Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How We Won a $1.85 Million Grant with Decisive Leadership

Looking back on this successful grant application, I think one of the unusual secrets behind its success was Corine Doughty's trademark decisiveness. According to the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary, they define the word "decisive" as follows:

  1. having the power or quality of deciding (a decisive battle)
  2. resolute, determined (a decisive manner)
  3. unmistakable, unquestionable (a decisive superiority)

Technically, I think decisiveness works in a crisis because it means you are focusing more and more of your time on solving a problem and less and less of your time on unproductive matters. All things being equal, the more time you spend improving a grant application the more likely you are to win it. As I like to say, at a certain point in the grant writing process, you are better off spending your time making the grant work than spending your time wondering if it was a good idea to apply for the grant in the first place.  

In general, I think decisiveness has big pay-offs in grant writing because grant writers are almost always working with tight deadlines in highly competitive circumstances. If you are in a crisis situation, then doubt will only harm your chances of winning the big money.

Looking back, I learned a lot about grant writing from this victory. I have always taught that grant writing is a team sport and not an individual scholarly activity. Nevertheless, I may have underestimated the extent to which traditional leadership techniques are essential to establishing high performance teams. I may have placed too much stress on the use of the group processes I have identified and not enough stress on the role played by the ultimate team leader.

All in all, I think there were a number of factors which supported and encouraged Corine's decisiveness, factors that I will try to maximize in my other grant writing and grant coaching work. 

First, I could tell that Corine thought this new project was needed and represented a big improvement over the way business was previously conducted in the Los Angeles and Orange County region. For example, this new project will pay attention to the progress that students make in the educational system and not simply produce more curriculum adjustments and seemingly endless meetings for community college administrators. Personally, I was impressed that the RFP called for a 360 degree evaluation of the top project personnel. I knew from my research on charismatic leadership that this was one of the most effective ways of evaluating a leader - by interviewing the people above them and the people below them. In this instance, it was clear to me that Corine was 100% committed to this new project as being the right idea at the right time.

Second, I think Corine was able to articulate the necessity for this project based on her existing leadership role in the California Community College Assocation for Occupational Education (CCCAOE). It was easy for her to be decisive about this project, in part, because much of her earlier volunteer experience with the CCCAOE prepared her to seize this opportunity and to make the strongest possible case for having it led by Santiago Canyon College. I can report that her confidence rubbed off on me. I was glad that her confidence was not based on simply her role at Santiago Canyon College but also on her participation in high-level statewide efforts to study and address the challenges of community college education programs.

Third, Corine also had 100% solid support from the Rancho Santiago Community College District (RSCCD), Vice Chancellor of Human Resources and Economic Development as well as Santiago Canyon College (SCC) to pursue this significant, highly competitive opportunity.

At times, I have found it was more difficult to win a grant simply because the school or the non-profit organization was not strongly committed to winning it. That was not the case in this instance.

I imagine that the leadership of both the RSCCD and SCC realized that the CCCCO was making a once-in-a-generation change in its policies, and this dramatic change opened up fresh opportunities for new competitors. I know the school's commitment to launch an all out effort to win this grant inspired me to go beyond my limits to make this grant a success.

All in all, this grant writing win represents one of the most important themes I like to stress in my workshops: "You can have everything you want if you are willing to give everything you have got." That was certainly true for this grant application. We worked around the clock to make it happen and in many ways it appeared to me, at least, that failure was not an option. It is good to remember these basics as I teach others about the grant writing process. 

How We Won a $1.85 Million Grant with Good Technique

Perfect Day in Tahoe
Perfect Day in Tahoe

As I indicate above, I think we won this $1.85 million grant by taking decisive action, I also think that this victory can be tied to our application of correct techniques too. In this case, I had worked with Corine for a number of years and these techniques have become second nature. Nevertheless, I think it helps to be reminded of the techniques themselves because they saved us time and opened up the willingness of the funder to give Santiago Canyon College a shot at winning this application.

I think technique mattered in this application because the time pressure was extraordinarily demanding on us. This grant required me to read a ton of background material, particularly detailed instructions regarding the quantitative measures that were going to be collected as part of the project.

Here, I applied two techniques that I have not written about before including speed reading and reading with an open mind at the first approach.

My version of speed reading is simply to read each line of the background material by scanning each line only twice, both times deep inside the text itself rather than on the edges. It sounds odd, but if you train yourself to do it, your brain really is capable of reading much more quickly than you think it can.

Next, I also applied a technique I learned from a Leo Strauss type political philosophy professor I knew at Cornell University. Although I disagreed with his philosophy, I think he was correct to suggest that the first reading of any text should be done with an open mind, that is from the perspective that you are not seeking to confront or disagree with the author. This more discriminating and judgmental reading can take place in your second or third reading of the text. The first reading, however, should be a completely open-minded, non-judgmental attempt to understand the author on their own terms.

In this instance, of course, I needed to use my speed reading skills. Corine brought me in to work on the grant on March 4, 2013 and it was due on March 18, 2013. This gave me little less than two weeks to prepare a 55 page document.

As I teach in my workshops, the last minute nature of the grant writing process is a result of the funder's policies. In this instance, I think Corine was first brought in to win this grant after the third week of February when her district contacted her and asked if she could help them write the grant and identify key talent. Luckily for her and us, she attended a Common Core State Standards Advisory - as a representative for CCCAOE - suddenly everything clicked into place and she had a plan for a highly successful program. 
As I teach in my workshops, Corine assembled a team of top notch people who helped define our winning message. After the team meeting, I knocked out a quick first draft of the full grant proposal using voice recognition software. As I teach in my classes, I did not rewrite anything the same day I wrote it. While I was knocking out the first draft of the grant application, Corine focused her attention on preparing the organization chart, the budget documents and the sensitive negotiations with potential staff members regarding their salaries, benefits, titles and job descriptions.
All in all, I am proud to report that I wrote the narrative over five (5) days.

After that, Corine and her team had about a week to go over all elements of the document in detail. As they pored over the document, they added key details which illustrated their unique knowledge of the educational system, current legislation, and the details of the grant application itself.

To improve the overall quality of the grant, I turned to an outside proofreader, Elizabeth Connor, who tightened all elements of the proposal at a moment when I was too fatigued to make a difference any more. As you might expect, Elizabeth caught glaring mistakes that were missed by me and the entire management team. In the past, I have shared the odd reality of my inability to see my own mistakes.

I have had my own mother share with me what word I misspelled and I have still not seen the error...

As I like to say, people give money to people. In one little detail, I think we made that point in a powerful fashion.

In our grant cover letter we named the exact person who would be receiving the grant application by name and title. The group we were competing against, however, only addressed their application to "Sir or Madam." I am sure that this is not the only reason Corine won this $1.85 million grant, but it demonstrates the level of intensity and perfection we developed as we wrote an application of utmost quality under the stress of a short deadline. In my view, it is simply impossible to create exceptional results under deadline pressures without having practiced and honed the correct overall techniques. In this sense, grant writing is more like a competitive sport than an intellectual exercise.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Grant Writer Part 1: Initial Valuable Suggestions

I ran across an article by Allison Shirk in PhilanTopic which provides ten ways (and a bonus) to get the most out of your grant writer. I thought I would do my own take on this important theme. Her original article is worth reading too and you can find it here.

House MD - Character study of Gregory House (Re upload)
House MD - Character study of Gregory House (Re upload)

1. Get organized. This is an excellent suggestion. When I teach grant writing classes, I remind the participants that grant writing will always take place in a hectic, last-minute environment. The funders make it that way. One of the best tools for surviving in that sort of emergency room atmosphere is to have all your key materials readily available. At Drew & Associates, for example, we provide our clients with a list of the documents - IRS determination letters, articles of incorporation, videos, photos, resumes, budgets and letterhead - they need to collect ahead of time. We recommend that they keep all of these documents in the same place either as electronic documents or as hard copies. My spin on this recommendation is that this work needs to be done well in advance of the grant due date.

2. Single point of contact. The use of a single point of contact is a classic technique for speeding up the decision-making process. In my case, I try to negotiate for a single-point-of-contact as high up as possible in the client's chain of command. To speed things up on my end, I empower my associate grant writers to use their best judgment and to make important decisions on their own with a bias toward action. In a crisis, I have found there is no time to hunt around and get approval from a committee. My spin on this issue is that the single-point-of-contact also needs to be empowered with decision-making authority.
3. Put it in writing. I have to disagree with this recommendation. In general, I have found that asking the client to write something on paper just causes delays and confusion. I have found that the process moves quicker if I give the client a rough, A-Z first draft. They often find it easier to edit a document than to produce the first draft of a document. In many cases, they end up approving what I or my staff have written with only minimal changes. I will do a first draft of everything the funder needs including budget information and technical specifications.   

4. Back off the deadline. I guess I disagree with this one too. Sadly, I think it is something of a pipe dream for grant writers to request that clients get more pro-active. This is a great and sound idea. I have never seen it work in real life. Instead, I try to use deadlines to motivate and inspire the client to put in a strong extra effort. In general, I do buy them time by doing a quick first draft. In most cases, I can to a quick first draft a lot faster than they expect and this gives them the time they need to perfect the document, add key facts and information, and raise the quality of the document to professional levels. In a sense, the deadline is your friend.

5. Provide the budget first. This is a sound suggestion in my view. I think this is something the client can manage with little fuss. In a pinch, I find it helps to draft the budget for them based on winning sample grants I have already created for them or other clients. In my experience, a lot of projects have highly similar budgets. Once you have a budget that works for you, there is little need to change it. Ideally, the project budget should also reflect your winning theme for that client. You can reflect the winning theme in the budget by adding carefully chosen buzz words, or line items, that reinforce why your charity is the most worthy one for receiving the grant.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Grant Writer Part 2: More Valuable Suggestions

As I indicated above, I ran across an article by Allison Shirk in PhilanTopic which provides ten ways (and a bonus) to get the most out of your grant writer. I thought I would do my own take on this theme. Here is my reaction to the last items on her list.

House MD -
House MD - "The Best Ever" Super Bowl Ad 2011 [HQ]

6. Use your grantwriter to write grants. Here, I think it makes more sense to insist that your grant writer solve problems. In my consulting practice, I end up doing a lot of things to win money that have nothing to do with writing a grant. I have found I need to solve personnel problems for the client. I have sometimes found it necessary to design survey research, set appointments, provide public speaking coaching, and assist with program design and reporting compliance. I have even created logos and letterhead for clients. One of the cool things about being a grant writer is that you have a rare opportunity to use a full range of skills including your political skills and emotional IQ. I am not sure it is healthy to allow the grant writer to focus too narrowly on only doing grant writing. You may end up with a grant writer who really does not have a clue about what it takes to win a grant, solve a practical problem, negotiate a deal, or turn around a struggling agency.
7. Take their advice, seriously. I always get uncomfortable when we set up the grant writer as some sort of guru with a nearly magical understanding of the world of grant writing. Frankly, I won substantial grants with no experience at all simply because I was conscientious and followed directions. Instead, I think it is important to encourage the client to be decisive and to trust their own gut instincts. Almost always, the client knows much more about their field and what is right or wrong than the grant writer. You are not doing the client any good by suggesting they filter their best contributions out of supposed deference to the greater expertise of the grant writer. This recommendation, on my part, means that it is also important for grant writers to be humble and coachable.
8. Keep them in the know. This piece of advice rings true for me. I know that when I am writing a grant, I feel like I am the Dr. House of the non-profit world. Like the television Dr. House, I really cannot do my best work if I am in the dark about what is going on with the charity. 
9. Try a retainer. I need to disagree with this one. I think retainers make grant writers lazy. It is very easy to sit back and collect a retainer and do nothing. This is not healthy for the grant writer or the charity. I prefer to work on brief, high intensity projects. If I am on a retainer, I get lazy and the charity starts to under-appreciate my skills.
10. Project wisely. "Encourage your grantwriter to write several proposals at a time," Shirk writes. "Developing a completely new proposal for every opportunity that comes up is labor intensive and inefficient, as is having your grantwriter switch his or her focus from project to project. One way to avoid this is to focus one month on general operating support grants and the next on program support, etc." I have nothing to complain about here. I do think it pays to do batching on any sort of project.
11. Leave time for follow-up calls. As I teach in my workshops, the time you spend on the phone with funders can be much more significant than the time you spend on the computer. I think Shirk makes an absolutely inspired suggestion when she writes: "You might even want to consider giving your grantwriter an organizational e-mail address to use for initial inquiries and follow-ups." I have never thought about this before, but I really like the idea. As Dr. House would say: "Run the test."  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Assume Victory: Using Set Backs to Advantage You and Your Charity

Even though I work mostly with non-profit organizations, I seem to be surrounded by for-profit entrepreneurs. In general, entrepreneurs have a reputation for positive thinking and an uncanny ability to turn the worst news into some sort of advantage for themselves and their companies.

I am noticing a lot of the traits of the entrepreneurial mind-set as I get to know my fellow business owners at my office in the WIN Business Accelerator in Irvine, CA. One of the things I am noticing is that nothing seems to get them down. It does not matter what is happening in the economy or in politics or foreign affairs. No matter what, they are planning paths around obstacles and looking for opportunities to meet the needs of customers who are injured by current events.

In my grant writing efforts, I find I have a similar approach to dealing with existential threats to the grant writing project. In virtually every grant campaign I have ever participated in there usually comes a moment when I just hit a wall.

The new information I have learned about the charity, or the problem it addresses, leaves me thinking that there is absolutely no way of making it work. No matter what, however, out of this pit of despair, I find a new solution comes to me, to my staff, or to the charity itself. As such, I have found it does no good to lie about the pain or to underestimate the challenge. Living in denial about the flaws of either the charity or the grant seems to fix nothing.

By facing the problem directly, I am often able to convince the charity to make needed changes in their program, mission, or focus so that their grant writing efforts pay-off. The secret of their non-profit prosperity is also the secret of the irrepressible entrepreneurs who surround me: Look for the pain and find a way to fix the problem.

Tough Times: Economic Crisis Means the World Needs More Effective Grant Writers

One of the ironies of the last couple of years is that our business has grown and added people even as the overall economy has gone down hill. This year, for example, we are proud to have added both Soka University of America and the Petersen Automotive Museum as clients. Obviously, we have come a long way.

In my experience, grant writing is always a little counter cyclical. In bad times, I have found that there is still usually plenty of money available from government grants and foundation resources - even as corporate donors cut back on both charitable gifts and marketing dollars.
As times get hard, I have found that it pays to go back to the basics that I teach in my grant writing workshops:
  • Focus on the largest funders
  • Organize yourself ahead of time
  • Use technology to your advantage
  • Apply product positioning strategies
  • Keep your goals and objectives simple, and
  • Hold tight to your winning message
In good economic times, it often seems like we all succeed no matter what we do. In tough times, however, it is good to remember the tried and true techniques which will always give you an advantage no matter the economic climate.