Health on the Plains: Episode 9, Getting Grants and Getting Things Done

28 Min Read

Apr 23, 2024


Wyatt J. Beckman, M.P.H., C.H.E.S.
Photo of Kay Burtzloff and Wyatt Beckman


On Episode 9, host Wyatt Beckman returns to Liberal, Kansas, to meet Kay Burtzloff, founder and president of the Liberal Area Coalition for Families. She discusses the creation of the coalition and its continued success acquiring grant funds and investing in programs to benefit southwest Kansans. Find out how a rural coalition approaches planning for the future.

Episode Highlights: 

  • 2:10: Kay Burtzloff shares insights on building, sustaining, and leading a health coalition for over two decades.
  • 3:37: The Liberal Area Coalition for Families has sustained its work over 20 years by leveraging grants to pay staff and fund projects. Kay spends most of their time writing support letters for grants to aid other agencies and partners in the community.
  • 9:19: Kay describes how the coalition works to prioritize taking care of staff’s work-life balance.
  • 12:17: The organization prioritizes grant writing based on capacity and demand, leveraging community connections for valuable skills and resources. Kay discusses the importance of talent scouting and grooming future leaders for small town nonprofits. She and others work to ensure sustainability by developing a system of leadership succession.
  • 13:38: Wyatt Beckman highlights the importance of building sustainable positions and infrastructure to ensure the long-term success of a coalition.
  • 16:39: Kay highlights the importance of communication and collaboration among nonprofits in the same area, citing the coalition’s success in getting people talking to each other and sharing resources. She advises nonprofit founders in other rural Kansas communities to build a clearing house for information and connections, using social media and email lists to reach a wider audience.
  • 26:16: Kay and Wyatt discuss the growth and expansion of the coalition, which has branched out into nearby counties.

Voice over  0:00 

This is Health on the Plains, a podcast about rural communities, rural life and the many factors influencing the health and well-being of rural Kansas. Health on the Plains is a podcast from the Kansas Health Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization, committed to informing policy and improving health in Kansas through honest nuanced conversations with leaders and doers from a variety of backgrounds. The Health on the Plains podcast offers unique insights into rural health challenges in Kansas and shines a light on the people and organizations working to make their communities healthier, more vibrant places to call home.

Wyatt Beckman 0:42

Welcome back to another episode of Health on the Plains. We are here in Liberal Kansas, home of Dorothy’s house, from the famous Wizard of Oz. And we just wrapped up a wonderful conversation with someone who has been in this community building and leading the Liberal Area Coalition for Families for over two decades. Her name is Kay Burtzloff. She’s the founder and president of the organization. We had a great conversation about how to really build, sustain and develop community health coalitions and some of those lessons she learned about how to seek grant funding, build out capacity and staff positions and how to maintain that momentum over the course of two decades. It’s a great conversation, and I hope you enjoy.

Well, welcome back to another episode of Health on the Plains. We’re here again in Libera,l Kansas in the southwest corner of the state. We’re just a handful of miles north of the Oklahoma border. And our guest is Kay Burtzloff. And Kay wears many hats. And one of them, hat that she’s worn and tried to take off as she’s tried to retire, but as that goes, is hard to take off is she is the founding member of the Liberal Area Coalition for Families. That’s a health coalition here in Liberal, Kansas that does a lot of great work. And they’ve existed since 2001.

Kay Burtzloff 2:10

2001, we had a group of us get together, I tell people, when I look around the rooms now and we get like 40-50 people at a meeting, I remember when we couldn’t get five. You know, so, it’s one of those things that started as an idea. I was the United Way director at the time. And I really saw it as a way for us to get additional resources into the community for my agencies. I knew that there was a lot of grant money out there, I knew there was a lot of money out there. But we weren’t getting it, because we didn’t have the right vehicle to be able to apply. We just didn’t have what was needed. And so really, the intent behind it was to look at problems in our community that were too big for just one agency to address. And secondly, to figure out how to get additional resources into the community. And I think we’ve done a really good job of that. I have tried to total up where we’re at with grants. And the last time I totaled it up, we had brought in over $3 million. But that was several years ago. So I think we’re now kind of hitting that $4 million mark of funds that we’ve been able to bring into the community, to do things in the community, to really make some substantial changes in the health of our community.

Wyatt Beckman 3:37

Absolutely. I’m sure it’s really exciting to think how far you’ve come from where it started with those five people and in a room. And I think in a lot of our rural communities, they probably now or at various points have been in that similar situation where they look out and they go, “there’s this grant opportunity, it’d be great to go after it.” And even if they are successful, they pull the right people together. Theyt get that grant into the community. Something that’s really hard is sustainability. When you have that first big grant that you bring in and it ends, how do you keep the momentum going, so that you can have a 20+ year history of of touching on lots of different topics, lots of different projects and reaching $4 million dollars, what’s some of the key things that allow you to build that sustainability?

Kay Burtzloff 4:30

You know, when we got, and I called it “the big kahuna.” So when we got our first big kahuna grant, and it was like a $350,000 grant, that’s what really allowed me to bring on somebody to be an executive director, because before then basically I was kind of doing all of the administrative stuff, as well as everything else. And we were really running the finances, with the Seward County United Way being the fiscal agent. But with that big kahuna, with some other things happening, it’s like okay, it’s time for us to splinter off and be more of an independent organization. But by having that person kind of being able to run that particular grant, it was the prevention of underage drinking grant at the time. And I said it caused a lot of overage drinking, but it was not. It’s one of those grants that the reporting was kind of challenging, but we did good things. And that kind of was what got our momentum going. And by having that executive director being able to pay them through the grants, and that’s really how we’ve kept all of our staff paid, is through our grants. And so we write in different positions, and they get paid. And then we go out, and we keep looking for other grants to sustain the work that we do, but also to sustain our staff. And that’s kind of what, as I blatantly dye my hair, it’s like, it’d be solid gray if you didn’t, because that’s the thing that always keeps me kind of on that hunt, I need to keep my staff going, because they’re doing amazing things in the community. But all grants come to an end. So in fact, right now, I spent most of the weekend working on support letters for a grant that we’re working on for our homeless shelter. So not only do we work on grants for the coalition itself, but we also aid other of our agencies of our partners. Because a lot of them, you know, there’s not a huge number of grant writers in our community. There just isn’t.

Wyatt Beckman 6:32

Right. And that’s a really valuable asset to have two to four your own coalition, but for those partner agencies, and a key piece in that, that I heard is, you found a way to build positions that build some infrastructure that gives some sustainability. So even if the grant ends, find another grant, but you have positions, you have people that are dedicated to working on this over time. And, I can imagine that having positions and set sort of workforce, iif for whatever reason you have staff turnover, now, it’s not all on one person. Doing this whole grant.

Kay Burtzloff 7:16

We don’t have a lot actually, we don’t have a lot of staff turnover. We seem to suck people in, and then we keep them. Sarah Foreman has been my executive director now for well over 10 years. And, you know, part of what my job was, is I got to work with, she actually comes from a social work background. But when she started with the coalition, she was looking for a position that she could use her expertise. She’s, you know, extremely interested in children. She has actually two special needs children. So she needed something that gave her the flexibility to work around her schedule, but she still wanted to, you know, obviously have an income but also have impact. And Sarah basically learned how to write grants for me. we had Susan Lukwago who’s also a member of our grant writing team. Susan comes from a WIC background. She comes from a nutritionist background. So the ongoing joke with Susan as she would write grants with me all night, as long as I kept popping M&Ms in her mouth. But it’s still a fairly small, tight group. And then as we have grown, you know, we have added, you know, we have a farmers market manager, which the farmers market started with a grant, but we’ve been able to sustain it. It’s now reached its own sustainability, which is kind of where you want to get with some of your programs. And then we have, you know, different people that they are working through the University of Kansas Medical Center with our community health workers. But these are people that have also worked with us on other grants. And a lot of the times we may have one person working two or three different grants. Sarah, I think is on three of our grants right now, as the program manager. I’m on one of the grants as a program manager. So we kind of be able to do that crossover, but we’re constantly out there looking too.

Wyatt Beckman 9:19

We know that part of what makes any coalition any organization successful, especially over the long term, is getting really capable, committed motivated people to join in. And it sounds like you built enough momentum you showed enough of this can be a really meaningful way to be part of this community and to contribute and it can give you good work-life situation as well. It was almost that momentum allowed you to bring in and attract some of those really incredible people that make a difference.

Kay Burtzloff 9:58

And I think is one of the things that makes the coalition so effective is that we understand that we need to be, if we want them to do the work, we also need to be flexible. And I’ll be truthful, Sarah spent like a year in Denver, because her son was fighting a brain tumor. And she wanted to quit. And I wouldn’t allow her. It’s like, “No, you can work, whatever you need to work there. You know, I’ll fill in the gaps, but you’re not leaving us.” And my point is, we’re the Liberal Area Coalition for Families. And if we can’t take care of our own, then what are we doing? You know, why are we doing this work, if we can also make sure that we’re taking care of our own people. And so that’s something that I’m very careful of is that we, you know, we do try to take into account what our people’s, our staff’s works life, you know, and if somebody needs to cover, they cover. We’re pretty flexible. And they’re just a great group that we’ve managed to over the years just kind of keep them in, and then we don’t let them go away.

Wyatt Beckman 11:10

I’m wondering, are there times where you mentioned at the beginning, that for some of those initial when you’re building up you looked at and in some of those grants, you didn’t have quite the right pieces in place to qualify? Or you needed to get some certain organizations? Or maybe sometimes it’s a population size thing, do you ever run into and how do you overcome when sometimes the flexibility you want to have as an organization, do you run into challenges of grants not being as flexible in terms of how they’re structured? Or how have you managed to sort of work with grants being pretty specific for who and what?

Kay Burtzloff 11:50

Actually not run into that as much as you might think. Because one is, we’ve established, I think, a very strong record of grant completion. And so we actually, we’ve never had a grant that we weren’t able to do. But part of that is also looking at the grants that you know, you can’t do.

Wyatt Beckman 12:13

Be really strategic about which ones you go after.

Kay Burtzloff 12:17

You have to, there are some federal grants, boy, I’d love to have them. But I look at what the demand is. And it’s like, we just don’t have the capacity to do that. So, I think a big part of that is understanding your own capacity. And then as we’re writing a grant, we literally have to think about again, you know, you have your human resources. And by now, I think we have a pretty good idea of what our human resources are. But we’re always on the lookout. I can’t tell you how many new people into the community I have glommed on to, for Susan Lukwago she was one of those. She’ll tell you, I think she was here for two weeks, and then I immediately nabbed her, put her on my United Way board and got her involved, and poor thing hasn’t escaped me since. But because she was one of those individuals, one, had the passion for the community, but two, had a very specific skill set of you know, with a Ph.D., with a writing background, with a science background, you know, she was invaluable. And so that’s the thing is, you’re kind of an ongoing talent scout, you’re always, I may be chatting to you and being pleasant, but I’m also trying to figure out “hmm, you know, are you somebody that would fit into? Or are you somebody that we need this skill set?”

Wyatt Beckman 13:38

And as a leader of a coalition, or of a group, you know, you talk about it sometimes starts with a handful of folks. The long-term sustainability of the impact you can have is dependent on being that talent scout, and that almost takes an intentional saying, “this might have started with us, but we have to bring more people, we have to collaborate more, we have to sort of grow it in that way and be be open to new ideas, new people, new directions.”

Kay Burtzloff 14:11

But also be very thoughtful and understand. I mean. The ongoing joke is, you know, if I get hit by a semi, you know, are you guys gonna know. It’s like, here’s my book of all of the passwords. Here is, you know, and that’s something we’ve had a lot of chats on is, “you know, guys, I’m not gonna be around forever. I’m 66 years old. I’ve been doing this for 20 some odd years. I plan to be around a little bit longer, but we need to make sure that we have everything in place, so that the next time or the next person will be in good shape.” And so that’s something I’ve worked really hard with Sarah, but with other people in the coalition kind of growing up your own. We’ve had an individual, we kind of glommed on to her when she was 21. She’s now 25. She’s teaching civics courses, you know, and we’re very carefully kind of grooming that next set of leadership. And I think that’s something for sustainability that you have to do as small town nonprofits of any kind of nonprofits. We talked about, you know, too many times I’ve run into situations where, you know, this agency is doing extremely good work in the community, but when that key person leaves, there’s nobody to take over. And then it goes away.

Wyatt Beckman 15:32

Yeah. And how do you start those conversations really early on? Yes. not wait until, till you’re you’re scrambling and trying to find someone and I can imagine, I know, I’ve sat around the dinner table with my, with my family and had these conversations where people talk about that stellar kid or that stellar young professional and go, “man, we would love to find a way to keep them here to help them see the impact they can have, and to maximize the impact of their career.” And it sounds like you’re really intentional about identifying those people and engaging with them and finding ways to create a pathway so that when they imagine their career and the work that they can do that part of it is they can do it here, they don’t need to leave to have an impact on a community to do good work to improve people’s health. They can do it right here and showing them that that’s possible, I think is easier said than done. But it sounds like it’s part of what is part of the success mix here.

Kay Burtzloff 16:39

And I think, again, it’s just a matter of I was fortunate when I moved here, I moved here I was basically 43 years old. So I brought a lot of history with me, you know, experience that I had working at other institutions of higher learning, or working in other nonprofits and that type of thing. So that when I got here, it’s like, okay, I’m, I’m in Liberal. I married a local boy, I’m here, I got this big anchor, he’s not gonna let me go anywhere. So, what do I do to be what I need to be for my community, you know, and as it happened, I got the United Way job before I ever got here. But that was kind of the the impetus to “okay, let’s figure out,” you know, not only what am I doing with my nonprofit, but as United Way director, you’re now involved in all these other nonprofits, and kind of seeing what you can do to get them talking to each other. That was something that I think really, if I had to say one thing that we’ve done amazingly well, is to get people talking to each other that are working in the same areas. Because they weren’t, they weren’t talking. And so one of the best things we do at our meetings is we kind of run through what the coalition is doing, but then we go around the room, and we find out what every other nonprofit that’s there is doing. And what has come out of that is some really great collaborations, new ways of doing things, figuring out how to not, you know, duplicate work. But just having that communication among all the different nonprofits, I think has helped not only the coalition, but helped everybody else figure out, okay, we, we don’t have enough people or resources to be not talking to each other and not figuring out how to work together.

Wyatt Beckman 18:36

What do you think are some of those barriers that that communities run into for reasons why they’re not talking to each other?

Kay Burtzloff 18:44

Well, I think part of it is they don’t have the vehicle. I mean, really, there was some groups they were meeting, but it would be like five or six groups here, or they were meeting and it was only in their little specialized area. You know, maybe it was youth problem. And they were only talking about youth programs amongst themselves. But there’s a bigger picture out there. And so I think one of the things that why coalition’s have really been popping up and working is because you do need that kind of clearinghouse. And one of the things we do is we post things on our Facebook page, and we send out emails, and it’s like, okay, “I have this information, I want it to get out to all of your group.” We have about a 250 email list of different people doing different things in the community. And they may not be here, but they may be doing things in the community. So we share out that information. Because we’ve built up this list. We’ve built up this capability of being able to connect all these people and connect the dots.

Wyatt Beckman 19:52

So if you were to speak to that nonprofit coalition founder that’s sort of in your shoes in 2001, in another rural Kansas community that’s trying to build something like what you all have here, what would your advice be, as they’re trying to get started about how to move forward?

Kay Burtzloff 20:18

I think a lot of it is just hanging in there long enough. I mean, really, we we started in 2001, we spent a lot of time on, you know, names and missions and visions, and all of that stuff you do. But getting that first give, being able to land the first grant is kind of what said, “Okay, we’ve kind of hit that point where now we need to either grow and take this seriously, or not do it.” And obviously, we decided to grow and take it seriously. And part of the reason why I retired from United Way. I’d been doing it for 15 years, was I really wanted more time to spend on the coalition. Because I could see it was kind of at that next point where we needed to have more focus. Yeah. And so that’s part of the reason why I ended up, I was managing our storage units, which you have a lot of time sitting in an office by yourself. So, that was perfect for working on grants, looking for grants, knowing the work that you need to do.

Wyatt Beckman 21:26

Yeah, and the key message on some level, patience is important when you’re getting started. You know, grants might have a two year, three year, four year lifetime, but if this coalition that you’re building can be what it has the opportunity to be that it’s a long-term thing. And it’s gonna take some time to grow and be patient, persevere through those folks that maybe question you and, and then build on those successes and really build those into the next one.

Kay Burtzloff 22:02

Yeah, that’s the thing is that you have to understand, it’s like, “Okay, we have these grants, wrapping up, what’s our next phase?” And always kind of looking at, you know, what is our next phase? What are we going to focus on? And you kind of do it in two different ways. One is you identify the problem, and you look for the resources, sometimes the resources drop in your lap, and you figure out, “Okay, how do we get that work coordinated in with what we’re already doing?” We have literally gotten to the point with some of our funders, we have an excellent relationship with the Kansas Health Foundation. And that’s a relationship we’ve been building on for years. And literally, they’ve had people that they wanted to do a grant here, the the original people turned him down, they came to us and said, “Do you want this?” So we’ve literally had grants fall into our laps, because we have developed this relationship with the funders. And we have the reputation of we get things done.

Wyatt Beckman 23:00

And you’ve demonstrated that success. And probably a piece of this is also being intentional about capturing the successes you have. Yes. And so you can share those in the next grant application or with the the next potential partner. And that’s often unfortunately a piece that falls sort of on the backburner is that story collection, that data collection, that documentation, but it can be really important when you’re applying for that next grant that you’re ready to say, “Here’s how successful we are.”

Kay Burtzloff 23:32

And that’s one of the things we’ve actually, I’m glad you brought it up, is the storytelling. And as I told you, I’m a former speech teacher, well actually current speech teacher, they want me to come back and teach again. But we are a nation of storytellers. And that’s what we relate to. We relate to the stories that people tell. And when I wanted to raise money for the homeless shelter, you know, while I was doing United Way I would tell the stories of, you know, the families that I’ve seen, the impact that they’ve had, how they’ve been able to help people go on, but that kind of very individual story, that person that they can relate to, the situation that they can relate to. And so by nature, I’m a storyteller, obviously, you’re getting that. And so that’s one of the things is we work and we very intentionally start building those stories.

Wyatt Beckman 24:27

For the last question, I am going to lean into that story piece. So what’s the next chapter of the story of the coalition that you’ve helped build and lead, what’s that next chapter and the next 10-20 years look like?

Kay Burtzloff 24:47

You know, that’s kind of exciting. Because my hope is, I have hatched this baby bird. I have fed it, I have groomed it, and now it flies on its own. But I actually see, we are working very hard on sustainability. We have individuals that are with the coalition that have no intention, hopefully, of moving or leaving. And so you kind of have that. But we also have been really bringing in additional members, and kind of building that core, good, solid core group. And it needs to be more of a group. You can have an inspirational leader, which is fine, except when you use lose the leader. So what you need is that team. And so we lean very heavily on the fact that I call them my Scooby Team. This goes back to my Buffy the Vampire Slayer days, but we have the Scooby Line. And so whenever we need something tackled, we need people to work on a project and everything, we kind of put it out on our text line, our Scooby Line and figure out okay, who’s doing what, what’s going to happen. And you have built this really solid team that I see, you know, and they’re already out there looking for people now.

Wyatt Beckman 26:06

That’s awesome. Well, I can’t wait to see where the coalition flies and spreads its wings and is ready to go to next.

Kay Burtzloff 26:16

Well, actually, we’re already working on expanding We have primarily been focused on Seward County, but for the last three or four years, we’ve been branching out into Stevens and Haskell County, because they do not have a community coalition. And so what we’ve been doing is, and of course, we have the Zoom component to the meeting, so they can come in on Zoom. But we’ve been working on getting grants for them and working in their communities and kind of bringing them under an umbrella we keep talking about, you know, “do we need to change our name?” And it’s like, we’ve invested 20 years in a name, it’s kind of hard to give it up. But we just call it the coalition now and kind of work that way.

Wyatt Beckman 27:01

That’s really exciting night and I think is a testament to the work you’re doing that you’ve continued to grow, bring in more resources to the community and now expanding opportunities into other communities. And, I’ve really enjoyed learning about the work you’ve done and some of the history and some of the great lessons you’ve learned about how rural communities can really do this work, and I really appreciate you taking the time to sit down with us.

Kay Burtzloff 27:28

No problem.

Voice over 27:29

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Transcribed by

Health on the Plains Production Team

Wyatt J. Beckman, M.P.H., C.H.E.S., Host

Theresa Freed, M.A., Producer, Editor

Emma Uridge, C.H.E.S., Field Producer, Coordinator

Stewart Cole, Editor, Graphic Designer

About Kansas Health Institute

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