How to strike the right balance between monitoring and the mission.
Any grants management professional, whether a grantor or a grantee, knows that the main function of any grant program is to serve the public good. As the grantor, your purpose is to implement effective oversight to ensure that your recipients are good stewards of federal funds.
Federal agencies that support grant programs differ in their approaches to grant monitoring, as some require a higher level of specificity and reporting than others. Several recent Government Accountability Office studies have found that federal agencies often do not have sufficient human and technical resources to support the grant monitoring requirements of their programs; often, grant recipients do not have the resources necessary either.
So, you’ve awarded your grant funds—how do you make sure these funds are going to further your agency’s mission? On the one hand, federal law charges you with ensuring that federal money is being spent effectively and honestly. Depending on the size and scope of your grant program, this could mean a substantial administrative burden on both you and your grantees. On the other hand, requiring your recipients to comply with numerous reporting requirements with too high a degree of specificity could mean that your recipients expend a majority of their resources on grant compliance and not enough on program implementation. In other words, too much oversight could be detrimental to the mission of your grant program.
In a world where grant oversight requirements often conflict with the scarcity of resources, how can you ensure that you are getting what you need out of your grant program and strike the ideal balance between effective oversight and implementation?
- Develop quantitative, outcome-focused metrics and performance goals for measuring progress on a grant program. The new OMB “Super-Circular” places a greater emphasis on quantitative versus qualitative milestones. Implementing clear, quantifiable milestones will provide you with an easier way to show the progress of your grant program and will provide recipients with a clearer understanding of what they should track. For example with grants related to public safety, tracking stakeholder engagement is a common metric. But “stakeholder engagement” is not a quantifiable metric. Instead, consider using the term “stakeholders engaged.”
- Allot sufficient time during the application, pre-award, and immediate post-award period to ensure your monitoring requirements and expectations are crystal clear. Even better, consider your role as a grantor to be that of a “customer service” representative for your grant recipients. Better communication on your end about requirements and expectations means a less burdensome reporting process for your grant recipients; this was one of the major findings of COPS grant programs in the early 2000s. For instance, when using the metric “stakeholders engaged,” clarify whether you want recipients to track the number of stakeholder meetings held, or the number of individual stakeholders reached. Remember, many grantees may be small and may not have robust resources to devote to grant management. By allotting enough time to effectively communicate expectations, you can ensure that both you and your recipients have time to get resources in place.
- Build out a post-award outreach program that includes training webinars, sample materials, and templates to help your grant recipients with the administrative aspects of your grant program. If your agency requires a high level of specificity in reporting grant progress, help your recipients out by including a sample report with explanatory notes in your post-award training. Additionally, try to offer this training more than once, and not just during the immediate post-award period.
- Do your research and try to understand your stakeholders from the beginning. What groups are you targeting? Are they universities, local or state agencies? How familiar are they with the world of federal grants? Understanding the potential knowledge and resources gaps of your grant recipients may help you tailor an outreach and grant monitoring program that will be comprehensive, yet not place an undue burden on your recipients.
- Use lessons learned from other grant programs, and don’t be afraid to look across agencies to do it. Each agency has its own standard operating procedures, but some best practices transcend agency boundaries. For a grant program of your size and scope, is it best to require performance reports quarterly, biannually, or annually? Should you require all performance and financial metrics to be reported cumulatively, or by reporting period? Should you conduct site visits, and if so, how long should they be and how often should they occur?
What tips do you have for successful grant oversight?
Arleta Cobb is an associate consultant at Corner Alliance.