Imagine the sweet victory of a grant award — doubly sweet in a grant competition. Pride swells as anxiety over the major investment in effort recedes. Your proposal made a convincing case, including its compelling testimony about the seminary's economic stability and probably about its capacity to sustain the new project beyond the grant period. Board members are delighted to have their own commitment to the school's promise confirmed by a prestigious foundation.
But you may soon find that living with winnings separates the real winners and losers. The luster of new prize money quickly diminishes as the dilemmas emerge. Perhaps the project is a new program that attracts new clientele to the campus. Now there is competition for limited time, space and services like security and parking. Or perhaps new staff (with new office equipment) throw off older patterns of relationships and reward systems. And then new accounts payable, new financial reporting and additional student record keeping. Only experienced grant seekers know to factor in all these extra costs when they present a budget.
But changes in governance are likely the more significant. New projects require rethinking systems of authority. To whom are grant programs accountable? Who is responsible for directing the program toward the school's primary mission? The governing board can help by keeping the program in its focus.
As a start, the board should confirm the administration's intentions to pursue a grant and then participate with staff and faculty in considering the broad outlines and goals of the project plan.
Next, the board's primary contribution is to help seminary leaders think of a proposed project as part of the school's larger vision — perhaps as an application for venture capital. In this way, pursuing a grant is much less like playing the lottery than engaging in necessary planning to widen and deepen a school's capacity for service. Then, regardless of the outcome of the proposal, the school has used the occasion to shape new goals and objectives that can, if necessary, be accomplished by other means and a different calendar.
If the school is awarded the venture capital, then all leaders must be prepared to work within a telescoped time frame on a significant pilot project that will likely test all of its systems. Here the board can help by thinking on two levels:
The board can request that the administration report on strategic indicators that measure the project's progress toward agreed-upon goals. Without such encouragement, valuable records and opportunities can get lost as staff members shoulder all the detail of building a new program.
The board can encourage an institution-wide learning environment by asking what the staff is finding out about the school's systems from the new program. Mistakes, bad starts, or the need for different staffing or timing become useful information beyond the project. Similarly, successes in new teaching methods, scheduling, or interaction with new constituencies can have positive results for improving education, advancing the school's image, and creating new relationships.
This integration of learning is what makes a pilot venture a true gift to the whole institution. And what better prize?