Grants best practices during the COVID-19 outbreak
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, communicating with your funder is paramount
- Be patient and considerate: This is a difficult time
- For institutional program grants that focus on student success, now is the time to be creative about engaging students
During the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, campuses are closing their doors, leaving empty classrooms and halls. Students who normally engage in face-to-face instruction are now completing courses online. Faculty and staff are being told to work remotely, if possible. While the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff are paramount, it is important to consider the impact COVID-19 has on grants awarded to the institution.
Here are some important tips to address the challenges that result from the disruptions related to the public health response to COVID-19 and considerations in relation to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 that impact how you expend existing grant dollars.
1. Communicate with your funder
Though most states have implemented some type of order or instruction to limit group gatherings as a way to also limit exposure to COVID-19, it is important to communicate your particular situation to your funder or program officer. Be as concise as possible about the anticipated duration of the closure and how it impacts your ability to implement the project, and remain accessible via phone or email should the program officer have questions or suggestions.
Remember, program officers are people, too. While they may be working remotely, they are also dealing with many of the same issues you are, such as limited supplies of food and household goods at the grocery store or supporting younger family members who are temporarily transitioning to remote learning while K-12 schools are closed. On top of this change to their work environments, many are also tasked with implementing new funding made available through the CARES Act 2020.
2. Consider where you are in your implementation
Most proposals include an implementation timeline. Know where you are in relation to the timeline and the anticipated provision of services or deliverables, or the implementation of specific activities, such as deploying technology or software, providing training, or modifying curricula. To the extent possible, estimate what impact the disruption will have on the timeline.
Many faculty and staff are working remotely and may be able to complete some of the activities according to the original timeline. Services and activities delivered to students will be the bigger challenge, as they may no longer be available to participate in person. To the extent possible, use this time to continue or complete activities and deliverables that can be done remotely with faculty and staff, such as curriculum development or modifications, professional development via webinars or remote meeting tools, and meeting with your project advisory team.
3. Evaluate your current progress in meeting project objectives
Increases in student retention, improvements in student success, and enhancing instruction through deployment of technology tools are some common outcomes in externally funded grant projects. These and other outcomes are meant to measure the effectiveness of your project strategies and activities in helping students succeed. Take some time to review your objectives and determine if you are currently on target to meet them.
This is important information to share with your funder to demonstrate that absent the disruption, the project was likely to achieve your outcomes. If you are not on target, now is the time to strategize about project modifications to ensure some progress is achieved before the end of the project year. Remember, many funders require prior approval before modifying project components or outcomes. Keeping your funder informed allows them to advise you on strategies or activities that other grantees are implementing while also demonstrating a good faith effort to meet project outcomes.
4. Think about alternative strategies or activities
Many institutional program grants focus on helping students succeed. The challenge is that these projects rely on the availability of students to participate in project activities, such as tutoring, advising, academic coaching, or using new technology tools as a part of their coursework. With campuses closing and students moving to remote courses, projects must be agile in developing new ways of delivering services and activities.
Though the campus may be closed, faculty and staff are working to deliver instruction and support students remotely. Investigate how support services are being delivered and determine if your project activities can be incorporated into the ongoing effort to help students through this disruption. Keep in mind that many students and some faculty are resistant to online delivery of coursework or services and may not even have access to all the necessary technology to be utilized. IT departments may also have limited capacity to support the transition of service delivery from face-to-face to remote. Now is the time to be innovative and creative about how you can engage students.
The CARES Act provides flexibility in how current federal grant dollars are expended. For example, at an institution’s request, the Secretary of Education is authorized to modify required and allowable uses of funds for grants awarded. Financial matching requirements may also be modified. Communicate with your faculty, staff, and campus leaders about the challenges encountered in responding to COVID-19. What solutions or strategies might be fundable under your current project? What allowances or modifications could be requested to fund solutions or strategies that are not a part of your project scope, but would support students or faculty in moving into the new remote environment? Keep in mind that these requests must be related to your institution’s response to COVID-19.
5. Communicate with your funder
Yes, this is the same as number 1! It bears repeating. As you communicate with your funder, find out if there are ways your grant funding can support your students and institution in innovative ways that may not have been included in the original project plan. These are challenging times for all involved—your institution, your students, and your funder. Your funder also has priorities and objectives to be achieved. Everyone is figuring out the best way to navigate through this challenging time. The more information they have from you, the more support they can provide in helping you stay on track.
Be a part of the solution. Most funders are likely overwhelmed with a deluge of emails and calls. Use an approach that acknowledges you understand their pressures and emphasize your focus on solving problems specific to your institution and projects while keeping them informed. This demonstrates dedication to the funded project and meeting outcomes and, quite possibly, provides information on solutions the funder can share with other grantees who are experiencing similar challenges.