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From Grant Writer to Grants Boss: Lessons From a Local Government Pro

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For eCivis’ Customer Success Manager, Carla Rodriguez, local government is so near and dear to her heart, she describes it fondly as “in [her] blood.”

With over 20 years of local government experience as a Director of Grant Administration for the City of McAllen, Texas, and later as an Assistant City Manager for the City of Edinburg, Carla knows firsthand what it takes to go from being new to grants to becoming a seasoned expert. 

In our latest eCivis Hero Highlight, our hero, Carla, shares how within 3 months of starting her career with the City of McAllen she developed standardized city-wide policies and procedures for the management of grants that eventually led to the development of the City’s Grant Administration Department, the first in the Rio Grande Valley. 

Under her leadership, several departments had some great wins for the community. For example, the City won a $500,000 grant from the Department of Justice for the procurement of mobile data terminals for police vehicles–allowing the City to automate police information systems and enhance mobile digital communications. 

Additionally, the City won a $600,000 grant from the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to fund water and sewer lines for the City’s Anzalduas International Bridge, which sits over the Rio Grande. 

Making It Rain for the City

When Carla was first hired by the City of McAllen, the City commission described their desired candidate as someone who could help the City “make it rain.” Though Carla initially started as a grant writer who had never written a grant before, by the time she left as Director of Grant Administration for McAllen, the City’s grant portfolio grew from $5.5 million to $60 million. 

Carla quickly changed the perception of the term “make it rain” to conveying to leadership that grant administration was about establishing a city-wide checks and balances system to ensure all City grants remained in fiscal and programmatic compliance. While she says it is important to win grants that offset costs to a City’s General Fund, it is also critical that a grant model is in place that prompts sound compliance practices. 

Her best practices included an Award and Compliance Orientation (ACO), a review of the grant award package between the Grant Administration Office Compliance Officer, Finance’s Grant Accountant, and the implementing/awarded department. Six months into grant implementation, her team would conduct a Compliance and Monitoring Review (CMR), as well as a monthly reporting of all departments implementing grant projects through a Grant Status Report (GSR) that was sent to the City Commission. The GSR outlined the funding agency, program title, grant award, local match, expenditures to date, and a programmatic summary of the project.

In order to streamline the GSR process during her first year of employment, she established an in-house Grant Management System through the City’s Intranet site. Carla credit’s the City’s IT developers but the concept was hers.  

“Auditors could see everything and they could see it was a homegrown system,” Carla said. “Essentially the grant or project manager could be in their respective office and simply use their credentials to log in and get access to their grants. All the information was broken down right there–the grant awarded amount, expenditure to date, and their project summary ”

Eventually, the City invested in eCivis to save research time and to further refine their grant management process. Not to mention, Carla recalls no audit findings once the system was in place. “I became a true fan of eCivis from the very beginning because I believed in its philosophy. Contrary to a 'grant secret society' as I’ve been teased about, there really is no secret to grant development and grant management, and eCivis has always understood this. It’s about due diligence and following through on terms and conditions of the award–just good grantsmanship,” she stated. 

Leveling Up from Grant Writer to Grants Office

Getting there was no easy process. Carla shares that in order for a grant office to succeed, City management must be in full support. Carla cleaned house through establishing these practices while also writing and winning grants for the City. Within two years, however, she realized she could not go it alone anymore. “Writing the grant was the easier part for me,” she said. “It’s the management of the grant that can be daunting.”

Thus, the sole grant writer quickly hired a compliance officer and over time, another, plus three grant development specialists, a grant and special projects coordinator, and an administrative assistant. 

For Carla, hiring the right people was crucial to ensuring the Grants Office would be able to take on the management of all grants for all departments under the City. This meant ensuring a highly rigorous hiring process. 

“My grant team had to be critical thinkers,” she said. “My second interviewees were given a writing test which was a compliance scenario with a letter to the funder. They also had to draft a problem statement based on information provided, as well as project goals and objectives. I was really adamant about that, that they knew the difference. Funders want to know your objectives are measurable and what your project will address over time, so the grant team not only needed to be well informed, but they also had to know the key components of both grant development and grant management.” 

Sounds harsh yes, but Carla knew the majority of her team would come and go, as they were typically recent college graduates. “We had grants from Aviation to Public Works, so I would tell them that grants would teach them about municipal operations and how each department functions and that if they nurtured their skills, grants would enable them to move up in any organization because they teach time management, fiscal management, project management, how to write concisely, and how to adjust writing styles to align with the funder’s.” 

Going Above and Beyond for State and Local Clients

At eCivis, Carla loves not just meeting with clients but taking time to study and learn about them. She doesn’t hesitate to go the extra mile, often reviewing their websites, budget documents, strategic plans, capital improvement projects, single audit reports, and even views their City Council meetings. One client even asked for her insight and comments on their internal audit recommendations that pertained to grant processes and management.

“Our eCivis products are phenomenal, but at the end of the day, it’s about human connection," Carla concluded. "People will respond to people they can relate to and I’ve learned that sharing grant struggles are a great way to form a bond. So I will keep serving as a trusted advisor to my client base, but not because it’s my role as a CSM, but because I’ve gone through that same struggle. By empowering them to maximize the use of our systems, they can continue winning grants, remain in compliance, and make an impact in their communities." 

 

Ready to be the hero of your own story? Let us help you simplify your grants management so you can drive more impact in your community. 

 

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