In 2015, 53% of nonprofits nationally reported having three months or less of cash on hand – and 12% reported having zero, according to a report from the Nonprofit Finance Fund.

Funding from federal and state agencies has the potential to give organizations much-needed stability, but the application process can be intimidating to navigate.  With this in mind, Get IN Chicago recently invited the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) – Chicago Office of Regional Operations to offer a free, hands-on, three-day training for Chicago nonprofits. The Vision, Design, Capacity (VDC) workshop’s goal is to develop, support, and increase the competence of technical writers to submit successful grants, with a focus on effective federal and state proposals.

51 individuals from 31 different organizations signed up to participate in the VDC workshop, which culminated in an interactive discussion with federal funding agencies.

“The goal of the VDC workshop is not simply writing a grant,” said Anne Huang, Deputy Regional Administrator for Region 5 at HRSA.  “These sessions are specifically designed to help staff from community-based organizations navigate the grant process, particularly for federal funding.”

Jay Blackwell, CEO of New Paradigms in Consulting, created the VDC model after serving on grant review committees and becoming discouraged by how small, minority-led nonprofits could seldom compete for funding.  He made it his mission to assist these organizations to strengthen their proposals.

“We are always looking for ways to help our partners diversify their funding streams,” said Crystal Jackson, Program Officer for Get IN Chicago. “Increasingly, securing funding for youth and family programs requires rigorous grant applications.  Having someone of Jay Blackwell’s caliber come to Chicago and share his expertise is an incredible opportunity.”

Each VDC workshop includes lectures and interactive exercises with opportunities to review key principles of technical writing, practice strategies for relaying information in grant applications, and share tips and standards used by grant reviewers as they screen applications.

“As a society, we can be so focused on data that we forget the people behind it,” said Tracie Worthy, Vice President at I AM ABLE Center for Family Development in North Lawndale. “But Mr. Blackwell emphasized that our applications need both.  He gave us some great strategies for using quantitative and qualitative data in our plans, reporting, and impact.”

Many participants also appreciated the networking opportunity and pointed to immediate benefit for their programs and the greater community. “I met one woman who works with an adult re-entry program, so I am putting her in touch with a Northwestern committee focused on that issue,” said Darlene Perry, Executive Director of the Forensic Center at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “I also had the chance to speak to a few agencies about how the Forensic Center could provide training to strengthen their mental health services.”

Small groups provided opportunities for networking and collaboration. Special thanks to UCAN for generously donating space and assisting with hosting the workshop over its three days!

Of the 31 participants who completed surveys at the workshop’s conclusion, 100% would recommend the workshop to their colleagues. Moreover, nearly all of those surveyed said they plan to apply for funding based on what they learned and use the resources made available, particularly the forecasting lists about upcoming funding opportunities.

“We have never applied for a grant from HRSA, but we definitely will now,” added Perry. “Overall, it was a really great experience.  The workshop truly spoke to the ins and outs of grant writing, and the VDC approach makes you really want to try.  We are looking forward to looking over the resources that were shared and seeing what might be a good fit for the Forensic Center.”

Jay Blackwell (left); Anne Huang of HRSA – Chicago and Crystal Jackson from Get IN Chicago (right)


Jay Blackwell is kindly allowing us to share resources from the VDC workshop.  A few key tips and links:

Vision: What is your vision for how this program will change your participants, community, or world? Successful grant proposals should articulate specific changes or results that will occur if the project receives funding and clearly relate to the organization’s mission statement.  What needs will the project address, what will success look like, and why should people care?

Design: The design of your project should detail the step-by-step process by which you will achieve your vision and intended outcomes.  Using SMART goals and objectives, communicate the finer points of your program’s service delivery and methodology.  The project design should be comprehensive, concise, and carefully answer each question in the application.

Capacity: How is your organization prepared to successfully complete your proposed activities?  Showcase your agency strengths, expertise, and partnerships, and describe capacity to collect data, measure effectively, and operate sustainably.

Additional Resources: