Hello April! I am greeting this month with big, open arms – ready for sunshine, warmer temperatures, open windows, and a good, deep spring cleaning (who doesn’t love washing windows and scrubbing baseboards?). If those are not enough reasons to love April, here’s one more: it’s National Volunteer Month – a time to celebrate and promote volunteerism and helping hands. As a grant professional in the field for over 16 years, I have come to understand and deeply appreciate the value of a helping hand. One of the most valuable helping hands I have seen is proposal reviews, particularly for federal proposals (perfect timing as spring is often a federal grant season!). I have been fortunate enough to experience both internal and external reviews from those who are unfamiliar with my proposal’s program or the agency. BONUS: I have also served as an external reviewer for federal grant programs. The benefits of these extra eyes and hands are invaluable especially in an ever growing, highly competitive environment.

As we look ahead to International Grant Professionals Day, I cannot help but wonder – what does it really mean to be a grant professional? When I was a kid, I used to go to the beauty parlor (am I dating myself yet?). The beautician (yep, I definitely just dated myself now) had a sign hanging by her chair that said something like - “I am a hairdresser, a therapist, a coach, a cheerleader, and a magician.” Today, I wish I had this sign to hang in my office. As a grant professional, on any given day, I have conducted a therapy session with the development director who is in a sheer state of panic trying to juggle numerous grant deadlines; coached a CEO through what seemed like a never-ending conversation of should we apply or should we not; and magically transformed some bulleted notes into a program design. Whew…and that was all before noon!

I don’t know about you, but I have never been so relieved to have spring arrive! Winter, like everything else, did not give us a break this year. But here we are! The sun is shining more, the temperature is warming, and hope is in the air! We’re coming up on a year since the pandemic lockdown first occurred. In commemoration of getting through everything that followed, it’s time to UNLOCK our potential as grant professionals. As the days get longer and we all feel a little more optimistic, I would encourage you to use the energy that comes with spring to rejuvenate yourself personally so you can develop your best professional self! It’s important to find a balance between work and life because if you’re not feeding your soul outside of work, you’re not giving your all as a grant professional.

Like all things in life, we humans get better with practice. We make mistakes, we learn from them, we seek to improve. As professionals, we continuously work to be the best versions of ourselves. Many of us are grants pros because our hearts led us here, so why not nurture your talents and fortify your craft? That’s right, folks – I’m talking about practicing #selfcare, professionally.

February is the month of so-called love. While I am all about spreading love to people and relationships, what about those connections you don’t love? As grant professionals, we deal with all different kinds of people – you know those people:
  • The program director who says, “I don’t even have the staff to carry out these program goals, but I need the money. So, just write whatever goals you think will get us the grant.”
  • The executive director who tells you “we don’t have a policy on diversity, equity, and inclusion; can’t you just write one for us?”
  • The new client who, when asked to share about their organization’s leadership team and strategies, says “you can find that on our website.”
Yep, I did not love navigating these relationships or at the very least, I do not love these conversations that seem to leave me feeling stuck and frustrated. So how do you learn how to accept and move these relationships and conversations along?

As we say goodbye to the year that seemed it would never end, I am looking forward to 2021 with renewed hope. In the spirit of new beginnings, our January blog series is focused on resetting. Be it working from home, adjusting offices to allow for social distancing, or changing jobs altogether, a lot of us unexpectedly found ourselves working in new spaces over the course of the last year. Even as someone who works from home in non-pandemic times, I’m used to only sharing my workspace with four-legged office mates who sleep most of the day. The pandemic forced me to explore new places to work within my house to cope with my new two-legged office mate that no longer left the house every morning. If you’re like me, your new workspace might not be what most people consider “permanent” (maybe because, also like me, you were hoping it would be a more temporary solution). Or perhaps you’ve weathered the storm that was 2020 in the same space you’ve worked for years. Either way, the start of the new year is a great excuse to reset, rethink, and reclaim your workspace so you can prepare to take on a new year of possibilities.

This time of year naturally leads people to reflect back and start looking forward, generating new goals and resolutions. Respectfully, I ask, “How is that even possible with a year like 2020?” It’s been a year filled with fear, sadness, uncertainty, confusion, and constant change, to say the least. Even our everyday language has taken on a whole new plethora of words like COVID-19, pandemic, social distance, quarantine, contact tracing, essential businesses, and flattening the curve. By the way, if you are looking for that blog that says better days are ahead, here is my warning: STOP! This blog is about realness – real thoughts, real feelings, real struggles. I wish I could say that I thought of writing this myself, but I am not that bold. I owe it to a great colleague of mine who challenged me to bring out the realness and ugly truths that may help me (and possibly even others) sort this out in my head.

I recently wrote a blog, Write Like a JD, where I shared some tips I learned in law school that I utilize in my grant writing. When it was published, I was excited – I always am; there’s just something so satisfying about seeing your work in print. But my heart sank immediately when I saw the cover art that originally accompanied my piece. It was a stock photo of a white guy in a suit sitting behind a desk with a gavel on one side of him and the scales of justice on the other. I’m a lawyer by trade, a grant professional by choice, and an African American woman by birth. I did not see myself reflected in this art that accompanied my work.

I recently attended my first-ever Grant Professionals Association (GPA) national conference – virtually, at that (because, you know, the pandemic). It was three days of absorbing information, dialoguing with colleagues, and notating my personal takeaways. I’m what I’d call, an inbetweener in the grant profession; I’m on the cusp of entering the mid-career mark but not quite there yet years-wise. I went into this conference with excitement and hope and left with certain unanticipated lessons learned. During the opening session, our emcee (Jess Pettitt) encouraged conference attendees to record our ‘circles.’ Although she gave a definition, I took this to basically mean, review our session notes and reflect on lessons learned at the end of each day, and circle the ones that personally resonated the most. I made countless observations and learned a ton, but here’s a snippet of what spoke loudest to me.

I am the type of person whose brain is constantly thinking, even in my sleep. The harder the problem, the more likely I am to have several nights of sleep interrupted by fragments of thought my brain is trying to work through. Two weeks ago, this was my situation. I was preparing to submit a grant to a funder on the cutting edge of the equity discussion. As a significant funder with a large corpus, the Health Forward Foundation is leading by example and investing in organizations that otherwise might be overlooked by other foundations. My client serves a population not in Kansas City, Missouri proper, but one whose challenges mirrored those living in the middle of the city: high unemployment, low-paying jobs for those who are employed, high mobility for families struggling to pay their rent, and families in and out of homelessness when ends did not always meet. Families struggle with the trauma common to multi-generational poverty. Children struggle with adverse childhood experiences. But there are no mental health resources located in the community, and this is what my grant was trying to address. The grant had been drafted for over a week when the demonstrations against systemic racism began. As I watched, listened, read, and thought, this grant proposal started to bother me. Had I truly reflected the need of the population and the context of the situation? How had I described the population who would receive these services – as those in need or those with a need? Were we truly putting forth the best portrayal of the client organizations we serve? Were we showing the strengths of the clients they serve? Were we doing anything to push back against systemic racism?