Grant Accounting: What’s Wrong with a Checklist?
A checklist or a list of basic questions can be a great tool for effective grant accounting and project management.
A previous article in the Catalyst (Alcaine & Calvo, 2021) explored the idea that grant accounting is two sides of the same coin with pre-award, and that although grant accounting may be a distinct function, it is connected to and an extension of the pre-award process.
Expanding upon this notion, grant accountants at the department level can benefit from posing basic questions that can be used to form a checklist or a way to get basic information from the pre-award stage to guide grant accounting and management activities. It is not unusual for accountants at the department level to handle multiple projects and grants simultaneously. Keeping a guide or checklist for each project can be a beneficial strategy for effective grants management.
Keep A Checklist at the Department Level
For grant accountants working at the school or department level, a checklist informed by data from the pre-award, proposal stage may prove a useful tool as grant accounts are set up, managed, and monitored. Below are five basic questions that can form part of a grants management checklist for grant accountants. These questions can be expanded or adapted to the accountant's particular context but should provide a good base for management activities.
Who are the key players (personnel on the grant)?
This may seem obvious but understanding who is involved can be very helpful. Who is the principal investigator (PI), co-principal investigator (Co-PI), and other investigators? What are the corresponding effort levels and therefore payroll actions to initiate and charge to the project?
This information will also drive account set up - will there need to be internal subaccounts (for other departments within the institution)? Who are the PIs for these accounts? Who are the departmental contacts? Many institutions require that a budget breakdown be sent at the time of proposal submission if there will be internal subaccounts.
In addition, when grant accountants have a good understanding of who is involved, it can really help to know how the award will be managed. For example, some PIs are more hands-on and want to be notified of every charge whereas others may only want to know the project balance or if the award is going to run a deficit. Having a good understanding of how the PI typically monitors awards will set grant accountants up for success.
What are the budget elements? What is the nature of the project?
Typically, budgets are straightforward, include salary support, materials and supplies, travel, and maybe a few other budget items. However, depending on the nature of the project, budgets can be more complicated involving multiple components, departments, internal subaccounts, external collaborators, external subcontractors or subawards, and perhaps even cost share management.
If the project is a clinical trial, an updated price sheet for procedures may be needed at the time of award as prices may have changed from when the project was first proposed. If patient care costs are involved, additional accounts may need to be set up to manage these transactions.
Are subawards involved in the project?
Subawards may pose additional challenges for grant accountants beginning with whether all the relevant documents and information are in place to execute the subaward agreements. If the subaward is for a foreign entity this may pose additional challenges to include time zone differences to be able to communicate effectively, availability of collaborators to execute documents, and timely invoicing.
What are the appropriate indirect costs for the project?
Indirect costs are an important component of a budget. The federally negotiated indirect costs rates normally guide the applicable rate on projects. However, rates can be limited by the sponsor, the type of competition, or other factors. Grant accountants should make sure the appropriate rate is being charged to the project expenditures based on the proposal and award documentation. In addition, grant accountants should make sure to note if any facilities and administrative (F&A) cost-sharing agreements are in place if there are multiple departments or schools involved in the project. Many institutions have mechanisms that split or share the indirect costs generated from grant activities.
Special Terms and Conditions
Finally, grant accountants should make note of any special terms and conditions indicated by the request for proposal and the award document. The terms and conditions can vary but important for grant management are any terms and conditions that guide changes to the budget and timing of expenditures. A common condition is to have internal review board (IRB) approval before any human subjects research work may begin and any associated expenditures incurred.
In summary, grant accountants at the school or department level can benefit from a checklist or guiding questions as a strategy for effective grants management. A checklist informed by data from the pre-award, proposal stage may prove a useful tool and the guiding questions described above can be expanded or adapted to the particular context. There is nothing wrong with making a list and checking it twice to help project management.
Alcaine, J.G., & Calvo, K. (2021, July 9). Grant Accounting: Two Sides of the Same Coin. SRAI Catalyst. https://www.srainternational.org/blogs/srai-news/2021/07/07/grant-accounting-two-sides-of-the-same-coin
||Dr. Jose Alcaine, Director of Research Services, Affiliate Faculty Foundations of Education, School of Education, Virginia Commonwealth University, SRA International Virginia Chapter President Elect
||Kayla Calvo, CRA, Business Administrator, integrated Translational Health Research Institute of Virginia (iTHRIV), University of Virginia, SRA International Virginia Chapter Immediate Past President