Growing up, my parents were strict but fair. They were clear in their expectations of how my younger sister and I were expected to behave. They wanted us to grow up as responsible adults. I did not always appreciate it at the time, but I sure do now. And let me tell you, between their expectations and my fear of disappointing my folks, they sure did create a rule follower.
Here’s a perfect example. We moved to Leavenworth, Kansas the summer before I started 8th grade. The life of an army brat meant a lot of moving and a lot of starting over. I don’t know how many weeks it was into the school year, but I finally got an invite from my peers. A group of girls invited me to stay after school to watch the basketball game with them. I was stoked. My mom told me it was fine, but under no circumstances was I to leave the school property. After about 30 minutes at the game, the girls suggested we walk across the street to Casey’s General Store to grab a snack. Now I knew I shouldn’t go, but I also didn’t want my new friends to think I was a loser who couldn’t walk across the street. I went. And I got away with it. But the knowledge that I disobeyed ate at me. A few days later I blurted out my tearful confession to my mom. Yep, I totally narced on myself. Little did I know, this was the beginning of what would make me a stellar grant manager.
The thing is, when the Department of Education, Georgia Emergency Management Agency, or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation bestows a grant award to your agency, it is still their money. They are giving it to your organization because they expect your grant proposal to be carried out, your objectives to be met, and all accompanying rules to be followed. Whether you work at a nonprofit, local government, hospital, Tribal Nation, university, or K-12 school system, you ultimately answer to those you serve as well as everyone who entrusts their money with you. As such, we are held to a higher standard. We are expected to follow the rules. And when we don’t, we are expected to share our mistakes and work to fix the situation so it never happens again.
Sadly, there are cases upon cases that showcase individuals and institutions who take advantage of grant funding and the people they serve. My Fundraising HayDay cohost Kimberly and I have taken to highlighting a few of these “ripped from the headlines” grant fraud cases each season. The hope is that our listeners will learn from these mistakes and remember this adage: be ye not so stupid.
In season 3, episode 12 we shared a 2020 story from the Miami Herald that detailed the misconduct of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a private domestic violence agency that was named the sole-source contract for the Department of Children and Families for domestic violence funds. The coalition received money from both the federal government and the State of Florida. The agency’s CEO was given a $313,475 pay raise over two years, taking her salary to $761,560. In 2018 and 2019 she was given a cash equivalent of 360 days of Paid Time Off. Between her salary, PTO, and car allowance, her salary in 2018 was $3.7 million. Now, I don’t begrudge a person for earning money, but nonprofit employees should be paid in line with similar organizations, and a nearly $4 million compensation packed for the CEO of a domestic violence shelter is atypical, to say the least. They should not be paid exorbitant amounts, taking needed money away from the cause. (Federal funders are big sticklers about this.) And to make matters worse, when Florida lawmakers started asking questions, the coalition refused to turn over records. In other words, they refused to share documentation and needed information to the ones who gave them the bulk of their money in the first place.
Whether we are funded by government agencies, foundations, or corporations, we are expected and required to follow the rules set forth in the contracts, agreements, and expectations outlined in documentation from our funders. Part of being a good rule follower is reading and understanding all the documents referenced by our funders. In the case of the Florida story, nonprofit leaders do not get to take advantage of funding at the detriment of those they were hired to serve in the first place.
It can be overwhelming at times to keep up with the myriad of grant regulations. I have found the easiest way to do so is read every award agreement, speak with your funder, and always be truthful when it comes to reporting, documentation, and spending. And when in doubt, share your concerns with your funder. They are there to help you succeed, and they appreciate the honesty. Trust me, just like I felt better about unburdening my misstep to my mom, you’ll be glad you kept everything aboveboard with your funder. Rule following, it’s not just for kids.
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