The 5th Anniversary of Our Worst Month

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As our longtime readers will know, I tend to be reflective at the start of the year. Way back in January 2018, I wrote a list of New Year’s resolutions for nonprofit organizations that would be the inspiration for our entire series of ebooks. This year, I’m reflecting on something else entirely. January 2024 marks the fifth anniversary of one of the worst months of my life, both personally and professionally.

I’ve struggled for five years to find the words to share the cautionary tale of what transpired at the start of 2019. But first, I think a little background is in order.

I began my career in the central administration of a K-12 school district about two decades ago. By virtue of being nice to the education writer from the local newspaper, I got a lot of great press for every grant we won and pretty soon my desk phone was ringing off the hook with calls from other organizations in the community asking for my help. I had three consulting clients before I realized I had a consultancy. In 2010, I made it official and got a business license for my side-hustle grant writing and called it Keller-Ferguson & Associates (KFA).

A decade ago, in 2014, I earned my Master’s degree in Business Administration while working for a university. By the time I graduated that August, I was exhausted with the internal politics of higher education and ready for a change. Over the holiday break, I sat down and wrote a 56-page business plan for taking my consultancy full time. That winter, I called together a half-dozen or so of the smartest people I know and asked them to review my plan. With the confidence of my most-trusted advisors, I resigned my day job in April and KFA started to become what it is today.

Despite the very early arrival of my son in 2017, both 2017 and 2018 were great years for KFA. Our team was hitting its stride and our client stable was packed with about a dozen organizations from Sacramento, California to New York City and from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Mobile, Alabama. January 2019 was expected to be our single biggest revenue month since I quit my day job. And, then, it wasn’t.

In the latter half of 2018, we’d signed a large, corporate foundation client and added a staff member to help support the account. Alas, their procurement process was unwieldy and the substantial retainer they owed was hitting more than 100 days overdue as 2019 began. Cash flow was beginning to be a problem, but a long-time client’s contract also renewed in January, so we’d be fine.

But we weren’t. When the corporate foundation finally mailed its check, months after the engagement began, it got lost in the mail. They insisted on waiting weeks to stop payment on the lost check before they would reissue the payment. While I was waiting for their payment, on the first business day of the year, I reached out to our largest and longest-time client to schedule the formality of sitting down together to renew their contract and share a big hug as we had many times. My email went unanswered. This was highly unusual. The CEO always got back to me within 24 hours, if that. It wasn’t uncommon for him to call or email me well after normal business hours. We were close. A week went by. 

On the morning of January 11, 2019, one of the close friends and advisors who reviewed my business plan forwarded me an article in the local business journal. The CEO of my biggest client, a dear friend after working closely together for years, had been found dead. I was devastated, both personally and professionally.

By my birthday in late January, my child’s second birthday was coming up, I had 34 cents in the bank, and no idea how I was going to buy diapers or groceries.

I learned some of the hardest lessons of my life in 2019 – the things no amount of business school can prepare you for. But, we came through it. The retainer eventually showed up from the corporate behemoth. My team showed more patience and support than I can ever repay. It was a humbling experience.

In hindsight, while things appeared to be going great in 2018, I made a lot of mistakes that nearly sank me and my company. I’ve since learned from them. 

At first, we tried to serve far too many clients at every stage of development and of all shapes and sizes. We offered a wide range of services to meet a diversity of needs. We were writing grants, of course, but we were also involved in helping startup nonprofits incorporate, fundraising, strategic planning, direct communication services, I was even providing executive coaching to a couple of nonprofit leaders. And some days, we didn’t know if we were coming or going. I turned my focus to securing a few large, anchor clients, like the community development financial institution that was our largest client for years and the corporate foundation that got around to paying its bills when it felt like it. We narrowed too much and had too few eggs in our basket. In the five years since, I’ve learned balance.

Today, I still take every sales call, personally. Every contact form that comes through our website is answered. But, I admit that I spend more time pointing nonprofits to other resources than I spend delivering a hard sales pitch. We’ve learned our sweet spot, the nonprofits we can best serve and who are best for the health of our company. 

For the past five years, we have specialized in helping nonprofits bumping against the growth plateau to climb it. Our clients have an administrative staff, but typically lack a full-time, dedicated grant writer. They are usually 5-10 years old and have the financial health to manage multi-year, multi-million dollar reimbursement grants. And, they pay their deposit before we clock the first hour of service for them.

In 2024, we’re sticking to these principles. And, we’re considering specializing further. We’ll have more to say about that soon. In the meantime, I’ve been taking a lot of calls and meetings lately with organizations that don’t quite fit our niche. And, I admittedly miss the energy and excitement from our early days when we were working with smaller, less established organizations. So, for the last few months, we’ve been working on something special to reconnect with the entirety of our audience, to offer help to the types of organizations we no longer serve directly. We look forward to rolling it out soon.

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