Senior Leaders: Two Essentials to Protect Your Funding

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Senior Leaders: Two Essentials to Protect Your Funding

Senior leaders should expect everyone on their team to be familiar with the award document.

By Shannon Meehan

Development Consultant & InsideNGO Master Trainer

In my experience, the great majority of us working in development want to do the right thing—what’s right for the people we serve, what’s right for our organizations, what’s right for our funders, and what’s right for ourselves. In some cases, deciding on what the right thing to do is can be very challenging. But in terms of doing what’s right for the funder, it does not have to be. In the case of US government funding, there are two essential strategies to ensure that any organization can do the right thing, and they’re both very simple but take time and an investment in our staff members’ professional development.

First make sure that everyone working on the award (Cooperative Agreement or Grant) has access to and reads the award document. Would anyone hire a new team member and not give them a job description? Of course not! Well, that’s the same mindset that you need to take when winning an award—everyone is responsible and needs to know what is expected of them. The agreement between you and the US government is the “job description” for your staff and the funding agency who awards the project. It details your responsibilities and rights as the implementer, as well as the responsibilities of the funder. It’s that simple. And yet, so often when I ask people during a training session if they have read their award, the majority say no or they actually say that they do not have access to the full award document.

As a senior leader, you can change that. Expect everyone to know the award document—the “job description”—as well as they know their own. One of the best practices is to send out the full award document to all relevant staff (Admin, Finance, Procurement, and Programs) and then 48 hours later have a morning meeting where you go through each page with discussion and questions—this helps build teamwork and common understanding of the donor expectations and demands within the award.

Second—and this is a little more time-consuming—empower your staff to fully understand your organization’s own policies and procedures. We no longer live in a world where you can just hand someone a document and say “follow it.” Policies and procedures have to be adapted to technology and be user friendly, so that your team members can almost taste, touch, and feel what these procedures are – make them relevant and alive for your staff to use. The majority of our organizations own policies and procedures are already compliant to the US Government rules and regulations. Therefore, take the time to actually train all staff—this investment in time will save thousands of dollars. If all your staff truly master the organizations’ policies and procedures, it will empower them to do the right thing—and then it becomes easier and more efficient to do so.

How can it be that simple?

In my years of being both a practitioner and training other practitioners, I’ve learned that the majority of mistakes are made for one reason: Somebody just didn’t know the rule or policy and thus based their action on their own personal life experience.

I’ll use myself as a case in point. During the late 1990’s, I was in my first US nonprofit job as an Admin/Finance Officer for a humanitarian organization in West Africa. I was also in charge of Procurement. I had previously worked as a logistician for a for-profit organization in West Africa and managed millions of dollars of equipment and cash. I was put in charge of buying vehicles for a new health project, and when I started the procurement, the local Toyota Company was able to give me a great deal: Two cars for the price of one. Why would I turn that down? I go ahead with the procurement. I’m feeling pretty good about that—and so is my country director. In fact, we’re almost having a party we’re so pleased with ourselves.

Well, you can guess the rest. We send a report to headquarters and all of the sudden, the phones are ringing off the hook. “What have you done?” we are asked. “Vehicles are restricted goods and if you wanted to buy more than one, you needed prior approval. And for Toyotas, we need a waiver since these were not manufactured in the USA.”

Well, we didn’t know—not newbie me and not my experienced country director. We didn’t even know what we didn’t know. Fortunately for me, I did not lose my job. My “punishment,” in fact, was that I had to attend an Humentum Rules & Regulations training. Yes, true story. I was a student before I ever became a trainer.

In my experience, senior leaders and upper managers are not often seen in the training room—but we need them there. Country directors rarely go to training; instead they send their staff. But senior leaders need to also lead by example: You can’t base your implementation on only your years of experience. The rules change. Government agencies update regulations. Changes in organizational management can bring changes in familiar policies. Even a small shift in technology or the implementation of one new automated system in-house can greatly impact procedures.

Also, leaders are the most vulnerable—it is the leaders at the top in the field offices who are often held accountable. So make sure your teams master that award document—they should know it as well as they know their own job descriptions. And do your part to ensure that they fully understand your organization’s own policies and procedures. When you do these two things, life will get better and easier.


Shannon Meehan is a development consultant who has been working in international operations and humanitarian interventions for more than 27 years. She has served as both a country director and a director of operations, and her work has brought her to more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Sudan, the DR Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Somalia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Shannon brings her extensive field experience into the Humentum training room, and will be facilitating or co-facilitating workshops with us this fall in Nairobi, Kigali, and London.

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