Identifying Project Leads Early for Post-Award Grant Management Success

By Kate McNulty

You’ve finished the heavy lifting of designing a project or program, writing a grant, and submitting the application and you just found out you’ve been awarded the grant. Congratulations! …But now what? Now that you’ve got that shiny new grant sitting in your lap, it’s time to turn your attention to post award grant management.

Ideally, as you wrote your application, planning out the cost and the timeline, the activities and the necessary staffing, you also considered and planned for program implementation. Realistically, most of us don’t begin these activities until we’re assured of funding, because diverting current staff away from their regular duties to plan for a theoretical isn’t always possible, especially for nonprofits. Colleges and universities or for-profit research engines have less to think over in regards to staffing as they win research and development grants, which are some of the only grants for-profit entities are eligible for. Juxtaposed to this, nonprofit service organizations applying for grants to develop and implement new programming or make alterations to current programming need to plan for development of a road map for implementation.

The first step is to identify who will be the internal project lead and if that person will remain in their current role or hand off responsibilities to a new hire or other internal staff person. The team that develops the grant should include the person who will take responsibility for leading the project in its beginning stages because intimate knowledge of the requirements in the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) or Request for Proposals (RFP) is necessary to ensure all funder requirements are met from the very beginning. Additionally, the project lead will need to be familiar with the submission to ensure that the deliverables are timely and understood by the staff taking over the grant project should it be changing hands.

The beginning of a grant project can be one of the most difficult pieces if a person is not identified in advance as the project leader. Therefore, it is essential to identify the lead before you submit the grant and make sure, once you are awarded, that the person leading the effort is fully empowered to do so. When you announce the award internally, make sure to identify the project lead and make it clear that this person is in charge and that everyone’s full cooperation is required.

Cooperation by all departments is more likely if all departments at the organization are aware of the undertaking and, thereby, feel included in the venture. If it’s possible to do so, it can be beneficial for the project lead to assemble a team of representatives from each department that will need to be involved throughout, such as Human Resources, Finance/Accounts Payable/Payroll, and Facilities Management. This ensures that the grant project or program can continue to move forward swiftly and smoothly. Theoretically, the acquisition of the grant was not possible without all hands on deck doing the work every day to make your organization the great organization it is.

Therefore, it’s important to make the staff feel that they too were a piece in the puzzle that the funder found so appealing that they’ve chosen to fund your organization’s idea. This is important because pride can be a powerful motivator for many people who may wish to keep the good feelings flowing by doing their part to support the project. That good feeling combined with a clear statement defining the authority of the project lead to make requests for help from staff directly will help get your grant off to a good start.

If by chance you haven’t identified a project lead in advance of being awarded a grant, be prepared for a bit of a challenging start. In order to get a handle on the situation as soon as possible, executive leadership, likely the CEO or President, must name a temporary project lead and make clear the expectation that the interim person is to be involved in all aspects of the grant until it can be passed to a permanent replacement inside the organization or until the hiring process can be completed.

It is unlikely that your grant terms will allow you to hold off on the initial pieces of grants management such as revising and/or updating the budget, signing contracts, and providing other infrastructure solidifying pieces until have your ducks in a row. Furthermore, you don’t want your grantor’s first impression of your organization to be negative because they perceive you to be disorganized. Selecting a project director and immediately empowering that person to act on behalf of the organization will help you to avoid looking like mess (even if you are a bit of a mess) as your new project lead sorts out what needs to be done.

Consider having your new project lead meet with the team that wrote the grant to ensure the lead is updated on the history of the grant and that they know who they can contact for certain pieces of information. If you’ve appointed an interim project lead from the grants writing team this may not be necessary as that person will, ideally, be able to independently identify who to contact for different information. Request that the project lead keep a log of activities and formulate a tentative work plan for rolling out to the grant project so that their replacement is able to pick up the work with minimal confusion.

As you go about supporting the work being done by your project lead, be sure to stay aware of how they are managing their “regular” work and if they require support in fulfilling their regular course of duties. Larger projects typically require between 80% and 100% level of effort for the project lead, which leaves your interim lead with very little time left to complete their other duties. This can be demoralizing if left unrecognized or unattended to. As much as you may want them to be able to work harder or work smarter, if your organization is already well run that’s likely not possible. And if your organization is understaffed during the project leads term as interim, it is definitely not possible! You may need to divert other staff to help support the regular course of work you must temporarily separate your project lead from. This ensures that when the reins are handed off, your interim lead isn’t burned out and feeling discouraged to boot.

Ultimately, your best choice is to identify the project lead and have a plan for project start up ready in case you receive the award you bid on. But when that’s not possible, your best bet is to select an interim from the bid preparation team and then provide that person with a great deal of support. Grants can help take your organization to the next level and keep up with changes in your industry. Maintaining a good reputation among funders is important and part of maintaining that good reputation is ensuring a smooth start up to your project.