Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Rethinking Sustainability

When I talk about grants with people who work at universities, it quickly becomes clear that what they mean, and what I mean, are entirely different.  

In my world, grants are given to institutions to achieve certain goals, usually involving getting more students through to graduation.  Although the funding sources and particular targets vary, most of them share a few features:

- Limited duration.  I’ve seen them last anywhere from six months to five years.

- Quirky restrictions.  To see what I mean, ask any campus grants officer about when and how food (for meetings) is covered.

- Premiums on inter-institutional collaboration.  This is a newish feature; I didn’t see it as much a few years ago.  

- “Sustainability” requirements.  Whatever the grant money enables you to do has to outlast the grant money.

As near as I can tell, these all reflect a sort of anxiety about dependence.  The grant funders don’t want to see their money absorbed into what they perceive as the black hole of daily operations, so they want to see it stand apart.  But they also don’t want their influence to go away when the funding does, so they want the institution to commit to taking over whatever the grant paid for.  The idea is that the changes will be catalytic, and will set off transformations (or “disruptions”) that will take on lives of their own.  “Seed money” is the preferred metaphor.  They want to make a change, leave a legacy, and be on their way.

Over time, of course, that means that a college with a knack for grantsmanship will develop a fair number of stand-apart functions to which it is committed.  When operating funding is tight, that can mean skimping on the core in order to pay for what were originally understood to be extras.  While the anxieties behind the requirements are understandable, at a basic level, they reflect a limited understanding of how institutions actually work.

Hiring, for example.  With projects that are both big and idiosyncratic, it can be a challenge to find good people on short notice.  It’s that much harder when the duration of their employment is tightly limited from the outset.  And it’s even that much harder when someone whose sunset is approaching jumps ship to take another job, and the institution has to patch the gap until the grant fades out.  (Don’t mix metaphors like that at home, kids.  I’m a trained professional.)  Turnover is a cost in any organization, but it’s much more pronounced when grant sunset dates are tight and fixed.

Inter-institutional collaborations also impose much higher overhead costs than purely internal operations.  That shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Coase’s definition of the firm.  The point of the organizational form of the firm is to lower transaction costs.  When you cross firms, the transaction costs grow exponentially.  And that’s even more true when either of the two is experiencing grant-driven turnover.  

Neither of those is a function of personality, and neither is, strictly speaking, a function of a shortage of money.  They’re both predictable side effects of impermanence.  

Worse, certain interventions that are known to make positive differences are high-touch, which is to say, they involve labor.  They require ongoing financial support.  Targeted advising is like that, as is tutoring.  Advisors and tutors matter tremendously, but they have to be paid.  Yes, there are structural efficiencies to be found, but at some level the human touch matters, and that costs money.  

My modest proposal: funders should rethink the premium on “sustainability” requirements.  Sometimes, sustained change requires sustained funding.  Let’s capture the efficiencies of routine, rather than spending greater-than-usual energy on the unique costs imposed by financial term limits.  And let’s recognize that some forms of change are, and must be, labor-intensive.

If the concern is “capture,” the easy way around that is a rolling contract.  If an institution continually fails to produce, put it on notice; it has x amount of time to turn it around or the funding goes away.  That way the funders don’t lose the accountability they want, but we get around the problem of losing great people just as projects are winding up.  And institutions won’t have to hollow out their cores to pay for grant-funded programs that aren’t.

Obviously, this strategy assumes some farsighted funders.  But I don’t think that’s unrealistic.  They just have to get past the dogma of projects and think about the long term.  That’s how institutions work best.

Premiums on inter-institutional collaboration. This is a newish feature; I didn’t see it as much a few years ago.

Ah! A subject I know a lot about. Most collaboration requirements are part of the grant world—that is, funders know on some level that in the real world, many if not most organization are competitors, or, at most, a given organization has more than enough capacity to use all of a given grant or subsidy.

In the real world, collaboration letters are a "you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours" phenomenon—that is, Joe agrees to write Jane letters if Jane will write Joe letters—or payoffs—Joe throws Jane a subcontract with some money attached. That's basically what this: "Inter-institutional collaborations also impose much higher overhead costs than purely internal operations" implies.

“Sustainability” requirements. Whatever the grant money enables you to do has to outlast the grant money.

This is another grant-world concept. In the real world, almost no one checks to see if sustainability has been achieved, largely because it can't be achieved.

Funders are really testing the applicant's ability to make the right noises.
Funders are really testing the applicant's ability to make the right noises.

I've come to believe that most strings in bureaucratic institutions are really about this. I think it's because people have this vaguely nice-sounding idea and they only want to fund people who will tell them "Yep, great idea!"
Re: sustainability -- another possibility is that the funding agency truly is looking for opportunities in which the grant funds can help put in place a new approach that may be just as costly as the current approach, but more effective. (Perhaps it is cheaper yet just as effective.) Presumably (and I recognize this is a huge assumption), the grant can pay for the transition costs. The new approach can come along and provide a benefit, and money spent on doing things the old way can now go toward doing things the new way.

Energy efficiency (from back in ARRA days of the Great Recession) is a potentially good analogy. I recall that a finance administrator used special one-time funds to obtain more efficient electrical equipment. The one-time transition costs were paid by the one-time funds, and the ongoing savings are enjoyed by the college.

Thinking of good uses certainly isn't easy. That's why there are the grant competitions and low success rates.

Re: compliance challenges, I offer this story from my world.

Timeline: early in my engineering faculty career.

Engr Dean: HSLPofDD, it is important to bring in research funds to pay for operations within your computational group.

(time passes ... a grant is funded ... I submit a purchase request ...)

Grant compliance officer: HSLPofDD, you're not allowed to use grant funds to pay for these expenses of running your lab.

I think that all of us who have been in this business are familiar with "Mission Creep" that results from serial grantsmanship. We now have various offices and programs originally funded by grants, but, per the grant requirements, we have continued funding them long after the grants expired. Anyone new to our institution tends to ask why we have certain offices and programs, which leads to lengthy folklore stories about things like TRIO grants that we had 20 years ago.

Whenever I consider applying for a grant, I always tell myself, "be careful what you wish for", because too often I can become blinded to the the long-term implications by the attraction of the short-term dollars.
To me "sustainable" is code for "can turn at least a small profit". Which is a function for a different kind of organization, a business. The purpose of non-profits, that is, the genral case for grantors, is to fund things the market isn't or can't " solve" on its own.

Sustainability was the natural result of business people (whose currency for measuring "success" is in $$ when mostly what they grant funds for has an entirely success measure/ currency) launching foundations. No one can easily escape the idea that what made them successful is what makes for success.

The Sustainability Cargo Cult, so pointless in a few ways, so partially destructive in the ways you-all have pointed out here, is the viral injection of corporate thinking meme into the realm of non-profitry. Add to that the grant-by-grant viral injection of specific ideas/memes probabalistically selected from a subset attractive to people who made their "success" in the corporate world, and you get tthe presence of this inappropriate mutation that's sub-optimal for its new environment, methinks.
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