The biggest misconception about grants is that they are “easy money,” says Eric Roth, grants manager for the Mohonk Preserve. “A lot of organizations, and boards, make that mistake. But grants are never ‘easy money.’ A grant is a contract, in which you agree to fulfill certain obligations, to do certain work, in exchange for the money. Grants require a lot of thought and a lot of management.”
From time to time, Roth does presentations to groups that are trying to improve their grants program. “I show them this slide that has a picture of an iceberg on it. And I explain that there are three steps that go into getting a grant, that seem like a lot of work, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. There are about 20 steps after that, once you get the grant. Grants always add more work for a staff, sometimes above and beyond their normal responsibilities, and they always change the way a staff does their work. So taking a grant in… there’s a responsibility to it. There’s a burden to it, even though it’s good for the organization.”
Roth’s responsibilities as grants manager at Mohonk Preserve include searching out potential funders — which might be the state, a for-profit business or a private foundation — and then working with the program staff and administration to prepare the applications. “There’s a pitch involved and a lot of project design and management. I work with the program staff to think about what the project will look like over time; what are the costs involved, what is the timeline, what are the goals we’re trying to accomplish. So what I end up being is the bridge between the funders who want to make positive changes in the community and the organization making that happen.”
Once a program’s guidelines are established and the grant obtained, Roth manages it as a contract. “My job, then, is to ensure that the Preserve does what we said we were going to do, that we expend all the monies as promised and report all of that to the funder.”
Roth has been the grants manager at Mohonk Preserve since 2012. Prior to that, he worked as a grant writer for SUNY Orange and as archivist, librarian and executive director at Historic Huguenot Street. He has been an adjunct history professor at SUNY New Paltz since 2005, and is a musician, specializing in 19th-century guitar and Renaissance lute. He performs at public and private events throughout the region and serves on the board of the Mid-Hudson Classical Guitar Society.
Roth has a bachelor’s degree from SUNY New Paltz in music performance and a master’s degree in library science from SUNY Albany. Originally from Binghamton, New York, Roth first came to New Paltz to attend college and then, like so many others, never left. And he says that before he even saw the campus, while driving over the mountains on his way to the Hudson Valley, he made up his mind to go to school here because of the mountains. “And now, 20+ years later, I’m working for the mountains!”
When we chatted with Roth recently, we asked him a few questions about what a day’s work is like in his profession.
How does a person become a grant writer or a grants manager?
Every executive director is looking for funding all the time, so I was writing a fair number of grants at Historic Huguenot Street (HHS). And I found that I liked the process. When I decided I didn’t want to be an executive director anymore, I found a job as a grant writer at SUNY Orange. People usually kind of fall into it that way, from working in a nonprofit and seeing how it all works. By being an executive director of HHS, that provided me with the bigger picture, to be able to look at a project long-term and understand how the project fits in with the larger organizational needs. A lot of it is common sense, describing complicated systems and programs clearly in a condensed manner.
Are the funders you approach the same from year to year?
There are certain grant funders we go to every year and then we’re always looking for new ones, too. In a typical year, I’ll submit between 30 and 40 grants, and maybe two-thirds of those are to funders we know of already and have gotten grants from before.
What is the most challenging thing about the work?
I would say there are a couple of challenging pieces to it. Once you get a grant, making sure that the project stays on task or on point. It’s very easy for things to drift, and the program staff is very busy all the time, so just making sure that we’re spending all the money that we need to be spending, and on time.
And sometimes projects change once you’ve gotten the grant; something happens at the organization, either positive or negative, that changes things and then we have to figure out how we’re going to still meet the goals of the funder. Most funders are pretty understanding, but it’s important to communicate with them about these things.
Also, sometimes there appear to be great grant opportunities, but they’re not necessarily right for us. I have to make the case for, yes, we should go for this grant or we should not. And if we don’t go for the grant, I have to have a rationale and justify it to the president of the organization and my supervisor. It’s really trying to manage the fit of the organization with the funder and being willing to stand up sometimes and say that even though it seems like a good opportunity, it’s not the right fit.
What part of the work do you like most?
I like when I can see what happens from the grants I write. For example, when the kids are here on the land [referencing a program that brings middle school students from Newburgh up to the mountains], I get to see that and know that I was a part of that. I’ve written a lot of grants to fund the work on the Testimonial Gateway in the foothills, so it’s rewarding to see that happen. Sometimes it’s years later, but still! And being at the forefront of where the organization is going, that’s interesting. It’s intellectually stimulating, because there’s a lot of planning and strategic prioritization that goes on.
Has there been anything new in your field recently?
I guess the newest thing — although it’s not really new anymore — but every grant funder now is asking for metrics. Which we understand; they want to know that their investment is doing good things, so they want quantitative metrics. And that becomes an interesting challenge to create metrics that the organization can accomplish without fundamentally changing the way it does its work, and do it in a way that shows the funder we take it seriously.
Every grant application now has something about how you measure your success, and that has made us think differently about how we structure our grant programs. For a really large grant, especially if it’s federal or state, we might hire an external evaluator to come in as part of the grant project. If you’re not careful with how you set up those measurements, you could end up putting yourself in for a lot of extra work and expense that you did not plan for. Part of what grant writers do is to protect the organization, because it’s really easy with grant money, with those obligations, for things to go wrong. And it’s incumbent on the grants manager to foresee where those potential problems can happen and how to avoid them.
Are grants the primary source of program funding?
With an organization like the Preserve, grants are only one of the streams of funding that support programs. The others are donations, membership fees, day fees and a few other things; we have some rental income from some of the buildings on the property.
What advice would you give to someone contemplating going into grants management?
Because grants are projects, get involved in how projects work. The writing of a grant is really the smallest piece of it. And it’s almost the easiest piece of it, because you can’t write about it until everything else is decided. So understand what makes a project successful or unsuccessful and work on a project funded by a grant, one where you’re responsible for some of the reporting of that. Learn how to do budgets, timelines, planning and setting goals, and how to develop objectives that are meaningful and attainable. And start small!