Grants: Winning is the Beginning

If you’ve done much work in local government management, you’ll recognize this scenario…

You work 60+ hours per week for a month or two to get a great grant application together.  You submit it (back in the day, this would be a copy paper box FedEx-delivered to the granting agency…these days, it’s typically just a click), cross your fingers, and pray.  Then, one day, a mysterious call from your local legislator suggesting a meeting of local dignitaries, and BOOM–there it is!  The big cardboard check…your hard work paid off…with a pile of more work…

These days, the winning really is the beginning.  Grant administration is both art and science.  The art is convincing your local stakeholders to wait just a bit more before starting work, and in developing great relationships with funding agency reps who will help keep you out of the ditch.  The science is navigating the sea of forms, regulations, reports, calendars, etc.; all critical to ensuring that you get all of the funds promised by that cardboard check.

Like most administrative work, the key to being successful in grants management is developing a system–a routine that ensures that things won’t get missed; that countervailing flows of paperwork and cash move swiftly and freely between you and the funding agency.  Here are a few tricks we’ve learned over the years that might help ensure that your community gets every nickel you are entitled to:

Celebrate–then Pause

 Whether it’s a $10 million downtown revitalization grant, or a $2,500 tree planting award, there are people in your community excited to get this process moving.  Celebrate with them, thank them for their commitment to the cause, then manage expectations about timing.  Ensure them that, in a few weeks, a package will come from the funder that will answer all of their questions and enable us to get to work.  NEVER start work before that package arrives, unless you’ve received WRITTEN permission from the funder and clear guidance about how that work should be performed.

Establish Relationships with Funding Agencies

Once you’ve identified the point person for the funding agency, reach out with a call.  Introduce yourself to her/him, and provide all of your contact information.  Developing a personal relationship means that future hiccups will likely be met with a solutions-oriented conversation, versus indifference or cynicism.  Remember–you are one of dozens (or hundreds) of projects they are managing.  Stand out as the one who understands their plight and is looking to make their job easier.  It will pay dividends on this and future projects.

Designate a Single Point of Contact for Administration

Ideally, this is a single point person for EVERY grant project in your community.  It makes sense that this person is in your administrative structure (finance, clerk, etc.).  Funnel every bit of documentation to this individual.  Make sure that grant agencies know who she/he is, and how important they are to your project.  If you like holding docs in your own hands, request copies.  Leave originals to the POC.  Be sure this person is on the project team–at every project meeting.  They should understand every element of execution.

Create a Sound Filing System

If you are the POC, file management is a must.  Create a clear paper path from application, to award, and all the way through project closeout.  Consult your local records management policy for retention questions, and err on the side of caution when deciding whether or not to discard files.  While funding sources will have different requirements, try to create an overarching file management system that is organized very close to the same way every time.  Remember, one day, someone will inherit your files.  They should be able to find their way around with ease.

Control the Tempo

If you are the project manager, work closely with the grant administrator to control the tempo.  There will absolutely be pressure to move this thing right along…to get the design going, get bid docs out, get the thing built, and get it open.  But, if you want to ensure maximum grant funds (and competitiveness for future funds) let the funding agency’s regulatory framework guide the tempo.  Every deviation from this process creates a risk that funds won’t be reimbursed.   Work to convince stakeholders that it is in their best interest to roll with the rhythm of the project management process.

It’s not an easy job, and it’s more nerve wracking than “exciting.”  In the end, if you manage it well, you will be one of the community’s heroes–the one who helped get the project across the finish line, get us tons of outside resources, and made us both eligible and competitive for future funds.