With labs and universities closed for weeks due to COVID-19 lockdowns, grantees are struggling to recover their work, meet grant application deadlines, and cover unexpected costs. Learn how grantmakers can support researchers during this challenging time by encouraging open dialogue and creating flexibility whenever possible.
The global pandemic has placed scientific researchers in a serious bind. While the stay-at-home orders were necessary to protect public health, these interruptions will have long-lasting effects - delaying important scientific discoveries, wasting resources on unusable materials and samples, and creating data gaps in long-term experiments.
Unfortunately, we can’t just flip a switch when scientists are able to return. STAT reports, “Even when laboratories are reopened, it may take months to a year for research to resume as normal.”
And for researchers in the midst of preparing grant proposals, it’s nearly impossible to confidently plan for complex scientific research with so many unknown variables.
What can grantmakers do to support their grantees as they navigate these uncertainties? Here are four suggestions to keep communications open and offer maximum flexibility.
Listen to Grantee Concerns
Before making blanket changes to your grant application process or active research projects, seek to understand the full impact of these delays. You may not immediately recognize the many ways COVID-19 could affect the grantees’ research, such as supply chain disruptions, personnel shortages, or increased transportation costs. For applicants, lack of access to their lab or workplace might prevent them from submitting a complete proposal.
By speaking directly to grant recipients, you can design accommodations that realistically address their challenges. Find out what would be most helpful from their point of view. Ask what’s causing the most stress and uncertainty so you can work together toward solutions.
You could send out a quick survey to get a pulse on grantees’ top issues or schedule a video call with principal investigators for an open discussion. If you’ve already taken action - extending deadlines or unrestricting funds - get feedback on whether these are sufficient. In such a rapidly changing environment, ongoing dialogue is vital.
Communicate Clearly and Often
Consistent communication is key. Even when you don’t have all the answers, let your grantees know you’re working on it. This avoids speculation and worry - and lots of phone calls!
Funders should proactively communicate with grant applicants or awardees by sending regular email updates. A grant management system makes this easy with a built-in CRM that can quickly send mass emails in a few clicks. You can create multiple email versions, customized to each audience, and send to pre-specified groups.
It’s also critical to maintain an online location for all COVID-19 resources. A frequently asked questions (FAQ) format is helpful. For example, the National Science Foundation has a comprehensive FAQ that can serve as a model. They include questions about site visits, travel expenses, proposal deadlines, and grant disbursements.
Clarify Funding Priorities
Researchers are concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on the economy and if it will affect funding for research. How will priorities change?
That’s a valid concern. According to the scientific journal, Nature, "The increasingly likely prospect of a long-term economic downturn means science funding could face longer-term impacts. That could reduce the amount of funding from direct donations as well as government and charitable grants."
While your organization may not be able to provide definitive answers, it’s important to be as transparent as possible. Sharing what you do know will strengthen your relationship and help you work together to make sure vital research doesn’t stop unexpectedly. Enable your grantees to plan ahead as much as they can.
With an understanding of your grantees’ challenges, your organization can make strategic changes that save time, reduce stress, and allow for flexibility.
Streamline the Application - With a cloud-based grant management tool, you can guide grantees through the application process in stages, with customizable instructions. Applicants can also save drafts, communicate with your staff right from their account, receive confirmation immediately, and see their status any time.
Offer Extensions - Depending on the scope of your grantmaking, you could communicate a deadline extension across the board, or evaluate them on a case-by-case basis. A grant management platform would make it easy to communicate with your staff or review team and approve these requests.
Unrestrict Funds - Removing limitations on how grantees can use funding would allow them to be more nimble in adapting their project plan. With so much still unclear about how COVID-19 will play out, they can have Plans B and C ready - with the resources to support them. Or redirect money toward unanticipated expenses.
Allow Alternatives - Whenever possible for safety, replace site visits and in-person interviews with phone or video calls. Trim reporting requirements when necessary, so researchers can catch up on lost time or prepare for a new project that’s already behind schedule. This is a good time to take a hard look at your reports to make sure they’re providing the insights you need - and not putting an unnecessary burden on grantees.
Consider Additional Funding - With so many researchers dependent on grant funding for their team’s salaries or stipends, sometimes an extension won’t be enough to salvage the project. Whenever possible, consider whether your organization can allocate more, especially if it’s going toward the livelihood of the researchers themselves.
As a funder of scientific research, your organization has a critical role to play in helping the world recover from this extraordinary challenge. By applying these tips, you’ll enable your grantees to quickly resume their important work and carry out the spirit of your organization’s mission.