No One Has Your Back

No One Has Your Back: The Truth About Institutional Support

What would you do if faced with the choice of writing successful technical grants outside your area of expertise or losing your job? A participant in a recent workshop I taught told me she had worked as a secretary for many years, but her position recently shifted to accommodate proposal writing. She had never written a proposal in her life – her background is in the visual arts – and the organization is a large R01 (a large NIH award), not-for-profit research facility. Over the past year, her organization has seen a sharp decline in the number and size of awards. She and many of her coworkers were given the choice of cranking out technical proposals or losing their jobs. Constant pressure and bullying are the tools used to encourage successful proposals from her, with little constructive support from the senior leadership.

I have encountered other participants just like the former secretary. I have also had excited and enthusiastic participants who are new to writing grants. The organizations they tend to represent typically have zero experience with grants, but the participant feels that he or she should start writing proposals in support of what his or her organization does. They view grants as a way out of funding reductions, a means to supplement an existing program, or to maintain office staff. In these cases, the senior management of such institutions often does not know that their staff is thinking about submitting grants. Or, if they are aware the employee is writing a grant, they have merely tasked the job to a staff member with little or no direct support.

Being in either of these situations is horrifying and happens more often than you might think. It doesn’t matter whether an organization is forcing unqualified employees to write full grant proposals without the support of programmatic experts, or employees are considering applying for grant funding without the support or even full knowledge of their institutional senior leadership. Such proposals are most likely doomed for rejection in either scenario. In the case of the research facility mentioned above, the institution lives and dies by their ability to procure large grants. Failure is not an option. For the independent staffer who wants to submit proposals regardless of their institutional support, there is a small chance that they will get lucky and win an award. However, that almost inevitably dooms the organization to mismanagement of the programmatic and financial aspects of the award.

Institutional Support and Buy In

When I teach the Professional Grant Development course, I remind the participants of a handful of key concepts about grants every morning and afternoon. One is that proposals are submitted by and awards made to institutions, not individuals. Grant writers, principal investigators, and project directors are representatives selected by the institution to write competitive proposals. In theory, they are largely the same people when it comes to the technical proposals. These representatives are entrusted to successfully carry out the programmatic aspects of an award. Before any organization decides to jump into the grant writing game, the management of that organization needs to be committed to supporting their staff in grant-writing endeavors and award management. Senior leadership needs to support programmatic experts on drafting technical language for a proposal, as opposed to the administrative staff. Once an award is made, time and resources must be made available to grant writers and administrators to ensure proper management of the award.

Tone at the Top

At some point in your institution’s lifespan – assuming it is successful at procuring federal grants – it will need to go through an OMB 133 audit. Many people confuse this with a financial audit, which it is not. The 133 audit examines how grants are managed and grant expenses handled. One vital element to any good 133 audit is a test of the Tone at the Top. Tone at the Top is a term that originated in the accounting field and is used to describe an organization’s general ethical climate, as established by its board of directors, audit committee, and senior management. Having a strong Tone at the Top is believed by ethics experts to help prevent fraud and other unethical practices. For instance, if the management of an organization understands the grants process, provides resources and management tools for successful proposal development, and sets the proper tone regarding correct grant management, then that strong Tone at the Top will permeate through the entire organization, down to the very most junior staff. However, if the Tone at the Top is weak, it can sour the entire organization. One example of a weak Tone at the Top is when senior management creates mandates out of desperation or panic. The former secretary whose leadership expects subject matter novices to write or review winning technical proposals is a striking real-life example. A weak Tone at the Top can lead to an unethical approach to grantsmanship that trickles down through the entire organization.

Both situations I mentioned exhibit a weak Tone at the Top. In the case of the research facility, I see very little hope for their ability to turn themselves around and rescue their dying organization. The Tone at the Top is one of intimidation. The attitude is one of “I don’t care what we need to do, just get the grant funds in the door.” Should an award be made – which is unlikely with a novice writing scientifically technical research proposals – that same attitude would filter through the post-award management of the grant. However, in the second example, there is the possibility of a bright future. While the ideal is to develop a strong Tone at the Top long before writing proposals, this situation can be recovered. The employee who wants to start writing grants to extend or expand programming, or ensure continued employment for staff is promising. It speaks to an organization where a staff member can work with his or her senior leadership to develop a strong Tone at the Top.

Aaron Hoel

Instructor at Grant Training Center
He has worked with the Library of Congress, European and Middle Eastern universities and nonprofit organizations, and US federal agencies to procure contracts and grants, and conducted domestic and international proposal development workshops.

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