While courts have long received grant funding to support critical programs, either as a direct awardee or a sub-recipient, the concept of grants management as a core administrative function is beginning to resonate among more court leaders. Rather than serving as strictly a partner on larger-scale grant-funded projects managed by their funding authority, courts have begun to compete more often for federal dollars to launch new programs and transform their work. In addition, billions of dollars have been flowing from the federal to municipal level because of the COVID pandemic, with courts among the recipients, as the justice system is recognized as a critical intercept for reaching the most vulnerable components of our society.
As courts expand the services that they provide beyond traditional judicial and criminal justice functions, they must diversify their budgets and funding sources. Local and state constituencies are looking to courts to provide not only case resolution and supervision of defendants but also social services and resources to those engaged in the system to improve their odds of success. Specialized dockets are expanding and improving; behavioral health and medication-assisted treatment services are offered on-site; victim advocacy and referrals are available beyond the prosecution phase; and social workers and navigators are embedded in evictions court. However, it can be challenging for courts to diversify and expand their services based on the traditional governmental-funding construct.
One approach to piloting new projects and improving court services is through grant funding, and the data show that courts are cashing in. In fiscal year 2022, the Bureau of Justice Assistance made 4,182 awards, totaling nearly $2.1 billion dollars.1 The National Conference of State Legislators estimates that the American Rescue Plan Act has allocated $31,634 million to support state operations and administration, and $963 million specifically toward programs to improve access to justice.2 There are grant dollars available to courts to support their programs—either directly or as collaborative project partners within their county, state, or region.
Busy court managers can find it daunting to identify, plan, apply for, and implement grant-funded projects. Federal and state grant rollouts can be a challenge to track, depending on the legislative flow of congressional and state budget approvals. Some grants are accessible directly by courts, while others are managed by state pass-through or oversight entities. Grant-funded projects require project management—fiscal and data collection/analysis skillsets that can create quite a challenge if not allocated to a designated employee or team. To that end, many courts are examining their management structure and integrating grants management into their teams, either as a standalone position or a designated component of another position within the court.
In September 2022, the National Center for State Courts published a Tiny Case Study, which highlighted the value of dedicated grants management staff. This report examined the development and impact of this approach across three states—New Hampshire, Utah, and Massachusetts—each of which illustrated the significant value of targeted attention and resources around grants management for courts.3 While each state was in a different stage of evolution around this approach to resource management, each identified and recognized how prioritizing and designating grants management to one or more team members improved their outcomes and increased their budgets exponentially.
A quick survey of court leaders across the state of Ohio through the Ohio Association for Court Administration demonstrated a wide variety of approaches to grants management and a myriad of challenges associated with this facet of court funding. Of 60 respondents, 35 (58.33 percent) indicated that their court uses a designated staff member to apply for and manage their grants, but this individual does so in addition to the duties associated with their primary job title. A smaller percentage (16.67 percent) indicated that each court department is responsible for identifying, applying for, and managing grant-funded projects that fall under their programs. Only 10 respondents (16.67 percent) indicated that their court employs a designated grants manager or similar title. A small percentage indicated their courts do not receive any grant funding (8.33 percent), and none of the respondents indicated that they use a contractor for these services.
While their approach to grants management was easily categorized, it is not surprising that the list of challenges related to grants was long and varied. The top trends ranged from difficulty understanding, locating, and finding grants for new and existing programs through the ongoing challenges of performance reporting and sustainability planning. The amount of time required to complete all the various application, pre-award, post-award, and ongoing fiscal tracking was also a common challenge expressed by court leaders.
To consider a few of the options available to courts, this article explores grants management as a field of expertise and service and offers some pointers on how to leverage the skills and time of staff to optimize your court’s chances of successfully applying for and implementing grant-funded projects.
What Is a Grants Manager?
Grants management is a very broad term for a function or focus that can be as unique as the city or state that a court serves. Indeed.com defines the role of grants manager as follows:
Also known as an award manager, a grants manager leads programs funded by the state or private organizations. They work in nonprofit services, education, science, health and finance. They are responsible for ensuring regulation compliance, following the grantor’s guidelines, liaising with the grantor and evaluating the performance of assigned programs and projects.
This is a rather generic view on what can be a very nuanced role for any organization but especially for courts. Note that public sector or justice services are not mentioned in this broad description. When we overlay the unique perspective of courts with this concept, we might enrich the definition to include tasks such as identifying funding streams for key projects, collaborating with justice partners around shared initiatives, and bridging the gap between fiscal oversight and programmatic strategic planning. In other words, a well-qualified grants manager for your court can blend the fiscal, proposal-writing, and project management skillsets that enhance court management and devote their time to seeking, winning, and managing grants on behalf of your court.
The potential for each court to tailor such a position to meet its needs is endless. With that in mind, let’s focus on three approaches to grants management: a task assigned in addition to a staff member’s primary duties (chief probation officer, court administrator, etc.); contracted services with a grants management professional; and a designated member of the court administration team whose focus is on grant applications and project management.
Designated Staff Person (with Different Primary Role)
Grants are sometimes seen as a one-time project and, therefore, often fall to an existing staff person, who has some level of subject-matter expertise, to prepare and submit an application on behalf of the agency. This can absolutely be an effective approach for courts that use grants on a limited basis or with a reliable and predictable grant process with their state or county partners. However, it can also limit the amount of time available to that staff person to participate in training specific to grant writing and management. This model may also load the employee down with all related data-collection and data-reporting requirements for their project, in addition to their primary duties. If this is a line staff individual, the task of grants management can be quite an additional workload on top of their primary assigned role.
Pros—Court staff have a level of familiarity with court programs and the political landscape that an outside contractor or higher-level manager may be missing. If allowed time to focus, this staff person could participate in training and networking specifically about grants. This hybrid role can assist with performance and fiscal reporting with intimate familiarity to the proposal itself and the specific funder’s rules and processes.
Cons—For courts with multiple grants, it can be difficult to balance with another high-level role. While grant writing and research can be a team effort with line staff or middle management, the overall implementation, policy impact and development, and accountability may be suited for a higher tier of the organization. Grant-funded proposals require projection, calendaring, and strategic planning. If they support key initiatives, they should receive due attention. It can also be difficult for a department head, with one area of expertise, to fully support and research proposals outside of their usual scope of practice. For instance, a chief probation officer may find it difficult to successfully research and present a proposal to support initiatives around evictions and the court’s civil docket, or vice versa.
As noted above, the role or concept of grant writing and grants management is a professional field of expertise. There are two primary professional associations that draw their membership from these professionals, and information about each will be shared below. The National Grants Management Association and the Grant Professionals Association both offer certification processes and a host of training and collaboration opportunities for professionals in the field.
Pros—This approach may be useful for a one-time, large-scale project that requires a level of research that existing staff may not have. Depending on the funding source, some costs may be eligible for inclusion in the proposal, such as administrative costs post-award for duration of the funding. A contractor may be a cost-effective approach for courts with only occasional forays into complicated federal grants.
Cons—It can be quite difficult to bring an outside entity up to speed on projects and initiatives, as they may not be attuned to the interconnected criminal justice collaborations at play. A contractor might not be in a position to assist with the heavy lifting of implementation and reporting if the project or court’s budget cannot support the necessary hours in the statement of work. Finally, although mitigated by recruiting from a credentialled and vetted pool of candidates, there is a risk that a contracted grant writer could be less vested in the success of the project that they would not have a long-term role in implementing, as would be the case of a court employee.
Job Titled Grants Manager or Hybrid
This approach differs from the first example in that the primary job title and function for this position is grants manager or the like. If there is a hybrid or combined function, it seeks to leverage the grants management component through project management, fiscal support, and reporting—or even a public relations component. The key is to make the most of a higher-level position, while developing an organizational grant strategy and sustainability plan for all projects that are initiated through direct grants or subawards with other justice partners.
Pros—Having a designated grants manager allows the court to recruit for or invest in a staff member who can focus on a specific yet broad skill set. This team member conducts continuous research in anticipation of future proposals and should be included in strategic planning to monitor federal priorities and grant offerings. This position can have a key role in tracking and reporting project outcomes. A skilled grants manager can shoulder the heavy lifting of creating data-tracking strategies—in anticipation of or applying for, and later reporting on, grant-funded programs—and maintain an overall awareness of internal and external data resources to support key initiatives. Ideally, this team member might serve on the fiscal and administrative team, providing support for budget reviews, and even research and proof documents related to budget requests. Including them at the court administration team level will allow for them to serve a leadership role and offer support to managers who will ultimately be implementing funded projects.
Cons—One of the top barriers to adding a grants manager to a court’s administration team is budget. There can be little appetite for a funding authority to increase authorized strength for higher-level positions without some rearranging of existing roles. There is also some concern that designating a grants manager within the court would boost the misguided perception that there is a grant for every possible idea, or that a grant can support such a role for eternity. A skilled grants manager will manage expectations and educate the judges and stakeholders on the benefits and costs of funding initiatives with grant dollars. Finally, grants managing is often a self-taught, home-baked skill set that takes time to foster from within an organization. Finding the right person to balance innovation and imagination with the practicalities of managing grant-funded initiatives is far from impossible but can be a challenge.
Whether a court decides to contract with, hire, or identify a current staff member to focus on grant applications and program implementation, there are several considerations that would improve their odds of success. Court leaders should consider the following tips to successfully integrating a grants manager into the court management team.
Include or invite the grants manager as part of the executive team and meetings whenever feasible, particularly with regard to strategic planning and budget development/forecasting: An individual with knowledge of federal- and state-funding trends can bring creative ideas to the table. Having that access or fly-on-the-wall perspective will help them fully understand the leadership dynamics. This placement also aligns the grants manager with similar roles in other partner organizations (prosecutor’s office, law enforcement, corrections, etc.) so as to keep their thumb on the pulse of their missions/visions.
If the individual is a court staff member, support their efforts with memberships to related associations and consider certification options. There are two primary professional associations for grants managers, and we contacted each of them to provide information for this article.
Grant Professionals Association: https://grantprofessionals.org/: “The Grant Professionals Association (GPA) is a membership organization that supports its members in their work by providing resources for them to be more effective and efficient in their work from researching grant opportunities to post-award management and closeout. One of the most important resources is the community of grant professionals who are willing to share resources and advice in our private online community, GrantZone. GPA members also receive a free subscription to GrantStation which is a searchable database of funding opportunities. The entire library of GPA webinars and other professional development resources covering the full grant life cycle are available to GPA members at no additional cost. GPA through its members is changing the world through the transformative power of grants.”
GPA also offers a credentialing process through the Grant Professionals Certification Institute. Details can be found at https://www.grantcredential.org/.
National Grants Management Association: https://www.ngma.org/: “Education is a major part of NGMA’s mission. The Grants Management Body of Knowledge (GMBoK) Training (which is held both in-person and virtually) and the Annual Grants Training (April 11-13, Washington, D.C.), are designed to increase managers’ overall competency on the entire lifecycle of grants. Their monthly webinars are opportunities to share more timely and relevant grants information and compliance changes. NGMA, most importantly, is a community. Its members come from every corner of grants management, so there are opportunities for court managers to learn together and share best practices through regular events and year-round through its online message board. Connection is key, and as the professional home for grants managers, NGMA works to find places where members can help each other grow.
“Chris Biehl, grants manager at the Indiana Supreme Court, says, ‘Within weeks of joining NGMA, I connected with court managers in other states who deal with the same grants and with federal granting agencies. We now meet every month to compare ideas and discuss best practices. NGMA also provides frequent training, including monthly webinars on popular grant topics trending across the country along with information of new federal opportunities. In addition to the networking and training opportunities, NGMA gives users access to a grant question directory where users can post questions and replies. This system helps managers save time troubleshooting if another individual has already struggled with the same issue. NGMA has been instrumental in my grant experience, and I highly recommend it to others.’”
Support with training and networking opportunities: Just as attorneys and judges seek CLEs and licensed personnel maintain education and recertification standards, it is important to support the grants manager’s training and development needs to keep their skills and knowledge base sharp, and if applicable their certification up to date. There is a plethora of training available for all levels of grant writing and management. Sources range from specific funding entities through vendors associated with the grants management trade. Membership to one or both associations described above offers free training, as well as regular conferences and regional chapters and events for networking. Allowing them to participate in these training events and offerings will only make your organization’s proposals and strategies stronger.
The State Justice Institute recently announced the launch of a monthly court grants manager meet up for seasoned grant experts and individuals who are brand new to finding, managing, or reporting on grants for their court. This new resource builds upon on SJI’s Funding Opportunities Toolkit and related technical assistance. Court grants managers and court-affiliated grant writers are invited to join a monthly one-hour meeting on the third Tuesday of each month at 1:00 pm EST. Topics rotate monthly and are determined in advance by the group membership. The format of each meeting will be a mix of brief presentations followed by open discussions among the attendees. Participation is restricted to court-based grants staff and court-affiliated grant writers.
Empower the grants manager to develop and enforce grant-application-process deadlines and project management: One of the keys to successful grant writing is pulling information from multiple sources in a time frame consistent with early application submission. Delayed, last-minute, or even belated contributions can have a severely negative impact on your proposal. Grant application deadlines are firmly set by funders to maintain a fair playing field for applicants. Assist your grants manager by heeding, reminding, and enforcing deadlines for information, signatures, letters, etc., in the time frame that they set to ensure the proposal is well written and organized.
Remember that you will not likely receive every grant that you apply for: In fact, if the grants manager position is new to the court, the number of applications submitted will likely increase significantly from before. Not all grants are created equal, as some may select several projects for funding while others may only select three or four across the entire nation. A well-integrated grants manager will be able to manage expectations and leverage resources in a variety of ways to hedge potential for proposed projects to move forward, while reviewing and augmenting declined applications for other uses.
Subscribe to all the emails and newsletters: Aside from repeatedly visiting each potential funder’s website, the most efficient way to be notified when solicitations become available is to subscribe for email newsletters and notifications. The federal grants season generally differs from the state-level application windows, depending on the funding source. Also some funders have a standing quarterly opportunity to apply, and local providers may offer smaller grants for specific areas of focus. The key is to identify those funders and ensure that your primary contact is on their list to receive email blasts on offerings and application deadlines.
What Would Be the Cost Associated with Identifying or Hiring a Grants Manager?
It is impossible to lay out a general cost for the integration of a grants manager for such a broad audience, particularly in the 2022/2023 job market. As most of the country is reviewing pay scales and salary studies, any estimated range could only be considered arbitrary. If the court opts to seek a consultant or contractor, the cost will depend on the scope of work to be requested, and the provider should prepare a thorough estimate and contract for the court’s consideration.
If at all feasible, it is encouraged to evaluate the current administrative structure to determine if grants management could fall within the scope of the court administrative or leadership team, either with an additional staff member or reimagined job descriptions. Taking a higher-level view allows grant proposals to be considered with all court departments in mind. For instance, Bureau of Justice Assistance applications can assist probation, a MAT clinic or provider, a self-help center, and the local jail. Interpretation services and technological needs can be woven through the fabric of a variety of grant proposals. Working from a higher rung on the ladder allows the grant writer to blur, if not eliminate, some of the departmental silos that can sometimes form when individual departments are charged with finding and implementing their own grants. Shared grants can foster a level of teamwork and collaboration among departments and spread some of the data collection and performance reporting around, making their pieces more manageable. Researching your selected approach and sharing ideas with justice partners will get the conversation started and may lead to innovative ideas to fill the need.
Looking ahead, the Court Manager will continue to include articles around the topic of grants, grant funding, and grants management. Feel free to share ideas with us for targeted articles of interest and stay tuned for more tools in future editions.
To share ideas for expansion of this topic or future topics, email firstname.lastname@example.org
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melinda Brooks is grants and special projects manager for the Franklin County Municipal Court, Columbus, Ohio. She is a Fellow of the Institute for Court Management.
- Bureau of Justice Assistance Awards, https://bja.ojp.gov/funding/awards/list#awards-awards-list-block-gkgdpm1ooymuyukj.
- National Conference of State Legislators, ARPA State Fiscal Recovery Fund Allocations Dashboard: https://app.powerbi.com/.
- National Center for State Courts, “Dedicated Grant Management Staff Help Courts Obtain Funding, Ensure Compliance and Expand Court Services,” Tiny Case Studies, September 6, 2022. Available at https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0024/82680/Grant-management-final.pdf.