Juggling Rules and Principles In Running Grant Programs

Grant programs are not based solely around rules (e.g. you must do this, you must not do that) or around guiding principles (e.g. you’re to help the medically indigent achieve better access to healthcare). Neither approach is absolutely correct, and preferences for each tend to go in cycles, like those of leniency and harshness in criminal justice. The question is which you should adhere to, and the more general answer is: rules when you write the proposal, principles when you run a program.

This post again gets at some of the ideas behind the trade-offs inherent in running grant-funded programs, as I discussed in More on Charities and alluded to in Foundations and the Future. Isaac dealt with part of the issue last week, in It’s a Grant, Not a Gift: A Primer on Grants Management, which discusses the absolute rules of budgets. Within those rules, however, there is room for interpretation: how much of the budget travel should be allocated in travel costs, and how much within that should be dedicated to local travel, for example? Renting a Ferrari for the Program Manager probably won’t cut it, but a reasonable mileage reimbursement rate for an appropriate number of miles, given the size of the service area, probably will. If you reshuffle your budget categories by under 10% of the total budget, your Program Officer likely won’t care, but if you decide after the fact to charge 90% of the Executive Director’s time to the project and you’re audited, the auditors very much will care.

One can see the specific issues between rules and principles in novels, as when a character in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red says, “Now that I’ve reached this age, I know that true respect arises not from the heart, but from discrete rules and deference.” The problem is that strict adherence to the rules of governing a particular grant program might actually result in inferior service: you can blindly continue an activity that is ineffective or, perhaps worse, run a program with a flawed project concept. Too strict adherence to principles can cause a different set of problems: they might be the wrong principles, or, worse, the unintended use of grant funds might constitute fraud.

The easy answer is, “find a happy medium,” which isn’t of much practical use when deciding what programs to apply for and how to fund an organization. The tension between rules and principles will probably always exist, like the tension between the orthodoxy of a movement and the reformers of a movement will always exist, regardless of the movement. In The Name of the Rose, much of the conflict revolves around schisms between ecclesiastical orders that question whether or not it is right to live in poverty. This, incidentally, is similar to questions of whether nonprofits should use more of their funds for direct services at the expense of making it easier to, say, attract good people, or whether they should allocate more to administrative expenses as a way to provide better services. Rules might dictate this—or principles. Regardless of which does, those who seek simple solutions to complex problems are often wrong and often have little sense of history between the complex problems in the first place. Both the movement toward rules and toward principles can be a good thing. Too many rules are stifling, and principles that are too general can lead to abuse.

So what should you do, the person who actually runs grant programs? Should you follow what seems best regardless of rules or adhere strictly to what a program orders you to do? There is no answer—there are only particular situations that might arise as a consequence of applying to some programs rather than others, but if you have some idea of the trade-offs involved, you’re going to be better equipped to understand the issues before you. You’ll also be better equipped to understand which programs you should apply for and how you should use what money you earn.

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