February 10, 2016

It’s that time of year again! United Way Community Fund Tips

For many nonprofit agencies in central New Mexico, it’s down to the final push on United Way this week! United Way is a critical source of funding for the four-county central New Mexico area, so stakes can be high. On top of that, there are a number of changes to the application this year. For example, Affinity Group funding (which includes the Young Leaders Society, Women in Philanthropy, and the Hispano Philanthropy Society) has been absorbed into the “regular” annual Community Fund process (they used to hold their own separate processes). In addition, United Way has launched new multi-year and collaborative application options this year. Each of these applications requires responding to a different set of questions in the United Way online application system.

At The Grant Plant, we have found, over years of experience and guiding the submission of countless dozens of United Way proposals, it’s the little things that tend to be most confusing and frustrating both to those who are new and to veterans of the United Way process. Below are some of our biggest tips and pointers based on our experience of successfully submitting these proposals:

  1. Never trust the manual or provided templates—It is great that United Way (and many other funders) provide a reference manual, but do not trust any templates provided to be 100% accurate. Go into the online application, dig around, and make sure you understand everything—before you start writing.
  2. Do not work directly in the online application—If you have already started doing this, copy everything into a document stat! After you explore the online system, build your own template in Word. This way, no matter what happens to the system, you still have a copy. This is useful in case the system crashes or you get locked out. It’s also easier for a team to review and make changes in Word than online. This advice is especially pertinent this year, since the United Way office will be closed on submission day. Make sure you have a copy of your work because no one will be available to rescue you if something happens and the system eats your work!
  3. Assign only one program—The initial setup for United Way can be a little confusing. Make sure that you assign only one program to your proposal. (If you do accidentally assign two, it’s not the end of the world, however! In the yellow bar delineating the program sections of the application, just uncheck the “Include?” box and it will remove the mistaken second program from your application.)
  4. Budget—This is for your program only. Reviewers already looked at your agency information in the new round one financial review process. The information required for “prior year,” “current year,” and the actual grant period can also be confusing as it is not something many funders ask for. Remember that “prior year” is your most recently completed fiscal year, regardless of where we are right now in the calendar year. Another difference this year is the need to click into each line item and provide further description. In previous years, this was only required for a few lines. Make sure you have sufficient information to describe each and every line item cost and revenue source for your program. As with the tip about having a copy in Word to more efficiently complete the application process, it’s a good idea to re-create United Way’s budget forms in Excel so you can easily edit and use auto-calculation features to check your math.
  5. Logic model—If you are submitting a multi-year request, you will need to complete the dreaded logic model. Many people hate creating these because they are unfamiliar with them, but logic models are a great way to think through your program and intended outcomes, and are therefore helpful. While logic models can take many different shapes and forms, generally they include some core pieces of information: a problem statement, inputs (what your organization is bringing to the program), outputs, short-term outcomes (generally within year 1) and long-term outcomes (usually longer than one year and may be outside of the grant period).
  6. Performance measurement –And because United Way has assigned a high point value to performance measurement – 30% – be sure you have thought through your intended outcomes, created SMART objectives, and outlined data collection strategies. The logic model is an excellent starting point for this (if you are doing the multi-year proposal, but you might even want to use the logic model as a tool for single year proposal planning well), and you can further flesh out details in your narrative (as long as you keep it brief, attending to those character limits!).
  7. MOUs/Letters of support –If you are proposing a collaborative application, you need to include an MOU or, in the case of APS, a letter acknowledging that the district knows that you are applying (detailed directions went out in a recent email from United Way). Be sure you don’t miss this important step!
  8. Program description—Beware that there are two program description sections! One is in the application and one is on the menu bar to the left. Making edits in one place does not auto-feed to the other place. Double check both program descriptions to make sure they match and contain accurate information (especially if your program has changed since the last time you applied.
  9. Spacing—United Way limits responses by character counts, which is something you can easily check in Word. However, Word does not double count carriage returns, while United Way’s system does. That means, if you are close to the character limit in your Word document, and you have a couple of paragraphs, you might be over the limit without even knowing it until you enter online.
  10. Validate each section—Make sure that each section is accurate and then mark it “Complete.” Don’t worry, if you want to change something, the system will let you—Complete is not a final state of being for your submission.
  11. Read everything one last time! Always, no matter how tired you are, read your submission one last time before submitting. This is how you catch something that did not copy correctly or if you transposed numbers. Also, this is your last chance to make sure that all sections agree. For instance, the budget and narrative align in terms of what you are asking for and what you say you will do. Also, make sure that your logic model aligns with the performance measures you discuss in the narrative.
  12. Check the attachments—If you are submitting attachments, make sure you open them once from the online system to make sure that they are the correct documents.
  13. Date approved at last board of directors meeting—This is the final surprise embedded in the United Way system. It will pop up just as you are ready to submit, so be prepared with that date!

And finally, do not forget about the presentations, which are the next step of the process. Once your proposal is successfully submitted, you will be invited to present your proposal to a community volunteer allocations panel. This is your chance to make your case directly to the reviewers who make the recommendations for funding. However, you do not get to pick your preferred date, so make sure you or appropriate agency representatives are available. Currently, the presentations are scheduled for March 28-April 9, so keep those days open on your calendar and don’t plan any trips during that time!

Good luck! We’re hoping that many of you get your submissions in early and can enjoy Valentine’s Day and President’s Day.


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