August 16, 2011

The case of fraud, forgery, and false statements: 5 lessons for grantseekers

Reposted from The Grantsmanship Center's August 2011 newsletter {Centered}

Mail Fraud. Guilty. Document Forgery. Guilty. Making False Statements. Guilty.

In June 2011 a California jury returned its verdict in the case of grant proposal writer Jean Cross, an independent contractor. The charges involved a 2007 grant proposal submitted by a community coalition for funding under the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant program.

After the $35 million grant was approved for funding, one of the key partners, the Desert Sands Unified School District, found that the proposal that had been submitted was "materially different" from the copy they had received from the applicant organization, that memos of understanding had been altered, and that district signatures had been forged. The school district blew the whistle, withdrew from the collaboration, and called for an investigation. The grant was returned to the funding source. Ultimately the proposal writer was charged with fraud, forgery, and making false statements.

While this situation was extraordinary, it's worth looking at, since it highlights at least five crucial lessons for grantseekers.

The proposal writer had approached the coalition about submitting a proposal about ten days before the deadline, according to testimony by the head of the coalition.
  • Lesson #1: Plan. One of the core principles for people who practice sound grantsmanship is planning. Even a relatively simple proposal requires thoughtful planning. In this case, the proposed programming involved a multitude of schools and community organizations. How can solid program planning be accomplished with so many collaborators in just ten days?
Community surveys and meeting results to determine student and family needs were reported in the proposal but could not be verified. Cross acknowledged she "might have copied and pasted" into the proposal information she had collected from other school districts while working on previous grant proposals.
  • Lesson #2: Use accurate data. Everything we include in grant proposals must be accurate, with sources cited. If we don't have time to gather the data, we don't have time to plan a program or prepare a proposal worthy of funding.
Signatures of at least some collaborating partners were forged.
  • Lesson #3: Use original signatures. Original signatures on original documents are essential, and the process for approval by school districts and units of government is likely to take longer than just a few days. If there isn't time to get approval of the final documents and signatures by all parties, don't apply.
This proposal named five school districts and two nonprofit organizations as key collaborators and listed five public entities, two private universities, and six community-based organizations as collaborating partners. Some memos of understanding from collaborating partners were altered after signatures were obtained, committing additional resources by partners to the proposed program. In other cases, according to some of those named, memos of understanding were submitted without the partners' knowledge.
  • Lesson #4: Be honest. Always. With partners, with collaborators, and with funders. All partners and collaborators must have full knowledge of the program. All parties should be clear about expectations and about how much money is involved, and they must agree to their organizations' commitments to the program - financial and otherwise.
The grant in this case was for nearly $35 million over five years. Cross's fee (which was not clearly identified in the proposal budget) was 15% of the grant: $5 million. This point came up repeatedly in the newspaper coverage of the situation.
  • Lesson #5: Do what is right. It's not illegal to charge a percentage for grants development, but it is strongly discouraged by reputable groups. Indeed, it is considered unethical. It's easy to understand why. One might easily question why anyone should get $5 million for writing a proposal. Why not charge a flat fee, up front, either by hour or by project, for the work of developing a proposal? This would provide the transparency that taxpayers, donors, and funders want.
True grantsmanship is about more than just getting the money. It's about creating meaningful change for people. Excellence in grantsmanship means doing the right things in the right ways...and for the right reasons.

[Extensive investigative and trial coverage can be found at The Desert Sun newspaper.]

Patty Hasselbring, a former trainer for The Grantsmanship Center, has worked with nonprofits for more than 30 years on both sides of the funding desk: as executive director of grantseeking nonprofit organizations and as executive director of a funding agency. She and her husband also breed and raise alpacas.

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