We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of GrantStation by interviewing some of our longstanding Members. Lucille Acken at Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, has been a Member since 2004 so I was eager to learn about her experiences in grantseeking over the years.
David: Thank you for being part of our first interview, Lucille! Other agencies of Catholic Charities have been Members over the years. One of our earliest was the agency in Anchorage, Alaska. Could you tell us about Catholic Charities of Venice?
Lucille: The ten-county southwest Florida service area includes wealthy sun coast cities and very low-income rural towns populated by generous individuals and organizations that are committed to helping one another. Programs and funding are directed towards identified needs in each county. Nonetheless homelessness, emergency direct assistance, utilities, and food insufficiency are universal issues. Other human services programs address mental health counseling, child care, early childhood education, special needs housing, human trafficking, immigration, empowerment, youth development, after-school reading programs, mentoring, disaster assistance, housing counseling, soup kitchens, senior services, clothing closets, refugee resettlement, and transitional housing, as well as specialty programs such as Undy Sunday and Weekend Back Packs.
David: That is a broad scope of services! I imagine you are regularly looking for new sources of funding for all these programs. How do grants fit into your funding plan, and what has been your role?
Lucille: Grants account for 25% of the budget. The types of grants include federal, state, county, foundation, and corporation. Grants are my part-time responsibility since I also manage the immigration program. In twenty years, I’ve seen grantwriting evolve in many ways.
David: I can imagine. How have you seen it evolve?
Lucille: A government grant submission formerly packed in a huge cardboard box with several three-inch binders has been replaced by electronic submissions. Many corporate and foundation solicitations have followed suit requiring a grantwriter to master or be comfortable with several software programs.
David: The skill set required for grantseekers has certainly changed over the years. Is there a particular area that you enjoy the most?
Lucille: My favorite grants have been the CDBG grants. I’ve been successful in securing a few of them for various counties where we wanted to renovate a building. The footprints of the buildings range from a single-family residence to a 10,000 sq. ft. multi-use building. The excitement of this type of project comes from putting all the puzzle pieces together into a competitive package. The challenge of working with municipalities, contractors, architects, and internal staff in developing the project requires a team approach with extraordinary attention to detail.
By being able to utilize several funders over time (HUD, local county, private foundations, and individual benefactors), some projects are able to grow and become institutionalized in their community. One such program is Our Mother’s House, a transitional supportive housing project for single mothers and their infants or toddlers. Our Mother’s House has grown since the late 90s from four apartments shared by two mothers and their children to the current 22 individual apartments including onsite day care for their children. Six apartments were added in 2005, seven added in 2010, and five added in 2018 for a total of 22.
David: That’s some great growth, and it does sound like a lot of different puzzle pieces to manage.
Lucille: It definitely is. I really feel that successful grants are a combination of persistence, teamwork, creativity, and an abiding sense of humor.
David: I love that you have “sense of humor” on your list. What sort of specific grantseeking tips can you share with our readers?
Lucille: Read the grant guidelines and then read them again. That also goes for electronic applications. I made and learned from two mistakes 15 years apart. “In the old days” when grants were boxed and shipped or overnighted to the grantor, I made an almost fatal mistake. I noticed when re-re-reading the grant guidelines that the budget had to be submitted in a separate binder. This meant that the package had to be deconstructed and reorganized and I had to get another binder. All of this caused me to miss the last pick-up for overnight delivery. That caused me to have the pleasure of a five-hour drive to deliver the grant application by the deadline and a five-hour return drive back. I never make that mistake again and was so mortified that I never admitted it until now. So read, read, and read again.
David: That is wise advice. We sometimes focus so much on the content. However, it is so important to pay attention to how the funder wants the information presented, even down to using the right binders. So please tell me that the long drive was worth it.
Lucille: The grant was for $300,000 and was renewed for several years until the grantor changed focus.
David: I’m so glad it paid off! What was your more recent lesson?
Lucille: That also involved reading. Because circumstances didn’t permit it, I missed the bidder conference for a local grant. As a consequence, I was unaware or overlooked the fact that there were multiple versions of the electronic application. As luck would have it, the grant application I submitted was the incorrect version for the program I was applying for. Since I had submitted it a day early, I was given 24 hours to complete the correct version of the grant application.
Tip: Read and re-read the grant guidelines, allow time to make corrections if necessary, and don’t miss the bidder conference. I work independently, receiving information from remote offices. These two mishaps could have been avoided if another staff person was available to do a review. It’s easy for a primary author to overlook something that would jump right out at another set of eyes.
David: Indeed. One thing that we stress is the importance of building a grantseeking team. Sometimes it takes a village to put together the pieces of a request, and then to read it over for adding perspective and offering edits. You mentioned reading the funder’s guidelines; it sounds like you really focus on what the grantor is asking for.
Lucille: I take a long time to read the grant announcement. I always print the grant application guidelines. While reading, I put colored boxes next to items that must be included in the grant application, and I highlight links to any additional information I may need so I can find it easily at a later time. I read the rating/evaluation sheets if included and I coordinate them with sections of the grant application. Occasionally there may be a slight difference in the way information is requested and that may affect how a narrative is written. I also try to follow the rating sheets in developing the narrative pieces so that the rater does not have to search to be sure the criteria was met. I review the final product against the application guidelines and check off the boxes identified earlier so I know they were included.
David: That sounds like a great way to ensure that your proposal is aligning with the funder’s giving priorities and requirements. What else do you focus on for your proposals?
Lucille: I also spend a lot of time working with the demographic, benchmark, and agency data. I’m sure there are organizations that have departments or specialized staff to handle data synchronization and budgets; however, that is not the case for me. The challenge is to create a workable timeline; be sure to stay on top of the info-nuggets that may be coming from remote offices. Obtain signatures and sign-off as early as possible; that person may be on vacation when you are ready to submit the grant request.
David: That really speaks to the nature of coordination involved in a request, pulling together all the critical pieces according to your timeline. Any final thoughts you’d like to share around writing successful grant requests?
Lucille: Don’t forget the grant request is about people; the numbers help tell a story about people. It’s true that a picture is worth 1,000 words, so include photos when appropriate and possible. It’s also important to site-visit the location of the program to be funded by the grant award and interview staff so the grant request is not overwritten. Example: The soup kitchen needed a new soup kettle. I pictured a big saucepan like grandma used. Wrong. The “kettle” that the soup kitchen actually purchased stands on the floor and could easily cook an elephant’s leg!
David: Wow, talk about clarifying the “statement of need”! Lucille, thank you so much for sharing your experience, ideas, and process with us.
Action steps you can take today
- Re-read the grant guidelines and application instructions, taking note of any interesting specifics.
- Re-read your drafted proposal before submitting. Engage another staff members to read the draft as well.
- Make connections to their requirements in your narrative, so that it is clear how your program or project matches the funder’s giving interests.
- Schedule any required reviews and signatures early so you don’t get caught short when the deadline date arrives.
ABOUT LUCILLE ACKEN
Lucille Acken has been a grants professional for 22 years at Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc. It is a thirty-five-year-old human service agency with a budget of over $11 million dollars and one hundred employees serving ten southwest Florida counties. Lucille is both the Diocesan Director for Organizational Development and Grants and the Program Director for Immigration Services. She has previously worked as Executive Director of Heathy Start Collation – Polk, Highlands, and Hardee Counties, and as Peer Facilitator for Polk County School Board.