Dani Robbins

Playing Nicely in the Proposal Sandbox

In Leadership, Resource Development on August 24, 2013 at 8:03 am

The topic of this month’s nonprofit blog carnival is playing nicely with others, which I thought would be a great opportunity to talk about the intersection between grant writers and program staff.  As you’re probably aware, the two departments don’t generally play well in the sandbox, or really … even talk. When they do talk, they don’t talk enough or about the right things.  One department writes the grants, the other implements the grants.  Yet, and again, they don’t generally talk, which as you might imagine doesn’t generate the best process or the best grants.

Allow me a minute for a direct request:

Grant writers, please do not write (and later submit) grant proposals promising something the program staff can’t deliver. Talk to them! See what they need.  See if what they need matches the grant request on your desk. Maybe you can create magic! If you can, great!  If you can’t, please do not submit something the program staff cannot implement.  I know it’s frustrating that when you ask them what they need, they don’t get back to you.  Please keep trying …and maybe try a different way.  If you must submit something before you have spoken with them, try to align your proposal with current programs and the mission of your organization. Speak to the financial staff too and make sure they can spend down what you are proposing.

Program staff, please do not ignore the grant writer’s request for program needs. As you might have gathered, or learned the hard way, in the absence of you communicating your needs, the grant writers will assume what you need.  And when they do, if what they’ve assumed gets funded, and your CEO accepts the contract and signs the grant award (and they will) you’ll have to implement whatever it is they promised –  whether it makes sense or not; whether you want it or not; whether it’s a good use of your time or resources or whatever.  I know you’re busy implementing programming and moving the mission forward, but still…please save us all the trouble and just tell them what you realistically need to better serve your clients.

To both program staff and grant staff, please talk more; play nicer; collaborate and coordinate and work together to move your organization forward.

What I’m really advocating for – in addition to improved team work – is a grant coordination plan: the senior staff of the Finance, Operations and Development Departments could meet monthly to determine the priority of funding needs.  Prior to the development staff applying for any funding, the program staff can keep an updated list of programming needs and the finance staff can confirm the financial need and ability to spend the money the program staff is seeking.  When they do, the development staff can write the grants to secure funds.

Once funding is secured – and we all know that funding is far more likely to be secured when there is a good plan – the senior staff can review and assign reporting requirements and deadlines.

Voila!  We have just eliminated the need to scramble after realizing there is a proposal – or report – due for a grant the program staff didn’t even know about, let alone weigh in on.  We have just eliminated the need for the development staff to guess at what the program staff needs and what the financial staff can spend. We have created a smoother way to manage grants and for everyone to play nicer. It’s like I tell my kids: “You are far more likely to get what you need when you communicate what you need.”  Otherwise, you’ll be frustrated and we’ll (all) be guessing.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, go ask any program staff you know about how many times they have had to write a report for a grant they didn’t know was awarded for a program they weren’t exactly implementing.  Or talk to a grant writer about a time they missed a deadline because the program staff wouldn’t answer their questions. Or worse, go outside the organization you know best and talk to a foundation program officer about missed opportunities, monies not spent and organizations not renewed for funding.

We can all play better in the sandbox. Most of us, myself included, have a tendency to avoid what we don’t want to deal with, yet that is precisely when we have to go the other way.  Anytime you feel like you want to cut off contact is exactly the time to initiate contact – to reach out and talk more.  Get together monthly and review your current proposals, the opportunities you are expecting, the reports that are coming due and the needs you have.  Create some boundaries, ensure your needs are aligned with your mission and get to it!

While you’re planning, I encourage you to adopt a process that creates a grant file for every grant submission including a copy of the RFP and initial proposal, the grant agreement, if awarded – or the denial letter if not- and any and all related correspondence, including the website and log in information, a copy of the reports submitted and budgets modified. Anyone who has worked in nonprofits long enough has had to (re)create a grant file to ensure an organization was in compliance, but if we all talked (and planned) more it would happen less.  I promise the people who are standing in your shoes in the future – and each of your funders – will greatly appreciate it!

What do you think?  As always, I welcome your feedback, experience and insight.

  1. […] Playing Nicely in the Proposal Sandbox from Nonprofit Evolution brings up some great points about making sure your grant writers are working with program staff. […]


  2. Greetings! I’ve been following your blog for some time now and finally got
    the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from New Caney Texas!
    Just wanted to mention keep up the fantastic work!


  3. […] Playing Nicely in the Proposal Sandbox from Nonprofit Evolution brings up some great points about making sure your grant writers are working with program staff. […]


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