Creating a Grants Office from Scratch (Part 2): We Need One – Now What?

For grant directors and other executive leaders focusing on assessing the viability of establishing a grants office, this article is the next installment in my series on creating a grants office from scratch. (Here’s the first part of this series.)

This next part of the series continues to focus on figuring out what your organization needs are, and expands on the topic of establishing buy-in from leadership for grant office directors.

What Do We Need?

Ideally speaking, what would your grants office do? Determine the scope of the office you have in mind. Does the office find opportunities, write the applications, manage the awards, and manage the finances? Just one or two of the pieces?

If you need help in both proposals and management, this requires two or more people. The creative process for developing proposals and the analytical nature of management are generally not found in one person. (Read more on that topic here.) There are a few grant professionals that have a whole-brain approach that can successfully fulfill both roles; however, this is generally the exception. Can you afford two or more people?

If not, consider outsourcing one of the functions. The costs of hiring, training, salary, and benefits add up quick; outsourcing may be a less expensive option with the assurance of expertise. When hiring a consultant, look for some of the same attributes you would in an employee: skills, experience, and fit with the team.

Once you know the functions, you need to hire the director. If the office is going to cover both writing and managing, the ideal director would have experience in both (yes, the rare bird). If just one function will be located in the grant office, the director will be an expert in that function. Professional associations such as the Grant Professional Association (GPA) and National Grant Managers Association (NGMA) are good resources for advertising openings and sourcing candidates for these positions.

Having this preliminary work done will ease conversations about the office with stakeholders and potential candidates.

For the Grant Director

Now that you are on board and you’ve been tasked with developing the grants office, where do you start? First you need buy-in from the leadership.

Establishing Buy-in

Have a conversation with the critical leadership involved in the grant process. Depending on the type of organization the titles will vary, but in general you want to have the C-suite: CEO, CFO, COO, HR, Legal, and the head of the department in which the grant office is located (if none of the above). If you work for a city/town with a planning commission, a representative is encouraged to be a part of the conversation. Everyone being in on the conversation will provide for better understanding and smoother implementation. Without this united conversation, different agendas and perspectives may derail the process or, at minimum, evolve into scope creep for the office.

In this conversation, determine who is the champion for the office. It may or may not be the person you report to, so be sure to find the true champion. In my case, it was the equivalent to the CEO and COO, two levels of management above my supervisor, and subsequently out of reach for most conversations – an obstacle I had to address carefully. Where the catalyst for the office is can determine how you approach the office creation.

In this meeting, take excellent notes, and distribute to the group for comment/correction. Having all parties acknowledge the direction of the office is key in the planning and implementation. Continue the conversation regularly. Provide weekly updates on progress.

In my experience, this communication was absent and created many problems, including misunderstanding of the function and authority of the office, resulting in many different views of how the office should function.

Set up a planning session after the initial discussion to vet out the specific tasks and milestones for the planning of the office. This is a big undertaking; if budget is available for a consultant, the investment is worth the return. One of the immediate tasks I had was to research other grant office structures and policies for similar organizations and those successfully competing for the same dollars. To get all of this information together I made several inquiries, which I strongly suggest:

  • Put a request out on a listserv for input on office organization and policies.
  • For those that respond, look into dollars awarded and national rankings to evaluate success of the office.
  • Call other grant offices for similar size communities for their organization chart, policies, procedures, and best practices.
  • Research grant offices online: Many larger organizations publish information on how their grant offices are structured and the policies of the grants office.
  • Determine similarities and differences of all of the programs to get a sense of what successful offices looked like.

Questions to Ask

There is a lot of information you need in order to put all of the pieces together. Most important, you need to determine the reasoning for the office and why the office is being put into motion. Here are some questions to ask at the beginning and during planning:

  1. Why is the grant office being formed now? (Part 1 of this series outlines this thought process.)
  • Has something changed in the organization?
  • Have funding streams or patterns changed?
  • Has there been an increased need for outside funding?

This information will give you clues as to the goals (agenda) of the leadership and the reason why you are there. The reason why you are there translates to the scope of the office.

  1. Is there a strategic plan in place for the organization? Are there points in the strategic plan directly related to grant funding?

The strategic plan is the starting-point for all grant activity (that’s a completely different article, for later) and if there are already specific points regarding grant funding those will most certainly be part of the office goals.

  1. What successes have there been in applying for and managing grants? What challenges have there been?

Successes and challenges regarding funding is insight into where you need to go with the office (goals) and any strategy for implementation. If there have been problems, this can be politically charged conversation, so tread lightly. There will be time to drill down into problems. If there have only been successes, trust, but keep a skeptical eye as well. How many grant programs have you encountered that didn’t have any stress points or problems?

  1. What are the current levels of funding? From what sources?

This is your baseline for goals for the office. Also provides a glimpse into the grant experience of the organization: experienced or novice, organized or ad hoc.

  1. Is the formation of the office known throughout the organization?

This seems like a weird question, but it is one that I will always ask going forward! If the leadership has not shared that a grants office is coming, the road ahead will be drastically different than if the concept has not been shared throughout the organization. Why? When the grants office is established, things change in the organization. As humans, we all react to change differently, but secret change does not allow for the processing we need to come to accept the change before us. By being open, sharing information, and managing the change pro-actively, you can help the organization to grow through the change rather than to be fearful of the change. This process differs by the size and scope of the organization, but in any organization change must be purposefully managed.

  1. How will change be managed as the office is implemented?
  • How will information and progress be shared throughout the organization?
  • Who will disseminate information?
  • When will information be shared, how frequently?
  • What are the messages that will need to be shared?
  • What positions/people will be affected by the office?

Being thoughtful and diligent in managing the change will make for a smoother implementation and transition. Revisit the plan frequently as the plan will need to be adapted as the change unfolds.

  1. What resources will be made available?

While resources is a phase in developing the office, knowing their thoughts on the resources that they know will be made available – or at least their thoughts on resources, it will help in developing the plan. Resources are human resources, technology, budget, training, and all other types of items you might include in a program budget in a grant application!

  1. How often and in what manner does the leadership need to be updated as to the status of the grant office?

My recommendation is for weekly updates, but if the leadership wants or expects something else, meet their needs. I would encourage at minimum a touch-base with the office champion and/or your supervisor weekly as a check-in on progress and direction. Don’t attempt to create the office in a vacuum.

From these questions, you can get a sense of why the organization is looking to create a grants office, why it is being created now, and provide a foundation for the next steps in evaluating the current climate and setting the tone for the future of the grants office.

In the next article in this series, we’ll take a look at developing the strategic plan for your grants office.

Originally published on the eCivis Blog June 24, 2014

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