Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Few Thoughts About
Performance Reports

For those of you new to the grant world, grant recipients are usually required to submit some sort of performance report to the funding source to give information about how the grant is being used and how successful the grantee has been in meeting goals and objectives. These performance reports are due at least annually. Some programs require them twice a year. Others require them quarterly.

Here are some of my issues with performance reports:

1) They are usually due at a strange time of year, before most outcome data are available. I understand that funders want to use the information to make decisions about continuation funding for the coming year, but how useful is that when most of the data are missing because they are not yet available? The effect it has on grantees is very stressful. They worry that they won't be refunded because they don't have data, but everyone knew the formal outcome data wouldn't be available until later. My favorite example of this is standardized test scores for schools. Students take the tests in the spring. Results are available in the summer. Grant performance reports are due in the spring. Grantees are forced to fill out all sorts of forms that mean nothing because all they say (in many different ways, in several boxes) is that the data are not yet available. Then they have to fill them out again and submit them as "updates" in the fall once they have the data. Isn't there a better way to do this?

2) Everyone acts like the reports are unexpected, when they aren't. As an evaluator, I have many grantees who don't want to make time to meet with me to discuss evaluation throughout the year, but they panic and want me to drop everything when they get a notice that their report is due in a few weeks. If you keep up with your evaluation as you go, the report is no big deal. If you wait until the report is due to talk about how you're doing, there will be panic and stress. There is a better way.

3) Funders keep the report guidelines and due dates a secret. OK, maybe not a total secret, but I find it very annoying that at least a due date can't be published months in advance. Would it hurt anybody to let people have some planning time? Is there a good reason why the deadline date has to be withheld until 3 weeks before the report is due? If so, please share the reason with all of us. If not, please stop it.

4) Report formats are becoming more and restrictive. It used to be that a grantee could report their outcomes and progress following a basic narrative template. Nowadays, more and more funders are requesting restrictive data sheets and limiting the amount of narrative a grantee can provide. I understand the need to force people to report both quantitative and qualitative data - and sometimes a form is the best way to do that. I understand that the people reviewing the reports want to minimize the amount of time they need to spend reviewing the reports. I also understand that reducing paperwork requirements on grantees is, in general, a very good thing. However, in many cases, the minimized reporting formats actually prevent the grantee from fully explaining what they have done, why, and what the outcomes were. How is that a good thing?

Alright, that's enough whining from me (for now). Back to my reports......

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

One Grantee's Rocky Road of Grant Implementation

I am working with a client to evaluate a grant project that has multiple implementation sites. This is not unusual. In fact, it is extremely common with grants awarded to school districts for multiple school sites to be involved. There are other, non-school situations in which multiple sites are also common.

The problem with this current client is that some of the sites are not implementing the grant as they should. You might think that this is not much of problem, except for the fact that those sites are putting all of the participating sites at risk. In this case, there is a required assessment (required by the funding source, not by this friendly evaluator) that some of the sites have not administered. Their lack of compliance could very well cause all of the participating sites to lose their funding.

So why don't they just do it?

Who knows? It could be that they are too busy. It could be that they really do not understand the importance of it. It could be that they never really wanted to be involved with this project to begin with so they aren't going to inconvenience themselves to comply.

Here's the real problem - In an effort to save a buck and reserve as much of the budget as possible for direct services, the grantee chose not to hire a grant coordinator. As a result, there is no one pulling all the pieces together, no one riding herd on the sites to comply with grant requirements, no one "coordinating" the effort.

This is a common grant implementation error. An effort to save a buck may result in all the money being lost.

It seems a little short-sighted, doesn't it?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Success is in the Details

Tomorrow is a big grant deadline for us. This competition requires an online submittal through, so we're trying to get one of these grants finished and uploaded tonight so we won't have too much to do tomorrow.

Whenever I am at this stage in the grant writing process (final proofreading, editing, assembly, etc.) I am amazed at how important the details are. Not only are the details in the narrative extremely important (making sure all the numbers are correct, matching the project activities to the budget, etc.), but it's also important to watch for details involved in assembling the appendices and following the assembly checklist.

The problem is that when you get to this final stage in the grant preparation process, you think you are finished, but the reality is that you are far from finished. This is when the greatest mistakes are made because you have let down your guard and you think the hard work is done. It is at this stage that I force myself to act against my instincts. I want to rush through and slap it together now, but I force myself to slow down - take it step by step - focus on one small task at a time. I check my documents thoroughly. I check them again. I ask someone else to check them. And then just when I am ready to submit the proposal, I stop and check them again.

Obsessive? Maybe. Successful? Absolutely!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Contest Coming!!! FREE Webcam!!!

Keep watching this blog for details about a contest we'll be unveiling within the next week. You can win a brand new webcam! Don't miss out!

The Life of a Consultant

Ten years ago, when I left the world of public education to start my new life as a consultant, I thought it would be so much fun not be tied to an office and a regular schedule. I thought the travel would be glamorous and full of exciting adventures. Here's the verdict ten years later:

  • Not having a schedule imposed on me by someone else is fantastic! I can arrange to attend many of my children's school functions and that's great. On the other hand, my time is not completely my own. There are deadlines to meet, and during our busy seasons, that means lots of evenings and weekends. Still, the freedom is the best part of what I do.
  • Traveling is not as glamorous as most people think it is. There's a lot of driving, hours in airports, luggage to haul around, and schedules to shuffle. As for hotels....some are better than others. I brought bed bugs home from one hotel several years ago that cost eight months and $10,000 to eradicate. Yeah, not so glamorous.
  • This life is full of exciting adventures. I get to meet interesting people doing very fascinating and creative things. I have the opportunity to help them be successful, and I love sharing in their success and enthusiasm.

So, overall, this is a great life! The traveling is just part of the price I pay for the wonderful benefits.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Tips from the Grant Goddess Podcast

I just recorded another video podcast for our "Tips from the Grant Goddess" podcast series. You can view it (either this episode or the whole series) by going to my helloWorld site and then clicking on the little ipod icon on the left. There is also a direct lnk from my home page.

This tip was on avoiding jargon and local expressions. Previous podcasts have focused on finding the time to write grants and finding funds that match your vision (rather than developing a vision to match a funding source).

By the way, access to the podcast series (just like access to the other videos on my helloWorld site) is completely free.


Saturday, March 8, 2008

Too Much Data, Not Enough Space

Here's my challenge today... I'm writing a grant (don't even ask why I am working on Saturday) and I have more needs data than I could possible use. I have a 40-page limit for the narrative and the needs section is worth 20 points (out of a possible 100), so only 20%-25% of my pages at most should be spent on the needs section.

The good news is that I have lots of data. I am usually challenged by not having enough hard data. The problem is prioritizing all this good information.

Here's what I do:

1) Focus on the main issues. I may have some good data for some of the more peripheral problems faced by my client, but I need to stay focused on the main issues that we will be trying to address with the grant.

2) Decide which data best support those big issues. I have to cut loose (for now) the information that doesn't make the strongest case.

3) For the data I won't be using, mention tat it is available, and that it supports the rest of the findings. I don't do this too much, though, or the readers will question why I didn't include it all.

4) Use the data evenly. If I have loads of evidence to support one need and only one little stat to support another, I need to be careful. If I use all of what I have for the first issue, it will make the second one look very weak. Sometimes less really is more.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Collaboration Between Organizations - Why It Often Fails

Many grant funding sources now require collaboration between organizations for good reasons. Collaboration helps stretch scarce resources and it dramatically increases the likelihood of sustainability after the grant funding period.

Unfortunately, collaboration between organizations in a community is not easy. Collaboration between organizations with large bureaucracies is extremely difficult.

So, why does it often fail?

Changing personnel - Collaboration relies heavily on relationships and trust. In large organizations, it is not uncommon for people to move in and out of positions within the organization frequently. If the person who developed the collaborative relationship leaves the organization or changes positions within the organization, the relationship is at risk. Sometimes it falls apart completely.

Lack of experience and bureaucratic requirements - Face it, large bureaucracies are designed to be self-sufficient. They are not designed to work and play well with others. People within them are not trained or encourage to collaborate with others. Here's an example. There's a collaborative grant that requires representatives of the partner agencies to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to document their partnership and the commitments that each agency is making as part of the grant effort. The lead agency drafts the MOU and negotiates the details with the representatives from the other agencies attending the meeting. Agreement is reached. Then, as the MOU is being sent around for signatures, the business departments in the other organizations all start to object because they each have their own required template for MOUs that includes their own legalese. Even though the language in the MOU is very similar to the language in each of the different templates, an entirely new level of compromise and negotiation is required because the different agencies simply cannot just accept a template that is not their own.

Self-preservation - The tighter the budgets, the worse this is. Collaboration requires that partners look out for both the best interests of the group and the best interests of each of the partners. organizations that can't see passed their own needs often sabotage an entire collaborative effort.

So, what do organizations need to do to make it work?
  • Focus on the common good;

  • Ensure that there is something "in it" for every partner;

  • Send multiple representatives to represent the organization so personnel shifts will not alter the collaborative's progress;

  • Be willing to step aside and let others get a little more sometimes (a little more money, a little more publicity, a little more whatever); In short, be more of a giver than a getter--and you'll get more;

  • Negotiate a common MOU template when you are not facing a grant deadline - then you'll have it when you need it;

  • Learn more about your partner agencies so you know where they're coming from

You'll see more detail on these strategies in future posts.

"Seeing difference is ignorance. We are all one." - Sankara

"Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves." - Horace Mann

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Opportunity All Around

This is a really interesting and different year for us.

On the one hand, we keep hearing terrible news of doom and gloom about the economy. Organizational budgets are being cut like crazy and people are nervous. Some are downright scared. In California, schools are looking at budget cuts amounting to over $500 million. That's a lot of books, pencils, and teachers. I heard on the news yesterday that there may be 100,000 Californian teachers laid off over the next couple of years. Wow! I know a lot of teachers, and that number staggers me.

On the other hand, it spite of this, we are having one of our busiest grant writing seasons in years. There are so many opportunities with deadlines coming so close together that we can't take advantage of them all. It's a real shame. In addition, we're seeing clients turn down opportunities that are perfect for them because they are either a) overwhelmed and busy, or b) so focused on budget cuts and scarcity that they can't see the opportunity clearly. I actually heard someone say to me, "We can't apply for a grant right now. We have to cut $2,000,000 from our budget!"


It's really frustrating when people are so overwhelmed and afraid that they just can't see the possibilities. They call it "trying to focus," but it's just another way of saying that they just can't handle one more thing. They just can't take the chance that they might get more bad news (competing for grants is a risk, I know).

I really wish I could help them see that there is opportunity all around. You just have to adjust your vision so you can see it. You have to look at opportunities with an entrepreneurial mindset, not from a position of fear and lack. I'll be talking more about this in future posts.

Opportunity presents itself in your life (and to your organization) in lots of ways. Sometimes, it's in the form of a grant or some other new source of funds. Sometimes it's in the form of a partnership. I had a great conversation today with the owner of We're developing a partnership to work together on some data analysis and evaluation projects. It's a win-win proposition and who knows what it could lead to in the future for both of us. If I were only looking for cash, I would have missed it.

Is your vision so narrowly focused that you are missing many opportunities that might make a huge difference for you? Or are you open enough to see and hear opportunity when it knocks?

About Creative Resources & Research

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Woodland, CA, United States
Creative Resources and Research is a consulting firm specializing in grant writing, grant seeking, program evaluation and professional development training. We have worked with hundreds of clients including public and private schools, school districts, universities, non-profit organizations, and social service agencies throughout California, securing over $155 million from federal, state and private foundation funding sources over the past decade. Our primary grant writers and program evaluators have over 50 years of combined experience in the education and social services fields. At CRR we prefer a personal approach to the clients we work with; by developing long term relationships, we are better suited to match client’s needs with available funding sources. We provide a variety of services to help assist you, including grant writing, evaluation consulting, professional development opportunities, and workshops.