GPA 2020 Annual Conference Scholarship Essay, by Bethany Watson

Grant Professionals Foundation Scholarship

While this year has presented its fair share of challenges, one particular highlight was my attendance at the 2020 GPA National Conference. Like most members of the nonprofit sector, the past few months have forced me to be flexible, resilient, and almost completely alter my original grants pipeline I had developed back in September of 2019. Working in the world of hunger relief, we have certainly experienced an unprecedented increase in local food insecurity rates, with the state of Indiana being no exception. Consequently, my organization has been busier than even trying to make our food output meeting the growing need in our service area. With all of this going on at the same time, it was such a gift to spend three days this past November learning from fellow grant professionals, growing in my field, and gathering best practices that I can use to help improve my own work for years to come.

I originally became involved with my local GPA chapter back in 2018 when I began my first position as a grant professional. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know my fellow colleagues and talking about the things that only a grant writer would understand. I am sure I speak for a lot of people when I say that most of my friends and family are not familiar with the minutia that comes with writing/managing a grant department. After attending monthly meetings on a regular basis, I became the board member in charge of programming for the Indiana Chapter starting in January of 2020. At the time, we had no idea how drastically we would have to switch up our schedule of events to provide more virtual opportunities, but it has been a great experience nonetheless. Not only have I been able to participate in professional development sessions, but I have also been able to connect to a wide network of brilliant leaders throughout the nonprofit sector. Maintaining such a great experience just throughout the state level, I knew I would benefit from connecting with fantastic professionals dedicated to their craft across the entire country. It came as no surprise, but I experienced that same level of connection with the national conference this year.

I was a little skeptical about how the switch to a virtual model would affect our ability to network with other colleagues, particularly since this would be my first time attending the conference. While I certainly missed connecting with people in person (not to mention traveling to Denver for a mini-getaway), I thought the Pathable platform was an excellent method for inspiring togetherness even when we were not in the same room. It was even more accessible for those that are typically unable to travel but could attend a conference from the comfort of their own living room! I was able to interact with several online text threads, contribute to chat messages, and even participate in one on one meetings with fellow attendees I met throughout various other sessions. I loved the ability to earn points and track your progress along with the contest leadership board – a healthy level of competition is always an inspiring motivator! Because we were able to view where each grant professional worked, I reached out to several food bank colleagues to hear about their experience writing grants in the realm of charitable hunger relief. I am not often able to connect with other members in the food bank industry, especially those whose roles parallel my own. While I loved hearing and learning about the work of grant professionals in other businesses like arts organizations, advocacy groups, etc., I thoroughly enjoyed getting to hear from colleagues that experience similar challenges and expectations as I do (a little commiseration is always welcome). I have even been able to host virtual meetings with colleagues over the past few weeks since the conference has ended. With this being my first time attending, I can only imagine how many connections I will continue to make each year.

The congeniality and overall amiable quality of the conference was heightened by the model leadership exemplified by Mike Chamberlain, Amanda Day, and of course the witty, motivational style of Jess Pettitt. Their level of care toward the conference and GPA members was evident in their professionality and poise as they kicked off every morning with a healthy dose of optimism. While we were unable to share a meal together in person, I appreciate the availability of virtual lunch break assemblies, with topics ranging from the wide variety of interests displayed by attendees. I myself enjoyed conversations had while participating in the Human Services and Grant Management breakrooms. One could also tell the conference was planned by people who truly understood the needs of those that work in the grant profession, because all of the sessions provided extremely relevant topics to a wide variety of different organizations and a range of experiences from early career members all the way to professionals who have been working with grants for decades. I found myself having a difficult time deciding which ones to pick at certain points during the week, which is why I plan on checking out session recordings while they are still available!

In my field, I particularly enjoy topics surrounding data collection and usage. My own organization is currently in the process of trying to collect more client-centric data, ensuring we utilize this information to inform our programming and best serve the people that need it most. In the past, we typically have concentrated on the number of pounds distributed and individuals served. However, as we focus more on nutrition and the effect of healthy foods on chronic conditions related to hunger, we are intent on measuring factors related to a client’s understanding of a balanced diet, the number of clients experiencing heart disease, hypertension, or diabetes, and access to the nearest healthy food retailer. Since hunger disproportionately affects disadvantaged populations like rural communities, seniors, and People of Color (POC), we are increasingly interested in collecting data relevant to these demographics. As such, I attended quite a few sessions regarding data and evaluation, gleaning valuable information that I can use to help my organization cater to the specific needs of the clients we serve.

We are also embarking on a campaign over the next several years, so I was grateful for sessions related to this topic – especially considering how new I still am to the field. Another relevant subject to my work includes integrating a grants team strategy into organizational goals. In early 2019, we launched a 5-year strategic plan intended to outline our role in closing the meal gap for central and southern Indiana while convening with local social service organizations to develop holistic solutions for Hoosiers living in poverty. I was grateful to attend session relevant to strategic plans, which will help me strengthen our grant team’s role over the next few years in accomplishing long-term objectives. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed every session I attended, having put a lot of thought into the ones I would most enjoy in a live setting. I am also grateful for the continued professional development I will receive as I watch other sessions I was unable to observe during the conference.

I am so incredibly grateful to the Grant Professionals Foundation for providing me with a scholarship to attend my very first conference. Without this funding, I would most likely not have been able to join, thereby missing out on a great community and a wealth of knowledge. Every colleague I had spoken to prior to the conference that had attended in previous years spoke quite highly of this resource and attested to its positive effect on long-term professional outcomes. I can assuredly say that my experience lived up to the high expectations established by my peers. My organization has quite a few large-scale projects coming up over the next few years, requiring an increasingly sophisticated and capable advancement team needed to raise funds for these plans. With the tools and best practices learned throughout the course of this conference, I feel more confident as a grant writer and fundraiser in my ability to effectively communicate our case for support, utilize data to highlight the need for our services, and help establish strategic solutions that truly cater to the people we serve. Thank you to GPF as well as everyone involved in planning the 2020 GPA National Conference for an experience that I will remember throughout my entire career.

More information about Conference Scholarships, including application dates and eligibility criteria, is available here.