Involving boards in grant seeking–and avoiding micromanaging

21 Mar
Not an equitable division of labor…

Everyone beats the drum about involving your board in grant seeking, but exactly what should that look like? It’s a great idea, but it’s rife with the possibility for micro managing and over stepping of boundaries. First, let’s talk about what it should not look like.

I won’t say that they shouldn’t ever be involved in grant writing–if, and I repeat if, they either have expertise as successful professional grant writers or have high content area expertise. Inexperienced board members will be no more successful than inexperienced staff in writing or editing grants, so don’t defer this job to them because it just sounds like some big, scary thing that important people like board members should do. In fact, they will inherently be worse at describing your programs and internal processes because they don’t live it every day. And then there’s the awkward mess of having to rewrite their narrative that just doesn’t work.

Plus, there are staffing and program decisions to be made. Grant writing is part fact telling and part program design. Sometimes its up to us to help figure out exactly how the magic is gonna happen. And that means decisions about staffing and other day-to-day happenings.

I also don’t think they should be writing or approving grant budgets for largely the same reasons. If you are writing for existing programs and your grant budget reflects that, then your board should have already approved the larger agency budget into which that program budget fits. You’re covered. Drilling down into line items for grant budgets is the definition of micromanaging. And I promise you they won’t read the RFP well enough to know what is allowable and what is not. Which is just not helpful.

Strangely, one of my clients has a funder who specifically asks what the role of the board is in approving grant budgets. My internal response is: “Um, none, I hope!” Okay, okay, I give. If you are creating a budget for a brand new activity that is not reflected in your board-approved agency budget, getting the grant would increase the agency budget and/or affect cash flow patterns (if say, the grant is awarded on a reimbursement basis), you need to give the finance committee and the executive committee a heads up. And be prepared to have them torpedo the project, as is their prerogative.

Oh, wait?  Isn’t that micromanaging? In this case, no. The board is about big picture and policy, staff is about process and making it happen. Policy may influence process, but process can never trump policy. So if you have a directive from the board, like an approved agency budget, that’s your policy for the year. Any changes to that are not yours to make alone. And monkeying with cash flow affects fiscal responsibility, which is the purview of the board.

So in short, the board should not be involved in that portion of grant writing that takes them out of the realm of policy and direction and into the day-to-day world of how their group directive is implemented. Next–what is an appropriate use of your board in grant seeking.

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