What to do before writing a grant proposal

Recently I presented a workshop on grant proposal writing at the Dress for Success Affiliate Leadership Conference in San Francisco.

Dress for Success (DFS) has a reputation as a place to pass on professional clothing. Their work goes beyond giving professional clothing a second life: DFS is an international organization that empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.

To prepare for the session, I spoke with executive directors at several regional affilates. Each mentioned the challenges of securing funding. One mentioned her hope that she could hire several staff members, one who would do more program-related work and the other who would do more fundraising.

“We’re completely overwhelmed,” she complained. “We don’t even have time to organize the clothes that are coming in. Grant funding would give us the staff to organize our inventory — it could really help us out.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

If I were a potential funder, I would have a hard time approving funding for an organization focusing on clothing that told me they didn’t have the staffing to organize their closets. If the basic systems aren’t in place, I would not trust that this organization would use my funding strategically.

So before sending off a grant proposal, what should this DFS affiliate do?

Take some time to step back and set up the basic systems of managing their inventory. Make sure that they feel competent and successful at those basic systems. Then, seek funding to build on that success.

This advice applies to any non-profit organization. What are the basic systems that keep your organization moving forward? If you want to find funders to invest in expanding your work, you’d do well to make sure that those systems are working well. And if not, before you apply for grant funding, take some time to organize your “closet” of hiring, inventory, data or financial management.

Nonprofits: Speak Up Right Now


Two weeks ago marked a moment of stunning political upset in American politics. Many of us are moving through the stages of grief: sadness, shock, anger and denial.

As I have processed my own emotions with friends, colleagues, and community members, I’ve thought a lot of about how we should be reacting, as individuals. And how nonprofit organizations should react.

Nonprofit organizations are not allowed to endorse a particular candidate. However, all organizations can say what you stand for and how your vision for the world will make things better at this time. People need to hear that the organizations they support are working on their behalf. That is leadership – connecting with the concerns of the people who care about your work and channeling their concerns and fears to hope and action.

I encourage all organizations to speak up and let us know what you’re fighting for right now. Some organizations have so far remained silent. Some organizations have emphasized business as usual, sending updates about mergers, staffing changes, etc. To those organizations, I say: if you’re scared to speak up now for fear of offending someone, you are missing an opportunity to show your own leadership and to guide all of us as we figure out what to do next.

Are online courses worth it? Four things to consider

Last week I got an announcement for LinkedIn’s “Week of Learning”: thousands of courses were offered at no charge for a week. In the middle of the week, I got a reminder from LinkedIn that I had “four days left to learn for free.” I’ll admit it, the aggressive marketing had me wondering (for a moment!) whether I should drop everything and audit courses for the next few days.

We are at moment of learning overload. Many sites offer free or fairly low cost learning opportunities. How do we evaluate the value of these opportunities against our own time and money, which is our most valuable resource? Based on my knowledge of learning processes, here are some considerations:

  1. Models or templates can be valuable

As a consultant, I create a scope of work for each project. When I do a project that is significantly different from one I’ve done before, it is helpful to look at models or templates of how to structure the work. These models help me to think about what steps are involved, the time and cost for each and other considerations.

Online courses that lay out a step-by-step process for a skill—anything from project management to personal finance to meditation—can be valuable. These courses give us starting points to begin our learning.

  1. Learning demands practice

Imagine receiving an announcement for an online course that teaches how to play soccer…what would your response be? An online course might teach the rules of soccer, but could not teach us how to get out of the field and kick a ball. For that, we’d need to get on a field, have a ball, and start kicking it!

More effective online courses provide the opportunity to practice the thing we’re learning about. By practicing, we start to see the complexity involved, and that we need to make the right choices to be good at something. Courses that do not provide opportunities for practice are unlikely to impact our behavior too significantly…and deep learning involves behavior change.

  1. Learning demands feedback

Once we got out on the soccer field and started kicking the ball, we would see that certain kinds of kicks are more effective at moving the ball down the field. But we’d start getting a lot better if we had a coach to watch our form and critique it.

I have audited several online courses course with high quality content. But I often find myself unclear about how to apply the processes they describe to complex, real-life situations.  For that, I work with a coach who is experienced enough to get into the nuances of improvement and learning.

  1. Takeaway: Consider Learning Goals

The value of online courses is connected to our own learning goals. If we don’t know anything about soccer, an online course on soccer could provide some high-level knowledge and enable us to hold an intelligent conversation about the rules. And it is unlikely to make us soccer stars!

Similarly: many online courses provide the opportunity to explore a topic or skill and know something about that topic or skill. If our goal is to become an expert in that area, we need practice and feedback from an online instructor or a real-life coach or mentor.

Four Ways to Transition Back from Vacation

2016-08-03 11.47.31Our family just returned from nine relaxing and energizing days away. Our older daughter was happy to see her toys and stuffed animals again, but she kept saying, “something feels funny. I don’t know what it is, but something feels funny.” This morning, our younger daughter stood at the front door and said, “I don’t want to go to camp.” And as I fired up my computer, something did feel funny.

This time of year especially, we hear a lot of about the benefits of taking a vacation.  Clearing our minds with a change of scene makes us more productive when we return to work.  But we hear less about moving through those transitional days back into our routine.

Here are some ideas I am holding on to today as I transition back to work:

Accept that it feels jarring to shift surroundings, temperature, and routine. I have the same feelings every time I come back: Am I here or there? What should I be doing now? Recognizing that I usually feel that way for a day or two calms me down and helps me to refocus on work.

Take what inspired us from vacation and bring it back to our daily lives. Our vacation home was tidy and uncluttered, which I found energizing. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to spend a little bit of time every day decluttering, with the hope of living more like we live on vacation!

Do what inspired us from vacation and bring it back to our daily lives. More walking, more swimming, more outside time. Vacation can remind us of the energizing power of the outdoors or of new sights. How can we bring some version of this back to day-to-day life?

Look around more and be more in the moment.  This vacation, I got inspired by Instagram. Taking and sharing photos was a way to pay attention to my surroundings, to the beauty around me, and the experiences I was having. Now that we are home, I want to continue to tune in to the beauty around me and aim to capture it more.

How about you…when your vacation winds down, what do you do to acknowledge and make the most of the transition back?


Hello, Spotlight:Girls!

The staff of Spotlight: Girls (creators of the terrific Go Girls! camps) have shared some of the learning and process generated by my recent rebranding project with them. Takeaway:  They have a new name, and my work helped them to reflect on their successes and direction forward. Read more here.