Thursday, February 28, 2008

Do Angels Sleep?

When my youngest daughter was three years old her great grandmother died.  I traveled to Michigan for the funeral and it was the first time I’d ever been away from Abbey overnight. 

I was gone four nights and when I returned Abbey couldn’t quit asking about the great grandmother she’d never known.  A cousin had thoughtfully put together wonderful scrapbooks of photographs of my grandmother, Grace, and passed them out to family at the funeral.  Every night before bed, Abbey poured over the photos. 

Her repeated question was “mommy where did your grandma go?” 

It was her first experience with death and I explained to Abigail that her great-grandmother had gone to be with the angels in heaven. 

This went on for several nights until, about four nights after my return Abbey asked plaintively, “mommy is your grandma asleep?” 

“Abbey,” I replied, “I told you, your great grandma is an angel in heaven now.” 

“I know mommy,” Abbey said patiently, as if I were a bit slow, “but do angels sleep?” 

I looked at her in some surprise.  “Well, that’s a good question Abbey – I don’t know if angels sleep!” 

With that she sat up – in her recently acquired “big girl bed”  - with her hands on her hips and replied “well just how did you get to be a mommy anyway?!  You don’t know anything!” 

I still laugh when I remember that night.  

We don’t take any classes or get any kind of special training to be a mother, although God only knows we could use some.  

I started writing grant proposals without any training whatsoever.  Just a background in writing and a dedication to my organization’s mission.  Our budget didn’t allow for much by way of training either.  

Fortunately I’d spent six years working for a foundation and reviewed a lot of proposals.  I’d also always been a great one for self-learning – and a frequent visitor to the “How to Do It” bookstore in Philadelphia. 

And I’m still learning. 

By the way, the next day when I took Abbey to preschool, the principal, Sister Maryanne was in front of the school and I posed Abbey’s question to her. 

She didn’t know the answer either.

Monday, February 25, 2008

I may not be there yet, but I'm closer than I was yesterday.

Several years ago I was fired from a job for the first time in my life.

In retrospect I should have seen it coming – I’d had health problems that had absented me from work for long stretches of time – and fatigued me still to the point where I wasn’t giving this particular job my best effort. Still, a large grant with promises of repeat funding had just arrived the day before from my proposal, I’d just completed work on the organization’s new web site, the quarterly newsletter I’d written and designed (a simple and, better yet, READ piece) was popular with the board and donors alike, and the development calendar for the year ahead was set.

So when I went into the executive director’s office for our weekly meeting, I was flabbergasted when he announced he was letting me go. Particularly when no reason was forthcoming, other than a lame “it’s not a good fit.” This was after a year and a half of work (the longest term of any development director in this particular organization) – and exemplary evaluations. When I pressed for a reason for my termination I was finally told, “you should get a job that doesn’t involve writing.”

I was devastated.

For years writing had come naturally to me and been a part of – if not the focus – of my education and my entire career.

And now I was being told that I should get a job that didn’t involve writing!

I took this man’s words to heart for more days - ok, maybe months – than I care to admit.

When I sat down in front of the screen I quite literally couldn’t write. None of the tips and tricks I’d picked up over the years helped. I couldn’t even make an outline!

Months later I shared my experience with a dear friend. “That was one person’s opinion,” he said.

“I personally don’t find Pam Anderson attractive, but millions do and my opinion doesn’t mean anything to her – or reflect on her ability to earn her living from her looks.”

He pointed out, too, that in this case I was dwelling on the negative. After all, I had written successful grant proposals raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, designed and written countless successful annual appeals, written press releases, newsletters, newspaper articles - a BOOK even – why was I putting my focus on one person’s statement?

Why indeed? Time to make up for wasted time and get back to focusing on refining the craft of writing.

What are you waiting for?

Have you let a few declined grant proposals or the (bad) edits of your boss get you down? Time to revisit your agency's program, speak with some of the recipients of your program, take a refresher writing course ... do something to shake off the staleness. In the words of Les Brown, “you don't have to be great to get started, but you have to get started to be great.”

Sunday, February 17, 2008

What Scares You as a Grant Proposal Writer?

Ever get that feeling?  You know the one I’m talking about, XTZ Foundation’s deadline is next week, they’ve declined you once before and now you find yourself sitting there staring at a blank page. 

It seems you’re not alone. 

CharityChannel’s online forums, always a wonderful source of inspiration, ideas and practical thinking, are also a barometer of universal concerns within the nonprofit arena.  One recent thread that garnered widespread responses centered on fear, specifically “what scares you most” as a grant proposal writer. 

Respondents pointed to a variety of common fears, from fearing the initial contact with a new foundation to fear of rejection to fear of leaving out a key component.  However, the most basic fear cited was the one inherent in most writers, the fear of the blank page. 

“I can only say that it does not matter how long you work in the field, rather it is a new client, or a new proposal for a current client - a blank page is scary. The beginning of every new proposal is empty white space yet it is filled with so many opportunities to write the perfect proposal. “ 

How do you craft the perfect cover letter, create an opening, tell your agency’s story in a compelling way that makes the funder want to fund you?  How do you get past the blank page syndrome? 

Whether it stems from procrastination, frustration or just plain fear - here are a few tools that no grant proposal writer should ever be without. 


Testimonials are all around you. They are in the thank you cards your program receives, the messages on the machine in your office, in emails, conversations, and in speeches at recognition events. If your program isn’t in the habit of collecting testimonials, make it a top priority!  Actively seek them out by sending surveys to your clients and donors. Get in the habit of keeping a tape recorder handy, and set up a comment page on your website. 

Storytelling shows why your donors keep coming back, year after year, and why your staff is so dedicated to your mission. Telling the story of your program through testimonials lets you bring a diversity of voices to your proposal in a way that numbers can’t and helps your application stand apart from the rest, long after the numbers have been forgotten. 


There are a number of great books out there on grant proposal writing.  Any one of these would give you a little nudge in the right direction: 

How to Write Knockout Proposals: What You Must Know (And Say) to Win Funding Every Time by Joseph Barbato

A gem of a book – this one’s a precious jewel and just might be all that you need. 

Storytelling for Grantseekers: The Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising by Cheryl A. Clark

Teaches you the narrative aspect of the grant proposal.  Mine is dog-eared. 

Grassroots Grants: An Activist's Guide to Grantseeking (Kim Klein's Chardon Press)– by Andy Robinson

This one’s full of examples – and great for getting past that blank page. 

Five Days to Foundation Grants

Ok, this is my own book (smile) .  But it’s one that I turn to time and time again for a quick basic reflection on all the information covered in the aforementioned books – and then some.  The accompanying grant proposal toolkit – basically a book of templates of successfully funded proposals – always gets me past the hump. 

What else?  Sometimes music works for me.  I once based an entire annual appeal around a Sly and the Family Stone Song – Everybody is a Star! 

What’re you waiting for?  You’ve got nothing to fear but fear itself.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Storytelling - a skill that everyone can use!

I rely heavily on storytelling when writing grant proposals. There is no better way to put across the organization's impact on their clients. This story, from a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy, proves that storytelling is a skill that everyone can use:
Story TimeFoundation leaders spin tales from their families' lives as a way to share values and traditions
By Darlene M. Siska
As a boy, William C. Graustein heard plenty of family stories -- up-by-your-bootstrap, American success tales about his father, aunts, and uncles. Children of a German immigrant dairyman, they were encouraged to use their education to imagine and create successful careers for themselves. As a result, education transformed their lives. That generation included a Harvard-trained lawyer who headed the International Paper Company, a Harvard mathematics professor, two Harvard Ph.D.'s in natural sciences, and a New Hampshire state senator.
What Mr. Graustein didn't know until later in life was how those stories would help provide him with direction and purpose when the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund (named for his uncle) increased its endowment hundredfold, to $50-million in 1993, after his mother died and her assets were added to the foundation's total.
Rather then continuing to simply write checks to the same charities his late father had, Mr. Graustein, now a trustee, decided to develop a giving strategy for the Hamden, Conn., fund that focused on education, and hired a consultant to help develop it. While traveling with the consultant to talk to education experts, Mr. Graustein says, "We asked what they cared about. They shared stories about their passions and life's work."
He began to notice similarities and differences between the educators' tales and those of his family. He started to understand his own stories differently. "My family stories became fables with a moral," he says. "I began to hear how the world could change."
As a result of honing the meaning of his family stories, Mr. Graustein and the rest of the trustees decided to reconfigure the fund's new mission. Where it once spread its efforts among a variety of charitable causes, it now puts a particular emphasis on engaging children younger than 8 in education.
Today, Mr. Graustein tells his family's stories in the foundation's annual reports, to help grantees and others better understand the principles that drive the fund's work. The fund's staff members use storytelling when meeting with grantees -- for example, they might start off by telling an anecdote about their own experience, which may help prompt a charity's clients to tell their own personal tales and offer ideas that then help shape a group's programs. Mr. Graustein says he even judged candidates for the fund's executive director job in part on their respect for the value of storytelling.
"It's hard to overstate how significant storytelling is to me because it provoked a major career change," says Mr. Graustein, who, in 1997, left a 25-year career as a geophysicist at Yale University to focus on philanthropic work.
Growing Popularity
Mr. Graustein's family foundation is far from the only one to incorporate storytelling in its work.
Although he cannot point to data that show the scope of storytelling as a new trend among family grant makers, "there are certainly more families doing this now than in the past," says Jason C. Born, senior program officer in the Boston office of the National Center for Family Philanthropy. Several consultants, he notes, now specifically help family grant makers with storytelling.
Family stories are being recounted orally at board meetings and retreats, and also documented in books, on tape, and on videotape. The tales are being used to give recognition to and celebrate a family's history, to shape grant-making programs, to train the next generation of board members, and to pass on philanthropic values that help keep family members involved -- a major challenge for such organizations.
As families grow more geographically dispersed, "sometimes family stories are all that members of a family foundation have in common," says Deanne Stone, a writer and research associate at Lansberg Gersick & Associates, a consulting firm in New Haven, Conn., that helps families with business and philanthropic enterprises.
Charles Hamilton, executive director of the Clark Foundation, in New York, and editor of Living the Legacy: The Values of a Family's Philanthropy Across Generations (National Center for Family Philanthropy, 2001, $45), says family grant makers may latch on to storytelling because "there's not only an incredible thirst by a family to understand its legacy and values, but so many family foundations are rather informal and don't have -- or may even dislike -- the idea of formal mechanisms. Things like strategic plans and vision statements are counter to their culture."
Also, says Mr. Hamilton, storytelling can be an easy way to deal with big current issues. Family foundations must concern themselves with money and family dynamics, he says, and "since no one wants to talk about values or money directly, stories allow them to talk about those things without someone getting hit over the head with a big 'should.'"
Family tales can also be used to spur action among trustees, says Catherine Conant, a professional storyteller in Middletown, Conn., who has coached charities and foundations on using storytelling in their work.
"Assets and numbers of grants made may not persuade a person to act," she says. "If I were someone who didn't understand why my grandparents created a foundation, I may not act. But for me to hear, 'Our grandparents lived during the Holocaust, and by sheer force and will they survived it. But they were painfully aware that others were obliterated, so they created a foundation to help' -- that provides a deeper understanding and an incentive to act. It's something to pin my actions on to."
Consultants who work with family foundations say that members of every generation -- not simply the older relatives -- must be able to tell their stories. And, Ms. Conant cautions, "Storytelling shouldn't be used to manipulate others or moralize. No one person should insist they and only they have the truth. No one likes being preached to."
Bridging Generations
Richard Woo, chief executive officer of the Russell Family Foundation, in Gig Harbor, Wash., says the foundation began using storytelling four years ago, when it was working to establish its culture. The family, which made its wealth in investment services, told tales -- illustrated by family photos -- at board meetings to help identify its values.
Today, he says, it has evolved into a ritual at every board meeting, and a tool integrated by trustees into several of the grant maker's activities. Every board meeting, Mr. Woo says, starts with "time for reflection, where members may share a poem or story or metaphor or allegory." A lit candle at every board gathering represents the trustees' predecessors, he says, "the people whose spirits and values drive the foundation's activities today."
Susan Price, managing director of family foundation services at the Council on Foundations, an association of grant makers in Washington, looks for storytelling to be used more often in the coming years.
"We are seeing more family foundations, as they mature, having to train their next generation to come on board," she says. "One way they are doing that is to share family stories and their values and legacies in videos and oral histories."
Rebecca Richards, 29, a lawyer in New York and a trustee of the Maxine & Jack Zarrow Family Foundation, in Tulsa, Okla., which was founded by her grandparents, grew up listening to her family's lore.
"We're a Jewish family in Oklahoma, where there is not a huge Jewish community," she says. "My grandmother grew up in a small town in Texas, where there also weren't a lot of Jewish people. She and others held their daily lives together through family stories that shared lessons and experiences, and provided a connection to their roots and a larger community not visible in their own."
In January, Ms. Richards participated in a workshop with 21/64, a nonprofit consulting division of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, in New York, aimed at helping young trustees learn how to express their values through grant making. At the workshop, she learned that stories not only revealed her family's history, but also help her as she works out her role as a trustee.
"Stories tell of morals and values, but are also useful in helping us figure out what our ideals and giving priorities are," Ms. Richards says. By examining family stories and their values, she has realized that "my grandparents do good works as a way to influence how others might act, not to get recognition for themselves."
With three generations on the Zarrow foundation board, each offers different types of tales. Her grandparents will bring their family stories to board meetings, while she will recount an anecdote of her own. "I'll say, 'Here's what is going on in my life and I think we should look at this,'" she says. "Using stories is comfortable, and not being 'talked at.' If you want to engage people, it's a way of everyone being part of the same conversation."
Sharna Goldseker, special-project manager at 21/64, conducts storytelling workshops for current and prospective foundation-board members ages 18 to 28. In the workshops, Ms. Goldseker invites young people to tell their stories. To help prime the pump, she asks participants to create a timeline of their family events and the decisions made in the foundation. Such activities help young people reconcile their ancestors' values with their own.
For example, Ms. Goldseker says, "Say that someone's grandparents lived in an era with a high level of patriotism and decided to base scholarships on that. Rather than thinking, 'Why did my grandparents want to give scholarships for this?,' they may come to understand why their grandparents developed the values they did and figure out how they can align their giving with that."
A Bigger Audience
Some family foundations, such as the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, incorporate storytelling into their work with grantees and grant seekers. "When the fund's staff are out in the community, they can listen to the stories of people they are working with and think, 'I don't have to judge this completely objectively; I can use my own experience as a legitimate way to understand what is going on," says Mr. Graustein. "It gives them more freedom to engage with the community at the place where the communities are, rather than at our level, where we think about program decisions."
Storytelling allows a fund's staff members to communicate more deeply with the community they serve than they might be able to otherwise, he says.
"Story works at a very different level than analytical thinking," he says. "We're schooled to think analytically, but story communicates at a level that is much more powerful at building things like trust and imagination."
In one of the grant makers' major efforts, the Discovery Initiative, 49 cities and towns across Connecticut are working with the fund to improve education for children younger than 8.
"We didn't send out a request for proposals to create the program," says David M. Nee, the Graustein fund's executive director.
Instead, he says, "the fund met with mayors, superintendents, and others and listened to their stories. Part of being a story teller is being a listener. We listen very carefully. It grows out of a sense that none of us is smarter than the whole of us."
Storytelling has led to a deeper relationship between the grant maker and at least one of its grantees, All Our Kin, a charity in New Haven, Conn., that educates parents and expands children's access to early care and education. The Graustein fund gave All Our Kin a $15,000 grant in 2000, says Jessica Sager, the group's executive director, and she recalls how Mr. Graustein came to visit two years later to see about offering further support. He met with participants in an All Our Kin program that helps parents receiving welfare learn to become professional child-care providers, and broke the ice by telling personal stories.
"It was amazing," she recalls. "He sat down with participants in our program and they started a dialogue together."
Mr. Graustein has made subsequent contributions to her group as a private donor, she says, and she notes that All Our Kin's ties to the fund are closer than those it maintains with other foundations. "Our relationships with other grant makers is mostly conducted through paper," she says.
Because of Mr. Graustein's example, Ms. Sager says, she has begun using storytelling within her group.
"It's for these women who don't get listened to all that often," she says. "It is an incredible way to capture their experiences, for them to listen to each other and to learn of their commonalities."
Ms. Sager also now uses the technique in All Our Kin's annual newsletter to its supporters. "We told the story of one of our participants as a way to express why we're important to the community, rather than to use numbers," she says.
Although Mr. Graustein has published some stories from community members, he says that grantees and others are not forced to tell their stories to the fund's representatives.
He realizes that storytelling does not always come easily for grantees because of the power imbalance inherent in the relationship between grant makers and beneficiaries. Nonprofit organizations seeking money may be hesitant to reveal too much out of concern it could put off a foundation official.
Keeping Motives Pure
The entire nonprofit world is in the business of storytelling, says Mr. Woo of the Russell Family Foundation.
"A nonprofit staff person's task is to interpret and tell a story the best he or she can in the form of a grant proposal, and in turn, the foundation staffers present that proposal to the board," he says. "The best story can be told when members of a community can tell its story directly to the board. There's a lot of alignment between the value and power of storytelling and grant making."
To begin using storytelling as a tool, Ms. Conant says, the top leaders of the foundation have to set an example by telling their own stories, perhaps starting by setting time aside at an annual retreat. But ulterior motives can't be at play, such as wanting underlings to tell stories so that they will reveal their weaknesses, she says.
"If you take a cork off the barrel, you need to understand that your motives are clear and that family members, staffers, and others are treated with respect," she says. "Otherwise it's just asking them to put on rubber noses and run around."
Copyright © 2005 The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Clinton Obama - The Real Difference

An interesting article ...

 The New York Times

February 4, 2008

Op-Ed Columnist

Clinton, Obama, Insurance


The principal policy division between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama involves health care. It’s a division that can seem technical and obscure — and I’ve read many assertions that only the most wonkish care about the fine print of their proposals.

But as I’ve tried to explain in previous columns, there really is a big difference between the candidates’ approaches. And new research, just released, confirms what I’ve been saying: the difference between the plans could well be the difference between achieving universal health coverage — a key progressive goal — and falling far short.

Specifically, new estimates say that a plan resembling Mrs. Clinton’s would cover almost twice as many of those now uninsured as a plan resembling Mr. Obama’s — at only slightly higher cost.

Let’s talk about how the plans compare.

Both plans require that private insurers offer policies to everyone, regardless of medical history. Both also allow people to buy into government-offered insurance instead.

And both plans seek to make insurance affordable to lower-income Americans. The Clinton plan is, however, more explicit about affordability, promising to limit insurance costs as a percentage of family income. And it also seems to include more funds for subsidies.

But the big difference is mandates: the Clinton plan requires that everyone have insurance; the Obama plan doesn’t.

Mr. Obama claims that people will buy insurance if it becomes affordable. Unfortunately, the evidence says otherwise.

After all, we already have programs that make health insurance free or very cheap to many low-income Americans, without requiring that they sign up. And many of those eligible fail, for whatever reason, to enroll.

An Obama-type plan would also face the problem of healthy people who decide to take their chances or don’t sign up until they develop medical problems, thereby raising premiums for everyone else. Mr. Obama, contradicting his earlier assertions that affordability is the only bar to coverage, is now talking about penalizing those who delay signing up — but it’s not clear how this would work.

So the Obama plan would leave more people uninsured than the Clinton plan. How big is the difference?

To answer this question you need to make a detailed analysis of health care decisions. That’s what Jonathan Gruber of M.I.T., one of America’s leading health care economists, does in a new paper.

Mr. Gruber finds that a plan without mandates, broadly resembling the Obama plan, would cover 23 million of those currently uninsured, at a taxpayer cost of $102 billion per year. An otherwise identical plan with mandates would cover 45 million of the uninsured — essentially everyone — at a taxpayer cost of $124 billion. Over all, the Obama-type plan would cost $4,400 per newly insured person, the Clinton-type plan only $2,700.

That doesn’t look like a trivial difference to me. One plan achieves more or less universal coverage; the other, although it costs more than 80 percent as much, covers only about half of those currently uninsured.

As with any economic analysis, Mr. Gruber’s results are only as good as his model. But they’re consistent with the results of other analyses, such as a 2003 study, commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, that compared health reform plans and found that mandates made a big difference both to success in covering the uninsured and to cost-effectiveness.

And that’s why many health care experts like Mr. Gruber strongly support mandates.

Now, some might argue that none of this matters, because the legislation presidents actually manage to get enacted often bears little resemblance to their campaign proposals. And there is, indeed, no guarantee that Mrs. Clinton would, if elected, be able to pass anything like her current health care plan.

But while it’s easy to see how the Clinton plan could end up being eviscerated, it’s hard to see how the hole in the Obama plan can be repaired. Why? Because Mr. Obama’s campaigning on the health care issue has sabotaged his own prospects.

You see, the Obama campaign has demonized the idea of mandates — most recently in a scare-tactics mailer sent to voters that bears a striking resemblance to the “Harry and Louise” ads run by the insurance lobby in 1993, ads that helped undermine our last chance at getting universal health care.

If Mr. Obama gets to the White House and tries to achieve universal coverage, he’ll find that it can’t be done without mandates — but if he tries to institute mandates, the enemies of reform will use his own words against him.

If you combine the economic analysis with these political realities, here’s what I think it says: If Mrs. Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, there is some chance — nobody knows how big — that we’ll get universal health care in the next administration. If Mr. Obama gets the nomination, it just won’t happen.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Your Grant Proposal's Been Rejected - Now What?

A few year’s back I did some work with a struggling educational nonprofit. During my initial review of their past foundation support, I discovered on their list a foundation whose mission I thought aligned perfectly with this organization’s, and also had a history of repeat funding.   Yet, year after year, the foundation had declined this organization’s proposals – even one year when they had specifically been invited to apply. Frankly I didn’t get it.  It was tempting to put them in the "they'll never fund us pile" but I picked up the phone to call their executive director.  Not knowing if I’d even reach a live person, I was delighted when he answered himself.  I asked him rather bluntly why his foundation had not funded us. One month, one letter, and one site visit later we were the recipients of a $15,000 grant - the first of many.

It's always frustrating to have your grant proposal rejected, but it's absolutely essential to stay optimistic and to persevere. The fact is that most grant proposals do get rejected, but learning from the experience--examining why your proposal was turned down--will benefit you by making future proposals stronger. And don’t give up on one foundation because they have declined your proposal. Unless you specifically don’t fall within their funding guidelines (in which case you probably shouldn’t have wasted your time applying in the first place), you’ll want to reapply as soon as you’re able.

If you feel like you've done a solid job describing your non-profit's mission, the population you serve, and how your proposed grant would help your clients, then take another look at the foundation's mission. Did your proposal help the foundation meet its goals? Was it really a good fit in the first place? Foundations routinely turn down the best conceived projects simply because the goals of the non-profit and the foundation aren't aligned. Explore the foundation's website, annual report and 990 form to see what kind of projects they've funded in the past, and compare those projects to your own. See what you can learn, and if this step wasn't part of your last round of proposal applications, make it part of your next.

If you're confident that the goals of your proposal met the goals of the foundation, then go back to the original Request for Proposals. Consider the following questions:

Next, evaluate the writing in your proposal.

Did you state your needs clearly and specifically, right up front?

  • Did you include information about your non-profit's other sources of funding to help show that you're a worthy cause?

  • Did you use testimonials to bring the needs of your clients to life, and did you use meaningful, accurate data to support your organization's needs?

  • Is your writing clear and compelling?

  • Does the proposal sound like it's been written by one person, or do several different voices make it choppy and scattered?

  • Is the formatting clean and consistent?

  • Did you use headings and subheadings to make your proposal easily navigable?

If you've reevaluated your proposal and still have questions, call the foundation and ask to speak with the program officer who reviewed your proposal. After you've thanked them for their thoughtful review, ask:

Is there anything we could have done differently in our proposal?
May we resubmit for your next funding cycle?
Are you aware of any other foundations that we might approach?

And in your next round of grant proposals, build upon what you've learned. Send your applications to a diverse group of foundations, and be sure to explain how your project can help each foundation meets its own goals, not only how the foundation can help you meet yours. Above all--be patient, be persistent, and be positive.

Check out my book, Five Days to Foundation Funding at for more ideas!