Guest Blog by Michael Webb, Grant STEPS

What makes a good strategic plan? Google it, and you’ll get lots of examples and opinions. But being a grant writer, the thing I consistently find missing is how much work on my part could be saved through the year (especially when facing down a looming deadline) if the strategic plan took care of answering some basic questions from the start.

I often deal with nonprofit leaders who haven’t thought through the full process or potential of strategic planning and realize at the end that something is missing. Some are smart enough to back up and try again. Others give up and relegate their strategic plan to, “We put it on the shelf and let it gather dust.” We’ve all heard that one. That’s not the fault of the plan, but rather the mistake of planners who didn’t know the questions they should be asking, or how to put the answers to good use.

When I’m asked about the importance of the strategic planning process, my first offering is usually, “Smart grant writing starts a year ahead of time.” But what does that mean?

Even if a nonprofit already has a strategic plan in place, I encourage them to include an annual calendar for the grants they want to write. In my blog “First Things First — Perception and Planning,” I emphasize that your organization’s strategic plan should give your grant writer enough information about the resources your organization needs that they can anticipate your funding requirements for at least twelve months. The best grant opportunity for your project may come around only once a year. You don’t want to wake up one day to discover the grant that’s the perfect fit was due last week. I also advise them to integrate that calendar with their budget and audit calendars.

For nonprofits that don’t have a strategic plan, such as the ones I worked with last year, being able to create a plan from the ground up presents a great opportunity to get the New Year off to the right start by building their future the smart way.

That’s why I ask my clients to go into the planning process with some particular outcomes in mind, from the perspective of the grant writer who will be held accountable for finding money based on whatever “plan” we’re given. Please — make your plan something we can work with, rather than something we have to give back to you, or something that gives us no direction at all. That’s why you’re called Directors. Help us work smarter, not harder.
So, here is my advice to create a strategic plan that your grant writer can make the most of:

  1. Start from a deficit perspective – What grant-writing and fundraising infrastructure do you NOT have in place? Ask your grant writer what kinds of supporting documentation funders are asking for. The expectations and priorities of funders change more often than you think.
  • What’s your policy for creating sustainable funding?
  • Is 100% of your board required to make a personal donation each year?
  • How does your organization cultivate collaboration?
  • Do you have an operating reserve policy (E.g., “Why are you asking us for money when your balance sheet says you have $200,000 in the bank?)?
  • What are your public awareness and outreach strategies (Best fundraising advice ever — “Perception precedes response. Until people know who you are, what you do, and why it’s important, don’t expect them to give you anything.”)?
  1. What’s on your Wish List? – This is the analogy I use to nudge my clients to write down a prioritized list of planned expenditures for the next year.   You never know when a grant will come your way from someone interested in funding the computer upgrade you need, or you’re at a networking event and meet the manager of the local DIY home center who would love to have her employees rebuild the porch and fence at your domestic violence shelter. Have fun building a Wish List like a kid writing a Christmas list, then use it to set your priorities. And stick to it. Don’t be the board member who impulsively bought a playground set, then found out they could have gotten funding for it. True story. Her money could have been used to support overdue pay raises.  That’s one way to kill morale.
  2. Are you building evaluation into your plan? – If you’re not defining what the successful accomplishment of your programs looks like, how will you know whether you’re succeeding at all? Setting detailed goals affects the work of your grant writer because we will already have good answers when the grant applications ask, “How will you measure the success of this program?” Answer those questions during the planning process, instead of asking your grant writer and program directors to invent them out of thin air the week before the grant is due (Second-best fundraising advice ever — “If you’re asking my foundation for a $100,000 grant, tell me exactly what you expect $100,000 of community impact will look like.”)

a. Evaluation starts with baseline measurements that answer, “Where are we now?” How will you measure improvement if we don’t know where we’re starting from? Are you collecting the right data now to measure your improvement over the year and beyond? What framework (surveys, computers, staff assignments) do you need to collect those data? Like grant writing, smart evaluation starts a year ahead of time.

b. Good evaluations can start with something as basic as setting S.M.A.R.T. goals and making a commitment to achieving them. One of the SMARTest nonprofits I’ve worked with framed their board agendas around discussions of their progress on each of their SMART goals. See www.projectsmart.co.uk/smart-goals.php for an excellent discussion of being S.M.A.R.T.

c. Remember to include persons served when you’re setting goals that measure success. Ultimately, they are the ones who determine whether you’re making a difference or not.

4. Does your plan include creating a culture of collaboration? – The right time to create partnerships is all the time, instead of making phone calls two weeks before the grant is due.  So make it an organization-wide priority,            for board, management, and staff. More and more, funders want to see collaboration — shared resources, shared knowledge, shared ideas, shared data, shared impact. Theories for creating organizational culture change could fill a book; I’ll be sharing an idea in an upcoming blog. In the meantime, check out  This Blog.

5. Include your program directors in the planning process.  Even if they say, it’s a waste of time (Program directors are like that. I have issues with program directors.). When the people who are responsible for running your programs, delivering your services, and collecting your data aren’t part of the buy-in, that’s a hopeless disconnect and dead end.

Bottom line – Smart planning doesn’t happen in silos. And smart grant writing starts at least a year ahead of time.

Keep Calm, and Grant On!
Michael Webb, Grant STEPS 

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