Fostering Transparency in Grant Writing: Reflections on Collective Responsibility Forum 1

by Perry Collins

I was honored to attend Forum 1 of Collective Responsibility in April. Our meeting focused on the lived experience of grant-funded LAM labor and called on workers as well as managers and funders to shape and foster more supportive, human-centered structures. While my contributions drew largely on my previous role as a program officer, I also brought to bear my past experience as an LSTA grant-funded employee and my current experience as a librarian and as the partner of a contingent worker.

Over the course of our two-day conversation, we alternated between a broad, landscape perspective (including results of a recent survey) and the deeply personal perspective of individual experience. Both approaches inform Collective Responsibility’s stated goals of developing a more “systematic understanding of the labor conditions created by grants” as well as a set of best practices that stakeholders can implement in meaningful ways. The conversation surfaced a range of factors that can strengthen grant-funded positions, including equitable salary and leave policies, mentoring programs, opportunities to build relationships with colleagues, and professional development that includes training for grant-funded work and CV building for future jobs.

At the end of the meeting, I was left with two big questions: (1) To what extent do our proposals for funding explicitly commit to these and other supports for grant-funded, short-term positions?; and (2) How can we more proactively circulate grant proposals as a way to increase our accountability not only to funders, but also to workers and the field at large?

Digital public historian Sheila Brennan has argued for the value of grant proposals as a record of digital work that should “do some of the talking for us.” In the context of digital LAM labor, our grant proposals define a project’s scope, set out anticipated milestones, and document participants’ roles and responsibilities. I would argue that a well-crafted proposal should also speak for our values, including intentions to promote colleagues’ well-being and professional growth. A culture of transparency that includes sharing proposals could have an impact across the funding lifecycle:

Crafting the proposal: Too often, our grant proposals detail what team members will bring to the project without explicitly stating how the project will support them in turn. But in my experience, grant reviewers are enthusiastic about applications that consider workers’ interests, and we need more sample proposals that do this well. Can we find examples of draft job descriptions (often included as grant appendices) that highlight how project leadership will support grant-contingent workers to resist isolation? What about budgets that include funding for workers’ professional development and travel?

While we’re often seeking out others’ successful proposals at this stage, this is also the time to ask program officers and colleagues to give feedback on our draft applications. By sharing our own pre-submission proposals and agreeing to review others’ drafts, we have an opportunity to promote better practices at the outset while it’s still possible to make big changes.

During the project: Publishing successful applications in a repository or project website creates a resource for other grant writers and signals your team’s interest in transparency. Grant proposals offer prospective job applicants insight into working environments and project infrastructure that can be difficult to glean from a job announcement alone. Will other individuals with necessary expertise also be working on the project? Are plans for training and workflows in place to ease the transition? Most funders allow small changes after a project is approved, so keep an open mind about ways you can improve workers’ experiences over the course of the grant period (or ways you can advocate for your own well being as project staff).

Evaluation and assessment: In the aggregate, proposals offer a valuable dataset to analyze trends based on what is often the most substantive documentation available for many digital projects. How do our stated commitments to workers vary across different grant programs and funders? Which kinds of supports are most common? Proposals offer examples of the ways in which our institutions are supporting grant-funded labor—and the ways in which even successful proposals might fall short in this area.

Of course, this idea isn’t new. Project websites frequently include proposals. Federal funders are increasingly releasing proposals as public records under the Freedom of Information Act, and better-designed databases and websites make these more accessible. A few examples:

  • Since 2016, IMLS has made every proposal funded through the National Leadership Grants for Libraries and Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian programs publicly available through the agency’s award search database. Many other samples of successful IMLS proposals are also available.
  • The Council on Library and Information Resources offers numerous sample proposals funded through the Hidden Collections program.
  • The National Endowment for the Humanities also offers many samples through the agency’s FOIA library and grant program websites. (Plus find hundreds of final white papers in the NEH’s funded projects database.)
  • The University of Florida (my current employer) institutional repository includes most grant proposals submitted by the Smathers Libraries in recent years.

I have started up a spreadsheet to aggregate links to these grant proposals; I invite others to add their own links.

These efforts represent a valuable starting point, and I think we can go further to encourage funders and institutions to make proposals available, to make them more discoverable when they are published online, and to think creatively about how we can leverage these proposals to better understand and improve conditions of grant-funded labor.