Caroline Nelson, CGI Federal

Caroline Nelson


Federal grants managers are taking on more responsibility over the grants that agencies issue, which can measure in the billions of dollars or even more than $1 trillion in any given year. This puts them under increasing pressure in the face of scrutiny from lawmakers, watchdogs and the public.

Policies and governance models for grants have evolved significantly, and so have individual agencies’ processes and systems. The key to easing the minds of grants managers is a sound grants management program through the entire lifecycle.

Grants Management (with a capital M) means moving beyond mere workflows to implement management priorities that improve the likelihood that grants will lead to the intended results. Grants managers must deliver measurable results through effective management, and taking this holistic end-to-end view facilitates that.

Sketching the scope of the challenge

With so many responsibilities, it can be challenging for grant managers to stay on top of proposed projects and associated performance measurements, and grant agreement compliance milestones. Adding to the complexity is the volume of grants within a program to manage, which compounds the difficulty to stay on top of data that helps assess iterative progress against program goals. Working collaboratively with grantees, grant managers can highlight potential concerns and challenges in the execution, advising grantees to drive more successful outcomes.

A high-touch approach to grants management encourages grant managers to get to know their grantees, establishing repeatable processes for managing and monitoring project progress, and enables the grant manager to better address risk and performance issues before they become problematic.

Seven success secrets

 The following best practices support a more high-touch grants management approach:

  1. Collect data iteratively. Draw from the agencies data repositories and leverage centralized tools to collect key performance data. Much of it can come from the grant application, grant agreement, progress reports, and various financial documents. Establishing an agency-level central repository for grant performance data enables multiple grant managers to benchmark performance and advise on areas where others are experiencing success.
  2. Monitor grantees. Begin monitoring grantees before award through the federal Audit Clearing House, then check the data frequently for changes. Looking over prior audits, internal control challenges and/or management decision letters will help you better understand the various strengths and weaknesses of each of the grantees in their portfolio. Staying ahead of potential areas of concern helps you advise grantees accordingly.
  3. Manage risks proactively. Tracking data enables an ongoing gauge of a project’s progress and can provide early warning of failure. Missing a performance metric now and then is not necessarily a problem, but consistently missing them while burning through grant funds is a concern. Apply consistent risk management procedures, use findings from program and single audit, and assure regular communication with grantees to help you integrate better risk management into the fabric of the grant management process.
  4. Track deliverables diligently. Logging each grantee’s planned and actual delivery dates and the financial drawdowns against them is critical. Look for trends, discrepancies, or changes in the reporting. Reporting requirements vary from one grant to another, but the grants manager, as program steward, must be concerned with  whether the grantee is implementing the program on schedule, within budget and staying on track to deliver measurable outcomes.
  5. Monitor finances closely. Review each grantee’s audits, financial results and drawdowns. Nothing contained within the invoice should be outside of the grant agreement scope, budget, and schedule. Expenses that are outside the scope of the funding agreement cannot be paid for with grant funds. Where concerns arise, use the single audit process, which involves examining financial records, statements, federal grant award transactions, internal control systems, and the overall management of the grantee’s financial system. Pay attention to progress against schedule; the financial expenditures should be in alignment with the work performed.
  6. Provide excellent customer service. Grants managers must think of the grantees they manage as customers. A high-touch, customer-centric approach builds and strengthens the grantor/grantee relationship and can lead to most robust outcomes. Serving as a strategic and tactical partners to the grantee, you can truly impact grantee results. The Biden-Harris President’s Management Agenda Vision encourages federal awarding agencies to shift from a compliance-heavy grants management strategy to a balanced approach that includes establishing measurable program and project goals and analyzing data to improve results. Making customer service a priority helps drive successful outcomes and positions the grants manager as an ideal steward of taxpayer funds.
  7. Stay on top of data for a smoother close-out. A proactive, collaborative approach to grants management helps the program remediate issues before they arise, making closeout smoother. Close-out issues often arise when financial data is not in sync or where inappropriate use of grants funds must be rectified. While each program has its own close-out process, at a minimum it must include:
    1. reconciling financial expenditures associated with the award
    2. liquidating all obligations incurred under the award
    3. returning any funds necessitated by refunds, corrections or audits
    4. submitting required final reports.

Agency leaders are counting on grants managers to provide updated performance data to demonstrate how the grant program performed.

The role of the grants manager is challenging, which requires both relationship-building and close control over activities related to funding and program objectives. Juggling the various responsibilities associated with grants management can seem daunting. By focusing on outcomes and grantee experience and implementing a high-touch approach, grant managers can move beyond oversight to true partners in delivering meaningful and measurable results.

Learn more by visiting our Federal Grants Management page. 

About this author

Caroline Nelson, CGI Federal

Caroline Nelson


Caroline Nelson has been a strategic and financial management advisor for over 30 years and has extensive knowledge of industry best practices.