Friday, October 03, 2008

Grants and Plans

As direct operating subsidies are losing ground against our expenses, and becoming increasingly tenuous as tax revenues drop, we're turning increasingly to grants to find the money to get things done.

Grants are great in many ways, of course. They give us revenue that doesn't rely on taxpayers or students; they allow us to experiment; they increase the number of people interested in seeing that we do our jobs well. In a few areas in which our grantsmanship has been particularly successful, we've been able to supply opportunities and resources for students we otherwise couldn't have.

But grant money comes with conditions, and as grants become more important, so do those conditions. We're increasingly defining our operating budget around filling in the gaps between grant programs, or around grant expiration dates. Worse, long-range planning becomes difficult when our controllable funds are tenuous, and grant availability fluctuates with the political winds.

Over the years, a number of grant-funded (grant-founded, really) programs have attained a certain level of popularity on campus. When the grants expired, the programs became part of the college's operating budget. In a way, that's the purpose of grants: they're often intended to be “seed money,” with the idea that the seed would grow into a permanent part of your plant. I can understand the impulse, but sometimes I wonder if the folks behind the grants actually understand how nonprofits work.

In the non-profit world, the occasional big splash is relatively easy. What's difficult is maintaining a high level of service over time. In other words, seed money is great, but what we really need is steady, reliable, predictable operating funds.

Steady, reliable, predictable operating funds allow for thoughtful long-term planning, since you can actually have a reasonable idea of the resources you can devote to any given enterprise. They allow for inclusive planning, since promises made can actually be kept. They even allow for meaningful assessments of success or failure, since you can actually keep focus on the same task over time.

When that's sacrificed to the political winds, and the best you can do is to keep hopping from grant to grant, long-term planning becomes much harder. At any given RFP, you have to drop whatever you've been doing and try to match the conditions of the latest program. Multiply that over the years, and you wind up with a crazy-quilt of programs assembled whenever the opportunity came along, rather than a coherent whole.

In better years, when the public subsidies are actually keeping pace with inflation for more than a year at a time, you can fill in some of the gaps with careful planning. But when the public funding gets cut – even worse, when it gets cut at midyear, which is looking increasingly likely – careful planning is off the table. At that point, decisions are made based on exigency, rather than sustainability. (That's the best case. The worst case has decisions being made based on politics, favoritism, and the like.) And the prospect of not pursuing a grant, any grant, becomes ludicrous – even if the grant isn't a perfect fit, some of the money can probably be used to save something. Long-term coherence can wait.

My heartfelt plea to granting agencies and philanthropists everywhere: seed money is well and good, but if you're really serious about improving access to higher education, we need operating funds. Give grants for existing programs. Support existing institutions. Right now we're running more classes with adjuncts than I care to admit, even while ponying up matching funds for new grants. Honestly, I'd rather skip some new programs and hire some permanent faculty, to give the students those close ties with advisors that we all know they need. (This is one of the underappreciated dynamics behind the shift in administration/faculty ratios: every grant-funded program needs a director.) Extras are great, but first things first.