Have you ever felt like you just have WAY too much on your plate to get any grant writing done? Is the pile of delegations stacking up throughout the day like a perfectly timed factory? Do you say ‘yes’ to additional work thinking you can get it done, but then realize there is never enough time?
If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, you are not alone. This is the one thing may be burning you out the most when working at a nonprofit. For today’s episode, we are going in deep to answer a question that I received in an e-mail from an awesome woman, we’ll call her Sheryl to protect her identity, who works at a nonprofit. Sheryl doesn’t know how to get out of the vicious cycle of ‘other’ tasks that she finds herself doing, which means she can’t even get to the grant writing!
Here is Sheryl’s question:
I am often delegated away from my roles and responsibilities of grant writing to cover other tasks and positions, especially, when my colleagues are out sick or on vacation. It is extremely hard for me to schedule committed and uninterrupted writing time!
Now you may be able to relate to Sheryl, as this is all too common in nonprofits (especially if you have an “A” type of personality). I mean, you love what you do and are passionate about the mission of the organization and you see what HAS to get done, but then you never are able to focus on the growth of the nonprofit.
So here are some tips for those of you who may feel like Sheryl. Please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you would like to share some additional ideas or tips that could help the Sheryl. Additionally, feel free to make a comment on the FB page, Fund My Nonprofit and just address as Keyword: RE Episode 40.
To share a little context that backs up some recommendations, I too, was a Sheryl.
I was working at a nonprofit and was 'unofficially' hired to be the grant writer, but 'officially' (as the grant funds allowed) to be a Case Manager. Needless to say, I was expected to do both, but I often found my time slipping through my hands. I'm not sure that I have the holy grail of answers, but I can share what helped me out.
What I realized was that I needed job clarity, of my scope of work (job description) and to communicate my genius work (and ultimate ROI) with the executive director. So, I scheduled a private conversation with the executive director and was very clear on the following:
- The return of investment for me writing grants compared to case management (and other roles which had morphed in the process) was much higher. Not that case management wasn't important, but it was easier to find someone and delegate the case management role, than it was to find a grant writer.
- Grants were what was paying for the bills (even his! although I didn't say this) and that more attention was required to focus on grant writing.
- Grant writing was where I was the strongest; i.e. my zone of genius.
But that’s not all. I didn’t go in and just say all those things and then have an awkward silence with him looking at me, nodding, but then giving a shrug and saying, “Yeah, but how?” I had stated the why but I had to know the how or at least the possibilities of the how.
My possibility of the how was part of the overall strategy. Part of my strategy was pointing out the ‘how’ and then giving space to brainstorm, with the executive director, to come up with other possibilities or solutions. Believe me, just sharing some possibilities will start this brainstorming session and you may leave with very different solutions than what you first imagined. This is fine as you need buy in from the executive director. The more it is part of their decision-making process the more support you will get.
Here were some of my possible hows:
- What else could fund my salary? (indirect cost rate on grants, operational funds, fundraisers, contracts)
- Who could do the case management and other roles?
- How could we develop more operational manuals for the other roles or work to make it where interns/volunteers could pick up some of the role requirements?
- What were other potential barriers that were affecting my time? (i.e. interruptions, meetings I shouldn't be attending, my own time management, etc.)
I really like number four, as it puts some of the responsibility back on me. We all know we can be a little (or a lot) more focused, so it is saying, this is so important to me that I am willing to change, too!
What came out of this process was that the executive director and I did realize that other funding could be pieced together to pay for me to do more grant writing work, and that the other work could be sourced out to others. We also implemented a "Grant Writing in Progress" sign on my door to eliminate distractions. This was a collaborative process and it did help a lot. I also enjoyed it because of the ‘how do we find a win-win solution’ approach. It was helpful that the executive director helped to relay this among all staff, as if it was his idea, and it helped others respect the process more.
I believe this is a process that does need to be discussed as an operations approach and within a team/hierarchy. Others may be unintentionally calling Sheryl to do roles because she is 'there'. The thing is that us grant writers are at our desks a lot of time, while others don't understand the extent of work and deadlines we face. Others often do not really understand what we do and look at us more as a body in the workspace thus pulling us into a different direction. These unintentional and uninformed decisions could cost your nonprofit thousands or millions of dollars!
Being able to discuss this at the top level and then to articulate the extent of your job description, and how important it is that you focus on grants and funding strategies is really paramount. Have a strategy and some hows in place before you approach the executive director and ask for some uninterrupted time. Don’t just show up in the executive director’s office and ask to talk right away and get into this. Also, realize that if you aren’t already efficient with your time they may say no. Why give you more time to be more inefficient? So track your workdays – every minute – for a couple of weeks or longer and then approach them with this knowledge. If they hired you to be a development coordinator, grant writer, or funding strategist but you are only able to devote 15% of your time to that work then there is a problem. And it won’t be your director’s problem, it will be yours. So stand up for your schedule and what you know is important to the organization, but do it in a win-win way and take the soft, but direct approach.
I hope this helps all of you who might feel like Sheryl. Let me know what other solutions have worked for you.
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