use?

“We have a financial shortfall and need to cut expenses to below our revenue”

Is the financial shortfall because your expenses are too high? Or did something else happen that shifted the balance of income/expense?

If you have a solution, intervention, or research question in your problem statement, you need to dig a little deeper.

The 5-Why’s

How do you get to the real problem? The 5-Why’s exercise, while newly energized as a go-to business tool, has been around for decades as a method for digging in to find the source of an issue.

This simple yet effective method will take a concern and drive the group to analyze the reasons for problems and thinking patterns.

The exercise goes like this:

  1. State the problem at hand
  2. Ask “Why” (or “so that,” or “because…”, whatever phrasing will get the dialogue going)
  3. Capture the thought(s) that come next
  4. Ask “Why” again and capture the thoughts produced until you’ve asked at least 5 times.
  5. The result is a root-cause of the problem.

When you do this in a group, it’s best to have everyone do the asking and answering on their own and then come back together to discuss what everyone’s chain of statements. You will likely come up with several root causes that (1) are all right answers, and (2) can be addressed in a comprehensive programmatic solution that will address the problem from multiple vantage points.

5-Why’s Examples

Here’s an example of the 5-Why’s digging deeper to get to the root cause of a problem.

We need money for a counselor.

Why?

There’s a growing substance use problem in our school, and students are getting into real trouble.

Why?

Students are showing up to events high or drunk, and we are obligated to report them.

Why?

Their parents think it’s ok for them to drink or use marijuana at home.

Why?

They don’t think it’s a big deal.

Why?

Alcohol and marijuana are legal in some places for adults, so they think it’s ok as long as they don’t drive.

Ah-ha!!

Do you need a counselor at the school? Probably. Will that solve the problem? Probably not. The issue extends to the adults in the community, not just the students. You’ll likely want to have a community education/outreach initiative as well as the counselor.

Using the 5-Why’s approach can help you clarify what you are really trying to solve. This method is especially useful when you feel you are at an impasse, the solution doesn’t feel right, the problem seems too big, or what you are doing does not seem to resonate with your customers/participants.

Template for Reference

Here’s an example of a template to work through your 5-Why’s. After your first draft in the table, revise the statement to be a complete thought/sentence.

Current State<<This is what is happening now>>
Problem<<this is why that’s a problem>>
Why… or So that… or Because…<<Response>>
Why…  <<Response>>
Why…  <<Response>>
Why…  <<Response>>
Why…  <<Response>>
The Problem<<Rewrite in a statement>>  

What’s the problem you need to run through the 5-Why’s? Drop a comment to let me know how you might use this approach.

Happy solving!

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

HRSA’s Rural Communities Opioid Response Program (RCORP) is Open – Due March 12th

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Congratulations on your GEER award!

The SNF Writing Solutions team congratulates the recipients of the Indiana Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds.

We are proud to have assisted the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations (IPBS) in cooperation with Jennings County School Corporation on their award to pilot datacasting as a broadband/cellular data alternative for eLearning. We can’t wait to see the positive outcome of the pilot and statewide deployment of the technology to help students without access to reliable internet service stay connected and engaged when eLearning is necessary.

See today’s article in the North Vernon Plain Dealer and Sun!

Drug Free Communities (DFC) Funding Opportunity Announced.

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.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/nearly-25m-available-substance-use-prevention-coalitions-new-partnership-ondcp-cdc/?utm_source=link

GPA Conference Next Week!

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

How to Irritate Your Grant Proposal Reviewer in 5 Easy Steps

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!).

Personal Note:

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!

With Grantitude,

stacy sig jpg

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

 

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,

stacy sig jpg

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

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,

stacy sig jpg

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

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,

stacy sig jpg

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

Are You Failing Grants 101?

How well do you remember middle school?  Lockers, watching the clock for the bell to ring, changing classes, who likes whom, keeping track of your own assignments, tardies, the absence of the beloved recess….  For many students, this is their first experience with most of these areas, and when you combine all that newness with the pressures of grades ACTUALLY COUNTING for something and the social awkwardness of teens and tweens, life can be pretty overwhelming!  Do you remember that horrible, hollow burning feeling in the pit of your stomach when you discovered that you forgot to bring your gym clothes?  Or what about that sudden panicky sickness the first time you realized that you only get half-credit for late assignments…and it’s only late because you left it in your locker and in all your nervousness to get to class on time, you FORGOT YOUR LOCKER COMBINATION?  And of course, there was THAT teacher…you remember…the one who’s only enjoyment in life seemed to come from making you sing an embarrassing song while standing on your chair for neglecting to bring your pen/pencil/calculator/book/folder/notebook to class. Just the thought of middle school makes me break out into a cold sweat!

Lucky for most of us, middle school is just a misty far-away memory.  All of that turmoil and social angst are behind us, and we are stronger, smarter, and more responsible because of it.  We’ve learned to manage our time, organize our papers (even if the system of organization only makes sense to ourselves!), do our work neatly and completely, and, most importantly, complete our tasks by their deadlines.  Or have we? Which brings this K-8 teacher to the point of this blog post….

If grantseekers were students, what kind of grades would they be making?

Pretend your grantwriter–or the grantmaker for those of you that are grant writers–is the teacher, and you are the student.  Take a good, honest look at your grantseeking habits. Do you make the grade?  

  1. Do your assignments. The first step to writing a successful grant is to make sure you complete all of the required tasks.  Accurately fill in the basic company information.  Send the requested copy of your 501c(3) tax letter.  Email that list of boardmembers and their bios.
  2. Turn your stuff in on time.  Let’s face it….we are all busy people.  On any given day, there is too much work to do, and not enough time in which to do it.  However, grants wait for no man (or woman), and the unfortunate thing is, if you do not get your grantwriter the requested information in a timely fashion, she cannot complete your grant application by the deadline.  Executive directors: Did your grantwriter send you an email asking you to approve, click, and sign the grant for the final submission by the grant’s deadline?  If you don’t, then you are only hurting yourself and your organization.
  3. Follow instructions.  Grantmakers are like teachers…they want things done in a specific way.  If you do not comply, you’ve wasted valuable time, energy, and resources, and your grant will go immediately into the recycle bin without a second thought. Did you follow page counts, font size, margin, and spacing requriements?
  4. Listen & Pay attention.  Really, truly listen, to the grantmaker’s description of the grant….to your grantwriter’s suggestions for improvement or for needed items….  Pay attention to due dates….to needed information….to grant period reporting requriements….to it all!!  If you have a hard time remembering, take notes or ask for an email copy of the grant instructions.  Set up reminders on your phone or calendar (remember those assignment notebooks from middle school?).  There are some magnificent apps out there.  The important thing is to find a system that works for you.
  5. Do your work neatly and completely.  Just like in school, it will help you avoid misunderstandings, mistakes, and problems down the line.  Did you receive that grant?  Great!  Please keep the required receipts, statistics, and other required information, and file your reports COMPLETELY and neatly.
  6. Respect yourself and others.  As with anything, please respect the time and energy of those who are involved in the process of writing your grant application.  It takes many hours of hard work to write a successful grant, and sometimes grantwriters feel like we are constantly nagging our clients to provide us with timely, completed information that is vital to the grantwriting process.  Do you remember that kid in your class whom the teacher constantly had to nag? Jake, where is your pencil?  Jake, are you working on your report that is due Friday?  Jake, have you read chapter 5? Jake, did you turn in your homework?  Jake, are you paying attention? When you honor your grantwriter’s time and efforts by doing all of the things above, you eliminate (or at least drastically reduce!) the need for your grantwriter to constantly remind you for items required to obtain your grant.  

In what areas do you need to improve?  Are there areas in which you are getting tardies, half-credit for late assignments, or 0 participation points?  How will you improve your grade in Grants 101?

With Grantitude,

Lisa Sig

Lisa Wagner is an Associate with SNF Writing Solutions, LLC.

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