I was recently asked what the number one challenge is for local governments. As a former employee of a city in Indiana, I know without a doubt that the answer is property tax caps.
These caps were first introduced in 2009 and were meant to help taxpayers. While the caps have certainly accomplished that goal, they have had a dramatic effect on local governments, especially those that are not experiencing growth. This has led to lost revenue for many communities.
According to a December, 2015 Indianapolis Business Journal report, DeBoer and retired Community Research Institute director John Stafford stated that property tax caps have hit older, industrial cities hard, while the growing Indianapolis suburbs and thriving college towns are faring quite well.
I’ve witnessed the work of top officials at many cities, towns, and counties as they cut costs and slash budgets. I understand that everyone wants governments to work as efficiently and lean as possible. I believe most are accomplishing that goal.
However, the tax caps have still caused some unexpected damage. For example, neighboring school districts are seeing drastically different property tax revenues per student due to coverage areas. And I think we’re just beginning to see tax cap consequences like these.
So what can local governments do in order to keep providing vital services to their communities? Some, like the Central Indiana municipality I recently worked for, are looking at alternative funding such as trash fees. While every other city and town in the county has charged a trash fee, this city is still facing quite a battle to implement one.
Communities are also taking a closer look at local option income taxes for new revenue. As budgets continue to get squeezed, local government staff members will work to apply for more federal, state, corporate, and foundation grants.
New crowd funding campaigns, like those led by Citizinvestor http://www.citizinvestor.com/, are popping up for community projects such as dog parks, public art, and trails. These have been successful for some local governments as long as they invest the time and effort to promote the campaigns.
Like many organizations and businesses, local governments are being asked to do more with less. Alternative funding sources and grass roots community support will hopefully help us all continue to benefit from public safety services, parks, strong infrastructure, and more.
Amy Shankland is a former Associate with SNF Writing Solutions, LLC and guest blogger.
Most of us associate evaluation with our annual employee performance review. No one likes the way performance evaluation is generally done. Not the manager. Not the employee. It’s probably the most dreaded, feared, heart-wrenching, ulcer-causing activity done in the business world.
So why would we want to put our entire program under that kind of microscope? Could anything be more repulsive?
I’ve really only encountered two types of people when it comes to evaluation: those that avoid it like the plague, and those that are so passionate about it that they will shout about its virtues from the rooftops.
Can you guess which I am?
Okay, so I am one that would shout it from the rooftops. Why, might you ask?
The simplest explanation is, I like to know where I stand, and what people are thinking. I like to know what I am doing really well, and what I need to work on in order to be the best “me” I can be. These concepts transcend my work and personal life.
For those like me, we can get geeked out pretty quickly when we start talking data, outcomes, process, budgets, the benefits of measurements, and what can be measured versus what should be measured. I am certain my pupils just dilated and my heart skipped a beat or two writing that sentence, and I didn’t even go into the difference between an output and an outcome!
For those whom evaluation is the plague, you may have just experienced sweaty palms, a blood pressure spike, hives breaking out across every limb, and may even feel the start of a migraine coming on just from reading that sentence!
So for those of you who think evaluation is like the plaque, know this – it really doesn’t have to be that bad. Breathe deeply and repeat that sentence again if you need to. It doesn’t have to, and frankly shouldn’t be that bad.
I know, I come from a very special place when I say that, but…really…as business professionals (yes, nonprofits, universities, and governments are businesses too!), and I’d stretch to even say as humans, we need to know if what we are doing is working. Otherwise, why are we even doing it (other than job security)? Don’t you want to know if your program is as good as you think it is?
In an environment of “proving your worth” evaluation can be the best prescription: it can show that what you do is worthwhile and you can also show that you identified what was wrong and made efforts to correct course. That’s pretty admirable.
So, next time you hear the word “evaluation” take a deep breath and start the process: 1) plan the evaluation, 2) conduct the evaluation, 3) determine the results of the evaluation, and 4) create and implement a game plan for addressing the results. Yes, this is an over-simplified view of the process, but it’s the framework that can get you to a better place mentally to face the project.
Also remember, that you don’t go though evaluation alone. It’s an all-hands-on-deck type of project. Even better, the best evaluations are those done by neutral third parties (hence you don’t do the bulk of the work!).
So again, take that deep breath. Now, here’s a brief overview of what you can expect when conducting an evaluation project.
What can you expect?
In general, an evaluation project will include the following components.
A literature review:
What are the industry standards for the program?
Research pertinent to your industry and particular program/activity is used to inform the final evaluation design and the outcomes evaluation indicators.
An evaluation design:
What is the focus of the evaluation and how will it be conducted?
The design will be finalized as part of the proposed evaluation project. All outcomes, indicators, and the methodology most appropriate for your organization and target program are reviewed or created. During the evaluation design, interview instruments, process evaluation objectives, outcome indicators with operational definitions, and project charter will be created using appropriate industry frameworks for evaluation (e.g. CDC Framework for Program Evaluation in Public Health and Program Evaluation Standards). The SNF Writing Solutions methodology also includes the Lean Six-Sigma DMAIC model.
What do people think about the program?
Interviews with key stakeholders (leadership, employees, management, board members, possible clients, and funders) are conducted to assess program impetus, implementation, and interaction experience. The stakeholder pool and interview schedule is coordinated with the evaluation champion in your organization. These interviews will inform the remainder of the evaluation schedule and serve as a progress gate for any evaluation design modifications before moving forward.
What data do we have versus what we need?
Information. Excel Sheets. Databases. Calendars. Websites. Marketing literature. Budgets. Tally sheets. Meeting notes. The list goes on.
Depending on the focus of your evaluation, different types of data are gathered to feed the evaluation process. Some will be readily available and some will need to be culled from various sources. With the evaluation design completed, the data needed to compete the evaluation has already been determined and must be pulled together. The SNF Writing Solutions team includes data-gathering and data-entry experts that aid organizations through this process of gathering data and even creating new data sets.
How well is the program executed in relation to the intended model?
The process evaluation assesses the extent to which the target program/department/ service is delivered as planned as well as the facilitators and barriers to implementation. The process evaluation will clarify how, why, and for whom the program works and which components are most/least effective. Through the process evaluation, an understanding of the opportunities for quality improvement and/or corrective feedback is established as well as determining the feasibility for replication and/or expansion of the program operations (remember, funders love programs that are replicable). Consideration of the reach of the program, the intervention dose delivered and the dose received, as well as the implementation and model fidelity within the context of the program environment will be included in the evaluation design.
The process evaluation with SNF Writing Solutions will generally include a Lean Six Sigma review of the program with a process documentation review, analysis of client and organizational service expectations, observation of all organization practices (with regard to HIPAA or other legal requirements as appropriate), documentation of current state, and statistical analysis of current state against service expectations.
How are costs balanced with benefits?
A cost evaluation looks at the impact of program to the cost of the program/service for the target population or stakeholder (can be organization as a whole). Methodologies for the cost evaluation can vary. The SNF Writing Solutions evaluation includes a review of dollars spent versus income (or funds available in the case of a grant-funded program) and population served and a cost-benefit analysis (CBA) of providing services. As part of the cost evaluation, the return on investment (ROI) is generally calculated for the program. In reviewing the financials and CBA for the program, the feasibility for replication and/or expansion of the program in achieving outcomes can be considered. A high cost program can still be a sound investment for a funder if the results are impressive and long-lasting.
Are we meeting the needs of our customer?
When thinking of evaluating a program, this is the evaluation that most think of: assessing the impact of a program on the societal improvements sought based on existing or determined short-term and long-term activities/services targeted in the evaluation. The literature review and stakeholder interviews will be used for qualitative analysis of the program. SNF Writing Solutions includes text theme determination. Quantitative data analysis of service provision versus expected outcomes will include a review of all outputs and outcome indicators from the program using a correlational analysis. The outcomes evaluation can include the feasibility for replication and/or expansion of the program in meeting societal needs. If needed, a baseline for indicators can be retroactively established from organizational data prior to the implementation of the project/program.
What did we learn?
The final deliverable of a project is largely determined by the client-side champion of the evaluation project. A report will generally include the interpretation of all evaluations with conclusions regarding the program. The report will include statements regarding the merit, worth, and significance of the program/service and interpretations of the findings against the standards identified in the literature review, evaluation design, and stakeholder interviews. Recommendations for specific actions to take into consideration for improvement, replication and/or expansion of the program will also be included in the report.
At the conclusion of the evaluation, SNF Writing Solutions shares the methodology and results with organizational stakeholders, and, at the request of the organization, will assist in presenting to funders, staff, or other groups, and can prepare the findings for dissemination as a potential white paper, journal article, or for conference presentations as opportunities are available.
What will we do with what we learned?
The evaluation process is only as good as the follow-through on the findings. Many things will prove to be working and should be left alone – don’t fix what isn’t broken. That leaves those items that weren’t quite what you were expecting, or had not gone planned. Take a good look at those items and figure out the root cause (this is why SNF Writing Solutions uses the Lean Six Sigma approach – you will already know root causes) and develop potential fixes for the root cause. Create an action plan to implement the change (if a big change, you may want assistance with change management) and monitor the effects of the changes you implement. This ongoing measurement and evaluation can be an extension of your relationship with the evaluator. As you see improvements, acknowledge and celebrate them!
Evaluation is not a one-and-done experience. Those organizations that are successful are always measuring (the right things) and evolving to meet the demands of their customers within the scope of the organizational expertise and mission. This is accomplished with rigorous and continuous evaluation of the organization and individual programs. SNF Writing Solutions generally includes post-evaluation follow-up and implementation support as part of any evaluation project.
Hopefully, with better overall evaluation experiences, those employee performance evaluations are also a little less stressful for you – everyone will know, on a regular basis, where everyone stands!
Here’s to the evaluation plague – turn it into your passion!
It’s that scary beast: the budget! It’s the part of the application that the program implementers and the innovative visionaries often dread. It’s where details are important and you have to remember the dreaded math.
Here’s some advice from the budget trenches to help you along the way.
1) Read the Guidance
The guidance is the most important tool you will have at your disposal for preparing a winning proposal. It contains specific information that will outline how you should address the funder’s expectations of the budget contents and in some cases a specific format may be required. The guidance may require that matching funds are incorporated into the budget or that specific breakdowns for items like travel are provided.
In some cases, you may find clues (or even direct language) as to what they want or don’t want you to spend the money on. Use these as your guide in developing your budget outline.
2) Determine Allowable Costs
Allowable costs are the items and activities (to include Direct and Indirect Cost) that the funder will consider as an acceptable cost in delivering the grant objectives. All cost should be reasonable and necessary. In the federal grant space, the acceptable costs are outlined in the 2 CFR 200 “Supercircular.” There is usually also a section in the NOFA/FOA/RFP that indicates what the particular program will or won’t fund. Read the content behind the links. If you are unsure, check with your legal team or a grant professional that has federal funding expertise.
On the foundation side, each funder may have their own restrictions on what they will or won’t fund. Be sure to research their giving guidelines before creating the application budget.
When in doubt, ask the funder. If you have a specific line item you are questioning, call the funder’s representative and talk to them about that specific item’s eligibility as part of the program budget. On the federal side, there is always a budget person listed for questions. They won’t bite, give them a call!
3) Do the math
Computer programs and templates are great tools but, not perfect. Take time to check the calculations before you submit. Be sure to use current fringe, travel and indirect rates. If you really struggle in this area, you may want to seek outside assistance for the budget from your accounting staff or a grant professional experienced in grant budgeting and managing grant funds post-award.
Nothing is worse as a reviewer than having a budget that doesn’t add up. It’s hard to trust real dollars to someone you aren’t confident can do basic math!
4) Consider Equipment vs Supplies
Equipment is defined as an item of property that has an acquisition cost of $5,000 or more (unless the organization has established lower levels) and an expected service life of more than one year. If the item does not meet both criteria, then it should be listed in Supplies section. Be sure to talk with your accounting division to determine the threshold established for equipment acquisition. If your threshold is less than that of the federal government, you will need to explain the difference in your budget narrative.
5) Does Budget = Narrative?
Cross-check the project description, narrative and budget to ensure all items discussed do not conflict with each other and that the numbers are consistent throughout. Many times, as the budget comes together numbers change. Go back through all documents and adjust numbers so that all match. It is really important that your top-level budget matches the quotes and subcontractor/subawardee budgets (yes, quotes and sub-budgets are very helpful in getting to the “numbers” part!). This is especially important when it comes to number served and cost per person calculations. Readers will pick up on differences and questions what the real number is supposed to be.
The budget does not have to be the scary monster hiding under your desk. Take your time, develop it as you do the narrative, and, when in doubt, seek assistance.
It’s a new year and I’m a process and planning person, so that means I’m supposed to be the one asking:
What are your goals for the new year?
Have you reviewed your long-range plan?
Do you have measurable objectives established for you and your team?
But. I’m. Not.
They should already be in place from last year!
Goal-setting and planning are often thought of as stand-alone events that happen once a year with great flourish and fanfare, more often than not at an offsite location where the leadership is quarantined off from the masses to establish the direction of the organization for the next 365 days, or perhaps longer.
While I am a proponent of leadership planning retreats, (after all if you aren’t at the office you aren’t distracted by operations), and having a strategic plan, the annual goal-setting exercise, when isolated, does not cultivate the fertile ground from which prosperity can grow; cultivation is an ongoing, year-around process.
Don’t get me wrong, if you are setting goals and reviewing plans and establishing performance metrics, I’m very happy! Let’s just take it a step further and establish the goal-reviewing, plan tweaking, measurement, and course overhauls that will be needed throughout the year.
Depending on the nature of your business, this may need to be done as often as monthly or can be done quarterly. Any less than quarterly and things can get away from you before you know it. Pick a day of the week that you generally can block a couple of hours, and put a reoccurring (monthly? every two months? quarterly?) event on your calendar now. Set your availability as busy. Treat the time as you would a mandatory meeting with your boss/client. When the time comes, here’s your agenda:
Spend part of the time reviewing data supporting your goals and progress toward your benchmarks. Are you under-performing? Right on track? Are you blowing it out of the water?
Determine what actions need to be taken regarding your performance so far. Do you need to determine why you are where you are? Do you need to establish more realistic (more or less challenging) goals based on true capacity?
Next, review the performance data and possible actions with your team. Discuss trends they are experiencing, clear paths and obstacles they are encountering. Allow honesty and be open to the discussion. Just because you have given this some thought already, keep open ears, you may find that the boots on the ground are walking a different path than you perceive.
Review needed actions and formalize any plan/goal/measure changes and add them to your planning documents.
Continue to gather data and repeat on your next scheduled review.
This doesn’t have to take very long – an hour or two max, if you keep up on data gathering and do the review routinely. With a regular goal and performance measurement planning/reviewing, you see your progress and see your needs year-around and are prepared no matter what date the calendar says.
In business, as in life, the best resolution is to not have to make any resolutions – because you already have a plan and are working it! So, I won’t be asking about your resolutions, let’s bypass the rhetoric and blah, blah, blah that we typically spew forth this time of year and instead establish or continue our routine of evaluation and planning.
I will, however, wish you a Happy New Year! May you be prosperous in all your endeavors.
Here we are at the last post of this grants office series. I wish you great success as you ramp up your grants office with key stakeholders.
Last week we talked about establishing grant goals for the office and the organization as a whole. This week we’ll focus on technological and human resources and the launch of your grants office.
Let’s get to it.
Determine Resources Needed
Once the duties of the office are clearly stated, determine what human and technology resources are needed to achieve the goals of the office.
Staffing is never an easy process, especially in government! Approach the human resources element knowing the personnel regulations and guidelines (and budget) for your organization.
Look at the scope and goals and ask:
How many job functions are there?
How can they be grouped?
How many people does it take?
How many people can we get by with?
What skills do people need?
Create job descriptions that reflect the functions you have identified and the requisite skills. There are many job descriptions online for grant-related positions. Do a search as part of your research and determine what elements you need and what others are seeking as qualifications. This was a major part of my reorganization experience—determining what others were doing and how I could adapt to my specific situation. Enlist your HR office early and often as you develop the job descriptions through onboarding.
Grant Management Technology
There are all sorts of software programs and online applications that can be used to manage the grant lifecycle. Some offices use Excel sheets, Access databases, or full-blown grant management systems. In order to determine what you need, consider the following:
How will you track grant applications?
How will you track grant awards?
How will you maintain reporting requirements (deadlines and content)?
What dollar amount will you be managing?
What volume of applications and awards will you be managing?
What are the reporting expectations of organizational leaders?
Once you determine the scope of technology needs, do your research to figure out the best resource for you. Some vendors are scale-able; others are not. It’s important to have a tracking system that meets your needs.
Way to go! All of the people and processes are in place. All systems are go.
As you have come along this journey, I’m sure you have already been doing some grant work as well (unless you outsourced or delayed). It’s a tiring road, but well worth it when grant proposals are going out and new awards are coming in.
Revisit the strategic plan goals and reasons for starting the office frequently—weekly at the start, then pare it down. Keeping focus on the “why we are here” is definitely needed in the first few months, which are the most rough. Once everything is operating smoothly, track your progress toward goals and determine how well processes are working. Tweaks will be needed as you work through the first few grants. Don’t be afraid to make changes that make the process less cumbersome, have fewer steps, or simply make more sense. While in the planning phase, it’s somewhat easy to see how things should work, but when things get going, it may look and feel different. That’s okay! Just reevaluate and go back through the process—it will be shorter and easier on each cycle.
Originally published on the eCivis Blog August 10, 2014
Now it’s time to establish the office and launch. The main objective at this stage is to have a plan in place that is executable and that can be measured for success and return on investment. For strategy junkies and those that enjoy the development of the grant workplan (goals, objectives, outcomes, activities), this is the fun part. If you are not one of those, seek someone to help with the development. Sometimes the perspective of an outsider can be a grounding voice in the process.
Establish Grant Goals for the Organization
You created goals for the grants office in the strategic plan. Here you want to establish grant-related goals for the organization. The goal(s) should be directly correlated to the strategic plan. Given the complexity of organizational goals, it may be appropriate to have only one organization-wide goal.
The goals for the organization should be closely related to those of the office; in some cases, the goals could be the same. Work closely with organization leaders to determine the overall goals for the organization—there are more players in the success of a grants office than just those working in the office.
I hesitate to tie the goals for an organization or grants office to the percentage of wins or total dollars awarded. Be careful! You are not in control of many factors that come into play with funding decisions. As a grant professional, these metrics are out of immediate control: You can influence the results with great proposals, but ultimately award decisions are made by others. If a program needs a specific level of funding, plan to apply for about three times as much money as you need.
In developing the goals for the organization, consider the following questions:
For what purposes and from what sources will grant funding be sought?
How many funding sources or programs will be identified?
What types of funders will be sought?
Will you go after the first federal award for the organization?
Are there specific foundations that are closely aligned with your mission?
Are state funds available?
Will trainings be offered by the office?
Can you train stakeholders in the grant-cycle functions?
How will deadlines be met?
Will responsibilities be divided or assigned to one person?
Who has to approve and when will they be approached before the submission?
How far in advance do budgets need to be approved?
For Grants.gov submissions, will you submit 48 hours in advance, as recommended, or will you submit on the deadline?
When will letters, forms, and attachments be started?
What other grant-related needs have been identified as part of the discovery?
With these ideas in place, generate an overarching goal for the organization to achieve. Then have 2-3 supporting objectives to the goal.
Establish the Scope of the Grants Office
It is extremely important to know exactly what the office is and is not responsible for doing and achieving. Have a formal scope document that outlines the duties of the office and have the document approved by the stakeholder group. In some cases, the Board of Directors or Civic Council may have to approve the formation of the office, in which case the scope will become part of the organization’s record.
Below is an outline of possible components of the grants office scope. While not exhaustive, this list should give you a fair starting point to scale the office duties to the needs of the organization and the reasons the office was created.
With a firm understanding of the scope of the office, determine the policies, procedures, and processes of the office. This is where you will determine how you will operate, get all of your responsibilities done, and achieve the goals for the office and organization. When creating these policies, keep in mind the external requirements of the funder and federal and state regulations. Here are some questions to get you started: (Hint: For every “how,” also consider the “who” and “when”/“in what time frame.”)
What are the governing regulations at the funder level? Federal? State? Foundation?
What are the organization policies that must be followed?
Is a board or council resolution required?
Are there statutes in place that limit funding pursuits?
How will approval be granted for the application?
Decision to pursue
Allocation of personnel resources
Allocation of tangible resources
How will funding be identified?
How will applications be developed?
How will applications be submitted?
How will registrations be managed?
How will award notifications be communicated?
How will post-award reporting be completed?
How will you track progress against project timeline, goals, and spending?
The answers to these questions then need to be translated into policies, procedures, and processes. Create a flowchart showing how each process relates to the next with interactions of different groups of people. This visual will aid you in creating processes that flow well and limit excessive hand-offs or roadblocks. I had the excellent opportunity to examine the grant process as a Six Sigma project. This experience was an excellent one for fine-tuning processes and examining the rationale of a process. I fully recommend a Six Sigma approach to reviewing grant processes for any grants office that is reaching the end of a planning cycle, rebooting or reorganizing.
For the documentation of the policies and procedures, use the format required or used by the organization for other procedural documentation. Be clear in the documentation as to what needs to be done, by whom, in a timeframe relative to application due dates or another common milestone. Having documented policies and procedures is important not only for managing processes, but also in light of the new requirements under the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) “super circular” (Uniform Guidance on Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards (2 C.F.R. 200)).
In the final installment of this series, I’ll discuss human and technological resources and the launch of the office.
I hope for everyone reading this and looking to establish a grants office encounters few if any obstacles. That’s not always possible, so this post is intended to provide you with some pointers to determine early how your road is paved:
Meet with program leaders to discuss current funding, funding needs, and processes they have followed in pursuing funds in the past. This will give you a sense of where they have been, where they are, and where they need to go.
Determine the climate of the organization. The tone of the conversations will give you the understory. If you find resistance, determine what the pain points are.
Determine who the proponents of the grants office are. Are there people in the organization that are opposed to the grants office?
Work to understand the reasons why those that do not support the office hold their position. Many times, there needs to be more communication about the purpose and scope of the office. Clarity can help your cause.
In my final posts on this topic, I will address more details on establishing grant goals and launching your grants office. Stay tuned!
Welcome to part 3 of the series guiding leadership and grant directors in the quest to establish a strong grants office. (See parts 1and 2 of the series in case you missed them.) Now that we have support for the office and know the reason for its being, let’s talk strategy.
To make sure that you and all the parties involved have a clear understanding of the purpose and direction for the office, develop a strategic plan for the office. Where are you going to be in 2-3 years, what is the vision and mission of the office (tie it to the organizational level), and what are the critical objectives the office must fill?
This does not have to be a complex document; the entire plan can be about 5 pages. This phase is key to establishing the direction of the office so that all other phases, tasks, and decisions can be executed with direction and reason. Once you have a draft together, review the plan with the office champion and then share the document with all of the office stakeholders for feedback. If the comments coming back are aligned, adapt the plan accordingly. If the feedback is contradictory, regroup the stakeholders for a face-to-face discussion about the point in question. This is the time to work out the concept for the office and make sure everyone is on the same page. It is excessively late when you are starting the hiring process for other positions and then you find out that there was not a common understanding of the direction and purpose of the office.
In my experience, this is the part where I was forced to skimp on time and effort, and that was a challenge that ultimately proved to cause misunderstanding among the contributing parties. If there were anything I would do better next time, this would be it.
Here are the suggested components of the plan:
Introduction that includes an overview of the history of the office and why the office is being created.
Vision and Mission statements for the office – tied, of course, to the organizational statements.
Statement of the future status of the office (2-3 years out for the first plan).
Two to three goals for the officein years 1-3 to be able to meet the future-state.
One to two objectives tied to each goal. Think of these as milestones toward the goal. Make sure they are measurable so you know how you are doing. Identify a timeline for the objectives – are they year 1, 2, or 3, or do they have other timing?
Activities to meet the objectives. Create your to-do list.
A schedule to report against the plan, revise the plan, and to create the next strategic plan.
In the next couple weeks, I’ll cover the subjects of evaluating the culture, establish grant goals, and the launch.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
The grants office is strategically linked to the leadership and financial goals of the organization. The decision to create a grants office is a nod to the importance of properly managing the phases of the grant cycle from program planning, to application, to award management, through close-out. Creating a grants office from scratch takes diligence in maintaining a balance of the ethics of the profession and the goals of the organization.
I have lived the experience of creating, and then evolving, a grants office for a state agency. While sometimes overwhelming, this experience has provided me with a scalable template for how to go about creating the office, and how not to do certain things in the process. I offer the following basic elements as a starting point to help you in establishing (or rebooting) a grants office.
The decision to move forward with a grants office is one that will require resources (human and capital) as well as diligence in execution. Without the unconditional, unanimous support of the organization’s leadership, the office will not flourish. As a bridge between the organization’s goals/strategy and program funding, the office must be given the backing and authority to carry out the assigned duties and responsibilities. Without both, the office cannot function to the degree desired, will not produce the expected results, and will ultimately fail. Conversely, an office that is given the authority and backing will flourish, meet expectations, and prove to be a great investment. With the grants office, you will reap what you sow.
When weighing the options to start a grants office, consider the following questions:
Why do we need a grants office?
Identify the underlying reason for establishing a grants office. Think through the rationale to create the right office with the right scope. Why do you think you need a grants office? If you can’t put the reason on paper, think through the following question set:
Is your organization experiencing growth or reduction?
Reduction 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Growth
How well are you prepared for the reduction/growth?
Panicking 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Strategic plan in place, activities funded
Do you have enough funding to operate organizational programs?
Not at all 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Year of operating expenses in the bank
How well are you managing the funding you have now?
In trouble 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Extremely well
Are all leaders in support of a centralized grants office?
No support 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 All on board
Are you meeting stakeholder needs with the funding you have now?
Not at all 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 All needs met; no requests in last year
Have you successfully obtained grant funding in the past?
None 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Win everything, and there’s been many
The closer you are to a 10, the better off you are with your current systems. If you are hanging out in the lower ranks, it’s definitely time to evaluate your strategies and put more focus on funding streams. If you are in the middle, and that’s where most will be, there’s some evaluation you must consider in determining the grant functions needed for the organization.
How much money do you have to pay for people in the grants office?
How many Full-Time Equivalents (FTEs) will this fund? (Note: Salaries vary by locale; expect that you will need to hire a director (management-level) or higher experience level for the person overseeing your grants office.)
Do you need more help in the writing of proposals, or the management of awards? Both?
Now that you have formalized your thought process, what do you really need?
In part 2 of this series, I go into more detail about evaluating needs, establishing buy-in, and creating a strategic plan for the grants office.