By Chris LaPage
In many ways, grantseeking is like sports: it is competition and only a limited number of players make it to the winner’s circle. Seven months ago, you worked exhaustively on a grant proposal, submitted it to the funder and waited anxiously for the verdict. The anticipation is replaced by pure joy when you receive notice that your project will be funded. It’s time to pop the Champagne bottle and celebrate the good news. Word spreads fast. An endless line of managers and colleagues parade through your office offering pleasantries and pats on the back. The hard work paid off and despite attempts to fend off their compliments with “I’m just doing my job”, you are human and take some time to revel in the success.
Soon, however, your triumphant attitude might be replaced with a sense of melancholy. You realize that securing funding was only the first step. The project must now be implemented in accordance with the plan you originally submitted. Furthermore, you have become the steward of the funder’s money. Failure or unplanned deviation could impact your organization’s reputation and reduce your ability to capitalize on other grants in the future. Nevertheless, you push these negative thoughts to the back of your mind. You convince yourself that there was a reason you were selected above all others: your plan is top notch and lays the foundation for successful implementation.
Most veteran grant awardees will tell you, however, that implementation will occasionally not proceed in lockstep with the original plan. There will be issues, problems, snafus, and unforeseen situations that arise during your project period. You perceive the organization as “locked in” to the original plan submitted and believe any deviations from that proposal would be considered unacceptable by the grantmaker. You are convinced that the plan is a fixed variable that cannot change, and tunnel vision sets in. With this mentality, even trivial issues stand to turn into major concerns. Thus, it’s natural to fear that the funder will not understand this particular unforeseen circumstance that has arisen.
We’re here to tell you that this is not the case! Take a deep breath and relax. The truth is that your proposal is just a plan. Plans are blueprints to a successful implementation, but they are not meant to be static. As such, you might wish to keep the following tips and suggestions in mind when your next grant-funded project requires modification!
THE GRANTMAKER IS NOT JUST YOUR FINANCIER, THEY ARE YOUR PARTNER
One of the classic concerns we hear about from folks with implementation issues post-award is that they are concerned about their reputation. They equate asking the funder for allowance to make modifications to their implementation plan with some failure to anticipate the challenge on their part. Logically, it follows that if you fail with someone else’s money, you may not get another chance.
Remember though, grantmakers are not just your project financier. Funders are concerned with their reputation as well. The grantmaker is investing in your project with the ultimate goal of reporting on the number of lives impacted or improved as a result of their support. Thus, the grantmaker is just as committed to ensuring a successful project implementation as the award recipient organization. They understand even the best plans will need to be adjusted over time. Don’t approach modifications from the mindset of asking permission – as if the funder is an unattached venture capitalist. When changes need to be made, be open and honest with your funder. Meet with your partner to discuss the obstacles that have arisen and, together, chart a path forward. The grantmaker is quite literally invested in the project’s success and, in most cases, is willing to brainstorm solutions alongside you as a true partner.
DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF
At the federal level, often six- to ten-months have passed between the application deadline and award notifications. Before you pull down even a single dollar on that award, something might have changed since you originally submitted the proposal. Furthermore, even if no initial changes are necessary within the first year of implementation – your total project period could be anywhere from three- to five-years in length. No one expects that a plan you laid out two years ago should be set in stone. You may have included a project coordinator in the proposal that has since left your organization. Or, perhaps you were doing a distance learning project that required video conferencing equipment. Upon notification of award, you may have contacted the vendor who originally provided you quotes for the proposal and found out that the equipment model has now been discontinued. Don’t panic! Don’t fear bringing these details to the grantmaker’s attention!
Grantmakers across the spectrum (federal, state, foundation) regularly approve these types of modifications. Personnel change is very common, and some funders may even have a formalized process for notifying them about this change. One approach might be to identify a current staff member with similar qualifications that could be presented to the funder as a replacement. Alternatively, you could propose to the grantmaker a search plan to fill the vacant role, including a job description, timeline for hiring, and sample resume of the ideal candidate. If discontinued equipment is causing you strife, ask your vendor for an updated quote on the new models available. It may even behoove you to seek the same information from their competitors in case you can find a better deal. Updating previously specified equipment for similar, newer models is a routine practice given that the grant application and award cycle often lags behind the release of newer, more efficient technology solutions. Competitor quotes may also come in handy if the replacement models are significantly more expensive than those included in the original budget. Being able to show your funding partner that you have done your due-diligence to obtain the best price for the necessary equipment – even if it’s not what you originally planned – goes a long way.
Occasionally, some changes are so small they don’t even need approval. For instance, after low attendance at your first 10 parent focus groups, perhaps you requested that the funder allow you to conduct two large town hall style parent meetings instead. Thankfully the funder agrees with you that this is a good idea and approves the change! However, as part of your original proposal, your “food at parent-events” food budget was based on conducting these 20 parent focus groups. Even though it wasn’t in your initial plan, purchasing food for two town halls instead of the remaining 10 focus groups would likely will not require additional pre-approval from the funder as long as you are staying within your original budget for the food at parent-events line item. Approval would only be necessary if changing where the food was provided now necessitated going over your original allotment, or if you were seeking to reallocate unspent funds from another budget category (e.g. equipment actually cost less than proposed). The key in these instances, is to stay calm and open up a dialogue with the grantmaker. You may be surprised at how easy it was to make the modification.
CONSULT YOUR GRANT AWARD CONTRACT
The first place to start when modifications are necessary post-award is the contract you executed with the grantmaker. In many cases, the contract will provide details on the formal procedure for requesting modifications to the proposed budget. More importantly, the contract will usually contain details about the grants officer that will be your main point of contact throughout the project period. For routine modifications, the grants officer may be able to approve changes through email. Alternatively, the grants officer may pass along a standard grant request modification form that you will need to complete and return.
Regardless of the mechanism for requesting modifications, be prepared to justify the modifications that are necessary. Grantmakers don’t expect project plans to be static, but they absolutely need to understand the reasons for the requested changes. For instance, perhaps you budgeted salary and benefit increases for a project coordinator each year over the project period. At some point between application and approval, the employee union at your organization negotiated higher annual salary and fringe benefit hikes. Such a scenario is completely out of your control and is not a reflection of poor planning. The key is to ensure you provide an adequate justification for the changes that are being requested.
BE PREPARED TO HEAR NO… AND TO NEGOTIATE
Providing adequate justification does not require the grantmaker to simply approve your modification request. For instance, in the example where pay raises and fringe benefit rates have increased for the organization, the grantmaker may not have the funds available to simply increase your award budget. Be prepared with a contingency plan if the modification request is denied. If a budget increase is out of the question, perhaps you can take an overall look at the budget and request taking funds from another budget category. If the staff positions are essential to the project, perhaps you can cut back on your food or travel budget, requesting that those funds be used for the increased salary and benefit requirements instead. Another potential solution would be to evaluate the feasibility of decreasing the starting salary for the affected staff positions without impacting the quality of people filling the positions. The grants officer will likely be more willing to accept a modification where the total salary and benefit budget stays the same.
In some cases, the type of modification being sought is simply not possible. The grantmaker’s hands may be tied due to legal and regulatory requirements. With state and federal grants, review criteria clearly establishes how applications are to be scored. The most difficult modifications to get approved are those that would have a direct impact on how the original grant proposal would have been scored. For example, several grant programs at the federal level aim to improve healthcare delivery to rural areas through telemedicine. A part of the application scoring revolves around the rurality of the sites receiving telemedicine benefits. Since the location of these sites are integrated into the scoring and directly impact whether the proposal is approved, any post-award modifications to the project’s site list are not likely to be approved.
Finally, and most importantly, remember that grant budget modifications are a negotiation. If a funder denies your modification request, be sure to request some time to talk and understand their reasoning. Upon hearing their concerns, you may be able to propose a different solution. As previously mentioned, the funder should be considered a partner and your assigned grants officer should be willing to work with you to find a path forward.