How Do You Keep a Changing Job Manageable?
The Chinese character for “crisis” has been expressed by the combination of the two words “danger” and “opportunity.”
GMN members are reporting increased job responsibilities, frozen or reduced salaries, and the reduction or elimination of professional development and travel budgets. One way or another, nearly everyone has experienced some form of change as a result of the economic downturn—change that feels a lot more like “danger” than “opportunity.”
Before coming to GMN, I worked for the Fannie Mae Foundation which spent several years in a state of constant change—realignments, rightsizings, and downsizing until it closed in 2007. It wasn’t fun or easy and I hope (likely in vain) that I’ll never have to experience such an organization upheaval again. However, the change did open up opportunities to rethink how we conducted our grantmaking and deployed our grants management staff resources.
I’m increasingly hearing from members who are also discovering hints of a silver lining among the clouds and thought I would share their ideas and advice and invite you to share the opportunities you’ve discovered in a member community discussion.
Many members have seen their grants management responsibilities increase or been tasked with other types of responsibilities within their organizations. This is overwhelming unless you add three words to your everyday vocabulary. The first is “no,” and the second and third are “good enough.”
Grants managers take pride in doing an excellent job and doing it right. Our customer service focus and the responsibility we feel for our grantseekers, program staff, and senior management make it difficult to push back on the work we’re asked to do—the work we want to do. However, we also owe it to ourselves and our staff, for those of us who are managers, to keep job responsibilities manageable. Communicate to your manager when your plate is full and offer ideas for reprioritizing—“If you want me to do this new task, I’ll have to drop or delay that other task.” Or simply say “no,” and explain the other priorities on your plate. The more work you absorb without pushing back, the more work you will get.
You can’t change the resources dedicated to grants management without changing the way grants management is done. In fact, it’s the perfect opportunity to take a step back and reassess your grant requirements, procedures, and policies. The toughest part of this task will be to convince yourself that eliminating or scaling back the grants management processes is the right decision. This is where the concept of “good enough” comes into play – what is acceptable to me and others in the organization? Another challenge will be to convince others in your organization that these changes are necessary.
Here are four strategies that I’ve heard grant managers use to advocate successfully for change in their grantmaking practices. They are not intended to be specific recommendations for your organization, but rather examples of how you might consider changing your grants management practices.
Successful Strategy 1: Strength in Numbers
Numbers are some of the most powerful arguments in your arsenal. Use them. The best numbers will come from your own practices and processes, but good sources of external data that support grants management changes are the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), Foundation Center (FC), and Project Streamline.
With significant budget cuts looming, one grants manager’s numerical data analysis led to a decision to no longer accept unsolicited proposals (i.e., an open process where anyone meeting the guidelines could apply). In its last funding round, the grantmaker only funded three out of 300 unsolicited proposals received. Before the analysis was conducted, the organization continued to accept unsolicited proposals because they wanted to remain “accessible” and “attentive” to the field. The grants manager successfully argued for eliminating this component of the grantmaking by:
- Sharing the internal statistic that only 1% of unsolicited proposals were funded in the last round and the resulting high number of declinations went against senior leadership’s value of appearing “accessible.”
Calculating the expense associated with proposal preparation and submission. CEP’s data estimates that grantseekers spend approximately 27.45 hours preparing each grant application. A quick internet search gave a number of sites that provide salary data for fundraisers and used a conservative estimate of $43,000 as the average annual salary. The hourly rate was calculated at $21/hour ($43,000/52 weeks per year/40 hours per week), which means that each proposal cost the grantseeker an estimated $576 to prepare. The total cost of the 297 declinations was $171,072, an embarrassing waste of resources.
Calculating the cost of processing 297 declines, the grants manager estimated that it took about 30 minutes to process each proposal from receipt to declination letter. This translated to 148.5 hours or almost an entire month of staff time to deal with these 297 proposals. This time could be better spent supporting active grantees that help the grantmaker achieve its mission.
Reminding senior leadership that the work of the program staff in the community ensures that the grantmaker is seen as “accessible” and “attentive.” Through networking, meetings with nonprofits, and participation at industry events, the grantmaker could achieve the same results, and likely in a more useful way. Although not numbers related, this was an important consideration.
Successful Strategy 2: Everyone Else Is Doing It
Benchmarking—or finding out what the common practices are among organizations that are similar to your own— is another key tool in advocating for change. One grants manager successfully changed the grant authorization levels at her foundation using the strategy outlined below.
After examining the process, the grants manager determined that the biggest headache was caused by the sheer volume of proposals that required board approval. The work included preparing and shipping documents all over the country; waiting for the next scheduled meeting or following up with board members to secure written approvals, and communicating with applicants to explain why there was not yet a decision. In addition, once the board members did make decisions, the resulting flood of approvals nearly drowned the grants management team, leading to long hours, unhappy staff members, and a significantly increased possibility for error.
The grants manager‘s tactics for changing the approval process to delegate more authority to staff were:
Demonstrating to the board that similar foundations used a tiered approach to grant approvals. The grants manager used the Foundation Center’s search tools and ranking reports to develop a list of peer foundations that were similar in i) program focus; ii) size of grants budget; and iii) geographic focus. She then searched for these organizations in the GMN member directory and contacted their grants managers to learn about their authorization levels.
Reminding the board that its adopted strategic plan directs the work of the foundation. Grantmaking by staff works to fulfill the plan’s intent; therefore decisions on smaller grants could responsibly be delegated to senior staff members, enabling the board to focus on larger grants.
Analyzing how the change impacted the volume of grants the board would see. The grants manger was able to show that although the change would significantly decrease the number of grants considered (and therefore their workload), it would not significantly decrease the dollars they approved. This reassured the board members that they would still be making the majority of funding decisions while freeing up their time to focus on governance and strategies.
Projecting that the delegation of approval authority would allow the foundation to respond more quickly to grantee requests, making the foundation more nimble and responsive to the needs of the community.
Successful Strategy 3: Recruit Others to Your Cause
Changing grants management practices can significantly lighten the workload of other staff, particularly program staff, so engaging them in your efforts can be another successful strategy. One grants manager, tired of the piles of unread reports in her office, approached her program officers to brainstorm solutions.
Together, the grants manager and program staff convinced their respective department heads to support the recommended changes, and successfully argued for the following reporting practice improvements:
Eliminating operating support grant reports, acknowledging that since a grantee can’t, by definition, misuse funds, requiring a report was unnecessary. Since all grantees reapplied for support, a review of the new grant request would allow staff to identify any changes in the organization. The team used estimates of the amount of time grants management staff would save in not requesting the reports, documenting their receipt in the grants database, and filing. Program staff estimated the amount of time it took them to review the report. In addition, the team used CEP’s estimate that a nonprofit spends an average of 21 hours on each grant report, which was further evidence of how this change would be beneficial.
Allowing nonprofits who were reapplying for funds to use their new proposal to satisfy the reporting requirements of the current, similar grant. This would provide an extra incentive for grantees to submit the reports on time and reduce the workload of program staff, since they could combine evaluation of the past grant with the recommendation for the new one. The program staff was able to argue that this approach would lead to better grant decisions while reducing the workload of their grantee partners.
Successful Strategy 4: Outsource
If your grants management practices are as streamlined as they are going to get, but the workload is still not manageable, it might be time to look for outside resources to supplement staff. One corporate grants manager, faced with a growing matching gifts program and decreasing staff resources, successfully convinced her manager to move the program to an outside company by using strategies 1-3. Specifically, the grants manager:
Performed an analysis comparing the cost of managing the program in-house to the cost of an outside firm, and demonstrated that the cost of outsourcing the program would be less.
Benchmarked how peer corporations she located in the GMN member directory handled their matching gifts programs, finding that out of 10 similar companies, 8 outsourced and 2 handled the program in-house, but were considering outsourcing.
Conducted a survey of matching gift program participants (adapted from one she received in response to a request she posted on the GMN member community) that showed employees were looking for increased customer service, better access to the program on-line, and more timely communications about their gifts. The grants manager was able to use this information to argue that an outside firm would not only cost the same, but would actually provide better service to employees.
Looking for More Strategies?
If you’re looking for more specific ideas on what you can change in your practices, consider attending the 2010 GMN Conference: Streamlining Grantmaking: Charting a Course for Change, to be held March 15-17, 2010 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Project Streamline will be releasing a Guide to Streamlining this fall as another helpful resource. The Guide will include tools, stories, and resources to help grantmakers reduce the costs of application, monitoring, and reporting practices. It will be supported by a series of workshops on how to streamline held in partnership with regional associations of grantmakers and other partners around the country beginning in 2010. Finally, an online tool will be launched in early 2010 to help grantmakers assess opportunities for streamlining their specific practices.
When All Else Fails…
In some cases, all efforts to redefine your grants management practices to create a manageable set of job responsibilities may fail. You may be stuck with a tough choice of staying in an overloaded or uninteresting job, or taking the “precarious” step of looking for a new job, which is a daunting prospect in the best of times.
Whether job changes or other factors like career advancement and family are prompting you a look at outside opportunities, here are a few inspiring examples of members who’ve taken that leap and seized new opportunities that have come their way. Congratulations to:
Jennifer Burran for her coast-to-coast move to become Grants Manager at the Lemelson Foundation
Nandini Assar who moved from the private sector to the public sector to manage Community Health Centers grants at the Department of Health and Human Services
Andrew McFarland who moved from the public sector to the private sector to serve as Grants and Knowledge Manager at the Sea Change Foundation
Jana Fry who crossed an ocean to join the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a Grants Administrator
Karin Bishop who followed up on a job opening announcement made at the GMN annual conference, entering the corporate world as Senior Program Manager at PetSmart Charities, Inc.
The GMN Examiner Editorial Team
The GMN Examiner is published three times a year through the dedicated efforts of GMN members and volunteers.
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