A Brief Retrospective on Community College Transformation

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I started out the year writing about The 5th Anniversary of Our Worst Month. As we near the midpoint of this year, I thought I’d expand on that a little bit by sharing some of what we have been up to since then. 

In the latter half of 2019, I got a call from my career, menu, wardrobe, and spiritual advisor, Alex Comfort. Alex was doing one of the things Alex does best, helping a longtime friend and mentee through a professional challenge. One of my classmates from Alex’s very first Fundraising Boot Camp had landed the role of executive director at a community college foundation and had been leading the college’s advancement efforts for just a few years when she encountered a pretty major hurdle. Her grant writer resigned just as the college president announced his plans to retire.

Initially, Alex was calling to see if I knew any up-and-coming grant writers who might be interested in the role. But the more we talked about it, the more I realized this wasn’t the time for an up-and-comer. Our mutual friend needed someone with higher ed savvy. By the end of the call, Alex had talked me into applying for the role myself. I started on November 1, 2019.

I have to admit, my team wasn’t exactly enthused. I’d started the year nearly driving us off a cliff and by the end of it, I was taking on a full-time job on top of running KFA. I don’t blame them for questioning my judgment at that point.

Nonetheless, for the past four and a half years, we have been doing some of the most extraordinary work KFA has ever accomplished while I have also been serving as a full-time administrator at a community college. Over the next few months, I plan to detail a few of those accomplishments through a series of case studies. But I want to begin with the community college, from which I made my departure at the end of last month.

The short of it is that over four and a half years, I wrote about $14 million in asks and received just over $12 million in awards, winding up at an 85.7% success rate in dollars. I know This Isn’t Baseball, but that isn’t shabby. A few highlights include a pair of $1.5 million Appalachian Regional Commission grants to equip a customized training program to prepare workers for better-than-living-wage jobs, a $2.25 million federal Department of Education grant for strengthening institutions, and a $3.3 million foundation investment aimed at repairing systemic inequities.

Generally speaking, I love working with community colleges. A community college was one of my first clients and I enjoy the diversity of projects a community college offers. In my time with this most recent one, I got to inject nearly a million dollars into early childhood education teacher preparation, put close to another million dollars in the startup of high-cost programs (robotic welding and nurse aide preparation), and even got to put together a little infrastructure proposal to turn a stormwater mitigation project into an outdoor learning environment.

Perhaps my favorite project though was one of the smallest grants I received there. I’d written a $50,000 ask in support of a little program that embeds education navigators in the local SNAP office. Having worked as an eligibility counselor in SNAP early in my career, I deeply appreciated the importance of the work that small crew was doing. Apparently, my passion for their work paid off. For the first time in my career, I got a call from the funder after I’d submitted the application asking me to revise the ask amount…to triple our proposed budget.

Out of $12 million, I believe that $150,000 grant likely changed the most lives for the better. From that point forward, the vice president over that little program joked that I don’t get out of bed for less than $100,000. Her witty compliment will stay with me for a very long time. Before I left, my last major proposal was a $750,000 ask for that program and I sincerely hope it is awarded. I know it will do an incredible amount of good.

Although longtime members of the KFA team may attest that I should be institutionalized, working within institutions isn’t for me. KFA runs as the well-oiled machine it is because I have a knack for recruiting some of the best administrative professionals in the world, not because I am one myself.

As an administrator, I had to do a lot of things I’m not particularly keen on doing, like sitting in long meetings that could have been an email, battling to create detailed procedures to safeguard compliance with funder regulations, and worst of all, navigating complex internal politics. None of those things are what I love. I did get the opportunity to play a role in one of the best run strategic planning processes I have ever been a part of and that was extremely satisfying.

I made up my mind about a year ago that it was time to get back to doing exclusively what I love and what I am best at, writing grants that fund passionate organizations poised for growth and ready to reach the next level. Over the past twelve months, I’ve been putting in the work to get KFA ready to scale back up to full capacity much in the same way we grow our clients. We’ve been identifying opportunities where we can do the most good, recruiting and developing great people in key roles, and creating efficiencies that amplify our work. Whether an organization is for-profit or nonprofit that really is what sustainability is all about.

We’ve already hit most of our growth targets for this year and only have a couple of spots left in our client stable. We look forward to sharing our most recent case studies in nonprofit growth and development. If your organization would like to be our next great success story, get in touch before our last couple of spots are taken.

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