The Bittersweet Task of Running a Grant Program

From drafting the call for proposals to announcing the results, here's what you need to know

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

March 04, 2013

At first it seems like a marvelous gift. The provost provides money for an in-house grant program. You are asked to lead it. You have received grants in the past, so you feel familiar with the process. Then the behind-the-scenes, bureaucratic realities of managing a grant program set in. You're no longer just drafting your own, single proposal; you're receiving lots of them from other people, who have lots of questions.

Running a grant program for the first time can feel overwhelming. The work is time-consuming, requires attention to many details, and is accompanied by pressure from applicants who are desperate for money and prompt decisions. What follows is a list of all the factors you will have to consider and the advice I wish someone had given me.

Your first task will be establishing a timeline for the program. In setting a date for awarding grants, think about the projects for which the money will be used. For summer research, you will want to make money available soon after the end of the spring semester; the money will be less useful to researchers if they receive it in late July. If you're at a public institution, the state's fiscal year may affect when you can disburse dollars. Consult someone on your campus with financial savvy on these matters.

Now work backward from the award date you've selected. Steps on the program's timeline are: create a call for proposals; disseminate the call; set a deadline that gives people a reasonable amount of time to prepare a high-quality application; distribute proposals to reviewers; collect the reviews; tally the reviews; send out award letters and rejections; have money transferred to grant recipients. Build in extra time for each step, because things usually take longer than you expect.

Next comes drafting the call for proposals. This is a critical document, one that will shape the rest of the competition, so prepare it with care. The call should succinctly and specifically state what the program is intended to support. Potential applicants need to know whether their projects are a good fit and whether it is worthwhile for them to apply. The call should accomplish the following:

Define who is eligible for the program. Is it open to all faculty members or just those on the tenure track? Are postdocs and soft-money research professors eligible? What about someone who has a contract to begin working at your institution in a few months, when the grants are disbursed, but is not there now? All kinds of questions will come up, so anticipate what you can and include it in the eligibility requirements.

State the review criteria in the call for proposals. For a seed-money grant, the likelihood of a project's attracting an extramural grant might be the main criterion. For a career-development grant, a criterion might be the likelihood of the project's resulting in a book that helps the applicant to get tenure.

Set a submission deadline. Be aware that some applicants will submit at 11:59 p.m. on the deadline day unless you specify otherwise. It may not matter to you, but if it does, specify a half-hour before you normally close up shop. That gives the stragglers leeway while allowing you to leave on time. You'll have to use your judgment for the inevitable calls from those who want to submit late.

Draft the application guidance. Each application should include, at a minimum, a cover sheet with the applicant's contact information, a project description, and a budget.

  • Cover sheet. This should request the applicant's contact information. You will need at least a name, address, e-mail address, and department. If you request that information but do not provide a form, some applicants will omit parts of it. Some will omit it even with a form, but their ranks will be fewer.
  • Project description. This is where applicants will make their case. Be clear about the format you want, or you will get all kinds of descriptions, and they will be difficult to rate with consistency. That is particularly true for programs that involve applications from people in a variety of disciplines. You might request a problem statement, a discussion of the method to be used to investigate the problem, and a discussion of the significance of the project to its discipline.
  • Set page limits for the project description, and specify font size and margins. If you don't want any other documents appended to the proposal, such as a CV or a reference letter, say so. It will keep the playing field level and limit the number of pages you need to read.

  • Budget. Provide a budget form and seek information on basic categories, such as personnel, equipment, supplies, and travel. State which expenses are allowable in your grant program. Will you pay for travel to scientific conferences? Will you pay for a graduate assistant? What about summer salary? You'll get questions about other expenses, but try to cover the common ones.
  • Contact person. Provide the name and contact information of someone who can answer policy-related questions about your program.

When you have completed a draft of the call for proposals, have a couple of people from the target group—graduate students, new faculty members, whoever—read the call and note anything that's unclear. Some applicants will still find some things unclear, but this step should catch the worst of them.

In preparing the call for proposals, you must balance the benefit of providing detailed information against the danger of overwhelming people with too much information. Don't use a small font to squeeze in as much information as possible. People won't read through it all and will just call you for answers.

Next you must decide on the submission process. Do you want paper or electronic copies? If you choose paper, have the applicant submit enough copies for each member of your review panel. That will keep you out of the photocopying business. Decide where the proposals will be submitted and how they will be distributed to reviewers.

At my institution, we opt for electronic applications for faculty-development programs. I will describe the process we use, which does not require special expertise or technology. We tweak it every year, but the basic procedure remains the same: We request a single PDF document, which applicants can easily produce with a scanner. We also require a specific naming convention so that we don't receive dozens of documents labeled "grant proposal." For example, for a seed-money program, it could be something like "Seed 2013, Last Name," which would result, for example, in Professor Doe's submitting "Seed 2013 Doe." The "Seed 2013" part allows you to easily search for those programs on a computer.

If you do not set a naming convention and then you ask applicants to submit components of the grant application separately—cover page, project description, budget—you will be faced with even more documents with unhelpful file names like "budget" and "cover sheet." Someone will have to open each one, find out whose it is, rename it, and match it with the other grant components from that applicant.

At my university, we set up a special e-mail account to receive the proposals so that no one's personal account is swamped. We then post them to a secure Web site, to which only the reviewers have access. We use the university's course-management software (Sakai), which makes the process easy.

Once the proposals are submitted, have someone list them on a spreadsheet for record-keeping purposes. At a minimum, include the applicant's name, amount of money requested, and space for the reviewers' scores. That spreadsheet will help you later in the process.

Now you need a review panel. In-house reviewers are not typically paid, so you may need to cajole and perhaps ply them with lunch. Choose reliable people who will read the grants and provide scores in a timely fashion. Give them a reasonable amount of time. What is reasonable will depend on how long the proposals are and how many you receive.

Draw up a simple rubric for evaluating the proposals and a score sheet for reviewers to use. Someone will probably suggest you follow the procedures used by study sections at the National Institutes of Health. I discouragethat and any other elaborate assessment process. The more complicated, the more work for your reviewers. If you are going to manage this grant program in subsequent years, you don't want to alienate your reviewers in the first year. You may want to invite the good ones back.

Someone will need to collect reviewers' scores. Put them in the spreadsheet you've already prepared. You can set it up to calculate the average score for each proposal. On my campus, we also calculate the standard deviation, so that we know where reviewers' opinions diverged. Once you have the score averages, have the spreadsheet sort the applications by score and keep a running tally of amount of money requested. That way you will see which proposals you can support on the basis of the amount of money available for your program.

You may decide to simply tally the scores and make the grant decisions. Or, before awarding the grants, you may want to hold a meeting to discuss the proposals on which reviewers were sharply divided.

Think about whether you want to provide reviewers' comments to grant applicants. The winners aren't likely to question your decisions, but the people who were turned down will. Writing constructive comments is time-consuming, so consider the number of proposals each reviewer will have to read.

Whether you provide reviewers' comments to applicants also depends on the type of program. If it's a seed-money program for faculty members, they might benefit greatly from some assessment of their grant writing and direction on how to revise the document into a successful proposal. My institution recently began providing reviewers' comments because we got many complaints about the lack of feedback on rejected proposals.

During the entire grant process, jot down problems that occur. If you run the program again, you can remedy those things, or at least reduce the amount of trouble they cause.

Announce the results. Someone will have to write and deliver letters, electronic or paper, that tell applicants the outcome. Money needs to be made accessible to grant recipients, and they need to know the rules for expenditures. Questions about spending the money will come up throughout the grant period, so designate someone as the contact for those inquiries.

I recommend requiring a final report from all grant recipients. Many faculty members think of such reports as a waste of time. Nonetheless, the reports are valuable if you want to evaluate the impact of your grant program and see whether it is accomplishing its goal. That information is useful when your institution starts looking for programs to cut. If you can show the value of your grant program—for example, that recipients go on to receive large extramural grants—it's less likely to get the ax.

Karen M. Markin is director of research development at the University of Rhode Island.