Author Archives: Amanda Lopez

Tools Your Board of Directors Need to be Effective

Every nonprofit organization and school has a Board of Directors that is meant to help govern the organization. There are many companies, books, and webinars that solely focus on supporting Board of Directors. Over the years, we have found and developed some key tools that are easy to apply to help organization and their Boards govern more effectively.

Board of DirectorsWhile some of these Board tools might seem standard, we still find that these are missing and/or have not been well developed. We could write a blog post about each of these tools (and maybe we will!). This is a quick overview of the value and purpose of each tool to help your organization think about how you might integrate them into your Board of Directors.

8 Tools to Strengthen Your Board of Directors

  1. Bylaws: This is a legal document and also a roadmap for actions that the organization can take. While there are plenty of bylaw templates online, your organization should customize the bylaws. Some basic items to include in bylaws include: number of board members, how board members are selected, board meetings, committees, voting procedures, conflicts of interest, etc. We recommend that organizations annually review their bylaws and make sure that they are clear and provide good instruction to guide the Board of Directors.
  2. Board Manual or Handbook: The Board handbook is the “toolbox” for Board members that provides more detail than the bylaws. This is a great resource to review during new Board member orientation. Some of the key elements that we look for and include in Board Handbooks are: Organization Overview, Contact Information, Board Meetings, Finances and Fundraising, Governance, Committees, Board Policies, and Board Resources.
  3. Board Member Job Description: The last thing that an Executive Director or Board President wants to hear from a Board member is, “I didn’t know I was joining the Board to do ______.” One of the most prominent issues that we come across in working with Board of Directors is a lack of clear expectations for the Board of Directors. A Board Member Job Description is exactly as it sounds and similar to an employee job description. It clearly articulates what is expected of the Board member, such as meeting attendance, committee involvement, other organization involvement (e.g, attendance at certain events), a “give or get” policy (related to fundraising), and member terms. This information should all be communicated during the recruitment process, so that when the Board member is signing the form there are no surprises and everyone is in agreement about expectations.
  4. Board Self-Assessment: In healthy organizations, there are ongoing performance reviews and assessments to check-in on how well the organization and its employees are functioning. The Board Self-Assessment is a good exercise for the Board to reflect on how well the Board is functioning against some key best practices. This could be a good practice to complete with
    a 3-year strategic plan. We have developed a 3-page Board self-assessment tool, and there are many online. Indiana Youth Institute has a self-assessment tool online here. The Boys and Girls Club of America developed A Framework for Continuous Improvement of Nonprofit Board Effectiveness that could also be used as a self-assessment.
  5. 1:1 Individual Board Member Check In: One strategy to engage current Board members is to schedule individual annual meetings with each Board member and the Executive Director and Board President/ Vice President. These individual check-in meetings provide a great opportunity to review the expectations of being a Board member, celebrate the successes and engagement of the last year and follow-up on any concerns. It is also a great time for the Board member to affirm their commitment for the coming year, such as financial pledge, leadership and/or committee roles and any connections to make.
  6. Board Meeting Calendar and Key Decisions Meeting Calendar: This is a “two-fer”. Yes, it may seem simple to state that a Board tool is a meeting calendar/ schedule, but you would be surprised by how many organizations do not have a clear meeting schedule and then struggle with attendance. We suggest sending out the Board meeting calendar for the year to all Board members and including any additional important dates (e.g., annual member meeting, required fundraising event, etc.). In addition, in order to help drive strategic decisions at the Board meeting we suggest developing a “key decision meeting calendar”. Every organization has some key decisions that the Board will need to vote on and/or participate in, so it is helpful to put those on the calendar, such as annual budget review, program evaluation reports, and strategic plans (planning, check-in or updates).
  7. Board Member Recruitment Process: While the bylaws should outline at a high-level the process to approve new Board members a more detailed recruitment plan is helpful to standardize the process. We often work with many organizations who struggle with small Board of Directors and are wanting to recruit more Board members but lack a clear understanding of the type of Board member that would be a good fit and a process to recruit. We have developed several Board recruitment tools: a board composition assessment (what are your current “assets” and “strengths” on the Board and then your “gaps”); a nomination form that Board members can submit when they want to recommend a candidate; a new member application to gather some key information from prospects; and interview questions that Board members use when meeting with a prospective member.
  8. Communication Flowchart: The last thing that an organization wants is to have one of their board members approached by a volunteer or staff member making a request, and the board member not know the procedure for how certain decisions are made. A communication flowchart explains how decisions are made within the organization and the role of the Board of Directors and its Committees.

How well is your Board functioning? Would any of these help improve the effectiveness of your Board? Transform Consulting Group would love to work with your organization to identify opportunities to strengthen your Board and ultimately the impact of your organization. Contact us today for a free consultation.

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How to Reach Consensus on Your Strategic Plan

We are continuing our blog series on strategic planning by focusing on Step 3 of our 4 Step Strategic Planning Process: Facilitate Consensus. Read more about our previous strategic planning blogs in this series here, here, and here.  The main purpose of this third step is for the strategic planning team to start to reach agreement about the future direction.  

Organizations will often form strategic planning committees or task leadership teams to complete their strategic plan. This means that different types of people with various perspectives and insights will have to learn to work together on a common goal. We actually encourage collaboration and engagement in the strategic planning process and discuss it more Step 1 in this blog.

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After you have formed your planning team and gathered some critical information about the organization, your targeted clients and community you are now ready to come together to reach consensus about the future. The following five recommendations will help your team reach consensus:

  1. Issue Homework – Prepare a packet of information that summarizes all of the data and information that has been collected. Most likely there will be some important information that would be helpful for the group to read in advance of coming together. We like to package that information into a “pre-read” report or slide deck presentation (see more here).
  2.  Host Planning Sessions – Set aside time for the planning team to come back together once all of the information has been gathered. Depending on your planning team’s availability, this may need to be broken out into a couple of sessions.
  3.  Facilitate Group Discussion – If your budget allows, it is very helpful to have a consultant (ahem, TCG!) facilitate your planning discussions. This way all members of your team will be able to engage in the discussion. They are also equipped with adult learning strategies and can design a highly engaging and interactive process for your team.

wabash strategic plan4.  Focus on the “What” First – We often see many planning team members who want to jump into the strategies and problem-solve the needs/ gaps identified. The first step in consensus building is to reach agreement on the “What” you want to accomplish. We call this setting your big goals and top areas of focus. We also try to limit our clients to 3-5 big goals/ focus areas. Once you have this set, then you can get into the “How” you will accomplish your goals through strategies.

5. Take the Temperature – As you are moving through this process, it is important to check in with your planning team at these meetings and maybe even afterwards. You want your planning team to be confident in the agreements that have been made and to not have any ill feelings of team members. While not everyone may get what they think is important, everyone should be in collective agreement about the plan. During these planning sessions, your consultant or team lead should check the non-verbal and verbal cues of team members throughout the process and respond as needed.

By the end of step 3, facilitating consensus, your team should feel excitement and enthusiasm about the possibilities for the future and the plan! If not, that might be indicator that the consensus is not there with the whole group. In that case, you may need to come back together and have an honest discussion.

A strategic plan is not something to take lightly or go through the motions. It can set the path for the future of an organization and help bring about transformational change. When you take the time and effort to follow these five recommendations, your organization will be on its way.

If you are ready to start your strategic plan, contact us. We would love to support organization’s strategic planning needs.

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Board Member Recruitment Tips

Are you looking for new board members at your nonprofit? Board members are an important link to successful fundraising, community engagement and networking. Having the right people on your board is critical to successful organizational impact. Certainly, organizations should recruit Board members from the leadership and staff’s existing set of personal and professional contacts, but also consider finalizing your decision through a more traditional process like that of a job interview.

Presentations-1Some critical questions to consider:

  • What is the role and expectations of your Board members?
  • What skill or relationship gaps do you currently have in your Board?
  • How engaged are your Board members?
  • Have you performed exit interviews for departing board members?

You want to make sure your Board members are a good fit, understand the requirements of the position, have the time and resources to devote to your cause, and bring diversity and balance to your board. At TCG, we can help you assess the effectiveness of your current Board, identify recommendations for improvement and work with you to implement those recommendations.

We have worked with many clients to strengthen their Board of Directors. During our engagement, we focus on the following critical services:

  1. Providing training on best practices in Board governance.
  2. Creating a Board Development Plan that includes a Board composition analysis; key stakeholder contact list; Board nomination process orientation plan and packet; and Board member position description.
  3. Developing and updating key organizational documents, such as by-laws, committee structure, meeting agenda template, calendar of meetings by key topics.
  4. Performing ongoing coaching and consultation to the leadership.

By the end of a board development consultation, new Board members are recruited and “on boarded” effectively. The Board is engaged, empowered and invested in seeing the organization be successful!

Team Unity Friends Meeting Partnership Concept

Your Board is an extension of your leadership and serves as “champions” for your organization. They are too important to not be fully utilized. We understand that it can be hard to devote time and resources to board recruitment and training when you are knee-deep in the delivery of programs and services on a daily basis. Learn more about our board development services, and contact us today to chat about ways we can serve your Board of Directors.

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Strategic Planning Process: Step 2

In this past blog we talked about the 4 Steps of Strategic Planning that we follow. A quick recap of the 4 steps are: Collaborate, Assess, Facilitate and Create. A few weeks ago we shared more about Step 1 in that process: “Collaborate”. Today we are continuing our blog series on strategic planning by focusing on Step 2 in the process: “Assess”.

Assess Highlighted

 

With many of our clients and partners, we find that they immediately want to jump to Steps 3 and 4 of the process, which is about goal and strategy setting. By skipping over Steps 1 and 2, organizations are missing out on a critical opportunity to get buy in and input from key stakeholders as well as embed a thoughtful review in the planning process.

We divide the assessment phase of the strategic planning process into two parts: Internal and External Assessment.

Internal Assessment

  • Organizational review: The internal assessment includes an analysis of the organization by looking at financial statements, programming, and organizational structure.  This might include summary reports of the organization and programs to determine results accomplished. You will want to look for trends, gaps and opportunities.  
  • Stakeholder feedback: We have several blogs that talk about stakeholder feedback here and here. Don’t forget to talk internally within your organization about the strategic plan by reaching out to clients (if appropriate), staff, volunteers, and board of directors.

External Assessment

  • Environmental Scan: The external assessment may include collecting information about the industry and sector that the organization operates. It might be helpful to provide a brief update about the latest research, policies and best practices that inform the work of your organization.
  • Community needs assessment: It might be helpful to complete an updated needs assessment of your community or targeted audience to ensure strong alignment with programs and needs. We have some blogs about this here and here.
  • Stakeholder feedback: Just like an internal assessment, there are some key stakeholders to reach out to for feedback and input to inform your planning process. This might include current and past funders, other community partners, and the public.

While completing a new strategic plan for Healthy Families Indiana, we included both an internal and an external assessment. We gathered key data points about the organization to bring to the planning team for review and discussion. We also completed an organizational history timeline exercise to help bring everyone together about the key milestones accomplished over the life of the program in the state. We sought feedback from various stakeholders within the organization, which included staff at different levels (direct service staff, supervisors and program managers) and across the state.

We also sought feedback from external stakeholders by reaching out to community partners who make referrals and have shared goals. These components provided important context to inform the discussion about goals for the future.

Once we gather all of this information, it is important to do some pre- analysis and synthesis of this information before it is shared with the planning team. We do this in a couple of ways for our clients:

  1. Pre-read report – We develop a narrative report that summarizes all of the information collected in the internal and external assessment. We use graphs and tables to make it as user-friendly as possible. It’s helpful to share this report in advance of a planning meeting or retreat, so that the team can review the information before meeting.
  2. Presentation – A presentation can be a simpler way of compiling the information and sharing it with the planning team. Sometimes we create both a narrative report and a presentation that summarizes the information gathered. The slide deck presentation can be helpful to highlight some of the key findings during the assessment phase.
  3. Dashboard – We talk about creating dashboards in this blog. Basically we love dashboards and how helpful they are to display multiple data points in a user-friendly format. We love to create dashboards that summarize internal and external assessment data to share with the planning team. See this one we created for a community strategic plan.

The main purpose of the “Assess” step in the strategic planning process is to gather important information to share with your planning team, so that they are well informed and equipped to develop a plan for the future. We would love to partner with your organization in developing a strategic plan. Contact us for more information!

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4 Steps to Complete a Feasibility Study

Too often non-profits and government agencies immediately begin implementing a new program or service area. They see a need with their clients or a gap in the existing services, so they elect to help meet that need. This all sounds good, right? The challenge is that there has not been enough time to complete a comprehensive planning and assessment process to develop the program or service. One service we offer our clients to meet this need is completing a feasibility study.plan-act-do-study-cycle4

We follow the Plan-Do-Study-Act or “PDSA” continuous quality improvement cycle (learn more in this blog).  We help clients assess, design, launch and evaluate programs and services in order to meet community needs and apply the latest research. When following this approach, we most often find that clients tend to skip the first step “Plan” and jump straight to “Do” as mentioned above. We work to help our clients thoughtfully plan out their services, programs, and interventions before they implement them to get the impact and desired change they are working towards.

Implementing a feasibility study is a great tool to complete a thoughtful planning process. A well designed feasibility study will help an organization assess 1) if what they are thinking of implementing is possible and 2) how to consider implementing it.

Shoes at ArrowsWe are currently working with a group of community leaders in Jay County to complete the feasibility of converting an old elementary school building into an early childhood center. Like many rural communities, Jay County has a declining population that has impacted their local schools in continuing to operate multiple school buildings, which has resulted in school consolidations and closures. At the same time, their rural community also struggles with attracting new employers due to a lack of child care for a growing workforce. Their community leaders had the idea of converting a closed elementary school into an early childhood center but wanted assistance in completing a feasibility study first.

4 Steps to Complete a Feasibility Study

 

1. Market Analysis

During this step you want to gather key information about your targeted population. This includes collecting demographic information from online public sources. This helps create a composite of your targeted community and population. We also suggest completing a landscape assessment to identify any other organization providing similar services or working with the target population. Lastly, it’s important to gather some qualitative feedback from various key stakeholders in the community to determine what they think the needs and gaps are as well as build community will for possibly launching a new service. This can be done through focus groups, surveys, and key informant interviews.

The purpose of this step is to ensure that there is in fact a need for your proposed program/ service. Check out this blog for more insight on completing a community needs assessment!

2. Program Design

During this step you will want to complete some research on your targeted service area. For Jay County, we are gathering the latest research on early childhood program models and services that lead to the desired outcomes they are seeking. Our landscape scan is also looking at existing program models in the community so as to not duplicate existing options but to consider complimentary program models that will meet the needs of communities. If you are seeking external funding, you may want to adopt or align your program around research-based models that have demonstrated outcomes. This will provide confidence to potential funders in implementing a new program.

The purpose of this step is to determine the best model and design for implementing your program. Check out this blog for more tips on finding evidence-based programs

3. Business Model

The next step is to develop the business model for operating the program. During this phase of the feasibility study you will gather important financial information that will help you understand what it will cost to implement the program and potential sources of funding. You should create a budget and possibly complete some financial forecasting to show start-up costs and when the program would “break even” or be self-sustaining. This step should also assess the operations behind implementing the program, which includes the staffing model, materials and services, training, facility, technology, equipment and other program needs.

With Jay County, we are completing walk throughs of three possible locations with an architect and construction group to inform the best location to operate an early childhood center. This will inform the potential capacity to serve children, the staffing needs and ultimately budget the break down for start-up costs versus ongoing maintenance costs. The purpose of this step is to think through all of the components needed to successfully implement the program.

Check out this blog for some tips to establish financial goals.

4. Communications Plan

The last (and sometimes forgotten) step is to develop a communications strategy if you decide to launch the new program. After spending all of this time assessing and planning the design of the program, you want to ensure that the targeted audience knows about the program and enrolls/ participates. The communications plan would include determining the current knowledge base in the community, so there might need to be some education and awareness about why you are providing this service especially if it is new and different.

In Jay County, we are launching a PR Campaign through a series of op-eds penned by different key stakeholders (employers, teachers, judge, doctor, etc.) in the community all talking about why expanding early childhood is critical to meet the community’s needs. Your communications plan should include the different channels (social media, newspaper, radio, text, mailings, etc.) that residents use to gather information. In a parent survey (our potential client for early childhood services), we asked them where they get their information and their preferred method of communication. Based on this assessment, develop a start-up marketing plan and community education plan for the proposed new program that will meet participation goals and engage the key stakeholders and partners in the community.

Check out this blog for tips on creating an op-ed campaign and this blog for getting media attention.

Completing a feasibility study may seem unnecessary or slow down your timeline, but the time you invest up front will see a return in a well thought out model that will be set up for success and to accomplish your goals. Completing intentional design through the PDSA model is a critical differentiator for Transform Consulting Group and many clients point specifically to this process improving their own internal operations which accelerates impact. Contact us if we can help you complete a feasibility study!

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How to use 990 tax forms for grant writing?

Writing grants can be a long, arduous process.  In this past blog, we talked about five steps for grant writing.  Once you have identified possible funders who share alignment with your organization’s mission and goals, you want to gather more information to make a compelling grant request.

Some helpful things to know about a possible funder before submitting a grant application are the following:

  1. Who have they funded in the past?Tax form image
  2. How much have been their grants?
  3. What have been the projects / services funded?
  4. Who is on their Board of Directors?

This research is not an absolute that would change your grant proposal but would help inform the overall approach and priorities to pitch. In general you want to know the types of organizations that they have funded in the past to see if you fit into the category.  For example, if the funder has only supported direct service organizations then they may not fund an intermediary organization. You would still want to ask the funder to make sure you fit their description of possible grantees but this might provide some good insight.

Secondly, it is really important to find out their typical grant funding range. You don’t want your ask to be too small when you could have asked for a higher amount based on their past funding. At the same time, you don’t want your ask too large if that is well beyond what they have funded.  Again, you still want to talk with the funder about what you are proposing, the need and an appropriate amount.

Third, it is helpful to see the types of projects that they have funded. Typically, the funder will list acceptable areas of focus and uses of the grant funds.  However, sometimes that information is not readily available.  For example, would the funder support capital projects, capacity building projects for the organization, or the types of direct services?

Fourth, grant writing is so much more than the technical writing and submission of grant applications.  It is really about building a relationship with the funder and grantee.  The funder is a partner and extension of the work of your organization.  As such, you will want to build a relationship with the funder including the staff and members of their board of directors.

Some funders do a good job of including this information on their website.  However, we find that not all of this information is readily available. A great tool that we turn to is finding the funder’s “Form 990-PF” tax return.

What is Tax Form 990-PF?

Tax exempt organizations must file some version of the Tax Form 990 with the IRS each year to maintain their standing. Non-profit organizations file Form 990, and private foundations file Form 990-PF. The “PF” stands for Private Foundation.

The 990-PF provides fiscal data for the foundation, names of trustees and officers, application information, and a complete grants list.  The last item is most helpful for your research.

The funder lists all of the organizations who received a grant in the past calendar year.  It essentially answers the three items listed above: who they founded, how much and for what!

The 990-PF can also be useful for relationship building with the funder. For example, an organization’s Form 990 includes the contact information for the private foundation if they do not have a website. In addition, the 990 provides the names of the people on the board and the officers whom you might know and start to build relationships.

Where can you find the Form 990-PF for Funders?

In today’s information age, there are some great online tools to find organization’s 990s.  

  1. Search Engines: You can search an organization’s 990 through different online search engines, such as Google by using keywords.
  2. Funder’s Website: Some funders will post their past 990s directly on their website, so start there.
  3. Foundation Center’s 990 Finder: they have developed an online search tool specifically for 990s. There are other organizations, such as Charity Navigator, that post 990s but they link back to the Foundation Center. 

If you are looking to increase and diversify your funding through grant writing, contact us.  We would love to learn more about your goals and see how we can accelerate your impact!

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Is it Time to Redesign Your Program?

Organizations – public and private – go through different stages of development.  During this life cycle, it is not uncommon for an organization to update or modify their programs and services.  At the same time, however, some organizations can be stagnant and need to update their programs. How do you know when it is time for your organization to refresh your program?time 3

Below are three questions you should ask yourself to determine if it is time to update your program.

  1. Are we making the impact that we hoped to make?
  2. Is our program aligned with the latest research?
  3. Is our program meeting the needs of the target population?

If you answer no to any of these questions, then it might be time to seriously review your program. You may not need a complete redesign of your program, but it’s time to reevaluate.

When we have worked with other organizations to help them improve their impact by updating their program model, there have been a range of changes that we proposed implementing to achieve their results.

In one case, we worked with a large volunteer literacy tutoring program who was not making the impact they had hoped to make.  Through our assessment, we proposed the following changes that were then implemented:

  • Clarify the target population – we learned that the target population to enroll in and receive this literacy tutoring program needed to be more focused.  Students who were reading just below grade level benefited the most from this program.  Students who were more than one grade level behind were not a good fit for this type of tutoring program.  
  • Strengthen the curriculum and training – Since this program relies on volunteers – non-professional educators –  to deliver the tutoring, the curriculum is critical.  After researching other effective literacy tutoring programs delivering the impact we had hoped, we saw a theme in the curriculum and instructional practices that they were implementing.  We adopted a specific model of instruction and updated the training for volunteers.
  • Expand the capacity – the need for this organization’s work was high in the community, but their ability to meet the need was limited to the available volunteers.  They were interested in expanding their capacity through AmeriCorps members who would be able to significantly expand the number of students enrolled in and benefiting from the program.  We helped them determine how AmeriCorps members could enhance the staff capacity of their program and restructure the program model.

With another client who is working to help get first generation college graduate students, they were struggling to deliver the outcomes to their funders.  As we started helping them pull their program data together, the results were not what they had hoped.  After reviewing the data and the program activities, it did not take long to identify some gaps and opportunities in the program.  From our work, we proposed and helped them implement the following changes:

  • Develop new curriculum – Over the years as new staff have worked on the program, the curriculum had “evolved” into a hodge podge of worksheets and lesson plans that were slightly modified each year.  There was not a clear alignment of the curriculum with the identified outcomes.  Rather than modifying what they had in place, we decided to start over in developing a new curriculum that clearly aligned to the outcomes and would be “turn key” for staff to implement.
  • Align multiple programs – This organization operated a school-year program as well as a summer program.  Both programs shared similar objectives of helping get more first generation college graduates.  However, they operated as two separate programs.  We initially started to focus on the school-year program but quickly realized that the “dosage” or impact potential with the summer program was much more focused (40 hours x 6 weeks = 240 hours of “intervention” versus 1.5 hours x 32 weeks = 48 hours of “intervention”).  When we combined the two programs as one overall program, we expanded the “dosage” exposure as well as the possibilities of impact.
  • Focus the target population – The organization was working with multiple schools across a city.  In some cases, it was a middle school in one district and a high school in another district.  Instead, we targeted 2 districts and ensured that we had the middle schools that fed into the high schools for continuity purposes since this program enrolled 7th – 12th grade students with the goal of students enrolling each year.  This change provided efficiencies for the staff and also helped ensure that the students targeted for the program would receive the greatest exposure of enrolling multiple years.

In today’s information era, there is more research that is available to inform our work and ensure that we are implementing best practice strategies to affect change.  In addition, the populations and communities that organizations are serving are changing, and need to evolve with them.  Lastly, local, state and federal policies and priorities are shifting.  Organizations that can adapt to this changing environment can grow and potentially expand their impact.

If you want help assessing the shifting landscape in your community or industry, or you answered ‘no’ to one of the three questions above, then contact us.  We would love to learn more about your program and goals to see how we could support you.

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4 Tips for Writing an Effective RFP

We are fortunate to work on both sides of the grant making process. We work with funders administering grants to organizations to help carry out their mission and purpose.  We also work with organizations pursuing grants from funders and have written several blogs about grant writing here and here.Tips for RFP

In this blog, we are going to focus on the funder side of the grant making process and strategies that funders can employ to improve the outcomes of their grant awards.  Yes, the structure of a Request for Proposal (RFP) can have a positive or negative impact on the outcomes of grantees and funders accomplishing their goals.

Whether a funder is establishing a new grant program or looking to update their current grant, how your RFP is structured can influence the outcome of how the grant funds are ultimately used.  This is why we are sharing our tips to help improve the overall grant making process starting with the RFP.

1. Have a Clear Purpose for the Grant Program.

One of the first questions we ask funders is what do they hope to accomplish from this grant funding source.  As a prospective grantee, since we work with many of them, it can be really challenging to write a grant application when there is not a clear purpose and focus.  Having identified goals, program priorities and guidelines helps the funder select grantees who are best aligned with supporting the accomplishment of their goals.  It also helps the prospective applicants know how their organization, programs and services are a good fit (or not) for supporting the funder’s goals.

We worked with a funder who wanted to review one of their current grant programs.  They were not seeing the outcomes they had hoped from the grant program and after reviewing their RFP, we saw some areas for improvement.  Their identified goals were very broad and general, so the applicants were submitting proposals that lacked focus and direction.  We worked with the funder to get clear about what they wanted to accomplish with this grant program and revised the RFP to better communicate the goals, priority focus areas and expectations.  The next grant cycle resulted in not only better applications but ultimately grantees with intentional purpose to support the funder’s goals!

2. Seek Partner Feedback and Alignment.

Grant programs are administered by the funder but can be developed through a collaborative process.  We are seeing a growing trend of funders reaching out to partners for feedback and input to inform a grant program.  This is especially helpful when launching a new grant program and/or seeking revisions to a grant program.  When doing this, we recommend including partners who will not have a conflict of interest for participating in the grant development / RFP process.  We also suggest a variety of stakeholders with different perspectives.  This may include researchers, consultants, past recipients, trade association representatives and other funders.

We worked with a government agency to help them implement a new state grant program.  The client could have developed the grant program and RFP internally, but they saw the value (and we agreed!) in seeking input from key stakeholders to help inform the development of the grant program.  Over the course of 3-4 months, the stakeholder group spent time reviewing data in the state, researching best practices in other states and developing the program goals and guidelines. The result was a comprehensive RFP that laid a solid foundation for the new grant program.  While it was more time up-front spent planning, it created tremendous buy-in and ownership in the industry as the new grant program launched.

3. Develop a Well Structured and Organized RFP.

While it might seem mundane and simplistic, the simple details of how a RFP is packaged can make all of the difference to the application, selection and award/ monitoring process.  It truly sets the tone for the grant program.  Here are some simple tips that we find helpful when writing the RFP and responding to them as grant writers:

  • Include a “Table of Contents” that outlines the key elements included in the RFP package.
  • Use “Headers and Footers” to identify page numbers, date of the RFP, and name of the RFP.
  • Use a “Numbering System” to communicate each new section, such as Introduction, Submission Instructions, Narrative Requirements, Forms, etc.
  • Use “Section Headers” to identify different sections within the big Numbering System.
  • Include “Forms” that communicate how you want the information provided.  This could include forms for a Budget, Evaluation Plan, Target Population Demographics, etc.  Forms can also be a great space saver.
  • State the “Selection Criteria” that will be used to rate the applicants.  If you have identified points for particular sections that is even better.
  • Include a “Checklist” with the order of the grant application package.  This not only helps the applicant double check that they have all of the required items, but is also an internal check for the funder that everything needed is being requested.

We worked with a client who awards funding to support before, after and summer school programming.  The program and RFP process had been operating on “auto pilot” for many years being passed on from one staff person to the next.  As a result, the RFP application and forms had become a consolidation of different forms and information that resulted in a disconnected RFP packet.  It was no wonder when the applications came in that they too were not well organized or structured, which made the review process very difficult.  We worked with the client to review the application package and identify what information was necessary, the order in which the information was needed and what could be removed.  We removed half of the RFP from its previous version, and there was much more clarity/ focus in the new RFP!

4. Go Digital with the Application Process.

With the growth of technology, there are a variety of options and systems that can be implemented to help make the RFP process more efficient and effective for both the funder and applicant.  When possible, we encourage clients to use digital forms for posting grant application information and receiving applications.  A free option is Google Forms.  There are several low-cost online options for creating and accepting forms that we encourage funders to consider if their budget allows.  Some funders choose to design their own system embedded on their website to accept grant applications. Whatever the path, there are options available for nearly every type of funder and their budget.  We often see a ROI on time saved through the use of technology, and applicants tend to appreciate these digital systems.

We worked with a funder who still wanted to have multiple hard copies of the grant proposals and on a CD-ROM.  A flash drive was not acceptable.  Many computers are being made without CD-ROMs.  The client hadn’t considered new digital systems available to submit grants that could make the process easier for both them and their applicants.  We presented different options that they might consider for their RFP.  The funder ended up taking a “baby step” of accepting email submissions.  We hope that the next step will be using one of the digital options.

By investing some up-front time in thoughtfully planning and structuring a grant program’s RFP application, the funder will see positive benefits in helping to accelerate their impact.  Transform Consulting Group is available to support funders in accomplishing their goals through the grant making process.  Let us know if you have a new program you need assistance setting up or want someone to take a look at an existing program.

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Top 10 Do’s and Don’t’s of Hiring

As a small business owner, I have the opportunity to hire new team members.  I did not take any courses in college or graduate school that taught me how to hire staff.  (Sidebar, I did not even know I was going to be a businessHiring Blog image 2 owner back then!)  However, over the past several years I learned some key strategies on what to do and what not to do when hiring.

Do’s and Don’t’s of Hiring New Team Members

  1. Do: Before you even start the application process, you have to have a clear understanding of your organization’s needs and how this role will fill the gap.  If you are replacing an exiting employee, do you want your new hire to have the same skill set?  Is your organization going in a new direction, and you want your new hire to have a set of skills to support that new direction?  This type of analysis should help inform any revisions to the job posting and the questions you ask during the interview.
  2. Don’t: Use only the standard methods of sharing the job posting.  Know your audience and market to determine the best methods and platforms to share the job opening.  For some organizations, it makes sense to post ads in the local newspaper.  For others, posts on social media platforms and trade associations works better.At TCG, we use a mixed-methods approach of paying a nominal fee to post with a trade association for nonprofit organizations, announcing it in our electronic newsletter and sharing across our social media platforms.  Keep an eye on your response rate and be willing to adjust your methods to get the results needed.
  3. Do: Think beyond the content skills you are seeking to the soft skills necessary to be successful in your organization.  Our staff must be sharp and also have the disposition to work collaboratively internally with their team and externally with our clients.  Therefore, we need team members who have the “smarts” and are also great communicators, problem solvers and partners.
  4. Don’t: Use the standard interview and hiring process. Rethink the traditional interview process and assess how it is working for you.  Are there steps that you can eliminate and still get good results?We diligently scan the best applications and only select the ones who are possible candidates to go through to the first round, which is a phone interview.  After the first round, you may be able to stop here and make a decision.  There’s no reason to drag on the process if you know who to hire and don’t need more information.  This will save you and your team time and money. If you are still unsure, assign a “homework” task to the possible candidates.  This could include a short writing sample, data viz, or blog post – whatever is relevant to the nature of the job.  A “homework” assignment could be more revealing than a second interview and show how much they want the position as well as their skills in action.
  5. Do: Describe the work culture and environment that you have to offer.  More and more employees are looking for a job in a work environment that they will be motivated in and thrive.  Do staff work in their office by themselves all day, or is it a collaborative open space environment? Not all employees are successful in a collaborative, open environment.  More and more employees want a flexible work schedule, ability to work remotely, and collaborate with staff while still working independently.  Do you have a clear sense of your work environment, culture and who will and will not be a good fit?  To your best ability, describe it in your job description or during the interview process.
  6. Don’t: Use the standard interview questions: Where do you see yourself in five years; What are your strengths; What are your weaknesses? The answers are often scripted and don’t really provide the insight necessary. Really think about the skills needed to perform the job and ask questions that give you the information needed. Some of my favorite interview questions include: Is it better to be perfect and late, or good and on time?; We have to quickly learn about new industries and causes for our diverse clients. Tell me how you became informed and knowledgeable about a new issue area.  What would you do differently, if anything, the next time that you needed to learn something new?; Assume that you come to work here. One year from now you finish work one Friday evening thinking that accepting this job was the best thing you ever did. What happened during the year for you to feel that way?; Some of our team works remotely while others work in the office. This means you could be working independently for several days a week and then meeting with a client or a team member on the other days.  What experience do you have working in this type of environment and how would you be successful?
  7. Do: Be open to new possibilities.  In reviewing resumes and applications, the applicant may not “fit” the part on paper, but could be great in your company.  I look for skills that are transferable even if they are not in the same field or industry.  I also look for increasing leadership in the projects and experiences noted.  I have also learned that some more seasoned applicants are looking for career shifts and might be willing to take a pay cut to work with your organization that will help support their career shift.  Others might be looking for less responsibility and more work-life balance.  Don’t judge a book by its cover.
  8. Don’t: Ignore the applicants.  At every step of the hiring process, it is important to follow-up with all applicants.  Don’t leave anyone wondering if they made it to the next round or not.  I am shocked when I hear friends and colleagues share stories of interviewing for positions and then receiving no response.  I understand that the interview process might take longer to make a decision, so I will check in with the applicants and let them know it is taking longer or tell them then if they are no longer being considered.  I consider all potential applicants as possible clients or employees.  They may not be a fit for the position today, but could be in the future. They could also be a future client depending on their next job, so I want our company to be well represented throughout the interview process.
  9. Do: Say “no” when you know it is not a good fit.  In general, I am a nice person and have a hard time disappointing others. For some applicants, they will convince themselves that this is their dream job, and it is hard to turn someone down.  You will know almost immediately if someone is not the right fit through their application materials and the first interview.  Again, I consider our hiring process an outreach opportunity to meet new individuals in the field.  Therefore, I don’t want to burn any bridges, but at the same time I need to manage expectations for candidates who are not a good or right fit now.
  10. Don’t: Rush the hiring process.  It can be time consuming to thoughtfully review your organization’s needs and prepare a comprehensive job description and posting.  It takes significant time to read each applicant’s materials and respond to every applicant; to set up the interviews and write thoughtful interview questions; to determine the next steps in the hiring process (second interview or homework task); to follow-up with each applicant about next steps; to negotiate “win-win” offers; and to onboard new employees (which is a whole blog in itself!).  However, getting the right candidate is worth it if you invest your time in the front end of the hiring process.  This will hopefully result in more sustainability and productivity in your company, which is something we all want!

Like I said, I never set out to be a business owner hiring employees.  Now that I am in this position, I consider this an awesome responsibility and opportunity.  I have learned that each team member is an extension of our organization — our mission, values and priorities.  I want team members who will represent our organization well and be excited about our work. Learn more about our team and culture here and stay posted on any TCG job openings here

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4 Steps to Form an Early Childhood Coalition

You may have heard the term “coalition” and wondered what does that mean.  A coalition is simply when a group of people gather to address an issue that is bigger than what one person or organization can solve on their own. In Indiana, about thirty communities (cities, counties and regions) have formed a coalition that is focused on early childhood education.  Two years ago, it was probably about 15-20 Indiana communities with an early childhood coalition.  What is happening in Indiana and other states that is causing communities to come together around early childhood education and why should your community consider forming an early childhood coalition if you haven’t yet?

Coalition Trend

The idea of forming a coalition to address an issue is not new or specific to the early childhood field.  Coalitions are well used in other sectors, such as economic development, workforce development, and education.  What is somewhat new is the idea that organizations need to work with otherorganizations and stakeholders, often some unusual partners, to make 18403781_704582429702521_8230617511511406933_oprogress and realize their outcomes.  We talked about this in a past blog article here.

Early childhood education is complex and multifaceted.  It affects so many other sector’s goals: health, education, workforce, economics, and criminal justice.  As communities have started to organize around one of these other issues, such as a desire to increase their talent pipeline they realize that early childhood education can be a solution to address their goal.

Other states who have expanded public investments in early childhood education have expanded through local community coalitions, such as Michigan’s Great Start Communities.  The local community coalitions know the needs and assets in the community as well as the community’s culture to develop a vision and plan for action that makes the most sense.

Indiana has a strong value of local decision-making, and most of the state’s work is implemented regionally or locally.  There are also some natural partners and resources available in most communities – Community Foundation, United Way agency, and/or Economic Development group) – who are already aligned to supporting this work.  These organizations can make great conveners in communities to get a coalition started.

As Indiana has worked to expand state funded pre-k through On My Way Pre-K, it has done so through county-wide expansion efforts and not just grants to individual early childhood education programs.  In 2015, five counties (Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh) were designated On My Way Pre-K counties to receive state dollars to enroll low-income children in high quality pre-k.  In the most recent legislative session, an additional 15 counties (Bartholomew, DeKalb, Delaware, Elkhart, Floyd, Grant, Harrison, Howard, Kosciusko, Madison, Marshall, Monroe, St. Joseph, Tippecanoe and Vigo) were selected to be a part of the On My Way pre-k expansion effort.

A common thread in all of these selected On My Way Pre-K counties is that they have a coalition in place that is focused on early childhood education.  If your county has not been selected yet to participate in On My Way Pre-K, it might be time for your community to get ready for the next expansion opportunity.  

While we are working with state partners to build local capacity through the ELAC County Profiles, the Indiana Summit (discussed in this blog post) and a new ELAC Coalition Building Toolkit that will be released later this year, we also work locally with communities.  We recommend these steps for any community looking at forming a coalition, regardless of if the topic is early childhood education, workforce development or another issue area!
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  1. Collaborate

The first task is to identify the right people to address this compelling community issue and form your coalition.  In Wabash County, we formed an early childhood coalition that includes representatives from business, K12, health/mental health, criminal justice, philanthropy, higher education, local government, and early childhood
education.

  1. Assess

The second task is to make sure everyone is on the same page with their understanding of the community and issue area.  During this phase, your coalition should gather relevant key indicators from current community needs 18358873_704583986369032_6243592827544465858_oassessments and public data.  In addition, this is also the opportunity to gather feedback from a variety of key stakeholders relevant to the topic at hand through interviews, surveys, and focus groups.  During this step you will not only gather invaluable feedback but also start to build community will and buy in.  For the Wabash Early Childhood Coalition, we used the ELAC County Profiles and IYI Kids Count County Profile.  We also held focus groups with all types of parents, surveyed businesses and parents, and met individually with key stakeholders to collect their input on the current needs and strengths in the community.

  1. Facilitate Consensus

Too often community coalitions jump right into planning a project or initiative without thoughtfully completing the first steps above and having an intentional plan in place.  This step is critical to bring the coalition together in agreement about the focus of the coalition and its goals to accomplish. We suggest keeping the goals between 3-5, and they should be a combination of short-term “easy wins” that can be accomplished within the first year with minimal costs as well as some long-term goals that are broken out into specific action steps over time.  It is critical to have the short-term easy wins, so that the coalition builds credibility in the community that it is results focused and creates momentum.  It is also important to break down the steps needed to accomplish those big goals that will take more time and effort, so that they don’t get lost in being “too hard” or “not having enough money”.

  1. Create

Once your coalition has consensus on what it wants to do and an intentional plan in place, now it is time to put it in action.  Your coalition will need to determine who and how this plan will be implemented, which will include identifying a “backbone support” organization.  This might be one of the coalition members taking on the work and/or applying for funding to hire a staff person to implement.  During this phase, your coalition will want to build in some key outcomes that it is focused on tracking to be accountable for making progress on the issue on the identified.

When diverse stakeholders come together in agreement to address a common issue, transformational change can occur.  This is what gets us excited at Transform Consulting Group.  If your community would like assistance with a coalition, give us a call or send us a note.  We would love to learn more about what you are wanting to accomplish and how we might help!

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