Involving boards in grant seeking–what works

23 Mar

So now that we know what boards should not be doing with your grant writing–just what is it they should be doing? A great guide is to remember the basic functions of a board–to set policy and direction, serve as ambassadors and hold fiscal responsibility and oversight.

I enjoyed this article from GrantStation about involving board members. Some of which I agree with, and some not so much. For example, enlisting board members in “hosting” site visits from funders–I’m not sure what that means. Site visits, ideally, should always be at your site–hence the name. Funders want to see where and how you operate, they want to see what clients see.

If for some reason, that’s not feasible, meeting at a board member’s swank office might seem like a good idea, but it doesn’t communicate anything at all about your agency. If by “host” GrantStation means being at the visit and serving as a representative to welcome the funder at your site, then I would agree. Though you can’t make assumptions about what your board member knows about the funder, grant or project. It’s worth the time to brief them on all of the above and even create a little fact sheet for them to use and refer to.

The article goes on to talk about using your board to make decisions about what kind of funders are and are not appropriate for your agency. All money is green, but you really have to think about the source and what your clients, other funders and the community would think of say, a battered women’s center taking money from Hooters. Getting your board in on that conversation makes sense. It’s called a gift acceptance policy, the operative word being policy. This is definitely something your development and finance committees and staff should work on together. And it should be done before a problem arises and not driven by an impending deadline to a controversial funder.

Again, fiscal oversight is a function of the board. New programs or program changes that could increase your overall agency budget or have an impact on cash flow are definitely your board’s beeswax. So new grants that are not paid in advance of activities being undertaken (and thus, expenses being incurred) fall under this category. Government grants may be tempting, but most are paid on a reimbursement basis–and not always on time. Share this information with your finance committee as well as how cash flow will be affected before you submit.

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Involving boards in grant seeking–and avoiding micromanaging

21 Mar
Not an equitable division of labor…

Everyone beats the drum about involving your board in grant seeking, but exactly what should that look like? It’s a great idea, but it’s rife with the possibility for micro managing and over stepping of boundaries. First, let’s talk about what it should not look like.

I won’t say that they shouldn’t ever be involved in grant writing–if, and I repeat if, they either have expertise as successful professional grant writers or have high content area expertise. Inexperienced board members will be no more successful than inexperienced staff in writing or editing grants, so don’t defer this job to them because it just sounds like some big, scary thing that important people like board members should do. In fact, they will inherently be worse at describing your programs and internal processes because they don’t live it every day. And then there’s the awkward mess of having to rewrite their narrative that just doesn’t work.

Plus, there are staffing and program decisions to be made. Grant writing is part fact telling and part program design. Sometimes its up to us to help figure out exactly how the magic is gonna happen. And that means decisions about staffing and other day-to-day happenings.

I also don’t think they should be writing or approving grant budgets for largely the same reasons. If you are writing for existing programs and your grant budget reflects that, then your board should have already approved the larger agency budget into which that program budget fits. You’re covered. Drilling down into line items for grant budgets is the definition of micromanaging. And I promise you they won’t read the RFP well enough to know what is allowable and what is not. Which is just not helpful.

Strangely, one of my clients has a funder who specifically asks what the role of the board is in approving grant budgets. My internal response is: “Um, none, I hope!” Okay, okay, I give. If you are creating a budget for a brand new activity that is not reflected in your board-approved agency budget, getting the grant would increase the agency budget and/or affect cash flow patterns (if say, the grant is awarded on a reimbursement basis), you need to give the finance committee and the executive committee a heads up. And be prepared to have them torpedo the project, as is their prerogative.

Oh, wait?  Isn’t that micromanaging? In this case, no. The board is about big picture and policy, staff is about process and making it happen. Policy may influence process, but process can never trump policy. So if you have a directive from the board, like an approved agency budget, that’s your policy for the year. Any changes to that are not yours to make alone. And monkeying with cash flow affects fiscal responsibility, which is the purview of the board.

So in short, the board should not be involved in that portion of grant writing that takes them out of the realm of policy and direction and into the day-to-day world of how their group directive is implemented. Next–what is an appropriate use of your board in grant seeking.

Is your board bored?

18 Mar
Huh? Who seconded what now?

I got an email from Gail Perry, who I had the pleasure of hearing speak at a conference last year. She shares her secrets of the 26 Practices of High Performing Boards. I thought it was pretty good, so decided to share.

In reading about these practices, I see a central theme of mindfulness, purpose and intention. I think sometimes we get so busy just keeping our heads above water with our work load and the demands of our clients, employers, volunteers and donors that we flit from task to task without being truly aware of what we’re doing or where we’re going. Or of the consequences of being so constantly reactive rather than proactive.

Gail’s 26 Practices make us aware of the areas where we may stumble–from how members come to be on our boards to how they come to understand (or misinterpret) their roles to how they interact with the organization and other board members to how they exit board service. Yow, that’s pretty important stuff. And it spans years, engraining messages about your organization into people you hope are and ought to be your biggest advocates. Hmmm, that does deserve some examination and attention.

I hope you enjoy her insights, and if you are attending the AFP International Conference in Chicago, she will be speaking on Sunday. I know there are a lot of sessions to choose from, but I think she’s a good use of your time.

If you built it, why don’t they come?

11 Mar

Just %*&@ing click "Like" already!

I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. Truth be told, I actually hate it more than I love it. I wouldn’t even be on it if I didn’t “have to” for work. And by work, I mean professional networking as well as managing a page for Waterloo Counseling Center.

Reading this blog entry about Facebook got me thinking. Why do I hate Facebook so much? Well, I guess it’s the high expectations that people have of their agency’s Facebook Page–people think that the first thing someone will do after “liking” their Page is to donate money. Not only is that NOT the first think they do, it’s often next to impossible to get them to react in some other way that doesn’t cost them anything but  30 seconds of their time. Come on people, click “like” on a post, comment on something, share a link–help a sister out! But people really do not do what you want or intend them to do.

So what is the point of Facebook? Well, it really depends, but one thing I think we all need to consider is who is on the other end of that screen, viewing your Page. People who are mildly interested in your organization, but who have never donated or volunteered for you may read your posts when they pop up in their feed, but they won’t take any action. It’s the folks who are already engaged with you in some way or other who will extend their real-world actions to include virtual actions.

So while I feel that Facebook is a necessity, it can’t exist on its own. It has to be just one more way you reach people you’re already reaching in other ways. It has to be a single spoke in your total engagement strategy. Otherwise all you’ll get is harmless voyeurs who may check in with you once a month, but not “join the conversation” as they say in social media. You can convert the voyeurs and guide your more active and vocal supporters to your Page, but it takes time and patience–as well as some kind of strategy. When I figure that one out, I’ll let you know.

New Census goodies!

8 Mar

Oooooh! Just when I thought the Census had done all it could for me with my dear friend American Fact Finder, I discover a whole new layer. There is this lucious thing called the Statistical Abstract of the United States that brings a

So many flavors of data! Yum, yum!

whole new dimension to being a Data Wonk.

Sadly, just because I just discovered this gem, doesn’t mean it’s new. Nay, nay, the Statistical Abstract, the “authoritative and comprehensive summary of statistics on the social, political and economic organization of the United States” has been published since 1878.

So what’s in this thing? A lot. And like the sales rack at SteinMart, some of it is relevant, some not. But take a look at the blue navigation bar on the left of the screen. Click on “Health and Nutrition” and then “Health Care Utilization.”  Now Select the first PDF, “Percent Distribution of Number of Visits to Health Care Professionals, by Selected Characteristics.”

Okay, so if I am writing a grant about health care and need some data on who does or does not see a doctor regularly, TA DA! there I have it! Take a look at which population had the highest percentage of people who had no visits to the doctor. Even over time, I can see that Latinos of Mexican origin are the most medically underserved population in the US. Not good for those folks, clearly, but useful information for me.

Also, please note the last data set, “Use of Mammography For Women 40 Years Old and Over by Patient Characteristics.” I have written breast health grants in the past, and now I know where to go for general characteristics about who typically does or does not access a mammogram. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Keep in mind, most of this information will be national data, and you should always strive to use local data when possible. However, this data is still incredibly useful when generally describing a population, and if you do have comparable local data, you can use this national information as a benchmark to show how much more dire things are in your community. I did notice that some of the data sets have information by region or county, so it’s just a matter of browsing.

Happy hunting!

Kung Hei Fat Choi–Welcome to the Year of the Rabbit

4 Feb

 After a wild ride in 2010, I’m a little glad to be out of the Year of the Tiger and starting the Year of the Rabbit. We’re now in the second day of the New Year, so…exactly what does it mean to be a rabbit?

Well, it’s sure to be a quieter year than last. A year for comfort and longevity, which can mean great things for those of us who raise money. We’re compelled by the hare to listen, observe and act quickly when necessary. Which makes a lot of sense to me as we’re still in the throes of a recession–I don’t care how much we want to cast off that word, people are still unemployed or underemployed.

This year your donors need you to listen. You need to observe their actions as well as their inactions. This is the year for sensitivity and empathy.

Because the major element guiding this year is Metal, that puts a more dynamic spin on the situation. Which brings into play the ability to act quickly, make decisions and move forward when opportunity presents itself. In feng shui, anything related to glass, including mirrors is considered to be part of the element of Metal. So Metal will help us see more clearly this year. Metal can also be honed and sharpened, giving us the ability to just let things go–to cut off or sever things we don’t need anymore.

So. This year, how can you listen better, take advantage of more opportunities, see clearer and let go of that which does not work?

For more about the Year of the Rabbit, I invite you to read more from the Western School of Feng Shui, which is what I practice.

Kung Hei Fat Choi!

How to win friends and influence funders

10 Dec

We're all in this together.

How many of you know your funders? I mean, really know them? Getting cozy with foundation officers is always helpful, and it’s something we’re all told to do.

But how exactly is that done? Beyond simply saying hello to them at community events and receptions and such?

Recently I had the opportunity to make a new friend. And I noticed that there is a little dance we all do when forming a new relationship. And, well, gaining a funder as a professional ally is a lot like making a new friend in your personal life. Consider these six basic principles:

1) Discover Commonality: Your personal friends are your personal friends for a reason–you have a lot in common. Be sure that the funder is revelant to your mission. I don’t mean you should think of it from the position of “what can you do for me,” but rather, is this relationship meaningful for my organization? If a foundation officer works with a funder that is so far removed from what you do that the relationship has nothing to offer your or your agency, you may be better off putting your time into someone closer to your cause.

2) Create Mutual Benefit: This is a natural offshoot of #1. Create a connection with commonalities and then look for ways to be of service to the funder–not just for how they can help you. They hold the purse strings, but you are the content area expert on your cause. Be a resource for them.

3) Ask for Advice: When you seek someone’s opinion, you’re saying you value them. Having them weigh in on a decision creates buy in. Just remember that people often expect you to take their advice once offered. Spend some time working on #1 and #2 before you potentially bind yourself to someone.

4) Tell Them a Secret: Confiding in someone creates intimacy. Sharing something confidential with a funder, which often happens while seeking advice, tells them “I trust you.” Just be careful what you share. Never, ever share anything gossipy or about other people, whether they are staff, board, volunteers or other funders. Never share anything about other nonprofits. Consider the timing–is it too much too soon? Are you straying into TMI territory? And consider who you’re telling. Foundation officers are just people, and some people are vaults and some have loose lips. A good example of sharing a secret is my being able to see lion cubs up close and personal at Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary before the general public knew about them. The Executive Director and I already had a good working relationship of several months, and she knew I could keep my mouth shut until she was ready for the world to know.

5) Just Hang: Not everything has to be a visit in a foundation office or a site visit at your agency. Take your foundation officer for lunch or coffee–especially if you’re asking for advice or sharing a secret. Don’t feel like you have to take her to a schwanky place. It’s not necessary, and in fact may make her wonder how you spend your organization’s money. Coffee is plenty and it’s efficient. If she only has half an hour to spare, meeting her for coffee near her next appointment is thoughtful and respectful. Don’t forget those community events and receptions. Let’s face it, sometimes those things are dull and seeing a friendly face who can offer real conversation is refreshing.

6) Keep It Real: The trick to all of this is–it has to feel natural. Foundation officers are like the prettiest girls at the dance–they get offers all the time and they’ve heard every line. The suitors who win fair maiden are those who are sincere, honest and trustworthy. We all know what’s on the table, that’s no secret. Just approach the situation with an open mind and a willing heart and you’ll have yourself a healthy relationship that benefits you both.