Tips of the Trade: Grants Management

We explored grants management from a higher-level/organizational standpoint in the last issue of NACM’S Court Manager. Specifically, we outlined the importance of engaging the role on the court administration team and supporting grant managers by encouraging participation in related networks and associations, as well as by empowering them to engage in plotting project management and related deadlines. This article will tackle the more practical tips of the trade: organizational habits and tricks to get organized and communicate clearly within and outside of your organization on grant-funded projects.

One of the hallmarks of project management and organization is calendaring. For a grant manager, there are several levels of planning and deadlines to track to successfully develop, apply for, and manage grant-funded projects.

Annual Grant Announcements and Timelines 

While the exact release and due dates for federal, state, and local grant opportunities vary from year to year, they generally fall on a predictable schedule based upon their budget cycle. As noted in the previous article, registering for email notifications from organizations such as the State Justice Institute, Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, etc., will ensure that the grant manager receives notification of announcements as they roll out. However, maintaining a general understanding of the flow of grant solicitations assists in forecasting and planning. For instance, a key to competitive federal grant proposals is to ensure that all entities within a jurisdiction who plan to apply for the same funding are communicating and supporting one another. Therefore, well in advance of the grant announcement, agencies should be convening meetings to collaborate and ensure they are not overlapping services or projects, or even unintentionally interfering with the work of another community partner. They may compare budgets and recognize that one shared proposal may be more likely to be selected for funding, with one agency serving as the primary applicant. Coordinating these calls takes time, hence the value of understanding the pace and flow of grant solicitations and application deadlines.

Quarterly Performance and Financial Reporting

Aside from the grant-writing skills that a grant manager brings to the table, another highly valued trait of the role is to develop, coordinate, and ultimately prepare or submit quarterly reports. These tasks, especially for individual department managers who are busy with the daily operations of their programs, can be tedious and time-consuming.

A designated person to engage with program staff, develop data-collection-and-reporting mechanisms, and ensure the organization is timely and accurate in reporting can be a godsend for busy court managers and leaders. Developing a table or spreadsheet that lists the funder, project, primary contacts, and reporting schedule is time well spent, in that it can be easily updated and distributed quarterly. Some may send these messages individually, or others may find that one list that covers all projects within the organization lends itself to clear communication across departments. For instance, some courts receive BJA funding for their specialized dockets, which may encompass work within their probation department, specialized dockets staff, and self-help center. If communication is succinct and clear, these shared messages can assist in addressing silos within an organization and encourage cross-training and communication. This approach also assists the grant manager in staying on top of the varied deadlines for such reports, based upon the funding source and their policies, procedures, and platforms.

The Art of the Well-Designed Template

Not all grants are created equal, or even require the same documentation, but there are similarities in general structure that may create an opportunity to develop a general template as a starting point for new proposals. Establishing an organizational structure for these documents is also a time-saver. For instance, the creation and naming of files and folders in such a way that they can be easily located, and can be distinguished between drafts and the final submission, can be key to implementation of funded projects. Some individual templates can be very useful.

Narrative skeleton: Review the grant solicitation and establish the headings that are expected. It can also be helpful to drop the questions into the template that the solicitation expects to be addressed to ensure that all questions are answered and in the order that is presented. While this should be a fresh exercise with each application, the bones of the narratives, particularly if applying over several seasons, remain similar if not the same based on the funding source. Some segments request the same information that may only require minor revision or updating, so starting from a template and then honing the document to the specific application can make the most of the writer’s limited time. Preparing the template with the required margins, font size/style, and line formatting also serves as a guide to managing the length of your grant-project narrative document.

Budget spreadsheet: While the grant manager would likely work closely with the court’s finance or accounting staff to develop the budget for any grant proposal, it can be helpful in the early planning stages to have the ability to play with the allotted budget to identify the larger-scale components. A budget spreadsheet with personnel formulas to cover salary and fringes, estimated travel expenses (government rates, established per diem per the jurisdiction’s policy, etc.), a match calculation page, and formulas that help to pull these figures into a manageable big-picture budget will assist the grant writer in managing expectations with judges and department heads who are eager to launch new programs. Like the narrative template, this spreadsheet would require tailoring for each application, but having the structure and key formulas incorporated ahead of crunch time will be worthwhile. The Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs provides a downloadable Budget Detail Worksheet online. This can be an excellent tool in better understanding the various spending categories within a federal grant budget and can be used as a template or to inform the development of an internal form that can be more manageable and reflective of state or local needs.

Quarterly performance reporting templates: Just as the quarterly template requesting data for programmatic reporting is helpful for managing time and resources, creating a worksheet for each project is very helpful. This ensures that all staff are fully informed of the objectives and goals of the project for which they will be reporting. This approach also ensures the project can cleanly change hands as staff leave or change positions within the court. While the sketch of these worksheets should be considered as part of the application process—to ensure the data that are needed exist can be accessed/analyzed—the finalization of the template should be close to the top of the list of things to do upon notice of selection for funding.

Objectives and SMART goals outline: Each funding opportunity will likely include agency-level and then specific project-level goals, objectives, and deliverables that are required as part of the proposal or application. “SMART” goals are described as Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time bound. While these components will likely be integrated into the larger narrative document for most grants, they are also sometimes parsed out and inserted into the electronic application platform. Having a standalone document that can be titled consistently with the grant manager’s organizational habits, and tailored to the solicitation at hand, can assist the various partners working on the application to maintain focus on this key element of proposal development. This document can serve as a touchstone when working with multiple partners and can help to prevent scope creep as the dreams begin to outgrow the boundaries of a solicitation.

Timeline or task table: Depending on the funding source, most grants require a sketch of the funding period that demonstrates the pace through which the applicant will spend the funds and address the needs that were so eloquently detailed in the proposal. This document also acts as a checklist for some of the required elements included in the project, such as quarterly or annual reports, mandated travel to conferences, or regular collaborative board meetings. The creation of a general template broken down by grant fiscal year can also assist the agency in recognizing the pace of their proposal and any annual peaks and valleys of productivity that should be considered. For instance, some jurisdictions close their budgets/books for the last few months of the calendar year—which aligns exactly with the announcement of some federal grant awards. Knowing the pace of this cycle can allow for more accurate mapping of posting and hiring new positions within the organization based on the timing and processes required to accept a grant award through governmental and legislative processes. The bones of this table can be time-consuming to build but should be created in such a fashion that the document can be easily modified year after year. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention offers OJJDP Sample Timelines.

Letters of support or commitment: It is common for grant applications to require some level of documentation to confirm collaboration and support among the various partners included in the proposed project. Solicitations may describe specific elements that are required, and others may only indicate a need for general support or acknowledgment of the project. Whichever the case, it is best form to provide a template that the agency can customize according to the application requirements. The grant writer may have that knowledge firsthand and may be able to draft almost the entire letter on behalf of the partner. Other circumstances may require more detail to be offered by the outside agency. Whichever the case, it is key to identify these requirements and reach out to the applicable parties well in advance of the application due date. Often the letters must be signed by the CEO of the agency or require some vetting before they can be turned around on their agency letterhead with a signature. Providing the template and ample time to respond will help to maintain your good-partner status and pave the way for continued smooth communication down the line. Samples or details may be available through the solicitation, such as the U.S. Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women, which offers Sample Letters of Support.

Ongoing Engagement with Court Administration and Department Managers

The cornerstone of good project management is clear and regular communication. Grant managers can serve in a unique position to bring somewhat individual areas of court work together, in recognizing shared clientele or services. In addition to regular communiqués regarding quarterly data and fiscal reporting, this role also provides a more global approach to forecasting upcoming grant opportunities based upon the needs of the jurisdiction they serve. As noted above, collaborative efforts across court departments or community partners within a jurisdiction can require weeks or even months to coordinate and often require more than one or two conversations. Regularly sharing the rhythm of grant roll outs keeps everyone informed and sets the stage for meeting requests as the time draws near.

What has evolved in your court’s work in recent years? Is there legislation on the horizon that will impact court operations? Each cycle of grant announcements will describe the trends and priorities of the funding authority. As projects arise to the grant manager’s attention for consideration, it is key to share the areas of focus described in the solicitations and work to hone the court’s potential projects to ensure they are consistent with those offered. Likewise, court managers should ensure their designated grant writer or researcher is aware of the needs of the courts to allow for an informed focus on their grant opportunity search.

Grant managers can also ensure the spending of a grant is progressing timely and address any need to request extensions or budget revisions within the time frame required by the funder. This requires clear communication with human resources about hiring or the management of short-term vacancies in grant-funded positions. Federal requests for a no-cost extension or budget revision can take many months to process. Regular review of the spending of grant funds is key to staying on track and maintaining a positive relationship with grant managers on the funding end of the communication.

Another high-level discussion to consider is one of the biggest challenges for grant-funded projects: sustainability. It is fair to state that sustainability planning should be considered before a grant writer puts pen to paper. Is the project one that will require staff to remain in place beyond the grant’s reach? Does the funder indicate if they will accept continuation applications in the future? Some grants are offered via an annual or biannual application process at the state or local level and may be dependent upon continued support. However, many other grants are very specific in requiring a clear sustainability plan as part of the scoring rubric. Once a project is funded, it is key to maintain discussions around next steps. This does not automatically assume an ever-growing general fund budget is required to sustain all new staff brought onboard through grant-funded projects. As departments and programs evolve across the court, administrators should be able to forecast any potential to pull grant-funded positions into the fold as grants sunset. However, to do so requires long-term planning and thorough discussions to ensure excellent programs that begin with grants are not lost for lack of funding.

Learn from Others and from Declined Applications

There are infinite ways to grow as a grant writer or manager, but two keys to honing style and building skills are serving as a peer reviewer and carefully analyzing the feedback on the “noes.” Participating in the peer-review process on state- and especially federal-level applications provides the grant manager with the experience of reading and measuring multiple proposals, understanding the scoring matrices for multiple funding entities, and gleaning ideas from other jurisdictions. While serving as a peer reviewer is excellent training for an early career professional in the grants management world, it can continue to hone the skillset of veteran grant professionals, as well. It can not only generate ideas regarding projects and trends in their field but also reveal new approaches to proposal writing and presentation.

Most agencies are not selected for funding 100 percent of the time. Funders receive many more applications than their funds can support and must make difficult decisions based upon their scoring mechanism. This should not discourage a court from applying for highly competitive grants, but it should balance the expectations and be considered in the planning for high-priority projects. What if the proposal is not selected for grant funding? Are there other options, approaches, or partnerships to consider? Whatever the case may be, grant managers should always seek feedback and the scoring summary for their declined proposals. This feedback often includes commentary from peer reviewers and can identify flaws that should be addressed—or if the competition was just that compelling. Often this feedback can shine a light on areas that seem to be very clear from the perspective of the writer but are difficult to follow as an external reader. Each bit of feedback assists writers in honing their proposal development and writing skills and helps them in providing feedback to their courts for future submissions.

These are only a few tips of the trade to assist grant managers in getting organized and recognizing the level of communication and forecasting that goes into successful project management. Every funding source has its own nuance and parameters for its application processes, but many of the high-level organizational components are similar.

What tips do you have to share? Join the discussion! Earlier this year, the State Justice Institute announced the launch of a monthly court grant 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 SJI’s Funding Opportunities Toolkit and related technical assistance. Court grant 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 is 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. To request to participate, please send an email to


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.