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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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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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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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Grantitude

An attitude of gratitude for grant professionals everywhere.

Coming off of the heels of the Grant Professional Association 2015 National Conference and in contemplating the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, I find myself reflecting on all that I am thankful for in my personal and professional life.

Personally, it’s easy to know what I am thankful for. I just had a beautiful baby boy that made his entrance at the end of September. His entry into the world brought together a symphony of caring from family and friends supporting me through a trimester of bed rest. I could not be more thankful for each and every one of them.

On a professional note, I find myself very thankful for an industry of professionals dedicated to the advancement of social issues. In an era when the news seems more and more bleak every day, there is an army waging war against the many atrocities and disparities facing our world. I am thankful for those that create the programs, craft the proposals for funding, offer the funding channels, manage the funds, execute the programs, and seek the answers to “what works best.” Grant professionals wear many of these hats.

No matter how much or how little we think we are responsible for, we are all part of the greater movement to find a path to a brighter future, for us and for generations to come.

For this, I am thankful.

With Grantitude,

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