Let me start off by making one very important statement: I am human. At the end of the day, when the sun goes down and the world becomes still, I am, in fact, just a human.
Sure, this seems like an obvious statement to most—duh, I’m human—but it’s the most honest, and perhaps only, fact that I can make. Although my experiences, complete with my own successes and failures, may differ to yours, we are indeed the same. Before we drift off to sleep, during those last moments of the day, our thoughts are full of peace, love, and, yes, prosperity. We are bonded together by these thoughts and we, together, make up the world and that of the human experience.
But let me back up a moment and tell you how I came up with this single truth.
I was born into the nonprofit world. My Grandfather, a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) administrator, was on the Board of Directors for a little known nonprofit in Los Angeles. While pregnant with me, my Mom, a school-age counselor and former preschool teacher, was contracted to write a policy manual for that little nonprofit. Upon completion, the nonprofit hired my Mom as a director of programming. By the time I was five, she was the organization’s CEO.
Over the next 20+ years, with the support of the community and passionate individuals, that little nonprofit organization went from serving fewer than 100 youth to over 17,000 in Los Angeles County. Yeah, it sounds like a fairytale for most nonprofits but it is far from it. The way I see it, I spent most of my childhood years being plagued by the thought that “funding may be cut.” Many nights my Mom would come home, exhausted from a 12-hour day, grab a glass of wine and say, “I do not know if we will be able to serve these kids if afterschool funding gets cut.”
As time went on, my Mom, understanding that the threat of government funding cuts would never go away, turned to diversifying funding. The late-night conversation changed from uncertainty about government funding to uncertainty about private funders. One year the organization would receive funding from a particular foundation or corporate donor and the next year, heck, who knows. After submitting a major grant, I would spend the next couple months hearing the worry in my Mom’s voice about the big “what-if” hanging over her head—what if she didn’t get the funding? If she had no funding, what would she and the organization do?
Like any good leader of a nonprofit, she looked back at her strategy to diversify funding. Her next plan was to create some revenue-generating programs. The buzz term “social enterprise” sticks out to me during this phase. She then spent countless hours creating programs and finding opportunities where her organization could actually get paid for the wonderful work they did (this concept of nonprofits charging for services still confuses people today, but that is a whole other story).
Then again, even with paid programs, the constant struggle to keep the organization afloat never went away. The organization, essentially, received funding from the government, private foundations and corporations, and the occasional revenue-generating program. Yet I am still haunted by “what-ifs” that come with working within a nonprofit.
So, in the true fashion of a kid that grew up in a nonprofit family, I went for-profit.
Alright, that is not entirely true. I started my career doing Social Media Consulting for nonprofit organizations. Upon completing my undergraduate degree, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in something called Social Entrepreneurship (and Change, technically). While getting my Master’s degree, I found myself working at a for-profit tech company as an unpaid intern.
Long story short, at 23 years old, I found myself a Vice President of that tech company. Yeah, it sounds (and was/is) pretty awesome but something was missing—I was not doing anything to give back. My heart was weighing heavy on me as I sat behind a computer and worked to make, essentially, “one guy more money.”
With that in mind, I took a risk with my livelihood, marched into the office of that “one guy,” and said, “If you want me to continue working here, you have to start giving back.” And the rest is history… No, I wish, but that was only the beginning.
Over the next couple years, I tried numerous “Corporate Social Responsibility” initiatives that, honestly, failed. They failed on a giving-back scale and they failed on a business scale (let’s be real here, I am still a for-profit so I need to see how this helps our bottom line). Although we did give back to our community, the impact was small or, virtually, nonexistent. On a business side, the press surrounding these early initiatives was, like the impact, nonexistent. Ok, yes, we did have one success through this process but even that had/has its ups and downs (another story for another day).
To sum it up, in an almost crude for-profit way, I spent money with no return on investment. I was crushed. How can I continue to ask for money to “do good” if I am not sure if my doing is “good” on any level? To answer this question, I reached into the depths of my experience and knowledge and came up with a plan—I will create a STEM grant and award funding to organizations and schools I felt were truly making a difference in the lives of their community’s youth.
How does one just, out of thin air, create a grant? Well, it is easier than you may think. You create guidelines, an application, and you send it out to people who share grant opportunities to nonprofits and schools. BAM! In one day’s work, you can create a program that you hope will change lives.
Ok, ok, ok, I may be down playing this whole thing just a bit. As a person with a nonprofit background and related Master’s degree, I am a little more equipped to take on such a campaign. With the assistance from friends and family (all of whom have vastly more experience in nonprofit management and, essentially, grants than I do), we created a grant that we hoped would truly impact the lives of youth around the United States.
In 2015, my for-profit tech company launched the first funding cycle of our “STEM Innovation Grant.” This grant had one goal, to provide funding to nonprofits and schools that were providing STEM education programs to students in their community. At the end of the first funding cycle, we had around 50 solid proposals and ended up awarding seven programs in seven different cities around the U.S. In August of 2016, we received the final reports from the awardees. Finally, I was able to say “we made an impact.”
With the awardee reports in hand (and the reports of the business stats from the campaign surrounding the grant), I marched into the office of that “one guy” and pitched the idea to do a second funding cycle of our STEM Grant. By March 2017, we announced it. By May 27, 2017, the day after the proposal deadline, we had 298 proposals submitted. If you are quickly doing the math, that is about six times more grant proposals than we got the first time around.
Freaking out yet? Well, I was.
Unlike the first funding cycle where I had the assistance of my sister, a Business Development Director at a major nonprofit with a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management, this time I was single-handedly spearheading the STEM grant. From creating the webpage, to reaching out to people, to promote the grant, everything fell on me.
I will take a moment—in the middle of this article—to mention, (before she and my Mom murder me in my sleep for the paragraph above), that I did not do it alone. I received advice every step along the way. Without their assistance, this whole grant thing would not be possible. For putting up with the consistent calls and near breakdowns, thank you! Now onwards we go….
So, when the final number of proposals came out to nearly 300 different organizations and schools, my heart didn’t know if it should sing or cry. As Eminem once said, “So be careful what you wish for ’cause you just might get it / And if you get it then you just might not know what to do wit’ it, ’cause it might just come back on you ten-fold.” Clearly, Eminem was not discussing his request for grant proposals but the point remains—I wanted grant proposals and I got them.
Of course, I am excited. This is an unbelievable moment that means, as one friend put it, “You must be doing something right.” As an education advocate who spent years studying education inequality in the U.S., I was excited to hear about all the wonderful ways educators and fellow education advocates were making a difference in the lives of our youth.
As I sat down and started reading the grants, one thought came to my head, “How will I choose who the finalists are?” With each 50 or so I read, the more and more complicated it got. We had proposals from museums, universities (Ivy Leagues included), education-centric organizations, schools (and school districts), Parent-Teacher Associations, libraries, community centers, botanical gardens, curriculum-centric organizations, aquariums, foundations, homeless shelters/furniture banks, theaters, sports centers, youth-run organizations, food banks—I mean, I could keep on going. Nearly any type of organization that could or has run a STEM education program applied. And I am not even mentioning the number of different cities and states that were applying on behalf of those organizations.
Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the vast amount of organization-types that caused the complexity, it was the fact that they were applying and what they were applying for.
We had schools apply for teacher professional development and materials using specific partners and/or curriculum. Great, right? Agreed, but what happens with the curriculum partner also applies for the grant?
Did I lose you yet?
How about when a school or organization plans on partnering up with a university and, at the same time, the university applies in turn to partner with schools? Or how about the schools and organizations that apply for funds to go on field trips and the place they plan on going to also applies for the same grant? Oh, don’t forget the foundations that applied and, in another organizations’ proposals, the organization references that foundation as a funder.
Let’s keep going because this is “fun.”
How do you choose one Boys & Girls Club over another? How do you choose one Girls Inc. over another? How do you choose one Big Brothers, Big Sisters over another? How do you choose one Girls Scouts over another? How do you choose one robotics team over another? And how in the world do you choose one school, in the same school district, in the same city, over another?
To be honest, I am not sure there is a right answer for any of these questions. The deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole I got, the more I asked myself how we got to this point. How did I miss the day where nearly any not-for-profit entity must compete for the same funds? Is this a fact everyone else in the not-for-profit world knows that I somehow missed?
Granted, terrible pun intended, our grant was open to all types of nonprofits and schools. We did not narrow down the pool to specific programs or specific STEM-topics. We did not exclude a particular type of nonprofit from applying. Our grant was open to any organization or school, in any U.S. city, that was providing a STEM educational opportunity for youth. So, in some ways, this vast amount of proposals makes sense.
However, the ever-looming plague of my childhood was still constantly in the back of my mind. With so many organizations and schools applying, “what if” funding continues to get cut? Nevertheless, I had to push on and I set out to do the unthinkable: In four days, I must cut 285 proposals.
I’m sure you are wondering, especially those that applied, how I made the tough cuts now that you know what I know. The truth is, a lot of alcohol. Just joking, although, that could have made for some pretty interesting decisions. Really, a lot of phone calls to advisors and a lot of re-reading.
Oh, and the most important thing, being human (yep, I just circled it back around).
After I checked to ensure that the proposals hit our guidelines and was competitive based on the rubric we created (which was provided to each organization if they looked on the site), I talked to experts in a number of fields. I trusted they would provide me with some hidden insight I was not privy to by just reading the proposals. With countless hours spent on the phone going back and forth, there was only one thing left to do: Pull from my experiences and, using a “Bones” reference, my gut.
At the end of it all, what I relied on was my experiences and my feelings—I relied on my human experience. There is no right or wrong in a situation like this. No matter what choices I made, the end result is that the lives of thousands of youth will be impacted in a positive way. I will help provide STEM education opportunities to youth all over the United States.
Today I can say I have done what I have set out to do.
It is at this point, some 2300 words later that I tell you this has been one of the hardest moments in my life. My heart, mind, and, as one professor once told me, ego, experienced numerous ups and downs along the way. I hope that all you reading this realize that funders do not take their jobs lightly. It is because of our own experiences, knowledge, and the decisions we have made along the way that we find ourselves in the shoes we are in—for better or for worse.
As you go to bed tonight, in those last moments before your day comes to a close, I hope that you think of not the what-ifs of the world but of the peace, love, and, yes (again), prosperity that make us all humans.
And, to my five STEM Grant Committee Readers, good luck. May you make the decisions with a truthful and loving heart.
My name is Samantha Walters and I am what you would consider a “millennial executive” over at Colocation America. Every Monday (get it, get it, Samantha on Mondays – the S.O.M column) I will write a little something on whatever is on my mind from business practices to current events and everything else in between.