Training Grants Staff in a Virtual World

One of the most significant challenges for grant-making organizations across the country in the past few years is training new talent. The rise of remote work has presented unique challenges in this area. In fact, a recent survey by the National Grants Management Association (NGMA) shows that only 10% of grant-making organizations require training for new hires.

A panel discussion at NGMA’s recent Annual Grants Training (AGT) addressed this very topic. The panel was moderated by Renee Cooper, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and included participation from several other experts across the Federal government.

The audience, made up of grant professionals from Federal agencies as well as state, local, and tribal governments, echoed the results of NGMA’s survey, in that most of them reported not receiving any sort of formal training for their current position. Instead, most attendees reported they were trained using Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) or through on-the-job training.

Lisa Newton of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) reported that the biggest challenge she has witnessed with the onboarding of new staff has to do with the amount of information a new hire has to absorb. This includes complex laws and regulations governing the grants process, along with specific program information and how to use various grants management systems.

Laura Mahoney of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) said one of the ways she and her team deal with these challenges in a virtual environment is through utilizing tools such as Microsoft Teams chat and walking new hires through processes by sharing screens.

Shaunta Johnson of HHS Workforce Development added that she and her team use a Jeopardy-style game in their training program to make learning fun and engaging. She also emphasized the importance of making concepts “sticky”; in other words, that learners are able to apply concepts to real-life situations. All panelists agreed that dealing with actual scenarios is the best way to learn.

Shaunta also discussed an introductory “ABCs of Grants” course offered at HHS. She said she was surprised when even experienced personnel with over twenty years of experience showed interest in this course. It certainly speaks to the need for ongoing and continuing education programs in the complex world of grants.

Building on this topic, Renee referenced the President’s Management Agenda and one of its goals to establish core competencies in grants that span across the Federal government. She spoke about building a community of practice as a method of sharing information between agencies in the form of best practices and common responses. This would help prevent trainees and those who are already established in their careers from becoming siloed and help to create some training standardization for those who move between agencies.

In a post-COVID world, virtual work is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The panelists provided their first-hand experience combined with practical strategies for overcoming common challenges in training grants staff.

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