“TMI” Doesn’t Apply to Grants

Adrianne Fielding
January 1, 2018 at 07:42:09 ET

Although it’s a bit cliché, there’s truth to the saying that every challenge is also an opportunity. Based on my experience in many segments of the grants world over more than a dozen years…

  • within both funder and grantee organizations;
  • at nonprofits, for-profits, government agencies and institutions of higher education; and
  • as an employee, independent contractor and vendor in small, medium and large organizations

…and often with a role that involves bringing together or bridging different individuals or teams involved in the grants process, I’ve observed that the most persistent challenges seem to be around communication.

Those challenges manifest and have impacts that vary across settings with different participants:

  • Within an organization: Whether at a funder or a grantee organization, too often the “right hand” (e.g., program officials or project staff) doesn’t know what the “left hand” (e.g., grant officials or finance staff) is doing.
  • With partners and other stakeholders: Grantees and their individual or organizational subrecipients, contractors and other partners may be heads-down in their respective pieces of project implementation after a grant is received, largely disconnected from one another between deliverable or reporting deadlines.
  • With those “across the aisle”: Funders and grantees may communicate with each other only when there is a problem, without much advance notice, or only when and as required.

In all of these cases, infrequent or insufficient communication can lead to poor coordination, misaligned or duplicative efforts, contradictory or inaccurate information, confusion, frustration, inefficiency or increased risk. Perhaps worst of all, communication challenges jeopardize the effectiveness of grant-funded projects and programs.

Improving Relationships

There has been a lot of activity around the third scenario above in the foundation sector over the past few years, with the help of such practice-focused organizations as Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). For example, CEP recently released a Grantee Perception Report with an analysis of approximately 20,000 foundation-funded grantees and 11 foundation program officers, issued another report on the role of program officers in building strong funder-grantee relationships, and hosted a webinar with a panel of three highly ranked foundation program officers about developing and cultivating strong relationships between funders and grantees.

Exponent Philosophy and the National Council of Nonprofits are taking a hands-on approach to similar issues. This past fall, they jointly hosted a half-day meeting in Washington, D.C. on “Great Funder-Nonprofit Relationships,” which presented findings from interviews with foundations and grantees, as well as a live panel of funder-nonprofit partners. Providing concrete tools for thinking about the relationships between funders and applicants/grantees, the session led participants in a reflective audit using a thought-provoking self-diagnostic tool organized around some key dimensions of relationships: mutual trust; humility/empathy; proactive communication; joint mentorship; tolerance for discomfort; and consistency. Nonprofit and philanthropic attendees brainstormed separately, then compared notes and discussed specific, concrete strategies for improving relationships with one another.

Another potential game-changer is the recently launched GrantAdvisor.org, a website where applicants and grantees can rate and provide anonymous feedback about foundations through an online survey. Profiles of individual foundations include a descriptive background with the foundation’s interests and priorities, key personnel, financial summary, summary of recent awards, plus quantitative and qualitative feedback about the foundation from applicants and grantees.

The efforts of GEO and CEP, the Exponent Philanthropy-Council of Nonprofits partnership, and resources like GrantAdvisor.org all emphasize the importance of relationships while addressing one of the elephants in the room in grants world: the inherent power dynamics between funders and applicants/grantees. Rather than denying or downplaying the existence and influence of power, those initiatives break taboos by acknowledging it and making it fair game for discussion.

Branching Out

As the philanthropic sector continues to elevate foundation-grantee relationships, many of the insights, conversations and strategies emerging from that work can be applied to other settings. Trends and changes during the past decade have significantly impacted federal grantseeking and grantmaking, including increased emphasis on waste, fraud and abuse; the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA); the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA); the uniform grant guidance; the Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act; and the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS). Those developments demand better communication within grantee organizations (e.g., across program and grants staff, and pre- and post-award staff), especially around risk identification and mitigation. That said, there seems to be less attention to improving communications between federal funders and applicants/grantees, or between the program and grants offices at federal agencies.

One reason why the initiatives around improving foundation-grantee relationships have been so refreshing — and so valuable for participants — is that foundations themselves, with awareness of their relative power advantage, have taken the lead on those efforts. It has yet to be seen whether federal funders will lead the way similarly or whether some brave federal grantees will risk being labeled ungrateful, insubordinate, or “difficult” — and risk losing funding! — by calling for such conversations.

‘Definition of the Situation’

Before the grant-related phase of my career, I was an academic sociologist with social psychology as one of my focus areas. I often recall a core concept from that field when thinking about group dynamics and communication in grants work. An American sociologist named W.I. Thomas proposed that effective social interaction requires a shared “definition of the situation,” where everyone agrees on the context, expectations, roles and other qualities of their interaction. Many common experiences have an almost automatic “definition of the situation” — if you’re in a fast food drive-thru, there’s a shared understanding of the interaction that will occur there and what can be expected from it. Establishing a shared definition of the situation in a grant-related context can require more effort, but developing and articulating agreed-upon terms for the interaction (or, often, series of interactions) can set the tone and the stage for an effective, efficient and impactful working relationship.

Reflect on your partners throughout a project — within your organization, externally (e.g., project partners and subrecipients, if you are a grantee) and “across the aisle” — and consider how you can help establish a “definition of the situation” as a working frame for your interactions throughout the project.

Within our own organizations, do we communicate well with and have great relationships with our colleagues who are responsible for different phases or aspects of the grants process? Do we consider the impacts of our assumptions and actions on our colleagues, and ensure that our efforts and messages are coordinated and not at cross purposes or duplicative? Are we keeping our partners and other external stakeholders informed and connected to the bigger picture throughout the grants process, and not just when communication is required or at compliance-defined milestones? If careful reflection on these questions leads us to a “no” response, what are the power dynamics or other factors that might be acting as obstacles? And once we’ve identified potential barriers, how can we shift or remove those?

Communicate Often

If there’s a single recommendation that shines through all of the foundation-led efforts to improve funder-grantee relationships, it’s the value of overcommunicating. When it comes to grants, there’s no such thing as “too much information” (aka, “TMI”), so prioritize opportunities for the critical players together to communicate early and communicate often. Whether you’re a funder or an applicant/grantee, it’s far better to overcommunicate and potentially annoy your counterpart than undercommunicate and risk raising suspicion or doubts with them about you, your relationship or the project. For example, grantees, even if a particular post-award change doesn’t require prior approval, it’s still a great idea to notify your funder about it. And consider touching base with them between reporting periods, even if it’s just to let them know that things are on track, and to ask whether there are any concerns or new developments from their perspective. Funders, reflect on potential challenges and impacts before making changes or new requests of your grantees — and give them plenty of advance notice!

Consider how you and your partners can establish a shared “definition of the situation” for each new award, at your kickoff meeting or otherwise. Acknowledge the role that your relationship and your communication with each other plays on the ultimate success of the project. Recognize the potential transformative power in acknowledging power and in agreeing to anchor your relationship in such values as common purpose, genuine respect, cooperation, trust and transparency, while confirming expectations and respective roles and responsibilities. Prioritize not only what you will do, but how you will work together. Create and reinforce a dynamic of mutual trust, respect and the sense that there’s no such thing as TMI with each other. Then find or make opportunities to check in regularly, not only about how the project is proceeding — including any questions, concerns and challenges — but also to revisit the big picture and recommit to your common purpose and shared goals. Invite and offer information and clarification freely, and don’t assume. Instead, ask and listen.

Let’s apply some of the terrific insights and ideas from our foundation-based colleagues, prioritizing the practices, communications and relationships that will lead to more effective and impactful grant-funded projects.

For More Information

The CEP reports are available at http://cep.org/assessments/grantee-and-applicant-perception-reports/ and http://research.cep.org/relationships-matter_program-officers_grantees_keys-to-success.

Adrianne Fielding is Director of Grants at the Association of American Medical Colleges, leading the organization’s grants office and overseeing all grant-related activities. With more than 13 years as a grants professional, Ms. Fielding’s prior experience includes serving as Executive Director of the National Grants Management Association, as Managing Editor for Thompson Publishing Group, and as an Associate at Booz Allen Hamilton with responsibility for a team of 40 consultants that directly supported the Department of Commerce’s recommendation of nearly $4 billion in Recovery Act grants. Ms. Fielding completed all coursework toward a Ph.D. in sociology and brings that analytical lens to each of her positions, often in a facilitative role bridging different players in the grants process, while leading broader efforts to improve organizational culture and communication. She can be found on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/adriannefielding/.

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