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Entering Grant Writing: How to Be Successful in a Competitive Field

September 24, 2020

At The Grant Plant, we are fortunate to do work that makes a difference in our community every day. That’s just one of the benefits of being in the grant writing field—there are many! For example, we have the opportunity to work with leaders who are passionate about problem-solving and making life better for others. Grant writing is also a wonderful way to learn new things. It’s almost like taking a mini college crash course. As we don’t specialize in any one sector, we have had the opportunity to write about everything from STEM education to social services to minority business development to the arts economy. Finally, grant writing is also a form of economic development. By bringing money into New Mexico from outside the state, we are contributing to the large-scale revitalization of our economy while also funding much-needed services.

We’re often asked how one can get into grant writing. It’s an intriguing career for many, especially those who have a natural bent toward writing, learning, and community-mindedness. In response, this article outlines some of the ABCs of grants, the grant writing process, and the characteristics and skillsets of strong grant writers in an effort to help inform those who are interested in the field.

First, understand the basics. There are many misconceptions about grants, including that they are “free money,” can fund personal ambitions, and that they are there for the taking. Often, those not well-versed in the field might think that a new organization can get a grant fairly easily from a large foundation or from a celebrity (think the Gates Foundation, or Oprah Winfrey). In reality, grants are funding sources, that, while generally non-repayable, are based on a contract between a funder and a not-for-profit agency for an agreed-upon set of services or work. They are often meant to solve problems or build on opportunities. Grants are generally made by both the government or philanthropic sectors. The government codifies its grant programs, which are created by legislation, into the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA). Private funders typically set the priorities of their organization—which may be written into their articles of incorporation or by-laws, or decided on by the board of directors—and use these priorities to guide their funding decisions. Typically, grants are opportunities that not-for-profit entities[1] apply for—and that’s where the grant writer comes in. Grants can range from small ($500-$1,000) to multimillion-dollar opportunities. Applications might be openly solicited, or closed and by invitation only. Often, they are made as the result of a personal relationship with a philanthropic organization. Other funders issue open RFPs and any qualifying organization can apply.

It is important to know that grants are not quick funding sources. They often take months to come in. At The Grant Plant, our annual report usually comes out in September or October as we must wait for grant award notifications to slowly trickle in, months after the submission of applications from the previous calendar year. So, if a not-for-profit organization is looking to grants as a stop-gap measure, or looking to fund programs that are launching imminently, grants are usually not the best source for funding. Further, they are often not long-term funding sources. Many funders provide one- or two-year grants and expect not-for-profit organizations to find other sources of funding to sustain their programs. (Enter: The Sustainability Myth and the Nonprofit Starvation Cycle which are weighty topics and fraught with the challenges inherent in the nonprofit sector; while not by any means ideal, as a result of the temporary nature of grant funding, it is important that not-for-profits round out their funding with earned income streams, fundraisers, contracts, etc., not relying solely on grants for operating support.) Finally, grants are highly competitive. It is not unusual for only the top 1-2% of submissions for a grant opportunity to be successful. For example, we’ve had multiple instances where an award notification indicated a proposal was one of only a handful selected for funding from hundreds of other submissions.

If I’m interested in learning to apply for grant funding, where do I start? At The Grant Plant, we believe that grant success lives and dies with prospecting. It is important for a successful grant writer to have a solid understanding of how to identify potential funders that match with a not-for-profit organization’s mission. There are a number of tools out there to help identify which potential funders are aligned and have the capacity to give to your organization. Locally, we recommend Pivotal New Mexico, which maintains a funding database and provides on-the-ground expertise in grant seeking, as well as our own website, which lists high-interest grants that have been screened for NM-eligibility, and also catalogs COVID-related opportunities—a current priority for not-for-profit organizations and funders alike. On a broader scale, many organizations benefit from a subscription to Foundation Center (which is pricey, but may also be used for free at the Albuquerque Main Library), GrantStation, GrantScape, GuideStar, or any other number of resources that help you access rich data about potential funders.

When using these tools, we recommend that you look at potential funders with a lens for alignment and capacity. How much money do they have, and what is their typical grant size? Are their stated priorities aligned with mine? Have they given to similar organizations? Have they made grants in my geographic area? Don’t “wag the dog by the tail,” or in other words, don’t allow the potential availability of funding to change the strategic priorities of your organization. There is often the temptation to chase money, but it is our experience that the most successful grant recipients stick to mission-aligned opportunities.

Keep a calendar and schedule time for writing the grant. Monitor websites and listservs so you don’t miss out on opportunities, and try to plan months ahead, so that by the time your organization needs funding, grant money is already in-hand or soon to be in-hand.

Next, write the proposal. Creative + Technical Writing = Grant Writing. A skilled grant writer tells a story that is scored against a rubric for the maximum number of points. You’ll want to know your audience, and be able to tell the most compelling story about your organization and its programs that are tailored to the interests of that funder. For example, efforts to revitalize the downtown scene in a rural area can be proposed as small business development, delivering arts experiences, or rural economic activity, depending on the focus of the work and the funder.

Grant writing is different than a lot of other forms of writing. A few points of distinction include:

  • It is usually scored based on a rubric
  • There are page, word, or character limits, often delineated by section or question
  • There are usually complicated directions, with Requests for Proposals (RFPs) numbering anywhere from a few pages to more than 100 pages, and these directions must be followed “to the T” or your proposal could be rejected without even undergoing review
  • It needs to be a convincing case for your organization as a potential investee
  • It is future-focused; unlike academia or the media, it does not report on past efforts (at least not solely)—rather, it is a plan for the future to the extent that it can be imagined
  • It tends to follow a set structure that includes a need statement, program plan, goals/objectives, evaluation plan, and organizational capacity/expertise

Want to be a grant writer? We have found that there is a common set of characteristics that successful grant writers share. Some of these include:

  • Impeccable writing
  • Critical and strategic thinking skills
  • Ability to see the forest and the trees
  • Entrepreneurial
  • Results-oriented
  • Discerning
  • Superior organizing skills
  • Strong attention to detail
  • Competitive spirit
  • Loves challenges
  • Displays a relentless pursuit of perfection
  • Is able to move a work product forward in the absence of complete information (remember, you are writing about the future, so there is a level of ambiguity and best guesses involved)
  • Ability to maintain grace and humor in deadline-driven situations

It’s also helpful to have an understanding of the nonprofit sector as a whole, not-for-profit funding models, and budgeting, as well as basic graphic design/layout skills.

If that sounds like you and you want to make a difference in your own community, there are a number of ways to get started as a grant writer. If you’re a newbie, try volunteering at a nonprofit organization and assisting with their grant writing efforts, attend networking events (when they’re again available), and find related webinars. Impact & Coffee, which highlights local nonprofit organizations, is a great place to learn more about the sector locally (and is all online now during COVID). The University of New Mexico Continuing Education program has a grant writing course, the Center for Nonprofit Excellence holds workshops, and Candid has classes online. One of the best intro books to grant writing is (seriously) Grant Writing for Dummies, which was written by Bev Browning, a celebrity among the grant writing circle.

If you have some experience in the field, check out the Center for Nonprofit Excellence’s job board, which often includes positions for grant writing; monitor job sites such as ZipRecruiter, Indeed, or LinkedIn for grant writing positions; or look through GuideStar or other online data to identify nonprofits with larger budgets. These organizations often either outsource grant writing or have a staff position and might be a source of employment. The national Grant Professionals Association(GPA) also has a job board. Consider enrolling in Pivotal New Mexico’s Talent Academy, which is meant to upskill existing grant writers with the next level of training.

Finally, a few caveats. There is a lot of pressure working in the grant-seeking field as it falls in the nexus of time (i.e., deadlines) and money. It is hard to predict what is coming up; while there is some stability in annual deadlines, a new opportunity might arise that requires re-prioritization of your workload in order to meet the deadline. Also, if you are freelancing, the not-for-profit organizations that hire you need to recognize that they have to spend money to make money, and that there is no guarantee of a grant award even if you produce a high-quality proposal.

One of the most frequently asked questions we get is whether we will work for a percentage of the award. The answer is no: it is considered against the GPA code of ethics[2] because grant makers are funding an organization to do the work promised in the proposal, not provide payment for work already completed. Further, there are numerous factors that go into the consideration of a grant award, only one of which is proposal quality. For example, the geographic distribution or certain populations served within the proposed scope of work, the organization’s past track record and its financial solvency, or a personal relationship on the part of the funder and a different applicant will all be determining factors when funders decide who gets awarded and who does not.

Working for a percentage of the award becomes tricky as well when you are considering (for example) a fee of 10% of the award amount. For a $50,000 grant, is a $5,000 payment reasonable? (Maybe, depending on the complexity.) For a $1,000,000 grant, is $100,000 reasonable? (Probably not.) Further, if an organization cannot pay for you to write their grants, they are probably not positioned well to get a grant to begin with. Ultimately, the grant writer put in the work, and should get paid for a quality product.

We’d love to hear from you if you are entering the grant writing field, or if you are an experienced professional. What tips do you have to share? What were the biggest stumbling blocks to entering the field? What do you find most rewarding? As grant writers, we are able to advance the good work happening in our communities by helping to fund it. It’s an important role, and one that can be very rewarding both personally and professionally.

Contact: Erin Hielkema, Vice President, at erin@thegrantplantnm.com.

 

[1] “Not-for-profit” entities can include nonprofit organizations as well as local and state government, who are also often grant seekers. In this article, “not-for-profit” is used when speaking of all these types of agencies, whereas “nonprofit” is used when speaking specifically of private organizations with tax exemption.

[2] GPA statement “in response to a Request for Proposal requesting grant writing services for a percentage of the grant award: …The funder is awarding dollars based on several variables, including the community need, the efficacy of the project, and the organization’s capacity to implement, deliver, monitor, and sustain the project. The funder is not awarding funds based entirely on the expertise of the grant proposal developer.” See: https://grantprofessionals.org/general/custom.asp?page=ethics.

Traditional Knowledge Reclaimed: Indigenizing Wins for the Native and Nonprofit Community

August 27, 2020

As a modern-day Native American champion working in our local nonprofit community, I keep up with trends in writing concepts, program design, and buzzwords. Our current social, environmental, and economic climate is shifting toward the discourse of diversity, equity, and inclusion for Indigenous Peoples. Traditional knowledge is a buzzword frequently used to describe an old way of thinking that remains relevant in our modern day. I’ve also recently heard Indigenous used in the form of a verb—to Indigenize. But what do these terms really mean? For Indigenous Peoples, traditional knowledge and the Indigenous perspective it informs is not a buzzword; it is a way of thinking that has survived the test of time. Could your nonprofit program benefit from the wisdom traditional knowledge shares? Can the Indigenous perspective enhance your program design and service outreach in our local community? Here is some information to help inform your use of traditional knowledge to enhance the impact of your nonprofit in our community.

Traditional Knowledge: Local nonprofits work to make change at both the individual and communal levels. Traditional knowledge is based in the communal mindset that considers a wider perspective of change. Traditional knowledge accounts for society as a whole, looking at the impact of all individuals in a community. It entertains the idea of “it takes an entire village to raise a child,” meaning that the entire community of people have an essential role in raising a child in a safe and healthy environment. For Native Americans, traditional knowledge values community over individualism, whereas American or Western knowledge typically emphasizes the individualistic form of thinking that supports change in the singular form. Traditional knowledge supports the impact of many forms of change in the community as a whole. I invite you to explore how an integrated, communal approach can benefit your programs or services, especially those that work with Indigenous populations. Imagine the valuable impact you can make by adapting your services to focus on serving the whole community rather than just one person at a time.

Seven Generations Model: Traditional knowledge looks forward and back by using a seven-generation model to measure time. Native Americans inherently believe the negative and positive impacts of the present day will affect the next seven generations. Historical trauma exists among Native Americans because of the trauma imposed on previous generations. Recent generational traumas include forced removal and loss of lands, termination policies that sought to eliminate the “Indian problem,” and the cultural assimilation imposed by the boarding school system. Unfortunately, past traumas can reoccur in the present-day lives of Native Americans. Historical trauma persists due to a lack of understanding of Native American cultures, the continued stereotyping, and systemic racism that persists in any number of ways for people of color. The “American dream” promotes the idea that anyone—individual—can change their life with enough determination. However, this thinking fails to consider the historical trauma inflicted on Indigenous societies and how that has resulted in the current conditions seen in Indigenous communities. Native Americans do not see these conditions as a result of individual issues, but rather the communal impact of social issues that requires a wider scope of change, across multiple generations to make a difference.

Gratitude: Honoring our elders and those who came before us are concepts highly practiced in Native communities. For example, Native Americans honor their elders by thanking them and the people who have paved the way for present day achievements. The usual practice for Indigenous Peoples is to give gratitude or prayer in their native language at the beginning of any gathering of people or meeting. This Indigenous tradition honors the past and looks forward to the future. Showing gratitude through prayer at the start of a meeting is a beneficial way to show honor. Nonprofits could adopt this traditional practice, whether it is in the form of prayer or thanksgiving. Taking a moment at the beginning of your meeting to honor your history and the people who came before you remind us of why we are doing this work, which empowers providers with a sense of purpose and uplifts staff.

Cyclical Thinking: Another form of Indigenization that can benefit your nonprofit program is to apply solutions that expand the relationship between time and space. Indigenous thinking is cyclical and non-linear. What cycles—or rhythms—of service does your organization use? How can you improve or expand the impact of your services within its defined cycle or rhythm? The Indigenous perspective seeks to define a rhythmic pattern in a place of a standard progressive sequence. For example, most Americans use the nuclear family structure to describe the growth process of children into adulthood. This process is singular and linear going from one stage to the next, whereas the Indigenous perspective describes the family structure in a continuous circle. It places the very old and the very young in symbiotic opposition where one relies on the other at both the beginning and end of life. These are two very different models of the family structure.

For integrating this idea into the nonprofit setting, you can look at the trends and models that your program data reveals to help define the cycles of your organization’s long-term impacts. How does the beginning of a project inform and support the end or revision of the project? What does it lead to next? If we apply traditional knowledge, which values the communal over the individual, then what kind of communal impact are your services making? Indigenizing your services involves a collective thought process versus an individualistic viewpoint; it considers everyone’s perspective as part of a whole, and the whole is then defined by its cycle. How could you Indigenize your services to make a more significant impact in the community or population you serve?

Some questions to help Indigenize your program include: What individuals paved the road for you? How can you honor those that made your current work possible? Who has helped you to reach your goals? How can you expand the communal reach of your services? How can you honor the past in recognition of the present?

It is an understatement to say that Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives have not always been acknowledged or honored. Given the current social, environmental, and economic shift our country is in, it is critical to work to understand and honor the value of traditional knowledge and the opportunities it offers for our cultural evolution. I challenge you to engage traditional knowledge and to incorporate the Indigenous perspective into your nonprofit program design. Consider the thought process of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Seek ways to empower Indigenous People by including them in the decision-making process and respecting their diversity in language and culture. Acknowledge that traditional knowledge makes a valuable contribution to our communities and can improve program design and service outreach for our local nonprofits.

In closing, I give you some seeds of traditional knowledge and hope they help you and your nonprofit services grow.

  • Wealth is not measured in dollars; the most valuable things in life cannot be purchased.
  • After the last tree has been cut down, we will discover that we cannot eat money.
  • Ever heard the story of the good wolf and the bad wolf? Which one are you feeding?
  • In order to get something, try giving something. The practice of regular, selfless giving is its own reward.
  • We do not own the land; we borrow it from our children.
  • Water is life, water is sacred, honor our waterways.

I encourage your comments and welcome any added discussion to explore the Indigenous perspective.

Contact: Deanna Aquiar, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, Resource Development Officer, deanna@thegrantplantnm.com
with Tyanne Benallie, Diné, Resource Development Officer, tyanne@thegrantplantnm.com

Write a Proposal with Grant Management in Mind (a.k.a. Learning the Hard Way)

August 19, 2020

You write a beautiful proposal. The award notification comes in. Congratulations! This funding is so needed!

And then. . .

The annual report.

How did your proposal stand up against the test of time . . . and measurable objectives?

It’s one thing to write a grant proposal that meets the priorities a funder lays out in their Request for Proposals. But come reporting time, how did the actual work match up to the proposal?

As a grant writer, you may not be the one executing a project or program. It is disconcerting to get to the point of writing the annual report, and then learn that staff didn’t run the program like the proposal stated. Maybe the work that needed to happen was different than the proposal laid out. Objectives and outcomes may be hard to pin down. Or funds may have not been spent as described.

So what can you do to ensure that a proposal sets up the organization for successful implementation? Here are a few questions to consider up-front to save yourself a scramble at reporting time:

What is this grant for? Start with the budget and the metrics. What is the money really needed for? What will support your organization’s priorities? This should be work you are already doing, or are primed to be doing—work that a little more money can help you do even better or bigger. Or funding to help meet a demonstrated need that the organization has not been able to meet due to financial constraints. Make sure that even busy teams review this basic budget and metric information prior to submission to ensure the funding request is aligned with the actual work and needs.

Do we have time to do this? Ensure the capacity is in place to implement the project.

  • Is the staff already onboard? Make sure they have the time and interest to take on the extra work that comes with an award. And most importantly—make sure they know they will play an important part in this proposal. Give them the opportunity to weigh in on what the work and objectives will look like. Instill ownership from the get-go, so that an award is a celebration for all, rather than another To-Do added to everyone’s overwhelmed inboxes.
  • Do you need to hire someone to support the grant and oversee the work? Make sure a living wage is written into the proposal (or otherwise planned for), and draft a job position to submit with the application if required, and to have at the ready to support post-award implementation. Once funded, this will set you up to begin recruiting and hiring quickly. If you are receiving a 12–24 month award, a hiring stage that takes 6-9 months will really set you back. Have a plan to make sure someone is available to lead the work from the start, and then train the new employee, as needed. Also consider (and be transparent about) the sustainability of the position, and if this is a grant-term contract position or a permanent addition.
  • If you’re requesting funding for a consultant, do you need to put the request out to bid prior to moving ahead? If hiring staff, what are organizational requirements for posting a listing? Make sure you are aware of any required processes (organizational and federal).

How do I show that? Choose metrics that set you up to win. This doesn’t just mean choose goals and objectives that align with the funder. It means you need to work with your team to identify objectives you really want to pursue. Metrics that move your mission-aligned work forward. And importantly, measurements that you are able to gather when report time comes (and along the way to track your progress), without adding significant burden to anyone’s time. If you’re tracking the number of outreach events you attend, then it’s great to set a goal of attending two more over the year. But don’t sign up for impacting an additional 500 people if you do not have a method to actually count these people. And if you commit to a new method—such as surveying a group to assess the outcomes—be sure to bring that up at the time of the official grant launch so people can plan ahead and work it into the schedule. A metric that truly helps is one that you can use consistently throughout a project to track progress, and inform your decisions and revisions. Metrics collected merely for the sake of the report will make everyone grumpy and may not actually improve your work.

How involved will the reporting be? When possible, look at the report before you write the proposal. You can learn a lot about the funder’s priorities by looking at how they structure their report. Federal grants are much more black and white than a private foundation, which may be interested in learning with its grantees. Does the report seem open to hearing about challenges and growth during the funding period, or is the emphasis on outputs and outcomes, and demonstrating that the funded work was completed as planned? What must be reported in tables or forms? Understanding this may help you decide how to write out your objectives, or report on numbers. For example, federal grants often use a 524B Status Report for the Annual Performance Report. This format requires you to have an overall goal, followed by 1–3 measurable objectives. If you write your proposed metrics in this same format, it makes reporting MUCH simpler and cleaner. And it also helps you to limit your objectives—for example, five goals, each supported with three performance measures, multiplies into an overwhelming number of 15 different metrics that you need to report on). The ultimate goal, as a grant writer, is to make sure that the funding—and reporting—moves your work forward, rather than shackling you to data hunting and busywork.

Who’s responsible for that? Officially launch your grant. After securing staff buy-in during the proposal-writing phase, be sure to bring the team together once an award is made, to celebrate and make sure everyone is familiar with the goals, budget, and reporting needs from the start. Build ownership in the work by making sure everyone understands their role within the grant, and how it integrates with their daily work. Engage all stakeholders in creating or reviewing the action plan and timeline, and develop a schedule for meetings to keep the work aligned and on track. If there are funder meetings, who will attend? Make sure everyone knows what reports to anticipate, who will write them, what metrics need to be tracked, and how they will be tracked.

What is this grant for again? Create a grant summary. Post-funding, create a 1–2 page summary as a reference document, with the grant award number, funder contact information, the amount of award, the grant team and roles, report deadlines, a short overview of the purpose of the grant, the approved goals and objectives, and the budget. Make sure everyone on the grant team and in organizational leadership receives a copy, and knows where to access the file.

Where’d that number come from? Along the way, document, document, document. From proposal creation until grant closeout, keep records of your data and grant communications. The funder may have additional questions for you about the proposal. Staff may wonder how you came up with a figure. The annual auditor may have questions. Always keep copies (digital or hard copy) of information that directly impacts the proposal writing and reporting. This means to be sure to keep any website price lists and email quotes used to develop budgets. Keep citations for any resources or data listed so you can easily re-create it. If you request bids for consultants or products, document all responses. Save emails with funders and consultants. And if you have a phone call with a funder, follow up with an email summary to the funder highlighting the discussion. This ensures that you and the funder are on the same page, and illustrates to an auditor or future Program Officer at the foundation/agency that you are carefully stewarding your funding, and that any modifications are approved (this is a big one: one grant we manage has had five Program Officers over four years!).

***

Full disclosure—I really like writing grant reports. Like a test in school, report time is when you see what the proposal had right—and wrong. The reporting process helps to strengthen proposal-writing skills and deepens understanding of the work. It is a great feeling of accomplishment when a report goes smoothly—the data is available, the team has learnings and anecdotes to provide, the metrics are showing progress of a program or process, and the budget is being spent on schedule. And alternatively—and more typically—reports provide time to engage the team in reflecting on the funding’s impact, realigning the work where needed, determining if any budget modifications are required, and offering the chance to tease out lessons learned. Reporting gives the whole team the opportunity to concretely see the difference they are making. And it provides the opportunity to share with the funder real-life stories that reinforce just why the work is so crucial, and how future funding can best support the ongoing needs.

Writing a winning proposal is just the beginning.

What grant management lessons have you learned along the way? Please share! Aly Sanchez and I will present a workshop on Managing a Grant with Confidence, Compliance, and Capacity at the Grant Professional Association (GPA) annual (virtual) conference in November 2020. We’d love to include any of your experiences as we put this online presentation together. Email us at cecily@thegrantplantnm.com.

Meet Pivotal New Mexico

June 4, 2020

We are excited to share that this week our partner, The Grants Collective, formally changed its name to Pivotal New Mexico.

Back in 2013, The Grant Plant was mired in deep community conversations with partners throughout Albuquerque and New Mexico. We were trying to find ways to accommodate the various requests for education and training that we received– internships, fellowships, job shadowing, workshops – while also playing into the macro view of doing our part to bring more money in from outside of the state while making grant seeking more effective and efficient through collaborative relationships among nonprofit organizations.

By 2015, we had formed a separate 501(c)(3) organization, The Grants Collective. We specifically chose to include the word Grant in the title because we knew that was where our expertise lies. The word Collective was chosen because of the collaborative nature of our programming. Over the course of the next year, we launched the Talent Academy for grant professionals to address gaps in education and training and the Cooperative Network to improve shared knowledge and efficiencies in the field.

We had an idea for another program, which we called the Impact Fund. This fund was designed to give organizations and initiatives access to experts to make their grant proposals stronger – think economists and researchers, evaluators, financial analysts, subject matter experts – and thus more competitive for large, game-changing grants. Imagine our delight when one of our founding board members, Terry Brunner, was exiting the Obama administration as state director of USDA Rural Development and founded Grow New Mexico with just that purpose! In 2017, Grow became a project fiscally housed under The Grants Collective with Terry as its director, and all three of our organizations co-located in a beautiful plaza near Sawmill and Old Town.

The ensuing years taught us – even though we had been in the grants world for more than a decade – that the field was fraught with inequities and barriers to funding in ways we hadn’t known. As much as we received accolades for the work we were doing, how we came to view the nonprofit field and social and public sectors was transformative. Iterating as we went, we began retooling programs to have a deeper impact and broader scale.

By 2019, Erin and I felt that we had stood up the programs we had wanted to and felt called back to our roots in family business, while meanwhile Terry was building Grow into a statewide organization. With leadership from our board of directors, The Grants Collective and Grow merged in mid-2019 with Terry as its CEO, and Erin and I transitioned back to full-time work at TGP.

The announcement of the name change to Pivotal New Mexico is especially poignant for us. When we think about what we were seeking to create in 2013, and what we learned along our journey in The Grants Collective, it is clear that the turning point for organizations is when people become deeply engaged in investing in themselves and their people. For us, the name “Pivotal” hearkens back to the many days we spent imagining what the future could look like, a New Mexico on a trajectory toward prosperity. Pivotal has demonstrated time and again that its work truly builds capacity and becomes a turning point for organizations toward greater sustainability and growth.

We couldn’t be prouder of Pivotal as it continues its role as the point of impact for New Mexico.

 

Contact: Tara Gohr, President/CEO, tara@thegrantplantnm.com.

Should You Really Apply for that Grant?

April 17, 2020

We’re expecting a series of federal and state Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to be released with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) in the wake of COVID-19. To get prepared, we dusted off an oldie-but-goodie article Aly wrote a few years ago. Enjoy!

We get asked all the time to decipher Big Scary RFPs.

Many people approach these in a manner resembling the advice about how to eat an elephant (one bite at a time): starting at page one and reading to the end. While a fine approach for shorter guidelines, it’s more effective to think of your approach to large RFPs like a series of gates.

The lesson in processing content for large RFPs is to understand your goal. Your goal is not to read the RFP. If anything, you may want to avoid it. Think strategically—your real goal is to efficiently assess whether to apply.

At each gate, decide whether to move forward, determining whether the opportunity remains viable.

Gate 1: What are the timelines?

Is the deadline in the future, not the past? Did you miss a mandatory pre-proposal workshop? When are awards made? What is the project period? Get a general feel for timeframes.

Gate 2: Roughly, what is this opportunity?

Leave the RFP alone for a minute and check if an accompanying summary was issued. Find out what the awards will be like (size and number), judging if that fits your organization and programming and whether smaller awards are worth the work required.

Gate 3: Are you really eligible?

Determine whether you’re a suitable applicant. Locate the eligibility section and read it thoroughly. If you’re unsure, find answers before moving on. Look for geographic restrictions, IRS classifications, entity types, prior grantee status, licensing or other recognitions, and programming/constituent characteristics.

Things get ad hoc from here. If you’re still in the running, flip to the Table of Contents to see what makes the most sense to check next – thinking about where you are most likely to rule out the opportunity. A typical progression:

Gate 4: Can (and should) you meet project/performance requirements?

This information can be organized under various headers (Performance Components, Technical Requirements, Mandatory Specifications, etc.), but the idea is to find out what the minimal requirements are. Can you do what you must? And does that make sense for your organization?

Gate 5: Is the financial structure tenable?

Next, head to the budget section and check for deal-breakers. Look for allowable uses of funds—if your project is a building and construction isn’t allowed, the RFP doesn’t fit. Check for match requirements or contribution portion limitations. There may be requirements like a history of audited financials or minimum/maximum annual budgets. If the funds aren’t paid upfront, will reimbursement or phased funding work?

Gate 6: Can you successfully prepare the proposal?

Can you put together a complete and compliant application by the deadline? Look for a table (usually early in the RFP) or checklist (usually in the back) summarizing the proposal elements. In addition to feeling out workload, find problematic elements—anything you can’t fulfill or that will be difficult to successfully prepare.

Gate 7: Will your proposal be competitive?

Now you understand the top-level needs of the grantor and grant. Next look for review criteria. Will your organization, your work, and your proposal do reasonably well considering their scoring system?

Now What?

If you’ve passed the seven gates, that’s good news! The bad news: now you actually have to read the RFP – all of it.

How is this efficient? Because often, you will save time by ruling it out. By leaving behind the RFPs that you shouldn’t work on, you have more time to respond to those you should. And if it does fit, you’ll find critical information, get an idea of the general landscape for the opportunity, and prioritize difficult areas as you begin.

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Aly Sanchez has 23 years of grant writing experience including planning, request preparation, and reporting assistance for complex private, state, and federal awards (e.g., CDC, CMS, DOL, OJJDP). She is Director of Strategy and Organizational Development for The Grant Plant, Inc. Based in Albuquerque, NM, TGP provides superior and affordable resource development services for organizations to enhance the quality of life in communities served. TGP has written proposals funding more than $150M since 2003, with an ROI of 6,500%.

 

Updates on Emergency and Other Funds for COVID-19 Relief

April 11, 2020

This week has been a whirlwind as nonprofits and funders alike address the impact COVID-19 has on our health, the economy, and our community. We’re witnessing an unprecedented response from both government and philanthropy. We started maintaining a list of COVID-19 related grant opportunities for which New Mexico nonprofits are eligible just over two weeks ago; this list has since grown to 37 grant opportunities for organizations. Yesterday, we started adding individual relief funds that might benefit our friends and partners in arts organizations in particular.

In our state, which already faces health disparities, has a high poverty rate, and barriers to service (especially in rural communities), it will be critical to be proactive in accessing available funding. Some highlights of out-of-state funding that we encourage you to share with organizations in New Mexico to help our state access some of these relief funds include:

We continue to encourage you to email us if you know of an opportunity that would benefit New Mexico agencies and people for inclusion on this growing list.

The Grant Plant wishes all our clients, partners, and friends health and wellness now, and in the times ahead.

Time Management Tips: Work Smarter in Any Environment

April 2, 2020

Work efficiently and make the most of the workday!

Effective time management is a key strategy to work and life success. Currently, with many people trying to learn to work effectively from home due to the recent COVID-19 health pandemic, time management has become more challenging for many people. A complicating factor in developing an effective strategy is that there is no single recipe for success. Every person is unique—with differing personalities, job responsibilities, personal commitments, and goals—and all of these factors need to be considered when developing a time management strategy.

To help develop a personalized time management strategy, it is important to recognize your own working style and identify approaches that best amplify your working efficiency. This is a learning process that will take trial and error. It is helpful to learn about strategies that work for others and then choose and test out ones that are of interest to see if they will also work for you.

The Grant Plant is comprised of a team of grant writers who have experience with managing multiple deadlines, collaborating with partner organizations to complete projects, and working both in-office and remotely (some of us with over 17 years of work-from-home experience). Over the years, we have become well aware of the importance of effective time management. Recently, we had a constructive discussion about time management strategies that resulted in some useful key takeaways. I am sharing these today in the hopes that they may provide you with some new ideas to improve your own time management approach.

Assess weekly workload

  • Plan: At the start of each week, review your workload to see what is on your plate for the entire week. Screen and review new projects as they come during the week to assess time commitments and work requirements. It is possible the work plan for the week will have to be adjusted due to new, time-sensitive projects.
  • Review project requirements: Note project deadlines and time estimates and make sure you are in agreement and in tune with what is required. Potential strategies include reviewing work product requirements and building templates and determining what information is on hand and what is needed.
  • Collaborate: Communicate with your co-workers, as needed. Discuss potential issues with projects with similar deadlines or projects that may take longer than what is estimated.
  • Ask for help: Consider delegating tasks that you will not be able to complete in the required time.

 

Prioritize workload

Potential strategies/considerations include:

  • Deadlines: The sooner the deadline, the more urgent the project. Deadlines always need to be taken into consideration and will sometimes be the driving force behind prioritization. Learn to manage projects with close deadlines (consider importance, complexity, size, and other points below to help prioritize).
  • Importance: Projects with high importance should be prioritized before other work tasks.
  • Complexity: Consider how much brainpower the project will require and whether high complexity will impact the length of time it takes to complete the project.
  • Size: Will the work take a long time to complete or is it a quick turnaround?
  • Project background: Is all the information on-hand to complete the project? If there is information needed, it is best to get requests out for this information right away to get the process moving. Set the questions to partners in motion and then move on to another project.
  • Project partners: Get to know your clients and other partners who you work with on projects. Some partners will be immediately responsive and others may be harder to get information from. Set in motion communications with slow-responding partners and move on to another project. Also consider how much collaboration is required. Having a number of collaborators may make projects go slower because it requires relying on other people and their schedules.
  • Play to your personality: Prioritization will, in some part, be up to the individual – some people may tend to knock out the small/easy projects first, while others will choose to try and tackle the complex project that may require deep thinking.
  • Be selective: A good rule of thumb is about three daily priorities. If you have too many, you may find you get less done. Fit smaller items around these priorities.

 

Identify beneficial tools, methods, and motivational prompts

Although entirely personal, these approaches can potentially help with keeping track of project workload, spur motivation, and provide a sense of achievement.

  • Planners, calendars, notebooks: Write tasks and their associated target dates for completion in the product of your choice (daily/weekly/monthly planner, notebook, online calendar, etc.). In addition to writing down all tasks, break this down further and write out all tasks for the week or even for the day. Circle deadlines or important completion points, indicate who you are working with for each project, cross off tasks as completed, and carry over to next day tasks that are not completed.
  • Post it notes: Use post it notes to write out and show daily or weekly tasks. Post in a strategic location as a point of motivation.
  • Time blocking: Develop an ideal workweek schedule. Consider setting up meetings on specific days or at specific times (e.g., meetings on Mondays and Wednesdays only or only in mornings), save some days to complete desk/computer work, establish times when no one can disturb you so you can focus on priority/deep thinking projects (e.g., turn email off, post “do not disturb” if in office).
  • Create personal deadlines: Create your own deadlines for smaller project sections to keep projects on track and feel accomplished. This may also help with project planning by phasing projects around internal deadlines.
  • Recharge and refresh: Identify a method mid-day to keep up mental agility and motivation. This will look different for different people – a mid-day workout, a walk outside, an out of office lunch.

 

Work efficiently

  • Work simultaneously on projects: Consider working on a few projects at once. Switch between projects for a brain shift. This may be necessary at times to make sure a project is moving to meet deadlines (e.g., send out questions to obtain required information for a project).
  • Focus intently on one project: Block time to focus on a project that requires deep thought. Recognize that sometimes it may be more beneficial to just hunker down and knock out intense projects.
  • Complete tasks at hand: Make a goal to finish one complete sub-part of a project before moving to your next project or before stopping for the day (e.g., complete one section of a document you are working on, finish email responsibilities). Don’t stop in the middle of a task that will require you to re-familiarize yourself with the project again.
  • Maximize optimal thinking times: Recognize the times when you can focus and think the best and designate these times for harder tasks. For some, this may be to plan the day to make easier tasks at the end of the day when they are tired, or to do harder tasks during uninterrupted time periods (e.g., time blocked for deep thinking).
  • Move a project forward with what information you have: While waiting on information to come in, complete as much of the project that is as possible (e.g., develop the template, fill in the answers you can). This will help you to become familiar with the project and help develop a structure to build off of efficiently when info comes in. Prepare so you will be able to “hit the ground running.”
  • Manage emails and social media: Determine an approach to managing email and social media responsibilities. Designate specific times to check email (e.g, morning, mid-day, and end of day) or tend to these as they come in. Emails can be a distraction but also may sometimes need to be monitored for important, timely information.
  • Make sure meetings are efficient: Focus on the tasks at hand and try and keep meeting participants discussing these matters. Strive to identify and assign actionable, compatible tasks to participants that will move the work forward. Be conscious of time and don’t let meetings drag on for too long.

 

Regroup at end of day

  • Be flexible: Accept the fact that you often will not finish everything you had hoped to finish. Be flexible and forgiving with yourself, as long as you are doing your best!
  • Set up for success: Write out tasks that still need to be completed during the next workday. Note progress or tips that will help you be able to jump back into the project without having to take too much time to remember where to re-initiate your work or what the project is about.
  • Prioritize: Note any priority first-of-the day actions that are time-sensitive and require your immediate attention.
  • Regroup: Relax and enjoy your off-work time. Turn off any work-related concerns until the next workday.

 

I hope these time management tips and strategies will prove as useful to you as they have to our team at The Grant Plant. Time management is a continual learning process. Your approach should be flexible and grow with you as your responsibilities and life situations change. If you have any additional time management strategies that you use, please feel free to share with us—we would love to hear your unique and effective ideas!

 

Contact: Wendy McCoy, Resource Development Officer II, wendy@thegrantplantnm.com

Recovery and Relief Responses to COVID-19 by Government and Philanthropy

March 27, 2020

The Grant Plant is continuing to monitor the COVID-19 situation especially as it pertains to our clients, the nonprofit community, and the needs in the state of New Mexico. To help, we are maintaining a list of emergency and other funds specific to New Mexico nonprofits on our website. If you have any resources to add, please email us.

 

Federal Government Response

We are keeping a close eye for emergency funding becoming available that can benefit the New Mexico nonprofit sector, the medical community, and our first responders, as well as the state’s recovery from this crisis. The Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2020 provided $8.3 billion in emergency funding. Some of that funding is already getting deployed to New Mexico, including to health clinics and for small business loans. The new stimulus packages coming out of the federal government will address broad needs and deploy federal funds towards job creation and local development.

Among the funding priorities include:

$25 million to support the Distance Learning and Telemedicine program to help improve distance learning and telemedicine in rural areas of America.

  • $100 million to the ReConnect program to help ensure rural Americans have access to broadband.
  • $1.5 billion for the Economic Development Administration’s Economic Adjustment Assistance program to help revitalize local communities after the pandemic, including impacted industries such as tourism.
  • $850 million for the Byrne-Justice Assistance Grant Program (Byrne-JAG) to allow state and local police departments and jails to meet local needs, including purchase of personal protective equipment and other needed medical items and to support overtime for officers on the front lines.
  • $1.032 billion in to support the tribal health system, including medical services, equipment, supplies and public health education for IHS direct service, tribally operated and urban Indian health care facilities; expanded funding for purchased/referred care; and new investments for telehealth services, electronic health records improvement, and expanded disease surveillance by tribal epidemiology centers.
  • $955 million for the Administration for Community Living to support nutrition programs, home and community based services, support for family caregivers, and expand oversight and protections for seniors and individuals with disabilities.
  • $360 million for the Department of Labor to invest in programs that provide training and supportive services for dislocated workers, seniors, migrant farmworkers, and homeless veterans.

The government has also issued administrative relief for organizations who hold federal grants or are applying for federal grants. These include (among other provisions):

  • Relaxing requirements for an active System for Award Management (SAM) registration in order to get funds out expeditiously.
  • Flexibility with application deadlines; each government agency is instructed to post updated guidelines on its website.
  • Reduced notice for funding opportunity publication, allowing emergency Notices of Funding Opportunity (NOFOs) to be published for less than the standard 30 days.
  • Extending current awards that expire between March 31 and December 31, 2020 automatically at no cost for a period of 12 months (check with your agency).
  • Abbreviating non-competitive continuation requests to make the application less burdensome on applicants.
  • Allowing costs related to the cancellation of events, travel, or other that are part of the performance of the award during this time of national response to the pandemic.
  • Extending the deadline for the submission of interim and final reports on an award (check with your agency).

 

Philanthropy Response

Nationally, philanthropy is stepping up in a big way. There are numerous foundations dedicating financial resources to helping nonprofits through this crisis. The best place to look for emergency funding right now appears to be with our local community foundations, or through established relationships with your organization’s existing funders. Local community foundations and United Ways are creating rapid-response emergency funds to help New Mexico nonprofits cope with the crisis. National philanthropy will likely become an avenue as foundations have the opportunity to adjust giving goals and priorities, work with their existing grantees first, and issue requests for proposals.

Many funders are offering flexibility for current grantees to move restricted funds to general operating funds (usually on a case-by-case basis). If you need flexibility in terms of fund purpose, reporting deadlines, or meeting intended outcomes, communicate with funders early. If you are waiting on a grant decision, expect that there may be a delay as the foundation’s processes and routines are disrupted from the crisis.

Some best practices we’ve gleaned from partners and experts include:

  • Document how your organization is being affected by COVID-19 (lost revenue, additional services being required, etc.). Use this information to communicate with your funders and donors about the need for additional resources.
  • Contact funders with whom you have a close relationship if additional financial support is needed.
  • Create an emergency operations fund that clearly outlines where community support will make an impact.

Impact & Coffee, an Albuquerque-based weekly mixer for the nonprofit community, just released a panel video on “Nonprofit Life in the Times of COVID-19.” You can hear from local experts including: TGP’s Aly Sanchez and The Grants Collective’s Terry Brunner and Robert Nelson on how nonprofits can address the crisis from a funding perspective; from NM Association for Grantmakers Executive Director, Cathy Frey and Albuquerque Community Foundation Advancement Director Marisa Magallanez, on how local philanthropy is working together to provide resources and relief for the community; and from NM Thrives Director Tsiporah Nephesh on COVID-19 influenced changes the nonprofit community.

We’re all in this together, and The Grant Plant appreciates the opportunity to work with our clients through these trying times.

Resource Pages

 

 

Goodbye, American FactFinder—Hello, data.census.gov!

March 19, 2020

As a grant writer, you likely spend a lot of time hunting down demographic statistics for your proposals. Particularly if you are writing for direct service or economic development organizations, you need to show funders that you understand the economic, education, health, and racial/ethnic characteristics of the population your organization serves. Historically, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder has been an important go-to tool for grant seekers to ferret out this information—but as of March 31, 2020, American FactFinder will be retired and all Census Bureau data will be available in one centralized location: data.census.gov.

The platform won’t be fully functional until March 31, but in the meantime the data.census.gov Resources page contains a wealth of information about the impending transition, including which existing FactFinder data sets will be migrated to the new site (and where to find them in the interim), which new data sets will be available, and which older data sets and products will not be available on the new platform (including Quick Tables, sadly). The page also features several useful links, including Data Gems how-to videos “for data users who are looking for an easy and quick way to enhance their knowledge of Census data” (including a “How to Navigate data.census.gov” video), a host of PDF guides on using the different features of data.census.gov, and webinar training links that include live demonstrations on how to use the platform.

This transition might be a little rough, but while American FactFinder has been a useful tool for many of us, it’s not necessarily the most intuitive or user-friendly platform—it can take some time and trial-and-error to learn the most effective and efficient way to find the information you’re looking for. It also presents hurdles for users who are looking for a swath of useful demographic information but don’t necessarily know exactly which data or data sets they need.

FactFinder functions like a static database that accommodates inquiries and incorporates new data on a limited schedule, creating a somewhat rigid framework for users. The Census team wants to change that—as the data.census.gov Resources page states, “This vision [for a new platform] stems from overwhelming feedback that the Census Bureau has received to simplify the way customers get data. The Census Bureau continues to work on the customer experience so that it is not necessary for data users to know Census Bureau jargon or perform a complicated search to find the data that they need.”

The new platform will function more like a dynamic search engine, where users get back a much larger range of results and multiple formats (e.g., data tables and map views) without having to perform additional searches for each of them. It also features the Census website’s first surveys search functionality, delivering actual data on topics that are entered into the search bar, rather than just reports and technical documents. Another vast improvement over the old platform is that it provides more user-friendly options for downloading tables to spreadsheets—with American FactFinder, downloaded tables generate two rows and then more columns than you can count (a “machine-readable” data format), which doesn’t bode well for quick reading or data sorting. With the new platform, users can right click into a cell of a table and select options to download into more readable formats. Because the site is still being developed, there is also still time to give feedback about what you’d like to see on the new platform, and Census wants to hear what people want and any issues they are having: users can send questions or comments to cedsci.feedback@census.gov.

Overall, it sounds like consolidating data on one platform and keeping user experience in mind will bode well for grant seekers and other data users. But if you have a big research task on your plate this month, now is the time to pulling data from American FactFinder if you don’t want to get caught in a learning curve right before a deadline. FactFinder offers different ways to search for information: for higher-level statistics, from their main page, you can jump to quick Community Facts, which allows you to select a geography (state, county, city, town, or zip code) and access information on that geography’s population size, age, education, income, poverty levels, national origin, race, and other characteristics. Or you can click into Advanced Search, where you can drill down into more specific sub-categories—for example, if you’re interested in finding employment characteristics, you can filter by Benefits, Industry, Occupation, Work Disability Status, and several other nuanced categories. You can also select multiple geographies to see side-by-side comparisons.

Learning a new platform may be tricky for many of us who have had these American FactFinder search tools bookmarked for easy access, but the Census Bureau has clearly been working hard to make this transition as easy as possible. With the needs of data users in mind and a head start on training materials, data.census.gov looks like it might make our data-searching lives a lot easier in the long run.

Contact: Marie Landau, Resource Development Officer, marie@thegrantplantnm.com 

TGP’s Response to COVID-19

March 16, 2020

Dear Friends of The Grant Plant:

Like you, we are monitoring the fast-changing conditions related to COVID-19 and its potential impacts on our team, our clients, and our community. I’d like to offer some thoughts on what TGP is doing in response to current events and how we can best work with you, our partners. And we have a few thoughts to share on the impact of COVID-19 in the grants world.

Please rest assured that all of our team members at TGP are healthy and we are moving forward on all projects with as little disruption as possible. Since inception, we have incorporated telecommuting options and are equipped to and adept at working remotely. Our team is available to take meetings via Zoom or other virtual means, and we have a corporate Zoom account in which we can offer to host those meetings for up to 100 participants.

In terms of process, our team will be asking you to approve project charters (short grant summaries) as we begin new projects with your organization. That will enable us to feel confident in the direction of a project in case we need to proceed with less or interrupted input—we know many agencies are facing increased workloads right now. We will also be asking clients with whom we usually have only one point person for reviews and submission approvals to put us in touch with a second point-of-contact who is authorized to approve grant applications, just in case. We will increase “back-up” on our side for projects (like additional staffers looped-in on projects and redundant file backups) to keep things running smoothly in case our team needs to attend to health issues of their own or care for loved ones. For more complex or collaborative grants, we may create google docs to allow more flexibility for ongoing project input/feedback from clients as our team works through drafts.

We also want to make you aware of a webpage that our client, City Alive, has put together to help small businesses during the pandemic in case you may need resources for your organization.

In terms of what this might look like for grants: We suggest anticipating that there may be a potential for delayed release of funds for approved grants, and delayed RFPs for anticipated new grant releases, while foundations and government create a response. Here is a good site on how COVID-19 is affecting philanthropy.

We are seeing mixed messages regarding private funding; in some cases, it appears that foundations are curtailing their giving due to stock market hits, while others are ramping up an emergency response to support the nonprofit sector. We can also likely expect corporate funding to diminish for a while and/or redirect to emergent needs. We have heard that some local funders want to know what is needed right now to address COVID-19 effects, making it a good time to communicate about urgent needs and plans you may have for supporting especially vulnerable populations, unmet health system needs, etc.

For public funding, a relief package has been approved by the House, but not yet by the Senate. Thus far it appears to mostly be related to healthcare testing, state Medicaid support and flexibility, and aid for families and individuals impacted by work interruptions. The current package includes some targeted grant funds for food security but does not have provisions for increased competitive grant funding for communities or nonprofits impacted by the virus. It is likely that there will be subsequent economic stimulus packages to address broader needs and to deploy federal funds towards job creation and local development. If the stimulus package of 2009 is a guide, there could be many federal RFPs released to support the economy and social services in general, often with fast (sub-30 days) turnaround times for deadlines. And we would love to help you with those! We will be updating our website regularly with current grant opportunities.

From all of us at TGP, we wish you health, prosperity, and peace of mind.

Tara, Erin & all of Team TGP


Tara Gohr
President/CEO
www.thegrantplantnm.com
505.226.0171 ext. 700
505.507.4581 mobile/text
To plant today is to believe in tomorrow.

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