from Educators' eZine
When I was given the responsibility of managing grants, I was not handed a "How To" manual outlining the standard operating procedures necessary for a successful program. And, unfortunately, the class "Managing Your Grant Programs" was not a required course listed in my credentialing program. Consequently, I found myself in the position of managing millions of dollars in grant funds with limited guidance as to how to do it effectively. Needless to say, it was not long before I began to understand the many challenges involved with managing grant-funded projects.
One of the biggest issues for us was managing our grants' budgets. Simply put, we were challenged by not having access to current, real-time budget data in a format that would allow us to understand how much time and money we were spending on each of our grants' activities. Without this data, it became nearly impossible to manage our programs effectively. This resulted in both difficulty in managing our workload and frustration as we attempted to work as a data-driven program that focused on results for students.
While we could point blame in many directions, the truth is there were a number of contributing factors that made accurately assessing the financial efficiency and success of our grant-funded programs both difficult and frustrating.
First, due to the sheer volume of work assigned to the district's accounting department at the beginning and at the end of a fiscal period, it was often difficult to get initial and final budget reports in a timely fashion. While we were sympathetic to the district's staggering workload, not having timely budget reports made it necessary for us to keep an in-house set of records. Additionally, most expenditures did not get posted to the district's accounting system until they were paid. This meant that that the district's budget reports did not include ALL expenditures authorized for payment, just those that had been paid or encumbered. Unless we tracked our own spending, the data upon which we based our decisions would be incomplete and, therefore, less than useful.
Second, the district's system was not set up to associate hours worked with the total cost nor did it track staff time by program activity. Since these hours represented the time and effort each employee spent on the grants activities and are required pieces of data for federal reporting, the district's budget reports were never a suitable gauge for analyzing staff resources.
Finally, in an effort to maintain control of our budget, we used simple, yet cumbersome, spreadsheets to keep track of these expenditures. Unfortunately, this process was time-consuming and not very efficient, especially when it came to reporting and reconciling back to the district's accounting system.
Due in part to frustration and part necessity, we decided to tackle the problem of grant fund management head-on by implementing a technology solution designed specifically to assist grant administrators with the arduous task of tracking program - and grant-related expenditures. We replaced our existing spreadsheet tracking efforts with Grant Maximizer Solution™. This customizable tracking tool has provided multiple benefits to our team and has taken the headache out of the entire fund-tracking process. Our grant-tracking challenges and resulting experiences with GMS are summarized below.
Result of Implementing Grant Maximizer Solution™
Lack of Real-Time Budget Data
It was often difficult to get initial and final budget reports for the period in a timely fashion.
Frequently, there was a significant time lag in the posting of expenditures to the district's accounting system.
The district's accounting system did not keep track of matching contributions.
We set up the grant's budget using Grant Maximizer Solution (GMS) and began keeping track of expenditures for the grant immediately. The system was set up to track not only grant funds but also matching contributions.
Our expenditures were entered in the GMS system as they were authorized. This allowed us to see all committed expenditures including those that had not yet been processed through the district's accounting system. Having this all-inclusive data gave us the most up-to-date budget status at our fingertips.
We also tracked multiple site level budgets concurrently in a single, unitary system. This allowed us to share this information on a regular basis with our site coordinators and eliminated the need for them to keep track of their individual budgets separately.
Program Management and Accountability Measures
In order to better manage the program, we needed to understand staff time requirements and true cost for each of the program activities.
In an effort to accomplish this we were using simple spreadsheets to keep track of expenditures by account code. Unfortunately, there was no easy way to keep track of the hours associated with these expenditures and we found ourselves keeping track of staff time separately.
In addition, grant requirements stated that whenever possible we were to compare the cost of program activities with the performance results of those activities.
With GMS, we had the ability to associate an account code with each line item of a transaction AND assign a funding source, site (or department) code, and specific service or activity code. We also tracked hours and indirect costs at this detailed level as well.
With this data at our disposal, we could easily report on how much time and money was invested in a particular activity, such as tutoring. The reports could be configured to show what was covered by grant funds and matching contributions, or we could report on each of these funding sources separately.
Having this data allowed us to compare the individual activities for cost and time commitments and also made the preparation of subsequent years' budgets a much easier process.
Reconciliation and Reporting
Because reporting information was sourced from the district's accounting system, it was necessary to periodically reconcile our spreadsheet data to the district's system.
We found that expenditure totals often differed from original estimates and required modification. In addition, simply by virtue of human error, there were also times we found data entry errors in both systems – our in-house system as well as the district's system.
It was often difficult compiling and reporting on data that crossed fiscal periods.
GMS allowed us to easily identify inconsistencies between the two systems and make changes to the affected transactions. All reports were then updated automatically.
In addition, simple selection of the appropriate date range made reporting across fiscal periods very easy.
Using Grant Maximizer Solution (GMS) helped us to streamline our budget tracking efforts and to overcome the challenges we had managing our grant funds. In addition, GMS provided a clear understanding of true cost base and time requirements for each activity. Because each activity is associated with a specific grant goal or objective, we were then able to associate those costs and time commitments with each of the grant's goals and objectives.
Having this detailed budget data at our fingertips made evaluation of the grant program much more meaningful. We could identify the most cost-effective activities and make good business decisions for the success of the existing grant and future grant programs. Knowing how much time and money was spent on each activity gave us great insight as to future staffing requirements and was essential in the creation of subsequent years' budgets.
Using this technology saved time and effort and provided us with the confidence that we were managing these grant funds to the very best of our ability â€“ and in the best interest of our served population.
Below we offer information about the grant-management software she used.
Grant Fund Accountability
By Erica Karras
Over eleven months have eclipsed since the California state superintendent of public instruction began encouraging all eligible Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to apply for funds made available from the Education Technology K-12 Voucher Program. To date, just over eighty percent of eligible LEAs have completed their applications. Additionally, the original funding level, estimated at $250 million, is due to be recalculated sometime in early Fall by the settlement claims administrator and the parties to the settlement. California K-12 schools now anticipate receiving approximately $400 million over the next six years. For those eligible schools, this new funding level could equate to a near doubling of per pupil allocation.
Designed to support K-12 education technology, the Education Technology K-12 Voucher Program resulted from the settlement of a $1.1 billion lawsuit between California consumers and Microsoft Corporation. The program is designed to assist schools in the purchase of additional computers, software, and information technology support for their students, and provide professional development for administrators and teachers.
The Education Technology K-12 Voucher Program is, however, very different from typical state or federal technology grant programs. Because this agreement stemmed from litigation and was negotiated by both parties, there are very specific criteria that must be met by individual school sites in order to be eligible for use of these funds. In addition, as defined in the program usage guidelines, 50% of the total voucher award amount may be used only for products and/or services that meet the criteria for General Purpose Vouchers and the remaining 50% may be used only for products that meet the criteria for Software Vouchers.
To assist participating districts in monitoring their use of these vouchers, the program covers the acquisition and implementation of evaluation tools. These tools are used to provide evidence that vouchers have been used as per the specified criteria set forth by the settlement. Use of these evaluation tools will also assist the California Department of Education (CDE) in gathering data as to the effectiveness of this program.
Like the Education Technology K-12 Voucher Program, an increased number of funding agencies are listing evaluation and tracking tools on their list of eligible purchases. There is growing demand from all sides for more effective grant and program evaluation tools. Grant administrators are searching for tools that allow them to capture and report quantifiable metrics to better measure program value and effectiveness, and both corporate and public sector grantors want to know how their funds are being spent and what impact they are having.
"The private sector is starting to seek a return on its investment. And corporate leaders have begun to indicate impatience with 'feel good' partnerships that have done little to improve overall student performance," reports Anna David, special consultant to Reason Public Policy Institute.
Steve Chesser, senior manager of community relations for The Boeing Company, states that their company is taking a closer look at receiving organizations to ensure that they are well run and that the programs funded have sustainability. Boeing has implemented an online grants management system that requires all grantees to file periodic reports. "These reports help us evaluate if you have had the impact you promised and whether or not you have done it within the budget that was laid out in your grant proposal," Chesser says. Boeing contributed $89.3 million in 2006, with the largest percentage doled out to K-12, college and university programs. Many other public and private organizations are implementing programs similar to Boeing's.
Even the federal government is revisiting its systems of accountability when it comes to grant funds. With the recent signing of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, citizens will be able to view the name and location of entities receiving federal funds, the purpose of the funding, the amount of money provided, the agency providing the funding, and other relevant information for any grants and contracts over $25,000.
"Every year, the federal government issues more than $400 billion in grants, and more than $300 billion in contracts to corporations, associations, and state and local governments. Taxpayers have a right to know where that money is going, and you have a right to know whether or not you're getting value for your money," stated President Bush at the bill's signing in September.
With these new accountability expectations from both public and corporate funding sources, grant administrators must henceforth manage and track their grant funds and activities at greater levels of detail, over longer periods of time, and in more easily shared electronic formats.
Unfortunately, managing multimillion-dollar grant programs is generally not something teachers or administrators are trained to do in their credentialing programs. Even so, the reality is that it is often these same people who find themselves managing grant-funded projects. In that position, it is necessary for the grant director to have a budget management skill set. And while qualified and capable in many other aspects of program management, most grant directors find themselves at a loss when it comes to managing their budgets.
Many grant administrators will admit to experiencing difficulty tracking grant funds at a highly detailed level and across fiscal periods. While there are many reasons for this, the organization's primary accounting system's inability to provide expenditure data in a timely manner and at the required level of detail is often the culprit. To compensate for this deficiency, many administrators track their expenditures themselves using simple spreadsheets and even paper formats. This type of manual tracking can be inefficient and susceptible to human error and does not allow for easy sharing across departments, agencies or the stakeholder sectors of the community.
Despite the fact that more and more agencies provide for evaluation tools on their list of eligible purchases, many receiving organizations do not take advantage of these technology solutions. "Much of the upper-level management is not even aware there is a problem with current tracking processes. Many grant administrators simply receive a 'get it done' directive and are left struggling," states Gloria Shontz, president of Capital Management Group, a certified public accounting firm, and founder of Grant Maximizer Solution™, a proprietary grant fund management system.
"With many grant administrators still currently using these antiquated manual tracking methods, organizations may be wasting valuable time and resources. Unfortunately, this often equates to increased administration costs and potential spending out of their General Funds for budget overruns," comments Shontz.
Many education and government agencies as well as nonprofit organizations need to look to technology solutions to help replace these manual tracking methods. Software-based evaluation tools can help administrators isolate, identify and account for actual and specific line item costs for any period of time that is required. These costs can be associated with individual funding sources, sites, programs or activities. This capability allows administrators to more accurately track expenditures and evaluate program effectiveness, with much less effort than ever before.
This most recent voucher program represents an enormous opportunity for California schools to reassess and improve their education technology programs. By investing some of those funds in evaluation and tracking technology, districts can easily align with the requirements of the Education Technology K-12 Voucher Program. Once in place, these tracking solutions can also benefit other grant-funded programs in reduced administrative effort and costs.
With accountability as the new hot topic in the education community, grant administrators can no longer afford to simply "keep track" of their grant funds. Administrators must actively manage program and grant-related funds to ensure alignment with grantor requirements and budgets, to determine the cost-effectiveness of specific grant-funded activities and, most important, to substantiate the success of their program's goal and objectives over time.