May 8, 2013

10 Years Strong – Musings and Reflections

Ten years is a milestone – and it’s hard to believe, but TGP has been in the grantwriting business now for a decade! We celebrated this milestone back in March, but were caught amongst a record 90 proposals and other projects that went out between January and April, and this is the first chance we’ve had to celebrate our 10 years with partners. My sister, Tara, and I cofounded TGP as a way to work in a career field we enjoyed while staying at home after the birth of newborns, and TGP has grown up right along-side our 10-year old boys. It worked out better than we could have ever hoped!

Below are some of my reflections on what and where 10 years has brought us, beyond the joys and sorrows of the day-to-day running of a small business. Some are important, some not so much, some are pretty random, but they are all things that have stuck with me. Here’s to 10 years past – and another 10 years in the future!

  • I remember the first grant that we worked on as a team (just Tara and me then) – CDFI, or the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund. What a place to start, as it is a fairly complex federal grant. Coincidentally, it was also the grant program for which Tara has served as a reviewer three times in the past two years. It’s like an old friend.
  • I wasn’t even in my thirties when we started this adventure. Now the big 4-0 is looming!
  • Our nine team members have a total of 11 kids, five of whom were born during TGP tenure! Glad to be a family-friendly business that allows flexibility. And the 11 kids is not even counting everyone’s cats, dogs, and other animals that we so love, provide fodder for fun stories, and the warm body to keep toes warm while we work away at the computer (or attack the computer mouse, whatever the case may be!).
  • It was my idea about three or four years ago to start a newsletter, but I am the worst at getting mine in on time. It was Aly’s idea to use an alphabetical order so we know whose turn it is to write the newsletter – it didn’t occur to anyone else and we were always struggling to determine whose turn it was. It’s the simple ideas that are the best!
  • We moved from pulling in $40,000  in 2003 to $9,802,310 in 2011 – the most recent year for which we have all awards announced and available.
  • We’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the smartest, most talented, and most dedicated people in the nonprofit world. We love our clients! Some of them have been with us for years…a big shout out to PB&J Family Services and Central New Mexico Community College Foundation (TVI back then!) who was one of our very first clients and for whom we still work.
  • Along those lines, we have an awesome team! In addition to Tara and me, there is Aly, our Director of Projects; Jenny, Marya, and Wendy, Resource Development Officers; Carrie, Resource Development Associate; Paula, Business Manager; and Erin Hagenow, Project Manager. I am constantly amazed at our team’s big brains and remarkable work ethic. We have come to rely on each individual’s unique talents and personalities and truly feel we have one of the best small business teams around.
  • We love our Celebration Board – it tracks not only which grants were funded and total funding-to-date so we can high-five at our monthly team meeting, but also personal team member milestones. Our meeting is next week, and I think we’ll include Jenny completing her second marathon last weekend, Aly’s move to a new house, and a few recent birthdays – Carrie, Wendy and Aly! Wendy even gets her own special message, as she was born on Cinco de Mayo, and with her maiden name “Igo,” it’s fun to celebrate Cinco de Igo!
  • The business was totally revolutionized when we found Basecamp. Its our online office system and it moved us from a monster of a color coded Excel spreadsheet (which we still have a copy of for old-time’s sake as well as a few laughs) to a streamlined project management system with messages, calendar items, files, and assigned tasks.
  • We submit, on average, a grant every five days. These may be small or large, but our hearts go into each one! Some are more memorable than others for a variety of reasons. Often those that remain in the forefront of our minds were the ones with a heavy adrenaline rush to tie loose ends as things come to together last minute with all hands-on-deck for a final QC push. Those of you who have had to rely on a number of individuals to provide information on time to meet a looming deadline will know what I’m talking about!
  • “Easter eggs” are a year-round phenomenon that occurs in most, if not all, online grant applications. These are things like hidden character counts, surprise questions not available until you are literally about to hit submit, etc. See the 12 Days of Grantmas article, above.
  • Flying Star – so many memories of meeting clients and hosting monthly team meetings there. Until we got a “real” office (aka not our dining room tables or spare closet-turned-office), we spent lots of time there, reviewing grants, planning strategies, brainstorming problems over a breakfast burrito or Mediterranean Nosh. Four years ago, we graduated into our studio office space on 6th Street, and this past November, we moved into our current office on Gold…which just happens to be conveniently located one block from Flying Star!
  • We’ve seen – and benefited from – various technological advances that make grant seeking easier. For example, when we first started, we pulled out our City of Albuquerque library cards and hit the research corner in the main library with the (hard copy) Foundation Center directories. And brought a lot of change for copies. We’re now thankful so much of that information is electronic! We’ve become decidedly good at tracking down people and organizations via the Internet (LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, organizational websites). We’ve even created resumes from scratch for a partner in an application – which has been met with amazement about the type of information that is out there about individuals on the Internet. (Of course, this is used only as a last resort, when critical information was late in coming close to a deadline.) We’ve loved those grantors that allow electronic signatures/electronic copies, and have even started getting folks to sign PDFs on their phones while on the go. Of course, technology is a mixed blessing in some cases, as for example, when a state agency requires the same amount of hard copies – say, and this is true, seven binders’ worth – PLUS wants everything in four separate jump drives…back in the day we would have only had to do the original seven binders! Always makes me wonder what they do with all that paper, and to hope for the day when the whole process moves to electronic.
  • We trialed a “GEEK” model to help smooth our work process. This was based on the NERD model Tara’s dentist office uses for which one dentist is rotating dentist for cleaning evaluations and last minute emergencies or appointments (the acronym of course struck our funny bones). Ours stood for Grant Editing, Expediting, and Communications, and a few of us would take turns rotating weeks as the GEEK. As GEEK, your role was to jump on all reviews and answer questions for lead writers. Unfortunately, the GEEK era was short-lived, as we have suffered from a long-standing inability to plan workloads with any degree of precision, given the continuous ups and downs of the RFP world. The GEEK simply ended up too busy to jump on anything with reliability.
  • We pay a lot of taxes. Like, a LOT. I’m not even sure what to say about that fact, but for anyone who thinks a corporation is some huge monstrous conglomerate, its not. It is Tara and me. It’s hard to run a business and we have yet to see a profit beyond what we make as a reasonable salary.
  • Flying kittens, white tigers, and scorpions make us laugh. If one of us is stressed, these are some inside jokes that will at least provide a moment of calm. Ask one of us for the backstory sometime!
  • We played a super fun trivia game one year at our amazing retro holiday party (thanks to Suzanne, who we miss frequently). Sample questions: 1) Which client made Tara cry tears of joy?[1] 2) What are (at least) two of TGP’s most embarrassing misspelled words?[2] 3) Tara was stuck in traffic. Suzanne was at breakfast with the Viking. Which client did they race to go meet?[3] 4) Which two clients have two staff members with the same names?[4] 5) Which client fixed Erin’s fireplace?[5] 6) What was the subject line of Aly’s email regarding the NRA Foundation and the Youth Shooting Sports Alliance?[6] Fun times.

There have been, of course, many more memories, milestones, and ups and downs over the past 10 years. During this time, I have moved from largely basing my work time around my child’s naptime to it being an almost all-consuming job. I often dream about a grant I am writing, or, as many people do, have breakthrough revelations in the shower or while sleeping. My kids are used to me being at the computer. I balance a lot of mommy guilt with work, but at the same time, I have seen my kids blossom into self-sufficient individuals who know how to entertain themselves, get ready for school, and understand mommy’s need for quiet while I’m on the phone at times. Those are great life skills. Of course, I just had to laugh when, while I’m feeling guilty for plugging my five-year-old into yet another Dora movie for just a little bit longer so I can finish up work, she asks, “How come you don’t have a job yet?” She’s thinking of her preschool teacher who is a teacher AND a mom, and as my five-year old puts it, has two jobs. I tried to explain to her that I was working when I was at my computer – that is my job, but I don’t think it came through loud and clear. When my oldest was about her age, and I tried to explain that mommy had to work really hard at the computer so that we had money to pay for our house, car, clothes, etc. he tried to take that in. One day, I had a $20 bill lying next to me as I was working, and when he came into the room, he got all excited. “You did it, Mom! You worked hard enough to make money!” He was under the impression the computer had spit out money like an ATM.

If only we could do that for our clients. I’m sure we’re close.

Here’s to 10 years, past and future!

Contact: Erin Hielkema, Vice President,

[1] Great Southwest Council

[2] Shift, public, assets

[3] Desert Academy

[4] Habitat for Humanity and Great Southwest Council

[5] PB&J Family Services

[6] Kapow!

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