PSGA Ken's Corner

Observations and advice on grant writing from the other side of the desk

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Things I’d do now for 2017

It’s mid-November and New Year’s Day 2017 is less than two months away.

While end-of-year-end targets still loom, there are key tasks for the coming year. You may not get all of them done now, but at least you’ll have them on a to-do list if you get organized now. And all of these items can help you write better proposals in the coming year and make writing them easier.

Also, all of these are things you need to make look at whenever you begin writing grants for a new organization, no matter what time of year you start your new job.

So what would my list be? Here’s a few item, and if you think of others, please add them as comments.

  • Update any boilerplate you plug into grant requests such as history, mission, and an outline of programs.

Have things changed since the last time these items were written. Is there a change in the clients you serve, the numbers served each year, or other key information? Is there a way to make what you have more compelling? For example, did you learn something in the last year about why and how your organization was founded that adds a dimension to what you’ve been sharing? And, to the extent this is an elevator speech, can you make it shorter and thus, more compelling.

  • Get an updated copy of the current year’s budget, actual expenditures, and next year’s proposed budget.

Many applications ask for an organization’s operating budget in addition to a program or project budget specific to the grant application. Always have current documents available so you don’t have to search them out later.

  • Get an updated board list for the next year and check the resumes you have on file for key people. Are there changes, either recently or coming up in the near future?

It’s also a good idea to see if you can shorten long resumes when appropriate.

  • Talk to people who deliver program, staff and/or volunteers, and ask what changes they’ve seen in the past year.

Program people, whether volunteers or staff, are the ones who see changes first in who is asking for services and how services are delivered. And if the executive director spends time delivering services, ask that person how they see the balance between services and the executive director role.

  • Look at your past year’s grants and check the schedule for grant reports. Have you missed a report or is one coming up during the busy holiday season?

If you’re late with a report the holidays are a great time to submit a late report and ask for forgiveness.

  • Update service data

While numbers don’t tell the whole story, they’re still important. Make sure you have the updated number for the end of the year, both in units of service and in unduplicated client count. Also, make sure you have a good grasp of the demographics and the geography that programs serve.

You can also ask key people about plans for the upcoming year. Even if there are no firm targets or goals, people still may have a sense of how many people will be served and how many units of service are likely—as well as how many more could be served if there were more resources.

  • Review the past, current, and future plans for income streams. Have they changed or are there changes in the works?

Does the organization earn any income through fees, sales, or other means? Are there government grants or other key sources for the organization as a whole or particular programs? And finally, what role do private grants and individual fundraising play in the organization? Even if the money you raise through those sources isn’t large, it still may play a critical role in programs.

  • Review your computer filing system.

This is one that has personally affected me in the several years. Software programs are often set up to save documents to a folder unique to the program. For example, Word files go into a Word folder, Excel documents into an Excel folder, and so on. But more and more projects contain word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and PDF files. This means having to remember what program generated a document so that you open the right file location.

If you don’t already, set up folders for files by project. No matter what software you use, the file goes in that project folder (or subfolder as needed). Then use Windows Explorer or a similar file system to look for files by project. You get to see all of the files and clicking on the file name automatically launches the right software for that file. Now you don’t have to remember what program created what document.

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Using statistics

I just returned from a trip to the most dangerous city in the nation, Tukwila. That is, it’s dangerous if you believe the latest rankings done by Safewise®, a firm that sells home security system. A lot of local media ran the story that Tukwila as the nation’s most dangerous city, and it even made the banner on some national news services.

Most of the local coverage was tongue-in-cheek. Locals who know the area had a hard time believing that Tukwila is a dangerous place. And a quick look at the study’s website reveals major flaw in the study; the statistics mixed property crimes and major crimes—a shoplifting incident is counted the same as an assault. Then the study simply divided the number of crime reports by the city’s population.

Even if you didn’t know about Tukwila, you might question the way the report was put together. But if you know that Tukwila includes SouthCenter Westgate Mall and the retail areas around it, you understand why Tukwila ended up high on this list. Every day thousands of staff and shoppers come to area. And most of the crime reports, such as minor property crimes, are among the daily visitors and not Tukwila residents.

This report reminded me of an LOI I read a few years ago. A housing group wanted to expand its work to a neighboring county. Beyond stating that desire to expand, the LOI didn’t say why those services were needed in the neighboring county. I looked up easily available census statistics and found that the homeownership rate in the new county was actually a few percentage points higher in the new area than in the county the organization currently served.

How are they related? Both misused statistics, even the housing group that didn’t cite any. Failing to mention an easily available and seemingly relevant statistic raises many questions. Did the organization omit the statistic or was it even aware of it?
And statistic aside, why did they think they needed to expand to the new county? Was this about the agency wanting to get bigger or about meeting a real need? What if the organization had begun its LOI with something like this?

We have many people who travel thirty or forty miles one way from our neighboring county for our counseling services or attending classes we offer. While that area’s homeownership rate is slightly higher than the area we currently serve, that rate isn’t the whole story. The people who come to us need our help because they own homes that are older. Curious about that, we looked at census statistics and found that more than 25% of the homes in that area were built before 1960. And in rural communities older homes usually represent an even a larger share of the affordable housing. As a result, many low-income homeowners need our key services such as credit counseling, education about home maintenance, and access to financing. We believe that opening a new office in this area will allow us to serve even more families that need our services.

As you read that passage, what moves you—the statistics or the story about why the homeownership program is needed? In my experience, the story will capture most people’s attention, including funders. It illustrates two key principles for using statistics. First, it doesn’t ignore a basic statistic that appears to counter to what you are advocating; instead it neutralizes it. Second, it uses a supporting statistic to expand upon the premise. The idea that low-income homeowners come to you for services is given more validity with the statistic that over 25% of the new county’s housing stock is old.

The key is balancing story with statistics. Know the relevant statistics, and use them in a way that supports your story. Don’t throw out a statistic and expect that a reader—funder—will jump to the same conclusion you do. Lead with your observations and assertions.

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PSGA Spring Funders Forum

The spring PSGA Funders Forum is coming up soon. It’s on Friday, May 13th, and there’s still time to register.

Funder Forums are important even if you don’t have a project on your desk right now. Since it can take from three to nine months for a proposal to navigate the process at some larger funders, what you hear at the May Forum may be important to ideas you’ll be working on for late 2016 and on into 2017.

I just did a funders forum in southern Oregon and it reminded me about the questions grant seekers tend to ask. Here are a few examples:

  • Will you fund salaries?
  • Do you make grants to capital campaigns?
  • Will you make a grant for a vehicle?

While many funders fund buildings or salaries or vehicles, they fund them because they believe in what an organization promises to achieve with that tool. In fact, when you ask funders if they will fund a new building, you may be asked, “Why do you need a new building?”

Your answer might be something like, “We need more room to serve more people.” In that case, you might make a stronger case by not asking about building grants, but starting instead with a question like, “Our community needs more after-school activities for middle school youth; would you support a building campaign to help us do that?”

And if you listen for the right things, you may find that you get the answer to your questions before you even ask them. Here’s some ideas about what to listen for when funders make their presentations or when they respond to questions from other grant seekers.

  • Why does the funder make grants?
  • What are the funder’s priorities?
    • Geography
    • Type of program
    • Type of grant
      • Operating support
      • Capacity-building
      • Capital grants
      • Project grants
    • What’s the process for an initial approach?
    • Deadlines, if any
    • Range of grant amounts
    • Frequency of grants

Also, I encourage people to sit at one table that may not be directly related to their current work. Why?

  • The more funders you hear from the better idea you have about how funders work in general
  • Your organization may have a project in the future that is relevant to that funder
  • You may change jobs, and this funder might be important to your work in the future

Finally, just being there as the face of your organization can be helpful in the future when a funder becomes relevant to your work.

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Capturing Stories

In the past few years we’ve heard a lot about storytelling as a tool for grantwriters. Telling stories involves characters, and who are those characters but the people an organization helps? Yet, hand in hand with that idea is a concern for the dignity and privacy of the people our organizations assist.

This isn’t a new issue. Newly on the fundraising staff of United Way in Seattle in 1978, I had a long discussion with the director of a sheltered workshop about United Way tours. It was common to try to take people from employee groups to United Way agencies during the campaign. This director characterized the tours as a form of “handicapism.” The tours, to his thinking, did nothing but put the people working in the sheltered workshop on display. Frankly, I had to agree that there was an element of that behind the idea of taking people on tours of United Way agencies. But tours were also a way of helping people see and understand programs in the community that they might otherwise know existed.

That discussion has stayed with me, and I’ve keep it in mind whenever I make a site visit now as a funder with a private foundation. Grantwriters, and their organizations, have to balance the dignity and privacy of the people they work with and the need to talk about their work. But there are also times when the people they work with want, and need, to step forward and be heard. And helping someone do that can mean just as much to dignity and growth as privacy. Along that line, I received the following from Gayle Tice, a freelance writer who attended the recent PSGA Annual Conference, with thoughts on that topic. With her permission, I’d like to share her thoughts.

Beyond Impact

by Gayle Tice

As someone who has been served by the work of a wonderful nonprofit organization, and attributes much of her current success and self-esteem to it, I want to say that the biggest capital “I” Impact that organization had on me came from asking me to speak on its behalf. As staff in the nonprofit sector you may feel that you should not inconvenience those you serve by asking them to help you. Their lives are hard enough, you might think. You may even be concerned about offending them, making them think that you want to hold their sensitive situation out to the world for your gain.

But isn’t it also possible that it could be their gain? No matter what your mission may be, you are likely serving populations that do not have much social or economic power. Your clients probably would not be asked to make keynote addresses. They probably do not often hear: “I think you have a valuable perspective and I would like your permission to share it.”

As a high school student, when I was first asked to speak on behalf of my school’s branch of Communities In Schools, I was terrified. I tended to view myself as a bundle of problems that could not possibly have the authority to speak. But I was also intrigued. So I said yes. They kept asking, which told me I must have done something right. And I spoke on their behalf for years. I spoke in front of grant panels, and I spoke to representatives in government. I even got a quote published on their website, a personal favorite since I like seeing my name in print.

Instead of calling me a bundle of problems, a potential statistic, a low grade, or a list of missing assignments, they called my perspective valuable. Instead of simply lowering a hand in my direction to help me out of a tough position, they did that and then asked me to walk beside them. They asked me to help define and communicate their value. And inside that framework I found mine.

If I were to sum up the mission of most nonprofits into a single phrase, it would be the pursuit of human dignity and the respect of life. Why not let those you serve help you define where you fall within that phrase? Who can better communicate what your impact is than the people you impact? Communities In Schools never put me out by asking me to speak on their behalf. They simply made me their equal.

They empowered me in the best way possible, making me see that I did not have to suffer in silence, making me see that I could act on my concerns for this world. They turned a bundle of problems into a partner. They made an impact that will never leave me. They made me consider how I can move that impact outward.

When I think about what I want to do with my life, I start there. I think about what they did for me every day.

Gayle Tice, a graduate of The Evergreen State College, is a freelance writer living in Seattle. She is also a prospect researcher with Deacon Consulting. She can be contacted at

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Funder Forums

It’s that time of year again for the South Puget Sound Funders Forum. It’s on the campus of UPS again on Friday, December 4th. If you haven’t signed up yet you can go to the new PSGA homepage at and link to the registration.

Funder Forums are important even if you don’t have a project on your desk right now. And that’s especially true for the December Forum. Since it can take you three to nine months to navigate the process at some larger funders, what you hear at the December Forum may be important to ideas you’ll be working on for mid-to late 2016 and on into 2017.

Also, I encourage people to sit at one table that may not be directly related to their current work. Why?

  • The more funders you hear from the better idea you have about how funders work in general
  • Your organization may have a project in the future that is relevant to that funder
  • You may change jobs, and this funder might be important to your work in the future

Even though your goal for the Forum is listening, there is one thing you should be prepared to say. You need to have a short elevator speech ready if a funder asks who you are and what your organization does. The key is short. Grantseekers often feel a pressure to say more and more and more in hopes that something they say will resonate with a funder.

The problem is that the more you say, the less memorable it is. So a short elevator speech that hits the key points is better than going on and on. What are those key points?

  • Your name
  • Your organization’s name
  • 1 sentence about what the organization does
  • 1 sentence about where it works, i.e., geography

If you’ve never been to a Funders Forum here’s a checklist of things to listen for:

  • Why does the funder make grants?
  • What are the funder’s priorities?
    • Geography
    • Type of program
    • Type of grant
      • Operating support
      • Capacity-building
      • Capital grants
      • Project grants
    • What’s the process for an initial approach?
    • Deadlines, if any
    • Range of grant amounts
    • Frequency of grants

If you talk to other grant writers you may hear about other key questions that are helpful.

Over the many years I’ve sat in the hotseat at Funder Forums I’ve learned a lot from the people sitting at my table. I see new faces, hear about new organizations, and often people I know, some of whom are now at new organizations. And that brings up the last benefit of attending.

You need to be there just to be seen. It’s always a good idea that you get a chance to meet a funder, put a face and a voice to your organization, before you have a grant request in hand. While there’s a rule that you don’t come to the Forum to push a proposal, the fact is that it’s just a plain good idea.

I hope to see you there.

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The importance of grant reports

If you’re in the South Sound or can get down to Tacoma on June 17th the South Sound PSGA meeting has a great topic: Grant Reports: Obligation or Opportunity.

Full disclosure, I will be one of the panelists, partly because I’m a funder and partly because it’s a topic I’ve covered before in presentations. And while I try to look at the issue from a broad perspective that applies to all funders, Sylvie McGee and Karen Pickett will also be on the panel. They have both worked with a variety of funders and can provide insights from that work.

The reason South Sound PSGA chose the topic is that it raises a lot of questions. After all, if grant reports were easy we wouldn’t be having this session.

One thought I’ll offer, and expand on at the presentation, is that there are two levels of reporting. First is reporting on activities. For a program grant it might mean citing units of service or the unduplicated client count. A building campaign might simply document progress on the building and in the end that the building is complete, open, and being used for services.

The other level of reporting is impact reporting. This can be harder. It begins by looking at the reasons you cited for doing the project. For example, you undertook to create a new food bank in River City because you felt there were too many people going hungry in that area. Your case for that may have cited anecdotal information, surveys such as the Department of Agriculture’s Food Insecurity Report, or some combination of sources.

Your case used those pieces of evidence to both suggest there is a hunger issue and that the best way to do something about hunger in River City was to create a new food bank there. Reporting that the food bank is open, operating, and how many people its serving is an activity report.

A funder may ask, “Okay, you’re doing what you said you would do; but is it solving the problem?” Connecting what you are doing to the needs is impact reporting.

Reporting on impact can be challenging for several reasons:

  • Your original data sources are too general or take too show changes
  • Your organization didn’t plan in advance how it would show or measure impact
  • You were just old to raise money so the organization could just do what it wanted to do

That last reason is the one you really want to avoid. You can work around for the first two situations with some advance planning and support from your organization. For example, that’s one of the rationales for Evidence-based programs. (You’ll have to come to the program to hear how that works.)

That third reason is the toughest because it means your organization isn’t interested in working with funders; it just wants to get money to pursue its own goals.

Finally, one last teaser question: “What if a funder doesn’t want a report or just wants a very superficial report; what should I do?”

You can get details of the June 17th event on the PSGA website at

I hope to see you there.

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Grant Writing

I’ll be a panelist at this month’s Seattle Lunchtime Program on March 25th. The session is on the writing part of grant writing.

How important is writing? Grant writing isn’t a writing contest. But writing skill is critical. Why?

You always have much more to say than space to say it.

It’s as simple as that. Basic writing skills can help you turn a mountain of data into a tablespoon of information.

And note, I wrote “writing skill” not writing talent. Skills can be developed. Or as Stephen King put it:

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

This month’s program focuses on something we all deal with–pulling pulling together information from a variety of documents and sources and turning it into a comprehensible whole with a consistent voice. You face this writing a full proposal or filling in an online application question by question. I face it doing write-ups of applications for a board meeting.

The key presenters will be Connie Chaplan and Kyra Freestar from Tandem Editing, LLC along with Patricia Kile, President of Open Door Consulting and a PSGA board member.

And I may make a comment or two from a funder’s (i.e., reader’s) point of view.

Again, it’s Wednesday, March 25th. Doors open at 11:30, program at Noon.

Location: The Swedish Club, 1920 Dexter Avenue in Seattle.

You can register now at the PSGA website.