Let’s call it the Zero Year.
You’d be hard pressed to find it in most grant proposals, but it’s there. It’s just that the first year of a new program or organization is often disguised as a typical period of work: a full complement of staff working at full tilt, delivering services, producing studies, or promoting policy change. Grantseekers usually project that they’ll spend quickly from Day 1, and they promise funders that we’ll see lots of productivity and impact. Eager for a new idea to hatch quickly and grow, we buy into the fantasy.
Then, somewhere around month nine we start hearing (occasionally sheepish) explanations for slow spending and a lack of results—often accompanied by a question about whether it’s possible to get a no-cost extension on the grant. Although we almost always agree, it’s with a twinge of disappointment and a sense that we should have known better. We’ve seen this movie before. Eventually, when the evaluation report is written years later, we’ll see it in black and white: “Due to significant delays in initiating activities, the entire timeline of the work program lagged.”
You know, we’d all be a lot happier—and look a lot smarter—if we just acknowledged reality and embraced the Zero Year. It’s not a goose egg; it’s an important period of early development.
During the first months of any new effort, leaders are dedicated to under-the-radar and relatively low-cost activities like recruiting, planning, setting up in-office systems and policies, establishing new partnerships, and going through the sometimes painful and always time-consuming process of getting activities off the ground. That’s a necessary precondition to successful work later on, but it’s not the work itself. And the rate of spending during the first year, and particularly during the first six months, is usually far less than half of any later period. And, quite naturally, there are few visible products, and no impact. That’s not failure; that’s just life.
While it’s tempting to jump over the start-up phase in any grant proposal, it would be far better to describe it in detail and with realism—to build a Zero Year into both budgets and timelines. Grantees and funders could then have a conversation about what it really takes to put together the right team, to set up a website, and to do all the other vital, unglamorous things needed to initiate “real work.” Together we could figure out what a sensible spending trajectory looks like, and when we might reasonably expect to see results. We could redefine success for the Zero Year as where an organization needs to be by its end in order to thrive in every subsequent year. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if, in the discussion of the Zero Year, we figure out that it makes more sense to make a longer grant, giving the grantee greater financial security, a more realistic timeline for seeing results, and all the benefits that go along with it.
Best of all, by calling out the Zero Year as a specific and necessary step along a multi-year journey, we’d be honest not just with each other but also with ourselves.