Grants Management Advice to My Younger Self
By P. Lynn Miller, CGMS
Grants Supervisor, Honolulu Police Department

Changing careers in mid-life is always daunting, but I’ve done it before. When I accepted a new job as the planner (a/k/a grant manager) for a metropolitan police department, I anticipated being able to draw on my research, writing and mediation skills. I had fairly extensive experience working in grant-funded programs and writing grants for various state and nonprofit agencies. While with FEMA, I worked with both the local military and state administrative agencies during pre- and post-disasters, so working in this venue felt comfortable and was an easy transition for me. However, what I was not prepared for was how dynamic, challenging and FUN this newly-minted profession of “grants management” was to become.

When I started, there was no such profession as “grants management.” An agency would apply for grants to federal, state or philanthropic grantors, receive an award and hand it over to their finance department to administer and account for the expenditures. Once every year or so, you waited for the auditors to show up and go over the books. Little did I know the system was teetering on the brink of transition.

As my feet were getting wet and I was beginning to understand the intricacies of individual grant programs and how each system worked…WHAM the whole thing changed! The federal rules were completely rewritten. Multiple and disparate sets of federal compliance, guidelines, circulars and administrative rules were consolidated and streamlined into one overarching Uniform Guidance. Additionally, a tsunami of federal funds flooded the marketplace in the form of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. As a consequence, federal oversight flipped from routine auditing of financial compliance to site monitoring for vaguely defined “performance outcomes.” The question I, as a grants manager, became accountable for changed from “Did you spend the grant money correctly?” to “What did the grant funding actually accomplish?”

It was a complete paradigm shift. Many experienced grants professionals left the field, taking their history and experience with them. As a newbie, it was an exciting time to be an active part of a new national focus on transparency and accountability. It was awesome! And now, here we are once again. Another paradigm shift is in progress. All the old rules and systems are again being revised and revamped. Another “wave of change” is offering the grants community more opportunities to learn, grow and improve our profession.

I entered this field on the crest of the wave of change in grants management. I waxed up my board (training and conferences), paddled hard (submitted lots of applications), caught the swell (systematized internal processes) and locked in for the ride. I’ve been riding that wave now for 17 years, and I still feel the rush.

A few guidelines that got me through the first few years in the field are summarized below. I would have loved to receive this advice from the start and hope it can help those who are early into their grants management career.

  • Make a list of ACRONYMS.  Carry it with you. Keep adding to it.
  • Do your job with ALOHA-- compassion, understanding and respect. Being courteous, professional, respectful and friendly goes a long way in building relationships. For me, living in Hawaii and being able to call someone who’s a kindred spirit and located six time zones away to “talk grants” is invaluable.
  • Be ETHICAL. We are in a field that is under constant scrutiny. You are the fiduciary of public funds. You hold the public’s trust to fulfill the terms and conditions of that funding.  Maintain scrupulous records and set a high bar for accountability.
  • Be PASSIONATE about grants! This profession is doing good work. The projects funded are vital. You make a difference every day with each project and program, meeting community and organizational needs that would otherwise remain unfulfilled.
  • Be PATIENT with yourself. There’s a lot to learn and absorb. Mistakes will be made.  Applications won’t be funded the first or even the second time around. This is a highly competitive field. Keep learning and improving and don’t give up.
  • Have FUN! Every day is an adventure. The unexpected always comes up. Each challenge is an opportunity to learn something new and to grow your skillset.

The best thing I did when I was starting out was to learn to look at grants management from all sides, and to expand my skills. I approached my job as a puzzle to piece together. I enlisted help, teamed up, and together we celebrated our WINS and commiserated our LOSSES. But most importantly, we kept trying. Today is an exciting time to enter the profession of grants management. Please become part of our welcoming community. Catch your own wave, and lock in for the ride of your life!

Lynn Miller, CGMS is a grants supervisor at the Honolulu Police Department in Honolulu, HI. She has been a member of NMGA since 2007 and has served on the education and membership committees, as well as other advisory roles.