In episode 22 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Michelle Nusum-Smith discussed include:
Michelle Nusum-Smith is owner and principal consultant at The Word Woman LLC. A licensed nonprofit consultant, coach and trainer, Michelle helps nonprofits, government agencies, and individuals achieve their goals. With over 20 years of nonprofit experience, she has expertise in all areas of nonprofit development and sustainability. Michelle has extensive speaker and facilitator experience. She is licensed to offer consulting services for the Maryland Nonprofit’s Standards for Excellence® program and has the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to work with nonprofits across the country. A graduate of the Honors Program at Coppin State University where she earned a BS in Management Science with a minor in Marketing, Michelle is a member of the Grants Professional Association and an Associate Consultant at Maryland Nonprofits.
Important Links: Interview Transcript:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome, Michelle. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Michelle Nusum-Smith: Thank you, Carol. Thank you for this opportunity to speak.
Carol: I'm sure we're going to have a great conversation and people are going to learn a lot through all the expertise you bring to nonprofits, but I like to start with what really drew you to the work that you do? What motivates you? What would you describe as your why?
Michelle: Interesting question. I would certainly say my mom is definitely, I think the seed planter. So I was a do gooder before I knew what do you put or meant? We were always involved in some kind of community outreach, giving engagement, volunteering something. And so, my first job was in retail. Like most of us. Well, my first professional job was in health and human services, and I just loved the idea of helping people and giving back. But if I wasn't doing what I'm doing now, I would have been a teacher. I'm a bit of a nerd and I love using tools and techniques and resources. And so I echo spending most of my professional career in the sector and learning that most of us are very passionate. But we don't necessarily realize that nonprofits are businesses like for-profit businesses. They are best practices. And so people would ask me for help and assistance. So I eventually went from being an unofficial consultant to thinking one day, maybe I should officially do this. And so Almost 11 years ago now I started Word Woman LLC.
Carol: Well, that's awesome. And congratulations on your longevity because a lot of folks think, oh yeah, let me go out and do this, but not everybody makes it and makes it for eleven years. so congratulations on that. I appreciate what you said about your mom. My brother has special needs. He's autistic and profoundly deaf. And my mom was always his advocate. And then through the work, being his advocate, she became an advocate more broadly in the disability community. And it really was an inspiration for the things that he was not always thinking about. Well, certainly you want to make sure that all of your own folks, your family is taken care of, but then, what's the broader implication of all the folks who need the same help and what skills can you bring to help them take those same steps. So, appreciate that, that beginning. And what are the areas? I know you work in a lot of different areas, but one of the areas you focus on is helping organizations with pursuing grants. And it seems to be that oftentimes. This is the first thing that people think about when they get into the nonprofit sector they're passionate about, an area they want to help people. They want to create some change or some good in the world and they come out with grants, we have to go after grants. What would you say is the most common misconception that people have about pursuing grants?
Michelle: Well, it's interesting the way that you tee that up, because that's exactly it people, I think I've actually had to talk people out of starting a nonprofit simply because they narrowly think about the grants and the fact that, hey, you have to be a nonprofit to get one. So I would say that the biggest misconception is that just because you're doing good people won't want it. Like funders are going to want to give you a grant. So you don't have to think it through. You don't have to actually have a plan. Just tell them that you have a 501-C, three status, and they'll give you a grant.
Carol: Yeah. And I love the comment that you made about actually talking people out of starting a nonprofit. Tell me more about that motivation? What caused that conversation?
Michelle: Sure. I tell people all the time I am the nonprofit consultant that will talk you out of doing something you were willing to pay me to do. And that's because I'm very passionate about the nonprofit sector. And I know how critically important it is to protect it because with for-profit businesses, if a business does something wrong, it's the public that kind of singularly looks at that business and says that business is bad. But in our sector, if a nonprofit ends up on the front of the newspaper for the wrong reasons, it's not just that nonprofit, it's the entire sector, that's bad and corrupt or what-have-you. And so I really like to talk through with people when they approach me about helping them with starting a nonprofit, why do you want to do it? Let's explore the reason, let's explore some different fits, right? Let's explore if there were some alternatives. So a great example would be just last week. I talked to a group and they wanted to start a nonprofit simply because they wanted to get grants. And I explained to them that what they wanted to do, they could easily start a fund at the community foundation or get a fiscal sponsor or a nonprofit partner. And after a bit of back and forth, because they had made up their mind that they wanted to start this nonprofit, I put them in contact with some folks and they came back and circled back to me and said, you know what, Michelle, you were absolutely right. We're getting a fiscal sponsor. So. Yeah, other times it's you really should start a for-profit business let's own that M.O. and move forward.
Carol: Right. And there are different options now within the for-profit sector of being a B Corp or other kinds of, kind of for benefit, corporations that where, where the organization is not necessarily putting. only putting profit as the bottom line, but looking at a triple bottom line, if you will, but still being created as a for-profit entity. You talked about a couple of different things that folks may or may not be familiar with. One of them was a fiscal sponsor. Can you explain a little bit more about what that is and what the benefits are for someone getting started with a fiscal sponsor?
Michelle: Absolutely. So whether even if you start a nonprofit, so one of the things I explain to people is that just because you have a nonprofit doesn't mean that you have tax exempt status or you're eligible to receive charitable donations, that's getting the 501c3 status from the IRS though, when you start a nonprofit or you have some kind of informal program or activity that you want to be able to secure community support. That may come in the form of France that may come in the form of donations. A great strategy for that is through fiscal sponsorship. And what a fiscal sponsor is, is a nonprofit organization that has the 501c3 status from the IRS, but also has the capacity and willingness to bring your activity under their umbrella. And so the program, the nonprofit gets the benefit of 501c3 status. Without having the responsibilities. So all of the funding goes through the fiscal sponsor who helps to sort of manage those resources will be kept for the program or the nonprofit that doesn't have that 501c3 status. So it positions you to be able to still do your charitable work, to still get community support, but to do it with the support of an entity that is positioned and has the capacity and resources to. To properly manage that support.
Carol: Yeah. And oftentimes that capacity that could be difficult for organizations or when they're not, when they're fairly organizations where then when their program, when they're a person with an idea, is, managing the money, managing the accounting. If you end up with any staff, people, or contractors managing all of that, all of the kind of operational it, all of that kind of thing that, the, one of the things that I see is so many people have great ideas, but then every time you create a new organization, you also have to have some way of, accessing that, all of that infrastructure and, most times most people go into the sector or if they want to start an organization, their motivation is not around creating those operational, that operational infrastructure it's about helping people. Right. and so, yeah, so the fiscal sponsor can kind of. Take on some of that and provide some of that. So that the person with the idea who wants to create the program or who has created a program and wants to build it can really focus on that rather than. more of the administrative side or plug into already a system of administration that, that can, can support them. And then the other thing you talked about was, community foundation a little bit more about what they are and how they can contribute to someone who wants to get started.
Michelle: Oh, yes. So everyone who is listening, if your nonprofit is looking for support or financial support or capacity support, third, we go and have a conversation with your community foundation representative. The community foundation, unlike a family foundation or even a corporate foundation where they may have one singular purpose or focus area, the community foundation, a model, a Fords, nonprofits, the opportunity to make, to potentially tap into multiple sources more though at the same time. So the foundation has its own funding that it distributes. But there are also funds that individuals, corporations, community groups may establish that had their own purpose, their own criteria. So it could be grants, it could be scholarships, it could be seed money for a host of different causes. And so, one of the problems that we often have with accessing those resources is. The failure to have the conversation. And so we immediately just want to look for the current opportunity, submit the grant requests and cross our fingers and hope that we get funded. But if we have a conversation prior to you and we explore, well, where are the opportunities? I have a friend who is the president of the community foundation, and then. She was sharing with a group that was presenting, at the foundation for it. And she said that, we have people who have these funds who have an interest in supporting various causes. And we don't always know the nonprofits that fit that criteria. And so it's important for us to have these conversations, to explore with the different organizations, what their missions are, how they carry them out. So that the staff, the community foundation can figure out, well, how do we connect the individual who has the resources and wants to give it the organization that has the need and is trying to figure out how to cover it.
Carol: So almost like a matchmaking process, if you will. Absolutely. And when you talked about your, the kind of main misconception that people have is, I've got a great idea. I want to help people. I'll just go, I'll just fill out some forms and foundations are magically going to give me money. And you said that the biggest thing was, not having a plan. Can you just, can you say more, a little bit more about what you mean by that and what are the kinds of questions that people should be thinking through and kind of making decisions about to create that plan?
Michelle: So doing the homework. So what is homework? Homework is having a clear understanding of your mission and your vision and your strategy is developing programs based on those strategies that include a clear plan. Who, what, where, why, how and a budget to match it. So a lot of times organizations will identify an opportunity and then try to develop a program or project around the opportunity. Best case scenario is that you've already determined what you want to do. how much it costs, you have a timeline, and then you're looking for the opportunity that aligns with that plan. So that when you, when he gives it to you, the paperwork you begin to fill out the application, it's less of a, does this fit? Will they be interested? And more of, we know that this is a fit and we're just plugging in the information we've already developed. The other thing of course would be. how do we ensure that this is a good fit? And one of the ways that we do that is that we reach out to the funder in advance. Doesn't always happen, but sometimes the stars align and you can actually have a conversation with a foundation representative, send a quick email, potentially even have a meeting with them so that they can have a conversation and understand what it is you're planning to do. Ensure that, give you some assurance that it does align with what the foundation is interested in supporting. And that way, when your grant application arrives, it's not a surprise. They're expecting it. And, and having them that pre-work particularly the conversation positions us as non-profits to have an ally on the inside because when the decision-making starts. And nobody's sitting around the table, knows anything about your organization. They can look to what I call the gatekeeper, that program, officer, whomever, who could say, Oh, yes, I know about that organization. I can answer some of those questions you might have.
Carol: Yeah. So that first step of really ensuring fit, that, that you've done your homework and I would guess, and I'm not a fundraiser, but I would guess, just the basics of have you read what the foundation covers funds. Is what is the work that you're doing within their purview? Is it something, within one of their, one of their programs, cause most, most foundations and, and you said it's different than community foundations, which can have a wide variety of, of, areas that they're interested in, depending on all the different donors that might have funds with them, generally, Family foundations, corporate foundations, large and small typically have made some decisions around their own strategy around what they are interested in and what they're pursuing. So that first check of, well, let's read to make sure that we fit in some way. And then if we think we do reach out and say, well, I'm thinking, and so would it be something like this of, you write an email, this is kind of a para paragraph, like this kind of what we're, what we're aiming to do is this, within what you guys are interested in, in funding,
Michelle: That it's funny because I'm always reminded of, I was doing some grant work for an organization and I found this family foundation doing some research. I sent an email and it basically was like, you described a paragraph that introduced them to the organization. This is our mission. This is who he served. This is the work that we carry out. We will love to explore, Learning more about your foundation and where we might fit the president of the foundation. Now, of course, it's a small family foundation. So when I say presence, there's a small, but mighty group, email me back. Actually she called and left the voicemail and she said, we've never heard of this organization, but we're very intrigued that email that took me a couple of minutes to write resulted in a face-to-face meeting. An invite to apply for funding at the maximum amount that the foundation funds it. And that organization was funded twice, simply because I found the foundation and sent an email. So it does work.
Carol: And it can save you a lot of time if the answer is no, absolutely right, because it takes a lot of work to write a grant. Yes, sir. And if you don't even meet the first criteria and you get, you get pushed to the side in the first cut. That was a lot of work for nothing.
Michelle: I tell folks all. So you, you keep, you were saying, read, read, read, and I can't emphasize that enough. Read the bill, the foundation's website, read the request for proposal years ago, I was a volunteer to do grant reviewing for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I did that for three years and these were 50 page documents. Grant applications for requests between half a million and a quarter million dollars. I can tell you that some of the applications were denied simply because it was very clear that the applicants have not read the request for proposal. They didn't submit the information that was appropriate. So we had to score them poorly. So you gotta read, read, read, and then follow the guidance.
Carol: So, what are some things that help people do a better job of pursuing grants?
Michelle: Well, like I said, definitely don't want that homework. I would say really making sure that you read and re-read your proposal, your material before you submit it, make sure that your budget. Aligns with your narrative. I shouldn't say things in your budget that weren't mentioned in your narrative and vice versa. And then I think the other way to be successful with brands is to make sure that you deliver on your promises. So don't just get the money and then, go off celebrating, take it seriously and then deliver so that the funder will want to support you again.
Carol: Yeah, a couple of things you said there. I think oftentimes they may not think of the connections between the budget and the narrative, or, think of it. Oh, that's that last thing that we have to fill out, but really a budget in, in a way is like it's a plan in numbers, it's a plan and money and, so it really should connect back and it should be clear for the funder, how you're planning to spend their money because obviously, that's a key concern for them.
Michelle: There you go. And the budget should be real. I have had times where I've gone to meet with folks and I asked them for their budget. They slide it across the table and I slide it right back because I get to hell. It's just a bunch of numbers that you've made up. So. Actually be the homework and research. You shouldn't have to guess on certain things that you could just Google to find out. What is the, what is the cost of that item? and so it gives you, like you said, you get this mirrored version of the project in numbers that mirrors the narrative and it positions you so that you can actually deliver on what you propose because. If your budget doesn't align, then you're put in a position where you may run out of money, which you've told the funder, this is all the money that we need. So it's very important to make sure that the budget is based on doing your research and based on actual need and that it mirrors your plan.
Carol: Yeah, it seems like, another thing that I've experienced more from being on the program side of, here, all of the million things that we promised to the funder that we were going to do, and it's like, well, it's just me and this other person. And we only have so much time in the day and I don't know how we're going to deliver it all.
Michelle: Yes, yes, yes. Please do not over promise. First of all, if it's not feasible, it doesn't make sense. Years ago I was doing a, I was working with an organization and this was pre pandemic, but we were still by as Dean because they were in another country and they were going to be doing this maternal health project where they were responding to a request for proposal. So the project idea was already set and they were supposed to work with pregnant women and follow them through their child's third birthday. And I asked, there were two folks that I was meeting with, only two people who staff this organization. And I asked the simple question, how many pregnant women are you going to serve? I kid you not, The executive director said a thousand, and that was my face because I was thinking, first of all, where are you going to find a thousand pregnant women? Number one, but number two, how are you going to possibly follow them? Plus their children for three years? And so I think that what they were thinking was we need to give this big number. So it sounds like we're making a huge impact into that. I would say years ago, it was all about the numbers, the outputs, which is a grant term. So you're counting people, you're counting that you're counting, beads. Right? So that's how we measure success. The bigger, the number, the greater the success. But now we talk about impact, which is more about the outcome, the result of the work that you did. So we, instead of touching people. So it's great that you could say, well, we, we touched a thousand people, but did you actually affect change with them if you just simply touch them? Not really, but if you could actually work with a hundred and move them from where they are to a better position, a better situation. Then that's more impactful. That's more significant than simply just touching a thousand.
Carol: Yeah. So really looking at, and that goes from the request for proposal, the fact that they wanted those pregnant women to be followed through for three years, that's a significant amount of time. and yeah, to think about what's feasible in terms of your staffing and, and how many people you can reach and how many people will you be able to continue to work with over time. Yeah. What would you say? I think there are folks who are starting out, they have some misconceptions. I also find that sometimes board members can really have misconceptions about, grants and, and be very focused on grants. What would you say are, I mean, there are obviously a lot of upsides to getting grants, but are there any kind of hidden costs that you would, you would, talk about that to just caution people that they need to kind of consider those things as well when they're pursuing grants.
Michelle: So you touched on one of the things earlier where you said there's a lot of time and energy invested in just preparing the grant proposal. And, and if you have paid staff, then that means that's money or investing. So that may not result in a grant. And when it comes to getting the grant, there's a cost per se, related to that as well, because there's the cost of managing, there's costs related to investment of time for reporting for evaluations. So it's not just give us the money and, and, and we'll just go off with you, our mission, you, you touched with something else too, which is, this whole idea of the board and let's get grants, let's get grants. I actually have a client right now who, I just, before we got on our call, she, I was receiving emails where the board members found grant opportunities, which is great because that means that they were engaged. But we do want to recognize that grants cannot, should not and won't be your only source of funding. Grants have a lot of limitations. They don't pay for everything they're time bound. And so it's very important that as part of from the board level, part of our strategic planning that we're thinking about all of the available funding sources, And then we're thinking about how do we tap into all of them to ensure that we had adequate resources, whether that's individual donations, corporate support in the form of donations or sponsorships membership dues, do we pay half to like programs where folks may pay for services or as fees related to being involved with our organization, we need to look at all of the available funding sources. And then have a strategy so that grants are part of the strategy, but not be the strategy.
Carol: Yeah. And I wanted to, to ask you that, obviously grants are just one way to, to raise funds. And so you talked about those different types of possible revenue streams. What are some of the key aspects that organizations need to consider when they're thinking about putting together a fundraising plan?
Michelle: I would say certainly the fundraising plan should be driven by our strategic plan. So we're, we're planning to raise the money to support our, our program plans, our operating costs. Thirdly, there are costs that, as I said, are not going to be covered by restricted sources of funding, such as grants, keeping the lights on. So you may have a grant where the fundable say, we'll pay for the person who's presenting. We'll pay for the materials. We'll pay for food, but we're not paying the electricity, the electricity bill. And so we need to incorporate as part of that fundraising plan forces, better unrestricted. So individual gifts, you have some individuals I should say, could be central to our fundraising plan. And it should incorporate the various sources of revenue and an action plan or strategy for how we're going to carry it out. And that again, should be top down. So the board should be driving this effort, even when you have staff that may be implementing your plan.
Carol: So you talked about a couple terms that some people probably are already familiar with, but others may not be restricted and unrestricted funds. Can you say a little bit more about what that means?
Michelle: Sure. So the way I like to describe the differences for those of us who go to church and you make your tithes and offerings, most of us don't ask any questions about where that money's going. We just trust that it's going to be used for good. We go about our business. So as individuals, we're making contributions to our church without any strings attached or expectations, other than seeing the manifestation of, of the good, right. Whereas if you receive a grant or you receive a large gift from an individual donor, it may come with some expectations, some straights. So it may be restricted regarding the budget. So when we submit a grant proposal, we include a budget. The funder expects for you to spend the money as you budgeted it, as opposed to, if somebody just writes a check, there are no restrictions. You can use the funds or the benefit of the organization based on what's needed. There are restrictions that are related to the time and use. So, for example, you may receive less than you receive a grant for $50,000. And because of the funders approach, you get one check upfront of $50,000. So you're looking at your bank statement and it says there's $50,000 in there, but that $50,000 is tied to what 12 year I'm sorry, 12 month grant periods. So, although it's sitting in the bank, it's supposed to be spent according to the budget over that 12 month period. So restricted means there's some guidance around how you use it. Unrestricted means thank you, we'll pull together our strategy and then determine how to spend it.
Carol: Thank you. Thank you. So, on each episode I play a game at the end asking one, random icebreaker question. And so I have one here, what's something you believed earlier in your career that you think differently about now?
Michelle: Ooh, that's an interesting one. So something that I thought early in my career. That I think differently. This is a funny answer, but it's the one that popped in my head. So that's the one I'll share. So when I was younger, I looked young and I thought that people wouldn't take me seriously until I was old. And so I had this crazy idea that once I turned 40, that miraculously people will begin to take this seriously, but now I realize that people have always taken me seriously. Maybe not as seriously as I had bought or had hoped, or just, just didn't realize it. And age doesn't need to be a predictor of your credibility or your impact. And so I'm a believer that anybody and everybody, no matter your age can have a huge impact.
Carol: Awesome. I love that. Thank you. And so what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing these days.
Michelle: So I'm doing lots of different things, but I'm a Gemini. So I've always had my hands in a lot of different things. But one thing that I will mention that's related to our discussion is I have been wanting to do a grant writing boot camp. I've done them in the past. The one that is much more technical and much more, hands on and practical in application and I'm going to be I'm. So it's still in the works, but I will be doing that over the summer. It's going to be a six week virtual, I believe, virtual program. and so I'm looking forward to that and looking forward to you, Being who, who, who participates and, and the work that they do because of it.
Carol: So. Awesome. Well, we will put links in the show notes to your website so people can check it out and see when that program, when, when you launch it, which I'm sure will be super useful for many people because, yeah, sometimes it's, it's oftentimes that nitty gritty, that, that can get in people's way. When they're, when they're trying to, trying to, Put together, those, those grants, those proposals hopefully avoid all the things that we just talked about, but learn even more. I'm sure with you so, well, thank you so much. It's been great talking to you today.
Michelle: Thank you, Carol. I appreciate this opportunity.
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