By Bryan Roesler
When my partner, Ashleigh Graves-Roesler, and I embarked on a 27-month journey to Ukraine with the Peace Corps, we were ready for a new adventure. We expected our service to be a short hiatus in our fundraising careers, fully planning to pick up where we left off when we returned to the U.S. We had no idea that our adventure was about to turn into a career pivot and the start of a new business.
Ashleigh and I arrived in Ukraine in March of 2017 (if you want more history, check out our previous blog post). We spent three months in language and technical training before swearing in and moving to our assignment city of Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, where we remained for the rest of our service.
Since we had both spent our careers as fundraisers, we were tasked with building capacity and sustainability for NGOs. I worked with Ділові Ініціативи (Business Initiatives), helping to support decentralization efforts in the region. Ashleigh work with тепле місто (“Warm City”), a progressive community foundation that serves as a platform for civic activists involved in social entrepreneurship and urban development in Ivano-Frankivsk.
Peace Corps Volunteers are responsible for learning how they can best contribute to the unique needs of their host organization. Ashleigh and I found a niche in grant writing. In Ukraine, and Eastern Europe in general, grant writing is the primary vehicle for fundraising. Since many of the grants that support Ukrainian projects are funded by the European Union, United States, Canada, and Scandinavian countries, there is a great demand for education about western-style grant writing best practice, and for support developing English-language grant applications.
Initially, we worked alongside our host organizations to write English-language grant applications. Over time, we began to help other NGOs in our city learn about the finer points of project planning, logic models, goals and objectives, metrics, and more so they could write grants that would meet the requirements of and appeal to western funders.
In 2017, Ashleigh wrote and was awarded a USAID Small Project Assistance grant for her organization to teach grant writing to young civic activists. As part of that grant, Ashleigh and I wrote a beginner’s guide to project-based grant writing called “The Grants Guide: A Workbook for Civic Activists.” This 80-page workbook was made available in both Ukrainian and English as a free resource for NGOs in Ukraine and through the global Peace Corps resource library.
While Ashleigh and I had both written many grants as part of our previous jobs in leadership-level fundraising, grant writing had never been a sole focus for either of us; usually it was a task that must be shoehorned in around many other equally pressing responsibilities. In Ukraine, however, grant writing was the most useful and valuable contribution we could offer our community and it became our specialty.
We learned that we really enjoy writing grants, and that we are extremely effective at writing them together. We began thinking seriously about how we could apply these skills and our partnership to do work that we love with nonprofits that inspire us. On a cold winter night in the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv, we sketched out a list of professional values on the back of a napkin, and those values became the core of a business plan.
Sixteen months later, just two days back in the U.S. after the successful completion of our Peace Corps service, Ashleigh and I started working with our first client as co-owners of Quill Consulting, a small grant writing firm. As a business, our goal is to work behind the scenes so that a nonprofit’s senior staff can stay front and center.
Anyone who works in fundraising has seen strategic, high-impact fundraising and relationship-building efforts undercut when a CEO or CDO was tied to a time-consuming grant calendar that kept them behind a desk rather than in the community. Most nonprofits cannot afford to hire a full-time grant writer, nor do they have the volume of work to necessitate a full time employee. The result is that grant writing responsibilities end up falling on the shoulders of senior staff.
Our highly personalized service helps lift the work of researching, writing, and managing grants so that CEOs and CDOs can spend more hours doing what only they can do: connecting with people and amplifying their mission.
The values that guide our business today are the same ones that we wrote on that napkin in Kyiv: ethics, intelligence, creativity, warmth, and flexibility. We first encountered these values as graduate students at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and we have carried them with us ever since: first to our professional work in fundraising, then to our life as Peace Corps Volunteers in a new country, and finally to a new business that keeps us firmly rooted and working in the sector we love – albeit, working in a slightly different fashion than before.
I will always be thankful that Ashleigh and I took a risk and put our careers on pause to experience national service, and that that experience led us to a path at once familiar and new.
Bryan Roesler holds an M.A. in Philanthropic Studies from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and an MPA in Nonprofit Management from the O’Neill School for Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. He spent his career fundraising for large teams, including Boy Scouts of America – Crossroads of America Council and Wabash College. Learn more about Quill Consulting LLC.