How to Fix Your Broken Grants Website

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By Robert M. Kahn

I’ve spent a lot of time lately observing the shortcomings of campus grants-office websites.

As a director of one such office myself for a dozen years, I am overseeing an overhaul of our own website. In search of valuable information and ideas, I spent some months visiting the grants-office websites of more than 1,000 four-year colleges and universities across the United States. While some of the information they offer is hidden behind a password-protected wall, enough of it is in the public view to assess how helpful it is to faculty researchers.

Although it’s rarely discussed, the campus grants office has the potential to be a major vehicle for the professional development of faculty. Beyond institutional grants, the bread-and-butter of a grants office is working closely with individual academics — especially new Ph.D.s — who need grant money in order to do their research and compile a record that merits tenure and promotion.

Many institutions mistakenly assume that faculty hires come well-equipped through their graduate work to do research and obtain grants. Professional-development programs on campuses tend to be more comfortable helping professors sharpen their teaching skills rather than their grant-writing skills. As a result, faculty novices who need encouragement to pursue grants and lessons about grant-writing must depend on the campus grants office, which tries to fill the void with one-on-one counseling, periodic workshops, and information on its website.

Yet, in looking over those many websites, I saw a great number that did not provide enough of the guidance that faculty members need on grant-writing. I did not count nor code their flaws as I toured these websites, nor was my purpose to single out specific colleges for criticism. However, I did develop a catalog of bad practices to share.

Those of us in the grants office need to ask ourselves: Does our website encourage faculty members to consult with us, or discourage them from even trying? Here are some common practices that discourage participation:

You’re on your own. Many grants websites lead off with a list — or matrix — of responsibilities, identifying which responsibilities fall to a prospective Principal Investigator (PI) and which fall to other entities (e.g., the grants office, the dean, the provost).

To take the worst example I saw, one institution led off with a seven-page chart of responsibilities that assigned more than 70 of them to anyone who aspired to write a successful grant and become a PI. Another campus, less afflicted with OCD, listed 35 responsibilities, of which 26 fell onto the shoulders of the PI.

The clear message to anyone contemplating writing a grant for the first time: The burden falls heavily on you. The other subliminal message was that the grants office would not be accepting responsibility for many aspects of the pre-award and post-award process. In the guise of providing helpful information, a red line was drawn between what we on the staff would and would not do.

You’re already too late. Other websites led off with timelines, laying out the steps required to prepare a grant proposal. Often those timelines present an ideal that does not match the reality of when things actually get done.

For example, the timeline will begin with a planning period that says you should begin working on your grant proposal six to eight months before the submission deadline. Experienced grants writers know that precious few academics begin preparing their proposals that far in advance. However, if you are a novice, the timeline suggests that you are already hopelessly behind. It’s easy to become discouraged and let an opportunity pass by, convinced you’re too late.

Rules, rules, rules. I was surprised to discover how many websites immediately lead off with elaborate instructions regarding Institutional Review Board requirements, and then move swiftly into Uniform Guidance requirements imposed by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, followed by Fly America rules, and then the multiple training sessions mandated to satisfy compliance requirements.

Those topics inevitably drain the enthusiasm of any hopeful grant writer. That information should be saved until later in the process for those faculty members who absolutely need to know. Instead, grants personnel prematurely scold and burden grants writers regarding these issues.

Forms, forms, forms. Another off-putting website convention is a prominently placed long list of forms to be filled out and the list of approvals to be obtained before a grant proposal can be officially submitted. Most forms, by nature, are not user-friendly and are viewed as bureaucratic obstacles that strangle creativity.

One campus website informed grants writers that their proposals could not be formally submitted until approved by the department chair, dean, IT office, capital planning (if facilities were involved), environmental health & safety, procurement, risk management, HR, faculty affairs, sponsored programs, and the provost. That list cannot help but send a cold shiver down the spine of a potential applicant.

Similarly, some grant sites offered flow charts that confused more than clarified. Their intention was to display a quick one-page overview to simplify a process that might be fairly complicated. Yet I saw many a chart that looked like a maze, and must have left faculty members envisioning themselves as mice seeking a very elusive piece of cheese.

Beyond those common alienating features, I also saw ample signs of grants-office websites that had become dated and/or less helpful than they could be.

For example, it is not helpful to researchers when an ancient website has numerous dead links. Many grants offices are clearly not reviewing their online content on a regular basis. They seem to believe that the act of creating a web page is the end of what one needs to do. No website should be an empty shell with sections sporting signs that say "Under Construction," "Coming Soon," or "Watch This Space." At a minimum, a site should be reviewed for obsolete materials every six months.

To a trained eye there are other telltale signs that a grants-office site is showing its age:

  • It uses outdated names for major databases on grant opportunities, referring to IRIS — which is now known as GrantForward — and COS — which is now called PIVOT.
  • It refers people to the "2002 NSF User-Friendly Handbook for Project Evaluation," instead of the 2010 version.
  • It discusses compliance issues in terms of OMB Circulars A-21, A-110, and A-133 instead of the new OMB Uniform Guidance (aka Title 2 CFR Part 200).
  • It proudly displays out-of-date newsletters on "upcoming" grant opportunities.

A website that claims to offer assistance should be robust. It should feature an extensive collection of links to potentially helpful articles and resources on finding funding opportunities, learning how to write a competitive grant proposal, and understanding the compliance issues with which grant submissions must contend.

Just to give one example: Jon Harrison, a librarian at Michigan State University, has produced a megasite on grants and grantsmanship. Every grants-office website should refer faculty and staff members to Harrison’s site.

Finally, there is a dark topic that cannot be ignored. In my journey through the grants-office websites, I occasionally came across cases of outright plagiarism.

It is never permissible to take material from someone else’s site, slap your college’s name on it, and present it as if it were produced by your own grants staff. The proper procedure is to seek permission to reproduce the author’s original work on your site — or, perhaps better, just link to the original so that it can clearly be shown to be someone else’s work. A website that directs grants writers to the many valuable resources found on the internet is doing its job.

In short, a lot of our websites need a makeover. Our offices have an important role to play in helping faculty members pursue grants and establish themselves as productive researchers. Wouldn’t it be better if the first place they came for help — our website — actually made a positive contribution?

Robert M. Kahn is in the Office of Sponsored Programs Administration at the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center.

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