By Ennis Barbery Smith, Maryland Heritage Areas Program Assistant Administrator
It’s October, and many of us working in the historic preservation and heritage tourism fields are offering our annual retellings of the spooky stories associated with the buildings we help steward. Some of us are leading ghost tours and hanging fake cobwebs from eaves. However, the “scary” thing that I’m writing about today is the grants process. It’s not “spooky” scary. It doesn’t go bump in the night, but it is frightening in other ways. Grants can keep us up at night, and by us, I mean both grant recipients and grants managers.
Here at MHT, we have some good news to share about how we’re trying to make the grant reporting process a little less frightening for everyone involved. But, before I get to that, if you’re unfamiliar with grants, you may be wondering “what could be frightening about grants?” I asked some of our grantees and grants managers to share their fears, and here’s a listing of some of their answers:
13 Grants-Related Things that Frighten Us:
- Grant Applicant / Recipients’ Fears:
Writing an entire application thinking you understand the priorities of the funding organization, only to get a rejection letter detailing how you completely missed the mark
- Looking through a grant application to see how much time you need to complete it, allotting that time, then realizing later that the final step is five letters of support and the grant is due by close of business
- Forgetting your password for the grant portal on the day the grant is due
- Manipulating your project budget to fit into the form that has been provided in the grant application, and inadvertently leaving out an important expense in the process
- Answering what seems to be the same question on a grant application five times and struggling to make the answer sound different each time
- Finding out the grant is reimbursable when you were counting on money up front and your operating budget is tight
- Doing the math and finding out that the total money (i.e. staff time) you’ve spent writing grant reports and providing financial documentation is greater than your total grant award
- Finding out there are more strings attached to the grant award than you realized, such as being required to purchase a ticket to the funding organization’s event
- Grant Managers’ Fears:
Finding out, in your grantee’s final report, that the entire project has changed without them telling you, and they’ve spent the grant money on expenses that your grant program can’t cover
- Finding out that the project contact has literally disappeared from the grantee organization and not told anyone else at the organization about the grant’s existence
- Realizing that a grantee who was awarded a historic preservation grant has inadvertently used the money to dismantle historic elements of the building
- Seeing that a grantee has not taken the time to fact check their interpretive sign at a historic site, but they have taken the time to include your organization’s logo prominently
- Realizing that – out of the hundreds of pages of financial documentation you’ve reviewed – only a few pages relate directly to the grant project
In summary, the grants process is fraught with things that frighten us. While MHT can’t control all of the scary circumstances listed here, we at MHT are making changes to some of the processes within our control: our financial documentation and grant amendment policies.
Those of you who have received grant funding from one of our programs in the past will probably recall scanning and uploading stacks of cancelled checks and invoices each time you requested a disbursement of your grant funding. Over the years, long before compiling this list, our grantees have been giving us feedback about how they sometimes felt they were spending more time documenting their grant spending than actually doing the important work directly related to their projects. During the series of public meetings that MHT held as part of the process of updating the Statewide Preservation Plan, PreserveMaryland II, our past and present grantees echoed these concerns.
We have listened to this feedback, and now we’re making changes:
- Less paper to scan and submit: Under our old policies, MHT required grantees to submit both “proof of expenditure” (invoices, receipts, etc.) and corresponding “proof of payment” (cancelled checks, credit card statements, etc.) for all expenses associated with their grant projects. Across all of our programs, we will no longer be requiring grantees to submit “proof of payment.”
- Streamlined amendments and extensions: We will now be processing most grant extensions and amendments via email. Grant extensions and amendments, when approved, allow grantees to make changes to the timetables, scopes of work, and budgets associated with their projects.
- For MHAA grants, a “spot-check” process: While all Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) grantees must still retain financial documentation of grant-related expenses, only a portion of MHAA grantees will be required to scan and upload their financial documentation as part of their grant reporting. You can think of this as similar to the IRS’s tax-filing system in which the IRS only requires that a portion of audited tax-payers submit documentation for their tax claims.
We hope that these changes—and other changes that are more program-specific—will mean that our grantees can complete their reporting requirements in less time and have more time to spend on their projects. The rollout of this new financial documentation policy looks different for each of our grant programs. Please contact the MHT staff person you’ve been working with if you have questions about how this might apply to your grant.
To our grantees, MHT thanks you for all the important projects you’re working on to steward Maryland’s heritage. This Halloween-season, may these changes lighten your workload a little, so you can focus on the important things, like getting that fog-machine in working order or curating the perfect collection of gourds, if you’re sticking with a more restrained autumnal style.
Thank you to the grantees and grants managers who contributed to the list of grant-related fears! If you enjoyed this Halloween-themed blog and you’ve worked in the non-profit world, you might also be interested in this description of a visit to a non-profit-themed haunted house – it’s truly terrifying.