How’d that work out? Not great, actually.

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A month ago, I wrote about Navigating the Challenges of an Exploitive Grant Partnership and promised to follow up on the real world scenario I was dealing with. Unfortunately I don’t have great news to report.

I’m normally a pretty tough negotiator, but here, I was a bit hamstrung. This particular situation involved the world of higher education which can be extremely politically charged. I was negotiating on behalf of a community college that is a subgrantee on a four-year university’s federal Trio grant, but I was constrained by a dictate from leadership that maintaining the relationship was of utmost importance for “political reasons.” I won’t debate the validity of that perspective, although it is highly debatable. And for context, I’ll remind you that I’m a huge fan of Trio programs, so the situation was obviously bad if my perspective going into this was to pull out.

Since my preferred course of action wasn’t an option, I came to the table with an alternative budget proposal. The negotiation centered on a third grant proposal in development where two are already in place. The alternative budget shifted the subaward allocation out to the later budget years when the existing funding would expire, rather than an inadequate, equal allocation over the entire project period.

In the course of the conversation, I learned that despite meeting and exceeding the goals and objectives of the partnership, the grossly reduced allocation in the third grant was because the primary grantee intends to increase the number of partners in the third round of funding.

I didn’t get anywhere with the alternative budget proposal, except to receive promises that the institution I was representing would be given priority for carryover funding. At the end of the day, the best I could accomplish was to get that assurance in writing, although it probably won’t be worth the email it was written in. I did the best I could with what I had to work with.

Nonetheless, there are some useful takeaways here. First, leaders, don’t give political considerations more weight than they merit, especially when your organization isn’t in a financial position to subsidize a lopsided partnership. Second, primary grantees on consortia, be mindful not to let your ambition outgrow your partners’ capacity – that hurts everyone involved, especially the primary beneficiaries you’re supposed to serve.

Finally, while I know the written assurances are basically useless, these serve an important goal and that is to improve morale. The individual whose full-time job relies on this funding was present for the meeting (despite my objections to that) and the instability of the partnership rightfully made that individual job scared. Getting the assurances in writing calmed the most impacted individual considerably. While it’s true that no one should consider a role solely funded by one grant relationship to be secure, all I could accomplish given the circumstances was to give them enough reassurance to sleep at night and lowering someone else’s stress and anxiety so they can function is a worthy endeavor.

Had it been up to me, I would have rejected the proposed allocation outright and waited for a better counteroffer. Given the subgrantee’s performance and overall impact on the consortium’s success, it would have come and this course of action would have shifted power dynamics in a positive direction. But, what about the anxious project director? Certainty, even when it is a certain negative result, is less stressful than uncertainty…and I hate dealing with empty promises, especially when I know they will only result in more uncertainty down the road.

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