Grant Writing, Precarity and Invisible Labour

GrantsIf you follow me on Twitter you might have seen some of my recent thoughts on grant dependency, percarity, and the impacts on long term planning.  Basically, I’ve been mulling over the implications of grant dependency on heritage labour and our professional communities.  These thoughts we in part inspired a conversation I had recently that involved someone telling me that “It’s a good idea, people will just give us money to work on it.”  That statement set off alarm bells in my head.  It minimized the time, effort, and emotional labour that goes into grant writing.  Grant writing is hard work.  It’s also largely invisible work.  We don’t often talk about the time it takes to write grant applications or the impact grant writing has on workflows, staffing, and long term planning.

Emotional Labour

Grant writing can involve a huge amount of unseen emotional labour.  This is particularly true if not getting a grant means you or a co-worker will be out of a job.  Or if failing to receive a grant means a substantial service drop or that a community need will be unmet.  These factors can add anxiety to grant writing and can also complicate the grant process.  How do you work into a grant a partial staff salary so you can keep someone employed? How do you shape a grant to meet the application requirements while simultaneously making it applicable to your day-to-day work?  Many grants are for project based funding but in the cases of largely grant funded organizations those grants often end up doing double duty.  They may be for a special project but they also help sustain staffing levels or ongoing programming.

Planning and Grant Writing

How do you make any type of strategic plan if your staff levels, operation costs, and program costs are all grant based and have the potential to change drastically from year to year?  Multi-year funding at times provides some stability and allows for targeted slightly longer term planning. But if every year you’re entering a cycle of grant writing to maintain programming levels it becomes extremely difficult to think about program expansion, new developments, and projects that span multiple years.  It is hard to be innovative and responsive to changing community needs if you’re simply struggling to keep the doors open.

In 2012 when the Canadian Government eliminated the National Archival Development Program funding many archival organizations depended on for operation simply disappeared.  Yes, different funding streams were a possibility for some of those organizations but researching those options and learning new application processes take time.  If a grant your organization has been consistently receiving for years suddenly no longer exists it’s disappearance can cause a major interruption in service and drastically impact service and staff levels.

Unequal Opportunities

As Amanda Hill rightly pointed out on Twitter, the “most well resourced institutions have the most time to put together [grant] applications”.   If you are a lone arranger or a small shop it can be extremely difficult to find the time to put together a quality grant application – especially if you have front line responsibilities that you can’t simply put on the back burner in favour of spending hours writing a grant.

Additionally larger well funded organizations often have access to research offices or other bodies that specialize in grants.  These offices can provide guidance on which grants to apply for and application advice, which is something that can give a leg up to submission succession.  If your organization is heavily reliant on volunteers or has a high staff turnover rate grant applications can become even more difficult.  For example, in 2016 the volunteer driven Arts Council of Sault Ste Marie missed an Ontario Arts Council operating fund grant resulting in the Arts Council’s budget being drastically reduced and services heavily impacted.  Any volunteer driven organization can tell you about the challenges associated with maintaining service level and long term sustainability.  This sustainability can be thrown further into jeopardy if grant funding is an essential part of the organization’s operational funding.

Leaning and Talking About It

How many people received training in grant applications and project management in grad school?  It depends on the program but often grant application processes end up being something that is learned on the job.  If you’re lucky you have a more senior colleague who can help guide you through some of the grant process or bring you into one of their grant applications.  But the chances of that happen vary greatly depending on the type of institution you work in. Grant writing doesn’t just happen.  It take time, skill, and a whole lot of effort.  We need to talk about and acknowledge that effort more.

What are your experiences with grant applications and finding support for grant writing?