GPA 2020 Annual Conference Scholarship Essay, by Molly Peterson

Arizona Founding Chapter Jerry Dillehay Scholarship

In our lives, we all experience numerous firsts. Our first steps, first kiss, first job, first time eating (and possibly abhorring) sushi. Some we reflect on for years to come, and some pass the very moment with little significance, never stamping our memory with the lasting mark of a new experience. I have had a number of the latter. Though, November 4th was a momentous beginning. Not only for our country as we began our journey through an unprecedented election process, but for my career. This year, I attended my first Grant Professionals Conference.

I first entered the grant writing industry because of a sincere fascination with grant writers as people. The wide range of expertise, personal history, and passion in the grants industry inspires me to appreciate the various colors of grant writers that paint different strengths, united towards a shared goal of kindling positive change. The richness of depth in the grant industry represents one of the most stirring reasons why my first Grant Professionals Conference provided lasting value to me.

At Prevent Child Abuse Arizona, I am the only individual with grant writing expertise. When I first began with the organization at the ripe age of 22, my assignment as an AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America included transferring grant writing from the professional hands of a contracted grant writer into the shaking yet willing hands of a new college graduate. In undertaking this responsibility, I virtually attended many webinars since workshops were not readily available in my rural corner of Arizona (insert my well-versed needs assessment for rural Arizona). These virtual webinars did not instill the same feeling of community as I had hoped. Where were the captivating individuals who inspired me to join them in a career of grant writing?

I often felt alone as I pioneered a grant process that was foreign to both my team and me. Before the Grant Professional Conference, I struggled to feel confident and resilient in the COVID urgency and new remote working environments. Shortly after the beginning of the state-mandated quarantine, I was on the precipice of my largest grant request yet: $1,192,655.00. To prepare the grant application for this federal RFGA, I was responsible for managing input from four other program staff and organization leaders in the new virtual realm. I scheduled twice-weekly meetings with the program manager to stay on track and communicate progress, but I still felt alone tackling such a massive grant. Though, that feeling would not compare to the loneliness I felt when I received news from the grantor. The grantor funded the project, though they had significantly fewer funds to distribute; thus, they cut funding for my application’s less justified areas. The program manager was devastated (rightly so, as she cares passionately about the cause she serves) and channeled her disappointment towards me. Working alone in my home, I struggled to manage my frustration as I contemplated how weeks of unseen hard work made me vulnerable to blame from my colleague.

Entering the Grant Professionals Conference only a couple of months later, I felt misunderstood, underappreciated, and alone. In the first half-day of the conference, I was overwhelmed by the opposite: understanding, appreciativeness, and community. I did not realize how alone I was until the recent Grant Professional Conference illuminated a crowd of comrades gathered within reach of my self-contained isolation. In workshops and discussions, grant peers described the veil between grant writers and program managers. How often, program managers and staff misunderstand the role of the grant writer. Who has been asked to write a grant for a vaguely conceptualized program, thus necessitating that the grant writer also generate the program and evaluation plans? Who has written for fourteen hours straight, unbeknownst to their team members? In openly answering these questions, my heart signed in relief: these are my people.

The daily and casual lunch meetings became one of my favorite ways to connect with “my people.” I connected more personally with other attendees outside of the formal constructs of workshops. Honestly, I was not sure that these sorts of opportunities would be available at a virtual conference. It was here that I shared some of my struggles concerning grant management. Several experienced grant writers shared what I needed most: empathy. Of course, they offered their advice, but they also provided their understanding and reaffirmed my value as a grant writer. When I first began my role, my organization wanted to bring grant writing in-house but did not realize what it took to do that. I had to convince the program managers that I was worth their time when discussing program details for the application. Thus, I created a Grant Procedures Manual that outlined each individuals’ roles, communication preferences, and expectations. I hosted several organization-wide meetings to build buy-in and understanding. Though, I often found myself sacrificing my own needs to ensure that the program manager would provide what I needed: “You need a 48-hour editing window to review the grant? Oh, and you, too? Sure, I can do that.” I found myself sacrificing a substantial chunk of the grant window to provide each of the three editors with a 48-hour window to edit before submission. The grant was entirely out of my hands for six days before the deadline. When I shared this with my lunch group, several grant writers provided their recommendations and contact information and assured me that I could reach out any time.

They also encouraged me to attend a specific workshop: Tips for Surviving a Group Grants Process by Andrea Hoffman. Hoffman’s workshop was my favorite of the entire conference. She spoke to individuals like me: grant managers who balance many other roles within an organization. I felt seen amidst a sea of experienced grant consultants. I had to stand while I watched because I was so excited listening to Andrea’s solutions for managing a team grant process. I only wish I had attended her session sooner to spare my mistakes.

While mistakes are critical to the learning process, so is community. In my young years as a grant writer, I boast a youthful enthusiasm for the field. I love writing grants. Each application feels like a puzzle. I often feel daunted when the pieces spill out of the box, but each click of a piece feeds my motivation to track down the next piece of missing information. I have channeled that energy in moving forward, even if I have stumbled along the way. I have pulled myself out of the trenches and tried again. But the Grant Professionals Conference showed me that there are hands to help me up and point me in another direction that I had not considered. I will continue to stumble, but I have faith in knowing I am at least headed in the most efficient direction to help me reach my goals. The Grant Professionals Conference provides a golden path that does not necessarily help us reach our goals more easily but more quickly. I have full faith in knowing that, despite networking amongst those who could be considered competitors, the entire Grant Professionals Conference wants you to succeed.

The Grant Professionals Conference was my foray into the greater Grant Professionals Association. I found the Grant Professionals Conference while looking for opportunities to learn a more holistic approach to grant management, but I found I appreciated the community even more. Now, I am a few months into participating in my local Arizona Founding Chapter, and I am helping bring a new chapter, the Northern Arizona Chapter, into existence. Within these smaller groups, I feel the same understanding, empathy, and support as I felt at the conference. Now, I do not feel so alone. November 4th has become sentimental to me for many reasons, which will motivate me to return year after year. I hope to continue to forge bonds that will help to forge my career, also. Someday, years from now, I hope to return to the Grant Professionals Conference and find an opportunity to help a green new grant writer like I was in 2020.

Thank you, Grant Professionals Association, for helping lift me out of the darkness of solidarity. You provided the warmth and hope that I so desperately needed while navigating the challenges of 2020. You restored my confidence in myself and my future. By helping me, you have also ignited a spark for me to give back to my grant writing community. You have stamped my memory deeply, for which I will refer back to with admiration throughout my career. Thank you.

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