Grants (and let’s face it, their writers), are often looked at as the stepchildren of the development world. But Barbara Floersch knows that with a little integrity and the right strategy, grants can be a foundation for long-term strength and sustainability. Join her for tips to make grant writing the rocket fuel behind your mission.
Listen to the Episode Here!
Website: Barbara’s site
Website: The Grantsmanship Center
(02:50) Grants: the stepchildren of development
(08:13) Grants as a foundation for long term financial sustainability
(11:55) Evaluation & transparency
(18:11) Ethics of grant writing
(22:51) Turn down money that isn’t right for you
Dolph Goldenburg (0s):
Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits® Podcast. I’m your host, Dolph Goldenberg. We are having Barbara Floersch on today to have a conversation with her about her new book, You Have a Hammer: Building Grant Proposals for Social Change. Before we get to that, I just want to share with you all that it’s April. This is the time that new growth is starting to happen. I know folks are starting to think about growth for themselves as well. If you’re feeling stuck or frustrated professionally, and think an executive coach might be something that would be useful for you, that’s something that I do all the time through Successful Nonprofits®. Please reach out to me at successfulnonprofits.com, and let’s see if a coaching relationship might be what helps you grow this year.
Dolph Goldenburg (44s):
I am thrilled to be able to introduce Barbara Floersch. In a nutshell, she is a writer, trainer, grant writer, curriculum developer, and an amazing consultant. Let me share just a little bit about her professional experience with you because she has a long and storied career. She was with the Boys & Girls Club for 25 years, and then went over to The Grantsmanship Center, where she was the chief of curriculum and training.
Dolph Goldenburg (1m 35s):
She also was a long-time author of a regular column in The Nonprofit Times. She recently transitioned that over to someone else as she is working on shifting into another act of her life. She is a long-time author and I am super impressed. Three years ago, she was tapped to update and expand the seminal book, Proposal Planning & Writing. For any of us who have ever been responsible for grant writing, almost everybody has been recommended this 1971 book.
Dolph Goldenburg (2m 16s):
Out of all of the grant writing experts across the country, she is the person who will be tapped to really expand and update this book. Barbara has just launched a consulting practice, and she’s also got this book out, You Have a Hammer: Building Grant Proposals for Social Change. Barbara, welcome to the podcast.
Barbara Floersch (2m 41s):
Thank you so much for having me Dolph. I’m super excited to be here and to talk about things about which I have a great deal of passion.
Dolph Goldenburg (2m 50s):
In your book, work, and your Nonprofit Times articles that passion really shines through. I have heard you say that, “Grants are the step-child of resource development.” I think I know what you mean, but let’s unpack that.
Barbara Floersch (3m 6s):
Sure. I’ll start with a story because stories really tell us a lot. I was at a great conference once and there were a lot of fund development people there. I was pretty well known in the field for raising a whole lot of grant money. I’d been very successful. When I was introduced to a woman there, she said, “Oh, you’re the woman who raises all that junk money.” I was taken aback by that, but I thought about it a lot. I recognized that people who write grant proposals and are awarded grants on behalf of their organization really don’t have the same stature within the fund development fundraising community as other people do.
Barbara Floersch (3m 59s):
Often it is said that the reason for this is because in 2018 individual donations were almost $293 billion. If you add up the foundation grants at about $76 million with corporate grants at about $20 million, you see the grant pie is a lot less than individual giving. Now, when you add in government, which is not generally thought of as philanthropy because those are public dollars, at over $600 billion in 2018, which doesn’t even consider the County and State, the field of grants and the opportunity to do good work with grants is huge and actually dwarfs individual giving.
Barbara Floersch (4m 56s):
We could have a longer discussion about the pros and cons of each, but my position is that grant-seeking done right, is a powerful, powerful tool. And when integrated with the strategic plan of an organization and with an overall fund development plan, grants can put rocket fuel behind your mission. I think it’s a mistake to undervalue grants work within an organization. I think that because it is undervalued, it is often not coordinated or supervised in a way that’s most advantageous to pursuing mission.
Dolph Goldenburg (5m 41s):
You and I are in full alignment on this, but I’d like for your permission to play devil’s advocate for a minute, just so we can explore this a little bit more. I’d be willing to bet that conference attendee who said to you, “Oh, you raise all that junk money” probably felt that way because they had seen grants that have grown gardens that bloomed and then withered and died.”
Barbara Floersch (6m 7s):
Absolutely. The truth is that most people are not educated about grants work when they start doing grants work. They find themselves in a position where they can think, they can write, somebody looks at them, and they say, “You got some time on your hands. Go write this grant proposal.” Because grants are often dealt with in that way, they’re often done in a way that does not place them or position them to continue the impact that they’re going to achieve after the grant funding ends. It’s sort of flash in the pan here, flash in the pan there. You get some money, you lose some money.
Barbara Floersch (6m 51s):
What that turns into is an accordion organization, where you end up having a lot of money and you’re feeling flush, and then you shrink and you lose staff. Then you’d go out and run after whatever grants you can get. You end up with stressed staff and the inability to pursue any sort of mission strategically. My position is that grants done right, is a very specific kind of social activism.
Barbara Floersch (7m 31s):
If you believe that and do the work correctly, you’re not going to have a flash in the pan here or there. That said, sometimes you can do a lot of good work for a long time, but that work will go away. You have to think about what you’re doing and design programs and design grant proposals or requests in a way that positions them to have enough impact and legs that they can keep walking once the money’s gone.
Dolph Goldenburg (8m 13s):
Can you give an example of an organization that got grant funding and that funding was designed in such a way that, even after the money stopped flowing into the program, the program continued to have an impact?
Barbara Floersch (8m 27s):
I have so many examples. My favorite example is Return House. It’s a transitional living program for young people coming out of jail. One night, I was driving home from work and it was dark and cold. I was listening to the radio and the radio announcer gave statistics about a very high percentage of young men that were involved with the justice system. I talked to some probation people the next day because I had been very disturbed by it, and found out that it was basically a revolving door: in jail, out of jail, in jail, out of jail.
Barbara Floersch (9m 8s):
And why? Because there was nothing in the community once they got out to support them and help them learn how to be in the community successfully. I talked to my executive director and started talking to everybody we could talk to. About four years later, we had Return House, a transitional living program for young men coming out of jail. That was almost 20 years ago. The grants are long gone. We designed it in a way that brought in enough partnership from other organizations and looked at long-term funding through things like Medicaid and employment insurance so that we could have a base to build on to keep that program going.
Dolph Goldenburg (10m 8s):
Part of what I like about that is when you design your program that way and your proposal that way, it also helps you answer one of the toughest questions which is: how is this program going to be sustainable when the grant ends?
Barbara Floersch (10m 25s):
It absolutely does. It’s a moral obligation. You can’t go put a community through what we put the community through to get to the plan for this transitional living house and then say, “Once the grant is gone, we’re out of here.” At some point, you have a moral obligation for some of that. The other thing is that funders do ask how you are going to sustain this program. I actually object to that question because the real question is: how are you going to sustain the impact I’ve been involved in? We brought new programming into schools and it was so successful that when we left, the school kept it going. We did not need to keep it going. It was integrated into the curriculum. So it’s a way of looking at things where it’s not about your organization or about the grant. It’s about the impact and how to sustain that.
Dolph Goldenburg (11m 26s):
I would imagine that would be an acceptable answer to the question: How are you going to sustain this program? The answer would be: We will sustain the impact of the program by creating something that could be integrated into the operations of the schools.
Barbara Floersch (11m 40s):
That’s right. You have to realize that when you do that the schools will say, “Yeah, we’ll consider that.” But they’re not going to guarantee to do it until they see your evaluation data and whether it was or was not impactful.
Dolph Goldenburg (11m 55s):
Let’s take a moment and talk about that evaluation because often government money wants some type of an evaluation, but so often foundations are not yet looking for a real evaluation, just the numbers of people served. If I’m a grant writer and I’m thinking about how to help my program or organization develop an evaluation, what should I be thinking about?
Barbara Floersch (12m 20s):
I would like to encourage every nonprofit to become what I call an evaluative organization, an organization that values self-assessment. If you do not look at what you’re doing and ask yourself, “How do I know this is making a difference?” then I think that that’s an abdication of good management. I encourage everyone to include evaluation work in every program they plan and in every proposal they submit, even if it is not required. The question is not how many people showed up or how many people you had in the classroom. The question is what changed because of that? So that’s what you’re going to be looking to capture. There are a lot of different ways to capture it, but you want to look at what changed. Hold your feet to the fire to say, “If we’re not looking at this, we’re not doing our job, right.”
Dolph Goldenburg (13m 31s):
And be honest about what the actual outcomes are. If you are hoping to achieve a specific outcome and you fell short of that, be honest with yourself and with your funder and say, “Hey, we think we need to tweak the following things so that we can better be able to meet that target.”
Barbara Floersch (13m 55s):
You’re so right, Dolph. In my book, one of the things I bring up is that the mission of a non-profit is never to do things. That’s not the mission. The purpose of a program is never to do activities. It is to have some kind of impact and to create some kind of positive change. And because of that, evaluation is essential. You don’t wait to get to the end of the program and say, “Whoops, I guess that didn’t work.” You have to look at yourself as you go along and then at logical points in implementing anything.
Barbara Floersch (14m 36s):
I remember once a staff member brought in a report to me that basically said, “Nothing’s happening, nothing’s changing, and we’re not doing much.” And I said, “We need to talk about this.” We realized that the program really needed some adjustments. Some issues within the community had changed since that program was planned. We put it totally on the stop. We called the funder and had a meeting to redesign the approach. The funder was very supportive because the funder did not make that grant award to do things. It was to make something good happen.
Dolph Goldenburg (15m 10s):
I will share with you from my perspective. I think that’s egregious, but what’s even more egregious is when the person responsible for writing the grant report glosses over the problems and glosses over the failures and acts like they aren’t actually there.
Barbara Floersch (15m 23s):
That does no one any good. When you accept a grant award from a funder, you are entering a partnership with a funder. If you can’t be honest with your partner, what kind of relationship are you going to have? Honesty is imperative for moving the whole field forward – for moving your mission forward. If you behave in any other way, eventually you will lose the respect of the funder and the respect of other staff members. It’s a lack of integrity.
Dolph Goldenburg (15m 58s):
I do a good little bit of interim executive director engagements. Oftentimes when you’re doing an interim, you’re coming in and you’re picking up the ball from where someone else had handed it to you. In some cases, they’re no longer there. They literally left it on the field. One situation that I encountered was an organization had requested and received a $50,000 grant about nine months before I started. In their proposal, they promised – let’s just say a quarter-million dollars of services.
Dolph Goldenburg (16m 40s):
When I saw the report, I was kind of like, “This seems like fluff. It seems like we’re not really being truthful. We need to draft a report and then you need to have me call the funder up and say, ‘I’m ready to send you this report. I’d like to email it to you. And then I’d like to walk you through it. So can we schedule a time when I can send it to you and then immediately walk you through it?’” I said, “It appears to me that we had asked for $50,000 and promised a quarter-million dollars of services.” The program officer at that foundation kind of laughed and said, “That’s what it appeared to us, to.” I’m like, “Good. We’re on the same page now. Can we talk about how we move this forward?”
Barbara Floersch (17m 24s):
There is an imbalance between those who give and those who ask – between grant seekers and grantmakers. The way that we’re really going to make progress is working towards transparency, openness, and stepping up. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. If a program is not doing exactly what you thought it would, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It would be something to be ashamed of if you try to sweep it under the rug or not learn from it and not be transparent with your partner, who is your funder. And furthermore, if you did that with a federal agency, you can get into real big trouble.
Dolph Goldenburg (18m 11s):
Even if you’re not doing it with a federal agency. If an organization drafts a report that’s not true and accurate and sends it in the mail, that’s mail fraud. The foundation may choose not to prosecute. But let’s face it. If you lie through the mail and you’ve gotten money in exchange for it, I’m pretty sure you can be in some trouble. One of the things that I love about your book is you have a couple of chapters on ethics. I think it’s one of the reasons for people to really read your book. As grant writers, as program administrators, and as agency administrators, we’ve got to be working in an ethical manner. And so I love the fact that you really highlight that in your book.
Barbara Floersch (18m 53s):
Ethics are everything. If you’re not ethical, you don’t have anything. So that’s just where I start from. In one of my classes somebody actually raised their hand and said, “Is it okay to make up data?” I almost was frozen in place to even hear that question. I know so much about the data of the different issues I work on. Once I encountered a situation in which a staff member drafted a part of a proposal and gave it to me, and I said, “Where in the world has that data come from? I’ve never seen that data. I know the data in this field. Where did you get that?” They made it up.
Barbara Floersch (19m 35s):
What I’d like to say about grant work is that it is social activism. There’s a very large pot of money. Think of that as fuel. Think of that as a possibility. It’s there for change. I want to encourage all organizations to integrate that grant work into what they’re doing strategically, so that it becomes all that it can be. You get into situations where you don’t do it properly or give it the correct level of weight. Then you get more into these situations where people are not understanding. Then they’ll just think, “Well, I’ll just gloss this over. You know, I’ll just do that in there.” I think that we need to encourage people to understand how a grant award can impact the direction of an organization and can steer an organization. I’ve coined a phrase called ‘Rogue Grant Proposals’. Some organizations have given this work such little weight that people may be off in a corner, somewhere writing up the grant proposal and just sending it off.
Barbara Floersch (21m 5s):
The administration may not even know it’s been sent. How do we deal with this? We look at grants as what they are. The only reason you would ever ask for grant funding is to make something better, to right a wrong, to improve a problem, and to give opportunities that were not there. It is social activism. If you can understand how that influences an organization, you start to give that more weight – more weight, more direction, more consideration, and more integration into the overall organizational planning.
Barbara Floersch (21m 60s):
If you look at the huge pot of money, you start to say, “You know, we really need to take this work more seriously and be sure that the people who come into this work understand the ethics of it.” Part of that ethics is cultural relevance. I write a lot about that in my book; this work is more important and more impactful than it often gets credit for. If it’s undervalued and kept more in the corner, then it doesn’t do what it can.
Dolph Goldenburg (22m 51s):
I’ve got one last question for you before we move to the off-the-map question, but it’s kind of a hot button question. Several of our listeners in a recent listener survey actually asked us to address this particular issue. A lot of small and medium sized organizations want to grow and sometimes struggle with turning down money that isn’t right for them. Sometimes that means not applying, but other times I think it means getting an award letter, reviewing the terms of the award, and realizing it’s really not a good fit. How does an organization turn that money down?
Barbara Floersch (23m 32s):
This is Barbara philosophy, but it’s born of many years of grants experience. You’ve got to be willing to walk away if it’s not right. It can mean a staff member is going to get a day or two chopped off of his or her time. It can mean that something that needs to be replaced won’t be. There could be negative impacts. But in the long run, if you accept money that’s not really right for your organization, you’re going to start drifting. You’re going to have mission drift.
Barbara Floersch (24m 13s):
I have worked with organizations that have definitely turned down money when it was not right for them. What they’ve done is carefully scrutinize the requirements of the money before applying because applying for a grant is often a laborious process. If there’s something about that money that would cause you to do something you don’t want to do, that’s against your philosophy, or will take you in a different direction, accepting that money will hurt you. I think you have to be willing to walk away. If you don’t, in the long run, it will hurt the organization and your cause more hurt than it will help it.
Dolph Goldenburg (25m 17s):
One of the other things that I’ve seen organizations do is make the strategic decision to not reapply for money. Sometimes after you get the grant, you’re eight months in, and you think to yourself, ”This grant is more trouble than it’s worth. I’m the executive director of a multi-million dollar agency. And they want me to attend a weekly meeting that’s 90 minutes long. And then they want a data person to produce a weekly report.” At some point, you look at this and you say, “For $25,000, we’re spending more of our energy on actually keeping this grant than we are in providing the service.”
Barbara Floersch (26m 3s):
So true. There’s so many nuances and nooks and crannies of this discussion we could to get into. For example, should an organization accept a grant award that will not provide any indirect cost or administrative overhead? That’s a big discussion: full cost funding. There are lots of nooks and crannies, and maybe we can talk about them again some other time. If you keep accepting grant awards without any legitimate support from that grant for administrative overhead, eventually you become weak.
Barbara Floersch (26m 56s):
And sometimes you’ll say, “This is important enough that we’re going to do it anyway.” And other times you’re going to say, “No, we’ve already done that 10 times and it’s getting hard. We can’t keep doing that.”
Dolph Goldenburg (27m 6s):
I also have to reflect that if you’re an organization whose budget is over $50,000 or $100,000 a year, you can’t afford to have that many $1,000 grants that are not unrestricted. At some point, you can’t go out and grow into a quarter million dollar or a million-dollar organization because you’re literally chasing $1,000 dollar grants.
Barbara Floersch (27m 37s):
Just because you need money does not mean you need a grant. It can be a lot easier for you to go out and request some donations from businesses, from individuals to get that thousand dollars or to get that $5,000. You have to ask yourself, “Is it worth it? Is it worth what it takes to put it together, to monitor it, to report on it? Isn’t that really unreasonable for an amount where you could just go ask for that in some way?”
Dolph Goldenburg (28m 8s):
Now, Barbara, I’ve got a great off-the-map question for you. I have really dug down in the research to try to figure one because you’ve had this long, storied career. It’s really difficult to find a good off-the-map question for someone who has had such a successful career and really has been a Renaissance person in their career. But I think I’ve got it for you. I learned that in the last half decade, you have traded your log cabin of 32 years for a practically, passive energy home in Vermont, which is a really cold part of the world.
Barbara Floersch (28m 55s):
Yes, I lived for many years in this idyllic, hallmark, snow globe log cabin on 15 acres down three and a half miles of dirt road. There were moose in the backyard and bears in the backyard all over the place. It was large. Eventually my husband and I said, “You know, let’s give it up and become transient for a couple of years and decide what we really want to do.” So we sold the house and we moved around while we were trying to decide what to do. And we found a piece of land, a little over five acres, with mountain views and view of a nice, beautiful barn.
Barbara Floersch (29m 35s):
We built an almost-passive house. It’s only not passive because we wanted to get a gas fireplace and to cook with a gas stove. It’s got very thick, concrete floors. The windows have the same R-value as regular, insulated walls. The whole house basically doesn’t have a heating system. It’s got a one-hand heat pump. And we’re in Vermont, where it can get to be 35 below, but it keeps the house warm. So we are very happy. It’s quite modern. It’s beautiful.
Dolph Goldenburg (30m 7s):
You have to have found a really specialized contractor to build that house.
Barbara Floersch (30m 12s):
We did. We had done renovations on our log cabin and we found him during that time. He’s well known for his expertise in passive houses. We actually designed the house, the layout and everything, with him. We recommend him to all other people. We’ve shown this house as an example. He keeps bringing people by. So we probably had 20 people come to see the house to see if they can build one like it.
Dolph Goldenburg (30m 41s):
What a great story and how very inspirational as well. It takes some real guts to say, “Okay, we’re gonna sell our house and be transient and live in this liminal space for a couple of years while we’re figuring it out.” Good for you.
Barbara Floersch (30m 55s):
Thanks Dolph. It’s been a real joy to talk to you.
Dolph Goldenburg (30m 57s):
Well, gosh, I am so glad that you’ve joined us. Listeners, you’re going to have to reach out to Barbara because she is just really that incredible. And her URL is BarbaraFloersch.com. At her website, you can learn more about her. You can read her blog and subscribe to her newsletter. This is someone who wrote regularly for The Nonprofit Times, has updated and expanded a book, and has a book of her own out as well. This is someone who’s weekly emails you want to be getting. She also asked me to share the organization that she used to work with and that’s The Grantsmanship Center and their URL is tgci.com. I think Barbara and I are in alignment that The Grantsmanship Center does the best training in the field of grant writing. So make sure you check them out as well. Barbara, thanks so much for joining us today.
Barbara Floersch (32m 02s):
Dolph Goldenburg (32m 06s):
Don’t forget: if you’re thinking about growth for yourself and if you feel like you need just a little bit of help to reach that next level, then go to Successful Nonprofits® as well and check out the one-on-one coaching that we offer. If you liked this episode, there are two that you’ve really got to check out. The first is Ep 165: 4 Tips for Efficient and Effective Fundraising with Patton McDowell. And the second is Ep 57: Collaborative Grant- Seeking with Bess de Farber. That, listeners, is our show for this week. I hope that you have gained some insight to help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.
Dolph Goldenburg (33m 13s):
I’ve got to give you this, disclaimer. I’m not an accountant nor an attorney. And quite frankly, it’s Friday, so I’ve not even shaved today. So I’m an unshaven person who is neither an account nor an attorney. The Goldenburg Group and I do not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. This podcast is for informational purposes only and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or accounting advice. If you find yourself in need of a licensed professional, please ask colleagues, get recommendations, or reach out to me. If none of your colleagues have any really great ideas, I might be able to point you in the right direction, but find the licensed person that you need.
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