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.