How do you keep track of complicated deadlines?
April 26, 2010 7:35 PM   Subscribe

Grantwriters and Anyone Else who manages complex deadlines and reporting: I am a newly hired grantwriter for a nonprofit. Help me develop processes to keep track of what has been submitted and when things are due.

I am a newly hired grantwriter for a small nonprofit organization. This organization has never had a grantwriter in-house before. Please help me devise a way to keep track of proposals as they are submitted and reporting requirements or other deliverables or benefits that have been promised (Examples: A corporate foundation may have been promised a sign at a youth tutoring center that they funded by January 2011. A report may be due at midpoint through the year in July 2010 and another report due at the end of the year in December 2010).

Tools: I have Outlook, Excel and Raiser’s Edge (a fundraising database). Our Outlook and Raiser’s Edge (RE) are currently not linked but our IT person is looking into linking them. We use PCs if it matters.
Solutions: I have considered using an Outlook calendar with deadlines and using RE to record the details as Actions (past, present and future). Would this work? I would like to avoid the nightmare of many Excel spreadsheets – but, I don’t know Excel very well, perhaps I’m missing something.

Questions: What works for you? When RE and Outlook are linked do they communicate well? Do Actions in RE appear on the Outlook calendar? What am I not thinking of? Can RE send me reminders to my Outlook email? (If RE does work with Outlook nicely does this carry over to when it gets synced with my Google calendar – which is what I check on my phone) Am I even in the right ballpark of how to do this?
posted by fieldtrip to Work & Money (11 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
posted by underdetermined at 8:04 PM on April 26, 2010

If you like, I can send you a template of the spreadsheet I use at my org. It's all in excel, but my managers aren't very tech savvy so I didn't want to burden them with a lot of networking options. Send me a memail if you're interested.
posted by Think_Long at 8:04 PM on April 26, 2010

On the non-software side, people I know who handle intense workloads, schedules, deadlines, etc., swear by getting things done - and you can fashion a system around that in most software tools.
posted by tmcw at 8:21 PM on April 26, 2010

I think there are at least two challenges with software or systems:

1) learning how to use the software or system takes time and effort (that you might not have)
2) it can be difficult to educate or persuade others to use a software system or tool

The best thing to do is to keep it simple.

I'd be really curious to know about RE - it looks interesting, and it's a good sign that your IT department is willing to link it to your Outlook, and it's great that you're considering using a tool that everyone in your org should know how to use.

I think the real challenge is getting people to do what you want them to do, and you're going to have to put on your project manager hat for this one. Even though everyone may want to help, priorities shift and change. Ultimately, you will be responsible for making sure that others complete a task. Outlook reminders help, but facetime is better. Can you attend manager meetings and provide regular (weekly) status updates on critical projects?

If you're the only person that has to get things done, then it becomes much simpler. It's whatever works best for you. I personally use the task function in Outlook, combined with Getting Things Done. I make lists and categorize them.

I try not to waste too much time on categorizing things - just simple task lists. If I have multiple projects, I keep a status spreadsheet for each, which allows milestone tracking, which is helpful for reporting to funders.

But once again, it depends on your personal style. I like lists. Could be in Excel or Outlook. Google Tasks is great because it's available anywhere.

Does this help?

I'd also like to try out Zoho Projects. It looks interesting.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:12 PM on April 26, 2010

I use a spreadsheet, too, for some stuff, but unfortunately I'm not going to be as much help as I'd like to be. For one thing, I'm decidedly low tech when it comes to keeping a schedule; I use a paper calendar for just about everything. For another, the bulk of our funding comes from a couple of huge federal and state grants, and everyone in the office starts thinking about the deadlines way before they even appear (we're already stressing out about the next set of Federal Department of Education grants, and the RFPs aren't due out until 20 months from now).

What I have done, especially when I was managing more small corporate grants (for the past year or so I've been working more on the record-keeping side of things by helping to design and implement a new database for our clients), was to just have one Excel spreadsheet with multiple worksheets. The first would be a calendar with three columns: one for the date, one for the grant, and one for the specific requirement that was due. Each of the other worksheets was labeled with one of the specific grants, and had only two columns: one for the date and one for the requirement. Then I'd sort of build the "calendar" worksheet by copying and pasting all the stuff from the other worksheets and then sorting by date. Like I said, I prefer to make my own charts and stuff in Excel rather than use calendar programs or synchronizing with e-mail software, so I have no idea if my system would work for you or just drive you crazy, but it's worked pretty well for me.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:15 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you can get RE and Outlook to link, that's perfect. When you know of a deadline for a report, proposal, LOI, etc, add that action to RE as a future action. RE should then be able to sync it and add it to your calendar.

Our office tends to keep really simple notes in the database/calendar (Final report due to _____ Fdn on 6/1/10), and then to get the details, we just look in the paper files where copies of our grant documentation are kept.

I'm guessing RE has some ability to export your future actions into a Word doc or Excel file, so whenever you have meetings where someone is checking up on your progress, just pull that Excel file and you'll be able to talk about your progress and deadlines.

I would recommend against using an Excel file, as you'll likely need to track all these actions in RE eventually, and to take two steps (putting each deadline in Excel and in RE) is doubling up.
posted by JannaK at 5:53 AM on April 27, 2010

Thank you for the answers so far! I greatly appreciate it. KokuRyu and infinitywaltz seem to recommend Excel and lists. This is intriguing to me but I feel like I have seen lists in Excel used so badly - where every fundraiser keeps their own list of prospects and steps - that I'm apprehensive about this approach. I guess if I owned this Excel file and was the only person who could write to it that might solve a lot of these problems. Also, I have been bad about making lists in the past which would beget additional lists, etc. I'll look into GTD.

JannaK's response affirms the direction that I was originally thinking in. And, I agree that putting things into RE as future actions then logging this into Excel does seem to be doubling up. If I could keep everything in RE and Outlook I think that might be preferred. I'm not sure how well RE can export into Excel for future and past actions. I need to look into this.

Thank you all.
posted by fieldtrip at 6:17 AM on April 27, 2010

I think the real challenge is getting people to do what you want them to do, and you're going to have to put on your project manager hat for this one.

I must agree that while the software may keep you organized, working with others to fulfill the grant requirements will usually require meeting time and a lo-fi method of tracking dates. What works well where I work now is that the grants staff does just what you plan to do, using Outlook and RE, but they also build a grant timeline and set up a series of meetings around it right at the beginning of the application process. It works like this:

1. Intention to apply for grant is set.

2. A timeline is built. On the timeline, plan in
-a kickoff meeting,
-a preliminary review deadline
- a preliminary submission if you can under the grant guidelines (some federal grants will review a preliminary submission and return it to you with feedback so you can refine)
-a budget development meeting
-a budget completion deadline
-a midpoint review meeting
-a deadline for letters of intent/commitment
-a deadline for all ancillaries you need to submit (such as bibliographies, press materials, project prototypes, research reports, staff bios or CVs)
- a final signoff meeting
-submission (always plan to submit at least a week before the actual deadline)

A "kickoff"meeting is held with key players. Since we are a museum this is cross-departmental and involves staff from exhibitions, education, and finance. In your organization you may need to convene different key staff for different grants. Anyone who will be in any way touched by the grant activities should be at the kickoff.

At the kickoff, it is a good idea to bring the timeline that you have laid out and indicate that this is the structure and deadline set that everyone will work within. What works well for us is a Gantt chart where the top axis is months, broken down into weeks, and the left-hand axis shows the activities of all departments or staff. There are shaded areas to show the times which those activities will be underway, and boxes with a hard and fast deadline are in red. This is a simple Excel sheet but it's fabulous - anyone can read and use it, and generally we print it out and use it as a guide for the whole project. Once you have shared this with staff they should be responsible for considering those their deadlines.

If something goes amiss, you have a preliminary deadline for early work, the prelim review,and the midpoint meeting to catch anyone who's dropping the ball.

That takes care of the application process. Once you have the grant, people tend to forget all about it and get enmeshed in the program activities themselves. So ongoing record-keeping, some aspects of fulfillment, and narrative reports are where the ball often gets dropped.

When you get the grant, have a celebratory meeting about it. Outline the project itself and all relevant deadlines and fulfillment requirements. Everyone should know what they have to do be in compliance, whether it's making sure a logo appears on a brochure or tracking the number of hours spent on a program. For this meeting, also plan a timeline with waypoint meetings to discuss the narrative reports. These should be about a month to six weeks before the report is due. Get those on your key staff's calendar at the outset so they can't claim they were unaware of reporting requirements. The last thing you want is to be scurrying around the day before a report is due trying to reverse-engineer a tabulation of hours or evaluation results.

So I agree - software is helpful, but what is most helpful is for you to place this managerial framework around the whole process, with pre-set dates and built-in accountability points. It really takes a lot of stress off you, and makes for better grants, as there are many points to share ideas and information and feedback. Good luck!
posted by Miko at 6:46 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I ran things oldschool when I was development for a small nonprofit. They had not yet implemented a tech solution for this problem (we were in the middle of implementing Salesforce) and so I wasn't really left with a lot of great options. Here's what I did:

I used Outlook religiously, and demanded that they start using the shared calendar function. I also kept my own handwritten calendar, which came with megadeadlines, and which allowed me to scribble some of the more important intermediate deadlines for myself. (eg Begin working on report for next month; check progress of fund disbursement; etc.)

And then I held weekly fundraising staff meetings where we went over and updated the entire pipeline, while simultaneously taking on new work and giving final disposition of ended work. I liked having these meetings early in the week because they ultimately colored what my week looked like.

I would have loved to have a better tech solution, but that worked pretty well.
posted by greekphilosophy at 9:33 AM on April 27, 2010

I guess if I owned this Excel file and was the only person who could write to it that might solve a lot of these problems.

Oh god, definitely. Nobody, but nobody, touches my spreadsheets.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:21 AM on April 27, 2010

Thank you all. Great answers all around. I found this very helpful.
posted by fieldtrip at 8:05 PM on April 27, 2010

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