New 501c3? 3 Things to Do Before Seeking Grants.

New and small organizations often come to me for help writing grants. I ask them a few questions and then often have to tell them that they aren’t necessarily ready for grants. When they ask me why, it’s usually due to some combination of the following:

1. Programs

You can’t just have a mission; your org needs programs because institutional funders like a target for their giving. They won’t simply fund an idea, because they are, by nature, conservative and will want to see a program with a basic track record and demonstrable, long-term upside that they can help you expand, sustain, and improve. You probably have ideas for a program or two, but are concerned that you need the money first. As you start to pick up donors, you can expand your program to what you envisioned. But at first, it’s a great idea to design early incarnations of your programs to run with little money and…

2. Volunteers

Volunteers are your org’s passionate army. They can help you do any number of things: help with your program implementation, marketing, clerical work, and more. And guess what? People that care enough to volunteer for your org or program are the ones that might eventually decide to donate. And as quick as that, you’ll be much more attractive to institutional funders, since they like to see support for your work in as many different ways as possible. Try one of these volunteer matchmaking sites to find people passionate about your mission. Or find a big local corporation with volunteer programs. People out there want to help you. You have to let them know that you’re there!

3. A Board That Gives

If your board doesn’t give to your organization – even just a little – that will be a red flag to funders. After all, if your board isn’t behind your programs financially, why should a foundation take a chance? And remember – there are many ways for your board to contribute: in-kind legal and financial services, finding other like-minded donors, use of spare office space… just make sure that it’s all demonstrable and quantifiable for a grant application.

Bonus: Well-organized Financial Information

You need to have projected overall and project/program budgets and then track reality throughout your fiscal year so you know how you’re doing. You don’t need an audit, but make sure that you can show budgets and revenue versus expenses in a coherent, accountant-approved way. If your non-profit is well-organized financially, it will go a long way towards signaling that you’re a good bet for funding.

Grant Proposal Rejected? 3 Reasons It May Not Be Your Fault.

I’ve spent a lot of time in this space writing about fiction writing and editing, but I do more than that. I act as a nonprofit and grants consultant to small or start-up nonprofits. I also work part-time at a private foundation, so I have a good bead on the general thought processes grantors go through when they get your material. In grant writing, rejection is a part of the process. But the reasons why your application is rejected may not be so straight forward. Or even your fault.

The rejection may have little to do with how well the proposal is written or the merit of the proposal. Even a good fit can get rejected. Often, there are factors that are simply beyond your control as an applicant. Here’s a few things that I’ve seen happen behind the scenes that might sink your otherwise fantastic proposal.

1. No more money

Even if you submit by the deadline, you never really know what the financial situation is behind the scenes. Despite the great care that foundations take in projecting dispersible funds, and planning the amounts to give away each cycle, some boards or panels might suddenly get behind a larger-than-usual gift that eats up available cash. A Pulitzer-level grant narrative can’t do a thing about that.

2. Board or panel doesn’t get behind it

If the grant you applied for is a small one decided by a program person, this wouldn’t necessarily apply. But most grants are awarded by panels of program officers or more often the board of the foundation itself. Every grant application needs a champion, and if no one on the panel makes a case for you, then it’s going to be much easier for them to reject the proposal, even if it’s meritorious.

3. Too much good competition in the cycle

Some funders grant money on a rolling basis, but many – including the one I work for – have between 1 and 4 cycles per year. If you apply in a crowded cycle, you may get rejected regardless of merit. Hopefully, you’ll get feedback from the funder letting you know about this or inviting you to resubmit at another time, but unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.

These are a few of the realities of of grant writing. The key is to not give up. Build your programs and track record, do your research, find the right fits, and try to develop relationships with the funders that are able and willing to talk with you on the phone (not all of them can or do, though). A good grants program is a marathon, not a sprint.

Ever been rejected for a reason out of your control? Did you get feedback? Tell us about it in the comments!

Fair Nonprofit Staff Compensation: Justifiable? Of course.

Update: please be sure to read the Annenberg Foundation’s amazing report on fundraising: Underdeveloped.

Original post:

The wonderful Annenberg Alchemy program has a blog, and recently they asked a question that’s been bugging me for all my years in the nonprofit sector: Justifying Compensation – Are We Worth It?

Read the short blog and questions, but the answer is simple: yes. Nonprofit staff are worth compensating at a rate comparable to the private sector. If an organization hires talent and bestows responsibility, that talent and responsibility should be fairly compensated. Staffs of established nonprofits are fully professionalized. These are not volunteers; they are professionals with deep knowledge and skill-sets. Justifying compensation to boards that often value not only lower overhead/administration costs but also directing money almost exclusively to programs can be difficult, but it shouldn’t be more difficult than educating them about new program directions and the like. Too often, it’s easy for some boards to lean on the “passion” of the staff to do work that offers public good. That passion too often justifies lower salaries and causes a sense of martyrdom on staffs, who are not only underpaid, but often work even longer hours to show that they have ‘passion’ for the work. (Of course we have passion. Why would that preclude fair compensation?) The burnout rate is really high. I read or heard somewhere that the average life-span of a development officer is 18 months. (And here’s an article with similar observations.) Why? Fundraising goals are usually too high. Also, development staff are woefully underpaid for the responsibility they have. During the economic downturn, I heard so many stories from development people who told me: “If I can’t get this grant or land a big gift, people are going to lose their jobs.” That’s too much.

As a viable industry sector that adds billions of dollars to the economy, if we can’t compensate our talent properly, then we will continue to lose that talent to the private sector. And rightly so.

How can this be fixed?

  1. Educate the board. So many of them are often successful business people. If they like they way things are going, tell them that the reason is the staff and that compensation should be part of that. Find board members willing to give to general operations. The big foundations that give general operating support (thank you!) are spread thin and competition for those dollars is fierce.
  2. Set reasonable fundraising goals. Rather than padding the budget lines with outlandish figures, make better decisions. Sometimes, though boards are loathe to see it happen, programs need to be cut. Make sure that cuts are equitable across programs, overhead, staff. Too often ‘lean years’ just cost people jobs and make it even harder for a nonprofit to recover later. And are ‘lean years’ the fault of the development associate? Of course not.

Look, there are no easy answers here. So much depends on the age, budget size, and board make-up of the nonprofit in question. Every organization is in a different place and facing different challenges. But the sector is going to continue to struggle with talent retention until that talent is valued, not only ideologically, but financially as well.

How The Goonies made me the writer/reader I am today. (Sequel in the works!)

This is fantastic news. My inner 11-year-old just died from joy. I don’t even care if the sequel is the worst thing ever. The Goonies is very probably the reason that I love to work with words. “But it’s a movie!” you say. That’s exactly right. It happened like this.

Like most boys that were of a certain age when the original came out, I loved it. Plus, my name is Mike, and I had asthma when I was that age, so no leap was necessary for me to identify with the protagonist. The group of kids were all familiar, too: they talked like me and my friends, irritated each other the same way, and had each others’ backs when it came down to it. In short, it blinded me with awesome.

But I wanted more.

My mother was gracious enough to get me James Kahn’s novelization of the movie, and though I had not been much of a reader to that point, I gleefully tore into it. When I was done, I immediately went back to page one and read it again. Then again. All told, I read the book fifteen times in a row!

After that, I discovered fantasy and sci-fi and never looked back. I’m fairly certain that I’m still catching up on the sleep I lost in high school and college from staying up too late to read.

So thanks, Richard Donner and Steven Spielberg for launching my love of books, reading, and stroytelling.

(And if Goonies 2 weren’t enough, word comes that Star Wars 7 just started shooting. My childhood returns!)

What got you into reading and writing? Let me know in the comments.

Looking Askance at the “How I Met Your Mother” Finale (Spoilers!)

(Big spoilers ahoy! For the whole series! And it won’t make sense to you if you haven’t seen the show!)

So… that turned out to be pretty divisive.

A lot of television series that go on for too many seasons run into the problem of a canon that grew randomly limiting the choices that can be made. This is what doomed the final season and finale of How I Met Your Mother.

HIMYM is a great show, and is one of my favorite sit-coms due to its daring format and great cast. Throughout its run, the creators and their writing staff really tried a lot of bold things and succeeded with them more often than not. Since the story is framed as a flashback, they were able to do a lot with that idea, including some seriously great non-linear storytelling within episodes. The actors’ chemistry worked. Neil Patrick Harris swaggered across the screen like a randy god of comedy. They managed a balance of hilarity with occasionally poignancy that worked very well most of the time. But the finale…

I can see why some people liked it. If you were a Ted/Robin ‘shipper, then you probably found it satisfying. I respected the choices that were made for the finale and even the final season, but feel that the showrunners painted themselves into a corner in several respects.

In the early seasons, Robin and Ted’s on-again-off-again romance did one of two things to viewers: made them want the two to get together, or made them really, really not want them to get together. I’ve been in the latter camp since about season 3 or 4 (but definitely by the time that Robin and Barney dated). I never thought the match made sense after a certain point. At first, Ted and Robin created balance for each other. Their early breakups were about people in their late 20s being unsure of themselves. But later attempts a reconciliation smacked of settling, and it felt like that to me even at the final scene of the series. But look, the writers had to get Ted/Robin back together or they would have created a deeply tragic figure out of Robin due to her extreme loneliness. Her marriage to Barney didn’t work, she was unable to have children, and she had become even more of a cat lady (but with dogs) than she was originally.

The Robin problem lead to something even weirder, particularly in the context of a sit-com about meeting the mother of your children: they had to kill off the mother.

Who we just met! And really liked!

Rather than the interminable lead-up to Robin and Barney’s doomed marriage, I would have liked to see a final season that started out with meeting the mother, followed by some great episodes integrating her into the group, and then she comes out at the end and finally tells Ted to stops telling their kids all of his crazy stories. But the writers went the way of something more literary – too literary for the sit-com format, I think. And the whole thing just didn’t feel right. Why? Because in hindsight the character of Robin ultimately drove the writing of the later seasons and the finale more than the mother and Ted did. The show if not called “How I Met Your ‘Aunt’ Robin”. The scene that stood out the most to me in the finale was the one between Robin and Lily in the empty apartment. The tragic nature of Robin’s situation overpowered anything the writers did to try to moderate it.

Once the writers painted themselves in to that corner, they just had to build a door where they could based on the canon they’d created. It’s just too bad a comedy of this quality throughout most of the run turned out to be so, so bittersweet.