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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,

stacy sig jpg

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,

stacy sig jpg

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

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Corporate Fundraising: Six Steps to Finding Sponsorship Gift Success

Corporate relations is an essential part of any development office and typically falls into two categories: corporate grants, and sponsorship gifts. Depending on the company you’re working with, one gift could be coming from multiple budgets within the organization. Below are a couple of helpful tips to keep in mind when preparing that next corporate sponsorship visit.

1. Do you know what you’re selling?

Having a comprehensive catalog of available options not only helps your potential donor visualize the many options available, but it also helps keep your office in order. If you are new to the team, or bringing a new member on, having an established catalog will be an invaluable tool for their training. This doesn’t have to be a flashy piece, but you should have some list of the available options ranging from special events, workshops, spaces, programs, etc. If you’ve not gone through this process before, you might surprise yourself with just how many opportunities are available, or conversely, what you’re missing to round out your sponsorship portfolio.
Don’t have a catalog?  Here are a few tips to get you started: what it is (the event or thing), price range, date(s) of the program/event if applicable, recognition offered, and sponsor benefits and the fair market value (or non-deductible) portion of the gift if applicable.

2. Do your research

I know I am most likely preaching to the choir on this one, but even if you’re asking a long-time sponsor for a meeting, do a quick check of their website.  What are the supporting right now?  Have they changed focus? Let’s face it, the reason we’re always on the lookout for new sponsors (in addition to raising additional funds for our organizations) is because corporations change focus, board members change, and inevitably budgets change.  It is better to go into a meeting knowing a sponsor may have to trim their support this year and have some fantastic options to choose from, then to learn about it during a meeting and not have back up options prepared.

3. Corporations are people too

In other words, while there are differences in how you approach and steward individual vs. corporate donors, remember – they are still donors.  How you steward your corporate donors, barring corporate changes in focus, will ultimately determine how involved they will be with your non-profit.  Corporations can be great partners for bringing in more than just dollars, they are a perfect place to recruit volunteers and committee members.

4. Be mindful of increased prices

I worked with a group once who thought they should automatically ask for a 3% increase in sponsorship every year from their corporate donors.  Personally, I think that is one of the quickest ways to ruin a great relationship with a corporate partner.  Be sure to ask for increases when they are warranted, but keep in mind that organizational budgets change and if you’re always asking for more, it will give the impression to your donor that you’re in a one-sided relationship.

Thinking back to #2 on our list, if you come prepared knowing that increasing a sponsorship isn’t likely with a sponsor, but bring options that can still fit (most) of their needs, this will let them know you’re in this relationship for the long-term.  It’s also good stewardship.

5. How flexible are you?

Flexibility can mean many things, and here I am specifically referring to your catalog of options and the go/no-go areas for your organization.  If a sponsor wanted to increase their gift, but wanted to have a sign at your front entrance showcasing them as a sponsor, would you do it?  If someone wanted to increase their gift, but needs an extra table to your sold out gala, do you give it?  You’ll never have all the answers up front, but when it comes to spaces or programs, know where and when you’re comfortable putting names or logos (and know which one you prefer).  This might be a good conversation to have with your CEO to get their thoughts about logo/name placement at your site if this isn’t a conversation you’ve had before.

6. Say thank you & follow-up

I am sure this goes without saying, but remember to THANK YOUR DONORS!  In addition to their initial thank you letter, I often prepare a year-end thank you letter for my corporate donors to highlight all the ways they’ve helped my organization this past year, with pictures and quotes whenever possible.  It reminds them about all the benefits they’ve received, the impact their funding created, and provides a great chance to set up a meeting for the new year.  Also, as you set up tours and lunches with your individual donors, be sure to include your corporate decision makers (and their families if appropriate) into this schedule – it could pay off!

Best of Luck,

AmyL_wo initial

Amy Lazoff is an Associate with 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,

stacy sig jpg

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

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Still working on your Development Plan?

It’s that time of year when organizations are finalizing their development plans for the upcoming year.
Whether you’re a development officer or a non-profit CEO, writing a development plan can be a daunting task, especially if it is the first time you’re going through the process.  I’ve been involved with organizations that had no plan document, just budget goals to achieve, as well as with some who had lengthy plans with a lot of narrative to go along with their goal numbers.  Why have I seen such a variation in plans (or lack thereof) over the years?  The simple answer is; every organization is different.  Organizations have different needs, different boards, and different sized development offices.  The key to putting together a development plan is creating one that works for you.
It may be January, but if you still want to craft a plan for 2017 and are afraid you’ve already missed the boat, fear not – you are not alone, and the exercise is still worthwhile.  My goal for this post isn’t to provide you with the answer of what your plan should look like, but to provide you with a few questions you should ask yourself as you move through the process in an effort to guide your plan.

1. Why am I doing this crazy thing?

If you are a seasoned development professional a lot of what you’ll do this year is natural to you, you do it every year, you know what goals you need to hit.  Even if you are a 1-person development office and your boss and board are exactly the same as last year, there is still merit in putting your plan on paper.  It doesn’t have to have an accompanying narrative, it can look similar to a GANTT chart, showcasing the major tasks, when they happen and your goals.  Even a document as simple as this would be extremely beneficial to your boss or board should you unexpectedly have to take leave, or get hit by the proverbial bus.

Think of it like an evaluation plan.  While you may have just rolled your eyes after reading those words, your development plan, at its core, is a type of evaluation plan.  It lays out your tasks, your outputs, outcomes, and goals.  If you are in a situation where you feel like your board doesn’t quite get what you spend your time doing, or you are gearing up to ask for an additional staff member for your department, your development plan could be your key to showing what you’re currently spending your time on, and the results you’re experiencing.  This is part of your case statement for going after additional resources if you can show an increased ROI with some additional investment.  Bonus: when you get that new staff member, your plan will serve as a great on-boarding tool!

2. Who is my audience?

This will dictate much of how you structure your plan and how detailed it will be.  Is this plan just for your team?  If so, are they new to the field, or seasoned professionals?  Is this plan for your leader or board?  If so, how much do they know (or want to know) about the pieces and parts of what you do throughout the year?

3. What should be in my plan?

So, thinking about your answers from questions #1 and #2, let’s think about the major pieces that should be in your plan…

Overall budget

What are your expected to raise this year as a whole?

Personally, I have two major buckets I build my plan toward – my unrestricted dollar (greatest need) goal and then my goal/projection for funds raised toward my current capital campaign.

Even if your major ask phase of your capital campaign is over and you are primarily concerned with making sure pledge payments are coming in, there is still work there on sending reminders and stewarding those donors so they continue to pay their pledges – don’t let folks forget that!

Your major budget buckets

  • Breakdown your overall budget into common chunks based on your sources of revenue – grants, special events, direct mail, major gifts, planned giving, earned income (if that falls under you), etc.

Activities

Now, highlight the major factors of what you’ll do to hit those budget goals. Make your high-level to-do list for the budget period.

Measurements: Lead & Lag

Consider using lead measures and lag measures.

If you have a new team, or really want to let your board have a deep dive into what you do, detail the lead measures (the calls, the lunches, the number of proposals you want to write, etc.) that will lead to the lag measures – the dollars that show up.  We know these things don’t magically happen, so talk about it.

Lead measures can also include mini-goals within your plan, such as securing 6 new corporate sponsors, 2 new foundation funders, or having X% of donors increase their giving over last year.  If you put it out there, you have something to measure against.  This also shows that you’re thinking of way and have small goals for increasing your donor base.

Stewardship plans

I’ve had some interesting chats with colleagues about where and how to put donor stewardship activities into development plans.  If you’re lucky enough to have a staff member dedicated to stewardship, they are most likely stewarding donors based on the buckets you outlined above.  So, if possible, divide up those pieces and talk about them within those buckets – what did you do with your direct mail folks, or event attendees, foundation funders, or capital campaign donors?  If this is difficult, the beauty of there being no one single development plan template means you can talk about these activities as a whole, and how they should influence the various goals.

4. Measure throughout the year

Look at your progress toward your goals.  Depending on your revenue mix, you will most likely have months with high dollar goals and some with lower goals based on when you’d expect grants to come in, or when special events are held, or direct mail is sent.  But looking at your progress quarterly will allow you to make course corrections if needed, or to content with the fact that everything is on track.

5. The year is over, now what?

Create your year-end wrap up.  If you’ve been monitoring your progress toward goals throughout the year, most of your work is done.  But a Year-End Wrap-up is a great piece to show your leader or board, you can explain any deviations and what you tried to do to fix them (if things were below goal) as well as what made the last year so successful (if you were above goal).  It certainly looks better to your board or leader if you can explain it, than to be surprised at the end of the year and say, “I don’t know why….”  Even if there is no smoking gun, you have a hunch, don’t you?  Sure you do!

6. Here’s the new plan, same as the old plan

Our field and what we know about grants and donor behavior is always changing and you’ll want your plan to keep up with the times.  However, try to make sure you’re looking at year-over-year progress toward goals, don’t just throw the old measures out.  If you need to tweak them or calculate them differently, do so, but denote this in your plan.  This will help keep your team on the same page about “how” you are measuring things, and will reassure your leader or board that you’re keeping an eagle eye on trends over time, even if the “how” it is being measured changes.  An * and an explanation will usually do the trick!

Remember, there is no one right way to craft a development plan.  It should be the right plan for you and your team, based on your organization’s needs.
Best of luck!
AmyL_w initial
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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,

stacy sig jpg
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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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.