Managing Relationships In A Time of Distance by Tracey Diefenbach, GPC

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about relationships. Perhaps it is all the talk of social distancing, self-quarantine, and isolation. As a seasoned grant professional working at my home office for more than ten years, I can honestly say this is the first time I have ever felt “alone.” One might wonder how I could feel lonely with my new “co-workers”; my once-quiet office is now interrupted by two kids, markers, paint, notepads, and maybe even yesterday’s fruit snacks stuck to my desk (don’t judge)! But I desperately miss face-to-face meetings with clients, board and committee meetings, and live trainings that provide valuable in-person adult time to connect and build or strengthen relationships.

Today, managing relationships in the world of grants is more critical than ever. Relationships fund projects, fuel project design and development, inform research, and feed grant reports. You know that old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know?” Well, when it comes to grant writing and management, it’s actually both. I find myself leaning on key strategies I have learned over the years to successfully manage relationships even during this time of distance.

  • People – Learn the key people. Now, depending on your role (e.g., consultant, in-house grant professional, development staff), it may not be necessary to memorize the whole organizational chart, but at minimum, you need to know who are the key decision-makers, program staff, finance, and HR/administrative staff. In my early days, I made the mistake of focusing on the people at the top, thinking the decision-makers were the fastest, most effective route to getting what I needed. Now, I know the value of learning the people up, down, and across. To make sure no one is overlooked, I often ask questions like – who knows the program, who knows the numbers and budget, who has or can get the data, who has access to calendars and can schedule meetings? This ultimately helps you build a successful grant team.
  • Language – Learn the language of your identified grant team. Now, you may not need to know whether the person is an INTJ or an ENJF (Meyers-Briggs people, you get me, right?), but at minimum, you do need to know how they communicate best. If I am working with a new client, one of the first questions I always ask in our initial meeting is how they prefer to communicate. Do they like emails, phone calls, in-person (those were the days!), or Zoom? I take notes and follow up after out meeting using their preferred method. From there, I can start to gauge more subtle cues. Are they direct and quick to respond, or do they need time to think? Do they prefer bulleted lists, or do they need open-ended, probing questions to dig deeper and get information? It is critical to learn the languages of others and employ these strategies.
  • Tools – Learn and USE key tools to guide these relationships and, ultimately, your grants. In my experience, I have found that most people want and appreciate (ok, maybe “appreciate” is wishful thinking) tools to help guide them in the grants process. For example, I never work a large federal grant without a task timeline or project plan, and even just a basic grant calendar is essential for keeping track of upcoming proposals and reporting deadlines. The trick is not just to create these tools but to use them with your team. This means actively engaging your team each step of the way, using the communication strategies you have identified and asking key questions that will drive ownership and accountability.

It is these types of strategies that can help us as grant professionals (and also as parents learning to share office space with demanding “co-workers”) in continuing to build and manage relationships through these times.

What approaches and tools do you use in communicating with or managing others? I would love to hear about them! And please keep an eye out for my upcoming webinar, “Managing Up,” which AGS will host in November.

Competency 3.1: Knowledge of strategies for effective program and project design and development