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One Person, One Task: Who’s in Charge of Your Proposal?

Who is in charge of completing and submitting your proposal?

You should immediately be able to say, “Jane Doe. Or “John Doe.” Whoever. Can you instantly think of that person’s name—the person who gets the praise if the proposal is submitted on time and technically correct or the blame if it isn’t?

If you can’t, you’ve got a problem—and it’s a problem endemic to a lot of industries. This topic is topical because there’s a fascinating article in Fortune Magazine called “Inside Apple,” which describes the notoriously secretive and productive company. Here’s the relevant bit:

At Apple there’s never confusion “as to who is responsible for what.” In Apple’s parlance, a DRI’s name (directly responsible individual) always appear on the agenda for a meeting, so that everyone knows who’s the right contact for a project

Oh, and it’s not just Apple, or just nonprofits, with this problem. In one discussion thread about “Inside Apple,” poster “JacobAldridge” says “This is a project I run with almost all of my clients – shifting an organic, but dysfunctional, business arrangement into one where everyone knows their responsibility, and the right person does the right jobs at the right time (and for the right cost point).” In the nonprofit world, doing something like this for organizations as a whole is way beyond our scope, but it is our standard practice to designate specific responsibilities when we’re hired for a grant writing assignment.

We insist on a single contact person and a single set of revisions per draft. If we didn’t, we’d have madness—the kind of madness you might remember from worthless group projects in high school or highly dysfunctional organizations. We’d have critical documents or drafts fall through the cracks of miscommunication or evaded responsibility. We’d suffer “confusion ‘as to who is responsible for what,’ ” which we virtually never experience.

Many nonprofits intentionally avoid assigning direct responsibility for proposals and other tasks to a single person. This is a mistake, much like splitting up the writing of a proposal. Don’t do it, and if your organization does, it’s time to start thinking like Steve Jobs or Seliger + Associates—and about how to adopt the DRI model.

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The Ups and Downs of Using a Fiscal Agent to Apply for Grants

We sometimes write proposals, usually for foundation grants, when the applicant is not tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). Most government grant programs and almost all foundations require that the applicant be a public benefit, tax exempt organization, but one can also use a fiscal agent/fiscal sponsor. A fiscal agent can enable an individual (e.g., artist, researcher, inventor, explorer looking for the The Lost City of Z,* etc.) or unincorporated associations (e.g., Citizens for a Better Owatonna, Residents United Against Everything, etc.) to be considered for grants. The ineligible individual or entity has to make a deal with the 501(c)(3) organization to, in effect, borrow their tax exempt status and be responsible for the grant funds received.

The upside of using a fiscal agent is that the project proponent can try to get their snout into the funding trough without going through the time consuming process of forming a corporation (e.g. finding folks willing on the board of directors, obtaining a nonprofit charter in their state, etc.) and applying for and getting a Letter of Determination of Tax Exempt Status from the IRS. While it is possible to form a new nonprofit and obtain a Letter of Determination by yourself (I first did it when I was about 21), most people use a attorney and/or accountant to do the paperwork and must pay application fees at significant expense while waiting from six to nine months for the paperwork to wind its way through the state and federal bureaucracies.

This makes using a fiscal agent attractive, particularly if the project proponent wants funding for something urgent, like, say, cleaning oil-soaked birds in the Gulf today, providing post-Hurricane Katrina disaster relief in 2005 or offering case management for those newly diagnosed HIV in 1985. It is also a good approach for artists and other individuals who want to concentrate their creative energies on outcomes, not process.

The advantages to the grant user are obvious, but what’s in it for the fiscal agent? Some established organizations genuinely are interested in expanding availability of services in their community and want to lend a hand to emerging nonprofits. Others, a cynic like myself might conclude, are looking to collect administrative fees and influence the direction of service delivery in their bailiwick. But, whatever the motivations on both sides, fiscal agency remains popular.

As a result, we occasionally accept selected grant writing assignments involving fiscal agents, but only after we explain the potential pitfalls and challenges, such as:

  • The plausibility of the fiscal agent/grant user relationship, which increases if the fiscal agent conducts activities at least vaguely similar to the grant user. It is hard, for example, to explain why a domestic violence prevention organization is serving as the fiscal agent for a documentary on the American Revolution. It is important to not give the impression to the funder that the 501(c)(3) fiscal agent is “renting” its tax exempt status.
  • It is not good if the 501(c)(3) fiscal agent appears to be a shell organization to serve only as a pass-through to the ineligible grant user. For example, for-profit medical groups sometimes set up a “captive” 501(c)(3) affiliate. While the captive may be an eligible applicant, if it has no track record and grant funds will be used to hire the medical group, or some of its docs, the relationship may be seen as a sham. There are many situations, however, in which this affiliated nonprofit relationship is perfectly innocent and accepted, such as when a school district establishes a 501(c)(3) “educational foundation” to raise money through donations or grants to supplement tax revenues. Since many foundations will not fund entities like school districts, which are taxing entities, the affiliated nonprofit structure has become quite common and accepted.
  • Even if the intentions of both parties in the fiscal agent relationship are believable, the real problem often emerges when the grant seeking effort is successful. It’s fine to contemplate the nuances of fiscal agent responsibilities in the proposal world, but the real world complicates things. To paraphrase Grandmaster Flash in one of the first rap anthems, White Lines, “The money gets divided / The fiscal agents get excited.” When grant funds start flowing, the fiscal agent will often suddenly develop a need and deep interest in what the grant user is doing. In extreme cases, the fiscal agent may simply deep-six their “partner” to run the program themselves and there will be little, if anything, the grant user can do about it.

If your idea is good enough to be grant-worthy, it is probably worth your time and money to establish a new nonprofit and obtain tax exempt status instead of using a fiscal agent. Unless there is urgency to the problem being addressed, it is best to form the new nonprofit at the start. Otherwise, you are telling the funder that you are hedging your bets by not investing in the new organization until the grants are approved, implying that you want the funder to take a risk while you are unwilling to do so.

* An explorer seeking grants for an expedition to find the Lost City of Z actually contacted us about 12 years ago. I explained that he needed a fiscal agent, but he never called back. Either he couldn’t find a fiscal agent or, like John Voight in one of my favorite “big animal” movies, Anaconda, was swallowed by a large snake on his way through the Amazon to Z.

We were also hired by a fellow seeking grants through a fiscal agent to set up a reserve for Komodo Dragons. We lost contact with our client after he left for Komodo Island in Indonesia, where he may have been eaten by a dragon. His fate is unknown, but I will leave the rest of this tale for another post.

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Grant Writing Confidential Scoops the Wall Street Journal and More on Being Creative in Finding Funds During the Great Recession

As the editor of my high school newspaper—the Cooper High School Hawk’s Quill—and a short-lived college journalism major, I take great delight in scooping the Wall Street Journal. Shelly Banjo wrote Donations Slip Amid Anxiety on June 9, which said:

For the second year in a row, philanthropy has seen the deepest decline ever recorded by the Giving USA Foundation, which has tracked annual giving since 1956. Donations fell 3.6% to $303.75 billion last year, down from $315 billion in 2008, according to the latest Giving USA study, released Wednesday. In 2008, they were down 2%.

Faithful readers will note that I made more or less the same point in my May 29 blog post, Tough Times for Folks Means More Grant Writing for Nonprofits, although with more humor and helpful advice. If one read Ms. Banjo’s article and knew little about nonprofits, one would get the impression that the end is nigh. This is because her article, like most stories about nonprofits, perpetuates the conventional wisdom that all nonprofits depend exclusively on donations, which is simply not true.

As I pointed out in my post, while donations are important, particularly for certain kinds of nonprofits, most human services providers support their service through grants, fee-for-service contracts, third-party payers and/or quasi-business enterprises, in addition to donations.* These alternative revenue streams, which can be ramped-up when donations are down, are not mentioned by Ms. Banjo and the cast of nonprofit “experts” she quotes and data she cites.

Although new contributions to foundations may be down, foundations still must give away 5% or so of their endowment every year, and the feds, through the Stimulus Bill and lots of other appropriations, have keep the grant spigot wide open. Cagey nonprofit executive directors are busy writing grant proposals and dreaming up other revenue strategies, not wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over declines in donations. But not in the conventional wisdom world of newspaper writers.

A second Wall Street Journal article by Jennifer Levitz and Stephanie Simon on June 12, “A School Prays for Help”, confirms the importance of getting creative during tough times. While this article mostly discusses public schools, police departments and other public agencies seeking alternative funding sources, the same concepts apply to nonprofits.

In this article, the writers describe how some schools are getting local churches to “adopt” them and other strategies for what amounts to advertising in order to supplement limited tax dollars. Nonprofits can do the same sorts of things instead of just waiting around for donations to pickup.

One of the several odd aspects of a church providing donations to a public school, however, is that the church itself is a nonprofit that depends almost exclusively on donations from its members. Why would they do this? One reason could be that the church expects to get new members from school parents and staff, and they will eventually try to extract donations from the new members. In other words, the church and the school are probably competing for donor dollars and the church may be taking the longer view that investing a small amount of its money now, derived from its members, will result in more members and more money later.

While most nonprofits and public agencies like to present themselves as collaborating, in reality they compete with one another for donations, grants, and all kinds of resources. I pointed this out in What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point, a post that generated quite a comment thread.

Some readers understood my point, while other denounced me as a hopeless cynic. Of course, I am a hopeless cynic, but nonprofits and public agencies are largely in competition, and the ongoing economic mess just makes this competition rise to surface, like the somewhat baleful giant crocodile in the best “big animal” movie of recent years, Lake Placid.

* Jake also wrote about funding sources in Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun.

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Tools and Organizing Organizations: How to Wrangle Information and Databases for Grant Writers

Once you have a sufficiently large agency with concomitantly large grant writing needs and multiple funding sources, you’re going to start facing problems of scale. This means a single person is going to find managing all the efforts of the agency steadily harder, and that single person will eventually be overwhelmed. If you’re big enough, you’ll probably need to hire a programmer to roll out a custom database front-end or install a wiki for you; if you’re big, but not quite that big, a white board and calendar would suffice.

This post comes in response GWC reader Joe Orozco’s queries. He’s the Associate Grants Manager for Youth Service America in Washington D.C. and wrote to ask:

I am a huge fan of your blog and wonder if you might use it to discuss database options for grant writers. Here in my current position I prepare proposals for different departments in our office, and with folks not fans of MS Access, I am forced to use large unwieldy spreadsheets. What database or organization strategy do you use to separate and maintain data for different grants by client, or in my case, department? Thank you in advance for any information you can provide. Please do keep up the excellent work on Grant Writing Confidential.

We’re very susceptible to flattery, so we appreciate the compliments. Even better than that, he asks interesting and unusual questions, which we also like to get.

Isaac initially wrote back to say:

I assume you are interested in proposal preparation data issues, not grant management. If so, the short answer is to dump your PC and go to Macs. Mac OS X 10.5 (or “Leopard”) has a built in feature called Spotlight, which can instantly find anything on your hard drive. All you need to do is remember key words. Thus, no need to catalogue proposal info in a database. We still have a couple of old PCs and use Access for mailing lists and the like, but not for proposal management. If you are good at file management and organize proposal writing assignments into folders, and get a Mac, your life will be much easier. FYI, about six years ago, we tried to use Access for grant preparation data management and gave up. To do so, you will need a database programmer to set up the databases for you. Of course, the programmer will know nothing about grant writing, so this won’t help either.

For old school management techniques, let me take you back to 1978 when I had a job like yours. In the days before computers, I used a huge white board to track proposal status, along with a slotted accordion file sorter that sat on top of a horizontal file cabinet for paper files, and a phone sheet to track conversations. I have feeling this would work as well for you today and it did for me all those years ago.

But I wasn’t so sure this would meet the desired needs, so I suggested:

To coordinate what 20 people need, I’m not sure how I would run a database. You could probably install Apache and search tools on a single machine and turn it into a local server, but that might be overkill. For a relatively small group using a LAN, attaching a Drobo (, auto-mounting it on your computer, naming folders in a way that makes sense, and indexing like Spotlight might be ideal. But that’s just my imagination at work.

Joe replied:

Unfortunately, I am tied to a PC environment here. Spotlight does indeed sound like what I may be looking for, but to expand a little on my previous correspondence, each program in our office pursues different grant opportunities depending on the specific nature of their work. I am currently using a spreadsheet to break down information by department and their respective funders. I’m not as interested in other people having the capacity to find information. I just need something less cumbersome than a spreadsheet to keep track of various reporting calendars. I decided to write to you, because I was a fan of your tools of the trade blog post. Everything from the type of office chair to several monitors was covered, and I am hopeful that a bone will be thrown to us lowly PC users who cannot take advantage of the wonderfulness that appears to be Spotlight.

Also, on a minor unrelated point, what kind of blogging tool do you use in your web site? I like the way you’ve seamlessly integrated your blog into the scheme of your web site!

And, as for the blog:

We’re on WordPress, primarily because I began using WordPress to write The Story’s Story and so was familiar with it. Adhost, a business ISP, hosts all our sites and actually has on a different machine than, but a link goes from the latter to the former and I customized our theme to make the blog and regular site look similar. If you’re thinking about starting a blog and can’t afford Adhost—who have been very, very good and reliable over the years we’ve used them—consider Laughing Squid. I’ve heard good things about them.

Microsoft Access

Joe did mention Access in his original e-mail. No one actually likes Microsoft Access, but there is one big advantage to it: it’s the worst desktop database system except for all the others. Like democracy, it’s the least bad choice, unless FileMaker Pro has dramatically improved since version 8. If he still wanted to use Access, a competent database person could probably tie it to a website relatively quickly, easily, and cheaply.

Networked Drobo and Spotlight

If Joe was going to coordinate everything on a local machine or using the Drobo suggested above, Spotlight might do the trick. We do love Spotlight, but even it isn’t perfect; if you have a vast array of data, you might get inundated, and it still doesn’t have boolean commands from the default Spotlight prompt (So you can’t type “Youthbuild -California -Wisconsin”, for example, and get every Youthbuild proposal that doesn’t mention those two states. This can help refine queries.)

Calendars and Whiteboards

One other useful technique is a big calendar on which you write upcoming deadlines for programs. For the program itself, write the letter of intent (LOI; if necessary) and final deadline on the board, then set up subsidiary deadlines: this is when we need a go/no go decision; this is when we need a first draft; this is when we need the budget; this is when we need letters of support; and so forth.

The calendar will quickly fill up, but if you’re in a single, central location you can’t miss the deadlines looming down on you. You don’t have to check a webpage. It’s all in front of you, and if Steve walks by, you can grab him, point to the upcoming HRSA deadline and ask him where the hell those letters of support are. If Jessica wants to apply for a Dept. of Justice (DOJ) program, she can come by, pick up a marker, and decide where the deadlines should go, and you’ll be looking at each other and the board rather than a computer screen.

If you’re a giant organization with hundreds of people who need to review and edit applications, you’ll outgrow these tools. But if that’s the case, you’ll also want to hire dedicated IT people or technical consultants to set up these kinds of systems, because such systems are inherently complex and have lots of small user-interface issues that aren’t going to be easy to solve. But for most of us, some combination of a Spotlight-like system, a whiteboard, institutional memory, a subscription to the Seliger Funding Report, and a calendar will probably suffice.

If Joe writes back to say what, if anything, he’s done, I’ll post his experiences as an edit to this post.