Welcome to the new GrantMasters Series!
I'm kicking off a new blog series here this week called ‘GrantMasters'. I'll be going over some basic lessons that every nonprofit organization and grant writer can benefit from and sharing some great tips you can implement right now. Although many of these items seem pretty elementary, they absolutely cannot be neglected. They can determine to a large extent whether or not your organization is seen as competitive for grants. You don't want to be thrown in the ‘dud' pile on a prospective funder's desk and these tips can make sure that doesn't happen (usually).
To get us off to a great start in our GrantMasters series I'm leading with something very near and dear to my little OCD heart: The Power of Organization. Ok, ok, I know this seems like a no-brainer, but I cannot tell you how many times I have personally seen nonprofits miss grant opportunities because they just frankly did not have their stuff together.
We all know as nonprofit warrior you wear many hats, you do the work of 4 people, and sometimes as a result your office and records are a mess because there just isn't enough time in the day. I get it. But it's time to take back control and I'm here to help.
If you just want the steps, skip to the end now. But you'll be missing some great background info on why all of this is important and why you (and everyone else at your org) should care.
Let me start with a story:
Years ago I had been hired as a staff grant writer for a wonderful nonprofit that had been around for decades. I'd heard of it before and even had interactions with this nonprofit as a patron when I was younger. Needless to say, I was really amped up to be working for them. Since they had been around a while and seemingly were doing very well I expected that when I walked in I would be greeted with years worth of painstakingly organized grant files in both hardcopy and electronic forms and that I could dive right into handling their current grants while researching new opportunities. Unfortunately, that's not at all how things went.
On my first day I was brought 3 file boxes full of folders with grant materials in them. Nothing was labeled, it was in no discernible order, and once I started rifling through the documents it became clear that what was there was woefully incomplete. This was all that anyone had seen fit to keep, it had never been organized, and there were no electronic copies either. And to make matters worse this style of record-keeping had carried over to every other department also. This meant that we had incomplete financial records, fundraising records, HR records, marketing campaign records, data from programs, etc. And what we did have was sometimes completely inaccurate. Ugh….
Let me stop here for a second and say that this organization had recently had almost complete turnover of their staff so with few exceptions, the state of their records really wasn't anyone's fault. But this left me with the unenviable task of telling my new boss that I would need to spend weeks organizing what was here, getting up to speed with our current funders, and creating a new record-keeping system that would help us move into a better funding future. I also had to explain why any of that mattered. I was in luck that my boss really got it and thankfully gave me the go-ahead to do whatever I needed to do because if he hadn't, I'm not sure how effective I could have been as a grant-writer.
It took me weeks to organize the three file boxes I had been given, track down copies of other financial and fundraising records that had to be added in, and create a sane filing system that we could use to keep things organized going forward. It took many more months thereafter to repair some damaged relationships with funders. I made made lots of phone calls and had many meetings with staff at grant-making organizations who had not been very happy with us. Mostly this was because we hadn't been turning our reports in on time, they were often missing important info, our financial records were often vague, and our staff had been largely unresponsive to questions about all of this. I spent many hours listening and apologizing for things I wasn't responsible for and assuring people that things were about to change for the better.
It took a lot of work to repair these relationships, but sadly that was not the only fallout I saw from the organization's lackluster record-keeping. I also saw an organization with an almost $2 million dollar annual budget only pulling in just over $60k in grants a year. Why? Well, for one they had not prioritized grant writing. But more than that was that they just plain were not competitive due to their lack of organization throughout the entire building. I mean, who wants to give money to a nonprofit who can't even show you that their programs are effective or that they spent the money the way they said they would? And there was just no good reason for this.
Luckily, I and the rest of staff (because something like this really takes a village) were able to turn things around. After just one year on the job we were all set to pull in $300,000 in grants; an increase of 400%. So here's where the rubber meets the road: how did we do that? How did we turn things around so that we could get all these grants? And more importantly, how can YOU replicate it?
It was mostly organization, my friend. Here are the steps:
6 Vital Steps to Improving Organization for Grant Writers:
- Go through all of your grant records from current and past grants. Make hundreds of piles on your office floor if you need to. Now start combining some of these piles: put grants that came from the same funder together. Once you have that done, make sure there is a file folder for every year you've submitted or received the grant. Yes, break them all out by year, but with all your files from like funders still together.
- Make sure the folders are complete. Ideally, they should have a copy of the proposal and required documentation, any notes or program data from program/finance staff, and all the reports that were submitted. If you are missing any of this, some of it can probably be tracked down in-house (program staff should have program data, finance staff should have records of what was spent on what, budgets, etc.), and you should have any supporting docs somewhere in the building. However, if you can't track down reports or even the final proposal submission it may be time to humble yourself and contact the grantmaker. You especially want to do this if you want an ongoing relationship with them and more funding. Tell them you're getting organized and want to make sure you have everything.
- Implement your filing system. Take all your newly organized and completed folders and plug them into a filing cabinet that locks (yes, your grant information should stay secure). I like to keep my files in alphabetical order by funder and then within that system I keep them in year order. For example, ‘ABC Foundation' might be the very first file in my cabinet. Within the section dedicated to them I put the most recent proposal and grant info first in its own folder (usually labeled ‘ABC Foundation – 2018') and then additional years are added after that in descending order.
- Make electronic copies. Some of you are going to balk at this one because this is time-consuming. I know. But I would respectfully counter with the argument that not having all your grant files accessible electronically could and likely will be a huge time-suck at some later point when you need them and are now stuck in the copy room for the next 2 hours when you had something else important to be working on. So you need to set up the same filing system we just talked about in electronic form. Ideally, this should be on a shared drive and not your desktop or personal computer and I would organize it like this: Shared Drive Folder -> Grants -> In the ‘Grants' folder have a folder for each funder. In each funder's folder have a folder for each year you submitted or received a grant. Now scan each file in and make sure it's in the right folder. This will save you time looking for things, sending files, and ultimately when you move on to bigger and better things your nonprofit and you replacement will thank you for not leaving them a headache.
- Get your team onboard. Look, unless you're the big boss I'm not advocating that you go around the building telling everyone else how to organize their office. But there are at least a few areas that directly impact you and if they are not organized and on the ball then you are going to miss some grants, my friend. The two big ones are finance staff and program staff. The finance staff typically helps you create budgets and makes sure that funding dollars are spent the way we told the grantmaker they would be spent. This will impact the quality of both your proposals and your reports. Program staff will be providing a lot of the data that funders want to see when they are deciding whether or not a program is well-structured and well-run enough to warrant giving you money. Program staff should also be providing detailed information to you on their programs to put into reports. If these two colleagues are not on the organization bandwagon you may want to have a very tactful talk with them about what you are trying to accomplish and how you much you need their help. If problems arise you may need to involve the executive director and explain that grant dollars are at stake.
- Have a system to stay organized. There is a lot of information to manage in any nonprofit position, but grantwriting especially will leave you with lots to juggle: proposal deadlines, reporting deadlines, meetings with funders, start and end dates of programs, important follow-up calls with funders, and more. How are you keeping track? I've always been a fan of regular yearly planners but even for me that was not enough. Let me suggest using Google Calendar (note: Google is not a sponsor and I'm receiving nothing from them). With Google Calendar you can easily set dates and to-do's, reminders, put important notes or even directions to meetings in your scheduled activities, have alerts sent to your phone, and even share your calendar with other staff if needed. Google Drive is another great thing to utilize, especially if your team doesn't have a shared drive.
These tips will keep you in good stead with current and potential funders, make sure you never miss a deadline, and can access any piece of information in seconds. Ultimately, this will ensure that you are more competitive for grants from now on. Admit it…you'd love to show someone on a site visit the glory that is your filing system now, wouldn't you?
But what if there's already bad blood out there with current or past funders over how your organization has used past funds, missed deadlines, or given incomplete information when asked? Don't neglect the process of repairing these relationships:
7 Steps to Repairing Relationships with Grantmakers:
- Make the call. Call, introduce yourself, and tell them that you will be working on changing a lot of things. Let them into the loop and apologize for how things have been handled before.
- Listen. If things have gone awry in the past you may need to sit through some uncomfortable conversations. Do it. Don't defend how things went before. Emphasize how they will be different in the future. Don't avoid these interactions.
- Set meetings. This can just be for coffee or lunch. If they have the time, you should make the effort. It shows that you want to build a relationship, not just take their money and run.
- Never miss a meeting/call/deadline. All of these things will be a test in the minds of your contacts at the grantmaking organization. If you are loose with deadlines and meetings, why should they think anything has changed?
- Invite them for site visits. Let them meet the staff, show off your facility and programs, and by all means let them behold the shining example to humanity that is your filing and organizational system. This will build faith in your abilities as a good steward of their money.
- Throw them some perks. If you have something to offer, offer it. This could be tickets to an event your nonprofit is producing, an invitation to observe a program, or something else entirely. Get them involved. Show them what you achieve with their dollars.
- Give them some recognition. Lots of funders request specific types of recognition as a condition for receiving grant dollars. But even if they don't you should give them the recognition anyway. Some ideas for that are: putting their logo on your website or on appropriate marketing materials, including information on them in relevant program literature, including them in announcements at events, and even thanking them in any newsletters or patron emails that you send. Be creative and don't be stingy with the kind words!
Phew! I know this was a whopper of a post and congrats to you if you made it through. Please feel free to share this list with your colleagues and if you have questions about anything please know that I am always available. You can contact me through the site , contact me on Facebook, or call me at (513)341-5230. Look out for the next post in the GrantMasters Series next week: Why Engaged Boards Matter.
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