Navigating the Challenges of an Exploitative Grant Partnership

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Lately, I’ve been working on navigating a very sticky situation where, after a several years of partnership, a lead applicant is downsizing subgrantees’ allocations to the point that the project is no longer implementable without substantial investment from the subgrantees. Very difficult decisions are being made and at the end of the day, no one is going to be very happy with the result. 

Grant partnerships can be a cornerstone for achieving significant advancements and innovations in every field, from education and health to community development and research. However, when these partnerships turn exploitative, they can undermine the very goals they were meant to achieve, besides causing financial strain and ethical dilemmas for subgrantees. Understanding how to recognize and rectify an exploitative grant partnership is crucial for subgrantees to protect their interests and ensure the success of their projects. 

Recognizing Signs of Exploitation 

Exploitation in a grant partnership often manifests when one party disproportionately benefits at the expense of another. For a subgrantee, this can appear in several forms:  

Imbalanced Workload: The grantor may require the subgrantee to perform tasks that are beyond the agreed-upon scope without additional compensation or consideration or expecting to maintain service levels with less compensation, leading to an uneven distribution of labor and benefits.  

Unfair Financial Terms: The partnership may lead to financial arrangements where the subgrantee incurs more costs than initially planned, without adequate compensation or cost-sharing from the grantor.  

Lack of Acknowledgment: In research or collaborative projects, failing to properly acknowledge the subgrantee’s contributions in publications, presentations, or patents can be a sign of exploitation.

Control Over Decisions: If the grantor retains excessive control over the project’s direction, leaving the subgrantee with little to no autonomy, the relationship may become stifling and exploitative.

Delayed Payments or Changing Terms: Frequent delays in payments or unilateral changes to project terms without mutual agreement can severely impact the subgrantee’s ability to manage the project effectively. 

Steps to Address Exploitative Practices

Once you recognize that the grant partnership has become exploitative, it is essential to take strategic steps to address the situation effectively:

Review the Original Agreement

Before taking any action, revisit the original grant agreement or contract. Understand the commitments, obligations, and rights that both you and the grantor agreed upon. This will help you assess whether any terms have been breached and provide a baseline for discussions.

Communicate Concerns Clearly

Open a line of communication with the grantor. Express your concerns clearly and professionally, using specific examples to illustrate how the partnership has become exploitative. It’s possible that the grantor is unaware of the impact of their actions, giving them a chance to rectify the situation. 

  • Preparation: Before the meeting, prepare your points, gather all necessary documentation, and possibly consult with a legal advisor. 
  • Dialogue: Aim for a constructive dialogue rather than a confrontation. Express your needs and seek to understand their perspective as well.
  • Solutions: Always try to come to the table with alternative approaches that are mutually beneficial or at least workable.

Negotiate Fair Terms

If the grantor is open to discussion, work on renegotiating the terms of the partnership. Focus on creating a more balanced agreement where responsibilities, benefits, and acknowledgments are fairly distributed. Ensure any new terms are documented and formally agreed upon.

  • Mediation: If direct negotiations are challenging, consider using a mediator. A third party can facilitate a more neutral and productive negotiation process.

Leverage Support Networks

Engaging with professional networks, industry associations, or other subgrantees can provide additional support and guidance. These groups can offer advice based on similar experiences and might even help in exerting collective bargaining power if necessary.

Legal Recourse

If the situation does not improve despite your efforts, it might be necessary to explore legal options. Consult with a lawyer who specializes in contract law or non-profit law (as applicable) to understand your rights and the feasibility of legal action. This step should generally be considered a last resort, as legal actions can be costly and strain further professional relationships.

Plan for Future Sustainability

Regardless of the outcome with the current grantor, take steps to prevent similar issues in future partnerships:

  • Clear Contracts: Ensure future agreements are clear and detailed regarding scope, financial terms, roles, and responsibilities.
  • Due Diligence: Conduct thorough background checks on potential partners and speak to previous subgrantees or collaborators.
  • Build Capacities: Strengthen your negotiation skills and legal understanding to better manage and negotiate future grants and partnerships.

An exploitative grant partnership can be disheartening and detrimental, but with the right approach, it is possible to negotiate a fairer arrangement or exit the partnership with minimal damage. By recognizing the signs of exploitation early and taking decisive action, subgrantees  can protect their interests and focus on achieving their project goals in a supportive and equitable environment. Remember, the goal of any partnership should be mutual benefit and advancement towards a common objective.

I’ll be sitting at the negotiating table later this week and will follow up soon on how it goes.

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