Friday, February 9, 2018

Thinking big in a small town: community grant writer proponents make their case

Jonathan Skrimshire

"One person. Generating one point two million dollars a year. That's what we want." The statement hangs in the air of the busy Harvest Coffeehouse. I'm at the table with James Van Leeuwen, President of the Pincher Creek Allied Arts Council, Page Murphy, Coordinator of the Pincher Creek and Area Early Childhood Coalition, and Sam Schofield, President of the Pincher Creek and District Chamber of Commerce, to discuss their proposal for a community grant writer. What problem are they seeking to address? What solution are they proposing? How did this come about? I've come to listen to them make their case.

The Problem

VAN LEEUWEN "Around the year 2000, Shell announced we're going to be shutting the plant down. [...] At that point there was some leadership in the community that took that seriously and created some results, including the creation of the Southwest Alberta Sustainable Communities Initiative. [...] The Chamber of Commerce at that time was repurposed as the Chamber of Economic Development. [...] So those two things [...] were the working face of trying to adapt to this reality."

The impending Shell closure threatens the direct loss of highly paid employment for a number of Pincher Creek residents and the loss of substantial revenue for local businesses. But it also threatens the loss of annual corporate donations that to date have supported many Pincher Creek community organizations. That funding pie is shrinking fast.

MURPHY "It used to be a quarter of a million. Now it's fifty thousand."

With the plant's closure it is expected to fall to zero.

SCHOFIELD "So we're looking at fifty thousand dollars a year that Shell puts into our community as donations [...] Where can we pick up this shortfall that we're going to lose from Shell and where are we going to find funding to do things?"

Pincher Creek is not unique in facing the loss of a major industry. And nobody is riding to the rescue.
VAN LEEUWEN "What's happening with the Shell plant is going to happen in a lot of places. The Devon plant is gone from Crowsnest Pass. These stories are happening in more and more places. [...] We, the community, have to take responsibility for responding to, or adapting to, this evolving economic reality."

A key part of that adaptation will be finding new funding sources to maintain and enhance the types of services that ensure quality of life in the community.

VAN LEEUWEN "You really need a strategy for the community as a whole. And the capacities that you're building as a community include this capacity to access funds for community development."

Good quality, readily available community services are not optional. They are crucial to retaining young families and attracting newcomers to the area.

MURPHY "People move to this community and they need good programs, good services, and good family supports. Without that, they leave. Case in point: My neighbours moved out because they could not find adequate child care. They could not find the support they needed. So we just lost some of our economic base due to the fact that we don't have enough services available."

The seed of an idea

MURPHY "The Allied Adult Learning Council had been working with a grant writer from Vulcan, and this grant writer had shown great interest in Pincher [Creek]."

The Council organized a presentation by the grant writer for local organizations. The meeting took place November 8, 2017. Attendees were introduced to the concept of a community grant writer and what a grant writer can do.

SCHOFIELD "It was her pitch on I would like to move to Pincher Creek and this is how much I would cost."

MURPHY "At the same time, a lot of us non-profits and community organizations were looking around saying where are we going to get the funds we need to do the programs and services and projects we want. So it seemed a little bit fortuitous."

The group was impressed with the concept and the fact that another municipality had hired a grant writer with good success. They decided to explore the practicability of replicating the Vulcan model in Pincher Creek.

The Grant Writer Task Group is born

MURPHY "I talked to James and Sam and said how would this work? What would a grant writer look like? How do we make this happen? [...] We can't just go to the Town and say Town, please hire a grant writer. [...] To straight up ask them to create a position which potentially could be sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety thousand dollars is a pretty big ask. And it doesn't show any community investment. [...] So how do we bring this position into the community?"

The three enlisted Claren Copp-Larocque in their effort. Copp-Larocque is a board member of both the Allied Arts Council and Twin Butte Community Hall. Why this four, I ask.

VAN LEEUWEN "Coalition of the willing. We all stand to benefit in our respective roles, and the organizations that we represent all stand to benefit. But we're all community-minded people. We're looking at the broader benefit for the community. This makes a great deal of sense. And we're also in a position to make it happen. Not everybody is."

SCHOFIELD "When you say 'why us?', I think every single Councillor on both Town and MD Council knows who we are individually, through other efforts. So to combine those efforts just made sense."

The four dubbed themselves the Grant Writer Task Group and set about trying to formulate a practical proposal that could be presented to potential stakeholder organizations and the two local Councils.

MURPHY "We've been meeting pretty regularly trying to figure out where a grant writer position would fit."

The community grant writer proposal

The group envisions the creation of a shared community resource: the community grant writer would assist the Town, MD, and a broad range of community organizations in the preparation of grant applications.

MURPHY "This idea of the community grant writer is not reinventing the wheel. Vulcan has already done this, and it's been available to the county, to the town and all the community organizations."

They underscore the amount of funding that a full time grant writer can secure.

SCHOFIELD "We looked at the Vulcan model, with one point two million dollars a year - that's a no brainer."

MURPHY "This person would get to know who's who in the community, who's connected, who could partner together on grant applications, where the needs are."

The group emphasized the advantages of having grant writing services offered as a centralized community resource, and the potential to facilitate collaboration between community organizations.

VAN LEEUWEN "There are a lot of incentives out there for organizations to partner up. And having a grant writer who can recognize those opportunities for collaboration, and then help the organizations to actually realize those opportunities - that by itself is going to make a huge difference in the community."

The case for hiring a pro

At present many of the grant applications submitted by non-profit organizations are prepared by inexperienced volunteers. The group believes that having this work performed by a single experienced individual would result in both a greater number of applications being submitted and a greater success rate on applications.

MURPHY "We need these grants in our community. And we cannot compete right now - because it *is* competitive."

SCHOFIELD "To stand out, you have to have a well written grant [application]."

The group also stressed the advantage of having someone who is aware of all the available funding sources.

SCHOFIELD "Professionals are able to find the grants that you and I can't. They have software and they have resources and links to find those grants that aren't available on the internet."

What about time allocation, I ask. Who will set priorities when there are competing demands?

SCHOFIELD "That's why you hire a professional. That's their job, is time management. They look at the grants, they look at when they're due, who's asking for money, and they allocate time based on how urgent those requests are."

Who pays for this?

SCHOFIELD "There is a standard fee when you hire a grant writer, and there are two main models: you pay a set fee, or you pay a percentage."

The group has presented a proposal - which they emphasize is very much a work in progress - to both local Councils. They are requesting twenty thousand dollars a year from each Council, to be combined with contributions put up by community stakeholders organizations, to fund a base salary for a three year contract hire.

SCHOFIELD "If you look at our funding model, there's four parts to it: Town, MD, some other entity - FCSS, Shell - and the community partners [...] We have soft financial commitments from community organizations that will be willing to put in fifteen thousand dollars."

The group is proposing a compensation model comprising a fixed base salary plus a performance-based bonus, and believe that by withholding a percentage of the grant monies received, the grant writer position could become self-financing in a relatively short period of time.

SCHOFIELD "The administration side of things would take a percentage fee of the grant [...] Three, four, five percent of whatever grant was applied for would go back into the pot. And that pot goes to the bonus percentage for the grant writer, and the leftover chunk would go to next years salary."

They are positioning the funding requests to Council as start-up costs necessary to launch the initiative. They anticipate financial support would be required for at least two years.

SCHOFIELD "And then year three it's actually self-sustaining."

Who benefits?

MURPHY "Who do I see benefiting from this? Town and MD administration, absolutely. They have their plate absolutely full. They're doing a bang up job with the resources they have. But they're tapped out. [...] The Agricultural Society, Allied Arts Council, the member organizations of the Early Childhood Coalition, the library, Kootenai Brown, Heritage Acres, the Family Centre ..."

VAN LEEUWEN "We want to create a position that is optimally for the benefit of the community as a whole. That grant writer position has to be as accessible as possible for all the community service organizations, for the local governments, and so on [...] Every single entity in this community that has grant writing needs would have the potential to leverage that resource."

SCHOFIELD "The MD stands to benefit the most from this right now because a lot of grants and a lot of investments are focused on rural communities: communities that don't have infrastructure; communities that aren't on high speed internet; that don't have these facilities. So the MD could be the biggest beneficiaries of this project. Because of all these grants that would become available to them."

VAN LEEUWEN "It's actually a business case - a positive business case - for every single organization that stands to benefit. Whether it's the Town, the MD, or any of the service organizations."

Who's on board?

SCHOFIELD "We have letters of support from other organizations saying we would use this service if it was available."

The list of supporters is now substantial. At a Council meeting subsequent to this interview, Murphy presented a list of over twenty community organizations who have provided letters indicating their support for the initiative. Pincher Creek Town Council has also formally stated its support in principle.

MURPHY "They were actually at that first meeting. Three of the Council members were there."

Council for the Municipal District of Pincher Creek is also reviewing the proposal. A motion to issue a statement of agreement in principle is scheduled for discussion at their meeting of February 13.

Calling all grant writers

The group wants to move to a candidate search as soon as commitments from the major stakeholders are in place.

SCHOFIELD "We are looking at putting together an application process that would bring the best candidate to the town."

They are hoping that the party previously employed in Vulcan will apply for the position, but emphasize that hiring that particular individual is not their goal.

VAN LEEUWEN "We know that there are at least two other candidates here in the community that have already expressed interest. And they've got qualifications as well."

SCHOFIELD "We expect we're going to have a pretty deep pool of talent to be able to choose from."

The million dollar question

The group is pushing a very aggressive timeline. Possibly too aggressive for local Councils, whose financial support is crucial to the initiative.

SCHOFIELD "I don't think they realize how serious we are about this and how quickly we are talking about moving. We're not talking about 2019, 2020. We're talking about April. Being live."

Will they be able to pull this off? That remains to be seen. But if not, it won't be for lack of trying. The four have been coaxing and cajoling and arm-twisting Councils and local organizations for weeks. They are persistent and persuasive.

SCHOFIELD "If I came to you and said: 'Give me $60,000 a year and every year I'll give you a million dollars back', how long would it really take you to think about that?"

MURPHY (laughing) "We're going to find out."

Related article: Local councils hear proposal for a community grant writer 


  1. VAN RYK "what if I came to you and said: "give me $60K a year and I'll borrow a million dollars under your signature and give it to you, how long would it really take you to think about that?"

    I have yet to see a "grant money tree". Most of the funding is coming from senior levels of government that all all in deficit. This is borrowed money. Beside, I don't think this money is handed out based on the quality or merit of the application. It is handed out based on the political points our leaders can make out of the grant. It might be better to hire a Grant Public Relations Person. The GPRP could ensure the politicians get the maximum exposure from the grant. This is of particular importance in this riding as our MLA could (and does) make maximum points out of every grant. 1st off, he rants in the Legislature about the spending and deficit, and then, we see his similing face at every photo op hand out cheques.

    1. Acknowledgement is indeed a formal part of the grant distribution process. For example, the Alberta government's Community Facilities Enhancement Program (CFEP) guidelines document contains a whole section on "Acknowledgement Standards and Requirements".

      Guidelines vary, but major funding organizations typically require acknowledgement of the funding source in all printed and online materials. For example, the CFEP guidelines state "The Government of Alberta logo is available upon request and recognition of funding can be achieved in a variety of ways: News release or submitted article to local/regional media; Social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and blog postings, etc; Organization’s website or newsletter; Signage, either temporary or permanent."

      In addition, recipients of large dollar amounts are frequently required to provide a photo opportunity with an official or elected representative suitable for press release.


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