What a grant really is

Maybe we made a mistake in calling them “grants.”

After all, the word grant as a verb means “give”; and as a noun it refers to something that’s given. And if it’s a gift, then, as any preacher will tell you, the giver expects nothing in return. (Yes, yes, we do speak of “Indian givers” — but the story behind that expression is all about creating an obligation for the recipient, which only emphasizes that normally there isn’t one. And if you still aren’t convinced: what do you think of when you hear the phrase “taken for granted”?) As a result, we assume that when a foundation, corporation, or person presents us with a monetary grant, we are free to use the money as we please, with no accountability for what we do with it. Something for nothing.

Such is the attitude I’ve seen in the past on the part of some faculty (not at the school where I currently work, be assured) who have received grants and then behaved as though nothing further were expected of them — no reports, no correspondence, no whatever. They have, in the immortal words of Dire Straits, received “money for nothing.”

Friends and neighbors, naught could be further from the truth.

It is true that funding agencies often must distribute their money; the IRS says so. And how much of their resources they hand out affects things such as whether they are a public or a private foundation, and so forth. But this is only one aspect of the granting process. To see another one, let’s ask ourselves why a funding agency sets up shop in the first place.

“Grantmakers (sponsors) have a particular view of the world,” note Lynn and Jeremy Miner. “They are vitally concerned about specific problems, injustices, or inequities. They are so concerned, in fact, that they are willing to commit their money to solve these problems. In essence, they see a gap between what is and what ought to be. Their mission is to close this gap.”1

Okay, then: you have an agenda, a set of things you want to accomplish. So does your prospective sponsor. And whether or not an agency hands money to you depends on whether your agenda meshes with the agency’s agenda. The agency isn’t primarily interested in carrying out your mission. It is interested in how you intend to help it carry out its mission.

In other words, the agency is hiring you to do its work. And the process of submitting a grant proposal is, in effect, part of a job search. The sponsor becomes your boss, and you have work to do and one or more job reviews along the way. Hence the reports, the statistics, the forms, and all the things that you perhaps feel get in the way of doing your work. They don’t, really — because it’s not just your work. It’s your sponsor’s.

Maybe grant should be abandoned, then, as a description of the money or other things transferred from the funding agency to the recipient. If you have any ideas, I’d be happy to hear them.

For now, let’s try investment and see what happens.

NOTES

  1. Lynn E. Miner and Jeremy T. Miner, Proposal Planning and Writing, third edition (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), 5. [return ↩ ]
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