River Wilson, 2018 GPF Conference Scholar
Attending the Grant Professionals Association Annual Conference in Chicago this year seemed impossible for me. I am the development manager for a small hospital foundation in Dayton, Ohio, with a staff of just four people. In January of this year, the decision was made that our hospital would close. As our foundation grieves the loss of our home, we’ve shifted our focus to the vital process of strategic planning to continue our Catholic mission in an underserved and impoverished part of our city. I knew that the educational opportunity that the Annual Conference provided would help me better serve my foundation, our funders, and most importantly, our community during this critical point in our history. The Annual Conference would provide connections and information that would prove invaluable not just to me in my own work, but to my health system as we restructure our approach to philanthropy and confirm our continuing mission.
I received both a scholarship for registration and travel from my GPA Ohio Valley Chapter as well as the registration scholarship from the Grant Professionals Foundation, allowing me to pass along my chapter scholarship to be redistributed within my local chapter. As a result, a total of eight grant professionals from the Ohio Valley Chapter were able to attend the Annual Conference. Many of my fellow chapter members, like me, attended for the first time. It is my hope that this excellent turnout creates a local buzz of excitement for next year’s Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., to recruit new chapter members as well as GPA Conference attendees.
I arrived in Chicago excited to learn as much as I could during the Annual Conference, and to meet the Grant Professional Association staff whom had made my experience in the GPA online community and mentoring program so amazing this past year. It was so good to finally meet these talented individuals in person at the registration desk and the social media reception. My conference navigator, Amanda Day, made me feel so welcome. I was also able to meet my 2018 mentor, Andrea Ferreira, in person, and volunteer as her Session Ambassador. Andrea’s session seemed as if it was designed just for me.
Andrea, a grant professional for a large hospital network in Boston, presented on the role of a grant professional in a larger development department. Since my hospital closed, I’m moving from the position of Development Manager on a team of four to the position of Grant Writer on a team of more than 20 development staff, working in collaboration to fundraise for four hospital foundations, including my own. Her session spoke to the challenges of a grant writer having to wear many hats and attend to “other duties as assigned” all while maintaining relationships with funders and meeting ever-looming deadlines. I learned how best to communicate with my team and engage others to work with me, whether they are major gifts officers or program managers, to realize the value of solid grant programs.
When choosing my breakout sessions, I so appreciated the variety of topics available. I attended Trends in Grants; the Health Care Special Interest Group; Help the US Department of Health and Human Services Reinvent Grants Management; Grants and the Capital Campaign; Washington- Swimming through the Federal Grants Swamp; IGNITE-Eight Topics from Eight Successful Grant Pros; Strategic Planning-When Ideal Isn’t an Option; and Who Knew Stephen King Was a Grant Writing Tipster? As a new grant writer, I was careful to choose the topics that related most to my work and wouldn’t go over my head in terms of content, but I was also on a fact-finding mission on behalf of my foundation, to increase their knowledge of grants, and of course, contribute to the advancement of the profession. I have only completed one federal grant application, but I attended the Health and Human Services session to learn more about what is behind the scenes when grants.gov requests information that I’m certain is unrelated to the project at hand. I gleaned more information on this topic during Washington: Swimming through the Federal Grants Swamp, where attendees asked compelling questions of the presenter.
Finally, at the Health Care Special Interest group, I learned that while federal funding has a certain allure, these applications are most frequently left to the Principle Investigators of the healthcare world, rather than foundation grant writers. This information was eye-opening as I have been dipping my toe in federal funding opportunities for substance abuse and mental health treatment.
I was hyper-conscious of another fact when attending the Annual Conference: I was one of the only hospital grant writers present from Montgomery County, Ohio—a region often referred to as “The Epicenter of The Opiate Epidemic”. It was cathartic to meet with other health care professionals from other parts of the country that are struggling with the same issues I have had in funding substance abuse programs. I met another young grant writer, Jennifer Wright, from Philadelphia F.I.G.H.T., who seemed to fund very similar health programs as my foundation does, including a Federally Qualified Health Center. It was amazing to connect and network with someone that faces so many of the same issues and takes home so many of the same worries and stressors as I do when I think about the importance of the programs I’m charged with funding.
I felt empowered attending the breakout session on Grants and the Capital Campaign. An issue that often arises when working in a large health care system like mine is that the development department is too frequently the last to know of large construction projects or purchases of equipment. Learning the cadence of a successful, multi-year capital campaign, and how crucial it is to keep funders informed in the earliest phases of such projects is something I’ll communicate to leadership in my organization and work toward in the coming year. My next focus is a capital campaign for a construction project that will increase access to preventative healthcare for homeless women and children in my region, and I know that the information I took from this session is going to contribute to whatever success I have in the future.
I left the conference feeling like I’m a better grant writer for having attended the annual conference, not just because of the educational component, but for the camaraderie I discovered among grant professionals. In my own chapter, I’m one of only two hospital fundraisers, and the other hospital fundraiser is from our local children’s hospital, so there isn’t a lot of overlap in our work. Finding contacts from other hospital systems and meeting other Catholic fundraisers was inspiring. Locally, sometimes other grant writers in your niche seem standoffish as we are often ostensibly competing for the same funding. But on a national level at the annual conference, there was more freedom of communication with similar funders from other areas, and there was more an attitude of “everybody wins when everybody wins” as Jo Miller said so eloquently.
During one of my sessions, I was feeling particularly down. I don’t travel well, I never have, and I think the mere hour time change was getting the best of me. I was feeling guilty for yawning during a particularly upbeat and informative session, but I was exhausted, as if I’d stayed up all night writing against a deadline. Suddenly, the presenter randomly displayed a photo of Jesuit ruins in Paraguay on the screen. I thought to myself, “This is a presentation on the United States Office of Budget and Management. What are we doing in Paraguay?” And it was soon revealed to me that the presenter had pulled up an article from the Washington Post about how the social stability of a geographic region that used to be a Jesuit mission in Paraguay still shows a benefit from that mission having been there today. The Jesuits were driven out of the region 250 years ago, yet the impact of their investment in the empowerment of the people of the region still has an impact on literacy and school attendance to this day. “Investing in people produces long term returns” was the point of the article. My takeaway is that I don’t need to see a return on investment for my time in the present day—as much as I’d like to see it—the work we do as grant writers has longevity.
I cannot express in words the gratitude I feel to the Grant Professionals Foundation and my fellow members who support it, whether as donors or volunteers—but because I am a grant writer, I must try! I didn’t think that I’d be able to afford this incredible educational opportunity, but I also felt I couldn’t afford to miss it, considering my expanding role as a grant writer. I know now that I was right on both counts, and that without the generosity of the Grant Professionals Foundation, I would not have been able to attend.